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Posts Tagged ‘Willa Cather’

“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pigpen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.”
Willa Cather
My Antonia

In other posts we’ve looked at screenwriters from Iowa and some of the surrounding states—Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota—but today let’s head to the west and take a look at Nebraska.

Before we get to the screenwriting part of that state let me say that Nebraska has produced four giants of cinema on the performing end of feature films; Henry Ford, Fred Astaire, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando.

Toss in producer Darryle F. Zanuck, TV personalities Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett as well as other actors James Coburn, Nick Nolte, Janine Turner and most recently Hilary Swank and you have a nice roster of entertainment talent from this Midwest state.

But no list of creatives from Nebraska is complete without mentioning Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Willa Cather whose novels O Pioneers! & My Antonia have had lasting success.

As we look at screenwriting from Nebraska there is one name that stands out in bold, Alexander Payne. The Academy-Award winning writer of Sideways grew up just over the Iowa border in Omaha, reportedly on the same street as Warren Buffett. His films Election, About Schmidt, and Citizen Ruth were all shot in Nebraska.

Payne earned his master’s degree at the UCLA where one of his teachers was Lew Hunter. Lew’s also from Nebraska and his resume is more of a creative journey. He earned two master’s degrees, worked as a radio DJ, an NBC page, story executive and wrote the Emmy-nominated script Fallen Angel, before going on to be the co-founder of the M.F.A. screenwriting program at UCLA. His book Screenwriting 434 flowed out of that class.

A couple years ago I was reading a screenwriting book by Skip Press and saw that Lew Hunter now lived part of the year in Superior, Nebraska. Since I was heading from Cedar Falls, Iowa in a few days for a shoot in Colorado Springs, I found Superior on a map and decided I could make a slight detour and pass through there. (Superior, by the way,  is called the “Victorian Capital of the Midwest.”)

I tracked down Lew’s email and sent him a note. He was in town and welcomed me to not only stop by but to stay the night in his writer’s house that he uses for workshops. So I was able to not only spend some time talking with him about his various experiences in the industry but stayed up at night watching old videotapes from his UCLA days with  various people like Billy Wilder talking to his classes.

I later interviewed him for this article that appeared in Create Magazine.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a farm outside the small, 392-person village of Guide Rock, Nebraska.

How did growing up on a farm prepare you for a career in Hollywood?
I was given a sense of a work ethic when I was five years old. I did all the things kids do on a farm.

Was there any expression of the arts or creativity in your home?
My mother was quite a different farmwomen. She was a graduate of the University of Nebraska, in music generally and violin specifically.And she went to the New England Conservatory of Music. My mother had me doing piano lessons when I was 3 years old. And she read Shakespere, “Beowulf” and Greek legends with me on her knee. My father was sort of a Will Rogers character in terms of humor and style.

What lead to your Hollywood writing career?
I went over to the story department at Disney Studios. After two years of reading scripts and books trying to get the material into the studio, I was having lunch with Ray Bradbury about doing the “Martin Chronicles,” and we were talking and I said, Ray I’m really thinking about being a writer, and I’ve read about 2,000 scripts and about 90 % are feces. And I think I can be in that top 10 percent of feces. And he gave me two books to read, One was “The Wisdom of Insecurity” by Alan Watts and the other was Dorothea Brande, “Becoming a Writer.”

So how did you actually make that transition to becoming a writer?
I had saved up enough money to focus on writing for a year and wrote six feature-length scripts. The more ponies you pick in the race, the greater your chances of winning. After the year was up my money had run out and I needed a job. My agent called and said that ABC and Aaron Spelling wanted my script, “If Tomorrow Comes” (about Japanese/Americans held captive in California during WWll) and that started my writing career.

The American Screenwriters Association awarded you with a Lifetime Achievment Award a few years ago. But you paid your dues. That’s a valuable lesson for young writers.
Everyone pays their dues to become successful. I’ll give you a perfect example. Screenwriter Brian Price is sitting in my UCLA graduate 434 class and I hold up a Variety (magazine). And on the front page it says first-time writer sells script to Universal. And I said to Brian, “How many scripts did you write before you became a first-time screenwriter?” and he says, “Ten.” I joined WGA (Writers Guild of America) in 1969 and came to Hollywood in 1956.

It seems like more people than ever are writing screenplays. What is your advice anyone wanting to be a screenwriter?
The most important thing I would tell anyone in terms of writing of any kind is when I was at Northwestern, John Steinbeck came and gave a talk and afterwards I went up to him and asked, “What must I do to become a wonderful writer?” Mr. Steinbeck twitched his beard a little with his thumb and forefinger and he said, “Write.” And turned and walked away.

Graduates in the UCLA M.F.A. program are required to write between six and eight screenplays before they graduate. That’s a lot of writing.
It astonishes me when someone telling me they’re a writer and I ask how many screenplays they’ve written and they say, “One.” You’ve got to do the process. Somewhere between four and six scripts is the equivalent of getting up on water skies.

Is it simply talent that separates UCLA Alumni writers David Ward, Francis Ford Coppola, Eric Roth, Alan Ball, David Capthem and former student of yours Alexander Payne from other writers?
It’s three things. Tenacity, focus, and there is an element of luck involved. Of course, there is the street phrase, “The harder I work the luckier I get.” I don’t think they’re smarter than anyone reading this transcript. I believe everyone has the opportunity to be a wonderful screenwriter.

Do you think with the digital technology there is going to be a new style of writing emerging or a revolution in storytelling outside of New York and LA?
I don’t think there will be a new style of writing, but I think it will be easier opportunities for people to knock people off their socks if they have a good story. It will always come doen to story and character and character and story. With a computer editing bay, a DV camera, very little money, and some talented friends and a good script, you’re going to be able to come up with something that’s going to knock people’s socks off. It’s very exciting to think of some boy or girl in some ghetto around the world will get ahold of a computer and tell a story like “Salaam Bombay.” 

Twice a year (June & September) Lew hosts 14-day workshops patterned after the UCLA M.F.A. screenwriting program.  Learn more about Lew and his workshop at lewhunter.com. Lew and his wife Pamela are gracious hosts and I think any screenwriter would benefit from spending a couple weeks in Nebraska learning from Lew.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“If you follow your passion, the money will follow. Success, in my opinion, involves sheer luck, hard work and humility.”
                                                           Anthony Zuiker, creator CSI TV programs

 

“I’m Zack Johnson and I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That’s about it, I’m a normal guy.”

                                                           Zach Johnson, professional golfer

Last year at this time Zach Johnson’s above quote caused laughter from the press corp in Augusta, Georgia as he spoke those words before a national TV audience after winning the prestigious Masters at Augusta National golf tournament.

But do normal guys come from seemingly nowhere to win their first major tournament against the greatest golfers in the world? Do normal guys fend off Tiger Woods, one of the greatest golfers in the history of the game?

Zach Johnson was sneaky long.

Sneaky long is a golf phrase which describes a golfer, a golf shot, or a particular hole that looks deceptively underrated. Think of it like an Adam Sandler/Bill Murray-like fellow in his goofiest outfit coming up to some serious golfers and saying, “You guys want to put a little money on who can hit the next ball the longest?” They take the bet thinking the guy doesn’t have a chance and he ends up taking their money.

Sneaky long is the underdog that causes snickers. Rocky, Seabiscuit, and Erin Brockovich were all sneaky long. Audiences love an underdog mainly because the underdog represents us and our deepest wishes.

When a 36-year-old writer broke into the TV business (in a business where 30 is old) with a script for an episode for the TV show Hunter (followed by scripts for even lesser remembered TV shows) few probably thought that within ten years this guy was going to write a movie that would win five Oscars. But that’s what happened after Randell Wallace wrote Braveheart.

Johnson’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa has had it’s share of sneaky long characters. NFL quarterback Kurt Warner not only grew up in Cedar Rapids but went to the same high school as Johnson. When no large schools offered him a football scholarship, he signed with the University of Northern Iowa, a Division II college right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

It wasn’t the big-time college football that he’d hoped for, but at least he thought he’d start all four years. However, he sat the bench for three years before making his marking mark his senior year by becoming the Gateway Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Following graduation, he worked as a grocery stocker at HyVee (where I shop these days to pick up the vibe) and then played arena football in Des Moines. Next was pro ball in Europe before joining the St. Louis Rams where he was booed in his first game. He went on to be twice voted the top player in the NFL and Super Bowl XXXIV MVP. Someday they’ll do a movie about his life.

One could even say that artist Grant Wood was sneaky long. He was a schoolteacher and artist who lived in a small apartment above a carriage house in (you guessed it) Cedar Rapids, where he eventually painted one of the most recognizable (and copied and parodied) paintings in the history of art—American Gothic.

Wood once said, “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa.” He also coined the term regionalism to define his belief that an artist should “paint out of the land and the people he knows best.”

Isn’t that what Van Gogh did in Arles? Isn’t that what Winslow Homer did in Maine? Isn’t that what Faulkner did in Oxford, what Steinbeck did in Monterey, what O’Connor in Georgia, what Ibsen did in Norway, what Willa Cather did in Nebraska, and what Horton Foote (Tender Mercies) has done in Texas?

This is the heartbeat of Screenwriting from Iowa. Hollywood will always make its tent pole movies. Movies will always have a LA/New York thrust because that’s where the majority of studios, crews, and talent are located.

But if the writer’s strike signaled one thing it’s the times are changing. As the founder of The Geek Squad said recently, “What people don’t understand is the internet hasn’t yet started.” I believe new forms of distribution will fuel a revival in regionalism.

“What regional filmmaking means to me is not only utilizing the actors of your area, the musicians and the artists, but probing what it means to that region. And for me, the thing about Memphis that I’ve always responded to is its music scene, from Sam Phillips recording Howlin’ Wolf, Rudus Thomas, Elvis Presely, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich.”
Craig Brewer, writer/director Hustle & Flow

Audiences for years have been complaining about the lack of originality and seemingly endless repetition of remakes and sequels. (And again that’s why they flocked to Juno.) And writers have struggled with the pressure to write what they think will sell to the masses rather than writing what they know and really want to write.

While advertising dollars are shrinking along with the writing dollars for TV jobs, the advertising dollars are not going away. They’re heading to the internet. And audiences are no longer satisfied the the TV limitations they’ve had in the past. They like being their own Internet programers.

We don’t know what it will look like yet, but the writing jobs (and acting, producing, directing, editing, and shooting jobs) will follow. Like the era from silent movies to sound pictures the industry is shifting.

Hollywood is stocked with talent from all across the United States and Canada. We enjoy hearing stories of Katie Holmes being from Toledo, Ohio and Julia Roberts from Smyrna, Georgia. Even the greater Cedar Rapids area alone has its share of actors in recent films and TV programs.

Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings)
Eric Rouse (Superman Returns)
Michele Monaghan (Mission Impossible III)
Tom Arnold (The Final Season)
Michele Emerson (Lost)
Ron Livingston (Office Space)
Ashton Kutcher (The Guardian)

Did you know that Kutcher grew up in rural Homestead, Iowa and once had a job sweeping up Cheerio dust at the General Mills factory in Cedar Rapids? That was before he became a biochemical engineering student at the University of Iowa, New York model, film and TV actor, and husband of Demi Moore.

Kutcher had the looks, drive, talent, and quirky good fortune to make a name for himself that thousands of small town actors, writers, directors will never find in Hollywood. And what happens to those actors, writers and directors who don’t find fame or fortune in L.A.?

Do they embrace that hotel manager job? Have a career in sales for a health club or a real estate company in the valley? Move back home and unpack their suitcase full of broken dreams? Probably a little of all of that, but it’s going to become less necessary for talent to have to be in New York and LA.

This trend has already been seen in the advertising world as Crispin Porter in Miami was chosen to launch the Mini Cooper campaign years ago. (More recently they revamped VW’s image.) And Virginia’s Martin Agency has been doing the UPS Brown and quirky Geico cavemen & gecko ads. (At Martin they used to have a sign in the creative department that read, “Nobody comes to Richmond for the restaurants.”) Creativity Magazine has called Martin the “Third most creative agency in the world.” And they’re in Virginia! Changing times indeed.

But wherever the sneaky long actor, writer, or director lives they need to keep plugging away at the craft. Keep learning and keep creating.

I’ve said before in workshops I’ve given, “Don’t quit your day job, because you never know how that can serve your work.” (Not to mention it pays the biils.) Johnny Depp says he used to use different voices in the telemarketing job he had when he first moved to L.A. from Florida.

Then there is Anthony Zuiker’s story. After the show he created, CSI, became the top rated scripted show he told Creative Screenwriting magazine, “Three years ago I was living in Vegas as the night manager of the Mirage Hotel tram line.” (Zuiker whose creation has since grown into the hit shows CSI:New York and CSI:Miami has Chicago roots. How many years until CSI: Cedar Falls?)

But when Zuilker was a night manger he was also writing. It was while working at a motel when he actually found the inspiration for his first TV script. “The police and I are in this motel room searching for evidence when an officer lifts up the bed skirt. All I see is a pair of eyes before she leaps from beneath the bed clawing at my face. And I thought, ‘There’s a show here.'” (By the way if you’re interested in having Zuilker speak to a group of yours contact the Greater Talent Network.)

Certainly golfer Zach Johnson has followed Zuilker’s advice: “If you follow your passion, the money will follow. Success, in my opinion, involves sheer luck, hard work and humility.” Johnson was not the top golfer on his college team at Drake. (Congrats, by the way, to Drake men’s basketball coach Keno Davis for getting AP Coach of the Year last week.) Johnson even wasn’t the #1 golfer on his high school team.

But he had passion and kept improving his game until he got to slip on the famed green jacket at Augusta on his way to making $4 million dollars last year.

Whether you’re making music videos in Minneapolis, turning out B-grade cable scripts, teaching high school theater in Tulsa, a grocery store stock boy, a night tram manager in Vegas, a daytime tram operator in Orlando,  or someone sweeping up Cheerio dust in a factory you have to believe that you’re sneaky long and can surprise a lot of people with what you write. But you have to be writing to get there.

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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