Posts Tagged ‘This American Life’

“To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it’s usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It’s not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can’t tell if it’s going to be good until you’re really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you…I register the danger that it might not work. But honestly sometimes you have to just do it. There are definitely interviews that we all go into knowing, ‘Ehhhhh , here’s all the things that can go wrong and here’s the one or two things that it can go right.’ And you just gotta do it…I had this experience a couple of years ago where I got to sit in on the editorial meeting at the Onion . Every Monday they have to come up with like 17 or 18 headlines, and to do that, they generate 600 headlines per week. I feel like that’s why it’s good: because they are willing to be wrong 583 times to be right 17. It kind of gives you hope. If you do creative work, there’s a sense that inspiration is this fairy dust that gets dropped on you, when in fact you can just manufacture inspiration through sheer brute force. You can simply produce enough material that the thing will arrive that seems inspired.”
Ira Glass, Host & Executive Producer of This American Life
Interview with Kathryn Schulz

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“When I first meet with the scriptwriter, I never tell him anything, even if I feel there’s a lot to be done. Instead I ask him the same questions I’ve asked myself: What is the story about? What did you see? What was your intention? Ideally, if we do this well, what do you hope the audience will feel, think, sense? In what mode do you want them to leave the theater?”
Director Sidney Lumet (Network, The Verdict)
Making Movies 

P.S. This quote is actually a nice bridge between the worlds of podcasting/radio and filmmaking. One of the things that makes Ira Glass’s work stand out is he is known to sometimes ask over 150 questions to decide if a person or topic is worthy of a radio program on This American Life. That and he’s also said to have a 40% kill rate of shows they start to produce but do materialize in a way that is worthy of the program. The great thing about asking questions is they’re quite inexpensive.

Related posts:
‘Out on a Wire’ Podcast (A good list of sample questions to ask?)
The Major of Central Dramatic Question
Screenwriting Quote #194 (John Jarrell)
Is It a Movie?
What is it about? (An Oscar-winner weighs in on asking questions.)
What’s Changed (Tip #102)

Scott W. Smith

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“The key to writing fiction and screenplays in terms of character is conflict, just like it is in non-fiction. And you have to come up with what is the thing that’s going to test that character. And how are you going to make evident what they’re all about? If you can’t make it evident through action or the results of action it’s not believable.”
Jessica Abel
Author of Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio

Just a few years ago as the economic dipped and newspapers and magazines started to go out of business or lay off thousands of journalists, some colleges started to drop journalism as an undergraduate or a graduate degree.

Then an interesting phenomenon happened. Podcasts helped revive a new type of audio storytelling.  This American Life, Radiolab, and Serial are currently in the top ten on the iTunes chart and are great examples of audio storytelling/reporting at its best.

In her podcast Out on the Wire, host Jessica Abel explores what radio masters like Ira Glass go through in developing their stories. You may or may not be surprised that the questions are the same ones screenwriters, filmmakers, producers, and studio executive ask when developing their stories.

—What’s the hook?
—What does your protagonist want?
—What’s the inciting incident that disrupts the protagonists life?
—What’s the arc of the story?
—What’s the central conflict?
—Where’s the special sauce?
—Why is it interesting?
—How are the stakes raised?
—What’s universal about this story?
—How will it resonate with an audience?
—What’s the focus sentence? (More on that tomorrow.)
—Is there mystery, surprise, and irony?
—Is there a “You won’t f-ing believe it!” moment?
—Who or what changes?
—What’s the theme? What’s the takeaway when it’s all over?
—How do you make the story land most effectively?

Over the years since graduating from film school I’ve worked professionally in film, television, newspaper, photography, radio, and video production (and non-professionally in theater), which possibly makes podcasting my next frontier to explore creatively.

The tools for working in audio (a microphone, a recorder, headphones, an XLR cord, computer/editing software and batteries) are cheaper to acquire than what’s needed for shooting video/film projects. That and the fact you can work solo, you don’t have to have a college degree (or even have finished high school yet), perhaps explain the rise in individual podcasts.

Sure there’s a gap in storytelling quality between the person just starting out and This American Life, but even Ira Glass said he was bad for a long time before he became good, and eventually great.

On Episode 1 of On the Wire Jessica interviews Stephanie Foo (@imontheradio)  a former young skateboarder who once had a podcast with a few listeners called Get Me on This American Life (that she says wasn’t legit but got her press passes). That opened an opportunity to work on Snap Judgment, and she now is a legit producer at This American Life.

In that interview I think they hot on a universal truth; in the world of storytelling it is not only the protagonist who struggles toward their goal, but the storyteller does as well.

Jessica Abel: What do you want to say to the skateboarding girl who was pretending to journalist, who had a podcast Get Me on This American Life? 

Stephanie Foo: “I wouldn’t talk to that girl because she was excited. I would talk to the girl who was at Snap Judgment producing five stories in a week and feeling like her head was going to explode, and that she was crazy and not good at her job. And I would just say you’re in it.  This what it takes to be good. And it’s working. And you might not feel like it’s working, because you might be buried in a million stories. And you might not be able to find your way out. And the bosses might be like arguing with you, and everybody at work might be an absolute chaotic mess. But that’s what it takes. That’s what everybody goes through to become good. Getting completely messy, feeling completely lost is absolutely necessary to finding your way out and becoming good.

Jessica: The German Forest.

Stephanie: Yeah, the Dark Forest, exactly. Getting completely lost, over and over and over again. Because each time you find different paths out. And so at a certain point you can go almost anywhere and know how to find your way back. It’s kind of nice. 

Stephanie is also the creator of Pilot podcast which according to its website: “Is a podcast that seeks to explore and expand possibilities in audio storytelling across formats and genres. Every episode will be a pilot for a different type of podcast.”

P.S. If you want to do some workshops or gather info on audio storytelling check out the Transom website located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Related post:
Conflict, Conflict, Conflict
Ira Glass on Storytelling
The Major or Central Dramatic Question 
Commitment in the Face of Failure
Finding Authentic Emotions “Just because it’s a worthy cause doesn’t make it interesting.”— Alex Blumberg

Scott W. Smith




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“I also think you can learn to be a good writer. Like I was a bad writer, actively bad, and I willed myself to get better.”
Ira Glass
Shakespeare vs. Ira Glass 

If you’ve never written a screenplay before, today is your lucky day. If you’ve never worked a day in production, it’s your lucky day, too.

This is the inspirational follow-up to the sobering post 10 Quotes on Paying Your Dues where several well-known and accomplished writers talked about the long and winding road to their successes.

Because while there was a common theme of struggle with each of those writers, it is also true that on average they started their creative journeys 30+ years ago. Because of unions, a ton of boomers in place, and Hollywood traditions it was not uncommon for those coming out college 30 years ago to be told to get in line.

But a 22 year old today doesn’t necessarily have to get in line anymore. What they need is talent, vision, and access to a digital camera and computer with editing software. There are  vloggers in their 20s making a living (and some even making rock star salaries), and a whole crop of teenagers coming up behind them honing their skills and building a audience.

And as far as I can tell, most of them didn’t go to film school. And as I listen to more and more podcasts I think there is a whole wave of people inspired by This American Life and Serial, that Ira Glass may be more influential than Steven Spielberg by the end of the decade—if not elected president in 2020.

But let me get back to screenwriting for the time being. Here’s some inspirational stuff from Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls:

“The advice that I give someone who’s going to write their first script is write your first script all the way through. Don’t stop. Don’t go back and revise while you’re in the middle of it. You can make notes, but write forward only, to the words ‘The End.’ Write the whole first draft. I say that because I want to prevent people from rewriting act one for the rest of their life. And then I say put that script aside—no, [you]can’t touch it—write a second screenplay. And write that one all the way through, only writing forward, no going back, all the way until the end. And put that second script aside. Write a third script. Same thing—all the way through until the end. You can make notes, but you can’t go back and revise. Put the third script away and take the first one out. Now you’re a better writer for just haven written three scripts. You’re going to approach the first script as a better writer. You’re going to look at it objectively because you haven’t looking at it for a while. Now you’re going to go back and have a more masterful view of what should be done with that first script. And then you’re going to apply the same thing when you go again to the second and third script.”
Screenwriter Jim Uhls (Fight Club)
Indie Film Hustle podcast interview with Alex Ferrari
(Alex’s podcast is full of solid information on indie filmmaking, including his own micro-budget feature journey—This is Megthat he’s currently shooting.)

And if it will helps take the pressure off, I have quoted screenwriters and filmmakers on this blog who said it’s okay if the writing sucks. You don’t even have to show it to anyone. (Sheldon Turner said he wrote 11 screenplays before he ever showed any one a single one.) You don’t have to go to film school. If you have a desire to write, write. Write those three in a whirlwind like Max Landis and you’ll have written those three screenplays by the end of the year—heck, maybe before Halloween.

P.S. And if you don’t want to dive into writing a screenplay, then in my next post I’ll take a glimpse at Jessica Abel’s podcast Out on the Wire and see if we can get you to start developing other kinds of stories this week in whatever unlikely place you live in the world.

Related posts:
How to Write a Screenplay in One Day
Schizophrenic Screenwriting 
A Drink Before the Fight—Screenwriter Jim Uhls
‘Fight Club’—The First Punch
Start Your Own Writers/Actors Workshop
Don’t try and compete with Hollywood—Ed Burns
Bad Script, Good Pizza, Great Feedback (Ira Glass was a producer on Don’t Think Twice)
Ira Glass on Storytelling

Scott W. Smith 


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“Only emotion endures.”
Ezra Pound
A Retrospect

Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News are two James L. Brooks films that I can just watch over and over again…I strive to make movies like those where you’re laughing and you’re crying. That’s what all of it is for; It’s to experience the range of emotions within and hour and a half or two hours.”
Writer/Director Mike Birbiglia (Don’t Think Twice)
Interview on The Tim Ferriss Show

Check out the Don’t Think Twice website to see when the movie will be playing in your area. Select theaters with include Q&A with cast and/or crew including Mike Birbiglia tonight and tomorrow in Los Angeles. I’ll look forward to seeing it in Central Florida at the Enzian in August.

Related posts:
“It’s all about emotions”—Jamusz Kaminsky
Pity, Fear, Catharsis
Del Close & Emotional Discovery
James L. Brooks on Chayefsky
40 Days of Emotions (The longest single sting of posts on this blog.)

P.S. The posts Finding Authentic Emotions (Part 1) and Part 2 touch on how Alex Blumberg found the emotional core of an interview he did with artist Ann Rea on the CreativeLive class Power Your Podcast with Storytelling.I just watched that class again online and I think Alex’s pre-interview and interview with Rea (and the finished edited results) are the best example discovering and capturing the creative process/emotions in real time that I’ve ever seen. (And a gamble that could have gone wrong in several places since it was recorded live.)

Alex learned a lot about storytelling from Ira Glass when the two worked together producing This American Life. Ira is also one of the producers of Don’t Think Twice.  (Read the post Ira Glass on Storytelling.) 

Scott W. Smith

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“I also think you can learn to be a good writer. Like I was a bad writer, actively bad, and I willed myself to get better. I really tried to learn what are the building blocks of a good story. And I think often people who aren’t naturally good writers, you’re just intimidated because you feel like you have to be touched by an angel to be a good writer, but you just have to have taste on what’s interesting.”
Ira Glass

Ira Glass got a little heat recently after seeing the play King Lear and tweeting, “I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.” As others pointed out, including The New Yorker, Glass later backed down saying, “That was kind of an off-the-cuff thing to say that in the cold light of day, I’m not sure I can defend at all.”

But the man’s welcomed to his opinion. The United States is still a free country. It seems the more we talk about tolerance, the more intolerant we’re becoming. (Another way of saying it is, “we’re tolerant of everyone—as long as they think like us.”) Of course, it’s fair game for people to critique his critique, but at times the internet seems to be a giant funnel to make the smallest tweet an Middle eastern-size crisis.

While Shakespeare is more well-known than Glass (as more than one person online pointed out in their critique of Glass’s tweet) Glass’s work stand on its own. For more than 30 years he’s been writing for NPR and is most known as the producer and host for the radio program This American Life, which last year broadcast its 500th show. In 2009 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for outstanding contribution in public radio.

Shakespeare may have created some of best drama in history, but he never worked in radio, had a the top-rated  iTunes podcast or spoke at Google headquarters like Glass has accomplished . Granted those options weren’t around 400 years ago, but I’d like to think the stage is big enough for both storytellers.

“There is a thing in writing that I feel I had to learn on my own that I’m surprised isn’t taught in school, and that is people don’t teach story structure properly in school. I think that when we’re all taught how to write, like we’re taught topic sentences—we’re taught the way that you would write an essay with topic sentences at the top of the paragraph, and then you fill out the paragraphs, and that basically was learning to write in school. But in fact, there’s a structure of telling a story that’s more effective than that, that I feel I had to learn by reading and by trial and error and whatever, which is much more anecdote based. So for example, the stories on our show the structure of them is really built around plot and ideas.  And it’s a very traditional kind of story structure where you just want to think through the sequences of actions where one thing leads to the next, leads to the next, leads to the next. So really you want to break down wherever is going to happen into this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.  And the advantage of having forward motion is that it inherently creates suspense because you wonder what’s going to happen next. And so you hold people’s attention because simply moving forward action, it’s like you create suspense and you can do it with the most banal story possible, or the most everyday story…It’s so much more mesmerizing than topic sentences, because you’re utilizing something that’s so primal in us because you can create suspense.”
Ira Glass Q&A at Google

P.S. Perhaps the best thing about Glass’s tweet is some people were asking, “Who’s Ira Glass?” Which if Glass was a marketing genius was a great move. As of a month ago This American Life left Public Radio International and is now independently distributed. Cara Buckley wrote in the NY Times,  “Mr. Glass will now be responsible for the show’s marketing and distribution, as well as for finding corporate sponsors. It’s the equivalent of Radiohead’s releasing its own album ‘In Rainbows,’ or Louis C. K.’s selling his own stand-up special — except all the time, for every show. It’s the kind of move that can signal radical changes in the public radio firmament, with National Public Radio and other distributors wondering who, if anyone, may follow suit, and whether Mr. Glass will return if he fails.”

P.P.S. Glass also gave a giant boost to the career of writer David Sedaris by having him read The Santaland Diaries story on NPR back in the ’90s when Sedaris was still working odd jobs to make ends meet. Sedaris told the story of working as an elf at Macy’s one Christmas and said after that broadcast, “The telephone started ringing and it wouldn’t stop.”

Update: Apparently Glass attended the play King Lear in NYC with writer/director Judd Apatow and commedian/actress Amy Schumer so he could have easily said one of the humorist hacked his Twitter account regarding his Shakespeare tweets.

Related post:

Ira Glass on Storytelling
What’s Next?
“All stories are emotionally based.”
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter
Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville
Writing and House Cleaning (David Sedaris quote about one of his jobs)
Can Screenwriting Be Taught (2.0)
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) This guy loves Shakespeare.

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s hard to find a decent story.”
Ira Glass

The above video is an abridged video (and a well done one of that) from the four videos below that are worth your time as Ira Glass does an exceptional job of exploring the mystery of good storytelling.  Glass has hosted and produced of the radio program This American Life since 1995. The show is produced in Chicago from WBEZ and broadcast nationally through National Public Radio. Glass began his career at age 19 as an intern with NPR and decades later in 2009 received the Edward R. Murrow Award for Outstanding Contributions to Public Radio. (You can check out his stories here and you can check out This American Life’s Story Globe to hear unusual stories from around the world.)

Scott W. Smith

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