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“The internet is a miraculous things. Just share as much as you can, self-publish, blog, podcast whatever you need to do. Just make sure you are not withholding your gifts from the world. Because you have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
Diablo Cody

Today marks the 12th anniversary of Screenwriting from Iowa … and Other Unlikely Places.  The original goal was to take a year and blog a book. I failed that task—but there’s still hope. And at least in the first year the blog won a regional Emmy so that was a nice tradeoff. (See the post Juno Has a Baby.)

And I got a nice shout-out from screenwriter Diablo Cody when she was on Twitter back in the day. Her Oscar-winning  Juno script and Midwest background were a large part of starting this blog, and she’s been featured in many posts over the years. I think her tweet was a response to my 2010 post Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt.)

Diablo Cody Twitter copy copy

After chipping away at the book for a decade I thought I was close to finishing it about a year ago. I turned it over to an editor who did what good editors do. His suggested changes and comments totaled 3,000. One of his biggest challenges to me was not to copout saying it was a book cobbled together together from random blog post, but to make a a book that stands on its own. So that’s what I’ve tried to do the past six months and believe the finished product is elevated greatly because of the changes. More in coming weeks about the book’s release.

change

But seeing those edit notes was a blow. Like thinking you at the end of running a marathon only to be told, “Oh, this isn’t the finish line, you still have 10 miles to go.” It took me three months just to wrap my head around doing a deep pass on the 225 pages. Now I’m down to a dozen changes so I’m hopeful that I will finally get the completed version of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles out by March of this year.  At least, that’s the new goal.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share my introduction to the book which happens to mention actor Dwayne Johnson’s father—the former pro wrestler Rocky Johnson— who died last week.

Screen Shot 2020-01-23 at 4.37.21 PM

 

PREFACE
(For the book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles  by Scott W. Smith)

“I wasn’t born knowing how to write a play.”
—Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright

“How did I learn screenwriting? It was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.”
—Screenwriter Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption)

In the ten years of writing the blog Screenwriting from Iowa . . . and Other Unlikely Places, I’ve found advice and insight on the creative process from more than 700 gifted screenwriters, filmmakers, and teachers. I realized that I could consolidate some of this material as a book, revising and reorganizing it in ways that I thought would be most helpful to people’s creative journeys. I want these ideas to function like brass knuckles in an old-school professional wrestling match.

I don’t know if Aristotle ever used brass knuckles, but they are said to have been around since the ancient Greeks. Abraham Lincoln’s secret service men carried brass knuckles. And legend has it that brass knuckles were Al Capone’s favorite weapon.

The term “loaded fist” in Japanese martial arts refers to a martial arts version of brass knuckles that can turn a punch into a sledgehammer. As a troubled youth in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee carried brass knuckles, giving a twist of meaning to his trademark movie Fist of Fury.

Today brass knuckles are brandished in popular video games and music videos. Spike Lee even wore brass knuckles to the 2019 Academy Awards.

My introduction to brass knuckles was watching professional wrestling on TV as a kid. This was not the high-dollar spectacle of today but the low-budget version, usually taped in a small studio in Tampa, Florida.

Actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s father, Rocky Johnson,* was a wrestler in the pre-WWE era when professional wrestling was more regionally orientated and the bag of tricks (and storylines) was more limited.

This was at a time in my youth when I didn’t know if professional wrestling was real or not. What I did know was that professional wrestling had a cast of characters with colorful names like Abdullah the Butcher, Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes, and Andre the Giant, and it was flat out entertaining.

Inevitably, when one wrestler was getting beat up and close to losing a match, brass knuckles would magically appear (and oftentimes un-magically when he reached into his wrestling trunks and pulled out brass knuckles).

The announcer Gordon Solie would say something like, Wait a minute, what’s he have in his right hand? It looks like a foreign object. Oh no, it looks like a pair of brass knuckles!

At the last minute, this would give the almost beaten wrestler an upper hand in the match. It would result in not only a victory for the trickster but also in a bloody mess. For a ten-year-old boy this was as good as a vampire movie.

My goal with this book is not to create a bloody mess, but to offer the equivalent of brass knuckles for writers — screenwriters in particular. Ideas found in this book can serve as powerful resources in urgent moments of desperation—or to avoid those moments altogether.

By “screenwriting” I mean any screen: the big screen, TV, computers, tablets, mobile devices, virtual reality, video games, and even some non-screen dramatic writing such as theater and podcasts.

This book will not substitute for a good writing teacher or mentor, but it can give you some valuable ideas to hang on to, “foreign objects” thrown into the ring as you struggle to craft and sell your own stories.

*Rocky Johnson was actually the 1976 NWA Brass Knuckles Champion.

Related post:
Hitting Rock Botton with The Rock (And my very loose University of Miami football connection with The Rock.)

Scott W. Smith

 

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“As the day ended, the five were satisfied, they had done something new, something different, something more!”
The Numberlys
William Joyce & Christina Ellis

Now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it’s time for a cool change
Cool Change/Little River Band (Written by Glenn Shorrock)

Today is post #1,901 on Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. I know I haven’t done something as “different” as The Numberlys did. After all they took a world that knew only numbers and formed letters and words. Now that was revolutionary.

All I’ve done is spend a few thousand hours laboring over books, magazines, online interviews, etc. looking for a cohesive (and sometimes contradictory) view of screenwriting (sometimes spilling over into other filmmaking disciplines). I think I have 99 more posts in me to make it to 2,000. After that? I don’t know.

But it’s time for a cool change.

My original goal in 2008 was a book and it just grew and grew. I’m actually on the tail-end of editing the “best of” posts down to three 60,000 word books. Sort of a beginning, middle and end. I’m exploring some ebook options and if you have any experience or advice in that world please shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com .

I don’t have much more of a game plan than that. When I was in film school I used to have a Nike poster in my dorm of a lone runner with the words, “There is no finish line”—which seemed cool at the time. But on a little reflection, I realized I like finish lines. We need finish lines. Finish lines are useful. It’s a way to measure things.  (You know what doesn’t have a finish line? Hamsters running on a wheel.)  It just seems like 2,000 posts on screenwriting is a good finish line.

theres-no-finish-line

The Regional Emmy Award and shout-outs from Diablo Cody, Edward Burns, and TomCrusie.com–as well as the many readers over the years have all been much appreciated. (Heck, yesterday had the most views all year.) Even if I stop writing daily posts here I’m sure something new will pop up. A new blog or perhaps weekly videos.

Finding a way to monetize it or have it open up more speaking opportunities would be great. Spending time getting more dramatic writing done would be ideal.

Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet was once asked if the theater was dying and replied, “The theater is always dying and always being reborn.” Certainly that definition could be used to explain a lot in our ever-changing society. I just found out today that the cable on our TV has been off for two months because we didn’t get a new box thingy. They credited our account and since we didn’t miss it we dropped cable altogether.

I’m not a Luddite, I’ve been watching The Sopranos via Amazon Prime and movies on Netflix streaming through my BluRay and playing on my TV.  Most college freshman I’ve read don’t have a TV in their room preferring to watch everything on their computers or phones. TV is dying and being reborn.

And so it is with Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places—it’s dying and being reborn. I’m just not sure yet what that new manifestation will look like. All suggestions welcomed.

‘The very impulse to write springs from an inner chaos crying for order, for meaning….”—Arthur Miller

P.S. The Numberlys book, App, and film was created by Oscar-winning Moonbot Studios in Shreveport, Louisiana—Shreveport qualifies as an unlikely place. I wrote some posts about them ( Filmmaking in the Other LA, Old Fashioned & Cutting Edge) a couple of years ago.

Update: Soon after I wrote this post, I heard some people talking about the bowling alley at Downtown Disney (Splitsville Luxury Lanes) and one of the people said, “Bowling’s coming back.” Bowling is always dying, and always coming back.

Related Posts:
Netflix + Emmy Nominations = New World Order
Putting the Bust in Blockbuster

Scott W. Smith 

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It’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other.”
Writer/Director Sidney Lumet (The Verdict)

ScriptMag

 

A few days ago I was thrilled to find out that the Screenwriting from Iowa and Other Unlikely Places blog was named by Script Magazine as Website of the Week.  That’s pretty cool. I’m a long time fan of the magazine and appreciate the nod from Script Mag editor Jeanne Veillette Bowerman and her team. I’ll metaphorically put that on the same shelf as my 2008 Regional Emmy for this blog, the 2010 shout-out from the official blog of Tom Cruise, and most recently in 2014 named as one of Screenwriting Spark’s Top 25 Screenwriting Blogs and by the New York Film Academy’s The Best Screenwriting Blogs.

A nice pay off to six and half years of blogging more than 1850 posts. Baby steps. Anytime my outsider perspective can be mentioned in the same breath as the insider perspectives of Go Into The Story and John August’s blog I feel like I have something to add to the screenwriting and filmmaking conversation. Thanks to all the readers over the years who have provided the motivation to keep this blog going.

Still exploring ways to publish a book/ebook version of the Screenwriting from Iowa greatest hits as well as monetize the blog, but personal projects are fuel by passion. The best advice I can pass on to you in whatever creative endeavor you chose is what the artist Gary Kelley once told me about pro bono work he chooses to do—basically, if you’re doing it for free make sure it feeds the soul.

final draft script writing screenwriting software screenwriting contests filmmaking books

Being named by “Website of the Week” gives me the opportunity to highlight 10 posts where I pulled quotes from Script Mag over the years:

Normal is Not Funny (tip #28)
The Job of Writing
Writing “The Artist” (Part 3)
Writing “The Social Network” (Part 1)
Will Anyone Read Your Script?
“I can’t keep handling this…rejection.”
Screenwriting Quote #172 (Christopher Lockhart)
Writing Actor Bait (Tip #64)
Writing “Back to the Future”
The Billy Wilder Way

And as a bonus here’s a 2009 post—Screenwriting Quote #24— that’s a quote from Script Magazine that gets to the heart of this blog:
“It doesn’t matter if you didn’t go to the best schools, if you’re a kid or in your 50s. It doesn’t matter if, like me, when I moved to Los Angeles in 1981, you come at the business without friends or relatives in the business. It doesn’t even matter if you spent formative years digging carpet scraps out of dumpsters instead of going to film school. The only thing that matters is the quality of the storytelling. More than hearing about techniques, more than discussing the construction of dialogue, I think that’s the important message; that it’s possible.”
Screenwriting J. Michael Straczynski (Changeling script, Babylon 5 creator, story credit on Thor and World War z)
Script Magazine
Volume 15/ Number 1 Pages 38-39

Scott W. Smith

 

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Prairie Home Companion

Saturday afternoon & evening in the Twin Cities I was able to pack enough fun into about a six hour period to last me for the rest of the year. I was in Minneapolis to attend Emmy Night for the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. But I also saw over in St. Paul that  A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor was kicking off their season opener and I thought that would be great to see live after listening to the show a long time before I moved to Lutheran territory here in the Midwest.

The show was sold out but I was hoping to get a couple rush tickets. Worst case scenario, they were piping audio of the show live outside in a street celebration that included a meatloaf supper and a street dance. I literally got the last seat as the couple in front of me generously passed on account that they both couldn’t get in and my wife was already inside.  (They call it Minnesota nice for a reason. Yah, you betcha. And what a great seat it was as it’s where I took the above photo.)

So I was able to see The Sam Bush Band, Connie Evingston, Sarah Jarosa, and Garrison Keillor and his gang perform. Complete with a Guy Noir skit, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a Powedermilk Biscuit Break. Good stuff. And the 1,100 seat Fitzgerald Theater, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2010, is beautiful and a great place to watch Keillor work his magic.

Fitzgerald Theater Sign 0443

Overall the show and the venue reminded me of the Grand Ole Opry which I was able to catch years ago while traveling through Nashville.  I remember hearing Keillor once saying that the Opry was an early inspiration for his show.

Yesterday was also significant in that it was Keillor’s first show since he suffered a minor stroke just a few weeks ago.  I don’t know how much Keillor has written over the years (and I doubt he does) but the 67-year old began his broadcasting career while a student at the University of Minnesota, where he graduated in 1966 with a degree in English. He’s written everything from radio programs, short stories & novels, poems & sonnets, songs & essays and a screenplay.

He appeared in the Robert Altman directed film version of  A Prairie Home Companion and was the voice of Walt Whitman in 9 episodes of the Ken Burns PBS film The Civil War. And on top of all that work Keillor also hosts The Writer’s Almanac, a daily radio program and podcast. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1994. He’s had quite a career since being born in Anoka, Minnesota in 1942. (So all you creatives outside New York and L.A. keep that in mind. Great things from small places is what this blog is all about. I never get tired of telling people that Bob Dylan was from Hibbing & Duluth, Minnesota.)

When the Keillor show was over I had to zip over to downtown Minneapolis to the Pantages Theater for Emmy Night. The Pantages Theater was built in 1916 and renovated in 2001/2002. I was up for two Regional Emmy Awards and ended up winning one for location lighting on a commercial I produced and shot. What a thrill to accept the award on the same stage that used to stage vaudeville performers when it first opened and in a theater that used to play movies starring Rita Hayworth and a host of other Hollywood movie stars over the years.  Thanks to Teresa Vickery and all the people working behind the scene who moved the venue and helped pull off the Emmy Awards this year. And congrats to all the winners.

Scott Emmy 09 0445

Yes, Saturday September 26 goes down in my book as one nice day in Minnesota.

(Apparently there was a little magic still in the air Sunday as 40-year-old Bret Farve tossed a 32-yard game-winning touchdown with just two seconds remaining in the game to give the Minnesota Vikings a victory in Farve’s debut regular season game in the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Is someone writing scripts for the NFL?)

And just a word of caution for those working on writing screenplays— Keillor had said around mid-summer when asked if he was going to make another movie, “I’m working on a screenplay now, a fragile love story set in Lake Wobegon, and want to finish it before Labor Day.  And then we shall see.” I don’t know if he finished that screenplay on time, but he did have his stroke on Labor Day.

Update 9/28/09: One regret I have in my years of living in Burbank was never going to see a taping of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Keillor has that kind of iconic clout and if you enjoy his program this would be a good year to buy tickets for A Prairie Home Companion. (For the ’09/’10 season they will record the show live from St. Paul, MN, Bismarck, ND, Des Moines, IA, New York, NY, San Francisco, CA and Atlanta, GA.)

Scott W. Smith


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“I work in a business that is run by middle age men who make films for teenage boy fantasies.”
Meg Ryan
In Style magazine
October 2008

“In 2005, (Tyler) Perry said, a Hollywood Pooh-Bah told him that ‘black folk who go to church don’t go to movies.’ Yet from that group he’s carved out a strong niche fan base.”
Perry Hagopain
Time Magazine
March 20, 2008 


shrimtruck0866 

About once a month (in season) a shrimp truck comes to my area in northeast Iowa and parks at a strip mall and sells shrimp and other seafood that were in the waters off Texas a just a few days prior. The truck is only in town for half a day before it moves on to the next town. And the same company has been doing this for over 30 years. 

That’s what I’d call a niche market. What a great idea to load up shrimp and make a little route where you go each month and build a steady market base for seafood lovers in the Midwest. I’m sure things like this happen all over the world. Niche markets are the result of supply and demand.

According to the World Dictionary the word niche means:

1.a position or activity that particularly suits somebody’s talents and personality or that somebody can make his or her own

2.an area of the market specializing in a particular type of product

The feature film Facing the Giants was made for only $100,000 yet opened in over 400 theaters in 2006. It was funded by members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia who wanted to make a Christian film. Made with largely amateur actors and a mostly inexperienced crew the film went on to  gross over $10 million dollars.  A niche market with a faithful audience.

The church people made their first feature film Flywheel in 2003 and rented a local theater to show the film one weekend. The first night the film sold out and ended up having a six-week run and then got picked up by Blockbuster Video stores, aired on several Christian TV stations and went on to sell 85,000 DVDs.  Not bad for a virtually no-budget film.

But to prove that those first two films weren’t a fluke the writers (brothers Alex, who also directs, and Stephen Kendrick) recently produced Fireproof starring Kirk Cameron that is still in the theaters and was made for $500,000. and so far has grossed over $25 million. It’s safe to say that they have tapped into a niche market and done well.

(To put this in perspective Lions for Lambs released earlier this year starring Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford only had a domestic gross of $15 million. It cost $36 million to make. Though it did better worldwide, with marketing costs marketing included it is estimated that the film lost $50 million.)

And also in Georgia  Tyler Perry has his own niche market. Last month the former New Orleans native who grew up in poverty recently built the 200,000 square foot Tyler Perry Studio on 30 acres in Atlanta. Guests in a attendance at the grand opening included  Will Smith, Sidney Portier and Oprah Winfrey.

According to Wikipedia, Tyler’s “best-known character is Madea who is a physically imposing and overbearing, but well-intentioned, woman who serves both as comic relief and as the loud voice of conscience for the protagonists of Perry’s works.”

The former high school dropout was inspired one day watching The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1992 and wrote a musical dealing with child abuse. While working as a car salesman he staged his first play which was not a success but he continued to hone his writing over the next six years. He began finding success in 1998 with a solid African-American audience and since then has made over $150 million with his plays, DVDs, and feature film releases.

Perry is also producing for TV (Tyler Perry’s House of Payne) and also has written a novel (Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life) that was number one on the New York Times Best seller list in 2006. Many in Hollywood are reportedly confused by Perry’s success.

Perry told Scott Bowles at USA Today, “I’m not sure why no one wants to admit there’s a viable audience out there that believes in God and wants to see a movie with their family. The demand is there. The supply is not.”

 

You may not have seen any of Tyler Perry’s movies (or have even heard of him) but he has had four number one box office movies and this year he was named in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. 

What niche markets do you think you could tap into? What niche markets could Meg Ryan tap into if she shifted her focus around? (Time magazine March 14,2008-suggests we are living in “The Post-Movie-Star Era.”)

It’s one reason why screenwriters and filmmakers are embracing social marketing like My Space and Facebook to build a base of people interested in their work. (Join me at Facebook under Scott W. Smith in the Waterloo, IA network and please mention Screenwriting from Iowa as a reference.)

I first learned about social marketing from Nathan T. Wright at Lava Row not that long ago and now see it everywhere. It’s a natural fit for those wanting to tap into a niche market. (Did you know there is a website just for people interested in people with Mullets? Mullet Passions.) Screenwriter Diablo Cody has more than 18,000 friends on My Space. Do you think that might help her post Juno career?

Both Perry and the Kendrick brothers are once again proof that you can have success in the film industry outside of the traditional Hollywood route –out there in fly-over county. And that it doesn’t hurt to not only have faith in your screenwriting, but faith in your movies.

Side note: Back when Kirk Cameron was on Growing Pains I did a shoot with him on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank for a show called Bridges. It was a three screen multi-media program sponsored by Pepsi and shown to hundreds of thousands of high school students across the county. If I can find a clip I’ll post it later. Kirk seemed like a one of the good guys and I’m glad to see him still making films verses being in the news as another example of a child actor gone bad.

Side note 2: If you live in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Oklahoma, Illinois, Indiana, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas or Texas and would like to know if the shrimp truck comes to your area contact Fabian Seafood or call 409.765.9522 in Galveston. (They are fully licensed and inspected and the food tastes great.)

Photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Here’s my unsolicited advice to any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading this: Don’t ever agonize about the hordes of other writers who are ostensibly your competition.  No one else is capable of doing what you do.”
Diablo Cody
Introduction/Juno
The Shooting Script

“The internet is a miraculous things. Just share as much as you can, self-publish, blog, podcast whatever you need to do. Just make sure you are not withholding your gifts from the world. Because you have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
Diablo Cody

I woke up this morning with a strange lady next to me. We just met last night and I was glad to see her still sitting on the night stand this morning. She’s gold, has wings and seems to be holding some kind of science project. I won her last night at the regional Emmy Awards in Minneapolis. It was a great way to end a good week.

The Emmy is for the Screenwriting from Iowa blog that I started earlier this year just a few days after seeing Juno. Of course, I didn’t know back in January that Cody would win an Oscar, but I thought her story was a great example of a writer emerging from fly-over country.

Nor did I think back in January when I started my first blog that it would lead to an Emmy 9 months later. (But that is good timing since this Emmy is an sort of an offspring of Juno.) So thanks to Ms. Cody for the inspiration and thanks to all the readers and friends who’ve encouraged me to keep chipping away at this concept.

Yesterday as I drove up from Cedar Falls to Minneapolis I thought about how this thing had come full circle.

Cody lived in Minneapolis when she wrote Juno just a few years after graduating from the University of Iowa. So to fully complete the circle this afternoon I visited the Starbucks inside the Target in Crystal, Minnesota where much of Juno was written. (Reportedly in just seven weeks.)

Adam Vanderlinder was working this afternoon when I walked in with my Emmy award (in a backpack, thank you) and ordered a chai latte and he confirmed that I was at the right Starbucks. He remembered Cody and even pointed out the table she sat while writing. I asked how he remembered the exact table and he said it is the only place with an electrical outlet.

This may not be a news flash, but I haven’t seen any newspaper, magazine or blogs showing any pictures of this part of the Juno back story. So in all its glory here are a couple photographs of my new angelic lady friend at the spot where Cody spent a little time before she made her way to the red carpet at the Academy Awards. (Complete with the soon to be famous electric outlet that somebody will probably steal and sell on ebay.)

So for all those screenwriters outside L.A. who think they could jump start their career if they could only move to L.A., I offer this photograph of Cody’s exotic former office (not to be confused with her former exotic job) far from Hollywood as a practical and inexpensive example of where your ideas and dreams can grow. (Just substitute your town or suburb.)

Vanderlinder also said he remembers Cody also drinking chai lattes. This symmetry is starting to move beyond full circle and into The Twight Zone…oh, while we’re speaking of classic TV — I wonder if Cody will ever get a statue like spunky Mary Tyler Moore (seven time Primetime Emmy Award-winner) has at the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis.

If you’ve never seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show (the story was set in Minneapolis) do yourself a favor and hunt down some episodes and watch the program that was ranked #11 in “TV Guide’s 50 Best Shows of All Time.”

The Coen Brothers are currently back in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area shooting a new movie (A Serious Man) on their home turf. I was pleased to hear all the Minnesota-rooted boys (Dylan, Prince and Garrison Keillor) on the radio during my short trip to the twin cities. I also learned that the current film Quarantine is the product of two St. Paul filmmakers (and, yes, brothers) Drew and John Erick Dowdle.

In an interview with Colin Covert in this Sunday’s Star Tribune, John explains their horror fixation, “We blame the long winters sitting home wishing we could get out. We’re the latest in a long list of Midwestern filmmakers and artists with a very dark side.”

So the Minneapolis–St. Paul area continues to show serious creative clout to go along with their serious cold weather. (Yes, it did snow in Minneapolis yesterday –a week before Halloween!)

This is as fitting a place to give you the link for Diablo Cody’s Tips for Blogging Your Way to Hollywood Success as written by John Scott Lewinski. And if you haven’t read The Juno-Iowa Connection it is still the number one read post on Screenwriting from Iowa.

And here are two little bonus Cody Q&A’s, the first with Steve Marsh I found at mspmag.com and the other with Oprah Winfrey:

What inspired Juno? 
”I was kinda sitting in my kitchen in Robbinsdale, and thinking about the image of a teenage girl sitting across from these uptight yuppies in their living room. They’re basically auditioning to be the parents of her unborn child. And I was like, that’s possibly the most awkward thing I could imagine, and it is therefore hilarious. And I wound up building the film around that image. And then I just based the character of Juno on myself as a teenager, although I was never that cool.”

Oprah Winfrey: How did you get it (Juno) to be so fresh? “I don’t know, I guess, you know, when you’re coming from the middle of the country and you’re not part of the industry and you’re just telling your own story, I think it’s easy to be more original.”

text & photos 2008 Copyright Scott W. Smith

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“The Tennessee Williams we know and admire cannot be imagined without his long relationship with the Midwest.”  
                                                                                                                                            David Radavich

“I’m only really alive when I’m writing.”
Tennessee
 Williams

When you think of St. Louis the chances are good that you think of the iconic St. Louis Arch. (I took this picture on one of those perfect clear windy mornings one day when I was driving through town and it is majestic to see up close.) What’s probably lower on your St. Louis list is that writer Tennessee Williams grew up there.

Before I address the writers from Missouri let me first say that there would not be a Tennessee Williams without Iowa. Oh, there probably would still be a great American playwright but he might just be called him by his given name Tom. Tom Williams isn’t quite as memorable.  “I got the name of Tennessee,” said Williams, “when I was going to the State University of Iowa because the fellows in my class could only remember that I was from a Southern state with a long name.”

He was actually born in Columbus, Mississippi but Mississippi Williams doesn’t quite have the proper ring to it either so it’s a good thing his classmates got it wrong. Much of his early childhood was lived with his grandfather at the rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

According to David Radavich, Williams said his childhood there was happy and carefree, but “this sense of belonging and comfort were lost, however, when his family moved to the urban environment of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there he began to look inward, and to write— ‘because I found life unsatisfactory.'” Williams struggled with depression and took comfort in his daily writing as well as the bottle.

“Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are all haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence.”
 Tennessee Williams

The is no doubt that the Mississippi Delta shaped his imagination as it has so many others. Clarksdale is known as the birthplace of the blues and the location of the Crossroads intersection of Highways 61 and 49 where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar like he did.

Clarksdale’s where musicians Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and  W.C. Handy were born and where The Delta Blues Museum lives today.  If you’re anywhere in the Memphis area it’s worth a trip out of your way to visit.

But from the age of seven through the college years Williams lived in the Midwest mostly in St. Louis. Radavich writes, “In 1931, Williams was admitted to the University of Missouri where he saw a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts and decided to become a playwright. His journalism program was interrupted however, when his father forced him to withdraw from college to work at the International Shoe Company.”

Even though Williams is mostly remembered for his time in New Orleans, Key West, and New York, Missouri is where he would return to again and again, visiting his mother until she died in 1980. Williams died three years later and is buried in St. Louis.

Saturday night I went to see Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here it Cedar Falls just a little over an hour away from where Williams studied playwriting at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 1938. The play brought back many memories.

When I lived in LA I studied acting for three years mostly at Tracey Roberts Actors Studio. Roberts was a talented actress in her day but never became a star. She was a wonderful teacher and encourager and herself had studied and performed with the greats of the Actors Studio – Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, and Elia Kazan. (Sharon Stone and Laura Dern both studied with Roberts.)

It was at her studio that I began to appreciate good writing. In a scene study class I had with Arthur Mendoza we spent three months working on just the opening monologue of “The Glass Menagerie”:

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion….”

And so it began. There was much to learn in three months just beyond getting the words down. Place, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology wrapped in Williams’ poetic style. Mendoza also stressed learning about the playwrights background so we studied that as well. It would do every writer good to take at least one acting class in their life. You’ll meet some actors and learn the process they go through in approaching your text.

As I did my scene the final day of class it was the one true moment I ever had as an actor where I felt totally in sync. We sometimes look back on any success big or small with regret but I look back on that day with satisfaction. (It was the highlight of my brief acting career, even bigger than the Dominos Pizza commercial I was in later. Though for the record, Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan’s two-story office in Ann Arbor, Michigan still holds the record for the largest office I’ve ever been in.)

Mendoza studied with Stellar Adler for 10 years and became the principal acting instructor at Stella Adler’s Studio where Benicio Del Toro studied with him. (Del Toro won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Traffic.) Mendoza eventually formed the Actors Theater Circle in Hollywood where he still teaches today. He was the first to open my eyes to the classic playwrights. He threw out names of writers I had never heard of and said as actors we needed to be able to flip our pancakes and do them all.

During that time I found three books at a used bookstore on Main Street in Seal Beach, California that caused a shift in my thinking about the power of writing. For one dollar each I picked up the best plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg. Best three dollars I ever spent.

Strindberg did not stay with me but Ibsen and Chekhov have been lifelong friends. Only recently did I find out Ibsen’s Ghost influence on Williams. Which makes perfect sense given Williams fascination of dealing with the sins of the father being visited on the son. Williams tapped into the southern-family-with-hidden-problems theme.

Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie had a Midwest beginning as it premiered in Chicago. He wrote fragile characters who were on the brink of hysteria. And he was rewarded well for such characters winning two Pulitzer Prizes along with two Oscar nominations.

Two other creative writing giants where also raised in Missouri, Mark Twain in Hannibal and Walt Disney in Marceline and Kansas City. (Both Hannibal and Marceline are less than an hour south of the Iowa border.) Marceline is said to be the inspiration behind Main Street USA at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Orlando has Tom Sawyer’s Island. Exporting the Midwest for all the world to enjoy.

Other screenwriters born in  Missouri include William Rose who won an Oscar in 1968 for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, John Milius (Apocalypse Now), Langston Hughes (screenwriter & playwright), Dan O’bannon  (Alien), Honorary Academy Award Director/Screenwriter Robert Altman, and Oscar-winning director/writer John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). That’s a deep rich heritage.

So Missouri joins the areas we’ve already looked at, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin as more than capable of producing talented writers.

“Somehow I can’t believe there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C’s. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Constancy and the greatest of these is Confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.
Walt Disney

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mark Twain

“I’m an airmail pilot. St. Louis to Springfield to Peoria to Chicago. The ocean can’t be any worse than snow, sleet and fog.” (Charles A. Lindbergh the night before his historic flight across the Atlantic ocean.)

The Spirit of St. Louis
Screenplay Billy Wilder
& Wendell Mayes
based on Lindbergh’s book

Photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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