Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Save the Cat’

“Yeah I think I know what my father meant when he sang about his lost highway…”
Hank Williams Jr.
All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)

“You must break from cliché. You must ‘Give us the same thing…only different.’”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

The movie Country Strong is no Tender Mercies. And there are some pluses and minus associated with that. While Tender Mercies is one of my all time favorite films, it did only make $8 million at the box office. Country Strong almost did that this weekend. But since I’ve been writing a good deal recently about movie clones it’s a good time to talk about avoiding clichés.

Tender Mercies is the 1983 Bruce Beresford directed movie for which Robert Duvall earned an Academy Award for Actor for playing a fallen (and alcoholic) county star. Horton Foote also earned an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Country Strong is the 2010 film written and directed by Shana Feste which stars Gwyneth Paltrow as a (recently) fallen (and alcoholic) county music star . And while Paltrow may get an Oscar nod, the screenplay won’t.

Feste is not Foote, and it would be unfair to compare her to him. He wrote Tender Mercies about 50 years into his career. A career that included Broadway plays and an Oscar for Adapted Screenplay for writing To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962. (And later a Pulitzer Prize.) County Strong is just Feste’s second film. (Who knows what Foote’s early plays were like decades before he became known as “America’s Checkov”?)

And to Feste’s credit she not only wrote the film but directed it putting together a great cast that do their best with a script that crosses the line into a melodrama with a cliché or two—or three. It doesn’t help that last year Jeff Bridges just happened to win an Academy Award in Crazy Heart for playing a fallen (and alcoholic) county music star. In fact, bio pictures of fallen and or musicians struggling with fame, drugs and/or alcohol is such a well travel path (The Doors, Walk the Line, A Star is Born, Glitter, Sweet Dreams) that Judd Apatow found it fertile ground to parody with his 2007 film Walk Hard: The Dewey Coy Story.

“When it seems like you’re stealing—don’t. When it feels like a cliche—give it a twist. When you think it’s familiar—it probably is, so you’ve got to find a new way.”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

“Clichés are shortcuts. The more you avoid taking them, the more interesting the places you’ll end up.”
John August
Avoiding cliches

When you start sampling movies about musicians you have to work hard not to hit a wrong note—be diligent to avoid the clichés. (Wait, did I just use a cliché?) I’ll give you one example of good and bad writing. In the opening scene of Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake pulls into the parking lot of a dive bar and empties a jug of urine. Not a word has been spoken and we’ve learned a lot about this character and we’ve seen something that no other film has shown before. Here’s a guy who lives on the road and doesn’t want or can’t take the time to make a proper restroom stops between gigs. (A little like the true “stalking astronaut in a diaper story” a couple of years ago.)

Now contrast that with (not really a spoiler, folks) Paltrow’s character finding a baby bird while in rehab and her husband played by Tim McGraw carrying the beat-you-over-the-head-metaphor-in-a-box through half the film. At least one point in the making of the film McGraw had to think, “Is this bird thing working? Seems a little forced to me.”  And I don’t even recall a payoff with the bird.

Country Strong is the kind of movie I used to walk out of when I was younger (ie: Bolero) but now I’ve learned to enjoy the good things about any film. Here the music is top-notch and the studios gave Feste the great director of photography, John Baily (As Good As It Gets), so the film looks wonderful. And despite the 17% Rotten Tomatoes rating from top critics, the film has its moments. I thought the opening scene was a fresh twist and great start to the movie. But somewhere along the way my mind started drifting and I started to wonder how actor Tobey Maguire (Superman, Seabiscuit) got attached to this project as producer.

Later I found out and that’s where the story gets interesting.  I discovered that Feste was once Maguire’s nanny. That’s not meant as a knock. That’s interesting stuff. Everyone needs a job until they break through and Feste was savvy enough to work as a nanny in LA to make connections in the industry. It worked. (I’d definitely recommend being a nanny over some of screenwriter Diablo Cody’s previous income streams. Heck, maybe you could be a nanny for Cody.)

“I went to work as a nanny for people who were in the entertainment business, so that I could get any information I could, even while I was watching their kids. I love children, so it was an easy gig.”
Shana Feste
MovieMaker, December 2010

Along the way, Feste also cut her chops getting a BA at UCLA, a master’s in creative writing from University of Texas at Austin, and another graduate degree from AFI. Solid credentials. After AFI she went to work as an assistant at CAA for  Richard Lovett, who was president of the agency. Again, brilliant move. Her first film The Greatest premiered at Sundance in 2009. Country Strong may not be the best film of the year, but I imagine there are few grads that she went to school with at UCLA, UT-Austin, and AFI who are in the position that Feste finds herself as a Hollywood player writing and directing features.

P.S. Feste was once a nanny for Courney Love. I imagine Love and many others will have a “no screenwriter” request for future nannies. I also have a feeling that the nanny agencies will be getting a lot of calls this week from filmmakers with MFA’s looking for work. So if you happen to live in LA and decide to sign up at one of the agencies like Buckingham Nannies you may want to keep that screenwriter thing to yourself.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“You do things sometimes as a writer subconsciously, things you’re not even aware of. I’m always comfortable doing things instinctively because I see it as tapping into this vein of archetype that works for a broader audience base.”
James Cameron
Writer/director of Titanic and Avatar

“I think it’s fine for young (filmmakers) to out and out rip off people who come before them because you always make it your own.”
Francis Ford Coppola
World News interview


Yesterday we looked at several films that share some of the same DNA. I mentioned several words and phrases used to explain why some movies resemble other movies. Blake Snyder in Save the Cat added one more phrase—”Hollywood’s Dirty Little Secret.”

“Look at Point Break starring Patrick Swazye, then look at Fast and Furious. Yes, it’s the same movie almost beat for beat. But one is about surfing, the other is about hot cars. Is that stealing? Is that cheating? Now look at The Matrix and compare and contrast it with the Disney/Pixar hit Monsters, Inc. Yup. Same movie. And there’s a million more examples. Who Saved Roger Rabbit? is Chinatown…In some instances, the stealing is conscious. In other, it’s just coincidence.”
Blake Synder
Save the Cat

So let’s have some screenwriters weigh in on the topic.

“I wrote the screenplay (for The Magnificent Seven), Johnny Struges, the director, asked me to make a screenplay out of Kuroisawa’s (Seven Samari), setting it in the West.”
Walter Brown Newman

“(The movie Red River) was Mutiny on the Bounty. I had always thought what a great Western.”
Red River screenwriter Borden Chase as told to William Bowers

Okay, but do screenwriters have to be at retirement age to admit to taking from other films? Well, writer/director James Cameron prefers to use the words “reference point” when talking about films that he watched before he made Avatar.  Here’s an Q&A interview that he did with the Los Angeles Times that addresses if Avatar is Dances with Wolves in space.

Geoff Boucher: There’s also maybe some heritage linking (“Avatar”) to “Dances with Wolves,” considering your story here of a battered military man who finds something pure in an endangered tribal culture.

James Cameron: Yes, exactly, it is very much like that. You see the same theme in “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” and also “The Emerald Forest,” which maybe thematically isn’t that connected but it did have that clash of civilizations or of cultures. That was another reference point for me. There was some beautiful stuff in that film. I just gathered all this stuff in and then you look at it through the lens of science fiction and it comes out looking very different but is still recognizable in a universal story way. It’s almost comfortable for the audience – “I know what kind of tale this is.”

Dances with Wolves was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and Avatar was nominated for 9. Combined they both they won ten Oscars. And while only Dances with Wolves won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Screenplay based on Material from Another Medium (Michael Blake), Avatar became the all-time box office champ making $2.7 billion worldwide.

As a sidenote Avatar’s production designer saw shades of The Wizard of Oz in the script. (The Wizard of Oz just happens to be one of Cameron’s favorite films.)

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“We work out the story on index cards to break it down.”
Screenwriter Ted Elliot (Pirates of the Caribbean) on how he and writing partner Terry Rossio work

“While I always outline scripts, for me it’s 50/50 whether I use index cards or not.”
Screenwriter John August

A few years ago the popularity of Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat! introduced a who new group of writers to using index cards in the screenwriting process. I’ve seen writers mount their index cards on walls, neatly place them in Moleskine* notebooks, and even stack them on their desk using a funky little system. Some even have a color coding system for their index cards. (Some technically use post-it notes.) But screenwriting via index cards has been a long-standing tradition in screenwriting circles.

“I write each sequence on (three-by-five index) cards. One card for each sequence. I usually end up with twenty-eight, thirty sequences per hour of film. I put them on the floor so I can see them from up here. Probably because I was a film editor. I think it’s very good training for a screenwriter because I can tell the actual lengths of sequences in terms of film. Frequently, before I write them, I know pretty much how they’re going to come out, in some strange way…I’ve rarely written anything that I‘ve looked at and said this doesn’t work at all, because the cards seem to tell me this.”
Edward Anhalt (1914-2000)
2-time Oscar winning screenwriter
Panic in the Streets (1950), Becket (1964)

One bonus of using index cards is they are cheap and another is you can find them easily in every city. If you’ve never used index cards here’s a simple little excercise you can do to get your feet wet. The next time you watch a favorite film at home get a stack of index cards and write down every scene in the movie. Just a line or two of what the scene is about and what characters are in the scene. When the movie is over flip through the cards and see if you get a feel of the story.

Now you just need to do that with your own ideas and stories. I find 40-60 scenes is what most narrative stories can hold. To borrow from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird concept, you don’t need to write your whole screenplay at once, just chunk it out card by card. Not every writer uses index cards, but the next time you see a photograph of a writer in their office look at the background and see if you see any index cards laying around or mounted on the walls.

Even though my screenwriting software does index cards for some reason I prefer the old school, basic white 4X6 index cards (with lines). I like writing on the cards (in black ink) and like being able take them with me and just shuffle through the cards when they are not mounted on a board. Essentially I am doing what Anhalt is talking about—I’m running the movie in my head.

And sometimes like on the script I am working on now I just use the index cards to write down a thought or two. (Most recently I wrote down “Atlanta” and “Size 10 shoes” on a note card that was something I wanted to work into the script.) I could (and sometimes do) make notes to myself on my iPhone or place it on the bottom of the script, but the index cards are really my favorite way of keeping track of new ideas.

Anybody have any index card tips you use or index stories to tell?

*Moleskine has a Storyboard Notebook that has three 16:9 panels which looks pretty useful.

Update 11/30/10, John August link: 10 hints for index cards

Update 1/11/11:

“There are index cards everywhere in Aaron Sorkin’s office…The writer of The West Wing and The Social Network likes to use those cards, tacked to a large corkboard, to keep track of key elements. Social Network’s pivotal scenes are still up there, with notes that read, “Mark and Erica in bar,” “Mark walks back to dormitory” and “Mark begins drinking, blogging, hacking.”
Christy Grosz
Inside Aaron Sorkin’s Writing Process
The Hollywood Reporter

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Obama Speaking in Waterloo, Iowa 2007
Obama Speaking in Waterloo, Iowa 2007

 

There is some speculation about what President-elect Obama’s howdy factor will be. They don’t call it that, but that’s what it’s known as in some screenwriting circles. (I’m not sure who I learned this from, but when I remember I’ll give them credit.)

The howdy factor (or howdy trait) is the thing that every President has to have to seem more down to earth. (Maybe for Obama we should call it The Aloha Factor.)

John F. Kennedy; Pick-up football games on the White House lawn
Richard Nixon; Bowling
Gerald Ford; Skiing and golfing
Jimmy Carter; Softball
Ronald Reagan; Cowboy
George Bush Sr; Fishing
Bill Clinton; Jogging 
George W. Bush; Mountain biking  & kid’s baseball games on the White House lawn
 
Now Obama is already a pretty cool cat, but he still needs a howdy factor. And while he does play golf, I think he’s going to be the first President with a penchant for basketball. That’s part of his regular workout these days so as long as his knees and legs hold out I think that’s what he’ll be about.

“Hey, M.J. can you can swing by around 2:00 for some hoops? And see if Magic and Bird are available so we can roll two on two.”

George Clooney said that he liked the character he played on E.R. when he read the first script. Though his character was flawed, at one point he saves a dog and knew that he was a complex character that people would embrace.

Blake Snyder would call that a “Save the Cat” moment. A little trick of the trade that sometimes up pops in films where a character does something — like saving a cat (or a dog in Clooney’s case) — that makes him or her more likable. Once you become aware of these howdy traits you see them everywhere. (Blake and his readers have been known to yell out “Save the Cat” when they see it occur at the theaters.)

Of course, it doesn’t have to literally be a save the cat scene, but it can be. In I Am Legend, Will Smith’s character is on a hunt for food when he comes upon a lion that looks like quite a few meals. He raises his gun to shoot, but doesn’t pull the trigger when he sees a baby lion come around the corner. He decides to let the animals go (save the large cats) and it’s meant to convey he’s a good guy. 

In the Fugitive Harrison Ford’s character is falsely convicted of killing his wife and is sent to prison. On a bus ride to the prison with other prisoners the bus is hit by a train and the prisoners flee the wrecked bus and escape in the night. But before Ford escapes he takes his time to save an injured prisoner. A save the cat moment to prove that he is a good man setting up that he really is innocent of killing his wife.  

It’s best to show a howdy trait as early as possible. They are usually found in the first act if not in the first 10 pages in many screenplays because they are a shorthand way of establishing character.

Do you have any howdy factors in the script you are working on now? Now that I think about it there is also a “kill the dog” scene in I Am Legend, but even that is a compassionate act.

Oh, and by the time Obama finished his tour of the White House today, I bet he knew exactly where he was going to put the b-ball court. 

Related Posts:  Politics, Power & Screenwriting (tip #3)

 

Photo and text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“From Iowa to Pennsylvania, the presidential campaign has provided its share of made-for-Hollywood moments.”
                                                                                  All Things Considered
                                                                                  April 18, 2008


“It’s not until Iowa when people say this is how the American people are feeling. … So it ends up shaping how people view the race in subsequent states.”
                                                                                  Barack Obama
                                                                                  USA Today
                                                                                  July 17,2007 

obama300

Did you catch the Texas–Texas Tech game last Saturday? That was high drama. And everything I love about college football. A close game down to the last second.

Did you happen to follow the 2008 presidential election results last night? Not quite as close a game. But there was still plenty of drama in the last year and a half race to the White House including a full lineup of sideshows acts; Joe the plumber, The Obama girl (not to be confused with the John Edward’s girl), Super Tuesday, Sarah “Barracuda” Palin’s troopergate, Biden’s blunders, Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s preaching, Huckabee’s humor, Hillary Clinton and her 18 million cracks in the ceiling, and even Oprah coming to Iowa.

Congratulations to President elect Barack Obama. I was able to see 13 presidential candidates as they came through Iowa and I really never thought Obama would get past Hillary. But there he was last night showing that Dylan, Springsteen, Louis Farrakhan, Pamala Anderson, Colin Powell, Jimmy Buffett and Warren Buffett were all on the eclectic winning team.

Obama overcame his lack of experience with his message of change along with the storytelling abilities of Ronald Reagan and the inspirational chants (“Fired Up–Ready to Go!”) of a motivational speaker. So 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed we have an moment in history that represents symbolic healing. 

Congratulations to John McCain and his team for their hard fought battle. He’s served his country well and had over 55 million people pulling for him. And like many politicians who face defeat, the chances are good that Palin will do her homework and be back stronger with many lessons learned and popularity gained. (Though she’d have more fun and make more money doing the speaker/author circuit and having her own TV talk show.)

It really has been amazing to be a part of democracy in action at such an in-depth level. Who knew Iowa would play such an important role in history?

 

Never did I think when I moved to Iowa from Central Florida five years ago that I’d be close to such a dynamic election. So close in fact that I was within a couple feet of the future president of the United States of America several times in 2007 taking photos and shooting video on assignment.    

I took the photos on this blog at gatherings in Iowa a wee bit smaller than the huge crowd that showed up in Chicago last night to hear Obama’s acceptance speech. (I haven’t seen a celebration like last night’s since…well, Saturday when the Texas Tech students and fans stormed the field after upsetting the number one team in the country.)

Watching the gazed faces on TV at Grant Park kinda looked like that old footage you see of when The Beatles played at Shea Stadium. But America didn’t elected a rock star.  No, from the looks on the faces he’s bigger than that. More like a mix of Bono/JFK/MLK/Michael Jordon/Muhammad Ali/Billy Graham/Tiger Woods and Oprah –all in their prime.

Why is this man smiling?

Iowa State Fair August 2007

Last night I couldn’t help but think back to my creative writing teacher in high school where I wrote my first scripts and directed my first videos. Dr. Annye Refoe, who happens to be African-American, took this sports and girl obsessed teenager and added color to his world beyond the athletic endeavors of Paul Warfield and Joe Morgan. All these years later, she was one of the first people I contacted when I won the Emmy last week.

I also thought back to when I was a 19-year-old journalist and photographer and I interviewed then Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Doug Williams for the Sanford Evening Herald. Williams went on to become the first African-American to be a winning Super Bowl quarterback (while playing for the Washington Redskins).

Obama was born a month after I was and the arc of racial change that has occurred since then is stunning. But we have a long way to go to realize Martin Luther King’s dream that one day the color of our skin won’t matter.  This election gets us over one hump but I am reminded of the saying that every problem has a solution and every solution has a problem.  We have not reached the finish line.

Anyway — speaking of Washington D.C. –this is a blog about screenwriting so let’s look at the inspiration and movies that has come out of that rather small area of land. The political scene and the drama surrounding it is a natural fit for Hollywood. The quintessential Washington film is Frank Capria’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring Jimmy Stewart. The film earned an Oscar nomination for screenwriter Sidney Buchman who happened to be born in Duluth, Minnesota.

Between 1941-42 he served as the president of the Writers Guild of America, but was later backlisted for his refusal to name names of those in the American Communist Party to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  

Washington D.C. is also home to Georgetown University that has educated some fine talent:
Jonathan Nolan (Memento and co-writer The Dark Knight.) 
Carl Reiner (Writer/director/actor and seven time primetime Emmy winner)
Michael J. Winship (current president, Writers Guild of America East)
William Peter Blatty (writer of The Exorcist)  
John Guare (screenwriter of Atlantic City and Tony Winning playwright)
Blake Snyder (screenwriter and author of the screenwriting book Save the Cat)
 

And coming out of the historically black Howard University in D.C. are writers Zora Hurston Neal (Their Eyes Were Watching God), screenwriter and Oscar-nominated director Dianne Houston, director Ernest Dickerson who has also been the cinematographer on many Spike Lee films, Richard Wesley (Let’s Do It Again, which was directed by Sidney Poitier), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson (Wit), poet Paul Laurence Dunbar as well as a host of actors and actresses including Ossie Davis, Phylicia Rashad, and Sean (P. Diddy) Combs. 

And American University is not only home to one of the best film programs in the country, but where the top box-office female film director, Nancy  Shyer, graduated from college. Shyer not only directed Mel Gibson in What Women Want  but also co-wrote Father of the Bride, Baby Boom  along with being nominated for an Academy Award back in 1981 for co-writing Private Benjamin.

“I remember driving on the Ventura Freeway when I was about 27, to run an errand, when I thought, ‘What if a girl joined the Army to escape her problems?’”
                                                              Nancy Shyer
                                                              (On the inspiration for Private Benjamin
                                                              Hollywood Reporter 

The Oscar winning director of Rain Man and screenwriter of Diner Barry Levinson also attended Washington University. As did actors Jude law and Jack Black. 

The Washington D.C. political scene itself has provided an compelling background for many excellent films. Mainly because films work on conflict and that never seems to be in short supply there. In fact The White House may be the single most popular home featured in movies and TV shows. Here is a partial list of movies that feature Washington D.C.:

A Few Good Me
Air Force One
All the President’s Men
An American President
Being There 
Dave
Enemy of the State
First Kid
Forrest Gump
The Hunt for Red October
Independence Day
JFK
Minority Report
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 
Nixon
No Way Out
Three Days of the Condor
Thirteen Days
Traffic
Wag the Dog
West Wing
W.

 

There are also probably a few screenplays in the works on Obama’s life. (I bet Spike Lee and Tyler Perry are racing each other to be first.) Even if you didn’t vote for Obama you have to appreciate the journey–or at least the narrative or the significance. 

Of course there will be plenty of conflict in President Obama’s office. (Probably beginning day one at three in the morning — if not before he even takes office.) I’m sure before the final ballot was cast that Iran, Russia, and North Korea were moving chess pieces around preparing to welcome our new president. January of ’09 will be a hard time to take over the role as president  and Obama’s leadership skills will be tested early.

We quickly forget the pattern of almost every election, hope on the promise of change, harsh realities followed by blame of prior administration, and a plea for four more years to finally get things on track. Obama simply cannot do all the things he’s promised and people tend to become disillusioned quickly.

I just hope the criticism (and the joking from comedians) is not confused with racism or it’s one step forward and two steps back. If Powell is right about Obama being a transformational candidate, I just hope that transformation is for the good.  

I personally enjoy college football more than Washington politics and look forward to the Alabama-LSU game this weekend. Of course there are politics in college football, but at the end of the year the match-up for the title is usually the two best qualified, winning and prepared teams in the national. (Okay, maybe two out of the best three.)

And college football teaches us lessons in perspective.  Like the much hyped Matt Leinhart who had a stacked resume when he was the Arizona Cardinals’ first round draft pick in the 2006 NFL draft: Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback of two national championship teams at USC, and AP All-American.  Stats half-way through the 2008 season: 1 completed pass. (Only five more years on his 7 year 50 million dollar contract.)

Meanwhile the thought to be washed-up old-timer (and Iowa native) Kurt Warner is the starting QB for the Cardinals and who Sports Illustrated said is the clear choice for MVP at this point in the season.

Related Post: Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (tip #7)

 

photos and text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about.”
                                                                         David Bayles & Ted Orland
                                                                         Art & Fear 


Anytime you take up a new sport or hobby you often see a sudden rise in your skill level at the start. That’s when learning is fun. But sooner or later you hit a plateau. That’s when you start thinking of the next sport or hobby you’d like to take up.

This rings true for screenwriting. It’s easy to get discouraged when writing screenplays because there are so few peaks. In fact, I think writing screenplays is a lot like climbing mountains. While climbing to the top of Mt. Everest seems almost common these days the fact is there still aren’t that many people who have made it to the peak. (Less than 3,000 people have seen the view from atop Mt. Everest.)

And when you ask how many people have ever made it to the top more than once the numbers really drop off.

The real killer about climbing Mt. Everest is once you get to the top you only have 5 minutes to enjoy the view before you have to head back down due to oxygen demands. The real killer about writing a screenplay is once you reach the peak (produced and your movie finds an audience) — you may never get there again.

But a lot of people dream of climbing Mt. Everest that never step one foot on even the smallest mountain. (Kind of like, “Someday I’d like to write a screenplay.”) But there are other people who are climbing all the time and enjoying getting to the top of much smaller mountains.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming about winning an Oscar, but chip away at it page by page and script by script. Years ago a college professor showed me a picture (that I believe was in Esquire magazine) of writers standing by the amount of work they had written before they became successful. From memory it seems like the stacks for each writer were in the four to six foot range.

Meaning a lot of writing. I thought of this yesterday as I was going through my own piles of writings. But what do you do if you’re discouraged? Seems to me you have two options: quit or just keep writing.

My first screenplay was about a college walk-on football player. I was told that it was an original protagonist and a good story but football stories didn’t sell. A couple years later a film called Rudy was made about a walk-on football player and my idea wasn’t so original. (Not to mention there have been about half a billion football movies made since that time including one opening this weekend.)

What do you do? Quit or just keep writing.

Back in 90s I completed a script called First Comes Marriage about a couple that gets married just hours after meeting each other. Then they have to work out their differences. One reader told me it was the best screenplay she’d ever read. (They say Hollywood will nice you to death. The real sign if someone loves your script is if they give you a check.) Two years later a successful TV show appeared called Dharma and Greg where a couple married instantly after connecting on a first date.

I began sending my script out in 1995 and Dharma and Greg began airing in 1997. For all I know the show’s creators had been pitching that show for years — but it does make you wonder. Other than the initial concept the stories and characters were not the same and my understanding is you cannot copyright an idea only the expression of it. So what do you do? Quit or just keep writing.

Art Buchwald’s well known case (Buchwald v. Paramount) comes to mind where his treatment was declared to be the story behind what would become the Eddie Murphy film Coming to America. (According to attorney Ray Dowd, “If parties agree by contract that one is going to pay another for an idea, that contract may be enforceable.”) Buchwald did have an agreement – and money, lawyers, a track record and a lack of fear of Hollywood that prevents writers from suing.  

Buchwald had a great career as a writer. He was a long-time columnist for The Washington Post, wrote 30 books and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 Outstanding Commentary. But even though he won a breach of contract against Paramount and the case was later settled before an appeal — he died last year without a single feature film credit to his name.

On my marriage script, a friend said I should be glad because that meant I was on the right track. Somehow it didn’t make me feel better. (Honestly, I was so upset at that time when I heard the concept of the TV program that I never watched a single episode of Dharma and Greg.) But I kept writing. I’ve kept climbing smaller mountains. Writing and producing videos and commercials here and a short film there.  
 
Here’s why you shouldn’t get discouraged. There is nothing new under the sun. (Yes, I know that’s not a new thought either.) Just this year a film came out where a couple meet and hours later get married. When I saw the first promo for What Happens in Vegas I actually had new hope for my old script because I realized that the getting married without knowing each other was practically becoming a new genre. 

There is lots of room for comedy there. Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat says that Hollywood is looking for is “the same thing… only different!” When I first saw the trailer for The Earnest Gaines Story about a football player up against the odds I thought “how many times have I seen this film?” It is the same thing…only different. And I’ll go see it because I appreciate the sport genre.

And like horror or westerns or thrillers there are built in conventions that audiences are looking for. Your goal as a writer is to give that genre a fresh twist. The same thing… only different.

Also know that writing is a two way street. You may think someone is just stealing your idea (and of course, that does happened) but the chances are better you are stealing someone else’s idea. Or at least playing homage (that line between influenced and stealing) someone else’s idea.

I have a coming of age script that is my version of Stand By Me and The Wonder Years. The place, story and characters are different, but it’s in the same family. It’s set in the 70s. It’s encouraging that I’m starting to see a lot of interest in the 70s these days; There’s the TV program Life on Mars which is set in 1973, quite a few NFL players are driving 70s classic cars these day, the Greg Kinnear film Flash of Genius takes place in the 70s,– heck, I even saw 70s sitcom star Valerie Bertinelli on a magazine cover last week. And is there a day where we aren’t exposed to 70s music?

The bottom line is trends come and go. The stock market goes up and down. Your job is to just keep writing. Focus on writing a great story and the rest will take care of itself. Flash of Genius is a good example.

I doubt that film will make a ton of money, but it is a solid film (and script written by Philip Railsback) and one that I hope gets some Oscar nominations. The director, Marc Abraham, bought the rights to a story nine years ago. (That New Yorker article was written by John Seabrook.) But for whatever reason it took nine years for Abraham to bring that to the big screen. Certainly in those nine years I’m sure he had plenty of investors tell him his version of David & Golitah parallels too many other films. (And there are probably other people who had written screenplays on inventor Robert Kearns.)

So the next time you see a movie that you feel parallels the one you have spent months or years working on relax and just keep writing. But it wouldn’t hurt to read The Writer Got Screwed (But didn’t have to) by Brook A Wharton. And for more information about copyright laws visit attorney Mark Litwak’s website Entertainment Law Resources.

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“I adore Chicago. It is the pulse of America.”
Sarah Bernhardt

“You’re Abe Froman… the sausage king of Chicago?”
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

“I give you Chicago. It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail.
H. L. Mencken

“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone!”
The Untouchables

Last week a 5.4 earthquake hit Illinois and was felt in Indiana and as far away as Iowa. Just one more way the Midwest is following those California trends. You know, I’m doing my part to export screenwriting from the Midwest and other unlikely places where people are writing so it makes sense to make another road trip and head over the Iowa state line to the east and travel into Illinois.

The epicenter of last week’s earthquake was West Salem, but from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective the epicenter for the Midwest is Chicago. It’s the third largest city in the United States and sits with a commanding view of Lake Michigan and can rightly be called The Third Coast.

Everyone should have the opportunity once in their life to have their own version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the windy city. Here’s my perfect Chicago day: The Art Institute in the morning, a walk and lunch at the Navy Pier, see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field, ride an architectural boat tour, a sunset dinner at the Signature Room high atop the John Hancock Center , a play at one of the zillions of theater options, a carriage ride around the Chicago Water Tower downtown and a nice room at The Drake Hotel on the Magnificent Mile with a room overlooking the Gold Coast (and where they welcome my golden retriever).

And if you have the weekend you can fit in a concert at Millennium Park and a list that just gets longer and longer. Chicago is a great city. And it alone has produced a wealth of creative talent that shines as bright as a city. (Maybe that’s why Dan Quayle once said, “It is wonderful to be in the great state of Chicago…”)  Here’s a list of writers from Illinois though I’m sure to leave out many people. (Feel free to email me additional writers with connections there.)

Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding)
Sam Shepard (True West)
David Mamet (The Verdict)
Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451)
Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels)
Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan)
Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea)
Mark Brown (Barbershop)
John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix)
Harold Ramis  (Groundhog Day)
Bill Murray (The Razor’s Edge)
Greg Glienna (Meet the Parents)
Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness)
John Logan (Gladiator)
Jon Favreau (Swingers)
Tina Fey (Mean Girls)
Michael Mann (The Insider)
Phil Vischer (VeggieTales movies)
Roger Rueff (The Big Kahuna)
Robert Zemeckis,  (Back to the Future)
Edward Zwick, (The Last Samurai)
Diablo Cody (Juno)
John Logan (Hugo
Garry Marshall (The Odd Couple-TV)

From the odd connections category, Evangelist Billy Graham (who used to have a film studio in Burbank) and horror specialist Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) both graduated from Wheaton College about 30 miles from downtown Chicago. Blues Brother, and writer/actor John Belushi graduated from Wheaton High School.

Film critic and produced screenwriter Roger Ebert (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and screenwriter/Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman) are both are both graduates of the University of Illinois system.

Filmmaker and book publisher Michael Wiese is originally from Illinois. I have at least a dozen production books that Michael Wiese Productions has produced. If you’re not familiar with their books three to check out are Save the Cat (Blake Snyder) , Shot by Shot (Steven D. Katz) and The Hero’s Journey (Christopher Vogler).

A special mention must be made to two pillars of writing from Chicago: Pulitzer Prize winner Saul Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift) and Studs Terkel (Hard Times).

The list of well-known actors with Chicago ties is too long to list but here are a few;  Harrison Ford, Vince Vaugh, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, John and Joan Cusack, Virgina Madsen, Kim Novak, Bill Murray, Terrance Howard, Red Foxx, Bonnie Hunt, Patricia Arquette, Karl Malden and Gary Sinise.

Chicago is the kind of place where probably every night of the week you could attend a film related function between the various school, colleges and professional groups. There are plenty of ways to avoid writing if you live in the Chicago area.

But, of course, your goal is probably to write while living outside L.A., get sold and get produced. (I’ve said before you could live in West Africa or West Covina and feel like you’re far from the Hollywood system.)

Let me tell you about a fellow I just found out about via the DVXuser.com forum. Kyle is a radiologists living in the suburbs of Chicago. He owns a DV camera package and writes screenplays. In other words he was like every other writer with a dream…until a couple weeks ago.

He wrote a screenplay called The Lemon Tree and had a lawyer he met in Chicago rep him in L.A. and earlier this month sold the script for $300,000 against $600,000. He has no plans to quit his job and move to L.A. The next step is seeing if the film gets made and then if it finds an audience. But as far as a writer outside the system Kyle has hit the jackpot, and proves it can be done.

(You can read the entire thread and download a well-informed screenwriting document Kyle has put together at DVXuser.com. Look under filmmaking–screenplay/writing/Sold it! The DVXuser forum is a wealth of info for the independent filmmaker and a supportive community. Here’s a little poser shot of me with my DVX camera back in ’06 when I was shooting a documentary in Chicago.)

If you want further proof that screenplays can be sold by screenwriters outside L.A. here is a quote that screenwriter and author of Save the Cat! Blake Snyder sent me when I asked him about writers living outside L.A. selling their work:

“I have said often that geography is no longer an impediment to a career in screenwriting. I know of one woman who decided to be a screenwriter in Chicago, wrote 5 scripts, sold 2 and got an agent and manager, all while never leaving the confines of her condo.  It starts with a great concept! You have a great idea and a great poster, if you execute that well, you will get phone calls — and deals.  The key is: the great script!  And that starts with the step by step process I outline in Cat!  Go get ‘em!”

On the footsteps of The Dark Knight (Batman) being filmed last summer in Illinois, the current big movie being shot there is Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant starting Matt Damon with a funky mustache. The story takes place in Decatur and is based on Kurt Eichenwald’s book about a scandal at Archer Daniels Midland’s Company (ADM) that involved the FBI. Ultimately ADM was fined $100 million for a conspiracy involving replacing sugar with high fructose corn syrup. Shades of Soderbergh’s other film about corporate greed,Erin Brockovich?

Other helpful sites about the filmmaking scene in Illinois here are a few recommended sites:

Reel Chicago

Chicago Script Works

Midwest FIlm

Chicago Screenwriters

Illinois Film Biz


So come on, if Abraham Lincoln can go from a one room log cabin to become the 16th President of the United States (via Illinois) certainly that should give you some motivation to overcome a few obstacles in your life to get your scripts written and sold. Or maybe to buy a camera and make your own films. Even if you live in Springfield or Kankakee.

Speaking of Kankakee, if Screenwriting from Iowa had a theme song it might be Chicago native Stevie Goodman’s City of New Orleans because it captures a flavor of a life beyond Hollywood:

Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passin’ towns that have no names
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

Chorus
Good morning, America, how are you
Don’t you know me, I’m your native son
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

And if I can pick a B-side song I’ll go with, Jim Croce’s tribute to the South Side of ‘ole Chicago – Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.

Photographs & Text Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: