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When Moss Hart was an office boy in New York City before becoming a Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright, one of the perks of his job was free tickets to Broadway plays. This was in the early 1920s when there were 70 theatres “going full blast” at peak season. By pulling a few favors, and because new plays were opening all the time,  Hart was able to go to a different play every night. And because the tickets were free, much of what he saw were the bad plays.

“I am not suggesting that witnessing a spate of appallingly bad plays is a creditable method of learning how to write a good one, but it has its points. Though I had no idea whatever of writing plays at that time—the thought never crossed my mind— I am certain that some of those expository first acts, some of the ineptitudes of those second-act climaxes, and some of the stunning lack of invention in those third acts must have somehow seeped into my inner consciousness. The big ‘hit’ of any season almost seems absurdly simple; so effortlessly does it unfold, that it almost seems as though it could not have been written any other way. Watch a failure on the same subject, and you will see by what slim margin the mistakes have been by-passed, the cul-de-sacs averted in the hit. I am inclined to think those wretched plays I sat through stood me in good stead long after I’d forgotten what they were even about.”
Playwright and screenwriter Moss Hart (A Star is Born)
Act One, page 48

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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Upon hearing Emily Zulauf  on Scriptnotes (Episode 387) use the phrase “smart with heart” in relation to Pixar movies, I thought this would be a fitting time to repost one of the most read posts on this blog. (And it’s even better with the Michale Arndt video link at the bottom of the post.)  This was originally written in 2011 under the title Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2):

Toy Story 3 is about change. It’s about embracing change. It’s about people being faced with change and how they deal with it.”
Lee Unkrich
Director, Toy Story 3

“All the Toy Story films have been about mortality. It’s all about ‘Who am I? Am I going to be replaced?'”
Darla K. Anderson
Producer, Toy Story 3


It’s debatable whether Toy Story 3 was the best film of 2010, but from a filmmaking perspective it’s hard to top the 4-Disc Blu-ray/DVD combo that Pixar created for Toy Story 3. It shows how meticulous the Pixar team ( of “hundred and hundreds of people”) is in creating such wonderful movies. The team discusses how they took four years to create Toy Story 3, first creating a full length animatic story reel (sort of a rough, moving storyboard).

You’ll also learn quirky things in the behind the scene footage like how director Lee Unkrich loves steamed broccoli.

But since this is a blog on screenwriting…on the second disc you’ll find an excellent 8-minute recap by Toy Story 3 screenwriter Michael Arndt on how he came at the story.  He explains how he studied other Pixar films Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and  The Incredibles to see how they set up their worlds, characters and stories. Here’s a recap of his recap:

—Usually a script is about 100 pages with three acts with the first act about 25 pages long, the second act about 50 pages long, and the third act 25 pages.

—Introduce your main character and the world they live in.

—Introduce character doing the thing they love most. It’s the center of their whole universe.

—Expose hidden character flaw. In Toy Story, Woody takes pride in being Andy’s favorite toy.

—Storm clouds on the horizon. In Toy Story it’s Andy’s birthday party and all the toys being worried about being replaced.

—Baboom! Something comes in and turns your character’s life upside down. The thing that was their grand passion gets taken away from them. Woody gets displaced by Buzz.

—Add insult to injury. Something that makes the whole world seem unfair. Woody doesn’t just get replaced, he gets replaced by a total doofus.

—Character comes to a fork in the road and a choice must be made. Take the high road (the healthy responsible choice) or the low road (unhealthy, irresponsible choice). If the character chooses the right thing you really don’t have a story.

—In Toy Story, Woody could make the right choice and say—”I had my day in the sun.” We identify with his pain.  But he makes the unhealthy choice which leads to Buzz being pushed out the window which leads to other unhealthy choices. Woody then is forced by the other toys to find Buzz and bring him back—that’s your first act break.

—The character sets out on a journey where they have to get back what they lost and hopefully fix that little flaw they had when we first met them.

That sound you heard a while back was the cash register as Toy Story 3 ticket sales crossed the billion dollar mark.

Update 7/1/14: This video is now on YouTube.

Toy Story 3 is that rare film that not only was well received by critics and is winning awards, but at the box office it became the top moneymaker in 2010, the top animated film in history and is currently listed at #5 on the all-time world-wide box office list. All it took was four years, a few hundred talented people, and a little steamed  broccoli.

I don’t know if Pixar is as an enjoyable place to work as it looks on the behind the scene footage, but I’d sure like to spend a week there sweeping the floors just to soak in the culture.

Update 1/25/11: Just announced this morning, Toy Story 3 earned a total of 5 Academy Award nominations including not only Best Adapted Screenplay (Script by Michael Arndt/ Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich) and Best Animated Film, but for the big daddy itself, Best Picture. PopEater  quoted producer Darla K. Anderson saying, “We did take a lot of risks on this film — we had some moments of loss and poignancy. We risked Andy giving the toys away… And I wasn’t sure how people would respond to the film — but I knew we told the story we wanted to tell.”

Oscar Update: Here’s a video of Lee Unkrich receiving the Best Animated Feature Film of the Year Oscar for Toy Story 3 :

P.S. One of my favorite lines from Toy Story 3 is when the Piggy Bank says, “let’s go see how much we’re going for on eBay.”

And here are three more Pixar-related videos that were done since I first wrote this post.

MUST WATCH!!! Endings, The Good, The Bad, and the Insanely Great by Michael Arndt

Related posts:
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2) 
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 3)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 4)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (part 5) 

Scott W. Smith

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“Greek classical drama frequently afflicted the hero with a blind spot that prevented that character from seeing the error of his or her ways.”
Paul Lucey
Story Sense

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 4.41.19 PM

Recently I read a screenwriter say that she began developing script ideas with a character flaw. I believe the concept for Jerry Maguire started with a conversation with between screenwriter Cameron Crowe and James L. Brooks about developing an idea about a sports agent.

I’m not sure when Crowe got around to Jerry’s flaw, but here’s it plays out in the movie as Jerry watches a video intercut with Jerry’s old girlfriends. The still above is the look on his face as the conversation turns from humorous to this . . .

Female 1: I think it’s probably a good idea that Jerry get married—he won’t be alone.

Female 2: He can’t be alone. 

Female 3: He can not be alone. 

Female 4: He can’t be alone. 

Female 5: He’s almost phobic. 

Female 6: Jerry’s great at friendship. He’s just really bad at intimacy. 

Female 7: He can’t say I love you. 

Female 8: Jerry lies, lies, lies—he’s an agent. He lies. 

None of that is in the script I have. Instead, this is what Crowe wrote.

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 5.01.54 PM.png

They didn’t get Michael Jordan for the film, but they did capture Jerry’s flaw(s) pretty well and in a creative way. Here’s how the scene plays out (Spanish version is the only one I could find online):

Related post:
Character Flaws 101

Scott W. Smith

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“In all this darkness, is there anybody who can make out the truth?”
The Twilight Zone/ episode I Am the Night —Color Me Black (1964)  

Writer/director Sean Baker spoke at Rollins College yesterday and asked the question, “Can cinema change the world?” He talked about the filmmakers and their films that have inspired him over the years.

As with his own films (The Florida Project, Tangerine), Baker is drawn to films that are “passports to the underrepresented,” and ones that shine a light on a specific subject or problem, and have potential to have a positive impact on society.

Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake)

Nicholas Meyer (The American TV movie The Day After Tomorrow, with and a nod to the BBC TV movie Threads—both movies sparked a debate about the fallout of a nuclear holocaust.)

Robert Kenner (Food, Inc)

Those films—as well as An Inconvenient Truth, JFK, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel— give you some insights on why he would be interested in doing a film about the hidden homeless or about an illegal Chinese immigrant.

Starting with an issue or a theme can be a dubious beginning as it can be seen as didactic and stepping into the murky waters of propaganda. Baker acknowledged that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he is committed to asking the hard questions.  He’s working toward change knowing that change takes time. Sometimes years or even a generation.

As a side note, Rod Serling began with a theme on The Twilight Zone episodes yet eventually found a universal audience with timeless truths.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a storyline or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
Rod Serling letter to Dave Pitt

Read Serling’s 1968 Moorpark College speech and you’ll see where he stood ideologically. But in the early ’60s he couldn’t overtly write about racism and other social concerns, so he used metaphors.  He could address xenophobia by writing about space aliens, as he did on The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.  

“[Rod Serling’s] optimism about the human condition led to stories that made one feel good about the race and its chances for emotional triumph. That, well told, will always sell.”
Producer Buck Houghton (The Twilight Zone)
What a Producer Does 

I wrote many positive posts on this blog about The Florida Project, but one thing it wasn’t was a film that gave us hope for an emotional triumph. I think that is why it had a limited audience. Audiences like to see a character change for the better, even if it’s just one tiny step forward. Halley (Bria Vinaite’s character) took (at least) two giant steps backward and devolved (taking her daughter with her) making it difficult for some to even finish watching the film.

Baker’s a bold filmmaker. It takes him three years to make a film so he made the film he wanted to make.  And maybe the change—the emotional triumph that he wanted to see was not one that happened on the screen, but one that happened to those that watched the film. Personally, no film resonated and haunted me more in 2017 than The Florida Project. 

Baker said last night that “the true success of The Florida Project” was that Rollins College has promised a full four-year scholarship to Christopher Rivera, the child actor who plays Scooty in the film. Rivera was living in a hotel in Kissimmee, Florida when he was cast to be in the film alongside Brooklynn Prince. (According to the Orlando Sentinel, with room and board at Rollins that offer is “roughly $250,000 at current prices.”)

As Baker pointed out, change can be on a micro level. One life changed because The Florida Project co-writer Chris Bergoch learned via news outlets about the hidden homeless living in hotels in the shadow of Disney World.

P.S. I know one of the conventions of indie filmmakers is unconventionality. Offbeat (even unlikeable) main characters, mini or non-plot stories, and downbeat endings. But if you want to nudge the world a little—to borrow Tom Stoppard’s phrase once again—please revisit On the Waterfront. It’s Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. (Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg, Eva Marie Saint, Leonard Berstein) And it’s based on articles by Malcolm Johnson (see the book On the Waterfront) based on corruption that was common on the New York Harbor.

It’s a film that’s very specific to New York City/Hoboken, New Jersey in the ’40s & ’50s, and yet a timeless story that’s played out in one form or another throughout the world, throughout history.  Considered a great American film—by some—and an anti-American film by others. Nothing like a controversy to keep the conversation going. It’s number eight on AFI’s 100 Films…100 Years list, and one of my favorites that I return to again and again.

On the Waterfront won eight Acadamy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. Here’s the screenplay. The film is available on Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection.

Not all writers agree on the role they have in plying their trade. Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet writes in On Film Directing, “People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people’s lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn’t work. It might be nice if it worked for those things, but it doesn’t. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story.”

On the other hand, when Charles Dickens wanted to address child labor laws and other poor social conditions in London, he didn’t write a pamphlet encouraging reforms—he wrote Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and A Christmas Carol.

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
Bruce Springsteen/My Hometown

Musician Bruce Springsteen walks that line of entertaining large crowds, yet at the same time writing and recording songs with a social consciousness. Youngstown is one of my favorite Springsteen songs because it connects me to a grandfather I never met who spent over 30 years working at Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel mill.

I’ll write more about Springsteen and his Broadway special later, but one of the reasons his songs are both gritty and hopeful is he mixes blues with gospel music over and over again in his songs.

“If you look at all my songs – ‘Badlands,’ ‘Promised Land’ – it’s the way I sing ‘Badlands;’ it’s the verse of ‘Promised Land;’ it’s the chorus of ‘Born in the USA.’ The spiritual comes out in the choruses, which I got from gospel music in the church, and then the blues and what the song is — the details of what the song is moving to transcend are almost always contained in the verses.”
Bruce Springsteen
NPR interview with Terry Gross

Related posts:

The Florida Project Revisited 

The Florida Project

The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of The Florid Project

Sean Baker Aiming for Someplace Different…and Striking Gold

The Rusty Gears of Three Acts and Blurring the Lines of Traditional Screenplay Structure with The Florida Project

The Florida Project and Shining a Light

The Eye Candy of The Florida Project

Thanksgiving with The Florida Project and Pieces of April

The Florida Project—Margaritaville or Bust

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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Statistically, in my own case, I suppose half of the screenplays I’ve written have actually seen production. And I am being dead honest when I tell you this: I have absolutely no more idea as to why some of them happened than why some of them didn’t. Of course it’s more than possible that my work wasn’t much good. But remember, executives are not necessarily in pursuit of quality.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade

Screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, Get Shorty), in an interview with Brian Koppelman, said there was a five year period between 2007 and 2012 where “one script after another” that he spent up to a year and a half on that didn’t get made.  A process he found “agonizing” and said of those experiences, “It makes me feel that I’ve just wasted a year and a half of my life.” But part of the process that led Frank to get Oscar and Emmy nominations in 2018 for his work on Logan and Godless. 

Scott W. Smith

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“[William Goldman]was the dean of American screenwriters and still is.”
Aaron Sorkin (after learning of Goldman dying in November)
LA Times

Where were you in 1983? Some of you weren’t even born yet. But that’s when William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade came out. I was in film school in 1983 and had never lived in a house or apartment that had cable TV, had never used a personal computer, was still a year away from owning a VCR to rent VHS movies, and more than a decade away from using the Internet for the first time.

Yes, 1983 was a different world. Movies for a large number of people were still the chief form of entertainment. Like many Americans then, my high school and college years were full of weekly movie going. Often multiple movies in the same week. And I even remember once going to three different movies on the same day.

I remember movie lines that wrapped around the theater when ET came out in 1982.

Contrasts that with high school and college students today who tell me they rarely go to movie theaters, and when they do stream movies they do it in spirts (often in the background while playing video games).

So the movie-going experience has evolved greatly from the world that Goldman wrote about in 1983. But Adventures holds up well and it’s well worth your time to read, or re-read.

It’s the book that Aaron Sorkin read when he was learning to learn and write screenplays. The original book version included the screenplay for Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (back when you couldn’t just go to the Internet and find screenplays) which proved instructional to Sorkin because it was “an incredibly readable screenplay” (as opposed to the screenplays as just a blueprint idea of screenwriting).

“Bill wanted you to have the movie experience while writing screenplays. . . . So now when I’m writing a screenplay I want whoever is reading it, the studio, a director, an actor, I want to come as close to the experience that you’re going to feel in the theatre as possible, I want to put that on the page.“
Aaron Sorkin
TIFF Masterclass via Mentorless

Goldman later actually became a personal mentor to not only Sorkin, but others including Scott Frank, Tony Gilroy, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

If you’re just starting your screenwriting journey consider cutting through all the clutter out there a read Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade and his book Four Screenplays with Essays—which include his scripts for Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, and Misery.  

Then watch those movie versions as well.

That’s a pretty solid education from the dean of American screenwriting.

You’ll be learning from a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter who was born during the Great Depression, was enthralled by the classic movies of the 30s and 40s, who after college and a stint in the Army became a novelist in the 1950s, a screenwriter beginning in the 1960s, and when he’s screenwriting career slow in his fifties he became known for his non-fiction writing including Which Lie Did I Tell?, Hype & Glory, and The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood.  

William Goldman lived a full life of 85 years and lived to write about it, and be apart of Q&As at various film festivals in his closing years.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 9.20.25 AM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 11.09.35 AM.png

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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