Posts Tagged ‘The Moment with Brian Koppelman’

“When you’re working well all of your instinctive powers are in operation, and you don’t know why you do the things you do.”
—Photographer Dorothea Lange
Grab a Hunk of Lightning documentary

I’m six chapters into recording the audio version of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles and looking at it with fresh eyes there are a few things that jump out at me. When you boil down the creative process there seems to be some common traits in people who flourish in the arts.

—Work ethic (to hone the natural skills they possess)
—Knowledge (doesn’t have to be a formal education)

But then there is that extra something-something that really helps some people rise above others and create something special that resonates with a large group of people. Some would call it intuition, and others would call it magic.

I thought of that yesterday when I listened to a podcast interview with Mike Campbell. He co-wrote the songs Refugee, Here Comes My Girl, and You Got Lucky with Tom Petty, and The Boys of Summer with Don Henley.

“Writing is such a mystical thing. Sometimes you’re just in the moment— playing that riff or whatever— and you’re just toiling around trying to put two pieces together, and sometimes a song will just reveal itself to you. It’s like magic, it really is. It’s almost so mystical that I hate to analyze it.”
—Musician Mike Campbell (Tom Petty’s right hand man for 30 years)
The Moment with Brian Koppelman

Here’s a section from my book:

Over the years I’ve spent enough money on Jimmy Buffett concerts, music, and books to help him buy a small island in Margaritaville. When asked on a 60 Minutes interview about his talent Buffett said, ‘I’m an adequate musician. I wish I was a better guitar player, and I’m a fair singer. They’re not my strongest suits . . . I’m a go capture the magic guy.”

And he’s captured enough magic to not only have that rare career that has sustained an audience for over five decades, but he’s built an entertainment and lifestyle empire making his personal worth over $500 million. That’s a lot of magic. How it happened is even a mystery to Buffett.

May you capture the magic in your writing today. But if your muse is like Stephen King’s it’s less like Tinkerbell tapping you on the shoulder, and more like the working stuff guy shoveling coal in the basement. And his only shows up when he’s at a desk writing.

P.S. Here’s a line from the song The Heart of the Matter written by Mike Campbell, Don Henley, and J.D. Souther that resonates strongly three decades after it was written:

These times are so uncertain
There’s a yearning undefined
People filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?

Scott W. Smith

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Unless you’ve been stuck under a avalanche in Colorado the past few days you can’t have missed that Captain Marvel starring Brie Larson opens tonight. Here’s what the IMDB slash page looks as I type this post. But you may have missed that movie has Iowa roots.

Screen Shot 2019-03-07 at 8.21.33 AM.png

Captain Marvel co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who also co-wrote the film with Geneva Robertson-Dworet) shot their first narrative indie film Sugar (2008) in Davenport, Iowa. Actually, in the same Quad City area along the Mississippi River that A Quiet Place screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods first started making films together as youngsters.

And the last feature Boden and Fleck made before Captain Marvel  (Mississippi Grind) actually starts out in Iowa. Though I think for budgetary reasons the entire film (except for insert shots) was shot in Louisiana. No news yet if Captain Marvel makes a stop in Iowa.

Mississippi Grind, starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds, is one of the best acted films that people never saw. It had a limited release in 2015, but is hopefully finding its lost audience now that it’s on Netflix. But the $130,000 box take (less than Captain Marvel probably spent on orange juice for the crew) made Boden and Fleck question the future of their careers.

Here’s a lightly edited excerpt from an interview that Boden and Fleck did in 2016 on The Moment with Brian Koppelman podcast.

Brian Koppelman: I do sense from you a little discouragement on the state of independent film. I look at your career and I think they’ve been able to make all these movies exactly the way that they’ve wanted to. It’s incredible. It’s the kind of thing that later someone looks back and thinks they’re living a french new wave kind of existence. Of course, living it is hard. You’re making exactly  the movies you want to make with no creative compromises. Yet I can see your frustration—are you frustrated by it?

Anna Boden: I am frustrated by it, but I look back at all the movies that we’ve made and the experience of making them—it took a few years to make Mississippi Grind (our last film) and I was frustrated. I was going home to my husband every night as we were trying to get that movie off the ground [and] I was like I can’t do this—this is my least favorite part of filmmaking. And I was complaining to all my friends about it—maybe I should open a B&B in Hudson Valley. And then we got down to New Orleans and started prep and I felt so happy. I felt so exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. So confident in what we were doing and the people we’d chosen to work with. And in those moments that it’s worth it. But then you finish and then you spend a year releasing it, and then nine people see it. And then you have to start raising money for your next project. And it’s in those lulls that you start wondering, “Is it really worth it?”

In that lull between releasing Mississippi Grind and beginning to work on Captain Marvel, Boden and Fleck directed three episodes of Koppelman’s Showtime series Billions in 2016 and 2017.

Scott W. Smith

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“If I were starting now, I would not go into film at all. I would not be a screenwriter. I would go into television. I’d go into theater. I’d write fiction. I would not subject myself to the screenwriter’s existence, ‘cause you’re not really a writer. It’s a simulacrum of a writing process. You’re living like an artist—what I mean by that is you are digging into yourself, you’re trying to make something really work. You’re putting everything into it, but what you’re creating is essentially a series of suggestions for other people to do what they want with—it’s really not art, what you’re making, at the end of the day. Your art is your screenplay, but nobody sees that.”
Screenwriter Ed Solomon (Men in Black, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure)
The Moment with Brian Koppelman podcast interview (7/4/18)

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“Kindness is free.”
Writer/director Garry Marshall

Back in the ’70s Jimmy Walker was a comedian and actor at the height of his fame— famous for his role as J.J. on the hit show Good Times and his catchphrase Dy-no-mite!
But here’s a less known account that Men in Black screenwriter Ed Solomon tells about when he was a college student in 1979 and got a huge shot of encouragement from Walker:

“There was a comedian named Jimmy Aleck and I walked in the back area of The Comedy Store and I overheard Jimmy Aleck say to someone else that he didn’t take writers but Jimmy Walker was looking for writers. And Jimmy Walker performed that night. And I went up to him afterwards and I said, ‘Excuse me Mr. Walker, are you looking for writers?’ And he literally pats me on the head and says, ‘We’re always looking for writers, son.’ Pats me on the head, gives me a phone number and address of his head writer Gene Bronstein—really nice guy—and I went back to my dorm room and typed up on onion skin paper jokes I’d written in high school, some of those jokes I performed and failed [in open mic night at The Comedy Club], some new jokes—22 jokes I remember I sent. I remember the cover letter: ‘Dear Mr. Bronstein, enclosed please find 22 jokes for your and Mr. Walker’s perusal.’ Then sent them off. And two about weeks later I got an envelope with a check for a hundred bucks saying basically this is far in excess of what we pay for material (they bought two jokes) but Mr. Walker wanted to encourage you to keep writing. And that was November of 1979, and I was like holy sh—! I got paid to write. And then about a month later, I’m in the dorms. Packed in our dorm room and on a little tiny black and white TV that we had—that was my uncle Max’s that I brought down to UCLA—staying up until 3 AM to watch Don Kirshner’s rock concert where Jimmy Walker performs a joke. And he did the joke [that I wrote]. It was one of the highlights of my writing life.”
Screenwriter Ed Solomon (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Mosaic)
The Moment with Brian Koppelman podcast

Related posts:
‘Helping others rarely hurts anyone, particularly yourself’-Ted Hope
The Kindness of Strangers 

Scott W. Smith

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“I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead.” 
Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love)

The old Hollywood adage is “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” The thought there is people don’t want “message films”—they simply want to be entertained. Yet as I’ve explored over the years, one of the things that sets many fine movies apart is they’re about something. Call that something theme, call it a message, or give it some other name, but it’s the thing that resonates with people long after they’ve been entertained.

Movies as diverse as On the Waterfront, Toy Story 3, An Officer and a Gentleman, Erin Brockovich, The Verdict, The Maxtrix, Spiderman, The Shawshank Redemption, The Wizard of Oz, Driving Miss Daisy and It’s a Wonderful Life are all movies about something.

Many of John Grisham’s books and movies deal with some sort of injustice. And in the following lightly edited and abridged exchange from The Moment with Brian Koppelman podcast Grisham talks about that delicate balance between having something to say and writing something that’s entertaining.

John Grisham: I’m still grateful for what’s happened to me. I don’t take it for granted. I keep my feet on the ground. And I just try to help people and treat them fairly. And write the best fiction I can write year after year. My dreams have all been fulfilled, which is kind of sad. There’s nothing left to dream for—but I never dreamed I’d be here. And so I’ve very content where I am and very grateful.

Brian Koppelman: So what’s the reason you write now?

John Grisham: Some books and some issues really tick me off and I want to go after people. I want to expose something. I want to shed some light on an issue that maybe we hadn’t thought about. For example, the more I read about student debt in this county the more ticked off I get. At what the government has done, what the lenders have done, what some of these schools have done to entice students to come to school there with false claims of big jobs. So these kids finish college and have a mountain of debt—can’t get a job—anyway, it’s not fraudulent, but it’s not really right either. And that’s an issue that the more I read the more I want to explore it. And I can see a novel coming with that background, with that issue.

Brian Koppelman: That’s great.

John Grisham: Stuff like that can keep me awake at night. 

Brian: When you see injustices you want to write an entertaining book, but you want to get in there and expose it in some way and make us think about it.

John Grisham: Yeah.

Brian Koppelman: What do you think is the responsibility of your position?

John Grisham: I don’t feel responsibility just because of who I am and how big my megaphone is. Sure I have an audience. But you got to be careful with your audience because they don’t all share my politics. You can’t be intrusive with your politics in popular fiction when you’re trying to entertain people. So I really have to watch that. And I do watch it. I don’t feel a responsibility next year that might change something. My responsibility is to write a book that will entertain.  

Brian Koppelman: Even if the thing that fires you up to do it though is something that bothers you. You’ll try to wrap it in a package that’s digestible.

John Grisham: Sure. Oh yeah. Look forward to it. That’s what I want to do every time out.

P.S. For John Grisham and others interested in the student loan debate; Read the interview I did with friend and filmmaker Calvin Johannsen on his doc Broke, Busted & Disgusted.

Related Posts:
Sidney Lumet on Theme “The picture had better have some meaning to me.”
Put the Megaphone Down! “You’ve got to find a way of saying it without saying it.”
Duke Ellington
Diane Frolov & The Twilight Zone  “I think of a theme and then chose a story line or a plot to go with it….” Rod Serling
Michael Arndt on Theme “I read a lot of comedy screenplays and the disappointing thing—the reason most of them don’t work is because they’re not about anything.”
Writing from Theme

Scott W. Smith




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“When I was younger and finally got an agent—I was turned down by everybody—finally an agent who said he would represent me I may have told my family there was a book in the works. I really don’t remember; it was a long time ago. I had read so much about how to get published and I knew that rejections are just part of the routine. And there are great stories about writers you’d been rejected so many times for great books and it really keeps you going. It motivates you. At the same time, I was a busy, busy small-time lawyer—wasn’t making any money—but I was busy. I was a member of the state legislator in Jackson, which took up a third of my time, plus my wife’s having babies. So life is really complicated. I didn’t have any time. This was a secret little part-time hobby of mine, if it didn’t work out that was okay. I had a law office. I had a career. It wasn’t like I was suicidal when I got rejection letters. [But writing] gave me a very big dream. I’d only been a lawyer for four or five years when I started writing. And once I started writing and the pages started piling up, it became this huge dream about writing full-time, and not having to be a lawyer. There’s a lot of frustration with the practice of law, and I was kind of burned out I think.  The dream got bigger.  And I thought with each rejection letter, maybe I’m one step closer. Keep submitting, keep submitting.”
John Grisham (The Firm, The Whistler)
Interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelman 

Note: Grisham has had more than 30 novels published and with an estimated over 250 million books sold he’s one of the bestselling writers in history. In addition to that he’s had 11 features film films produced based on his writings. Not bad for a small town southern lawyer who started out writing as a part-time hobby. Keep dreaming. Keep writing. And keep submitting. (Reading this blog is optional, but you must read this post: J.K. Rowling’s on the Benefits of Failure.)

Related Posts:
“I can’t keep handling this…rejection” Advice from a now Oscar-winning screenwriter.
Emma Thompson on Rejection & Persistence
Perseverance (Werner Herzog) “Perseverance has kept me going over the years. Things rarely happen overnight.”
‘The Anticipation of Rejection’ —“This is a business that’s based on rejection and the anticipation of rejection.”
Rod Serling on Rejection
Rejection Before Raiders
Mike Rich and Hobby Screenwriting
Damien Chazell on ‘Pushing Yourself’
The American Dream & Robert Zemeckis
Postcard #48 (Oxford) The literary tradition in Mississippi

Scott W. Smith

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“I get swept away by the sincerity. I do not get swept away by what people call pyrotechnics & prose. I do not get swept away by wit. I think wit is in a lot of ways damaging to fiction. I just feel like I’m listening to a writer and not the character. When I read the writers I really love like Philip Roth and Alice Munro—and their prose is beautiful—they’re more interested in truth than in fancy clothes for their prose.”
Author Ethan Canin (Emperor of the Air, A Doubter’s Almanac)
Interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelman

Related posts:
The Shocking Truth  (Tennessee Williams quote)
Blending Truth, Spectacle & Serving the Story
Mike Nichols on Comedy, Tragedy & Truth
Hunting for Truth
Telling the Truth=Humor

Scott W. Smith

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“I remember when we were doing the press for The Brothers McMullen somebody in Fox Searchlight’s press department kept talking about the thing that’s going to help this movie—it’s the movie, but it’s [also] the story of the movie. They said any time you make a movie you should think about that—the other story you can tell. That way you can get two articles in the New York Times. You can get the review of the film, but then the ‘oh, Brothers McMullen—he made it for $25,000.’ There the other story so you can maybe end up in the business section, or the fashion section, or the sports section.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns
Podcast interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelman 3/17/15

Example of indie movies over the years with other stories include:

Hollywood Shuffle (1987) where Robert Townsend said he used credit cards to fund his movie.
El mariachi (1992) where Robert Rodriguez was said to sell his blood and/or undergo medical experiments to fund his film.
Clerks (1994) Kevin Smith sold a chunk of his comic book collection to fund his first film.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) Here the filmmakers had story after story that helped the movie become the biggest box office hit to date for what it cost to make.
Purple Violets (2007) The first film to be released exclusively on iTunes.
Paranormal Activity (2007) The story of Oren Peli’s self-funded almost no-budget thriller was the film that dethroned Blair Witch at the top movie in the ratio of cost to make and profits.

Oscar-winning screenwriters Quentin Tarantino and Diablo Cody both brought interesting personal backstories to their debut films.

I’m sure there are many other examples, but keep in mind your story’s story as you work on your movie. And you can work on your story’s story before you finish making your film.  While it worked out for him, Burns made the mistake of not arranging any still photos during the filming of The Brothers McMullen. (Maybe because he was acting and directing and the 3 to 5 person crew had their hands full.)

Related links:
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
“Don’t try and compete with Hollywood”—Ed Burns
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76)
A New Kind of Filmmaker 

Scott W. Smith 

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