Ashley: Welcome to Episode #294 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing director Shawn Ku. He just directed a film called Score To Settle. We talk about this film as well as his background and how he got into the business. So stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes, or leaving me a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing director Shawn Ku. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Shawn to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Shawn: My pleasure Ashley.
Ashley: To start out maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Shawn: Yeah. I grew up in New Jersey and my mom raised me on old black And white MGM movies. She was a big fan of those like Gene Kelly, Freddie [inaudible 00:02:08] movies and so they were always on and I guess I mean, I blame her. It’s her fault. She wanted me to be a doctor and it’s totally her fault that I’m not.
Shawn: And her greatest sadness. But I wound up performing. I was a dancer for a while on Broadway and a friend of mine and I went to see a film in some arthouse down in the east village and we thought it was pretty terrible at the time we walked out we could, you know, at that… when you grow up in the east coast I feel like, and you don’t know anything about movies, you just assume every movie is a million dollar. It’s just like, “I can’t believe someone put a million dollars into that, we could write something at least as bad as that.” What I did at the time was I had an agent because I was a performer and I just asked him for a whole bunch of scripts of the movies that were being made at the time and we kind of like studied.
I didn’t even know what they looked like really and studied them and we wrote a screenplay, we kinda doodled around and got notes from him and long story short we were meeting with a producer and a director at the time and it was indie stuff like New York indie stuff but I thought, “Oh! Maybe I should go to film school,” and that’s kind of how it happened. I applied film school, I came out here to LA to go to USC and thought I was gonna be a director so I was studying that a little bit but I also did some writing. I’m also a writer. I’ve got a movie in production at Netflix right now that I wrote but I’m not directing. Yeah. Just kind of ignorance and bravado really is how I got into it. I think you need I little bit of that.
Ashley: Yeah. Let’s talk about some of your specific credits as your career is ramping up. On IMDb your first credit is Pretty Dead Girl, a short film. Was that something you did at USC or was that something you did once you got out?
Shawn: Yeah. That was my thesis film and they start to tell you, “Write what you know,” and so I came out a musical theater and I thought I would write a musical and it was just sort of a cheeky idea about, “I’m gonna write a musical about a necrophiliac,” and so that’s what that is. Just like a little… kind of a little Romeo and Juliet sort of thing about a necrophiliac and a non-dead girl that loved him. It was cute and cheeky and I got some attention from that and got signed to do a Warner Brothers movie that fell apart and kind of went from there.
Ashley: What happened to the movie in New York that you were working on? You said sort of with the indie producer in New York.
Shawn: Yeah, it never happened. It never happened, but that’s the truth for I guess most of the time. You write a screenplay and someone takes interest in it and you do meetings out. We were doing rewrites for the director and suddenly we weren’t anymore [laughs]. Suddenly we weren’t making a movie anymore and that’s sort of part of the course. There’s a lot of disappointments that goes along with it. Your list of credits only shows the tip of the iceberg of what you’re really doing all the time.
Ashley: So how did you make that leap to Beautiful Boy? And just quickly maybe kinda tell us how that came about. That’s a feature film you wrote and directed it. How did you get that leap from doing Pretty Dead Girl and having some meetings to actually writing and directing a feature film?
Shawn: Between this sort of Warner Brothers movie that fell apart and another movie that I wrote, actually the one that I mentioned that is happening at Netflix right now, I wrote that movie and was getting meetings and attention on that. People were interested but then nothing was ever happening. So out of the frustration of that I thought I would write something small that I could do independently. Not independently, independently by myself but that didn’t require studio money. And at the time these shootings were not as common as they are now but they were starting to have more and more and I was really consumed about that like a lot of people are and thought… I don’t know what happens to the parents of these shooters like what has their life turned into and that sort of turned into that movie.
And that was oddly enough a movie that came together fairly quickly because as soon as we wrote it we sent it to some towns and when the towns signed on from the script because they were really interested in the roles, I met with them and less than a year later we were on set shooting it. That’s kind of a rarity, I think, in how things happen. I mean, most movies are like, like the one that’s shooting right now, we wrote that movie like 10 years ago and every once in a blue moon somebody says, “Oh! Whatever happened to that script and we dust it off with them and they maybe try to make it and then it doesn’t happen again. So I feel like, you know, you hear those stories about the movies that took 15 years to make and finally they’re making it and that definitely happens a lot.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. Let’s dig in to your latest film A Score To Settle starring Nicolas Cage and Benjamin Brad. Maybe to start out you can just give us a quick pitch or a logline for that film. What is this film all about?
Shawn: Yeah. It’s sort of a character-driven revenge film about a father who was in jail for two decades almost and his struggle between once he gets out he’s being released because he’s got this sort of unusual insomnia disease and he is struggling in his last days remaining between his need to reconcile his relationship with his son who he’s abandoned for more than half his life and getting revenge for the people he blames for the circumstances of his sad existence as it is.
Ashley: Okay. So this is the film that you directed, you didn’t write it. How did you get involved with this film? Was this a submission through an agent, a producer was looking for a director? Did you get in early and develop the material with the director? Maybe you can walk us through that process of how you actually got involved with this project.
Shawn: It was a little of both. One of the producers that I did Beautiful Boy with had this script and he sent it to me and it was a project that he had some momentum on and sort of stalled and he was trying to get it off the ground again. He sent it to me and I plugged into it. I definitely was struck by this father-son relationship and the heart underneath the sort of archetypal revenge film trope setter in it. And we worked on the script a little bit with the writer and then we sent it to Nick. I mean, it seems fairly straight forward but that’s kind of how it happened. I wasn’t involved in necessarily the origin of the story itself. That was definitely from the writer but we definitely did a polish together of it or a rewrite of it that took it to another level that I think that really… I feel like I pulled out this relationship with the father and son.
I helped the writer do that which I think was important. It was an important element to add into the story. For sure. Because it was there in its bones it just needed to be fleshed out a little it, I think.
Ashley: Yeah. So let’s talk about the development process a little bit. As someone who has written a lot themselves I’m sure you kind of understand that dynamic of people giving writers notes. Maybe walk through that process. What did that actually look like when you’re working with him? Are you getting the script, you’re sending back notes and getting rewritten pages, sending back notes… were you guys in the same room, were you in separate rooms? Maybe just describe that process a little bit. And were there ever some moments where you guys maybe didn’t necessarily agree on things and did you work through those?
Shawn: Yeah. I’ve been on both sides of that process which is interesting and I think… we had a meeting initially so I was signed under the project and we were talking about what the script could be and where I wanted to take it, and basically sat down with the writer and pitched him my take, my notes on the story and he was excited. John was excited right away by that, their elements. What I like to do is as director, I think most directors, when you read a script you see what’s there and you feel what sort of, from your point of view what’s aching to sort of come out of it or what’s there under the surface that’s planted that maybe nobody noticed. Something like that that could be really interesting and I think we’re all in it together to try to tell the best story we can.
So I think it never comes across as critique or criticism or this sucks or whatever. But it’s all about, “Oh! This story would be so much more emotional,” for example, “if we did this, this and this.” And I think if that’s true on a certain extent that the writer is inspired by it which John was and we were off and running from there. So in terms of the process after that I think we have more specific thoughts so, you know, you kind of drop a blanket on it in the beginning and say, “It looks like this, I think it could look like this and it would be so amazing,” And then you sort of dig into the structure of it and you dig into the beats and you dig in to when you reveal things and all of that stuff and then the writer brings what they do best to it.
They bring in personality and unexpected things. I might suggest this that might inspire him to do this instead and it’s all. Again, I it makes the story better that’s all any of us want.
Ashley: So on this specific script you mentioned this father-son relationship that you wanted to kinda pull out a little bit more. Maybe in sort of a more general sense as writer, as a director who’s reading other people’s scripts, are there some common mistakes that you see writers make over and over again that you could give a little bit of practical advice. Just some common mistakes or maybe even pet peeves that you see in scripts that you wish writers didn’t do so often?
Shawn: I don’t know per se. I mean, I’ve definitely had people send me scripts for notes like what do I think, younger, newer writers and give them notes and I always say, “Well, do you really wanna know what I think or do you want just someone to tell you it’s great?” and I think as a new writer you really need to not take it personally. I feel like these earlier scripts they write feel like they’re us and that they’re… so any criticism of them is a criticism of you as a writer, as a human being. And I think what’s hard, it’s a difficult thing to do is willing to separate yourself from it and grow a thick skin because no one’s coming out and trying to tear you apart.
Like you ask for notes, or someone’s working on your project with you, like I said, everybody just wants to make the best script, the best story, the best movie you can make. I think that’s the hardest thing to do, is separate your own emotions from the thing that is the words on the paper. But aside from that I feel like depending on the film, I think that’s another thing too, is really understanding your genre. Not that everything is a genre per se but understanding what you are communicating in the first 10, 15 pages of your story and whether you’re communicating the right thing because I think you have to… What am I trying to say, I think you have to give what you’re selling. If that makes any sense.
So like if you’re selling a Thriller, you need to give thrills and you need to sell that Thriller in the beginning you can’t… and there definitely rule breakers, not that this is a rule, but they’re definitely outliers of this idea. But I definitely feel like an audience goes in expecting a certain thing and if you don’t deliver it then all you’re doing is disappointing them because they’re hoping to see that movie and you’re giving them this movie instead. It’s a bait and switch. And sometimes it’s out of your control, right? Sometimes that’s marketing. But, I mean, I think that thick skin is the hardest thing and the biggest thing to… because most criticism is constructive and I think if you don’t hear it with open ears you just put up a wall and be like, “Woah! That guy is an idiot,” or, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” or whatever.
And even if you disagree with the note you should understand that that might be a symptom of something else. And so you also have to be a pretty good doctor and say, “Oh! They’re feeling that because I did this way back here 15 pages earlier and if I fix that here they won’t.” There’s a lot of Nancy Drew-ing involved in figuring out why somebody feels something or why are they bored here or why are they confused here? I had a friend that talked about the ABC’s of reading. Sometimes they just wanna know, I forgot what the A is, but when are you bored, when are you confused, when don’t you care, and there’s something for A as well but I think sometimes that’s good too just to find out your viewer slash reader’s experience and clock it at certain times because it might be a symptom of other things. Because your first act is running way too long or whatever, blah blah blah.
Ashley: So this script you got from your producer and is that a common way that you would get scripts and sort of what I’m leading to is how do you typically get screenplays as a director? Because I always get emails from screenwriters saying, “How can I approach this director?” Maybe you just have a little general advice quickly as we wrap up for writers that wanna submit their screenplays.
Shawn: I’ve gotten scripts from all different manners. I’ve gotten scripts from producers who are producing scripts, I’ve gotten scripts through my manager who knows somebody or whatever or I’ve gotten scripts from agents submitting to me for whatever reason their submitting to me and I’ve definitely gotten scripts from writers that I happen to know and I’ve gotten that occasional hit up on Facebook. I think it is hard as a writer if you don’t have representation how you are going to get your script out there. I think you need to be pro-active but you also need to be professional.
I definitely have heard of people bringing scripts to a Q and A and trying to give it to the person there and I feel like that… if it ever goes well, it rarely goes well, it’s just gonna wind up in the trash. But there are all of these festivals and competitions and I think are really helpful but you just have to be pro-active. You can’t just write your story and just sit it on a shelf and think there’s your genius just sitting there. You really have to be… just get it out there somehow. But in a professional way.
Ashley: Sound advice. How can people see A Score To Settle? What’s the release schedule like?
Shawn: It is being released in theatres and On Demand and I think DVD all at once. It’s dropping all at once in August and they can see it in any manner of ways.
Ashley: Perfect. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I will round up for the show notes.
Shawn: I don’t. I should tweet, I don’t. I mean, I’m a bad social media person that way.
Ashley: There’s only so many hours in the day so no I’m right there with you. Well, Shawn I really appreciate you coming on the show with me and telling your story. Good luck with this film and good luck with your next film as well.
Shawn: Thank you so much.
Ashley: Perfect. Will talk to you later. Bye.
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On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing director Jason Winer who just directed a feature film called Ode to Joy. It’s a high concept romantic comedy about a guy who passes out whenever he experiences strong emotions, especially joy. So obviously you can see the drama there and just setting that up is that romantic comedies are all about creating that situation where two people might seem perfect for each other but there is that obstacle and this is a good example of a really high concept premise where it’s really clear why these two people can’t be with the other because he passes out every time he is around this woman that brings him great joy. We talk through that film. We also talk through the early stages of his career kinda how he got into the business. So keep an eye out for that episode next week.
That’s the show. Thank you for listening.