At Last! Sheila Hanahan Taylor, Part 1
A short time ago I posted about finally meeting Sheila Hanahan Taylor. In that post, I described the "saga" of why I was trying to learn about her, and you can feel free to read up on all the posts from there. Well, Sheila has been kind enough to answer some questions for the blog, so that at long last, anyone who comes to this blog by Googling her name, can actually find some valuable information! And for anyone else who doesn't have any questions about Sheila in particular, I hope you'll still find this interview informative and enlightening.
I've split the interview into two parts, not only so I can get two blog postings out of it, instead of just one. ;-) Also, because it is kind of long, and this should make it more easily readable. I'll post part 2 in another day or two.
So, on to the interview...
Hey Sheila! Thanks so much for meeting me and for agreeing to do this interview. Should be fun, and hopefully informative for all those people Googling your name!
I know that aspects of your bio are scattered around online, but why don’t we start with a brief rundown on that info again?
Okay! Here's a short version; longer version exists if you're curious.
I'm currently a partner at Practical Pictures, a feature film and television production company founded with Craig Perry, an associate from the now-defunct Zide/Perry Entertainment. While at Zide/Perry I began as a development executive and ultimately grew to the role of Sr. VP of development and production. I collaborated successfully on a number of projects including the American Pie and Final Destination franchises, resulting in over $1 billion in box office revenue. Additionally, I oversaw development of numerous spec screenplays for the management division of Z/P, including material that went on to become award-winners and earn million dollar sales.
Prior to my time at Zide/Perry I worked with Garry Marshall and the Zucker Brothers, developing movies such as My Best Friend's Wedding and Rat Race. I began my career in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan where I often worked as a child actor in national commercials. During high school and college I performed in New York and at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.
Along with my producing duties I am also an associate professor at UCLA’s film school, teaching year-round in the MFA Program for Producing. In addition to appearing on panels and running screenwriting, development, and production workshops at various film festivals around the country, I happily serve as a judge for a number of screenplay contests and regularly guest-teach abroad at Sorbonne University and Tokyo International Film Festival.
I live in Santa Monica with my filmmaker/Chicago native husband, Paul.
So, you formed Practical Pictures with Craig Perry. I know you guys have the Final Destination movies under your belts. What other kinds of projects do you guys produce?
We're a year-round production and development company. Currently, we have over 20 feature projects set up at major studios, we are EPs on hour-long TV series at both AMC and Paramount Television, and recently entered into a first look deal with award-winning Producer Scott Rudin, who has an overall deal at Disney Studios.
In addition to looking for finished spec scripts, we're also cradle-to-grave producers, meaning we grow movies hand-in-hand with writers from one sentence ideas to treatments, then to scripts, then find a home for the script at a studio or financier, then see it through more development, attach a director and actors, get the greenlight, keep the vision of the movie on course by collaborating on set, participate in editing, and chime in on marketing ideas. Our taste and projects range from a mid-budget Hitchcockian thriller to an underdog sports comedy in the vein of Dodgeball, set in the world of competitive eating. We tend to stick with higher-concept studio movies.
You mentioned the deal with Scott Rudin. Tell me more about that, and what types of projects you might be doing for that deal.
Scott Rudin's deal is with Disney Studios, which includes Disney proper, Touchstone, and Miramax. So we're looking for just about anything that feels like something one of those studios might make. If you look at those companies' slates, they are very diverse and well-rounded, which makes our job easier. We've considered everything from art house fare to four-quadrant material.
As a script reader, there are certain mistakes I know I see consistently in spec scripts. I’d love to hear what problems you encounter regularly in the scripts you come across.
I'm going to presume the basics – using good brads, no artwork, proper format and grammar – have all been accomplished and go with the actual art of screenwriting. (By the way, there are a few great books on the market about all of these: How Not To Write A Screenplay is fantastic!)
The problems I regularly encounter are:
1. There's some interesting/funny/smart/cool stuff in the script but it isn't a "movie."
I often read scripts that have such promise! They start off well, have some snappy dialogue or a strong open, but they quickly spiral into a mushy place of non-movie. What does that mean? It means the writer found a cool world, or a unique character, or a fresh set up but they didn't take the time to think through how to build in enough conflict to create a full-blown 90 minute movie.
All stories, comedy or drama, from the Greeks to Melrose Place, have conflict. Without conflict you have no real story... you just have elements like witty dialogue or a great world. Those, sadly, do not a movie make. And all our bosses or studio executives continually ask us, "Forget about the writing, what's the movie?" and we need to answer in 30 seconds or less. So, take 5 and ask yourself, without fudging: Can I write a full-on 2-3 sentence logline, with beginning, middle, and end, with a clear pro- and antagonist, goals and obstacles, and with a great resolution? And does the logline honestly match my script? If not, you don't quite have a movie! Keep working.
2. The theme is vague or completely missing.
Sometimes rookies forget that it isn't what the movie is about, it is what it is ABOUT. Theme can be a slippery thing but hopefully this will help: First off, all good films have theme, even when they are silly little light-hearted stories. For any film to work, in addition to the tangible goal of robbing the bank or getting the girl, it has to be about something!
Ask yourself what theme you want to explore and how you can best demonstrate it in the story you are telling. Do the main story points best service this theme? Do the lead characters' choices further comment on the topic? Do the antagonist's comment equally? Does the resolution take a stand and show the theme played out in all its glory? Will the audience leave with something earned from the experience? If so, you've successfully woven theme into your script.
3. The structure is off.
I know there are a hundred screenwriting books out there, and they all have a different opinion on how movies should be structured. Three acts. Five acts. 15 sequences. 10 sections. It is crazy and confusing and makes my head hurt. I've found the best and simplest way to learn structure is from the guys who do it best: film editors.
Editors are the magicians of all – they know story and structure, moments and camera! Once you pick an idea you want to write, you must watch at least 10 films in the same film family and write down what happens every 5 minutes. You'll be amazed how much you learn from breaking down existing films.
And when I say film family, I mean a few different things. If you're doing a heist film, sure you need to watch heist films. But, if it is also an ensemble story, you need to watch how those work too – even if the example isn't about a "heist" – because the story structure, not the genre structure, will have the same elements whether the movie is about an ensemble that's robbing a bank or robbing a baseball team of victory. Bottom line for me and most people in this town, if by page 30 your lead character hasn't clearly declared a goal and a plan to achieve that goal, and if we haven't seen the obstacle – human or otherwise – that is in direct conflict with your lead's plan, then your structure is off and you're on your way to bigger issues.
4. The writer is confusing good plot with good story telling.
Ever notice how some people can make a trip down the Amazon boring while others can make buying a pack of gum a fantastic journey? That's story telling. The reality is, movies often aren't as much about plot as they are about story telling – that includes voice and tone as well as how you present and unfold the plot. A cool plot will definitely open doors, but without good story telling you'll end up being rewritten!
5. The writer hasn't become an expert in the genre.
This means I'm reading a script that isn't quite fresh enough or inventive enough, and the problem usually stems from the writer being under-exposed to successful material in that genre, produced or otherwise. Writers need to read and watch as many movies as they possibly can and take the time after they're finished to think about their structure, theme, voice, tone, and storytelling. Simply watching them isn't enough. Digesting them is the key.
PART 2 of the interview to follow shortly!
Tags: Sheila+Hanahan+Taylor, Practical+Pictures, movie+producer, film