A reader for the Nashville Film Festival screenplay competition, Cheryl Laughlin gophers for indie sets throughout NorCal and performs grass roots marketing for micro-budget documentaries via 20KFilms. Follow Cheryl on Twitter @cheryllaughlin.
In typical internet fashion, I found myself “researching” via the internet… important writing stuff, like why we say “zee” in America and “zed” in Britain for the letter Z. (SPOILER: Highly possible our passive-aggressive colonial ancestors changed the pronunciation to stick it to the British overlords. Gotta love word nerd rebellions.)
In between all that heavy internet research, I landed on an excerpt from the book Secrets of Breaking into the Film & TV Business by the uber-hyphenate writer-producer-director-author-lawyer Dean Silvers. But my first response – is this more mental clickbait to keep me from writing? But then I saw Dean has worked with such notables as Ben Stiller, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Weinstein, Josh Brolin, Mark Ruffalo and way more.
And the next click landed me on an excerpt from his book featuring one of my fav words. Dean writes about stumbling on then unknown writer/director David O. Russell: “In his midthirties, he’s ancient for the industry and antediluvian for someone just starting his feature-film career.” Antediluvian, you say? Consider me hooked.
Next thing you know, Dean took time out of his Sunday for a fun, energized interview about his book, plus he shares his unique outlook on actually getting films made… which means more work for writers like you and me.
Dean shares how he merges screenwriting know-how with do-it-yourself hustle, to build your resume as a produced screenwriter.
Q: First up, I have to know about all those wonderful degrees you’ve acquired.
A: Well, thank you, my mom would have been proud to hear you say that. My B.A. is in Comparative Literature and Religious Studies. My Masters is in Mass Communications and my Ph.D. and J.D. was in Communication and Law. All that is to say, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
At the same time, no one needs a film degree anymore. Digital platforms want product and screenwriters are the first step in that process.
My takeaway: I love learning that writers and filmmakers really do work eclectic jobs in their topsy turvy journeys to finding their film voice.
Q: How did you get to work with David O. Russell for one of your first films? I only seem to attract crazy wackadoos who want to meet in scary parts of Sacramento.
A. I’d moved back home to New York to live in a studio in Queens that cost $186 a month back then. I had no mentors and was intimidated by all the lawyers in the city. In the ‘80s, I started getting legal work to raise money for films, and in return, I received a producer’s credit and learned how to produce films as well. It’s easy to get clients when no one is paying you! And I got a name as a lawyer/producer.
So when I heard through a friend about this book about the mole people in New York City, me and my co-producer wife approached HBO and they optioned the idea. That meant we had to find a writer. So, a referral sent me Russell’s writing sample, and I really liked him as a writer.
And even though the option fell through on the mole people project, I knew I wanted to do a film with him and grabbed the opportunity when it happened.
My takeaway: People have meetings and make referrals. You never know where it will go... just be smart out there, people. Craigslist posts all can't turn out like A Big Love Story.
8 Baby Steps to Create a Screenwriter’s Showcase Short Film
Dean shared the big secret he sees to writer's success – creating a short film, a.k.a. a tangible showcase for your writer talents. And he dished these helpful tips on how to make it happen.
- It all starts with the writer. Empower yourself to move forward.
- Build your resume, build your reputation. Remember when you were fresh out of college or high school and every employer wanted you to have experience to get the job? Same thing these days for writers. Show them what you can do.
- Create3- to 5-minute short. That’s right. A short doesn’t have to be 10 minutes. 3 to 5 minutes will do.
- Schedule two weekends to shoot. Why the weekends? Because many prominent directors and talent don’t work on weekends and are available. They can bring the professional edge and truly bring your screenwriting to life.
- Think about filming comedy orsci-fi. These two genres need content, and end users now number in the thousands.
- Also think about reaching out to sponsors. Sponsors can help bring the costs to make a short down to manageable levels. And it doesn’t have to be huge sponsors either, a local business may find your project a good means for them to advertise.
- Look for directors at film schools locally. Or even film fests. Check out their work in short films and see if their sensibilities match up with your writing style. Reach out to them and see if they’re fun and collaborative. If you sense they aren’t, move on to next name on list. Don’t take it personally… the next person could be the perfect match.
- Yes, you can be an introverted screenwriter and still make a short film. The key here is to snag a great director and/or producer by email, present your case to them, and have them move forward with it. Lead with your strengths and let other’s strengths rise too.
Biggest takeaway: Remember, everyone is building their resume together. Keep making mistakes and learning. You’re developing your potential.
And yes, Dean continues to walk the walk as he creates films, shorts and TV pilots himself. He is working on the feature film Guy Down The Road and the upcoming series Story of Thursday.