Q&A with Shane Weisfeld
Interview with the Canadian based screenwriter of Freezer, Shane Weisfeld
Kevin Fukunaga (Scripts & Scribes): Shane, can you tell us a little about your background? Where and what did you study and how did you get your first job in the industry?
Shane Weisfeld: I’ve been a writer my whole life. I have a background in, and extremely strong ties, to hip hop music & culture, and was a competitive bodybuilder for a number of years. Those two things gave me a very, very thick skin. I worked as a media monitor for 10 years after graduating university. Most people don’t know about the media monitoring industry, it’s very journalism-oriented, and I was able to use my writing skills and keep a close eye on the local and national print, radio and TV news. It gave me a lot of ammunition for interesting story ideas.
I was a Film/Screenwriting major at York University in Toronto and graduated in 1998. My first job in the industry was actually an internship at MGM/UA of Canada and that came through a friend while in school. All the Hollywood studios have Canadian offices, but it’s strictly for distribution, focusing on publicity and promotion of the studios’ releases. I worked on Get Shorty and GoldenEye, among others.
Kevin: You were writing screenplays for twelve years before landing your first agent and another two-and-a-half before getting your first produced credit at nearly forty years of age. What kind of things did you do to keep yourself motivated and progressing forward? How sweet is it to see your work finally produced
Shane: Wow, I can’t believe I’m turning 40 this year! I became a produced writer at 38, just like my man Geoffrey Fletcher. I still don’t have an agent yet. It was a manager in L.A. I signed with, and then it was about two-and-a-half years after that when my first produced credit went before the cameras, in January of 2013. My manager unfortunately has since gone on to producing exclusively and he’s no longer repping clients, so I’m on the hunt for a manager (and always, an agent).
I keep myself motivated and progressing by continuing to write, practicing the discipline and perfecting my craft. I also monitor the business every single day. I know aspiring writers who actually get depressed when they hear about other writers making deals and selling scripts, with a “why them and not me?” attitude, but as long as specs are selling, writing assignments are a plenty and more financiers are stepping up to the plate, that’s good news for writers.
To see my work finally produced after all these years is an amazing feeling. A huge goal was accomplished. I had the wonderful privilege to be on set for a while and watch some of it in action and it was a great experience. It’s nice to be in this exclusive club of produced screenwriters. Hopefully soon I’m in the even more exclusive club of working screenwriters.
Kevin: Can you talk a little about “Freezer”, what it’s about and the route you and the screenplay took to finally get it made?
Shane: “Freezer” is a crime thriller with lots of action. The one-location story focuses on a kidnapped man fighting for his life in an industrial freezer after he’s thrown in there by a crime family who are convinced he stole millions from during a botched hit. Does the whole movie take place in the freezer? You’ll have to watch it to find out.
The route it took to get made was years of plugging away, being razor-sharp focused in my pursuit and basically trying to do something that had never been done before. Prior to my friend and I writing it, I made sure something like this had a) never been done before and b) was not currently in development or production. That was a huge factor in people being drawn to it and ultimately, getting made. It’s the first time I spent so much detail on a script and the most rewriting of a script I’ve ever done. It paid off. Finally.
Kevin: “Freezer” is a one-location action thriller that is clearly written with budget in mind. What was your thought process about writing something with budgetary constraints? How did that affect the sales process and ultimately the film getting produced?
Shane: Budget was an important factor, but it wasn’t the only thing driving the reason behind writing this. The most important thing was coming up with an original, unique concept and sustaining an interesting story in this contained location. The fact that it takes place in a freezer lends itself to being low budget, but we certainly wanted to write something and keep the marketplace in mind, because the whole point was to get this made and not just be a writing sample; because something is low budget doesn’t mean it will sell, but I guess that made it more appealing (for financiers). We actually had some producers and executives say it was too low-budget or too contained. Just goes to show, rejection is always around the corner and sometimes it comes down to a producer’s mandate and slate they have.
Kevin: What is a typical writing day for you like and where do you do most of your writing?
Shane: Because I’m not a working writer yet, I don’t have a typical 9-5 writing day. However, I always make time to write, whether it’s before work, after work, during my lunch, late at night, early in the morning. That sacrifice and discipline is partly why I’ve come this far and will continue to propel me. I do my actual typing at home on my computer, but I always write my scripts long-hand first, and that can be anywhere I am, so when I type it up at the computer at home, it’s almost a 2nd draft at that point because I’ll start editing things and rewriting. I’d actually rather stare at a blank page instead of a blank computer screen.
Kevin: What is the logline for the first screenplay you ever wrote and where does that script reside currently?
Shane: Ha ha. It was an emotional drama typed up in Word Perfect that I did as my last-year project in film school. I had written many shorts before that, but it was my first feature and it was about a brother and sister who have to adjust to a new life in foster care after their single mother is taken away to a hospital. It was called “Manhattan in the Fall.” It’s with my many other scripts stored on a hard drive and probably in a drawer somewhere.
Kevin: How many screenplays have you written total and, looking back, at what point do you think your writing was at the professional level?
Shane: I think I’ve written about 13 or 14 features, plus about 10 short scripts, and four TV scripts (two spec samples and two original pilots). It wasn’t until I learned about doing page-one rewrites did the writing get to a professional level, and that took several years and several scripts, at least. I had always done more than one draft of my scripts, but it took a while before I started doing full overhaul rewrites where it was good enough to be sold and/or produced. Look, I wrote some good scripts but I also wrote some crap ones. The point is that each script became better than the last one and I started to form my voice with each subsequent script and find my niche genre.
Kevin: Being from Toronto, how did you land your first agent or manager? Did you find resistance from agents and managers you queried to the fact that you were not in Los Angeles and if so, how did you temper that reaction?
Shane: This business is great at weeding people out, no matter where they live. The ironic thing is that they’re always looking for great material and writers with original voices to sign, no matter where they live. I’ll tell you (and I know many aspiring writers will hate me for saying this) – I never had too much trouble getting my material to agents and managers (and producers and execs). There’s always loopholes to the whole unsolicited gate. The hard part is them loving what you’ve written and wanting to work with you! Keep in mind that a query letter is a sample of your writing and professionalism. Let’s just say that I’ve kept a very strategic and close eye on the business and who the players are. If I want to be in this business, I need to know who everybody is, who’s doing what, the deals that are being made, etc., etc., etc. – and of course how to approach these people. So this is partly how I landed my first manager; and yes, it was with a query. However, querying is the longest and hardest way to get your material read. I actually don’t recommend it for that reason, but what I do recommend is doing whatever you can to get your name out there, and if that means sending queries, then go for it.
Kevin: How does it work, being a professional screenwriter, living in Toronto? What kind of challenges do you face, not being in Los Angeles full-time? How do you work with your manager? How do you take meetings?
Shane: “Professional” screenwriter. I like the sound of that. Produced writer, yes, but I’m not a working screenwriter yet though. Sooner than later I hope. When it comes to L.A. producers and executives, it’s always been phone meetings; and they were willing to do that, knowing I’m not in L.A. With my manager, who was also in L.A., it was a hell of a lot of phone calls, e-mails and faxes.
Many agents and managers will tell you that you need to be in L.A., at least for the first part of your career, if you’re serious about making a living and establishing yourself as a professional screenwriter. In the 16 years I’ve been actively pursuing this, I have not once – not once – come across someone in the business telling me I need to be in L.A. or that they won’t deal with me or won’t read my material unless I’m in L.A. Obviously, being outside of L.A. is always a challenge no matter what, but L.A. is just a five-hour plane ride from T.O., and most of L.A. descends on my city for TIFF every year. I know of many people who are still here and go to L.A. (a few to several times a year) for meetings when they have to. This is why I really admire Canadian writers and directors who still live here but get work on both sides of the border – people like Jewison, Cronenberg, Egoyan, Villeneuve, Bruce McDonald, Michael McGowan, Elan Mastai, Deepa Mehta and Sarah Polley.
Kevin: Would you ever consider relocating to Los Angeles for work?
Shane: I thought a bit about making the move when I was 23, after I finished school. The question is: would I be any further along if I moved out there all those years ago? It’s hard to say, because I’d be writing the same scripts and facing the same rejection.
To be completely honest, I’m not one of those people that can just pack up my bags and leave everything behind, certainly not all these years later. The whole point is to get work while still living in the city I was born and raised in, and going to L.A. when need be.
Kevin: How important is self-promotion as a professional, but still recent professional, screenwriter? And what do you do to promote yourself?
Shane: One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned along the way is that nobody is gonna do anything for me. You’ve got to be a relentless self-promoter, because essentially you’re a brand, and you need to build that brand. Even with an agent or manager or both, you still need to get yourself out there and beat down doors. Some A-list writers do have publicists of course. Promoting yourself is how you make connections and relationships though. “Freezer” has gotten a lot of buzz and word of mouth, but it didn’t happen out of thin air. I promote myself by getting people to become fans of my writing and my story of struggle and perseverance. Both define me. For all those aspiring writers, even sending a query letter is promoting yourself. Keep in mind, a query letter doesn’t always have to end with “will you read my script?” It can simply be an introductory letter, a congratulatory letter, etc.
Kevin: What are your favorite screenwriting resources?
Shane: Script & Scribes! Also, Variety, THR, Deadline and Fade In. I love Done Deal and Spec Scout because they’re focused on pitches, sales and assignments. I follow the tracking boards, too. Can’t forget about Black list, blood list, hit list, young & hungry list, etc. Go Into The Story is great for interviews. One of my favorite books is “Tales From the Script”, which also has a great DVD. I also love the book “101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters.” There’s also a blog called “Unsolicited: A Screenwriter’s 16-Year Journey Into The Film Industry” from a guy with the exact same name as me. I heard he’s planning to turn this into a book one day.
Kevin: Lastly, what kind of advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters or is there anything else you’d like to share?
Shane: I think the best piece of advice I can give to aspiring screenwriters is make sure you were meant to do this and you’re 100% serious in your quest. Only a small percentage actually make it in and maintain a steady living, and if you think you’re ready for this, you need a strong backbone and very thick skin because rejection is inevitable. Sure, there’s people like Diablo Cody and Callie Khouri who got lucky with their first script, but they’re extremely talented, hard working and don’t take anything for granted.
Also, study and learn the craft as much as you can. Watching films is important, but reading scripts is probably more important, so you can learn from the masters and what they have to say about what it takes. You don’t have to obsessively follow the business like I do, but it’s important to know why certain films get made and the path they took from script to screen.
I now know first-hand how hard it is to get a movie made, so I’d like to salute some champions of independent film who I’m a fan of, because those guys (and girls) are making sure the best stories are getting told, and sometimes they’re the hardest films to get made, find financing and be profitable. I’m talking about amazing, talented filmmakers, producers and agents like John Sayles, Alexander Payne, Spike Jonze, Cassian Elwes, Yerxa & Berger, Rich Klubeck & Rena Ronson, Graham Taylor, Neal Dodson, Robert Lantos, Annapurna and XYZ Films; and some of my biggest influences and favorite screenwriters are David Mamet, Bill Ray, Ronald Harwood, Steven Knight, Paul Laverty, Steve Zaillian, Peter Morgan, Robert Towne, Majid Majidi, Shawn Ryan and Vince Gilligan. BONUS Q’s:
Kevin: What kind of freezer do you own and what’s in it?
Shane: It’s not the brand, it’s what you keep in it. No bodies though, unlike the film. Right now I’ve got waffles, smoothies, chicken breasts, frozen veggies and Sicilian ice cream sandwiches.
Kevin: Better George Stevens film: Gunga Din or Shane?
Shane: Shane. Although Gunga Din stars one of my favorites of all time – Cary Grant.
Kevin: How cold is it in Toronto at this very moment?
Shane: Way too cold. Nice time to be in L.A.! We’re actually in the middle of a cold/freezing snap this week. Although, “Freezer” was shot in Edmonton, AB in the middle of January, and for those who know Edmonton in the dead of winter, not very pleasant. One thing Americans might not know about Toronto though is it gets extremely hot and humid in the summer.