Spec Spotlight: Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman Talk Harry’s “All Night Hamburgers”
Writing partners Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman recently landed a deal with Warner Bros. Pictures after a bidding war for their feature-film spec, Harry’s All Night Hamburgers, based on the Hugo Award-winning short story Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers by Lawrence Watt-Evans.
The script centers on a young man who discovers that the old diner outside of town is a rest stop for parallel universe travelers. The sci-fi screenplay has been described as being evocative of Back to the Future and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
While Sherman describes the bidding war process as being surreal, the screenwriting duo did not have to travel to another universe to have their writing dreams come true.
FD: What was the bidding war like?
Sherman: The script went out to producers on a Tuesday and bids started coming in on Friday morning. We got a call from our team early in the morning, and then we really didn’t hear from them for the rest of the day. When we did, it was like, “Oh my goodness, that’s crazy! What’s been going on?”
FD: Definitely what all writers hope for, right? When did you start working on the script?
Desmond: It started in late 2016. Michael and his wife had their first baby and, as such, I was bored because Michael had to be a father. I went down an Internet rabbit hole that led to the short story. I loved it. I sent it to Michael, and he loved it. We started brainstorming immediately about what the movie could be. Fortunately, we were able to secure an option from the author directly ourselves.
FD: How did you expand a short story into a feature?
Sherman: The way that the short story was designed, essentially it is a first act. You have a character, he learns about this cool new world of the diner, and that’s where the story ends. He decides whether he wants to jump to another universe or not, and decides not to. We figured that would be a really short movie if that’s what we did. We had to take this guy on a journey. We dove into finding a character that would have a lot of what-ifs in his life. That seemed like a really strong character to go on a journey where you’re going to parallel universes.
Desmond: It works wonderfully well as a short story and it feels like a jumping-off point for something more, and I think the simplified version is that we had to create that something more. What happens when you jump into a parallel universe? The story was giving us that amazing set-up that let our imaginations go running.
FD: How do you guys work as a writing team?
Desmond: I think every writing team is different, but the way we work is that we outline together; we craft a very detailed outline between 20 and 30 pages. We like to have bigger discussions on character arc, plot, theme, and tone in the outlining stage because it’s easier to change it up when you’re just dealing with a 20-page Microsoft Word document rather than a screenplay. Once we’re happy with the outline, one of us will usually start from the beginning and write the first 10 to 20 pages. The other will do a revision pass while the first person keeps moving forward. In some cases, Michael might even start at the end of the story and I’ll start at the beginning, and we’ll meet in the middle. It’s worth saying that every script works differently.
Sherman: I think the key is that we also don’t break up scenes. We try to give each other longer sequences to work with. We also don’t write in the same room together because we’ll get too analytical about where to put the comma or whatever, and we won’t see the forest through the trees.
FD: How did you come to be writing partners?
Desmond: We both went to college together at USC film school. We have similar tastes in movies and television, but I think the bigger thing is that we have a very similar work ethic. We both work really hard, six days a week, and we know we can always depend on each other. We started by writing short films together—some of which I directed when we were at USC—and then after graduating, we shifted into writing features and TV together.
FD: What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
Sherman: When we were in school, we heard John August speak, and one thing that he said that has stuck with both of us was: Selling a spec screenplay is like winning the lottery, and the best way to win the lottery is to have a lot of tickets. After the sale, Steve counted up how many scripts we had worked on throughout the years and Harry’s was our 17th. That doesn’t mean we finished all of those, we might have done a first draft and then abandoned it, but that’s 17 learning experiences.
Desmond: I would recommend to listen to John August and Craig Mazin’s podcast, Scriptnotes, because I think it’s incredible. The anecdote that Michael just shared, we actually wrote them a letter about it and they read it on air.
FD: What would be your dream project?
Desmond: The Legend of Zelda. That would be the dream! But I also want to be a director, so my dream project now is a movie that I can direct. That’s the next dream for me, personally. But, The Legend of Zelda … that would be pretty freaking cool.
FD: Anything else you’d like to add?
Sherman: Don’t give up! It took us 17 scripts, a lot of years, and a lot of hours. But I can truly say that it’s been worth it.
You can keep up with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman on their website, http://www.dreamingants.com.
Kallie Tenney is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter. She is the creator of the cult favorite YouTube series, Gal Pals, which can be found at www.youtube.com/galpalsseries. You can follow her on Twitter @kallietenney