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Posts Tagged ‘University of Iowa’

“Art Gropes. It stalks like a hunter lost in the woods, listening to itself and to everything around it, unsure of itself, waiting to pounce.”
John Gardner

I like to refer to creativity as a blender in which you pour your life experiences and talent into. Your originality comes out of this mix. One of the early longer posts I wrote touched on this, Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C). Novelist, literary critic, professor John Gardner* (Grendel, The Art of Fiction) wrote this for you to ponder:

“Original style arises out of personality and the freak accident of the artist’s particular aesthetic experience—the fortuitous combination, during a writer’s childhood of (let us say) Tolstoy, Roy Rogers, and the chimpanzee act at the St. Louis  Zoo. Only after the style has begun to assert itself does the writer’s intellect make sense of it, discover or impose some purpose and develop the style further, this time in full conscuousness of what it portends…Out of the artist’s imagination, as out of nature’s inexhaustible well, pours one thing after another. The artist composes, writes, or paints just as he dreams, seizing whatever swims close to the net. This shimmering mess of loves and hates—fishing trips taken long ago with Uncle Ralph, a 1940 green Chevrolet, a war, a vague sense of what makes a novel, a symphony, a photograph—this is the clay the artist must shape into an object worthy of our attention; that is, our tears, our laughter, our thought.”
John Gardner
On Moral Fiction

You can add John Gardner to the list of those who were a part of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He received his MA & Ph.D degrees from the University of Iowa in the late 1950s. He died in 1982 at the age of 49 from a motorcycle accident.

Scott W. Smith

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“I wanted my first film to be special… but I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to get made.”
Aaron Schneider, director of Get Low

A part of the 10 year journey of Get Low getting made is the writing of Aaron Schneider. He wasn’t the writer of the script, but the director of the movie. But Schneider did take a few days to craft a letter to actor Bill Murray to persuade him to join the cast. In an article by Danielle Hatch, Schneider said, “I decided to write a letter to let (Murray) know the movie was on its way and we wanted him on board. I put my heart on the page. You sit down and you write ‘Dear Bill,’ but that’s too casual. You write ‘Dear Mr. Murray,’ and that’s too formal. And in the business, Bill Murray is known for his bull-(expletive) meter. Not that I was trying to sell him a used car, but you get the sense from watching him and his work that the only way you can approach him is by being yourself and hoping that’s enough.”

Especially in this digital age never underestimate the power of a personal letter.  Murray signed on to be in the film which is in theaters now.

And while Get Low is Schneider’s feature film directorial debut he has actually two decades of cinematography credits, joined the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) in 1999, and won an Oscar for a short film he made in 2003 (Two Soldiers). According to the Chicago Tribune Schneider, now 40, was “born in Springfield and raised primarily in Peoria, Ill.” And Illinois plays a part in one of the more interesting twists and turns of Get Low getting made, as it has links to where a chunk of money came from to get the film produced.

Where do you think Schneider found a key investor— a German management company? “We found them through my high school prom date,” Schneider told Michael Phillips at the Tribune. “She found out I was trying to raise money for this movie. By this time she was in the financial world in New York and knew somebody who was interested in headhunting money for a movie.”

Think I can top that? Well, where do you think Scheider went to college? Yep, right here in Iowa. (Almost three years after starting this blog after discovering Diablo Cody graduated from the University of Iowa I’ve come to expect odd connections to Iowa.) Schneider studied engineering at Iowa State in Ames, but a chance meeting with Billy Crystal on a vacation in Florida led Schneider to go to film school at USC. Phillips points out that when Schneider won the Oscar for his short film, the host of the Oscars that year was Billy Crystal.

Don’t you love happy endings?

Scott W. Smith

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If anyone in NY or LA wonders what people in the fly-over states really do, they can now look to the record books for some clues. Yesterday in Coralville, Iowa a group gathered to smash a seven-year old record for the largest number of people gathered to do the hokey pokey. The old record of 4,431 was easily beaten as more than 7,000 people turned out and put their best foot forward into the record books.

Though Coralville (right next to Iowa City) is just over an hour from my house I was not a part of the Hokey Pokey team because I had a video shoot in Minnesota on Friday.  (Though I did catch a Twins game Friday night it which the Twins honored 50 of their all-time great players. And 34 of those players were in attendance, including Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew who I remember seeing play at Tinker Field in Orlando when I was a kid.)

The Hokey Pokey record was a part of the second annual FryFest to honor former University of Iowa football coach Hayden Fry. Fry was known to have his team do the Hokey Pokey in the locker room after they pulled off underdog victories. (Fry also is the coach who painted the visiting locker rooms pink and in the 70s tweaked Iowa football teams black and yellow uniforms to look more like the repeating Super Bowl champions Pittsburgh Steelers uniforms.)

Fry spoke Friday with a panel of his 1985 team who played in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1986. That is a team I am familiar with. While I was in film school (and for a couple of years afterwards) I worked as a photographer for Yary Sports Photography in Southern California and was on hand when the team photo of the 85/86 team photo was taken outside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. (Can’t recall if I took the actual picture or just helped with the set-up.)

At that point of my life I doubt I could have pointed out where Iowa was on a map, much less would have thought that I’d ever end up living in Iowa. Having a blog someday called “Screenwriting from Iowa”—forgetaboutit.

Now for all you people on the East & West coasts, the next time you hear the Hokey Pokey song remember who currently owns the record for the largest group doing the hokey pokey—and don’t ever think for a second that there aren’t crazy, wild, outrageous things happening in fly-over country. Can the “Hokey Pokey— Iowa Style”  movie be far off?

Scott W. Smith

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In light of the blog on TomCruise.com giving a nice mention to Screenwriting from Iowa, I posted that Mark Johnson, one of the producers of the Oscar winning- best film Rain Man, graduated from the University of Iowa. Then a friend reminded me of another Iowa connection to Rain Man and that is the original story and co-writer of that Oscar-winning script was Barry Morrow, who also graduated from the University of Iowa.

That lead me to a You Tube interview with Barry Morrow where the Oscar & Emmy-winning Morrow was asked this question:

Stephen Jennings: What advise would you offer to beginning screenwriters who want to get started in the industry? Who don’t have an agent, don’t have any contacts, and maybe don’t even live in Southern California.

Barry Morrow: I would say, stay where you are. Don’t come here (Los Angeles) yet. Unless you want to be a professional waiter. I would say live with your parents, save your money, and don’t write one script—write five scripts. Then pick the best one. And never fall into the trap of believing you’re going to sell your first screenplay, you won’t. It hasn’t happened, I don’t care what you’ve read…You might have it optioned— for about a buck, over and over and over. But someday you’ll look back and say, “I wasn’t the writer I needed to be.” So just write a few more scripts and that will serve you the best. And then you won’t have to be living in an apartment paying all the money you’re earning from this waitress or waiter job you have in West Hollywood to pay for your apartment and not have the time to write the scripts from mom and dad’s basement.”

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“I really do believe that chance favours a prepared mind. Wallace Stegner, who was one of my teachers when I was at Stanford, preached that writing a novel is not something that can be done in a sprint. That it’s a marathon. You have to pace yourself. He himself wrote two pages every day and gave himself a day off at Christmas. His argument was at the end of a year, no matter what, you’d got 700 pages and that there’s got to be something worth keeping.”
Scott Turow
Writer of Presumed Innocent interview with Robert McCrum

“Much of Stegner’s writing grew out of his itinerant upbringing, a self-described ‘wandering childhood’ that took him to North Dakota, Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, Utah, Nevada, and California.”
Honor Jones and Andrew Shelden
Wallace Stegner inVQR


Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972 (Angle of Repose) and has been called “The Dean of Western Writers.”  Though born on a farm in Iowa (and earned his Master’s and Doctorate degrees at the Iowa Writers Workshop) he really was a man of the country having lived in 20 different places (including Canada).

He taught at the University of Utah (where he did his undergraduate work), the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University before being the founder of the creative writing program at Stanford University. His students over the years included Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade), Ernest Gaines (A Lesson Before Dying),  Wendell Berry (The Unsettling of America), and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

Here is part of Stegner’s advice to a talented writer who had studied with him:

“I imagine you will always be pinched for money, for time, for a place to work. But I think you will do it. And believe me, it is not a new problem. You are in good company…Your touch is the uncommon touch; you will speak only to the thoughtful reader. And more times than once you will ask yourself whether such readers really exist at all and why you should go on projecting your words into silence like an old crazy actor playing the part of himself to an empty theater.”
Wallace Stegner
the Atlantic, To a Young Writer

And in case you are intimidated by Stegner’s academic pedigree, it may help you to know that Stegner spent part of his youth in an orphanage and once said that he didn’t grow up with any art, music (except for some folk music), or literature.  The only architecture around him was a grain elevator. In fact, he never saw a city of any kind until he was 12 years old. He once said, “Coming from nowhere. you have lots of places to go.”

In one talk, he also stressed the importance of having a sense of place and continuity, “You are members of a community—most of you. You are a members of a region, of a country, of a culture, of an ecology, a species, and if you find it as I do a ‘weed species,’ that isn’t any reason to belong to it less, or love it less, it’s only an excuse to mitigate its weediness.”

Robert Redford narrated the documentary Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life.

The Papers of Wallace Stegner can be found at the University of Iowa and are open for research.

*Back in the day, spending time in an orphanage didn’t always mean that your parents were dead, but perhaps they weren’t able to afford to raise and care for you properly. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’m guessing that wasn’t too uncommon throughout the depression. By the way, orphanages find their way into stories because the place is so rich to explore from a perspective of the universal themes of home and belonging. And as I’ve pointed out before, orphans make for great protagonists. (See the post Orphan Characters.)

Scott W. Smith


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“The ‘if-I-had-time’ lie is a convenient way to ignore the fact that novels require being written and that writing happens a sentence at a time. Sentences can happen in a moment. Enough stolen moments, enough stolen sentences, and a novel is born—without the luxury of time. Lawyer Scott Turow wrote his riveting novel Presumed Innocent* on his daily commuter train.”
Julia Cameron
The Right to Write
page 14

*The 1990 movie Presumed Innocent starring Harrison Ford was based on Turow’s international best-selling book with the screenplay being written by Frank Pierson and Alan J. Pakula. According to Box Office Mojo it made $221,303,188. worldwide. It’s probably worth mentioning that before Turow got on that commuter train he had graduated from not only Harvard Law School but had a Master’s in Creative Writing from Stanford University. He has written a total of eight books, has a website,  and is currently a partner at Sonnernschein Nath & Rosenthal in Chicago.

Update: Just read where Turow studied with Pulitzer-Prize winning author Wallace Stegner, the founder of the writing program at Stanford. Because I can’t seem to escape this theme, Stegner was born in Lake Mills, Iowa and educated (master’s degree, doctorate) at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. More on Turow & Stegner in coming days.

Related posts: The Breakfast Club for Writers
Filmmaking Quote of the Day #4 (Will Smith)
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (tip#2)
Screenwriting from Massachusetts
Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Scott W. Smith

 

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“The fact is, when I wrote Juno—and I think this is part of its charm and appeal—I didn’t know how to write a movie.”
Diablo Cody

Today marks the two and a half-year anniversary of starting this blog— Screenwriting from Iowa. A blog that got its start after seeing the movie Juno and reading the articles about screenwriter and University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody who jump started her career by blogging. Two and a half years ago blogging was still pretty much a mystery to the masses. Just put your stuff out there and see what happens was Cody’s encouragement to anyone who would listen.

She walked away with an Oscar in 2008 and later that year I won a Regional Emmy in Advanced Media for Screenwriting from Iowa. (Juno Has Another Baby.) It was all the sweeter that I received the Emmy in Minneapolis where Cody happened to write Juno.

My goal with this blog from the start has been to encourage and inspire writers and filmmakers around the country to hone their craft as they pursue writing for Hollywood, ultra low-budget filmmaking, or something in between. Along the way I’ve also shown writers in Los Angeles who write stories that take place far from the shadow of the Hollywood sign. (Usually, because they came from outside L.A. originally, or they are adapting a novelist who set a story in their neck of the woods.)

Cody was not the first writer outside L.A. to breakthrough, nor will she be the last. But I believe she is the poster child for screenwriters originally from outside L.A. who desire to write something so original that it leap frog’s the zillions of other more experienced screenwriters. Really, how many screenwriters does the public know by name?

That doesn’t mean that she is loved and adored by everyone. I’m sure she even understands some of the Cody backlash, because how many people walk away with an Oscar on a first script that they were just flirting around writing?

“I think I went into (writing Juno) as an experiment; I didn’t really have a whole lot invested in it. It was more something I just wanted to try. I had no idea throughout the whole process that this would ever wind up being a produced screenplay or that this would ever end up being cast with these amazing actors. There was absolutely no pressure on me because I was just sitting in Minnesota writing for my own edification. So I think that was freeing in a lot of ways.”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

That has to make all of those screenwriting gurus cringe. And tick off a few writers who have been at it five, 10, 20 years. And if that doesn’t, this will:

“I guess ignorance is bliss is the best way of putting it. [laughs] The only thing I did was I went to Barnes & Noble and bought the shooting scripts for a couple of movies that I liked so I could see how they looked on the page and that gave me a little structural guidance. but that was all I did. ”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

But what about all those screenwriting classes and workshops you’re supposed to take and all those books on screenwriting you’re supposed to read, on top of the years of writing screenplays? Nah, remember Cody was just flirting with screenwriting. Juno was her first attempt and she cranked it out in six weeks at a Starbucks inside a Target store in the Minneapolis suburb of Crystal. Was it a flawless, script? Perfectly tuned like the screenwriting gurus tell you it has to be? Not according to Cody.

“When we sent that screenplay out it was riddled with typos and formatting errors because I had no idea what I was doing. [laughs] My manager was so stunned that I had turned out something vaguely coherent that he just said, ‘Let’s just throw it out there and see if anybody likes it.’ We didn’t really obsess; I think it was just a case of expectations being so low that there was not a lot of polishing and spit-shinning going on.”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

It would be easy to just say Cody got lucky. That would be a mistake. How did she get a manager in the first place? Because her manager-to-be (Mason Novick) came across her blog and saw talent and originality. Perhaps a freshness that’s not easy to find in L.A. when everyone is going to the same screenwriting workshops, reading the same screenwriting books, going to the same screenwriting expos, and hanging out at the same L.A. restaurants or sitting on the same L.A. freeway.

Thanks in part to the plethora of new books and seminars on screenwriting, a new phenomenon is taking over Hollywood: Major scripts are skillfully, seductively shaped, yet they are soulless. They tend to be shiny but superficial.”
Richard Walter
UCLA Screenwriting Professor

Part of what sets Cody apart is, to use Colin Covert’s phrase, she is “scary-smart.” She had 12 years of Catholic school, was raised in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Media Studies from the University of Iowa. While not in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate program, that was part of what attracted her to Iowa. While she had never written a screenplay before Juno, she thought of herself as a writer and had been writing on a regular basis (poems, short stories, etc.) for 15 years before she turned her hand to screenwriting. (Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours)

And I love the fact that not three miles from where Cody wrote Juno is a Minneapolis bar called Grumpy’s where screenwriter Nick Schenk wrote much of Gran Torino that in 2009 would become Clint Eastwood’s highest grossing film that he’s ever starred in. (Screenwriting Postcard from Minneapolis.) If Cody and Schenk don’t inspire you nothing will.

“Aspiring screenwriters always ask what’s the best way to break into the Hollywood? I say move to Minnesota.”
Writer Ken Levine (Frasier, MASH, Cheers)
How to sell a screenplay by drinking in a bar

Thanks again to Ms. Cody for the nudge to jump into the blogging world. And thanks to everyone for stopping by to read what I post, because without readers it would be hard to have written the 600+ posts I’ve written so far.

P.S. In yesterday’s post I mentioned that I’d explain why Clark Gable would be attracted to Diablo Cody and here’s my reasoning. A Time magazine article said, “Gable liked his women to be both sacred and profane.” It doesn’t take much reading about Cody to realize she is both scared and profane. While the profane aspects get more press, Cody’s sacred side is more fascinating to me. And it certainly doesn’t hurt her originality.

Read her 2005 post Finding My Religion to see a theological side to Cody that probably can only be matched in Hollywood by the Calvinist-raised Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver). One thing Cody says she’s never flirted with is atheism. Here’s a sample of her pre-Juno writing;

“I’ve had my share of core-rattling Touched By an Angel moments–brief instances in which God seemed to be standing right beside me, tousling my overprocessed hair like a kind scoutmaster–but most of the spiritual epiphanies I’ve had in my life were far earthier, borne of personal reflection, diverging beliefs, and the admission that I can’t ever fully grasp the sacred.”

Related Post: The Juno-Iowa Connection
Juno Vs. Walt
The Oscars Minnesota Style
The Fox, the Farm, & the Fempire
Life Beyond L.A. (The first blog on January 22, 2008)

Update June 23, 2010: Here is what Diablo Cody (@diablocody) wrote on Twitter: “@scottwsmith_com Thank you for writing that kind and lovely piece. I truly appreciate it.” Yeah, that’s a good way to start your day.

Scott W. Smith

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