Jason Mark Hellerman, writer of “Shovel Buddies”
When Jason Mark Hellerman wrote his screenplay Shovel Buddies, it was a labor of love. Jason had lost a friend to leukemia, and wanted to write the sort of movie that would have helped him deal with the loss. Shovel Buddies is the story of a group of friends who attempt to successfully complete a list of tasks assigned to them as the “Shovel List” by their dead friend. The script was a finalist in the Final Draft Big Break Contest, placing in the Top 5 for the comedy category, and landed on the 2013 Black List. Now, Shovel Buddies has secured finance through Awesomeness TV and Film 360, and is set for a day-and-date theatrical and VOD release.
Jason moved to Los Angeles four years ago from West Chester, Pennsylvania. A graduate of Penn State, Jason initially enrolled in a degree in medicine with the idea of becoming a sports doctor. He lasted two weeks before switching his major to Film & TV.
“I’d been writing as a hobby, and I was really enjoying it. I decided if I was going to go thousands of dollars in debt at school, I’d rather the classes be something I was interested in.”
Jason shared with his college professors his desire to go to Los Angeles and try his hand at screenwriting. They encouraged him to have at least three or four scripts under his belt so he would have something to shop around by the time he got there. To get this task complete, Jason enrolled in grad school at Boston University, before heading out to Los Angeles. After the move he worked as an unpaid intern. He was interning at Scott Free, Ridley Scott’s production company, when he met Michael Costigan, producer of such films as Brokeback Mountain, American Gangster and Prometheus.
“[Costigan] was leaving to start his own production company,” Jason says, “so he needed someone to help move offices on the weekend. I volunteered to move boxes for him. He gave me $10 an hour. I knew I needed a job and I needed cash, so I started moving boxes on the Saturday, and he had more and more jobs for me, and then eventually he needed someone to answer his phones while he looked for an assistant, and I said okay, I’ll do that. Then he just stopped looking and just let me take over, and I learned everything on the fly.”
Jason continued to write screenplays while working for Costigan, and got to know other assistants in town. “Everyone in Los Angeles who works as an assistant obviously doesn’t want to be an assistant the rest of his or her life. I was making friends who wanted to be producers and writers and directors. At some point inevitably someone asks you what you want to do, and I wanted to be a writer. So I had friends who volunteered to read things and give me feedback.”
Another person who read Shovel Buddies was Michael Costigan, though he didn’t know it was written by his assistant. Costigan had asked Jason for some reading material for a long flight, and Jason slipped him the script, albeit without a title page.
“I removed the cover page and said, ‘You should check this out.’ I figured if he hated it I could just say ‘So and so said it was a good script,’ then if he loves it I could go, ‘I wrote that.’”
Luckily, Costigan liked the script.
“He said ‘it’s a little small for us but we should meet the writer,’ and I said, ‘Well, the writer brings you your coffee every morning.’ Luckily he laughed.”
While Shovel Buddies was getting lots of reads, it still wasn’t any closer to selling. That’s when Jason decided to upload his script to the Black List website, where he paid for more evaluations from industry professionals.
“I’d gotten money from my family after graduating and I unwisely did not save any of it. I poured it all into screenplay reviews and ratings. I got okay feedback on a few scripts but then when I uploaded Shovel Buddies it took off. The ratings came back and they were 9s and 10s. I was shocked.”
The script had been uploaded to the website for 10 months when out of the blue Jason received a call from Black List founder Franklin Leonard.
“He was like, we’re going to do a script of the week where we highlight one high-rated script each week, and we’d like the first one to be yours. It was awesome.”
The next week, the Black List sent out an email blast to industry professionals telling them if they were only going to read one spec script that week, they should read Shovel Buddies. The script was downloaded 1,000 times to two hours. Jason’s phone started ringing off the hook. His boss was even getting phone calls. “He looked at me and said, ‘What did you do?’ and I’m like, ‘I didn’t do anything!’ It was insane.”
The Black List attention got Jason an agent at Verve and a manager at Management 360, who also came on board as producers. But the best attention Jason got for the script was from readers who were touched by it.
“People who downloaded the script from the Black List website and read it wrote me the most thoughtful notes. They were like ‘hey, my brother past away this last year. I needed this script to help me through it.’ ‘Hey, my mom survived breast cancer.’ Those emails were the ones that stuck out to me, even more so than the potential managers and agents. I wrote this script to access that part for people. The fact that it touched people means a lot.”
Jason is a fan of comedies that have a dramatic edge. As a teen he was inspired by the movies of Kevin Smith, especially Clerks.
“I was working as a clerk at the time and I thought Kevin Smith was really talking about things I understood. I remember renting it on VHS and watching it, and not telling my parents how filthy it was going to be, and getting into trouble.”
Jason is also a big fan of Judd Apatow. “He hit a tone that didn’t really exist before that. The films were funny but they were also really emotional. They were about friendship and growing up and growing apart. His films could strike a serious tone that was about something.”
Now, Jason is turning his attention to writing a sci-fi coming-of-age story which he describes as Mud meets Super 8.
“This is the movie that I think about when I think of ET: The Extra Terrerestrial, Back to the Future and Independence Day. It’s a film about hope.”
Jason contends that hope is a good attribute for a screenwriter to have.
“Don’t stop believing. I got up this morning at 6:00 am and worked on a script that I have no idea whether anyone will ever read. You have to embrace the fun of it. It’s the only way to keep moving forward.”