A Conversation with David W. Cooper
By Jeff Wood, Film/Play Editor
David W. Cooper took his undergraduate degree from Lakehead University with a double major in psychology and English. He followed this up with a degree in education. After years of working in advertising, he switched to the world of education, which served as the inspiration for the pilot of Professional Development. David has sold a book and has had more than twenty-five magazine articles published in four countries. He is a graduate of the UCLA Professional and Advanced Program in Screenwriting. David has completed seven feature length screenplays, for which he has placed twice as Quarterfinalist at the Nicholl Fellowship and as well as the Creative Screenwriting competition, and he has won honorable mention at the UCLA Professional Program competition. His current project is a biopic of conspiracy theorist William Cooper (no relation) a man President Clinton called “the most dangerous man on radio.” For more information see DavidCooper.info.
What is your background, and how did you become involved in screenwriting?
I worked in advertising for many years and then, after selling my business, I moved to education. I had paid a fortune for a degree in education many years earlier and it seemed like it would be an enjoyable change of pace. It's interesting how misinformed our perceptions can be of different jobs.
As far as the screenwriting goes, it just felt like I was always saying, “Oh man, what would've been good in that scene was...” when I watched a movie. I used to do a lot of writing and performing when I was younger. As well, I had a lot of magazine articles under my belt. When I looked into the UCLA Professional Program it seemed to a good fit for me. The ability to keep working, and a reasonably fast pace to the program, were big pluses. After finishing the UCLA program, I placed in the top 10 in their contest and was a two-time QF in the Nicholl Fellowship. I began to think I might be kind of good at this!
How did you decide to shoot a television pilot, in contrast to a short or feature film? How much experience had you had in filmmaking before starting this project?
In the summer of 2009, I used to tell a lot of my film friends about my experiences in teaching. Coming from a business world/creative world to the world of education was quite a shock to the system. A director and producer suggested we do a web series, which we did. I wasn't thrilled with how it turned out, but it was a good experience. After the web series was done, a few of the actors called me up and told me they wanted to do more. We tossed around the idea of doing a pilot. I consulted with my manager and her words were something like, “Sounds great. Just replace the director, re-cast, and shoot it.” Yes.. basically change everything! I really wanted to use two actors from the original series; both had great comedic timing. I thought I'd re-create it with these two guys as the central characters.
The setting of your pilot could be any school in the United States. Do you see any differences between being an American or Canadian screenwriter? Any differences in sensibilities? Any advantages, like being an outsider looking in? Any disadvantages?
It's hard to say. Living right next door, I've been fortunate enough to have a lifetime diet of American TV, which has given me at least the televised version of what life in an American school would be like. Coupled with this, I've also had a good deal of exposure to Canadian, British, and Australian TV. Each culture definitely has its own style when it comes to humor. Hopefully, from an American perspective, this show has something that makes it unique. I don't like obvious in-your-face humor. I think my style of humor requires some level of inferring on the part of the viewer.
Professional Development is a real send-up of the school system, particularly of the administrators in the system. Have any of the administrators, teachers, parents or students you have contact with had a chance to see the film or the script? If yes, how have they reacted?
I did my best to make this show an ‘insider’ type of show... that is, exposing what happens inside the school system. It’s a show about the teachers within the system, and not about the students. It’s a workplace comedy. I’ve had a few teachers watch it and say it’s bang on with the state of the system. But, I try not to show it to anyone I actually work with. In my past experience, if I let on that I’m doing ANYTHING that is NOT teaching then I get a lot of grief from my co-workers. Comments like, “Oh, so you aren’t a real teacher,” and comments about the amount of time I put into the job... things that suggest if there is no way they have enough time to do this job properly, how could I possibly do this job and work on a TV pilot. However, snyde comments from co-workers let me know I must be doing something right. A school is the type of place where everyone thinks they know what goes on there. After all, you went to school for years. But I’m trying to expose what goes on behind the scenes, when the students aren’t around.
I know your story was shot on location at an actual school. Did anyone have to approve the content of what you were doing? If the answer is “no,” do you see any irony in the whole situation, especially considering some of the subject matter?
Using a real school, I was restricted to shooting on weekends. When I approached the Catholic school board, they told me they had a school that was closed and I could use it anytime, but they’d have to approve the content first. I sent them the script. After that, they wouldn’t return my calls! Thank God for the public school system. Oddly enough, at the public school system, the biggest obstacle was getting the teachers comfortable with the idea of having “film people” coming in. We lost several locations due to some pre-conceived notion of what “film people” might do. Stealing magazines seemed to be a major concern at one school. But yes, the whole situation is a little ironic given the content of the script. That is our public tax dollars at work in Canada; schools are meant to be a community building and used by the public.
Do you see yourself as a reformist writer with an axe to grind? Or just a guy exploiting the inherent humor in a bureaucratic quagmire?
Um... both? To move from the world of advertising (where there is an emphasis on cost, budget, quality, and people who are rewarded for their efforts) into the unionized world of education (where costs really don’t come up, and people who work hard don’t really get recognized for their work) is a strange shift. Honestly, working in public education isn’t easy. There are a lot of teachers who get promoted into positions of authority with little or no training or insights into budgets, human resources and technology, who are now running the show. Well, it’s bound to lead to trouble! It’s a very frustrating world and I had two choices: 1) let the foibles of this system drive me crazy, or 2) make a little note of all of these shortcomings and piece it together into something humorous. After all, when you watch something on TV that’s funny, consider some of these situations would often be very frustrating in real life. What I find funniest of all is that a massive chunk of this show is based fairly closely to events I’ve been a part of. In the end, I think this gives it a genuine feel.
Did you go into this project with the bliss of ignorance, or did you have someone to help guide you? What is the best piece of advice you got, if any? The worst?
After doing the web series, I made a list of things – mistakes – I didn't want to repeat. That helped immensely. Two of the lead actors also joined in as producers and I had a damn good director who contributed. It was a boost to my confidence after asking people to work for free and they agree after reading the script. Probably the best piece of advice came from the DP, who suggested using two cameras. We were able to cut down on time by filming across the scene and making sure things matched without continuity issues. Worst piece of advice was probably, “This shouldn't take very long to do.” Well, it takes a lot longer than expected.
You have functioned as writer and producer of this story. Has this experience changed your approach to writing? How?
It’s definitely been an interesting experience. One of the biggest things I’ve tried to make a note of is… simplification. When you write a spec script you often don’t consider budget or timelines. New locations are no problem in the script... just toss out a slugline. But when you're a producer and realize you need to secure a location, move to it, light it and film it, it suddenly makes a big difference in terms of time and money. Fewer locations, fewer characters. Another thing that was reinforced for me was starting as late into the scene and getting out as early as possible. The script had scenes that were longer, but after shooting and seeing the footage it made sense to trim things down. Although (in my mind) everything I wrote was pure genius, nothing was really lost by trimming these scenes.
What advice would you give to writers undertaking the filmmaking process for the first time?
Definitely make it a team effort. You can’t do everything or think of everything. This project was a success because of a great team. Have a spreadsheet that lists all possible costs, even ones you don’t think you will need, because you probably will need them! Make a budget and do your best to stick to it.
What’s the funniest story you have from the set?
Our biggest scene was a staff meeting. Lots of extras. Non-actor extras. One of the actors had to feign an upset stomach and diarrhea attack mid-meeting and run out. The actor did such a great job that everyone was laughing. Now on TV, that’s funny. Obviously in a real meeting, you wouldn’t be laughing at something like that... so we had to reshoot the scene a few times and make sure everyone looked concerned until we cut. This was a challenge for cast and crew alike.