by Okema “Seven” Gunn
Jeff Schimmel is one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets. The fact that he’s an expert at research makes him a remarkable writer. He’s written and developed many projects over the years, but he started out in comedy. Let’s take a look at what he has to say about his peculiar path to Hollywood!
1.When did you discover that you wanted to be a screenwriter?
JS: The truth is, I didn’t. My case is very unique, and probably one of the strangest you’ll ever hear about when it comes to screenwriting. I pretty much fell into the business after writing two screenplays – while I was supposed to be studying for the bar exam. I was hired to write the first script, with absolutely no experience whatsoever, and I sold the second one based on a studio’s reaction to the first one. It’s unlikely that it will happen to anyone else, and I have Rodney Dangerfield and Harold Ramis to thank for introducing me to screenwriting and working with me at the kitchen table every day. In a way, I’m envious of the people who know they want to be writers. Knowing the ropes is key, and I learned most of it the very hard way.
2.Who inspired you to become a writer with your first manuscript?
JS: Let me back up from the last question. I’m the biggest movie fan around, but especially those films from the 1930’s through the 1980’s. I love movies to the point of nausea – in other people. When I was a kid, I got caught sneaking into a theater in New York. I wanted to see “Marooned,” but my father wouldn’t give me fifty cents for the ticket. When the usher asked me why I snuck in, I told him that my favorite thing in the world was movies. He smiled and said, “Me, too. That’s why I work here.” He let me in. The funny this is, “Marooned” wasn’t all that fantastic. Oh, yeah. The question. Who inspired me? It wasn’t a who, it was a what. One night, while I was in law school, I dreamed a spy movie. I woke up, wrote down as much as I could remember, and when I was bored in class, I would daydream and fill in the blanks in the story. Through a series of ridiculous events, I ended up selling that idea to Jerry Abrams and Jerry Eisenberg. The first Jerry is J.J. Abrams’ father. When I got the check for my story, I thought to myself, “Hey, this is easy! Why do people always say it’s hard to get a break in Hollywood?”
3. What 3 things did you learn about writing that shocked you?
JS: When I was just starting out in the 80’s, nothing shocked me. Working in the entertainment industry was all so new to me, I never knew what to expect. For that reason, I just took it as it came. But now that I’ve been writing and producing for several years – nothing shocks me! Of course, that’s because I’ve come to understand that this business has to be the toughest around. So, if I hear about something happening with a project, good or bad, I’m not surprised. Hollywood is a place where great things happen to good people, good things happen to horrible people, bad things happen to awesome people, well, you understand. Just when you think you have it figured out, you’re immediately, and perhaps cosmically, reminded that you don’t. Still, working in TV and film is so exciting, so rewarding, I get excited every time I set foot on a studio lot or inside a soundstage. I’m like a child, and I think that’s a good thing. The longer you can stay young at heart, the longer you’ll last.
4. Why is comedy difficult to write and how is it different from other genres?
JS: Yes, comedy is hard. However, in my experience, everything is equally hard. I always marvel at someone like Burt Bacharach, a man who wrote literally hundreds of songs. I can’t even imagine how he does it. It must be amazing to hear music in your head and be able to arrange the notes and put them down on paper. Then, someone like Burt Bacharach walks on the set, meets a screenwriter and says, “How the hell do you come up with stories and the words people say?” It’s all work, but when I’m writing, and I’m in my zone, it’s no longer a chore. I get lost in it, and before I know it, hours have passed – and hopefully, I’m not still on the same page! Comedy isn’t easier or harder than anything else. What scares me is when people who just aren’t funny are convinced they should be writing the next Seth Rogan movie.
5: What projects have you written/produced that turned out different than expected?
JS: Wow. I feel like every one of my answers is off target. I’m not trying to be evasive, or come at this from a weird angle, but I look at things as being all kinds of grey, and not so much black and white. The rules in screenwriting might be set in stone, but the experience is fluid, almost alive and ever changing. I’m too smart to mention anything by name, so let’s just say I’ve written some TV shows that were funny at the first draft stage, but were downright tragic by the time they were taped. It’s usually a symptom of too many rewrites, which you can’t control. Then again, I produced some stuff I thought was so awful, I opened a bottle of Chinaco tequila at the taping and had a few shots during audience warm-up. That project, a comedy special, went on to get high ratings and make the network $20 million in DVD sales. As a rule, it’s the scripts you think are the best that turn out receiving the most notes, and it’s the work you did while stopped at a red light, on the way to a meeting, that is often accepted as nearly flawless. It’s essential for writers to have a sense of humor.
6.How did you get the nickname the “Doc”?
JS: When I was a kid, I used to think I wanted to be a doctor. I saw myself on that big, white medical ship, Project Hope, traveling the world to help those less fortunate. Okay, first of all, I get seasick watching “Love Boat” reruns. I’m not kidding. I’m so sensitive, I can’t watch anything that’s shot on anything other than a locked down camera or Steadicam. So, in school, my friends started calling me Dr. Schimmel. Later, when I was a pre-teen, and a huge Steve McQueen fan, I preferred that “Doc” be associated with Doc McCoy, the ultra-cool bank robber in “The Getaway.” Years later, when I earned a Doctorate in Law, the “Doc” thing resurfaced. But enough about me. If we ever meet, be sure to ask me about my devotion to Steve McQueen, and why remaking his movies is a sin.
7: How is your military duty, CIA interest, and martial arts all connected? How have they helped your writing?
JS: The military stuff is kind of an obsession with me. When I have a few months off, I like to volunteer with the Israel Defense Force, but not in a combat role. I provide logistical support. Hmm. Whatever that is. But there’s nothing quite like living on base, in crappy barracks, with really bad food, no TV, no computer or internet, no phone, no nothing, and just a few dozen paratroopers to keep you company. As for the CIA, they offered me a job when I graduated from law school, but I was too paranoid to take it. When I asked if they would ever send a fellow agent to assassinate me if I screwed up, their response was, “You watch too many movies.” They’re right, I do. The martial arts era in my early life was just catching lightning in a bottle. I persisted until I was accepted into one of the most sought after schools in the world, and I’ll always be grateful. The way all of this has helped my writing is the way anyone’s life experiences, good or bad, happy or sad, find their way onto their pages. You write what you know, and the more you experience, the more you can relate to – and the more your characters can live through you. I look at it this way. If I never got kicked in the groin by a girl I liked in junior high, I wouldn’t really be able to describe it accurately. Then again, if I had my way, I’d go back in time and skip the part where I learn how to write about being in the worst pain ever. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re writing about something you’ve never actually seen, heard, tasted, felt, or experienced, there’s an easy fix for that. It’s called research. You can never do enough.
8: How have you been able to maintain your career as a writer? Does your brother (comedian) help with some of your writing/jokes?
JS: Writing careers are like the proverbial rollercoaster. You’re up, then down, then up. If you’re lucky, you can have more ups than downs. Sadly, the longevity of a writer’s career isn’t up to the writer. No matter how hard you work, or how prolific you are, someone has to hire you or buy your work. It isn’t a 9 to 5 job, it isn’t a salaried position. Aside from talent and energy, the most important thing a writer can have is a means of dealing with the hurt of rejection. Some people laugh it off, but others, like a good friend of mine, quit. One of the best writers I’ve ever known is living in Alabama and no longer writing because he was tired of having his heart broken. If you think I’m being negative, I’m not. Just keeping it real. But you should be encouraged by this. If you’re tough and your work has merit, and you don’t give up, it can happen for you. Trust me, if a guy with no education in writing movies can have a nearly 30 year career, you can definitely do it. As for my brother, Robert, he passed away in 2010. He was a very well known comedian, and a brilliant joke writer. His talent was to come up with jokes in an instant, organically, based on what he was going through at that moment. But when it came down to sitting at a desk and working on a script, that’s where he fell off. We worked together on a few projects, but they always resulted in fights. I’m extremely OCD when it comes to my work, and he was the opposite.
9: Where is your “secret” writing place?
JS: I’ve written in libraries, I’ve had many production offices, I’ve tried it in the local Starbucks, etc. Like everyone else. Lately, I’ve been working almost exclusively in my home office. It’s a loft near the laundry room, so I know that when I put in a load of dark, I have at least 45 minutes to type. Then, when the washer stops, and I transfer the clothes to the dryer, I know I have another 45. For every load I do, I get 90 minutes of work done. It’s not the ideal system, but my wife loves it. My advice to anyone trying to focus on writing a script is to give yourself every advantage. Sitting in a loud coffee shop with fifty other people isn’t going to help with your concentration. Blasting music in my earbuds while I write isn’t something I can do, and I don’t know how others do it. Music in the room is awesome, but I need a certain amount of distance from it. Another way to get more work done is to log off Facebook, email, and have someone hide your phone. If you’re smiling at any of this, it means you know you aren’t being as productive as you could be.
10.What advice would you give an aspiring screenwriter?
JS: The best advice I could give an aspiring screenwriter, especially in Chicago, is to come to my two day seminar on July 25th and 26th. I’m not kidding. I put together a unique, completely original curriculum that will teach writers all the crucial stuff they won’t find in books, and expose them to the inside information they won’t hear from other writers or producers. People who want to be successful screenwriters need to ask themselves if their career is worth the investment of two days. I wish this class would’ve existed when I was starting out. I would’ve cried a lot less!
For more info about Jeff Schimmel and Maximum Screenwriting