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”All creative work is mystical.”
—Screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now)

”Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves lacking.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche
(As quoted in the chapter ”Effort Counts Twice” in the book Grit by Angela Duckworth)

Last night I watched the four part series They Call Me Magic about one of greatest basketball players in NBA history. This was the Magic Johnson quote that jumped out at me about his dedication for the game as a youth and teenager growing up playing pickup games in Lansing, Michigan:

“I played [basketball] in the rain. I played in the snow, it didn’t matter. Sun up to sun down. And then I started playing against older boys, then I started playing against men. . . Nobody outworked me in the neighborhood. I was on the court more than any kid. It wasn’t even close. I wanted it more.”
—Magic Johnson

The reason that quote jumped out as at me is because I’ve been listening to the audio book Grit by Angela Duckworth. Just a few days ago in the chapter titled ”Effort Counts Twice,” Duckworth addressed greatness in Olympic athletes whose talent seem otherworldly. (Think of swimmers Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps.)

She points to an study of competitive swimmers titled “The Mundanity of Excellence,” by sociologist Dan Chambliss who observed;

“Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and them are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; one the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produces excellence.”

How old do you think Magic Johnson was when he threw his first no-look pass? I’m gusessing pretty young. And before that become one of his trademark plays, I’m sure that small skill was well honed by thousands of passes before he put on a professional uniform.

I was a better than average football and baseball player as a youth, but when I joined my first basketball team when I was 12 I was instantly out of my league with kids who grew up around the game. Magic Johnson was the youngest of nine brothers and sisters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if when he was 12 years old he didn’t already have a decade of experience around the game.

Back to Duckworth’s book:

“With everything perfect,” Nietzsche wrote, “we do not ask how it came to be.” Instead, “we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.”

But Magic wasn’t really created from magic. Or fully formed. How did he come to be Magic Johnson? He told us in that first quote. He was created from the mundane task of showing up to play pickup games in the the rain, and snow, sun up to sun down. Determined to win, because winners got to stay on the court. And win he did. Here’s what he accomplished before he turned 21 years old:

Everett High School, State champs & Parade First Team All American (1977)
Michigan State, NCAA champs & All American (1979)
Los Angeles Lakers, NBA Champs & NBA Finals MVP (1980)

Astonishing. And not only that, but Magic changed the game. He lead the team that made the NBA popular. The NBA Finals in 1980 weren’t even broadcast live, but aired on tape delay because CBS didn’t want to spoil the ratings of Duke of Hazards. (In 1980, Dukes of Hazard was the #2 Tv show in the United States with an estimated audience of over 21 million. About twice as many viewers of even the 2021 NBA Finals.)

But Magic and his Lakers teammates “Showtime”style of play throughout the 1980s (along with the Boston Celtics rivialry) made basketball mainstream in the United States in a way it had never been. And paved the way for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to take it to even a greater level of global popularity. And if you just saw Jordan in his prime—flying in the air—you’d swear it was a mystical experience. But when you read his story, you know he may have been the most determined person to ever play basketball.

Michael Jordan = Grit. (Of course, in basketball, it also helps if you’re 6’6″ like Jordan, or 6’9″ like Johnson.)

On page 211 of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles, I touched on what I called the mystical aspects of creativity. The unexplained aspects. I even quoted Jimmy Buffett who said that even though he wasn’t the greatest singer or guitar player he was able to “capture the magic” in his songs and concerts. But now I’m thinking Buffett was full of grit. Still performing and touring as he approaches 75, he cut his chops playing on the streets of New Orleans and working his way up to clubs, then colleges, then larger concert venues, on his way to playing stadiums.

As I update my book, I’m going to revisit that section. I’m thinking that grit is a cousin of The 10,000 Rule.

P.S. My first paid job when I was in film school in the early ’80s was with Broadcast Equipment Rental Company (BERC) in Hollywood. My primary job was to drive Ikegami cameras to various production companies and TV studios throughout Southern California. I never got to make a delivery to the Forum where the Lakers played, but I know they did sometimes supply cameras to ESPN who covered games. But I did get a glimpse (thanks to a security guard) of the empty stage of The Tonight Show at NBC in Burbank back when Johnny Carson was the host. Here’s a clip of when Magic Johnson was on the show after he won his third NAB championship in 1985.

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


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Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

Both Sides Now, written by Joni Mitchell (and performed in Emilia Jones in CODA)

One of the reasons I steer away from writing much about recent film releases is they have not marinated into the culture long enough to see if they are going to have a lasting impact. And in the case of CODA—winner of three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (Troy Kotsur)— not only have many people not seen it yet, I have talked to people who don’t even know that film exists. (Blame it on COVID.)

Confession: It took me 8 months, its recent Oscar wins, and a free temporary pass to AppleTV for me to finally watch it last night. A really enjoyable film that left me with three take aways in my first viewing.

3) It’s the first film from a streamer to win Best Picture. (Netflix’s Roma won Best Foreign film a couple years ago.) In the last chapter of my book  Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles I addressed Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley. But two years later, when the COVID dust settles, we all might realize that Silicon Valley is Hollywood. (The good thing for creators is how much the streamers are creating.)

2) The film was familiar, yet different. It was shot in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a fishing town that was prominent in the film The Perfect Storm). Hearing impairment plays a key part in the film as did the recent hit A Quiet Place, the super indie film Sound of Metal, and the 1986 movie Children of a Lesser God (where Marlee Matlin won an Oscar). It has the young person underdog reminiscent of Karate Kid. A female protagonist with rising musical talent like Perfect Pitch. The demanding musical teacher with a hint of Whiplash. A girl with dreams going to a tough audition from Flashdance (What a feeling!), a teen love story like The Edge of Seventeen… the list goes on. CODA writer/director Siân Heder (along with Tarantino and Scorsese) knows that originality is rooted in your spin on the mixtape you put together. CODA itself is a remake of the 2014 French hit film La Famille Bélier.

1) CODA also did what I believe many of the best films do—it focused on brokenness and healing of the family unit. It’s a theme that will never be out of style, because it is so key to the human experience. Is there one family in the history of civilization that can’t relate to this most basic struggle? This won’t give anything away about CODA, but there is one moment in the film where I got goosebumps and my eyes watered. (And don’t tell David Lynch, but that all happened while watching on an iPhone.) And at that emotional peak of the movie, CODA reminded me of Rain Man. And of this nugget from Rain Man screenwriter Barry Morrow that I’ve been holding on to for a few weeks:

“One of the deepest, most ancient yearnings that humans have is the unity of group. And within that the family. We all have stories here of how lives have been hurt by fractures in the family. From kids whose parents are divorced to siblings that are estranged. We hate that brokenness. So if you can do a movie—which is always about discomfort and pain—if you can tap into some really primal themes. And pay them off in a way that’s satisfying and yet not saccharine, it should resonate. Again, that’s the kismet that we tapped into [with Rain Man]. . . . This was supposed to be a slice of life. Two guys on a road for a week. Disconnected and become connected. And that disconnect is what the movie works on, always. It’s what makes it funny. It’s what makes in poignant. And when their foreheads touch at the end, that’s the connection. As subtle as it is, that should probably be the movement at which you feel the most in the movie. I’ve been in many audiences—it’s a quiet moment. And so you do hear a little sniffling. And when I first heard that, I knew that it worked.”
Barry Morrow (co-screenwriter Rain Man)
UCTV Script to Screen interview

And just like CODA, there is a large referential wake behind Rain Man. There was the 1955 film Marty and the 1968 movie Charley And the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character was actually based in part on autistic savant Bill Sackter. Barry Morrow had met Sackter in Minneapolis and became his guardian. When Morrow moved to Iowa to work at the University of Iowa he brought Sackter with him. Morrow wrote the 1983 TV movie Bill: On in Own which earned Morrow an Emmy. (That Emmy Award is on display in the University of Iowa Main Library in the Special Collections on the third floor.) 

And the documentary A Friend Indeed: The Bill Sackter Story, directed by Lane Wyrick, came out in 2008. It used much footage that Morrow shot back in the 1970s.

P.S. You may have noticed that Tom Cruise has a little film coming out next month titled Top Gun: Maverick. Of course, it’s one of the most antisipated films of the year. Back in 1986, Cruise starred in Top Gun beginning a great ten year run that in included the hit movies Rain Man, The Firm, Mission: Impossible, and Jerry Maguire. But of all of Cruise’s movies, Rain Man I the one I’ve seen the most. It’s a movie stealing role for Hoffman, but many forget Cruise’s brilliant performance in that film. For young filmmakers out there who haven’t seen Rain Man, do yourself a favor and not only watch it, but track down the DVD that has three commentaries. One with Morrow, one with co-screenwriter Ron Bass (who came on to make changes for the director), and also the commentary with the director Barry Levinson. It‘s a film course by itself. Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay at the 1989 Oscars.

Related post:
It’s the Relationships Stupid!—A Heart to Hart Talk About Movie Endings with Lindsay Doran & Moss Hart

What’s being celebrated at the ends of those movies is each other.It’s the tenderness and the kindness and the comfort of each other.”
Producer (and former president of United Artists) Lindsay Doran
2012 TED Talk, Saving the World Vs. Kissing the Girl 

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

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We all know that it’s conflict really that makes drama happen. It’s not just a slice of life that you’re doing.”
—India-born writer/director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding)
MasterClass, Lecture 3

Salaam Bombay!

It’s possible that I’ve written more about the importance of conflict in drama more than any other subject. It’s why I chose the first chapter of my book to be on conflict. Here are a handful of posts over the years that unpack that some more if you want to do a deep dive.

Conflict—Conflict—Conflict

The Key is Conflict (movies, TV, Docs, Podcasts, Etc.)

Protagonist = Struggle

Neil Simon on Conflict

Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule

Conflict is at the root of everything from Shakespeare to Hamilton to Looney Tunes:

”Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
From Henry the IV

”There’s trouble in the air, you can smell it.”
Say No to This (from Hamilton) written by Lin-Manuel Miranda

“I like to swing upon my perch and sing a little song,
But there’s a cat that’s after me and won’t leave me alone.”
—Tweety Bird

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

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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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