By Roadmap Top Tier Writer Jennifer Kircher
“Keep writing. I always meet with young people who ask me if they could work as a PA or assistant while they work on becoming a writer. I don’t really think this is the right approach.
Writing makes you a better writer – not slaving away on a set and coming home too tired to write anything useful.
Live somewhere cheap, get a part time job and write as much as you can.”
-Wise words from writer/director/producer, Sam Hoffman.
I was one of the lucky production assistants who was granted her first ever “real job” on a film set by Sam Hoffman, when he hired me on Bill Murray’s GROUNDHOG DAY in 1992. While working 16+ hour days in the business, I never generated anything more on paper than illegible notes that I scribbled in a 2 by 3 notebook, tucked in my fanny pouch among cigarettes, pens and Advil. It was only after I hung up my production hat, that I was able write full-length scripts.
Sam Hoffman, however, just may be one of the few who is talented and dedicated enough to have been able to do it all. While continuously working on movies and TV series as an in-demand assistant director and producer, he managed to create a web series titled, “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” which he then penned as a best-selling book and it later went on to become a hit Off-Broadway play. He has written, directed and produced his own feature film, which recently premiered at the LA Film Festival in June, titled HUMOR ME. He is producing season 4 of CBS’ MADAM SECRETARY and will direct two episodes this year. Sam is also partnering with Frances McDormand to develop Michael Pollan’s book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” into a film.
Are you tired yet? Oh, and he is a married father with two young children.
Sam is a testament to: Hard Work Pays Off. I’m grateful to have stolen a little bit of his time for this interview to share with Roadmap Writers. Perhaps one day, he’ll find time to hear our pitches and read our pages for consideration.
Jennifer D'Angelo Kircher: Where did the idea for HUMOR ME come from? And how long had you been tossing it around before you finally started writing the script?
Sam Hoffman: The original idea for HUMOR ME came from a web series I produced called OLD JEWS TELLING JOKES in which I filmed a bunch of old Jews telling jokes. And I got really interested in a “joke-teller” as a character - someone who uses jokes to communicate, but also maybe to shield himself from actually emotionally connecting to other people. So that was the starting point and the genesis of the character ultimately played by Elliott Gould. I think the character played by Jemaine Clement was more of an autobiographical character. I did OJTJ in 2009 and started writing the script in 2011, but I was producing a movie per year so I would work on it between films.
JDK: What was your writing process for this particular script? What else was going on in your life and how did you carve out the time? Please share the secret of how you got it DONE.
SH: I had a day job producing movies and I am the father of two small children but in-between films I would write. I was also, at that time, creating the last three shoots of OJTJ which involved producing, directing and editing all the short films. Luckily for me, my wife works and that allowed me to take some time between films to write.
JDK: Do you procrastinate writing? If so, in what ways?
SH: I think it’s really hard to stay off of the internet while you’re there staring at your computer. It’s also always easier to do “busy work” like paying bills or doing tasks than it is to write.
JDK: What screenwriting software do you use and why?
SH: I use Final Draft. I really like that now you can do a note board in the program like you used to do on the wall.
JDK: How many other scripts had you written before this one? And what has happened to those?
SH: I’ve probably written five or six others. One that I wrote with a partner was optioned by Paramount but never produced. A couple of them are terrible and were just part of learning how to write. And there are one or two that I like and could maybe make one day.
JDK: Do you have any favorite resources for screenwriting? Any books or lessons you swear by?
SH: Robert McKee’s book was very helpful to me.
JDK: Who are your readers? How do you deal with feedback?
SH: For me, I was very lucky to have two producers, Jamie Gordon and Courtney Potts, who were really supportive of this project. They read every draft and were intensely critical but also very encouraging. And I would fight with them about their notes but ultimately I usually tried what they were suggesting and they helped me a tremendous amount. I force my wife to read what I’ve written as well. I like feedback as long as it’s glowing. Just kidding. Sort of.
JDK: Can you let us in a bit about the process of how this script got made? Did you pitch the idea and then a company with financing said “go ahead, write the script,” or did you write the full script first, then sell the idea to a producer? Please elaborate.
SH: I wrote the script, got the cast attached and then found the financing. It’s hard to find money before you have cast. And I also think it’s hard to sell a pitch without a track record as a writer.
JDK: Attaching cast on your own? How did you do that?
SH: After I wrote the script I began the process of attracting cast. This is a challenging process because, when you don’t yet have financing, you can’t really make financial offers to the actors when you send them the script. So, sometimes you can wait a long time for people to read. Although some of the cast members ended up being people I knew from the television show, Madam Secretary, - I didn’t know any of the leads. I got to them the same way anyone else would -- by sending the script to their agents and managers and hoping they would like it. The first person who signed on was actually Ingrid Michaelson, who read the script a few years before we actually made the film. I had heard one of her songs while I was writing and thought she’d be right for the film so I got the script to her. Jemaine Clement was next and he actually had signed on to do the film a year earlier, but had to postpone when he got offered a Steven Spielberg film. And then finally, I was able to get the script to Elliott Gould, who had always been at the top of my list to play Bob. Once I had these pieces in place, I had to move really fast to find financing, because I had to make the film on my hiatus from Madam Secretary, when all of the actors were available and it was only a couple of months away.
JDK: Do you consider yourself to be mostly a comedy writer? Do you write in other genres? Do you feel writers should stick with just one genre or diversify?
SH: I like comedy but I’m open to trying other things. I think people should do whatever makes them happy while allowing them to earn a living. Industries tend to pay more for specialization since you’re more of a known quantity once you’ve shown a talent for a specific genre or craft. But specialization can be boring.
JDK: Any parting words of wisdom for all the writers out there who are trying to break in?
SH: Keep writing. I always meet with young people who ask me if they could work as a PA or assistant while they work on becoming a writer. I don’t really think this is the right approach. Writing makes you a better writer - not slaving away on a set and coming home too tired to write anything useful. Live somewhere cheap, get a part time job and write as much as you can.
HUMOR ME was an official selection of the LA Film Festival and premiered on June 16. Sam produced it along with Jamie Gordon and Courtney Potts of Fugitive Films. They are close to announcing their distribution deal for winter 2018.
It is a heartfelt father-son comedy about a struggling playwright who is forced to move in with his joke-telling dad in a New Jersey retirement community and learns, as his father often says, “life is going to happen, whether you smile or not.”
“My intention with HUMOR ME was to tell a story both current and classic. The themes of the story are eternal: fathers and sons, the measuring of success and the inevitability of life’s challenges and how we approach them. Yet the scenario could not be more current. A man, on the cusp of middle age, adrift in his career and broke, abandoned by his more successful wife and forced to figure out his life in the home of his widower father.
Jokes are a lot like movies. In both, the storyteller creates a familiar scenario, with characters we believe, in order to confound our expectations and bring us joy. This is what I have attempted to do with HUMOR ME.”
– Sam Hoffman
To learn more, visit the HUMOR ME Facebook Page.