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Posts Tagged ‘screenwriting’

Smallfoot satisfyingly operates on multiple levels and is much deeper than it appears to be.”
Adam Graham, The Detroit News 

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Smallfoot opens in theater today and so today as well I’m going to start Part 1 of an interview I did with Clare Sera who wrote the screenplay along with the movies’ co-director Karey Kirkpatrick. Of the course of this interview (which will be 3 or 4 parts), you’ll see the unlikely journey of Clare took on her way to writing a movie that has an eclectic mix of talent including Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common, Lebron James, and Danny DeVito.

I met Clare back in the ’90s shortly before she moved to LA. If the movie she worked on does beat Night School in the box office this weekend it will be her first view from the top of the mountain. Just keep in mind, she arrived in LA 20 years ago. While everyone loves a good Diablo Cody story—FIRST TIME SCREENWRITER WINS OSCAR!—Clare’s story is much more typical of working screenwriters in Hollywood.

Scott: So the title of this blog is Screenwriting from Iowa . . . and Other Unlikely Places and I think Scotland qualifies as an unlikely place for a Hollywood screenwriter to be from. Where were you born?

Clare: I was born in Glasgow but my parents immigrated to British Columbia—to Canada–when I was 4. My mom was pretty homesick so we would go back there at least every other summer which was great. So I did know my cousins growing up.

Scott: When did you first get involved in acting and writing?

Clare: Well definitely from childhood that was absolutely my thing. All the school plays and everything like that. After high school I went off to Europe backpacking — I didn’t go to college right away. But when I got back I just ended up doing odd jobs, but doing theater all the time, so I finally sucked it up and said I want to do theater. So I went to college in Vancouver for theater and actually the same year that I finally made that decision SAK Theatre came to my town which is Vancouver B.C. SAK Theatre came there to perform for the summer and I got hired to be one of the performers and then I ended up meeting Will [Sera] and getting married and moving to Orlando and staying with Will and SAK Theatre as a performer and then started writing plays for SAK. And when we moved out to Los Angeles my friend who had been at SAK Theatre was now in Los Angeles—Karey Kirkpatrick— and working full time as a screenwriter. He had just finished Chicken Run and he was like, “Oh, you know you’re a good writer you should you should try screenwriting.” He just made it look so easy, ’cause he’d done James and the Giant Peach and Chicken Run and he was getting ready to do his next whatever it was, and I was like, “Oh wow, screenwriting, that seems cool. If Karey can do it…”[laughs] so I started. I’ve still never caught up to him. But he really mentored me, and I took the Act One writing program at the same time, which was at that time it was like a month-long intensive, to kind of learn the basics of the craft and Karey took me under his wing and got me my start really.

Scott: Our paths crossed in your SAK Theatre era back in the mid-’90s. It’s interesting because Scotland has the huge fringe festival now but you weren’t a part of that. And Vancouver, British Columbia is now popular for movies and TV but that probably wasn’t happening when you were out there. Then you were in Orlando in the ‘90s when it had a minor Hollywood East film movement and you missed that, too. But you were in Orlando as Wayne Brady as he was coming up as a teenager. Did you mentor him?

Clare: He very sweetly gave Will and I props for his improv career. But I met Wayne actually doing an industrial in Orlando and we just hit it off immediately. He was maybe 17 at the time. And I said you have to come to SAK and do improv. And he didn’t know improv. So I guess I did introduce him to it. I mean I think he probably did three workshops and I said come play. His talent was all there but yes, SAK was the first place that he that he first improvised.

Scott: So that’s so that’s kind of like the movie Don’t Think Twice where you have this tight group of performers that are all struggling and trying to make it and somebody breaks out. Was Wayne that guy?

Clare: It was exactly that story, because we all we knew each other in Orlando and then we all moved out to L.A. at the same time to improvise together. The main group that was at SAK which was Joel McCrary, Danno Sullivan, Dave Russell and Matt Young. And Wayne was here and so Wayne hooked up with us again. So we started improvising out here in Los Angeles. We called ourselves Houseful of Honkeys. And it was exactly like Don’t Think Twice out of our whole group the producers from Whose Line Is It Anyway? came to see a show and then Wayne and I were invited to come and do Whose Line? And I mean it’s so— except that Wayne and I were not together romantically— like Don’t Think Twice. But it was it was the black guy and the girl that both got invited to Whose Line? And then after the rehearsal process which is kind of bad process, and I did not do well in that atmosphere. And Wayne actually didn’t do great. Actually, nobody did, but he’s such a killer song improviser they decided to take a chance on him with one taping and, of course, once he was in front of an audience he was just fantastic. And that was the at the end of Wayne being able to be a part of our company and it was tense. It was just like in Don’t Think Twice. [Where the core group breaks up.] I mean it’s hard.

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A 1999 LA Times article on Houseful of Honkeys

Scott: Was there the discussion where people in the group were like “Why did he get chosen? He’s the new guy?” Was there any of that talk?

Clare: No, there was never that because Wayne’s talent is amazing. So there was never like I don’t know why they picked Wayne. It’s quite obvious why they picked Wayne.

Scott: At the same time there’s a line in  “Don’t Think Twice” where they kind of say you can’t do improv forever and they kind of realize that. Did you have that moment where you realized you needed to maybe go in a different direction creatively?

Clare:  Yeah I did. Definitely. I mean it’s not true you can’t do improv forever because all the Whose Line? guys— that’s what they do. But I had actually felt that before we had the full kind of breakup of our group, because I realized that I didn’t really want to pursue an acting career. I loved improvising with those guys but I wasn’t interested in pursuing acting. But I really loved writing at SAK, so [screenwriting] seemed like the next obvious step for me.

Scott:  So then you had your Wayne Brady breakout moment where you got writing assignments to work on Curious George and Blended. Can you summarize the baby steps you took in your writing career?

Clare: Yeah, I basically became Karey’s writing assistant for a couple of years, which was really wonderful because I got to go to studio meetings with him and I got introduced to the world. I watched him get notes and saw kind of how brutal [the business could be]. So it made it much easier for me to transition into it. And from that I became a writing partner with him for a while, and then he got me the interview for Curious George, but we came in separately as writers and then he left the project quite early to go and do something else and I stayed on Curious George and that was the start sort of my career separate from Karey. I met on that project another fellow named Ivan [Menchell] that I ended up writing Blended with. [That film starred Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore.] But I kind of continued to do both writing solo projects and writing with Ivan and now I feel like I’ve been writing more again on my own. And it is a bit of a tough time. Mike [Birbiglia] was talking about this on [the podcast] Scriptnotes, All of my work has been for studios which has been amazing. I have ended up writing either myself or with Iven features for every studio in town. I think I’ve written a script for every studio in Hollywood which has been a wonderful experience and pays well but they don’t always make them. They want to make family films, but when it comes time to pull the trigger they choose their project that’s got a bigger IP. It’s got a bestselling book attachment. Or it’s got a superhero.

Note: This interview was done before Clare got the writing assignment on Smallfoot.  And every once in a while a family film gets made. Go see Smallfoot this weekend  (and when it opens in Scotland) and help Clare have one of those rare feats for any screenwriter of having a movie be both well received by critics (65/72/92% on Rotten Tomatoes) and at the top of the box office.

In Parts 2 and 3 of this interview, we’ll learn what Clare discovered working with legendary director Garry Marshall, and her words of encouragement to up and coming writers and filmmakers.

Related Post:
‘Smallfoot’ and the Legend of Screenwriter Clare Sera and Her Unlikely Journey from Scotland to Hollywood (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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“You had me at hello.“
Dorothy Boyd (Rene Zellweger) in Jerry Maguire

Most of the time, me writing looks—to the untrained eye—like someone watching ESPN. The truth is if you did a pie chart of the writing process, most of the time is spent thinking. When you’re loaded up and ready to go—when you’ve got that intention and obstacle for the first scene that’s all you need.  For me at least, getting started is 90% of the battle. The difference between page zero and page two is all the difference in the world. So once I had the technical jargon to write [the ‘Hello’ scene in the movie Steve Jobs] and I also knew that scene would take us into a dressing room of some kind. . . . In the dressing room I knew they were going to talk about the overinflated projections and managing expectations, and that was going to get us into Time magazine, which was going to get us into paternity. I was able to see that far ahead. So once I knew everything about what I was doing—once I start typing it’s not going to be finger-painting, I’m not just going to be feeling my way in the dark and ‘let’s see where these characters take me.’ . . . Once you do know what you’re doing—for me, it’s intention and obstacle, for you it could be something else. You do understand there isn’t one way of doing this, right? Whatever way works for you is the right way, for me it’s intention and obstacle. Once you have that, there does come a time when you actually now are ready for your talent to take over. Start writing. Do your thing.”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men)
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

Related post:
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention, and Obstacles

Scott W. Smith

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“Andy Hertzfeld’s reaction to the movie [Steve Jobs] was probably the most accurate—‘My god, none of that happened, but it’s all true.’”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

This post is three years behind the times since the movie Steve Jobs came out in 2015, so I’m going to begin at the end. So if you haven’t seen it—spoiler alert. But since Jobs’ daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, had her memoir Smal Fry recently published this seems like perfect timing.

In The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith (which is a favorite podcast of mine), Goldsmith does a great job of interviewing Aaron Sorkin about his process of writing the screenplay.

Jeff Goldsmith: Here’s one of the toughest challenges to writing [the screenplay for Steve Jobs], because Isaacson’s book [Steve Jobs] was very clear about [Steve] Jobs having a not so friendly side to him. And you’re writing a story where your protagonist is also your antagonist, and that is not an easy feat. So what were your challenges as a writer? Because audiences love Steve Jobs, but not everybody has read that book yet. For some people, this is new news—this dark side. Part of your task is to get the audience to engage with your characters. And I think you did it, but it’s a tough balancing act to show the dark and the light together and have us care. So what were the challenges in doing that for Jobs?

Aaron: Well, the biggest challenge for sure—I’ll forgive a lot, I was not able to get past his denying paternity of Lisa and the way he treated her. Lisa was the one who got me past that. Now I found the emotional center of the story, because I’m not getting that emotional about the computer that won’t say hello. Here’s the emotional center of the story . . .  she would tell me stories about her father that often weren’t the most flattering stories about him. But she would always at the end of the story, turn it like a prism for me, and say, ‘But you can see how he really did love me.’ Because think about this and this and this. . . .The rest of it goes back to don’t judge the character. See how much you can identify with that character. And I can [identify with Steve Jobs]. . . . It’s not hard for me understanding Steve wanting end-to-end control of all his stuff. ‘Here, you get to buy it or not. I’ve made this thing, but I don’t want you messing with it’ . . .  

While Jobs is not the most sympathetic person to write about, Sorkin said he was looking for a way that showed Jobs change “even just a little bit.” In the closing scene, he does that. Though he’s clear that not everyone liked the ending. One lady at a Q&A in San Francisco even asked Sorkin if he was pressured by the studio or director into writing the final scene with Lisa that humanized Jobs and Sorkin replied he wrote, “exactly the scene I wanted to write.” Goldsmith said it was the right ending.

Goldsmith: Characters need redemption. And if you did a movie like this without a scene like that that where there was absolutely no redemption whatsoever there would be—

Sorkin:—I couldn’t agree more. The story of the movie is Will Steve and his daughter get together? The fact is that in real life they did find each other isn’t even the reason why I did it. Although I like it’s supportable by facts. I did it because I don’t just think there’s a movie if you don’t do it. I think what you’d have is a theater full of people saying, ‘Why did you make me sit here for two hours?’

Related posts:
Insanely Great Endings
What’s Changed?
Martin Luther King Jr. and Writing Strong-Willed Characters
Emotion-Emotion-Emotion
The Major or Central Dramatic Question

Scott W. Smith

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This exchange between playwright Neil Simon and Terry Gross is from a 1996 Fresh Air interview:

GROSS: You have a theory that you write about in [your book Rewrite:A Memoir] that your mind doesn’t know, when you’re writing, that it’s only fiction. Your mind thinks you’re actually living through whatever you’re putting on paper.

SIMON: Yes.

GROSS: What has led you to this conclusion?

SIMON: Because my body goes through the pain that I am going through in the writing. I feel the tenseness if I’m writing a scene between, let’s say, a husband and wife who are having a fractious marriage. Things are going wrong. There’s a big argument. There’s a confrontation. I feel the intensity in my body, and I don’t think I’m acting that out. I truly feel it. I’m exhausted when I go home, whereas if I write something that’s a funnier scene, a lighter scene, a more loving, romantic scene, I don’t feel that same tension. I feel a lightness about me. So I don’t think that the mind differentiates about what’s going on in real life or what’s going on in the fiction you’re writing.

GROSS: So fiction really does take its toll on you physically.

SIMON: It does, but it’s been very rewarding for me. I don’t think I would like to have been anything else in life but a writer, but I also don’t think I could have been anything else.

Related posts:
Nostalgia: The Pain from an Old Wound
Emotion-Emotion-Emotion
Power Your Podcast with Storytelling “Everyone wants to find a way out of pain.”-
Alex Blumberg
Method Writing—Write with Your Scars 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“In the initial writing, I’m just trying to crack the story and make the characters as interesting as I can, and make it feel like a movie story.”
Scott Frank

If you just look at three productions—Minority Report, Marley & Me, Godless— that Scott Frank’s worked on as a writer and/or director you’d have to say he has eclectic tastes. Afterall those three projects include a futuristic sci-fi story based on a 12-page Philip K. Dick short story, a popular book and contemporary story about a dog and a family, and a limited series western on Netflix.

Frank’s involvement with Marley & Me started with his daughter reading the book and telling him the story as they walked their own dog. This is how he found he way into telling the story in screenplay form:

“Elizabeth Gabler, who runs Fox 2000, said,  ‘You know I have a draft of the movie Marley & Me and the writer is going to go off and make his own movie and we’re not done with the [script], do you think you can come take a look at it?’ And I’m like, I know Marley & Me really well—I think I’m the wrong guy. I don’t know how to write a movie like that. And she goes, ‘Yes you do, it’s just storytelling. It needs a story. Can you help me figure out what the story would be?’ I said, alright I’ll read it but I don’t think I’m your guy. And I read it and two things became readily apparent, one this is my life and two there is a giant metaphor here; the messiness of marriage told through the messiness of the dog, and how it’s all chaos. It’s really about a marriage, and my particularly boring marriage at that. And so I’m like I know how to do that—I actually do know how to do that. And so that’s how I ended up doing that. And had a ball—just had the greatest time of all working on it.”
Writer/director Scott Frank
3rd & Fairfax: The WGAW Podcast

Scott W. Smith

 

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I had this amazing experience of being able to go into a screening room at Fox and watch [James L. Brooks] direct Broadcast News, through his dailies. I remember watching the dailies of the scene where Holly Hunter and William Hurt are in those rolling chairs, and it’s kind of a great romantic moment where they come together, and he gets close to her. I watched Jim build this scene out of behavior and dialogue, and I was just . . . high. I realized, I really want to do this. So I began studying all the films, everything I possibly could. That experience really made Say Anything fun, the beginning of a journey. Then I made Singles, and Jim said, let’s do another. He was getting ready to do As Good as It Gets, and we went and had lunch at Delmonico’s on Pico. And that began a whole period of journalistic research, of trailing after characters, building drafts. The first draft of Jerry Maguire was this basic, long, vomit draft. I remember Jim saying, ‘I’ve never read so much story with so little plot.’ It was 140 pages, but filled with the passion of the story. Jim is all about the process. So rather than accenting the problems, he said, ‘let’s embrace structure.’ Out of that came the odd but ultimately satisfying structure of Jerry Maguire, which begins with an ‘all hope is lost’ moment that usually happens at the end of the second act or towards the end of the movie. We started with Jerry’s descent. It was really exhilarating to find that starting point.”
Writer/director Cameron Crowe
Deadline interview with Mike Fleming Jr.

P.S. Could someone close to James L. Brooks encourage him to write some kind of book or do a long-form podcast of his extensive production experiences?

Related posts:
James L. Brooks on Chayefsky
Writing Grace Notes (via James L. Brooks & Judd Apatow)
The Devil Speech by James L. Brooks
Jerry Maguire’s Mission Statement

Scott W. Smith

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“If I were starting now, I would not go into film at all. I would not be a screenwriter. I would go into television. I’d go into theater. I’d write fiction. I would not subject myself to the screenwriter’s existence, ‘cause you’re not really a writer. It’s a simulacrum of a writing process. You’re living like an artist—what I mean by that is you are digging into yourself, you’re trying to make something really work. You’re putting everything into it, but what you’re creating is essentially a series of suggestions for other people to do what they want with—it’s really not art, what you’re making, at the end of the day. Your art is your screenplay, but nobody sees that.”
Screenwriter Ed Solomon (Men in Black, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure)
The Moment with Brian Koppelman podcast interview (7/4/18)

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