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Screenwriting Chat: Shawn Lawrence Otto

Hollywood Screenwriter Chat
with Shawn Lawrence Otto

Moderated by Chris Wehner

Shawn Lawrence Otto owned a painting company, a rather successful one with fifty employees, yet he still felt as if he hadn't really achieved anything. "House painting, the saying goes, is something you can fall back on," says the writer, "[something you] do after you've failed at everything else in life. It's where I started. But growing up, all my heroes were writers."

Otto sold the business after he decided that there was something more in life than just earning a nice income and saving up for that big retirement. "I decided I was selling myself short and I needed to craft the best life I could. So I sold the business and stepped into the void."

His first screenwriting credit is for House of Sand and Fog, which is in theaters and is already getting rave reviews from critics. Adapted from Andre Dubus III's novel of the same name, House of Sand and Fog is a timely story that cuts deep into the heart of some heavy social and political undertones currently flowing through America. This is the story of an Arabic colonel who uproots his family to America, experiences bigotry and distrust, and when he finds the perfect home to move his family into, everything falls apart.

Shawn how did you get involved with HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG?

Shawn Lawrence Otto: I had a script called SHINING WHITE that made the rounds. It's protagonist was not unlike BEHRANI. Also my father in law was best friends with Colonel Rabii, who ran the Shah's Air Force. Vadim (the director) optioned Andre'a novel before it became an Oprah hit. He liked SHINING WHITE and asked me to read the novel.I did, in a day, and emailed him 22 pagees of notes. We had a similar take, so he flew out to Minnesota and we hung out for a few days. By the time he left we had a deal. I started work.

In an interview with Screenwriter's Montly you mentioned "Character Drives", can you tell us how important those are in finding the spine of a novel when adapting?

SLO: The character drive is what propels the spine. Drives cause choices. choices cause acts. Acts create plot, and plot makes story. I think of spine as both character driving along toward a goal, and the emotional progression or change of state the character goes through pursuing that goal, even though the ending place of the character is often very different from their goal. Take THE GODFATHER. The kid's goal is to be a straight lawyer and disavow his family's dark side. Bit events conspire against his goal. Those events change him through an emotional progression or a "character arc" into the man he becomes in the end - THE GODFATHER. His emotional progression causes a change in goal. That emotional progression is the spine.

How did you go about adapting the novel to a screenplay? Did you find it particularly painful having to omit certain parts?

SLO: Yes, in fact there were parts that I wrote that were not in the film. For example I wrote some Iran scenes which I think were important to make the film breathe and give it a broader sense of expansive scenery and worldly scope. I also did not start the novel on the window's walk. I felt that what propelled the story was two questions: not only do we not know who we want to get the house but we don't have any idea how this dilemma will be resolved. By starting on the widow's walk, the second of those two questions was answered, and so half of the tension of the story was sacrificed. But that is the difference between a writer's direction and a director's. It happens, and film is a collaboration.

HOSAF was so depressing. There were no heroes. How did it get made despite the "we must have a hero" hollywood mindset?

SLO: Largely because Sir Ben came on board and was passionate about it. The script was also very well received and the book was an Oprah's pick so it had a large built-in audience that tempered studio fears. The budget was small, about $16.5 Million, so it was not a large risk. And also Vadim was somewhat of a force of nature and sort of willed it into existence.

How do you approach an adaptation? What is your writing process?

SLO: I take a very active read. I read each chapter and then stop. I write extensive notes about my impressions, my first impressions, whether I like or dislike each of the characters, how much i am buying in, what kind of tension there it, am I staying hooked and worried, do I love them, what are the themes I hope will pay of, etc. It is exhausting, but it encapsulates the novel's emotional movements by the time I am done and also how I and often other readers relatre to the novel, which helps me find weak spots. I also look for drive because if a character is not well driven you have a problem. If you have to change the drive, you change the choices, and thus the action and the story.

I assume you've written many original scripts, so then, what is the biggest difference between adaptations and originals.

SLO: In adaptation you are not as free. You have to be very careful to find and service the true meaning of the story in a visual way. As narrative is the the novelist, structure is to the screenwriter. In an original you can just follow the story.

Do you prefer working on a novel adaptation over a completely original story?

SLO: It depends on the novel and my mental state at the time. I learn a LOT from working on adaptations both from what the novelist did brilliantly and where they had problems so i love that process becaause it makes me a better writer. Then I go back and work on another original, and apply what i've learned.

How important is theme for you when you're writing, are you aware of it? What's the theme (the message) of HOSAF for you?

SLO: It is very important to me. I start a script with an emotional tone. I then write to that tone, and that makes theme. For me, theeme unifies and allows me to layer story to maake a more robust script. And that means a script with more emotional power or resonance. Hopefully! LOL The theme of HOSAF is empathy, and specifically, how the pursuit of the American Dream requires tolerance. Empathy and the laack of tolerance powered the story in that case. I needed to servvice that with each scene. The other thing I needed to do was to cast that theme in light of the drives. Behrani;'s drive was to reclaim tthe past. Kathy's was to love and be loved instead of using and being used.

Would you consider adaptation of novels a good way for novice screenwriters to personally tune their structure abilities for application in their own work?

SLO:Boy. Good question. On the whole, yes I think so, because of what you can learn puzzling through taking an internal story into external visual terms. But you have to most likely look at it only as educational unless you have money to option novels. If you don't own tthe rights, you can't show your work.

Not letting blood drip on the floor - is that something from Iranian culture?

SLO: No, Hah! You have a mind for small details - you must be a good descriptive writer. In fact there was a scene in the script that was cut that was a flashback from when Behrani and nadi were married and they did the traditional thing to consecrate their now home - the cut a goat's throat and let the blood wash over the threshold.

I understand you wrote this around 9/11, how did that event effect the writing, filmmaking and/or production? Is there an underlining message in the film you are aware of?

SLO: Well yes. I started before 9/11 and finished after. I actually had a flight out to LA on 9/13 that was delayed several days to meet with vadim on this project and discuss the script in process. We discussed at that time whether the American mood would preclude release, but concluded that by then Americans would be thinking they have some pretty precious values here about America that we can't afford to lose, and that what informs those values is empathy, which underlies justice. We've seen the cost of losing empathy recently in Iraq. So yes, those things definitely made the emotions more real and raw.

Did you talk with the author, Dubus, much while writing and how did he feel about your changes, specifically the opening and ending?

SLO: I spoke with Andre before writing and after, but not during. In adapting I believe the work need to speak for itself. And I needed to develop my own relationship with it. Also a writer speaks most deeply through his or her art, so reading the work I was in more intimate ccontact with Andre than i would be through sspeech. Also in speaking you tend to have personality and fear of pleaasing come into play, when your firsst responsbility is not to the author by to the work and the movie. So no. But Andre and I enjoy one another and he is very happy with the ending and beginning changes. They were dictated by the different forms of media.

What do you mean dictated by the different forms of media? Can you elaborate?

SLO: The novel for example opened with Behraani on the road crew. The reader had an immediate intimate sense of his voice and the odd juxtaposition off this nobel and hard man in this demeaning and menial job. You could sense his longing for the lost past Just seeing that in the movie would not have conveyed the same thing. So I opened in his heart, in that past. You always want to open a movie on the nerve of the main character's drive. First scene. So i did, and then cut to the wedding, opulent, givving up Soraya. And from there, cut to the road crew. Same emotion, accomplished through structure versus narrative.

Are you a fan of any particular genre of film? Could you see yourself writing say, a comedy or a horror movie?

SLO: I waqs terrorized as a kid for months by the "Trilogy of Terror" with karen Black. And I loved the Exorcist. I also am a big fan of certain kinds of comedy and of noir. But being a fan and being good at writing it are two different things. I am probably not the best Christmas Comedy writer out there.

Should I as a newbe screenwriter stick to one or two genres and master thoughs before trying something else?

SLO: No, I think you should try a lot of different genres and find what comes particularly naturally to your temperament. You might surprise yourself. I say that because it's hard to say when you have mastered something. But it's not hard to recognize when you get good. You should strive above everything else, in my opinion, to say something larger than the scope of the movie, to make a reader feel real emotion, and to be as original as possible. Studio execs and producers LOVE to find an original approach and to feel real emotion in a script.

Any war stories you can share in regards to story meetings, notes, and studio executives... what's the most absurd note you've ever been give on a script?

SLO: When you go in pitching remember that it's about making a safe emotional space for the emotion of your story to be felt. You are asking an exec to open up their enmotions You are asking an exec to open up their enmotions and empathize with you in your telling. I was pretty stupid when i started and just went for the niceties and didn't realize why execs were always telling me stories about what happened on the way to work or something - but they were doing my job for me since I wasn't doing it. War stories? Just make sure you register your work. Ideas are a dime a dozen but the execution is where it's at, so don't worry about idea theft, but do worry about scenario theft and script theft. Register your work and you will be ok.

Shawn, what are you working on now? What can you share with us?

SLO: I have a spec script I'm very excited about out to some well known directors and actors right now but I can't say more than that yet. I am about to start an adaptation about Edwin Hubble, and I am pitching a couple projects in Happywood next week. originals.

Has HOSAF opened doors for you, I assume it has?

SLO: Yes, definitely. Having a produced movie takes you to the next tier. It is a huge difference. And that's what it's all about is access.

Well Shawn thank you for your time, we look forward to seeing your work on screen for years to come!

SLO:Thanks, nice talking, keep writing - give it ten years before you judge whether it's been worth the time