Today on the show we have screenwriter and Emmy-winner Scott W. Smith. Scott is an OG in the screenwriting blogging space. His blog Screenwriting from Iowa has been around since 2008 and has been nationally recognized. His new book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles is a bare-knuckle approach to the screenwriting process.
Every screenwriter faces fear and failure. The legendary screenwriter William Goldman once said he was “programmed to fail.” Yet he went on to have a long career that included winning two Oscar Awards. Susannah Grant put a positive spin on constant failure saying “that free-falling feeling you get right on the knife-edge of total disaster may, in fact, be an essential ingredient to doing anything worthwhile.” Arguably the worst failure for the new screenwriting is either not finishing a script —or not even starting the writing process.
You’ll find throughout this book that talent and hard work are essential to succeed at any level. You can’t teach that. But distilled from over 3,000 posts from Emmy-winner Scott W. Smith’s nationally recognized blog Screenwriting from Iowa . . .. and Other Unlikely Places, these 10 chapters will hopefully guide and inspire you to improve your writing and output. Sprinkled throughout these pages are quotes curated from an eclectic and diverse mix of many top screenwriters and filmmakers throughout the history of film and television.
CONFLICT – Why is this a key foundational concept in all storytelling? It’s one thing that movies, plays, television, and streaming shows, documentaries, and dramatic podcasts all have in common.
CONCEPT – Screenwriter Terry Rossio (“Shrek”) believes new writers make one common mistake at the start.
CHARACTERS – Why does David Mamet think Wile E. Coyote can be a good role model for your characters?
CATALYST – How did screenwriters Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini grab the audience’s attention early in their movie “Winter’s Bone?” No matter what genre you’re writing (drama, comedy, horror, action, etc.) something disruptive must happen in the first act.
CONSTRUCTION – Why Rian Johnson (“Knives Out”) says structure seems antithetical to the free-wheeling creative process but is actually essential to understand.
CLIMAXES/ CONCLUSIONS – What does “Toy Story 3” screenwriter Michael Arndt think makes the difference between a good, a bad, and an “insanely great” ending?
CATHARSIS – Francis Marion, the first screenwriter to win two Academy Awards (and she wrote one of the first books on screenwriting back in 1937) understood that the goal of writing for film is to make a spectator feel.
CONTROLLING IDEA – Perhaps no concept is more divisive than the idea of a theme. Find out how screenwriters Ryan Coogler, Rod Serling, Kelly Marcel, Francis Ford Coppola, and Wes Anderson differ on handling theme.
CHANGE – Why is asking the question “What’s changed?” so critical to every scene you write?
CAREERS AND COWS – Aaron Sorkin, Diablo Cody, James Cameron, Callie Khouri, Barry Jenkins, LuLu Wang, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu all had day jobs (some “survival jobs”) before they found filmmaking success. Where one artist found inspiration in an unusual place. And what’s the one thing you can do to help get Shonda Rhimes to ask what your spec script is about?
Enjoy my conversation with Scott W. Smith.
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Alex Ferrari 0:40
I'd like to welcome the show Scott Smith, man, thank you for coming on the show, brother.
Scott W. Smith 3:22
It's great to be here.
Alex Ferrari 3:24
Yeah, thank you, man. So before we get into your awesome titled book, screenwriting with brass knuckles, which we're gonna get into why you called it that, by the way, let's I'm gonna ask you the question. I always ask, how did you get started in this insane, ridiculous business that we we'd love so much.
Scott W. Smith 3:45
You know, I grew up in a time when movies were special. You know, it was before internet before cable before DVDs before VHS. And for a lot of younger listeners, that's just hard to compute. But movies were really something that I would say the 70s or when I really started going to movies as. And that was a great era to be going to movies, you know. And so when when you went to movies, it was exciting. It was thrilling. You stood in line. And if you didn't get in line, you waited again to the next showing. And it was just an exciting time. And I think as someone who played a lot of sports movie making was not on my radar in Orlando, Florida. It wasn't something that someone did. That was something that happened in Hollywood, maybe New York, but it was way off the radar, but that there was one connection. And it was Burt Reynolds. Burt Reynolds was a football player who was a movie star and and i think somewhere deep down in me it was like, Can I do that? Could I be a part of that somehow. So I think Burt Reynolds was like step one, and step two was taking a class who I dedicated the book to. With an refloat. She was a creative writing teacher that I had in high school. And she said, This class is about being creative. And whatever hesitation I had in school of jumping into to harder subjects, creative writing just sounded like fun. Like you get, you can just make up stories. And then this was 1979 1980. She said, we're gonna make a video. And there was like an AV person that came in with a camera. And I think we did a video that was a spin off of A Christmas Carol. And then and then we did a few other videos, and I was just as a high school senior, that's what you want, you want some teacher, this is going to open the door for you. So I kind of still had football on the backburner. I was a decent athlete in football and baseball. But I also had this thing about, Hey, I think I want to get involved in film. And so eventually, I went to a community college where I took every photography class, I could, they didn't have any film classes, I worked as a intern with the the Sanford Herald where I'm writing stories and and then I transferred down to the University of Miami where I was a part of the film program there and took that eight millimeter class where you produce you direct, you shoot you write you edit. And I often say that, that class, everything I've done since then, is, especially today, because you know, there's a time when I was working on with crews of 20 people, and then it contracted to where it's two or three people going out into shoot. And then sometimes because of budgets, it's just you, you know, doing all those things, so that that first teacher and refill really kind of opened the door. And then University of Miami film school, and then I went went out to Los Angeles to finish out there. And and it's just been exciting. It's been exciting to just ride all the changes. And I think one of the the key things that that I learned along the way was to embrace your limitations. And I think Robert Rodriguez says that, you know, he often has filmmakers come to him and say this would have been better but but this happened, and this happened. And and and Rodriguez says that's, that's what filmmaking is things don't work. And he tells a story about one of his sets actually catching fire
Alex Ferrari 7:28
from dusk to dawn. Yeah, from
Scott W. Smith 7:30
early on. And and they had to look at it and say, well, we don't have time to rebuild it. It kind of looks cool. Let's keep going. And and I think that's the lesson for all of us is is you got to just keep going and brace the limitations. You know, it was it was film when I started out it was eight millimeter film it was 16 millimeter film. When I graduated from school, I ended up working as a 16 millimeter. We had an Eclair NPR bed steenbeck. flatbed editor.
Alex Ferrari 8:02
I'm stopping talking to stop talking dirty, sir, stop talking dirty Stop it.
Scott W. Smith 8:06
And my first shoot at 25. They said, Oh, and you're flying to Aspen next week to shoot America's downhill. And I thought, Man my dream of doing a feature film by 30. You know, I'm sad. And and, you know, it's like, when I start the first chapter of the book about conflict, it's like you find out pretty early on that there's just there's conflict in your life. There's conflict in movies. That's one of the things that that keep them from, from not being boring. And Richard Walter, he used to be at UCLA, he always said the number one screenwriting rule is don't be boring. Right. And, and I just I just think all along. It's it's been, you know, intention, obstacles. That's one of the things that that Sorkin says his his all of his films and TV shows are about intention and obstacles. And I think, for every filmmaker out there, no matter what level you are, you have an intention to do this. And there's going to be an obstacle in your way. And those of us that persist. Just keep saying, Okay, well, this is the obstacle today, when I was setting up for this interview, I decided, Hey, you know what, I think I might throw up a 150 in the background, a little airy 150. And I put that thing in, and what happens? The ball pops. And I'm like, man, I haven't used this lamp in a while. I wasn't even sure how to open the lamp up. So I'm going to YouTube. And I have to say, Where do I keep my 150 bulbs? You know, and I just laugh and I just that's we're in a pandemic right now. It's just you have to realize at some point oh, this is the way it is. It's there is no once I get over that hump, I think when I was younger, I thought once I get over this hill, once I get past Oh, sure.
Alex Ferrari 9:58
Oh, yeah, yeah, that whole concept. The whole like, if I just couldn't get here, or if this thing just happens, then everything will be fine. Or if I could just get that one meeting the money's going to drop for my feature like all these things things. On a side note real quickly, I have to tell you my my Burt Reynolds story in Florida happy Have you ever happened to go to the Burt Reynolds museum? Is that in Jupiter? It isn't Jupiter. It isn't sure I was invited to speak to a film organization. And they told me or reading at the Burt Reynolds museum. I'm like, I'm sorry, the what? That like the Burt Reynolds museum. I'm like, Okay, sure. And I drove up to burn to Jupiter and I went in. And lo and behold, it's an entire museum dedicated to all Burt Reynolds memorabilia, his entire career from football, all the way. And it was just a very odd, it's a standalone building on top of it, and it's just a very odd place to like, it's just he was alive at the time. It was just a weird place. But it was like one of those stories you're like, that's just a weirdest place I've ever spoken in mind. You're surrounded by pictures and magazine covers and posters and rentals and memorabilia. It was a weird experience.
Scott W. Smith 11:17
For some reason the the the Johnny Cash hurt. video comes to mind where you know you have all this you know, I mean, at one time Johnny Cash in the 50s coming up with Elvis, you know, was close to the center of the world. And then that video is just I still think it's one of the greatest music videos ever made. hurt hurt. Yeah, yeah. hurt. Oh,
Alex Ferrari 11:39
and the song is amazing. I love love.
Scott W. Smith 11:41
Alex Ferrari 11:42
I'm a huge Johnny Cash fan in general, I'd love Johnny Cash. But anyway, we're not here to talk about that. Let's let's get into into what we're here to talk about. So you wrote a book called screenwriting with brass knuckles Why Why did you title the book screenwriting with brass knuckles, because I've had a lot of authors on the show that have screenwriting books. That's probably one of the best titles. Okay, good branding, good branding, good marketing. It catches the eye. I like it. So why did you call it that?
Scott W. Smith 12:10
Well, again, at least as a good title, that's,
Alex Ferrari 12:13
I mean, inside is crap. I haven't I've read the book. But I'm joking, joking. Joking, though. So why did you Why did you call it that? What How did you come up with that awesome title.
Scott W. Smith 12:22
You know, I'm not sure when it popped in my mind. I think, you know, one of the takeaways from Steven is he talks about always, you know, you're always looking for stories, you're almost like a paleontologist you you see this little white thing on the side of the road and you pull over and you dust it often turns out that it's a bone and then you just kind of follow it where it's gonna go and so I'm not exactly sure where the exact title came up with, but I do know as a kid. I watched a lot of this is before WW II and WWF and all the all the glamorous whole Cogan and and beyond after that back in the 70s when I was just a wee little boy it was just fascinating you know, just like it is for a kid today but but it was much more limit to the storylines were much more limited
Alex Ferrari 13:17
production value, they kind of roll it out.
Scott W. Smith 13:20
Yeah, they would pretty much have the body slams, you know, the the against the ropes type of stuff. Somebody would would pull out a trailer and hit somebody on the back. And then when somebody was really getting beat down, then Gordon solie was the great announcer and he'd say he'd say, Well, you know, it looks like he's almost done and then he he reaches and he's like what's that he has in his hands wait a minute that's he's got brass knuckles and and all sudden the guy that was getting beaten would start beating the guy that was beating him until he was like some kind of fake blood but you're a kid so you don't really know and it was like you just knew that that brass knuckles had some kind of superpower and there was something about the way that that flows brass knuckles and then throughout time it just it's you know from rappers today to as I point out Spike Lee at the Was it the 2019 Oscars where he's got his his his throwback brass knuckles the University of Miami football teams got their own they call them brass rings because that's probably a little bit less violent but their knuckles
Alex Ferrari 14:28
well that's the thing it's it's a violent imagery, but then I love like screen right so I'm gonna like I'm gonna, screenwriting in general is so difficult to do. It's one of the most difficult art forms in literature to do because it's so concise and you get every word actually means something and it's really difficult to do that. I love the concept of the brass knuckles like I'm gonna beat this script to a bloody Paul but you will not beat me kind of thing. So that's why I love the name so much.
Scott W. Smith 14:57
Well, you know, it's it's funny how Blake's Snyder's save the cat just it just it just became part of folklore you know, and and it really didn't. It didn't say screenwriting it didn't say whatever it had that cat hanging I remember the first time I saw that in the bookstore. And fortunately, I got to have a little bit of communication with Blake before he died. And he was just a nice guy. And, and so I think that, that that clean cover of the of the cat and something kind of like what's that about something that was intriguing. So, and I definitely wanted to have screenwriting in and again, you know, there's only been what like 200 screenwriting books written this week.
Alex Ferrari 15:41
This week, because we are in a pandemic. So now there's a lot more screenwriting books out.
Scott W. Smith 15:45
Yeah, I will say that without the pandemic, this book would not have been finished because I, I've been at it a long time. And And really, the goal was to just curate a lot of, you know, those 200 books, I think I read 190 of them. Sure. And, and every book has one or two great thoughts in it. And basically my goal in starting my blog, screenwriting, from Iowa and other unlikely places, when I started that in 2008, I thought, you know what, I'll just pull all my production notes together, maybe this will be helpful for someone else. And I really thought it would be a year process, I didn't know that it would be a 12 year process. And one of the one of the quotes that I've always loved, and unfortunately, I don't remember who said it, but he said, we tend to overestimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can do in 10.
Alex Ferrari 16:34
Scott W. Smith 16:36
It's such a great and, and yeah, it's it's it that that's almost the theme of the book is that, you know, it's going to take a lot longer than than you think it's going to take. And so let me You mean to tell me that I'm not going to sell my first script for a million dollars is that, you know, you may it's, you know, one of the great stories before I started the blog, one of the one of the things that really got me involved in blogging was I went to see Juno, so I I saw it in January of 2007. And I followed that story, which, you know, I don't know how much of it was true, but I do know that she had, you know, grown up in Chicago, went to University of Iowa. I was living at that time and Cedar Falls Iowa, which is, you know, maybe an hour hour and a half from from the campus at University of Iowa. And, and then she went up to work, various jobs in Minneapolis, and she started blogging, and eventually, a Hollywood agent said, Hey, if you've ever written I like your writing, have you ever written a screenplay? And she says no. And she said that she was gonna write about the 85 Chicago Bears. That would have been awesome. Yeah, it would have been awesome. And so she didn't she didn't write that she writes Juno. And then and then Jason Reitman picks it up. And before you know it, she's collecting an Oscar
Alex Ferrari 17:58
with that, but with that said, that is like I always tell people that is the lottery ticket. That is exactly the outlier. Like
Scott W. Smith 18:06
it's the top of the pyramid. It's, you know, it is the top of the pyramid. And that's, you know, when we, when we get interested in, in anything, if it's sports, we want to be Michael Jordan, we want to be LeBron, we want to be Kobe, if it's football, we want to be Tom Brady, we want to be Jerry Rice, you know, we want to be we look at these, you know, in film, it's Spielberg and Tarantino and, and we look at that, and it's, you know, we kind of need that to get out of the gate. And then you you realize at some point, you know, there's just not that many, you know, whether it's Bach, Beethoven, whether it's
Alex Ferrari 18:42
in any field in any field,
Scott W. Smith 18:44
yeah, Springsteen, you know, it, it's Jay Z, there's just not a lot at the top. And, and so we can learn from those people and aspire to be those people. You know, as everyone points out, you know, Tarantino what once wasn't on the pyramid, and he just, you know,
Alex Ferrari 19:03
he wasn't even in the desert. He wasn't even in the desert. He was, he was at a video store, you know, geeking out and watching films like four or five times a day. That's a whole other conversation. Well, all right. So let's, let's get into the meat of the conversation, sir. What does football and screenwriting have in common?
Scott W. Smith 19:23
Well, I think it's, you know, that it has Burt Reynolds,
Alex Ferrari 19:26
obviously, besides Burt Reynolds, this is specifically from your book, so I wanted to see what I'm giving up. I'm robbing you up a softball.
Scott W. Smith 19:33
Yes, that is fine. That is fine. It I think my original my original line first line was just so weak. And I sat there mulling it over this, what's the opening line of the book gonna be? And and I remember when I was a walk on at the University of Miami, so I went to Miami because at a film school, but I was also a decent football player. And so I was going to walk onto the football team and and So the I dislocated my shoulder. And so I might my shoulder is popped out, after a play, I can't get it back in and I hear one of the coaches say, Get that fucking walk on off the field. And it was like, I don't know, that I ever felt lower in my life. You know, it just was a fortunately there was a doctor there, he popped it back in. And I later had surgery. And then I just like I walked on, I walked off and I continued the film production path, but, but it was just that, that moment just stood out as just a life changing point. It was the end of it was the end of my football playing. I mean, I played organized football for 10 years. And that was the end of it, it needs some big conflict, some big moment where you go, Okay, that was then this is now and we've all gone through that. And if you haven't, you will go through it. And you'll go through it multiple times in your life. And, and I think the best movies are just full of that. And I think a lot of people get caught up in story and plot and characters and all those things are important. But I wanted to start the book with the dramatics, you know, bam. And so that's that's what they have in common is that, you know, football is a violent sport.
Alex Ferrari 21:21
You know, there's conflict everywhere is conflict. There's
Scott W. Smith 21:23
every play. Yeah, every play. And, you know, there the stakes are high. And, and so yeah, that that was just, you know, not, there aren't a lot of people that come from, from sports. I listened to Matthew McConaughey talking recently that when he was in film school, he was a frat boy. And he was the only frat guy in the film department. And I was like that at Miami. And, and, and later when I went to Columbia College in Hollywood, you know, there weren't a lot of jocks around you know, and, and I had never seen a KSL film, you know, I mean, I there was, there was things I had all of all of the cockiness, even though I was probably, you know, I dressed out for one JV football game at University of Miami. So I may have had the shortest college football career of any Miami hurricane ever, you know, if Jim Kelly and Michael Irving and Warren Sapp are at the top, I'm right there at the bottom. And so yeah, it's it. It's just, it's just, it's just funny how that all that all works. So
Alex Ferrari 22:28
when you with conflict, how do you add conflict to your story? Because that's, I mean, the signs of a bad movie is that there's not enough conflict. Well, I'm on many sides, but that's one of the big ones.
Scott W. Smith 22:39
Yeah, it's it is, you know, I don't think there's a scene and you know, this will save you on film school if you haven't gone to film school. Because again, as somebody who didn't grow up in the age of internet, there was an indie film, hustle there wasn't saved the cat. You know, I think, I think I think Sid fields book was out. And I don't know if you've ever gone back and read when it came out, I think I read it when I was. And I was there from 80 to 84. So I think it might have come out in 79, or 80. But I read it somewhere in there. And if you read it today, it's it's, it's, there's not a lot of meat there. It was revolutionary. At
Alex Ferrari 23:24
the time. I remember when I read that I was in college, and I wasn't even in film school yet. I was like, just out of high school, going to like my community college before I figured out I was gonna go to film school. And I read that book. And I was like, Oh, my God, all movies are the same. All the story like, you mean, so like, there's points in a story that like every the tipping point that, you know, the pointer returned the whole Hero's Journey concept that he threw in there. And then the structure of a structure it was it was mind blowing, just to understand for somebody who doesn't know anything, that book is revolutionary. Yes. But once you've been around a bit, you go back and go.
Scott W. Smith 24:03
Yeah, yeah, it's, it is, you know, what is great about, you know, having a class where we had one class that we watched, and again, I did not watch a, you know, when a movie played, you know, you might be able to catch it on TV. But I was, I was outside playing sports. I, you know, I grew up in a house without air conditioning in Florida, so I didn't want to be inside a lot. And so we didn't, you know, seeing an old movie was very rare, and there wasn't an appreciation for it. And so we watched a place in the sun, which is Megaman clip. And Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters. And the teacher showed us the film, and we watch it. And then he gives us a quiz and it's not really a graded quiz, but he basically says, What music do you associate with? Elizabeth? Elizabeth Taylor. And then he starts talking about conflict, and he starts talking about layers of filmmaking. That I didn't see any of it. And so I think that was like a whole awakening for me to realize. And one of the things that came out of that was how every scene has conflict. And if it doesn't, it's rising conflict, it's setting up, that conflict is coming. Every scene, every scene has to have a form of conflict or setting up. Future concept, that conflict that's coming up very soon. Yeah. Oh, yeah. And, and so once you once you get baptized into that, and then you, you can't stop seeing it, it's like, the floodgates have opened up and you're watching a movie and you're watching, you're watching an actor who is trying to open a bottle of something, or he's trying to do this, or he's, you know, you go back and watch Chaplin and you're like, wow, that's that's all conflict, you go back and watch Hitchcock. And it's like, that's all conflict. And you realize, like, Oh, that is that is just the missing ingredient. And a lot of stories that when someone gives me a screenplay to read, I'll say, what, nothing happened in the first 10 pages? Well, that's because I've setting up the story is like, you don't really have time to set up the story. And even if that's what you're doing, there needs to be conflict within it. And so conflict is what gets our attention. And when we, when we talk about great films. And, you know, at least, you know, this will resonate, you can just transcribe it into whatever films you like. But, you know, I think of, you know, the chainsaw scene, Scarface is just when I saw that in the theater.
Alex Ferrari 26:37
Scott W. Smith 26:39
You know, I've still never seen saw and those kind of movies. I mean, Scarface was a regular dramatic film. And so to witness that on screen, you know, back in the day was just like, Oh, you know, that's, that's conflict, and that the films that we tend to remember, we tend to remember scenes, and the scenes that we tend to remember, tend to be highly emotional, and full of conflict. And you know, which, when you watch that film, somebody did a film about rocky going up the steps and how many people over the ages have done that trip? That's all about conflict, that's all about conflict. And, you know, the first time when he gets up there, and he's sucking wind and, and whatever, and it's like, it's amazing. It's amazing to see, you know, somebody come all the way from Japan to go up those steps. It's like, wait a minute, you're 23 years old, you're from Japan, and you're coming all the way to Philadelphia, to go up these steps
Alex Ferrari 27:37
from a movie that was made in 1975 or 76.
Scott W. Smith 27:40
I think it's a five or six. Yeah, yeah. I mean, it's, it's, you know, a lot of the film references I make in the book are our films like that films that seem to stand the test of time and it's it's films like Castaway and Jerry Maguire, their films that resonate with me but but I find a lot of young people that I talked to today. It's a different way they might be playing a video game and watching a movie. They're watching a little bit on their phone and they're doing something else or texting a friend and so the the movie experience is so different now. And, but I do find that when I'll mention certain films, there's certain there's certain and I don't call them tentpole movies because I think if if, you know, if you're starting out screenwriting, you're not writing 10 poles, you know, and especially in a post pandemic world, you know, look at you know, look at those indie films, look at those films are being made with you know, either the DSLRs or even cell phones like like Shaun Baker, did. He you know, it's but but those films, those, the one thing that they all have in common, the big tentpole movies, the superhero movies, the mainstream movies, the indie films, it's all conflict and conflict all the way in many different levels of conflict, you know, so
Alex Ferrari 29:01
because I was thinking what you're saying conflict I was like, Okay, let me because I remember a movie obviously. A classic lethal weapon. So Lethal Weapon written by Shane Shane Black, who is a legendary screenwriter. If whoever's listening has not read a Shane Black scripts, you need to go to bulletproof screenwriting.tv and download all of his screenplays because I have them all. there for you a lot of them for you to download and read and educate yourself on his on his way. But if you look at lethal weapon, obviously there's conflict. The second, Riggs and Murdock meet the entire movie is conflict. Same thing for 48 hours like the second they meet. That's easy, but the setup of the conflict is so well done because even with if you remember and I've seen the movie dozens of times in like I haven't seen it in a while, but I've seen that movie so many times during my video store days that I know it fairly well. But setting up rigs. There's a he has internal coffee Like massive internal conflict trailer right? He's in the trailer. Yeah that see I could still see it. You're panning from the sunset the dog. The dog is running on the beach. Then the dog goes in and wakes. wakes up Riggs, who walks up walks off without any pants on goes takes a piss then drinks beer in the morning it's breakfast and
Scott W. Smith 30:20
Christmassy playing on the TV.
Alex Ferrari 30:22
Oh, it's all Christmas. Yeah, this Yeah, this Christmas music playing
Scott W. Smith 30:24
Gun and there's a bottle.
Alex Ferrari 30:26
I mean, yeah, and he's been drinking.
Scott W. Smith 30:28
You're getting conflict if
Alex Ferrari 30:31
you smoking and there's just like, he's and then even just setting up before he you you meets Riggs. I mean, Murdoch, there's conflict then you go over to Murdoch side, which is basically the complete opposite of like he's alone internal conflict. While Ray Murdoch is he's not alone. He's got a full blown family. And his conflict is just like family conflict and conflict within themselves. There's like, Oh, I'm gonna I'm gonna retire. Which sounds so cliche now but when he did it, it was a cliche. And then it was just so brilliantly done and then when these two immovable objects clash, it is the brilliance of that script and how it's so beautiful It's just conflict every scene is dripping with conflict every scene yeah
Scott W. Smith 31:19
you you you kind of get an idea of rigs from that that big one i think i think i'm confusing the Christmas scene with diehard there at that point but there's no
Alex Ferrari 31:28
like there's no there's no there's music there's Christmas music playing because it's it's what the beginning the beginning scene is a woman jumping off the building went off to jingle bell rock so the I mean, it shaved it Shane Black Shane, black shoes, everything's at Christmas, even Iron Man three was it during Christmas time? Like that's, that's his thing?
Scott W. Smith 31:48
Yeah. You're just adding you know, here's, here's a couple things I have in my book where I just talk about, you know, it's conflict, conflict conflict. It's like, he misses his space ride, Juno discovers she's pregnant, Rocky loses his boxing job. His boxing gym locker, a barracuda kills Nico's mother and siblings. And then all that great dialogue just turning the page you know, Houston, we have a problem. I'm melting from the Wizard of Oz. We are at war from the King's speech. I have this problem with my apartment from the apartment. Yeah, I'm gonna need you to come in on Saturday from office. It's, you know, I could have been somebody I could have been a contender. Yeah, I'm ignoring you, Dan from fatal attraction, run Forrest run. I mean, all those great lines that we all repeat over and over again, they're just packed with conflict. And
Alex Ferrari 32:38
so conflict is driving a conflict should be the driving engine. One of the driving engines have a good story. Yeah, it's,
Scott W. Smith 32:45
it's, it's, you know, I'm just trying to get somebody's attention with screenwriting with brass knuckles. And so the next logical step is, is is, is conflict. I mean, later, you know, everybody's got strengths and weaknesses when you watch movies, you know, obviously, if you watch Aaron Sorkin, you know, that whole thing where David Mann movie, which is one of
Alex Ferrari 33:11
can you say that one movie in that you dropped that for a second? You dropped that second, he said that again with David Mamet.
Scott W. Smith 33:18
Oh, so when David Mamet says, you know, what you should be striving for is to write a silent movie. And that works when you look at something like a quiet place. I mean, it's it's almost a silent movie. But then that doesn't apply to Aaron Sorkin. And so that's one of the fun things I have with the book, as I'm showing how different writers work in different ways. Some people start with, with theme, some people find the theme somewhere in the middle of it. Some people even say, I don't care about theme, you know, and and other people say, well, that's for other people to you know, put onto my film. So that's, I think when you're starting out especially when I was in school, I wanted what Just tell me the ABC steps and and what you realize over years of reading interviews and DVD commentaries and books and you know, I went to asi seminars and I went to UCLA extension I went to hear any writer talk about the process and maybe one of the things that sets me apart is is I look at that like just ingredients into the blender and I'm trying to point out like hey, you know what, so and so writes that way but so and so doesn't write that way at all you know,
Alex Ferrari 34:36
there's always yeah there's always an interrupt but there's always an exception like what works for Tarantino does not work for spark and what works for Sorkin does not work for Shane Black AND and OR Diablo Cody or any any other it's it's very individual and there is no and this is the only business I feel that in the world I mean, I my only business but one of the few that there is no recipe There is
Scott W. Smith 35:02
there isn't there isn't. That's it. That's what I basically boiled down the 10 chapters like, this is what they have in common.
Alex Ferrari 35:09
They all have that in common. But the point is that you can, conflict is obviously a part of the recipe. But how you apply that part of the recipe is up to you. It's not like crack an egg. And all eggs are the same, you can't crack conflict, and all conflicts gonna be the same. It's gonna be it's different for at that it is for for is that it is for Rocky, like it's completely different. So that's the very frustrating and exhilarating part of being a screenwriter and a storyteller is how you craft the recipe. Because if you if you're an educated screenwriter, you understand all the elements, all the key ingredients of telling a good story, you've studied, you read books, you watch movies, you inherently know all this. It's how you combine those all together. And that's what makes you that's what makes your voice special. I mean, Tarantino is the ultimate example of taking from everybody else, throwing it into a blender and filtering it through his through his point of view, which is so unique. There is like you can't try and people have tried to write like Tarantino, you can't you can't you can't write like Sorkin. It's hard to write like Shane Black. It's hard to write like, all of these, these really accomplished masters. Because they have that they figured it out that they're like, Oh, it's it's my recipe. I just oh, I don't have to follow everybody else's recipe I can take from everybody else. And I'm just going to filter it through my recipe, which is I think the key of good writing good storytelling point of view.
Scott W. Smith 36:39
Yeah. And it's, it's, you know, there's craft, and there's, there's talent and hard work and talent, hard work, you can't really teach that's on you. And if there's, if there's, you know, when someone says, Well, you know, why should I read a book from you, you know, instead of Aaron Sorkin or, or talentino, I said, well, as soon as Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin write a book, you should buy that.
Alex Ferrari 37:05
I took the Sorkin masterclass, it was fantastic.
Scott W. Smith 37:08
I like it. There's no doubt that these guys are making lots of money, writing screenplays. So to write a screenwriting book that's not going to have a big payoff. I got contacted because of my blog, the blog won a regional Emmy. And so I got contacted by somebody they said, We would like you to ghostwrite a screenwriting book, and they were gonna pay me X amount of money. And, and they, they, the one caveat they had was, you have three months. Now mind you, it took me 12 years to write this. And and I thought, you know, what, if I've read a lot of screenwriting books by well known produced screenwriters, and I think where they fall short, is they have those one or two things that I glean from and put it, put it into my book and, and in a short quote, form. But I think when you have three months to dissect, not only what makes your writing special, but all the other writers out there, and what I'm trying to do is, is curate all this kind of different things out there. Show the contrast. I went to a workshop once with a writer who had won a an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony, and a Grammy.
Alex Ferrari 38:27
And he got an he got he got
Scott W. Smith 38:29
he got Yes. And he said, You know, he had a play that was in town. And then he agreed to do this little masterclass on the side. And one of the first things he said was, I'm not sure that writing can be taught. And I'm not sure why they asked me to do this. But I really don't. I don't think there's any rules and and I raised my hand and I said, What about conflict? He goes, conflict is good, you need to have that. And we were off to the races. And he did not have a systematic way of talking about writing. But what he did have was some incredible stories about, you know, the process and what worked for him. He just didn't have it packaged in any kind of way that he could, he could tell students so sometimes I do think there's, you know, there's the old adage of those who can't do teach. And I think there's a little bit of those who can do sometimes can't teach. I think the script notes guys, you know, Craig Mazin, and, and john, Aug are two guys that are able to do it and articulate what they do. But there are other writers sometimes you're like, how did that guy ever write a screenplay because he's all over the place as far as giving a talk or whatever. So so I'm trying to be that middle guy that's pulling throughout film history. I think it's also a book that I really make a concerted effort to. You know, to go back and find women, people of color, you know, just throughout film history because they're all there. But they don't always get, you know, a spotlight all the time. Yeah. And, and there's a lot to learn. I mean, Francis Marion was somebody that I was not familiar with at all until a couple years ago. But turns out she was not only the first woman to to win a screenwriting award. She was the first screenwriter, period to win two screenplay awards. You know, and this was, you know, back in 1929 30. When screenplays were a little bit different, but her her career is just fascinating and interesting. And so I so I give her a little bit of you know, and she had actually later in her life, she went back and and wrote some wrote a screenwriting book or two and, and it's amazing how it lines up with, you know, Aaron Sorkin's masterclass or retirement. I mean, they're all different. But I'm just trying to find that sweet spot where, how do you? How is a romantic comedy, a gritty indie film, you know, a silent movie, what did these all have in common? And so that's kind of what I'm tapping into. And, and again, if you go back to this, if you go back to, to Shakespeare, you'll find plenty of calm, right? Oh,
Alex Ferrari 41:23
Yeah, of course. Of course. Now, can you discuss a little bit the difference between the great script and the right script?
Scott W. Smith 41:32
Yeah, you know, that's a Christopher Lockhart story editor over at Derby, ma. He's, he's, you know, the blog allowed me to connect with, with a lot of people in Hollywood, even though I'm in Cedar Falls, Iowa at the time. And now in Orlando, Florida, it's been great to just, you know, just today I connected with, with somebody that I hadn't connected with before. And I'm here I am talking to indie film, hustle. And so it's, you know, it, if you had told me back when I was a 20 year old film student that, you know, you know, this, this might take you 3040 years to know, I know, I would just say enjoy the journey. I mean, there's there's been a lot of mountaintop experiences that that production has, has afforded me. And, and I hope to be around a little bit more.
Alex Ferrari 42:21
So yeah. So what is the difference between the great script versus the right script?
Scott W. Smith 42:25
Yeah, you know, it, Christopher Lockhart would be the better one to unpack that, but basically, what he's saying is, you know, there's, there's a movie that that's screaming to be made, you know, and I'll probably butcher his, his, his thinking, but he's really kind of talking about the good script, really, you know, is it is it is it a movie that's one of that's one of his phrases, I think he throws out a lot. And he's got a great Facebook group called the the inside pitch which is a lot of wisdom is he will be a
Alex Ferrari 43:01
guest soon on the show. Thank you very much, or good
Scott W. Smith 43:11
Hollywood guys that just calls it like he sees it and but I really think that I watched the movie last night, I won't even go into what it was. But I almost turned it off. After five minutes. The dialogue was bad. There was just in it, this had major stars in it. And it's it's a fairly new release. And I was just like, this is so bad. And I kept just sticking with it kind of nudging it forward a little bit and seeing where I was going to go till I got to the end. And I kind of think I thought, why did this film get made and it was shot in an exotic location. I thought, okay, that's probably why everybody signed on is, and maybe to a certain degree, that was the right script, because it got it got made it you know, it's just hard to get a film made even even harder now, but, but I think it's, it's where those ingredients just all come together. It doesn't have to be. There's a lot of flaws in a movie like, like, like Juno, as much as I love Juno. You know, you could chalk it up to being a first time writer. I mean, everybody has that same sassy voice. It's like, does everybody have to be as sassy as Juno? But there was something about that. That was just the right time. I mean, even the topic, the topic was like, but for whatever reason, it was the right script at the right time. That brought the right director, the right actors, that resonated with an audience. So somewhere, a producer said, yeah, we think this is is going to have an audience. I don't think that anyone thought it was going to be the blockbuster that it was in the academy award winning that it was but I do think it's all those elements. I think Juno is a good film to really look at, especially for new writers, because it's it's a fairly simple story. It's a, there's not a lot of complexity to that.
Alex Ferrari 45:03
Well, there's a lot of good. I mean, I've read screenplays that are, I mean, just amazing. Like, like from screenwriters from sometimes known screenwriters. And you just like how has this not been produced? And you will and I just saw Chicago seven, the Chicago seven Aaron Sorkin's new movie that he directed and wrote. And it was amazing. It was so well done. And so well put together and he's like, I've been trying to get that movie done for a decade. He goes, but the timing was right. Because of what was going on politically in the in the us right now. Right. And they and then they got greenlit, and then Netflix was around and like how much do you need? Only only 50 million? That's nothing here take it. And and and that's what he was able to do. But you're right, it's it. All you could do as a screenwriter is just write the best script, you can, if you try if you try to target the market or try to corner the market, you're never you can no one can see that crystal ball.
Scott W. Smith 46:03
Well, if it was as easy as as rubber stamping it, then Juno would just be duplicated over and over again. And I think I think even Ellen Page says I may not have that kind of success again, you know, where you know, where she's just, you know, it's her thing. Diablo Cody has said, I may never have that again. There was just something special about that. The right script, according to Lockhart, really, he talks about and we could look at Juno, you know, I don't think I make that connection in the book. But he talks about three things, the concept, the execution, and the marketing. And you know, when Juno came out, was that about 12 years ago, the concept was simple. But it was fresh.
Alex Ferrari 46:49
And the way it was shot and the performances everything Yeah,
Scott W. Smith 46:52
yeah, the execution of it was I mean, oh, wow, the the small parts were just great. And the dad Oh, my goodness, JK,
Alex Ferrari 47:03
JK, JK, right. Yeah, let's check it. Yeah,
Scott W. Smith 47:05
yeah. Just just yeah, I could just watch those scenes over and over again. And it's it's a remarkably rewatchable movie and then the marketing of it. I mean, I remember when the trailer first came on. It was the quirkiness of the of the movie, but the music the characters, the banter, which, you know, obviously she's you know, she's she's well known for now, but it was like, this looks different. There was something just about it. So that would be the you know, concept execution of marketing that would be the sometimes we you know, plot and it's just like, you know, I always look back at stand by me as a good example, you know, the plot of it is let's go find a dead body that we heard about right. But the plot nobody really cares about the plot you know, the that's not what's driving us it's that relationship. It's the emotions it's I mean, that film is another another incredible so
Alex Ferrari 48:07
masterpiece no that's it that's a masterpiece in itself so Stephen King
Scott W. Smith 48:12
Will it conflict with the leeches and the
Alex Ferrari 48:14
oh no everything and the train the train the train the train Oh, so good. So good.
Scott W. Smith 48:22
There's a theme there's a theme building there. There's there's these films that we're throwing out are full of conflict. They're great concepts.
Alex Ferrari 48:31
Well, good movies have conflict. Jerry Maguire has conflict, you know, Castaway, has conflict even comedies good comedies have conflict airplane which is amazing. Has this conflict is there conflict in airplane? I mean there is but is it is there conflict and in comedy there should be good conflict. Let's talk about that for a second because I really do want to I want to kind of dissect that for a second let's let's pick a great comedy or hangover obviously has a lot of comments.
Scott W. Smith 49:04
Yeah, from the get go like the phone it doesn't start with the phone.
Alex Ferrari 49:07
It's like there's something really like yeah, they're all beat up with like to miss it like it's all crazy.
Scott W. Smith 49:14
But not only are we not make not only are we not we're not gonna make the wedding we don't know where the groom is.
Alex Ferrari 49:19
We've lost the groom. He's missing so alright, so it's the hangovers obvious that but like airplane lead airplane is well Blazing Saddles, Blazing Saddles. I mean, conflict. Oh, all over the place. The humor is in the conflict in that movie, where something like a slapstick comedy like airplane. I mean, the conflict is the planes going down?
Scott W. Smith 49:43
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, the plane. Go to you know, for those people that want to write for for TV shows and streaming. You know, the office is is one of the most amazing shows, you know, Seinfeld. Seinfeld is not a show about nothing. Seinfeld is a show about conflict. It's just really my new conflict. Like, you know, George's wallet is too thick for this entire episode. It's the brilliance of Seinfeld. Seinfeld is about little minute conflicts, but we can all relate with that. And, and I forget who, you know, one of the comedies and it's kind of a classic is Tootsie bash apiece, you could remove all of the comedy from Tootsie. And it's about an unemployed actor in 2020. You know, let's say it's a Broadway actor, and Broadway is closed. Now, what are they going to do? You know, are they are they doing commercials? Are they doing things that? You know, you could pull all of that out, because the conflict is, you know, that whole opening sequence where Dustin Hoffman is, you're too short. You're too. You're, you know, you're too old. Every audition, and every actor out there knows that. It's just, there's always something not. Right. And so yeah, conflict and comedy. And again, go go back to to Buster Keaton go back and watch the general it's just conflict, conflict conflict all the way.
Alex Ferrari 51:12
Now, what is the one thing you wish you knew when you first started your journey? as a storyteller, filmmaker, screenwriter,
Scott W. Smith 51:21
You know, I think it's just it's, it's artists work? You know, that's it. That's a that's a good,
Alex Ferrari 51:27
Scott W. Smith 51:28
Yeah, it there's a book called artists work. And I think it's by the, the designer who did I heart New York. And, you know, I grew up, you know, as someone who grew up in Florida, this is hard to believe, but I dreamed about going somewhere warm, you know, somewhere where I could wear shorts and flip flops all year long, instead of just 10 months out of the year. And, and
Alex Ferrari 51:55
That's, that's firstworldproblems, my friend that has some, some firstworldproblems right there.
Scott W. Smith 52:00
So I discover as a teenager, Jimmy Buffett music, you know, just around come Monday and, and Margaritaville. And and, you know, that run that he had and you know, that he's still having to this day, amazingly, you know, I mean, but, you know, part of his mythology, and part of his things was that he's laid back and you know, and I saw an interview where he was on 60 minutes, and I think it was Ed Bradley was interviewing him. And Buffett was talking about all the things he was doing, which he's continued to do. And oh, yeah, he's one of those. One of the most successful entertainers in the history of entertaining, you know, with it with a net worth, I think, around 500 million, something like that. Definitely at the top, you know, in that top little corner of the pyramid there with, with Oprah and Tyler Perry, and Jerry Seinfeld, you know, there's just, there's just a few that are that are up there. But Ed Bradley said, your persona is very laid back. But it seems like you're a workaholic. And Jimmy Buffett's like, yeah, I I realized, talking, you know, I'm in my 30s. At that point, I, I think the whole thing that we think of about art is that it's, it's gonna be, you know, Margaritaville, it's going to be Let's go have some drinks and sit on the beach. And, and as I study writer after writer after writer, it's amazing how much work goes into it. And Buffett did an amazing job of making it look easy, which is, you know, the sign of a master. Oh, Erin's Yeah. I mean, you look at the output of Aaron Sorkin. It's just stunning. It's just stunning. I mean, how many of those shows in the West Wing? Did he right? You go back and you you look at at the early episodes of Twilight Zone, how many Rod Serling route. And, you know, it was probably cigarette induced, which eventually killed him, you know, you know, so you don't want to kill yourself. But I think there is a sense of that it's work. And I think that's, it's worked for the cinematographer. It's worked for the editor. You know, when I made that leap from all my editing, to all of a sudden video editing, and then all sudden this thing called avid came in, for me, it was 1994. It's like, I gotta learn computers now. And then I did five years of cutting on an avid and then it was jumping over to Final Cut. I did that for 10 years and then I jumped over to Adobe Premiere and now I've been flirting with Final Cut x and black magic, you know, so
Alex Ferrari 54:41
With a black magic so that's that's the attitude you
Scott W. Smith 54:44
Realize it's all work.
Alex Ferrari 54:46
It's it's never it's not it's it's nonstop, it's nonstop. And I'm gonna
Scott W. Smith 54:50
It is the process.
Alex Ferrari 54:51
Now I'm going to ask you a few questions asked all my guests. What are three screenplays that every screenwriter should read?
Scott W. Smith 54:57
I think the three screenplays that Every screenwriter should be would be the three movies that you love the movies that you just keep going back to again and again. You know, there's no obviously when you look at Tarantino, and you read the movies that fascinate him, he's going to give you some drive in movie that you've never heard of, you know, biker biker babes in a bar, you know? That's, you know, if you go back and you look at Scorsese, he's gonna say, these 1930s crime films, that's what he was watching as a kid growing up, that's what he's fascinated in. You watch. You look at his films, how many times has he revisited that theme over and over again, of gangsters and, and whatever, so. So I would say, you know, Citizen Kane is great. But if you watch that you go at this doesn't do it for me. But you're watching, you know, a Marvel movie or you're watching. You know, where to find something. You just obsess about that you want to write something like that. For me right now. I'm obsessing about Moneyball. I cannot watch Moneyball enough. It's great. I mean, I go back, and I read the book. And I go, how did they get a screenplay out of this book? I mean, the book by Michael Lewis is brilliant. But you look at that, and you know, that various writers came in at different points, but I watch that movie over and over again, why does it work? Why does it it doesn't have that traditional, you know, running up the steps and, and, you know, but I mean, as has been pointed out, by many people, Rocky doesn't have that incredible ending, you know, he basically loses the fight, you know, he gets the girl, he gets a self esteem, he's got that. He's, he's got a different kind of victory. It's, it's, you know, I would call that an ironic ending or whatever. So, for me, and this is just gonna be me and, and that you find what works for you. I love Moneyball right now. I wish once upon a time in Hollywood comes out, would come out in screenplay form, I haven't seen it. I actually saw that movie nine times in the theater. And I thought, I would not call myself a talentino fanboy. But I just I went to that. And and I'll tell you, I, somebody said, Why did you see that so many times, I said, Well, part of it is I went to LA, for the first time in 1981. And so the remnants of 69 Hollywood was was still there. And, and I got a job, one of my first jobs was with the broadcast equipment rental company. And so I got to go around to all the studios and deliver equipment. So I got to get onto Paramount and warm. So I feel like I got to see old Hollywood, actually, I was doing host work at a house once and john Houston was being rolled in there. And it was the year that he died. And it was just, I feel like I had that bridge to old Hollywood with that film. And I felt like he tapped into that. And so I would love to see that a film that I I can't watch enough is on the waterfront. Again, there's a book that a book of newspaper articles about the waterfront at that time. I liked it Spike Lee, you know, kind of brings that to a contemporary audience, from his perspective. So, you know, films like that, that obviously multiple people touched. Multi, Arthur Miller actually wrote a version of on the waterfront, which I haven't read, that would be amazing to read. But yeah, I mean, there's just so when you look at what was going on in the 50s, you know, it there's so many layers to it. And I think that's what what I love, you know, if there's other screenplays that that I would say, you know, Tootsie is a brilliant screenplay, especially for a comedy, it's just against so many layers, and there's just so many things that people connect with. I think, you know, if if conflict is on one side, I think emotion and catharsis if you can tap into that, I think the movies that if you're honest with yourself, the movies that you love, and you watch over and over again, there's some emotional heartbeat in there. And so for for Moneyball, you know, if you want to, you want to, you know, be a psychologist you could get into why Moneyball is so fascinating to me, but I think find something that you obsess about, track that screenplay down. You know, I think it's almost a mistake to try to read every screenplay ever written. And because some of those, you know, that's fine to read a lot, but I, I think obsession is is what Tarantino does. I think the best writers, even if you step back from score, from Aaron Sorkin's work, you'll see a common thread. You know, there's, you know, there's, there's similar characters, similar dialogue, somebody could probably be creative and intricate dialogue set in west wing and move it to Social Network, which again is another, you know, maybe the Best Screenplay in the last 20 years.
So we'll go with that Moneyball social network and on the waterfront, and on the waterfront, and where can people find, find the book and find your websites and your blog and all the stuff you do?
The you can find me at ScottWSmith.com, and that'll kind of spin you off to other places. My blog if you just Google screenwriting from Iowa, because I've, I've written like, 3000 posts on that. That'll, you know, that's the bones of the book are in those 3000 posts that I wrote there. And then I tried to find a way to curate it and, and rein in that stream. So screenwriting from Iowa, screenwriter from iowa.com, but if you just Google it, it'll come up there. You know, kind of like being on this podcast about 10 years ago. Tom Cruise, the official Tom Cruise blog, gave me a shout out and I thought, wow, that's, that's kind of cool. You know, what, what air are we living in that Tom Cruise, or his people at least are pointing people to my blog. So, you know, all along the way, you love to get little bits of encouragement here and there. And then the book you can find on Amazon. It's in paperback version. It's in the digital ebook version, and I'm working on the audio version now.
Alex Ferrari 1:01:27
My friend, thank you so much for being on the show. It's been a riveting conversation. I really do appreciate not only this conversation, but the book and I hope it helps more and more screenwriters beat the hell out of their scripts?
Scott W. Smith 1:01:42
Yeah. It's been a it's been fun. It's my first podcast ever. So I appreciate the opportunity.
Alex Ferrari 1:01:49
Alright, thanks again, my friend be well.
Scott W. Smith 1:01:58
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