Joshua Shelov, Yale ’93, knows a thing or two about the movies. The successful writer wrote the original screenplay for “Green Street Hooligans,” a Hollywood film starring Elijah Wood as a Harvard dropout who joins an English football gang. Shelov is currently teaming up with three of his classmates on a new film, aptly titled “The Best and the Brightest,” which gives a comedic take on the hectic and ridiculous world of private kindergarten admissions in New York City. Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Shelov’s latest project promises to, in his own words, “knock the pee out of people.” Shelov caught up with WEEKEND to talk about the movie, Yalies in the film industry, and his vote for best film of 2010.
Q. You were just in meetings for your upcoming film, “The Best and The Brightest”?
A. Yeah, just lots of press, fortunately. It’s been really nifty. This is my directorial debut, so it’s the first time I’ve really been on this ride.
Q. When is the film slated to come out, exactly?
A. Official release is this summer, but in advance of that we’re doing these word-of-mouth screenings all around the country. I really wanted to bring it back to New Haven because not only am I Yale ’93, but also four of the most core creative people on the film were Yale ’93: me, my co-writer Michael Jaeger, the composer Ted Masur and John Hodgman. He was obviously an actor in this film and is absolutely brilliant.
Q. Did you guys all know each other when you were here at Yale?
A. Yeah, we’ve all kept in touch. Jaeger and I are very close friends, and have been for 20 years. I rekindled with Ted and Hodgman over the past five to ten years. We never truly fell out of touch; they were all good friends during the college years, so it was just great to reconnect and be able to all find the time to work together and to make this thing work. They all contributed so much.
Q. Were any of you involved in comedy or film in any way when you were at Yale?
A. Jaeger and I were big theater dorks, these monstrous dorks. Jaeger directed a play, it seemed, every semester. I was a mediocre actor who was starting to realize that I was not going to be able to act professionally and starting to sublimate that desire into writing. Ted was always a musician and a singer as well. I was in the Duke’s Men and he was in the Glee Club. Yeah, I was one of those a cappella freaks.
Q. Do you find that the Yale crowd sticks together in the entertainment industry, or is yours a unique experience of working with some of your close friends from college?
A. I was very, very close with my cohort after we graduated. Jaeger is like that friend of yours, thank God for him, who makes sure everyone keeps in touch. He’s that guy. He’s like the social coordinator. He used to do this thing, for the first five or ten years out of college; we would meet at a diner all the way west of Manhattan, on like 12th Ave., and it would be called Jaeger Brunch. All of us, these struggling writers, struggling actors and struggling directors, would get together and sort of shoot the shit about our terrible auditions and how awful the business was. And then slowly, one by one, we started to break into the business. Our Yale group was very tight-knit, and that would explain why we continued working together when we started to break into the professional ring.
Q. So about your latest film, “The Best and the Brightest,” it’s been described as a farce playing on the intensity of parents trying to get their kids into good schools. Would you say that’s an accurate, albeit brief, description?
A. That’s right on the money. I keep invoking Jaeger because he and I really wrote this thing together, very much as partners. He and I were going through two things: one is that we are both fathers, he in Los Angeles and I in New York, and we were both dealing with getting our kids into private school and what a pain in the ass that is. It ties into your own ego, because, in not just New York but in a lot of communities, the basic, insane conventional wisdom is, “If you want to get your kid into a good college, they need to go to the right high school, which means they need to go to the right elementary school, and that all starts with the right kindergarten. So then, if you don’t get your kid into the right kindergarten, they’ll probably be a failure in life.”
Especially in New York and L.A., you have this level of overwhelming anxiety and competitiveness. That, combined with Jaeger’s and my great desire to do a farce, made us want to make this movie. I felt that the farce was underrepresented in film, and the movies we were really gunning for were “Tootsie” and “A Fish Called Wanda.” That’s really what we were trying to do. There are so many romantic comedies and bromances, buddy fratty kind of things; we really wanted to do a farce that wasn’t stuffy or formal but that uses the genre to knock the pee out of people.
Q. Do you identify at all with the main character in “The Best and the Brightest,” played by Neil Patrick Harris?
A. Oh yeah, overwhelmingly. I am not rich, and I think even if you are rich, you always feel like you’re not the richest person out there, and that you don’t have the advantages that people around you have. Our main characters, played by Neil Patrick Harris and Bonnie Somerville, are a newbie couple to New York, and they find themselves smacked in the face by how difficult it is to get their little girl into kindergarten in the fall, because everybody has been jockeying for these positions literally for years. One of the gags in the beginning is that Bonnie’s character brings her daughter to a prospective orientation, and there are no other 4-year-old kids there, even though it’s a kindergarten orientation; all the other women there are pregnant. They are prepping four or five years in advance to get their kids into private school. That’s actually quite accurate. It’s a good excuse to make fun of rich New Yorkers, in the way that “Seinfeld” or that kind of show does. Our point of view is from these “normal” folks who get trapped in this whole world.
Q. You’ve had a really prolific career up to this point; it looks like a lot of your previous projects, like “Green Street Hooligans” and the “Mayne Street” series, were more sports-related. I am wondering how “The Best and the Brightest” fits into the work you’ve done before, and whether or not it is a departure from what you’re used to doing.
A. That’s very astute, you’re right on the money; I broke into Hollywood with “Green Street Hooligans,” that was the first way I became a professional screenwriter instead of an aspiring screenwriter. It was a euphoric moment after ten years of banging away. But what I found is, and this is sort of common knowledge for people in Hollywood, that they tend to pigeonhole you and say, “We can’t, as executives, really take the chance on having you stretch, so we’re going to hire you to do the thing that somebody else has already hired you to do.” So I found myself basically getting work in Hollywood in the sports genre.
After writing several sports-themed things in a row, shall we say “inspirational coach movies,” I really wanted to cut loose. This film is very uncensored; it’s not filled with nudity or anything, but the language is very uncensored, and I think that is very much a reaction to being in the studio-mode. We want to make a “holy shit I can’t believe they went there” movie.
Q. So you’re really trying to do something different and new.
A. Yeah, and thank God it all came together. In the show business game, you start many projects, and very few of them actually go all the way to the finish line, let alone turn out the way you had hoped. This is one where we got lots of lucky breaks: Neil Patrick Harris signed on, we got financial backing despite the financial crisis … We got very lucky.
Q. Moving on to your teaching at Yale, you taught a college seminar in 2008 called Storytelling for the Screen. Was that your first experience teaching?
A. It was. As I mentioned, I really struggled throughout my 20s, but a breakthrough came with the “Green Street Hooligans” script. This is one of those odd, necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention kind of things; we had no money, I was working a day job, and I had a wife and a young son. We couldn’t afford any childcare and my wife was working a teaching job, so I had Owen, our son, and I had no time to write. What I ended up doing was dictating the “Green Street Hooligans” script into a tape recorder while I carried Owen on my back in a backpack. This is the first script of mine — and I’m going to intentionally make a bad pun — that actually spoke to people. It began to move under its own power instead of my just begging people to read it.
What Storytelling for the Screen is about is this breakthrough. I don’t write scripts silently anymore. I say them out loud with a partner in order to get the campfire essence of the story to be as vital as possible; I really have become a believer in oral storytelling, the age-old way you would sit around and listen to a story. Once you have that, and it takes months to get a really good, feature-length oral story down, whether it’s comedy or drama, then I find that the rest of the writing process is really a breeze. I really wanted to help younger people get their work to be communicative much more quickly than mine was; I felt that this was the real choke of expertise that I had learned. The course was fantastic. There were just ten students, and there weren’t any pens or pencils or computers — it was just about standing up and telling your story. They were quite terrible at first, but by the end of the seminar they were remarkable. It really did exceed my expectations, and I would love to do it again some day.
Q. What, in your opinion, have been the most exciting new releases in the past couple of months?
A. I have an answer for that, there’s a movie that sort of came and went and got no box-office love or pomp and circumstance from the awards. It’s called “Never Let Me Go.” I’ve since bought the book on which it was based, which I believe Time Magazine said was the best book of the decade. The movie was not particularly well reviewed or attended. But I caught it on demand just a few weeks ago, and I think it’s by far and away the best movie of 2010. The cast is extraordinary, and it is a remarkable film that I am shocked just did not get any kind of love out of the whole awards process, because that is the kind of film that really needs to be recognized. It’s a dark, very unique piece of science fiction that you don’t expect to feel like science fiction. I could not recommend that movie more highly.