It is a story worthy of an Oscar-winning screenplay: a devoted writer spends 16 years trying to break into the film business and finally makes it.
It is a tale filled with struggle and conflict, as well as the occasional plot twist. However, nearly two decades after entering film school at York University, Thornhill, Ont. scribe Shane Weisfeld finally has something of a Hollywood ending.
“I’m actually glad that things have been happening for me all these years later, instead of my early 20s when I expected things to happen,” Weisfeld said. “I’ve got all these years of experience behind me. These years of discipline and practice definitely helped.”
Weisfeld’s first produced screenplay is Freezer, a thriller he co-wrote with longtime friend Tom Doganoglu. Freezer had a brief theatrical run and debuted in on-demand formats in January across North America. For two weeks, it was one of the top ten independent movies on iTunes.
The thriller stars The Practice’s Dylan McDermott as a mechanic trapped in a meat freezer who must return $8 million to the Russian mob before he freezes to death. The film was also one of more than a dozen screenplays that Weisfeld wrote on his journey from film buff to produced writer.
Weisfeld became interested in pursuing film in his last years of high school after doing a report on the ‘80s classic The Karate Kid.
“I thought in order to be in the film industry, I have to go to film school,” he says, hoping that would help him break into the industry right away. “Little did I know, it doesn’t always work out that way.”
At York, Weisfeld was exposed to world cinema and became infatuated with the art form. Between classes, he would spend time in the university’s film library catching up on the classics. In December 1997, his final year in the film program, he actively started to query agents and producers to read his first feature script.
It was close to 15 years of “No” before a manager said “Yes” to one of his stories.
Many of his scripts were thrillers and dramas, although Weisfeld also wrote a hip-hop comedy based on his own experiences as a rap artist. Weisfeld says he was a fan of that musical genre since he was eight, back when hip-hop was in its infancy, and was known for performing gigs in high school.
While over a decade of constant writing without success could deter others, Weisfeld says it was not hard for him to stay motivated, since writing is inherent to who he is.
“I actually get motivated by reading about deals that writers make and success that writers have,” he says. “It’s not something I’m turned off by. I never say, ‘Oh, why do they get to be successful and not me?’ I love reading that stuff. It means that the [film] business is healthy… that people are always looking for great material.”
Some of the lessons that Weisfeld has for those interested in making it as a screenwriter:
• Make the time to write and do so every day. Weisfeld says he tries to write whenever he has free time. “The most important thing is to stay consistent, so even if it’s only for 20 minutes every day or a small scene every day, that’s OK.”
• Read interviews with screenwriters and learn from the masters. “Don’t try to emulate their writing but emulate their successful habits,” he says.
• Do not try to sell a screenplay until it is as good as it can be. Re-writing is more important than writing. “Just when you think it can’t get better, it can. Trust me.”
• Who you know is less important than how well you write. “A lot of writers are under the assumption… that you break into the business because you know somebody. What’s going to break you in is a great script.”
He cites writer/director David Mamet, who has written many books about the creative process, as a major influence. Weisfeld is also a fan of American independent maven John Sayles (Eight Men Out), as well as Robert Towne (Chinatown), Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List).
During his prolonged creative period before getting a single writing credit, Weisfeld, now 39, began a blog. On Unsolicited: A Screenwriter’s 16-Year Journey Into the Film Industry, he gives advice to aspiring scribes. Weisfeld says he wants to turn the posts into a book about his experiences and the lessons he learned.
Weisfeld is now writing a thriller that takes place on an African safari, as well as re-working another script. However, even with one produced credit, screenwriting is not Weisfeld’s full-time job – yet.
“I’m still facing rejections. I’m still making mistakes. I’m still learning how to re-write my stuff and going back and making it great,” he says. “No matter what, it’s always going to be a learning process.”