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Interviews
 
Jeff Schechter
Friday, Mar 1, 2002
Author: Kim Townsel
 
Jeffrey Alan Schechter was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and graduated from the film program at Purchase College, State University of New York.  After working several years in film and television editing in New York, Jeff moved to California to pursue a career in writing and directing.

Jeff's first credits were in the independent action film market, working on such films as BLOODSPORT II, THE TOWER, and STREETKNIGHT.  Turning to his love of family films, his spec screenplay LITTLE BIG FOOT was acquired by Working Title Films.  He then did a rewrite on THE AMAZING PANDA ADVENTURE for Warner Brothers, which led to his working on DENNIS THE MENACE STRIKES AGAIN.  Jeff followed DENNIS THE MENACE STRIKES AGAIN with another rewrite, this time for Rysher Entertainment's IT TAKES TWO. On the heels of IT TAKES TWO, his spec screenplay STANLEY'S CUP fetched one of the highest prices for a screenplay in 1995 when it was sold to Caravan Pictures.

After directing a short film, Jeff completed a rewrite on the comedy I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS for the Walt Disney Company starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas as well writing the TV movie BRINK! for the Disney Channel, and for which he was nominated for the Writer's Guild of America Award for Outstanding Television Writing.  Jeff also developed the story CYRANO DE MICKEY for Disney's Television Animation division.  Jeff has written episodes for the series THE FAMOUS JETT JACKSON for the Disney Channel as well as ANIMORPHS for Nickelodeon.

He recently wrote BEETHOVEN’S 3rd, the third installment of the successful BEETHOVEN series for Universal Studios as well as THE OTHER ME, another film for the Disney Channel.  Jeff made his directorial debut with THE TRACKER, starring Casper Van Dien and Russell Wong.  He has recently finished an untitled EXTREME SPORTS MOVIE for Universal Studios, and is currently writing the theatrical sequel to BRINK! for the Walt Disney Company as well as the new CARE BEARS movie for Nelvana.

Tell me about your background.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, went to Edward R. Murrow High School, and then SUNY Purchase.  Purchase has cranked out an impressive roster of "A" list talent including writer Todd Graff, directors Hal Hartley and Chris Wedge, actor/director Stanley Tucci, actors Wesley Snipes, Ving Rhames, Parker Posey, and Edie Falco among many others.  And then there's me...solidly on the "B" list.  I might even own the "B" list from Purchase.

How did you get started in screenwriting?

I wrote my first screenplay over the course of the year after I graduated college.  It was this ponderous, really earnest, and mostly unreadable screenplay about an autistic boy and a troubled young man who are thrown together by chance on a cross-country journey.  The script was a mess.  I found that I oversimplified the problems of both autistic kids and troubled young men, so there was something to offend everybody.  As I recall, I oversimplified the problems of long distance truck drivers and prostitutes as well, but hey!  I was writing.

My second screenplay was a slasher comedy written in the wake of the heartbreaking end to a relationship I was in at the time.  The villain was a woman.  Go figure.  Armed with these two very different screenplays I decided to move to Los Angeles.  It was 1984 and I was 24.

Early eighties, Los Angeles . . .

I remember that when I got to LA I was this ball of New York energy.  I couldn't wait to get my career going.  Within a day of getting to LA I was sharing an apartment with a freelance script reader.  He never read any of my scripts, however he did provide me with some names of agents to pursue.  I almost signed with one who was interested in my autistic boy screenplay however I thought better of it when I was in her office and it came out that she couldn't think of what Al Pacino looked like.  I thought to myself "Do I really want to be represented by someone who couldn't recognize Al Pacino?"  I walked out of her office without signing the agency agreement.

Sounds like a wise decision!

She was nice enough, but inspired zero confidence.  I continued writing, and two years later got my first reputable agent based on a cop action script that I wrote.  During the next three years I must have finished maybe four or five scripts.  All unsold.  I had also worked as a computer salesman, retail store manager, martial arts instructor, and corporate video producer, however I was always writing.  At night.  On weekends.  When I wasn't working, I was writing.

By late 1988 or so I had managed to save enough money to support myself for 6 months and decided that I had achieved about as much success as I could writing only part-time.  I had optioned a script for a dollar which I never got, had a decent agent...  I was ready to move forward.  I wanted full-time success.  So I quit my video producing job and decided that I was going to really focus on my writing.

In the four weeks between when I told my employer I was quitting and when I finally left the company, I wrote another script.  Pretty solid piece of work.  I figured that this was a good sign.  One script a month for the next six months.  It was a lock.  Only...

...It was around this time that I started to explore my Jewish heritage and I become observant.  Suddenly, instead of spending every waking moment writing, I was using my 6-month window of opportunity to learn about my religion.  After 5 months of not writing a word I realized that the money was about gone, however I was feeling much more spiritually satisfied than if I had written a few more karate scripts.  I figured it was time to get another job.

And then?

I had a grandmother at the time who had threatened for years to take me to Europe, and as she was too ill to travel she gave me the money to go by myself.  The itinerary was going to be a week in England to visit a friend, a week in Sweden to visit another friend, and then two weeks in Israel.  After I got back, I'd look for work.

The week in England was great; I flew to Sweden, and had literally just walked through the door of my friend's apartment when he got a phone call.  He turned to me and said, "It's for you."  It was my agent calling to say that there was an available writing assignment, BLOODSPORT 2, and based on my cop action script that I had written a few years ago the producer wanted to meet me.  I still had three weeks of traveling in front of me, so I asked my agent if this opportunity would be waiting when I got back.  She told me it wouldn't.  So I cancelled the rest of my trip and was forced to buy a one-way ticket from Sweden to Los Angeles... business class because that's the only seat I could get on such short notice.

I got back to LA, was officially broke, and there was no way I was NOT going to get this job.  Fortunately, the producer was an ex-New Yorker, we hit it off, and I was hired.   The job got me into the WGA, I did a few more pictures with the same producer, and I continue to be grateful to him.  It really got things rolling for me.

Rolling indeed.  You’re a busy man these days.  You have three seminars coming up and I hear you’re quite in demand to add new ones to your "tour."  Why do writers need your seminar?

I have to preface my answer by saying I believe that you can learn something from everyone.  I don't want to beat up on anyone else's seminar, and I have learned a lot from other teachers.  I really want to credit one person in particular named Gilbert McLean Evans.  He is a friend of mine as well as a talented writer, and he and I have been having a 15+ year conversation on how screenplays work.  A lot of what I teach is based on revelations from the conversations Gil and I have had.

The one thing, however, that neither Gil nor I ever learned from other teachers -- the one thing we really needed to learn for our own writing -- was "what comes next?"  The worst feeling a writer has is sitting at the computer, screenplay written up to page 55, and not having the vaguest clue of what comes next.  I don't care how much "ghost in context" or "ironic ascension" theory you have at your fingertips.  None of that is going to get you out of that hole you find yourself in when you don't know where your story next needs to go.

Sometimes that hole is caused by a weak idea.  Sometimes that hole is caused by a poorly constructed main character, whose only job in life is supposed to be to make the writer's job easy by driving the action forward.  And sometimes the hole is caused by not understanding the common story flow shared by all successful movies.  My seminar teaches writers exactly how to know if their ideas can go the distance, how to build solid and saleable main characters who can get the job done, and how to beat out their stories -- plot-point to plot-point -- from fade in to fade out.  And these techniques are so simple I can do it all in 3 hours!  I'm a working writer who takes time off to teach seminars, not a seminar giver who takes time off to write.  I'm all about minimum theory for maximum function.

That sounds very attractive to me.

What I really want is for people to launch their careers as writers, and frankly there's a lot theoretical background noise that, while it's very interesting academically, is mostly useless in the day to day struggle to get a solid first draft written.  The great William Goldman is famous for saying "screenplays are structure."  He doesn't say "screenplays are theme," or "screenplays are set pieces," or "screenplays are theory."  He doesn't even say "screenplays are character" which he could say with impunity and never be argued with.

Screenplays are structure, and I teach a character-based structure that guarantees a professionally crafted screenplay.  I feel strongly that the first, best thing any writer can do is to get a solidly structured first draft on the table.  You can't tame the beast until you have it caged.  And once you're liberated from thinking that you have to reinvent structure every time you sit down to write, you're now free to devote your creative juices to the "important" stuff like character, scene work, dialog; the stuff that's going to make your script shine.  Structure is a tool.

Your website http://www.totallywrite.com/ also shows tapes and workbooks available.  Would this be a viable substitute for those writers who cannot attend a seminar?

Absolutely.  The audio program has all the main points of the seminar, however there is an excitement that happens at my seminars as students realize the power of the system I'm teaching.  That doesn't come across in the tapes, and it's a real kick in the pants to be there when it happens.  Also there's a lot of give and take at the seminars.  But if a person is somewhere that I'm just not planning on coming to, the audio program is a solid investment.

You created THE TOTALLYWRITE DEVELOPMENT SUITE software.  What inspired you to create it and what it can do for the scriptwriter?

The TotallyWrite Development Suite grew out of my frustration with all of the structure programs out there.  I had been using a simple database for years that I developed to use my approach to structure, and whenever other writers saw it they wanted a copy.

As time passed I kept tinkering with it.  I made it prettier, incorporated new discoveries into it, and slowly added other modules that I needed and weren't commercially available -- at least, not without taking out a second mortgage on the house -- such as an "idea shoebox" to keep track of ideas that weren't ready for full development, a "random thoughts" module to keep track of snippets of dialog, interesting settings, locations, character, jokes... whatever, and a very basic "project tracker" to keep track of the life-cycle of my projects.  My program with its four modules, coupled with any of the excellent screenplay word processors available, is all any writer really needs.  And you don't have to sell any of your children to afford it.

We’ll have readers happy to hear that!

I hope so!  I have blown my hard-earned coin on practically every program out there, and at $89.00 the TotallyWrite Development Suite really delivers not just functionality but value -- two things sorely lacking from other programs.

And the TotallyWrite Development Suite is easy to use?

I find some programs seem to make things overly complicated to justify their expense or to somehow show depth of intelligent design or something.  I'm a big believer in getting the job done.  Even though the TotallyWrite Development Suite has four modules, they are easy to learn and very simple to use.  Which is not to say that it's simplistic.  Just because you don't need a degree from MIT to use the program doesn't mean that the underlying development theory isn't extremely powerful.

And you offer script, treatment, and manuscript evaluations?

I do, but it's pretty hard for me to carve out the time.   I just wish I didn't enjoy it so much.  It'd be easier to shutter that end of the business, but I love taking projects and instead of beating up on them, come up with ways to fix them.  That's why I enjoy script doctoring.

I've had other people who do evaluations come to me on the sly to check me out.  Sometimes they try to do it anonymously but it becomes obvious that they're in the evaluation business because of the catch phrases they use when trying to argue with me about my evaluation of their material.  I gently bust them so we can have a healthy debate about the evaluation.  It's a little scary how little some of them know about what makes a script work.  Not that I'm a rocket scientist, I'm just a working writer with a system that works.

You also invite ideas for potential development.

True.  I've got a number of projects in various stages of development that came to me via the Internet, however this end of my business is really meant for people who are willing to part with their ideas and not write the scripts.  If someone has a passion to become a screenwriter they should write their favorite ideas instead of shopping it to me.  For the people who don't have the drive to become a screenwriter I invite them to send me loglines, and then if I respond to the logline I'll enter into an agreement that guarantees them compensation if I can set up the idea at a studio.  I've got a number of projects in various stages of development that came to me this way.  The website link for this www.totallywrite.com/evaluation/make_money-master.html

And you still have time for family life?

That's one of the nice things about observing the Sabbath each week: no phones, no work, no meetings.  It's this beautiful island in time every Saturday where I focus completely on my spiritual relationships... both above me and right in my own house.  Also, because I work out of my house I'm around when the kids get home from school, when they get up in the morning, when they have to have their various drips wiped.  As a matter of fact, I'm writing this with my 2 year old in my lap, my 4 year old swinging a book around my office, my 6 year old dragging a stuffed animal around at the end of a jump rope, and my 8 year old rummaging through my desk drawer looking for something which she can't have.  No joke.

What would excite you about a script and make you want to help it get produced?

A really strong, innovative central idea.   Something that makes my brain stand up and say "Howdy."   And I'm not talking complicated.  Cool twists on ideas that are in the collective consciousness.  One of the greatest recent ideas – not set up by me -- was called "Cowboys and Aliens."  This idea had it all.  The log line was something along the lines of "a spaceship crash lands and cowboys and Indians pilfer the alien technology and start using it on each other.  When a second spaceship comes to salvage the first, the cowboys and Indians team up to defend themselves against the alien attackers."  Wow!  Simple.  Cool.  You could see the movie poster.  This is my template for a perfect, pitchable script.

Obviously, characters and dialog are important, but an idea this strong will make people pay attention even with weaknesses in other areas.  The annals of Hollywood success are filled with weak screenplays that sold based on strong ideas.

What’s your best advice to scriptwriters about writing?

It sounds cute, but it's true:  "Write now, right now.  And then write again, right away."   If someone wants a career as a screenwriter and they're taking more than six months to finish a script, they're going to have a hard time making it in this business.  I've met so many people who take a year, two years to finish their scripts.  Most people don't even know which way to set up their computer monitors until their third script.  If you're taking too long, you're not going to develop the critical mass of material you need to create a career for yourself.  You've got to crank these puppies out.  That's why I'm such an advocate of using the TotallyWrite system.  Think it up, develop it out, write it, move on to the next.  If someone's got a strong support system at home, there's no reason why you can't have AT LEAST two scripts written in a year.  Three is more like it.  You never know what the market is going to want, so you better have a big inventory.

Scripts are like raffle tickets.  The more tickets you have in the hat, the greater your chance of winning.

What’s your best advice to scriptwriters about marketing?

I find that aspiring writers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get scripts to producers.  What writers should do instead is spend that same amount of time trying to get their scripts to agents or managers.  Think of it this way: over here you have a producer and over there you have an agent.  You have the same chance of success getting either to respond favorably to your material.  If the producer responds favorably and tries unsuccessfully to set it up at a number of studios -- he or she isn't going to buy it with their own money, I promise you -- and fails, you and your script are done, and all you have is a relationship with a single producer over a failed script.

Now imagine you got the agent interested.  The agent will take the script to SEVERAL PRODUCERS and divide up the various studios they can take the script into.  It might STILL not sell, but now you have relationships with several producers as well as an agent to call your own.  The upside reward for the same amount of work is greater going after an agent than after a producer.  Time is money.  I never advocate anyone wasting it.

I agree.  What is your opinion on contests?

It seems that everyone I run across is a quarter-finalist here, a semi-grand-almost-finalist there.  I'm not saying that contests are all shams, but it certainly seems that a lot of people make the early cuts which is a good way to keep them coming back for the next competition.

I think if you absolutely, positively want to compete in contests you should stick to the biggest ones.  But only if you must.  I'm not convinced that the $50 it costs to enter most contests wouldn't be better spent sending a query letter to 100 agents.  If the goal of the contests is to get doors open for you and agents to notice you, why not go right to the agents with a strong piece of material?  Just my opinion.

Of course, the bigger contests now offer prizes up to $10,000 and who wouldn't want an extra 10k?  That being said, competing against a few thousand people puts your odds of winning that 10k at around the same as being kidnapped by gypsies.  Send out 100 query letters and SOMEONE is going to ask to see your script.

Tell me about some of your favorite projects.

One of my favorite projects was a movie I did for the Disney Channel called BRINK.  It gave me a chance to work again with David Hoberman and Cristi Limm -- we had worked on I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS together -- and introduced me to some wonderful people at the Disney Channel.  It was also a script that went on to be directed by a very talented guy named Greg Beeman, who really honored what I wrote.  Out of all the scripts I wrote, it was the only one that was shot almost word for word as written.  And as validation for my already incredible ego, it earned a Writer's Guild of America nomination.

Another favorite project was STANLEY’S CUP.  It was a big spec sale for me, which is not unlike sitting on a roller coaster for a few days.  It was also a fun project because the idea was brought to me by Jason Blumenthal of Black and Blu and we just had a ball working on it together.

What are a few scripts that you consider to be well-crafted?

This is a deceptively hard question, because what most of us see are the movies that got made rather than the original screenplays that got sold.  JERRY MCGUIRE is high on the list, as is AS GOOD AS IT GETS.   TOY STORY also sticks out in my mind as a perfectly-crafted screenplay.  The character work, the plotting...everything from idea to execution.  Also FORREST GUMP.  These are movies that made me proud to be in the business.

If you have time, what do you read for pleasure?

I find that lately I'm reading a lot of "tween" novels.  Stuff for the 11 to 15 year olds.  My time is so limited; I feel that I need to keep up on what the youth mindset is, so when I read for pleasure I mix a little business in it as well.

When it's not tween novels, I read books on physics.  There are some amazing discoveries going on in the world of quantum physics that seems to be shrinking the gap between science and faith.  Really fascinating stuff.

What are your themes?

A common theme in my work is self-imposed alienation.  My characters are often at odds with the popular culture and society around them.  They are benign misfits, struggling to find their identity.  Another common theme is the battle for spiritual truth.  I believe that we are all caught in a divine struggle.  Our angelic side tries to pull us up to heaven while our animal side tries to pull us down into the mud.  I'm fascinated by that tension.

You sound too good to be true.  So tell me, what does the toughest audience of all – your children – think of your work?

My kids are the worst test audience on the planet.  They hardly watch any television so they are completely innocent when it comes to depictions of even the most mild violence or tension-laden shenanigans.  One time I tried to get them to watch some of my more harmless work like THE OTHER ME and BRINK and they couldn't take the anxiety caused by the thought of anyone potentially harming the heroes.  Even the comic bad guys in THE OTHER ME freaked them out.  I think I got about an hour into BRINK with them and maybe twenty minutes into THE OTHER ME before I had to choose between forcing them to watch my work or paying a group rate for a few years of therapy.  I'm now writing the CARE BEARS so hopefully soon there will be something of mine they can watch that won't give them nightmares.
 

_______________

Copyright 2002 by Kim Townsel. Kim lives in Los Angeles and Alabama.  She is writing her third script and editing her novel, an anti-romance love story. Kim can be contacted at: kimmie1111@earthlink.net

 


 

 

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