Friday, December 27, 2013

That What Got Done, 2013 Edition

            Well, here we are yet again.  Another year gone by.  Time to look back and see how well we stuck to our resolutions.
            If you bother to stop in here and read these little rants, I’m guessing you’ve thought about being a writer.  Not a weekend dabbler, not an incorruptible artiste, but someone who wants to make some sales and write for a living.  And the only way to do that is to write.  Not to plan, not to research, but to sit down at the keyboard and start typing out my story one word at a time.  There’s no other way to get something done and no other way to get something sold.  If I’m not writing... it’s just not going to happen.
            So, all that being said... what did you get done this year?
            Me?  I started 2013 already waist-deep in Ex-Purgatory, which was due at the end of April.  Of course, before I could finish that my editor at Broadway had some notes for me on Ex-CommunicationReally good notes, for the record.  There were only one or two things we argued over, and even on those we found a solid middle ground that made us both happy.
            But before I did those, I had to go over the copyeditor’s notes on Ex-Patriots.  They were doing a quick run through it before the re-release in April.  So I spent a day or three on that.
            At least, I would’ve, but first I had to go over the new layout proof for Ex-Heroes.  It was coming out in February, after all.  So that got priority.  Then Ex-Patriots, then Ex-Communication notes, and then back to working on Ex-Purgatory.
            Of course, by that point, I now had copyedits on Ex-Communication.  And a layout proof for Ex-Patriots.  And even some very last minute input on the Ex-Heroes cover.  And after all that, I could get back to Ex-Purgatory.
            Until... well, I’m sure you can see the pattern at this point.
            Despite all this, I still managed to get Ex-Purgatory done on time.  It went long, and then I cut it way back, and then my editor suggested a few other cuts and some other additions.  We did a bunch of work on it, and in the end it went from a book I was kind of worried about to one that I’m almost proud of.  And it’ll be in stores in less than three weeks.
            That was the first eight months of 2013.
            Somewhere in there, between rewrites and layouts for Ex-Communication, I started a new book.  Something kind of urban-fantasy-ish, but a lot darker.  I was about 15,000 words into it when I went to Comic Con.  Alas, after talking with my agent and my editor, it’s going on the back burner for a little bit.  Hopefully it won’t end up being my new Dead Moon...
            There was also another idea I worked with for a while.  I pitched this one to my editor as “Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere crossed with Cannonball Run.”  Which, if nothing else, caught his attention.  For the double-handful of you who were at Booktopia this summer, it’s the story I mentioned about the Model T Ford. I was about 19,000 words in when new deals were finalized with Broadway.  This one’s still going to happen, but it’s been pushed a bit further down the line.
            I wrote a handful of short stories, too.  “Flesh Trade,” alas, didn’t make it into Clive Barker’s upcoming Midian Unbound anthology (I only cried a little bit at that).  But the guys at Kaiju Unbound really liked “Banner of the Bent Cross” and the folks at Evil Girlfriend Media said yes to another story (which I can’t talk about quite yet).  I also polished up an old tale, “Contraption,” for an upcoming collection of short stories from Permuted Press.
            And since then I’ve been working on my current book, The Albuquerque Door.  Well, there’s been some concern about the title, but I’m hanging onto it as long as possible.  I’m about 25,000 words into it so far. 
            Plus there were also thirty-eight posts here (to be honest, one of my worst years since I started the ranty blog).  And another thirty posts on other pages I keep.  Plus a dozen or so promo articles for different books (including a handful of titles from Broadway’s new Doctor Who line).
            Thing is... I feel like I slacked off a lot this year.  There were a few times when I was waiting to hear back on deals or between drafts or just feeling burned out by that glut of work at the start of the year... and I took a day off.  In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with it, and I didn’t miss any deadlines, but the truth is I took off a couple of days I really had no business taking off.  Days I should’ve been writing.  I look back at this past year and I think that I really should be further along in that urban fantasy story.  The Model T story should have a lot more to it, too.  I look at this list and think I didn’t write enough this year.
            How about you? How much did you write...?
            Next time—next year, really—I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about what I talk about here.  A mission statement, if you will.
            Until then... Happy New Year.
            And go write.

Thursday, December 19, 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 spoilers in 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 scripts I 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.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Voodoo Zombie vs Biochem Zombie

            This week’s blog title is from a future Asylum movie for SyFy.  It’s not in development or anything, as far as I know, but I’m pretty sure just by writing that online I’ve caused it to happen.  It’s the internet butterfly effect.
            And speaking of that geeky reference to a geeky reference...
            What that title really comes from is a note from a friend of mine, the editor at a sci-fi/ science site called Giant Freakin Robot (check it out—it’s fun and educational).  He was explaining what kind of movies and television shows the site covered.  To paraphrase, if the zombies have biochemical or viral origins, GFR will cover them, but not if they’re raised by voodoo spells or curses.
            Over the past few years, a lot of genres have really blended together.  In books and movies, it’s not uncommon to see strong action, drama, or even comedy threads mixing in with sci-fi, fantasy, or horror.  Nowadays it’s just as common for protagonists to fight the undead as it is to run from them, and in doing so writers and readers have created dozens of subgenres.
            Personally, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of this.  I think any story that stays too much in one vein tends to get dry pretty quick.  There’s almost always some humor in every situation, even incredibly dark ones.  It’s not uncommon for men and women to have inappropriate thoughts at really inopportune times (or to act on them).  Hey, I grew up on Doctor Who, so in my mind it makes perfect sense for religion-obsessed barbarian tribes to be descended from intergalactic survey teams or for aliens to be controlling the Loch Ness Monster.
            Now, sad but true, there aren’t a lot of firm rules on mixing these things.  Every story is different, so the way my story blends horror and comedy is going to be different from the way your story blends them.  Ten of us can use the same basic plot, but we’re each going to end up with our own unique story.  My characters won’t react the same way as yours, hers will make different decisions than his.
             As such it’s hard for anyone to say which amount is right or wrong without having all the context.  To use one of my frequent cooking analogies, it’s kind of like if I asked “is this too much sugar?”  It’s an impossible question to answer without knowing what I’m cooking, what are the recipe standards, what are my preferences, and what are the preferences of the people who are going to be eating it.  My own skill level in the kitchen matters, too, on whether I should be trying a fried Alaska, death by chocolate, or maybe just a bowl of Captain Crunch.
            However... all that being said...
            I think when these mixed genre stories go bad, a lot of folks tend to look at the small issues and ignore the big ones.  Something isn’t bad because it mixed androids and artificial intelligence with Arthurian legends, or because it introduced a lot of comedy into the Cthulhu mythos.  Those are just the easiest targets, so they get the criticism first. 
            What I’ve come to realize is that most bad genre stuff tends to be bad for the same three reasons.  Granted, there’s always going to be someone who tries to write a sexy mutant cockroach story (or something worse), and there will always be people who just load up on basic mistakes like spelling or flat characters or incoherent plotting. In my experience, though, most genre stuff goes wrong in three basic ways—whether my story is one pure genre or several overlapping ones.
            The first and often biggest mistake is when authors try to make their stories too fantastic.  If I have an idea, it gets included in the story.  No matter what it is, I’ll cram it in there.  If you’ve ever watched old slasher movies, you know most of them just devolved into creative ways to kill people, and sometimes there are excess characters for no other reason but to allow for more inventive deaths.  Most of us have probably read a sci fi novel that went to great lengths to explain how the weapons, shoes, uniforms, food, transportation, education, and economics are all very different on that other world or in that not-so-distant future.  I read a book recently that had to do with... well, everything.  No, seriously.  Government conspiracies, bio-engineering, super-soldiers, angels and demons, secret identities, zombies, aliens from Neptune, extraterrestrial dragons, thrill-killers, child abuse, sadism, torture porn, regular porn, and lost civilizations in the Amazon.  All of these things were major threads and elements in one average-length novel.  Heck, I’m tempted to say it was even on the shorter side.
            The problem with writing a story like this (book or screenplay) is my audience has nothing to connect with as they’re overwhelmed with all these unfamiliar elements.  The people are different.  The setting is different.  Motivations are different.  I may have created the most amazing post-apocalyptic matriarchal feudal society run by a supercomputer (and its secret android army) that’s ever been seen, but my readers need to be able to understand those characters and that society and relate to it right now while it’s on the page in front of them.
            This is closely related to the second problem—when the writer tries to explain everything.  Bad enough that I felt the need to include the secret android army, but now I’m also going to write about how they were first developed by the Mysteridroid Corporation three hundred years ago, how they see the world, and even how they recharge in various situations.  I think most people reading this have read a story or two that suddenly deviated into exposition like that.  Edgar Rice Burroughs had an awful habit in his Mars books of having his characters stop and explain various aspects of Barsoomian technology (one midnight walk with the Princess famously spun into a discussion of how radium bullets are manufactured and used).  A few recent horror films have gone to great lengths to explain why their antagonist turned out the way he or she did, even though that mystery was part of the character’s strength.
            What this often leads to is stories that feel very exotic and detailed, but very little ever actually happens in them.  Page after page of explanation can add up really fast, and no matter what my chosen format is, there's only going to be so many pages.  Suddenly a third of my book is just... details.  And while I’m going over those details, my characters are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for something to happen again.  This can also lead to a bit of resentment from the reader as I’m spoon-feeding them all this information.
            As it turns out, problem number three is the flipside of two.  It’s when the writer doesn’t explain anything.  I’ve gone through whole chapters of a book trying to figure out which character was KristoMystery Science Theater 3000 once had a running gag about a mystical object (or maybe it was a person...) called “the Sampo.”  We’ve all seen stories where people ride “twyrfels” and we’re left wondering what the hell a twyrfel is (an animal? a vehicle? some kind of transporter beam?).
            There’s also the folks who hide motives and actions to create a sense of mystery.    Characters will appear, make a mysterious statement or three, and then vanish from the story.  Creepy messages will be found on walls, sidewalks, or computer screens and we never learn how they got there.  Disturbing objects are found in the cellar, but never discussed again.  Ever.
            There are two general causes behind this, in my experience.  In the first case it’s when I’ve sunk so far into my fictional world and spent so much time there that I forget the reader isn’t quite so familiar with it.  I can tell you the whole history of the twyrfel as transportation, so I forget that you don’t even know what one looks like.  In the second case, they’re trying to duplicate the tone of books like House of Leaves or shows in the vein of LOST or Person of Interest, but they don’t really understand how those stories achieved that tone.  This is especially frustrating when there’s clearly no real mystery, just a bunch of withheld information.
            So, there’s three big, common mistakes in genre fiction.  Sci-fi, horror, fantasy—we could probably give an example of each failing for each genre.  We could even make a chart.
            Or we could go over a few simple ways to avoid these issues...
            For that first problem up above, my story needs to have something my audience can immediately relate to in some way, and it’s best if it’s the main character.  Someone who hates their job, who wants something they can’t have, or maybe who just feels like an outsider.  Simply put, a person with a universal need or desire. 
            I’ve mentioned once or thrice that believable characters make for believable stories, and that’s especially true here in the genres.  Seriously, pick a popular genre story and I’ll bet the main character has a very humble, relatable origin.  Dan Torrance is a nursing home orderly before he’s forced to confront the True Knot.  Katniss Everdeen is just trying to put food on the table when she’s forced to fight for her life in an arena.  John Anderson (a.k.a. Neo) was a cubicle drone who was dragged into a war between humanity and sentient machines.  Dana, Marty, Jules, and their friends were regular college students before they decided to spend their vacation at that old cabin in the woods.  Hell, even in Pacific Rim, one of the most over-the-top movies of the year, our hero Raleigh is working a construction job when we catch up to him in the present, still shaking off the death of his brother.
            If a reader believes in my characters, they’ll believe what’s happening to my characters.  It has to do with willing suspension of disbelief—I can’t believe in the big elements of a story if I don’t believe in the basic building blocks of it.  Once I’m invested in Wakko’s life, then I’ll be more willing to go with it when he finds a lost civilization under the bowling alley or when he finds out the crab people have been running his life since he was born.
            I think there’s two ways to deal with the second problem, too much information.  One is a concept I’ve talked about here in the past—the ignorant stranger.  If things are going to be explained, I should have an actual, in-story reason for that explanation.  Yakko may know all about the secret android army, but Dot doesn’t.  This gives him a valid reason to talk about the Mysteridroid Corporation for a page and a half.  I just need to be sure this really is an ignorant stranger situation and I’m not falling back on the dreaded “as you know...” crutch.
           The other way is, well, for me to just get rid of all that excess information.  Cut it.  I can delete anything that isn’t actually necessary to the story.  This can be tough, because genre stuff tends to involve a lot of new spins on pretty mundane things.  Special pistols, close combat weapons, energy sources, transportation, zombie origins... all that stuff I mentioned up above.
            But is it necessary to the story, or is it just there to help push things deeper into my chosen genre?  It’s cool that my hero has an energy sidearm that uses ultrasonic beams focused through a blue quartz crystal to set up a harmonic vibration in the target’s cells which causes extreme pain and eventual molecular disruption, all powered by a cold-fusion microbattery... but in the long run is this any different than just saying he has a blaster?  Or a pistol?  I may have the most inventive take on teleportation ever, but if there’s no point to teleportation technology in my story except to show off this idea... why bother?  If the plot flows along fine without it, why take up space on the page with it?
            The third problem, not explaining anything, is a little tougher.  On one level, it’s just a matter of skill and practice.  I need to be a good enough writer to know how my plot’s shaping up and to empathize with my audience. 
            A friend of mine gave me a great rule of thumb once—my main character should mirror my audience.  If my main character’s angry about something, the reader should be angry about it.  If my protagonist is puzzled, it means the audience should be puzzled. And if my hero is annoyed because he still doesn’t know what’s going on... well, that’s probably a sign I should have a reveal or two in the immediate future.
            The other way to deal with that third problem is to be sure my story actually has a real mystery, not just the sense of one.  Tying in to what I just mentioned, nothing will aggravate my readers more than to stumble through a story alongside my hero and then discover I’m not revealing a single thread of my mystery.  Or, worse yet, they might realize there isn’t a mystery at all—I was just stringing them along with some nonsense clues.  I need to know what the secret is going to be and work backwards, making sure my characters are smart enough to uncover it or honestly motivated to hide it, depending on which side of the mystery they’re on.
            Are these three the only problems that might crop up in my genre writing?  Not by a long shot.  But these are the ones I see cropping up again and again, so they’re worth looking at and considering.  And fixing.
            Next time, the last post before Christmas, I’d like to share a little holiday conversation I had with the writer-director of Iron Man 3, back when he was just the guy who did Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

This Elaborate Fantasy World You’ve Constructed

            Does that title sound a little too familiar?
            Maybe we should talk about that...
            A few months back I read a book that I couldn’t figure out.  It left me completely baffled.  I’m not talking about the plot (granted, I was having trouble with that, too), but the setting. 
            I honestly couldn’t figure out the world.  At times, it seemed like it was the modern world that we all know and love—granted, with some sci-fi/ fantasy stuff going on in the background.  At other times, it seemed to be a sort of alternate history, post-apocalyptic “present.”  It didn’t help that every character was somehow tied directly into that sci-fi/ fantasy thread, because for all of them this was the “normal” world and they didn’t notice anything different about it.
            Why does this matter?
            Well, knowing where a story is set helps me, as a reader, to set my expectations and reactions.  It lets me get a sense of what’s possible, or what might be possible.  The setting is an automatic set of guidelines for the reader, for the characters, and for the writer, too.
            For example...
            A few years back I read an absolutely wonderful essay on Scooby-Doo and secular humanism.  No seriously.  You can read the whole thing here.  The writer made a very interesting point that shows why it’s so key to know what kind of world my story is set in.  He uses it as one link in a larger chain of logic, but for our purposes we can examine it alone.
            In all the classic Scooby-Doo episodes, the supernatural threat is always revealed to be a fake.  It’s someone in a costume (probably Carl the stuntman or Mr. Bascombe) using special effects of one kind or another for an ulterior motive.  It has to be, because in the world of classic Scooby Doo, ghosts and monsters aren’t real.  That’s why it makes sense for Velma, Fred, and Daphne to act rationally and why it’s funny when Shaggy and Scooby get scared and run away—they’re scared of the fake monsters.
            If the supernatural is real (as it is in some of those later stories), suddenly everything shifts.  The rules of the world have changed, so we have to look at the characters in a new light.  Now Velma and the others are foolish for trying to apply logic to inherently illogical creatures and for exposing themselves to life-threatening monsters like werewolves and vampires.  Not only that, Shaggy and Scooby are now the smart ones, because being scared of vampires is a perfectly rational response in a world where vampires are real.
            Here’s another one.
            I recently read a piece by one of the editors at Marvel comics.  He proudly spoke about how their stories are set in “the real world.”  The characters, their reactions, the world around them...
            And I have to admit, my first thought was... what a bunch of nonsense.
            (I may not have used the word nonsense.  I tend to be a bit more emphatic with my internal dialogue...)
             Let’s consider a few details about the Marvel Comics universe.  It is commonly known that some people can fly.  It’s not exactly secret that magic is real and aliens exist.  Super-powered human mutants are also real and receive tons of media attention.  There’s a large, tropical valley in Antarctica where dinosaurs still live, visible on Google Earth and written about in several textbooks.  Energy weapons are commonplace, as is high-tech battle armor.  There are numerous publicly-known artificial intelligences in the world.  Standing next to detonating atomic weapons can give you superpowers.  Hell, in the Marvel Universe, you can jump off the Empire State Building and there’s actually a halfway decent chance someone will catch you on the way down.
            Does this sound remotely like the real world
            Would the people of this world have the same expectations you and I do?  Would they think and react to things the same way?  I live in LA, and when I hear a faint rumble and the building shakes, I normally check Facebook to see if anyone else felt an earthquake.  In the Marvel Universe, I’d probably assume it was superheroes battling a giant monster.  If I got a headache, I’d be checking to see if it was telekinesis or some form of optic blasts.  And then take aspirin.  And then check for telekinesis again, just in case it interacts with drugs somehow. And the thing is, these would be perfectly rational reactions in the Marvel Universe.
           Now, one more example.  Harry Potter.  In this world there are wizards, giants, dragons, hippogriffs, goblin bankers, house-elves, gnomes, and much, much more (no aliens, though).  But the thing is, it all exists kind of... off to the side.  The average person in the world of Harry Potter has never heard of Hogwarts and can’t find Diagon Alley.  The magical world rarely overlaps with the mundane one, and we learn there are whole government departments charged with making sure they stay separate.  The real world for them is the real world we all know about, one where there’s no such thing as magic.
            Starting to make sense?  If I can’t define my world, I can’t define what is and isn’t possible.  I can’t have characters react appropriately if I don’t know what would be appropriate.
            On the flipside, there’s a period show on right now that kind of gnaws at me.  Mostly because it’s set in Victorian London and one of the supporting characters never wears a hat... but also because of the setting.  The main plot revolves around our protagonist attempting to perfect wireless, broadcasted electricity, something Tesla worked on for decades.  Our hero hopes to destroy the fortunes of a group of wealthy oilmen by rendering their investments worthless.
            Now, here’s the thing.  We know broadcast power wasn’t invented at the turn of the last century, so if the show ends with our hero succeeding, it means the whole story’s been set in an alternate history.  But if his broadcast power fails, it implies the story’s set in the real world.  But until one or the other happens, I can’t tell you the setting.
            Of course some of you may know what program I’m talking about and I’m sure you’re going to bring up the larger point—the vampires.  But here’s the interesting point.  The vampires are irrelevant.  Much like Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, no one knows the vampires exist. 
            But the broadcast power... that’s in the news.  There were press releases and huge parties.  Broadcast power changes everything.  That’s a world where, from the beginning of the electrical age, nothing needs batteries or wall outlets.  There are countless changes and repercussions if broadcast power is real.
            Y’see, Timmy, my fantastic story can still be set in the real world provided the events of my story don’t change the world.  I mean, within the world of the show only a handful of people in London know vampires are real.  It’s not public knowledge.  And today in the modern world we’ve never heard of or seen evidence of vampires in the Victorian era, so that part of the story has an aura of truth and reality to it.    
           If you want to set an amazing story in the real world, you need to use conspiracy theory logic.    I’ve used this analogy before, and bizarre as it may sound it works.  Yep, the same reasoning used by moon-landing deniers, “9-11 was staged” folks, and the birthers is what makes for a good fiction story. No irony there...
            By conspiracy-theory logic, any facts that disprove XYZ are an attempt to hide the truth, thus further proving XYZ is true.  The very lack of evidence is the proof that it’s true.  And if I stumble across a few coincidences that imply XYZ might be true, well, that’s just more evidence XYZ is true.
            Didn’t I just describe the world of Harry Potter?
            The vampires hide all trace of their existence.  There is no evidence that vampires exist.  Ipso facto (fancy Latin words) my story rings true because it lines up with all known facts.  Follow me?
            The world of my story has to have its own consistent logic.  Because if I don’t know my world, I can’t know how characters in my world react to things.  And if I don’t know my characters, well... that’s it.
            Next time... well, is there any topic anyone would like covered?  I can probably ramble on about most anything (as this post shows).  Let me know in the comments if there’s something you’d like me to babble about.
            And if no one does, I’ll come up with something worthwhile.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Four Step Program

            Probably not the one you think of when you think of professional writers...
            I’m a bit pressed for time this week, so I wanted to revisit an idea from a few weeks ago.  Hopefully in a way that may resonate with a few of you.
            There are, in my experience, four stages of being a professional.

1) Not knowing what you’re doing
2) Thinking you know what you’re doing 
3) Realizing you don’t know what you’re doing
4) Knowing what you’re doing

           I first came up with this rule set after about eight or nine years in the film industry.  I can’t remember how I came to it, but when I did I realized it mirrored my career.  As I looked around, I realized it was possible to place almost everyone on set in one of these categories.
            To explain...
            I ended up in the film industry by chance.  A guy I knew needed grunt labor and I was thrilled with the idea of working on a movie.  There was an immediate culture shock, believe me.  Different terms, different hierarchies, different expectations.  I spent my first month on set trying to soak up everything I could, because it was clear I didn’t know anything.
            Of course, by a week or two into my third project, I felt like I had it down.  I knew all this stuff, and I made sure that everyone knew I knew how to do it.  There was no doubt in my mind that I could do my boss’s job at least as well as him, if not better.   
            It was another year or so before I had the chance to be the boss... and learned how unprepared I was.  There were tons of basic things I didn’t know.  My assistant (a friend of a friend who’d offered to help) knew far more than me, and it was a minor miracle she didn’t smack me three or four times a week.  And I deserved to be smacked, believe me.  Then my next job went the same way (although I still hold that one was a 40-60 share with very unrealistic producers).
            So in the end, I sat down and decided to see what I had to do to be better at my job.  I took a good look at the tools and equipment I was going to need.  I paid attention to everything, not just the stuff that interested me.  I planned ahead.  I was more careful with the projects I chose, and the people I chose to work with.
            At which point I noticed other people were telling me I was good at my job.  I didn’t need to tell them.  It was apparent in the work I was doing.
            A while after this, I noticed this pattern applied to almost everything.  Almost any job you could name.  I saw it in many other jobs on film sets past mine.  I had a friend who was a cop, and he agreed a lot of police officers followed the same pattern.  So do programmers.  Watch a show like Kitchen Nightmares and you’ll get to see some restaurateurs go from step two to step three and head toward four.
            Because that was the other thing I noticed.  There were some folks who weren’t that good at their job but were convinced they were.  They were stuck at step two because they never had (or never acknowledged) that slap down moment.  So they never bothered to improve.  They just stayed at those early, flawed levels.
            So why am I bringing up the film industry and cooking shows here?
            As I’m sure many of you have realized, being a writer follows this path, too.  Not knowing what you’re doing. Thinking you know what you’re doing.  Realizing you don’t know what you’re doing.  And then knowing what you’re doing.
            When I first sat down to write a story, every aspect of it was a mystery to me.  How to structure my plot, how to reveal character, how to describe action.  Hell, I barely understood what plot, character, and action meant.  But I waded in and tried to put my own twist on other stories.  And at some point I decided I was at least as good as half of these people writing for Marvel or DC or Del Rey.  And my mom agreed that I was very talented for an eleven year old.  So I started submitting stuff.  And I got rejected for some reason.  And I submitted other stuff.  And that got rejected, too.
            After many years and even more rejections, I was struck with the wild idea that maybe the problem wasn’t all those editors.  Maybe it was me.  Maybe my stories just weren’t good enough yet. 
            I went back over some of the things I’d sent out in earlier years and realized they were... well, pretty awful.  Some of the basic ideas were neat, but the stories were clumsy, my dialogue was awful, and my vocabulary was grade school level at best.
            So I decided to improve.  To write stronger stories, better characters, more believable dialogue.  I read everything I could in several genres and tried to figure out what worked and what didn’t.  And did it really not work, or did it just not work for me?
            And, well, years after that... here I am today.
            Some people never get past that second step.  Most people don’t, to be honest.  Especially these days when its easier to skip past possible rejection and claim almost anything as “success.”  These folks don’t need—or don’t want—to admit they need to improve, so they never do.
            How many steps are you down the path?
            Next week.... well, next week’s Thanksgiving, so I’ll be watching The Day The Earth Stood Still, Casablanca, and The Maltese Falcon while I make eggplant parmigiana from scratch for the vegetarians in the home, and some turkey for the rest of us. 
            But the week after that, I’d like to talk about that fantasy world you’re living in.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Put A Little Effort Into It

            Welcome to the holiday season.  It means we’re all going to have to try a lot harder.  At a lot of things.  Like finding time to write.  And losing weight.
            This week’s little rant was inspired by Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling.  They’ve been floating around the web for a few years now, ever since one of the storyboard artists there tweeted them.  I recently stumbled across a nice rendering of them here and they got me thinking about something I was talking about just before Halloween.
            Before I go over that, though, let’s go over some basics.
            One of the elemental principles of storytelling is the obstacle.  It's what stands between my protagonist and whatever it is they want.  Social cliques and jealous jocks separate Wakko from the cheerleader he wants to ask to the prom.  An army of mercenaries are keeping Yakko from the missile silo.  Financial hardship is keeping Dot  from opening her hair salon.  Well, financial hardship and a lack of self-confidence.
            Now, while you may have heard the term obstacle, or perhaps even conflict, my personal preference here on the ranty blog is to call all these things challenges.  I think there are a few standard rules to challenges, and I’ve gone over those in the past, but I wanted to bring up a new one.  It’s kind of an overall corollary to challenges that touches on a lot of those rules.
            My character has to try.
            To be specific, when I say my character has to try, I’m saying this challenge should actually require effort.  It needs to be difficult, because if it isn’t, it isn’t really a challenge.  If I don’t have to try, what’s the point? 
            Vin Diesel beating up a third grader doesn’t impress anyone.  Neither does Usain Bolt outrunning a guy on crutches.  If I put Kate Upton in glasses and a baggy sweatshirt, it’s still not believable that she’d be saying “oh, wow, how will I find a date for Saturday?”  No, not even if  I make her a brunette and then mess her hair up.  This is also why uber-prepared or godlike characters very rarely work.  We’re just not impressed by people we know will succeed, because success in and of itself is meaningless in a story.
            You see, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Pixar missed it with their #1 rule.  Okay, granted, I’m pretty sure there is no real order to the list, but my point is this...
            Y’see, Timmy, exterior success is irrelevant.  Despite what Yoda taught us all, trying is the important part. We like to see characters who make an effort, who aspire, who reach past their limits.  If they never do—if everything my characters do is within their comfort zone—then they’re not worth reading about.
            If Wakko needs to deal with those jocks to talk to cheerleader Phoebe, the ones who’ve bullied him since freshman year, the important part isn’t him beating them up or even getting past them.  It’s when he stands up to them.  If he does fight back and somehow wins, that’s icing on the cake, but the important moment is when he decides he’s not going to be bullied anymore.  That’s the victory that matters.
            That’s when we all love him and when he becomes somebody worth reading about.
            Next time, I’d like to explain my career in four easy steps.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ironclad Screenwriting

            Hope you all had a wonderful Halloween, Guy Fawkes Day, or respective eerie holiday.
            As some of you know, I’m a bit of a geek, and as such I’m very excited for the release of Thor: The Dark World tomorrow.  And since I’m always willing to be pop culture relevant—and I’m really slammed with other stuff right now—I thought I’d post a fun conversation I had with Justin Theroux, who wrote the third of the “Wave One” Marvel movies, Iron Man 2.  Justin was great to talk to, even when he had to bite his tongue about some still-secret plot points and reveals.  He also had a very positive and realistic view of working in Hollywood and working on a major tentpole movie (a sequel in a set of interlocking movies, at that).
            A few 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 off the record discussions now and then).  Any links are entirely mine and aren’t meant to imply Justin was 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 I’ve said. 
            By the very nature of this, there will probably be a few small spoilers in here, though not many.  Check out the movie if you haven’t seen it yet.  It’s fun and you’ll get a bit more out of this.
            Material from this interview was originally used for an article that appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
            So, anyway, here’s me battering Justin with questions about Iron Man 2.


So... how does someone go from being an actor to screenwriter on a huge comedy to the sole writer on Iron Man 2
(laughs)  Your guess is as good as mine.  I don't know.  I've been in Hollywood for about twenty years now.  I don't know if that's overnight.  Everyone has a weird road in this town and mine's no different, I guess.  Everyone has a weird little story to tell.

Have you been writing all along?
I have, yeah.  If I were to thank anyone or lay it at anyone's feet, it would be Ben Stiller who's always been a very big champion of mine and always convinced me to do something professionally.  So Tropic Thunder was the first thing we were able to do together.  He was the one who first looked at my pages, years and years ago, and said 'These are really decent pages.  You should be doing this more.'  He was the one that gave me the confidence.  So much of anything in the entertainment industry is confidence, and he was the first one to inject me with that.

Are you two friends?
We met... I was doing a play that he came and saw here in New York.  We met after the show and he was very flattering and I was very flattering to him.  I adored some of his earlier MTV shows and sketch work and The Ben Stiller Show I thought was an unbelievably good show.  So I was gushing about that.  We sort of became friends over that.  That was in... 94?  95?  Four, maybe?  Somewhere early '90s.

Were you a comics fan as a kid?
Yeah.  I was and am a comic book fan.  I wasn't one of those comic book fans who ran out every week and bought whatever new issue was out there.  I sort of came into it backwards.  I read a lot of underground comics--Heavy Metal, Art Spiegelman, that kind of thing-- but I also was an avid Spider-Man and Iron Man fan when I was a kid.---So I was a fan.  Not as probably die-hard as you might think, but I am a fan of the genre.

How did you end up on board Iron Man 2?
I had worked with Robert on Tropic Thunder and we had worked very well together and got along.  So he was the one who brought me over to Marvel.  He said 'You should meet with Marvel.  You guys should sit down and see if you have any common ground because I think it would be a good fit.'  So I did.  I went when they were first gearing up for the very, very first initial push into development for Iron Man 2.  I sat with them for a long time and had long discussions with them about the character and that world.  We just hit it off.  It was a good match.  Shortly thereafter they said they'd love to have me and I was completely  flattered and floored, and we started developing the script right away.

Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. both said early on, if I remember, they didn't want to be involved if there wasn't going to be time to do a good script.  Were you already on board at that point?
Yeah.  I don't know.  I don't remember when they said that, but it sounds completely in line with the way those guys think and work.  They're amazing quality control, both of them.  As is Marvel.  They were extremely hands on, even in the creation of the story.  It was enormously collaborative.  I never felt like I was abandoned to write the script by myself, even though I did the actual writing.  There was always someone to bounce ideas off of.  Kevin Feige, Jeremy Latcham, Jon Favreau, obviously, and Robert, they were always there to lob in their ideas and support.  It was a very socialist endeavor, the creation of the script.

I think the writing teams for the first film (Art Marcum & Matt Holloway and Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby) had a couple of years working with Jon Faverau.  You came on and they already had a release date for the film and less than a year before they started filming, yes?
(laughs)  You try to forget.  While you're doing it you really try not to realize the pressure you're under.  You try not to focus on it, at least.  You have to fake it and pretend you have all the time in the world to create it, because if you put a calendar and start X-ing days off you'll go crazy.  I sort of operated, as we all did, I think, where it's like 'Well, we'll deal with that when we get to it.'  As we had to turn in pages to effects and the line producer, we did a lot of punting of things until we absolutely had to try to move the ball across the finish line.

What's your method?  Are you an outline guy, do you use note cards, do you just like to shuffle it all around in your head, start on page one, and plow through?
I don't know. I love discussing things with people, almost to a fault sometimes.  I'll bug a bus driver if I really want someone's opinion.  The way I love to work is with someone who I trust knows the material, like Favreau and Feige, and bounce ideas off them.  Those guys had the benefits of doing [the first Iron Man] and were well-versed in the pitfalls and problems of where certain ideas could take you.  They were great at helping me eliminate certain things.  They could dismiss things that otherwise I might waste time spinning my wheels in.  That being said, when it actually comes down to writing I prefer to just wake up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and just sit down and start hammering pages.  I write fat, usually, and hope the director can help guide me.  In this particular case Jon was good at guiding me towards what -------- on the one hand you're trying to create a script that matches what Favreau’s vision is and what he wants to do.  I'm a big believer in being in service to the director as much as possible.

So you don't use any outlines?
No, no, we did plenty of notecards and outlines and all the rest of that.  I think at a certain point you just have to start trucking through the deep snow and shoveling your way into it.  Or out of it.

How much did Jon actually get to work with you on this?  Was there time for the two of you to sit down and work the story, play with characters, that sort of thing?
Yeah, we met every single day in pre-production.  He was doing Couples Retreat for portions of that.  So we met very often, these epic sessions where we'd all—me, him, Robert, Kevin, and Jeremy—we'd sit in that room and beat through it.  Then I'd go away and do pages, come back, we'd beat through it some more, and I'd go away and do pages.  It was a very unified effort. We were all pulling on the same rope.  It was the way this movie had to work just because of the time frame.

What about Robert Downey Jr.  Did he have thoughts of his own for the script?
Yeah, absolutely.  Many days we met up at his house and scribbled stuff on cards.

Was it all for him?  Was it overall ideas or ideas for Tony Stark action and dialogue?
It was everything.  He' got such an insane--insane in a great way--of working.  He's just an idea generator.  He's like a firehose with a powerful stream.  He's one of those guys who's just constantly percolating with new ideas and pushing into different areas and places where you didn't think it could go.  There were certian idea he would have and you'd think 'That's completely insane.  There's no way we could get away with that.'  He'd stick to it, and we'd write it and rewrite it, and we'd show up on the day and he'd perform it and--Oh, I get it.  That totally makes sense.  He's the one who has it in his head.  There's a lot of lightning firing off that guy.

How long does it normally take you to get a draft?
I honestly couldn't tell you.  Even though we had a production draft that we ended up working off of, we were still developing whole chunks of it as we were shooting it.  Once we had the schedule for what we were shooting, we then knew we could go back in and since this is towards the end of the shoot we can go back in and really start finessing it.  So I was working on stuff on set all the way up until the very last day of shooting.

Now, how much of this was laid out for you from the start?  There was some stuff hanging there from the first movie, of course, but did you come on and it was already "Okay, we want Whiplash, Justin Hammer, the Black Widow, War Machine, the briefcase armor... give us a story." 
No, no, no. To their credit, they really do give everyone involved in the process a blank slate to start with.  And that's a blessing and a curse.  I think in the end it always ends up being beneficial to them.  You go in knowing anything is a possibility and they don't shut any doors or windows to what you want to do until it becomes either cost-prohibitive or just doesn't make sense with the brand.
            They're firm believers that the fans are the shareholders in this whole thing, so they go in with the attitude of what do people want to see.  It's not necessarily about what we want to do, it's what people are expecting and what they want of this character.  And that's a wonderful way to work, especially in this genre.  Everything was on the table and then it was just a question of taking things off the table.
            We opened up all the characters.  We opened up Whiplash and all the famous villains of the past and started picking up each one, rolling it around in meetings, and going "What about this guy?  What about that girl?"  We ended up getting three new characters for this movie--Whiplash, Black Widow, and Justin Hammer--and realizing there was a very powerful dynamic between those three.

How did you end up with Whiplash?
Y'know, there was a bunch... I won't bore you with who we were looking at—translate 'bore you' as 'get in trouble'.  It was really Jon's idea.  I think Jon, very early on, had the idea of using Mickey.  We have sort of an energy theme going on, sort of a confluence of many things.  One is, our Tony Stark is a public figure.  Two, we knew we wanted to have this energy element to it.  What is the thing that's inside him?  Could this thing become public?  Could it get out there?  It's an arms race, essentially.  Then when we were looking at the different characters, we were thinking where can we sort of plug that idea into a character, and Whiplash—through Jon's vision of what that character could be or become--what we all gravitated toward.  Weall thought that's the guy.  Once Jon had pitched the way he envisioned that character, which is very different from a guy with a big ponytail and a cape, we thought that's very cool.  These big energized whips emenating from his center chest piece.  It all, organically, started to take shape.  With the back story we thought we could have some fun there.

Now, in the first film one of the main elements was that Tony Stark had the only viable mini-Arc Reactor fused into his chest, plus there was one other one that would work for twenty minutes or so.  In the trailers we've got Iron Man, War Machine, Whiplash, plus what looks like a whole squadron of armored soldiers fighting them at one point.
Again, it sort of followed that....  If we walked into the room with anything, when we first started to develop, the one thing that was obviously on the table that we could not ignore was that he was a public figure.  That was the first little piece of clay that hit the table that we knew we'd have to build off of.   We thought, well, what comes with that?  What comes with that is a strange kind of arrogance, especially in today's world, that that's definitely going to entail?  Some kind of a newfound celebrity, to have a guy who's a public superhero.  So there's sort of an arrogance to Tony at the beginning of the movie that he's the only one who is in possession of this technology.  So then the next dramatic device is... what if he's not?  What if someone else can create it as good as he makes it, or almost as good?  That's where we went with that.  What if the genie got out of the bottle?

War Machine is a little unusual because he's not part of the "classic" Iron Man stories.  Rhodey is, of course, but War Machine was a much later addition.  Was this a concern, for you or the studio, since most of the successful Marvel movies seem to deal with classic elements more than newer ones?
I don't want to talk about other's people's movies but... War Machine is not a dark force.  Our thinking was Tony is out in the world and has perhaps bitten off more than he can chew.  One of the themes of the movie is can one man be an island?  Are men islands in themselves, especially if you're Tony Stark?  Again, without giving away too much, the War Machine armor and who's using it really complements that idea or that theme.  I found it a relief to have that character in the movie.  And obviously Don is wonderful.  Only in the fact that they're such good friends does that work.

Were you worried about the Batman issue?  Or I guess, Daredevil, since we're talking Marvel...  That there are just so many character and elements crammed in here that there wasn't going to be room for a coherent film story?
I wouldn't say I was worried.  There were times where I felt that we had a luxury of riches.  It was like putting a bunch of desserts out in front of you an wondering which one you wanted to taste first.  It never worried me in that way.  If anything, it just made me want to work harder at servicing every one of them.  But I think we've done a pretty good job of tempering that and making sure that it doesn't just turn into a Jackson Pollack.  Everyone has a purpose in the film, and I think as long as each one of those characters is well-defined and as long as they're purpose-driven, then at the end of the day it just feels like a great big fun movie as opposed to a big, y'know, clusterfuck. (laughs)

There's been some talk lately that this movie takes place before the Incredible Hulk movie which came out... well, at the same time as the first Iron Man.
(laugh)  I feel like Marvel has a great tradition of screwing the next writer. (laughs)  I think initially, when they first started interweaving it, things were considered afterthoughts.  Now—I don't want to give away things happening in other movies—they're starting to put a lot more thought into it and seeing it as a larger scheme.  We have things in our movie that are doffing their hats or perhaps telegraphing things that are going to happen in other movies.  That's probably a much as I can probably say.  It wasn't like we had a big meeting with Kenneth Branaugh about Thor.  There's just enough cross-pollination to make it interesting, but not enough to start eating into other people's sandwiches.

Was this something you were trying to figure out, how it all fit together, or did someone in an office just say "oh, this is the order?"
No, we knew we were going to have Nick Fury.  He showed up, you just can't ignore it. And then there's much smaller clues and things that we seeded throughout that will play out in other movies.  Obviously once Avengers is up and running you'll start to feel the cumulative effect of those little jigsaw puzzle pieces getting put together.

I know there was also a point no one was sure if Samuel Jackson was going to be in the film or not.  Was that affecting you and your story?
Yeah.  For me, I just acted as if he was doing it.  We were putting him in.  He was going to go in.  It was up to the powers that be to make that happen.  I just kept writing as if he was going to show up on the first day.

Did you get a lot of notes?  Were you under the microscope, because the first film had been so successful?
Yes, but not in a way...  Marvel is a very special place.  Kevin Feige is probably the biggest comic book fan I've ever met.  He's the biggest fan of his material.  He is, without question, one of the best keepers of that torch.  There would be times when we'd be bumping our heads or going 'I don't know how to make this work," and Kevin would bring a clarity to the situation.  I've never experienced it with any other studio or any other creative process, where--literally--the head of the studio would be the one to go 'No, you know what the fans want?  The fans want this, and at this moment in the movie this is what needs to happen and this is what we're forgetting."  He-- and Jon, too-- was great at just refocusing it.  He knows his brand and he knows his charcters so well.  He's one of those guys who can tell you the day and date he saw this character or that issue came out or that movie premiered.  He just knows everything.  He's encyclopedic.  I was always eager for him to put his two cents in an I would eek out his counsel on a regular basis.

Did the internet have a big influence on this?  Either for you or the studio.  Since the first movie people have been going crazy on the web with ideas and speculation, even more so once images and footage started appearing.  Does it affect your writing?
For sure.  Websites like Superhero Hype and IGN.  I wouldn't say it's an internet-made movie or anything close to that-- because a lot of time people have ideas that have no bearing on what's ultimately possible-- but definitely.  There were times... As I said, the modus operandi of Marvel is that the only shareholders are the fans.  There'd be times when they would say 'Oh, I read this thing, they'd be stoked if this happened.'  So we know we're not on the wrong track pursuing that idea.  That's really interesting and fascinating because it sort of puts a ghost partner in the room with you.  A shadow voice in the room.

Last question for you... now that Iron Man looks to be a successful franchise, did you leave some threads and ideas dangling for another sequel?  I know a lot of folks saw the Ten Rings terrorist group in the first movie as a hint towards the Mandarin...
I'm not confirming or denying that remark. (laughs)  I think that's still in the distant future.  I would say if people looked for it they would definitely find it.