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Posts Tagged ‘Susannah Grant’

I want to feel, sunlight on my face
See that dust cloud disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the Streets Have No Name/U2

Not all people seeking shelter in movies (and life) are in the mist of a world war like in my last new posts on Fury and Unbroken. Not all are running from a literal storm. Some struggles are more personal. Closer to the homefront—even in the home. Three movies came to mind this morning about women seeking shelter from—to borrow the U2 phrase—various kinds of “poison rain” that have damaged more lives than all the atomic bombs combined. (Wayward fathers, abusive husbands, drugs & alcohol.)

I started this run of “Shelter From The Storm” posts based on the Bob Dylan song, so it seems fitting to end this post with lyrics from another Dylan song:

May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever Young/ Bob Dylan

P.S. If you’re in an abusive situation may you seek shelter from the storm today:
The National Spouse Abuse hotline is 1-800-799-7233
National Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Information help line is 1-800-784-6776
Alcoholics Anonymous 

Related Posts:
Sleeping with the Enemy (The novel & the story have roots in Cedar Falls, Iowa—as does this blog.)
‘Winter’s Bone (How it Got Made) One of my favorite films in last decade.
‘Winter’s Bone’ (David Morrell)
‘Winter’s Bone’ (Debra Granik)
Susannah Grant on Failure (Screenwriter of 28 Days)

Scott W. Smith

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Today is the first day of Screenwriting Summer School. Admission is free and attendance is optional. The text I’ll be using mostly isn’t a text at all, but videos from The Dialogue Series: Learning from the Masters.   The series (81 of the top  screenwriters working today) was produced several years ago and until earlier this month you had to pay for them. Now a chunk of the complete interviews are available for free on The Dialogue Series You Tube channel.

Not many people know about this yet as some of these videos only have 11 views as I type this—most have under 100 views. I’m not a big fan of just tossing videos on this blog, so I’ll try to find one quote or one insight that jumps out at me that I hope you find helpful.

Since I touched on the movie Erin Brockovich this week it seems fitting to have screenwriter Susannah Grant lead off our first summer school class. One take away from this video is when Grant starts a script she has a certain amount of “confusion” and “uncertainty”—something she heard was how Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Julia) was as he started writing a new screenplay.  (And just to show how writers have different processes, check out post Dustin Lance Black Screenwriting Tutorial to see how he works through the confusion and uncertainty  for months before he actually starts typing the script.)

The road Grant took to success had stops at Amherst College (undergraduate) and AFI (grad school). Amhert’s website lists its comprehensive fee (room, board, tuition) for 2014-2015 at $60,400 making a total cost of their four year degree just over $240,000. AFI’s website lists total costs for a first year fellow at $73,594, and the second year adds a thesis credit of $9,218 making the cost of the two year program just over $150,000. So in today’s dollars Grant’s education is in ballpark of $400,000.

I don’t know what Grant’s education costs were back when she went to school in the ’80s— or what scholarships, grants, and/or loans she had—but she sure got a nice return on her investment. But it would be an interesting to hear how Grant would answer if she’d recommend the same route today to a young female writer who had a desire to write screenplays. (Especially in light of the recent WGAW report.) Extra credit to anyone who can find that answer.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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“Here’s a secret I have learned in 20 years as a screenwriter. Failure is constant for everyone. And I mean it, everybody fails at this all the time. Not just screenwriters, but I think anyone who tries to illuminate the human experience in an authentic way…I think everyone has the permission to fail a little. In fact I think that freefalling feeling you get right on the knife edge of total disaster may in fact be an essential ingredient to doing anything worthwhile at all. So the question then is: How do you reel yourself back from failure in a public way? How do you fall on the right side of that knife edge? And I guess what you need is a little bit of wisdom and honesty to look at something you’ve written that feels false, or boring or derivative, or in poor taste, or bullshitty, or inauthentic to you, and just plain not good enough. And say to yourself ‘I bet I can do better’.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)
2013 BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series

Related post:

Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Filmmaking Baby Steps “It’s  all baby steps. One foot in front of the other.”—Sidney Lumet
Commitment in the Face of Failure —Michael Arndt quote
‘The Lord of the Rings’ Failure
Spectacular Failures
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

Scott W. Smith

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“I start by spending as much time as possible with the people involved. And I try to be as quiet as possible, and listen and observe.”
Susannah Grant  (on her writing research of real life people)

Screenwriter Susannah Grant graduated from Amhert College and the American Film Institute, and in 1992 won the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. She then spent several years working on the TV show Party of Five and writing scripts (28 Days, Ever After, andPochantas) which all paved the way for her biggest success to date, writing the script for Erin Brockovich. In the introduction to The Shooting Script book of the script Grant explains:

I set out trying to turn a huge, complicated five-year chunk of (Erin Brockovich’s) life and work into a 120 page cohesive screenplay. The question I’m asked most about this movie is how much of it is true. And my answer is, it’s almost entirely true, but it’s not the whole truth. Any life is complex, and Erin’s, especially in the years of the PG&E trial, was a labyrinth. Writing the script was a matter of figuring out which parts of that labyrinth were essential to the story I was telling; which were germane; which were expendable; and which were inessential. but so damn funny, you couldn’t possibly leave them out.

I holed up in my office and, several months later, emerged with a finished first draft. And let me tell you—handing over a first draft over to anyone is a nerve-wracking experience, but I promise you, nothing compares to the anxiety that comes with giving it to the person on whom it is based.

The real life Erin Brockovich liked the script.  Stephen Soderbergh liked the script. Julia Roberts liked the script. Audiences liked the movie. And the Academy liked Julie Roberts enough as Erin Brockovich to give her an Oscar as Best Actress in a Leading Role. Grant also received and Oscar nomination for her script.

In a Storylink interview with Debra Eckerling, Grant further explains her writing process:

I always have a road map. It is an outline that gets revised as I move along. I start with, “How does this movie start? What’s the first scene? What’s the scene after that?” And I bite off a little piece at a time. It’s like climbing a mountain. You can’t look at the mountain top, you just have to look at the ridge you’re on.

I start with a full outline. Not every beat will be hammered down and I rarely stick to the original file. I always over-outline. … As I write, I amend and revise and condense. I wouldn’t call it an outline, I’d call it a road map that I detour from.

PS. In total, Erin Brockovich received five Academy Award nominations including Albert Finney in his supporting role as Brockovich’s boss, Ed Masry.  Finney, by the way, happens to turn 74 today. Finney came from theater where he was known for his work on Shakespeare plays. If you’ve never seen his roles in Murder on the Orient Express, Under the Volcano, or Shoot the Moon, put them on your Netflix list. Happy Birthday Mr. Finney.

FYI: If you keep track of such things, Grant’s education at Amhert College and the American Film Institute would easily cost $200,000 in today’s dollars, and take a six year commitment.

Scott W. Smith

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When you break down the core aspects of a screenplay you have scene headings (INT. HOSPITAL ROOM – DAY), dialogue (“I’m walking here!”) and what is called scene description, action or narrative. It’s the little blurb that sets up the scene and explains what’s going on in between the dialogue.  Today we’ll look at examples of descriptive writing as it applies to introducing a character in a screenplay. Notice the economy of the writing.

ERIN BROCKOVICH. How to describe her? A beauty queen would come to mind — which, in fact, she was. Tall in a mini skirt, legs crossed, tight top, beautiful – but clearly from a social class and geographical orientation whose standards for displaying beauty are not based on subtlety.
Erin Brockovich
Susannah Grant

Jack is American, a lanky drifter with his hair a little long for the standards of the times. He is also unshaven, and his clothes are rumpled from sleeping in them. He is an artist, and has adopted the bohemian style of the art scene in Paris. He is also very self-possessed and sure-footed for 20, having lived on his own since 15.
Titanic
James Cameron

At the head of the party is an American, INDIANA JONES. He wears a short leather jacket, a flapped holster, and a brimmed felt hat with a weird feather stuck in the band.
Indiana Jones
Lawrence Kasden

Driving the car is SALLY ALBRIGHT. She’s 21 years old. She’s very pretty although not necessarily in an obvious way.
When Harry Met Sally
Nora Ephron

JUNO MacGUFF stands on a placid street in a nondescript subdivision, facing the curb. It’s FALL. Juno is sixteen years old, an artfully bedraggled burnout kid.
Juno
Diablo Cody

Flip through any produced screenplay and notice that  character introductions are  usually just one to three sentences in length.(Something novels sometimes take pages to do.) Screenwriting is simple and complex all at the same time.

And by the way, academic types would argue that Cameron shouldn’t write “his clothes are rumpled from sleeping in them” because that is cheating. You are not supposed to write what can’t be understood visually. (The viewer won’t really know why Jack’s clothes are rumpled unless he says, “Man, my clothes are so rumpled because I slept in them last night.”) But this rule is violated all the time. Successful writers often sneak in little things to help the reader out. Remember you’re trying to get a jaded reader excited about your script and sometimes they need a little help.

Scott W. Smith

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“Are you something else I’m going to have to live through?”
        
                                                             
Erin Brockovich 
                                                            Written by Susannah Grant 

 

Yesterday while making the 3+ hour drive to Minneapolis where I have a video shoot today I listened to Don Henley’s CD Inside Job and there is one particular song I tend to listen to over and over again — My Thanksgiving (written by Henley along with Stan Lynch and Jai Winding):

For every moment of joy
For every hour of fear
For every winding road that brought me here 
For every breath, for every day of living
This is my Thanksgiving 

For  everyone who helped me start
And for everything that broke my heart
For every breath, for every day of living
This is my Thanksgiving

Henley’s songs often have a spiritual element and this song is no different as it takes an angle to be thankful for the winding roads and things that have broken your heart. That album came out in 2000, the same year as the movie Erin Brockovich which featured Julie Roberts in the lead roll playing a character who had her share of winding roads and heart breaking experiences.

It was written by Susannah Grant who also wrote Pocahontas, 28 Days, and The Soloist which is currently in theaters. In David S. Cohen’s book Screen Plays he dedicates a chapter to Erin Brockovich that ended up with a worldwide gross of $259 million and earned Grant an Oscar nomination.  Cohen asks Grant, “What’s the hardest thing about having a life and being a screenwriter at the same time?”

Grant: Maintaining concentration. Maintaining your focus. And protecting the creative part of your brain. When you have a baby and a husband and an extended family and friends, not letting those aspects of your brain overwhelm the part of your brain that writes. Just getting some mental privacy.
        I run—that helps a lot. I don’t let light in my office. I think that just cuts out the outside world. I just have a big blank wall in front of me. I just try to get rid of the things that will make me think of something else. I don’t have very good concentration. If I had a desk in front of a window, there’s no way I could work.”  

I think Erin Brockovich strikes a cord with audience because it does give meaning and purpose to a life full of winding roads and broken heart or two. That the difficult things in your life can be steps toward the opportunities you’ve always dreamed about. Isn’t that the hope we all have? So be thankful, keep writing, and it wouldn’t hurt to read Cohen’s book Screen Plays, How 25 Screen Plays Made It To A Theater Near You — For Better Or Worse.


Scott W. Smith
                                                                            

 

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Last Friday I learned that Screenwriting from Iowa was nominated for an Emmy. Who knew you could even win an Emmy for a blog?

A couple months ago I entered a couple of my productions for regional Emmys in the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Television Academy. I saw where there was a catagory for blogs on the arts and decided to give that a shot as well. 

While I’ll find out in October if I’ve won I really have to thank (one more time) Diablo Cody. Her inspirational story of blogging that eventually lead to her writing Juno (which of course, led to her winning an Academy Award) is what gave me nudge to jump into the blogging game.

She single handedly changed my perception of blogging. (Well, Ken Lee of Michael Weise Productions also had a role.) As I’ve said before, I began blogging Screenwriting from Iowa just a few days after seeing Juno and discovering Ms. Cody went to college at the University of Iowa. (The Juno-Iowa Connection.) 

It’s fitting that the Emmy Awards Gala next month will be held in downtown Minneapolis…just a few miles from where Ms. Cody wrote Juno. Don’t you just love those circle of life moments? I may never win an Oscar, but an Emmy (even a regional one) would be pretty cool.

Which brings me to the topic of screenwriting contests and awards. Are they a waste of time and money or something you should do? First let me say the writing lifestyle is hard. Writing is hard in and of itself, and finding time to actually write can be difficult between paying bills and juggling relationships. And then add on top of that it’s difficult to get much encouragement along the way. And the money thing? Forgetaboutit.

Most writers that make a living at writing could measure their work not in pages but in feet before they were discovered and the money began to flow. (Cody is no different in that while Juno was her first screenplay she had been writing since she was 12.)

One thing contests and awards provide is a little encouragement along the way. I know I have pushed more than once to make a deadline for a screenwriting contest. And I’ll never forget the person from the first Project Greenlight who commented that my script reminded then of the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. So if entering a competition forces you to write that’s a good thing. And if you win a reputable contest it could lead to getting an agent and/or getting produced. Some even offer feedback on your script.

On the other hand…I’m not a big fan of screenwriting contests in general. I think they are cash cows for many people and groups and a good deal are a waste of your time and money. Why not spend your time (and money) sending your scripts and notes to various people who can actually get your script bought and hopefully made? 

Any salesperson will tell you sales is a numbers game. It’s a matter of knocking on doors, making phone calls, sending emails and shaking hands. When screenwriter/director Gary Ross contacted Seabiscuit: An American Legend author Laura Hillenbrand to tell her why she should chose him to make her film he had on his salesman hat.  

(Allow me to add a little Midwest trivia. Hillenbrand attended Kenyon College in central Ohio whose notable alumni include actor Paul Newman, Calvin & Hobbs cartoonist Bill Watterson and writer E.L. Doctorow.)  

Before you send your script and money into a contest check it out online and see what other people are saying. I’m sure there are some good ones out there so check around. Of course, the grand daddy of screenwriting contests is The Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting

Lots and lots of competition but they offer up to five $30,000. fellowships. Age range of past winners range between 21 and 64 years old. And winners have gone on to have a role in writing 60 produced feature films. Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) was a fellow. 

The only produced screenwriter (Love Liza) I know who has his own screenwriting contest is Gordy Hoffman of Blue Cat Screenplay. In fact, Hoffman has an insightful article on screenwriting contests called The Rouge Knight: Why Screenwriting Contests Matter.

I think there are some exciting things developing with online screenwriting contests that will be refined over the coming years and I think will have some real opportunities to not only win awards but have a direct hand in getting winning scripts produced.

Let me end with a closing story on how a screenwriting contest indirectly landed my first paid dramatic writing gig. I was producing a radio program in Orlando and had missed a contest deadline for some reason (like not enough postage) and I was complaining about it at this studio where I was working on the radio program and this guy said, “I didn’t know you wrote scripts. I have a radio drama that I’m producing, do you want to write the scripts?”  (Sometimes it’s not who you know or what you know, but where you are when opportunity knocks.)

And over the next several months I wrote 12 one hour long scripts that aired nationally on the USA radio network. The producer who wrote those checks has gone on to produce several feature films so who knows if my missed opportunity many years ago could lead to other opportunities?

So keep writing and keep telling people what you do. 

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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