DEAD POETS SOCIETY'S TOM SCHULMAN ON THE ART OF SURVIVING HOLLYWOOD
By Tom McCurrie
Screenwriter Tom Schulman (WHAT ABOUT BOB?, WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT) had a confession to make at the latest edition of the Writers on Writing Series, sponsored by the Writer's Guild Foundation. As far as the craft of screenwriting goes, "nothing came natural" to him. After all, he only "fell into writing because [he] wanted to direct," and he felt he needed material to leverage the studios. So Schulman had to work long and hard on story, character and dialogue to become a "natural." This from a guy who won an Academy Award for DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989), his first feature script! Schulman had many other bracing, no-holds-barred comments about the art of writing, and the equally important art of surviving Hollywood, during an interview and later Q & A at the Writer's Guild of America in Los Angeles.
Hailing originally from Nashville, Tennessee, where he earned a B.A. in philosophy from Vanderbilt University, Schulman came to Los Angeles to attend USC Film School. But he quit after two semesters, working in educational films and the theatre. After doing two ABC Movies-of-the-Week that were rewritten so completely he couldn't recognize them, Schulman hit the spec screenplay jackpot, selling both DEAD POETS SOCIETY and SECOND SIGHT (1989) the same day (the latter ended up being directed by MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING's Joel Zwick).
Now The Next Big Thing, Schulman was tapped by Disney (buyers of DPS) for a rewrite job. He was very happy for the work until he found out the assignment: he was to turn HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS (1989), originally envisioned as a drama, into a gut-busting comedy -- in seven days! The movie was two-and-a-half weeks away from shooting so they needed the script yesterday. So after two days of thinking about it, Schulman hunkered down and went through "three complete passes of the movie in seven days," taking into account notes and other changes. The result: a box-office smash.
Not all of Schulman's scripts lived happily ever after, however. MEDICINE MAN (1992) was rewritten so much, and so not to his liking, that to this day he still hasn't seen the movie (nor will he even talk about it). Luckily, the same thing didn't happen to DEAD POETS SOCIETY, though execs at Disney tried their best. They wanted to throw out most of the plot and make Mr. Keating the main character (instead of his student Todd) because Keating was the only adult (i.e., star) role. This nightmare revision didn't happen, but an equally important one did, courtesy of director Peter Weir. In the original draft, a scene showed Keating in a hospital, dying of Hodgkin's disease. This was the motivation for his whole carpe diem outlook. Now Weir didn't want to change the script one bit, but he did say "that scene's gotta go"; after all, it was easy to stand on your desk for a dying man, but much harder to stand on your desk for what's right, and the latter was what the picture was really about. Cutting that scene would make Todd's gesture "a pure act," about standing up for your beliefs and your beliefs alone. After "spending three days talking about it," Schulman ultimately agreed, and now he believes excising this scene made DEAD POETS a much more focused film. Weir also helped Schulman improve his writing by teaching him to cut down on repetition. Schulman had a tendency to "repeat [himself] back then," and while it may be necessary to mention carpe diem several times on the page to sell it to overworked readers, "saying it once is enough" on screen. Weir's comments just go to show that all rewrites are not necessarily bad.
Still, Schulman says the biggest mistakes in his writing career involved "not fighting" for what he thought was right; for being pressured to make changes to his scripts that ended up hurting the material. "You have to get in there and fight for everything you believe in," even if it gets you fired. If your "gut tells you this is wrong," it's worth the risk; letting bad changes go not only will hurt the film, but also create a self-loathing that kills your ability to write.
For instance, Schulman always fights to keep backstory out of his scripts: "I try to have as little as possible." Partially because it's unnecessary -- if the character works in the context of the present-day story, we "don't need to know specifics" of his past. And partially because it's intriguing -- "mystery is more interesting" than knowing everything about the protagonist's background.
Keeping backstory out of a script is one thing; stopping Hollywood's obsession with rewrites is another. That's why Schulman feels the "best part of the [screenplay] experience is alone in the room writing it." Schulman doesn't follow any particular process when he writes, though he "really believe[s] in an outline" so he knows "the whole thing before getting to the end." He also believes in "doing scripts quickly" once the outline is finished -- in a week for a first draft. (That's a goose to all you procrastinators out there.) If it takes much longer, Schulman gets "panicked" that the script won't come together. Since scripts are only about 20,000 words, many of them scene directions or slug lines, Schulman believes knocking them out this quickly isn't a problem, but only if the writer has thought through the plot, characters and structure in the outline -- that's where all the time should be spent. Those who get writer's block halfway through a script haven't thought these elemental things through. But Schulman feels it's more than that, almost coming down to a question of faith: "[You] really have to believe in the world of the story you're creating." If you don't, you will lose heart and the story will remain unfinished; if you do, you will have a better chance of creating what Schulman thinks all writers should be aiming for: a believable, imaginative and dynamic screenplay.
Of course, all this is meaningless if that screenplay is spoiled by rewrites. So what's Schulman's take on how to solve this problem? "Directors will have to spend more time with writers," especially the original writer(s). A collaborative give-and-take like Schulman experienced with Weir on DEAD POETS keeps clueless revisions to a minimum and benefits the final release (as that pic's several Oscar nominations, and award for Best Original Screenplay, demonstrate). Keeping other writers to a minimum also helps come award-time. Schulman did some research and found that most Best Picture winners during the 90s had one writer. And since Academy Awards mean box-office, that's something today's profit-margin obsessed studios should think about.
Trouble is, the studios have changed for the worse over the last ten years. To Schulman, "dealing directly with decision-makers is best" as a writer, because only they have the ultimate ability to say Yea or Nay. Jeffrey Katzenberg read every draft of DEAD POETS, and though Schulman argued heatedly with him, at least he knew the notes came from the top, and from someone who knew the script inside and out. Now studios have too much middle management, too many people giving notes who don't have that Yea or Nay power. So rewriting the script according to their take is usually pointless. Worse still, Schulman says the Katzenbergs of today only know their projects "conceptually," and thus make suggestions to the writer without even reading the script, resulting in some of the lamest scenes ever written. This more corporate, impersonal studio approach makes it even more essential for writers and directors to forge a collaborative front against inane revisions. Of course, if a producer does happen to force a particularly inane revision on you, Schulman's advice is to pretend to write it down and conveniently forget to include it in your next draft. Since producers forget, most stuff you can "deflect by ignoring it."
Though the odds seemed stacked against it, Schulman recommends that all prospective scribes "write what [they] love." Don't try to put a "governor" on what you create, so you limit yourself to what you think the marketplace (or today's hot-as-a-pistol producer) wants. Producers "don't know what they want till they read it anyway." And if you write something you're passionate about, that passion will transfer to the person reading it and help it sell. After all, DEAD POETS SOCIETY isn't exactly high-concept material, but it sold AND did well at the box-office. (There is one genre Schulman would recommend writers stay away from, however: adult dramas. The studios don't make those anymore.)
Only by writing what you love can you keep your passion alive, and in the cutthroat, often uncaring world of Hollywood, that's the key to creative survival.
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A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive and a story analyst. He is currently a screenwriter living in Los Angeles.