JB: When you’re working on a story and you creatively hit a wall, what techniques do you use to break through and finish the script?
Sunday, December 20, 2009
JB: When you’re working on a story and you creatively hit a wall, what techniques do you use to break through and finish the script?
Thursday, December 10, 2009
The best education I ever got as a screenwriter came from reading scripts. When I started out I read every script I could get my hands on. I still do. When I have the time. Screenplays also make the best reference material when it comes to analyzing and breaking down a scene, especially when you’re stuck on one of your own. So when you read as much as I do, you digest a lot of pabulum. But every once in a great while you come across a screenplay that sucks you in and demands to be read. A script that refuses to let you put it down, until you’ve read every word, from Fade in until The End, every time you pick it up. A History of Violence is one of those scripts for me.
Based on a graphic novel (comic book), the screenplay by Josh Olson was nominated for an Academy Award, a BAFTA, the WGA award, and an Edgar in 2007.
Which segues into this week’s topic. Adapting scripts from other mediums whether it’s a novel, a play, a comic book or a video game, is a different breed of writing. You would think it would be easy; after all, the story and character are already developed which leaves the writer the simple task of transcribing it for filming. You would think that… but it ain’t so. I know firsthand because I’ve written several adaptations, including an M.O.W based on a biography of J. K. Rowling and I can honestly tell you that it was more difficult to write than some of the original scripts I’ve written.
So when it came time to discuss adaptations I went to one of the best, and one of my favorite writers: Josh Olson.
Writer of the cult movie, Infested, Olson broke into the studio world when he sold his original script Three Guns Blue to Paramount Pictures. That led to his first studio assignment, adapting the graphic novel A History of Violence. Since then, Olson has collaborated with legendary author Harlan Ellison on an adaptation of Ellison’s “The Discarded” for the ABC TV Series Masters of Science Fiction. He’s also worked on adapting the hugely popular video game HALO for producer Peter Jackson and has adapted the Dennis Lehane short story Until Gwen, which he will also direct. Additionally, he contributed the script Have I Got Story for You to the smash hit Batman: Gotham Knights project. More recently, Olson wrote a sequel to The Wizard of Oz for Warner Brothers and has just finished adapting the Lee Child bestseller One Shot for Paramount.
He is currently developing a TV drama, Pleased To Meet Me, with the legendary guitarist Slash, and is writing the pilot for Meanwhile, a dramatic series he created and sold to producer Peter Chernin and the Fox Network. Olson can also be seen commenting on classic film trailers at Joe Dante’s website, Trailers From Hell.
His Village Voice essay, “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script” became an internet phenomenon, getting upwards of two million hits, and is spawning a book. (I wonder who will adapt it for the screen? Ed. Note).
Jeffrey Berman: How does the writing process differ when adapting a screenplay from a book versus working on an original idea?
Josh Olson: Every script is its own thing, whether it’s original, or an adaptation. There are no set rules to any of them. I’ve done adaptations where I’ve only read the source material once, and I’ve done them where I had the book open in front of me every step of the way. Hell, the writing process differs from page to page, let alone project to project.
JB: With a comic book like A History of Violence you obviously have less material to draw on then you would a novel or a series of novels like Oz. Does that allow you the freedom to develop original material or is there a fear of straying too far from the source? And does that make your job easier or more difficult?
The graphic novel was packed with story, it just wasn’t a story I wanted to tell. It’s a solid, smart and fun action thriller, but I was a lot more interested in getting into questions of identity. In the book, there’s never a moment’s doubt that the main character is the man the mob guys think he is. I felt like that was a missed opportunity. I thought it was a great chance to play with a classic “wrong man” scenario in which the wrong man is actually the right man. And that led me to start thinking about identity, and what it is that constitutes your “self.” Is Tom the guy they all say he is? Or is he the guy he’s made himself into?
But, like I said, it’s not about quantity of material. I adapted Dennis Lehane’s short story Until Gwen a while back. It’s a 15-page story, and it’s very spare in terms of plot and detail. It’s mostly flashes of memory, tiny details, and bursts of emotion. Very little to work with, in terms of traditional scenes, but one hell of a powerful story. For the screenplay, in order to create a feature length narrative film, I had to invent most of the scenes, many of the characters, and find a way to structure it as a visual narrative. In terms of what a screenwriting 101 teacher would call “adaptation,” there’s maybe 20 pages of the thing that are directly based on Dennis’ story. However, from the first page to the last, I was being absolutely faithful to Dennis’ story and his vision, at least as I saw it.
That’s what it boils down to for me - writing is all about taking what I see and feel and communicating it to you. In the case of an adaptation, it’s about showing you how I saw something. Because I’ll never be able to really know what Dennis’ real vision was. All I can do is tell you how I connected to it, and hoped that it touches and moves you. In the case of something like Until Gwen, I’d also hope that it would inspire you to seek out the source material and let it have its way with you as well.
JB: Before you start to adapt a novel for the screen, such as One Shot by Lee Child, how do you determine what parts of the story go into the script and what parts are left out? And why is it necessary to leave anything out?
JB: What advice would you offer to writers who are driven to find stories from other mediums to adapt as feature films?
JO: We’re at a point in the film business where it’s harder than it’s ever been to sell originals. We could discuss and argue the reasons for this ‘til the cows came home, but in the end, it wouldn’t change that fact. Studios are heavily invested in doing material that has some semblance of built-in recognition. The trick, for me at least, has been to find material that I click with personally. In the case of Until Gwen, it was a short story that just gutted me. In the case of History, it was a premise that allowed me to take the story into an entirely new direction and explore ideas that are of deep personal interest to me. With One Shot, it was a chance to fill a void I’ve been feeling for many years - the absence of smart, American tough guy movies. The book came to me the morning after I’d shown my girlfriend the first two Dirty Harry movies, and we’d talked about how sad it was that no one was making movies like that anymore. With Oz, I got to take books that I loved as a kid and use them to comment on the state of imagination today.
People often perceive adaptations as somehow easier than originals... “coloring between the lines,” if you will. But if you find the way into them, the way to make them personal to you, they can be as challenging as satisfying and as difficult as an original. Sometimes more so. The vast majority of directors don’t write their scripts. In essence, they’re adapting someone else’s work, translating a singular vision from one form to another. It’s all a challenge.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
In the meantime, I thought this might be a good opportunity to reprint an interview that I did on the The Write Environment for Talking With Tim, which is a great site where you'll find pop culture interviews by Tim O'Shea. Check it out... but not until after you've read my interview first.
Jeffrey Berman on The Write EnvironmentWhen the writer’s strike happened in late 2007/early 2008, writer Jeffrey Berman was looking for a way to stay busy in a productive manner. And that’s how his new project began–The Write Environment. Here’s more details on the project: “THE WRITE ENVIRONMENT features 50-60 minute, in-depth, one-on-one interviews with some of the most lauded and prolific writers in the television industry today, including Damon Lindelof (Lost), Tim Kring (Heroes), Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond), Doug Ellin (Entourage), Sam Simon (The Simpsons), and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
… each episode … takes viewers backstage into the heretofore unseen world of the writer’s room for intimate interviews that offer a rare look at these diverse writers and what inspires them. From that first idea to the finished script, the writers share their views and stories, examining their successes, failures, and everything in between.”
I enjoy the chance to interview interviewers, so my thanks to Berman for his time. In preparation of the interview, he was kind enough to allow me to view screeners of the Lindelof and Whedon interviews. My thanks also to Sylvia Desrochers for making this interview possible.
O’Shea: I’ll ask the question you asked some of the writers: “what makes a good writer”?
O’Shea: In talking to these creators about their show, did any of them instill in you a new level of appreciation of the show or its characters?
Berman: I have to go back to Phil Rosenthal because I think he broke the mold with Everybody Loves Raymond. How that show was allowed to survive for nine years astounds me. And lucky for us it did. It was on the bubble many times, but kudos to CBS for sticking by it.
O’Shea: How do you explain your encyclopedia-level knowledge of TV (ie your example of Donald Bellisario’s breaking his vow never to delve into JFK in Quantum Leap)?
Berman: I’m a fan. What can I say?
Berman: Yeah, if I can put in a plug, please check out my site at http://www.thewriteenvironment.com/indexFlash.html and buy a DVD or two. Then tell a friend. Then tell your friend to buy a DVD or two… or three… Okay, I’ll stop now.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
In the meantime, I wanted to update you on an interview I posted Tuesday, August 18, titled, "After The Fall Juliet Landau Takes On Angel" I recently received the following note from Juliet that I promised to pass on to my readers.
Hi Jeffrey ,
How are you? I hope all is great!
I am excited to let you know that Issue 2 of the Drusilla comic I co-wrote is now out! I am attaching the two covers I designed for this issue and a few photos from the bonus photo gallery that runs inside.
Hope to catch up real soon!!
So, if you haven't done so yet, head down to your local comic store and pick up the second part of Juliet's story. And if you haven't read the first part, pick that up too. Then come back here and reread my interview with her. Then drop me a line and let me now what you thought of it. Who knows, if I find something of interest in your comments I may just pass it along to Juliet.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
I’ve been a Science Fiction fan since as far back as I can remember. I grew up watching shows like Star Trek, The Time Tunnel and The Twilight Zone. Back then sci-fi (or is it SyFy?) shows were few and far between.
One of the best science fictions series ever to air, in my opinion, was Farscape. I know a lot of Battlestar Galactica fans will probably take umbrage with that, and don’t get me wrong, I liked BG, but there was something unique about Farscape that I’d never seen before and haven’t since. The cast, the premise, the writing, the stories all came together in an oddly appealing formation that came at you from out of left field. How a show like that ever made it onto the air I have no idea. Chalk it up to the genius of Rockne O’Bannon and the guts of the Sci-Fi channel.
So imagine my excitement when I became friends with one of the series writer/producers several years ago. During his tenure with the series, Carleton Eastlake had written one of my favorite episodes, the two-parter titled, “Infinite Possibilities.” Yeah, even writers get a little fan struck from time to time.
So with that in mind I grabbed a few moments with my friend, Carleton Eastlake.
In addition to being a Sci-Fi writer, Carleton’s credits include work in crime fiction, historical fiction, action-adventure, and comic action-adventure. He’s written for V, SeaQuest DSV, Star Trek Voyager, Earth Final Conflict and Farscape. Carleton has also written scripts for Airwolf, Murder She Wrote and The Equalizer. Currently, Carleton is running for the Writers Guild Board and was the first nominee I personally endorsed. Fortunately, that hasn’t detracted other writers from endorsing him too.
Jeffrey Berman: You’ve written for some of my favorite Science Fiction TV series. So how does writing Sci-Fi differ from say, a drama or procedural series?
Carleton Eastlake: I think good science fiction and fantasy, because they break some or many of the rules of the real world, require that the rules of the imagined world be interesting and consistently applied. So much more attention needs to be paid to the mythology.
At the same time, there’s more room, if done in a credible way, to keep things fresh by evolving those rules, making new discoveries…here come The Borg with all sorts of new moral and psychological issues – and very different spacecraft!
On the other hand, it’s a little harder to keep the dramatic, psychological side of a science-fiction show compelling. It’s easier to ignore those concerns or be distracted from them. But if the show is consistent about its rules, then the character side of the show can absolutely work. Crichton and Aeryn on Farscape were very much in love and very much troubled by the moral conflict between running away and having a life, or staying and fighting to save their societies.
It’s also important in a science fiction show that the plot issue of the day be motivated by the implications of the world the show is set in. Attempts to do actual medical or criminal or legal procedural shows in a science fiction setting are very, very hard to pull off – the science fiction side undermines the credibility of the procedural issue, and the procedural issue rarely delivers on the magic and wonder of the setting.
JB: What kind of research, if any, did you do when you were writing/producing episodes of Seaquest DSV?
CE: Very little. In its first season, when I wasn’t on it, the show had the famed Bob Ballard as a consultant. The new team second season dropped his deal and approached SeaQuest mostly as fantasy without much arcing or attention given to the implications of its own imagined technology.
I had actually spent five days on a U.S. Navy guided missile frigate, and drew on that experience and on my general love of military science fiction and technology, but it wasn’t a requirement of the show.
Burning Zone, on the other hand, in its first several episodes, made good use of medical and science consultants. In my first episode, when the team synthesized an antiviral drug from ingredients on board the 747 so the pilot might live long enough to land the plane, the real science team devised at least a scientifically conceivable way of doing so.
JB: Farscape was by far one of the greatest Sci-Fi series that ever aired. When writing for a show like that, or any of the other series you were on staff for, was there a bible you were required to follow or were you free to write pretty much anything you wanted? And if there was a bible, does that in any way restrict your creativity?
CE: Farscape didn’t have a written bible after, I think, the first season, but absolutely had a deep respect for the continuity of its characters’ histories. You just had to learn it, and of course David Kemper would guarantee you followed it.
The shows had season or even series-long arcs, so most things had to fit into the sequence. The last episode I wrote – near the end of the last season – had 18 regular and recurring characters to service!
But within that context, there was plenty of room and need for creativity. I did an episode in which I had to service the arc’s requirement that the heroes discover two opposed alien enemies are in fact forming a secret alliance that will jeopardize all the alien civilizations. At the same time, as a lark, the preceding episode established all the males had gone off on a macho guy thing. So my episode had to be about the females – who in general were probably more competent and formidable than the males – going off alone.
But then it was up to all of us to make a story around that. So we had the females go to a spa world to get make-overs…but for their starship, changing its sensor profile when scanned at long range so it seems like a different type of ship. (This then became part of the continuity and yes indeed, in later episodes, other writers used the identity generator to sneak the ship into places where it didn’t belong. And it’s good S-F – U.S. Navy warships use fairly similar technology to disrupt missile attacks.) While waiting for the ship mod, they are horrified to stumble across the evidence that the new alliance is forming. To escape, etc., some of them have to get make-overs themselves, changing their DNA signature…and turning our Black-And-White Girl into a Technicolor marvel for awhile. That’s an example of creativity interacting with continuity.
I’ve been on another series where the writers had contempt for, or fear of, the genre and the audience and laughed about the written bible, which had been produced only to assuage the network, and then abandoned. That was a sad, sad experience.
JB: Were your episodes of the new Outer Limit series based on original ideas or were they pitched to you? What are the rules a writer should follow when writing for an anthology series?
CE: I wrote two episodes on which I had sole credit. (Trilogy had a smart policy that showrunners could only write one episode before shooting began and a second over the Christmas break – producing an anthology show was just too time consuming to allow the showrunner to take more time away from the daily production and from rewriting to budget.)
The first episode was about a resource exploration team from Earth who discover a valuable planet and eliminate the native savages who get in their way. It turns out the “savages” were the alien equivalent of boy scouts on a camping trip – which the explorers learn when a Star Destroyer (an alien warcraft that looks like it could eat even a star for lunch) roars out of hyperspace responding to the dead kids’ emergency beacon…and incinerates our guys before heading toward Earth.
This episode was inspired by a newspaper account of the jolly adventures of a company of Serbian mercenaries raping and pillaging their way through a copper-rich province of the Congo. They had a great time, and thought that they were far superior to the savages…until they ran into a unit of the South African Army special forces. Ooops!
The second episode was about an engineering graduate student who flunked out of school after being badly treated, he felt at least, by various faculty and staff. Turns out that an exam question demanding he download the reasons why cold fusion is impossible inspired him to actually see that it is possible. To prove his point, he builds a cold-fusion bomb and returns to the university demanding that the people who treated him badly be executed by the government or he’ll destroy the entire city. The hostage negotiator finally realizes to his horror that the student is in part so nihilistic because he sees that the genie is out of the bottle. The insights he had were inevitable and so, soon, many people will be building city-destroying bombs in their kitchen sink.
The director actually rebelled over this script initially, telling me it was immoral to suggest that the government would start shooting innocent people to stop or appease a terrorist. Obviously, this was before 9-11.
Anyway…this script was inspired by an account I had read of the history of the atomic bomb. It mentioned that possibly the first person in the world to realize an A-Bomb could be built was a graduate student in Germany who was riding on a subway while reading a technical journal with a note reporting an excess release of energy from the neutron bombardment of fissionable material. It occurred to him, hey, since the reaction also released more neutrons, if this was a big enough lump of uranium…it would release a whole lot of energy all at once.
I am deeply concerned that mankind will engineer its way into a kitchen-table means of killing itself. And then somebody will do it. This was meant as a totally serious cautionary tale.
As for anthology writing, I suppose the major rule is that the episodes of an anthology need to have enough thematic consistency that the series feels like a series., i.e. that it offers a sufficiently predictable type of experience that the audience gets what it was looking for when it tuned in. I think not many people really understand this rule, which is one reason why most anthology series fail and we have so few of them.
JB: What is it about writing Science Fiction that attracts you and what advice would you offer for up and coming writers who are fans of the genre?
CE: As you can see above, I enjoy writing social-science fiction that explores moral themes. Most, not all, so-called science fiction is really fantasy or technologically enhanced action adventure, which I also enjoy. Like nerds everywhere, I love technology and its implications, and love military and social history.
Fans of a genre, whatever it is, of course need to be good writers generally and respect the genre and love it. They need surprisingly little actual knowledge to write television science fiction. On the other hand, if they intend to write prose, they need a deep grounding in technology for hard-core SF, or in medieval and ancient history and the conventions of the genre for sword-and-dragon fantasy. And so forth…
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
One of the downsides to working as a writer in the entertainment industry is that writers are often pigeonholed into one style of writing; as if someone who writes science fiction films can’t handle a strong dramatic period piece. It’s frustrating because a good writer doesn’t want to keep writing the same story over and over again just as a good actor doesn’t want to continue playing the same role from one film to the next. It’s a vicious cycle in Hollywood; the machine wants to suckle the success formula until its bone dry.
For many years all I wrote were high concept comedies because that was the genre of the first script I sold. It was expected and incumbent on me to continue doing what I did best, without any thought of doing what I wanted to do most. That is until I wrote my first suspense thriller, which my agent at the time assured me would sell for seven figures. When it didn’t the agency dropped me. I was hardly discouraged. In fact I followed that script with a youthful action period piece which was immediately snapped up by a network as a series and ended up affording me the opportunity to sign with an even better agency. This eventually got me a gig writing a serious bio-pic for one of the most lauded authors of our time. Not bad for a comedy writer. Of course I still write comedies. I’ve even written a pilot for a romantic sitcom on spec recently, but not because someone was demanding it from me, but because it’s what I was driven to write. The point is a good writer will always rise to the top no matter what the genre. And while some writers do like to stick with a formula they know best, others like to stretch their talent and take chances.
The same can be said for actors, too. It’s just as difficult for Adam Sandler to be taken seriously, as it is for Meryl Streep to be seen as funny. But that hasn’t stopped them from making the effort. This brings me to this week’s interview with Juliet Landau. Lately, she’s been making that effort… and then some.
Yeah, we all know she’s famous for her role as Drusilla, the psychotic vampire on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ANGEL, but she’s not just a one trick pony. In addition to being an accomplished TV & Feature Film actress, she’s also proven her worth as a voice actor and lent her talents to projects such as Ben Ten: Alien Force, Justice League and most recently Green Lantern First Flight. But that ain’t all, because Landau recently made a name for herself as the director of TAKE FLIGHT, her documentary about Gary Oldman’s music video for the band Chutzpah and for co-directing the Godhead music video HERO, which Landau also appears in. More recently she wrapped production on an adorable new kid's movie called Monster Mutt.
So let’s see… she acts, she directs and now move over literary luminaries because she also writes. That’s right, Landau has become a triple threat by branching off into the comic book milieu with a two-part installment of the ANGEL series centering on Drusilla, co-written with IDW scribe Brian Lynch. So with all that in mind, I was curious how someone with her background and talent made the transition to writer so smoothly.
Jeffrey Berman: Angel #24 is the first comic you’ve ever written, so how did you approach writing the book?
Juliet Landau: I was really excited when Chris Ryall and Brian Lynch approached me to do it. I had read all of the Angel and Buffy comics. As I hung up from our initial phone call, the idea came to me. I wrote it in script form (Final Draft) and they loved it so we progressed from there. Next, I asked Chris to send me a few of the previous issues’ final scripts. I compared and studied them against the printed comics, so that I could learn the formatting, structure, number of panels per page etc…
I wanted to play with certain themes. A significant one being, order versus chaos. The doctors/the Institution think they have all of the answers, but Dru’s very existence defies that. She’s a character that cannot be reined in. I also wanted to play with the visuals, to further the story. The Institution and the people in it are cold, sterile, stark. Drusilla is the most vibrant element in each frame. Even though she is undead, she is more alive than the world surrounding her.
JL: It was fantastic to revisit Drusilla. I think I brought a core emotional understanding of the character, especially in Issue 2, as Issue 1 is primarily the set-up. Dru’s history is dark and complex. I don’t think that she is often aware of what is motivating her, but I as the actress in the show, had to be. The audience made the connection, and in this case, the reader does. We all act out, based on our past (to lesser degrees, I hope!). I think it was because of having played her, that I was interested in exploring that reservoir.
JB: Before you began writing the comic book did you do any research or speak to any other writers in the industry and if so what advice did they give you?
JL: I sort of jumped in. I was working with Brian Lynch, who had written all of the previous Angel: After The Fall books. He is an incredible talent.
JL: There was a particular thing at the end that kept niggling me. I did what I do in any creative venture… I think about it relentlessly until I get the answer. I work it and re-work it mentally until I know the way I want to go. I have been branching into all kinds of creative areas. I directed Take Flight, a short documentary film about Gary Oldman (julietlandaustakeflight.com) and co-directed Godhead’s Hero music video ( HYPERLINK "http://godheadhero.com/" http://godheadhero.com/). Whether acting, directing or writing, I find my creative process to be very similar.
JB: What did you learn about being a writer from this experience and do you plan on writing anything else in the near future?
JL: I loved it! Working in this medium really forces you to think visually. It is about communicating a lot economically, with visuals, not with words. I really like that anyway, in movies/theater because behavior communicates volumes. I have written a short film called “It’s Raining Cats and Cats,” in which I will play seven different characters and I adapted a piece that I worked on at the Actors Studio into a short as well. I wrote those prior to the Dru comics and I definitely look forward to writing more!