Teaching From the Trenches: Screenwriter Ian Shorr Hits Pause to Pay It Forward
October 10, 2019
Many screenwriters teach a screenwriting class after their cache has dried up in Hollywood; long after they have any relevance or connection to the industry, they finally decide to share their experiences.
But Ian Shorr is not one of those writers. His film Infinite is currently shooting with Mark Wahlberg and Antoine Fuqua directing, he just sold his horror script 10-31 to Orion with Eli Roth producing, and he's been a writer for the TV shows Training Day on CBS and Deputy on Fox. He’s writing a sci-fi thriller called The Juliet for Warner Bros. with Chuck Roven producing. He’s adapting the video game Ark Survival into a feature for Stampede and also recently set up a supernatural thriller series at A&E called Kick, based on the novel by John L. Monk, with Alexandre Aja attached to direct.
But in the midst of all of this success, Shorr has decided to share his know-how in an intimate screenwriting course here in Los Angeles that (until this article) was a pretty hush-hush affair (check it out here).
If you're looking to see how scripts are being written now, how people are working in writing rooms now, how the screenplay game is being played now, there is no one better to learn from than Ian Shorr. He took time to talk with us, giving just a glimpse into his modern, freewheeling and emotional approach to screenwriting.
D. Fallon: What do most screenwriting books, seminars or classes get wrong? In what ways do they not prepare writers for the “real world” of screenwriting?
Ian Shorr: When you’re in film school, nobody tells you that the biggest weapon you have in your writing arsenal is your own voice.
When a studio buys your spec or hires you for a job, what they’re really buying is your unique way of looking at the world (and presumably, your ability to deliver an awesome end result from that). So many books/seminars/classes focus so much on teaching you about story, character, dialogue, theme, etc. that they fail to ask some important questions like: How can I show that I’m the right person to be telling this story? What from my own life can I use to create an emotional connection with the reader?
Other than that … no one prepares you for just how much of your life is going to be spent on the process of “cracking a take” (i.e., finding an original, exciting way into a story). I wish there had been a class on that talking about how to turn a one-sentence idea into a five-page document that will get an executive or producer excited about your vision.
DF: Why do you think your scripts and projects sell when so many writers are never able to make a sale? What’s your secret?
IS: It boils down to one word, the word that gets used most often to describe my scripts: fun. And that word is, to me, high praise. Because reading screenplays isn’t inherently fun. Screenplays are blocky [and] antiquated-looking (we still use typewriter font in 2019). They lack both the emotional immersiveness of a novel and the visual wallop of filmed entertainment. It’s like trying to get someone excited about a blueprint, asking them to imagine how awesome the house is going to be. That’s no one’s idea of fun.
It’s only fun — or thrilling or hilarious or heartbreaking — if the writer makes it so. And that requires a commitment from the writer to bring their A-game to every word, every sentence, every character, every scene, sequence, and set-piece. I made a promise to myself early on in my career that I was never going to write a boring script, and I’ve been trying to live up to that promise ever since. It’s a daily commitment similar to a marriage.
Something I tell my students is there are two types of writers in the world: those who think their script is ready before everyone else does, and those who think their script is never ready. And all the writers with long careers fall into the second category. My stuff sells because I’m in the second category. And because my relentless desire to entertain manifests itself on every page.
DF: We’ve heard time and time again how the old rules on format and style matter less and less in modern screenwriting. Is that true? And, if it is, how have they changed?
IS: It’s been said that William Goldman showed that screenplays could be fun to read and Shane Black showed that they could be fun to write. Jump ahead to 2019 and you see guys like Will Beall, Brian Duffield and Daniel Casey leading us toward a world where screenplays are geared to be a singular reading experience the same way a novel or a comic book is. They’re not just blueprints, but stories that drip with authorial voice and style. And with that becoming the new normal, some of the old rules are going to fall by the wayside.
That’s a net positive. A lot of aspiring writers get so tied up in trying to obey all the do’s and don’ts that they lose sight of the main goal, which is to tell an engaging story. I’ve seen whole generations of newbies torture themselves about structural dogma, like, “If I don’t have my inciting incident happen on page 15, will Syd Field show up at my house armed and naked?” Film school and screenwriting books put too much emphasis on rules and not enough emphasis on readability. What I tell my students is when it comes to style, do whatever you want … but only if it helps the read.
The world’s attention span is getting shorter, and writers have to adapt to those conditions in order to survive. The industry is not a vending machine; you don’t get to insert a perfectly formatted script and expect the machine to spit out a career. A format-bending script that has verve and wit and audacity will always beat a technically flawless script that puts people sleep.
DF: What do you wish seasoned screenwriter Ian could go back and tell green screenwriter Ian?
IS: Peter Gamble (my co-writer on 10-31 and who was once my freshman year screenwriting professor at USC) said something that has stuck with me my entire career: All notes are a gift. The great ones make your script better for free, the bad ones teach you to find the good note hidden within, and the bat-shit insane ones will teach you how to politely ignore them. I wish I’d taken those words to heart earlier.
Something else I wish I’d internalized earlier, this one from Ed Solomon: Approach everything from a place of gratitude and compassion.
I have a college degree that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. I’m working in a field that has a lower acceptance rate than major league baseball. I get paid to write explosions and car chases. The fact that any of us get to do this for a living is cause for us to say thank-you to the universe. I wish I’d learned earlier to approach my job from a place of gratitude and compassion. Same for my life.
DF: Do you think there is a secret to your success? Maybe something you do that other writers maybe don’t do?
IS: Writing is all about choices. It’s about deciding which reality you’re going to choose in a given moment. Each screenplay I write is the culmination of those choices. And I have a system for analyzing those options to decide on the best one — A, B and C.
The first idea that you think of is your A-choice. It’s the first thing you think of because you’ve seen it before. It’s the cliché your brain has memorized. Next is your B-choice. It’s the idea you don’t think of first because it’s new and different and OMG something we’ve never seen before … but it also doesn’t further your story because it’s just your brain over-correcting from your A-choice. Then finally, you’ve got your C-choice. That’s where you land on something you haven’t seen before, but that isn’t so new and different that it leads to dead ends, but instead to wild, untapped creative terrain. You can tell you’ve landed on it because it makes you excited about what’ll happen next.
The point is I try to find the C-choice in every beat of my script, from fade-in to fade-out. If I have a secret, that’s it.
DF: Given how busy you are, why bother teaching a class in the first place? Your class is not expensive and given the small size of the class, this isn’t a money grab.
IS: A lot of screenplay seminars are led by guys who aren’t making money as writers or who want to re-brand themselves as creative gurus, but that’s not what this is. I’m doing this because I’ve had mentors throughout my life who made me a better writer, and I want to pay that forward. And there’s this certain pleasure you get from seeing the light bulb turn on in someone’s head when you help them understand a difficult concept.
There's that great Maya Angelou quote, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I want to make writers feel empowered. This industry can be such an impenetrable fortress, there's something really emotionally satisfying about getting to sit with hungry creative people and share the tools I've amassed to break in. The feeling I get after a good teaching session is what I imagine southern baptists feel like after Sunday gospel or gym rats feel like after an epic workout.
And besides that, talking to writers about my process helps me understand my own process better.
To sign up for Shorr’s class or learn about future classes, click here.
Written by: Dennis FallonDennis Fallon is an award-winning journalist and screenwriter. When not ghostwriting feature films in Los Angeles and Europe, he is a member of MENSA, an ordained minister and a rock musician who has composed music for over two hundred episodes of television.