Seth M. Sherwood, Writer of “Interstate 5” and “Leatherface”
Horror is hot property in Hollywood today, and every year the annual Blood List announces the hottest unproduced genre specs in town. In 2012, new scribe Seth M. Sherwood’s tale of the son of serial killer hot on the trail of a copycat killer, Interstate 5, appeared on the list, bringing him to the attention of industry execs looking for the next hot genre writer. Now, Seth has penned a prequel to the original 1974 classic horror film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a highly anticipated origin tale entitled Leatherface from Millennium Films.
“It only took me a decade to become an overnight success,” he jokes. “My career only started to really gain momentum last year. I’m not someone who had a lot of connections. I just sat and did the work and just didn’t stop.”
Sherwood has lived in Los Angeles for the past 16 years. He grew up in the Pacific North West, and started writing short stories as an undergraduate majoring in photography and design. He then attended graduate school at Cal Arts, focusing exclusively on prose writing. The move to Los Angeles convinced him he should try his hand at screenplays.
“My writing has always been very literary, but I grew up in the 80s where the high-concept genre movie was the king of my world,” Sherwood explains. “I’ve always tried to write genre from an elevated, literary point of view.”
He describes the first screenplay he wrote as very ‘art school.’ “It was definitely me wanting to be David Lynch. It was a very strange, existential sci-fi film. Knowing what I know now, no one was ever going to touch it with a 20-foot pole.”
In grad school he recalls he wrote two or three screenplays. “They were those two or three you just have to write to get it out of your system. They’re never going to be any good, but you have to write them to get them out of the way, so you can start to know your craft better.”
After graduating Sherwood worked as an in-house graphic designer for various companies. He continued to write, but rarely circulated his work. “I was very shy and I wasn’t necessarily a great networker. I was writing but I wasn’t putting it out there.” After six years he finally wrote a script he was confident enough to go out with, and even then his engagement with the industry was sporadic.
“If you live in LA you’re always going to meet people in the industry,” Sherwood says. “So my scripts started getting read, but I didn’t have any representation and I wasn’t hitting anybody big. I had some small things optioned on the indie side and met some agents who liked the work, but they weren’t quite willing to do anything for me until I had more going on with my career. It’s that odd catch-22.”
Sherwood had some success with the Nicholl prize as a quarter-finalist which spurred him to continue writing. He wrote Interstate 5 which appeared on the Black List, and was introduced by a mutual friend to independent manager/producer Kailey Marsh. When Millennium was looking for a new writer to pen Leatherface, they approached Sherwood, who ultimately landed the gig.
“Because I was a fan of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films I wasn’t afraid to tell them I hadn’t loved the last one. They said because it’s a prequel you have free range to do whatever you want, so as a fan of the franchise that was really exciting. I can add to the mythos and put the origin behind it.”
Sherwood is excited to be approaching Leatherface from an angle that might be new to fans of the chainsaw-wielding maniac. “I try to think of what the most likely story is, then come up with a different idea. At the end of the day I want to take a chance but I don’t want to be the guy who writes the eighth installment of a franchise and just does it by the numbers to make money. I want to do something that’s more character-based and unexpected.”
Leatherface has opened many doors for Sherwood, and he has been invited to pitch on other horror franchises that are looking to be relaunched. Sherwood says his pitch style is more conversational than formal, an approach that serves him well.
“I know there are writers who go into pitch meetings and read off a sheet of paper, but I don’t like doing that. I’d rather be more personable and talk about how I want to tell a story as much as what the story is.”
Sherwood also teaches screenwriting on the side, sharing his industry experience with fresh new scribes looking to break into the business as well as busting some of the myths.
“A lot of my students have their one screenplay, their one big idea that they think they can retain creative control of and sell for a million dollars. It doesn’t happen that way anymore. You need to be writing all the time. For me, writing is a compulsion. There were many times when I gave up and said I’m done. I’m not going to do this anymore. This is stupid. I quit. That would only last one week before I’m like, ‘well, I have this new idea.’ I can’t actually stop.”
Sherwood also believes success as a screenwriter is based more on being a skilled writer than on an ability to come up with great concepts. “There is no shortage of good ideas. They’re not looking for good ideas. What they’re looking for is something they can make in this location with a tax incentive that can be shot for a certain amount of money that works for this director or this actor. My students are always talking about the elevator pitch, where Steven Spielberg gets on the elevator and you only have five seconds to pitch him your idea. It was probably true at one point. Steven Spielberg doesn’t need your movie. He has plenty of good ideas coming his way. Plus, I’ve been to Amblin, and they don’t have elevators there.”
To Sherwood, the key to success as a screenwriter is to be prolific. “It’s a number game. You have to have lots of scripts. I can’t even imagine going out there to the industry without at least two or three finished scripts, maybe even four. Nine times out of 10 they read your script, they love it, but they’re still not going to make it. They’re going to either want you to pitch on their idea or they’re gonna ask you what else you have or what else you’re working on, and if you only have one idea, that’s going to be a really short meeting.”
Sherwood’s advice to new writers? Focus on the writing, and success will follow. “If I could have all the time back that I spent worrying about finding an agent, I’d be very fortunate. It should not be a goal for new screenwriters. I was one of those people who had one script and spent a year wishing I had an agent for that one script, when really I should have been spending that time writing more scripts. Before Leatherface happened I had three or four agents interested in me, but they basically didn’t want to do anything with me until I had a deal, then once Leatherface happened, all of a sudden I had my pick.”
Sherwood now has his pick of projects too, and we look forward to seeing Leatherface tear up the screen in Sherwood’s new vision.