August 20, 2019

Craig DiLouie’s OUR WAR

So, hey, random bonus interview!

Well, not exactly random. Tuesday is the day new books come out and one of them’s from my good buddy Craig DiLouie, who I crawled up out of the zombie trenches with many years back. We ended up seated next to each other at our first convention as writers (well, it was mine—not sure it was Craig’s and now it’s too late to ask for this), and we sat next to each other many, many times after that. At one point we had a combined sales pitch where we could talk about each other’s books to people.

Anyway, he and I were shooting messages back and forth last week, talking about publicity and visibility and authors helping authors. At some point during the back and forth it struck me we could just do it ourselves. I mean, I used to interview complete strangers for a living… surely I could interview someone I know and help them get a tiny bit more exposure. And maybe talk a little bit about writing, too.
So welcome to what may be a new regular feature, based entirely around my schedule, my friends’ schedules, book release schedules, and okay maybe it won’t be that regular. Semi regular. And before we go, here’s all the usual explanations/ provisos that I put on every interview I post here. Bold is me asking questions, the rest is Craig answering. I’ve dropped in a couple links, but this isn’t meant to imply Craig’s endorsing my views. It’s just giving you a handy connection when he’s said something that might sound similar to something I’ve said.

Our War is out today everywhere. Go pick it up at your favorite local bookstore.

We’ve known each other for eight years now, right? I think we first met face to face in 2011 at a Seattlecon, right?
It was around 2011, that’s right—Zombiecon. We were with Permuted Press in those years, churning out zombie fiction. It was an amazing time. At these cons, you meet all these great people, but sometimes, you run into a brother from another mother. You were one such guy for me and still are! We talked a lot of shop at that con, and I remembered thinking right off the bat that you were a writer who was going to go places. This was right about the time your novel -14- was in production. It’s incredible how much has

changed for both of us.

Right, We did Crypticon up there a bunch of times and I always forget we started with Zombiecon at the same hotel. And, yeah, I love that every time we get together we just instantly drop back into conversation mode and start talking.

Speaking of which (clever segue), let’s talk about Our War  What’s your two or three line elevator pitch?
Our War is a dystopian thriller about a brother and sister forced to fight on opposite sides of a second American civil war. Recruited and radicalized, they eventually realize they must fight for each other and themselves if they want to survive. The novel might be described as Omar El Akkad’s American War meets Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, both of which put a human face on the horrors of modern civil war.
I think I already know the answer to this, but other people might not– when did you start writing this, or playing around with the idea, I guess? Was it something recent you based off current events or one of those cases where reality started leaning into your story over time?
Why would I write a dystopian novel? Because they always say, “Write what you know!” Americais more divided than ever. The tribalization of American politics has always troubled me because there’s only one way it can go, which is worse. So I did what I often do when I start a novel, which is say, “Okay, let’s take this to its logical conclusion. What would it really look like?” No wish fulfillment, no straw man supervillains, no romanticism, no plucky patriots resisting tyranny. Just Americans living in different political narratives fighting over which narrative was true. While I was writing, real events started to feed me fresh ideas, making the story feel torn from current headlines.
Okay, you’ve actually given me lead ins for two things I wanted to ask you, because one thing I really liked about this was that you kept it grounded. This isn’t some over-glamorized epic, it’s very close and intimate. It’s a national civil war, but I really like the idea that it’s not a north and south thing, but individual cities that have split in half, more like gang turfs than enemy lines. Was that a key idea from the start or was it something you sort of found yourself working into to solve problems, this whole smaller-scale? I mean, for me there’s almost always at least one point in the process where I realize “geeez, this will all be so much easier if I just do this…”
Early on I planned this book out, I came to the conclusion that a civil war in Americawould look far more like the Bosnian War in the 1990s than the last civil war in the 1860s. Triggered by a Constitutional crisis, an armed national protest by the Right snowballs into a revolution. The resulting war is rural versus urban, not states versus states, and in that type of conflict, how could the military respond? Look at an electoral map by county, and you can see the battle lines drawn along the red, blue, and purple. This is a war in which everybody fights, and nobody wins.
By making two of Our War’s protagonists child soldiers—who didn’t want the war and barely understand it—we see the real victims of civil war. In this type of conflict, the innocent always lose the most. All the things Americans shake their heads at happening in other countries like Syriacould happen here. Early on, I wanted to focus on the child soldiers’ story and the people whose lives they touch—a UNICEF worker, a journalist, and a rebel militia sergeant—to show different perspectives but otherwise keep the war local. They all care about the big picture, who’s winning or losing, but they are far more concerned about what’s happening right in front of them. This makes the story feel both intimate and deep.
You actually write about kids and horror a lot. I mean, Suffer the Children had adult protagonists, but the story was all about their kids. One of Us. Now this. Do you always intend  to write about children? Or, I guess, a better way to put it, are you starting with the core idea that horror/suspense is always creepier with kids (which it is) and moving forward from there, or are you coming up with your plot, your world, and at some point going “y’know what would make this really intense…” ?

It’s funny because it’s not my intent, it just turns out that way. I think a big part of it is being a father who is deeply invested in his kids. They really are the world to me and never far from my thoughts. In fiction, children are also an excellent lens to examine big issues from a fresh angle. In Suffer the Children, we have a vampire novel where the world’s children are infected by a parasite that requires them to drink blood in order to stay alive. The result is a horror story that is also an examination of how far parents will go for their children. In One of Us, the story is about teenagers who are part of a generation born with strange mutations, which became a way to examine prejudice. And with Our War, having two of the five protagonists being children, and joining the war by becoming child soldiers, shows the real cost of war and in particular civil war. The contrast of innocence with very real horrors I think punches the theme to a higher level.

It strikes me that you and I rarely talk about politics. We talk about story ideas and movies and publishing paths and a lot of stuff in our field, but I’m trying to think of any political discussion we’ve had that did more than skim issues. So, that said, there’s no denying this is a really political novel. Probably the most starkly political one you’ve written, yes? Or, at least, that I’ve read (maybe your submarine novels are super-partisan–I have to be brutally honest, I haven’t read them). I do remember us talking about Our War at one point while you were writing it and you laughing and saying “this is going to give everybody a reason to hate me,” or words to that effect. Now that you’ve had time to get some distance, do you still feel that way? Are you still nervous about this part of it?
I’m not as nervous as I was because the early reviews are saying good things about the novel being ideologically fair, which was my intent. Look, typically, when you have a second civil war novel, the author has three choices. They can choose an ideology and offer a wish-fulfillment story, they can avoid politics entirely and set the war far in the future to make it fantastic, or they can tear it from today’s headlines but try to be fair. I took the last path, which is the most challenging and risky. Challenging because I as the author I had to keep myself entirely out of the story, even though I have strong political convictions. And risky because when you strike the middle path in a polarized environment, you risk pleasing nobody.
With Our War, two of the principal protagonists are children indoctrinated into opposing militias, and while they grasp core ideas, the politics are gibberish to them. They are exposed to ideological viewpoints, and then the other protagonists have their own convictions the reader gets firsthand. So the reader is exposed to a palette of views from characters entirely convinced they are right, and I trust the reader to do their own thinking without me trying to force anything on them. The primary point of the book isn’t the politics, however, but the polarization itself that leads to civil war. In that, Our War does its job as dystopia by issuing a warning, and it fights political narrative with a different story of what happens when tribalization goes too far. And despite dystopia being kind of dark, I think there’s a lot of optimism in Our War, if readers come away with new energy to resist such a future.
It’s funny, you mentioning the wish-fulfillment option. I think we both probably saw a lot of that when we were doing a lot more in zombie circles. Do you think–I’m gonna step away from your book for a sec to ask a general question–do you think those books come from a lack of empathy, or just a disregard for it? I mean, any sort of wish-fulfillment story is going to have kind of a narrow, focused audience. So do you think people tent to write them because they’re choosing to aim at that niche, or because they honestly don’t realize it’s just a niche and not a widely held view?

I remember back when we were writing zombie fiction, I used to categorize zombie books as either wish-fulfillment to satisfy the Z Nationcrowd or exploring all possible consequences of TEOTWAWKI to please The Walking Dead crowd. As for the authors of both, they were probably writing what they wanted to read, or they had a good sense of what some readers wanted, or both.

I get what you’re saying about empathy and would say it’s probably a disregard for it. Not a bad kind of disregard, though, it’s more like setting it aside so the story can go where it needs to go. Personally–and this is just me without judgment on what other authors and readers like–I like consequences in my fiction and the fiction I read, and I want realism to make willing suspension of disbelief all the more satisfying. But that’s me as I’ve gotten older; when I was a teenager, I read every Robert E. Howard story I could get my hands on, wishing I was Conan and loving getting to be him for a short period of time.
When dealing with a topic like a second American civil war, the wish-fulfillment aspect takes a different turn into politics, which is what I was referring to in my previous answers. This is where say a plucky band of patriots resists a tyrannical Marxist government putting all Americans into concentration camps, a storyline I’m not making up as I read one exactly like this. This type of novel provides a wish-fulfillment experience for a certain type of reader while reinforcing their ideological worldview. Which is fine for people who want that, but for me, telling the story of a second American civil war demanded gritty, unflinching realism and an impartial approach. A story not aimed solely at a certain reader but at everyone.
Yeah, I remember you and I were on a post apocalyptic panel years back and one of the of the panelists very much had that wish-fulfillment/ideological reinforcement view. I think we talked about it for a while as a business path.

Hey, it just struck me this is going to be on my ranty writing blog, so let me ask you a few writing-related questions, and you can talk about Our War as a reference. How do you generally plan out a book? Do you like outlining? Notecards? Are you a little more of a pantser? How much do you usually have by the time you start writing?
I’m an absolute plotter, though there’s plenty of discovery and change as the novel progresses. In a given year, I produce a standalone novel for Orbit, several episodes in various self-published series, and a huge output from my technical freelance writing business. So for me, efficiency rules.

My main plotting tools are a four-act plot structure and character arcs. With a four-act plot structure, you have the inciting incident, which kicks off the central conflict; introduction to the normal; first plot point where something happens that changes everything; the protagonists react to that change; the midpoint; the protagonists are propelled to become more proactive toward the central conflict; second plot point; and then the protagonists go all in to win or lose. Character arcs can be fairly detailed, but in its most basic form, the protagonist has a need to change, a mis-belief preventing that change, an external goal with an opposing force, and personal transformation achieved through the resulting struggle.

For Our War, which is more of a character-driven work, I relied more on character arcs than major plot points to move the story forward. In this story, the first, mid, and second plot points marked major changes on the battlefield and resulting balance of power and stakes. These big changes in the protagonists’ world affected the dynamics and choices in their individual character arcs, which I also mapped out until I really knew whose these people were from the inside out. While I was sketching out these goalposts, I was “dreaming” the book–doing tons of research, taking plenty of notes, and otherwise allowing the story to percolate in my subconscious until it all hit a critical mass and I could start writing it. And while I had the goalposts set up before I started writing, the actual writing involved a lot of discovery, where I allowed the characters to develop as they needed to. The result is a story that is both planned and organic. In the end, even when you plan it, the novel will tell you what and how it wants to be.

Okay, follow-up question, because I think we both know people worry about this a lot when they start out. You’re a dad and you still have a full-time job. How much time do you actually get to write each day? Do you have set word counts you try to hit per day or per week?
I’m really lucky in that my full-time job as a journalist and educator in the lighting industry is at home. You know what they say about people who work for themselves: They can work anytime they want, but they’re always working. So it was always super busy–which is a good thing–but there was just enough time to develop my own projects. Over time, as I gained some success, I was able to treat my fiction as a client and give it the time it was due during my day. Over the years, the amount of hours I put in tuned my brain for writing, and I now produce projects fairly quickly compared to that first novel back in my early twenties, which felt like mentally climbing Everest.
So how fast do you turn a draft around? I mean, you’re writing a lot of stuff every year. Once you’ve got an outline, how long does it usually take you to get a completed first draft? Like, how long did Our War take, beginning to end, however many drafts you did?
These days, I can write a novel first draft in about six weeks. That’s actual typing time, during which I’m living and breathing the novel. Before that, there is maybe one or two months of planning and dreaming,note-taking and research. The beauty of working with Orbit is Bradley Englert, my editor, is both talented and kind at his job, and the long stretches of being away from the manuscript during the production process gives my brain some objective breathing space so I return to it fresh. Bradley’s edits always cut straight to the heart of what needs work, and then I spend another say four to six weeks on revising and editing. In all, the book is completed in two major drafts, with nothing rushed. By the time I hand in the final manuscript, I’ve read the book probably eight or nine times, endlessly polishing.
Three things have aided me in terms of speed. One is me constantly learning and internalizing craft, tuning my brain through practice, and having been at this long enough to discover my natural voice. The second is raw passion for the project, the joy of writing a novel I wanted to read myself and share with others; you have to love what you write, and if you do, that love will become infectious for the reader. The third boon to speed is the simple benefit of a contract, knowing at the end of all this hard work that a quality publisher was going to publish it if I gave them a good product on deadline. 
We should probably stop now–we’ve been batting this back and forth all weekend. Unless there’s some last thing you want to get in.  Your secret pet peeve? The one question you always wish you were asked? New projects?
Right now, I’m wrapping up a new supernatural horror novel for Orbit titled Mysterion, which is about a group of people who grew up in an apocalyptic cult and survived its horrific last days. Years later, they reunite to confront their past and the entity that appeared on the final night. Think Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House meets the Jonestown massacre. Thematically, it touches on trauma, memory, faith, and belonging. Stay tuned–this one is coming in the fall of 2020. In the meantime, I’ll also be launching a new self-published WW2 adventure series titled Armor, which follows the crew of a Shermantank from North Africa to Berlin. Readers can stay tuned at my website/blog at
Thanks for the opportunity to visit with you, brother! I’m looking forward to my next Peter Clines read!
October 11, 2018

When Writing is a Nightmare

            Yeah, I did it.  I went for the cheesy title…
            Sorry I missed last week.  I got some last minute line edits that I needed to go over… well, line by line.  They ate up a lot more time than expected.
            Plus, as I mentioned the other day, I’m going to be in Lubbock, Texas this weekend, giving a speech on reading and literacy.  Leaving tomorrow, in fact.  So I’ve been poking at my speech all week because… well, I have to give a speech in two days.
            Anyway, rather than leave you all hanging for another week, I dug around and found another old interview from back in the day.  As has come up once or thrice before, I used to do a lot of these.  Sometimes there’d be a movie coming out that the different writers would fight to do an article on.  Other times, the editors would hand-pick people for different assignments.  And now and then a stack of possibles would drop into your lap and you’d get to choose.  Usually these were the sort of “high risk” articles—you could choose it, make space for it on your schedule… but it might not end up happening for one reason or another.
            Fortunately this one did happen. 
            There’s a strong argument to be made that the 2010 reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street is what put Eric Heisserer on Hollywood’s radar.  That’s a tough thing to say, because so many people work for years and years before finally being noticed (after which they “come out of nowhere”).  But Nightmare gave Heisserer the clout to move on to other horror projects like the Final Destination franchise, the prequel/remake of The Thing, and Lights Out.
            And I’m sure he’s probably done some other noteworthy stuff since then…
            Anyway, a few of my standard points, but you’ll probably figure them out as we go.  I’m in bold, asking the questions.  Keep in mind a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out over it.  If you see a long line of dashes (———-) it means there was something I didn’t transcribe, probably because it was just casual discussion, something I knew I wasn’t going to use in the final article for one reason or another, or something that Eric was willing to talk about off the record to help me understand some of his on the record answers.  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply he’s specifically endorsing any of the ideas I’ve brought up here on the ranty blog—it’s just me linking from something he said to something similar that I’ve said. 
            By the nature of this discussion, there are going to be a few small spoilers in here, though not many.  Check out the movie if you haven’t seen it yet. 
            Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
            So, anyway, here’s me scaring Eric Heisserer with a few questions about the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot.
            (did you see what I did there?)
            (you did?)
            (…okay, I’ll see myself out)
So, how’d you end up on A Nightmare on Elm Street?  Did they come to you, did your reps push you for it, or was it something you wanted?
            It was one of those serendipity moments.  I went for a general at New Line and I think right before I was to go in they were hoping that [Mark] Swift and [Damian] Shannon would be able to transition over from Friday the 13th to do a take on Nightmare.  But they got locked into a Paramountdeal and realized that they had to move fast on this thing.  So what started out as a general turned into an assignment.  It was pretty intense because I was only supposed to meet with Dave Neustadter, who’s a junior there at New Line and instead I’m meeting Walt Hamada and Dave.  And I’m thinking to myself ‘Why am I in the big conference room?  Did I say something bad about New Line?  I’m in trouble, aren’t I…?’
So you walked in not even knowing this was now a specific assignment meeting?
            Correct.  They just pitched it at me.  They said ‘You heard of a little thing called Nightmare on Elm Street?’
Were you really familiar with the original films to start with?
            Yeah.  I grew up loving those movies, especially Dream Warriors. 
Now, I want to make sure I’ve got the timeline right.  The screenplay started with Wesley Strick. 
            Yeah, he did a pass.
They filmed the movie.  Then they brought you in to do some rewrites so they could do reshoots.  Is that correct?
            No, they abandoned his draft entirely.  He did a draft for them and they decided to go in a very different direction.  And I came in at that point and they said ‘Let’s start fresh.’  So the producers, Brad [Fuller] and Drew [Form] at Platinum Dunes and the execs at New Line sat down and the five of us figured out tonally what kind of movie we wanted to make and how we wanted our villain to be.  Because there are various versions of Freddy Kruger.  He changes as the franchise went along.  Once we were all on the same page in terms of the tone of Freddy Kruger, I went off into my cave and I wrote for three and a half weeks or so in order to get a draft to them as fast as possible to put this thing on the production slate for Warners.
So this was a page-one rewrite?
If you don’t mind me asking–it can be off the record–is Wesley’s credit mostly from inherent stuff from the franchise?
            Yes.  Oddly enough a lot of that is.  Strick got his name on it because he was the first writer on and he had one idea that kind of changed the mythology of Freddy.  Which is to put into question if he was guilty or innocent.  That was the one thing in his draft that we stuck with in my draft and subsequent ones.  Freddy Krueger as Samara from The Ring— you think that he just wants one thing and then it turns out he’s just an evil mother@%#r.  And because of that one change in the mythology the WGA decided that it was not a remake but a sequel or some other deviant, and because of that Wes Craven’s name wasn’t put on there.  Which frustrates me because aside from that one change in Freddy’s mythology, everything else is very true to Wes Craven’s story structure.
Now why did you come on?  What about Wesley’s script did they feel needed to change?
            Well, I really wanted to make it scary. Strick had some bizarre elements in his nightmare sequences that really didn’t make them nightmares.  He had unicorns and the lead character was a barely-functioning autistic girl.  The ending was a long monologue, and the monologue is what kills Freddy Krueger.  So I understood why they wanted to start from scratch and rebuild the house for Freddy and focus first on making it scary and then figure out how to escalate that horror into the third act.  Looking at the original, there’s a long gap in the last half of the film between appearances of Freddy Krueger, because people have figured out at that point in time that once you go to sleep, that’s when he gets you.  Nancy, in Craven’s original, spends about twenty minutes of screen time kind of MacGuyvering her house so that when she pulls him into the real world [she’s got booby traps set up].  Johnny Depp goes to sleep, but that’s a very shortened nightmare sequence where he’s just pulled into the bed.  We really don’t see Freddy.  So there’s this long period  where you feel like, in this day and age, the movie would drag.  There’s a lot of stuff that may have worked in ’84, but it doesn’t translate well to now. 
            So I was looking for a way to make Freddy more and more of  a menace as we got closer to the end of the movie.  I did so by researching insomnia and health and other side effects from that.  I discovered around the 70 hour mark of sleeplessness your brain starts to kick into what’s called ‘micronaps,’ and that part of the brain shuts down for a while.  So you are actually asleep even though you’re conscious and you feel awake for the most part.  That was my doorway into allowing Krueger to show up at unexpected times while they were awake and screw with the idea of what’s reality versus what’s dream.
A lot of the old “dream logic” seems to have gone away, too–the idea that absolutely anything can happen in the story because it’s a dream.  Now Freddy’s a worm, now he’s a girl, now his tongue’s twenty feet long…  Why is that?
            Exactly.  I wanted something a lot more grounded for a couple of reasons.  One is that I knew we were under budgetary considerations.  They wanted to hit a target number, so I knew that would help.
            The second thing I discovered is that the scares are harder to deliver when the audience realizes that they’re in the dream world.  Because once they’re keyed into that, the audience–at least part of them–starts to give up and think ‘Well, they’re screwed now.’  Because Freddy has full control there.  He can be anything he wants.  It’s like being in the Matrix.  Breathing, running, distance–all of those are illusions.  So I found that to keep as grounded as possible allowed me to play with when that moment was that they’d fallen asleep and entered the dream world.  That just hit the buttons for me more as a horror writer more than playing with a fantastical landscape.
How do you normally approach a script?  Are you an outliner?  A notecard guy? 
            I start with note cards on a cork wall.  Anything and everything that comes to me for the project–whether it’s a snippet of dialogue, an action sequence, a character, a backstory note–anything and everything I throw on there like a trash pile.  Then I figure out the things I like best from it, start to organize it a bit, and from there I go to outline.  Once I’ve got a decent outline. I use that as the spinal column of the script, and I make sure before I go to that, the script phase, that everybody else on the project agrees to it.  Everybody’s seen it and they’re happy with the skeleton of the piece.
What’s a decent outline for you?  Ten pages?  Twenty? Thirty?
            I land somewhere around twenty pages with these things.
Does it change things a lot for you, writing-wise, to come in and start with someone else’s material?
            It puts a lot of stuff on that cork wall right away.  I like that (laughs).  It gives me a lot of stuff to deal with right away.  I don’t mind coming in with something that already has ingredients set out for me.
Freddy Kruger’s a pretty solid horror icon.  Is it a little intimidating to step in and try to rewrite him, especially when he’s not exactly faded from the public eye?
            Absolutely.  It was scary as hell. (laughs)  I just had to do my best to do him justice.  I wouldn’t’ve taken the job if I thought all I was going to do was deliver something that was a little bit better than what they already had.  I had to deliver something I felt would really fit in with the mythology and restart him properly.
The franchise changed quite a bit over time.  Freddy went from honestly creepy in the first one to more of an… an evil comedian in the later movies.  He’s a lot more dark and savage in this.  Was the focus from the start to “get back to basics,” as it were?
            Yeah.  Right.  I knew that he still needed to have some sense of humor, but I wanted to make it sadistic rather than wise-cracky, Tonight Show.  The reason I went there first is it just gives us more room to grow if this series continues after this first relaunch.  I’ve noticed that a lot of franchises, by the time they’re at the third or fourth film, they bend more and more toward comedy.  Like Lethal Weapon, for instance.  I think if we start there, there isn’t much elbow room for Freddy.  He can always become more wisecracking later on in the franchise, but what makes him an icon is horror is that first and foremost he’s scary.  He’s someone you don’t want to have show up in your dreams.
Nightmare on Elm Street had a great run, originally, as a franchise.  While you were writing were you thinking ahead to sequels or planting any seeds?
            Yeah.  I had to think way down field, otherwise… I don’t know if we would’ve built the movie around the character if we thought of it as a stand-alone story or something we didn’t want to revisit.  We could’ve done a lot more with Krueger’s history and the history of the town, the kids, and the parents.  Realizing that we could explore those layers allowed us, and me as a writer, the freedom to leave questions unanswered.  Or to place questions out there of who this guy is and where he came from.  Of course, I had to internally have all those answers ready for New Line because they wouldn’t let me get away with that (laughs).
Now, there’s also a very interesting twist, hinted at in the trailer, that Fred Krueger might have actually been innocent when the parents killed him.  What made that so appealing?
            What made it appealing was it forced an investigation, some procedural elements into the story.  Our kids, not knowing what happened with Freddy, and feeling that he may be exacting revenge because he was falsely accused or falsely murdered, that allows us investigative beats to get to the truth.  Without that, with just the idea that he’s evil and now he shows up in dreams and he’s killing people… there’s not a whole lot to do there, storywise (chuckles).  Well, I guess I’ve got to stay awake and I don’t know what to do after that.”
There’s an interesting twist to this, although not in the usual sense.  We start the movie focused on Kris.  She’s pretty solidly the main character.  Then a third of the way in… you kill her and shift the focus to Nancy.  How hard is that to pull off?
            Well, that was Craven’s original plan.  We follow a character that we think is going to be our protagonist and then Craven pulls a Psycho and kills her off and then we hook up with Nancy from that point.  I’m kind of mirroring the structure of Craven’s story.  I can’t take credit for that one.
I noticed technology’s a bit more prevalent in this one. When Wes Craven made the original, you didn’t have iPods or cell phones with a hundred apps on them– these days pretty much everyone is carrying an alarm clock around with them.  Did this hinder or help you a lot?
            It helped a couple of times.  Nancyuses her cell phone to set an alarm to wake herself up around the middle of the movie.—— The technology can still have the same problems as the lack of technology did back then.
There’s a very low bodycount in this film.  I think we only see… what, four or five people die?  And two of those are kind of low-key, all things considered.  Why is that?
            Not so much, no.  It’s not like it’s a guy in a hockey mask killing everybody off.  Part of the reason for that is we wanted to spend more time with our characters.  Do our best to get to know them and the relationship between their parents who are involved in covering up what happened to Krueger.  And part of it is it’s harder, I think, in Freddy Krueger’s universe, in the Nightmare on Elm Street  world, to get away with a whole slew of murders in a town and not draw a lot of attention and not change the game.  If it were a camp by a lake and everybody’s off and sequestered in the woods, then you can kill ten or twelve people in one movie.  But here we are in Springwood, a pleasant suburbia, and even one or two [murders] is going to draw a lot of attention. Local, state, national.  Beyond a certain number if someone’s cutting up the teens of such-and-such place.   Even if it looks like it’s accidental deaths, there are a lot of eyebrows being raised.  So you have to be careful about that and not have body count be the focus of the story.  Just find out how Krueger can work under the guise of a dream.
How many drafts?
            Three? — Wow… that was my very first draft after about three and a half weeks on the project.  There’s one that’s March 19 that gets rid of a lot stuff that was just thrown in there. It cleans up a lot of stuff and manages dialogue better.  A lot of the dialogue in the January draft was just placeholder, in terms of throwing in as text what we later wanted to make subtext.  So there’s a March 19th draft and then a production draft in May.
(a lot of off the record stuff)
            Really that was pretty much it.  We talked for another five or ten minutes, Eric explained a couple things I’d heard with a gentleman’s agreement it wouldn’t be used (and it still hasn’t been), and that was it.
            So… next week.
            Well, I still have the things I planned for last week.  I just need to make some adjustments.
            Until then… go write.
            And if you happen to be near Lubbock this weekend, come hear me talk about literacy.
June 25, 2015 / 2 Comments

Hunting For Words

        If you didn’t know, two weeks ago was the twenty-eighth anniversary of the first Predator movie.  Amazing, isn’t it. There are probably some of you reading this who have never known a Predator-free world…

       I mentioned this fact on the fan page that day, which led to a bunch of responses, and some of those led to me saying (in the loud way you can do when you have a fan page) that I actually liked Predators, the sequel with Adrian Brody, Alicia Bragg, Topher Grace, Laurence Fishburne,

        A few years back, while I was still writing for the magazine, I leaped at a chance to do an article about Predators.  While many folks still love that original film, lot of people didn’t like the sequels, or the AvP movies, or the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon.  And I knew Robert Rodriguez was attached to this new project, so I figured there had to be at least a one-page article there, maybe even two.
        There was no Saturday morning cartoon.  I was just seeing if you were paying attention.

        The idea flew and a few weeks later I ended up over at 20th Century Fox talking with the two screenwriters, Alex Litvak and Mike Finch.  They’d pulled their dream job, writing a big-budget sequel to the 1987 action/ sci-fi classic, and they were more than willing to talk at length.  It’s worth noting that I was face-to-face with Alex for this interview while Mike joined us on speakerphone.  Because of this, Alex tended to dominate a bit just because Mike, without any visual clues, was left unsure of when he could jump in.

        A few of my standard points, but you’ll probably figure it out as it goes.  I’m in bold, asking the questions.  Keep in mind a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out over it.  If you see a long line of dashes (———-) it means there was something there I didn’t transcribe, probably because it was just casual discussion or something I knew I wasn’t going to use in the final article for one reason or another (there are some off the record discussions now and then).  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply Alex and Mike were specifically endorsing any of the ideas I’ve brought up here on the ranty blog—it’s just me linking from something they’ve said to something similar that I’ve said. 
        By the very nature of this discussion, there will probably be some spoilers in here.  Check out the movie if you haven’t seen it yet.  It’s a fun sequel with some great Predator action.  Plus you’ll get a bit more out of this interview.
        Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
        So, anyway, here’s me going after Alex and Mike with questions about Predators
How did you guys start working together?
Alex:  I started out in development, spent about ten years working on movies as a production/ development executive, including here at 20th Century Fox.  That was my first big break. And then five years was spent at a company called Intermedia, working on a bunch of movies, helping the Germans piss away a lot of … (laughter) 
Mike: Yeah, I’d been working for about ten years before this.  The very typical screenwriter story.  I’d worked on a bunch of projects, sold some specs, several movies had been very close, had worked for most of the studios doing rewrites or assignments, but–that very typical story– none had gotten made.  I was definitely a working screenwriter, but somewhat of an unfulfilled working screenwriter.  Adequately paying the bills and liking the lifestyle, but not enjoying the success of having a movie made.
A: Mike’s actually a second generation screenwriter.  For me this all kind of fresh and new.  Mike’s dad and his mom created Dirty Harryand Ice Station Zebra.
M: And I’ve been living off that ever since. (laughs)
How did you guys get on board Predators?  Wasn’t Robert Rodriguez just going to write it himself at one point? When was this?
A: This actually, for me, goes back aways.  When I worked here, at the time I was just obsessed with the idea of doing another Predator movie.  The original is so iconic ad the second one was kind of a misstep.  I felt there was another great tale to be told.  At the time we {studio) were doing Alien: Resurrection, which didn’t quite work.  They’re both kind of in the same wheelhouse, and the idea of doing another Predator movie without Arnold was kind of “ehhhh.”  So that never materialized.  Just as I was making the transition to screenwriting…. You come up with these ideas just as a fanboy.  ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do a Bond movie where Bond does X?’  It was a moment like that with a Predator movie.  ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to see a Predator movie where Y happens?’  At the time I hadn’t written or sold anything, so I just filed it away.  
        Cut to present day, 2009, right after Medieval, we walk into a room at Fox and sat down with Drew Crevello, who was a huge fan of the script.  We started talking about what’s next, we were completely available, and he says ‘Predators.  We’re reviving this movie.’  It was an old script by Robert Rodriguez who I think wrote it in ’94, fresh off Desperado.  At the time it was wildly expensive and taking the franchise to a cool other level, but not sort of do-able at the time.  So Alex Young found the script and wanted to revive it with Robert, but they were looking for other screenwriters to come in and polish it off.  Reinvent the reinvention.  So it was around the same time last year, May of 2009, that we got the job.
        As fans you’ll always kind of go ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do this?’  Isn’t that the reason why we are in this business—to tell the stories in the mythology, in the genre, with the characters we love? It’s every fanboys dream and we got a chance to live it.  Only to discover, of course, that once you get the prize there’s all this hard work and blood and tears and sweat.
M:  And Fox and Drew Crevello and Alex Young and Robert Rodriguez and later on Nimrod Anatal, the director, were very supportive.  They wanted not to make a retread of the original, nor did they want a reboot.  They wanted a reinvent the franchise.  They wanted to take something that was incredibly fresh at the time that had become somewhat stale over the last fifteen years.  Essentially give it a fresh start in the world.  To their credit they were very supportive of letting us take Robert’s original document and poach those elements that were workable and good, especially with the specific budget constraints that they had, and make it into something new and fresh.  We were told to write a sequel that feels like an original.
What was that original thought you came up with?  The ‘wouldn’t it be cool…’
A: There was a bunch of things.  One is the idea that up until now you’ve only seen one variety of Predator.  One of the big ideas was it’s Predator vs. Predator.  What was interesting to us is you’ve met this one variety of intergalactic hunters, but what if there are others? Other tribes, other clans.  If those guys are like samurai– very traditional, for centuries they’ve been hunting with the same weapons, the same tactics, the same code–there’s another clan which are more like, say, ninjas.  They’re more technologically evolved.  They have falcons, they have dogs, they have all this crazy equipment and toys that are going to make the original Predator look like an 8-Track competing with an iPod.  And those two clans are at war.  So the idea of two clans, of clan warfare, was one of the things we came up with.
M: A second one was the idea of putting a group if human beings in a no-win situation, a true crucible, was very intriguing to us. We also liked this conceit that in the original you had a well-oiled machine, a crack team, going up against one of these.  In this version we wanted to put a group of very disparate individuals.  All highly skilled, all tactically proficient, all killers in their own right. Really… all predators in their own right.  Human predators.  And we wanted to see what would happen to those characters when they were put under true duress.  These were people who were dominant and dangerous in a human environment.  Taken out of that environment and put somewhere else, in a sense being turned from Apex predator to prey, what would happen to them?  How would they break down?  Would they experience cowardice?  Fear?  Would they curl up in a ball and die?  Surrender?  Stand and fight?  It really let us explore seven different ways into true fear.
A: And there’s the third piece which is the setting, which is—not giving anything away–not only an alien planet but an alien hunting preserve. Prior to us getting the job I had a conversation about it independently with one of the other producers on the franchise and pitched the idea of going to the stars.  He was like “Ehhhh, Predator is a very terrestrial franchise.  Up until now it’s all been on Earth.”  So that idea never flew. Ironically, when we sat down with Drew, it turns out Robert, independently, has been talking about going to the stars, because it seemed like the natural place to go.
        So the three things we brought to the table. One was new Predators.  Two was new human protagonists that Mike was talking about.  The Dirty Dozen approach.  The Unmagnificent Seven.  And three was a new setting.  So effectively you have the construct of the first movie, but it’s different Predator, different humans, different jungle.
Since the original came out twenty-odd years ago, there’s been the sequel, a bunch of material from Dark Horse that a lot of people took as canon, the two vs. Aliens movies that seem to loosely follow the Dark Horse ideas…  Did you use any of that material?
A:  No.  I’ve seen the AvP movies and I feel… I was disappointed.  Predator 2 was a disappointment, too.  The original is the original.  The original is this iconic bar that you try to measure up to. I’m not sure if we have succeeded.  I’m not sure if anyone can succeed.  It’s this lean, mean piece of cinematic mastery.  It’s Arnold at his best.  It’s John MacTiernan at his best.  I don’t know if anyone can truly measure up to it, but at the least we were very conscious that we were going to try our best.  What was fun about the process was everybody who was part of it grew up on the original movie.  Everybody was saying ‘Let’s not be lazy.  Of course we can do another Predator movie, but let’s try to give the fans something special.’
        We talked a lot about Star Trek, and how JJ was able to give the fans the essence of the original but with these new cool touches that made it fresh and cool again and give the franchise a new life.  That’s what we’re hoping to do for Predator.
M:  To answer your question, we ignored Predator 2 and the AvP series.  This is somewhere between a reboot and a direct sequel to the original Predator.
A:  We wanted to acknowledge the original existed.  There are references to the original in this script.  The story of the original gets told by somebody in the group who’s heard about it as an urban legend.  A spook story.—— Fundamentally we wanted to take the good Predator, the one that did it right, and kind of ignore everything else and do the true sequel.  As Mike says, the sequel that feels like an original
What’s your process?  Are you outline guys, notecard guys, what?
A: Our process is beyond bizarre but it actually works.
M:  First part is we don’t actually ever see each other.
A:  We’re never in the same room. (laugh) We start by having these endless conversations about what it is, starting from the macro to the very specific.  Our styles of writing… I’m incredibly anal and analytical about stuff, to a fault.  Mike is very, very fast and goes with his instincts.  We sort of balance each other out that way.
        So we talk about everything.  Kind of build it in our heads.  I’m a big fan of putting stuff down on the page because that sort of locks stuff down.  Then Mike goes in and does the very first,very rough pass.  In a weird way, when I go after and do a very substantial rewrite, it gets me over the fear of a blank page.  I’m looking at a very rough draft of a scene where some things work and some things don’t, but I already know what’s not working.  Then he goes after me, cleaning it up and fixing things I missed.
M:  But it isn’t like I present Alex with a full script.  I’m working about ten or fifteen pages ahead of him.  I will start on Monday and I will write ten pages and give it to him and he’ll start rewriting it.  Then the next day he can give me those ten pages and I’ll give him the next ten or seven or twelve or whatever.  And since we have diametrically opposed schedules–I’m married and I have a five year old.  I go to bed at nine but I get up at six or five.
A: When my night is just beginning.
M: It’s like one person working 24 hours a day.
        We tend to problem solve quickly while we’re in the process.  That’s the upside.  That is in large part built on the tens or hundreds of hours we spend time talking about the macro concepts and the micro-specifics, down to left-handed or right-handed.  Every beat that ends up on the page has been discussed on some level.
So just to be clear, the two of you never actually outline, but you get enough of it in your heads you can sit down and write?
A: I hate doing those documents, but sometimes I feel like…  Sometimes there’s a loose beat sheet.  Sometimes we do more structured stuff, especially when you have to present something to a studio, where it helps to lock it down somewhat.  It really depends on the job.
M: We do have a working document.  It’ll run from ten to fifteen pages.  Depending on the situation it’ll either be in beat-sheet form if it’s for us, or it will be in a more literate, compelling form if it’s for a producer to read.  There’s always something there.  That doesn’t mean that we stick to it, because as you progress things change, characters change, you start to understand them better.  You start to get under their skin, they get under yours.  The nuances of the script will change, but structurally we pretty much have it nailed before we go in.
A: I think I understand your question better now.  Regardless of what form the document is, it’s been outlined and discussed ad nauseum.  We never go ‘Let’s just start writing.’  We talk, we figure it out.  I think that’s always the fun part of the process.  It’s the frustrating part, too, sometimes.  That’s where our creative chemistry is strongest, where we constantly challenge each other to come up with something cooler, something we haven’t seen before.
M: We try to keep it fun.  The reality is, if the process becomes a grind then it stops feeling light in its feet.  It stops being interesting for us.  We have a lot of fun.  Because we want the audience to have fun.  At the end of the day this type of movie, an action horror flick, it’s got to be fun.  It’s got to keep the audience on their toes and slightly off-balance.  We can only generate that if we’re having interesting, upbeat conversations about it.
How long did it take you to get a first draft?
M: This script was slightly different than others.  We can write a good solid draft in eight to ten weeks, a little bit faster provided it isn’t all outlined up and detailed and we don’t go off track.
        In this process we actually wrote a first draft which we sent to the studio.  That same week they brought on  the director, Nimrod Anatal.  We had a meeting with him about the rewrite for a few changes that became slightly more than a few changes.  With him we had to amend the way we work.
        What happened for the rewrite was we had about ten or eleven days before we had to hand a draft into the studio.  The draft that was going to get the OK or not.  Nimrod had some substantial ideas, all of them good.  Drew Crevello was good enough to give us offices in the basement of Fox.  And for ten days we sat together with Nimrod, sort of breaking scenes and rewriting them.  Essentially dissecting the script and rebuilding it.
A:  It was a true writer’s room.  Mike would do his pass, I’d do my pass, and then Nimrod would be sitting right there reading the pages.  It was madness.  It was a death march to screenwriter’s bootcamp.  But we got it done.
M:  It was a very interesting process.  We had a relatively strong script, but the changes Nimrod wanted– some of them were budgetary, some of them were taste, some of them were content, some were character– it required that we really delve into the script.  To his credit, he sat there 18 hours a day for ten days.  Sitting on a couch in the basement of Fox reading our pages as we hand them back and forth, working until four in the morning every day.
        We had about a day to go and we realized that we had a very solid script but it was about 10 or 11 pages too short.  So we sat there going What are we going to do?  We can’t hand in a script that’s 87 pages.
A: I think it was less than that.  It was in the 70s.
M:  Whatever it was, we were missing a piece, and we didn’t know what it was.  We stared at each other and then someone had the idea there’s this guy  who’s been on the planet, who is a human being who’s survived.  Wouldn’t that be cool?  That became the genesis of the Noland character.
A:  A Robinson Crusoe character.  Named off Tom Hanks in Castaway.
M:  Once it came to us I went into my little office, wrote for about four pages, and delivered about 12 pages to Alex.  He spent the next ten hours rewriting it.  We dropped it in the middle of our script and we had our script.
A:  If Final Draft allowed us to magically expand the script, there would be no Laurence Fishburne character.
I got to see a draft from July of 2009…
A:  I know which draft you saw. It was an early draft that got leaked.  The ten-day draft.
        The first draft was a lot more epic.  The final set piece in the first draft is a Braveheart-style battle between two Predator clans.  As cool as it sounds, unfortunately it was the first thing to go because… we can’t afford it.
M: These were the elements we removed and rebuilt to make it a more refined, tighter story.
A: What you read is what we call the “down, dirty, survival draft.”  It was truly mystifying to us, to this day, that people responded so strongly to it.  We were just trying…
M: You have to figure after those ten days we had no idea what was good and what wasn’t.  The only thing we had faith in at that point was each other.  And that was quickly fading. (laughs)  ——–To this day I sort of miss that level of intensity.
M: This could not have existed without Drew, it does not exist without Nimrod, it certainly doesn’t exist without Robert.  To their credit, all three of them handled themselves as true gentlemen.  They could’ve bullied us, they could’ve pushed us, but they elected to be collaborative and they were fantastically supportive of the crazy, odd ideas we had.
When is this set?  Predator 2 was in the not-too-distant future.   We only get a glimpse of Royce in the regular world.   There’s a mention of Afghanistan.  Where does it line up with the other Predator films?  Is this “now”?
A:  Yes.
Character-wise, how much did you flesh these guys out?  Do you know how Stans ended up in prison?  Where Mombasa is actually from?  What Hanzo did that cost him his fingertips?
A: Oh sure, yeah.
M: As a matter of fact, Robert asked us after the fact, for the DVD extras and the comic book guys, to write extensive bios on each of these characters.  It’s not necessarily in the script but each of these characters has a backstory.  Each of them has a reason they’re there.
Is it tough doing a story where… well, almost every character is kind of evil?  They’ve all got varying moral codes, but it’s tough to say there’s a “good guy” anywhere in this story.
A: That’s fun, man.  That’s what makes it cool.  There’s only so many ways you can write an action hero.  But when you have a group you have personalities, you have dynamics, you have conflict.
M: Also, we looked at this as a chance to differentiate this class of character.  Once you took these people and put them in a no-win scenario, a scenario where they were goingto die, the walls between them and us–and hopefully between them and the audience–really crumbled.  Once they were put in this situation they were able to speak the truth, and like all humans we found that, even with the limited amount of time we had to spend with each of them, they became much more interesting.  Each of them had a personal story.  Yes, they were killers, but they had families, they had reasons for what they did.  More importantly, we gave them the opportunity to face the fact that they were bad men and gave them the chance to either stand up and make it right or to run and die as cowards.
        This is why Noland becomes a pivotal character in the piece.  He’s a man who has chosen survival above all else.  He’s chosen to live above humanity.  When our characters look at this guy halfway through the movie, sort of this linchpin moment, and understand that he’s become more animal than human—more Predator than human—they are all asked to make the decision ‘How am I going to go out?  Am I going to go out as a human being or as an animal?  And is it worth living if you’re going to live like an animal?’  So each of these very hard people with very specific backstories, is each given a chance to make up for the sins they’ve committed.  To die well and for a purpose, for a reason. And that reason is each other.
A:  And if anything, the Noland character is instrumental in Royce’s arc.  Here’s a guy who’s purely about survival.  ‘I stick my neck out for no one,’ to quote Humphrey Bogart.  This very sort of classic antihero.  And then you’ve got two contradictory examples.  There’s Isabella, the female sniper, who actually has compassion, who has kindness, who has managed to hold onto her humanity in the middle of all this.  And there’s Noland, who’s forsaken it completely.  The two examples.  Royce finds himself at a crossroads. Is he going to be like Noland or is he going to be like her?
M:  The key here is there’s a crossroads for each of these characters. They all have to make a choice.  And they live or die, well or poorly, by virtue of that choice.
A: You don’t have that in the original because they’re soldiers.  It’s a homogenized unit.  They’re brothers-in-arms who’ve been together through hell and high water.  There’s a bond of friendship, a bond of trust.  None of that exists here, and that was the fun of it.  They come from such different backgrounds. There’s mistrust, there’s tension, there’s friction.  New bond are being forged, friendships are being built, but at the same time quarrels and hostilities are constantly igniting because these are predators.  It goes back to the title of the movie.  It’s not just about the two different  varieties of Predators, the humans themselves are predators now. Royce is the ultimate hunter.  We had so many versions all with the same idea–you think you’re following a Predator but you’re really following Royce.
M: But all that was lost for a much more startling open.
A:  We sort of went for the LOST-style opening, which is just bang! guy falling.
M:  You begin with the guy in free fall.  A guy who wakes up, opens his eyes, and he’s falling through space.  A parachute deploys…
I saw a draft with two variant endings on it.  Ending A, ending B. You look at Casablanca, you look at To Kill A Mockingbird, even stuff like Aliens or Terminator.  You can’t picture these stories with different endings.  Is it tough to write completely different endings for the same film?
A:  Oh, for sure.  This was the draft that hopefully gets the greenlight.  We were just trying like hell to get through and give the studio something that felt like a movie.  There were so many arguments about how it should end.  I really fought for the Dutch ending, because I was like ‘We’re going to be there in Westwood when everybody’s going to go nuts when he takes off the mask and it’s Schwarzenegger.’  To this day we actually don’t know which ending was shot. Nimrod felt it would be cool if there was a twist with Isabelle. Down the line there was another ending, more of a seventies movie ending.
M: To answer your question it was not difficult at that point because effectively the movie was over.  Those endings were epilogs.  We used them as such.
 >>note: One version of the film ended with a cameo from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch, now completely a part of Predator culture and leader of his own tribe.  Another revealed that Isabella is also an alien, although not a Predator.  Neither of these was used, although the setup for the first version was shot.<<
December 20, 2013

Black Christmas

            If you’ve been following this ranty blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard me mention Shane Black once or thrice.  For those who came in late, he’s one of the men behind the million-dollar spec-script boom 20 years ago.  You might know him as the writer of films like The Monster SquadLethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight
(Supposedly, an unwritten part of his deal for Lethal Weapon was getting to be in an action film, so the studio stuck him in some stupid alien-fighting-bodybuilders-in-the-jungle movie that no one was going to see–never expecting that Black would rewrite all his dialogue to become one of the most memorable characters in the film…) 
            He took some time off from Hollywood and then returned a few years back as the writer-director of the award-winning Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which propelled Robert Downey Jr. back into the public eye.  Then the two of them got together again for this summer’s Iron Man 3, which Black directed and co-wrote.
            Anyway, back when I used to write for Creative Screenwriting, Black was kind of a Hollywood legend as a person and as a writer.  So when the editor of CS Weekly asked us for December article ideas, I tossed out doing a general interview with Black.  After all, the man’s set almost every movie he’s written at Christmastime—he had to have something to say about it.  My editor agreed it would be a neat thing and put out some feelers, and we both kind of forgot about it.  We were a very small, niche film magazine, and he was… well, he was Shane Black.
            So when Black wrote back in less than a week and said “Sure, let’s grab a coffee or something,” you can imagine the girlish squeals of glee.
            Alas, reality hit just as quick.  At this point the magazine was starting to struggle financially and my first novel, Ex-Heroes, wasn’t going to see print for another three months.  The squeals of glee faded and I suddenly realized I couldn’t afford to grab a coffee.  Hell, I wasn’t sure I could afford gas to drive to a Starbucks to meet him.  After the shame faded, I wrote back with some lame excuses about sound quality and not wanting to waste his time.  We set up a phone interview and I missed my big chance to hang out with Shane Black for an hour.
            Fortunately, he was very pleasant and gracious on the phone, and it was one of those conversations where I felt like I learned more about storytelling in forty-odd minutes than I had in some college classes.
            A few of the usual points…  I’m in bold, asking the questions.  Keep in mind a lot of these aren’t the exact, word-for-word questions I asked (which tended to be a bit more organic and conversational), so if the answer seems a bit off, don’t stress out over it.   Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply Mr. Black was specifically endorsing any of the ideas I’ve brought up here on the ranty blog—it’s just me linking from something he’s said to something similar that I’ve said (some of it inspired by this conversation). 
            By the very nature of this discussion, there will probably be a few small spoilersin here, though not many.  Check out some of his movies if you haven’t already seen them.  They’re damned fun and filled with fantastic characters.
            Material from this interview was originally used for a “From The Trenches” article that appeared in the December 18th, 2009 issue of CS Weekly.
            So, anyway, here’s me talking with Shane Black  about Santa, Christmas, storytelling, and Frankenstein in the Wild West.
            Happy Holidays.
Were you a big fan of Christmas specials and movies growing up?  What are some of your favorites?
            Well, it’s interesting.  I watch all the old Christmas movies and I like them for odd reasons.  Like It’s A Wonderful Life.  It’s a Christmas movie, but within it they have a lot of bizarre, Capra-esque touches that are more indicative of just life.  The scene where the gym starts to open–the floor starts to pull back and there’s a swimming pool underneath.  Someone falls in and then everyone just jumps in the pool.  That moment is as fresh today as it was back then.  That kind of crazy improv moment where everyone starts laughing and jumping in. Even as a kid I was struck by that.  “Wow, that’s a different kind of moment than most movies.  That feels like it just happened almost by accident.”
            My favorite Christmas film is probably this Spanish Santa Claus movie.. It’s called Santa Claus and I even used a bit of it in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.  Basically, Santa Claus fights the Devil.  The Devil tries to stop Christmas.  There’s this one scene where he just runs around the room doing gymnastics.  You’ve got to see it.  You’ve got to pick it up and look at it— The Devil’s this really athletic, slightly gay-looking guy who can blow flames through a phone line.  If he calls you on the phone, flames come out the receiver and they singe your ear.  That’s probably my favorite.  Santa’s really lame and the effects are terrible.
            My other favorite was called Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny.  There’s no snow.  It was filmed in Florida in broad daylight.  Santa’s sled is stuck because there’s no snow, and they’re all waiting for the Ice Cream Bunny.  While they’re waiting Santa tells all the kids the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, which takes roughly 50 -75 minutes.  At the end of which the Ice Cream Bunny shows up and everyone says “now we’re safe.”  I can’t believe some of the frauds–even as a child–that were perpetrated on me (chuckles).    It’s pretty amazing.
About half your films have been set at Christmas.  I know your first script, Shadow Company, was originally set at Halloween, and then you rewrote it as Christmas in a later draft.  Why?
            Yeah.  Christmas for some reason…  Even though it’s a worldwide phenomenon I always associate it with a certain kind of American way of life.  It’s also sort of a hushed period, during which, for a period of time, we agree to suspend hostility.  I’m always fascinated by the almost palpable sense in the air that something’s different at Christmas.
            If you look at a tipping point scenario– how many people does it take to start a standing ovation?  Just one.  And then in five seconds two other people, then three, then four, then 75,000 are clapping.  Because the tipping point is as simple as one person pushing in that direction.  And it can go ugly just as easily.  It can go the other direction.  One person starts to get out of hand and then everyone’s out of hand. 
            So Christmas to me represented the best we have in terms of keeping things on that side of the dial.  A period in which, for whatever reason, the tipping point was more likely to bump into someone on the street and have them say “Oh, hey man, my bad,” then to have him say “Fuck you, buddy!  Watch where you’re going!”  That was remarkable to me.
            Also in California, Christmas, if you look at it as a substance almost, as a thing more than an idea, Christmas exists out here in California but in these indescribably beautiful ways to me.  You have to dig for it.  It’s not a 40 foot Christmas tree on the White House lawn, it’s a little broken, plastic Madonna with a flash bulb inside hanging off a Mexican lunch wagon.  It’s a little strand of colored light in some cheap trailer in the blinding sunlight, but it’s still protesting its Christmas-ness.  I adore little touches of Christmas that indicate subtly…  It’s like talismans.  You walk around and these are the magic.  These are your touchstones. Little bits of Christmas that remind us that this doesn’t have to be a blinded, blighted, sun-washed, hostile place to live.  Christmas has always had that magic ability to me, to exist almost like a magic substance that you find little bit of if you dig carefully enough for it.  I know that sounds kind of crazy.
No, I’m actually intrigued.  When did you develop this view?  Was Lethal Weapon set at Christmas because of this or did the… the philosophy of Christmas develop along the way?
            Along the way. Well, Lethal Weapon is a Frankenstein story to me.  It’s a guy who’s a monster of sorts, who sits in his trailer and watches TV.  People despise him, they revile him, because… it’s like a western.  They think the west is tame.  They think they’re safe and secure in this sedentary little suburbia.  This sort of lulling effect that whatever violence and terror are in the world, we’ve managed to secure ourselves from it.  But he knows different.  Frankenstein in his trailer, he’s been with violence, he’s lived violence.  He knows that its still there.  The west is not tame, it is not gentrified.  When violence, in Lethal Weapon, comes to the suburbs and takes this guy’s daughter and kills cops, they go to Frankenstein and say “Look, we hate you for what we do.  We think you’re an anomaly at best and a monster at worst, but now we need you because you’re the only one who understands this.  We’ve gotten hypnotized by tranquility.  We forgot that violence is still there, and you’re the one who can deal with that, so now we need to let you out of your cage.”  That was the idea.  Christmas, it seemed to me, was the most pleasant, lulling, hypnotizing atmosphere in which to forget that violence can be so sudden and swift and just invade our private lives.

Did you actually study screenwriting?
            Nah.  I took theater classes at UCLA.  I was studying stagecraft and acting.  It was a Mickey Mouse major.  My finals often were painting sets, y’know?  It was kind of a cakewalk though college.  I took all the requirements– I liked theater, I liked movies, but I’d never seen a screenplay and I thought they were impossibly difficult.  Coming from back east I just assumed  movies were something that floated through the ether and appeared on your TV screen and some magician wrote them, but there was certainly no way I could.  Then I read a script and it was so easy.  I read another one and said “I can do this.  This is really rather simple.”  So I never took classes, I just read scriptsI loved.
            My style, such as it is, that sometime people comment on, is really cribbed from two sources.  One is William Goldman, who has a kind of chummy, folksy, storytelling style.  It’s almost as though a guy in a bar is talking to you from his bar stool.  And then Walter Hill, who is just completely terse and sparing and has this real spartan prose that’s just punchy and has this wonderful effect of just gut-punching you.  I took those two and I slammed them together, and that’s what I use.  People say it’s interesting.  Mostly it’s a rip-off. It’s Goldman meets Walter Hill.
Did you always write like this or are there some older Shane Black scripts that will never see the light of day?
            No, the first scripts I wrote were scripts I wrote after I decided to go out and see what they look like.  So I picked up William Goldman,  I picked up Walter Hill, and then I wrote Shadow Company, which even on the page, the ’84 version, looks exactly like a Goldman script.  Lethal Weapon, it’s pretty much in the style of those two writers.  Material aside.  Material is different, I’m talking solely about the style on the page and learning the logistics of how to do it.  Those two were my mentors.  Later mentors were people like James L. Brooks, who taught me an amazing amount, and Joel Silver, of all people, qualifies as a mentor.
How do you generally write?  Do you use outlines or notecards or just start cranking it out from page one?
            I don’t really use notecards.  What I do is I try to figure out what the piece is about and link that to the story arc or the character arc.  I always think there’s two things going on in any script–there’s the story and then there’s the plot.  The plot is the events.  If it’s a heist film, it’s how they get in and out.  But the story is why we’re there, why we’re watching the events.  It’s what’s going on with the characters.  And theme above that.  Once I get those things, once I know what the theme is and what it’s about, I can start trying on story beats and plot beats to see if they feel like they’re moving, but they have to relate to the overall theme.  If you look at The Dark Knight, you’ll find before those guys wrote a word of script, they knew exactly what their movie was about.  All the themes were in place.  Sometimes they has to bend the scenes in The Dark Knight to fit the theme they were trying to get across.  It’s clear they didn’t write the scenes and then look for what they were about, they clearly knew where they were headed.  So thematically I get a sense of what the movie’s gotta be, but I don’t use notecards.
            I can juggle a lot in my head.  I can’t get more than say, twenty pages, without planning ahead.
How long does it normally take you to get a first draft of something?
            I try to keep by studio standards, which is three months.  They give you three months from commencement pay to final payment, and I think that’s enough time if you really work at it.  We did a draft that I really loved, and it did not make the screen, of Last Action Hero, my partner and I.  We did that in six weeks and I was very proud of that.  From sitting down with this original screenplay and completely rewriting and retooling it. We were good, we were fast.
You mentioned your partner.  I know you worked with Fred Dekker for a while–have you gone back to writing with a partner?
            Lately just to facilitate things.  It takes me so long to think of ideas and so long to convince myself to get to work, and there’s so much fear involved.  Writing to me is a process of just desperately trying, on a daily basis, to concentrate until something becomes more interesting than my fear.  Then you’re sucked in and you start doing the work, but up ’till then it’s just horrifying to me.  So if I can have help, if someone’s in the sinking boat with me, even if we’re both going to drown, at least there’s a comfort to not being alone.  I’ll write the next one solo.

Now, you took time off, came back with a new script you shopped around, and nobody knew who you were.  That was Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, right?

            It was.  Most people would have nothing to do with it.
Did planning to direct it change how you approached writing it?
            No, I thought about that.  That was when I was dealing with Jim Brooks.  He basically said “You don’t need to worry because you direct on paper.  You don’t call shots, but you call mood and you call progression and pace and emphasis and just about everything else.”  So I may have even done a little more of that on Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.
Now that you’ve sat in the director’s chair, has it changed how you approach a script?
            No, except I’m even more conscious of what will later be shoe leather.  The greatest shoemakers in the world supposedly can make a pair of shoes and leave no [extra] leather.  They didn’t waste any.  I’m very conscious now as a director.  If you’ve got two scenes, like a newscaster and a scene before that of a conversation, can’t you have the conversation with the newscaster in the background and do it in one?  It’s just shoe leather.  No shoe leather.
It’s probably safe to say a lot of people have offbeat movies they watch this time of year, and a bunch of them are probably your movies.  Is there anything unusual you like to watch at the holidays?
Oddly enough, every year about this time, for no reason I can fathom, I watch The Exorcist, my favorite movie [chuckles].  Every year I’m reminded of how it doesn’t age, not one single day. It’s as riveting as it ever has been.