An Interview with filmmaker Shane Stanley

Shane Cropped in Studio

To say Shane Stanley has had a unique childhood is an understatement. At nine months old he was appearing in national television commercials and before his fifth birthday had worked in over 100 projects sharing the screen with such Hollywood legends as June Lockhart, Lloyd Haynes, and David Arkin. The son of a working actor-turned-filmmaker, Shane had a lot the tools of the trade at his disposal and by the age ten was comfortably running a 16mm camera, flatbed-editor, and Moviola. Shane jumped from in front of the camera to behind the scenes where along with his father he co-produced The Desperate Passage Series, which was nominated for 33 Emmy Awards and won 13 statues making him the youngest to ever win a production Emmy at only 16. Shane would be nominated a total of four times and win again before graduating high school. In the TV series, five of the seven specials went #1 in the Neilson Ratings, which included A Time for Life and Gridiron Gang. A Time for Life, (created by Shane), was acquired by Disney and won the coveted Christopher Award, which is presented to the filmmakers that affirm the highest values of the human spirit. After an intense bidding war Gridiron Gang would be acquired by SONY but wouldn’t get made for another fifteen years.

Soon after, Shane wanted to venture out from underneath the family business and into the real world. He re-started at the bottom, working as a production assistant for various networks on hit shows like Seinfeld, Roseanne, Sea Quest, and Coach. He was fired twice and drove a craft service truck while working as an extra to stay ‘relevant’ before landing at Paramount as an executive assistant where he worked on everything from Entertainment Tonight to Clear and Present Danger starring Harrison Ford. In 1996, Shane met Charlie Sheen through some mutual friends and within three months became the Vice President of the movie star’s production company where life suddenly went into fast-forward.

Within the first year, Shane had a hand in co-writing and producing several motion pictures starring Marlon Brando, Mira Sorvino, Thomas Hayden Church, Donald Sutherland, Marisa Tomei and of course, Charlie and Martin Sheen. He worked closely with many top executives and developed key relationships including one with the late, great Zalman King, who brought us cult classics like 9½ Weeks, Red Shoe Diaries and Wild Orchid. Shane collaborated with Zalman until his death in 2012 and would go on to produce a handful of films including the #1 Box Office hit Gridiron Gang starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and several television specials that have taken him around the world working with stars such as Jackie Chan and Jane Seymour. He Directed his first film, A Sight for Sore Eyes starring Academy Award nominee, Gary Busey and hasn’t looked back since. In the past few years Shane has Directed or Produced hundreds of television commercials and music videos, four feature films, two television pilots and now just completed his first book entitled What You Don’t Learn in Film School: A Complete Guide to Independent Filmmaking which has landed on the required reading list at many top institutions. Fresh off of his book tour, I caught up with Shane at Anarchy Post just outside of Los Angeles, where he was overseeing final mixes to his upcoming film, The Untold Story which is due out nationwide in early in 2019.

Me and Dad

Lee & Shane Stanley

Your father Lee Stanley also works in the entertainment industry. How did his work influence you to pursue your own?

My father always did things his way. He never succumbed to what others felt he should do or tell his stories the way decision makers thought he should. He was a maverick in the documentary world and owned it from 1987-1993. It was a hell of a run. That being said, I always wanted to be in a position to tell the stories I wanted to tell and the way I wanted to tell them.

What would you say is the most important thing you learned from him in regards to working in the industry? What is the best advice he ever gave you in regards to life in general?

Work hard and do your best at whatever you set your hand to whether it’s directing a film or sweeping the floors.

Do you consider yourself lucky to have been taught so much in regards to film at such a young age?

Yes and no. I was doing things when I was eight or nine that most third-year film school students are just learning. In the eyes of many, I ‘peaked’ before I was old enough to vote, so the expectation level was high as I grew older and the pressure was pretty severe. I’m no genius. I’m just a guy who works hard and loves what he does and is comfortable doing it the way I do. I get a lot of flack from some people who question why I haven’t amounted to certain heights but I’m pleased with where I am proud that it has said “filmmaker” on my tax returns for over 30 yrs.

Do you remember what it was like to be in front of the camera at such an early age? What did you learn from all of that? At the time did you enjoy working behind the camera or in front of it more?

I just remember being incredibly bored waiting and feeling a great deal of pressure to get it right during every take. I always felt terrible if I was having an ‘off’ day and was responsible for the crew having to work longer because of my mistakes. I learned that I hated being in front of the camera (laughs) I preferred whatever got me out of school and being in front of the camera did that a lot but felt more comfortable being a worker-bee than an actor.

Coca-Cola Village Blacksmith

“Village Blacksmith” by Frederic Stanley for Coca-Cola.

Your grandfather was the iconic artist Frederic Stanley who shared a studio with Norman Rockwell and created some of the most memorable images in Americana. Do you think having such creative minds in your ancestry has helped you see the value of creation in all forms?

I’d like to think I have some artistic talent and sensitivity that has been passed from my grandfather and my father. In fact, my great-grandfather on my dad’s side of the family was also a well-known stage actor in New England. I’m a fourth generation artist from what I understand.

Do you think in times such as these the power of escapism and solace found in both art and entertainment are as important as ever?

I absolutely do. Regardless of who or what you support, we’re always under attack and getting information overload. I always believed our job as filmmakers was to create an escape for our viewers and now, it seems people are seeking an escape more often than ever. But I also feel that we have a responsibility to leave audiences with something more than an empty box of popcorn when it’s all said and done.

Who were some of your earliest influences both in front of the camera and behind it?

Carroll Ballard, Hugh Hudson, and Mark Rydell were my favorite storytellers growing up. As far as actors, who didn’t love Harrison Ford? He was the only actor I’d make sure to see every film he was in – except Mosquito Coast. I hate mosquitoes.

What do you love most about the art of filmmaking?

Every aspect. There’s not a part of the process I do not enjoy. But it’s a love-hate kind of thing. Every time I’m in pre-production I swear it will be my last film. The pressure becomes almost unbearable. You lock in one actor but another cannot shoot a specific day. The location you landed demands otherwise, there’s never enough money and your crew always has other projects they’re working on while you’re in prep so pulling on them is often difficult. Then somehow, some way everything magically comes together and we bag our beast. When its all over and were in post-production, I realize as painful a process as it was, we all survived and I start to miss my cast and crew and start thinking about what we can work on next to bring us all together again.

Shane Directing

How does it feel to see a project come to completion on screen?

I don’t have children, so I can guess it’s the closest to creating life as I’ll ever get. An idea is conceived, its nurtured to become real, then you shape it into something that will eventually go out into the world and be its own being. It’s quite rewarding.

What would you say is the most important element needed to produce a truly moving motion picture?

What’s moving is subjective. I mean, I can’t watch Cool Runnings without crying my eyes out. 99% of the people on this planet probably don’t cry during that film but I do. The point is, you have to have a thread of emotion that will touch hearts. If you can do that then someone somewhere will relate to your art.

Why is it that so many film school graduates never end up actually making movies?

You mean never actually complete their final projects or go on to make movies in the real world? (laughs) To keep my temper in check, I’ll assume you mean the latter. I think there are great fundamentals taught in the classroom but the business of the business isn’t taught and if it is, it’s glossed over. So many of the key elements to get movies made are never touched upon in film school. It’s just not part of the curriculum. Everyone wants to learn to write, direct and frame a shot but the essentials of concept-to-delivery and all the integral parts in between in order to get it done and done right are rarely taught.

Do you think it is fair to say one must possess a certain amount of grit and determination to make it work in the entertainment industry in general?

I do. I think Paul Williams said it best in the foreword he wrote in my book, “If you’re easily discouraged, the entertainment industry is probably not a good fit for you. This is a tough and ruthless business. There are too many people lined up to take your slot in the industry so you have to be resilient and tough as nails…and never let the bastards get you down. You will never please all the people all of the time. People will go out of their way to write and say horrible things about you, usually because they’re not the ones making movies.

At CPU

Do you think one has to learn to accept failure and keep moving towards their goals in order to learn how to work more successfully?

Absolutely. I mean if we cannot learn from our mistakes, how do we grow? There is no formula for a successful film. If there were then 80% of big-budgeted and star-studded films wouldn’t fail.

Have you ever felt like just felt giving up?

At least seven times a day…

What advice would you offer people who might be dealing with such feelings in whatever area of their lives?

I was told at a very young age by Wells Root, who co-founded the Writer’s Guild of America, “If you don’t like the industry, get the hell out!” I realized instantly that if anyone died tomorrow in our business, Hollywood would march right on without them and wouldn’t miss a beat. The only advice I could give is if you truly love instability and constant judgment, this is the job for you!

Do you think it is fair to say that to be a gifted filmmaker one must continue to learn for the rest of their lives?

After being in this business my entire life, I don’t claim to know it all and I learn something new every day! We’re ever evolving as long as we open our eyes and ears as well as our hearts and our minds.

What was your very first day as a production assistant like? Were you nervous it being your first day and all or were you excited to have the chance to be learning the trade?

It was too long ago. (laughs) And I was a total nervous wreck. I knew I was at the bottom of the totem pole and needed to please my superiors to stand out so yeah, I over thought every little detail. And these nerves were coming from a PA who had already won 2 Emmy’s and been nominated 4 times beforehand as I went to work for the studios after my success as a child.

WYDLFS 300 dpi

How have you changed most since your earliest days?

I’ve learned to slow down and it’s not because of age. It’s like that cow and bull story Robert Duvall tells Sean Penn in Colors…this bull and his son were walking along the ridge and saw a whole pasture of cows. The son said, “Hey dad, lets run down and f*ck one of those cows!” The bull said, “Slow down son…let’s walk down there and f*ck them all.” What’s the rush? Take a breath and enjoy the ride – all of ‘em.

Are there any specific people you have enjoyed working with more than others over the course of your career?

There are a handful of people I enjoyed working with and quite honestly, in all my years can only think of one or two I didn’t. I take something with me with every collaboration and cherish the opportunity to work with people from all different walks of life who are all makes and models.

What led you to write What You Don’t Learn in Film School?

Honestly, I was tired of answering the same questions over and over when I mentored students or consulted with other filmmakers. I realized I was giving away hundreds of hours every year and giving the same advice like a broken record so I took three weeks and wrote the book.

How does it feel to have some of the most respected names in Hollywood today give praise for your work on this book?

It means the world. I admit a lot of what is in it is a reflection of them or are working together so it pleases me to know they feel I have taken what I learned from our experiences or life lessons and paid it forward for others to use as a roadmap.

What do participants learn in your workshops and seminars?

I try to offer them encouragement and all the ammunition I can in the hope they’ll be motivated and better prepared for a life in the industry. I explain that it’s a marathon – not a sprint – and remind them that even though we all have big dreams to write, produce and direct, there are 100’s of other jobs in our industry that pay very well (and more often) and if they could put their pride aside could make a wonderful living in our business instead of working in or around a less desired field. So many of the students believe they’re going to go from graduation to becoming the next Damien Chazelle but the fact of the matter is, that happens to one in a million and they have to lay the groundwork for a career that can last a lifetime in our industry instead of realizing six months after they graduate, when the student loans are due their only option is to get a job in an industry they never intended to work in.

Do you enjoy encouraging others to follow their dreams and pursue careers in film?

It’s by far the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

What is like to have the chance to teach others from your own experiences?

It’s good when they listen, (laughs). I don’t want them to have to go through some of the hell I went through. My book is 200 pages of painful trials and errors. The reason I teach is because I want their journey to be successful and if I can at all contribute to that, then I have done my part.

Are you still working on the book Why Good Actors Don’t Work?

No. I shelved it a few months ago. I didn’t think the first book would have me out teaching so much and with my production schedule, I only have so much time in the day. Eventually, I would like to pick it back up but it is going to have to wait a while.

Mistrust Sheet 1

What projects are you looking forward to bringing into existence next?

After The Untold Story releases, I would like to just breathe for a bit. It’s been a non-stop grind for several years and I’d like to stop and just smell the roses for a bit. Director/Producer Adam Kane and I have been looking to collaborate on something. I think we’re getting close to figuring out what that might be and if it goes, it could take me away for a while so I am cramming in as many seminars and teaching engagements that I can.

You and your wife Val work with various charities. What do you enjoy most about giving back?

I think it’s important to find a cause or two and help any way you can. I believe to whom much is given, much is required. I’ve been blessed to do what I love and it is important to us to help out with causes that are in our hearts.

Do you feel particularly blessed to have a wife that shares your passion when it comes to such causes?

I couldn’t do it without her. I’m very fortunate to have a spouse who gets me – and understands the inner workings of our industry along with the inconsistency and whirlwinds that can pick up without a moments notice.

What do you think is key to a life well lived?

Leave the world a better place than you found it. Always give and when you receive, be gracious.

Is there anything you’d like to say before you go?

As always, Tina – it’s a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you for the time and interest in my career to share with your readers.

Shane and Val Premier of Gridiron

Shane & Val at the Premiere of “Gridiron Gang.”

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