|INTERVIEW with OMAR SHAMOUT|
|Jan. 18, 2009|
|Omar Shamout is the most Jewish-looking non-Jewish guy I’ve ever met. He’s a good friend and also happens to be the Director of Development of HQ Pictures, so I only had to go down the hallway to get this interview from him. He started in this business first as an intern at The Donner’s Company and Scott Free Productions. He then worked as a script reader for Sam Nazarian’s Samy Boy Entertainment (now renamed Element Films). Then he did the assistant route, working desks at ICM and Industry Entertainment. He next became a development executive at Catchphrase Entertainment before finally landing at HQ Pictures.|
YOU ONCE BRIEFLY WORKED AS AN ASSISTANT AT A MAJOR TALENT AGENCY FOR A PSYCHOTIC LITERARY AGENT. WHAT DID YOU TAKE AWAY FROM THIS EXPERIENCE?
Oh, I hated every second of it. I realized the agency route isn’t for everyone. Some people thrive in that type of cutthroat environment, but not me. I just wasn’t willing to wake up every morning and go to a job for 12 hours a day that I absolutely hated, and work for someone I despised. I knew (hoped, prayed) that there was another way to go about breaking into the business, and there was.
IT'S FUNNY CAUSE I KNOW SO MANY ASSISTANTS WHO ARE WILLING TO TAKE ABUSE AND BE MISERABLE BECAUSE THE JOB PAYS WELL AND COMES WITH PERKS. SOMETIMES YOU GOTTA ASK YOURSELF WHAT EXACTLY ARE YOU SELLING YOUR SOUL FOR. I HEARD OF A STORY ONCE ABOUT AN ASSISTANT TO A VERY FAMOUS A-LIST DIRECTOR, WHO ALSO HAPPENS TO BE GAY, MAKES HIS ASSISTANT CLEAN UP HIS CUM AFTER HE HAS SEX WITH NUMEROUS YOUNG MEN. GAY OR STRAIGHT, YOU CAN'T PAY ME ENOUGH TO SWEEP UP YOUR SPOOGE.
Obviously, there are no perfect situations, and no perfect jobs, but I think you have to be able to justify the experience in your own mind.
THROUGHOUT YOUR HOLLYWOOD CAREER, YOU'VE BEEN AN INTERN, A SCRIPT READER, AN ASSISTANT, A DEVELOPMENT EXEC, AND PRODUCER. THAT MEANS YOU'VE READ A TON OF SCRIPTS. SO WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A SCRIPT? WHAT MAKES A SCRIPT GOOD OR BAD?
Well, there are a million things that could make a script good or bad—-
HOW ABOUT MENTIONING JUST A FEW THEN?
Okay, Ridley Scott once told me -- shameless name drop -- he said that a good film transports you completely into a different world. If you look at his movies, you can understand what he’s talking about. I think a good script should do the same thing. It should present the reader with a place we want to spend time in, know more about, and not want to leave. A compelling and interesting world makes everything else in the script come alive. More fundamentally, a good script should have a compelling hook, and main character(s) with a strong journey. The stakes should be high, and the pacing should fit the story. Sounds easy enough, right?
SIMPLY BY THE LAW OF AVERAGES, YOU'VE READ A LOT MORE BAD SCRIPTS THAN GOOD SCRIPTS. DOES THAT SORT OF MENTAL ATTRITION MAKE YOU CYNICAL EVERY TIME YOU PICK UP A SCRIPT?
Unfortunately, yes. And most of the time, the cynicism is justified. But, once every blue moon you read a script that reminds you there are still fresh and exciting stories and storytellers out there.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MORE COMMON MISTAKES NEW WRITERS MAKE?
Overall, I think writers should be pickier about the stories they choose to write. Not every idea you come up with needs to be turned into a movie.
EXACTLY, OMAR! HARLAN ELLISON ONCE SAID HE DOESN'T WRITE THE FIRST THING THAT POPS INTO HIS MIND. NEITHER DOES HE WRITE THE SECOND OR THIRD OR FOURTH THING - USUALLY IT'S THE SIXTEENTH IDEA THAT HE HAD TO DIG DEEPLY FOR THAT FINALLY GETS TO THE PAGE.
Yeah, before starting a new script, I think every writer should put themselves into the mind of the person reading that script for the first time, and ask themselves, “Have I ever read anything like this before?” If the answer is yes, you might want to move on to a new idea.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BEST SCRIPTS YOU'VE READ?
Anything by Mike Le. Man, can that guy write!
THAT GOES WITHOUT SAYING.
While everyone else will forever be in your shadow, some other gems I’ve read include, TENURE , by Mike Million which he actually just directed himself with Luke Wilson in the lead role of a college professor who gets denied tenure, and how it changes his life. I read the script a while back, and really wanted to do something with it, but it was tied up at another company. I think Million is a talent to watch over the next few years, if not for his name alone, I mean come on…Mike Million?!? And if Million’s manager Brendan is reading this, you’re welcome. Another amazing script that’s been around for a while is LOVERS, LIARS, AND THIEVES by Jeremy Leven about the theft of the Mona Lisa. I really hope that one gets made someday.
WHAT'S THE MOST RIDICULOUS IDEA A WRITER HAS EVER PITCHED TO YOU?
Oh man, so many to choose from…but I guess the one that springs to mind was about a serial killer going around a small town killing lesbians. It was called, and I’m not kidding, MUFFTOWN. Throughout the pitch, I honestly thought it was a comedy, but, alas, it wasn’t.
EXPLAIN EXACTLY WHAT YOU DO AS DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT FOR A PRODUCTION COMPANY?
Being a Director of Development involves finding new material for the company. It’s up to me to find the next big thing. So, I meet with managers, agents, writers, and directors to find out what they’re working on, and see if there’s anything that might be a match for us as a company. Once I find a project, I develop it with the writer(s), and other producers(s) if there are any until it’s ready to send out to buyers. Before that, we might try to package the project with an actor or director.
BEING THAT YOU'RE A HOLLYWOOD GATE-KEEPER, DO YOU EVER PAUSE TO THINK ABOUT THE POWER YOU WIELD? HOW BY SIMPLY SAYING "NO" OR "PASS" TO A SCRIPT, YOU CAN CRUSH A WRITER'S DREAM? I MEAN, WRITERS STRUGGLE FOR MONTHS, POSSIBLY YEARS TO FINISH A SCRIPT AND YOU COULD BRING THAT DREAM TO A HALT IN MERE SECONDS. DO YOU TAKE THAT LIGHTLY?
Well, yes and no. It does enter your mind, but then you realize you’re only one person, one opinion, in a town chock full of them. If I pass on someone’s project, I hope that it won’t deter them from sending it to someone else. Whenever possible, I also try to give feedback to writers so they can at least get something else out of it besides a “No.”
I LIKE TO ASK THIS QUESTION BECAUSE I ALWAYS GET A DIFFERENT ANSWER. WHAT STILL SURPRISES YOU THE MOST ABOUT HOLLYWOOD?
How hard it is to get something made. Every time something goes into production, it’s a minor miracle, and if it gets released it’s another one. There are so many hoops to jump through it’s a wonder anything ever makes it to the screen unless you’ve got Brad Pitt or Will Smith in it. These days especially, with money being so tight, it seems like anything that gets turned into a movie has to have been an established success in another medium already.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WRITERS THINKING OF MOVING TO LA TO PURSUE THEIR DREAMS?
Don’t bother moving to LA until you’re ready. If you’ve written a good script, gotten some people to read it, and consequently gained representation, then it will probably be necessary to come out a few times a year for meetings, but other than that, you will be judged on the quality of your writing, not on where you live. If you’ve got a great job, or just really like living in Kansas, and you’re not ready to give it up, then don’t do it until it’s financially viable for you, and/or you know for a fact it’s preventing you from working as a writer. If a producer or studio likes your writing, and wants to work with you in some capacity, they’ll find a way to do it no matter where you live. See Josh Cagan’s interview for proof of this. On the other hand, if you don’t have a job you like, and you want to get the hell out of Dodge, moving out here to network, make contacts, and collaborate with other creative people with similar goals might suit you well.
YOU'VE ATTENDED A FEW PITCH FESTIVALS. EXPLAIN WHAT THEY ARE AND WHAT THAT EXPERIENCE WAS LIKE.
Pitch fests are very strange. It’s basically speed dating for writers and producers. I really feel for the writers. They’ve only got a couple minutes to explain an idea they’ve probably been working on for months or sometimes even years. I know that as soon as they walk away they’re kicking themselves for not saying something they wanted to, so I try not to judge them too harshly on the pitch. At the end of the day, all you can really look for in that short amount of time is the hook. If I were giving advice to a writer going to a pitch fest, it would be boil your pitches down to the essential hook, and the journey of the main character. Allow the exec to ask the questions they want to know for the rest of the time.
I'VE SAT THROUGH NUMEROUS PITCHES WITH YOU. IT'S SHOCKING HOW BAD SOME WRITERS ARE AT PITCHING, AND I'M TALKING ABOUT A-LIST WORKING SCREENWRITERS WHO HAVE WRITTEN HIT MOVIES. CAN YOU GIVE SOME ADVICE TO WRITERS OUT THERE ON WHAT MAKES A GOOD PITCH?
It’s very true, but just because someone is good in the room doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good writer either! I would say be excited about the story and the characters you’re pitching. It may sound obvious, but it needs to be emphasized. These are your creations after all, so if your passion for them isn’t obvious, don’t expect anyone else to share it. Also, don’t turn the whole experience into a pitch by numbers, where you slog through unnecessary detail. It’s not essential, nor is it advisable to explain every single plot point, and every single character in the pitch, because the exec will never remember it all anyway. Highlight the things that you want people to remember or take away after seeing the movie, and that’s what they’ll take away from the pitch.
LATELY, YOU'VE BEEN DOING SOME WRITING OF YOUR OWN. I BELIEVE MOST HOLLYWOOD EXECUTIVES ARE CLOSETED WRITERS. WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO START WRITING? TELL US ABOUT YOUR FIRST SPEC SCRIPT. AND WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THAT STORY THAT INSPIRED YOU?
I don’t know about most executives, but I’ve definitely met others. To me, being an executive and a writer are 2 sides of the same coin. They’re both part of the creative process. Honestly, the only thing that was stopping me from writing up until about 2 years ago was patience. I just didn’t have the mental stamina to be able to stick with an idea for so long, and make a feature length screenplay out of it. It wasn’t easy to overcome, as my first script took me about a year and a half to finish, but, once I was able to conquer the psychological hurdles, writing became really fun, and very fulfilling. The thing that inspired me to write the script was the ending. I came up with an ending to a story that I really loved, and kind of worked backwards from there. I wrote it chronologically, but the ending kind of jumpstarted everything. I just had this deep, personal connection to the idea, and felt that I was the only one who could do it justice. Or maybe it’s better to say that I wanted to be the one to do it justice.
The script itself is kind of a hybrid of different genres, but essentially it’s an adventure/horror story. Imagine Werner Herzog’s, AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD crossed with SOLARIS and you’re on the right track. I bet you never thought you’d hear those 2 movies crossed with one another, did you? Cue sound of Hollywood knocking down my door.
CURRENTLY, YOU'RE DEVELOPING A PROJECT AS A WRITER WITH STUDIO 407. HAS THIS EXPERIENCE MADE YOU MORE EMPATHETIC TO WRITERS?
Well, I’d like to think I’ve always been empathetic to writers. I make it a point to be patient with them because I understand that the creative process isn’t easy. But, I obviously know what it’s like being an executive, and if I don’t agree with a note, I know I have to be coherent enough to explain why, and then offer a better alternative. As an exec, I’ve never had a problem with my note being changed, as long as it’s changed to something better. I must say it’s been very interesting to go through the process from the other side. It’s rather surreal.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE FILMS?
Well, anything by Stanley Kubrick. He’s definitely the filmmaker that’s had the biggest influence on me. Some of my other favorites include SE7EN, ONCE, RUN LOLA RUN, NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, THE 400 BLOWS, and the holy geek trinity of trilogies, STAR WARS, INDIANA JONES, and LORD OF THE RINGS. Oh, and FEVER PITCH, but not the shitty American remake about the shitty Boston Red Sox (sorry Jon Davis), the real one written by Nick Hornby, based on his book about Arsenal.
YOU WERE VERY DRUNK AT LAST YEAR'S COMIC-CON. DO YOU INTEND TO GET AS DRUNK AT THE NEXT ONE?
Comic-Con wouldn’t be Comic-Con if there weren’t copious amounts of alcohol involved. I absolutely intend to get drunk at the next one, and I invite everyone to join me.
OUR FAVORITE STRIP CLUB, THE BODY SHOP ON SUNSET BLVD., RECENTLY BURNED DOWN. HOW ARE YOU DEALING WITH THIS?
I am writing this answer curled up in a fetal position in the corner of the room. Yes, it has been a very traumatic experience, but I know that if we all pull together, we can come through these dark times, and walk hand in hand towards the light…and the VIP room.
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