In 1999, Michigan native and U-M grad Dan Shere co-wrote a short film with his good friend Joe Nussbaum. At the time, the two had no idea their 8-minute parody, George Lucas In Love, would be at the forefront of a cultural trend.
Passed around Hollywood studios as a calling card, their movie went viral before anyone had ever heard the term “viral” in any sense outside a doctor’s office. A few years later, the Internet would not only breathe new life into a short that had already made the rounds at various high profile film fests, but inspire the near-daily occurrence of geeky Star Wars videos appearing on YouTube.
Of course, the two friends were able to parlay their film into successful Hollywood careers, but for Shere it was more like a second act as a screenwriter. He had, against the odds, sold his first screenplay soon after graduating college. But fame and fortune did not necessarily follow. Shere discovered that for most Hollywood writers, the treadmill could be bumpy, filled with false starts — and pitches to nowhere. George Lucas In Love was only the first of several career reinventions.
Next week, Shere, who lives in West Bloomfield and teaches screenwriting at the University of Michigan, will see whether his latest movie-writing path — big budget 3D computer animation — will lead to an extended list of IMDb credits. Epic, a fantasy-adventure set in a deep forest populated by miniature leaf men, is the kind of big tent summer release that sells action figures and inspires Happy Meal toys.
Metro Times:You kind of burst out of the gate as a Hollywood screenwriter, didn’t you?
Dan Shere: I had almost the direct opposite experience that most people have. When I graduated, I moved out to L.A. and got a job as an assistant answering phones, but within eight months of moving there I sold a script I wrote at U-M to United Artists. I remember thinking at the time how everyone said how hard it was to break into the industry and I was like, ‘that wasn’t so hard.’
MT: What was your first script about?
Shere: It was called Goat Cheese Is Dead. It was about my experiences playing in high school rock bands.
So, I got off to a fast start. But the script ended up getting rewritten a lot and sitting on shelves, and then my next script didn’t sell. Most people work a really long time to get their foot in the door and then — when they do — things take off. I got my foot in the door right away, but then had to keep getting my foot back in the door.
MT: It sounds like it took awhile for you to find your career groove. Why leave L.A. and move back to Detroit?
Shere: One lesson I learned in L.A. was that lots of meetings don’t necessarily turn into lots of jobs. And it can be so distracting. You’re not actually doing anything as a writer unless you’re writing. And you’re certainly not getting any better at your craft. Looking back, I’m amazed how much time I spent pitching rather than writing. It’s easy to fall into the “Oh, I’ve just got to get to the next meeting and work this deal” mindset.
But the thing I needed to do more than anything was to stop going to meetings and start writing more scripts. And I realized I could write from anywhere. I already had a manager and an agent. And it’s not like being an actor. The studios don’t have to get to know me or anything. I mean, you could be a serial killer and if you turn in one hundred brilliant pages they don’t care. They just want a great script.
MT: Epic is a pretty big step up for your career. How did that come about and what’s it like adapting someone else’s work?
Shere: I started on Epic, which was originally called Leaf Men, back in 2007. And now it’s 2013 and it’s finally coming out. So, I learned early on that these animated movies take a really really long time. I was working for Blue Sky Studios and Chris Wedge, who did the first Ice Age movie and Robots, took me aside to show me this project that was his dream film.
He had been working on Leaf Men for like years, doing concept art and clay models of characters. It was clearly a labor of love and he hadn’t quite found a way to tackle the story. He wanted to do a deep fantasy movie, which wasn’t really my thing. I had never been into Tolkien or any of that stuff. I think you have to have a Ph.D. in Tolkien to even consider writing one of those movies. I remember sitting through the first Lord Of The Rings movie with my buddy asking, ‘who is that guy?’ and, after two hours, being completely lost. So, I was very nervous about even approaching the project.
MT: What made them think you were the guy for it?
Shere: I don’t know. But as a writer you don’t betray your lack of confidence. I think Chris liked my writing but what he particularly liked was the way I crave for stories to be tightly structured. I think he realized that the work they had done on Leaf Men up until then was too all over the place; it needed to be consolidated into something taut. It was definitely a stretch for me, but once I focused on the story essentials — who is the main character and why should we care about them — it all started to fall into place.
MT: While interviewing director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) he said, ‘I’ve never subscribed to that whole three act structure stuff, that Robert McKee bullshit.’ What do you think of that?
Shere: I wish I were cool enough to say I don’t give a crap about three-act bullshit and I’m better than that. I’m not. I need it. I get too easily lost in a story if I don’t feel it’s tightly structured. I guess as both a writer and a teacher I tend to gravitate toward films that are heavily character-based yet have a well-developed structure like, say, Little Miss Sunshine or Juno. They are both movies where they’re so well written you don’t notice the structure. But it’s there. I don’t consider myself smart enough to pull off the Tarantino stuff of pulling it all apart and sewing it back together in crazy ways.
MT:Over the last 10 years, Hollywood and independent producers have put out about 215 films a year. Yet, there are tens of thousands of scripts floating around. Then when you factor in sequels and adaptations, the odds are pretty bad for a newbie writer. What do you tell your students?
Shere: Yeah, the studios seem to be making less and less. I mean, I can’t believe I have a Happy Meal coming out. What do I tell my students? TV. I think a lot of the best writers have moved to TV. The paradigm shifted 15 years ago with the HBO shows. When I graduated in the 1990s, everyone I knew wanted to be writing films. No one even considered TV. But things have really changed. I tell my students now to have a really open mind because we don’t know what the next thing will be. We might all be writing for Netflix.