How An Unknown Filmmaker Sells A Television Show by Jay Silverman of OFF THE MENU

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: So I know you had said in another interview that Richard Avedon was one of your idols [along with maybe] Francesco Scavullo, all of these fashion photographers. So it seems like that was your aim at that time, either that or products?

Jay Silverman: Well, when I was going to photography school you pick mentors if you are fortunate enough to be motivated by them. In my case I had Richard Avedon, I had Pete Turner, and I had Scavullo, Annie Leibovitz. You know these are people that I looked at as someone I’d like to be like.

And when I finished school I moved to New York and it became almost a surprise to me when I realized that “I think I can make a living in Los Angeles. I don’t think I have to live in New York.” And I knew back then that lifestyle was more important to me than money. I did not want to leave my family and my friends so I came back to LA and set up a business that way.

Film Courage: Especially the allure of doing a VOGUE cover, especially when you are just starting out.

Jay Silverman:  Well it’s curious that you say that because as a photographer at the beginning of my creative career, I did everything. I did fashion, I did product shots, everything but a wedding. And then you wake up one morning and somebody gives you some advice, you know? And that advice came at a high price. I paid a lot of money for someone to give me advice when I was in my 20’s on how to go to the next level. And the advice came with a question. The question was very simplistically what makes you different from everybody else and he really screwed with me because he did not want to tell me what the simplistic answer was.

So I tried everything “Oh, I do great people shots. I build great sets. I can motivate children.” And then he said “No…no…no. Think about it and get back to me next week. And I was terrified. I thought ‘how can I be so stupid? He’s asking me a question about my own career?’ And then finally I spit out….“I’m a problem solver!” And the guy looks at me and I look at him and says “Finally!”

And that really kind of encompasses everything about creativity. How do you make a documentary? You’ve got to solve the problem. How do you…in my case I came across a great idea for a TV show called The Cleaner (based on personal experiences) and how do you sell it? Well you wake up one morning and you sell it. You know, you’ve got to solve the problem.

In my case since I was half filmmaker/half photographer I started videotaping the highlights (the real highlights) that the show is about. It was the first AMC drama that they made (it was way before The Walking Dead and all this other stuff). And we were lucky enough to have Benjamin Bratt as the star. The character that he played on the TV show was a gentleman that I knew in real life. So I filmed him multiple times talking about what he did for a living and condensed it into a 60-second piece and that’s how I sold the TV show. And it wasn’t until 6 or 8 months later that I’m working with a crew on a pilot where they say “Do you know that this is like one-in-a-million that you can sell a show with no show of success?”

And that’s kind of how I’ve run my whole career is trying to focus on my goal, what is the real net choice that I’m going to make. Am I going to make a movie about the circus or am I going to go out and make a movie about somebody who goes out and saves people from themselves. And that’s kind of why I have a portfolio visually of different styles. I’m always interested in trying to grow.

Film Courage: Well speaking of growing…looking back on that Mr. Miyagi or whoever he was who was sort of mentoring you, do you ever think about what would have happened if you hadn’t met this person (as frustrating as that experience was for a little bit)?

Jay Silverman: Well, this person defined…it’s funny you can hire a psychologist to come into your business, they are called business consultants. They come in, they try to read your mind, they try to read what your goals are and they try to help you understand how to get there and the most basic thing is who are you? What do you really offer?

And it’s funny because as you listen to other filmmakers talk, listen to other writers talk, it all comes down to one thing and that is defining what your goals are. And Bethany (who is my producer) brought me the opportunity to go to a screenwriting fest where  producers and writers are able to meet and actually get pitched. On one level it’s a little bit like one of those real life dating situations where you have 3 minutes to meet somebody and the bell goes off and they switch. It’s a little bit like that but immediately they are pitching you their movie. And I said to Bethany “I don’t want to take any pitches for science-fiction, I don’t want to take any pitches for comedies, I don’t want to take any pitches for…I want real life stories.” And it helped define my goal which is to find something that I wanted to do rather than be inundated by these various other forms and I’m not critical of them it’s just not what I want to do?

Question For The Viewers: What makes you different from everybody else?