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I couldn’t help but smile yesterday when I saw The Hollywood Reporter headline:

‘Holland, Michigan’ Tops 2013 Black List 

The Holland, Michigan script written by Andrew Sodroski received 46 mentions from film executives placing it at the top of the pile of the best unproduced scripts kicking around Hollywood.

While I know more about the town of Holland, Michigan (it’s a lovely place in Western Michigan with heated sidewalks downtown) than the script of the same name, here’s the story’s logline:

When a traditional Midwestern woman suspects her husband of infidelity, an amateur investigation unravels. 

Not a killer logline, so the script must be killer.

Collider reported that Holland, Michigan “will be directed by Errol Morris and stars Naomi Watts.” Deadline stated that the screenwriter Sodroski is a Boston native who has a MFA in screenwriting from Columbia University and repped by CAA And the LA Times added Sodroski is “a former Harvard medieval history major who now lives in Kosovo.”

Kosovo? Talk about screenwriting in unlikely places….

(Though honestly, both Harvard and Columbia are well-traveled paths to Hollywood—see update below. Having degrees from both is a good sign that Sodroski is a smart cookie. But that Kosovo is a curveball.)

On days like this it’s really fun to have this little niche in the screenwriting world. Cheers to Sodroski, and all the screenwriters who made the 2013 Black List.

I’m sure we’ll all be learning more about Holland, Michigan the movie and Andrew Sordroski in coming months. Until them feel free to learn more about the town Holland, Michigan via the Internet and enjoy the Sufjan Stevens song Holland from his album Michigan. Brooklyn-based Stevens was born in Detroit and attended Hope College in Holland, MI. (H/T to Indiewire for pointing out the Holland song.)

P.S. Holland, Michigan’s Tulip Time Festival held each year in May has been called by Readers Digest as the “Best Small Town Festival.”  A couple of years ago the town of 35,000  was listed as the second (behind Boulder, CO) Healthiest and Happiest Places in America.  And you may be surprised to know that Holland, Michigan (which sits across Lake Michigan from Chicago) is known for sailing. My Holland, Michigan based production friend John Grooters directed the documentary American Sailors.

Update: Found a link to the 2011 Harvardwood Writers’ Competition where Sodroski, along with co-writer Raven Burnett, were runner-ups for their feature script Dark Ops. Here’s the logline for the action thriller that reads better than the logline for Holland, Michigan:

When a team of American soldiers occupies a mysterious Afghani monastery, they suddenly find themselves battling enemies beyond their comprehension. 

Harvardwood helps connect Harvard Alumni and students to those established in the arts, media and entertainment. A nice perk if you’re connected to Harvard. Hollywood may be a small town (or a big high school) but it has more than a few Ivy Leaguers in general, and former Harvard students specifically; Darren Aronofsky, Matt Damon, Ron Bass and Terrence Malick just to name a few. Here’s a list of Darthmouth Alumni in Entertianment in Media, and you can follow the Yalies in entertainment at Yale in Hollywood. Oh, and Princeton University (Ethan Coen, David E. Kelly, Bo Goldman) has Princeton in Hollywood. 

Even if you can’t or didn’t attend an Ivy League school, if you live near Cambridge, New Haven, Hanover or Princeton you can still make friends at those schools. Work on student films, go see guest lectures they bring in, and get creative being a part of the culture there. In the case of Harvard, you can become a Friend of Harvardwood if referred by a current member.

Related posts (Note; Michigan and Boston come up time and time again on this blog):

Michigan related posts:

Screenwriting from Michigan
Michigan’s Sam Raimi & the Guy with Greasy Hair
Rejection Before Raiders
Saul Bellow & Unlikely Places
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Elmore Leonard
From Ann Arbor to Smallville (David S. Goyer)
“Life of Pi” Screenwriter David Magee
Kalamafrickin’zoo’s Talent Pool
Screenwriting from Grand Rapids (near Holland)
Writer/Director Paul Schrader

Boston related posts:

Screenwriting from Massachusetts
Will Simmons’ Road to Hollywood
Writing “Good Will Hunting”
Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg
(Yawn)…Another Pulitzer Prize
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
Screenwriting Quote #42 (Brad Anderson)
Screenwriting Quote #3 (Charlie Kaufman)
Screenwriting Quote #179 (Chris Terrio)
Screenwriting Quote #148 (Edward Zwick)
Writing “Edward Scissorhands”
Writer Michael Crichton (1942-2008)

Scott W. Smith

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I picked up the book The Technique of Screen Writing (published in 1944) about ten years ago at a used book store in Baltimore, Maryland. Not to take anything from any screenwrtiting gurus, but contrary to belief screenwriting books did not begin with Syd Field’s classic book Screenplay, The Foundations of Screenwriting. Was Syd Field even born in 1944? Screenwriting books didn’t even begin with Eugene Vale’s The Technique of Screen Writing, but since we admire many movies from the 30s & 40s, it’s good every now and then to find the kind of thinking that was kicking around Hollywood during that golden era.

“It is necessary to understand that a story is nothing but a series of items of information. The story teller informs the listener about persons and events….The best approach is to ask: what is essential? In reducing the total information to that which is important, the good writer can tell a story in a smaller amount of space than the writer who is not capable of picking out the essential facts. Since the space of the motion picture is limited, the writer who knows how to select essential information can tell about more events and happenings than the writer who has mixed essential and non-essential information…While the means of expression must be handled in the most economical way, the amount of information must not be sparse but adequate.”
The Technique of Screenplay Writing (1944)
Eugene Vale
Page 69-71

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“You’ve got to find a way of saying it without saying it.”
Duke Ellington

My message is simple—put down the megaphone! Megaphones have a useful purpose. I used to use one when I took photos of large groups of people. It was the only way to be heard. But when writing screenplays there are more subtle ways to be heard. Often times it’s just a simple action or a single sentence. And the real danger when you pull out the megaphone in a movie theater is it tends keep people out of the theater.

In the post Writing from Theme (Tip #20) I covered the importance of theme and in a later post (More Thoughts on Theme)  found this little nugget :

“Themes in screenwriting can be tricky because in real-life we love to talk about our themes—share our philosophies of life, tell people our beliefs about life’s meaning. But themes we talk about are not our life’s real themes. Out true themes are lived out by our actions. “
Linda Seger
Making a Good Writer Great
page 71-72

And I know this is an area that is a little subjective, but I’m going to tread on that delicate topic of  theme and message. The line for me is really blurred between the differences. (And some say it’s fair to use them interchangeably.)  So let me just say that every film addresses some point of view (yes, even Porkey’s) that the audience receives in one degree or another. (And The Matrix proves that not everyone will agree what that message is.)

Joe Eszterhas has written about how he’s received many letters and heard first hand accounts of people who told them they were motivated to follow their dreams after watching the film Flashdance that he wrote (co-written with Thomas Hedley Jr.) after hearing the simple line ,”When you let go of your dream, you die,” and watching Jennifer Beals follow her dream.

Frank Darabont has heard similar stories about his film The Shawshank Redemption. Who doesn’t get motivated by the message/theme, “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” Anyone know if that line is even in the Stephen King short story that Shawshank was based on?

Here are a couple more quotes to throw into the mix as you walk that fine line in your own scripts between subtle theme and overt propaganda.

“If a writer has a genuine story to tell, as opposed to a message to smuggle in, and is faithful to his storytelling and skillful in technique, the audience may get a message. In fact, they may get more and deeper messages than the audience ever intended. But for that to happen, the work must be a  compelling story, not a homily, and the characters must come to life in some real sense. It can’t be a puppet show in which the author simply stands behind his characters with a bullhorn.”
K.L. Billingsley
The Seductive Image

“In life, we lead by example. In storytelling, we make our points by showing the world what’s wrong with it through characters who say and do things that are so very wrong.  Avoid speeches.  Show things going wrong in your protag’s world to make your points and create meaning.  Everything that goes right for your protag goes wrong for the story.”
Mystery Man on Film
Who is John Galt? article at The Story Department

“Didactic screenplays sacrifice character and story to prove the theme correct. This results in propaganda, a story in which the characters are only mouthpieces for the author’s message.”
Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs
Screenplay, Writing the Picture

“Don’t have your hero come right out and say what he’s learned. This is obvious and preachy and will turn off you audience. Instead you want to suggest your hero’s insight by the actions he takes leading up to self-revelation.”
John Truby
The Anatomy of Story

If you want to say something important, God bless you, but the world already has enough preachers. What the world needs now (besides love, sweet love) is more storytellers who thrill and entertain; and after you’ve been enthralled by the wonderous tale of the master yarn-spinner, you might find that the good storytelling also includes subtle messages which are covertly hung on the clothesline of compelling story.”
Richard Krevolin
Screenwriting for the Soul
page 75

Scott W. Smith


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Every once in a while I pick up William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade and flip through it. I don’t know if that or Syd Fields’ book Screenplay was the first book on screenwriting I ever read, but I remember discovering them both while in film school. Many have built on the foundation of structure that Fields laid out, but I don’t think that any writer has come close to writing a better overall book on screenwriting than Goldman’s since it was published back in 1983.

Goldman stands alone in being able to have a long lasting career as a screenwriter with a string of great movies as well as being able to explain the process of screenwriting. I’d guess that 90% of all screenwriting teachers and screenwriting book authors have never had a feature film produced from their work, and probably 8% have had movies made that were made but you’ve never heard of, never saw, did poorly at the box office, or did okay at the box office but really weren’t that good.

So for  William Goldman to write the national bestseller Adventures in the Screen Trade and also write the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, Misery, and All the President’s Men is unbelievable. And that doesn’t include all his films or all the script doctoring he’s done, or the two Oscars he’s won.

As a living, breathing screenwriter William Goldman is a giant and he stands alone. So if you haven’t read Adventures in the Screen Trade, seen his movies, or read his scripts, you now know where to start to begin understand screenwriting. All I’m doing here is pointing the way.

I’d also like to point out that Goldman has strong Midwest roots. He was born in Chicago and raised in Highland Park, Illinois and received his undergraduate degree in English from Oberlin College in Ohio.  After getting his master’s at Columbia, Goldman wrote the novel Harper which got the attention of Paul Newman who would star in the film version of that book. (It’s worth noting that Newman was just a few years older than Goldman and had graduated from Kenyon College, also in Ohio.)

It’s also worth noting that before Goldman turned his talents to screenwriting he had already written five novels and had three plays on Broadway.

“If you want to be a screenwriter and you live in Des Moines, that’s a terrible curse to bear. It’s a terrible curse in Los Angeles, too—but at least you’re not alone. And oh boy, when you’re beginning, does that matter….”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade
page 84

Now Goldman wrote those words over 25 years ago and while it still may be a curse to want to be a screenwriter, at least the Internet has helped writers have one big support group. A great place to get information and network. And these days there are writers groups all over the country—even in Des Moines, Iowa. Not to mention filmmakers, too. (And don’t forget those film incentives.)

Tomorrow we’ll look at a couple recent success stories that couldn’t have happened 25-years ago.

(And just for the record, Des Moines is so hip these days it’s now known as DeMo. At least that’s what is known as by some of the creatives who live and work in the East Village.)

Scott W. Smith

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Most people would point to Syd Field’s book Screenplay as the book that started a modern day trend in screenwriting theory. It was in fact the first book I ever read on screenwriting, but it is not the oldest book I own on screenwriting. That honor goes to The Technique of Screenplay Writing by Eugene Vale.

While Field’s book was first published in 1979, Vale’s book was first published in 1944. Vale’s book came out 65 years ago. The book is so old that it has a plug from Billy Wilder on the back, “I congratulate you on your clear analysis of the vast field, and wish for your book the great success it so richly deserves.” That alone should make you track down this book to read.

I picked up the book for three dollars in a used bookstore in Baltimore, Maryland ten years ago. And it’s where I found the screenwriting quote for today.

“A story without a struggle can never be a dramatic story…there are millions of different kinds of struggles, but in all this variety the dramatic struggle has its definite requirements. It is a struggle to eliminate the disturbance.”
                                               Eugene Vale
                                               The Technique of Screenplay Writing
                                               Page 129

That’s bare bones simplicity. Look no further than Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment to see this fleshed out. Jack Lemon struggles to climb the corporate ladder and has to deal with executives who want to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs.

Not being able to use your own apartment has its conflicts and Lemon’s main struggle throughout the film is to “eliminate the disturbance”—and still climb the corporate ladder. It ended up winning five Oscars including Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen, for Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.

 

Scott W. Smith

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