Posts Tagged ‘Tootsie’

The writer that probably first comes to mind when you think about the modern classic film Tootsie is Larry Gilbert. But the co-writer of the script was Murray Schisgal. The Oscar and Tony-nominated Schisgal was born in Brooklyn and turns 90 in November. He had his Broadway debut in 1965 with a play he’d written called Luv.

I tracked down an interview he did in 1992 for the theater collection of the American Jewish Committee Oral History Library. Ruth Simon asked Murray this question; “Mr. Schisgal, you are as prolific as any playwright today. What brought you to the theater?”

“Frustration, bitterness and hate for my fellow human beings. I started out writing novels and short stories and I could not get any of it published and so, out of frustration, I started writing plays, being ill prepared to do so, having taken no classes or doing anything other than reading plays, reading every play I could get my hands on. I didn’t even go to the theater that much. But nonetheless, the first plays I wrote included The Tiger and The Typist and I was able to get them produced within a short period and so my future was cast.”
Murray Schisgal
NYPL Digital Collections

I’m not sure how long Schisgal toiled in writing novels and short stories, but he said he began writing plays in 1958, and his Oscar-nomination for Toostie that hot theaters in 1982—so put that down as a 25-year dramatic writing journey to hit that plateau.

He also spent time in the South Pasific after he joined the Navy as a teenager during World War II. And he attended college and law school and worked as a lawyer for a couple of years before realizing he couldn’t practice law and commit enough time to writing. So he quit law and got a part time job to “pay the bills” and found he was able to write three or four hours a day.

His approach to writing was instinctual and self-taught so he shunned learning from teachers or books on writing. He admitted that lead to some sloppy work, but added “I would rather write and throw it away than go through all the steps that are asked for in some of these books I’ve read about how to go about writing a play.”

He was 31 when his first play was produced, but he didn’t start making a living until he was 35 or 36 year old. Find what path works for you. And when you get discouraged remember Schisgal saying “I started out writing novels and short stories and I could not get any of it published.” But he kept writing—and switched to writing plays—and eventually people started noticing his work.

But thanks for the inspiration Mr. Schisgal, because you’ve shown you can be “ill prepared” for the writing task (not even taken a writing class) and still find a way to capture the magic. And his personal story also shows that it can take a little time.

P.S. And as a follow-up to yesterday’s post (How to Get an Agent), UTA agent Peter Dodd said in the Scriptnotes podcast that he does read plays looking for that unique voice that he can rep for TV and film projects.

Related post:
Tootsie at 30

Scott W. Smith



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“I wish I had a theater that was only open when it rained…I like it when people come up to me the next day or a week later and they say, ‘I saw your play—what happened?'”
Bill Murray as the playwright Jeff in Tootsie

“You can’t have a theater based upon anything other than a mass audience if it’s going to succeed. The larger the better. It’s the law of the theater. In the Greek audience fourteen thousand people sat down at the same time, to see a play. Fourteen thousand people! And nobody can tell me that those people were all readers of The New York Review of Books! Even Shakespeare was smashed around in his time by university people….because he was reaching for those parts of man’s makeup which respond to melodrama, broad comedy, violence, dirty words, and blood. Plenty of blood, murder, and not very well motivated at that.”
Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman)
Playwrights at Work, Page 171

Related Posts:

Screenwriting Quote #175 (Arthur Miller)
Volcanic Emotions & Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller on Writing
What Would Arthur Miller Do?
“Tootsie” at 30
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) “The reason that I am a writer today is Shakespeare.”—John Logan
There’s Something About Jerry“No artist—notably no film or television writer—need apologize for entertaining an assembled mass of people.” Richard Walter (UCLA screenwriting professor)

Scott W. Smith

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“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Andy Defresne in The Shawshank Redemption

In light of quoting Secretariat screenwriter Mike Rich this week (Screenwriting Quote #145Mike Rick & Hobby Screenwriting) it would be hard to look at the list of films he’s written and not see that there is a thread of hope and redemption in all of them.

“It’s very, very hard to get a movie made. Quadruple or quintuple that degree of difficulty when your movie is about endless grim horribleness. If there is no spiritual uplift at the end , the reader is going to heave the script into the fireplace and cackle as it burns. Why should the audience suffer along with the character only for it to have been in vain?…Let the reader end on a note of hope or redemption.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks
page 15

The themes of hope and/or redemption aren’t limited to Disney films or more overtly spiritual films. Here is a short list in a mix of genres and old and new films that I’d put in the category;

The Shawshank Redemption
On the Waterfront

The African Queen
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Toy Story

Tender Mercies
Field of Dreams
Erin Brockovich

Rain Man
The Natural
Saving Private Ryan
An Officer & a Gentleman
Jerry Maguire
Pieces of April

It’s an easy list to come up with because those are some of my favorite films. It’s also a list shows that themes of hope & redemption are often popular with audiences, the Academy and critics. Sure getting a film made is hard, but what are the odds that your film resonates with audiences, the Academy and critics?(There are reasons universal themes are called universal.)

And on one level every screenwriter hopes the script they are working on will be produced and find an audience and will redeem the time spent working on their craft. (Even the edgy, indie, non-mainstream screenwriter working on the most nihilistic script ever written shares the same desire.) May hope & redemption fill your writing career and your life.

Scott W. Smith

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“I think every writer harbors—secretly or not-so-secretly—delusions of grandeur. Still, when you’re starting out, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll ever ‘succeed.'”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt 

“There are two kinds of people in this world, winners and losers.”
Quasi-motivational speaker Richard Hoover (Greg  Kinnear), Little Miss Sunshine

Screenwriter Michael Arndt is a textbook example of everything I’ve been writing about on this blog for the past two and a half years. Like Diablo Cody his first produced screenplay (Little Miss Sunshine) not only became a sleeper hit, but it won him an Oscar for best original screenplay. A pretty good start, huh? Except that’s not the start.

Rewind a few years and you’ll find that he’s a New York University film school grad (steeped in the films of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, and Woody Allen) who spent 10 years working in the film business as an assistant and a script reader. Times that weren’t always fun, but his time as a reader served him well.

“I had read enough mediocre scripts and was determined not to inflict another one on the world.”
Michael Arndt

According to an article by Anne Thompson in The Hollywood Reporter, Arndt quit his job in 1999 and with $25,000. in savings took time to just focus on writing screenplays. And lots of them.

Thompson writes; “(Arndt) holed up in his cheap Brooklyn apartment and knocked out six stories. Six of them didn’t sing. The seventh did. ‘It was the most simple story,’ Arndt says. ‘That’s a mistake a lot of scripts make: Their plots are too complicated, so you don’t have time for characters.’ So he kept working on it, writing it over and over and over, 100 drafts, until it was as good as he could get it.”

That script was Little Miss Sunshine. The script created buzz as soon as it was sent out, but it would still take five years to get it produced and released.

“I read a lot of comedy screenplays and the reason why most of them don’t work is they’re not about anything. If your story isn’t about anything, or your character just wants a pretty girl and the bag of money then—it’s not going to add up to anything…I wanted Little Miss Sunshine to actually have a real climax at the end.”
Michael Arndt

I’m not sure what other writing opportunities the success of Little Miss Sunshine brought Arndt after 2006, but you may be surprised to learn that to date Little Miss Sunshine is his sole feature credited film that has been released. Of course, that will all change next month when Toy Story 3 is released. That’s right, the small indie, philosophical screenwriter who wrote what one reviewer called “a cultural look at the emptiness of America,” follows his Oscar success with a big budget Disney franchise film.

Remember what screenwriter Christopher (The Usual Suspects) McQuarrie said; “(Winning an Oscar) doesn’t make the studios want to make your movie any more than before. It just means they want you to make their movies.”

I’m personally excited to see what Arndt comes up with for Woody and the gang. One thing that I know he came away with on Toy Story 3 is a boat load of money. And let’s be honest, doesn’t every screenwriter want an Oscar and a boat load of money? (In addition to writing satisfactory screenplays that are turned into artistic films, of course.)

So let’s review Arndt’s 10 not so easy steps to becoming a successful screenwriter:
1) Film degree from NYU
2) Toil in the industry at various non-writing/non-production jobs for 10 years
3) Save money
4) Quit job
5) Write six screenplays in less than a year
6) Write one more that you finally think is “the one” in three days
7) Write 100 drafts of “the one” over the next year
8)Send it out
9)Sell it ($150,000) and wait five years for it to get made and become a sensation
10) Collect Oscar

Losers are people who are so afraid of not winning, they don’t even try.” Grandpa Hooper (Alan  Arkin) Little Miss Sunshine

Pop quiz:  What do these comedies all have in common?: The Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Groundhog Day, Tootsie, The Apartment, Modern Times.
(Ding, ding) Correct, they are all about something.

Related Posts:
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
Insanely Great Endings

Scott W. Smith

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“I don’t know anything about the writing process…It seems to be something I can do once in a while, but I don’t have very much either to say about it or I don’t understand anything very much about the process…Writing and reading. That’s all that there is. There’s nothing else.”
David Mamet (Pulitzer Prize/ Tony-winner, two-time Oscar-nominated writer)
Conversations with Screenwriters
page 103
Susan Bullington Katz

Of course, that book came out ten years ago so apparently in light of the David Mamet memo he can now pass on a few things about the writing process. But Mamet’s quote brought to mind two longer posts I’ve written; Can Screenwriting be Taught? and Screenwriting, Infomercials & Gurus. The last having one of my favorite quotes on the subject—“So many gurus and so few good writers. Where are all these lessons going?”
Larry Gelbart (

Scott W. Smith

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“A good title should be like a good metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or two obvious.”
Walker Percy

I’m staying on the Up in the Air gravy train (gravy plane?)  just a little bit longer. Not only did I love the film but I love the title. It’s a title that has a literal meaning since it’s a film that deals with traveling via airplanes. But it’s also a common phrase in our culture meaning undecided or uncertain.

Up in the Air is a pretty good description of the Up in the Air main character Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney.  A character whose only real purpose appears to collecting frequent flyer miles. Everything else is up in the air.

Many writers talk about starting with a title and build from there and others say they can’t even decide on a title even after they’ve written the script or book.  Can a movie succeed without a great title? Sure, look at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Looking at the AFI list of top 100 films and you’ll see a mixture of great, good, and bland titles. A title doesn’t make a film, but in a day and age of the importance of the opening weekend, a great title is desired to help attract an audience.

The most common titles seem to focus a main character or being, place or thing, or an event.

Character or being:
Citizen Kane
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
King Kong
Forrest Gump
Bonnie and Clyde
The Godfather
Raging Bull

A place or thing:
The African Queen
Bridge on the River Kwai
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
On the Waterfront
Sunset Blvd.
The Maltese Falcon
The Apartment

An event:
High Noon
Apocalypse Now
Star Wars
2001: A Space Odyssey
Saving Private Ryan
Bringing Up Baby
Sophie’s Choice

And while not a hard and fast rule, great titles tend to be short (three words or less). Just look at the above list.  And my favorites of those listed are Jaws and Psycho. Each one a simple word, but both hit you at a gut level.

Titles like Avatar, Batman, The Matrix are easier to discuss around the water cooler.  Even longer titles (especially sequels) tend to get edited around the water cooler and just called  Harry Potter, Narnia, Pirates, Star Wars, Twilight, Spider-Man.

Up in the Air falls into that minority category of a title that’s a little more obtuse, in line with The Last Picture Show, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Silence of the Lambs, or Gone with the Wind. (All of which happened to have been books or plays first which tend to favor a more intellectual audience.) If you go with a metaphor, it doesn’t hurt to have a movie star in the lead role. As I talk up the film Up in the Air, I find myself calling it “The George Clooney Film.”

What are some of your favorite titles (even if they aren’t one of your favorite films)? Or some of your favorite bad titles.
I love the title of the lesser known 50s film Them. And I like titles such as Black Hawk Down, Meet the Parents, Witness, The Hunt for Red October, Collateral and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly because they all have built in conflict, mystery and intrigue. And the worst titles off the top of my head goes to Ishtar and Valkyrie, neither of which leave me with a visceral reaction.

Of course, the most bland title ever might just be…Movie Titles (tip #32). (But at least it’s twitter friendly.)

Update: I decided to do a Google search to see what others thought were the best and worst movie titles ever and found one blogger who had a post called Top 10 Worst Movie Titles Ever and the writer put Surf Nazis Must Die at #10. That film was written and directed by Peter George who I happened to go to film school with. (I was always a little upset I didn’t get a small role in the film.) If anyone knows where Mr. George is these days tell him I want my watch back. The one that I left at his Hollywood apartment after I crashed on his sofa one night back before he was making top ten lists.

Scott W. Smith

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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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