Shawn Schaffer: a very nice guy in general, not to mention a talented NYC Director of Photography – blessed by a list of credits that would make anyone involved in film drool… on with the interview.
Q: Could you give me a little bit of background on how you got into film making?
A: I usually tell people I started as an actor, but in reality, before that I was just a friend driving their actress friend to auditions. I remember the exact date. May 16, 2002. Opening day of Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones. My friend asked me to bring her to an audition before my showtime, so I obliged. It was hot as hell that day, so sitting in the car was not an option. I went inside to the stage theatre production had rented for auditions, it was only me, my actress friend, my girlfriend at the time and her friend, the director, and the producer in the whole place. She auditioned, we were about to leave when the director asked me and my friends to audition. I reluctantly got up on stage and auditioned. I got the part. I still have the audition tape somewhere in my office I think. From there, I was an “actor”, but being an actor on a no budget short just means you wore one more hat than everyone else. I helped with lighting, set design, sound, even camera, among everything else. Shortly into my acting “career”, I realized I had more interest (and talent) behind the camera than in front of it. So I started writing, making my own terrible no budget shorts, and getting on every set I could as a Production Assistant working for a cold slice of pizza to learn and shadow other crew members.
Q: What was your first film making experience?
A: I made my first film, “Fragments“, in the fall of 2003. It was a personal story to me about a young woman contemplating suicide. At her breaking point, a conversation among fragmented parts of her personality begins. Her Hope, her Despair, and her Anger give her all the reasons she should or shouldn’t end her life in a debate like fashion. We shot it in one day, in my father’s spare bedroom, lit with one Home Depot work light, shot on a Canon XL1s on tape. We shot the actress playing each part individually and used the magic of editing to make a round table discussion of it. The source material was a journal entry from when I was about 16 years old.
Q: You work primarily as Cinematographer/DOP but you’ve worked as an Editor, Director, Actor etc, which is your favourite?
A: They all have aspects I enjoy, but I love cinematography. I love being a Director of Photography. Being able to visually tell a story gives me great satisfaction. I strive to make art at 24 frames per second, meaning I aim to make imagery that you could take any single frame of it and hang it on a wall. A beautifully composed and lit shot that has my fingerprint on it gives me chills every time, even after 14 years.
Q: You’ve also written a few scripts, do you like the writing process?
A: I enjoy the writing process a great deal. For me it’s a creative outlet for when I’m not shooting. When I read a script, I am playing the movie in my head, so writing for me is that process reverse engineered. I see the movie I want to make and find the way to put the imagery to words as opposed to the other way around that I’m used to. Dialogue for me is always my favorite part, however, because I aim to give every character a unique voice and then through a stream of consciousness let the dialogue among the characters happen. If you didn’t know me, you’d think at this point in reading the interview, I might be schizophrenic between my description of my first film and my writing process, but I make my internal dialogue external quite a bit in all aspects of my life, I use it as a method of problem solving.
Q: Do you want to direct your own scripts or are you looking to option them to other film makers?
A: I have directed my own scripts in the past, but I really want to focus on the visuals once I’m on set. I’ve already written the words, I’ve played the movie in my head, I’m re-creating it from my mental blueprint in real life on set, and I trust the director will bring the best out of the actors and give it his own spin and unique flavor to the production. I’m not a stickler for my words once on set, there’s more than one way to skin a cat as they say, likewise, there’s more than one way to breathe life into the words on a page.
Q: How was the experience of directing your own material for the feature version of ‘Pawn’?
A: That was an experience to say the least. It was 2004, I was contemplating going to film school because I felt it was what I “had” to do to continue in the film industry. I spoke with some colleagues about it and the consensus was that I could spend what a year of film school would cost and just make a film. At the end of it, it would have cost me the same, I would have gotten the practical, on set education, and I’d have a product to show for it. Like a lot of stories, it seemed like a good plan at the time.
Q: How did you fund ‘Pawn’?
A: This is the “at the time” part of it seemed like a good plan at the time. I funded “Pawn” via credit card. Being 22 years old, I had virgin credit that every credit company would love to violate, and they did. I kept accepting cards, they kept sending them, and I kept spending it. I spent $25,000 in credit to fund “Pawn” which, given interest rates, late fees, etc, if I had to guess, probably ballooned that to $60,000 when all was said and done and destroyed my credit for a lengthy period of time. Only to be rebuilt and destroyed again by identity theft in 2008. So I went from the cost of one year of film school to two or more by the time all was said and done. Here’s the kicker, “Pawn” never got finished.
Q: I believe ‘Pawn’ wasn’t finished/released, what happened and what did you learn from this?
A: Enough was enough. I couldn’t spend any more and the credit offers stopped coming. Now I was working to pay interest only payments to the credit companies. It’s 95% there, but by the time I righted the ship from colliding with two icebergs, the initial debt and then identity theft, “Pawn” wasn’t a viable product anymore. It was dated, shot in Standard Definition, and one of my lead actors, Michael J. Cannon, who portrayed Benjamin Harris, passed away. I learned a lot of things from all of it. Most importantly, and this is something I try to express to every filmmaker that approaches me with a project in a similar situation, if you can’t pay for it, don’t do it. Or at least don’t produce beyond your means. It’s okay to make low to no budget films, it really is. Everyone has to get their feet wet and make a few terrible, unwatchable films before they can evolve as filmmakers. Your first film is not going to be your great opus. Neither will your second, maybe not even your third. Even after 14 years, I’m improving, learning, and growing every time I’m on set. When you get to the point where people want to give you money to make your film, whether by asking for it like with crowdfunding or they’re offering it, is the point where you can compose your opus. What I wouldn’t give to have had crowdfunding in 2004/2005…
Q: ‘Pawn’ features a great character in Benjamin, the chess player, was he the hook for the story and you built it round him?
A: Benjamin is the embodiment of the mentor I wish I had. Devin in the film is me at the time, through and through. Visiting the undiagnosed schizophrenia again, Benjamin was the voice that told me the rational and logical things I needed to hear. The subconscious speaking it’s mind to tell me what I needed to hear, whether I wanted to hear it or not. Never saying I told you so, but approaching things from a very Socratic method as asking questions, giving examples, and leading you to the correct response. Benjamin is also largely influenced by my grandfather, Carmine DeStefano, who passed in 2013. My grandfather was to me what Benjamin was to Devin. He never pried or inserted himself into what was going on with me in my life, he just patiently waited for me to seek his advice. He was my rock, my lighthouse as I traversed the foggy seas in my life. Even know after he’s passed, I can still hear him when I’m unsure in life, and I always will.
Q: How do you get your scripts ‘out there’? And do you think it’s any easier for you given you are working in the industry?
A: My scripts tend to stay close. I have a completed feature screenplay, another feature screenplay that I’ve finished a draft of, another feature screenplay I’m currently writing, and I’ve toyed with brushing off “Pawn” and modernizing it. I hear reboots are all the rage. The completed screenplay I’m on the fence as to what to do with it. I know some people I could send it to, but I also know I’d love to shoot it, and depending on the potential buyer and their production, those two things may not be able to both happen. I think the only aspect that’s easier for me is there are more eyes willing to look at it, but it doesn’t making it any easier to sell or produce. It’s a friends industry, so you still need to know somebody and while I know a lot more people now than years ago, I don’t know “somebody” that can snap their fingers and make it happen. So the short answer, no it’s not any easier.
Q: Any particular method/structure you use when writing scripts?
A: Stream of consciousness. Nearly every first draft has been insanely long. I write out EVERYTHING. It’s typically a winding road that forks to many places. I know the characters, the beginning, the conflict, and the resolution when I sit down. Everything else just happens. Then I revisit and start hacking away at the overgrowth of vines until I have a clear and straight path.
Q: I believe you swerved film school and formal training, how did you go about building your rep?
A: This is a friends industry as I mentioned. So, I made friends. There’s still a small handful of people who were there in the very beginning that I still work with today. I started with that small group, working on each others projects, no budget, but big dreams. We kept putting our work out there until people took notice, then they started calling and became my new friends. This industry is really about the person, not always the talent. I’ve known plenty of directors who have cast their second choice for a role because they were much easier to deal with and direct. Same goes for crew, I’ve been told to my face I wasn’t someone’s first choice, but I’m friendly, good to work with, level-headed, a problem solver, AND have a level of talent at what I do. There are a lot of brilliant people I have worked with, far superior to me, that I never see on set anymore, because some of them behaved like entitled, insolent children and you can’t have that. From top to bottom, you need good people first, then people who are good. It’s true that one bad apple spoils the bunch. There’s nothing worse than a sour member of the team that causes a pandemic like level of misery on set of what would otherwise be a great project. It’s different if that team member had been legitimately wronged, whether by production or something else, then it becomes a rallying point to circle the wagons around that team member, because that’s just it, we are a team on set, we are the closest thing to family without being related.
Q: I noticed on your IMDB that you were a grip on Bridge of Spies, what was that experience like?
A: I wasn’t a core team member of the grip and electric team, as it was a Local 52 show. I was a “permitted” which means a non-union guy who knows enough to not kill someone or endanger the set, but who knows enough to do good work, they just don’t happen to be a member or a current applicant. Having said that, I day played, I wasn’t on for the whole production. I just wanted to make that clear as I know a lot of great guys who were on for the whole production and did way more than me. The experience was tremendous though, seeing the army it takes to make a movie like Bridge of Spies. We took over a four block radius in Brooklyn for a couple days and changed everything; store fronts, signage, cars, etc all to be period appropriate and to turn it into Washington DC. I was fortunate to meet Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in person and shake hands with them both the first day I was on, they both really enjoyed my shirt, which had the hand drawn original Star Wars poster on it. Mr. Spielberg joked “Hey, I know that movie” and Mr. Hanks simply stated “Great shirt, where can I get one?” So I gave the web site info to his assistant who was helping him get out of wardrobe since we had just wrapped. Most awe-inspiring to me though was being able to watch Janusz Kaminski work on set. He’s such an amazing Cinematographer and to see him command an image, a set, and lighting the way he does was incredible.
Q: I believe you work in NY, how is the film community and opportunities on the East Coast?
A: There is always an abundance of production in New York. I think I read it’s actually at it’s highest point in history in terms of man hours and productions happening concurrently of one another. The city is teeming with artists and with creativity. It’s everywhere, quite literally. Walk through Brooklyn and you’ll see beautiful pieces of graffiti art everywhere, cafes with poetry, performance pieces, and more and of course a multitude of film productions happening everywhere. There really are only two hubs in the country to experience the film industry in a way unlike any other, NY and LA.
Q: Have you worked in LA and/or thought of moving out there?
A: I have worked in LA a handful of times. Traditionally it’s a tough sell as a Director of Photography to fly you out and put you up for a production when they have their own myriad of talented DPs out on the West Coast. Perhaps as an actor it’s more common to consistently work bi-coastal because if you have a “look” that is a great selling point. I’ve considering relocating, mainly because after 33 years living in New York, I’m growing weary of snow and freezing temperatures, but my daughter loves snow and what’s left of my family is here, so I stick it out and just make myself available to be anywhere in the world for work.
Q: Clearly visuals are very important to you, how much comes from the script and how much do you get to influence things, say in something like The Perfect Color? (which I loved!)
A: A lot of my visuals are inspired by the script since I play the movie in my head when I read a script. I have a great influence on a lot of things visually on set, but always in collaboration with the Director. Ultimately, it’s their show, so if they say no go after you’ve made your case, then it’s no go, but I find typically that myself and nearly every director I’ve worked with can get on the same wavelength rather quickly. Then it becomes one feeding off the other creatively. With The Perfect Color, that was the case. Justin and I clicked right away and made it almost a game of one-upsmanship to create the best visuals we could. Perfect Color link – https://vimeo.com/128883117
Q: What’s the best experience you’ve had making a film and why?
A: I would have to say making Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor was my best experience making a film. I knew every day we went to work we were going to laugh and have a good time. We had become good friends with the five tremendous members of our Armed Forces that were our subjects of the documentary. Having spent over a year on the project filming, we got to see some positive and great changes in them. When we first started, Rob Jones was very quiet and we couldn’t quite get him to come out of his shell during the intake interviews, but by the end, he was transformed into a thrill-seeking, risk-taking, adventurer who just kicked ass and took names. He was a bronze medalist in the 2012 Paralympics in London in two-man adaptive rowing, he rode an adaptive bicycle over 4500 miles from Maine to San Diego in the name of charity, I recently read he’s going to the Freedom Tower climb up the 100+ flights from the ground to the crown. Bobby Henline has become a tremendous motivational speaker, he’s in the process of raising funds through his Sunrise Warriors to pay it forward to other veterans by establishing a quick service restaurant to hire veterans and provide a steady income. He’s been such a force in helping promote an improvement in the quality of life of veterans. So in making Comedy Warriors, it wasn’t just a documentary film that we did, it got released, people watched, and hopefully enjoyed, it was a catalyst for our stars and the fruits of the films labors and the labors of the veterans involved are still showing today, years later. It’s one of my proudest ongoing moments in this industry.
Comedy Warriors trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqbX0DB4m1w
Q: Did you learn anything from that experience and subsequent work?
A: I learned that I want to replicate that feeling every time, every project. I want to have a feeling of immense pride with everything I do, both in the visuals and in the project. While I do this for a living and make an income from it, it’s true there are some things money can’t buy. I understand that I won’t be able to do replicate it every time, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to.
Q: Of the films you’ve worked on which is your favourite and why?
A: That’s like picking your favorite child. I only have one child so in real life that’s easy, but in my professional life, that’s hard. I like all of my films for different reasons. Whether it was the people involved, the fun times and stories I could tell from set, the sheer entertainment I got from watching the finished product, the pride I felt in seeing go out into the world on big screens or small screens alike, or the one I felt I shot best, they all have aspects that make them my favorite.
Q: Any other shorts/features you’ve worked on in pre-production we should be looking out for?
A: I’m currently in pre-production on a few shorts. “Cornbread & Feta: Growing Up Fat & Albanian” goes into production the end of April. That should be fun, picture My Big Fat Greek Wedding mixed with Bridget Jones’ Diary, but Albanian. “Coffee and a Donut” goes into production in May, that one will be a good short as well, it’s about a young immigrant trying to assimilate to being in America, starting with being able to order his own breakfast at a local diner. I’m currently talking with producers on another short called “Towards the Grassy Knoll” which would possibly get lensed in June. On the feature front, I’m in development with producers on a few feature films. “Lather“, a comedy satirizing the soap opera genre, “The New Weapon“, which is an feature length adaptation of the award-winning short film dealing with cyber-bullying, “Dear Soldier“, a tense drama surrounding mistaken identity, and an untitled docu-drama about the 35 years of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, the visionaries who see it and speak with her, and the 50 million people who have made pilgrimage over those 35 years to the town of Medjugorje in modern day Bosnia to see the apparition. The features in particular could all benefit from some additional funding, wink wink, nudge nudge in case anyone out there is interested.
Now for a few ‘getting to know you’ questions
Q: What’s your favourite film?
A: Leon: The Professional, Luc Besson at his greatest.
Q: Favourite cinematographer?
A: Roger Deakins, it’s criminal with his resume that he hasn’t won an Academy Award after 13 nominations.
Q: Okay, I couldn’t get you to specify a fave film of your own… what about fave Deakins films?
A: Shawshank Redemption of course is one of my favorite films period. I also really enjoyed the look of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Reader. Also, In Time I feel is a vastly under-appreciated film both stylistically and as a great sci-fi film.
Q: Favourite author and book?
A: I don’t have a lot of time to read, but when I have, it’s been Matthew Howe and either his “Film is Hell” or his latest work “Waypoint“. I also enjoy Christopher Loken’s “The Boy Next Door” and “Come Monday Morning“, which I’m currently reading concurrently with “Waypoint“.
Q: Beer or Wine (or something else)? And which variety?
A: I enjoy a good Jack and coke. Otherwise, I drink Guinness most of the year, but in summer I drink some form of craft Hard Apple Cider or Redd’s Apple Ale.
Q: Favourite food?
A: Rib eye steak and Potatoes, I’m a simple guy.
Q: Sports, or any other interests and passions?
A: I love baseball and football for spectating, I used to play golf until I injured my shoulder, then I played pool with the APA, competing five times in the National Championships, finishing twice in the top ten.
Q: Any final thoughts for the screenwriters out there?
A: Write every day. Build a library of screenplays, shorts and features, in a number of genres. Someone is always looking for something to produce.