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Posts Tagged ‘Scriptnotes’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A 1999 LA Times article on Houseful of Honkeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott W. Smith

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“The key advice I’d give [any filmmaker] is when you’re starting out make things as cheaply as possible. There is a path for making things so cheaply that the minimal value that most independent films get can still help you to recoup your budget. And that’s a path that the Duplass brothers took really well, and I think it will always be a path. There’s always going to be an appetite for movies of a certain sort and if you can achieve quality with a very low budget you can find a path with an independent film.”
Indie film producer Keith Calder 
Interview with John August on Scriptnotes, Episode #342

Note: The keyword in the title of today’s post is “a.” This is a path, not the only path. But, as I mentioned yesterday, before Scott Beck and Bryan Woods had their names attached to the current #1 box office Hollywood hit (The Quiet Place), they made a bunch of low-budget films in Iowa.

“Throughout high school and our college years we just keep making movies and feature films for practically no budget.”
Writer/director Scott Beck
#AlwaysAHawkeye video 

Related posts:

How to Shoot a Film in Ten Days
The Ten Film Commandments of Edward Burns
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood

P.S. Yesterday I went to see the documentary film Long Time Coming at the Florida Film Festival. It’s the debut feature film of Orlando-based filmmaker Jon Strong. It was the second showing of the festival because the first one sold out hours after tickets went on sale.

I don’t know the budget of the film and Strong did say during the Q&A that the film was in the works for two years. But my guess is it’s an example of a film that was made without a large budget and one that will find a distribution path at ESPN or Netflix. Production-wise Long Time Coming reminded me of another baseball-centered film No, No: A Dockumentary (on picture Dock Ellis) which I saw at the Florida Film Festival a few years ago.

No, No was also very heavy on interviews of past players. And if my memory is correct,  the director said the bulk of the interviews with former Pittsburgh Pirates players was shot over a reunion weekend. Shaping those interviews into a story, finding archival photos and videos (and securing rights and funding to use them) is what can take months and years.

But No, No is a good example of a film that had a niche audience and found distribution.  It’s not a bad idea to find a film in your genre that you like and find out as much as you can about how it got funded and found distribution.

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Scott W. Smith

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In the podcast Launch novelist John August gives an insider look into the book making process, down to the font selections and the voiceover narrator for the audio book. Because August is also a screenwriter, there’s a better than average chance that his book Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire will become a book.

But in another podcast this month he answers the question from a frustrated novelist named Matthew who’s had novels optioned, even screenplays written based on his books and stars attached to the projects, but still not a single movie from his work has come to fruition. Here’s part of John August’s answer why:

“Most books that get optioned don’t get made into movies. Most scripts that get written don’t get made into movies. And when I see authors being so excited about the film rights sold, or it’s going to be a movie, I’m happy for them, but I also want to pull them aside and let them know that like if it gets made into a movie, that’s winning the lottery. That so rarely happens…But other times, like Big Fish, it happens. And so you just don’t know. And you have so little control over it, Matthew. That’s the remarkable thing. As the author you control everything. And every word and every comma. Movies seem like they’re made by magic. Like 200 people are off making your movie. Except most times they don’t get made. They get optioned, they pay someone to write a script. That script sits on a shelf and it doesn’t happen.”
John August
Scriptnotes, Ep. 334

P.S. Speaking of Big Fish (screenplay by John August, based the book by Daniel Wallace), I had breakfast with several people Saturday to remember a man named Jim who died recently at age 85.. At one point they wanted everyone to share a story about this him. I shared a story and then I recommended to Jim’s adult children that they watch Big Fish. Jim was from Kentucky and like a lot of people from the south, Jim could tell a yarn are two. In fact, you never were sure which stories were true and which weren’t. Which is part of the Big Fish story.

Scott W. Smith

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“Feeling completely lost is absolutely necessary to finding your way out [of the dark forest] and becoming good.”
Stephanie Foo (@imontheradio)
This American Life producer

Last week Screenwriter John August launched the podcast Launch. It’s a creative way of exploring his getting lost in the woods as a six-year-old, through the inspiration and publication process of his new middle grade novel Arlo Finch in the Valley of the Fire (aimed for 4th-6th graders).

Here’s an excerpt from the first episode of Launch:
 “The book publishing industry in generally huge. In the U.S. alone books are a 28 billion dollar business every year. That’s more than the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball combined. It’s not a dying business at all. Publishers make money. But are authors making money? That’s a little more complicated.”
John August

In the second episode (The Shadow of Harry Potter) August talks about how he overcame one of the challenges of writing the novel in Paris.

“The book is mostly set in winter in Colorado, but I had to write the bulk of it in the middle of summer in an apartment with no air conditioning. I end up finding these tracks on You Tube which are 12 hours of winter storm. I listened to it on my headphones. Seriously, this really helps me get in the right head space.”
John August

Some writers need total silence to write, while Stephen King writes to Metallica. Whatever works, right? One of the joys of writing this blog is seeing the polar opposites that many writers work. Some do their best work early in the morning, while others prefer writing at night. Some write from theme, others avoid theme altogether.

Listening to winter audio tracks while writing a winter story makes sense. Audio tracks of light thunderstorms, ocean waves, and babbling brooks for years have helped people meditate, reduce stress, and sleep. (Yes, there’s an app for that.) Last year when I was working through a coding tutorial I would often listen to the same Steely Dan song over and over again on headphones.  If your writing is lost in the dark forest, try some natural sounds to help get you in the right head space.

I look forward to listening to the whole season of Launch (episode three just dropped this morning), and reading Arlo Finch. And if you’re interested in the craft and business of screenwriting, make sure you check out the Scriptnotes podcast that August does with screenwriter Craig Mazin.

John August Related Posts:
Scriptnotes #300 & the Difference Between Screenwriting and Directing 
The 100th Podcast of Scriptnotes
Is It a Movie? (Touches on Scriptnotes episode #201)

Podcast Related Posts:
Power Your Podcasting with Storytelling (Part 1) 
Finding Authentic Emotions (part 1) Alex Blumberg
‘What’s Your Unfair Advantage?’ (Gimlet Media, Part 1)
S-Town, Brian Reed & Why ‘Podcasting is the Future of Storytelling’
‘Out on the Wire’ Podcast 

Scott W. Smith

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Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Refugee, music and words by Tom Petty, Mike Campbell

“I hated my father long before I knew there was a word for hate…I remember hating him even when I was in diapers…I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years. My own stormy autobiography has been my theme, my dilemma, my obsession, and the fly-by-night dread I bring to the art of fiction.”
Pat Conroy
The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son

While I could continue with my run of posts centered around rocker Tom Petty who died earlier this month, I found a way to turn the corner listening to the Scriptnotes podcast, Episode 321. And, actually, at the same time this post makes a connection to the roots of much of Tom Petty’s pain throughout his life.

Before we get to the concept of method writing, first let me set the stage by letting Petty recount a traumatic event he had as a youth that involved a slingshot, a Cadillac, and a belt.

“I had this crappy slingshot my father had given me, a plastic thing, the first one I ever had. I was in the yard shooting this slingshot. And cars are driving by. I’m just like, ‘I wonder if I can get a car’. And whack! This big Cadillac. It was going by pretty slowly, and I just nailed the fin on that thing.

“The car came to an immediate stop. The driver got out, and he was so f**king mad. … I felt kind of weird, not ­knowing what was coming next. But when my father got home later, he came in, took a belt and beat the living s**t out of me.

“He beat me so bad that I was covered in raised welts, from my head to my toes. I mean, you can’t imagine someone hitting a child like that. Five years old. I remember it so well.

“My mother and my grandmother laid me in my bed, stripped me, and they took cotton and alcohol, cleaning these big welts all over my body.”
Tom Petty
 Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes

That may have been the first beating Petty got from his father, but it wasn’t the last one. And I don’t know if that first beating left a physical scar, but I do know it left an emotional scar. Petty knew that his childhood was far from the aspirational Ozzie and Harriet life that he saw on TV, but it would take decades for him to realize that being a successful rock star—or drugs and alcohol— could heal his childhood scars.

You don’t have to look far to see where Petty’s rebel spirit, angst, and bouts with depression came from. Though it would take Petty himself a few decades and some counseling to recognize his scars.

Everyone has scars and on Scriptnotes, Episode 321 screenwriter John August and Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, have this exchange about using your scars in your writing:

GRANT FAULKNER: I like the method acting approach to writing that you’re really applying your own personal emotional experience to the characters you’re creating. Actually there’s a Shelly Winters quote where she says, ‘Act with your scars.’ And so you can apply your scars to any character. But I do think that requires, like method acting, a lot of introspection.  

JOHN AUGUST: When I read writing the feels very real, when the characters seem like they have flesh and blood,  I do think that’s because the author has invested a bit of himself or herself into their experience. That author has a very clear sense of that character’s inner emotional life  because he or she is using things in their own life to sort of proxy for it. When I was doing the script for Big Fish there is a sequence at the end where Will is going through the story of his father’s death and I knew this was going to be incredibly emotional thing for the character, but also for the audience watching it. So I was incredibly method writing where I’d bring myself to tears and then start writing. It seems crazy and ‘why would you do it that way?’— but I’m pretty sure the only reason I got to those specific words and those specific images was because I was at that emotional state as I was writing it…I would encourage people to try those things, because what’s the harm of trying those things? …Write those feelings that you know. Use the things that are specific and unique to you to help create something specific and unique moments for your story.

GRANT FAULKNER: Yeah, that’s a great point. I think the stories that I connect with most—I agree with you—the writer or creator has done something that is just so personal, he or she has made themselves vulnerable— they’ve gone deeper. I really think vulnerability on the page is more important than any craft advice, or craft tips that you might write with. And that’s where with [the] Shelly Winters [quote] “Act with your scars” is really going deep. Be willing to reveal your scars on the page and go there. 

P.S. I don’t always find a direct Iowa connection to these posts, but couldn’t miss on that Scriptnotes podcast that there was a guy from small town Iowa talking to a guy who did went to college in Iowa. Grant Faulkner was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa (and went at Grinnell College in Iowa) and John August did his undergraduate work at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Related post:
Emotion—Emotion—Emotion
Nostalgia: The Pain from an Old Wound
Screenwriting Quote #182 (Richard Krevolin) “All characters are wounded souls…”
Tom Petty and The Untold Story of Rock & Roll  (In a word; scars.)

Scott W. Smith

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[Substance definition: Significance or importance]

I think if you put energy into how do I break into the industry, how do I get an agent, how do I – it’s putting the cart before the horse. I think that ultimately first and foremost practicing. Shooting it. And then reshooting it. And reshooting it. And rewriting. And just getting, working on yourself and getting better. But just doing it.

Like getting a camera. Getting whatever camera you can get your hands on. And making stuff. And then getting out there however you can. I actually think practically that’s the industry – you can’t say the industry will be the path to your door, but I think the best way to find your career is just to do what you do and get it out there however you can…. Double down on substance. And that ultimately is what everybody is looking for so hard out there. Everybody wants something that’s interesting and good.”
Writer/director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
Scriptnotes Q&A with Craig Mazin (Episode 299)

Related posts:
The 99% Focus Rule (via Oscar winning screenwriter Michael Arndt)
Rod Serling on Breaking In
The Myth of “Breaking In” (Terry Rossio)
Follow Your Own Wacko Vision
‘I never saw myself as a sitcom writer, but I was waiting tables’—How Rob McElhenny helped launch his career with a camera he bought at Best Buy.
Filmmaking Quote #31 (Annie Mumolo)  “Whether it’s short films or whatever you can do, my advice is make your own stuff. I’m a real believer in preparation meets opportunity…”

Scott W. Smith

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

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

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

Sisyphus

Sisyphus=Screenwriting

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Indiana Jones=Directing

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

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

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

Scriptnotes’ 100th Podcast

Is It a Movie?

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

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

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

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

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

Film vs. TV Writing (10 Difference)

What’s Changed? (Tip #102)

What’s at Stake? (David Wain)

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

Scott W. Smith 

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