Sterling Norman Anderson is an award-winning, Emmy-nominated screenwriter of more than 20 years, and you may recognize his name if you enjoy popular network television shows such as The Unit on CBS.
His teleplay The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, written for CBS starring Sidney Poitier, received three Emmy nominations and won an Image Award. Sterling’s extensive resume also includes screenplays written for Lions Gate, Disney, HBO, TriStar Pictures and Columbia Pictures.
A man of many interests, Sterling has a fifth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and was an award-winning winemaker in Napa Valley. Currently based in Los Angeles, Sterling talked to us about Los Angeles and his new book "Beyond Screenwriting."
When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?
When I was a winemaker in Napa Valley I was featured in a magazine and the writer was named David Scheff. David inspired me to be a writer.
How did you make the leap into screenwriting?
My first writing gig was doing wine and restaurant reviews in Napa Valley. From that experience it built my confidence to try writing a script.
How does screenwriting express your artistic nature in a way that other mediums cannot?
Cinematic story telling is story telling by the use of pictures and images. It’s called ‘show don’t tell.’ It is a very specific medium that not all writers can accomplish.
Tell us about your latest book! How did you decide to write “Beyond Screenwriting” and what can people expect when they open it up?
I used to teach graduate and under graduate screenwriting at the University of Cinematic Arts of USC. Every semester the students asked me what book on screenwriting do I recommend. It was hard to recommend more than one or two books on screenwriting because very few of them have been written by people who have actually done it.
I recently saw a screenwriting class taught by a woman who said her credentials are the fact that she has watched a lot of movies. This is hard for me to understand. It is like telling someone my credential to practice law is based on all the law television shows I’ve watched.
You stress the importance of three-dimensional characters in your book. Was this something you had difficulty with when you started writing or did it come naturally?
When I first broke through in the screenwriting business it was based on luck and instinct. After I met and worked with David Mamet on the one hour drama ‘The Unit’ he turned my writing into a skill. There is no better teacher of screenwriting than Mr. Mamet.
In "Beyond Screenwriting" you cite Dexter Morgan, Tony Soprano and Gregory House as legendary three-dimensional characters. What is it that you feel makes them legendary?
They are characters with serious flaws like most characters in life. Name one hero in the history of the world and they all have a laundry list of flaws. Protagonists have to be written like real life characters. All sports, political, musical, painters, actors and actresses who are coveted for their achievements are tremendously flawed.
You cite the TV show 24 with Kiefer Sutherland as a show with a constant pressing need that propels us to the next scene. Without a doubt this has an impact on the success of the show. That being said, why don’t more screenwriters adapt that method of continual intrigue and excitement?
Eventually they will have to. When a writer is hired to write for television he or she has to understand that there are 20 million viewers every night with their finger on the remote control. The second they lose interest they change the channel. This means television writers cannot take scenes off. There must be urgency and a pressing need in every single scene you write or you will not write television for long.
What is one thing people should keep in mind when beginning to write for the screen?
There has to be a pressing need and urgency in every scene. It doesn’t matter what the character did fifteen years ago in the Olympics. What matters in the scene is if they can get themselves out of a burning building or away from a runaway truck coming at them at 100 miles an hour.
Writing a book seems as though it would differ greatly from writing for the screen. Did you notice any similarities?
There are a few similarities in writing prose and screenwriting, but they are very different mediums. When you write a novel you can go as far as you want into a character’s thoughts or actions. When writing screenplays or teleplays you have to start the scene as late as possible and get out of the scene as soon as you can.
We’ve read you’re also a winemaker and a fifth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Do you find those pursuits have had an effect on your writing?
One famous writer, I believe Jules Renard, may have stated that to become a good writer you have to have lived many lives. If you have not lived or experienced many things it limits what you can bring to the page as a writer.
What’s next for you? What should we keep an eye out for?
I’ve just consulted for a new network television show that I’m sure will be a smash hit. It was created by two out of the world talented writers who really know how to think out of the box. I’m writing a movie based on the book I co-wrote called ‘Does He Cheat?’ It addresses infidelity in a very thought provoking manner. Let’s just say it’s like a train wreck you cannot look away from. When I’m done, I’m back to finishing the rewrite of my first novel.