The instructors at the New York Film Academy are extremely talented people, from editing Oscar-winning documentaries to winning BAFTAs in Cinematography. We were very lucky to sit down with Jerry Shandy, a seasoned television writer, and Screenwriting instructor at our Los Angeles campus, to pick his brain about all things writing, television, and NYFA.
Q&A with NYFA Instructor and Batwoman Writer Jerry Shandy
Shandy has worked on a number of films and television series since moving to LA from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Originally a PA on the sets of both volumes of Kill Bill, Jerry has been a staff writer on shows like Perception (2012), Dominion (2015), and, most recently, on the CW’s Batwoman show, from season one until the show’s final season, which he was also a producer on. Jerry loves both writing and teaching and has said “My ideal day is being able to write half day and interact with students the rest of the day.” Read on to find out more about Jerry’s favorite things about NYFA, his work experience on Batwoman, and his tips and advice for aspiring writers just starting out in the industry.
1. Can you summarize your experience working as a writer-producer on Batwoman?
Batwoman was a fantastic experience both personally and professionally. On the personal side, I loved the people I worked with and made many new friends. On the professional side, I was there for the entire run of the show, which was about 50 episodes. Being part of the breaking, writing, and producing of that many episodes was a tremendous learning opportunity. The showrunner, Caroline Dries, was a great leader who balanced her own vision by allowing the writers to each have a strong sense of autonomy when it came to their own individual scripts and the specific stories they were interested in telling. We were encouraged to find characters and storylines that we were passionate about and to pitch and write those. In addition, I was asked to be a part of all aspects of production. I would routinely see my scripts through casting, director and pre-production meetings, physical production on set in Vancouver, and finally, I’d finish with editing and VFX meetings back here in Burbank when the episode was nearing completion. While I’d been a writer on a couple of one-hour dramas prior to Batwoman, I had not been a producer on those shows and thus hadn’t had the chance to work in such a thorough and expansive capacity. I really learned a tremendous amount during my time at Batwoman and grew as a professional writer and producer.
2. What are some of your favorite projects that you have worked on?
I loved being a part of both the Dominion and Batwoman writers’ rooms because both were great groups of creative people, and both shows were led by inspired, intelligent, and kindhearted showrunners, Vaun Wilmott and Caroline Dries, respectively. I enjoyed my time in each of those rooms. I also loved the Batwoman crew in Vancouver. They were an incredible group of hardworking people. I thoroughly enjoyed going up to Canada every time I had an episode being produced, and I loved being on set. So, overall, being a part of each of those shows was very enjoyable.
In terms of my own writing, the first script I ever sold, called Dirty Work, to Universal and USA Network, was definitely a highlight. It was a 90-minute backdoor pilot, basically a movie that could become a series. Selling a script for the first time delivered this feeling of, “Wow! I think I can actually do this!” I loved the two producers I worked with on Dirty Work, as well, Russ Buchholz and Steve Stark. Following that, I wrote a couple of pilots that really opened a lot of doors. One’s called Dimers, centered around the world of Witsec, and the other’s called In Hiding, which is set in France during WWII. The strong reception those scripts got in the industry provided a lot of great meetings and great memories. They each ramped up my career with a lot of positive exposure.
I’m currently working on a feature called The Last Remaining Light, which I originally wrote the first draft of many years ago when I was in graduate school. It’s a story that’s very close to my life, and one I strongly believe in. I’ve enjoyed diving back into the world of that script and collaborating with one of the producers named Mike Macari, who made The Ring movies, and our incredible director, Aaron Harvey. So, that’s been a very fun project, as of late. And besides that script, I’m also working on a couple of other new things right now, which I’m really passionate about and enjoying developing quite a bit.
3. Do you have any upcoming projects that you can share with us?
In terms of my new, upcoming projects, I’ve been keeping myself very busy with about five things. I have two feature scripts (one is The Last Remaining Light), and three television pilots I’m developing. The features both have directors and producers attached, and we’re currently looking at actors for each. One of my pilots I’ve just finished writing this week actually, and the others are pitches I’m preparing to take out with different producers and production companies.
4. What are your favorite aspects of the NYFA community?
I love the people at the school and the impressive learning environment they’ve created and continue to foster at our LA campus. NYFA is filled with many caring, insightful, and talented administrators and instructors. I’ve made a lot of friends within the school and met a lot of people whom I admire. It’s been exciting to see teachers with real-world experience guiding and supporting the next generation of writers and filmmakers. The curricula at NYFA is second-to-none, and the community of instructors truly cares about the students who come out and want to see them succeed. I’m in touch with a number of my former students, and it’s been great following their journeys through Hollywood.
5. What courses have you taught/are you teaching at NYFA? What are some of the essential skills those courses teach students?
I’ve taught many courses at the school, including a thesis for both features and television; one-hour, half-hour, and TV pilot workshops; feature workshops and feature rewriting; Business of Screenwriting; Elements of Screenwriting; and a number of others. I taught a seminar in Taipei to the Chinese Screenwriters Union of Taiwan on behalf of NYFA, which was a highlight. In addition to the Screenwriting Department, I’ve also taught in the Producing, Acting, and Filmmaking Departments.
6. You’ve written and produced projects in a range of genres. Do you have a favorite? Why?
To me, I think of genre as the kind of ornamental surroundings of the story. It colors character and world, no doubt, and of course, you have to fulfill certain expectations of whatever genre you’re working in; but, for example, if you take something like Unforgiven, the great Clint Eastwood Western, that’s a story that could be told in the mob or crime genre, it could be done about an older Roman gladiator, it could be set in the future and done in space, etc. You could still have the same plot, and the same type of lead character, or human being, at the center in any of those scenarios.
So, for me, I gravitate toward character-driven stories regardless of what genre they’re in. I always want to know who the characters are and what motivates them, and their overarching wants and I seek to create stakes, empathy, and emotional investment. If I’m writing in the science fiction genre, like Dominion, or the superhero genre, like Batwoman, I need to first be able to understand the characters as people and empathize with their humanity, even if there are other elements in the story or world that are heightened or aren’t rooted in reality. If motivation, stakes, and empathy are there, then I can become invested in any genre, as a writer or as a fan, really.
For example, there are musicals I’ve loved, even though I don’t necessarily consider myself a big “musical fan” in general. There are romantic comedies I love, horror films, war movies, film noirs, etc. I wouldn’t necessarily paint myself with a wide brush and broadly say I love any one of those genres simply as a general rule. But, all this said, I am most drawn toward characters having moral crises, toward really dissecting what morals and ethics are and what they mean, and what sorts of secret motivations people may be harboring, etc. I love to find these sorts of psychological and philosophical ideas inside whatever I’m writing. So, in this way I do tend to usually find myself drawn to writing darker material, tone-wise, but in a wide variety of genres from dark comedies to crime thrillers.
7. What is some of your favorite advice about writing?
I certainly think there’s something to the old adage, “Write what you know.” There have been a million TV shows and movies made. Why do we need another one? What do you have to offer? I often think about that. That is a very important, fundamental, question to ask yourself. You need to have something to say, and you need to feel deeply impassioned about it. I also strongly believe you need to devote yourself to your craft. You need to be serious about your pursuit of writing in the same way a professional athlete is serious about the pursuit of their sport. A professional football or basketball player doesn’t play for fifteen or twenty minutes here and there, every couple of days. They play for many hours every single day. They eat right, they lift weights, and they study footage of previous games.
I remember reading Stephen King writes something like six pages every day. That’s the kind of discipline you need to succeed, and in his case, it’s obviously paid off. But for someone who wants to write professionally, you need to truly devote yourself. Turn off your phone and your email. Turn off all distractions, and stay glued to that chair at your writing desk. Then, once there, and once totally committed, pour out your secrets and your unique perspectives. As Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I love that quote.
8. Can you share any advice for aspiring writers and storytellers with an idea for a television show?
For aspiring writers, looking to break into television by selling a pilot, I’d say two things. One, develop your writing and make sure it’s very, very good. That may seem like common sense, but I still think it needs to be said first and foremost. Two, on top of that, you should study the business. Each network or streamer is making a certain type of content. They have mandates. They have certain audiences they’re looking to attract or hold onto. You should really study this and gain an understanding of the business side of things.
What are these studios, networks, and streamers buying and making? Why? And also, by the way, what they bought two or three years ago, is most likely not what they’re looking to buy today for next year’s slate. So, don’t necessarily take something that’s in Season Four or Five as an example of what that network is looking to do for next year. Once you understand the different business models, and what buyers are seeking, then you can figure out your best approach.
Otherwise, writing something without understanding its commercial implications may lead to a great deal of frustration when it comes time to try to sell it or attract a representative. Screen and television writing is not like being a poet sitting on a lake in the 1800s. You need to get a studio and a distributor behind you, you need hundreds of other collaborators, you need to work within an existing system, etc.
9. What are some of the top challenges aspiring screenwriters can expect to face when first starting out in the industry? How can they work to overcome them?
One of the most significant challenges for an aspiring writer is making connections. How do you get your work seen? How do you get it seen by the right people? How do you even get to know anyone within the industry? There are a number of different ways to do this, such as entering and winning, significant contests. Or, if you produce your work, you can post it online. That works particularly well for comedy. Also, importantly, getting internships or assistant jobs can be invaluable. Getting your writing career started and getting representation becomes much easier if have a few connections in Hollywood, and you know a few things about the business, versus if you’re a complete outsider who doesn’t know anyone or any of the companies.
10. Can you provide any tips and insight for aspiring writers looking to get a job in a writer’s room?
One of the best things an aspiring television writer can do is to move to Los Angeles and get an internship at a production company making television shows. Specifically, try to get an internship at a company that’s producing the kind of TV content you’re drawn to. In addition, it’s helpful to intern at a company that’s producing a lot of content versus one that’s only producing projects every few years. You will simply be exposed to more opportunities this way. If moving to LA is not an option, then there are contests and fellowships that can be entered, and that is another route that may prove successful in helping a writer get noticed and get into a room.
Pursue Screenwriting at NYFA
We’re very excited to see Jerry’s upcoming film scripts and television pilots come to fruition! It was great to hear about his journey and to get his advice on different aspects of the industry and of writing. If you’d like to take a class similar to the ones Jerry discussed, or one of the workshops he mentioned, you can find more information on New York Film Academy’s screenwriting programs here.