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Meet Michael Schatz

Today we’d like to introduce you to Michael Schatz.

Michael, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
The Aristocats.

That was the first film I saw in a theater. I was around 5 or 6 and it happened to be playing again, a special showing, at our local theater outside of Philadelphia. I remember the design of the carpet, the posters and cutouts advertising upcoming films, the smell of popcorn, the feel of the seats. As I watched the images on screen, it was in that moment that my love of film was born. After that, I devoured every movie I could, often drifting towards comedies. Ghostbusters. Caddyshack. Animal House. Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Dumb and Dumber. Ace Ventura. Cable Guy. Happy Gilmore. Billy Madison. And on and on and on. Jim Carrey became my hero. You could (and still can) hear any number of memorable lines being quoted by my family when we’re together (or seen in our group texts).

After my family moved to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia, I heard of a local ‘talent search’ in the area. Nothing serious, you’d read a commercial side and get called back for a showcase if you made the cut. I asked my mom to take me and so she did. And I ended up getting called back. It was probably around this time that the seed was planted that being in movies or working in movies or something related to movies could be a career.

Admittedly, my grades were never the greatest. Although I excelled in anything related to acting or TV production. Those always interested me the most and I would give 100%. Science and math (even though my dad’s an accountant) not so much. So a prestigious film school was never in my cards. But knowing I still wanted to get into the industry, I figured I needed a backup incase that plan went up in flames. So I decided to pursue an ever lucrative Broadcast Journalism degree. After getting into most schools, I applied to (to my surprise) I ended up choosing… Mississippi State University. Now I’m a Philly kid. (Go Phillies, Flyers, Sixers, and E-A-G-L-E-S EAGLES). So needless to say, this decision was met with raised brows from family and friends. But the way I saw it, I was turning 18 and I didn’t want the safety net of being able to go home to my parents. I wanted to force myself to figure things out on my own. And the cost of living (and tuition in 2003) in Mississippi was very cheap. Also, I’d get a lot of time in the TV studio. And as a huge sports fan, the idea of being able to attend SEC football, basketball and baseball games was enticing. (Go Dawgs!) So off to Starkville, MS I went.

Within a week, I was regretting my decision.

It was a culture shock to say the least. Everything was different. Everything was slower. Everyone offered me sweet tea. I wasn’t used to it. I didn’t know a single person within 900 miles. I thought about leaving before I even began classes. But as time went on, and thanks to the excitement of living in a dorm, I met some great people. Many of which I’m still friends with today. I began to get more comfortable and allowed myself to enjoy things. And being in the Deep South opened my eyes to how not all people believe in the same things I did. But despite that fact, there could be common ground between the both of you. Did I witness ugliness? Of course. And there are things that happened that when I think of them in conjunction with what we’re seeing happening now in our country, played a huge part in my own awakening in regards to my white privilege and how things are so drastically different for someone who doesn’t share my skin tone. Looking back, those moments proved to be learning experiences for me now, opening my eyes to how I can be more aware of how things are and what I can do to be better and more educated. But that’s not to say Mississippi is all bad. There is a lot of beauty there and a lot of genuine, good people. People that in my eyes outnumber the bad. The state may be slow to change (see: Flag) but I think back on my time there fondly and cherish the friendships I made.

By my senior year, I was showrunning two student-produced shows. One was a sports talk show I created with fellow classmates. The Sports Lounge. It was everything you think a student-produced sports talk show would look like. But as we grew more comfortable the show grew with us, as did its production value. We even hosted a show outside our football stadium, during a tailgate in which we interviewed our President at the time. That show ended up winning an award at the Mississippi Association of Broadcasters in the student division. Not an Oscar, but something I’m still proud of. The other show was a sketch comedy show I created myself with the school’s improv group. Taking an improv show and putting it into our small studio proved challenging, but the end product is something I’m still very proud of, as that show also ended up winning an award. But the end result of all of that was experience.

Knowing I wanted to end up in LA, but realizing I had no film contacts, I knew I needed a job. Hell, there was no guarantee I would even sniff the industry. As it so happened, my dad was working in finance for TV Guide (the magazine) at the time. He was able to secure me an interview with the head of the TV Guide Network. I realize how that sounds, and I’m fully aware of the privilege that comes with it. If it weren’t for my dad being able to do that, I may not have been able to secure an interview at all. I was offered a job as a PA on one of the Network’s shows. So a few months after graduating, I packed up and drove across the country (something I think my mom still hates).

But here I was. In Los Angeles. For the first time ever. My decision to attend MSU prepared me in part for the loneliness I would experience at the start, but let’s be real. Mississippi is NOT LA. LA is… LA. But I felt at home immediately. There was something that felt right about being here. And being able to find a place to live on Beachwood Drive made it all the better. (I’m still in Beachwood Canyon 13 years later. And in my opinion, the best neighborhood in LA.)

After meeting some wonderful people at TV Guide (many of which are my closest, dearest friends now) I began focusing on how to ‘break in’. I had a short stint acting, but it was more to just try it out. My main goal, passion and love was writing. I knew nothing about how to write a script so I figured I’d just start writing. I was focused on comedies, as that was all my childhood was about. To be kind, those early scripts were terrible and no one will ever see them. They were bad. But I was learning the ins and outs of how to format and how to structure a screenplay. How to build characters, to write their arcs. A friend at TV Guide began dating (and is now married to) a producer, Beau Bauman. He was kind enough to read an early script and give me advice. I remember him saying, “If I thought you should go to law school, I’d tell you that. But I’m not.” I needed work, but I wasn’t a lost cause. He told me what books to read, what to watch. He was my film school on the fly and I’m so very grateful to him and his wife, Jenn.

I was admittedly very arrogant when I began. I figured I could write whenever I “felt it” and it would be gold. That was not the case. I realized if I really wanted this to happen, I had to treat it as a job. So I did. I watched movies, took notes, read scripts, and wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And the scripts began to get better. I entered some small competitions and began placing in them. ‘Wow, I don’t suck’, I thought.

But as the saying goes in LA, it’s all who you know. And one day, I met a wonderful woman (who is now my entertainment lawyer) named Marisa Sommerville. She read a rom-com I had written, ‘Don’t Shit Where You Eat’. (classic title, I know). She saw enough there to want to help me out and passed it to an exec she knew who at the time was working at Escape Artists, Jenna Block. Jenna read it and liked it enough to meet me. And thus, I had my first general meeting on the Sony lot. Jenna made it a point to tell me I was talented and she would do all she could to help me find representation. And she did.

A few months later, I signed with my first manager, Lee Stobby. It was a monumental moment for me and something I was very proud of. I hadn’t known a single person when I moved here and now I was a repped screenwriter. For anyone who knows Lee, he’s a hustler. He sent my script out to everyone. It was well received and soon, I was taking meetings all over town. My first water bottle tour. Major production companies. Studios. Execs wanted me to write scripts for them. It didn’t feel real.

But it also didn’t feel right. I grew up on comedy, I loved comedy and thought I would be a comedy writer. But when I sat down to write, it never ‘clicked’. There was something off like I was trying to put a square peg into a round hole. And my tastes were beginning to shift as well. I was drifting towards drama, prestige, thrillers, true stories. So after spending years trying to get repped and thinking I would write comedy, I made the decision to hit the reset button on my career. I parted ways with Lee (amicably) and focused on drama.

And that’s when I met Hannie Schaft.

Not really. She’s been dead for almost 80 years. But her story was amazing. A Dutch law student during WW2, she dropped out when the Nazi’s took over. She eventually joined the resistance in Haarlem, working her way up to become an assassin, targeting Nazi’s and Dutch traitors. She’d be known to the Germans as the Woman with Red Hair.

Her story was perfect, made for film. And I wanted to write it. I HAD to write it. So I did. I researched for months, learning everything I could. And then I wrote. My first drama script was a true story about a remarkable woman who had more bravery in her little finger than I did in my entire body. I had to get this story right. After I had a draft I was pleased with, I sent it to some execs I knew from previous meetings. Turned out, it wasn’t too bad of a script. One of them was kind enough to send it to a manager, Jeff Portnoy. Jeff read it and wanted to sign me. I was thrilled as Jeff is very well respected and a fantastic manager (still my manager today.) After we tweaked the script a bit Jeff started sending it out. Two weeks went by and we heard nothing and my heart dropped. ‘Drama isn’t my thing either’ I feared. Maybe WRITING isn’t my thing.

But then the calls started. People loved the script and I was once again taking meetings everywhere. But this time, it was with people who were interested in trying to MAKE my script. I suddenly had agents wanting to sign me. During my first few years being repped, I never made it to the Warner Brother’s lot. I drove past it all the time — love everything WB — and thought ‘one day’. That day came when the wonderful people, Mike McGrath and Sarah Schechter, at Berlanti Productions wanted to meet about The Woman with Red Hair. Finally, I was on the WB lot, after years of driving past it. I took an hour after the meeting to just walk around.

Mike and Sarah were so passionate about the script that I couldn’t turn them down. So now, a major production company was attached to my script and sending it to talent. Sarah was kind enough to bring me into meetings with potential directors. It was quite honestly a dream come true. We ended up attaching two major pieces of talent to the script, but as things so often do in the industry, we couldn’t get it over the finish line. It was heartbreaking but served as a wakeup call of sorts. Things wouldn’t be easy. A well-received script doesn’t automatically mean it’ll move forward into production. I’d have to work extremely hard to have my scripts make it to the screen.

Despite The Woman With Red Hair not getting produced (at least not yet), it still gave one more piece of validation. It was voted onto the annual Black List. The Black List is a list of the best/most liked screenplays of each year as voted on by execs around town. For a writer starting out, it’s a major deal. I’d seen the list come out every year and now I was finally on it. My script. I got emotional that day. (The script ended up getting on a few best of lists that year and placing in a highly respected competition. Something I’m very proud of.)

From there, I kept writing. A thriller. An indie. A sci-fi. All well received, giving me more confidence to move forward and keep going. And another true story which is currently going through what The Woman With Red Hair went through. Well received, well-liked and looking for those pieces of talent to attract a studio. It’s nerve-wracking and thrilling all at the same time. But I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Has it been a smooth road?
I doubt myself every day. I went years before I was repped. I doubted if I would ever find representation. I went years before someone paid me to write something. I doubted it would ever happen. I still haven’t had that HUGE break, a script making it into production. And sometimes I doubt that it will ever happen.

But my family has been so very supportive since I began this journey. “Do what makes you happy” the decorative sign my mom got me says. And she, my dad and my sister are always encouraging me, always asking how my career is going, how meetings went, how rewrites are going. They play a huge part in me continuing this journey. Apart I don’t think they realize how big it actually is.

And my girlfriend, Samantha, an artist herself, supports me with everything she has. Something I’m so very grateful for and love her for. (And she’s most definitely the more talented one in our relationship.)

So are there struggles? Yes. But there’s been enough good moments, relationships made and milestones reached that drive me to keep going. And my support system, friends and family have been amazing. I’m not satisfied with my career, and probably will never be, but I’ll keep going until I can’t.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I love telling stories. Stories that many people don’t know about but should. Every time I sit down to write a script, I aim to have a reader (and hopefully viewer) feel something. Learn something. I recall how many times I got lost in films. That’s what I want to do with my stories, my scripts.

So my ‘business’ is myself. I’m not an actor but I have to present myself in a good light during meetings or pitches. All with the end goal of getting someone excited in my story and wanting to be a part of it.

I’m not the best writer in town. There’s probably dozens who are better than me who haven’t had the luck I have. But I was once told by a prominent writer that I write with heart. I think about that every time I write. I think that sets me apart, sets my scripts apart. If you can have a reader feel something after they’ve finished your script, you’re already ahead.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
Los Angeles is the film industry. Regardless of the studios and production companies, talent agencies, etc., it’s just THE place to be. You can go to a bar (well, when you COULD go to a bar) and bump into someone who may end up helping your career. That happened to me.

While you can write anywhere, the business side of things are here so I feel a writer should be here too. The opportunities to pitch yourself in a chance encounter can literally happen any day. You don’t get that anywhere else. So to anyone thinking of getting into film, I would say yes. Move here. At least give it a shot. You never know who you’ll meet.

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