Screenwriter Philip Shelby could easily write a bestseller about the art of writing. A guy who started off doing international thriller novels for many years (one co-written with Robert Ludlum called “The Cassandra Compact”), Shelby hit the big time when Sony bought his book called “Days of Drums.” His persistent, easy-going manner probably helped too. Here, Shelby (who has the Jason Statham-featured film “Mechanic: Resurrection” coming out August 26) takes the time to tell Moviehole about being practical but not giving up, either.
Moviehole: How did you get started writing?
Philip Shelby: I come from novels. I wrote international thrillers for many years, then Sony bought “Days of Drums” and that introduced me to world of Hollywood. I started working in that regard and little by little, I went over to the dark side (laughs). I may be going back to that (novel writing), because I came up with an idea where I’m not sure it will make a movie but will make a terrific book.
If you enjoy reading something and you’re really into that, then one day you say to yourself, “maybe I can do it too.” And you try and sometimes you get lucky and find the right agent and material and it actually works — then you’re no longer going to law school. It’s one of those situations that if you never try, you’ll never know. I know a lot of people who do and it doesn’t happen for the fourth, sixth or tenth book.
Moviehole: Did people try to discourage you about trying to break in?
PS: I don’t think anyone discourages you, it’s a matter of a) do you believe what you are doing b) do you have a thick skin c) are you okay with the waiting line for publishers, it’s like trying to get an agent, there’s no difference in how hard it is to break in. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon; if you keep at it and keep at it, hopefully along the way you meet people who know what you are talking about and are willing to help you along. There’s no substitute for luck, you could be waiting longer than you normally would.
There’s Bill Goldman, who after “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” he was the toast of the town, then for ten years nothing happened. He went back to new York and wrote “Marathon Man,” he wrote it at that point where he wasn’t working and did it for a period of time — there came a point in his career, let’s say, he went into “Hollywood hiatus.”
Moviehole: How will “Mechanic: Resurrection” be different from the first one?
PS: We’re not changing the essence of the Mechanic, which is an assassin making hits look like accidents. What I did for “Mechanic: Resurrection,” I put him in international situations and locations, rather than confining him to Louisiana. I wanted real interesting set pieces — I have the cable car in Rio that goes up to Sugarloaf Mountain, and then I found a pool this guy had built for a really interesting setting. If one could find interesting settings to add to the picture, put the actor on a cable car in the picture so he is on top, like the ones that go up to the Swiss mountains, that worked real well. We had the location and it was highly visual and then Jason could really do his thing within that context.
Moviehole: What do you think of the one with Charles Bronson?
PS: It was a great 1975 movie, it was archetypal Charles Bronson.
Moviehole: What do you think makes the “Mechanic” films different from other action movies?
PS: The fact that this is an assassin who gets paid because his kills are hits that look like accidents, that’s the primary difference, we never lose sight of that. The studio, Jason and everyone were clear on that. The Mechanic is about making things appear other than they are. I wanted to elevate the Mechanic’s game, let’s put him on the international stage, let’s get him going more in a “Mission Impossible” way, put him in different locations that we haven’t seen before, which in turn elevates the plot. He’s working outside his comfort zone with languages, he has to work faster and there was a different challenge in this particular picture. Jason Bourne is all about memory loss, that’s the central motif about trying to regain one’s identity.
Moviehole: What were the biggest challenges about writing this film?
PS: Once I had the story and sat down with the studio executives and they read it, the actual writing didn’t take that long, the tone and quality came out well in a relatively short time. The most interesting part was being called back to shoot and working in Thailand.
Moviehole: How was it working with Jason Statham?
PS: Jason is a real easy guy to work with and that started before I arrived in Thailand; he had notes about where it wasn’t working in the script and where it had gone off. He took time to explain his point of view and walk me through what was happening, we had a meeting of minds. So when I arrived in Thailand it was okay, it was, what are we going to do with specific stuff? Working with him was great, he was basically on top of everything.
I’ve been very fortunate, such as with the movie “Survivor,” there was actually nothing for me to do, which was great. Milla (Jovovich) and Pierce Brosnan were great, I just stepped back and let it happen (laughs). About being rewritten, that can be frustrating if you allow it to be, everybody gets rewritten pretty much except for an elite handful like Christopher McQuarrie and David Koepp. Koepp worked with Spielberg on “Jurassic Park” and wrote the latest “DaVinci Code” installment. In this case they brought me back to do a final polish in Thailand. You can’t take it personally, it’s just the way it is.
Moviehole: Writing idols, books and film writers?
PS: I like thrillers, I like Daniel Silva (book author), I like the subject matter and the way he writes, I’m always a fan of that. John Sandford, the “Prey” series, about a Minnesota cop that’s a hero, he’s terrific. I enjoy David Koepp’s movies and enjoy reading his scripts. One of my favorite movies was “Panic Room,” you read his script and it reads like a really great thriller novella.
Moviehole: Do you have a writing method?
PS: What I try and do is pace myself. When I was writing novels, at the halfway point, I would shift material to an agent and editor and leave 2-3 weeks to go scuba driving. With screenplays, I would do a draft and after the first or a second draft, take a break and come back. I can deliver something quick, but ideally it’s great to work in a more relaxed environment.
Moviehole: Advice to new/beginning writers – how can they break in?
PS: I would avoid all help-to books except one, the only book I’d recommend is a slender volume by Denny Martin Flynn – “How Not to Write a Screenplay” – he says he worked in film studios, and the book is not about the quest of a hero, it’s why stuff gets rejected. He breaks down about how a screenplay is structured. He is not interested in an idea, because all ideas have to fit the format. If you read that and take it to heart, they (agents) will think he or she knows how to write a screenplay. I can only say I got very lucky because I already had a top flight New York agent; I never had to worry about that.
Moviehole: For a beginning screenwriter or for anyone writing, how can they pitch someone?
PS: Someone will say I have this story and blah blah blah. I ask, “Can you tell me in two sentences what this story is about?” If I say, “this is a movie about the right/wrong girl” or “It’s a romantic comedy about a guy who always chooses the wrong girl until..” The guy sitting across will say, ”I get that, tell me a little bit more.” If you thought it through and deliver a catchy line, you’ll get to the next step.
Moviehole: Upcoming projects?
PS: A very rudimentary novel in outline form is with my New York agent, to see if he sees potential. I have a television series project I’m working on, we’ll see how that fares. One of the two will be the next project. I could hit the lottery and they could say yes to both!
Moviehole: What do you hope for the future, what are your big plans?
PS: I would like to see if this television series goes ahead, whether I can apply everything I’ve learned about screenwriting and apply that to the smaller screen and actually run something for 1-13 episodes. We’re talking about 45-50 pages per episode, what laws work in that universe, that would be new ground for me. The ideal script is 105, unless you are doing a three hour picture. At 120, they will chop it down to 110 minimum. That’s not to say you shouldn’t write a 120 draft, but for presentation, mine comes in 105-108.
We at Moviehole can’t wait to see what’s next!