Interview with: Shawn Lawrence Otto - Screenwriter of HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG

Posted by The Writers Store on

WS: You graduated magna cum laude AND Phi Beta Kappa from a small, private liberal arts college, Macalester in St. Paul. What was your major and did it have any impact on your careers as house painter, apartment house owner, and prize-winning screenwriter?

SLO: Well it was a funky mix of physics, psychology, philosophy and neuroscience that qualified me for nothing, except maybe a housepainter or a graduate student. I was trying to get at what consciousness was. As it turns out it was also good prep for being a writer.

WS: One of your comments in your bio that I loved is "in the end, your most important creation is your own life." You've certainly had a fascinating one: youthful successful business owner, diver, traveler, Shakespeare enthusiast, an avid interest in politics, architecture, and renewable energy. How do these activities and interests shape you as a writer? Are wide-ranging interests an advantage for a screenwriter?

SLO: Yeah I think so. The broader your life the more experience you have to draw on. I guess I'm just hungry for life. You only sit at the table once.

WS: Your wife Rebecca is a Minnesota representative, you're a political strategist who has served as your wife's campaign manager, and you've been active in your community. What sparked this passion for politics?

SLO: That comes from the same core beliefs we have that in many ways are reinforced by the art of screenwriting: that it doesn't matter much what you think or feel - what matters is what you do. Your values have little impact on the world unless you act on them. This is why we designed and built the house we did, which is a passive solar, wind-powered, superinsulated home we often give tours through to show that being good to the environment doesn't have to cramp your lifestyle. This idea of acting on your values, of being engaged in your world is my ethic in writing, and this is our reason for being political, at least for right now. We feel we have a responsibility to our son to be more than passengers along the way to the world he is going to inherit. And it is tremendously rewarding. The character arc is a terrific thing to try to live by. Movies can be a guide for a meaningful life. I have a favorite anecdote about this sort of thing, I can't remember where I first heard it. One day a woman reporter came to visit Gandhi. She'd traveled a long way, but on that day he'd taken a vow of silence. She followed him around, becoming increasingly exasperated at his silence in the face of her questions. Finally she blurted out: don't you have ANY message for my readers? Gandhi took her steno pad from her and wrote "My life is my message." That's integrity.

WS: In other political realms, you are a champion for wind-powered, renewable energy and you even designed and built your own home with sensitivity to the environment. Do these interests provide more than the tranquility to write - but rather generate story ideas?

SLO: Well the theme of home is alive and well for me it seems. My life and my writing has seemed to circle around the idea of home, and of building and real estate, which is probably one thing that attracted me to HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. I understand what HOME can mean. What the American Dream can mean. More than just owning a house, it's about having a place in the world, an identity, and about having a shot at success and at belonging. Being the son of an immigrant and an American, those are questions I grew up with, on both sides of the issue. I think immigrants and children of immigrants are often more aware of those things than those whose families have been here longer.

WS: You edit your own e-newsletter on politics and policy, OTTO EPINION. Are you harvesting inspiration for a future screenplay subject from this?

SLO: To me, the political side of HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG is about the American Dream and how that dream carries with it the need for tolerance. Political themes like that are sometimes inspirations for stories but more often themes evolve as a story develops from other veins.

WS: Your first screenplay, SHINING WHITE, won numerous awards. What was the appeal of the competitions? Would you encourage emerging screenwriters to enter competitions, apply for fellowships or other awards? Did the publicity that came with the awards throw open doors for you? Was the public relations self-perpetuating or did you have to work on it?

SLO: I think the competitions are a little like the farm system in baseball. They are the minor leagues. You can play there and get feedback and hone your craft, and then if you get lucky you get called up. That's usually by an independent producer looking for fresh material or new voices, but sometimes it's an agent or manager. You just need to be careful that it's really someone who has good relationships in Hollywood. These days it's how a lot of new writers have gotten their starts. It's how I got mine.

WS: You have said that growing up, all your heroes were writers. Can you name a few and tell us how and why they became your heroes? Do you have writer-heroes who have inspired you as an adult?

SLO: Tolkien, Dumas, Chekhov, Fitzgerald, LeCarre and Vonnegut along with Scott Turow, Arthur Conan Doyle and Frank Herbert, covering mystery, thrillers, science fiction and pure dramatic storytellers. I still think The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel. It's a miracle of beauty and economy. I also like The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird. In plays I suppose I most admire Shakespeare and Shaw. They all continue to inspire me.

WS: When you first dedicated yourself to the life of a writer in 1998, you began with a novel. Why did you segue to screenwriting? What form did your studying take? Did you go it alone or opt for writing groups for support? If you had to begin again, would you pursue the same avenues or make changes? Any other advice for our readers?

SLO: I took a class in screenwriting because I wanted to strengthen my sense of structure. To me a good novel delves deep in to a character's spiritual and emotional drives, and then compels them to act in life changing ways. I didn't want to be one of those meandering novelists who cover up lack of action with narrative. So I took the class and I fell in love with screenwriting. It's like story poetry, the most disciplined form of modern writing, where the story is most cleanly exposed and there's a beating heart left there bleeding on the page, precious, holy and frightening.

WS: You abandoned your novel and studied screenwriting with Jim Levi, one of the founders of NICK AT NIGHT because the class description said, "you can't hide behind narrative in a screenplay." What does that mean, and what did you learn from that, and Levi's teaching?

SLO: The story is told in the structure. Novelists occasionally write over or around story problems with narrative because they can. You say it and it is so. But in movies the audience doesn't buy it. Characters have to be totally authentic or they smell a rat. A screenplay has to be transparent. And that means they have to be motivated and the story has to be well structured.

WS: You have described screenwriting as "story poetry," a wonderful term. Can you tell us a little more about that description?

SLO: It's paring story down to its barest essentials, telling story as much with the white space as it is with the ink. Trying to expose the beating heart.

WS: Are you and Levi working on other projects?

SLO: No, he is a mentor and friend.

WS: Emerging screenwriters often fantasize that a script will make the rounds, gain attention, get them an agent, meetings, and land them a real offer to write a screenplay that gets to be produced. That's not just a fantasy in your case; it's actually what happened. How did a Minnesota horse farmer with one award-winning screenplay connect up with a world-traveling director of commercials?

SLO: Vadim had optioned the novel HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG about three weeks before Oprah picked it for her book club. He then hung onto the rights as the book soared in popularity and he interviewed several writers for the project. For some reason he read Shining White, whose protagonist Whitie is in some ways not unlike Behrani, and he sent me the book. I read it in a day and emailed him 22 pages of notes. I think my take on it and our shared experience with the immigrant experience and our similar views of what was essential about the story caused him to hire me. He came out to Minnesota and stayed at our house. I pitched him the new beginning and ending and we sealed our deal.

WS: What is it about HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG that blew you away when you first read the book?

SLO: Two things: the voice of Behrani, which was magnificent, and the deep sense of empathy Andre was able to breathe into his writing of both central characters.

WS: Perelman had not tackled a full-length feature film before this one. Did that give you pause?

SLO: No. Vadim is somewhat of a force of nature. He had a very nice reel of commercials he'd directed and we saw similar things in the story. He had a strong property. I had no doubts.

WS: Here you are, not writing a screenplay on spec, not writing one for a fellowship, but actually being hired to write one for pay and credit and the whole ball of wax. And, it's not your original work, it's an adaptation. What were the challenges of adaptation or the pleasures?

SLO: The pleasures first, and those were working with Andre's luminous novel. It was and remains for me a terrific honor and a wonderful work of art.

The challenges lay as they always do in retelling what is essentially an internally told story, as most literary novels are, in a way that the same emotions and spiritual drives can be captured by a machine - the camera.

For example, the novel starts out with Behrani on the road crew, and counterpunctal to that you have this wonderful first person narration. I needed to create that same feeling of this man's pride without resorting to voiceover. So I decided to start in Behrani's heart - the thing that he felt Nadi blamed him for losing, and the moment that he felt he was at his height of power, respect and happiness. That was the moment of cutting down the trees to see the sea at their Caspian sea cottage. Of course the irony is Nadi viewed this same moment with sadness. Then we pull out into the opulent wedding, which wasn't in the book except in retrospect. And then from the wedding we cut to Behrani on the road crew. So now we have a sense of this man's pride and sorrow, the opulence of the wedding, and that runs counterpunctal to the road crew. Same effect, accomplished with structure - and in the film with Sir Ben's miraculous acting. Other examples are things like the ledger book. I needed to build this sense of impending financial doom visually, so having Behrani carry that book everywhere with him, making a running accounting, seemed like a good way and a character statement as well. My Persian friends have said seeing that reminded them of something their Persian men would do, so I felt pretty gratified.

WS: You and Perelman agreed to a new beginning and ending for the movie; how did the novel's author Andre Dubus react to these changes? Did he feel your screenplay was loyal to the heart and message of the book?

Warning: This response contains a "spoiler" of the ending you might want to skip until you've seen the movie.
SLO: Andre's said he loves them both and felt they were very loyal to the heart and themes of the novel. As you can tell from the last question, sometimes this kind of diversion from the novel is just a function of telling the story visually instead of in a written narrative. In the case of the ending it was more problematic. Vadim and I both wanted the story to end with a little more hope than the novel, which is very nihilistic. We wanted Kathy to learn. So I pitched Vadim this vision I had of her coming back and tearing at the plastic, trying to save them as they had saved her, the intimacy and grief of the mouth to mouth. And the image of Kathy sitting smoking on the widow's walk, and the cop coming up and asking her if this is her house, and she answers no, it's not, forswearing it. He loved it. It completes her thematic and character journeys in a powerful way, and yet it leaves the question about her future and the responsibility for her choices firmly on her - and the audience's - shoulders. And then we let them go.

WS: Perelman is an immigrant who took a long winding path from the former Soviet Union to Vienna and Rome then to Canada before coming to America. You're a second-generation American, and familiar with the immigrant experience on several levels, including your family's experience hosting foreign students during your childhood. Did your relationship with Perelman and your own life sensitize you to the immigrant experience in the story in this movie? Did the main character, Behrani, touch you in a particular way? You have said that the "need for understanding and empathy for people who are different from us" is important; is this part of the appeal of this film?

SLO: Yes I think it has deeply affected my world view. Immigrants are often much more conscious of the rights and responsibilities of being an American just by dint of having only recently become one. They value things in America that many of us take for granted. I grew up on the cusp of this question and many people I consider my family were in our home as foreign students. I don't see color or body or culture or language differences, I just see them. But I feel and understand their struggles like family. The question of empathy I think is key to the movie's structure and tension. Not only do we have no idea how this terrible dilemma can be resolved, we have no idea who we want to have the house. Our sense of justice and rightness are placed in conflict, and the empathy for both sides is what drives the tension forward.

WS: The stars of the film, Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, could not be more accomplished. Their performances are powerful and memorable; what is it like to see actors of such caliber giving meaning to work you contribute to a screenplay? Were they in your mind's eye as you wrote the script? Does it touch you seeing your dialogue performed on the big screen?

SLO: I wrote the script with Ben Kingsley in mind, and we were terrifically honored by his interest in playing the part. Jennifer Connelly is in many ways the emotional catalyst for the story. The tragedy of her portrayal opens our hearts and lets us feel the bigger themes and then the power of Sir Ben's performance hits us all the harder. It's a terrific honor. And I must also say that Ron Eldard really gives a stand-out, nuanced performance. Shohreh Aghdashloo is such an amazingly gracious and graceful woman and actress, so strikingly beautiful and terrifically talented, it was wonderful to see how she brought Nadi to life. And Jonathan Ahdout was so natural he was totally believable. Kim Dickens and Francis Fisher also. Fabulous. We were very, very fortunate to have such a stellar cast.

WS: Your first screenplay, SHINING WHITE, has been referred to as the "best rendition of the American heartland since Badlands." Did you think in terms of loglines and genre during the writing process?

SLO: Not really. I mostly think in terms of emotion and drive and tension and empathy. That way I stay on the spine.

WS: The story is about a man who loses family and job to gambling and alcohol, but finds resurrection through the eyes of a Native American and his son, both of whom are haunted by their own past. We know you love horses and live on a horse farm, but how did you come to familiarize yourself with Native American culture and why did you choose Native Americans to be the instruments of recovery for your main character? What kind of detailed research do you do on your stories and subjects?

SLO: For Shining White I wrote based on what I know from living in Minnesota. Indian gaming started in Minnesota and I've always been fascinated at the moral dilemma this poses for tribes. This presented a great opportunity to explore that and to break stereotypes about who Indians are. They are people with the American Dream just like white people, and just like the Behranis. In that story, Brown Bear is building a house - his American Dream - and trying to expand his wild rice distributing business. Whitie is a banker who, like Kathy, has ruined his life with his addiction - in his case a gambling problem. He has been rejected by his family, has no place to go and Brown Bear takes him in in what at first seems to be an act of compassion. But Brown Bear really is hoping Whitie will teach him how to be successful in dealing with the white bankers he needs to expand his business. While there Whitie forms a relationship with Brown Bear's troubled son Junior, who's trying to learn to break and ride a horse but has no idea how to start. Everything plays against stereotype. These are all just wounded people pursuing the American Dream.

WS: What inspiration do you look for to adapt a work not your own versus creating a screenplay out of your own story? How does the process of adaptation differ from original screenwriting that you have done? Now that you have done several adaptations, what advice could you give to aspiring "adapters"?

SLO: Adapting differs from writing originals in that you are taking what is often a story told from the inside out and recasting it so that a machine - the camera - can capture those same emotions and that same spirituality looking from the outside in. That's drama versus a novel. In writing an original, you're writing drama from the start, so in some ways it's much easier. In adapting my advice is to look for the drive. Many many novels are beautifully written but have protagonists who are passive passengers and observers of the world around them. But drama is about drive. To dramatize a novel with a passive character, you have to find an emotional drive for that character. But a drive creates choices, and choices dictate acts, and acts make plot and plot tells story. So inserting a drive in a passive protagonist will very likely change the story. This is one reason some novels cannot be well adapted to film.

WS: You and Pearl are involved in another project, David Masiel's novel 2182 kHz through his ImageMaker Films with you adapting the book into your next screenplay. How did this come about? When will the film start production? Will you also serve as co-producer?

SLO: Steven found the property and we optioned it for development. We are working to set that project up now and yes I am co-producing that as well.

WS: 2182 kHz is a story about a loner whose main contact with the world is turning his radio into 2182 kHz and ends up assembling a crew to save a stranded scientist whose story he hears about on the radio. What intrigued you about this story?

SLO: In the adaptation the questions are larger than that. That is a good example of a passive protagonist needing to be recast with a dramatic drive. The story intrigued me because the setting and world are so foreign and have never been seen on film before. And I saw a potential to tell a broad story with some moral consequence.

WS: You're busy with 2182 kHz and the buzz for HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG continues. Have you been inundated with other offers? Have you accepted any yet? What are you looking for in your next project?

SLO: I'm speaking to several studios and producers at this point about a number of projects that I am very excited about and hopeful will set up. I can't say too much more yet.

WS: With all the hats you wear, father, husband, campaign manager, politico, producer and writer juggling various projects, how does a typical day or week look for you?

SLO: I tend to be a little obsessive. I write a lot in the evenings and into the late night after my son has gone to bed and the phones aren't ringing. I spend a lot of time meditating on projects, feeling the shape of the story, the emotions of the characters, the stakes and moral questions. Once I feel that starting to take on a life of its own, then I sit down and write in an intense long burst, so I can feel all the emotions of the characters and keep them all focused and tuned, typically writing a first draft in seven to 14 very long days, kind of like composing a symphony, keeping track of all the themes and fugues. During this time I'm pretty unavailable, but then I try to make up for it in between. I have noticed that as my writing muscles have strengthened I can break away more and more without loss of focus.

WS: HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG has received terrific reviews. The grapevine whispers that you may even win the Oscar. Have you allowed yourself to think that far ahead?

SLO: You know, that's very flattering but there are a LOT of really good adaptations out there this year and in my mind any of them could win. I'm just honored to sometimes be considered in the same breath as some of those writers, all of whom I admire greatly.

WS: How has this entire experience changed your life or that of your family? Will you be moving to Hollywood any time soon? What if your wife's career takes her to Washington DC? Would you consider splitting your time between Minnesota or Washington and Hollywood?

SLO: Well I won't be moving to Hollywood. As a writer it's better for me to be a little bit out of the mix and away from the beaten path. It gives my work a freshness that would be difficult for me to maintain in the mix. On the other hand I give up a lot of relationship building which means I have to work harder to get work. And, my wife won't let me move. And her job does occasionally take her to DC. We just do a lot of flying these days, but we love our life, we love being engaged in the questions of our day, and working hard to live with integrity and make a difference.

WS: How has your experience as a business entrepreneur helped you with the non-writing side of this experience, from dealing with agents, negotiations for contracts and the other elements of this world we call show business?

SLO: I think it was actually a detriment. I, like many people with business experience I know, came to Hollywood expecting it would follow rules similar to the rest of the business world. But it doesn't. It follows its own rules and it took me a while to figure them out. The other thing is when you're a writer, at least writing the kind of material I do, it requires you to open your heart. When you do that some of your business skepticism goes out the window. It just works that way and shrewd as you may think you are in other circumstances, you can't control it and you lose your judgment. That's why we have agents or lawyers or managers. We need them.

WS: Do you use screenwriting software such as Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter?

SLO: I use Final Draft now because almost everybody has it and can read the files without having to translate them into a different format. Living and working where I do, the ability to share work over email is very important.

WS: Thank you, Shawn, for answering our many questions during what must be a very busy time for you. Our very best wishes for the success of all of your projects, but most notably HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, scheduled for release in less than six days - a story we enjoyed tremendously in novel form!

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