David Sheffield likened the spring mini-session screenwriting course he taught at The University of Southern Mississippi to running a guerilla war boot camp for film students.
And in Sheffield, a 1972 Southern Miss graduate and renowned television and movie writer, students had a drill sergeant training them to succeed and survive in a competitive business that he has flourished in for 25 years.
In the intensive four-hour, 10-day class schedule that marks the mini-session format, Sheffield showed students the finer points of writing a script and selling it to a potential producer, while also sharing “war stories” from his days writing for Saturday Night Live and producing hit movie scripts for superstars like Eddie Murphy.
“My goal was to give them an understanding of the form of writing for the big screen and television, while also providing an unblinking look at the reality of the film business,” he said.
Students were required to pitch an original idea for a television or movie, write the script and then make their case to a studio executive in role play with Sheffield. Free form discussion about ideas and strategies among the students also helped in developing scripts and approaches for selling them.
Ultimately, the two jobs of the screenwriter are writing and defending what they’ve written, Sheffield said. “It’s a competitive business. It’s not for wallflowers.”
It is the marriage of the products of creativity and the market forces that drive them that form the entertainment industry, Sheffield said. Therefore, the profession is not just about writing a great script, but developing a strategy to give it market appeal.
“I stress to them that it’s not literature. What they’re doing is making a plan for a movie,” he said.
Sheffield said he’s encouraged his students to follow their dreams while also preparing them for the realities of the entertainment industry, especially in Hollywood where many have come to pursue the same goal.
“The person serving you a cup of coffee in a restaurant there might ask you what you do for a living, and when you say you’re a screenwriter, don’t be surprised if the response is “Oh yeah? So am I. ’”
While not all of his students have starry-eyed dreams of making it big in Hollywood like their professor, Sheffield believes the principles he’s taught will help others with their work in advertising and public relations. “These skills are important in their field as well,” he said.
Getting the Big Break
From a young age Sheffield planned to write movies and television shows. He got his big break in 1980 when he took a gig writing for Saturday Night Live, the same year the show hired Murphy.
The two have remained close since their SNL days, and are currently working together on a new movie. Their past collaborations include “Coming to America” and the “Nutty Professor.”
Last fall, Sheffield was inducted in the Southern Miss School of Mass Communication and Journalism Hall of Fame, and discussed the possibility of returning to teach classes in screenwriting with school director Dr. Chris Campbell.
Sheffield has presented guest lectures at UCLA and USC, but the class he taught at Southern Miss is his first.
“What an amazing opportunity for students to hear from somebody with his level of experience,” Campbell said. “He knows intimately how things work in Hollywood, and he's in a position to offer great advice to students who aspire to work in the industry. You couldn't ask for a better role model.”
Student Talent Emerges
Student scripts ran the gamut from other-worldly science fiction to thrilling crime dramas, Sheffield said. “The freshness and originality of the ideas were astonishing,” he said. “We had some real talent in the class.”
Samantha Hebert, a senior radio television and film student from Pascagoula, said Sheffield helped the class understand what life was really like as a screenwriter. “It’s been eye-opening to talk to someone who knows how it works, who’s played the game,” she said.
“He’s a real live example of how someone from Mississippi can be a success in the field, proving you don’t have to be from Hollywood or New York.”
Casey Dillistone, a sophomore television production student, said getting feedback on his work in the class from a person with Sheffield’s experience was “invaluable” and admitted to being a little star struck.
“To learn from someone who knows Eddie Murphy and who worked with John Belushi before he died, it’s been amazing,” said Dillistone. “I’ve really learned a lot in two weeks.’
Sheffield said he enjoyed his first outing as a teacher and hopes to return next year to teach in Hattiesburg and on the Gulf Coast, where he grew up and graduated from Biloxi High School.
“I’ve had a blast. After laboring in Hollywood for 25 years, it’s refreshing and invigorating to be among young people, with their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. They remind me of the audiences I’m trying to reach.”
He’s also impressed by the teamwork his students displayed in helping each other by exchanging and critiquing ideas, which he said is important for the success of any screenwriting project.
“Film is a collaborative medium,” he said. ‘It’s not done in isolation.”
Hollywood movie writer David Sheffield goes over a storyline with Leslie Burge, a graduate public relations student from Lumberton, in the spring mini-session screenwriting class Sheffield taught. A 1972 Southern Miss alumnus, Sheffield has worked as a writer for Saturday Night Live and has collaborated with actor/comedian Eddie Murphy on movies such as “Coming to America” and “The Nutty Professor.” (Southern Miss Marketing and Public Relations photo by David Tisdale)
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.