Written Interview: Shane Salerno

April 3rd, 2010 by

This week I had the pleasure of chatting with screenwriter-director Shane Salerno. Turns out he’s a GITS fan. We talked about the documentary Salinger that Shane has spent 5 years making. I posted on it here back in January when Deadline Hollywood broke the news of the doc’s existence. From that article:

Salerno financed the film out of his pocket, interviewed 150 sources, and accumulated so much information that he collaborated on a 700-page companion book with bestselling author David Shields.

The 150 sources interviewed in the film either worked with Salinger at The New Yorker or had contact with him otherwise, or were greatly influenced by him. The famous names include Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Cusack, Danny DeVito, John Guare, Martin Sheen, David Milch, Robert Towne, Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow, A. Scott Berg, Elizabeth Frank, Gore Vidal, and many other fans, journalists, filmmakers, playwrights, and artists inspired by Salinger’s work.

The film — kept under the radar until now — wasn’t done in time for consideration at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. As a result, the filmmaker hoped to present it at a spring film festival, like Cannes. It will be shopped shortly by WME Entertainment and Robert Offer for distribution and remake. The book, also complete, will be shopped by IPG’s Brian Lipson and literary agent Richard Pine.

It’s a remarkable project, so I thought who better to feature in this week’s written interview than Shane Salerno.

Shane, who began his career on “NYPD Blue” when he was 19 years old, has a long list of writing credits including the Armageddon (1998), Shaft (2000), and AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem (2007), and TV series “New York Undercover” (3 episodes, 1995-1996) and “UC: Undercover” (11 episodes, 2001-2002).

Future projects include Doomsday Protocol (2010), which Shane sold as a spec in Sept. 2008, Goodnight Dorothy Kilgallen (2010), Untitled Shane Salerno/Kurtzman-Orci Project (2011), Untitled James Cameron Project (2011), and The Last Run (2010).

Suffice to say Shane is a busy young man – and he also has a most interesting backstory which you can read about here.

In this September 2004 interview, Shane offers an honest appraisal about working in the business, but also inspiration for those trying to break in as screenwriters. Some excerpts:

“I just hope these people stay persistent because sometimes it’s six or eight scripts before they have that great script,” he said. “All the people they admire went through these things and had adversity. Oliver Stone wrote 10 scripts before he wrote “Platoon” which got him all of his first jobs which got him “Midnight Express” and then he waited10 years to get “Platoon” made.”

Salerno said it’s kind of like what Kevin Costner said in “Bull Durham”: What you need is fear and arrogance.

“It’s weird, you have to have an arrogance because when people tell you your work stinks and no one is ever to going to make this that’s a really hard thing to hear all the time,” noted Salerno. “So what I hope is that people stick with it and write unique stuff.

As an example of how competitive and daunting the numbers are, Salerno related the following facts about what producers and studios go through when they are looking for a pilot for a new TV show. “They listen to 600 pitches, they buy 30 to 40 scripts and they make three to four pilots and they put two on the air. Those are real numbers I just gave you. Think about that. When you realize from that standpoint you have to have the confidence and find a way to break in and go around the system. You need an in. One of the best writers I ever worked with on this last TV series I hired was an AIDS counselor at Riker’s Island who does not have the warmest personality for everybody but we got beyond that. You have to find an avenue. First you have to get your script truly read. Also find someone who is incentivized to help you.”

By incentivized, he means someone who has a vested interest in finding good material. Not someone who is reading your work because they like you or want to encourage you. He means someone who looks for good material as part of his or her job.

“The senior vice president of Paramount is not incentivized to help you,” he said.. “He’s supervising five movies that are in production and juggling $400 million dollars and has a lot of pressure on him. He’s not interested in watching your screenwriting career. But the lowest level (executive) who reads 20 scripts in a weekend because it’s his or her job, they are incentivized because they move up the ladder by finding “American Beauty” or “Shawshank Redemption.” This approach of machine gunning and hoping you hit oil is not as smart as targeting someone who is in a position to help you. It’s really about sniper mode as opposed to machine gun mode. “

“If you go to enough of these [screenwriting] conferences you start to understand this business,” Salerno said.” It’s called show business which is not just some cliché. It is a business and writing is a craft. That means it’s business and people ultimately want to make money but it’s a craft so that means it takes a number of years to do well. I find a lot of people don’t understand those two things. The advantage of seminars and things like this is to be around people who are doing it and maybe hearing one or two things where you go ‘That’s what’s wrong with my script’ and you make that adjustment or ‘That’s a great way to get to an agent.’ But again, it’s a numbers game and a lot of people give up too early. It’s humbling even when you’re successful. William Goldman has 20 unproduced screenplays and he says that’s some of his best work. It’s a weird business. They pay you a million dollars to write it but they won’t make it.”

Great stuff. And here’s another interview with Shane: FilmMakers.com interview (12/7/2004).

UPDATE: Mike asked about how to target — sniper style (per Shane’s interview) — potential Hwood buyers from thousands of miles away. Check out my comments to Mike. You can go here to see the 2010 Daily Variety “Facts on Pacts” list of prod co deals with studios.

5 thoughts on “Written Interview: Shane Salerno

  1. Mike says:

    "…This approach of machine gunning and hoping you hit oil is not as smart as targeting someone who is in a position to help you. It’s really about sniper mode as opposed to machine gun mode. “

    I found this quote most interesting as it made me think: How does an unproduced screenwriter, living outside the L.A. area, go about getting into 'sniper mode'?

    Currently I am querying producers and managers, but use 'machine gun mode' — targeting people in the business who specialize in my genre: action and/or thrillers.

    How do I hit my target from 2000 miles away?

  2. Scott says:

    Mike, "targeting people in the business who specialize in my genre: action and/or thrillers" sounds like aspect of Shane's "sniper mode," as opposed to scatter-shooting around to all producers. The other thing is to look for prod cos that might be 'hungrier' than others — smaller production companies, prod cos who have lost out on an overall deal with a studio in the last year or so. Check the post update for a key list for info on prod cos.

  3. Mike says:

    Thanks, Scott, much appreciated.

    Keep Writing!

  4. Malibo Jackk says:

    Heard Shane speak September 2011 at the LA Screenwriter Expo.

    Wow! Great speaker. But also a Great guy. Someone giving and caring. I was beginning to expect people like him didn’t exist.

    1. Scott says:

      I will be interviewing Shane soon. And yes, he is a great guy.

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