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Interviews
 
Jerry Shandy
Monday, Feb 7, 2011
Author: Will Plyler
 
Jerry Shandy hails from Jackson Hole, WY. He is a graduate of USC’s Graduate Screenwriting Program, and is repped at UTA. Jerry worked as an assistant and as a reader in the entertainment industry before making his breakthrough as a writer. In 2008 he sold an original spec television pilot, Dirty Work a.k.a. Untitled Aspen Project, to USA Network and Universal Cable with Steve Stark and Russ Buchholz executive producing.

He has developed a number of other prominent projects with producers and companies in Los Angeles, both in features and TV. Currently, Jerry is writing a feature script, the character drama/thriller, Grizzly Mountain, for European film company Barry Films and producer Benito Mueller, as well as working on a new TV pilot.


You grew up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. What was it like growing up there? When did you first become interested in writing for film and/or TV?

Jackson Hole is pretty much an idyllic place for a child to grow up. I think it’s one of the most beautiful settings in the world. It’s the gateway to two National Parks and the home of the best skiing in North America, in my opinion. My childhood was filled with outdoor pursuits: hunting, fishing, skiing, mountain biking, etc. All of that said, there was another side to things. Jackson is a very small town, and in a very small town one is continually exposed to the intimate details and secrets of everyone else’s lives. You know who’s cheating on who, who’s unemployed, who beats their kid -- all of the salacious little things like that. The people I knew growing up have definitely served as inspiration for characters on more than one occasion.

In terms of becoming interested in movies and television, I had always loved them. One of my first jobs was working at the local movie theater when I turned 14. In terms of wanting to pursue screen and television writing, there were two experiences that were truly the catalysts for that. Both of these sparks were struck in high school. The first experience was that I was exposed to actually making short films. We did this both in a TV class we had, and outside of school for fun. Jackson Hole is home to a lot of wildlife filmmakers, and growing up I had friends whose fathers did that. We were able to use their equipment from time to time. We’d run around shooting our short movies and then we’d screen them on the morning school news show, which was a blast. The second thing that happened was that I won a state competition for a student newspaper article I’d written. That was the first time I’d ever been recognized for my writing. My journalism teacher submitted my article without my knowledge and then came to me one day, months later, and told me that I’d won. When that happened, it was both a surprise and a sort of awakening that maybe I could do something with writing. So, falling in love with making films and discovering that maybe I could actually write, both sort of happened concurrently.

In 2000, you moved out here to Los Angeles. What prompted this move? What did you do once you were here? What was your immediate focus? What type of work?

I had gone to undergraduate school in the middle of the country, in a filmmaking program, thinking about perhaps becoming a wildlife documentarian. However, during senior year, I decided that I wanted to get involved with narrative films and television – to tell stories about people, and not the reproductive habits and migratory patterns of exotic animals. I knew I needed to move to LA. to get involved in the industry. So, after graduation, I packed everything up, and headed out. When I arrived, I didn’t know one single person. However, I found Los Angeles to be a very welcoming city. I quickly met people, and ended up PA-ing on commercials. I was actually Denise Richards’ stand-in within a couple of weeks of moving out. By the way, for the people who are going to be reading this, I look nothing like her. I’m 6’2”, 185 lbs, and…you know…a man. However, her stand-in was sick, and I got put in the spot. I was hanging out in her trailer with her between takes. It was one of those weird, “You’re in Hollywood Now” moments. At the same time that I was doing that, I was working as hard as I could at writing scripts. I had heard writers like Oliver Stone tell tales of lazy “cocktail screenwriters” who never wrote a thing, but just went to parties and talked about what they were going to write. I never wanted to be like that, so I read all of the books I could get my hands on, and wrote every day. I demanded at least two features out of myself per year, but I strove for three. At the same time, I segued into the development world for a day job, because I knew that I wouldn’t have enough time to write if I was working in production. Plus, I wanted to be exposed to all of the scripts. I knew that was extremely valuable. I worked a couple of different development assistant jobs, and honed my writing.

You started USC’s graduate screenwriting program in 2002. (You finished in 2004.) What drove you to go to graduate school? What was your experience like?

I went to graduate school because I had never had any real, formal screenwriting education. I was working as an assistant, reading scripts, and doing my own writing before and after work -- an exhausting ritual. I’d actually had a bit of success, getting hip-pocketed by a couple of different people, having scripts sent around, and doing some general meetings. I even had a script that Lawrence Bender attached to. However, I knew that I still had a lot to learn and I knew that USC had one of – if not the – best reputation in the world. So, I applied and was fortunate enough to be accepted. Being able to not only learn from the tremendous faculty there, but also to have the time to actually write, was incredible. After you’ve worked in the real world for a few years, you learn how fortunate one is to be able to go to school.

While you were at ‘SC, you interned for Stephen Gaghan who was writing “Syriana” at the time. What was working for Gaghan like? What did you learn from him?

Working for Stephen Gaghan was really a game-changer. First of all, everyone knows that he’s a fantastic writer, and the writer of some of the most intelligent films that have been made in our modern era. The guy’s won every important writing award in our industry, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a WGA Award, an Emmy, etc, etc, etc. The thing that I didn’t know going in was how disciplined he is, and what a truly nice guy he is. Seeing his work ethic and his knowledge of both film and literature was not only an inspiration, but it also set the bar for me. He would talk about Tolstoy, Chekov, and Hemingway, as well as the filmmaking greats. He would read and write all of the time. I think that his dedication really shows. In addition to all of that, he’s very kind-hearted and open. He would often times talk about scenes he was writing, what his approach was, and how he was thinking of shooting it. He would take me out to lunch near his house, and we’d discuss films and books. He really became both a valued mentor and a friend. Overall, that was a great experience, and working for him was truly like a second graduate school.

You also worked other assistant jobs after college. What did you do? What did you learn from them? Also do you feel it is important for a writer to work different jobs in the industry?

After getting out of graduate school, I landed a manager and starting writing. However, I needed to make ends meet, so I got a job in the mailroom of an agency. While that work was hard, and frequently demoralizing, it was actually quite valuable. I saw firsthand what agents did and how they did it. I also made a lot of connections -- connections that I still use on a daily basis. I believe that it’s absolutely essential for a writer to make connections. And, if you don’t have them from your parents or whoever you grew up with, then you must make them yourself. Connections are key, because there are a lot of writers out there. There are even a lot of pretty good writers out there. You need to – first of all be a very good writer, but on top of that – find people who will help you; who will expose you. Either you meet those people socially, or you need to meet them professionally. Unfortunately, this business isn’t always a meritocracy, as one would hope it should be.

The mailroom job lead to being an assistant on the CBS legal show, Close to Home. I had never really considered TV as an alternative until I got that job. However, working in the writing room of a show is a tremendous experience. You’re not only exposed to multiple working writers, but you also have time to actually write on your own while you’re waiting for scripts to come out or whatever. While I was there, I started watching the TV shows that were popular at the time – Lost was going, House, Rescue Me, etc. I also went back and saw some of the shows that had been big, but were drawing to a close or had just ended. I remember watching the HBO shows Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood. Sopranos and Deadwood were really monumental influences. Each of those was so masterful in the storytelling and so powerful emotionally, and the characters were so well drawn and multi-dimensional, they made a tremendous impact. I remember being completely engrossed for hours on end as I burned through the DVDs. I really started to fall in love with television. While film is great, and a well made film can have an incredible impact when you view it, I do also really love the broader canvas that TV affords. With a TV series, you’re able to explore a character over a hundred hours, instead of just two. I also think TV’s quality has grown by leaps and bounds over the last ten to fifteen years, both writing-wise and in terms of production value. A lot of TV is becoming very stylish and very cinematic. They’re also taking bigger risks with the characters now, it seems. I don’t think we’ve ever seen someone like a Walter White, from Breaking Bad, before. He really resides in the darker end of the gray spectrum, yet still finds ways to make us like him and root for him. In addition to those aforementioned shows, I love many of the new shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire just to name a few. I think it’s a really exciting time in TV. Anyway, after years of working on features, I wrote my first TV spec and landed an agent at WMA.

In September 2008, you sold the “Untitled Aspen Project” to the USA Network with Universal Cable Productions attached as the production company and with Steve Stark and Russ Buchholz as executive producers. Your 90-minute pilot centers on a sub-par cop in the Aspen Police Department who finds aid through a mysterious new acquaintance with a dark past, a taxi driver new to the town. How did this story idea come about? What was the whole process like from writing the script to getting it set up? You had to pitch a new take on it, correct? What’s the status with the series?

Once I got an agent, who I know we’ll talk about in a minute, I started writing a pilot. My pilot got the attention of Russ Buchholz, who was an up-and-coming executive at Grammnet, Kelsey Grammer’s, former company at Fox. Russ passed it up to his then boss, Steve Stark. Steve liked the script, as well. We then took it over to USA Network. USA liked it, however, they needed some adjustments made on a conceptual level before it would be right for them. We kept the characters and their dynamics intact, but changed the setting and some of the other large-scale story points around them. I then went back, gave a twenty or thirty minute pitch regarding my proposed alterations, and USA bought it. That was a great first experience developing something with the network and studio. Both of them were very clear in what they wanted. Steve and Russ are two of the nicest and smartest guys in the business, as well. So, overall, it was just a very smooth, enjoyable experience. The only unsatisfying part is that the pilot did not get produced, despite USA and Universal Cable liking it a great deal and Russ, Steve, and myself thinking that it had a good shot.

You are currently repped by TV literary agents Elise Henderson, Ben Jacobson, and Larry Salz of UTA. How did you end up being represented by them? What is your relationship like with your agents? Do you talk often? What advice and guidance do they give you?

I was initially signed at WMA by an agent who ended up leaving the agency shortly thereafter. This turned out to be fortuitous, though, because his leaving brought Elise Henderson into the picture. She was with WMA at the time, a TV lit agent, and she became my rep. I cannot say enough good things about Elise. She’s incredibly smart, thorough, kind-hearted, and hard working. She’s the antithesis of Ari Gold or some of these other sleazy “types” that people seem to think of when they think of Hollywood agents. I did that USA pilot while Elise was at WMA. Shortly after that, WMA merged with Endeavor, and Elise moved to UTA. That’s where I picked up Ben and Larry, who are part of my team there. Ben and Larry are great guys, as well – very cool, very funny and personable, and very smart. All of the nice things I said about Elise, I would certainly echo about them. UTA is a terrific agency. All of the agents work together for their clients, and I’ve been incredibly happy since Elise moved there and took me along.

In terms of our communication, I seem to talk to my agents about once per week. Sometimes a little more, depending on what’s going on. They advise and guide me in pretty much everything. We’re a team, so I don’t really go off and do anything without them. If I am presented with an opportunity that they’re not aware of, I always call them up and discuss it.

You wrote a pilot called “Dimers,” which you took around to some of the cable networks. It didn’t sell but you did get a lot of meetings out of it. Can you tell us a little bit about the series? The genus of the idea?

Dimers is the most recent script I’ve completed. It’s based on some very bizarre and interesting real life stories that my uncle, who was in the FBI for 30 years, told me. Conceptually, Dimers is a serialized, darkly comedic one-hour centered on two unrelated ex-mobsters in witness protection, each living out an exiled life of drudgery in rainy Seattle, until they serendipitously meet and form an unlikely and unusual friendship. The two main characters work together to get beyond their pasts, and to form a new crime syndicate in the Pacific Northwest. The script got a fantastic response from Russ Buchholz and Steve Stark when I showed it to them. They’re attached as executive producers. It also got a fantastic response from UTA’s literary department. It has served as my entrée to the darker cable networks. The execs at those places universally seem to have responded to this script, which is great. I think that it has stood out from some of the other pilots, because it’s more a telling of these two very dark and unusual character journeys through a unique underworld than any sort of “concept” or “premise.” At least I think that is what caught people’s attention. Unfortunately, however, the script didn’t sell. It seemed that organized crime is a story area that people want to stay away from due to The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire.

That being said, though, Dimers has still done a great deal for me. It has opened the doors to pitching pilots at these cable places, and it has lead to a feature screenplay assignment. So, while disappointing that it didn’t sell on its own, it still has benefited me greatly in the grand scheme of things.

That feature assignment is the drama-thriller “Grizzly Mountain,” about a murder cover-up in a Wyoming hunting camp, which you optioned to Barry Films, correct?

Yes, that’s correct.

Benito Mueller, who will produce for Barry Films, was actually a classmate of yours at USC. Right? He had read “Dimers” and wanted you to write “Grizzly” for him. How did that come about? What stage is the script at now?

Benito was my classmate at USC. He was in the producing program, and I was in screenwriting. Again, this sort of goes back to the importance of connections. Anyway, in terms of Benito and myself, he had liked an earlier version of the Grizzly Mountain script I’d written at USC in 2003 or 2004. However, we had sort of lost touch over the past six or seven years. I started to read about him in the trades in 2010, and realized that he’d been up to big things. He’d been working hard at getting his career off the ground. He had launched the company Barry Films together with a couple partners, which is based in both Europe and the US. They had produced several films, which were just hitting, or about to hit, the festival circuit. Most notably, they’d produced The Whistleblower with Rachel Weisz and Monica Bellucci, which made a splash at Toronto and got a distribution deal.

Unbeknownst to me, in November or December of 2010, Benito was in post-production on a film in Buenos Aires. During that time, he ran into a mutual friend of ours that lives down there. This friend asked Benito if he was aware of what I’d been up to. Benito said, “No.” The friend then told Benito about my USA sale and about my new script, Dimers. He gave Benito Dimers to read, and Benito really responded. He felt I’d grown as a writer, and he then contacted me to see if I’d be interested in revisiting Grizzly Mountain for his company. He felt some of the themes in Grizzly Mountain had become even more timely. To clarify that point, it’s more than just a murder in a hunting camp. That event is the catalyst to explore some larger socio-economic issues, like the old America vs. the new America, the growing disparity between classes in this country, etc. Those themes are wrapped up in the character journey our main character is forced through in the thriller.

In terms of the state that the project is in currently, we’ve had a discussion over a new outline and I’m embarking on a complete, page one rewrite.

How important were the contacts you made at film school and as an assistant? Various discussions come up about whether a writer should move to LA and find work in the industry to make contacts and learn while still trying to write their scripts at night? Do you agree? Or what do you suggest?

I think that moving to LA is an absolute must. I think that contacts are also extremely important… Right after the ability to write well. As I mentioned, I met Benito in film school. I really like him, and hope that we’ll continue to work together in the future. I’ve met Russ Buchholz and Steve Stark, and many other people along the way whom I hope to continue to work with. Russ and I’ve become great friends. This business is very much about knowing people. I do believe that’s of monumental importance.

I also feel that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention something here. I certainly don’t feel as though I’ve “made it,” by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t want to come off as some sort of know it all, self-appointed guru. I feel as though I am still very much in the process of breaking in. After the first script sale, it wasn’t like I awoke to find the roads paved with gold or anything. It still takes just as much hard work to write good material and to get it out there. I’ve had a very, very small amount of success, but there is still a very long way for me to go.

What’s a typical writing day like for you?

Honestly, I work like a demon. But, that’s because I truly, truly love this. Writing is my passion. I remember reading about Andre Agassi when he recommitted himself to tennis for his late-career resurgence. He said that he would look himself in the mirror at the end of every day, and really analyze whether or not he’d done everything he could do that day to make himself the best tennis player in the world. I really took that story to heart in terms of my own screenwriting. I think you need to write every single day. If you’re between scripts, you should be working on ideas. I think you ideally want to try to get in four to six hours of actual writing per day. That’s what I strive for. I start to feel that the quality of my writing deteriorates after that amount, so that’s usually when I taper off. I work the rest of that day on ideas or reading other scripts.

Reading books and scripts is also extremely important, in my opinion. I’m a voracious reader, and try to expose myself to all different genres of writing and to as many stories as possible. I think that if you expose yourself to good material, reading-wise, you will start to pick things up and you will in turn become a better writer.

I also watch a lot of scripted television and movies. It’s important to be well versed in what’s out there, and to see what other people are doing and what’s been done in the past. As you can imagine, all of this takes up a great deal of time. Fortunately, I have a very understanding wife, and she enjoys watching TV and movies with me at night. She’s an elementary school teacher now, but she used to work in feature film development. So, she has a great eye for material, and is someone that I really enjoy discussing films and television with. She is also the first person I go to with new ideas.

Do you rely much on feedback from friends and/or your agent or manager? And how do you handle the comments good and bad on your writing? And along with the above, how do you deal with certain comments from executives, producers, etc. made during meetings and pitch sessions about your work?

I seem to rely on feedback from friends and/or other writers less and less the more I write. That being said, though, there I people who give me notes. I always go to my agents. My agents have great advice about projects, so I pretty much always take their notes. I’m not a totally submissive robot about that, but there are a couple of reasons why I feel that I fall into the pattern of heeding their advice. First, my agents are intelligent and they give intelligent notes. Second, their notes are usually about a similar project being out there already, or a way to differentiate mine, or something along those lines. They have information that a writer has no way of knowing. I don’t usually get that many reads from other people besides my agents, my wife, or the producers I’m working with. But, I do have a few trusted sources to go to when and if necessary.

I feel like most of the notes I’ve gotten, professionally, are smart notes, because I generally like and respect the people I work with. Whenever there is something that I disagree with, I try to explain myself and to figure out what the other person’s issue is. I’ve always found it fairly easy to understand one another and to resolve things. I’ve honestly never been in a position where I’ve had a stalemate on a point.

Since you’ve written for film and TV, what differences do you see between the two?

I know that in the past they were two totally separate worlds. However, today, I feel that they’re becoming closer and closer. You see a great deal of crossover between film and TV. Directors, writers, producers – All of them are going back and forth. One thing that does seem to stand out, business-wise, is that in TV each network is very compartmentalized and specialized in what they do and what they want. In features, it seems that a spec can go wide, meaning to a lot of companies. However, in TV, you can’t really go wide per se. A spec pilot might be suitable for a half-dozen places at the most, but that’s about it. USA is very different from FX, and HBO is very different from Lifetime, etc.

Also, in television there are sort of two paths for gainful employment. Either you can sell pilots, known as “developing,” which is much like selling feature scripts. Or, alternatively, you can work on a staff. I would love to get on the staff of a TV show. I’m currently doing meetings in the hopes of this, as well as getting ready to pitch my next pilot. I’m taking the double-pronged TV approach at the moment.

What things do you feel writers need to recognize about themselves or the industry? What hard realities do aspiring screenwriters need to be aware of?

I think aspiring screenwriters need to be realistic about how much work it takes. They need to think about this like getting into a professional sport. You need years of practice and dedication. You need to constantly be churning out new material. You will continue to get better at your craft, if you are really applying yourself one hundred percent.

Also, writers should make sure that their ideas are inherently dramatic. Or, inherently humorous, if they’re writing comedy. If you look at the great playwrights, you can learn a lot. Take Shakespeare for example – Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello – all are inherently dramatic scenarios. The set-up of each, in and of itself, is dramatic. The actual execution is the next thing, but the raw concept is dramatic at its very core. The love triangle, betrayal, murder – Those things are clichés, but they’re clichés for a reason: because they work. If you find yourself trying to make the readers care about something, that’s most likely a problem. We, as readers, need to be emotionally engaged. There needs to be tension and stakes, we need to be invested. I believe that being choosy about your ideas before you begin writing, and vetting them through a few trusted friends, is a very good idea.

And lastly, don’t be afraid of rejection. There’s tons of it out there.

What are you working on next? Can you share any details?

Well, I am currently writing Grizzly Mountain for Benito, which I’m very excited about. It’s a great deal of fun to be working on a feature again, and I truly love the world and the characters in that story. I’m also developing a pitch right now in follow-up to Dimers going around. I can’t say too much about that or else I’d have to kill you, of course.

 


 

 

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