In 2002, I had the pleasure of meeting and working for Josh Shelov on a pair of episodes of ESPN’s Outside the Lines. Josh, it quickly became apparent, was one of the smartest, funniest, and most talented people I’d ever met. Worse still, he was also one of the nicest and most down-to-earth. Today, he is one of the executive producers of ESPN’s web series Mayne Street (along with Todd Pellegrino, commissioner of my fantasy football league). On a larger note, The Best And The Brightest, which he co-wrote and directed, will be released in 2011. With a cast including Neil Patrick Harris and Amy Sedaris, Best tells the tale of a young Manhattan couple trying to get their child into an elite private kindergarten. Over the past week, Josh was nice enough to trade emails with me.
The Snooty Observer: Thanks for joining us today on “Profiles in Interest,” Josh. How does it feel being the first subject of this soon-to-be-Pulitzer-winning series?
Josh Shelov: Historic as a motherfucker, Ty.
TSO: Was there a moment, or a specific movie you saw as a youngster, that made you say “I want to do that?”
JS: There sure was, Brett. I was all-but-decided on becoming a sportscaster. Senior year in college [at Yale]. I had already applied for the big P.A. gig at ESPN, which I would soon get. Then my friend Adam kept nudging me: “You really have to see this movie Reservoir Dogs.” It was on VHS, the theatrical run had come and gone. I rented it – with my parents – one night that I was back home. We ended up getting drunk instead of watching, and I passed out on the couch. Woke up at 1 a.m. My folks had long hit the hay. Being 21, I could still do things like start watching a movie at 1 a.m. And so I did. I will never forget, after the movie ended (I watched the entire “Lime In The Coconut” closing credits) slowly raising the remote, pressing ‘rewind,’ and watching the whole thing again. Since then, trying to make movies has been all I’ve been doing.
TSO: What was your writing background up to this point?
JS: Pre-Dogs I was basically a baseball junkie looking for a new jones. I topped out as a baseball player sophomore year in HS but hadn’t found a new obsession. I tried acting in college and liked it, but knew I wasn’t very good at it. I took a non-fiction writing class my senior year in college and started to feel the groove a bit. I read “A Prayer For Owen Meany” and it blew me away, but not quite like Dogs. For me, Dogs really felt like the proverbial religious moment: an explosion of light, The Way Forward. After that I started reading everything I could get my hands on about screenwriting, and started writing my own first terrible, terrible scripts.
TSO: So off you went to ESPN immediately after Yale?… and eventually you were making “DeuceFlicks” and whatnot?
JS: Between college and ESPN I had a four-month stint as the morning-show host on a 500-watt AM radio station in New Rochelle, NY; my show dazzled and enthralled its audience of eight. Then, yes: ESPN called, and I moved up to Bristol [Connecticut, home to ESPN’s worldwide headquarters].
I was kind of square-peg/round-hole among the ESPN staffers because, even though many aspects of working at ESPN were and are undeniably cool and fun, I had sort of been bitten by the filmmaking bug just before actually landing the job. So I was basically being trained to edit SportsCenter highlights – a dream job for many, and a nifty skill to learn – but I kept feeling, shit, maybe I should apply to film school. What I ended up doing was basically sort of combining the two strands, filmmaking and sports television, which for all intents and purposes I continue to do to this day. I pitched a short film series to the folks at ESPN2, which had just (garishly) debuted a few weeks after I arrived. Mind you, I had no idea how to make a film whatsoever, had never picked up a camera, had never written a script. But I was relentlessly annoying to the ESPN2 brass, and after they relented (to get me to shut up), I basically used a sports-tv crew and equipment (a betacam and sound package) and started making my first short films. I used my college friends as the actors. I called the short films “Deuceflicks,” and they were pretty wooden and lame at first, but after I did four or five of them they started getting a little better. There’s one of them that I’m still actually a little bit proud of, and now in this very moment I’m realizing that maybe I should upload it to YouTube. Wow, I haven’t thought about “Deuceflicks” for awhile.
TSO: If you don’t put them on YouTube, I’ll have Sacks or Brofsky put the Desk PA on it. So did you go to film school, or keep writing? When did Clowns come out of your sick mind?
JS: I never went to film school, but probably should have. Instead I ended up using ESPN as my film school, which is a pretty dependable way to achieve mediocrity with one’s career. I moved to NYC and basically started lying around in public libraries with large cups of Dunkin Donuts coffee and writing whatever the hell I wanted, which for some reason I still don’t understand came out as a screenplay called Clowns. Clowns was, in a word, terrible, but on the upside, it was also astonishingly pretentious. Strangest of all, it actually got financed, by a very nice and supportive man I met in the sports-TV trade, who believed in me wholeheartedly until I drove his investment off a cliff. [ED. NOTE: Clowns, a kind of Manchurian Candidate-at-a-clown-college story, was made, but never reached the stage of having a final, printed cut] A very difficult period, when one has dreams of Tarantino-esque debut success dancing in your heads, as I did. But pain is a good teacher. The experience taught me – and I swear to God I did not know this previously – that the most important element of a movie is a good story. So I set about the business of learning how to make one of those. It took quite awhile.
TSO: Pardon the banality of this question, but where do you get your ideas from? Is it something you’re born with (or not), or is it something that can be taught, a muscle that can be strengthened and bulked up over time? I remember reading your “Brackets” script [a March Madness-themed short in which a man keeps 64 college-sweatshirt-wearing hobos and street performers imprisoned in his basement] and thinking to myself that I could never come up with something like that.
JS: It’s not a banal question and I appreciate the compliment. As I see it writing is not about ideas, it’s about execution and follow-through: closer to the muscle concept than the “gift.” A baseball player sees a 95-mph fastball and knows he can hit it because of the thousands of hours he’s spent hitting baseballs. Writing is the same. We all have ideas floating around in our heads. But if we are one of those people who spends thousands of hours blacksmithing ideas into stories (which we do very poorly at first: op cit: Clowns), we begin to develop a confidence, after years of practice, that we can start to bang our ideas into stories. Whereas those who lack practice and confidence as a writer tend to smother their good ideas with self-doubt. “Ah, what the hell am I gonna do with it.” And they shuffle back to work/drink/sadness.
Einstein says, “I’m not smarter than everyone else, I just sit with my problems longer.” (YES, motherfucker, I just compared myself to EINSTEIN.)
TSO: Was script re-writing (Green Street Hooligans) just another, bigger step in the overall process? And how does someone get that job?
JS: I think you can “get that job” much more easily than I did, namely by apprenticing or being mentored or getting some assistant job in the business: basically, by doing what a good young person should and admitting that he knows nothing, choosing humbly to sit at the knee of a more experienced writer, “learning the ropes.”
My method was just to write and write and write and insist that I needed no schooling or mentorship. As a result it took me fucking forever to get to be any good and break into the business. After Clowns I spent three YEARS co-writing another “masterpiece” with a good friend. (Caveat: this script is nowhere near as terrible as Clowns and may well get made some day).
The turning point for me happened when I was 31. Pretty fucking old, and now a dad, to boot. Pretty goddamn close to throwing in the towel. I tried – and FAILED – to get a job as a fucking SECRETARY at Oglivy and Mather. Wisely, they did not hire me.
At around this same time, three things happened, pretty much at around the same time, the fall of 2002.
1) I went flat broke and crawled back to my parents and borrowed $4400. An excruciating, humiliating experience.
2) My DP on CLOWNS, a talented man named Alex Buono, introduced me to Lexi Alexander, the originator of the Green Street Hooligans movie. She had no money and wanted a rewrite – the first draft had been written by an Actual Hooligan. It wasn’t bad but it needed work. I agreed to rewrite it for free simply because she was repped by CAA and spending hundreds of hours on something for free, at that point in my “career,” was worth it if someone at CAA would actually fucking read it.
3) I was working a day job at a nightmarish reality TV show called “Shipmates.” I had literally no time to do the Hooligans rewrite because I had to wake up early with my infant son before the day job – my wife couldn’t watch him because she was waking up even earlier to go to her job as a teacher. We could not afford child care. What was I to do? How was I going to write this script?
Necessity being the mother of invention, I decided to walk around Prospect Park between 6:30-8:00 every morning with my infant son in a baby backpack, dictating the story of Hooligans into a tape recorder. This process of “performing” the story out loud, literally telling the story like a campfire story, was a creative breakthrough for me.
I am about to pun, and I do not do it lightly, but this became the first script of mine that actually “spoke” to people. People in Hollywood started passing it around. After 10 years of sucking, the breaking-in actually happened very fast. Within a year of finishing the script I had an agent and a manager and Elijah Wood signed on and some company bought the script and I got a job doing a rewrite for Bruce Willis’s company and then the Hooligans movie actually got made. So I got my wife pregnant again.
Click here for Part 2 of our interview, which includes a tie-in to this blog’s over-arching “dog” theme.