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“The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks! The world thirsts after sympathy, compassion, love.”
Don Quixote character in Camino Real 
Play written by Tennessee Williams
(The first part is engraved on Williams’ headstone.)

Tennessee Williams Gravesite

It just so happens that in the midst of this run of posts on the life and work of Tennessee Williams I drove through St. Louis, Missouri yesterday and basically had enough time to stop and take the above photo at Calvary Cemetery north of I-70.

I knew of Williams’ connection to St. Louis, but did not realize he was buried there until doing research on these recent set of posts. Danny Manus in his Script article posted yesterday, Notes from the Margins: Every Article on Screenwriting You Never Have to Read Again, may be correct when he stated that 90% of screenwriting blogs are “regurgitated bullshit,” so the way I try to set myself apart from the hundreds of screenwriting and writing blogs is to take you to places like Columbus, Mississippi where Williams was born and Calvary Cemetery where he was laid to rest.

The stake I put in the ground on January 22, 2008 (with the post Life Beyond Hollywood) was that this blog would be come from the angle of a Hollywood outsider. Of course, along the 1,684 posts I’ve quoted more than 400 Hollywood insiders, but I’ve always been concerned with writers’ origins and a sense of place. You can’t separate Chekhov from Russia, Ibsen from Norway , or Shakespeare from England. And you can’t separate Tennessee from Mississippi, or New Orleans, or St. Louis.

In fact— from the perspective of this blog—if there is a bookend to screenwriter Diablo Cody (who was the inspiration behind starting this blog just a few days after seeing Juno) it is Tennessee Williams. Like Cody, Williams graduated from the University of Iowa. Both achieved awards at the highest level for their dramatic writing (Williams a Tony and a couple of Pulitzer Prizes, and Cody an Oscar). Other commonalities between the two writers are a struggle with depression, an enjoyment of alcohol, and a mixing of the sacred and the profane.

I’m not saying that Cody is on the same plain as the hallowed Williams, just that they make a nice bookend to what this blog is about in hopes that it will help inspire you in your writing. (And to be fair to Cody, when Williams was 35-years old as Cody is now, he was known for just one major play.) As I was driving 25 hours over the last two days I also connected Williams with writers Ernest Hemingway and Pat Conroy, in that part of what shaped them as writers was a love for books at an early age as well as interesting (read highly dysfunctional) dynamics between their fathers and/or mothers.

Circling back to Williams’ gravesite, in one interview I saw he said he wanted to be buried at sea—as close to his poet hero Hart Crane as possible. Yet there he is in a Catholic Cemetary with his mother and sister buried on each side of him. Williams’ sister Rose may be the single person in his life that influenced him the most. She is the basis for Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. Perhaps the most powerful over-arching theme in Williams work is the fragileness of human life. A theme by the way, which will always have an audience.

“Oh Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out! For nowadays the world is lit by lighting! Blow out your candles, Laura, and so goodbye….”
Tom in The Glass Menagerie
Written by Tennessee Williams

DSC_4961

P.S. I know Angelina Jolie has a tattoo on her left that are slightly modified words from Tennessee Williams; “A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.”
 I don’t have any tattoos, but if I got one right now I think I’d go with, “The world thirsts after sympathy, compassion, love.”

Related Posts:
The Juno—Iowa Connection
Postcard #55 (Iowa Writers’ Workshop Library) Neither Cody or Williams did any graduate work at Iowa, but the school has a deep tradition of producing writers.)
(Yawn)…Another Pulitzer Prize

Scott W. Smith 

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“A thorough knowledge of Eliot is compulsory for anyone interested in contemporary literature. Whether he is liked or disliked is of no importance, but he must be read.”
Northrop Frye

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
T.S. Eliot
The Waste Land

St. Louis born writer T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) is best known for his poem The Waste Land, but he also won a Best Play Tony Award in 1950 for the Broadway production of The Cocktail Party. (He would have been 62 years old at the time.)  He won two more Tony’s for his poems that were used in the musical Cats. Less remembered these days is he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. He also wrote the screenplay (based on his play) for the 1951 movie Murder in the Cathedral.

The legendary literary editor Robert Giroux (who worked with Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac and many others) said of Eliot’s death that, “the world became a lesser place.”

I’m always interested in the writing habit of writers and think it can be a helpful guide for others. Knowing that Stephen King’s goal when writing a novel is 2,000 words a day allows you a glimpse of how he can write a first draft in three months. It’s a nuts and bolts way of demystifying the writing process.

“A great deal of my new play, The Elder Statesman, was produced in pencil and paper, very roughly. Then I typed it myself first before my wife got to work on it. In typing myself I make alterations, very considerable ones. But whether I write or type, composition of any length, a play for example, means for me regular hours, say ten to one. I found that three hours a day is about all I can do of actual composing. I could do polishing perhaps later. I sometimes found at that I wanted do go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory.”
T.S. Eliot

And just in case you’re thinking, “Well, Eliot didn’t have a day job.” Before he made a living as a writer he worked as a banker by day and wrote poems, essays, and reviews at night. (He did this for eight years while at the same time taking care of his wife who suffered from migraines and depression.) He was 34-years-old when The Waste Land brought him fame and some financial rewards, but it would still be a few years before he quit his banker position.

Scott W. Smith


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“I was sort of stuck in a quandary when I left college because I thought I was going to end up a writer. I found that my work wasn’t as great as I thought it was. So I ended up doing what people from West Philly end up doing–hustling.”
Lee Daniels
Blackfilm.com

Producer/Director Lee Daniels spent two-years at Lindenwood University in the St. Louis area before setting his sights on Hollywood. He ended up working as a nurse, then started a successful company in the nursing industry, all before transitioning to a casting director and manager. Eventually he broke into producing in 2001 with Monster’s Ball, which earned Halle Berry an Academy Award in her leading role.

Most recently he produced and directed Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. At the 2009 Sundance Film Festival it won the Audience Award, Grand Jury Prize and a Special Jury Prize for actress Mo’Nique. It’s won or been nominated at many other festivals and award groups and is sure to get some Academy Award nods.

Somehow Daniels cast an inexperienced actress in the lead role, convinced Mariah Carey to not wear make-up and Lenny Kravitz to wear scrubs. He made a film that is a harsh look at the realities of life in Harlem back in the 80s. Though Harlem today is going through gentrification, is there any doubt issues that Daniels’ film addresses is still a part of the fabric of this country in certain areas?

The film is having an excellent run in the theaters, one that matches the awards it’s won and been nominated for. Though it doesn’t sound like the five weeks of production were conflict free. According to an IMDB post, “Over the course of the shoot the production lost an editor, a cinematographer, three continuity people, three locations managers, two producers, two assistant directors, two sound people, two video playback people, and two caterers.”

Daniels believes that’s part of doing business.

“It’s not a movie if it’s not a horror on the set. If you’re dealing with talent…that are passionate…they are going to be opinionated. And there are bound to be differences. And that’s when magic happens.”
Precious director Lee Daniels
Independent Film interview with Corey Boutilier

1/18/09 Update: Precious actress,Mo’Nique, won the Golden Globe award for best supporting actress, and The Blind Side actress Sandra Bullock won for best actress. What is interesting there is both Precious and The Blind Side both address a similar theme. Though the films are worlds away in style and content. The Blind Side is based on a true story and takes place in Memphis, where a conservative Christian family takes in a young, homeless, male  African-American high school student with an elementary school reading level, and prepares him for college and for life. The film is motivational and inspirational in tone.

Precious takes place in Harlem, but as a film has elements of the raw aspects of the Memphis-based film Hustle & Flow. Precious plays more like a documentary on the harsh realities of life in the inner-city. Precious is aboutan illiterate teenage African-American  girl who has a child and is pregnant again. She lives with her abusive mother (played by Mo’Nique), who also abuses the welfare system. Precious’ abusive father is long gone. An alternative school teacher and social worker help show her the way, though most wouldn’t bet on Precious going far.

Mo’Nique & Bullock both gave outstanding performances and are deserving of their awards. But both The Blind Side and Precious ultimately ask many disturbing questions about our culture and where we are heading.

Scott W. Smith

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“I just happen to find life funny. Everywhere I look I see comedy…often where it’s inappropriate. “
Jason Reitman
Director Juno/Up in the Air

After the success of Juno Jason Reitman’s had the clout to make a film like Avatar. A big budget extravaganza. Instead he made Up in the Air. A film that not only works on many levels, but that was also shot in an area dear to my heart—flyover country. Granted some of it is literally  in the air in the vast stretch of land between New York and L.A., but the are plenty of Midwest moments including George Clooney’s business headquarters and what he has of a home both being located in Omaha, Nebraska.

And this won’t be a spoiler, but there is even a nice little moment tied into Dubuque, Iowa.

Somehow Reitman directed a film (co-written with Sheldon Turner) that deals with contemporary issues of the economy and yet gave it a timeless feel of a classic film. Somehow he made a film that touches on psychology, sociology, and even the meaning of life and along the way entertains us and makes us laugh.

I don’t know specifically which states the movie was actually shot in but I do know that Reitman did location scouting in Michigan and Missouri that impacted the making of the film:

“At a certain point during scouting, I realized that the scenes that I had written of people getting fired were just inauthentic. We needed something that spoke to the times and what was really happening. I cut out all the firing scenes in the movie and we put ads out in the paper, both in Detroit and St. Louis, saying that we were making a documentary about job loss.”
Jason Reitman
Free Press article by Julie Hinds

Twenty of those people where chosen to be film. To paraphrase Clooney’s character who fires people for a living, being fired brings new opportunities.

But the authentic ground work for the movie is rooted in the book Up in the Air written by Walter Kirn. And though there are many differences to the movie, the heart of the story came from Kirn’s own travel experiences:

I wrote this book in [Earl], Montana of all places, in a snowbound winter on a ranch thinking about airports and airplanes and thinking about a particular conversation I’d had that had startled me. I sat down in a first class cabin – somebody else must have been paying – and you know, I’m the guy you don’t want to sit next to on an airplane because I want to know your story and want to tell you mine and I asked him where he was from this line is in the movie. He said, “I’m from right here” and I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “Well, I used to have an apartment in Atlanta but I never used it. It just collected dust and then I got a storage locker, I stay in hotels and am on the road 300 days a year. So this is where I’m from and this is my family.” He pointed to a flight attendant and said, “I know her. I know her name. I know her kids’ names.” And I thought, this is a new creature. I felt like an ornithologist discovering a new bird and when you’re a novelist and you discover a new creature and you discover a sort of new environment in which this creature is possible, you have to write the book.
Walter Kirn
CinemaBlend. com article by Perru Nemiroff

So far Up in the Air has been named the best picture of 2009 by the National Board of Review and the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association. Personally, it will be the only film in 2009 I will see multiple times in the theaters. Actually, the first one since Juno. In case I’ve understated myself—if you like fine writing, go see this film.

12/28 Update: Found out that Walter Kirn was born in Akron, Ohio and raised in Marine on Saint Croix, Minnesota (just outside the greater suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul). For some reason that doesn’t surprise me. How many times have writers from Minnesota come up in this blog?

Related posts: Filmmaking Quote #6 (Jason Reitman)
Screenwriting Quote of the Day #117 (Jason Reitman)

Scott W. Smith

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“The Tennessee Williams we know and admire cannot be imagined without his long relationship with the Midwest.”  
                                                                                                                                            David Radavich

“I’m only really alive when I’m writing.”
Tennessee
 Williams

When you think of St. Louis the chances are good that you think of the iconic St. Louis Arch. (I took this picture on one of those perfect clear windy mornings one day when I was driving through town and it is majestic to see up close.) What’s probably lower on your St. Louis list is that writer Tennessee Williams grew up there.

Before I address the writers from Missouri let me first say that there would not be a Tennessee Williams without Iowa. Oh, there probably would still be a great American playwright but he might just be called him by his given name Tom. Tom Williams isn’t quite as memorable.  “I got the name of Tennessee,” said Williams, “when I was going to the State University of Iowa because the fellows in my class could only remember that I was from a Southern state with a long name.”

He was actually born in Columbus, Mississippi but Mississippi Williams doesn’t quite have the proper ring to it either so it’s a good thing his classmates got it wrong. Much of his early childhood was lived with his grandfather at the rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

According to David Radavich, Williams said his childhood there was happy and carefree, but “this sense of belonging and comfort were lost, however, when his family moved to the urban environment of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there he began to look inward, and to write— ‘because I found life unsatisfactory.'” Williams struggled with depression and took comfort in his daily writing as well as the bottle.

“Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are all haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence.”
 Tennessee Williams

The is no doubt that the Mississippi Delta shaped his imagination as it has so many others. Clarksdale is known as the birthplace of the blues and the location of the Crossroads intersection of Highways 61 and 49 where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar like he did.

Clarksdale’s where musicians Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and  W.C. Handy were born and where The Delta Blues Museum lives today.  If you’re anywhere in the Memphis area it’s worth a trip out of your way to visit.

But from the age of seven through the college years Williams lived in the Midwest mostly in St. Louis. Radavich writes, “In 1931, Williams was admitted to the University of Missouri where he saw a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts and decided to become a playwright. His journalism program was interrupted however, when his father forced him to withdraw from college to work at the International Shoe Company.”

Even though Williams is mostly remembered for his time in New Orleans, Key West, and New York, Missouri is where he would return to again and again, visiting his mother until she died in 1980. Williams died three years later and is buried in St. Louis.

Saturday night I went to see Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here it Cedar Falls just a little over an hour away from where Williams studied playwriting at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 1938. The play brought back many memories.

When I lived in LA I studied acting for three years mostly at Tracey Roberts Actors Studio. Roberts was a talented actress in her day but never became a star. She was a wonderful teacher and encourager and herself had studied and performed with the greats of the Actors Studio – Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, and Elia Kazan. (Sharon Stone and Laura Dern both studied with Roberts.)

It was at her studio that I began to appreciate good writing. In a scene study class I had with Arthur Mendoza we spent three months working on just the opening monologue of “The Glass Menagerie”:

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion….”

And so it began. There was much to learn in three months just beyond getting the words down. Place, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology wrapped in Williams’ poetic style. Mendoza also stressed learning about the playwrights background so we studied that as well. It would do every writer good to take at least one acting class in their life. You’ll meet some actors and learn the process they go through in approaching your text.

As I did my scene the final day of class it was the one true moment I ever had as an actor where I felt totally in sync. We sometimes look back on any success big or small with regret but I look back on that day with satisfaction. (It was the highlight of my brief acting career, even bigger than the Dominos Pizza commercial I was in later. Though for the record, Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan’s two-story office in Ann Arbor, Michigan still holds the record for the largest office I’ve ever been in.)

Mendoza studied with Stellar Adler for 10 years and became the principal acting instructor at Stella Adler’s Studio where Benicio Del Toro studied with him. (Del Toro won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Traffic.) Mendoza eventually formed the Actors Theater Circle in Hollywood where he still teaches today. He was the first to open my eyes to the classic playwrights. He threw out names of writers I had never heard of and said as actors we needed to be able to flip our pancakes and do them all.

During that time I found three books at a used bookstore on Main Street in Seal Beach, California that caused a shift in my thinking about the power of writing. For one dollar each I picked up the best plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg. Best three dollars I ever spent.

Strindberg did not stay with me but Ibsen and Chekhov have been lifelong friends. Only recently did I find out Ibsen’s Ghost influence on Williams. Which makes perfect sense given Williams fascination of dealing with the sins of the father being visited on the son. Williams tapped into the southern-family-with-hidden-problems theme.

Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie had a Midwest beginning as it premiered in Chicago. He wrote fragile characters who were on the brink of hysteria. And he was rewarded well for such characters winning two Pulitzer Prizes along with two Oscar nominations.

Two other creative writing giants where also raised in Missouri, Mark Twain in Hannibal and Walt Disney in Marceline and Kansas City. (Both Hannibal and Marceline are less than an hour south of the Iowa border.) Marceline is said to be the inspiration behind Main Street USA at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Orlando has Tom Sawyer’s Island. Exporting the Midwest for all the world to enjoy.

Other screenwriters born in  Missouri include William Rose who won an Oscar in 1968 for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, John Milius (Apocalypse Now), Langston Hughes (screenwriter & playwright), Dan O’bannon  (Alien), Honorary Academy Award Director/Screenwriter Robert Altman, and Oscar-winning director/writer John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). That’s a deep rich heritage.

So Missouri joins the areas we’ve already looked at, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin as more than capable of producing talented writers.

“Somehow I can’t believe there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C’s. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Constancy and the greatest of these is Confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.
Walt Disney

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mark Twain

“I’m an airmail pilot. St. Louis to Springfield to Peoria to Chicago. The ocean can’t be any worse than snow, sleet and fog.” (Charles A. Lindbergh the night before his historic flight across the Atlantic ocean.)

The Spirit of St. Louis
Screenplay Billy Wilder
& Wendell Mayes
based on Lindbergh’s book

Photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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