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Danny Strong on How to Write Smart Scripts
Danny Strong is best known for the five years he played Jonathan Levenson on the landmark television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for which he was named "One of the top ten scene stealer's on television" by the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also widely recognized for his four seasons as Doyle on "Gilmore Girls" and for his starring role opposite Amanda Bynes in the teen comedy "Sydney White." His script Recount, an HBO original film about the 2000 election debacle in Florida, was voted number one on the 2007 Black List, an annual list of the years top screenplays as determined by Hollywood development executives. Danny was named by Variety magazine as one of their "Top Ten Screenwriters to Watch" for 2007.
Question: How politically informed are you?
Danny Strong: I’m not a junkie, but I’m pretty well informed, you know. I mean, I read a few articles everyday. I go to the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post. I figure two different sides. And I like to go to the Washington Post, just different, you know, but just a few articles everyday. I don’t know what bills are about to be passed and where the votes are at that point on that particular afternoon. But I also really enjoy political films. And I like to read non-fiction books on these events. You know, when I had seen “Stuff Happens”, I had read a number of books that clearly the playwright had use, the Woodward books, Richard Clark’s book, Suskind’s book. And so seeing how he had turned these books that I had read into a riveting piece of drama, was I think part of my mindset in wanting to do something like that. And that’s what I ended up doing on “Recount.” I ended up turning the leading books on the recount into a piece of drama.
Question: Is there a bias against smart scripts in Hollywood?
Danny Strong: I don’t think there is, because people went insane over the script in Hollywood. They loved it. I think smart scripts are hard to write, but they’re also, it’s hard to have a script with intelligent ideas that function as a movie, that is actually entertaining. And people were very excited about this script in Hollywood, because it was entertaining. And it’s got to do that first, because that’s what movies are. If you want an intellectual discourse on a subject matter, read a book on it. But movies are characters seeking goals, and when a smart script comes around people, like I said, to this script, everyone wanted to meet with me and talk with me about it. We had so many amazing, amazing directors that wanted to do it, which is very rare for an HBO movie of this budget. We had people fighting over it that direct 60, 70 to 200 million dollar studio movies, and the budget for our film was 14 million dollars. It ended up being 15 million, which is amazing what Jay Roach did with that budget. I mean, just the fact that we had Jay Roach as the director, who is one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood. He’s one of the most successful. Actors love him, and a dirty little secret about making a movie is you have to get some movie stars in it. That’s one of the keys to getting any movie made.
Topic: Describe your research process.
Danny Strong: So I get home. Why don’t we just start that. I drive home. I get home. I go online. I actually hit pay dirt pretty quickly because John Dean of Watergate fame had become obsessed with the recount. So he had written a story for Salon.com reviewing every book that he had read on the recount. There was this story in which there were 20 books with a little synopsis of every book. I mean, it couldn’t have been more helpful to me. And there were two books in particular that talked about the ground wars, how the lawyers fought the ground wars. And I immediately thought, okay, well if there’s a movie, that’s the movie, the lawyers fighting the ground wars. So I ordered the two books, Jeffrey Toobin’s “Too Close to Call”, “The Accidental President” by David Kaplan. Read those two books. Found out there were two more books that covered the same terrain, “Deadlock” by the staff of the Washington Post, although David von Drehle was the one who really wrote it, and “Down and Dirty” by Jake Tapper, although Jake’s book covered less of the immediate characters of the film than the other three books did. His book kind of expands to other things. But so in those four books, the goal was to find some characters. Who are the characters that we can follow that can take us through the roller coaster of the recount? And it was very, very obvious to me after the first two, after just reading Jeffrey Toobin’s book and David Kaplan’s book, because they arrived first, that Ron Klain and James Baker would be those two characters. They were both on the ground from day one in Florida, and they were there all the way ‘til the end, ‘til day 36, that they would just be the perfect characters to follow through this. Then the challenge was there should have been a 1000 characters in this movie, because that’s how many people made, maybe not a 1000, but at least 300 realistically that were such a huge part of the recount in so many cities, not just all over Florida, but in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, and then they had people in Nashville, Tennessee. They had people writing briefs for them all over the country, so how do you pare this down into a few people, because that’s what a movie has to be, because it’s a movie. There just isn’t a choice. Now there’s a few more questions. Well, is it responsible to pare it down to all this people? Is this going to be a responsible portrayal of such an important historical event that has integrity? In the case of this script, I felt like it would, that these were some truly main characters that were the de facto, in Ron Klain’s case, the de facto head of the legal team. In James Baker’s case the anointed head of the legal team. And then I thought, okay, well, there’s chaos all over the State of Florida. There’s Palm Beach County, Broward Country, Miami-Dade, Volusia. Then you’ve got all of that madness that was going on in Tallahassee. So how can you cover it all in a two-hour period? And that’s when I came up with the idea of we’ll have a few fronts. We’ll have a storyline that takes place in Katherine Harris’ office, because so much of what was happening and so much of what represents the whole of the event, in my opinion, is what was occurring in Katherine Harris’ office. Then the exact same thing of what represents the whole is what was happening in Palm Beach County, where the people were actually counting or attempting to count the votes. So in some ways these characters became representative characters of the whole. Ron Klain and his team around him, they represent the entire 50 to a 100 lawyers that were involved in the Gore campaign. Now, people ask, well, why not use composite characters? We didn’t need to use composite characters. These are real people doing real things, and this is actually what they did. The fact that we can’t show what everyone did I think is not going to be unfair or unreasonable or lack integrity, because what these guys did was that important, and does represent what everyone else did. So that was kind of the beginning of the process, was finding who are we going to follow? What’s going to be that storyline? And how are we going to be able to take the audience through all of the main events of the recount, the four Supreme Decisions, the getting the votes counted, the advisory opinion in Bush v. Gore. That was the challenge.
Question: How will you approach your Brown vs. the Board of Education project?
Danny Strong: Kind of the same. Lots of research. And then I’m actually in the process of interviewing the surviving lawyers right now. I’ve interviewed Jack Greenberg and Bob Carter, who were two of the key lawyers in the NAACP legal defense and educational fund. And that was the group of lawyers that was Thurgood Marshall’s team. And Bob Carter and Jack Greenberg were the actual two lawyers in Topeka, Kansas for that trial. I’m going to interview Thurgood Marshall’s widow and son, and a few of the other lawyers that are still alive. They’re in their late 80s, early 90s. And there’s way less people I can interview for this than I did on “Recount.” I did about 40 interviews for “Recount.” But this is not nearly, nearly as complicated or sensitive. I mean, “Recount”, so much of it is still in dispute, although I think the facts are out there. They’re just being misinterpreted to this day. And you’ve got two sides in this highly contentious political climate, where Brown v. Board, there’s some real clear good guys and bad guys. There’s black hats and there’s white hats, where in “Recount” there’s lots of grey hats with various shades of grey, and a few black hats, but not really any white hats.
Recorded on: 06/27/2008
Danny Strong talks about politics as subject matter and how he wrote and sold a smart script in Hollywood.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.
Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.
Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
- Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
- Unique materials include antler, dinosaur bones, meteorite, tungsten, and whiskey barrels.
- The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
These new status behaviours are what one expert calls 'inconspicuous consumption'.