A Conversation With John Scott Shepherd

by Claire E. White

John Scott Shepherd is living every writer's dream:
Photo of John Scott Shepherd

his first novel Henry's List of Wrongs (RuggedLand) was a critical and commercial success, and his screenwriting career is taking off, with such feature films as Joe Somebody starring Tim Allen, Life of Something Like It, starring Angelina Jolie and Ed Burns, already under his belt. He has a three picture deal with Warner Brothers, and is slated to direct the film version of his family comedy/drama novel, Eulogy for Joseph Way for producer John Wells. Other projects on the slate include writing his original screenplay for Favorite Son, a Field of Dreams-type comedy/drama about a Nebraska man who discovers his life isn't what it seems, being produced with AEI by producer Donald Deline, and with director Steven Brill (Mr. Deeds); and writing the romantic comedy, Tonic, which Revolution Studios is developing for Julia Roberts and Adam Sandler. Shepherd clearly has made it to the top. But his road to writing success was not an easy one; just a few years ago, he was on the verge of bankruptcy.

After graduating from the University of Missouri at Kansas City with a B.A. in English, John took a job with the Kansas City ad firm of Valentine Radford, where he garnered acclaim and promotions on a regular basis. But when he was offered the prestigious McDonald's account there was a catch; he had to move to Los Angeles. He knew that he didn't want to spend the rest of his life working on major ad campaigns -- he wanted to work on the novel that he had always dreamed of writing. So he left behind the high-powered world of corporate advertising, and began writing full-time, while taking part-time jobs as an independent corporate video film producer. After seven years, the bills were piling high and things looked pretty grim. But just when things looked the worst, John made the big sale: he sold the movie and book publishing rights to his first novel Henry's List of Wrongs for $2.8 million. All his hard work had paid off, and now John can pick and choose the projects on which he wants to work. The book tells the story of Henry Chase (better known as "The Assassin") a ruthless corporate insider who clawed his way to the top after being humiliated after his high school prom. But when Henry returns home to finalize his plans to destroy everyone who hurt him in high school, he gets the shock of his life. His entire belief system is overturned in one day, and he realizes what a jerk he's become. So he sets out to make amends to everyone he hurt on his climb to the top. It's a heartwarming, hip and funny novel. Kirkus Reviews says "Smooth as silk, there's no reason to think that this charming, sweet story will fail to find an audience ready and willing to lap it up." Publisher's Weekly says that "Shepherd taps successfully into the universal fantasy of revisiting the past, and the book should twang the heartstrings of readers."

In order to have more creative input as a producer and director, John formed his production company, Warp & Weft, in July 2001, with partner Ken Atchity. John and Ken are developing his script, Prince of Pools with John Wells and Creative Artists Agency.

John has so far resisted the move to L.A., preferring to raise his family in the Midwest and traveling to California as needed for projects. He lives in Kansas City with his wife Susan and their three children. When he's not working, you might find him working out, spending time with his family or rooting for the Cleveland Browns. John spoke with us about Henry's List of Wrongs and his upcoming feature films. He also gives some great advice to aspiring novelists and screenwriters.

What did you like to read when you were a boy?

I started reading really young, like five, and I had to read whatever was in the elementary library. I read a lot of scientific books on birds, for instance! I remember moving on to really loving Alfred Hitchcock’s The Three Detectives and John R. Tunis' teen sports books. Every single one was about the troubled new kid in town who puts the basketball team over the top. I didn't mind.

When did you first get interested in writing?

I've written since I was about seven, kneeling at the side of my bed to write horror stories. It gave me the same feeling then it gives me now -- a warm buzz, like I finally found home. It's just a totally different state of being for me. I become less social. I don't shave. I live in my pajamas. Beats heroin any day of the week. I think.

I'd like to first talk about your book, Henry's List of Wrongs. What was your inspiration for the story?

Cover of Henry's List of Wrongs by John Scott Shepherd
My first dot of interest in Henry was just the question, "How far can you get from your truest self and still find your way back?" Then I met a guy at a party who'd divorced recently. Now feeling free to take their whacks at him, all his old friends started exchanging tales of how horrible he was. He was pretty pissed ... until he realized that all the stories were true. And if you are what you do, he wasn't exactly the man he wanted to be.

When we first meet Henry, he is not a very likeable character -- far from it -- but he undergoes an amazing transformation. Were you concerned at all that readers wouldn't like him enough to stick around to hear the rest of his story?

I don't really consider the end audience when I'm first writing. I just tell a story I'd love to read or see. At some point in the rewrite or before I share it with anyone else, I get horrifically insecure and suppress it, covering it up with false bravado. Someone else brought up that Henry might be less than sympathetic, as a matter of fact. But I'm very drawn to "broken" people who act out in ways that are less than tidy and pretty. I guess I want to help them find their way home, like I said.

Henry's entire life is changed when he meets the straight-talking, yet mysterious Sophie, who has a few issues of her own to deal with. How did you create the character of Sophie?

Sophie wasn't created so much as she emerged. I walked Henry right up to the moment when she would appear in his life ... and she did. I'm not really a craftsman, as writers go. I'm very much the flow writer who meets his characters just as a reader might, one page at a time. I don't write biographies, but I know on some deeper level she's fully formed and has a past.

When Henry begins to apologize to those he wronged in the past, he doesn't always get the reaction that he expects; certainly not everyone is ready to forgive him! Can you personally relate to anything Henry goes through in the book?

I think every man and probably damn near every woman can relate to Henry Chase. Just for fun, and without lying, pretend you're someone else talking about you ... and explain why you're a complete asshole. If you're brutally honest with yourself, you'll have little problem making a strong case. It's a bracing little game, I'll tell you.

Better yet, make a list of the 10 worst things you've ever done that hurt people. Or the 10 most embarrassing -- not "cool embarrassing," but the ones that raise the hair on the back of your neck.

Guess what? This is part of who you are. What you do defines you, not what you intended to do. And part of you -- your "inner witness" -- knows all about it. I think that stuff is fascinating. I'm a hopeless hack psychologist.

You did something very interesting to promote the book: you created a book trailer, like a music video, but for a book. Tell us about

"Fixation" really started with my idea. I felt
"I want there to be something honest about my work, even at its most commercial and accessible. I don't want it to be too aware of its precedents. I don't want to be immersed in either film or literature. I want to walk in the world with everybody else."
like Henry was a unique book because it doesn't fit neatly into the romance-by-men subgenre with Nick Sparks' books ... but it's not really "high fiction," either. I felt like a traditional marketing campaign might fall flat because critics and reporters weren't really sure what the hell this book is. In the end, that's been somewhat the case, quite honestly: A core of readers and critics act like it's one of the best books ever printed, while others want to proclaim it a glorified screenplay. In the end, it's just hard to nail down, I think.

So, long and short of it, I suggested a movie trailer for the book. And "Fixation" is the result of that.

Let's talk about screenwriting. Would you describe for us the experience of seeing your first screenplay as a finished film.

I really didn't have the kind of out-of-body experience some people do when I saw "written by John Scott Shepherd" before Joe Somebody. I think because I didn't feel like the movie truly reflected me as an author, for better or worse. I got more of a rush from seeing my name on my first book.

Your latest film was Life or Something Like It. How did this project come about? What do you enjoy about writing romantic comedy?

Life or Something Like It started with a real person, a man no less. A lawyer who is also something of a local celebrity, a social gadfly, a regular in the society pages. Good looking, popular, witty ... the whole deal. But it occurred to me that he was mid-30s, unmarried, childless, and surrounded by acquaintances. He didn't have meaningful relationships. He seemed strangely lost in his own life, when you turned the lens on him just a little.

Technically, most of what I write isn't romantic comedy in the classic sense, where one of the leads is actively looking for love. I think I write stories about identity and purpose, man and woman in transition fables. Romance is the reward.

That said, I think my latest screenplay, White Collar Blue, is a more classic romantic comedy ... whether by "classic" you mean The Lady Eve or While You Were Sleeping, and I happen to think you'd be right on both counts. The truth is, I love the smart feel-good movie, the date movie. I think, as the lead in Sullivan's Travels finally learned, that these movies fill a vital need for audiences. They remind us that in the end, love isn't puffery ... it's the most important force in the universe. It's unfathomable and timeless and humbling and empowering. It's the great equalizer, making the poor rich or the rich poor.

During the filming, was any of the dialogue changed or improvised by the actors? Were there any scenes in particular that changed quite a bit from what you originally planned?

Both of my movies changed quite a bit. I'm not a movie critic, so I want to avoid declaring myself all-knowing or something. But like any writer with conviction, I want my projects to better reflect my sensibilities. I'm learning how to manage the process a little better to guide a script through the choppy waters of "development." Working with certain producers and even directors who share and sign onto my vision is one of those ways.

It's an unfortunately popular notion among some in Hollywood that dialogue doesn't matter. That couldn't be further from the truth -- ask Elmore Leonard, who was really slippery for Hollywood until they stopped trying to rewrite his dialogue with Get Shorty. You can keep every story beat in place and rewrite dialogue and create an entirely different movie.

Dialogue is my strength -- it's the center and the soul of everything I write. Yet it's the most vulnerable to, er ... "development." It's a dilemma I've had to consider very deeply and strategize to protect, even if it's just saying it to people over and over and over.

How did you feel when Angelina Jolie was cast in the film? Was she who you were picturing when you wrote the screenplay?

of Life or Something Like It, Screenplay by John Scott Shepherd
I thought Angelina was really refreshing in Life, less puppy dog than most romantic comedy leads. More challenging and alive and sexual. But that same quality that made Life different also scared off women who were looking for themselves in the movie. In retrospect, maybe the hair was over the top, hunh?

Someone recently suggested to me that if you put Renee Zellwegger in that movie it opens at $20 million. Maybe. But maybe not.

It is unusual for such a successful screenwriter to work in Kansas. How has being from the Midwest affected your point of view as a writer? Have you ever felt the need to move to Hollywood?

I think staying out of Hollywood has almost certainly been good for me. I mean, 18 years ago, Steve Soderbergh makes a little indie and it's Sex, Lies and Videotape, about people we all might know. Now he makes a little indie and it's Full Frontal, about people he knows. Hollywood people.

If all you've studied is movies and all the people you know make movies, you stop making movies about life and about people and start making them about movies. It's unavoidable. You stop being of the world and start being of that world.

I want there to be something honest about my work, even at its most commercial and accessible. I don't want it to be too aware of its precedents. I don't want to be immersed in either film or literature. I want to walk in the world with everybody else. I want to eat popcorn and enjoy movies, not study film. I want to read a book because the flight is long. I want to talk to all kinds of people about their lives and what matters to them and not feel like I'm on an expedition to a foreign land.

I never want to hold my audience in contempt. I want to see brilliance in all its shapes and sizes and colors. I don't want to elevate myself.

Damn! I guess I just want to be Bruce Springsteen.

By the way, most of my favorite writers are songwriters. Adam Duritz and Lucinda Williams and Bruce Springsteen and Fiona Apple and PJ Harvey and too many others to summon up all at once.

I understand you've formed your own production company. Tell us about Warp and Weft. What kinds of projects will the company produce?

The whole reason for Warp & Weft to exist is to take a piece of my material -- and occasionally someone else's -- and put together a project with people who love it as much as we do. That might include a more powerful producer who partners with us, an actor, a director ... whoever we can get on board. Only then will we go for funding, with everybody in agreement on the script and ready to roll tomorrow. No development to speak of.

We recently attached Brendan Fraser to my peculiar suburban comedy, Prince of Pools and we have a terrific director ready to go, too. It's one of the paths I'll be taking with some of my material.

When you're not working, what do you like to do to relax and have fun?

DVD of
Joe Somebody, Screenplay by John Scott Shepherd
I am a sports nut and a Cleveland Browns fanatic. My nine-year-old son and I fly to Cleveland two or three times a year to see them play. We watch all the other games on my big screen, thanks to DirecTV.

What else ... I get massages, swim, work out on my elliptical trainer, listen to music, watch TV, go to movies, and cheer on my three kids in their sports and theater performances.

I think about ninety percent of the time I hang out with my wife Susan, who truly is my best friend, and/or some configuration of our three kids. They're kind of my gang now. I don't club or drink at all, for that matter, and crowds are starting to bug me. I think I'm becoming a very strange hermit who wears only pajamas and lives in his own attic.

We travel quite a bit -- to fun places for the kids, like Atlantis in the Bahamas, back to my home of Cleveland, to Malibu for a week or a month in the summer (L.A. is kind of a second home), and to New York in groups of two (usually my wife and 14-year-old daughter). My wife and I like remote beach spas for our getaways.

With all the professional success you're enjoying, how do you balance your work with your family life? How does your wife feel about the new direction in your career?

Because I work at home, I spend a ton of time with my wife and kids. We have lunch together in the summer. I take off in the afternoon to go see a movie. I drive them to school every morning and watch their practices in the evening. Then, maybe every third or fourth week, I leave for five or six days. I really enjoy L.A. and my friends there, but I'm always jonesing to get home. Nobody has any great anxiety over it -- even my five year old takes it right in stride after seeing that I always come home.

Our house is sort of the Kool-Aid house, for everyone from the five-year-old to my 14-year-old daughter. Kansas City's not like L.A. -- not everyone has a home theater and a swimming pool. But we did it because we realized our lifestyle had changed to the point where being able to spend the better part of a weekend around the house -- even with an array of kids coming and going -- was actually a good thing.

This weekend, we'll have left the house like three times -- for two lunches and church. Otherwise, we were in and out of the pool, online, watching sports, and watching movies. I'm so not cool these days.

I'd like to talk about the actual creative process. What's a typical writing day for you like?

I write all day every day, Monday to Friday. I do some weekend work when I smell blood -- when I'm close to finishing something. I go out to lunch every day for a break, and sometimes to transition between projects. Because I work in features, fiction, and television, I can't remember the last time I was working on only one thing. It's a blessing and a curse, but I'm getting it down.

My office is on our finished third floor. It's dark and I haven't done all that much decorating. I feel separated and private and I get lost. It's pretty much me, the computer screen, and the little plays being acted out in my head. I love it.

When you are writing a screenplay, do you approach it differently then when you are writing a novel? How so?

I don't feel a real profound difference in the way I approach screenplays and novels, except that I'm a little more free writing fiction. Movies, at least mainstream studio movies, have certain rules. Your lead needs to be almost instantly sympathetic and relatable, which is just something you learn to live with and build around. But I'm pretty set on writing what I want to write and letting each piece find its own destiny. To do that, you have to accept the possibility of failure, and I've had one screenplay that was a total wash. It will never be made, for a variety of reasons. But I loved writing it and I don't regret it for a second. I found out that the world didn't cave in and I was able to come back and set up projects without missing a beat. In a way, it was liberating.

Do you prefer writing novels or screenplays? Why?

I like writing both for very different reasons -- writing fiction is more fluid, less restricted, and puts me deeper into another world. Writing screenplays gives me faster closure and there's an energy to that, something that really stokes me.

Tell us about Eulogy For Joseph's Way. I understand you will be directing the film version of the book? How did this project come about?

Eulogy is a real labor of love and I'm still working
"Like you say, Writers Write. Write from the heart, rewrite with passion, listen and learn ... and then move on. Once the piece is out of your hands, to an agent or whomever, start your next piece."
on it, still getting to precisely the story I wanted to tell. It's a family drama with "Hamlet-esque" elements, but it's also very funny. It's a hard-line mystery, but it has a mystical quality to it. In short, it's about the adult son of the mayor of Cleveland who has five days to decide whether or not to run to fill his father's seat and how to eulogize the man he doesn't know nearly as well as he thought he did.

In many ways, Eulogy was inspired by my relationship with my father, who I found way more interesting, human, and loveable when I realized he was an actual human being. But then he died, and I wished we'd had it earlier and longer.

My goal with any book is to write something I would read, and I'm not an obsessive reader. I don't like genre fiction for men but I don't enjoy sappy romance, either. I think there's a hole there, somewhere in the Nick Hornby area, but not quite.

What is your advice to aspiring authors? To aspiring screenwriters?

What's my advice? That's a whole 'nother article, isn't it? Like you say, Writers Write. Write from the heart, rewrite with passion, listen and learn ... and then move on. Once the piece is out of your hands, to an agent or whomever, start your next piece. Don't marry a specific piece of writing or make it your hobby. Don't put all your love onto one stack of paper, like a parent who can't have a second child because she could never love anyone so much again.

It's entirely possible the first or second or third thing you write won't be "The One." In fact, it's probable. I happen to think great writers are born, not made, but it takes time and effort to clear the space between your gift and the page.

It's irresponsible to shoot one arrow and then drop the bow if you didn't hit the bull's eye. It's even worse to stand there and yell that they had the target in the wrong place.

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