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AMERICAN SLACKER: Interview with David H. Steinberg

AMERICAN SLACKER: Interview with David H. Steinberg
by Christopher Wehner

Date: 7/15/02

Tell me how someone enters Yale at age 16, earns his law degree from Duke University where he served as editor-in-chief of the law review, and then later writes AMERICAN PIE 2? Not exactly the background for a raunchy comedy writer.
Okay, you caught me. I was the Doogie Howser of my town. But comedy is a tough business. I think the funniest people are also some of the smartest. Because you have to analyze every permutation of a situation and pick the one funniest line or turn of events. And hopefully, you can do this quickly.

And also, I tryemphasize tryto be smart in my comedies. "Slackers" started out as a very clever script (too bad it didnt end up that way!). Theres a line in the original spec where the Dave character talks about solving the greatest puzzle known to man, the "conundrum femina." I think I definitely got extra points for using Latin in a teen sex comedy. And the same thing is true with "American Pie 2." It doesnt just go for the cheap laughstheres some great twists and character moments that really keep it interesting.

Finally, I think its important to try to say something meaningful in a script. I often use "theory" based comedy in my scripts where a character theorizes about something, from the best way to masturbate to how to redo the modern calendar. All that comes from having too much information in my head.

Why did you abandon a lucrative law career for the uncertainty of Hollywood? You graduated from the USC film school in 1998.
What I found, after I built the perfect resume, was that I wasnt happy. I wanted to do something creative and also entrepreneurial. Believe it or not, I had been working with a lot of rap stars in the entertainment group of my firm and I got to thinking, "These people have absolutely no talent. Yet, for some strange reason, I work for them." I figured, I could do it. So when my rap career fizzled out (just kidding), I figured the only thing creative I knew how to do was write. I applied to USC, got in, and quit my job. If it didnt work out, I could always go back to being a lawyer. But the goal was to be the guy on the golf course calling his lawyer, not the guy getting the call who has to go into the office on a Sunday.

Is comedy something that you've always wanted to write?
I never even knew screenwriting was an actual job until I was like 25. I always considered myself a funny guy, but making a living at it never even occurred to me. Although I did publish a newsletter in law school that chronicled fake events in the lives of my college friends. Like, "Sam Caught in Homosexual Menage-a-Trois!" I published this newsletter every month for a while, instead of going to class. At its peak, I had a circulation of I think nine.

What makes good comedy writing?
Its interesting that theres never been a decent book on comedy. Go to the library. Theres nothing. What makes something funny? Beats me. One thing I can tell you in writing scripts, is that youve got to be ahead of the reader. Lead them down a path, then pull out an unexpected twist. If you set up the situation really well with clear goals and obstacles, the scene writes itself. And a lot of that comes from rich, 3-D characters with very specific motivations. Then all you have to do is throw down the banana peel. But if your character isnt proactive enough to be walking down the street in the first place, no banana peel is going to make him slip. Hey, thats a pretty good analogy. I should use that from now on. That analogy is hereby 2002 David H. Steinberg.

What makes you laugh?
I love "The Simpson's" which is really written by geniuses. Its enjoyable on so many levels, and I can watch the episodes over and over again. I guess I just like cleverness, the surprise of not seeing it coming. I also like the little things, like the scene in "Big" where Tom Hanks is walking into the Christmas party and he just kind of blurts out, "Hey, theres the guy from the meeting!" Certain moments like that are really priceless. If only I could put my finger on exactly what about it is funny, I could write ten scripts a week.

What are your favorite books? Movies?
"Dianetics" by L. Ron Hubbard. I think Scientology has really gotten a bad rap in the media. Its really helped me in a lot of ways to realize my inner strength as a writer, and also my inner beauty. No, Im just fucking with you. I like anything by Asimov; "Alice in Wonderland"/"Through the Looking-Glass"; "Geodel, Escher, Bach"; I dont know, just cool books that make you think. I dont really read books for humor. But movies, I love "Trading Places"; "Big"; and "Theres Something About Mary"; but also "Star Trek II"; "Field of Dreams"; and "Superman." I dont know if theres a pattern there or not.

How did you get involved with AP2?
I had just sold my first script (Slackers) and Universal was looking to hire a new writer to get the ball rolling on the sequel. Adam Herz was unavailable, so they hired me to get the first couple drafts going. Then Herz became available and took over.

It was actually the easiest job I ever got. I met once with Ally Brecker at Universal. Then one meeting with Craig Perry, Herz, and Warren Zide. They were like, "What did you like about American Pie?" I said, "Um, it had a lot of heart?" That was it. They were like, "Okay, youre hired."

Was there an event or situation that became a kind of crossroad for you thus far in your career?
Well, obviously selling my first script was the pivotal moment. I mean, thats when I started getting paid to write and because it was such a big spec sale, it had a huge impact on everything. But in terms of a career, I actually learned more after "Slackers" sold, working with the producers and the director. Its tough when you sell a spec because your baby literally becomes their baby. Okay, its not tough like beating cancer. And the gobs of money sure eases the pain. But when they buy it, its theirs. If they want to paint your Ferrari purple, thats their call. I learned the hard way how to be collaborativeby not being that way and getting rewritten by another (ultimately unaccredited) writer. But it was a valuable lesson. On subsequent projects, I have been far more of a team player. And thats the key to continuing to work in this business.

What are you working on now? Do you want to stay in comedy or branch out?
My next movie ("After School Special") is in post-production and I just finished a project for Sony called "Only Human" (my draft got Owen Wilson attached (mentioned as I pat myself on the back)). Now Im developing a couple of pitches, looking at open assignments, working on some TV projects, and a writing spec script. Theres always a dozen things on my plate. Then one turns into a real job and that one takes priority.

Fundamentally, I am a comedy writer. I always want to be a comedy writer. But there are some specific projects that Id like to write that arent comedies (ones a sci-fi kind of like "Gattaca"; the other is an historical drama). So theres going to be exceptions to the rule, but the rule is comedy.

What are your goals as a screenwriter?
Well, first of all, I want to continue honing my craft. Its strange that this is a profession without much formal training. Screenwriting classes are mostly mediocre because real screenwriters are too musy to teach. So sometimes its important to take a step back and ask, "Can I be better at this, and if so, how?" One of the biggest mistakes you can make once you start "making it" is assuming you know everything there is to know.

Second, I want to continue gaining more power in the industry so that Im considered for bigger projects and get to work with more talented people. That comes from simply working hard and doing good work.

Long term, Id like to segue into directing one of my feature comedy scripts. Its really the only way to see my vision of the movie on the screen. So thats something I am very interested in. I also am developing a few TV projects, so Id like to see one of those succeed one day. And write those non-comedy passion projects, just to keep it real.

Any advice for the aspiring screenwriter out there?
Make it interesting. Ive seen too many scripts about a hapless loser who complains about the lack of women until the perfect girl moves in next door and teaches him about love (usually based on the writers real-life experience as a stalker). Forget it. I want to see stuff happen. A proactive character with a plan, a goal. A mission. A want. A desire. That motivates him to take action. And antagonists with opposing goals that create obstacles and tension and conflict. Make every scene be a trailer moment, something you cant wait to tell your friends about. Then everything else will fall into place. You wont need to find an agenttheyll find you.

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