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Last night in L.A. at the ESPY Awards the University of Northern Iowa basketball team from right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa was awarded the ESPY award for Best Upset of the past year for their upset of the number #1 ranked team at the 2010 NCAA Tournament. For those of you not into sports, the ESPY Awards are kind of the Oscar Awards for athletics. I’ve combined a couple previous posts from this year for this post to once again show that sometimes the spotlight shines in smaller places.

“Let it roll off the tongue: Ali Farokhmanesh. Get used to it: Fuh-ROAK-muh-NESH.”
Brett McMurphy
NCAA Fanhouse

“When you’re a small program like this, you want to get your name out there.”
Ali Farokhmanesh

The name Ali Farokhmanesh is not a common name in Iowa. It’s probably not common anywhere in entire the United States. But it is a popular one here now and across the country. This week’s  Sports Illustrated has a picture of Ali on the cover and I thought I’d explore how Ali made a name for himself and found national fame. (Screenwriters and non-sports fans stick with me a minute.)

When his parents moved to Iowa when Ali was a teenager he took up the game of basketball because of its popularity here. His parents helped train him with techniques such as having Ali shoot over them holding a broom with a yardstick to simulate playing against taller players. At Iowa City West High School he was a two-time all-conference player, conference MVP, and first team All-State.

Are you starting to get the picture? That darn Iowa work ethic at play again.

But all those accolades did not result in a Division I scholarship that he had hoped for because Ali was not tall enough to be considered a major prospect. Nor did he receive a Division II scholarship. He ended up playing basketball in Ottumwa, Iowa at Indian Hills Community College his first year and Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids his second year. He played well enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa where he started his Junior year. This season as a senior he lead the team in three-point shots with 75, including six in one game.

Of course, his biggest three pointers were last week when one beat UNLV at the NCAA basketball tournament and the one that broke the back of the number one ranked Kansas Bluejays. Ali said after the Kansas game, “That’s what you dream for is to make a shot like that.” But along with his dreaming he also normally practices shooting between  600-700 jumps shots a day—and he’s been doing that since his junior high days. (Remember the 10,000 hour rule?)

That’s how he ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That’s how he made a name for himself (albeit a hard one to pronounce).

“I just remember coming out of high school and not knowing if I was even going to play anymore. To go from that to, we’re in the Sweet Sixteen, we just beat the No. 1 team in the country. I mean, if someone would have told me that back then I would have laughed at them probably. But I think it shows that hard work really does pay off.”
Ali Farokhmanesh

I don’t know if Ali is interested in screenwriting (he’s a marketing major) but he’s got a heck of a story, and I think he just became the current poster child for Screenwriting from Iowa. That person who is talented but underrated and overlooked, and ends up in a community college in Ottumwa, Iowa dreaming of hitting a game winning shot in the spotlight. The person who works on his game far from the spotlight, but who with one shot makes a name for himself. And who ends up on the first page of Google search for “Ali,” replacing a slot usually reserved for one of the most well-known names in sports history, Muhammad Ali.

The funny thing is if he would have gotten a scholarship out of high school to his dream school (the University of Iowa) the odds are pretty good that he wouldn’t have hit the game-winning shot against Kansas that will be talked about for years, he wouldn’t be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, nor helping take Northern Iowa tonight to a Sweet Sixteen game for the first time in the school’s history.

(Below are a couple of photos I took back in March as Ali and the team boarded the bus here in Cedar Falls before they headed to the NCAA tournament in St. Louis

Go Panthers!

And just to bring this home to screenwriting;  embrace your limitations, your odd location, hold on to your dreams, and practice the equivalent of 600-700 jump shots everyday.

P.S. And for the record Ali Farokhmanesh’s favorite film is Gladiator. “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”

Related post: David & Goliath (and Screenwriting)

Scott W. Smith

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“Let it roll off the tongue: Ali Farokhmanesh. Get used to it: Fuh-ROAK-muh-NESH.”
Brett McMurphy
NCAA Fanhouse

“When you’re a small program like this, you want to get your name out there.”
Ali Farokhmanesh


The name Ali Farokhmanesh is not a common name in Iowa. Probably not common in entire the United States. But it is a popular one here now and across the country. This week’s  Sports Illustrated has a picture of Ali on the cover and I thought I’d explore how Ali made a name for himself and found national fame. (Screenwriters and non-sports fans stick with me a minute.)

When his parents moved to Iowa when Ali was a teenager he took up the game of basketball because of its popularity here. His parents helped train him with techniques such as having Ali shoot over them holding a broom with a yardstick to simulate playing against taller players. At Iowa City West High School he was a two-time all-conference player, conference MVP, and first team All-State.

Are you starting to get the picture? That darn Iowa work ethic at play again.

But all those accolades did not result in a Division I scholarship that he had hoped for because Ali was not tall enough to be considered a major prospect. Nor did he receive a Division II scholarship. He ended up playing basketball in Ottumwa, Iowa at Indian Hills Community College his first year and Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids his second year. He played well enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa where he started his Junior year. This season as a senior he lead the team in three-point shots with 75, including six in one game.

Of course, his biggest three pointers were last week when one beat UNLV at the NCAA basketball tournament and the one that broke the back of the number one ranked Kansas Bluejays. Ali said after the Kansas game, “That’s what you dream for is to make a shot like that.” But along with his dreaming he also normally practices shooting between  600-700 jumps shots a day—and he’s been doing that since his junior high days. (Remember the 10,000 hour rule?)

That’s how he ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That’s how he made a name for himself (albeit a hard one to pronounce).

“I just remember coming out of high school and not knowing if I was even going to play anymore. To go from that to, we’re in the Sweet Sixteen, we just beat the No. 1 team in the country. I mean, if someone would have told me that back then I would have laughed at them probably. But I think it shows that hard work really does pay off.”
Ali Farokhmanesh

I don’t know if Ali is interested in screenwriting (he’s a marketing major) but he’s got a heck of a story, and I think he just became the current poster child for Screenwriting from Iowa. That person who is talented but underrated and overlooked, and ends up in a community college in Ottumwa, Iowa dreaming of hitting a game winning shot in the spotlight. The person who works on his game far from the spotlight, but who with one shot makes a name for himself. And who ends up on the first page of Google search for “Ali,” replacing a slot usually reserved for one of the most well-known names in sports history, Muhammad Ali.

The funny thing is if he would have gotten a scholarship out of high school to his dream school (the University of Iowa) the odds are pretty good that he wouldn’t have hit the game-winning shot against Kansas that will be talked about for years, he wouldn’t be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and he wouldn’t be playing tonight as the Northern Iowa tonight in the Sweet Sixteen game for the first time in the school’s history.

(Below are a couple photos I took Wednesday as Ali and the team boarded the bus here in Cedar Falls before they headed to St. Louis for their next game agaist Michigan St.)

Go Panthers!

And just to bring this home to screenwriting;  embrace your limitations, your odd location, hold on to your dreams, and practice the equivalent of 600-700 jump shots everyday.

P.S. And for the record Ali Farokhmanesh’s favorite film is Gladiator. “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”

Related post: David & Goliath (and Screenwriting)

Scott W. Smith

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Photograph by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

“My bracket has Kansas winning the whole thing. Kansas is that big, fast, strong, deep, good, great, unbeatable.”
Gregg Dovel, CBSSports.com

President Obama was wrong. But he was not alone in picking the Kansas Jayhawks to win the NCAA National Championship in men’s basketball this year. In case you don’t follow such things, Kansas lost yesterday to that little known team from right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa—The University of Northern Iowa (UNI).

One sports writer said the upset victory, “could go down as the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history.” Of course, that’s debatable. What is less debateable is this is the biggest victory in UNI’s history. This was the first time they have ever beaten a top ranked team. To do it in the NCAA Tournament before a national TV audience is all the sweeter.

The above photo of UNI player Ali Farokhmanesh celebrating says it all. It’s one frame that if it were the end of a movie the critics would be rolling their eyes calling it cliché. But movie audiences enjoy a good underdog story time after time. Why do we love underdog stories?

What is it about an underdog story that makes us feel so good? Perhaps it’s as simple as we all feel like underdogs. We can relate. Heck, I have a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa which might as well be called Screenwriting for Underdogs. But then again that would be redundant, wouldn’t it? (Tell me Joe “I’ve been in fights most of my life” Eszterhas hasn’t felt like an underdog his entire career?)

So screw the critics and keep writing underdog stories because the truth is cinematic history is full of great stories of underdog characters and underdog stories. From Rocky, Indiana Jones, and Norma Rae Webster to Hans Solo, Oskar Schindler, and Erin Brockovich they’re all underdogs that are greatly admired.

More recently, The Blind Side (based on the life of Michael Orr) found an audience to the tune of $250 million so far and landed Sandra Bullock her first Oscar. People still want to see Michael Orr stories. And, of course, an underdog doesn’t have to be an athlete.

Both James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic are the #1 & #2 box office champs—and both underdog stories.

What are some of your favorite underdog characters or stories?

P.S. The University of Northern Iowa is where Kurt Warner played college football before he became one of the greatest underdog stories in contemporary sports history. I should also give a shout out to the University of Iowa’s wrestling team who last night won the 2010 NCAA Division 1 wrestling championship. No underdogs there—it’s the third straight year they’ve won the championship and 23rd in school history.

Related post: Orphan Characters (Tip #31)

Scott W. Smith

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“David took a stone from the bag and slung it… knocking the Philistine to the ground.”
Scene from the movie Hoosiers

Today the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) men’s basketball team from here in Cedar Falls, Iowa plays the #1 team in the country, Kansas. For many it’s just another game as part of March Madness. But if UNI wins today it would be the biggest win in the school’s history. Of course, the term David & Goliath is being thrown around.

The epic Biblical story of David & Goliath is mentioned just about every time there’s a battle between the little guy and the big guy. It could be a sporting event, a corporate clash, a movie, or any number of references that pit the little guy against the big guy. The term David & Goliath is mentioned so much that like “Catch-22” many don’t even know the original reference.

We could go to the movies to get caught-up on our history. Did you know Orson Wells played David in the 1961 movie David & Goliath? Richard Gere played David in the 1985 movie King David. I’m not sure just how many movies feature David and Goliath but there are a few, including at least one musical.

And though this is a blog about screenwriting I think it’s worth a look at the original context of David & Goliath. After all “Screenwriting from Iowa” is all about the little guy. To any new reader; Iowa is just a metaphor for coming from a place far from Hollywood. But time and time again over the last two years I’ve shown that writers really do come from all kinds of unusual places.

What we mostly remember about the original biblical story is simply that David as a youngster slew a giant. We actually don’t know exactly how old David was or how tall Goliath was, but it’s enough to say that it was a mismatch. David was young and the giant was tall. On the day of the famous battle the only reason David was there was to take food to his older brothers who were in the fight. But when David sees and hears the trash talking Philistine warrior he decides to take him on.

Goliath is not impressed when David grabs five smooth stones and a slingshot, “Am I a dog that you come to me with sticks? Come to me and I will give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the fields.” (Nice dialogue.) Game on.

David says he comes in the name of the Lord and then plants a stone in Goliath’s forehead. Goliath falls on his face and David uses Goliath’s own sword to finish the job and cuts off the giant’s head. Game over. And David, who was just the food delivery guy a few minutes prior, is on his way to becoming the King of Israel.

No doubt a great story and it’s no surprise we’re still talking about it centuries later.

But let’s not over look a couple things. Yes, David came in the name of the Lord so maybe he wasn’t quite the underdog that we think. But there is one more detail about David that is always overlooked—He was prepared.

Prepared like a teenage Olympian who has trained a lifetime to win a gold metal. Prepared like screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher who wrote thousands of (unproduced) pages over a couple decades before he won an Oscar (adapted screenplay, Precious).

While David was off tending the sheep in some far away place that is the equivalent of Iowa in Israel, he had killed “both lion and bear.” We’re not talking about a video game. How many people do you know that have killed a lion and a bear? I imagine David passed 10,000 hours practicing sling shot techniques. He stepped into the situation with Goliath with confidence because he was prepared.

Bringing this home to screenwriting is this quote I’ve mentioned before;

“When it comes to screenwriting, it’s the writing. You don’t hear people who want to play professional tennis ask to be introduced to the head of Wimbledon. No, they’re out there hitting a thousand forehands and a thousand backhands.”
Screenwriter Scott Frank

Lastly, I’m not saying UNI will win today. But I am saying they could win today because they having been preparing for this for a long time. And just because I like odd facts, let me add that writer Robert Waller (The Bridges of Madison Country) played basketball at the University of Northern Iowa.

Update: This is why they call it March Madness…This afternoon UNI defeated the top-seeded team (Kansas) 69-67. Some have called it one of the biggest upsets in March Madness history. (It is the first time in the school’s history when they have beaten a top ranked team.) At Yahoo sports they even called Ali Farokhmanesh’s bold three-point shot toward the end of the game, “The shot that felled Goliath.”

Related post: Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)

First Screenplay, Oscar— Percious


Scott W. Smith

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“The story of Kurt Warner, who announced his retirement after a 12-year NFL career on Jan. 29, always starts with the chapter in that grocery store in Iowa.”
Sean Gregory
Time Magazine

This week’s Sports Illustrated (January 25, 2010) contains an article titled, Iowa’s Got a Secret. SI writer Albert Chen says of the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) basketball team that it, “remains the best kept secret in college basketball.” (The men’s NCAA basketball team is 17-2 and currently ranked #25 in ESPN/USA Today poll right after the much larger & established programs such as Ohio St., Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.)

UNI happens to also be where quarterback Kurt Warner played college football before going on to have a career worthy of landing him in the NFL Hall of Fame when eligible. Warner retired yesterday from the NFL after a 12 year career which included playing in three Super Bowls (winning the MVP in one of them) as well as being the most accurate quarterback in NFL history.

I’ve written about Warner before and I really think his story symbolizes everything that I’ve been writting about for the past two years. That you can come from a small place and really accomplish some good things—sometimes even great things at the highest level. But, as with Warner’s case, persistance is equally as important as talent.

After Warner’s high school career in Cedar Rapids, Iowa he was disappointed to not win a scholarship to a Division 1 school. Then he changed his perspective by accepting a scholarship  to Division I-AA UNI back in the 90s.. He would play only an hour away from home so friends and family could see him play, and being a smaller school he figured he could maybe start playing as a freshman. He figured wrong and ended up not winning the starting QB position until his senior year. He got hurt in his second game that year but stuck it out and ended up earning the Gateway Conference player of the year.

He figured he played well enough to be drafted into the NFL. He figured wrong once again, but was given a chance as a free agent to make the Green Bay Packers. But they had a young quarterback named Bert Favre so thing didn’t work out too well in Green Bay. The story is well-known in sports circles and will make a fine movie some day. He worked at Hy-Vee Grocery Store for a little over five dollars and hour, worked as an assistant football coach at UNI, became a QB in Des Moines in the arena football league, moved up to playing pro ball in Europe, before becoming the ringleader in “The Greatest Show on Turf” as quarterback for the St. Louis Rams earning the NFL MVP award twice (1999, 2001). He not only holds the record for top passing yards in a Super Bowl game—he hold the #2 and #3 spots as well.

Not bad for a kid from Cedar Rapids who didn’t even earn a Division 1 scholarship and sat the bench for his first three years of college here in Cedar Falls. Time and time when asked what’s kept him going through the dark times, his answer always involves faith. Faith in his talent, and faith in God.

You don’t have to be a football fan (or even a sports fan)  to appreciate the Kurt Warner story. And it’s a nice bonus that his work on the field is matched by his charity work off the field. Kurt Warner is simply one of the good guys.

“Since those days chucking candy in the grocery store in Cedar Falls, Kurt Warner has been an inspiration.”
Sean Gregory
Time magazine

Kurt Warner is retiring, but don’t expect him to disappear. You’ll see more of him, just not in a football uniform. He’ll probably be leading the way in something like building homes in Haiti for Habitat for Humanity, just like he did last year after the floods destroyed over 5,000 homes in his hometown of Cedar Rapids.

Scott W. Smith

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Today is show and tell at Screenwriting from Iowa and I brought one of my Christmas gifts—a signed picture of Mark Steines from Entertainment Tonight. It was given to me by an editor I work with, Josh McCabe, who did an internship with Entertainment Tonight over the summer.

Having just mentioned that Jason Reitman’s new film Up in the Air features Dubuque, Iowa in a key scene you may be interested to know that Steines was born and raised in Dubuque. But before he became the co-anchor of Entertainment Tonight and started hanging out with Hollywood celebrities, he got his on-camera start in the Cedar Falls/Waterloo area. A football scholarship brought him to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) where he graduated with a degree in Radio and Television.

He started as a cameraman here at KWWL and eventually found his in front of the camera as a sports reporter. That lead to opportunities at KSPR-TV is Springfield, Missouri and then to KCAL-TV in Los Angeles where he picked up two Emmy Awards. In 1995 he began work as a correspondent on Entertainment Tonight and since 2004 has been the host of the show along with Mary Hart.

While Steines paid his dues, learned his craft, and worked his way up the ladder like everyone else—it didn’t hurt that when he was starting out that he looked like Tom Cruise.

After Steines arrived in LA he also began studying acting that has provided various acting opportunities on TV programs. He also has a photography book out from pictures he took on a trip to Sierra Leone with Lighthouse Medical Missions earlier this year. Steines is one more example that even if you come from a place far from Hollywood (like Dubuque, Iowa) you can still make an impact in Hollywood. But like all that have gone down that road before, he was faithful in doing the little things.

Visit www.marksteines.com to learn more about his photobook, work & life.

Thanks Josh and Mark for the photo.

Scott W. Smith


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DSC_0599

While Josh looks in this photo like an American Idol contestant I don’t even know if he can sing. He’s been helping me out at River Run Productions the last couple months doing freelance editing. He’s a student at UNI here in Cedar Falls but heads out to L.A. today to work as an intern for Entertainment Tonight over the summer.

So next week when those of you in Southern California see him driving to or from CBS studios in his Mini Cooper you’ll think he’s just an another L.A. hipster, but it’s really another talented kid from Iowa finding his way to California to work in the biz.

So how does a kid from Iowa end up working on the set of Entertainment Tonight? In part because of another kid from Iowa has paved the way. ET co-anchor  Mark Steines was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa and attended UNI on a football scholarship and earned a B.A. in radio & TV. He got his start in broadcasting here at KWWL before eventually joining ET in 1995. So he’s opened the door for others to follow in his tracks. 

And speaking of American Idol, I finally sat down last night and watched  my first (almost) entire program of the popular show. I jumped on the bandwagon just in time. It didn’t feel like 2009, but more like 1979 as they featured a who’s who of people I listened to in high school back in the day; Rod Stewart, KISS, Lionel Richie, Queen, Carlos Santana  and even a cameo with Steve Martin on the banjo. 

My favorite quote of the night was when runner-up 27-year old Adam Lambert said he had been working on his singing dream since he was 10. That’s a 17 year journey. I imagine that winner Kris Allen’s story is probably the same. There probably won’t be too many screenwriting blogs talking about American Idol, but I’d like to point out, that like top screenwriters there’s a lot of talent and hard work to make it to that level. Congrats to both Adam and Kris. 

I enjoyed the commercial during American Idol with Iowa-native Ashton Kutcher promoting the Nikon D90. That’s the camera I’m shooting with these days including the above photo. (Along with a couple SB-800s flashes for those of you technically minded.)

And I might as well send out congrats to another Iowa native (and Olympic goldmedist) Shawn Johnson who won the Dancing with the Stars competition on Tuesday night. And I really should mention that The Official Shawn Johnson Website is powered by my buddies at Spin-U-Tech who I share office space with right here in beautiful downtown Cedar Falls, Iowa.

So you see, Iowans are not really out of the entertainment loop. And as I like to say about Iowa itself — “It’s conveniently located between New York and L.A.”

 

photo & text copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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