by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
One of the most effective ways to connect with readers and, ultimately, audiences is to tap into a phenomenon in the zeitgeist. Writing about a pressing social issue, unusual trend, or current conflict draws peoples’ attention and separates your script from the crowd. But it’s also a tricky business, because there is always the risk that your script will lose relevance before it’s ready. Sherwin Shilati is one filmmaker who dared to take that risk. His new film People You May Know focuses on the new kind of social media celebrity that feels eminently achievable, but may not be worth achieving.
LA Screenwriter’s Angela Bourassa spoke with Sherwin about the frustrations that modern technology create for screenwriters, the jump from shorts to features, and the importance of practice.
Angela Bourassa: Tell me about the inspiration behind this film. Why did you want to tell this particular story?
Sherwin Shilati: I’ve always had strong feelings about social media in general. When I became a father I started asking myself, “How will my daughter interact with social media in the future? How do I teach her to be responsible about the way she uses it, if that’s what she chooses to do?” The film, in a way, was my answer to those questions. In addition, there is a storyline that touches on pursuing your passion versus living a more secure and pragmatic life. That is something, as an artist, I deeply relate to and wanted to express in this story.
Angela Bourassa: I often find myself frustrated by modern technology when trying to write screenplays. Characters are too reachable, and they’re too likely to make up via Snapchat instead of showing up at each other’s doors. I also hate how much texting makes its way into movies and shows these days. Do you feel like technology is getting in the way of our ability to tell human stories?
Sherwin Shilati: I think social media and texting has become part of our language now. It will only continue to be this way as technology evolves. It makes sense for modern storytelling to incorporate this as long as the technology being used in a show or movie doesn’t distract from the characters and their journeys. I think it’s a tool and when used correctly in storytelling, it can be very effective.
Angela Bourassa: Would you consider yourself more pro social media or more anti?
Sherwin Shilati: I’m pro “valuing time.” That doesn’t mean I’m anti-social media at all. But just very much in favor of being conscious about how we spend our time online.
Angela Bourassa: You’ve shot a number of shorts, and now this is your first feature. Do you feel like all of your short work prepared you for the challenge of writing and directing a feature, or are features a totally different beast?
Sherwin Shilati: I think everything you shoot prepares you in one way or another. And now having shot the film, I still think to myself, “Wow – I’ve learned so much on People You May Know. I can’t wait to jump into the next film.” Obviously crew size is bigger and the stakes are higher but I would say I bring the same energy to a film or TV set that I did to my very first short. It’s the consistent spirit that translates your voice across mediums.
Angela Bourassa: What do you wish you knew when you started working on this film?
Sherwin Shilati: Ha! This list could be very long. But a simple one would be, bring on a post-production supervisor during the pre-production process. Don’t wait until you’ve already shot the film!
Angela Bourassa: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring writer/directors who are just starting out?
Sherwin Shilati: As you start the journey, practice finding your voice as much as possible. Whether that’s in writing/directing shorts, commercials, industrials, features, etc. Practice finding your specific way into a story and learn to lean into that — it’s what will help you standout.
Try and pick a day job that has some aspect of filmmaking, or at least the film industry, within it. Every single person you work with or come across in the film business becomes a part of your community. The more exposure you can get to different facets of the art form, the richer that community becomes. So, if you can help it, try not to go out and take a job waiting tables or selling clothes. Find something that gets you in the game, no matter how small it is. Many years ago, I took a job logging tapes at a post-production company. My coworkers became my friends and, eventually, my collaborators.
And, finally, don’t think “more time” is the answer to your creative blocks. I can unequivocally say that I am more creative and more productive when my time is limited. It took me a decade to figure this out, but now that I know it, I welcome it. Two hours of focused work beats out eight hours of distracted meandering behind a laptop.
People You May Know is currently available on Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.