For our fifth interview in this series, we spoke to Helen Shang, writer of CELINE and DORIAN GREY. Helen found her manager on the site, and is now staffed on NBC’s HANNIBAL. Today, we talk to her about how the past, present, and future have shaped her screenwriting career, and how the Black List helped foster her journey as a writer. Since Helen writes for television, her answers are TV-centric!
What was the first film that had a major impact on your life?
THE X-FILES was the show that made me want to be a writer, period. I was in the fourth or fifth grade when I watched my first episode – I can still clearly remember how shocked and intrigued I felt watching mutant mushroom spores bursting from people’s necks. I loved the memorable inventiveness of each case of the week, and the ongoing relationship between Mulder and Scully that made me want to tune in episode after episode. I grew to deeply care about these characters, and started writing short stories about them myself. My writing life sparked into existence with X-FILES fanfiction!
Was there a single film that made you want to be a screenwriter? How else did the decision to pursue that career evolve?
I wrote stories throughout my school years, but didn’t seriously consider a career in screenwriting until watching HOUSE M.D. I was in college, and someone told me that HOUSE used shots of my campus center as their hospital exterior. So I started watching it for the cool factor of seeing my school on TV! Of course, I instantly got hooked by the story and characters. Seeing my daily hangout spot on TV gave television a sense of “realness”, and it really hit home that this was a job people did, and that I could be a part of it. When a Hollywood producer alum came to speak at school, I signed up for a summer internship after my freshman year. There, I read scripts, wrote coverage, visited the set of a TV show… and realized that I could pursue my love of writing through screenwriting. My first TV script was a spec for HOUSE.
Most writers have to have “day jobs” in order to stay afloat. What was the strangest job you ever had before becoming a writer?
I was a personal assistant for a writer/director, and had to make scrambled eggs for his dog.
How do you find ideas and how do you choose which ones to work on?
I sit down for a set period of time and write down every half-baked idea that pops into my head. Then, from those, I pick out the ones that I can see being a TV pilot, or feature. I expand those ideas a little more, and then ultimately choose the idea I feel most excited to write. My manager (who I got through this site!) gives me good insight on my ideas too – for example, if there were 5 pilots this year already about X that aren’t doing so hot, then I’m probably better off not writing about X just yet.
Walk us through a normal day of writing for you. Any special habits to keep the muse happy?
In my opinion, at least for TV, thinking about whether or not the muse is in the mood isn’t really helpful when there are hard deadlines looming. I open Google Calendar and mark down the deadline of when I have to have my script by, and then I divide up the days beforehand to see how long I need to spend on each act. And then I write every day until I hit the day’s goals. Sometimes it’s smooth going but sometimes I really have to force myself. But my goal is to get a draft done, even if it’s not amazing, so that I can see the problems that exist so I can do rewrites. It’s not really a glamorous way to go about things, but when you’re working on an actual TV show (especially as a lower level!) nobody’s going to halt production so you can work out your personal angst with your muse. A mentor told me to get used to writing on a schedule before you’re even staffed, and I think that is a great idea.
Which films are keeping you inspired at the moment?
The last big impact was a couple months ago when I watched a lot of Peter Greenaway’s movies (PROSPERO’S BOOKS, THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER and THE PILLOW BOOK.) His films are so visually lush, rich, and symbolic. It really got me thinking into how to effectively write visuals to set the tone, and to convey story and character.
If you could make one film, with no restrictions in place, what would that film be?
Something creepy and darkly romantic.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
Dinner with three of your favorite writers and/or filmmakers, dead or alive. Who’s coming to dinner? Who picks up the check?
I would invite novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (he wrote NEVER LET ME GO and also worked to adapt his novels into screenplays), Werner Herzog (writer/director/documentarian/legend), and David Bowie (Renaissance man whose sheer creativity transcends genre). I feel like Kazuo Ishiguro can teach me a lot about writing characters, Werner can inspire me to live and work fearlessly… and I’m David Bowie’s biggest fan, so if I put it out in the universe enough times, maybe one day I will get to meet him!!! Bowie picks up the check.
The Black List:
How did you first hear about The Black List?
I heard it through a few members of my writing group.
Since using The Black List, how has your career been impacted?
I got my manager through The Black List, so it’s been impacted very positively! Readers at Benderspink responded to one of my pilots that I uploaded, passed it along to him, and he liked it enough to reach out to me via email. In his email he asked if I had another piece of material, and I sent him another pilot. During our first meeting we really clicked, and he signed me on the spot. I already had an agent at that point, and my agent and new manager worked together to nab me my first staff gig on HANNIBAL!
Any tips for writers interested in the site?
I would say take it seriously and upload your very best material that you are proud of, because industry people are reading and looking for new writers. Make your logline pop!