What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you, cliché or not cliché?
Schulman: How about this for a cliché, “Tell a great story.” If the people who you tell your story to or who read it don’t go, “Wow,” then it might be a good enough story for a dinner party, but it probably won’t make a good movie.
Are there themes in your own life and work that you’re conscious of, or do you try to keep your own paradigm separate from the script and the characters in it?
Schulman: Often when I start writing a story, I’m not aware of how it directly relates to my own life. But as I continue to write, I almost always come to realize that through the writing – through my choices of theme, characters, etc. – I’m working out a problem or issue I’m struggling with in my own life. I think that often the inner journey of the main character in the script and the inner journey of the writer dovetail.
You initially wanted to be a director, and then ended up writing as a result of trying to land directorial gigs. Did directing change your view of screenwriting? Did you like it more, and did you find yourself changing the way you were writing?
Schulman: When I write a script, I have what I think of as a completed version of the movie in my head, and I try to get that onto the page with a maximum of economy. I don’t think of this as megalomania, it’s simply what is necessary both to fully engage a reader and guide the director, actors and crew. My approach to writing didn’t change after I started directing, but directing did change my view of directing however. Directing is much harder in all respects – physically, mentally, and emotionally – than I ever imagined.
I read that you like to outline in full your scripts before you draft them, how detailed are we talking?
Schulman: As I recall, Dead Poets had a 130+ page outline. But on average, I think a thirty to fifty page outline is optimal: long enough to know exactly where you’re going, short enough to allow for surprises and happy accidents along the way.
Thomas H. Schulman (born October 20, 1950 in Nashville) is an American screenwriter most famous for his screenplay Dead Poets Society which won the Best Screenplay Academy Award for 1989.
Other scripts include Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Welcome to Mooseport, What About Bob?, 8 Heads In A Duffel Bag and Medicine Man.
In 2009, Schulman was elected vice president of the Writers Guild of America, West.
Tom Schulman lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife Miriam and children Peter and Dolf.