Shawn is most known for directing and producing the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, as well as the Night at the Museum franchise, Real Steel, Date Night, Cheaper By The Dozen and Big Fat Liar. He also produced the multi-Oscar-nominated film Arrival.
Growing up, Shawn was passionate about acting and theater.
“I remember loving it. I don't remember what I was seeking or what I was learning, but I just remember loving it. I decided at the age of 10 that I had to go to Yale,” said Shawn.
Since then, he’s been involved in dramatic storytelling for 40 years. Through middle and high school, he was heavily involved in his school’s theater program.
He achieved his dream and continued his love for the stage and screen by studying acting at Yale as an undergrad. But it was also at Yale that he was bit by the directing bug.
“I was all in on acting. I loved it. I wanted to be an actor. I felt good about my abilities as an actor, but an eye-opening, pivoting moment in my life came at Yale, where I saw pockets of every passion—artists, scientists, engineers, actors, etc. That was a big, nice surprise. I also directed two one-act plays as a Freshman, and this is when I got my first glimpse into directing.”
His major lightbulb moment came during his Senior year at Yale when he directed fellow classmate, actor Paul Giammati, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. He realized then that directing was what he was meant to pursue.
“As a director, you see what is needed and required of the performance.”
But the switch to directing and producing didn’t happen right away. Shawn moved to Los Angeles the day after he graduated from Yale where he continued to pursue acting for a year and a half. He later enrolled in USC’s Masters Directing Program, where he learned all of the technical skills associated with directing and producing. Shawn credits learning different skills at both Yale and USC, which have had profound impacts on his career.
“I like doing a lot of different things—comedy, genre, sci fi. The number one thing I learned at Yale was that the way you talk to each actor shouldn’t be the same. I need to feel the vibe and get to know the way your brain works. The way I direct Adam Driver is night and day to how I direct Tina Fey. Always bring the notes to the actor’s ear. That’s proper respect and bonding with your actor. Creating intimate connections with your actors. One job no one is allowed to help you with is the actors—no one talks to your actors—that is set etiquette,” said Shawn. “One thing about USC that is really good is they get you making movies the first week, and you have to come up with an idea that you can tell without words and show it to classmates three weeks later. When you screen a movie and it's bad, that’s a real learning experience. For me, learning from my own mistakes is what taught me the most—more than anything I learned in a lecture hall. The hands-on approach worked very well for me.”
Shawn also discussed with students his leap from formal education—his time at Yale and USC—to then actually working in the entertainment industry as well as his process working on a new film. Shawn’s spoke of that process in regards to his upcoming movie, Free Guy, an American science fiction action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds. “I spend months working with the writer before I shoot any scenes, at least three and sometimes 6-8 months. By the time I shoot, I can almost recite every scene,” said Shawn.
Things really took a turn in Shawn’s career after his Night at the Museum producing credit. From there, he started his production company, 21 Laps Entertainment.
Towards the end of the class, Jordan opened up the Zoom to questions. Shawn answered how he chooses scripts to work on and the importance of being able to see through the dialogue to the idea of the film. “The idea of a museum coming to life at night is a huge idea. You have to recognize the difference between the dialogue and an idea. You can change dialogue but you can’t invent a huge original idea. So when you see it, you grab it.”
He ended by reiterating that as a director and producer, leadership is key and offered words of advice for the students in following their dreams and passions. “A life in a creative field is as amazing as you think it is in your teenage years. It is very hard to make it, but if you have it burning inside you, you absolutely must try. Whatever form it is, you know how it feeds you now, and it will always feed you that way. It is a worthy dream and it is a worthy love,” said Shawn.
“Shawn was so generous with his time, tips, and information. We thank him so much for his insights! What a special experience for our students to be a part of while learning remotely” said Jordan.