Profiles in Interest: Josh Shelov (part 2)

On Friday, “The Best and the Brightest,” Josh’s new movie, began its seven-day theatrical release (following months of barnstorming around the country in a series of sneak preview screenings) in New York and Los Angeles. You know, because Boston, Washington, and Chicago aren’t real cities.

When last we left Josh (at the end of part one of our interview) he had just broken into the big leagues of screenwriting. The year was 2003, or thereabouts.

The Snooty Observer: Around this time the other major chute of your current life began to take form, and that is when you worked on “Two Minute Drill,” right?

Josh Shelov: Talk about a major chute. Yes, the 2-Minute Drill. Basically, as I mentioned, my whole career has been spent straddling (and sometimes combining) filmmaking and sports TV. The 2-Minute Drill (kind of a “jeopardy for sports trivia” on ESPN, for the uninitiated) was one of the better sports-TV related gigs I’ve worked, coming up with questions in a roomful of writers who were basically just like me, writers who wanted to be writing screenplays but who knew a lot about sports and could therefore write sports-related game-show questions. Kenny Mayne [the show’s host] got me that gig.

TSO: One of your many collaborations. How’d you two get started together?

JS: We got on good right from the start [at ESPN], this being 1994 or so, and it helped that we were both sort of marooned together on this deserted overnight shift known as the “Sports Smash,” a half-hourly 5-minute-long live update that ran on ESPN2 until three in the morning during its nascent days. Kenny was on-air, I was the P.A., and I would fuck with him on his shot sheets (“shot sheets” being ESPN-code for the scripts you write for on-air talent that they read when they voice-over hilights). NB most of the really funny stuff is ad-libbed by the talent themselves: shot sheets tend to be pretty banal on purpose. (i.e. “SETUP: 1st and 3rd with no out. ACTION: Joe Carter lines one to left!” etc.) But Kenny and I got to the point where I could slip in a joke or two and he would do it on the air. Certainly one of the best overnight gigs a red-blooded American male can get.

Kenny and I kept in touch after I quit ESPN to go write bad screenplays in coffee shops, and we did quite a few freelance-y projects together over the years, including the 2MD, some corporate gigs, and some Kenny-ish SportsCenter-ish features, like going with [Dennis] Rodman to dye his hair. We also co-wrote a spec script together called SPORT, which is sort of a Jerry-Maguire-y thing based on Kenny’s actual life story, in which script I whorishly wrote in a line for my pal the Snooty Observer. (Editor’s note: the line, “Here,” is delivered by a production assistant named Tyler).

The most sustained gig we got to do together was MAYNE STREET, sponsored by Gillette, The Best A Man Can Get. (MAYNE STREET BTW being an EMMY-NOMINATED web series on espn.com, of course you’ve heard of it, everyone’s heard of it, it’s in its fifth season, and some of the episodes are actually even funny.) MAYNE STREET was actually a collaboration between me, Kenny, and a third guy, Todd Pellegrino, another fellow-ESPN-P.A. turned writer, one of my best friends inna world, with whom I am currently writing another non-Mayne script and – am I correct in remembering – was the dude who originally introduced me to said Snooty Observer?

TSO: Correct! Todd recommended I be your young go-getter on Outside The Lines, and the rest is history. One fond memory of that show’s edit is how I was “the smoker” and you were “guy who doesn’t smoke anymore, but will have a cigarette when hanging out with a smoker.” And now that I’ve quit smoking, I get to be that other guy, which is quite exciting. I repaid Todd, by the way, by completely mucking up a SportsCentury episode on the Chargers/Dolphins 1981 playoff game.

This being a dog-lover’s blog, tell us the plot of “Sport.”

JS: The most amazing thing about Kenny is that his actual life is 100% as dramatic as a movie, in particular this dark period he went through in his late 20’s. Then, as now, he was a tremendous wiseass, but back then he didn’t have the nationwide audience of frat boys who loved his stuff. Back then he was just a local sportscaster in Seattle who wised off a lot. So he pissed off his boss, got fired, and proceeded to go through such a horrific period of unemployment that he ended up giving away his dog [named Sport] to the humane society because he could only afford to live in this $99/month apartment which didn’t allow dogs. He bottomed out in a way that only movie characters do. (The movie character I’m thinking of in particular being the lead puppet in “Team America,” vomiting repeatedly in the alley.)

The first job Kenny was able to get was making garbage cans on an assembly line. Meanwhile he keeps sending in his old demo tape to ESPN, praying for a miracle. And the goddamn miracle happens, someone pulled his audition tape out of a stack and took a flyer on him to come do his wacky shit on ESPN2, and the rest is history. BITTER CODA: after he got the job, he went back to the Humane Society to try to reclaim his dog, and some family had already adopted him, and he never saw the dog again.

TSO: What happened with the script?

JS: We really tried [to get “Sport” produced]. May happen yet. The script is good and it made the rounds and a very good producer, Michael London (SIDEWAYS) developed it with us for a minute. You never know with these things. The way it’ll probably get made is by Kenny meeting some actor at a football game and telling him he should read the script and bothering him until he does and we scrape together a little money and do it on the cheap. Kenny’s a very good screenwriter, which you might not expect from his all-irony-all-the-time screen persona. His first draft of the script, which he wrote all by himself (before I dragged it down) was very, very good, poignant and true.

 TSO: Okay, let’s finally get to your little art film [the backdrop of which is the ridiculously competitive system of private kindergarten enrollment in Manhattan]. I’m assuming you yourself went through that process?

JS: We did indeed try to get Owen into one such boutiquey such joint, in Park Slope Brooklyn, which is sort of like the area of NYC where artsy Manhattanites go when they impregnate someone and/or get impregnated. Chock full of Strollers and Stylish Eyewear and Dog-Eared Philip Roth novels, Park Slope.

Anyway we got Owen into one of those deals and indeed it’s an absurdly competitive farce. But then just at that moment I had the thing happen with “Hooligans” selling and getting to rewrite a Bruce Willis movie, and so before he could actually start attending said kindergarten (Owen, not Bruce) I moved my family to LA. Wherein I did some studio writing. Long story.

Suffice it to say I never forgot about what a ridiculous farce the whole private kindergarten rain dance was, so when we moved back to NY darned if I didn’t write the fucker down in screenplay form, co-doing so with my great friend and brilliant artist Michael Jaeger.  [He] and I were/are both dads, dealing with this private school shit, and we both worship A FISH CALLED WANDA, and we were always griping about how Hollywood never makes farces even though we think a quality farce may be the single funniest comedic subgenre. When good farces get humming, audiences literally have trouble holding in urine. TOOTSIE was the other big target we were aiming for. (Needless to say our finished film is much better than either of those two mediocrities.)

I was at the time quite determined to direct a movie again, it having been approximately 10 years since “Clowns” went splat, and I reckoned I’d learned a thing or two about telling a story since then. I was, as they say, fairly champing at the bit. And then I had the great fortune to come across a couple of producers in Philadelphia who chipped in some serious starter cash for the movie, these being Mr. Robert Weiser and his wife Patricia Weiser, to whom I will be forever grateful. And so we hired a casting director, and started puffing out our chests and waving the script around and saying we had a real start date. (You have to tell people you have a real start date or else everyone thinks you’re full of shit.) A lot of actors said no at first. Nobody wants to be the first one in the pool. But then Sedaris and NPH said yes and we were off to the races.

TSO: How would you describe your style of direction?

JS: My style of direction on B & B is probably a bit overcranked. I.e. we blocked out every shot and didn’t improv much at all. That could be because the script is so INCOMPARABLY BRILLIANT. It could also be because it’s my first film and I was holding on pretty tight, for better and for worse. To enumerate the “for betters”: the schedule never slid out of control, we always “made our days,” as they say in the film biz, we never had producers walking onto set at 4:30 in the afternoon and gasping that we were still on the third setup. I kept shit moving, I knew what I wanted, and the cast was rock-solid. I’m extremely happy with the finished film. I better be; it’s exactly what I wanted. But in all seriousness, it’s felt pretty awesome when we’ve put it in front of audiences. The laughs are there.

The downside is that maybe a looser approach as director could lead to more behavioral surprises from the actors, and/or surprises in general. I kind of felt like I didn’t have time to be too exploratory, and/or wasn’t that interested in what an improvisational process could yield. This could be seen as too restrictive. And indeed, some of the actors told me to back off every once in awhile. But never in a dickish way. Almost all the time a nice clear direction is/was appreciated.

I wouldn’t “recommend” either the tight or loose approach to directors (i.e. what are the most important things to do/not to do) – I think it’s very much a personal style type of thing. I would say that even though filmmaking is an extraordinarily collaborative experience (which is kind of a cliche, but a true one), the moment right after a take is finished is as dictatorial as a moment can get – all eyes are on you, and you’d better know when you have what you want, when it’s enough already, when you’re ecstatic. That’s one of the hardest things, I think. Sometimes a take is perfect and easy and yay, that’s it, let’s move on. But sometimes it’s just 80%, and it’s not going to get any better, and maybe you wrote it wrong or maybe you’re just not communicating the right thing to the actor or whatever but the bottom line is the whole entire cast and crew is looking to you to be strong and clear as hell in that moment. It’s okay to not love what you’re seeing but you’d better not start visibly settling or saying “whatever,” or else the entire cast and crew will immediately, subconsciously, and completely start giving less of a shit about what they’re doing. Maybe that’s me just being sensitive, but I really did feel like the “intensity/focus/standards”-bearer – everyone stops what they’re doing after cut and takes their cue from you. Very fun, stressful, awesome, hard, great. I fucking loved it.

 TSO: So what’s next for you, and how much does the answer to that question hinge on B&B’s “Success”?

JS: What’s next most definitely does depend on how this B & B process goes, most definitely. The marketing and release of this movie – as you’ve seen from my non-stop full throated 24/7 shouting on FB – has turned into quite the FT job, not only for me but for a small stalwart group of colleagues, who are working their asses off in exchange for pretty much no money.

We were able to score a great distribution deal with a company called New Video, and they’re putting the film out on DVD and iTunes and VOD and Netflix and pretty much all digital formats (late summer/fall), but there’s only going to be a one-week “official” theatrical release in NY and LA.

I’m very glad to get that kind of release for the movie, but suffice it to say that the producers and I are sufficient egotists that we would like a broader theatrical release, and are sort of self-achieving it simply by booking stand-alone sneak preview events across the country, and even in some impoverished third-world countries like England and Germany.

With Kate Mulgrew at a post-screening Q&A session, during which he did not, presumably, faint.

The key to these screenings is that local “everymen,” as it were – people with no experience in the film biz but a lot of passion for our movie – are reaching out to us and basically volunteering to be local coordinators, renting a theater, getting the word out, even getting volunteers to work the box office.

The sneak previews have been absolutely awesome. Almost all sellouts, people love the film, and we’ve gotten tons of free media coverage/awareness that we wouldn’t have gotten without it. The key to the series has been producer Declan Baldwin, B & B’s key on-set producer, who has thrown his company’s resources behind the sneak preiew series, insuring the sneaks, advancing startup cash – a huge, huge, huge boost, without which we’d be as straight-to-video as a motherfucker.

TSO: And finally: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

JS:  “Good thing you totally ignored Judaism! You passed the test, come on in. Grey Goose OK?”

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