DVD review: The Dialogue series

20/02/2010

The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters
An Interview with Screenwriter Sheldon Turner

The Dialogue series offers 70-90 minute interviews with 27 successful screenwriters working today.

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There’s something very comforting to hear other screenwriters talk about how they work and their experience in the film industry. Sitting by yourself in a room day in day out and only communicating with your editor/producer/director/agent you can never be sure if anyone else is going through what you’re going through. Yes, in each office similar to yours, there’s a writer thinking about the same issues – how shall I write this scene, where do I go with this character, how shall I pitch it… With its straightforward and in-depth discussions about the craft and the industry, The Dialogue series has something to offer both the aspiring screenwriter as well as the experienced pro. Even if you haven’t seen the films these people have written, it doesn’t matter – it’s the craft and business that’s under the magnifying glass.

The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters is a series of interview DVDs that offers a peek into the lives of some of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood today. Each DVD contains a 70-90 minute in-depth interview hosted by Mike De Luca who, you can be sure, knows what he’s talking about: Mike is a film fanatic with two decades of experience as an executive and the President of Production at several major studios. Mike has interviewed more than two dozen writers for the series and the topics range from inspiration and writing methods to rewriting, pitching and dealing with the industry, you name it. Other screenwriters interviewed for the series are Paul Haggis (Crash), David Goyer (Batman Begins), Jim Uhls (Fight Club), Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries), Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise), Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) to name a few.

An Interview with Screenwriter Sheldon Turner

Sheldon Turner

One such DVD from The Dialogue series contains an interview with screenwriter Sheldon Turner (The Longest Yard, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning ) who along with Jason Reitman wrote Up in the Air which is now nominated for an Oscar in the Adapted Screenplay category. The film has already picked up a long list of nominations and awards, including numerous critics’ awards and a Golden Globe for Best Adapted Screenplay. This should tell us that this guy knows something we want to hear.

Sheldon Turner comes across frank and open. He has opinions and he won’t keep them to himself. There’s no crawling on all fours to impress any executives in this screen appearance. That’s Sheldon’s philosophy: find your opinion and stick with it. Life is painful for a sheep while people with values and views earn respect. He had a reputation of being difficult at first because he always got defensive, and he still tries to win the argument but the trick is to remain polite. “You want to say “fuck you” but do it with a smile.” The fact is that screenwriting is no longer just about writing – you have to be a social animal, you have to get out there, be good in a room. Sheldon also confirms Doug Chamberlain’s tips (at the Screenwriters Festival 2009) – you’re expected to possess a certain amount of eccentricity because if you’re too normal you’re going to arouse suspicions that you might not be up for the job. Perception is important.

“Anger is a great energy.” – S.T.

There are as many habits and routines as there are writers. Some write in the morning, some in the evening. Some like music, others silence. We all agree that discipline is vital in a screenwriter’s career but Sheldon admits he’s an extremist: he gets up at 4am every morning, writes for an hour, goes to the gym, and then goes back to writing. He always attempts to write a certain number of hours every day. “Unless you’re disciplined, it’s very easy to fall by the wayside,” he says. It takes a lot of discipline to sit down and write when you’re alone in that room. If you can’t do that then you’re not a writer, and Sheldon can’t stress it enough: bad writing – phoning it in, writing for money or praise is boring and it shows on the page. You have to love stories, you need to have passion! Sheldon is motivated by self-loathing (which is dependent on his productivity), guilt and fear. Being easily distracted, his office only contains the basics only and no phones, no TV, just silence. He boycotts email. He prefers to hear your voice on the phone.

There’s no writer’s block for Sheldon. His mantra is “just keep writing,” even if it’s shit just get it down on the page. He likes having different projects on the go and he finds it necessary to jump from one thing to another, working on one thing alone would be boring. Realising the politics can be a nightmare for a young writer – that’s why it’s important not to obsess with just one project that you can lose, because when “they” fuck it up it’s beyond your control. So, you need to have other things to focus on to keep going.

Sheldon went to law school and has never taken a course in screenwriting but he has read a lot of screenplays. He doesn’t believe in seminars that teach people to all rely on the same things. And what do these gurus (McKee, Field) know anyway? Have they written any scripts or had anything produced? Sheldon tells people to go and find crappy screenplays – that’s what inspired him. He had 2 pages from a script containing all the painful clichés in the world on his wall as an inspiration. Anger is a great energy. “I’ve probably inspired a nation of screenwriters,” he says about people who might be critical of his scripts (he’s doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is always healthy). When starting out, Sheldon first wrote 12 screenplays that he never showed to anyone. He just wrote them to find his voice. After the 13th he felt confident enough to show it to someone and managed to sell it.

This is only a fragment of what was talked about. The interview lasts for nearly 90 minutes and contains tons of valuable information, anecdotes and advice. Sheldon also talks about how to hook actors, writing action and description, outlining, the importance of feedback, the pitching process, and voices some objections about film industry. In this interview, Sheldon mostly talks about The Longest Yard and when asked to bring an example of a strong scene we are also shown the scene from the film. Throughout the interview, additional information appears on the screen as terms and names are mentioned, such as definitions of screenwriting terms or more details about a film, screenwriter, director or a producer named. At one point, the interview is interrupted by a Storytelling Exercise The Object” where the interviewee is presented with an object. He or she then has to form a story around that object and then explain where the story came from – a personal experience, philosophy or something else. Sheldon was given a pair of smashed glasses.

What is the one piece of wisdom Sheldon can’t hear enough? Write as much as you can! He’s inspired by the “lions of the trade” such as Paul Attanasio (also interviewed in the series) and Eric Roth (The Insider), knowing that even the best writers drop the ball once in a while. Does writing get any easier? It’s never easy. By nature, Sheldon won’t do anything easy. You need to challenge yourself as you keep writing in that room…

Chapter titles:
“Anger is a Great Energy”
“Everyone Wants to Say Cool Dialogue”
“You Gotta Kill Your Children”
“The Freaky Guy Hanging Out in the Bathroom”
“They Actually Want to Make This?”
“I Gave the Money Back”
“Content Void”
“The Stake and the Sizzle”
“Take That Goddamn Thorn Out”
“An Adult 18-karat Control Freak”
“Insert Cry Here”
“A 22-Year Old Semi-Retarded Kid”
“Most People Don’t Read Samples”
“What’s Better Than Killing Nazis?”

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To find out more about The Dialogue series titles and watch clips, visit thedialogueseries.com

To get a 15% discount on one of these DVDs enter this discount code at check-out: keerd15

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2 Responses to “DVD review: The Dialogue series”

  1. Mike Y said

    I’ve heard about this series before, definitely something I need to check out. So rare that you can really get in the head of a writer beyond the traditional 30 second clip format. Thanks!

    • Margit said

      It’s very similar to what you hear at public talks when you go to the Screenwriters Festival or Expo but won’t cost as much. Except you won’t get the chance to ask any questions yourself. :) I like it because it’s not aimed at the general public but at screenwriters.

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