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“Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”
—Babe Ruth

While I was in film school and a couple of years after graduating, I took acting classes. They weren’t that different from the ones Michael Douglas leads in the Netflix show The Kominsky Method.

,I was told that every writer, director, and filmmaker should at least know what it’s like to walk in an actor’s shoes. So I took sensory classes, cold reading, and scene study classes. I worked with Arthur Mendoza doing scenes from Chekhov’s The Seagull and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (“I have tricks up my sleeves…”), studied at the Van Mar Academy, Estelle Harman’s Actors Workshop, and at Tracy Roberts Actors Studio. I learned something from all of them.

I even learned from a couple of places I didn’t study. I cold called Jeff Corey because I knew that Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne had studied with him. I told him I was interested in checking out his classes to see if I wanted to study with him. He firmly told me that first he was in Malibu and that was too from my apartment in Burbank, and secondly that I wasn’t the one doing the qualifying. Next.

Another day I dropped into what is now called The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute on Santa Monica Blvd. A lady there told me that unless I wanted to be an actor more than anything, then don’t come there to study. Because she said, it’s too hard to make it as an actor, and too hard to stay if you do make it. That the only thing that keeps you going as an actor was that when your feet hit the ground in the morning—all you want to be is an actor. That wasn’t me, so I moved on.

Tracy Roberts was where I spent the most time. She had been part of the original Actor’s Studio back in New York in the ’50s and racked up film and Tv credits through the ’70s before turning to teaching. She was the first one to turn me on to the work of Clifford Odets and liked a short story I wrote enough to give me a scholarship to a dramatic writing class they were doing at her studio.

And it was at her workshop that I got some of the best advice of my life. And while it was given in the context of acting, you can apply it to just about any area of life. But this is where my memory is a little fuzzy, and I can’t remember exactly who told it to me. But I think it was Howard Fine. Recently, I came across a sheet from a scene study class I did with Fine, who I think was teaching with Roberts’ studio back in the ’80s.

Fine now runs the Howard Fine Acting Studio in LA and has a who’s who list of actors that have worked with him. (Brad Pitt, Gal Gadot, Jered Leto, Dwayne Johnson, Salma Hayek, Kerry Washington, and Chris Pine.) I’m not 100% sure, but I think he’s the one that gave me the great advice below.

After class one night, I was discouraged about how I’d done. I think I told him I had a sports background and liked that at the end of a game you knew how you’d done. I sensed I wasn’t going to be the next great thing. Fine said, “Just because you’re not Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you can’t play the game.” That was a revelation.

For those of you unfamiliar with the analogy, Babe Ruth was arguably the greatest baseball player ever. When I visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY this summer, I learned even more what an iconic player Ruth was in his day. Even when he wasn’t playing a game, he caused a stir when he just visited a town. He wasn’t your average a baseball star, he was a rock star (long before there were rock stars).

There are layers of talent in every field. In screenwriting terms, if your goal is to be the next Paddy Chayefsky, William Goldman, or Aaron Sorkin you just might fall short. But if you do, that doesn’t mean you can’t play the game. That’s also true at every part of the entertainment and content creation industry.

So be encouraged— there are more creative opportunities in the world than ever before. There are even more ways to make a living producing, directing, writing, and editing outside of Hollywood than inside it. So when you get down just remember, “Just because you’re not Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you can’t play the game.” And Ruth’s own story from a troubled youth to baseball star found its way to the big screen in The Babe Ruth Story.

P.S. I did a little digging and did read an interview where Howard Fine said he started teaching at Tracy Roberts Actors Studio in 1985 so I at least got that part right. I would have been one of his first students in LA and the chances are slim that he’d remember me, but he might recall giving that Babe Ruth advice. I’m sure that advice comforted many an actor, because there was only one Babe Ruth–just like there was only one Marlon Brando.

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

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“Now is the time in my career to do the good book, just because it would make a good movie….”
—Writer/director Quentin Tarantino
ReelBlend podcast, July 5, 2021

In the past week I’ve listen to over 10 hours of interviews from various podcasts of Quentin Tarantino talking about his new novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. One of the most common questions is what will his tenth and final film be. Here’s a short list of possibilities that Tarantino has uttered into the world or others have speculated would be a good option for him to pursue.

An R-rated Star Trek

A remake of Reservoir Dogs (his first film) with an all-black cast

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Part 2

Kill Bill, Part 3

First Blood (sticking closer to David Morrell’s novel verses the 1982 version starring Stallone as John Rambo)

Lady in Red a remake of the 1979 film written by John Sayles, but with a proper budget and Tarantino’s 30 years of directing experience

Personally, I’d love to see the new dad Tarantino do a Disney kid’s film for his reportedly final movie. But since he’s vowed to never work with Disney after a dispute over a screening of The Hateful Eight, I’ll stick with him doing Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Here are some of my reasons:

  1. A chance for one of the greatest American filmmakers to outdo another great American filmmaker (John Huston) in doing the definitive version of one of the classic American literary works. (Huston, who directed the 1957 version, said he could never finish reading Melville’s long novel.)
  2. Moby Dick is a violent revenge story, with a layer of transcendence. (Shades of Kill Bill/Pulp Fiction and other Tarantino films). He could have Samuel L. Jackson give the sermon on Jonah.
  3. Having just been to the Whaling Museum in Nantucket in June, I was surprised to find just how eclectic and multicultural the whaling industry was 200 years ago. In re-reading the book for the first time in probably three decades, one of the things that stood out to me was how Nantucket whaling ships dominated the market attracting whalers from around the globe to make up crews: Native Americans, Africans, Italians, Chinese, Tahitian, Irish, English, Spanish, French, Icelanders—basically everywhere.
  4. The ultimate hang-out scenario. Tarantino loves hang-out movies and once said Rio Bravo was one of his favorite hang-out movies. There the cowboys on a cattle drive have enough down time to have Ricky Nelson breakout his guitar and sing a song with Dean Martin.

Of course, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a mini-plot, hangout movie. Other hangout movies Tarantino likes are Fandango and Big Wednesday. As whalers went further and further out to sea they were gone for as many as three or four years at a time. Lots of hangout downtime. In chapter 53, Melville writes about what was called a “gam” where boats would met out at sea far from home (like the South Pacific). Little social get togethers on the high seas to trade stories, news, and songs.

5. Captain Ahab is one of the great characters in literary history. Though Gregory Peck didn’t not care for his performance in the 1956 film version, it was one of his more memorable roles. Other fine actors to tackle the role of Ahab include John Barrymore, Patrick Stewart, and William Hurt. While the dangerous whaling business was a young man’s game, the captain and his first and second mates were older. The older and more weathered Cruise (and his laser focus) could pull off the single mindedness that Ahab has in his quest to find the white whale. It would also help Cruise in his quest for an Oscar. (And Tarantino is a fan of Cruise’s work and the two even met to talk about the possibilty of Cruise playing the role of Cliff in Once Upon (the one in which Brad Pitt won an Oscar). Can you hear Cruise saying, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me” or “I don’t give reasons, I give orders!”?

6. Now while Tarantino has a list of actors he’d like to work with, one of the actors that Cruise said he’d like to work with is Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson. Tarantino’s Moby-Dick would allow that opportunity.

Here is how Melville describes the 6’7″ Queequeg (who has “otherworldly tattoos” and sleeps with a Tomahawk):

“He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor. Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead was drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of General Washington’s head, as seen in the popular busts of him. It had the same long regularly graded retreating slope from above the brows, which were likewise very projecting, like two long promontories thickly wooded on top. Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.”

Queenqueg is from an island “not down in any map” but thought to be in Polynesia. The image of The Rock tossing a harpoon would definitely be included in the trailer.

7. Melville’s Moby Dick starts out from the perspective of Ishmael, who is a polymath who understands ancient history, poetry, philosophy, Shakespeare, biblical scholarship, zoology, and enlightenment anthropology. I’m not sure who would play him, but it’s the person that Tarantino could funnel his intellectual stream of thought.

8. Tarantino says his last film will not be something “frivolous” and Moby-Dick would be anything but frivolous. And since his script for Jackie Brown was based on an Elmore Leonard novel it’s not like he’s breaking a sacred rule by using someone else’s work as a foundation.

9. Details and rabbit trails. Both Melville and Tarantino love to dive into minutiae. One of the reasons Melville’s book is so long is that he seemingly covers not only every aspect of life aboard the Pequad, but a beginner course in Cetology. (Just what every high student steeped in rapid digital technology wants to spend a class assignment learning about between watching and posting YouTube and TikTok videos.)

But Tarantino has also stated that there is a 99% chance that his final film will an original story/screenplay. And while he says he could change his mind, he says that he doesn’t see trying to “out epic” Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He sees his final film being more like the epilogue of a book. Maybe a video store-centered story in the style of High Fidelity will be how Tarantino rounds out the feature film side of his career. Back to his roots.

But it was fun to speculate.

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

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“I was rejected from the Sundance labs maybe four times with Sound of Metal. . . . There wasn’t a lot of encouragement from anybody in the industry.”
—Writer/director Darius Marder (Sound of Metal)
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

The movie Sound of Metal picked up two Oscars last night for Best Sound and Best Achievement in Film Editing but fell short in four other categories including Best Original Screenplay. But today, I’m giving it the first-ever ”Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles” Award.

This doesn’t take anything away from recent Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Women) or Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winners Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton (The Father), but Sound of Metal best embodies the essence of what I’ve written on this blog over the last 13 years and in my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles. (And this is something that I’ll give out in the future as I dig deeper in current and past films. Perhaps I’ll build a short book around them.)

Sound of Metal was written by Darius Marder and his brother Abraham Marder from a story originating with Darius and Derek Cianfrance. Sound of Metal is one of those movies I will revisit again and again. And it’s one of those movies where the story behind the story is equally amazing. Let‘s start by revisiting that quote that top of this post:

“I was rejected from the Sundance labs maybe four times with Sound of Metal. . . . There wasn’t a lot of encouragement from anybody in the industry.”
—Writer/director Darius Marder (Sound of Metal)

Filmmaking is a brutal business. And Darius is clear in various interviews that he wants you to know how hard it is so you won’t feel like you’re alone. And it hasn’t gotten any easier during a global pandemic. Conflict is not only a key part of your screenplay, but it’s with you in the writing and developing stage, in the financing stage, in the shooting and editing phase, and in the distribution phase. (Did I miss anything?)

The process of getting Sound of Metal written and produced was over a decade in the making. After the script was finally completed, financing fell through many times. Sometimes locations were secured, cast and crew in place, only to have it not happen.

”Nothing was easy.”
—Darius Marder on the process of getting Sound of Metal made

The Marder brothers wrote this on spec, meaning all those years of writing, they were not making a cent. In fact, Darius was self-funding the travel to meet with investors and actors over the years. He estimates they wrote 1,500-2,000 pages to get to the final script.

With funding finally in place, and only 12 days from shooting, the financing fell through once again. Lead actor Riz Ahmed had spent months learning to play the drums and learn American Sign Language (ASL) and turned down other work, in what looked like yet another bust in getting the film made. But angel investors came through on what Darius called a Hail Mary call to a couple he’d met in London.

They shot the film in 25 days with a budget in the $4 million range. It’s a remarkable achievement. And it’s important to point out that the movie’s success is rooted in failure. The seeds of the story were an unfinished hybrid narrative/documentary titled Metalhead about a drummer with an ear injury. When writer/director Derek Cianfrance knew he would never finish Metalhead he asked Darius to take over the project. That’s where Darius took parts of the doc and began making it its own story. He later said he wished he could start every project with that much front-end research.

Before I break down the film a little, let me say that this film feels authentic at its core. From the drummer Ruben’s obsessiveness, from Lou’s (Olivia Cooke) desire to get him help, and from the counselor Joe’s meeting Ruben head-on. I have known people with addictions who are skilled at conning everyone—including themselves. And I used to show produce conferences where I got to know people in the ASL community and loved their directness. (Less wasting of time/words beating around the bush.) It not surprising to learn that the actor who plays Joe, Paul Raci, knew ASL as his first language.

Now we move into spoiler territory. (Check out the Sound of Metal on Amazon Prime before reading what follows.) Here’s a breakdown based on the chapters of my book:

CONFLICT: Sound of Metal is full of conflict. Starting with the sledgehammer conflict of the drummer Ruben facing hearing loss and potentially not being able to do what he loves to do best. There is conflict with his girlfriend. When he goes to a center to learn ASL there is conflict with the counselor. There is conflict with himself and how he is going to deal with his life-changing circumstances.

CONCEPT: The logline on IMDB reads, “A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.”

CHARACTERS: The three main characters are so well developed that we could of followed any of them at various parts of the story. But they wisely keep it Ruben’s story. He is the classic protagonist at the end of his rope. A spotlight was put on his journey and the audience clearly understood this clarity.

CATALYST: Ruben starts losing his hearing around the 10-minute mark, after they established that he‘s good at what he does. Co-writer Abraham is, in fact, a musician who once had an illness in real life that prevented him from playing the instruments he loved. It adds to the authenticity of the movie.

CONSTRUCTION: Sound of Metal follows a solid three-act structure by design. Darius says he’s a “structure-holic.”

Act one—Ruben starts to lose his hearing. Seeks help and is told it will only get worse. He keeps drumming, and it gets worse. He has to step back from his music. And from his relationship with his girlfriend. The major dramatic question that isn’t answered until the last scene is, “What’s he going to do about his hearing loss?”

Act two—Going to a retreat-like place to learn how to cope with his deafness. He arrives there at the 27-minute mark. It doesn’t go well and first so he leaves. But he returns after reaching a breaking point. Joe mentors Ruben, and while Ruben has his dark moments, he appears to embrace the deaf community around the midpoint of the film. There’s a wonderful non-verbal scene at the halfway point where Ruben turns the metal of a slide into a drum as a youth listens with an ear on the slide.

Ruben’s dealing with not a handicap but a new reality. He flourishes so much that Joe offers him a job. But it’s clear Ruben is not ready to shed his old life. He checks the band’s website and sees his girlfriend performing on stage. He decides to sell everything he has to have an expensive Cochlear implant in hope of restoring his hearing. This eventually results in a lack of trust and leads Joe to ask Ruben to leave the deaf community immediately. (That turning point happens 88 minutes into the story.)

Act three—The implants are a disappointment to Ruben. It reminds me of the saying, “All disappointment comes from unmet expectations.” Ruben spends time in a cheap hotel until he can return to the audiologist hoping his hearing can be adjusted. He connects with his girlfriend in Paris and tries to pick up where they left off. He says they need to get back on the road performing, but it’s clear that’s not going to happen.

According to Darius, Sound of Metal borrows from Hitchcock’s Psycho in that you start out thinking you’re in one movie until you find out you’re in another one. You think it’s a story about deafness, but it turns out to be a story about addictions. That’s part of the architecture of the story.

CLIMAX and CONCLUSION—Ruben packs his things and leaves. He walks to a park bench and listens to the cacophony of sounds around him including a bells (another version of the sound of metal) before taking off his implants and watching the world in total silence. He appears to reach an epiphany. He’s found peace.

CATHARSIS—Ruben’s emotional journey is complete.

CONTROLLING IDEA—Though Ruben didn’t listen to Joe initially, the advice he was given earlier in the film was to find, “That still place. That’s the kingdom of God.” French philosopher Pascal wrote way back in the 1600s that, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” How often do we sit alone in a room…without a cell phone, tablet, or computer nearby? At least in American culture, contemplation is eclipsed by the selfie.

CHANGE—Ruben finds a quiet place at the end of the film. What Darius called “the journey of acceptance.” Ruben has been transformed.

CAREERS AND COWS—Darius was raised on a Buddhist goat farm. By his own admission he wasn’t a good student until a teacher turned him on to literature. He went on to work a variety of jobs including teaching middle school students, working as a personal chef, shooting wedding videos, before making the 2008 doc Loot. A film festival winner that came with a $50,000 cash prize and shown on HB0.

And, of course, after Sound of Metal finally got made it had to deal with a world essentially on hold due to COVID-19. Amazon Studios released it into theaters in November 2020, and on Amazon Prime the next month. But at least the Marder brothers got to see their movie in theaters near where they have roots in Massachusetts.

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

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“The internet is a miraculous things. Just share as much as you can, self-publish, blog, podcast whatever you need to do. Just make sure you are not withholding your gifts from the world. Because you have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
—Diablo Cody

I don’t know if the Scriptnotes podcast was the first podcast I ever listened to, but it is the first one the I ever followed on a regular basis. And since I started listening back in 2011, it’s the one I’ve listened to the most. If you’re interested in screenwriting, then it’s a great place to start. (My goal is to finally launch my screenwriting and filmmaking podcast before Scriptnotes hits its 500th episode soon.)

But I was listening to Scriptnotes episode 492 tiled ”Grey Area” where hosts John August and Craig Mazin talk about a screenwriter who took money saved for screenwriting contests and used it instead to produce her own narrative podcast.

Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet says the best way to test your material is to put it in front of an audience. When he was a struggling playwright in Chicago that’s what he did. Instant feed back. It’s a little harder for screenwriters to just produce their own stuff unless they have production skills and equipment. (Or a small team of filmmaker friends.)

But narrative podcasts are the new middle ground between mounting your work on stage or producing an indie film (or trailer of your idea). Read the post “Screenwriting competitions aren’t worth the money” to read how and why Paige Feldman decided to self-produce the podcast How to Fall in Love the Hard Way.

”I took one of my already-written pilots and adapted it for audio. Then, I hired actors and recorded it remotely over Zoom. I hired a composer to write original music, an artist to design a logo, and used YouTube to teach myself how to edit and process audio. And now I have an audio pilot up across podcasting platforms. Plus, it was such a fun experience that I wrote the remaining nine episodes of season 1 and we’re starting to record them this weekend!
—Paige Feldman

Producer/ manager Mason Novick found Diablo Cody when she was a blogger with a day job in Minneapolis (and not long after she graduated from the University of Iowa). He just stumbled on her writings one night and ask her if she’d ever written a screenplay. She hadn’t. But she did. Then a few years later she collected her Oscar for writing Juno.

That’s a once upon a time in Hollywood story that happens maybe once a decade (a generation?). But if Diablo Cody was starting out today I bet you’d find her gathering some actors in Minneapolis and producing her own narrative podcast on her way to greater success.

In the coming days and weeks I’ll share with you some of the technical aspects of recording, editing, and uploading podcasts.

P.S. If you don’t know the connection between the Mason Novick/Diablo Cody/Juno success and this blog then check out the post Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)

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

Related posts:
Scriptnotes #300 & The Difference Between Screenwriting and Directing

The 100th Podcast of Scriptnotes

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“I have no idea where it came from. It just came all of the sudden. One minute it wasn’t there and the next thing the whole line was there.”
—Paul Simon on writing Bridge Over Troubled Water

Twice in the past week I heard two accomplished artists talking about unconsciousness in terms of creativity and I thought I’d string them together for you to ponder. And then I tie them in from a screenwriting perspective from my book where Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Jim Uhls (Fight Club), and Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasden address the mystical part of writing.

“Your personal experience and your emotional stress finds its way by way of your unconscious mind over into the mind of reality. And it translates itself into your lyrics, and you don’t even know that’s happened.”
—Musician Gordon Lightfoot
The documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind

“I’m interested in acting that involves the unconsciouses. We all know how to do something and hit beats and deliver to kill a performance. I’m interested in giving the performance that I don’t know how to deliver. . . . It’s very fluid when you’re in a take. And there’s definitely some structure to the scene because of the dialogue, or how the scene is going to play out. And I rely heavily on the director for that structure, too. But I’m here to bring responses and truth.”
—Academy Award winning actress Nicole Kidman
WTF Podcast with Marc Maron

Here’s a section pulled from my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles:

Mike De Luca asked Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls, “When did you first feel when you had what it takes to be a screenwriter? Did you have this specific moment when you felt the confidence of,‘I can do this.’?” Uhls resonded, “It was when the analytical side and the intuitive side merged together, worked together as a creative unit.”

Oscar-winning screenwriter Tarantino said of creating the Mia character (Uma Thurman) in Pulp Fiction, “I have no idea where she came from. I have no idea whatsoever. ” That’s intuition. And talent.

The intuitive side of screenwriting is hard to articulate. The intuitive side isn’t as concrete as the analytical side. It could even be called mystical.

When Lawrence Kasden was asked how he came up with Yoda’s unique speech pattern (“Much to learn, you still have.”) when writing Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back he did not know.

“I don’t know that we choose how we write. I think it somehow chooses us. It’s very mystical.”
—Oscar-winning screenwriter Horton Foote (Tender Mercies).

Scott W. Smith

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”What Tom [Cruise] and I have learned to do over the course of three [Mission: Impossible] movies is we’re constantly striving to make a silent film. We’re pushing harder and harder with each film to make ways where the dialogue doesn’t matter . . . I’m extremely suspicious of dialogue and consider dialogue to be a last resort rather than a first wave of storytelling.”
Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart

P.S. Of course, one wouldn’t expect Aaron Sorkin to agree with McQuarrie. But here are a couple screenwriters who are in the striving to make a silent film camp.

“The perfect movie doesn’t have any dialogue. So you should always be striving to make a silent movie.”
David Mamet
On Film Directing 

“Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal.”
—Two time Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E)
TED talk The Clues to a Great Story

Related posts:
Emotionally Silent Dialogue
Storytelling Without Dialogue

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

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Jackie Robinson made my success possible. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
(King was a student at Moorehouse College in 1947 when Robinson became the first black player to play Major League Baseball)

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
—Hall of Fame baseball player Jackie Robinson

To learn more about Jackie Robinson read his autobiography I Never Had it Made and check out the documentary Jackie Robinson by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon. Then there’s the movie 42 starring Chadwick Boseman as Robinson.

P.S. The following scene from Spike Lee’s unproduced script Jackie Robinson takes place at Sanford Memorial Stadium. A stadium I played many games as a high school baseball player. It’s where Hall of Fame baseball player Tim Raines played his high school games. And it’s also just a few miles from where Trayvon Martin was killed. Gives that scene a little more punch doesn’t it?

Related posts:
Martin Luther King Jr. and Writing Strong-Willed Characters
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream”
Marlon Brando & Johnny Carson After the Death of Martin Luther King Jr.
Chadwick Boseman, Jackie Robinson, and the Struggle for a More Perfect Union
Spike Lee on Why You Have To Make Your Own Movies
Filmmaking in New Hampshire (Ken Burns Style)

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

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“The real trick of it is to find the villain’s caper. Once you’ve got that, you’re off to the races and the rest is fun.”
—Screenwriter Richard Maibaum

Tonight I watched From Russia with Love (1963) for the first time. I wanted to see how Sean Connery as James Bond in 1963 held up in 2021. But I realized that I knew very little about the screenwriters of the early bond films so I did a little digging and found yet another unlikely connection to Iowa.

Richard Maibaum, who co-wrote the screenplay for From Russia with Love, graduated from the University of Iowa. Maibaum is not a name quite as familiar today as James Bond or Ian Fleming, but he played a key role in helping create one of the most iconic screen characters in the history of cinema.

“Richard Maibaum never intended to write witty spy dramas when he began. His roots are in Broadway, where he had his first play produced while a 19-year-old student at the University of Iowa. After several plays and a brief acting stint with the Shakespearean Repertory Theatre, Maibaum journeyed to Hollywood, where he would eventually write such films as O.S.S., The Great Gatsby, and Captain Carey, USA. During their making, he cultivated a close friendship with the late Alan Ladd, which led Maibaum, in turn, to London in 1951. Ladd had been signed by Broccoli for three movies Maibaum would later be hired to script.”
—Lee Goldburg
Starlog interview

After getting his master’s degree at Iowa in 1932, Maibaum had a 25 year run writing screenplays and for the theater (and even a detour in the Army creating morale films during WWII) before co-writing (along with Johanna Hardwood and Berkely Mather) the first Bond film Dr. No (1962). He would go on to earn screenwriting credits on the Bond classics Thunderball (1965), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), For Your Eyes Only (1981), A View to a Kill (1985), The Living Daylight (1987), and Licence to Kill (1989).

He might be still writing scripts for James Bond films if he hadn’t of died in 1991. But if you look at that second act of his career it’s rather amazing. I can’t help but think back to when he was a teenager at college in Iowa just after the 1928 stock market crash and the beginning of The Great Depression. Could this Jewish kid from New York City sitting in his dorm in Iowa City ever fathom where his writing would take him? (Well, maybe. After all, he was excelling in acting and playwriting. And he was actually still a student when his anti-lynching play, The Tree, was produced on Broadway. )

I have not read the James Bond novels by Fleming, but Maibaum is credited by some of giving Bond his trademark humor. Would James Bond even be James Bond without his one-liners?


I’ll spend a few days looking at Bond’s enduring popularity, some of the criticisms through today’s lens, and some surprising influences on Ian Fleming, and the influence of Bond on films on characters like Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne.

P.S. Screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) and Diablo Cody (Juno) also graduated from the University of Iowa, and I’d bet that any of them would love to have a crack at writing a James Bond film. The Richard Maibaum Papers are part of the University of Iowa Special Collection.

1/08/21 update: Just learned of the book Speaking of Writing by Richard Maibaum (complied and edited by his wife Sylvia Kamion Maibaum). Look for some Maibaum quotes in the coming weeks.

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

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Walker Percy once stated that every writer secretly wanted to be Aleksandr Solzhistsyn. That they would write something so powerful that it would tick off the Soviet government to the point that they would be arrested and sent to the Gulag. A life of forced labor until you died.

But the Gulag and the Soviet Union are a part of the past so writers will have to find other ways to impact the culture.

Producer/screenwriter Craig Mazin angered the Russians leaders enough with his HBO mini-series Chernobyl last year that a month after the five-part series aired it was announced that Russian State TV was producing its own version of what really happened. That’s not as good as going to the Gulag, but maybe better than all the Emmys the HBO version won.

But if I was Mazin, I wouldn’t plan on taking any vacations soon to Moscow, and I’d be aware of anyone walking behind me carrying an umbrella—especially in sunny Los Angeles.

Apparently, the Russian backed version will correct all the lies of Mazin’s version. Mainly their version of the disaster was caused by a CIA agent.

Back in July, in my post ‘Chernobyl’: Craig Mazin’s Real Life Scary Movie Lands 19 Emmy Nominations, I said that I not only thought it was Tv’s best show of the year, but stood with the best throughout TV history. (I was glad to hear Tom Hanks just say something to that effect a few days ago.)

Apparently, a few months after the airing of Chernobyl is when COVID-19 appeared on the scene leaving a tremendous impact on the world. (The cost so far is 1.7 million lives globally.) We may never even know the truth of where and how this virus started and spread. But the shot clearly heard in Chernobyl is we need to be careful of leaders who tell lies.

Chernobyl even plays better now than it did last year. And with that mini-series Mazin joins Euripides, Shakespeare, and Arthur Miller in being a social critic.

“We’ve lost the technique of grappling with the world that Homer had, that Aschylus had, that Euripides had. And Shakespeare. How amazing it is that people who adore the Greek drama fail to see that these great works are works of a man confronting his society, the illusions of the society, the faiths of the society. They’re social documents, not little private conversations. We just got educated into thinking this is all ‘a story,’ a myth for its own sake. [There will be a return to social drama] if theater is to survive. Look at Moliere. You can’t conceive of him except as a social playwright. He’s a social critic. Bathes up to his neck in what’s going on around him.”
—Arthur Miller
Interview in 1966 with Olga Carlise and Rose Styron found in Playwrights at Work

Here are the links to the scripts of all five episodes.

Script | Episode 1, “1 : 23 : 45”
Script | Episode 2: “Please Remain Calm”
Script | Episode 3: “Open Wide, O Earth”
Script | Episode 4: “The Happiness Of All Mankind”
Script | Episode 5: “Vichnaya Pamyat”

P.S. With my junior Photoshop skills I’ve created my first meme based on the terrific Chernobyl poster with a COVID-19 twist. An idea I had kicking around in my head for a few months.

Related post: ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant’—Emily Dickinson

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

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“Basically I always think you can write five pages a day. And that’s not a brutal pace. You can do two and a half pages before lunch, two and a half pages after lunch. And so that would be 25 pages a week. Let’s say you don’t pull that off and you can do 20 pages a week, so in five or six weeks you can get a draft of a movie. And so if you set reasonable goals—from an outline, a good movie can be written in six weeks. And then it could be re-written every two or three weeks after that.”
—Writer/director Judd Apatow (The 40 Year-Old Virgin)
MasterClass, “Writing Process: First Draft”

P.S. Even if you have a day job, aiming for just 2 1/2 pages a day is a good goal and gets you a first draft in three months.

Related posts:
‘Stories are about people who are messed up.”—Judd Apatow
Comedies Should Work as Dramas—Judd Apatow
Writing Grace Notes (via James L. Brooks & Judd Apatow)

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

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