Obviously, we tend to interview authors for our Author Interview series. However, this week, we tried something a little different.
Meet Shane Weisfeld, the writer of the crime-thriller film “Freezer”, starring Dylan McDermott and Peter Facinelli. That’s right, Weisfeld is a screenwriter, not an author! Dive into the world of film for a little bit, and see the key role writing plays in the industry.
So you’re a screenwriter. It’s obviously a little different from the authors we interview. If you had to pick out one major similarity, and one major difference from a traditional writer (author, freelancer, etc.) what would it be?
The major similarity is that it’s always about story, character and structure. That’s what makes anything compelling for a reader, whether it’s a novel or screenplay form. The one major difference is that in a novel, the author can get away with writing metaphorically, being very descriptive and revealing what a character is thinking without them acting on it or saying it. In a screenplay, that’s off limits. Everything on the page of a script has to translate to the screen.
What is it like, being a screenwriter? What does an average day consist of?
Being a screenwriter is like any other art form—you’re at the mercy of subjectivity, peoples’ opinions, mandates and personal taste of your material. The thing about screenwriting though is that it’s a long line of gatekeepers before a script gets turned into movie, and a script can linger in development for years before getting to the big screen. As a screenwriter, you have to convince someone (a literary agent or manager) to take on your work, and then in turn that person has to convince a producer or executive to take it on, then in turn the producer/executive has to convince a financier to give him/her millions of dollars to make the movie, then in turn they have to get an actor and/or director attached, then in turn find a film sales agent, find a distributor… it goes on and on and on. It’s really something short of a miracle to get a movie made, whether inside or outside the studio system. A movie netting a profit is an even bigger miracle.
When you graduated from film school, and were eager to be in the business, what did you do? How did you start?
I actually started actively pursuing the business while I was in my last year of film school as a Screenwriting major. I had written my first feature script and started sending it out. Actually, the first thing I started sending out was a Seinfeld television spec episode. I went query crazy. I really had no idea what I was doing. I just threw myself into the fire and got burned. I started following the business, but right away mistakes were made and the rejection started. In the beginning, it was mostly literary agents reading my material (literary agents in the film world are agents who rep screenwriters, directors and producers—they’re also known as motion picture lit agents and television lit agents). Literary managers were reading my stuff in the beginning as well because around that time is when literary management (for screenwriters & filmmakers) started—it really had not existed up until the late 90s. Soon enough I started getting producers and executives interested in reading my material… and it went on and on and on and on and on.
Have you always wanted to write? Or would you say film has always been your pride and joy?
Both! It really started with the writing though. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. I was always writing short stories or lyrics (I come from a planet called hip hop—and I’m very proud to be an alien). So I actually came from the music side of things. However, I always remember loving film since I was little kid, and growing up with two older brothers I was able to catch the great films of the 70s and 80s. I’m 42 so I grew up on those two decades of amazing films. When I went to film school, I was exposed to the classic, golden-age era films as well as the classic foreign films. Put those two things together (film + writing) and that makes for a delicious sandwich that I took a big bite from.
Do you enjoy writing stories?
There’s a great quote from Gloria Steinem: “Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” I don’t just enjoy it, I have to write stories. Something inside me compels me to do it. It’s like Pazuzu took over my soul when I was young and possessed me to be a writer. There’s no exorcism that can rid me of writing. It’s who I am and I’ve accepted it from day one.
You made an independent film, “Freezer.” What can you tell us about it?
Well I didn’t produce it, but it was my first credit as a screenwriter. We first wrote it in July of 2010 and by January of 2013 it was in production—which is actually pretty damn fast by industry standards. However, it was a 15-year period leading up to that in terms of getting my material out there, whether it was trying to get representation or trying to get a producer to take on one of my scripts. “Freezer” is a crime-thriller, which is the genre I’m most comfortable in. It takes place in one location mainly so that was definitely a challenge keeping the story going in this one spot. I feel for all the actors that had to spend time in this freezer (they built an actual freezer on the set and pumped cold air into it and made it actual freezing temperatures). I was on set for a while and it was such an amazing experience, knowing the years of blood, sweat, tears and fears coming to fruition.
You seem to be a firm believer in that people aren’t talented, they’re just willing to put in the time and effort to get good. Would you care to elaborate?
Stephen King put it best: “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” Of course, there are talented people out there, but talented people can quit, talented people can be lazy, talented people can take their talent for granted, and talented people can fear failure. What’s crazy though, and this drives many people to quit, is that sometimes not even hard work and effort is the key to reaching your goals. What it comes down to in some cases is that one thing that many people don’t have the patience for: perseverance. Not just perseverance, but perseverance in the face of rejection. In the realm of literary, this is why it’s so hard for people, no matter how talented they are, and the same can be said for anything in the arts, whether it’s music, performing, painting, dance or photography.
For aspiring screenwriters reading this, just how hard would you say it is to sell a film? Selling your films is a major thing, that’s how you earn an income.
Selling a script is like trying to scale Mount Everest… wearing flip-flops. Here’s the ironic thing about the film & TV industry though: you can actually make a living (and a great living) as a screenwriter by optioning and selling your spec scripts, and taking writing assignments on existing scripts and intellectual property, but never actually having a movie or TV show produced from one of them. Films are in development all the time, and of course, screenwriters need to be hired to come up with ideas and write scripts, but there’s a number of reasons why these scripts don’t get made into films or TV shows while others do. It’s the name of the game. The pinnacle, though, is selling a film or TV script and it getting made. But… doesn’t always mean you’re making a living just because you sell a script and have something made. That’s a big myth, that once you sell a script or have something made and it comes out, that all of a sudden you’re thrust into the business and working.
Screenwriters have to submit their manuscripts just like authors, short story writers, etc. Submitting to journals, magazines, producers, directors, blogs, etc. is kind of the backbone of being a writer in general. What would you say to an aspiring screenwriter who just submitted his/her first pitch?
To be as blunt and honest as possible: Get used to rejection and get used to never hearing back from anybody. Nobody owes you anything. This unsolicited world is huge, and most people don’t like or take anything unsolicited, whether it’s a query, pitch or script. That being said, you can certainly “pitch” people to see if they’d be interested in reading your material, but you have to understand this is a business of relationships. You really have to be prepared to write your ass off, be willing to take notes, feedback and criticism, be patient, willing to collaborate, and of course face a ton of rejection; but in that time you can build up your network and do what you can to make connections and forge relationships.
Something you touch on in your blog is people who like, or tolerate, what they do for a living vs. people who want to make a career out of a passion. Obviously, one of these paths takes a long time and is filled with plenty more obstacles. What would you say to someone just starting out, perhaps even daunted by the amount of work it will take to get “somewhere”?
This is how people get weeded out, by the daunting amount of work and time something might take. If you want or need something bad enough, you have to be willing to go the length. If you quit or never even got started in the first place, then you never really wanted it that bad. The great Michelangelo had something to say about that, in terms of setting our mark too low and reaching it. If you truly love something from early on and want to make a living at it and can’t see yourself doing anything else, then go for it. Set the bar high, but it might be baby steps in getting there, or there might not be any progression for years until something happens. I can’t speak for anybody else though. All I know is that I had a burning desire to do this from day one, and I was never okay with it being a hobby or interest or for “fun”. It was always so much more than that. I will say this: perseverance pays off in many ways.
You also touch on the “vortex of success addiction,” basically being addicted to success, influenced by what others define as success. What is your personal definition of success?
For me, it’s simply having your own individualized goal(s) and reaching it. Easier said than done though. I feel like I’ve had both little and big steps of success, which have happened mainly in the last several years, only because I was fighting tooth and nail and never quit. That’s my own success. I still have other and bigger goals I want to reach.
Readers have favorite authors. Authors have favorite authors or publishers. Screenwriters have directors. If you had to choose a favorite director, who would it be and why?
That’s a tough one. There’s so many. I’d day my favorite of all time would be Hitchcock. I grew up watching his stuff and part of the reason I wanted to be in film. A close second would be Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and William Friedkin. Of course, the ones I grew up on: Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Polanski, John Hughes, Coen Bros. Ken Loach is one of my favorite directors, and at the age of 80 he’s still making amazing films. When it comes to writer-directors, I have to shout out John Sayles, David Mamet, Michael Mann, Spike Lee. There’s an Iranian filmmaker by the name of Majid Majidi. A phenomenal storyteller. Also, there’s great filmmaking talent coming out of Iceland, Argentina and South Africa these days.
What are your favorite things about screenwriting and the literary universe in general?
Creating a whole world from just a concept or storyline. That’s where it all starts, and then this thing that blossoms and blooms into a full story with narrative, characters, dialogue, theme, plots, conflict, etc. Another thing I love is the rewrite process—when it improves the script of course! To me, it all comes together in the editing/rewriting, and growing as a writer from this is my favorite thing about screenwriting and literary in general.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I’m always writing something new or rewriting something recent or old, whether it’s a feature or TV script. I’ve got a number of things I’m developing. I wrote a play for the first time this past year and that was very challenging. I have tremendous respect for playwrights.
Do you have social media accounts you’d like readers to follow?
You can check me out on twitter @ShaneWeisfeld.
We’d like to thank Shane Weisfeld for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk about screenwriting and the film industry with us. It was a nice break from novel talk, and really shined a light into another side of writing.
We hope may of you out there learn something new through Weisfeld, and that you persevere in the face of rejection and obstacles.