Posts Tagged ‘Sundance’

”Storytelling needs a sense of place.”
—Robert Redford

The road to Sundance is difficult. Especially in a two-wheel drive car at wintertime. Because of snow, chains on your tires are often required if you’re not in an all-wheel drive or four wheel drive vehicle.

I’m speaking of the literal road to Sundance, Utah. Of course, the Sundance Film Festival (which starts today) is a difficult place for filmmakers to get their films shown. Because of the high volume of films submitted for relatively few spots, the acceptance rate I’ve read is less than 2%. But we’re going back to the roots today. Long before I started this blog Screenwriting from Iowa …and Other Unlikely Places in 2008, and before what would become known as the Sundance Film Festival, and I think even before there was a place known as Sundance, Utah. Back to the early ’60s when actor/director Robert Redford took a drive into Provo Canyon and up Route 92 toward Mount Timpanogos and ended up buying two acres of land (because that’s all he could afford).

But in 1969, on the success of his roles in Barefoot in the Park and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Redford was able to purchase an additional 500 acres. That is where the Sundance Mountain Resort is located. I’m actually not 100% sure, but I think the seeds of the Sundance Film Festival were birthed at the Sundance Institute started in Sundance in 1981. I think back then, Utah would officially have qualifed as an unlikely place to be a future Mecca for independent filmmakers. This year due to COVID the festival is online (and select theaters around the country), but Park City is normally the main hub for the festival (with many of the films shown in Salt Lake City). Both of those areas are about an hour north of Sundance.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to make a stop at the Sundance Resort in December. I took the photos on this post and soaked in what drew Redford to the area. I’ve been a fan of Redford’s since I was ten years old and saw a re-release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in theaters. “Think you used enough dynamite there Butch?” In high school I did a report on old west ghost towns and remember reading a book by Redford called The Outlaw Trail. For a kid growing up in a cement block home in the suburbs of Orlando, that old west stuff was (and still is) fascinating.

I always thought of the Old West as places like Colorado, Wyoming and Montana—but Utah is where many of the great old westerns were shot including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Stagecoach. The book When Hollywood Came to Utah by James D’Arc covers that history well. After I graduated from film school back in the ’80s one of my stops was the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. It only took me a few more decades to make it up the road to Sundance. Hope I can make it in person to the Sundance Film Festival one of these days. But, hey, this is a reminder that there are all kinds of things happening in unlikely places.

P.S. Even if you can’t make it Utah—and even if you don’t have a car—there are online ways for you to learn from the Sundance Institute through their Sundance co//ab website where you can pay for classes and even watch some free videos on the filmmaking process.

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

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“What can you do when you’re absolutely nowhere but feel like you are full of magic and ideas?”
Filmmaker Mark Duplass

“There’s one thing that keeps coming up to me over and over in my career–this very simple phrase—and I’m going to take a note from motivational speaker Tony Robbins for a second—and were going to have something to really focus in on and that is the simple words,  ‘The cavalry isn’t coming.’ And I’m looking around like Tony, and let it sit. Then Tony repeats it, ‘The cavalry is not coming.’ And I say this because we’ve all heard that amazing tale abut this 21-year-old kid who had a script and his cousin worked in the mail room at Warner Brothers and he gave it to him and the script got up to the head of Warner Brothers they loved it and bought it for a million dollars and got it made. That’s an exciting story, but a super dangerous one, because I don’t know anyone who that’s happened to —maybe that’s happened once—but I had a very different career trajectory.”
Producer/Director/Actor Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, The Mindy Project)
2015 SXSW Keynote talk

Somewhere between starting out as a filmmaker with little assets and selling the golden goose screenplay, Mark Duplass offered these points from his 2015 South by Southwest talk:

1) The $3 Film—One scene, two actors, five minutes in length. Aim for comedic because  film festivals are looking for humorous short-shorts. Shoot it on whatever camera you can get your hands on—including an iPhone. Don’t just make one, make one ever weekend. Don’t worry if the first ones suck, you’ll get better and find your voice.

Note: Mark and his brother Jay made the short This is John in one 20-minute take that they edited down to 7 minutes. The little experiment was the first film they made that was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival.

2) Once your short-short plays in some festivals and wins some awards an agent will approach you and tell you “The cavalry is coming”—but it’s not.

3) But you will have a handful of friends you’ve met along the way who will help you make a $1,000 feature film. (As in one thousand dollars.)  Between time at your day job, your 5-8 person crew put together a feature film that you may or may not have a script for using whatever’s available to use in your town. It takes you a year or two to finish this film but you get it into film festivals where you’ve made inroads with your short films.

A agent tells you the cavalry is coming—but it’s not.

4) You make another $1,000 film, but this time you have a rich but sad name TV actor who wants to do something creative with his talent and teams up with you because you are a rising indie filmmaker. You will sell this film to a video on demand (VOD) group for between $50,000-$100,000. You’ll finally pay your crew some money.

An agent will tell you “The cavalry is coming”—and they may be right if that means you will take meetings in Hollywood for the next year but nothing will come of it. You might even sell a TV pitch that will end up in turn around, which at least puts money in your pockets.

5) But instead you decide to take you name TV actor (and perhaps a second TV actor) and you shoot two episodes of a two-hander TV show and license it (and the season you’re going to produce) to a cable or online group for $500,000. Now you’re finally making money.

And an agent tells you, “The  cavalry is coming.” And they may be right, but as you look at the offers coming your way you realize that you may not want to be a part of that cavalry. You realize you are your own cavalry. You are your own studio. Your creating projects that you own and that are finding distribution.

6) You then help others became their own  cavalry, by investing in their $1,000 films.

So the bad and good news of Duplass’ talk is the cavalry is not coming, and you are the  cavalry.

Related posts:
Who cares if it’s garbage?—Edward Burns
The Ten Film Commandments of Edwards Burns
How to Shoot a Feature in Ten Days
It’s a Good Time to Be a Filmmaker
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood’
Freedom of Limitations

Scott W. Smith





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“Storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately connect us.”
Robert Redford, Sundance Institute President and Founder

“It seemed like an age old story made new.”
Director Jessee Moss (on not Hercules, but his doc The Overnighters)

It’s really not a fair fight. The tag team of  Hercules and Lucy will be playing today in 6,762 theaters in the United States and The Overnighters (as far as I know) will be playing in just one theater—and a small one at that. It’s actually playing at a microcinema—or minima—in Pepin, Wisconsin.

Pipin’s where I wish I could be tonight or tomorrow as The Overnighters plays in a theater that holds just 40 people. The Jessee Moss documentary on Williston, North Dakota won the  U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

How’s this for a logline? “Desperate, broken men chase their dreams and run from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields. A local Pastor risks everything to help them.”

Okay, maybe not a logline that wouldn’t excite WME Story Editor Christopher (The Inside Pitch) Lockhart and result in a movie that would open in 3,000+ theaters and find an international audience, but I look forward to seeing it eventually. You do know this blog is called Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, don’t you? Williston, North Dakota qualifies as an unlikely place to make a film.

“Jesse Moss’ verite documentary about the impact of the oil boom in Williston, North Dakota on the local job market, and the controversial priest supporting the lives of the newcomers it attracts, contains one of the most remarkable examples of layered non-fiction storytelling to come along in some time.”
Eric Kohn, Indiewire review of The Overnighters after the movies Sundance viewing

The Overnighters really isn’t competing tonight against Hercules and Lucy (and I’m sure some talented screenwriters worked on both of those movies), I just wanted to give a shout-out to the Flyway Film Festival gang and its Executive Director Rick Vaicius as they celebrate the opening of their Flyway Minima tonight in a former ice cream shop near the banks of Lake Pepin. The only thing better than being at the opening night would be eating at the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin before going to the movie.

P.S. Don’t be surprised if Lucy beats Hercules at the box office this weekend. Remember that post I wrote earlier this week (‘What it means to be a screenwriter’) and how “Young Women Are The Hottest Box Office Demographic.” Showdown—Who will win at the box office—A female driven action film or a male driven action film? What are the chances they both do well and Dwayne Johnson and Scarlet Johansson end up in a film together next year?

Related posts:
Postcard #17 (Lake Pepin)
The Perfect Logline
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 1)
Screenwriting Quote #172 (Christopher Lockhart) 

Scott W. Smith


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“It’s a difficult time in the [film] industry at the moment. There’s a lot of changing over that’s happening, and there are a lot of very bright young people who want to get into it.”
Director John Schlesinger in 1969
Same year Midnight Cowboy was released for which Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director
Quote from the video below titled The Secrets of Legendary Film Directors (includes Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini)

Remember that 1969 is the same year that Easy Rider hit movie theaters.

Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (and the Kenneth Bower doc of the same name) recounts how many of those very bright young people (including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Francis Ford Coppola) changed the film industry–and makes the case for them saving the industry.

Now 45 years later Lucas and Spielberg are the old guard and just last year spoke publicly to film students at USC about the difficult and changing times of the film industry.  Lucas said, “The pathway to get into theaters is really getting smaller and smaller.” And Spielberg went as far as saying there could be an “implosion” or “meltdown” in the film business due to megabudget movies failing at the box-office simultaneously. Steven Soderbergh in his State of Cinema Talk last year added that cinema was under “assault” by studios (with the support of audiences).

In the late ’20 with the advent of sync sound in movies, along with the depression, there was a lot of concern in the movie industry about the changing times and technology. In the late ’40s and early ’50s with the spreading growth of television in homes there was much concern in the film industry about the changing times and technology. In the ’80s it was cable TV and VHS tapes that people feared would keep people away from movie theaters.  Most recently concerns have shifted to the Internet, videos games, and pirating. Changing times have a way of, well, changing. Constantly.

So here we are back to the future—difficult and changing times. And yet, you can still copy and paste Schlesinger’s 1969 words—”there are a lot of very bright young people who want to get into it”—and drop them in 2014.

And Soderbergh understands that some new young filmmakers (and new visions of old filmmakers) are going to emerge and find an audience.

“So whenever I despair I think, OK, somebody out there somewhere, while we’re sitting right here, somebody out there somewhere is making something cool that we’re going to love, and that keeps me going.”
Steven Soderbergh
Keynote address at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival

At that moment somewhere in Teaxs someone was working on something cool. As Soderbergh was giving that talk Richard Linklater was editing his newest film Boyhood that premiered at Sundance Film Festival last week.  Indiewire called the film ‘groundbreaking” and making “cinematic history” because the movie was shot with the same young actors 3 or 4 days a year—over the course of 12 years.

And winning the Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic and the Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance this year was the personal film  Whiplash written and directed by Damien Chazelle. A film that explores dedication to one’s art.  Whiplash’s executive producer Jason Reitman called it,  “Shine meets Full Metal Jacket.”

Whiplash—the word, as in severe head jerk—is a good metaphor for the difficult and changes times following the digital revolution. Changes that have transformed the film industry (if I can still use the word “film” ), but changes that have also brought new opportunities.

Scott W. Smith

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“A Hollywood producer interrogated me. ‘Are the film rights avalable?’ he asked. ‘Well, yeah,’ I said. ‘But you know it’s a book of poems?”
Sherman Alexie
On phone calls he got after great reviews of his first book The Business of Fancydancing

“In the 60s…all the hippies were trying to be Indians.”
Smoke Signals

Movies on sale at the 2012 Meskwaki Pow Wow

Sherman Alexie helped put the Indian in the indie film movement back in the late 90s with his script Smoke Signals. Alexie’s script was based on his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven. The movie was produced and directed by Chris Eyre and won the Audience Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. The film was advertised as “the first feature film written, directed and produced by Native Americans.”

Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Eyre is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.

Alexie left the reservation and became a New York Times bestseller, a produced screenwriter, and winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. These days he lives an urban life (as he says 60% of American Indians do)—in his case in Seattle.

“The class I took [at the University of Washington] that really got me instantly was a poetry writing class. I’d never read anything written by an Indian—I had no idea we actually wrote about our lives. And the teacher, Alex Clow, handed me this anthology of contemporary  Native American poetry called Songs from This Earth on Turtle’s Back and I took it home that night and read all 400 pages straight through, and then read it again, and read it again. I read that thing everyday probably for two years. Stunned that you could write about our lives as a reservation Indian. About poverty, beauty, pow wows, and fry bread, and backward driving cars. I had no idea that my small life would appeal to anybody. And it was with that anthology and those other Native American writers that came before me that  I realized that my story might be important. ”
Sherman Alexie
Conversations At KCTS 9

The American Indian Film Institute will host the 37th annual American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco this November. (Films are of or about North American Indian or Canada First Nation Peoples.)

P.S. Chris Eyre, the director of Smoke Signals, has gone on to direct episodes of Law & Order, Friday Night Lights, and shared a DGA Award for directing the TV movie  Edge of America.

Scott W. Smith

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“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
President Obama
State of the Union Address 1/25/11
(Referencing the Soviet’s rocket launch in 1957 which fueled the USA in the space race.)

“The piece of advice that Walter Gretzky gave (his son) Wayne Gretzky was this…’don’t go where the puck’s been, go where it’s gonna to be.’ The philosophy was simple, if you puck chase you’re always going to be behind the game…You want to be the person that’s where the puck’s going to be.”
Filmmaker Kevin Smith
Sundance 2011

Back in the good old days of 1994 filmmaker Kevin Smith sold his $27,000 film Clerks at Sundance. A year later Edward Burns’ $25,000 film The Brothers McMullen was sold. Both Smith and Burns have continued carving out careers since that time and if you want to see which way the wind is blowing take a look at the direction they are heading as independent filmmakers.

A few months ago Burns’ self-produced Nice Guy Johnny (for again $25,000) and released it on iTunes. And earlier this week Kevin Smith announced that for his latest film, The Red State, he will not be selling the film at Sundance, but instead self-distributing the film first taking it on the road to large venues across the county where he will be speaking after showing the film.

His rational is he has a large fan base that follow his podcasts, Twitter feeds, etc. and he (or a studio) doesn’t need to spend $20 million advertising the film. We’ll see how it plays out. But it’s a good indicator of where the puck is heading for one group of filmmakers.

If you wanted to pinpoint indie film’s modern Sputnik moment I think it’s fitting to point to 1999 when The Blair Witch Project showed Hollywood the power of the internet. More than 10 years later we live in a digital world that has altered the music industry and now well into altering the film and Tv industry.

Five years ago we were watching poor quality short videos on You Tube and today you can stream feature films in high quality directly to your computer or TV via Netflix or the like. It’s no surprise that the last Blockbuster video store in my area announced this month that it was going out of business (following Hollywood Video stores that are long gone).

If independent filmmakers can raise their own money, make their own films AND can control the distribution—that is truly independent filmmaking. It’s a new game for filmmakers everywhere—from LA, to Iowa, and even the former Soviet Union. Heck, I can even see hockey great Walter Gretzky making his own films with his actress wife Janet Jones. (Still remember her role in The Flamingo Kid.)

The old Hollywood expression was it takes an army to make a film, these days you just need a camera—and an army of Twitter/Facebook/You Tube followers interested in the stories you tell. (Some of them won’t just be watching your films, but helping you raise funds as well.)

P.S. Speaking of Sundance & the Internet, I received a form email today from Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald saying, “Today we are unveiling Life in a Day at Sundance for the film’s World Premiere. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of you for participating in this extraordinary experience….” I was part of the You Tube community who on July 21, 2010 submitted one of the 80,000 clips that they were gathering for a 90 minute film. (Edited down from 4,500 hours of footage. So close. I can always say, “I was this close to having a film in Sundance this year”.)  It will be interesting to see the final film.  Here’s a teaser:

Scott W. Smith

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“I was a failure at everything I tried. I worked as a box boy at a supermarket and got fired. Then my dad got me a job at Standard Oil—fired again.”
Robert Redford
Success magazine

This year’s Sundance Film Festival began a few days ago and it’s a fitting time to look back at the man who started it all. By the time Robert Redford became a superstar with the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), he had already been acting for more than a decade. First on stage, then in TV programs, and then starring roles in features (This Property Condemned, Barefoot in the Park).

But his role as the Sundance Kid was the game changer. Many years ago I was at an AFI event in LA where someone attached to Butch Cassidy said that a producer or studio executive didn’t like the choise of Redford in the role of Sundance saying of the good looking actor, “Throw a stick at Malibu and you’ll hit ten Robert Redford’s.” But Redford turned out to be quite special.

Beginning with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid he had a ten-year run that has to be up there with the greats in film history. Just looking at a handful of films from that era would be a solid career for most actors.

Jeremiah Johnson
The Way We Were
The Sting
Three Days of the Condor
All the President’s Men

And he topped that all off by directing the 1980 film Ordinary People for which he took home the Oscar for Best Director. And it was in that wake that he began Sundance (along with Sterling Van Wagenen, John Earle and Cirina Hampton Catania)  as a way to attract films to be shot in Utah and to celebrate and encourage American filmmakers who were making regional films outside the Hollywood system. (This blog, to borrow Diablo Cody’s phrase, is a “spiritual cousin” to that original vision of Sundance.)

Of course, in the 30 plus years Sundance and grown and morphed but like everything else in life—you either grow or die. Sundance is still one of the key places for independent filmmakers to showcase their work and every year a few filmmakers get deals that give them an opportunity to pay back their investors and have their films shown to a wider audience. That’s a good thing.

Here’s how Redford recently reflected on starting Sundance.

‘I was turning 40 and I had worked really hard in the ’70s, doing movies back-to-back. I thought that if I kept doing that, I’d get stale and begin to repeat myself. Maybe I should take a year off, step back and revitalize—think about where I am and what I’d like to do.

That’s something I’ve done my whole life, I call it ‘returning to zero.’ You’re at a high point in your life and, rather than ride it too far, you jump off and start all over again, like it never happened. I came up with the idea to give something back to the industry that had been good to me.

Also, there were two other things happening then simultaneously: One was that video and cable were about to explode and that meant an explosion for distribution. But at the same time the Hollywood system was becoming more centralized, narrowing their focus to the youth market. That meant that we’d probably have a reduction in quality.

I saw a space in there that could be filled, and I thought about what I personally want to do with it.I thought it would be great to have a place where people could come and work and not be afraid of failing.”
Robert Redford
MovieMaker magazine issue #2011
The Sundance Kid by Julie Jacobs

After a few years with Sundance up and running Redford was back in the acting saddle in 1984 playing Roy Hobbs in The Natural (1984). It’s my favorite Redford film. From the characters and story, to the novel by Bernard Malamud* and the screenplay adaption by Robert Towne and Phil Dusenberry, to Barry Levinson’s direction, the other actors, and Celeb Deschanel’s cinematography, the film is a pure delight and I return to that film again and again. (It’s a film strong on theme.)

Redford may have “failed at everything” he tried starting out, but he’s sure made up for it since then.

* Like Redford, writer Malamud (The Natural) didn’t find early success— “I felt the years go by without accomplishment.” You can read that extended quote on my post Can Screenwriting be Taught?

Scott W. Smith

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“(USC Film School) made me realize that this wasn’t something I could take lightly; if I was serious about it, I’d have to get my butt in gear.”
Stephen Susco
screenwriter, The Grudge, Red

Years ago I heard it said that there were plenty of screenwriters in L.A. who had never had a movie produced but were living in homes with swimming pools and driving nice cars. Meaning that even though a screenwriter hadn’t been produced he or she could still earn a decent living. I’m sure today that is still true (though perhaps to a lesser extent).

Up until yesterday the record number that I had ever heard about of feature scripts written by a screenwriter before they were produced was 18 by Geoff Rodkey who finally broke through with Daddy Day Care. Then I heard the Creative Screenwriting’s podcast where Jeff Goldsmith mentioned that Stephen Susco wrote 25 movies before he had his first one produced (The Grudge).

The Grudge was produced by Sam Reimi and starred Sarah Michelle Gellar and had an $100 million domestic gross at the box office. An interesting side note is The Grudge is based on the Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge written and directed by Takashi Shimizu though that version only made $3 million worldwide.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Susco is not that he wrote 25 screenplays before being produced but that he wrote 25 screenplays in less than a decade. He wrote his first feature screenplay in ’96, graduated from USC film school in ’99 and The Grudge was released in ’04. But he had also been writing since he was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania far from the film industry. He also had made some short films including one that won an award in California which helped open the door at USC.

So Susco wrote his pages and paid his dues. Susco’s directorial debut Red premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Everybody’s got their own crazy story about how they got started, and for me, I had written a lot by that point. Also, when I got to USC, I got a really good recommendation from someone. What the school’s going to be able to do for you is somewhat limited, so you should try to get an internship at the studios and you can learn a lot, so I ended up getting an internship at Warner Brothers at a production company over there.

My job was basically to get coffee and water for people in the morning and alphabetize the script library . . . but I read all of them, and listened to people talking on the phone and started to figure out how the business actually worked, things you couldn’t really get in school. I kept writing and second semester I switched and interned at Silver Pictures: Joel Silver’s company, which was good for me cause I grew up on those films; I loved his films. And it was also a totally different kind of shop.

The first place I worked was sort of a smaller company, Paul Weinstein’s company, and they did a lot of sort of independent films and going over to Joel Silver, it was suddenly you’re in a middle of an episode of Entourage but there was a guy who worked there who had aspirations to be a producer also, and he had found out that I had written a couple of scripts and he said you know I have this project that needs re-writes, and I have this director involved. Can’t pay you, but if you’re interested that’d be great. I ended up re-writing their script for them, and that’s the script that ended up at New Line cinema a number months later and led me to get my first gig. It was kind of a circuitousness path- I didn’t have an agent at the time.
Stephen Susco
Interview at filmmaker.com

Scott W. Smith

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Boy, I should have mentioned Kevin Smith before yesterday as that post brought the second highest number of views since I started this blog. I’m glad I didn’t say anything negative about 21-year olds living in the basement of their parent’s homes surrounded by comic books and possessing a burning desire to make a film.

Which somewhat describes Smith when he took the first steps toward making a feature film. Armed with one acting class at a community college, four months of films school before he dropped out, and inspired by seeing Richard Linkletter’s Slacker, Smith set out to write a script that took place in one location.

“My example was Robert Rodriguez. In an interview he’d said, ‘Take stock of what you have and work with that. I had a bus and I had a turtle, so I worked them both into the script!’ I thought, I can get my hands on a convenience store…So I went home, and got my job back at the convenience store, fully intending to shoot the flick there. And I started writing like mad. I guess the first draft of it was about 164 pages, pretty long, so I handed it over to my friend Vincent. I was like, ‘What do you think?’ And he was like, ‘It’s really good. I think you should do it.’”
                                              Kevin Smith
                                              My First Movie
                                              Edited by Stephen Lowenstein
                                              page 76-77

And that was the beginning of Clerks. Smith didn’t have rich parents. He didn’t live in L.A. and he didn’t have New York City film connections. He didn’t have a master’s degree in film (or a BA or, I don’t think, even an AA degree), but what he did have was a 164 page script that he had written where most of the action happened behind a counter at a convenience store.

A couple years later he was showing that film at Sundance. But it started with “writing like mad.”


Scott W. Smith

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