Interview with Sean Robert DanielsShare
Scott Myers of Go Into The Story interviews Sean Robert Daniels, winner of 2012 Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship.
Sean Robert Daniels’ original screenplay “Killers” is a taut, finely crafted thriller that won him a 2012 Nicholl fellowship. And for those of you toiling away on spec scripts outside the United States, Sean can be an inspiration for you as he lives 10,364 air miles away from Los Angeles, all the way in Centurion, South Africa.
I will be posting the whole interview over the course of this week.
Today in Part 1, Sean describes his background, his affection for travel, how he got into filmmaking and his work as film school teacher.
Scott: Let’s start off with this. Is it true your father named you after Sean Connery because he’s a big fan of James Bond?
Sean: It is true. He was a big James Bond fan. I never really asked why he decided, but I think he was that big a fan. Sean Connery always seems to be in adventurous movies. Maybe he was hoping that I would lead a similar type of life.
Scott: It sounds like in some ways you may have done that as you’ve been to every continent on the earth, including Antarctica where supposedly you were on an island surrounded by penguins.
Sean: [laughs] What happened there was this: my Dad was turning fifty, all of us in the family had managed to get through our various travels to all six of the other continents, so he decided for his 50th he was going to take us all down to Antarctica.
Truly, it’s one of those things that you should plan one day to do. You have to leave from a town called Ushuaia on the very bottom edge of the world. It’s quite a very unusual town. I’d love to go back and spend more time there.
The whole town is very much in constant twilight because it’s so far south. We were there in the middle of summer, and it was snowing and twilight. Very unusual. You’re surrounded by the phrase, “the end of the world,” the entire time, partly because it’s the Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire, but also because it is the southernmost city in the world. There’s an apocalyptic feel to the place, which is very appealing.
You leave from there, and it takes about a day and a half for the ship to get to Antarctica. Every day you do two or three excursions out to the mainland or the islands. On the one island, it was breeding season. We were surrounded by 100,000 breeding penguins. It was quite cool. You’re not allowed to approach the penguins, but if the penguins come to you, that’s OK.
Scott: Being a writer all of your travels must have fed your imagination, your curiosity, your ideas for stories.
Sean: Very much so. The thing is, it was the desire and the wanting to be a writer which made me want to travel. I started doing my serious traveling after I finished studying. I realized in my final year that as much as I knew South Africa, Australia, and a little bit of England, the rest of the world ‑‑ America, Europe, Asia, South America ‑‑ were just places that I’d only ever seen in movies or read about. I felt that if I really wanted to be a writer and write stories that weren’t entirely located out of imagination or just about South Africa and Australia, that I would actually have to go and see the world.
The first big trip, I took a whole year off. I went round Europe. I went round Western Europe for about three months doing the classical things. I would go to a major city, and I would have a list of five things that I needed to do. Like, in Paris, on the list, I’d have to go to the Eiffel Tower, I’d have to go to the Louvre, et cetera.
When I got to Eastern Europe, I spent about three or four months there. That was just traveling around, taking it as it came. In that sense, I ended up spending about 20 days in Budapest because I enjoyed the city so much. Also, Prague. Krakow in Poland, which was amazing. I didn’t like Romania too much, but that was because someone tried to pickpocket me. Although Transylvania is a place I’d like to visit more, and not just because it was the birthplace of Vlad Dracul, but because the area was steeped in dark and interesting history.
Then I spent awhile in Scotland with my grandfather, and then three months in the States, which was really, really amazing. That was the first time I ever went to LA. I stayed in the backpacker’s just off Hollywood Boulevard, which was a nice location because I could walk around. Being a big fan of the Oscars I did do the Kodak Theater tour. It was pretty cool.
Everywhere I traveled, one of the little things that I would look out for was local knowledge, stories, little mythologies, little legends. As much as I didn’t like the country too much, I found a lot of really interesting stories when I was in Romania. And little local legends.
One of my favorite ones was the idea that if you don’t tell anyone your dreams for seven years, then you can actually see wind. Little gems like that I would pick up and note down.
Scott: One of the things I tell my students is while it’s important to watch movies, read scripts, write, and so forth, it’s equally important to live life. Fill yourself with experiences and sensations to feed your creativity.
Sean: Oh, I can definitely agree with that. I don’t push that too hard when I’m teaching, because at the moment I mainly teach the first‑years. What I try and do is sort of sidle them up to that idea. Usually our year is split into two semesters and two modules in each, and I usually call the last week of each module Zombie Week, because that’s pretty much what my students look like by that stage. What I said to them at the beginning of the year was, how many of you still have hobbies? And [laughs] virtually none of them put their hands up. It was as though that idea of taking time for yourself, taking a moment to read a book, play a game, spend time with your friends, just so that you weren’t completely burnt out by the academics of it had been forgotten. And yet having a hobby, a break from your normal life can be so refreshing. Perhaps even keep you sane. Well, as sane as artists can be.
However, next year I’m going to be teaching screenwriting to the second‑years, and this idea of living life and experiencing life so you can write more about it will come into it.
Scott: You teach at The Open Window. Could you describe what that school is about?
Sean: The full title is, The Open Window School of Visual Communication. The degrees cover drawing, illustration, Internet design and photography. Of course in the Film Department we have film and television, starting next year we have sound design and screenwriting, screen acting, and then also traditional animation, 2‑D, stop‑motion, as well as a very vibrant 3‑D animation program.
Scott: This is in South Africa?
Sean: Yes, this is in a town called Centurion, which is between our capital Pretoria and one of the major cities, Johannesburg.
Scott: Before teaching, you were a film student in Australia, is that right?
Sean: Yes. What happened was ‑‑ I’m sure we’ll come back to this later ‑‑ but in about 2008, 2009, I was broke after the stock market crash, yes, 2009, and I was desperate for a job. I think sometimes what you realize when you’re fully qualified for film is that that doesn’t really get you many jobs. There were a lot of things I didn’t want to do, and when I was looking through the advertisements for people who needed anything in film, there was a job as a teacher. And I honestly took it out of a sense of desperation, but in that very first lesson that I taught, I thoroughly enjoyed it and realized that this was something I could easily do and enjoy.
And so, I taught at this small film school that only operated on weekends as kind of workshops for people. I actually used to live next to the Open Window campus, and then they moved campuses, and I always felt like I should’ve gone and asked them if they had a place for me. Only after they moved did I try. Pluto Panoussis, the head of the department, I literally just phoned him up and told him who I was and what I’d done. And he said, you know what? You sound like someone who we could have a place for. I started with just giving small workshops, again, on the weekends, lighting, acting, directing.
One of my favorite workshops that I used to give was basically troubleshooting. We would sit and they would talk about their scripts and talk about their approach to filming their script and I would ask them questions like, have you thought of filming it like this? Have you considered this aspect of the story? How are you going to present this? We’d spend the whole day really getting into their approach.
Then I started teaching the short courses in Final Cut and also film making. This year was the first year that they actually started offering film as a subject from first year and I was given the first years to teach.
In Part 2, Sean discusses the up, downs, ins and outs of the first feature film he wrote, directed and produced.
To see Sean’s acceptance speech at the Nicholl Fellowship ceremony, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
For Part 3, go here.
For Part 4, go here.