Thursday, September 4, 2014

Interview with Dan Schechter, Writer/Director of 'Life of Crime'

Dan Schechter is the writer/director of LIFE OF CRIME, a film starring Jennifer Aniston that's in theaters and on VOD now. On Twitter, he's @danschechter.

What's your background - how did you get started in screenwriting?

My background is horribly cliched for this line of work: A Jew from Long Island. I went to Emerson, where I studied in writing for film specifically... and then I saw people direct my writing and decided I wanted, nay needed to direct.

Did you ever have a job in the industry, like a PA or assistant?  

No. I like to admit in moments like this that I came from money. I'm not RICH rich, but not needing a day job necessarily for a lot of my twenties was a massive advantage I like to acknowledge because I know most people are not so lucky. The only money I made in the "biz" in my 20s was from re-cutting people's films (like a polisher). That and cutting trailers. Both jobs were incredibly fun and introduced me to some lovely filmmakers and friends. (And of course taught me valuable lessons).

What was your first paid writing opportunity? How did that come about?

In 2005 I wrote a feature called The Big Bad Swim (a comedy about an adult swim class), that I didn't direct, but a friend did. Neither of us was paid for this, and since back in 2005 no one was really making micro-budget features (films for under 100k), we made that movie for about 400k because we had to shoot it on film. We raised the money through many friends and family members.

In 2006, I wrote a script called Goodbye Baby (about a girl who wants to be a stand up comic), which became my directorial debut. For that film, we got very lucky: a single investor put up probably more than we should've spent, almost 800k. I got paid on that, but in hindsight, it wasn't particularly deserved because I was still learning on the job and lucky to have my film financed at all really. The movie hardly made any of its money back and I still feel terrible about that.

Is there anything you've learned since you started, or something you wish you'd known or done differently?

Countless things... Even though it wasn't my first feature, I often wish Supporting Characters (a comedy I made in 2012, about two best friends) was. I think I learned on that film to be more personal, write from within. You have to sort of sweat cliches out of your pores when you start, I think. Most first films are just unconsciously copying other movies... but Supporting Characters was the first time I felt I connected with audiences because it was very truthful to who I was and what was happening to me. I think most first time feature filmmakers should follow examples like Mean Streets, Clerks, Swingers, Brothers McMullen, Tiny Furniture, etc... get your feet wet in a world you know inside and out, that you are the best possible person to tell that story.

How did you get your agent and/or manager?

A good bit of luck. My first feature that I directed, Goodbye Baby (mentioned above) got into Slamdance in 2008. I cut a small trailer for that film and a manager I won't name here saw that trailer and liked it and reached out to me.  I think he liked it because the movie looked commercial (which my sensibility mostly is.) I also later learned that being both a writer AND a director made me all the more appealing (doubling my odds, essentially). He then sent that movie to three agencies: Gersh, UTA, and Endeavor. My agent, Phil, saw the movie at Endeavor and called the manager and said, "Stop sending this movie to other agents, I want to rep him." And we just clicked... Then William Morris and Endeavor merged and I lucked into being repped by the second largest agency... Phil still reps me to this day and has been very kind to and patient with me. The manager and I have since parted ways due to what I believed was his "chronic negativity."

Is there something you still struggle with when writing scripts?

Sitting down and writing them. I FUCKING HATE WRITING. I have no discipline, and it's very hard on my ego to believe in it enough to finish. I don't mind writing this, this I'm enjoying. This is free association and I know what to say... but writing a script... creating something from nothing... nothing is harder for me than that. I've found ways to deal with this. 1) LIFE OF CRIME: Adapt a really good book you connect with that already has amazing characters, set pieces, and a story that all makes sense. 2) SUPPORTING CHARACTERS: Or write something semi-auto-biographical because basically you're just writing YOU and your friends or family and that's 1,000 times easier, to do a slice of life movie about your world. I literally sometimes wrote out conversations that happened that day... and they were pretty good.

How do you decide what to write? Is there any particular theme or topic you find yourself coming back to?

I think I'm so hard on myself and my ideas, that if something keeps nagging at me and coming back up in my mind, it must be fairly good. Right now I'm writing something for Jen Aniston. I have no idea if she'll do it, but I felt I saw how much she was capable of that I hadn't seen her do and I wanted to write a new character for her. I also wanted to say some personal things about me and my family, and so I just kept adding to that character's life, like a Christmas tree. Characteristics for her, story-lines she's dealing with, characters in her life...

It's like: you'll be listening to your iPod... all the music comes and goes and suddenly a song comes on and you KNOW it has to be in the movie. Life is like that... you'll be doing weird shit all day and then at some point you'll be golfing at Chelsea Piers (NYC reference) and say to yourself, This should be in the movie. Even if you don't know why, there's usually a good reason and I love to follow those instincts. Movies feel to me like they already exist and its our job to find them. Like the guy who asks the sculptor how do you sculpt an elephant from stone, and the sculptor responds, "you just sculpt away everything that doesn't look like an elephant."

How did your involvement with Life of Crime come about? Did you get the rights and stuff or was it an open assignment that came to you?

LOOOOONNG story short:
I took the book off my shelf in 2008.
No idea who owned it.
In 8 days, I had a draft that I wrote for fun by basically transcribing a very, very good book and making some smart editorial decisions. I bet the script was 95 pages or so.
I mailed it into Leonard's contact info from IMDB.
They liked it, didn't know who owned rights.
It took TWO YEARS to track down the rights. (In this time, I had given up and joined my parents jewelry business.)
Turns out a 30-year option lapsed a YEAR after I wrote spec.
They looked at it like found money and gave me a year to attach talent (handshake deal, no rights) because they liked me and my "vision."
In a year-ish, we got Mos Def, John Hawkes and then Jen Aniston.
A year after that we had financing, which is another long boring story with a  happy ending.

What interested you about the story in Life of Crime?

Everything. It was everything I couldn't write for myself. I wrote a spec called THE KING OF PRUSSIA. A thriller that took place in King of Prussia, PA. I had 40 speaking parts, too many locations, and plot that was very complex and I wasn't entirely sure it even made sense if someone was paying close enough attention. But, it was pretty good so I tried to make that and failed. Then I read LOC and it was like, ahhhhh..... here are 7 amazing parts, in 6 locations basically and I just loved it. I loved Mickey, the lead. Louis and Ordell (who were in Jackie Brown...) All the parts were characters I treasured, and I truly felt I could do it better than anyone. I saw it in my mind and got the tone. I wanted to protect it like a mother bird.

What's something you learned from working with stars like Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins?

Well, one, that people are that big because they're enormous talents...but I think I learned that actors are always still actors. They want approval, they want a director with a vision and an opinion. They want to play. They both struck me as people who didn't have a major ego that interfered with their work. They were ABOUT the work, and the character and were there to serve the story.

Also, Jen said green tea is very good for you so now I drink it a lot.

Are there any recent films or scripts you find inspiring? What have you loved lately?

Calvary. I'm shocked more people aren't talking about it. I think because I'm so judgmental of films, it's very hard for me to "shut off." But sometimes you sit in a movie and you just know you're in the hands of a fucking pro from the first frame, the first line, and I can let go and enjoy the ride. I felt this way about Calvary and also felt it took on MASSIVE themes in such a clean, unpretentious way. I also felt this way about Planet of the Apes. Those two films knocked me on my ass. I hate being preached at, but I love being asked to think.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Screenwriting links: Fri, Aug 29

My Scripts and Scribes Interview: I answered some questions about my writing background, agency assistant job and professional script reading experience.

Being Mara Brock Akil: The Creator Being Mary Jane Gets Some Shine [Written By]

Inventing the End of the World: Interview with Manhattan's Sam Shaw [WGA.org]

How 'Wild' Saved a 'Lost' Reese Witherspoon [Vulture]
"The ideas of what a woman can and can’t do on film have really changed, and I think that’s in great part thanks to wonderful female writers like Lena Dunham, who tell very honest stories and explore female sexuality without shame. Just recently, I saw Jenny Slate in Obvious Child — so great — and I love characters like that who are that unapologetic and realistic. Even Bridesmaids changed the landscape of what we can see a female lead doing in a film. I’m just excited to be a part of it. I’ve never seen a film like Wild where the woman ends up with no man, no money, no family, no opportunity, but she still has a happy ending."

Can Jill Soloway Do Justice to the Trans Movement? [NY Times]

Writers Are Scared: Interview w/Geena Davis [Makers.com]

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What to expect in Black List and Nicholl Fellowship reader comments

Joshua Caldwell over at Hollywood Bound and Down has posted two comments he received from Nicholl readers and one comment from a Black List reader. Definitely check out the post if you're considering submitting your script to either place.

I was shocked by Comment 2, which came from a Nicholl reader. It's more personal than analytical, containing phrases like "Normally I want to run for the hills as soon as I see a script set in the Middle East. I have no patience or interest in them usually," and "This was a solid script, and even though it's not my cup of tea per se, I really did enjoy it...and that should say something."

Nicholl Comment 1 and the Black List comment were more specific and professional, but I find myself wondering: would these notes help you in a rewrite? By design, these comments are more like the ones you'd see in coverage for a studio, production company or agency. They indicate to other industry professionals if the script is worth reading; they're not crafted to be tools for writers trying to imrprove. That's not a bad thing -- but it's something to be aware of.

The Black List aims to find excellent screenplays and connect them to people looking for excellent screenplays. It is most helpful to writers whose scripts achieve a very high score (8-10), and founder Franklin Leonard has been candid about how lower-scoring scripts will probably not be discovered by industry pros on the site, telling writers, "If you're not finding traction for your script on our site, stop giving us your money." Similarly, the Nicholl aims to find the very best screenplays written by non-established writers. In 2013, it received  7,251 entries and will select only five fellows.

So here's where it gets tricky for writers: if you get a low score, especially one accompanied by comments that indicate that the reader read the script very quickly or didn't seem to "get it," should you rewrite the script based on these suggestions? And for the Black List, should you pay another $50 for another read? On one hand, the first reader is just one person with one opinion -- maybe another reader would feel differently. But on the other hand, your sense of hope is encouraging you to shell out more money, and you could get caught in an expensive cycle. "The thing is no two readers are alike. You may pay to have several pro readers provide feedback on your script and each may have a differing take on it," writes Scott Myers at Go Into the Story. "This could end up confusing you, providing no clear path through the rewrite. So there are dangers in getting too many assessments."

I know writers who have gotten evaluations containing typos, incorrect loglines, incorrect story information/key facts, etc. But on the flip side, I know writers who got thoughtful ones. Some have even found reps and launched their careers because of the Black List.

The Black List only pays its readers $25 a script, but does at least encourage writers to contact customer service if they feel their evaluation was too rushed. From their FAQ: If you believe the reader did not thoroughly read your script, reach out to us outlining the reasons you believe so with any specifics from the review. Note that ratings themselves, whether high or low, are not an indicator of a bad review. We want to make sure that all scripts are given a thorough and fair read. Any factual inaccuracies, for instance, will be taken seriously. But we try to separate valid opinions from clear misreadings of the script.

Ultimately, if your script is in great shape, the Nicholl and the Black List might be able to help, especially if you need access more than you need notes at this point in your career. In an industry that's nearly impossible to break into, they offer rare opportunities. Maybe I'm biased because I offer notes to writers too, but if you receive an low score and evaluation you agree with, you'll probably want to rewrite the script -- and I'm not sure these types of brief comments will help you do that.

Monday, August 18, 2014

When to give up on the entertainment industry

JR writes: I've been an appreciative reader of your blog for a couple of years (love it!), throughout which I also worked in NYC television and film development and production as a production assistant. I originally went into the industry because I was in love with the idea of doing something for a living that was grounded but involved creative decision-making. My ultimate pipe dream job: be Jennifer Lee.

I left the industry about a year ago because I didn't even see my bosses making any creative decisions; they were coordinating logistics and playing to the lowest common denominator audience desired by advertisers - basically what I was doing, but for more money and under more pressure. The long hours didn't leave me time to do any of my own creative work, or to have any kind of social life, for that matter. For the last almost-year, I've been doing some teaching and soul-searching (aka the ultimate pastime/disease of our generation). I'm not happy teaching, and can't quite shake my vague TV/film dreams as I watch former coworkers move up and become "accomplished."

Do you know anyone who left the industry with similar frustrations? How did they find creative fulfillment and pay their bills? As a Hollywood insider, have you heard any solid advice on grappling with this? As I see it, I have three options: 

1) Kill the dream, find something else to do with my life and continue to write email stories for my friends.

2) Stay in the industry, keep paying my dues, and hope the right opportunity comes along someday.

3) Find a flexible day job and do as much creative work of my own on the side as I possibly can. 

I completely understand what you're going through. Working at a job you don't like can be soul-crushing, especially when you're not making enough money to build savings. The only reasons for a writer to stay at a low-paying entertainment job are to learn about the industry and to make important connections who can help you get a better job, buy or produce your material, represent you, etc. If none of these things are happening, it's time to quit the job and find a better one. You mention that your former co-workers have moved up, but in what way? If your dream is to be a writer or writer-director, it's not necessarily worth your time to try and get promoted in development or production. If you do want to work in these areas, as you've found, it can be a long and political struggle. I'm afraid I don't have much specific advice for that, except that you have to find a job in a place where there's room for advancement and where your bosses like you and actually want to promote you. I do think, though, that after a year or two in the industry, you need to have a specific goal (writing, directing, producing, etc.). Yes, there are lots of people who do multiple things, but if you're hoping for a kind of amorphous "success in entertainment," that might be a problem. You say "grounded but involved in creative decision making" (is that development?), but then you mention Jennifer Lee, a writer-turned-writer-director.

Yes, I've had some development friends leave the industry for good because it just wasn't working out. I'm not sure about their creative fulfillment; I feel like they were people who liked movies and TV but weren't as creatively obsessed as my writer friends. It's certainly possible that you could find a fulfilling career in another industry...maybe teaching just isn't it? Meanwhile, I know writers who left their industry jobs but still pursued writing careers. They work as babysitters, tutors, Apple Store geniuses, translators, receptionists, baristas and delivery drivers, but they all hope to quit these jobs and Just Write someday.

You've already kind of answered your own question with the answers you've laid out. If you decide that becoming a screenwriter is too challenging, maybe you've reached the end of the road and now you just need to find an outlet for your creative urges -- like the emails to friends you mentioned. You can also blog, take writing classes or make videos, but with no hopes of this hobby resulting in a professional career. Maybe being part of a book club or attending panels and screenings would be fulfilling, too -- or maybe they'd just make you wish you were still in the industry. I don't know. Only you can answer the question of whether creative hobbies will be enough for you.

If you decide you want to continue to pursue a screenwriting career, then you need to choose whether to find a day job in the industry or outside of it. But if you do get another industry job, you can't expect it to magically turn into a writing career. "Hope the right opportunity comes along" sounds a bit passive. Even if you're working in entertainment, you need to be doing creative work of your own on the side. I left my agency day job not because I couldn't write in the off hours, but because I had learned everything I was going to learn, had made valuable connections, and could find a better salary pretty much anywhere else. If your new job is simply too exhausting, you might decide to leave the industry once you've made some connections, because you need to find time to write. Did you really put in the effort with your writing? How many scripts did you write? Did any industry professionals ever give you feedback? Did you ever try to apply to a writing program or fellowship? Have you ever tried directing or producing a short?

Then comes the hard, endless part: monitoring your success and continually deciding to persevere (or give up). I've had to find comfort in small achievements, reminding myself that 2007 me would be impressed with little things like getting a manager, finding a producer to develop with and getting hired for an assignment. These intangible milestones have made me think I'm not totally crazy to believe I can do this. But if a decade goes by and I'm still writing script coverage about hookers and teaching grammar to teenagers, maybe I'll change my mind.