Shrek, the Movie that Is Still a Classic After 20 Years With Screenwriter, Roger S. H. Schulman
Owen Shapiro 00:04
Welcome to Kino Society with Owen Shapiro. Welcome to Kino Society. In today’s episode, we have Roger S.H. Schulman, an American film and television screenwriter and producer. He co wrote the animated feature Shrek, for which he won a British Academy Award, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Welcome to Kino Society.
Roger Schulman 00:34
Owen Shapiro 00:34
So what made you want to break into the film industry,
Roger Schulman 00:38
I was a journalist for many years, and I’ve always loved writing and dreamt that one day I would be able to actually write for television, that was the first thing that I had in mind. And in brief, I got the opportunity to do a profile of the actor, comedian, writer, Steve Martin, some years back. And after I had written the article, I asked him if would be alright, to send him some material of my own. It was sort of like a an opportunity, I felt like couldn’t let pass up. I should say, I felt that was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So he said, Sure. And he liked what I wrote. And he put me in touch with some of his people. And he was the first guy that I ended up writing for. And so it was literally for me a dream come true. So it was something that I wanted to do. And my editor at that time at the magazine I was writing for, said that if it didn’t work out in show business, I could come back. And that was a few decades ago, I haven’t gotten in touch with them.
Owen Shapiro 01:53
So how much do you think you’ve evolved in terms of your writing since then?
Roger Schulman 01:58
Well, I hope that I’ve evolved a great deal. That really is for other people who experience my writing to say, but there are two ways in which I would say, I feel like I’ve evolved personally, in the course of my writing. One way is that it’s become more personal. When I started out, I was mostly interested in selling my writing. I wanted it to be good. And I wanted to be expressive of myself. But my primary goal was to be successful. As a professional, you know, screenwriter, as the years have gone by, I become more interested in making sure that whatever I write reflects something within me, especially if it’s something that I might feel a little ambivalent about revealing. If I can get feelings or a point of view out that at one time in my life, I would have felt would be embarrassing. Then I try to push that. And I try to make sure that that distinctive voice comes out if I can’t. The other way that I think I’ve evolved is that I’ve just gotten better at doing it. Like any other skill, you know, you do it enough, and you start having a certain second nature develop. So I can see farther ahead into the project sooner, I can see possible problems before they begin, and I can see more options and more opportunities from farther away. At least I hope so I feel that way. So I think what the top of my head, those are the two ways that I feel as if I’ve evolved personally, as far as the product is concerned.
Owen Shapiro 03:59
Do you think that it’s important for filmmakers or aspiring filmmakers to start out, like just trying to sell their work as commercial releases? And then eventually do stuff that they’re more interested in making?
Roger Schulman 04:15
That’s a great question. I hope this answer isn’t a Dodge. But I honestly feel that it’s important to do both. I think if you just try to express your most inner voice, and do the thing that you feel, speaks to you. But never consider what audience you’re trying to communicate with, or who might be willing to pay you for it, or what medium it might be best. And then you’re you’re increasing the chances that you’ll be doing a lot of writing for the drawer. And by that I mean things that you can enjoy and no one else will ever see. And if that’s okay with you, then I would say fine. But that wasn’t okay with me. On the other hand, if all you’re doing is trying to figure out where the trend is going and get a step ahead of it and write whatever it is that you think is going to get someone to give you a check for it. Not only do I think that’s not going to feed you, personally, in terms of your emotional and spiritual development, I honestly think you’re increasing the chances that you’ll once again be writing for the drawer, because the people out there can see through that. And it’ll never ring true. So to me, it’s kind of like, you know, think of some great rock group that you love that had a long career, a generally started out trying to do stuff that was pretty commercial, but it still sounded like them. And then later on, they did more and more what they wanted to do, and defined what was commercial, if they were successful enough. I hope that’s not cheating. But my answer is both.
Owen Shapiro 06:01
It’s not, is a great answer. So what’s an average workday like for you,
Roger Schulman 06:05
you know, it changes all the time. Oh, and because each project has its own workflow. I recently finished heading up the writing on an animated series for children. And because I was doing it from home due to the pandemic, and everyone else was also, it was spread across, I think four or five time zones. So in the morning, I’d be getting up to meet the end of the day for the producers and the director and a lot of the production people. So I’d be finishing up work for them, like getting them new drafts, or addressing notes, giving them notes, reviewing art, and so on. As the day progressed, it would start to get later on the west coast of the United States where most of my riders were. So then I’d be giving out assignments and giving them notes on drafts they had submitted. And that would go sort of all day until I decided it had to stop, because frankly, it’s always business somewhere in the world. And that went on for about a year or more. And that was unusual, but it’s become routine for me, because that was my last big job. More typically, I get up in the morning, and I try to sort of finish old business, there’s always correspondence or follow ups to do. And then I try to get to new business, which is preparing for a pitch of some project I hope to sell or talking with representation, or doing some research in preparation for something. And then I always tried to devote some time to pure development. And by that I mean things that really aren’t ready for anyone else to see yet. Just notions I have that I want to, so to speak, sketch out, or do some research on some deep research, make some phone calls, or even just noodle around in a mind map or on a whiteboard to see if I think there’s something there. And if there is something there, what what are we talking about? Is this a movie? Is this a TV show? And nowadays, as I get older, I’m thinking about things like, is this a book? Is this a magazine article is as a podcast? Is it a limited series, you know, all kinds of new things for me, I have a family. So everything I just told you is sort of a lie. And that at some point, they interrupt, and I let them take over for a while. And none of that includes sort of my personal life growth stuff. You know, I tried to meditate and my exercise every day. I usually take a nap, I find that that’s very energizing, I wake up and think I have an extra day. And and that’s about it. That’s the shape of it.
Owen Shapiro 08:57
You mentioned at the beginning of that, that you were writing a show for kids, do you think it’s particularly? Or would you say that is particularly easier to write for kids than it is for older audiences? Or is it just different?
Roger Schulman 09:12
Once again, I kind of have to say both, but I can be a little bit more committal this time around. I have to say it’s easier only to the extent that it seems to come more naturally to me. It just so happens that a lot of my work has either been sort of mainstream mainstream situation comedy, or for younger audiences. And those two forms have something in common in that they don’t get to areas that are overly or too violent. They don’t get to areas that are too sexual, they don’t get to areas that are too dark. And I think that’s because it’s in my nature. So for me, those things, reading for a younger audience comes more easily. However, speaking more objectively, someone who’s been doing this for a long time. I think it’s harder I not only write myself I teach writing, and I can see from having interacted with hundreds of students and aspiring writers that they generally write somewhere in the adult mill, you know. And if I asked them to try to write something for a younger audience, which is to say, adolescent or down, it kind of falls apart, there is a lot more complexity to the simplicity of writing for children, and children are an audience that is hyper critical. And they don’t have any, any filters. And they’re also very open hearted. So if you don’t touch them emotionally, you know, younger people are not going to say, Well, I didn’t find it very moving, but it was intellectually stimulating, or they had an idea in it that I really liked, or the ending was cool, they’re just not going to like it. And that means it’s tough. And the stuff that is no good, goes away real quickly. And the stuff that hangs around, becomes timeless, and the best of it becomes masterpiece, level. And adult start reading or experiencing or watching it as well, you know. So if you have an author, who can write a children’s book, or a children’s movie, or television show that lasts a very long time, you’re usually looking at some extremely good, deep and difficult writing. And if you find a writer who can do both, let’s say I’m thinking of Ian Fleming, you know, he wrote James Bond novels. And he wrote, Chitty Chitty, bang, bang. And then you’ve got somebody who can really do it, you know, that’s, that, to me is sort of the sort of the ultimate to be able to appeal to the child and all of us, even when we’re adults,
Owen Shapiro 12:04
So what is your writing process or your thinking process when you’re writing?
Roger Schulman 12:09
You know, if you had asked me that question earlier, then I would have shoved my answer into the question, you asked me about how have I evolved? Because when I started, my writing process was much more conscious. And that was mostly out of anxiety, I think, I would sit down and say, Okay, I’m going to come up with an idea. And I would do all kinds of things to try to come up with an idea, I would randomly watch different TV shows, not with the idea of trying to steal something, but with the idea of just like stimulating my brain in a an abstract and random way. Or I would be more structural about it, you know, write down words that had to do with the kind of thing I was going after, and see how they connected, and so on and so forth. As time has gone by, I’ve learned that most of my best ideas happen when I’m not thinking about them. So nowadays, I try to have faith in whatever parts of my brain I’m not aware of. And I say to myself, okay, I’d love to do something like this. And then for a while, I just let that go. And then a few days later, if I’m lucky, I’ll wake up. And something will occur to me, because some of my brains been working on or somebody will say something to me, or I’ll see a billboard, if there’s no pandemic, and I’m outside. And that will remind me of something which will remind me of something else. And I think what’s going on is, I’ve alerted an unknown part of myself to what I’m looking for and sent it off. And I have no idea how it does its work. But at some point, it comes back and says, Is this what you want it the only thing that is has never changed is that I write stuff down. I’ve always been a compulsive note taker. So there are posted notes, or notebooks, or a tablet, or a phone, or some other kind of screen or even paper somewhere near me at all times or on me. Because I’m just paranoid that something like this will happen, and I won’t remember it. So that was true when I first started and that’s true now. And I’ve taken it to the point where I write things down, even if I don’t think I need to, or if they don’t have anything to do with what I’m trying to work on. I keep journals and diaries and I make notes about feelings. For some reason. I feel like for me, the process of writing something down is very valuable. Not so that I remember it later so that I remember it while I’m doing it. It’s the actual getting it out of my body, that seeing To let that part of my brain I don’t understand, make progress, like maybe it’s making room for the next bit of thinking. And then naturally, that all sounds pretty, you know, artsy fartsy. But after that, when it really becomes real, then I get, you know, very typical about it, I start to structure things and go from one stage of the writers pipeline to the next. For me, I’ve always been very structured about that, you know, from bullet points to story beats to an outline to drafts. And I’m a big believer in that stuff, too. Once it becomes conscious, I try to make it very conscious.
Owen Shapiro 15:36
A lot of people know that writing that TV shows focus a bit more on the writer half a bit more influenced by the writer and movies have more influence from the director? And why do you think that is? Or what makes them so different in that case?
Roger Schulman 15:55
Well, first of all, I’ll say, when the things are changing, and they have been changing for some years, as movies become more like TV, and TV becomes more like movies. And that’s a whole separate topic. But it’s sort of a preamble to my answer, which is simply the way that businesses have grown up. And I think to try to keep it brief, I’d put it this way. In movies, that were really, among others, two big driving forces, one is the movie star. And the other is the auteur theory. And I think, once the auteur theory became prevalent around the world, the director was placed in the position of a star. And if they were a writer directors so much the better but they didn’t have to be. And so since the director was the star of the movie production process, the creative process, it naturally made the writer subservient. And that was particularly true with Hollywood. Even to this day, you’ll see a lot of British productions, for example, and it’ll say, title, title, title, by writers name. And then later, you’ll find out who directed it. That was never the case, in American TV or movies. The other thing is, the movie star. Movie Stars didn’t really want to be on TV. So they stuck to movies, their relationships were with the director, because naturally the director and the actor work together. And the writer was in service to both of them. And so it became director, Star driven. in television, none of us applied. It basically was a transference at least in this country, from radio, to television. And the writers in radio became television writers, then the things they wrote were cast. And although certainly some TV stars emerged, they were never seen as the kind of giants that they were in movies. Indeed, movie stars, at one time, wouldn’t be caught dead doing a television show, unless they needed the money or they just too old to get any other parts. It just, it just wouldn’t happen. So and this is only part of the answer. But I think that television became writer driven, the writers ascended in rank, from writing, to producing to executive producing. And in the movies, the writer is the writer is the writer, unless they chose to take on a new job and try to become a director or a movie star, or a triple threat, you know, writer, director, star, just to finish up where I started, things are changing a great deal. It’s fine to do television. Now, because there is no more television, there’s streaming, there’s a limited series. There’s movies that are being released to the small screen directly. And in the movies, you have episodic television shows the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Wars universe, these are really just very expensive TV episodes. So everything is sort of emerging in an interesting way. And like I said, that’s sort of part of the answer, but I think it’s a it’s a piece of why television has always been seen as writer driven. And movie sets not
Owen Shapiro 19:39
ever makes a lot of sense. So your most famous work is pretty clearly Shrek. And I’m sure you know that as of recently Shrek has become the common joke or a meme among the internet’s or a lot. There’s a lot to do with Shrek nowadays. So what do you think about srecs current internet success,
Roger Schulman 20:03
don’t have that much to say about it. Except that I’m glad that you can mention the name of something that I had something to do with 20 years after I was involved. And it means something. I haven’t seen a lot of the means not because I’m not on the internet. But I just I don’t know, I’m not sort of like mean crazy. I keep my head down and focused on my work. So I don’t know exactly how Shrek is being used in terms of means, and I hope it’s in a good way. So I can’t comment on the specificity. I mean, if you told me Well, they’re saying they were using correct to say this, and they’re using trick to say that it’s like Pepe the Frog is now Shrek, you know, I’d be appalled. I’m hoping it’s all happy, good positive stuff, like the movie, tried to embrace. But just to sort of repeat myself, I am thrilled to death. That something that I thought had a certain timeless quality to it has lasted at least this long. And it just a few days ago, I went to 100 year old movie theater in the town that I live in now, that has been bought by one of the local universities, and refurbished and that one of the first things they did for the grand reopening was to show Shrek. And they asked me to come to the stage and answer some questions. And the audience was filled that only with adults, which I would expect people who had seen the movie when it came out, but children. And that’s kind of what I was talking about earlier. If you can write something for a younger audience, and it’s good people embrace it, then as long as there are young people, there will be an audience for that thing. shred the, you know, people who love shrek, they’ll never age out if it continues to appeal to those things that children want. And that’s my biggest response to what you’re saying is that I’m just glad I remember. When I first got the job, I said to my mother, I’m working on a new movie. And she said, what’s it called, I said Shrek, and I had to explain how to spell it and how to pronounce it. And she said, This movie is never going anywhere. I can’t even say it. And now you say it as if everyone’s supposed to know what that word means, you know? So that’s the extent of my answer.
Owen Shapiro 22:38
We’ve talked about your most famous project now. But what’s your personal favorite out of everything you worked on?
Roger Schulman 22:45
You know, honestly, I’m not able to say that I have a favorite project, not because I wouldn’t, if I could, I’d love to. But what I remember with the most fondness are moments from many different projects. I was on a TV show called Parker Lewis can’t lose, which at the time, had a real cult following and sort of bent a lot of the rules of television. And I really enjoyed bending those rules. I was on another show that, you know, it was watched and was successful. But compared to these other projects, very few people has heard of have heard of called Joe Schmo, which was a reality show. But it was really more of a psychological experiment in which one person was living in a house with other people not knowing that every other person in the house was an actor, who was being fed lines through earpieces. And it was such a strong psychological experiment that all of the writers became very deeply emotionally involved as to whether what we were doing was working out whether it was a good thing. It was deep, you know, so I really remember that. And I remember lots of moments and episodes that I’ve written that came out almost exactly the way I hoped they would were, you almost get a lump in your throat saying that’s it. And those moments from lots of different shows, I did a show for MTV called together in which we did a musical every week. And when the musical numbers came out just right. My first job was on a show that also has its own little sort of history called elf where the star of the show was a puppet. And that was weird at the time. And people embraced it. And that was a great feeling. And I’ve done a lot of movies for Disney, and sometimes people will talk about them without realizing I was involved. And then when they stopped talking, I’ll say well, I wrote that and the look on their faces. is a real memory for me. You know, it all comes down to individual moments where I think I’ve managed to touch somebody else, or somebody else has managed to touch me. If I had to pick one thing, it would be Shrek. Because while we were doing it, we all thought it was turning out to be something special. But we also knew that everybody who works on anything thinks what they’re doing is turning out to be very special. And it turned out to be that way. It packs a powerful punch for everybody who was involved.
Owen Shapiro 25:36
heard a few questions now, mostly about your Actually, I don’t think we have that much time left. So yeah, I’ll just ask the last few. What would you say to someone who wants to enter the world of cinema,
Roger Schulman 25:51
as a writer, I would say a lot of things that they’ve probably either heard before, or that they think to themselves, which is that the odds of success are so small, that if you have any kind of rational brain, you should not try. And quickly, that thought should be followed up with the next one, which is you’re going to try anyway. It’s one of those things where if you try to approach it rationally, or logically, it’s not going to work. And that’s the terrible thrill of cinema, and show business in general. If you have what it takes, and you’re lucky, you can beat astronomical odds. But if you don’t have what it takes, or if you’re not lucky, then it’s quite possible that you’ll make a fool of yourself. And if that’s okay with you, then by all means, because I was willing to be foolish and was foolish for some time, in terms of people who in particular want to write, the great gift of writing is that you can always be doing, an actor needs a play, a director, you know, needs a cast, or a camera or writer doesn’t eat a thing, except maybe a pencil and a napkin. And if you honestly want to be a writer, then you can pursue it while you’re doing anything else. You can make room for it, you can do at any, at any hour of the day or night, you do don’t need anyone to cooperate with you. And it can be lonely. They say that about writing. But that’s true even when you’re doing it professionally. So that’s the good news as far as that’s concerned. And I would just add that if you’re writing, I probably don’t need to tell you any of that. Because you’re compelled to do it. Any of the writers that I’ve met who are the best writers generally find themselves having to write as opposed to really wanting to write, sometimes they don’t even want to write at all, but they continue to write because they don’t have a choice.
Owen Shapiro 28:02
Alright, last question, how can my listeners find and connect with you?
Roger Schulman 28:06
The easiest way would be to go to my website, which is called the writer coach.com. In addition to the other things I do, I love working with people who either are writers or aspire to be writers. And the reason I called it the writer coach calm is because I don’t coach writing. Although that’s part of the process. I try to coach the writer, so that whatever is the deepest thing inside of him, can or her or them can come out in a way that is accessible by a large number of people palatable, entertaining, nutritious. And if you write me at Roger at the writer, Coach calm or just go to the website and use the contact form, then you get me so it doesn’t get easier than that
Owen Shapiro 28:54
Thank you so much Roger for being on the podcast.
Roger Schulman 28:58
I really appreciate the time.
Owen Shapiro 29:00
That’s all for today. Don’t forget, don’t forget, you can subscribe to Kino Society on iTunes and Spotify.