Posts Tagged ‘Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles’

“It just takes a long time for your skills to catch up with your ideas.”
—Advice to young filmmakers from writer/director Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Bulletproof Screenwriting Podcast with Alex Ferrari

Soon after I finished writing my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles, Alex Ferrari asked me to be on his Bulletproof Screenwriting podcast. That opportunity was a little intimidating since I’ve listen to that podcast and his Indie Film Hustle podcast for years. He’s had on a lot of big name filmmakers over the hundreds of podcasts he’s produced. Here are just few (check out his YouTube channel and website for a staggering amount of content:

It actually took me a few days to say yes to Alex because I hadn’t done an interview yet. But I thought it went well enough that it got me thinking about doing my own podcast. So thanks for the nudge Alex. And for all the great content you’ve been putting out for years.

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“The hilltop is lined with corn. Golden and brown. Shimmering in the morning heat.”
The opening like of an early draft of A Quiet Place by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods

I started this blog Screenwriting from Iowa …and Other Unlikely Places in January 2008 soon after seeing Juno and could have ended it in 2018 after The Quiet Place. The screenwriter of Juno screenwriter (Diablo Cody), and the original screenwriters of A Quiet Place (Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) all graduated from the University of Iowa. Cody wrote Juno in Minnesota and the original concept for A Quiet Place began in Iowa. Both were massive hits. They make nice bookends and my point that the creative outliers can make an impact and become insiders.

(Heck, outlier Tyler Perry and his studio have more than a few Hollywood moving trucks heading to Atlanta. If this pandemic lasts for years, Perry is going to be making an offer on the Hollywood sign.)

Their cinematic touchstones include the silent films of Chaplin, the silent-like movies of Jacques Tati. their “gold standard” write/director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, Unbreakable, The Village), Alfred Hitchcock, Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Dead, Attack the Block, and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The later shaping the opening of their first draft of A Quiet Place. Here’s a couple quotes pulled from the excellent podcast Script Apart hosted by Al Horner.

Scott Beck: “I think it’s our love of The Twilight Zone series where they do such a good job of throwing you into an environment that you slowly realize in some of these episodes that something is slightly off-kilter. To a degree that by the end of the episode you’re at such a different place than when you started. I think for us it was interesting for us that in the first draft of A Quiet Place where it felt like our own backyard here in Iowa, where you’re just going about your daily chores on a farm, and then all of the sudden five pages in you realize that you’re not in Kansas anymore, you’re not in Iowa any more. There’s something terrifying out there that’s going to kill you if you make a sound. And all of the sudden changing the rules right on page five and then telling the audience like you’re in for a hell of a ride for the next 90 minutes of your time.”

And because I have been accused of overstating how brutally competitive the film business is, here is Woods from the same podcast unpacking the path to getting A Quiet Place made. (One in which they are also grateful to John Krasinski for bringing his talent and sensibilities to the script and pulling of as actor and director.)

Bryan Woods: “Scott and I have been writing scripts ever since we met each other as 12-year-olds. In other words we’d written 30 scripts that never got made—throughout high school, college and into adulthood. And we were trying to crack the code and one of the things you start to realize as you forge a professional career in the film industry is that everybody’s job in film—executives, studio, producers—their job is basically to not make movies. Their job is to read scripts and go ‘Well, we’re not going to make this film because of A, B,C, D, E, F. G.’ So we started about a decade ago to think let’s start writing movies that are scalable. Let’s start writing movies that could be done for a lower budget, or a medium budget, or a bigger budget, and write scripts that are effective at all those levels. That check all of those boxes so that we remove one of the barriers to getting a movie made which is budget, or logistic, or production. A Quiet Place is a perfect example of that. We always talked about that worst case scenerio this is a movie we could go back to Iowa and we could make it for half a million dollars. Use our friends farm that we know out in the country. Assemble a small cast—it could be done. Nothing was going to stop us for making this movie.”

I would actually like to see that low budget version of A Quiet Place. Maybe Paramount can give Beck and Woods half a million to pull that off. Shoot it in three weeks and call it A Quiet Place: Pandemic Version. That could start a whole new trend. They’ve already finished shooting one film during the pandemic, 65. It’s produced by Sam Raimi and stars Ariana GreenblattAdam Driver, and Chloe Coleman.

P.S. Juno hit theaters in 2007—only seven years after Diablo Cody graduated from the Iowa. That was the same year that Scott Beck and Bryan Woods had a short film in the Cedar Rapids Film Festival in Iowa titled The Bride Wore Blood. And I actually had a film called Elephant Dreams at that festival. And things were percolating to start this blog. Things were happing in the Midwest in 2007. My blog eventually resulted in the book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles (which Beck and Woods wrote the introduction to). And now in 2021, things are percolating again. This spring I plan to launch a screenwriting podcast and hope you’ll come along for the journey. I’ll spend a week or so starting tomorrow talking about what I learned at the recent virtual Podfest. I do believe that if Cody was in college today, or Beck in Woods in high school today, that there’s a good chance they’d be cranking out narrative podcasts.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“Hi John! My dark comedy just made the quarterfinals of the 2020 Academy Nicholl Fellowships competition! Would you be interested in taking a look?”
—Screenwriter Sophie Dawson’s email query to John Zaozirny

I think it was filmmaker Robert Rodriguez who said that every screenwriting class should come with a disclaimer saying basically— You have virtually no chance of making screenwriting a career. And that was before the COVID pandemic. Yet writers are still getting hired, writers are writing, and new writers are still being discovered.

“We had the number one movie on The Black List back in 2020 with Sophie Dawson’s Headhunter. . . . Sophie was someone I found off of a query letter in August and four months later she was the number one writer on The Black List. We’re really happy with the success in terms of finding people and helping launch up and coming writers.”
—Producer and manager John Zaozirny (Eli)
Bulletproof Screenwriting podcast #103

Listen to the entire John Zaozirny interview with Alex Ferrari to be inspired and encouraged (with plenty of realty checks along the way), and to learn about how he and his team at Bellevue Productions function to nurture and develop literary talent. He reps screenwriter Ian Shorr whose script for Infinite (staring Mark Wahlberg and directed Antoine Fuqua) is schedule to be released later this year. You can also find Zaozirny on Twitter @johnzaozirny where he’s given a wealth of information about the film business and on how to approach managers.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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When Alex Ferrari asked WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart (who estimates he’s read over 60,000 scripts in his career) about screenplays that people who want to write screenplays should read, he gave this answer:

“I say this because I use it in my classes—Insomnia. Hillary Seitz wrote a screenplay that was adapted from [the 1997 Norwegian film Insomnia]. The [Seitz] screenplay is much better than the [2002] film. I believe the screenplay for Insomnia—the actual reading experience— is flawless. I would say that is the very best screenplay that I have ever read. I’m not talking about the movie, so don’t go out an watch the movie. I’m talking about reading the screenplay. I think that script was and is brilliant. ’Cause it just does everything that a screenplay should do. And does it so well. And in a fairly complicated way.”
—Christopher Lockhart
Bulletproof Screenwriting podcast #110

Here’s a link to Hillary Seitz’s Insomnia script.

P.S. The 1997 version of Insomnia was written by Erik Skjoldbjærg and Nikolaj Frobenius.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“[Screenwriter Bo Goldman told me] that while the dialogue was essential, the actors’ reactions to things were even more important. . . . Later, when I met director Blake Edwards, he said the same thing. ‘The reaction to the action is critical.’ To have a great line is nice, but to have a strong and memorable reaction is even better.”
—Writer/producer/director Garry Marshall
My Happy Days in Hollywood (written with Lori Marshall)
Pages 127-128

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“When you’re working well all of your instinctive powers are in operation, and you don’t know why you do the things you do.”
—Photographer Dorothea Lange
Grab a Hunk of Lightning documentary

I’m six chapters into recording the audio version of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles and looking at it with fresh eyes there are a few things that jump out at me. When you boil down the creative process there seems to be some common traits in people who flourish in the arts.

—Work ethic (to hone the natural skills they possess)
—Knowledge (doesn’t have to be a formal education)

But then there is that extra something-something that really helps some people rise above others and create something special that resonates with a large group of people. Some would call it intuition, and others would call it magic.

I thought of that yesterday when I listened to a podcast interview with Mike Campbell. He co-wrote the songs Refugee, Here Comes My Girl, and You Got Lucky with Tom Petty, and The Boys of Summer with Don Henley.

“Writing is such a mystical thing. Sometimes you’re just in the moment— playing that riff or whatever— and you’re just toiling around trying to put two pieces together, and sometimes a song will just reveal itself to you. It’s like magic, it really is. It’s almost so mystical that I hate to analyze it.”
—Musician Mike Campbell (Tom Petty’s right hand man for 30 years)
The Moment with Brian Koppelman

Here’s a section from my book:

Over the years I’ve spent enough money on Jimmy Buffett concerts, music, and books to help him buy a small island in Margaritaville. When asked on a 60 Minutes interview about his talent Buffett said, ‘I’m an adequate musician. I wish I was a better guitar player, and I’m a fair singer. They’re not my strongest suits . . . I’m a go capture the magic guy.”

And he’s captured enough magic to not only have that rare career that has sustained an audience for over five decades, but he’s built an entertainment and lifestyle empire making his personal worth over $500 million. That’s a lot of magic. How it happened is even a mystery to Buffett.

May you capture the magic in your writing today. But if your muse is like Stephen King’s it’s less like Tinkerbell tapping you on the shoulder, and more like the working stuff guy shoveling coal in the basement. And his only shows up when he’s at a desk writing.

P.S. Here’s a line from the song The Heart of the Matter written by Mike Campbell, Don Henley, and J.D. Souther that resonates strongly three decades after it was written:

These times are so uncertain
There’s a yearning undefined
People filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?

Scott W. Smith

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“The problems we face today eventually turn into blessings in the review mirror of life. In time, yesterday’s red light leads us to a greenlight.”
—Matthew McConaughey

This week I listened to Matthew McConaughey read/perform his entire book Greenlights and two key thoughts resonate:

  1. GREENLIGHTS. The metaphor of when you’re driving down the road hitting green light after green light. (To use Mihály Csíkszentmihályi research, that’s when we’re in the flow.) Hitting multiple green lights in a row is nice because so much of our life is filled with yellow and red lights.
  2. FORCED WINTER: This is like a prolonged red light. It’s annoying when we cycle through a set of lights and don’t get a green light for whatever reason. We’ve lot a few minutes trying to get where we’re going. But there are more difficult seasons of our lives where we get prolonged red lights for weeks, months or even years. McConaughey refers to these as “forced winters.” This global pandemic is a forced winter for many. Especially for those who’ve lost loved ones to the coronavirus, been sick themselves, lost work, or face added anxiety due to the overall disruption of life.

Part of the message of the book seems to be that there are lessons to learn at the red lights and in the forced winters. And that the long view is those times of resistance set us up for the red lights to turn into green lights and that we emerge from forced winters with renewed faith, hope, and opportunities.

Throughout his memoir McConaughey tells stories of his own red lights/forced winters: An odd year as an exchange student in Australia, his father dying while he was in college, and though once called “the new Paul Newman” his acting career cooled off leading him to a run doing romantic comedies. (No shame there—and well-paid— but not the kind of roles he ideally wanted to be doing.) Perhaps his best forced winter is one he forced upon himself when he starting turning down romantic comedies and moved from Malibu back to Austin. The phone eventually stopped ringing for acting gigs, and he says he even considered heading in a new career direction.

Then he rebounded with roles in a series of independent films which eventually led to his Oscar-winning performance in the Dallas Buyers Club. Of course, there’s no guarantee that that our red lights and forced winters will exalt us to such lofty heights, but it’s important to see others come out of the dark forest with a zest for life.

It seems like every tens years I hit a forced winter. I’m thankful that personally 2020 was a brief red light that turned into a series of green lights. First I finished my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles and secondly I bought a Hobie kayak in April for my socially distancing exercise.

In November, I’ll hit my 100th day out on a 440 acre lake. Usually I go out around sunrise for 60-90 minutes and it’s turned a funky season of life into one of my most pleasurable ever. Lots of egrets and hawks, an occasional gator and/or bald eagle, and overall peace and beauty. I took this photo yesterday as a crew team was practicing in the early morning. (It was a rather pedestrian iPhone shot so I ran it through the Prisma Photo Editor app.)

Crew team on Lake Howell—October 30, 2020

If you’re at a red light or in a forced winter, I hope you can look back and have the perspective that other rough times you’ve been through actually set you up for a series of “greenlights.” New relationships, new job opportunities, new adventures.

P.S. Looking back, I realize this blog (and therefore the book) are the result of a forced winter. I moved to the midwest in 2003 for what I thought was a freelance producer gig in Chicago that promised to be a full time gig once a hiring freeze was lifted. The hiring freeze never was lifted and the production arm of the group eventually shut down. But that set up a great 10 year run in Cedar Falls, Iowa—but only after a hard start. (And I actually found the literal cold winters exhilarating.)

Scott W. Smith

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“Create structure so you can have freedom.”
—Matthew McConaughey

Today I started listening to the audio version of Matthew McConaughey’s book Greenlights. His Texas drawl is worlds away from Orson Welles’ voice, but they share that gift in that their voices could make reading the federal income tax code sound interesting. Or an ad for a Lincoln.

At 38 minutes into the first chapter of McConaughey’s storytelling memoir I was inspired to get back in the saddle. My original goal in writing the book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles was to have the audio version released last month with the book. I failed.

Just getting the book done and out was a marathon. I had trouble getting getting psyched up for the the audio version. All the more so because I’m the voice talent, the audio engineer, the director, and the editor. I have a simple basic audio recording setup in my home office closet, and know how to use the gear, but being mentally prepared to record has proven difficult.

But after listening to McConaughey I’m ready to just say “Alright, alright, alright”—and am setting a goal to record a chapter a day. Or to finish recording by November 14 at the latest.

“Creativity needs borders.”
—Matthew McConaughey
One of his “bumperstickers” (one word) in Greenlights

Yes, that music stand does say “Bitch” in the corner. I bought it a Minneapolis antique store and was told it was from an area public school. (Who hates the music teacher?)

Now I’m not going to sound as cool as McConaughey, but you do what you can, with what you have, where you are, right?

Funny thing about the McConaughey vibe is he feels like an old school friend no matter your age or where you grew up. Just someone you liked to hangout with. Then there’s the Texas thing on top of that. Even before he came on the scene in Dazed and Confused (1993), Texas was on my radar.

I was conceived in San Angelo, Texas where my father was stationed as an Air Force pilot. In the early 70’s (in Florida) I pulled for the Dallas Cowboys even though the Miami Dolphins where heading for a undefeated and Super Bowl winning season. As a high school football player in the late ’70s I read Gary Shaw’s book Meat on the Hook: The Hidden World of Texas Football and oddly dreamed about playing football in Austin.

I first spent a little time in Austin in the ’90s and thought it was an ideal down. Part hippy town, part college town (with a top film school at UT—Austin), part political town, part tech town, and part musicians town. I bought an cool old piano stool there for my pianist wife because I was told it came from a “Hacienda in Mexico.” No shortage of storytellers in Austin. And no shortage of people wanting to move there.

McConaughey calls Austin “the blueberry in the tomato soup” and the influx of Californians won’t change that politically, but come back in 2030 and see who’s changed who the most. One thing that can stop the Californication of Texas is the Minster of Culture—Matthew McConaughey. Who also has a side gig teaching at class at UT called Script to Screen.

And, I should end this post mentioning that Austin is home to the Austin Film Festival which just happens to being going on this week.

P.P.S. Here’s a famous example of Orson Welles showing how difficult recording audio can be.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“Here’s what’s key in creating drama—intention and obstacle. That’s what you’ve got to cling to. . . .”
—Oscar winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)

Related posts:
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Aaron Sorkin on ‘90% of the Battle’ in Screenwriting
Screenwriting vs. Finger Painting (Aaron Sorkin on the Rules of Art)

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“I graduated from Oberlin College in fifty-two, did the Army for two years, then went to graduate school at Columbia University for two years. It was then the summer of 1956. I was twenty-four, and I’d always wanted to be a writer. I’d shown no signs of talent. I got the worst grades in class.”
—William Goldman
Shoptalk by Dennis Brown

Unpublished William Goldman was living in Chicago in 1956 and figured it was time to “fish or cut bait” on his dream of being a writer and wrote a short novel called The Temple of Gold. A guy he knew in the Army helped him connect with a editor at Knopf who said if he doubled the length they’d publish it and that’s how it went down. Goldman was 26 when it was published. If that hadn’t of happened he says the whole trajectory of his life would have been different.

“I would have never written anything more. Since I had shown no signs of talent, and since no one was saying, ‘Keep at it, Bill, you’ve really got the goods,’ if The Temple of Gold had not been taken, I never would have had the courage to inflict another novel on anybody. I know this is true.
—William Goldman

Goldman was said to write his second novel Your Turn to Curtsy, My Time to Bow in 7 to 10 days. The first movie made from a novel of his was Soldier in the Rain (1963). He wrote the screenplay for Harper (1966) starring Paul Newman and before his career was over he’d win two Academy Awards (All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid) as well as write the screenplays for Marathon Man, Misery, and The Princess Bride.

Aaron Sorkin called him the “dean of American screenwriters.” Goldman did okay for someone who’d shown no sign of talent.

Related Post:
The Dean of American Screenwriting—William Goldman (1931-2018
Writing Quote #64 (Bernard Malamud) “I felt the years go by without accomplishment…”

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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