Thursday 1 p.m. Sixth floor, North Quad, just in time for office hours — except this time, I’ve arrived at the Screen Arts and Cultures Department to pick my teachers’ brains about their stories instead of mine.
I arranged to meet with Veerendra “V” Prasad, who I had for my introductory screenwriting class last semester; then Daniel Shere, who is my lecturer for Screenwriting I: the Feature Script; and finally, the esteemed James “Jim” Burnstein, the father of the University’s screenwriting program. There was a certain generational feeling as I walked down the hall, a student of Shere and Prasad’s, who in turn were former students and success-stories of Burnstein’s.
I sat up straight and wide-eyed as they each spewed out their insight about the industry — an extensive three-hour synthesis nuanced in ways only decades of experience could have detailed. I first met with Burnstein, who strung on anecdote after anecdote so mellifluously that I became a child at story hour rather than an interviewer with interrogations. During his time as an undergraduate and graduate Shakespeare-infatuated English language and literature student, the University’s screenwriting program was nonexistent. It was only until his professor proclaimed, “If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be a screenwriter,” and upon reading Polanski’s “Macbeth” script, Burnstein fell in love with creating a visual language — words that could translate into emotions and actions before our very eyes.
Consequently, Burnstein taught himself the art of the script and progressed quickly — selling the third screenplay he ever wrote — a fact he recounted with shocking nonchalance, as if the craft were simply second nature. However, just weeks before CBS was to start shooting the TV drama he wrote, they pulled the show to the young Burnstein’s devastation.
However, a failed production disseminated Burnstein’s name in the industry. While tipsy at a party, Michigan native and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Kurt Luedtke convinced him to go big, or go home (and later, to go Blue). Thus sprung an idea based on his poignant personal experience teaching Shakespeare to soldiers at the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan — what became “Renaissance Man” starring Danny DeVito. It was then that Burnstein learned the importance of rewriting — a concept he would later use to construct the University’s screenwriting program — and one he would eventually pass onto Shere and Prasad as students in his class. After three years and four drafts, “Renaissance Man” finally sold, proving the validity of the rewriting tactic.
Since, Burnstein’s practice of “what if” galvanized his 2013 wartime romance “Love and Honor” starring Liam Hemsworth, as well as his current works, “Naked Shakespeare” and “Palio,” original screenplays about a Florida strip club turned Shakespeare theater and a Chinese animation set in Italy —“bizarre” concepts he never would have imagined could come to life.
“I never give up. If I have a good script … I have some projects where I say, ‘It’ll get made, maybe not in my lifetime, but it’ll get made,’ ” Burnstein proclaimed.
His patience eventually landed him an agent who allowed him to establish a fruitful screenwriting career from his Plymouth home. Conveniently, his alma mater also persuaded Burnstein to return as the creator and director of what is now one of the top screenwriting programs in the country — positions he has now held for about 20 years. Though he has no formal film education at the university level, he still decided to return to revamp his roots, building the program for future students that he dreamed of during his time as a student.
I finally bid Burnstein farewell – a chanceful “see you next semester” — as I moved down the hall to Shere and Prasad’s shared office. Despite holding a third full-time job as a father at home with three sick sons, Shere was his usual enthusiastic self — emanating a sophisticated passion from his voice and body language every time he spoke about film.
Shere’s fascination with movies started during his childhood days. In our three-hour class every Thursday night, he may spend half an hour raving about the storytelling brilliance of “Star Wars,” the film series that glittered his juvenile memories.
“My youth was seeing those movies in the theaters, and then living with them, and having the little play figures and re-imagining it,” Shere noted.
A Detroit native in the pre-digital age — an era his son refers to as “the 1800s” — Shere entered the University on a quest for wisdom and answers — a philosophy major provided a theoretical foundation that he channeled into writing, putting his childhood imagination to good use.
“(Burnstein’s classes were) where I gained my confidence to try my hand at (screenwriting) professionally.” Shere reflected. “He really challenged us to raise our game. He never coddled us … He really instilled in us this work ethic of rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.”
Burnstein’s solid encouragement — and Shere’s brewing interest-turned-obsession with script writing — prompted him to audaciously leap to Los Angeles after graduation where he continued to live for seven years. He laughed as he admitted he was pitifully paid sub-minimum wage at a humdrum agency job “getting coffee for the guy who gets coffee.” He has recounted his tale of toil often to our class, but what sticks out each time is his unrelenting dedication to his passion project — the script he started in Burnstein’s class — arriving two hours early and staying several hours late each day to rewrite.
Before Shere knew it, a mere eight months into bumbling around L.A., he sold “Goat Cheese is Dead” to United Artists. Though his script eventually ended up shelved next to with Wheezy the Penguin (much like the fate of Burnstein’s first project), “Goat Cheese is Dead” lodged his foot in the door — and more importantly, it inspired him to continue pushing dark, personal experiences from pejorative to positive. His original script was based on his own heavy metal garage band during high school.
“I think a lot of comedy frankly comes from things that were once really painful — so, at the time, playing that gig that no one showed up to,” Shere chuckled as he recounted the experience. “I think there’s a sort of empowerment to that when you can laugh at yourself or experiences that were cruel or demeaning,” he added.
Shere has since written commissions for monster studios such as DreamWorks and Sony. Quite recently, he co-wrote the animated feature film “Epic.” Though he had extensive experience in the L.A. scene, like Burnstein, he eventually relocated back to the University where it all began. Now, as a lecturer of more than 10 years, he becomes animated whenever he teaches Michael Arndt’s “Little Miss Sunshine” or talks about “Toy Story 3.” He always makes time in class for personal anecdotes about spontaneous encounters with Dustin Hoffman at L.A . coffee shops and run-ins with Paula Abdul at fro-yo. It’s clear teaching has become an ancillary passion.
“Just as Jim was able to guide me into this new world of screenwriting, I think that in my years here, I’ve been able to do that with some students.” Shere said. “There’s always something very special to me about this place.”
Looking into the future as a writer, Shere has an array of projects including a new animation, a live-action comedy, a bit of music — and perhaps even a novel. Though he is solely a screenwriting teacher, he encourages all his students to experiment with the multifaceted aspects of film — an openness to a variety of mediums he attempts to emulate himself.
“Screenwriting was never the only thing I saw myself doing … I’m open to other kinds of writing, and I just want to continue to explore,” Shere explained. “The main thing is to just develop a wide range of interests and to be able to look at things from different perspectives … I think creativity is a lot more fluid than people maybe assume.”
Shere’s main pieces of advice drew from his liberal arts background, highlighting the importance of growth by opening up to new challenges. Especially in today’s fluxing screenwriting world, he stressed how writers only have one thing to fall back on: trusting good stories.
“You just have to really follow what excites you, what inspires you as a writer … Don’t just aim at where you think the marketplace is, but aim at what entertains you. The vast majority of people who try their hand at writing or directing fail. You may as well fail being true to yourself,” Shere advised. “For me, ‘Goat Cheese is Dead’ is what I wanted to do,” he chuckled.
“The other great thing about being a philosophy major is … you’re pretty much free in terms of exploring,” he finally added. “There’s nothing that sounds crazier when that’s your background. It’s not like I had an engineering degree or anything.”
Just then, Prasad entered their office, a perfect segue into his even more egregiously atypical start to screenwriting. Prasad laughed heartily when I brought up his electrical engineering past, an undergraduate major his parents nudged him into. However, his unrelenting Martin Scorsese obsession that stemmed in high school prevailed and carried him through today.
Pensive and meditative in nature — Prasad beamed a quieter enthusiasm than his colleagues, but he also unraveled a reel of insight I had never heard before. A graduate of the University’s 1997 class and an alumnus of Burnstein’s first screenwriting classes like Shere, Prasad is now a University lecturer. Indian by descent and Ann Arborite by birth, Prasad grew up before the emergence of prominent Indian filmmakers, a period he refers to as “pre-M. Night Shyamalan.”
“The only Indian people I knew were either engineers or doctors,” he explained. “The only Indian person I would see on TV was Apu from ‘The Simpsons.’ ”
It wasn’t until halfway through college when he decided to pursue this elusive passion, with few footsteps to follow except the guidance of a passion rooted from youth. It was his discontent with the stagnation of stability that launched him into the lucrative, but engaging world of film – landing him among the prestigious American Film Institute’s graduating class of 2000.
“A lot of people (said), ‘Oh, it’s really brave of you to follow your dreams,’ but it never really seemed that way. It seemed like that was the natural thing for me to do,” Prasad recounted. “The risk would’ve been more staying in engineering and knowing I would’ve been unhappy.”
Upon obtaining a degree from one of the most renowned film schools in the world, he was asked by a Michigan doctor to write “Ocean of Pearls,” the feature film that first grounded him into the working industry.
“I’m a big believer in bisociation,” Prasad said, “This idea that creative breakthroughs come from putting two things that don’t necessarily belong together, together.”
In this respect, he refers to “Ocean of Pearls,” which attempts to find common thematic ground between Sikhism and health care. Prasad, raised Hindu, is interested in his religious roots as creative inspiration. His current projects include “Head on Straight” which is about a gay Indian man’s arranged marriage, as well as a ghost story set in India and another feature linking classical Indian dance and piety — tales which all amalgamate his cultural and spiritual background with other challenging aspects of life.
It is this dedication to telling unique ethnic stories that he credits to Burnstein for sparking within him 18 years ago. He recalled his script for his introductory screenwriting class about a taxi driver in a college campus, and how he had initial qualms about creating an Indian protagonist. However, Burnstein motivated him to “write what you know,” giving way to Prasad’s aspirations to blaze an industry trail for his heritage.
“There weren’t a lot of people making stories about (Indian characters). I always want to do something that hasn’t been done before — whether it’s telling a story in a new way or telling a story that hasn’t been told before,” Prasad said.
In his pursuit of originality, he has since been a story consultant for Lionsgate Entertainment and a features juror for the Traverse City Film Festival, among other achievements. However, after seven years in Los Angeles, the Midwest called him back — with an offer from Burnstein at their alma mater, and with the understanding that Burnstein himself made a successful career remote of Hollywood.
“I love L.A., but I think the one downside of being there is sometimes it breeds this culture of waiting — waiting for other people to tell you you can make a movie,” Prasad says. “If I could go back in time and give myself advice, I would’ve just jumped into making things.”
After reading a New York Times article about college students finding sugar daddies to help pay for tuition, he became the director of the feature-length film, “Consideration,” which grew from modest roots into a project that inspired the filmmaking fire within many other students.
He recounted his initial mission: “Start writing, shoot it in a year with whatever money we can find, with whatever locations we can find, with whatever script we have.”
“Consideration” has since been premiered at the Cinetopia International Film Festival in Ann Arbor and at the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival. The feature will soon be available for streaming rental online.
Recently, after bouncing his career between Ann Arbor and Los Angeles, Prasad made the move to Chicago for a fresh community. Just like he once doubled in engineering and screenwriting in college, he now wishes to simultaneously teach and pursue independent filmmaking projects. Despite a lengthy weekly commute, he mentions how he’d like to direct more, perhaps working projects into his curricula or shooting stories pertinent to campus issues.
“There’s so much content out there so diversity is survival, Prasad stated. “You need to distinguish yourself in some way. So write the story you want to see that no one else will make.”
Burnstein reflected on Prasad’s humble beginnings: “(Prasad’s) first five pages were the first five pages I ever read in that class. I remember reading it and saying to my wife, ‘Holy shit, if they’re all this good … ’ ”
While Prasad and Shere may have been more modest about their accomplishments, Burnstein openly showcased his pride for his students, boasting accolades of achievements he had a part in initiating. For both Shere and Prasad, Burnstein’s introductory screenwriting and rewrite class summed up the entirety of their formal film education. Like Burnstein, they have all taken their winding paths to the intersection between pursuing — and now passing on — their passion for screenwriting.
“Most writers are in a hurry to fail, which means they send their first draft out.” Burnstein continued, “If I had sent my first draft out … I’d never get to meet Prasad, Dan Shere … I’m not teaching at Michigan. If I had not learned that you don’t send something out before you’re sure it’s good …” he trails off in contemplation.
It is this drive and perspective Burnstein offers that has paved his speedway to success. His career has soared because of his refusal to submit anything less than his highest potential. He understands how every aspirant must pay their toll to the top. He understands how success in the film industry — or any field, for that matter — is dependent on his patience and perseverance.
Burnstein took a breath. He had spoken for about an hour straight. Despite his affinity for loquacity, he uttered one final phrase of wisdom: “Learn to rewrite.”