J. Michael Straczynski is a rare beast, fêted by his TV fans for the ground-breaking five seasons of Babylon 5 (1993-98), by comics fans for his audience tripling run on The Amazing Spider-Man (2002-06), and film fans for the Oscar-nominated Changeling (2008), starring Angelina Jolie and directed by Clint Eastwood.
He broke into the business writing shows like He-Man and Murder, She Wrote, though his latest TV show Sense8 is a collaboration with the Wachowskis (The Matrix). In 1992 asteroid 8379 Straczynski was named in his honour.
In the second of a two part interview, Creative Screenwriting spoke with Straczynski about social issues in a sci-fi setting, collaborating with the Wachowskis, and screenwriting formulae.
Like Babylon 5, your new series Sense8 addresses social questions within a sci-fi setting. Why do you write this kind of thing?
It’s what matters to me. In any TV show, will they save a bus full of children? Yes they will. Will they stop the bomb before it destroys Manhattan? Yes they will.
The questions that intrigue me are the larger questions of who are we as a people, where do we come from, where are we going? And Lana is the same way.
When we figured out that we wanted to do a TV show together, what would that show be about? We were both into the idea that politically and culturally, we’re divided as never before. We are being marginalised and factionalised and tribalised to within an inch of our lives. There was no show, no entity, no politician saying that we are better together than we are apart.
The common coin of our shared humanity trumps whatever they want to throw against us to divide us. We wanted to do a show about connectivity and crossing cultural barriers and how would you react if suddenly there was someone in your head from Nairobi or India, and how would you culturally deal with each other.
I have friends in different parts of the world and they will get online at the same time with Skype or texting, queue up a movie at the exact same moment, then comment on it as they watch. Even though they’re in different parts of the world they’re sharing the same simultaneous experience.
What if you could see that other person as if they were in the same room as you and that person could not only talk to you but you could have access to their memories, their thoughts, their skills? This would allow us to show that doesn’t matter where you come from, you’re more alike than you are different.
Those kinds of questions have always appealed to me. They’re not easy questions to answer. I like starting barfights wherever I possibly can.
Talk to most anthropologists they’ll say that the very root of civilization is empathy. First you have empathy with your family, then that expands out to empathy with your tribe, and the people in the next tribe are the bad guys. Then you make alliances with them and now the sixty six tribes in the mountain are the bad guys.
The further empathy increases to a national level and onward out from there, the more civilisation grows. Empathy is right now under attack and which is why civilisation is starting to fall back downward again. We wanted to do a show which is about that which is best in the human heart.
How did it work collaborating with the Wachowskis?
It was both collaborative and challenging as we have very different styles of writing. They would write episodes A, B and D, I would write D, E and F, we would swap, I’d rewrite them, they’d rewrite me.
The hardest part was the sitting down in their offices in Chicago and San Francisco to work out the rules, because Science Fiction must have rules. If you don’t have rules it’s no fun. Baseball without rules is a bunch of guys with wooden sticks hitting balls, running around a diamond.
We would rules lawyer each other for days on end. How does this work? If you’re outside of a cluster, how do you make contact? What do they have access to? What are they sharing? What is visiting? What is the difference between that?
But after we had constructed this entire story, and we’re very proud of ourselves, looking at all these big boards with cards on them and…. oh crap! Time zones! We forget to incorporate time zones.
So, if Nomi is in trouble in San Francisco and tries to get hold of Sun, in Korea, and she’s asleep…
We had to rejig everything to make the time zones work. It became a pain in the ass, but the collaborative process of the writing was very solid.
You said you’ve got very different writing styles. Can you explain?
I run a script through my head, like a movie, again and again, until I can see the entire thing, Fade in to Fade out. I could hold an entire screenplay in my head if I have to. Once it’s there, once it’s solid, once I’ve punched holes in it and it works, it doesn’t leak, then I run to the keyboard and write it as fast as I can, in a white heat.
Whereas the Wachowskis will write scene 42 before they write scene 12, if they have that more in their head. They work off of cards, constantly moving them around to see how things work.
That’s our different styles of writing. I think they learned stuff from me, and I learned stuff form them.
Is there something you are really proud of as a writer?
A few years ago I got a call from Stacey Snider, at that time Dreamworks CEO. She said that Steven Spielberg had been working on a project for the last 10 years, and that he’d gone through writer after writer after writer who couldn’t make it work. He wanted me to take shot because he thought I could pull it off.
I met with him and understood intuitively why it had been a problem. I spent months researching it until I heard the characters’ voices in my head, then wrote the script in two weeks. Soon after I got another call from Stacey Snider saying “Steven and I think you knocked it out of the park!”
Probably the highest moment of my career. That script is still the best thing I’ve ever written and Spielberg says he plans to direct it another film or two down the road. But if he can’t, for whatever reason, he says he’ll have Martin Scorsese direct it. So I’m happy with that!
What can a screenwriter learn from writing comics?
Usually it goes the other way round, writers of comics become TV writers and they never look back, but I went from TV to comics.
It was a really hard transition, because in a script for a comic you cannot write “He turns and opens the door and walks inside”. You can have him turn the knob, or open the door, or walk inside. I have to think of it like storyboards and go on from there.
There’s also a rhythm on the page that is like directing a movie. The number of panels on a page, where the panels interact with each other, going from a bunch of small panels to a big huge page, there’s a music to it that you really have to learn. It doesn’t apply to screenwriting.
My advice to any screenwriter writing for comics is to pretend you’ve never written a screenplay before and just embrace the nightmare of what that format is and look at it like you’re painting. Understand that you’re working with the visuals in a way that writing doesn’t tend to do.
Look at Alan Moore’s work. What’s happening in the foreground with the characters is always important, but what’s happening in the background visually comments on what’s happening in the foreground.
Comics is a visual art form. It’s not just dialogue. When you can make one interact with the other in ways people haven’t thought about, then the actual art of comic writing emerges.
Would you recommend working in two media?
I recommend working in three!
I’m a big believer in the three legged stool theory, which is that you should always have three sources of revenue financial and three areas of creativity to work with. Because the way the market is, one of those will eventually go away on you for a while, and when that happens you lean back on the other two legs of the stool until something else comes out. Writers who live on a one legged stool are in serious trouble because if that goes away, they’re screwed.
It’s telling that when I came to LA there were about 20 writers I knew who were considered the hot shits and worked all the time. But they worked in one specific area, and as times changed and the market changed, they didn’t. They defined themselves out of a job.
Since the beginning of my career I’ve constantly worked at going outside my comfort zone, experimenting with new things and taking chances. I went from animation to live action. I used to be a reporter before that. Went from television to feature films and somewhere in there I went to comics. Right now my revenue stream is comics, movies and TV. That will change soon to a different combination of the three.
One medium helps you creatively with the rest. If you learn to write a good screenplay, it gives you a structure you can apply to a novel. If you write a novel, it teaches you how to have long passages of dialogue which you can use in a short story or a TV script.
All writing is good writing, it all feeds into everything else both creatively and financially.
In his ’84 essay about comics writing Alan Moore talked about always doing whatever seemed hardest. Do you agree?
You got to challenge. You’ve got to take chances and work out of your comfort zone. There’s this fear of failure out there. If I try this and it doesn’t work out, what’s the worst they could do? They can’t kill you. They can’t eat you. they can’t put you in TV jail.
The military says that failure is an important part of the process. If you don’t fail, you’re not doing it right. Failure tells you where the wall is and gives you the motivation to try and get over it the next time.
Those twenty writers I knew when I first came here, there is not one who is still working as a writer. According to the Writers Guild, the average shelf life of a writer is ten years. By then the town has seen all your tricks, they know who you are, they’re bored and go on to the next shiny thing. By reinventing yourself, you can surprise them. Now they’re re-interested in who you are.
When I wrote Changeling, every studio head in town wanted to meet me. Most of them didn’t even know I’d worked in television – the Prince From a Distant Land scenario. TV producers and networks understand and work with TV writers all the time, so when a comic writer walks in the door or a movie writer, they’re suddenly excited. This is something new to them.
By working in three different areas, I walk into the comics world and I’m a Prince From a Distant Land for television and movies. I walk into the movie world and I’m a Prince From a Distant Land in comics and TV. So I keep their attention going.
I dangle a shiny object in from of them. Look, comics! Look, movies! And it keeps them involved. Keeps them interested.
I’m a big believer in every so often reinventing yourself and saying “What do I love?” What scares me, what should I take a chance on?
When I have friends who get fired I tell them that that’s great, that’s the best thing that could possibly happen. Because now they’re in a position to re-evaluate where they are and ask if they are doing what they wanted to do in the first place.
Is this their pasison or is it somewhere else? They can re-evaluate versus the person who works on a cubicle for thirty years and never has the opportunity to rethink where they are.
So I’m a big believer in learning, trying and taking chances.
Where do you stand on the debate between those who follow screenwriting formulae and those who don’t?
They’re both wrong. The three act structure comes to us from theatre and it came from theatre because you needed to have the act breaks to change the costumes and change the sets. You don’t have that problem with a movie.
To apply a three act structure to a film based on an archaic mode based on wardrobe changes is the height of foolishness. I don’t believe in the three act structure at all.
I think you write it as one big story and it starts moving on page 1 and it doesn’t stop or slow down until you hit page 120. All the things that happen on the way are interesting and cool, and eventually you tell a story.
On the other side of it, you cannot be completely unstructured. You have to understand the rules of structure well enough to break to them.
Structure exists for a reason. Sonnets have a structure. Haiku has a structure. Iambic pentameter has a structure. You have to learn those rules, not just to learn to play within the rules, but because you’re going to take those rules and apply them to other stuff.
Go back to what I said before about baseball without rules isn’t interesting. A screenplay without rules is uninteresting. It needs to have cool moments of character but at the end of the day, has the audience been told a story? Has the audience been moved emotionally? Has a character gone from A to B, or are they still at A?
I applaud those who have the energy to turn things upside down, and I understand those who need the crutches of the three act structure. But I think the truth is somewhere in between those two.
How do you know the tempo of a character’s movement through their story arc?
You have to rely on your gut.
This goes back to knowing your characters. Too often writers start pushing their characters around to achieve something and that’s when they get writers block, because the character is saying “You’re going too fast, you’re going too slow” and the writer doesn’t understand that there’s a resistance going on there.
We all contain within us the entire elements of the human race. We long for a better future, we want our kids to succeed, we want to be happy, get married, we all want love. We all want the same things, and if you invest those elements in your characters truthfully and honestly, plus your own flaws, failures, weaknesses, then they will inspire a life beyond you, that will sustain you through moments of doubt about the pacing or structure.
I’ve had characters say things that make me think “Where the hell did that come from?”, because I’m not that smart (laughs)! But the character was that smart. Then you have to lie down for a while (laughs)!
I’m a character writer. Once you know your characters, figuring out everything: pacing; arc; story beats; character changes; is made much easier by just saying to your characters, “I have no idea. You tell me!”
Any other projects you’d like us to know about?
I’m adapting my book Rising Stars into a movie for MGM, a second movie for Legendary, three series in development, writing two specs in my free time and working on my bio. I’m doing 12-16 hours a day at the keyboard and loving it.
Anything else you’d like to say?
“Never eat anything bigger than your head. Never shoot pool at a place called Pop’s. Never eat food at a place called Mom’s.” And “A fool and his money were lucky to get together in the first place.” Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) wrote that, and I’ve always adopted it as a way of life.
If you missed the first part of this interview: “The characters do the work for me“, don’t forget to check it out!