by Emon Hassan
Emon Hassan: Can you remember the day you decided your career should be in films? What made you decide that?
JS: I never decided my career should be in films. What I mean is, I only knew I loved acting and above all I loved storytelling. With that I just went to where I needed to go and do what I had to do to be part of what I love.. whether it’s film, t.v. or theater… or whatever new unknown mediums are invented, I just want to be part of it. As long as it involves stories I am there, and film is simply one of those mediums.
EH: Who and what were your influences growing up? Why do you think they’ve influenced you?
JS: I had several influences. My dad was a big one. The films he would take me to had an impact, the books he would read me had an impact. And my mother too of course. At the age of two my dad was already reading to me and before I was even a teenager I was watching films like ‘The Killing Fields’ with my dad. To this day that film has shaped me tremendously. I am aware of the power of storytelling. I fully appreciate the meaning of the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’ The sword is a sign of strength but the pen is still mightier. To this day films like ‘Hotel Rwanda’, ‘Motorcycle Diaries’, ‘Magdalene Sisters’, ‘City of God’, ‘Grapes of Wrath’, ‘Gandhi’ and even ‘Star Wars’ (the original trilogy of course) are part of the library I constantly reference when looking at the world Which leads me to another point, since I saw such a powerful film at such a young age, ‘Killing Fields’, I believe I have empathy for the struggle within creation; which is why I completely disagree with parents who don’t wish to show their children what is considered to be too intense a film.
If the parents do not wish to instill that life is full of struggle when a child is young.. then all that is going to occur is that when that child grows older they will realize on their own that life is full of struggles. What I mean is, too many parents just want to shield their kids.. and prefer not to take the lead and guide them through the struggle so that child can eventually go out and confront the world on their own. Because of that our world has tons of people who don’t have a source of inspiration from which to pull from, which is why so many people end up turning to a life of disillusionment.. they don’t have references of overcoming.. of hope. That is why stories are important. So I think a story that shows the reality of our world, adversity and overcoming it, is never too early to share with your child. Now, please don’t misunderstand me, the parent should talk to the child about the film and not simply leave the child be in front of a screen. Otherwise, it is extremely irresponsible and not nurturing parenting.
But too many parents do the extreme opposite and just say.. no my child can’t watch this my child is not a teen yet. They rather not educate their pre-teen about what these stories, these examples of life, mean and they simply just wish to turn it off. But life doesn’t turn off, life will happen regardless, so why not confront it together. That is what my father and I would do. Sometimes we would even do research on the film and the story and sometimes discover our own limitations of how we view the world. In other words, it was about expanding our limitations.
If no one is around to tutor or guide the child, then I can understand, but to shield the child from real stories is shielding the child from reality. Please, this is not to be misunderstood with showing a child action films where everyone is killed needlessly.. or pornography.. I am discussing the examples I cited above.. real films about real life. Stories that show us how humanity can triumph when we confront the struggles within creation.
As far as other influences are concerned, teachers were a big thing with me… Clint Eastwood.. as a kid all my acting buddies made fun of him.. but I saw something in him.. his moments of silence. Look at him now, he understood silence then and he is a great director now.
EH: You’ve started out as an actor and went to a prestigious high school for the performing arts in New York City. How else were you training yourself?
JS: Besides reading about as many subjects as possible (I think this shapes your training) I trained at William Esper Studios.. as a kid I went to acting classes on weekends and in Junior High School I took acting class as a formal study and of course in H.S as well. I went to the New School for a year and in LA I trained as well with a private teacher. But watching films and tons of theater… and participating in theater and short films.. that has been the biggest training.
EH: When and why did you make the transition into writing and producing? Had you always known you would eventually, or did you feel you had to out of necessity?
JS: That is a good question. I think it was a creative desire at first and then I realized that it fulfilled a necessity. I did it out of the wish to simply create.. if I can call myself an artist, that is what artists always want to do.. we wish to create. And inevitably one plays within all the realms of creation… writing being one of them. I started writing and I found that I secretly enjoyed it. It also gave me a sense of inner strength.. for example.. I was able to create what I wanted to create. With that I also learned how to appreciate storyline more, characters, etc.. After a while it lead me to want to make my stories happen, I wanted to see them realized. But I didn’t know how to go about it. This was intrinsically tied to the dilemma as an actor, we just wait for others to hire us and give us the opportunity.. we don’t realize that we are our own opportunity. In other words, we can make things happen when we put our mind to it.
So I would sit with friends and write.. and Roger Zamudio was one of those buddies. I still have those scripts somewhere. But when ‘Find Me Guilty’ came to me I was in the middle of acting in an independent film that my friend wrote, produced and starred in. I saw him take this film through all the stages, I was deeply involved from the beginning. And that sort of inspired me. That film was ‘Downtown: a street tale’ with John Savage and Genvieve Bujold.
Anyways, when TJ Mancini (who was actually one of the producers on ‘Downtown’) and I started talking he asked me to read his film ‘Find Me Guilty’. I read it and I feel in love with it. I asked TJ, “When are you going to make this film?” He simply replied “Well after I get a director and the money I’ll let you know.” That’s when I said to myself, this is it. You know, I felt it.. I had a feeling.. and all I wanted to do was create it.. I wanted to see it happen because I believed in it. So I said to TJ ‘If you let me take the script I think I can make this happen.. I never asked for anything in writing I was too naive.. and he had nothing to lose and said “Sure”. I went out and grabbed my buddy Roger and after that we got our other friend Rita involved as well. We started a company and went to Bob Yari and he jumped on board.. mind you this took almost a year because by then I learned what negotiations meant.. and after the deal was closed 7 months later my friend Martha Pinson (Sidney Lumet’s script supervisor on about 5 films) she helped me personally open the door to Lumet’s office.
The rest is history.. of course when Vin Diesel came on board the jet took off. TJ helped expedite that stage but up until that point I was very much involved with my partners, getting the whole deal together and keeping it on track. So I did all of that out of a wish to create… and now I realize that it fulfills a necessity, that necessity being the desire to create the projects I believe in. Which is what I have now been doing since ‘Find Me Guilty’. I have taken everything I learned from ‘Guilty’ and I am applying it to my own projects.. feature films, plays, short films, television shows, short plays, true stories.. you name it.
EH: In the early stages as a writer, what did you find hard and what easy when writing scripts? Did being an actor give you a certain advantage?
JS: Dialogue, I found dialogue to be easy. But the story and character arcs, I still find that a task. Ah, and rewriting of course. You know, I have an adverse reaction to people who go out there and say on Access Hollywood: “I wrote my film in a weekend and that was it”. Anyone can write a film really quickly… but not everyone knows the significant necessity of rewrites. Rewrites is where the real work comes in, and that takes months sometimes even years. So although a script can be written in a weekend they never tell you that all the months of rewriting is what made the difference.
Too many of us self proclaim ourselves as geniuses who don’t have to rewrite, as if one weekend is all it took. We want to constantly compare ourselves to Mozart. We should not be afraid to say we do rewrites and talk about how long it actually took to fully develop the story. Is it fun to do rewrites? No, I hate it.. but it’s what the commitment is about.. it takes dedication and in rewrites is where the real work comes in.
I don’t want to insult anyone per say.. but just go look at all the people who ten years ago were the flavor of the month and said they wrote their film in one weekend and didn’t really change the script much after that initial draft. Where are they now? Well, simply said.. they don’t understand the task, effort and work of rewriting and their consequent scripts have suffered because of it and it shows. Rewriting is not only essential it is also not an easy thing to do.. so yes, I am not Mozart, it that has been a hard thing.
EH: How did you exercise your writing muscles? Did you take screenwriting classes? Did you have a mentor or a friend who read and critiqued your work?
JS: I have gone to writing workshops… and I have also studied the behind the scenes of making a film,, I watch how a film grows and I study the arc of it…. how the script was created.. what they did, etc. You know a great book to read is “Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays” it talks about all the changes and rewrites George Lucas did on the original trilogy. And to read about all the changes he did is phenomenal, no wonder he eventually found his characters and his story.. and it all works. But the new trilogy suffers from that lack of discovery.
Anyways, he is not complaining he is happy. And yes, I did have mentors.. they tend to be my friends. Ron Peterson shared with me a lot about writing.. I would see my buddy Stephen Adly Guirgis (Jesus Hoped the ‘A’ Train, OUr Lady of 121st, Judas, etc) go through his writing stages and see how his work developed and grew. Jose Rivera (Motor Cycle Diaries) shared with me a lot about writing and also would gather a few folks to share their work so I would watch how a piece was shaped and critiqued. I also would get tons of feedback from people and critiques on the stuff I would write.. which is hard to take but so important to accept.
And my girlfriend has been very instrumental, she is a director so she has a director’s eye and always criticizes my work from that angle. She tells me what is clearly exposition, what isn’t advancing the story.. what can be told visually.. what needs to be given more light.. what can be trimmed, and where I indulge.. etc. She is tough. But yeah… everyone has had an impact on my writing. And of course.. I read tons of script and plays. But I wish I read more plays.. I read way too many scripts.
EH: When you finish a script and put on your producer hat, how do you deal with the writer self from then on?
JS: I don’t think the writer turns off completely. I just ask myself.. what do I want to accomplish as a producer? And if I feel I have answered what I want to as a producer then I ask myself what I wish to accomplish as a writer. If I find something is missing (whether as writer or producer) then I do rewrites so that a link is created.. the same goes for acting. In other words, I simply ask myself what I wish to accomplish overall and I trust the right questions and answers will come or I go looking.
EH: What steps do you take to make sure the scripts, yours or written by others, adapted for the screen properly? Did you consider directing?
JS: Make sure the crew and cast you trust.. with your eyes closed.. are brought on board. Basically, work with people who push me to be better rather than me be the only one pushing the envelope. For example, if I create the best project possible as writer, producer and actor.. then I would want my director and other cast and DP to be creating the best project anyone can in their area. Work with the people who are great at what they do I think is what helps make a difference.. And if I can’t attract the great talent to work with me maybe I have a problem and I should consider that.. but I believe I am good at what I do.. and if I work with a team that can make me better.. then that is key. But if it is up to me to look out for myself and everyone else’s job all the time?
Then why hire them? Why bring them onboard? If I have to worry about the DP and the actors, the director, wardrobe, production design, props, catering, line producing, make up, lights, the editor, music, sound you name it.. I’ll go crazy. If none of them know what they are doing then I will be doing their job and then who is gonna do my job as writer or actor when I need to do that? I have a lot to worry about already. So I need to hire people who push me to be better in my areas, and who are great in their areas.. in turn that raises the bar.
I know many people who want to suffocate a project and take credit for everything.. basically they hire slaves and not creative partners. I want creative partners.. who are great in every sense of the word.. they can do everything on time, without going over budget,.. and creating the best shot .. give the best production value ever.. regardless of the budget’s limitations.. and the same for cast and anyone else. If I trust everyone then it will only push me to rise.
By the way I don’t consider myself a producer in the typical definition,.. or a writer… I consider myself an actor who wears different hats. I am an actor at the end of the day who just does what he has to do to create the stories he loves. As for directing film, I rather leave the directing to my girlfriend. Luckily her and I have been creating tons of projects together since ‘Guilty’. One of them is ‘A through M’ (a short film) and it is getting such a great response in the film festival circuit.
EH: Things must get more complicated when you write, produce, and act in a project. How do you make sure they don’t get in each other’s way in making the film?
JS: This is similar to the question above, I surround myself with people who can do their job and who are so good at what they do that they are capable of telling me when to let go of writing, or acting, or the producer in me because they know it will be fine and that it is all already there. But I have to know first, that these people are great at what they do. And only two things can tell me how good someone is.. research and working with them.
EH: How did you come to produce ‘Find Me Guilty’? What have you learned from producing this film? How did it test your abilities as a producer?
JS: I think I may have already answered this above.. but to recap.. I met TJ Mancini who was producing a film I was starring in. TJ and I started talking about film and we would talk a lot. Eventually he asked me to read a script he had written.. “Find Me Guilty”. He was just sharing it to see what I thought.. well I loved it. I asked him what he was planning on doing. how and when it was going to happen.. he just said.. “I need the director and the money”.. and it hit me.. this is how it happens.. from one conversation a project can happen or not.. I can be part of this I said to myself. So I asked TJ to let me show the script around (he had nothing to lose) I never even asked for anything in writing.. I was too naive to know otherwise, and then I gathered my buddies (roger and rita) and we went to Bob Yari. They had both been good friends with Bob.. and Rita, Roger and I had known each other for years. We all met while acting in films.. being in acting class.. so we all knew our dreams and disappointments rather well and looked out for each other because of it.
‘Find Me Guilty’ became to us everything we had wanted to do… to show this town we can make things happen.. and make it good…. and if we had to go outside of Hollywood then we would.. but nothing was going to stop us. So at the time Bob Yari was the new kid on the block.. he was a true outsider who was only about to start a film company, and he was receptive to us. His company has grown and changed since.. but we struck at the right time, and he was open. He read it and asked us what we would do if he gave us the financing.. we said.. ‘look at our resumes, we have worked with tons of people and we know we can pull on them for assistance.” Meaning, all of our contacts (friends) would help us open doors. He said… ok.. but we had one stipulation, never ever go to agents. We had to do this outside of the normal venues. He wanted to make sure the Director was ALREADY interested and wanted to make the film because agents will start to ask for money even before a director has read a script. And that is a waste of time and work for an investor.
So our friends helped us get to Sidney Lumet. Of course. this took months.. none of this happened overnight. He read it and called me and we set up a meeting. Basically, I trusted Martha to do what she had to do and I never interfered. A week after Martha took the script to Sid he called me and said – I still remember this conversation – ‘Is this Johnny”.. ‘Yes, it is” – ‘Johnny this is Sidney Lumet, my friend Martha brought me your script and Johnny I have to tell you that I can make this film.” I kept that call short out of fear of saying too much so we just set up an appointment to meet in person.. and my buddy/co-producer Roger came along. I learned several crucial things about producing since.. never say something that is not true.. I think Sidney saw I was always on the level with him.. I told him I was new to all of this.. but that me and my buddies had raised the funds to get the project rolling and that I could get him on the phone with the investor if he was interested.
I also told him I was an actor and that acting is all I care about, that I was only producing out of a need to create what I love as an actor. I also let him know.. that I knew.. I was a kid. But I also made it clear that I have opened the doors I’d open because I was on a mission. I was open with him and never tried to hold one over on him It would be foolish of me to play power games with him or with anyone else. But more importantly.. he had read the script and liked it. We kept in close contact up until Vin came on board.. from that point on I had nothing to do except watch it happen and learn, and that I did. I also learned to get things in writing.. if I had known better I would have done that sooner… and I learned the power of the option,, I never had money to buy the option so I unknowingly cut myself out of a lot of things. I love to create.. and I wish I didn’t have to worry about contracts.. but unfortunately I now Know.. ‘You don’t get what you deserve. you get hat you negotiate”. And I learned that the hard way, people tried to push me out. but ultimately.. I had other people I could trust.. I knew I could ultimately trust Sid to do what he had to do.. and I knew I could trust my two partners.. and that was everything I needed to keep things going. But my partners found themselves in the same boat as me and we had to negotiate hard to be given part of what we deserved.. being the people who opened some of the biggest doors but not knowing we needed things in writing… put us in a position of having to learn fast.
I also learned how much detail Sid gave to everything.. creative and not creative. He also gave me a lot of respect and would talk to me about things, I learned that he knew much more than I could ever imagine and I took it in.. I eventually realized that if I just let him do what he had to do.. things would be OK. And they were. Sid knows more about Film Making than most film makers I have ever met combined. Come to think of it.. he did write the book on ‘Making Films’.. literally and figuratively. So I learned when to stay back as a producer and I learned when to fight for what the project needed.
The project needed to be shot in NY and NJ.. and we fought for that. Sid wanted to shoot in NY too and nowhere else. Creatively, I have learned to go after nothing but the ideal. Sid did that,… he did rewrites until he was happy. He researched tons. He met with Jackie Dee, he read transcripts… he worked non stop. And he talked about all the possibilities to make the film happen, he was never closed off. But he knew what to focus on and what not to focus on. I have taken this and tried to copy it on my new projects. I hope I have. And I know I have more to learn.
EH: How would you advise members to take advantage of Shooting People? How has SP helped you personally?
JS: The greatest thing that I feel the Shooting People community offers is the ability for all artists to share with each other and to have access to each other. This breaks the walls of traditional ‘Hollywood’. Walls which keep us from having contact and from growing together. Which to me is ironic because as artists.. communication is a big thing. I mean we deal with everything that has to do with all forms of language and communication.
For example, Dance is a language, visual arts, music, film, theater.. etc.. It is all language.. and how can our language grow if we are kept from having access to sharing that language together?… if Hollywood builds walls how are we to share unless we break those walls down. I have found that our community breaks all these walls down. Anyone can go and find my email and write me and ask if I want to hang out or look at their script, etc… and I can do the same with others. This, unfortunately, is not the norm in Hollywood. I have to contact someone’s representation and hope their representation doesn’t ask me how much money I have, and hope they believe that all artist should be able to share and not only let the one’s with tons of money share.
‘Find Me Guilty’, for example.. the first year agents totally ignored me… I felt so lost at first but I did not give up. My friends would help me meet people, I really used the back door a lot to meet talent and financiers. And that is why we are a real example of an independent film. Through SP, we have access to each other and access to each other’s projects. I’ve had several members email me and ask me to sit with them and talk with them. I am always game for a good conversation and a good cup of tea.
As well, there are many resources I have found myself using at SP. I have gone on the bulleting and asked for advice and have given advice also to people on the bulletin. And of course, I am able to post on the schedule and ask people to come out and support my work.. but more than that.. I am able to see what else is happening in the community, what other members are doing.
I found out about the film ‘Unknown White Male’ through shooting people and I went out to support it. I also found myself using the resources of actors. I searched for actors and have emailed actors and have had them come in to audition for me. These are actors I found on Shooting people that I would not have found elsewhere. You guys have really opened your doors to the independent artist and have helped to chisel down the walls.. and that is so valuable to us all.
EH: The bulletin has a regular section called ‘Tip Jar’ where short tips are offered by filmmakers/writers. etc. on screenwriting (craft, business or industry). What three tips for writers would you put in that ‘Jar’?
JS: Three tips?? Wow, I don’t know if I am qualified enough to do this because I feel I am still a student of writing. Well, come to think of it… I guess that is perhaps one tip.. try to always remember we are all students. I have never met any good writer who says.. I know it all. If anything, all good writers always say to me.. I don’t know everything… except for a few fundamentals.. the rest I am still figuring it out. The second tip I will share is a two-fold tip I got from a close friend – Jose Rivera (Oscar Nominee – Motorcycle Diaries). He once shared with me that a schedule helps him stay on course. That may sound strange at first because as artist we think it is cool or rebellious to not adhere to schedules. We feel we are beyond the conventional 9 to 5 hours.
But I believe Jose’s advice comes down to one thing.. ‘time and tide wait for no one’. Meaning, if you want to write a script.. make a schedule.. a writing/creative schedule… and stick to it. If you fall back.. make up for it. I found myself really writing when I made a schedule to do so and not just when the creative whim hit me. Because the creative whim doesn’t always come.. sometimes we must know how to awaken that. It’s painful because as artists we tend to go against rules. But nature isn’t going to wait for us.. time will have passed and we will ask ourselves.. what happened to all those great ideas? The second part of Jose’s advice to me had to do with answering a question. I asked him… ok, so you make a schedule.. but what if nothing comes? You can’t force the self to write?
Basically, writer’s block and how to let the creative part in us guide us and not something external, like the clock or a schedule. This is what learned from Jose.. and I believe it too, that in order for us to write our subconscious must be awakened one way or another, in other words we must know how to tap it and work with it. So how can the material world of the conscious mind.. things like clocks and schedules come into harmony with the creative subconscious? We can facilitate the process by adhering to our goal. Meaning, lets say your writing hours are from 9 am to 3pm 5 days a week.
Well, if you sit to write during those hours but nothing comes then put your writing in your subconscious.. the back burner and go do menial tasks around the house. Take care of some basic things.. try to stay away from bank statements (stressful things) or bills and from talking to your agent or lawyers, or making any phone calls which can pull you away form your own silent thoughts… and don’t go out and drive or go shopping or watch a sports game or the news.. stay near your writing, but more importantly../ if you feel blocked during your writing hours, avoid activates that require much right brain activity. Look for things you can do without having to think about what you are doing.
For example.. mop, sweep, do the laundry (if you can do it from your home), clean your bathroom, kitchen, dust the house.. or clean a gadget. Basically, do the up keep chores around your home. What this does (yes, I can say this little seemingly unimportant trick works) is that it puts your writing in the back of your mind and like all thoughts in life… it goes to rest in the subconscious. Usually, it never goes away though… and the ideas will start to float around and maybe even unlock while doing other things that are menial. This puts us in a sort of trans/meditative state… does all this sound new age? Yes, it does.. but there is a big difference.. new age theories are just that.. theories.. but the subconscious is not a theory.. it has been shown already (even by science) that it exists and all of our deep thoughts are locked away in there.
We suppress most everything there. Which is why sometimes we are blocked.. the creative mind gets locked away and we must find ways to awaken it and work with it. For everyone it will be something different.. some people want to listen to music. Others want to literally go meditate, others may just look out the window.. but at the end of the day it is the same thing.. These sort of ‘unimportant’ activities can help awaken our silent thoughts and ideas. It may not happen in the first hour, it may not happen in the first day… but it will awaken you eventually and if you are in your house and the ideas start to come then you can easily turn to the writing and do it. Just make sure you haven’t left anything in your laundry though.
And this one last tip is a personal tip I will share. Archetypes.. I think we must understand the true difference between archetypes and symbols when writing. Both are powerful tools.. but both mean totally different things too. A symbol is something that has a meaning.. but a different meaning to each person. For example.. Friday the 13th has somehow become a symbol. but in Latin America Friday the 13th means nothing.. over there it is Tuesday the 13th. Colors are symbols and so are numbers.. to one person black is good to a few others it is bad, the same with white. Cats are good in some cultures in others not. Cows scared in some.. others feel all a cow is good is for food.
Symbols change with cultures and with education.. but archetypes have a meaning that transcends boundaries, tradition and background. it hits at what the core human experience is all about The prisoner is an archetype.. everyone knows that a prisoner represents someone whose liberties are restricted by society.. the same as the slave. The parent, the teacher, the child, the student, earth, sun.. all those are archetypes. This has nothing to do with whether they are good or bad at their role.. this has to do with what the meaning of the role. So yes, archetypes and symbols are easily confused in writing but both are important tools when writing.