As a philosophy major at Vanderbilt University, screenwriter Tom Schulman had no intention of working in the film industry. But then, one fateful semester, a professor assigned a film project instead of a term paper. What followed is a long and successful career in film. Schulman is the brains behind Dead Poets Society, the hysterical comedy What About Bob?, and the dark comedy Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag. With no signs of slowing down, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter (who serves as Vice President of the Writers Guild of America, West and advisory board member for The Exchange) is currently working on a science fiction film, for which he requested a consultation from The Exchange. He’s not able to release details on the film but we managed to get an insight or two in an interview with Schulman, as well as the details of his introduction to film, why he enjoys writing in different genres, and how screenwriters can write great characters.
Tell us about your background. How did you get started in the entertainment industry?
Actually, I got started as a student at Vanderbilt University. I took a class where we were assigned a short film as the final project. That’s really how I became interested in filmmaking, a student-made short film. It was called “Lost in the Funhouse.” John Barth wrote a series of short stories and we took one that was particularly cinematic and made a student film on a Super8. It was fun. Certainly more fun than writing a term paper.
Was there any hint before this that you were interested in film?
No. I was a philosophy major in college and I was searching. Knowing that I couldn’t open a philosophy store after college, I knew I had to find something else.
Does philosophy translate well to screenwriting?
I think when you’re a philosophy student, you’re looking to put ideas into movies. I don’t think movies are about ideas, maybe one idea, but after that it’s about characters and behavior. It’s good on one hand, but I think there’s a trap there that one starts to believe they can put a lot of ideas in movies.
Tell us about the consult we’ve done for you. I know you can’t talk about the details of the project…
Right, I can’t reveal what it’s about. If I did that, someone would steal it. Or I’d be disappointed that it’s not good enough to steal. But I consulted with two neuroscientists at University of Southern California and University of San Diego for a science fiction project. I spent an hour and half with them, brainstorming. I had an idea at the time and needed help figuring out whether it was credible, and also needed ideas on how to do it, in terms of the scientific underpinnings. They helped me develop the scientific backbone of the script.
Did you have any expectations of what it would be like to talk with them?
I think my expectations were that they would think it was a stupid idea and not believable. I was pleased when they said, “Oh yeah, that’s totally believable.”
Would you recommend science consulting to other screenwriters?
If the story needs a scientific basis, absolutely. It saves you from having to read a lot of books. You find the real experts in the field—that’s what The Exchange provides.
Dead Poets Society is a vastly different film from What About Bob? Do you enjoy writing different genres of film? Is there one genre you like more than the others?
I enjoy writing different types of films. I love all kinds of movies. I think after writing a drama, you feel, as a writer, tapped out. So it’s nice to be able to jump and do something else, where you feel like the material is fresh and you aren’t rewriting the same speeches in a different way. Some people are incredibly good at mining the same territory over and over, with great results. But for myself, I need to skip around and keep the writing fresh.
What skills do you think a screenwriter needs in order to write good characters?
I think you have to like people. Even if you’re cynical and crabby, underneath it all you need to be interested in people and like them. You need to look for people’s good qualities and pay attention to how they behave.
Is there a way you know something you’ve written is really good?
I wish there was a litmus test but as far as I can tell, there’s not. My general feeling is that if, as a writer, you aren’t excited about what you’re doing, chances are other people won’t be either. I try when I’m writing to be as excited about the thing that I’m writing as much as I can. I want it to move me because my theory is if it doesn’t move me, it’s not going to move other people. But there are many times when something gets to me emotionally and other people read it and shrug. There’s no way to know, unfortunately.
There’s a similarity there between writers and scientists: a passion for what you’re doing. Do you think scientists and writers share other qualities?
Writers and scientists both have to be persistent. They both have to learn how to deal with failure and disappointment. Most experiments fail, most hypotheses are wrong. Scientists learn to deal with that and somehow keep working. Writers have to do the same thing. There’s a lot of rejection in filmmaking, in writing.