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The moment came at 64 minutes and 11 seconds into episode #300 of Scriptnotes when Chris McQuarrie explained the differences between screenwriting and film directing in just 18 words:

“Screenwriting is pushing a rock up a hill, and directing is running downhill with a rock behind you.”
Writer/ director Chris McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission Impossible-Rogue Nation)

That’s a great soundbite, and serves as a climax to that episode—perhaps to all 300 programs on the Scriptnotes podcast. Heck, it’s visceral enough to describe the entire 100+ years of cinema.

Sisyphus

Sisyphus=Screenwriting

IJ_rockroll-cropped.gif

Indiana Jones=Directing

I don’t know if there will be another 300 episodes of Scriptnotes where screenwriters and hosts John August and Craig Mazin talk “about screenwriting and things interesting to screenwriters” but it’s been quite a run. Congrats to all involved in making that happen.

Scriptnotes debuted in August of 2011 and was the first podcast I listened to on a regular basis. Fast forward six years and I now listen to podcasts more than I do watching Tv or even movies. (Tomorrow I’ll even start a run of posts on how Alex Blumberg transitioned from NPR/Planet Money to raising $1.5 million to launch the podcast company Gimlet Media. And will look at how it represents a new era for content creators including dramatic writers.)

Here are 10 posts of mine over the years based on quotes pulled from Scriptnotes:

Scriptnotes’ 100th Podcast

Is It a Movie?

How to Get an Agent (Quote from UTA agent Peter Dodd)

I was never good or smart enough to get industry work before I made my first movie—Star Wars:The Last Jedi writer/director

I never saw myself as a sitcom person, but I was waiting tables…—Hit Sitcom Writer

From Houston to Hollywood (Mazin’s interview with John Lee Hancock)

Kramer vs. Kramer vs. Modern Hollywood (quote from Billy Ray)

Film vs. TV Writing (10 Difference)

What’s Changed? (Tip #102)

What’s at Stake? (David Wain)

P.S. The one show I’d like to see Scriptnotes produce is one where they expand on episode 235 showing how the original Game of Thrones pilot was shot and scrapped because it didn’t work. Love to see them explore how the script was reworked and reshot on its way to becoming a hit TV program. (It would be a bonus if Scriptnotes wanted to move into doc filmmaking and make a Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypselike documentary on that topic.)

Scott W. Smith 

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“I never saw myself as a sitcom person, but I was waiting tables and I was like I have to figure out something and I wrote this script that was super dark, but when I put it into Charlie’s [Charlie Day] hands or Glenn’s [Glenn Howerton] they made it funny and I realized this could actually be a sitcom. But the truth is I never had any aspirations to get into comedy writing at all.”
Writer/actor Rob McElhenny on the initial concept for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

The following exchange from Scriptnotes podcast #299 lasts less than a minute, but it belongs in the Scriptnotes hall-of-fame. And it’s the drum I’ve been beating in the 9+ years of writing this blog. And a classic example of “do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Screenwriter Dana Fox: What was your trajectory to get you where you are right now?

Rob McElhenny : Well, mostly desperation. I was working in every bar and restaurant in New York City and I was just acting—or I was auditioning, and not getting any jobs, and complaining about every script that I read. So I was encouraged by my agent to stop bitching and write something for myself. I got the Syd Field screenwriting books, and William Goldman [Adventures in the Screen Trade] and just tried to understand [the basic principles of writing]. The first thing I wrote was not a comedy at all, it was really super dark. Really dark because that was a time in my life when I was very dark. 

That script got optioned and led to Rob working with Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) for six months. And while had to be an incredible opportunity itself, took Rob further into the deep forest as the project fell apart and ultimately didn’t get made. Rob stopped writing and decided it was time to leave New York.

Rob McElhenny (con’t): I moved out to Los Angeles and I decided to write again. I said I want to write something very simple so I don’t have to give it to somebody else. I want to go shoot it myself. So I wrote a little short film that was very dark but I brought it to my friends Glenn and Charlie and they thought it was funny so I just hitched my wagon to those two and held on for dear life. 

I didn’t really know anything about filmmaking, but I didn’t know anything about writing I just got all the books and watched as many movies as I possibly could. And so I just went to Best Buy—I didn’t have any money, but I got one of their credit cards with the high interest rates and I bought a prosumer camera and I got Final Cut [editing software] and learned how to cut and we shot it and I cut it together—and it was terrible. Like terrible, terrible. But I realized it was terrible and I re-wrote it and I shot it again. That was also terrible. And then we shot maybe three or four iterations and then I realized, wait, maybe this isn’t so bad. 

It not only wasn’t so bad, but it was so good that it paved the way to co-creating It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (with Glenn Howerton) which is now in its 12th season, and if it continues through its contract will end up being the longest running live action narrative TV program in the history of television. (Surpassing The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriest which ran for 14 seasons.)

Scott W. Smith

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I was eighteen and an aunt gave me a copy of Mixed Company, a book of his (Irwin Shaw) collected stories. I’d never read a word by him, never heard his name. But I remember the lead story in the book was The Girls in Their Summer Dresses. About a guy who looked at women.

Followed by The Eighty Yard Run… Well, The Eighty Yard Run is about a football player. Shit, I remember thinking, you can do that? You can write about stuff I care about?…At eighteen, I began writing stories. Not a whole lot of acclaim. I took a creative writing class at Oberlin.  Everyone took it because it was a gut course. I wanted a career. Everyone got A’s and B’s, I got the only C…. I have, somewhere, hundreds of rejection slips…My confidence is not building through these years. I hope you get that.”
Two-time Oscar Winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men)
The First Time I Got Paid for It, Writers’ Tales from the Hollywood Trenches edited by Peter Lefcourt and Laura J. Shapiro

 

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“There’s no one working in television or theater today who’s not influenced by…the fountainhead of this whole thing, which is Death of a Salesman.”
Mad Men creator & 9-time Primetime Emmy winner Matthew Weiner

“Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman was like a mirror to the story I had written.”
Asgahar Farhadi on The Salesman
Empire
Q&A

Iranian filmmaker Asgahar Farhadi wrote and directed The Salesman which is up for an Oscar tonight. (The film under its original tile, Forushande, won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival last year. A film he wrote and directed (A Speparation) won an Best Foreign Language Oscar Film back in 2012. Also in 2012, he was named on the Time 100:The List by Time magazine.

In an interview with the Film Experience he talks about his starting point as a screenwriter:

Q. When you’re first starting a screenplay,  do you start with character studies, or a germ of a story and extrapolate from there?

Ashar Faradi: It never begins with a character. It never begins with a theme or the plot. I never start by saying ‘There’s this important thing I want to say and so know I have to look for a story for it!’  For me it always starts with a spark that leads to a succcinct story. For instance in A Separation the image I began with was a man bathing his elderly father. Little by little I expanded it and it became a story. And the story dictated to me how the characters would be. I am never able to have a character before the story because it’s the turbulent circumstances of these stories that reveal the characters. Once I’ve written ten pages of the story I reread it and I ask myself “What is this story talking about?” Prior to that I don’t really know what the subject or theme are.  For instance with The Salesman, once I’d written I realized the story was about humiliation and privacy. In the continuation of my writing I strive to create a harmony within the themes.

P.S. I’ve said this year that I’d like to do more posts about screenwriting/filmmaking outside the United States so if you have some suggests send them my way. Ideally, they’d be films where there is a decent about written about the filmmakers. I love Q&As.

Related Post:
Arthur Miller on Writing
Volcanic Emotions & Arthur Miller
Screenwriting Quote #175 Arthur Miller
What Would Miller Do?

Scott W. Smith

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“It took years of struggle. Years of not having anything happen, not even getting meetings, not knowing what I was really doing…Things have turned a corner.  I was really a starving artist for lot of years.  I moved to LA nine years ago, and the first five were really difficult.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Luke Davies (Lion)
Combined from PopEntertainment interview & Spook Magazine article

Note: Davies didn’t arrive in L.A. from Australia until he was in his mid-40s. His first book of poetry was published in 1982 when he was 20 years old. In his mid-30s his first novel was published, and the next year he was named Young Writer of the Year by The Sydney Morning Herald. That novel was made into the film Candy in 2006 with Davies as co-screenwriter. The opportunity to write Lion came about from a “working relationship with See-Saw Films [in Sydney]that went back ten years.”

P.S. Lion is based on the book The Long Way Home by Saroo Brieley.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“We were actually writing the screenplay at the same time as Margot [Lee Shetterly], the author, was writing the book – all we had was the book proposal. A few years ago, the producers were looking for a writer, and they read my script on Agatha Christie, actually, and they sent me the book proposal – having no idea that I had grown up near Cape Canaveral in Florida, that my grandmother had worked at NASA, and that my grandfather and I had worked at NASA.

“So I got it, and called the producer ‘Please, I have to be a part of this, I was born to write’, or something equally cheesy, and the producer probably rolled her eyes and thought ‘Oh, those Hollywood writers will say anything.’ But when I told her my background – that I’d studied math a lot in college and so on – that was it, I was hired. ”
Oscar nominated screenwriter Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures 
Alex Moreland Interview

Note: Schroeder did her undergraduate work in economics at Stanford and earned an MFA in film at USC. Check out Juggling paid work and spec scripts at JohnAugust.com to read a first hand account of what Schroeder’s life was like just a few years ago—“Before my big break, I worked, and worked hard as a PA, an assistant, and writer-for-free.”

P.S. Schroeder graduated from Melbourne High School, here on the Space Coast of Florida, in 1997 and said in a Florida Today interview,  “Mrs. Steady was my English teacher. She was always an extreme advocate for my writing. She really pushed me to go out and see the world. She urged me at 18, it’s OK, fly across the country. Go experience something new and have an adventure. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Scott W. Smith

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When Emmy-winner Stephen J. Cannell died in 2010 his IMDB credits were extensive. I can’t image many others who wrote 450 TV episodes or produced more than 1,500 episodes. But there’s really no secret to how he did it—it’s basic math. He began his days at 3:30 AM:

“You know, when you say, ‘He created 42 primetime television series—how’d he do that?’ Well, you’d be surprised at what you can do if you get up and write for five hours a day everyday for 35 years.”
Stephen J. Cannell
Script magazine interview with Ray Morton

How did he get into that position where he was getting paid well to write for five hours? Again no secret—more basic math.

After Cannell graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Oregon he worked for his father. After work he went home and wrote for five hours every night. And he did that for more than five years without seeing anything he wrote get produced.

“I was like a machine. I swear I had a stack of material you could sit on.”
Stephen J. Cannell

That’s a great image to leave you with today. I’m not sure how big that stack of paper was, but if you measure the height of a 100 page stack of paper and multiple it by the height of an average chair you’ll come up with a pretty accurate number. Basic math.

P.S. And Cannell’s IMDB credit list continues to grow after his death. Most recently he was credited for the 2012 movie version of 21 Jump Street and the 2014 sequel 22 Jump Street because he was co-creator of the original TV series starring Johnny Depp.

Scott W. Smith 

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