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Posts Tagged ‘The First Time I Got Paid for It’

Way back in 1944 Larry Gelbart was paid for the first time as a writer. He was just 16-years-old. He would go on to have an amazing career that would span seven decades in radio, TV and movies. He died just a few weeks ago and will always be remembered for his work on M*A*S*H and the Dustin Hoffman film Tootsie.

“Sitting at home one night, listening to a broadcast of the Fanny Brice Show, I heard a line delivered that I had just written hours earlier. A miraculous moment followed, the studio audience broke into this huge laugh. Two hundred people, not one of them a doting relative, nor an undiscriminating schoolmate, nor a co-worker, treadle-pumping seamstress, were laughing. Absolutely perfect strangers were actually entertained by something that had found its way from my head into theirs…that gift from an unseen audience, the reward of their laughter way back then, in what was prologue for the next half century, will always enjoy pride of place with me.”
Larry Gelbart
The First Time I Got Paid for It…
Page 60


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Nicholas Kazan has had 15 films made from his scripts including the 1990 film Reversal of Fortune which earned him an Oscar nomination.

“My life as a writer began in the theater. The first time I wrote a real play, I was in college, eating breakfast, and heard a single line of dialogue echoing over and over in my mind. Intrigued, I moved to the typewriter (yes, it was that long ago) and took dictation (there’s no other word for it) for two straight hours during while the characters, their plight, and every aspect of the drama was thrown at me at blazing speed without a moment of hesitation, doubt, or contemplative thought. The play (a one-act) was produced in college, produced professionally, and hardly a line changed from that first astounding burst.

This was, I hardly need add, definitely not an experience which prepared me for Hollywood (no rewrites?), but it remains the most important  two hours of my life.”
Nicholas Kazan
The First Time I Got Paid for It
page 110

(An interesting sidenote is Kazan also happens to be the son of Elia Kazan, the great director of On the Waterfront. Nicholas also happens to be married to screenwriter Robin Swicord who wrote The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (credited along with Eric Roth) and their daughter is actress Zoe Kazan, who has a degree in theater from Yale and had a role in I Hate Valentine’s Day. Talented family.)

Scott W. Smith

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Since Diablo Cody is my poster child (female) for a screenwriter coming from outside L.A. (and the original inspiration for this blog)  then I think I’ll name Lawrence Kasdan as the poster child (male) screenwriter from outside L.A. Kasdan was raised in Morgantown, West Virginia. Quick, name another screenwriter from West Virginia.

(While Morgantown is the second largest city in West Virginia it only has about 30,000 residents not including the students at the University of West Virginia. My lasting memory of Morgantown goes back to 1994 when I was there for a video shoot and the news broke of O.J. Simpson’s famous low-speed police chase. I remember walking down the main drag and seeing restaurant/bar after restaurant/bar having the same helicopter shot of the Simposn’s white Ford Bronco on their TVs.)

Kasdan left Morgantown to attend the University of Michigan where he was an English major. A gifted writer he would go on to win Hopwood Prize at UM for creative writing. In his 30s he became  one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood with a string of box office hits— Star Wars: The Empire Strikes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. He has also had  three Oscar nominations for his screenwriting —Grand Canyon, The Accidental Tourist, and The Big Chill.

But what I think you’ll be interested in is that little period between college in Ann Arbor, Michigan and his first sale as a screenwriter. While reading The First Time I Got Paid for It, Writers’ Tales from the Hollywood Trenches I found this retelling by Kasdan when he would have been a 28 year old advertising copywriter:

“One summer day in 1977 my agent asked me to lunch, which was so unusual it made me nervous. It has taken me a long time to get an agent, so naturally, I was worried about hanging on to him. For two years now he had been trying to sell a thriller I had written for my favorite star Steve McQueen, who didn’t know I’d written this thriller for him. Originally, the agent thought he wouldn’t have much trouble selling the script, so he agreed to represent me. But after sixty-seven rejections he was getting discouraged.”

But his agent didn’t want to part ways with Kasdan, but he did want Kasdan to try his hand at writing for television, specifically Starsky & Hutch. Kasden reluctantly agreed to give it a shot. Soon he heard back from the powers that be at Starsky & Hutch that he didn’t have the goods to write for the show. He told the agent not to give up on him that he had a new screenplay in the works that was almost done. He thought that would buy him a little more time to breakthrough.

Then Kasdan writes, “But when I came into my job the next day, there was a message that my agent had called. Could he have changed his mind overnight? Of course he could. After nine years of writing screenplays without success, I believed only bad things were going to happen to me. But what he had to tell me wasn’t bad. It was kind of miraculous. After two years and all that rejection, suddenly two different parties were interested in my thriller—which was called The Bodyguard.”

So while you dream of writing the next  Raiders of the Lost Ark or Return of the Jedi (or get discouraged in your own career) remember Kasden’s line, “After nine years of writing screenplays without success.” And also keep in mind that while that first sale came in 1977 it was fifteen years before the film The Bodyguard was produced and released into theaters. (The film starred Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in roles that were originally thought would star Steve McQueen & Barbra Stresisand. The movie made over $400 million worldwide.)

Related posts: Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Screenwriting from Michigan

Raiders Revisted (part 1)

Scott W. Smith

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Driving from Minneapolis to Cedar Falls feels like a long commute because the three and a half hour drive literally involves heading south on Interstate 35 and making one turn. It’s a pretty mellow drive. There’s not much worth looking forward to once you’ve made the slight detour to visit the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa (where Buddy Holly played his last concert),and  The Music Man Square in Mason City (A museum dedicated to hometown writer Meredith Willson who wrote The Music Man).

There are a couple casinos along the way but they personally bore me. I am still fascinated by the hundreds of wind turbines scattered along the way, but my point is you have work a little to break up the drive a little if you take the Interstate. This past weekend I stopped at a discount bookstore and ended up picking up The First Time I Got Paid for It, Writers’ Tales from the Hollywood Trenches. It was edited by Peter Lefcourt and Laura J. Shapiro and has various stories by writers such as Cameron Crowe, Robin Swicord, and Gary Ross telling their stories of making their first bucks from writing.

The forward by William Goldman alone is worth the $1.99 I paid for the book. Here’s an excerpt:

“I was eighteen and an aunt gave me a copy of Mixed Company, a book of his (Irwin Shaw) collected stories. I’d never read a word by him, never heard his name. But I remember the lead story in the book was The Girls in Their Summer Dresses. About a guy who looked at women.

Followed by The Eighty Yard Run… Well, The Eighty Yard Run is about a football player. Shit, I remember thinking, you can do that? You can write about stuff I care about?…At eighteen, I began writing stories. Not a whole lot of acclaim. I took a creative writing class at Oberlin.  Everyone took it because it was a gut course. I wanted a career. Everyone got A’s and B’s, I got the only C…. I have, somewhere, hundreds of rejection slips…My confidence is not building through theses years. I hope you get that.”
William Goldman
Two-time Oscar Winner
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid
All the President’s Men

It’s good to hear those kind of stories.

By the way, the first time I got paid to write anything was when I was a 19-year-old staff writer/photographer  for the Sanford Evening Herald and Sam Cook, the sports editor, paid me 10 cents a word (and a little extra for photos). That may not seem like much but those dimes add up, you know? (And it’s more than I’m paid for writing this blog.) And at 19 I also discovered Irwin Shaw’s The Eighty Yard Run. Still dreaming of an Oscar.

Update 9/30/09: I tracked Sam Cook down via the internet and found out he is now an award-winning columnist for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida where he specializes in stirring up trouble reporting on the local government. I sent him an email and he called me today and we spoke for the first time in a long time.

Scott W. Smith

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