An Interview with Tom Schulman
Tom Schulman is an Academy-Award winning screenwriter known for Dead Poets Society, 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag and What About Bob? I spoke with Tom about learning the craft of screenwriting, landing his first writing job, and Dead Poets Society.
Did you always want to pursue a career as a screenwriter?
Being a writer was not my goal, I wanted to direct. But I very quickly realized that I would have to have some leverage to hopefully get the powers that be to let me do that. So I started writing.
Were there any screenwriters or screenplays that initially stood out for you?
Billy Wilder and his partner I. A. L. Diamond, Coppola with Patton and the first two Godfathers, Chinatown of course, that’s everybody’s go-to inspiration as a script. William Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Everything by Kurosawa. Ikiru, Seven Samurai, High and Low. Scripts in those days were hard to find but I think if you watch movies you see what is going on in the writing. After I wrote a couple of screenplays, I got a job as a reader. I was reading six to ten screenplays a week. One of the scripts submitted was Taxi Driver and that one stood out. Paul Schrader was a terrific writer. Great structure. Great economy in his writing.
Was that how you learnt the craft of screenwriting?
Pretty much. It was somewhat shocking to be a reader who wanted to be a writer and knowing that every one of the scripts I was asked to read was represented by an agent. A lot of the scripts were, honestly, almost unreadable, so I thought to myself, if I can just tell a good story on paper, I have a chance. Also I think you can often learn more from reading bad scripts and watching bad movies than you can from good ones.
When you first started out writing were there any specific structures you followed?
Three or four scripts into it, I went to a talk by script guru Linda Seger at The Writers Guild. . She spoke about the basic three act structure of a screenplay, explained rising action etcetera, etcetera. It was useful to have those things articulated. Having watched so many movies by that time, I think I had an almost unconscious understanding as to how movie stories worked, but it was great to have it so clearly articulated. I remember going back and examining at the screenplays I had written and thinking that I had a pretty good understanding structure. There is also book called The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri that had a big influence on me. Egri gives example after example of how themes in movies and plays are illuminated and brought to life via character and story. That book may be out of print but I highly recommend it.
Has that structure developed as you’ve developed as a writer?
I hope so. I think most screenwriters instincts are to keep the audience interested, keep the main character always challenged by a strong antagonist, and then watch the character grow and change as he or she faces challenges. My wife decided to start writing, so I went with her to the Robert McKee story lectures. I thought it was excellent. My fear going in was that McKee was going to try to put every script into the same box, but his analysis and advice are carefully thought out and nuanced. There was no cookie cutter thinking going on. I remember when I was in college I took a fiction writing class. The professor drummed home some of his ideas about character and structure then read aloud in class a story one of us had written. When he asked for our opinions, several students noted that the story didn’t adhere to the professor’s guidelines. He then surprised us by insisting it was a great story because even though it broke the mold, it worked, and he impressed upon us the importance of imaginative story telling. I love it when movies do that. Memento, a story told backwards. Pinter’s Betrayal, told backwards a different way. Pulp Fiction, a story told in a circle.
How did you land your first job as a writer?
I was working for a man named Bill Crane who was making short educational films. He had a contract to make something like 40 of those films in three years. Bill's wife Bonnie was a terrific potter and she met some people at a weekend pottery show in San Bernardino who wanted to invest in movies. She introduced them to Bill, they told him they had $100,000 to invest, and if he could make a good movie for that they would back it. The following Monday Bill came to work and told those of us working for him, ‘I need a script by Friday. If any of you can do that I’ll pay you $5000 to write it. I don’t know what got into me but I raised my hand and said, "I think I can do that.” Bill and I talked and decided that if he only had $100,000, he should make a horror film. I suggested we make a ‘Mummy’ movie. This was years before the Mummy franchise hit the screens. I went off and in five days wrote a script called Sarcophagus. It was sophomoric, I’m sure, but it had a scary third act and Bill liked it. He gave it to the investors that weekend. They called him on Monday and said they really liked it, but they were Mormons and couldn't back a horror film. Bill asked me if I could write a family movie by the following Friday but I was too exhausted to even try. So Bill hired Desmond Nakano - who later wrote Boulevard Nights and White Man’s Burden - Desmond wrote a script called The Kid From Not So Big and a few weeks later we were shooting that on a western set we built on a private ranch in Saugus. The Mormons who were backing the movie worked as extras. I was an assistant director. The Mormons came to me and said they really liked my horror film, and wanted to hire me to write a comedy. That was my next job. My friend Hall Davidson and I wrote a script called Mondo Jocko, a kind of Kentucky Fried Movie but of sports. Like Sarcophagus, that movie that didn’t get made, but those two scripts got me an agent.
When you got an agent were you commissioned to write scripts, or did you bring projects to the table?
My agents tried to get me work, but couldn't. I was writing spec scripts during my time off working for Bill, and I wrote a script called Rampage. It wasn’t a hard action movie like it sounds, and it ended up becoming a TV movie called The Sins of the Father. It bore very little resemblance to the script that I wrote, but it got made.
When the script is finally adapted and the story has changed drastically from the original script, does that bother you?
It stings. But sometimes the writers who rewrite you improve on what you’ve done and that is both painful but and a useful learning experience because you go, wow I didn’t see that in my original story. The way that script got made was interesting. ABC read a treatment I wrote called The Gladiator (not the wonderful movie starring Russell Crowe) and offered to buy it. I wanted to write the script but they told me they couldn’t get network approval for me to write the script unless I gave them a writing sample so I gave the Rampage. Based on that, they turned me down to write The Gladiator. A few weeks after I got over that rejection, they called my agent and said they wanted to buy Rampage and that based on it they would approve me to do the rewrite. That seemed like an odd progression to me, but I was happy to get the work and I dutifully did the rewrite on Rampage. When I handed the script in, in person in those days, the executive said, ‘We’re bound by Writers Guild rules to tell you that we’re going to be hiring another writer.’ I pointed out that they hadn’t even read the re-write, asked if they planned to read it, and they said they probably not. My agent at the time got offended on my behalf and when he confronted them, they told him they thought there wasn’t enough humanity in my writing. By that time I had written Dead Poets Society as a spec and he sent it to them to read. They called back and said they wanted to buy it. I told them to go fuck themselves.
Screenwriters seem to get left out of the rest of the process completely…
On my first feature that god made, Second Sight, I never met the director. That’s unfortunately a common experience for many writers. Writers are often excluded from the set, not allowed to go to previews, etc. I think that's stupid. Secure and smart directors rarely treat writers that way.
Once you had written the script for Dead Poets Society what were the next steps?
I gave it to my agent. He called and said it was the best script he’d ever read but that he couldn’t sell it or get it made because it was set in a boarding school, all boys, and there was no sex or violence in it, etc. He said, ‘Show me another movie like it that’s been successful. You can’t. I don’t want to lose you as a client, but if you want to get this made you are going to have to get another agent.’ So I sent it out to five other agents, four of them passed, and one of them said he’d read half of it and thought he could get it done. I remember worrying he’d one day read the second half and fire me as a client. He got nowhere with the script for a year and a half when one of the producers who had read it a year earlier, Steven Haft said he couldn’t get it out of his mind, and he optioned it for five hundred dollars. Simultaneously director Jeff Kanew read it and he and Haft got together and gave it to Jeff Katzenberg. Jeffrey bought it and 18 months later, Touchstone made it.
What was the inspiration behind Dead Poets Society? Was it based on true events at all?
Not true events. I’d been in an acting and directing class at a place called The Actors and Directors Lab where Harold Clurman, who was a founder of the Group Theater, a Broadway director, a critic for the magazine The Nation, and a titanic figure in American theatre, would come every six weeks to two months and review the work of the us students. He was a volcanic speaker, a wonderful storyteller. He would stand on stage and hold forth for hours about film, theatre, art, philosophy, anything and everything, and we were all spellbound. I really wanted to write something about this him, and my first thought was to write a story about an acting class, but that didn’t go anywhere for me. I'd had this really amazing English teacher in high school, Sam Pickering, who was mischievous and funny, who shared a similar joy for living etc. with Clurman, and who after one year teaching at my high school didn’t return. At the time we heard rumors that he’d been fired because he’d had an affair with the principal’s daughter or wife, all kinds of crazy things. We were all afraid to ask what had happened, so I never knew. Later, after I wrote the movie I found out he had just found a better job teaching at a college. I think the fact that I didn’t know what happened allowed my imagination to take that story where I wanted it to go.
How did winning an Academy Award affect your work as a writer?
I don’t think for the good. I was instantly in demand. I think I must have had lunch and/or dinner with a studio executive or a producer, or an actor or a director every day for a couple of years. I was awash with too many choices. Also, whereas before people would be he honest and helpful about my writing, after the Oscar they started to say things like, ‘I don’t want to tell an Oscar winner how to write.’ I ceased to get the kind of helpful feedback all writers need, or at least I needed. In terms of making good choices about new projects, it took me at least a year to regain my equilibrium. Lots of good meals, though.
Would you say it also affected your creative process?
Definitely. Again, I had too many choices, many of them very good, and I found it hard to figure out what I wanted to do.
Would you say it is more challenging re-writing someone else’s script?
I think so. You want to respect what’s there. I think there is a tendency when you are rewriting other writers to shoehorn your own sensibility and ideas into their script. That sometimes serves the project and sometimes it doesn’t. I strongly believe that the original or first writer should be kept on a project as long as possible. Sometimes we writers go through many drafts before we figure things out, and I think the movies would be better if writers were given more leeway to “fail" for a while rather than be replace. Like with inventors, “failure” is an essential part of the process. You often have to try things that don’t work in order to find the things that do. Anyway, after a while I decided to stop doing rewrites and just work on my own scripts.
Do you have much more self-time management working on your own script?
Once I’m locked into a project, I’m pretty much at it 24/7. I go from avoiding writing to getting up and working from 6 AM until maybe 11am, have lunch and work again until 4:30 or 5. After dinner and I may try to watch a movie, or do something else, but I find myself constantly making notes even in the middle of the night. It becomes total immersion. After I finish a draft, I’ll force myself to take time off, play guitar, golf - anything that’s not writing. I think strategically spending time not writing is really critical because your unconscious is working on your script for you. I used to get really annoyed by the amount of time I spent cleaning the corners of the desk, cleaning out the drawers and so forth. Now I know that what feels like procrastination is often my unconscious mind working on ideas and solving problems for me. I marvel at how that works and I know I can trust it. Grind over a problem for a while, a few minutes or a few hours later, the “ah ha” solution always comes.
Is there anything you are currently working on?
I just finished a script that I’m going to direct. I have the financing in place to do it as a low budget, indie film so I’m working with a producer on the locations, budget and so forth. I’m also developing two TV series with some colleagues. So I’m busy...