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Posts Tagged ‘University of Iowa’

This bed is too hard.
This bed is too soft.
This bed is just right.

The End. There you have it—the essence of screenwriting boiled down to just 15 words. (Yes, shorter than the title of this post.) Inspired by words uttered by my wife when she was the lead in a children’s play based on Goldilocks and the Three Bears performed years ago at the James Best Theatre. (The original title of the fairy tale was The Three Bears until Goldliocks apparently not only invaded their home but highjacked the title.)

No need for film school, screenwriting workshops, or screenwriting books. Just a nice three-act structure in 15 words. But if you want it fleshed out a little more there are over 3,000 blog posts you can find on this site. And if you want that in a nicely condensed 250 page book, I recommend my Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles book.

I recently completed a revision of the book. For those of you new to this blog, I started this blog on January 22, 2008 soon after seeing Juno written by Diablo Cody. The fact that she wrote the script in the suburbs of Minneapolis intrigued me. I was living in Cedar Falls, Iowa at the time and I knew she’d graduated from the University of Iowa. Part of her origin story I was drawn to was she first got noticed in Hollywood because of her blog. (Not sure anyone ever followed Cody’s exact path, but this blog did win a Regional Emmy award in 2008. I collected award in Minneapolis and the next day drove to the Starbucks in Crystal, MN where Cody wrote some of Juno.)

Starting a blog was still a novelty in 2008. And it seemed like a great place to curate notes I’d started collecting since I went to film school back in the ’80s. A to it reading (and highlighting) over 200 books on production, seminars (UCLA extension, AFI, Robert McKee—back when it was a once a week class in LA), DVD commentaries, magazines, podcasts, etc. My original plan was to try blogging for a year and hopefully blog a book in that time. It took well over a decade to complete. It needed to be more than a quote book. To make it stand alone as a book it also needed cohesiveness. It needed structure and I landed on ten chapters all beginning with the letter C.

Conflict
Concept
Characters
Catalyst
Construction
Climax and Conclusions
Catharsis
Controlling Idea
Change
Careers and Cows


I hoped the book & blog would be helpful to others—especially those living far from New York or LA. What I didn’t know in 2008 is Scott Beck and Bryan Woods were students at the University of Iowa. After their breakthrough success writing A Quiet Place (2017), I was told by a mutal production friend we’d both worked with they were familiar with my blog. While I can’t take any credit for their success, the were kind enough to write the forward to my book.

And over the years I’ve been surprise at the shutouts I’ve gotten. Including a mention on the TomCruise.com when his team had blog, filmmaker Edward Burns and producer Ted Hope with mentions on Facebook, and Diablo Cody herself when she was on Twitter. Anyone in the industry who would like to give me a usable quote about my blog or book please email me at info@scottwsmith.com.

After 15 years, it’s finally time I take the next step and launch a podcast and YouTube channel. Starting in February, I’ll start blogging about that process since I’ve spent about six months doing online workshops trying to wrap my head around how some YouTubers create solid content on a weekly basis. (Spoiler alert: To paraphrase what legendary graphic artist said about art, “YouTubing weekly is work.”

When I told a friend about condensing all of screenwriting down to 15 words he said, what about the not so happy ending. I thought for a second and recited the classic Mother Goose nursery rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Of course, the original Goldilocks story ends with her being awakened by the bears whose home she invaded and her jumping out the window. The actual ending was opened-ended with the writer saying it was not known if Goldilocks broke her neck, got lost in the woods, or made it home and got whipped. I forgot that darker part of that story. Which is maybe why I just stuck with those 15 words about finding a “just right” bed.

But let’s say that Goldilocks learned her lesson and lived happily ever after, as opposed to Humpty Dumpty who had a fatal fall. It’s an echo of Order and Chaos. Yin and Yang. Purpose and Nihilism. Blessings and Curses.

In what way is the abridged version of Goldilocks finding the right bed the essence of life? It’s that aspiration part of human nature that is looking for peace and contentment. On one level it’s our car is running, our bills are paid, our relationships are healthy, our work is fulfilling, and the bad guys get caught. It’s been said that even the person attempting to commit suicide is looking for peace. It is why I think most movies end with what writer/director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) called an uptick.

It’s why when a friend said he felt like my book needed to end with a benediction I thought of the ancient text embraced by multiple faiths:

The LORD bless thee, and keep thee:
The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:
The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace.

Number 6:24-26

Peace be with you.

P.S. Stephen King once suggested somewhere trying to write 1,000 words a day. That was an early inspiration when I started this blog. It’s why it was not unheard of to have posts that ran between 1,000-2,000 words. My original goal was a 65,000 word book. When I last checked I’d written over a million words on this blog. The first book came in around 70,000 words. Two more in the works will probably land around 50,000.

And speaking of Stephen King, here’s the just dropped trailer for The Boogeyman based on a short story by King—and a screenplay by Scott Beck & Bryan Woods and Mark Heyman. Warning: It doesn’t start out too peaceful.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

Both Sides Now, written by Joni Mitchell (and performed in Emilia Jones in CODA)

One of the reasons I steer away from writing much about recent film releases is they have not marinated into the culture long enough to see if they are going to have a lasting impact. And in the case of CODA—winner of three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (Troy Kotsur)— not only have many people not seen it yet, I have talked to people who don’t even know that film exists. (Blame it on COVID.)

Confession: It took me 8 months, its recent Oscar wins, and a free temporary pass to AppleTV for me to finally watch it last night. A really enjoyable film that left me with three take aways in my first viewing.

3) It’s the first film from a streamer to win Best Picture. (Netflix’s Roma won Best Foreign film a couple years ago.) In the last chapter of my book  Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles I addressed Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley. But two years later, when the COVID dust settles, we all might realize that Silicon Valley is Hollywood. (The good thing for creators is how much the streamers are creating.)

2) The film was familiar, yet different. It was shot in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a fishing town that was prominent in the film The Perfect Storm). Hearing impairment plays a key part in the film as did the recent hit A Quiet Place, the super indie film Sound of Metal, and the 1986 movie Children of a Lesser God (where Marlee Matlin won an Oscar). It has the young person underdog reminiscent of Karate Kid. A female protagonist with rising musical talent like Perfect Pitch. The demanding musical teacher with a hint of Whiplash. A girl with dreams going to a tough audition from Flashdance (What a feeling!), a teen love story like The Edge of Seventeen… the list goes on. CODA writer/director Siân Heder (along with Tarantino and Scorsese) knows that originality is rooted in your spin on the mixtape you put together. CODA itself is a remake of the 2014 French hit film La Famille Bélier.

1) CODA also did what I believe many of the best films do—it focused on brokenness and healing of the family unit. It’s a theme that will never be out of style, because it is so key to the human experience. Is there one family in the history of civilization that can’t relate to this most basic struggle? This won’t give anything away about CODA, but there is one moment in the film where I got goosebumps and my eyes watered. (And don’t tell David Lynch, but that all happened while watching on an iPhone.) And at that emotional peak of the movie, CODA reminded me of Rain Man. And of this nugget from Rain Man screenwriter Barry Morrow that I’ve been holding on to for a few weeks:

“One of the deepest, most ancient yearnings that humans have is the unity of group. And within that the family. We all have stories here of how lives have been hurt by fractures in the family. From kids whose parents are divorced to siblings that are estranged. We hate that brokenness. So if you can do a movie—which is always about discomfort and pain—if you can tap into some really primal themes. And pay them off in a way that’s satisfying and yet not saccharine, it should resonate. Again, that’s the kismet that we tapped into [with Rain Man]. . . . This was supposed to be a slice of life. Two guys on a road for a week. Disconnected and become connected. And that disconnect is what the movie works on, always. It’s what makes it funny. It’s what makes in poignant. And when their foreheads touch at the end, that’s the connection. As subtle as it is, that should probably be the movement at which you feel the most in the movie. I’ve been in many audiences—it’s a quiet moment. And so you do hear a little sniffling. And when I first heard that, I knew that it worked.”
Barry Morrow (co-screenwriter Rain Man)
UCTV Script to Screen interview

And just like CODA, there is a large referential wake behind Rain Man. There was the 1955 film Marty and the 1968 movie Charley And the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character was actually based in part on autistic savant Bill Sackter. Barry Morrow had met Sackter in Minneapolis and became his guardian. When Morrow moved to Iowa to work at the University of Iowa he brought Sackter with him. Morrow wrote the 1983 TV movie Bill: On in Own which earned Morrow an Emmy. (That Emmy Award is on display in the University of Iowa Main Library in the Special Collections on the third floor.) 

And the documentary A Friend Indeed: The Bill Sackter Story, directed by Lane Wyrick, came out in 2008. It used much footage that Morrow shot back in the 1970s.

P.S. You may have noticed that Tom Cruise has a little film coming out next month titled Top Gun: Maverick. Of course, it’s one of the most antisipated films of the year. Back in 1986, Cruise starred in Top Gun beginning a great ten year run that in included the hit movies Rain Man, The Firm, Mission: Impossible, and Jerry Maguire. But of all of Cruise’s movies, Rain Man I the one I’ve seen the most. It’s a movie stealing role for Hoffman, but many forget Cruise’s brilliant performance in that film. For young filmmakers out there who haven’t seen Rain Man, do yourself a favor and not only watch it, but track down the DVD that has three commentaries. One with Morrow, one with co-screenwriter Ron Bass (who came on to make changes for the director), and also the commentary with the director Barry Levinson. It‘s a film course by itself. Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay at the 1989 Oscars.

Related post:
It’s the Relationships Stupid!—A Heart to Hart Talk About Movie Endings with Lindsay Doran & Moss Hart

What’s being celebrated at the ends of those movies is each other.It’s the tenderness and the kindness and the comfort of each other.”
Producer (and former president of United Artists) Lindsay Doran
2012 TED Talk, Saving the World Vs. Kissing the Girl 

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“People will come to Iowa, for reasons they can’t even fathom.”
—Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams

All eyes in the baseball world were on Iowa on Thursday night for MLB’s Field of Dreams game between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees. And Iowa did not disappoint.”
—Aaron Marner
Des Moines Register

There are a lot of grand movie entrances. Two that come to mind are Rose (Kate Winslet) and her giant hat in Titanic and the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) twirling his rifle in Stagecoach. But on some list of 100 great film entrances has to be the entrance of the baseball players emerging from a cornfield in Iowa in Field of Dreams.

Last night in Dyersville, Iowa, Kevin Costner got to make his own grand entrance emerging from an Iowa corn field—followed by the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees. As a lifestyle baseball fan, I can’t say that Major League Baseball ever fully recovered from the double black eye of the strike back in the 90s, followed by the MLB steroid scandal.

But they took steps yesterday to add to baseball folklore by having the Yankees and the White Sox play a game near where they shot Field of Dreams movies back in the 1980s. (I think it was the first MLB game ever played in Iowa.) The TV announcers keep talking about a magical vibe the place had.

I’ve visited the Field of Dreams site a couple of times when I lived in Iowa. When I started the Screenwriting from Iowa … and Other Unlikely Places in Ceder Falls, Iowa 13 years ago, the mythology of Field of Dreams (screenplay by writer/director Phil Alden Robinson from a book by W.P. Kinsella) was definitely on my mind. What may get lost in the backstory of Field of Dreams is that Kinsella had an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. A pretty good foundation for Robinson, Costner and the others to build upon.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) and Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) also graduated from Iowa and it’s been fun all these years to go back to that well from time to time. People may forget that in 2008 just the idea of screenwriting (and filmmaking) from Iowa and other unlikely places was a radical (or tongue in cheek) concept. But fast forward to 2021 in a post-COVID world and you see that it’s no longer so bizarre. Your favorite movie or streaming show is more likely to come from the state of Georgia than Los Angeles.

The cost of living and quality of life in LA is causing more than a few creatives to trade LA for Austin, Texas. Which, of course, has its own established film community. Vancouver has proven to be a film hot spot. Zoom calls have allowed established writers to retreat to states throughout the US. If I wanted to call it a day for this blog and say “my work is done” this would be a good day to do it.

But … I think I have a few more posts in me. And I still have to get on the ball and get my podcast rolling. I don’t know what the future of movies will be—or how many movie theaters will survive these odd times—or if people even will return to the movie going business as we once knew it—but I’m pretty sure people will still want to be entertained as they have throughout the history of civilization.

In recent posts, I’ve been recounting some places I visited on my vacation back in June and July. It’s fitting that my next post will be about going to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY on my birthday. It was a trip I’d been planning since I was 10 years old.

For those of you who missed the game last night, here’s all the drama of the final dream ending (at least for Tim Anderson). Hollywood couldn’t have done it better.

P.S. Whoever came up with that idea to play the game in Iowa last night deserves a nice bonus.

P.P.S. Just realized after I wrote this post the Iowa-connection of two of the movies I referenced. Rose in Titanic (as a 103 woman) lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and John Wayne was born in Winterset, Iowa.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“The hilltop is lined with corn. Golden and brown. Shimmering in the morning heat.”
The opening like of an early draft of A Quiet Place by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods

I started this blog Screenwriting from Iowa …and Other Unlikely Places in January 2008 soon after seeing Juno and could have ended it in 2018 after The Quiet Place. The screenwriter of Juno screenwriter (Diablo Cody), and the original screenwriters of A Quiet Place (Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) all graduated from the University of Iowa. Cody wrote Juno in Minnesota and the original concept for A Quiet Place began in Iowa. Both were massive hits. They make nice bookends and my point that the creative outliers can make an impact and become insiders.

(Heck, outlier Tyler Perry and his studio have more than a few Hollywood moving trucks heading to Atlanta. If this pandemic lasts for years, Perry is going to be making an offer on the Hollywood sign.)

Their cinematic touchstones include the silent films of Chaplin, the silent-like movies of Jacques Tati. their “gold standard” write/director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, Unbreakable, The Village), Alfred Hitchcock, Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Dead, Attack the Block, and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The later shaping the opening of their first draft of A Quiet Place. Here’s a couple quotes pulled from the excellent podcast Script Apart hosted by Al Horner.

Scott Beck: “I think it’s our love of The Twilight Zone series where they do such a good job of throwing you into an environment that you slowly realize in some of these episodes that something is slightly off-kilter. To a degree that by the end of the episode you’re at such a different place than when you started. I think for us it was interesting for us that in the first draft of A Quiet Place where it felt like our own backyard here in Iowa, where you’re just going about your daily chores on a farm, and then all of the sudden five pages in you realize that you’re not in Kansas anymore, you’re not in Iowa any more. There’s something terrifying out there that’s going to kill you if you make a sound. And all of the sudden changing the rules right on page five and then telling the audience like you’re in for a hell of a ride for the next 90 minutes of your time.”

And because I have been accused of overstating how brutally competitive the film business is, here is Woods from the same podcast unpacking the path to getting A Quiet Place made. (One in which they are also grateful to John Krasinski for bringing his talent and sensibilities to the script and pulling of as actor and director.)

Bryan Woods: “Scott and I have been writing scripts ever since we met each other as 12-year-olds. In other words we’d written 30 scripts that never got made—throughout high school, college and into adulthood. And we were trying to crack the code and one of the things you start to realize as you forge a professional career in the film industry is that everybody’s job in film—executives, studio, producers—their job is basically to not make movies. Their job is to read scripts and go ‘Well, we’re not going to make this film because of A, B,C, D, E, F. G.’ So we started about a decade ago to think let’s start writing movies that are scalable. Let’s start writing movies that could be done for a lower budget, or a medium budget, or a bigger budget, and write scripts that are effective at all those levels. That check all of those boxes so that we remove one of the barriers to getting a movie made which is budget, or logistic, or production. A Quiet Place is a perfect example of that. We always talked about that worst case scenerio this is a movie we could go back to Iowa and we could make it for half a million dollars. Use our friends farm that we know out in the country. Assemble a small cast—it could be done. Nothing was going to stop us for making this movie.”

I would actually like to see that low budget version of A Quiet Place. Maybe Paramount can give Beck and Woods half a million to pull that off. Shoot it in three weeks and call it A Quiet Place: Pandemic Version. That could start a whole new trend. They’ve already finished shooting one film during the pandemic, 65. It’s produced by Sam Raimi and stars Ariana GreenblattAdam Driver, and Chloe Coleman.

P.S. Juno hit theaters in 2007—only seven years after Diablo Cody graduated from the Iowa. That was the same year that Scott Beck and Bryan Woods had a short film in the Cedar Rapids Film Festival in Iowa titled The Bride Wore Blood. And I actually had a film called Elephant Dreams at that festival. And things were percolating to start this blog. Things were happing in the Midwest in 2007. My blog eventually resulted in the book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles (which Beck and Woods wrote the introduction to). And now in 2021, things are percolating again. This spring I plan to launch a screenwriting podcast and hope you’ll come along for the journey. I’ll spend a week or so starting tomorrow talking about what I learned at the recent virtual Podfest. I do believe that if Cody was in college today, or Beck in Woods in high school today, that there’s a good chance they’d be cranking out narrative podcasts.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“The real trick of it is to find the villain’s caper. Once you’ve got that, you’re off to the races and the rest is fun.”
—Screenwriter Richard Maibaum

Tonight I watched From Russia with Love (1963) for the first time. I wanted to see how Sean Connery as James Bond in 1963 held up in 2021. But I realized that I knew very little about the screenwriters of the early bond films so I did a little digging and found yet another unlikely connection to Iowa.

Richard Maibaum, who co-wrote the screenplay for From Russia with Love, graduated from the University of Iowa. Maibaum is not a name quite as familiar today as James Bond or Ian Fleming, but he played a key role in helping create one of the most iconic screen characters in the history of cinema.

“Richard Maibaum never intended to write witty spy dramas when he began. His roots are in Broadway, where he had his first play produced while a 19-year-old student at the University of Iowa. After several plays and a brief acting stint with the Shakespearean Repertory Theatre, Maibaum journeyed to Hollywood, where he would eventually write such films as O.S.S., The Great Gatsby, and Captain Carey, USA. During their making, he cultivated a close friendship with the late Alan Ladd, which led Maibaum, in turn, to London in 1951. Ladd had been signed by Broccoli for three movies Maibaum would later be hired to script.”
—Lee Goldburg
Starlog interview

After getting his master’s degree at Iowa in 1932, Maibaum had a 25 year run writing screenplays and for the theater (and even a detour in the Army creating morale films during WWII) before co-writing (along with Johanna Hardwood and Berkely Mather) the first Bond film Dr. No (1962). He would go on to earn screenwriting credits on the Bond classics Thunderball (1965), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), For Your Eyes Only (1981), A View to a Kill (1985), The Living Daylight (1987), and Licence to Kill (1989).

He might be still writing scripts for James Bond films if he hadn’t of died in 1991. But if you look at that second act of his career it’s rather amazing. I can’t help but think back to when he was a teenager at college in Iowa just after the 1928 stock market crash and the beginning of The Great Depression. Could this Jewish kid from New York City sitting in his dorm in Iowa City ever fathom where his writing would take him? (Well, maybe. After all, he was excelling in acting and playwriting. And he was actually still a student when his anti-lynching play, The Tree, was produced on Broadway. )

I have not read the James Bond novels by Fleming, but Maibaum is credited by some of giving Bond his trademark humor. Would James Bond even be James Bond without his one-liners?


I’ll spend a few days looking at Bond’s enduring popularity, some of the criticisms through today’s lens, and some surprising influences on Ian Fleming, and the influence of Bond on films on characters like Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne.

P.S. Screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) and Diablo Cody (Juno) also graduated from the University of Iowa, and I’d bet that any of them would love to have a crack at writing a James Bond film. The Richard Maibaum Papers are part of the University of Iowa Special Collection.

1/08/21 update: Just learned of the book Speaking of Writing by Richard Maibaum (complied and edited by his wife Sylvia Kamion Maibaum). Look for some Maibaum quotes in the coming weeks.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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A production friend sent me this video this week and how could I not share in on this blog? BTW—My favorite University of Iowa story related to the dramatic arts is UI is where a guy named Tom Williams got his nickname. The story goes that when Tom was a student in Iowa City a guy in his fraternity knew he was from somewhere in the south with a long name and called him Tennessee. The only problem was Tom was actually from Mississippi. But Mississippi Williams doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like Tennessee Williams does.

Postcard #65 (Tennessee Williams)
‘A Quiet Place’ Meets ‘Screenwriting from Iowa’
Diablo Cody Day

Scott W. Smith

 

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Just as Sean Baker talked about the unusual influence of The Littel Rascals on his indie film The Florida Project, screenwriter Scott Beck talks about the unusual influence of the origins of the monster movie A Quiet Place. 

It started with Charlie Chaplin—and I’m 100% serious. In college, we were watching a lot of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton [movies]. And one of our favorites is a French filmmaker named Jacques Tati. And the thing about Jacques Tati is he was working in an era of when there was sound so his films may be dialogue free, but he’s using sound in ways that’s extremely comical or enlighting, or would tell something about who the character is. [So we thought] what if we combine that with our love of Alien, and of Jaws, and these incredible genre films that were not only rich in being terrifying but also really rich in character, too.
Scott Beck (who co-wrote A Quiet Place with Bryan Woods and John Krasinski)
Q&A at WGA Theater/ video posted on The Inside Pitch Facebook group

You may not have the benefit of ever going to the University of Iowa to study the films of Jacques Tati like Scott Beck and Bryan Woods did, but through the magic of the Internet you can get a taste of Tati’s work and influence here.

P.S. For a deeper dive, check out The Complete Jacques Tati DVD/Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.  

Related posts:

Mr. Silent Movie
Silent Clowns
Harold Loyd vs. Buster Keaton
Writing ‘The Artist’ (Part 1)
The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of The Florida Project
Show Don’t Tell
Show Don’t Tell (part 2) with a Charlie Chaplin example

Scott W. Smith

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“It kind of brings it all home—what is important?”
Iowa head football coach Kurtz Ferentz

Scott W. Smith

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“In life I wasn’t funny. I felt on stage or in movies I could do whatever I wanted. I was free.”
Gene Wilder

WillyWonka

It’s hard to write something about Gene Wilder that hasn’t been written since he passed away two years ago. But I’d like to touch on his Midwestern roots and how he found small victories on his way to greater success. After all, that is a key aspect of this blog all these years.

Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a youth, he entertained his mother with humor to try and help ease the pressure of her bad health. He began studying acting at 13, his older actress sister got him a spot doing summer stock when he was 16, and when he was 18 he followed her theatrical path and attended the University of Iowa because of its reputable theater program.

He was in four plays his freshman year alone (Note: It’s not easy to get stage time as a freshman in top drama programs), and graduated in 1955. Kim Howard Johnson’s book The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close mentions that Del Close claimed to have been a roommate of Wilder’s at Iowa. Wilder didn’t mention that in his autobiography, but they were within a year of each other age wise and did both attend Iowa so it’s possible.

If true, it certainly would have made for an incubator of creativity. While Wilder would go on to Broadway and Hollywood success, Close would make his impact mostly in Chicago being a early part of improv (Second City/Upright Citizens Brigade) and whose students included; Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chris Farley,  Mike Myers, John Candy, Jon Favreau, Tina Fey,  Harold Ramis, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner (who would eventually marry Gene Wilder).

“Many have called Del Close the most important comedy figure of the last fifty years whom you’ve never hear of.”
Kim Howard Johnson

Close was only at Iowa one semester, but I’d like to believe that he and Wilder had some late night discussions in Iowa City about “pure imagination,” in the Willy Wonka sense.

The first time I saw Wilder was in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when I was ten years old. Watching Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Silver Steak and Stir Crazy are like entertaining sign posts through my middle school and high school years. In a time before cable and the Internet—and back when hit movies had lines to get in—Wilder was memorable because he made me laugh.

But he wasn’t Steve Martin funny. And when you look at the path he took after Iowa and you seem to see a disconnect—until you learn that Wilder said seeing Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman was what made him want to become an actor. Wilder went to New York and studied with Lee Strasberg (where Wilder said he was only two actors out of 1,200 accepted into the actors studio when he applied).

He yearned to be a serious actor.

Opportunities in off-Broadway and Broadway plays brought him into contact with the person he claimed would change the direction of his career.

“I was miscast in that production [of Mother Courage and Her Children] … but it was with Anne Bancroft, whose boyfriend at the time was Mel Brooks, and that made my — I can’t say my day, it made my life, in a way.”
Gene Wilder
NPR/Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross 

Wilder co-starred in The Producers (1967) which Mel Brooks produced and directed. They team up again on Young Frankenstein (written by Wilder) and on Blazing Saddles (where Wilder was The Waco Kid).

The disconnect: Wilder was seriously funny.

So while Wilder was influenced by the seriousness of playwright Arthur Miller, he also wrote in his autobiography that another giant influence was Charlie Chaplin. He specifically points out the brilliance Chaplin in the hot dog scene from The Circus (1928).

“The acting lesson from this film seems so simple, yet inspired me for the rest of my career: if the thing you’re doing is really funny, you don’t need to ‘act funny’ while doing it.”
Gene Wilder
Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art

Wilder wrote, directed, and starred in movies through the 80s, but seemed to walk away from Hollywood after his wife, Gilda Radner, died in 1989. But he had a great over ten year run that included his best work with Brooks and Richard Pryor, and as Willy Wonka, and that brought me some of the greatest joys of childhood and teenage years.

P.S. The University of Iowa is home to the The Gene Wilder Papers. And a nice Iowa tie-in is Cloris Leachman, who plays Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein, was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa.

Scott W. Smith

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“There should be no sorrow at this funeral because The Great Santini lived life at full throttle, moved always in the fast lanes, gunned every engine, teetered on every edge, seized every moment and shook it like a terrier shaking a rat.”
Pat Conroy
Colonel Don Conroy’s Eulogy
(The book & movie The Great Santini was based on Pat Conroy’s Marine jet fighter pilot dad)

Yesterday when I learned of the March 4th death of writer Pat Conroy my first thought was that he was at the center of one of my fondest moments with literature. For one month in the summer of ’99 I backpacked around Europe with Mr. Conroy at my side—in literary form of course.

I have a distinct memory of being on a train in the Swiss Alps reading Conroy’s Beach Music and thinking, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” It was one of those rare beautiful moments in life where you are fully aware that you are alive—and you at least have the illusion that all is right in the world.

Only later did I learn that it took Conroy a decade to write Beach Music. While some writers distance themselves from the autobiographical aspects of their writings, Conroy had no place to hide. He once said,“One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family” (I think Hemingway said basically the same thing), and Conroy’s own tortuous relationship with his father was the foundation for his life’s work. A tough price to pay.

His literary career started simply when he was a high school English teacher in Beaufort, South Carolina when he self-published his first book The Boo. He was paid $7,500 for his next book The Water is Wide, which was made into the movie Conrack.  His book The Prince of Tides sold 5 million copies, and he also worked on the screenplay version of that book and received an Oscar nomination. A movie was also made of his book The Lords of Discipline.

If you’ve never read Conroy’s work The Great Santini is the one I’d recommend you’d start. And the single best movie scene made from his writings (and was reflective of the relationship with his father) was the following scene from The Great Santini. 

Good drama, bad parenting.

A fitting end to this post is a quote by author and University of Iowa writing professor Ethan Canin (who Pat Conroy said of Canin’s new book A Doubter’s Almanac, “With this extraordinary novel, Ethan Canin now takes his place on the high wire with the best writers of his time.”):

“I was driving the other day and there’s this this traffic jam, it was this miserable traffic jam, and I thought what in the hell is this? I finally get to the curb and I look up and there’s wild flowers in bloom and all these cars had just slowed down a couple of miles an hour to see the wild flowers. And it was this incredible moment where everybody who was on the way to work—they’re pissed off— they were still slowing down for the wild flowers. Not to sound too California-ish about that, but that’s amazing to me that despite the inutility of all of this stuff we are wired to just love this. To love gossip—which is what literature is—to love hearing about someone else. To love to see how other people have done things wrong. And also to rehearse for your own death. I mean that’s what reading is about. Generally most novels are about life. Many novels are about life, [A Doubter’s Almanac] is about life—birth to death, and it gives you a chance to look at it. Do it once, do it twice, read another novel. Read Moby-Dick, read The Adventures of Augie March, read some novel about a life and you can live a life, and imagine how you will face the inevitable.”
Ethan Canin
The Moment podcast interview with producer/screenwriter Brian Koppelman (Billions)

Chances are good that you won’t be on a train going through the Swiss Alps this week, but you can slow down and take in some beauty. Be it in nature, a book, a movie, or just hanging out with friends and family.

P.S. If you’ve never been to the South Carolina lowcountry where Conroy often wrote about, lived a chunk of his life, and where he died, do yourself a favor and visit the area. There’s much beauty and rich culture there, and Beaufort is one of my favorite towns in the United States.

P.P.S. Conroy does have a connection to Iowa, and it’s not the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but his father (Don Conroy) attended college in Iowa at Saint Ambrose College, and as a youth  Pat and his family spent an uncomfortable summer in Davenport once while their military family was in transition.

Related posts:

Writing Quote #32 (Waiting for Tortoises)  A great observation from Conroy’s book My Reading Life. (Loved his reading on the audio book.)
Tell Me a Story—Pat Conroy
Writing Quote #20 (Pat Conroy)
Writing Quote #39 (Writing in Paris)
September 6, 1995

Scott W. Smith

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