One script that received a lot of attention in the 2013 Black List is “Shovel Buddies” by Jason Mark Hellerman (it garnered 22 votes). I was quite struck by the story — “Over 24 hours, four teenage friends try to complete the “Shovel List” (a will/bucket list) left for them by their best friend before he died of Leukemia” — and reached out to talk with Jason about it. We ended up talking for 90 minutes, an excellent conversation covering a lot of territory. I think aspiring screenwriters will find Jason’s insights particularly relevant as we got into quite a bit of depth about his process of being outside the business to inside it.
Scott: What do you think about when you’re writing a scene? Do you have any specific goals in mind?
Jason: You have to make every scene really hard on the characters in it. It can’t ever be easy. I always think about what’s the most uncomfortable our main character can be. It’s either a car chase or it’s dropping your dead friend in cement. Very early on in “Shovel Buddies,” I knew that Sammy had to float, because it would be too easy to drop a man and have them sink.
I think, how can I make it excruciatingly painful for our main characters, because that’s where the drama, and a lot of times the comedy comes from.
Scott: I was going to mention that earlier. Because one thing I’ve noticed, I’m a huge Pixar fan, and they layer one complication after another, after another, after another. They are just pros at that. And that scene where you have them go to get the Eagles jersey, and put it on Sammy’s body, it’s like you have one problem after another emerge.
I guess that answers the question. You’re conscious of that. You’re trying to think of complications.
Jason: At some point, with that scene, I almost was afraid I went too far. Sometimes I am still wary, but I also know it’s kind of like when you’re rushing to do things.
This all comes from being an assistant out here. God, nothing is ever easy. I had set up a room the other week for Michael to have a conference in, and he, last split‑second is like “You know what? I want to be in this other room.” And the other room is not set up, and I’m running to get stuff, and of course, the door is locked because why would the door ever be locked?
And as soon as I get the door open, I dropped the coffee cups and they break, and now I’m cleaning the coffee cups as he’s walking towards me with an A‑list actress and I’m like “Oh my God, nothing could be easier.” And I go to get out the back door of the room and that’s locked.
So I have this awkward moment where he walks in the room, and I’ve got shards of coffee and I’m covered in cream, and this actress is like “Oh, honey.” Looking at me and I’m like a deer in the headlights, and I thought that’s the way it happens out here, and that’s the way being an assistant is. I think that’s the way life is, so I try to take that, one of the worst things that could happen.
I try to write scripts where there are no unlocked doors, you know? No one drives through a traffic‑free town. There have to be problems. Otherwise, your story would be over in five pages. “Well, we went, the door was unlocked, we grabbed Sammy, we put them in the jersey, we slid him in the thing, everything is great, his parents are happy.” I think it’s making all of those problems just be there.
Scott: You write some very entertaining scene description in “Shovel Buddies,” so let me ask you, what are the keys to good action writing?
Jason: So in October, I read my thousandth script out here since I moved. A thousand scripts. A lot of them are bad, and the ones that are really good stick out my mind. Not because of characters, not because of whatever, but because of the way that they wrote the action. And I think we take action for granted as screenwriters.
I love the James Elroy novels. He’s so about what’s going on, and the dirty cement and the way the steam rises. I always thought it’s a lot easier for me to visualize things when people make it sexy to visualize.
For me, I don’t write much in action, but what I write, I want everybody to be able to picture it. And I want them to picture it the way I’m picture it. So I try to be really short and specific, but also playful in a way, where I know someone’s reading it, and I don’t want them to be bored. I’m never 100% self confident that I’m going to win them on dialogue and scenery, so a lot of times I want to know what I’m doing with the action.
I’m, “Hey, this is where we’re going now. This is where you should be looking.” Direct the eyes. I don’t ever want the reader to be like, “I wonder what’s happening in this corner of the room.” No, look at the corner that I’m telling you to look at. This is why you should be looking there. Try to go with that.
Scott: For someone who’s written approximately 65 drafts of a script, you seem like the perfect person to ask. So you finish a first draft, you’re faced with a rewriting process, what’s that like for you? What are some keys?
Jason: Relief. Nothing is better than having a first draft. Not the best idea you’ve ever had, not writing the first scene, not writing a piece of dialogue, not writing the middle. Typing FADE OUT is the best feeling in the world because you now know that you have the block of marble, and you have to trust your Michelangelo hands.
I love rewriting. I think we live and die on the rewrite. I just finished a spec this week that I sent to my team, and I got the notes today.
They were like, “Oh!” Sometimes it sounds harsh. Sometimes you’re worried about it, but I said, “Oh, my God. You guys have given me the scalpel. You’ve given me the rock hammer.” Then I’m going to start chiseling away. What’s that great line in Shawshank? “We thought it would take Andy Dufresne 100 years to break out of here, but it only took him 18.”
That’s the way I feel. I’m always shocked myself at how much I learn writing the first draft, then how much more I learn writing two through 10, how much crazier I get when you get to 20, and how fine‑tuned you can get.
It’s building a car. You have to rev the engine. You have to take it around the track a couple of times, like break it in a little bit. I think the way I prepare for a rewrite is I try and rewrite one thing at a time. This new thing I’m writing, I’m going to focus on one character the next time I go through the whole thing.
I’m just going to make it the best possible thing for this girl. I’m going to go through and just rewrite this girl. Then I’ll print that, and I’ll look at it. I’ll be like, “OK. Well, with the changes to her, what changes should I make to this?” I go through, and I always make sure to just have one directive because if you rewrite with a mish‑mash, I don’t think you’re ever going to get it.
You get one thing perfect at a time, and they’ll all start evening themselves out.
Scott: I remember interviewing Ava DuVernay, and she said that in this one script she had seven primary characters. She wrote individual drafts focusing on each one of those characters in a sense similar to what you were just talking about.
Jason: Exactly. I don’t write drafts on different people, but I write tweaks on different people. I did so many drafts just for Kate in “Shovel Buddies”. I think it really worked well.
Scott: What’s your actual writing process like?
Jason: I’m an afternoon writer. I go to a coffee shop in LA, Graffiti Cafe. It’s way too expensive, but everyone’s super sweet and nice. I sit there, and they play great ambient music where no one can bother you. I just sit, and I look at my outline. I have my outline in Word, and I open it next to my Final Draft. I try to write until I exhaust myself, and then I go back and rewrite that.
Some days I’ll do 20 pages, and some days I’ll do two. It’s really just getting through the sludge. Like I said, for me the most important thing is getting that first draft, so I just build to a first draft. I try to get the first draft as fast as possible, because I think that’s the only way to know what you’re missing. It’s like build the house and then figure out where the rooms are supposed to go.
Scott: A final question and it’s an inevitable one: What advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about learning the craft and breaking into Hollywood?
Jason: Get a mentor. Get someone who knows more than you and trust that person. If you can get that, you’re ahead of the game.
Apart from that, the number one piece of advice: Be gracious. People are going to read your scripts. You can’t be like, “Oh, they’re wrong. I won’t ask them again.” You have to at least understand that part of them is probably right. No audience is alike. If you get a lot of people that say everything’s great, you’re asking the wrong people. I think it will take long, but find a group that you trust. I’ve assembled a “writing avengers” group. It’s other friends who are writers, and we all sit together on Saturdays.
It becomes almost like a work‑out team, where we’ll all writing at the same time. We all take the same break. We all refill coffee at the same time, but those are the people I can trust to tear me a new one. I’ll still love them because I’m going to tear them a new one, and they’ll still love me. When you find that group you trust, do not sway from them. Don’t think you’re smarter than them.
Listen to notes. That’s really important. Listen to notes with an open mind. Not every note you get is brilliant, but if six people say the same thing like, “Oh, this lacks depth.” “Hey, Kate’s getting slut‑shamed a lot. We should really fix that.” If everyone says that, it’s like, “Hey. Guess what, Jason? Kate’s getting slut‑shamed too much, and maybe you should make her a real person.”
I’m not going to be like, “I’m the greatest at writing women.” You have to listen to those things. I won’t always say majority rules, but if 9 out of 10 people give you the same note, you should definitely take a look at it. Maybe don’t do everything they say, but it definitely means people are bumping on something like that.
Please stop by comments to say thanks to Jason for taking the time to do this interview.
Jason is repped by CAA and Management 360.