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“This is not the kind of music that comes from Minneapolis, Minnesota.”
Dick Clark
(After Prince’s appearance on American Bandstand in 1980)

“When you’re coming from the middle of the country…I think it’s easy to be more original.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody

He was born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis, but the world knew him as just Prince—or as the artist formally known as Prince.

And before Prince won Grammys and an Oscar Award (Best Song, Purple Rain), and before he was called the Prince of First Avenue (a nightclub in downtown Minneapolis), and before he sold 100 million records, and long before he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—he was just another little boy struggling to survive in North Minneapolis.

He was born at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis in 1958. That was just seven years after the hospital opened during time of anti-Semitism, and was a place that offered Jewish physicians opportunities that weren’t always possible at other area hospitals. It was, according to the Twin Cities Daily Planet, “a gift from the Twin Cities Jewish community to serve and employ, among others, those not accepted elsewhere because of their race or religion.”

He grew up on the North Side inner-city of Minneapolis. His father was the leader of the Prince Rogers jazz trio and his mother—who was said by Rolling Stone magazine to have “traces of Billy Holiday in her pipes” sang for the group. They divorced when Prince was 10.

“I didn’t have any money, so I’d just stand outside [McDonald’s on Plymouth Ave.] and smell stuff. Poverty makes people angry, brings out their worst side. I was very bitter when I was young. I was insecure and I’d attack anybody. I couldn’t keep a girlfriend for two weeks. We’d argue about anything.”
Prince
Rolling Stone interview by Neal Karlen in 1985

He went to John Hay Elementary school and in 1976 graduated from Central High School in Minneapolis. He cut his musical teeth performing at various venues in the Minneapolis area and recorded his first album in 1978. A decade later he was a worldwide music legend.

Though he spent time in other places like L.A. and Toronto,  Minneapolis was his home. He eventually opened Paisley Park  in Chanhassen south of Minneapolis, which is where he died this morning.

Plenty will be written about his musical genius, some about the controversies, but since I have a little blog called Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places I’d like to just point out that a sense of place did play part in his success. From his early musical teachers, to the soul (and pain) of his childhood neigborhood, to those who supported his musical rise in the Twin Cities.

Prince was unique in his talent and his success, but Minneapolis has a long musical history. Back in the early ’60s Bob Dylan began his musical rise living and performing there. On Prince’s setlist for his 2007 Super Bowl half-time show he performed All Along the Watchtower written by Dylan. (Prince said in one interview that the Jimi Hendrix version of that song was an early influence.)

When I was living in the Midwest I did several video shoots in Minneapolis and worked with crew members who worked with Prince and enjoyed hearing their stories. There’s no question that Prince was talented—and eccentric. I heard stories that Prince would sometimes do a mini-concert at Paisley Park for the crew after a production wrapped.

I also have a feeling that Prince produced a lot of videos and music that will only see the light of day now that he’s dead.

And just to come full circle…I started this blog back in 2008 after seeing Juno written by Diablo Cody and learning she went to school at the University of Iowa and wrote the Juno screenplay while living and working Minneapolis.

One of the things that drew Cody to Minneapolis was a graphic designer/musician. (I don’t know if she ever crossed paths with Prince in Minneapolis—but I’d bet the she would have loved the opportunity.) Anyway she wrote for City Pages and blogged until then-agent, now producer Mason Novick encouraged her to try her hand at screenwriting.

Which she did in the Minneapolis suburbs of Robinsdale and Crystal just a few miles north of where Prince grew up. (I’m all about seemingly unlikely places for talent to rise up.)  But where Prince grew up is still a tough place. Here’s a quote from a commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune just a few days ago.

“North Minneapolis is a war zone. We are afraid. We are losing our young people to gun violence.”
Mickey Cook
April 16, 2016

It reminds me of one of my all time favorite lines in any movie—in the documentary Hoop Dreams the young rising basketball star is asked if he’ll remember them when he’s famous, and the young basketball player says, “You going to remember me if I’m not [famous]?”

Prince is going to be remember for long time. He’ll probably always be the most famous person from North Minneapolis. President Obama tweeted about Prince, “Today we lost an icon.” And while that’s true, Prince lived a very full life before he even turned 30—much less the 57 years he spent on this planet. It would be nice to do something in Prince’s memory that assures young people in North Minneapolis that they may not be famous—but they’ll be allowed to grow up.

Make a statue of Prince—but build up and protect some lives, too.

Related post:
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy) “When you’re coming from the middle of the country…I think it’s easy to be more original.”—Diablo Cody
Screenwriting Postcard from Minneapolis
The Oscars Minnesota-Style
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“I am not in danger, Skyler—I am the danger.”
Walt (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad

“In the early days, especially writing the [Breaking Bad] pilot, I worried so much that Walt wouldn’t be likeable. It’s funny, I bent over backwards to give the audience reasons to sympathize with him. I was nervous – anxiety-ridden, as I typically am – that what I was saying in that script was interesting enough for the audience. Watching that first episode, I probably overdid that a bit. In hindsight, I’ve learned the audience will go along with a character like Walt so long as he remains interesting and active, and is capable about his business. People like competency. What is it people like about Darth Vader?  Is it that he’s so evil, or that he’s so good at his job? I think it might be the latter. All the fears I had – ‘Boy, no one’s gonna sympathize with this guy’– turned out to be unfounded, which was a very interesting revelation.”
Two-time Emmy winning producer/writer and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan
Rolling Stone article by Rob Tannenbaum

Related bonus quote: “Television is really good at protecting the franchise. It’s good at keeping the Korean War going for 11 seasons, like M*A*S*H. It’s good at keeping Marshal Dillon policing his little town for 20 years. By their very nature TV shows are open-ended. So I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a show that takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist?”
Vince Gilligan on creating Breaking Bad
The Dark Art of Breaking Bad by David Segal
2011 New York Times 

Related posts:
Simple Stories/Complex Characters (Tip #95)
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme “I always look for amazing characters who I find are fascinating, charming, flawed, romantic and in trouble.”
Protagonist= Struggle
Movie Flaws, Personality & DNA “Scorsese is often called ‘America’s greatest director’ on the strength of a body of work in which all the characters in his movies are various degrees of wicked and miserable people.”—William Froug
Martin Luther King & Screenwriting (Tip #7) “Strong characters hold our interest in life and on the screen.” —Andrew Horton, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I see myself as a shadow of Nora Ephron’s, but…I can aspire to that.”
Diablo Cody

“It was her journalist’s curiosity that made Nora [Ephron] the directing talent she was. Her writing was always voice and detail. I once sent her a piece I was trying to write, and her response was three words: “Voice! Voice! Voice!'”
Tom Hanks
Time article 6/27/12 

Nora Ephron had a voice. A voice honed over the years as a journalist. Keep in mind that when she graduated from Wellesley College in 1962 that there weren’t a lot of options for female journalists. Yet, three years later she interviewed Bob Dylan* at a peak in his early career. (Shortly after he had recorded Like a Rolling Stone, which decades later Rolling Stone magazine named as the #1 Greatest Song of All Time.)

And though she started writing (and selling) screenplays in the 70s, she did not see one of her feature scripts produced until after she was 40-years old (Silkwood/1983). In the 90s, and then over 50, she added being a film director to her resume. She had a voice mixed with persistence.

So I thought I’d round out the week where I started it, remembering her voice.

“The hardest thing about being a woman director is becoming one.”
Nora Ephron
Rolling Stone interview with Lawrence Frascella

“It’s important to eat your last meal before it actually comes up….When you’re actually going to be having your last meal, you either will be too sick to have it or you aren’t going to know it’s your last meal and you could squander it on something like a tuna melt.”
Nora Ephron
2010 Interview with Charlie Rose 

“In my own business, in the movie business, there are many more of us [women] who are directors, but it’s just as hard to get a movie made about women as it was 30 years ago. And it’s much, much harder than it was 60 years ago. Look at the parts the Oscar-nominated actresses played this year—hooker, hooker, hooker, hooker  and nun.”
Nora Ephron
1996 Wellesley commencement speech

Related posts:
Making “Sleepless in Seattle”
Nora Ephron, Voice-over & the Mafia
Screenwriting Quote #165 (Nora Ephron)
Nora Ephron (1941-2012)

P.S. I believe the hooker, hooker, hooker, hooker roles Ephron was talking about were Leaving Las Vegas (Elisabeth Shue), Mighty Aphrodite (Mira Sorvino), Casino (Sharon Stone)—though technically an ex-prostitute, and not sure who the fourth hooker was— and the nun was in Dead Man Walking (Susan Sarandon).

* Dylan quote from the 1965 interview with Ephron (and Susan Edmiston):
“Great paintings shouldn’t be in museums. Have you ever been in a museum? Museums are cemetaries. Paintings should be on the walls of restaurants, in dime stores, in gas stations, in men’s rooms. Great paintings should be where people hang out. The only thing where it’s happening is on radio and records, that’s where people hang out. You can’t see great paintings. You pay half a million and hang one in your house and one guest sees it. That’s not art. That’s a shame, a crime. Music is the only thing that’s in tune with what’s happening. It’s not in book form, it’s not on the stage. All this art they’ve been talking about is nonexistent. It just remains on the shelf. It doesn’t make anyone happier. Just think how many people would really feel great if they could see a Picasso in their daily diner. It’s not the bomb that has to go, man, it’s the museums.”

Scott W. Smith

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“Keep a good head, and always carry a light bulb.”
Bob Dylan

“Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer.”
Jonah Lehrer

Bob Dylan had just turned 24-years old when he wrote the song Like a Rolling Stone, a song Rolling Stone magazine decades later called The Greatest Song of All Time.

The beginnings of “Like a Rolling Stone” can be seen in a pair of offstage moments in Don’t Look Back. In the first, sidekick Bob Neuwirth gets Dylan to sing a verse of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway,” which begins, “I’m a rolling stone, I’m alone and lost/For a life of sin I’ve paid the cost.” Later, Dylan sits at a piano, playing a set of chords that would become the melodic basis for “Like a Rolling Stone,” connecting it to the fundamental architecture of rock & roll. Dylan later identified that progression as a chip off of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.”
500 Greatest Songs of All Time/Rolling Stone

Bob Dylan’s Brain happens to be the title of the first chapter of Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book Imagine: How Creativity Works. I’ve listened to that chapter on CD twice as Lehrer unpacks the neurons that were firing in Bob Dylan’s brain when he wrote Like a Rolling Stone back in ’65 in a small rural cabin in Woodstock, New York:

“He grabbed a pencil and started to scribble. Once Dylan began, his hand didn’t stop for the next several hours. ‘I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long,’ Dylan said. ‘I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do.’ Vomit is the essential word here. Dylan was describing, with characteristic vividness the uncontrollable rush of a creative insight, that flow of associations that can’t be held back. ‘I don’t know where my songs come from,’ Dylan said. ‘It’s like a ghost is writing the song. It gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means.’ Once the ghost arrived, all Dylan wanted to do was get out of the way.”

But the important thing for you to realize is the flow of association didn’t come out of thin air. What Lehrer called Dylan’s “diversity of influences” came from his time as a youth listening to a mix of music on AM radio while growing up (with long winters) in Hibbing and Duluth, Minnesota. His influences were the books and poems he read. His early influences include his brief college career in Minneapolis and taking part in the music scene in Dinkytown. It was actually his time in the Twin Cities in 1959 when he shifted from a rock and roll to a folk emphasis.

“I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
Bob Dylan

By 1961 Dylan was playing in folk clubs around Greenwich Village in New York. In ’63 he had a hit with Blowin’ in the Wind, and just a couple of years later, Dylan had already played throughout the U.S. and Europe. He was successful and popular, yet it was Like a Rolling Stone that proved his real breakthrough as an artist.

“Listening to these ambiguous lyrics, we can hear his mental blender at work, as he effortlessly mixes together scraps of Arthur Rimbaud, Fellini, Bertolt Brecht, and Robert Johnson. There’s some Delta blues and ‘La Bamba’ but also plenty of Beat poetry, Ledbetter, and the Beatles. The song is modernist and pre-modern, avant garde and county & western. What Dylan did— and this is why he’s Bob Dylan—was find the strange thread connecting those despairing voices. During those frantic first minutes of writing, his right hemisphere found a way to find something new out of this incongruous list of influences, drawing them together into a catchy song”
Jonah Lehrer
Imagine: How Creativity Works

In many ways, Lehrer is building on what Arthur Koestler wrote in his 1964 book The Act of Creation and legendary designer Milton Glaser later did in Art is Work. It’s what I touched on back in ’08 in one of my all-time favorite posts, Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C). But Lehrer’s writing is more accessible that Koestler’s and he brings many fresh examples to how the creative process works.

Looking at Dylan’s influences, it’s no surprise that the song Like a Rolling Stone was the leading hit off the album titled Highway 61 Revisited. Highway 61 being that road that runs up and down the gut of the United States. A road that wanders along the Mississippi River from Duluth in northern Minnesota down through the Delta Blues country in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. An area that has been tremendously influential musically in places like St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, and the famed Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi where blue great Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil.

This is the heart of this blog Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. Sure books, blogs, seminars and schools can be helpful on one level—but don’t get caught up in playing follow the leader. While few will have the genius of Dylan, we all come from somewhere, from someplace.  The real gold is what’s kicking around in your head and heart. You have your own unique life experiences.You have your own unique blender of influences kicking around into your brain. Tap into that and hope that the ghost pays you a visit.

P.S. Jonah Lehrer’s website is jonahlehrer.com, his blog is Frontal Coretx, and his twitter address is @jonahlehrer.

August 1, 2012 Update: Los Angeles Times/Joanah Lehrer’s Bob Dylan quotes lead to resigination. 

Related Posts:

Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)
Revisiting “Highway 61 Revisited”
Highway 61 Meets A1A
Screenwriting from Duluth 

Scott W. Smith 

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Do you have a picture of “when I’m 64″?
“No, no. I hope we’re a nice old couple living off the coast of Ireland or something like that —looking at our scrapbook of madness.”
John Lennon Interview
1971 Rolling Stone Interview

John Lennon never had a chance to flip through his scrapbook of madness. He was shot and killed 30 years ago today. He was 40 years old. I was a teenager in Orlando when I heard the news and what I remember most about that day—or I guess the day after the shooting—is how the many cars around Central Florida drove around with their lights on during the daytime. Like a big funeral procession. I had never seen that before and haven’t seen it since. And I don’t know if that was a local thing or was going on all over the country and/or world.

I was looking for a story about Lennon that was different from ones you’ve heard or will hear today and this is what I came up with:

“There’s a wonderful story that took place up in the north of Scotland that not many people know about. (John Lennon) crashed his car up in Scotland soon after he had married Yoko Ono. And as a result of that he was hospitalized. They ran the car into a ditch. And so here he is way in the wilds of Scotland in a tiny, wee country hospital. And the local minister comes to make his rounds. And in one of the beds sits Lennon, you know, with his hair way down his back. And the man, bless his heart, duly goes up and introduces himself and says who he is. And he actually, I believe, from those who were part of this man’s congregation, had a wonderful opportunity to talk with him beyond the level of superficial things. And a couple of days later Lennon was stitched up and packed off and he left. And within a week or ten days the local minister was seen driving around the town in this lovely new car. And apparently what had happened was that Lennon, when he was discharged from the hospital, had gone to the local garage and had written a check and asked the garage owner to call the minister and offer to him any car of his choice at Lennon’s expense. And that was an indication again of this heart.”
Alistair Begg
Dick Staub 2004 Interview, Alistair Begg on Spirituality of The Beatles

By the way, Alistair Begg happens to be a minister in the Chagrin Falls, Ohio but also had a role as a Scottish golfer in the feature film Bobby Jones: Stroke of a Genius which starred Jim Caviezel. (Chagrin Falls also happens to be the area where screenwriter Joe Eszterhas now lives.)

Scott W. Smith

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“She could sense blood driven by heartbeats pulsing from the torn places beneath her skin.”
From the novel Winter’s Bone written by Daniel Woodrell

Seventeen year old Ree Dolly has a simple goal in the movie Winter’s Bone—to find her father. But it proves to not be an easy task. I’m sure the same could be said for writer/director Debra Granik as she sought to find a way to turn Daniel Woodrell’s novel into a movie.

Granik certainly didn’t take the easy road in making her second feature film and she was rewarded for her efforts when earlier this year the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. Glowing reviews followed.

“Every once in a rare while a movie gets inside your head and heart, rubbing your emotions raw. The remarkable Winter’s Bone is just such a movie.”
Peter Travers
Rolling Stone

No one is going to confuse Winter’s Bone with Toy Story 3, but if you want a sign that American cinema is alive and well in 2010 then those two films would be a good starting point. And as different as those two are, they have themes that intersect. To borrow Bob Segers’ phrase, both films have characters “seeking shelter against the wind.”

On one level Winter’s Bone is not an enjoyable to watch. But on another level it’s like watching Tender Mercies in that you are being exposed to characters and a world foreign to our largely suburban culture.  And as harsh as the realities are there are moments of grace.

On a filmmaking level Winter’s Bone is a pure delight. The casting is rock solid. Jennifer Lawrence carries the lead beautifully and the entire cast of not so familiar faces made me think Granik had somehow discovered an acting troupe in the Ozarks. While she did, in fact, find some of the actors involved in an acting group in I believe Arkansas, she found others from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama—those with Southern backgrounds that served the film well. Granik also used local people for smaller roles.

And while John Hawkes, who plays the character Teardrop with amazing presence,  is not from the south,  he was born and raised in rural Minnesota and started his career in theater in Austin, Texas.

The actors give the film an authentic texture as does the location in rural southern Missouri where they shot the movie. On the DVD commentary Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough talk about being influenced by the photographs of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Shelby Lee Adams.

Photo by Dorothea Lange

McDonough who shot the film in 24 1/2 days using the Red camera says,”I think one of the things you’ll notice with a lot of the interiors in the film is we deliberately lit from the exterior which is what daylight naturally does. So our film lights are outside—there may be some lamps inside, but—the main lighting is coming from the outside and it lets us work really freely with the actors inside. There’s not all the trappings of filmmaking. You can look at multiple angles without seeing film equipment and it lets you work fairly quickly and more importantly naturalistically.”

Granik, who won the best director award at Sundance in 2004 for her first film Down to the Bone, said in an interview with Ruthie Stein;

I really think you don’t have to spend that kind of money ($20-30 million) to make a good film. It helps lighten the load (to have less money). You want to make a film with a fleet-footed and agile crew that doesn’t leave a footprint. You don’t want to mow down things in its wake. I like to work small and take a gentler approach to actually trying to capture something.”

A common question I found myself asking over the years as I’ve traveled around this country and overseas is, “What do these people do?” What is their everyday life like? Films offer a chance to explore some of those questions.

Granik said in an interview with Sam Adams, “What keeps me going is that life has lots of bonbons, a lot of treats. You have your mundane life, and then you go into another neighborhood, another zip code, and you’re all delirious again. You’re all delirious and caught up, and then you want to make stories about it.”

If you ever get writer’s block, just look out your window at your neighbors or take a drive in the next town over. There are stories everywhere waiting to be told.

Scott W. Smith

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Tonight the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra will perform a concert called “Kelley’s Blue” that I had the opportunity to work on. Part of the concert will be a 40 minute section featuring the music of Duke Ellington’s “Three Black Kings” and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and visuals by artist Gary Kelley.

Whether it’s opportunities like this or writing this blog, I am reminded of the Tom Peter’s quote that helped change my mindset when I moved to Iowa back in ’03–“Sometimes it’s best to go where the hotspots aren’t.”

Keep that in mind wherever find yourself in this world.

Over the last couple decades Kelley’s clients have included New Yorker Magazine, Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek, CBS Records and the large murals seen at Barnes & Noble Booksellers. In 2007, Kelley was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. My role in this concert came in the shooting and editing of 50 pieces of Kelley’s artwork that will be shown on a large screen for between 1,200 and 1,500 people.

Photographer Chase Jarvis has said something to the effect that right now within 10 feet of you there are 100 great photos that can be taken. I think the wherever you live there are not only stories to be told, but opportunities to use your creativity in ways you ‘ve never dreamed of.

If you have really big dreams about really big mountains that’s great—but keep in mind that mountain climbers start with small climbs. As the saying goes, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” Then build on what you’ve done.

By the way, this won’t be your standard symphony concert tonight as conductor Jason Weinberger ( a Santa Monica native who came to Cedar Falls via Yale & Peabody Conservatory) will also be “incorporating music from William Grant Still and J Dilla (James Yancy), a Grammy-nominated record producer and one of the music industry’s most influential hip-hop artists.”

WCF Courier article on concert by Melody Parker.

Scott W. Smith

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