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Questions and Answers…

I’ve been winging back and forth between Los Angeles and the UK, working on Da Vinci’s Demons and a few other simmering projects.  We’re about halfway through filming Season 1 and it’s been going well.  Our first trailer is in the works and we hope to be making some Con appearances soon.  In the meantime, some questions have been filtering into the site and I thought I’d take a stab at answering some.  (I’ll try to get to these from time to time.)

Zachary Reger writes…As an incoming Senior in High School, do you have any advice on how to prepare myself for a career in writing/film making?

Jordan Gustafson had a similar question….

DSG:  Well, guys, there’s no one tried and true path into film.  There are a number of good film schools — USC, UCLA, NYU, Columbia, Pasadena’s Art Center (Zack Snyder went there, among others).  But film school isn’t a requirement. There are tons of good books about writing and film.  Screenwriting programs like Final Draft.  And a host of screenplays available for download on the web.  Digital film-making is relatively cheap. In the end, there’s no substitute for doing the work.  Just know that the top of the pyramid is tiny.  Depressingly, only a small percentage of WGA members actually make a good living as screen or television writers.  And that number is dwindling.  So if you want to pursue this career, make sure you’ve got the fortitude for it!

Christian Wick writes… Should I try to adapt screenplays and stories or do I really need to create something original first?

DSG:  As a beginner, I would counsel you to write original material.  If you do want to adapt an existing work, make sure that it’s public domain.  If someone else owns the work — whether it be a book, an article, a comic book, or someone’s life-story — then you are potentially exposing yourself to a lot of heartbreak.  Unless you have the rights to adapt a pre-existing work, you legally have no right to do it.  So even if someone likes your script and wants to buy it — you don’t have the rights to sell it.  Sometimes, people write an adaptation and then contact the rights holder — and occasionally — the rights holder likes what he or she sees and agrees to an arrangement.  But that is a rarity.  Sometimes, a rights holder will option you their property for a very small fee — but that is unusual.  It’s a pain, but if you are going to attempt this, you need to contact a lawyer!

Corey Mayne writes — I was wondering what a good it does to win awards? Because to me, they’re kind of meaningless. Is there a recommended forum that I could join where I can post samples and get my stuff out there?

DSG:  Awards can help get you noticed.  Sometimes, they can even help get you an agent.  Sure, monetary compensation can be more meaningful — especially if you are trying to quit your day-job.  But if you can’t quit, then submitting your work to various contests and festivals is a good initial route.  Grzegorz Jonkajtys, director of 2007’s animated short ARK eventually got a feature-directing job on the strength of his award-winning short.  It does happen.

Someone else had some questions about my comic adaptations and the upcoming Man of Steel.  Can’t talk much about that, but…

1)Do you have to read the comics?

DSG:  Well, yeah.  You do.  I read hundreds and hundreds of Batman and Superman comics before diving in — and I was already pretty familiar with the material.

2)How many drafts does such a project take?

DSG:  Lots.  I’d estimate 3 or 4 pretty comprehensive drafts and maybe another 10 polish revisions.  This was over the course of 2 or 3 years for each film.

3)Did you watch the television show Smallville?

DSG:  With the exception of David Nutter’s pilot and the episodes written by Geoff Johns, I’ve never watched Smallville. 

4)Do you stay up to date with the production or did your role end once you turned in a script?

DSG:  Depends on the project. In the case of Man of Steel, I am still involved.  I was on the set quite a bit, doing rewrites and various things.

5)Did any other writer help you on the script? Or is this entirely your script?

DSG:  The script is entirely mine.  Chris Nolan and I collaborated on the story.

Pedro(Peter) from Spain writes:  Two big questions about batman: I think that ras al guhl not die in batman begins and you and nolan decied first keep with live but you change of opinion in the last movie TDKR that is true beacuse the public not know his existence for the recepcion of first movie (that in my opinion is too important and the best part of trilogy when bruce become batman)?

DSG: What do you think?  Did Ra’s survive or not?  I think the point is that it was fairly ambiguous.  Personally, I prefer to leave that up to the viewer.

Claire in Wales writes…A great fan of your work, especially the darker elements, I am thrilled you are here and pleased you’ve set up this website and blog. I get to hear snipits of progress regarding Da Vinci’s Demons from my husband…

DSG:  Thanks, Claire, but I’m stopping you there because I want to respect your husband’s privacy.  Wales has been fantastic and welcoming (albeit very, very wet — the crew and I got absolutely drenched on Friday outside Margam castle).  I’ve grow accustomed to storing rain gear in my car.  I wear Hunters and Chameaus (rain boots) most of the days.  Every week or so, we give out a Lucky Cat to a deserving cast or crew member (basically our version of an MVP).  Hoping the series continues because I love our crew and want to keep going!

That’s it for tonight.  Back to the salt mines…

Books I Fucking Love

The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance.  A series of interconnected stories set in Earth’s far future.  Although the stories are nominally science-fiction, they read like fantasy.  The events are set so far into the future, than the inhabitants of the world perceive science as magic.  Vance wrote these while at sea, serving as a merchant marine.  He developed a singular voice that is uniquely his own.   In subsequent years, Vance returned to the Dying Earth for a series of other adventures, some involving a memorable rogue called Cugel the Clever.  The adventures are beautiful, funny, and off-handedly horrifying.  Vance is a true “writer’s writer”.  Although he never reached the kind of acclaim that Asimov or Heinlein did, he ranks as one of my favorite writers of all time.  See the links section for a group of people so dedicated to Vance that the self-published a 44-volume set of his “integral” work.

The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe.  This is my favorite science-fiction novel.  But to simply call it sci-fi kind of denigrates it.  I would go so far as to say this is one of the best pieces of modern fiction written in ANY genre.  It was influenced by Vance’s Dying Earth books, clearly — as the action takes place on Urth, in the far, far future, when our sun is all but depleted.  Like the Dying Earth, the age of technology has collapsed and humanity now exists in an almost medieval state.  But there are remnants of the old technology, which the locals perceive as magic.

Having said that, the book is far more than a Dying Earth homage.  It is an epic novel that, at first, seems very picaresque — but turns out to be a densely plotted work of genius.  At first glance, it’s a classic bildungsroman.  The protagonist is a young man named Severian, who is an apprentice in the Torturer’s Guild.  He commits the worse sin imaginable — taking mercy on one of the Citadel’s charges and is forced into exile.  From that point, Severian explores the bizarre reaches of Urth, a haunting, mirror-like vision of our own world.  Eventually, Severian finds himself elevated to Urth’s ruler and Christ-like savior, but…

…even this summary hardly does the book justice.  I have read this book four or five times now, and every reading uncovers more treasures and deeper meanings.  There are paradoxes within paradoxes and many riddles embedded in the text.  For starters, I realized that Severian’s childhood home — known as the city of Nessus, is actually Buenos Aires.  Upon closer reading, you realize that countless other mind-fucks abound in the story.  Just consider the real identities of Dorcas and Father Inire.  (Once you read the book, your jaw will drop open.)

The New Sun has spawned a variety of scholarly texts concerning its deeper meanings — like Andre-Druissi’s Lexicon Urthus and Borski’s Solar Labyrinth.  It wasn’t until I read both of those analyses, then went back and re-read The Book of the New Sun, that I fully began to grasp what an incredible accomplishment Wolfe managed to pull off.  Wolfe has written many other novels — most of them wonderful.  But none have ever come close to this masterpiece.  If I were condemned to life in prison and could only take one book, it would be this one.   If you want to further whet your appetite, just Wikipedia the book and prepare to go down a rabbit hole.

FUP, by Jim Dodge.  My wife found this book in a second-hand store, fell in love with it, and gave it to me when we first started dating.  It is long out of print and a treasure.  A slim, delicate volume, almost magical-realism, about an old man who is befriended by a duck.  Sounds stupid, I know.  But so fucking beautiful that it made me cry.  If you can track down a copy, you will be rewarded.

The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley.  The best Western/hardboiled book ever written.  Montana-noir.  Epic tough-guy prose.  Dark as fuck.  C.W. Sughrue is my favorite, alcoholic P.I. character, bar none.  What Chinatown did for screen-noir, this does for the novelistic medium.  Many people say this is the best detective novel ever written.  I think I agree with them.  Love his words:  “drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson.  Bryson has a very accessible, style that I envy.  His books are hugely entertaining and very readable.  It took an enormous amount of confidence to attempt subject matter so vast — but that’s just what Bryson has done with this book.  Very successfully.  I learned more amazing facts about the world and its history in this book than, well, practically all of my high-school education.  Aside from making history engaging — he also manages to make it funny.  The book is full of amusing little anecdotes.  My particular favorites involve Isaac Newton, who sounds like a flat-out weirdo.  Bryson covers things like the Big Bang, gravity, particle physics, how life developed on Earth.  At first glance, you might think your eyes would glaze over.  But I’ve given out more copies of this book over the last few years than any other.  It is an utter delight.  To quote Bryson himself on the subject of scientific texts:

“It was as if [the textbook writer] wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable.”
—Bryson, on the state of science books used within his school.

For the Time Being, by Annie Dillard.  A small, narrative nonfiction meditation on seemingly disparate subjects like China, how sand is created and dispersed, the nature of clouds, Israel, the nature of evil… and other subjects.  Dillard poetically weaves together all of these elements into a single, and incredibly profound treatise about life, death, and our fleeting moments here on Earth.

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges.  Borges was an Argentine short-story writer who worked primarily in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.  By and large, his stories are quite short, but very dense.  They have an otherworldly, dreamlike — almost narcotic quality.  Very existentialist.  Chris Nolan and I bonded early on via our shared admiration for Borges and there are definite influences in Inception as well as my upcoming show, Da Vinci’s DemonsFicciones is probably his most well-known and comprehensive collection, but there are many and all of them contain gems.  Some of his most famous and influential stories include:  The Garden of Forking Paths, The Library of Babel, and Death and the Compass.  Among his other stories, I also love The Immortal, The Zahir, The Mirror and The Mask, The Disc, and The Book of Sand.  His stories are filled with paradoxes and have a recursive aspect to them.  When you read them, you feel like you are falling down a rabbit hole, into an Escher-like world.  He went blind at a fairly young age — a kind of tragedy which, oddly enough, seemed to fit him.  As he once commented, God ironically granted him “books and blindness at one touch.”

A Good Man Is Hard To Find, by Flannery O’ Connor.  The title of my favorite short-story and also a collection of O’Connor’s best work.  O’Connor was one of the best Southern Gothic writers.  The titular short-story starts out very funny, but slowly veers into sheer horror.  Pretty well-known.  But if you’ve never read it — you will be fucking floored by the end.  Another gem in the collection is The Life You Save May Be Your Own.  O’Connor wrote about race, poverty, violence — and rural life.  Her characters burst from the pages and she has spawned scores of imitators.  O’Connor uses a lot of foreshadowing — you always have the sense that something ominous is about to happen on the next page — and it usually does.

The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy.  As indicated above, I’m a sucker for Southern fiction.  This is another existentialist work, but extremely poetic and very touching.  If you’ve ever felt misunderstood or dislocated, this book is for you.  I tend towards darker fiction — but the ending of this novel always makes me smile and want to celebrate life.  It’s also deeply romantic.  Percy’s father committed suicide, so he had his own, existential issues to grapple with.  One assumes this novel was an attempt to reconcile his feelings about that event.  Some people liken it to an American version of Camus’ The Stranger — but I find it much more readable and humanistic than that other “classic”.  It’s impossible not to read this book and reflect more deeply on your own experiences.

Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini.  How the fuck do I describe this book?  Some people call it the world’s weirdest book.  It seems like one of the books you would read about in a Borges story — except that it actually exists.  I was first introduced to this book by Alex Proyas, back when we were writing Dark City together.  At the time, there were very few editions of it in existence and it took me a good 3 or 4 years to hunt one down through a specialty bookseller.  Since then, I found a few more copies.  I gave one to Guillermo del Toro and another to my friend and Walking Dead scribe, Scott Gimple.  The Codex is basically a densely illustrated encyclopedia for a world that doesn’t exist, featuring beautiful, colored-pencil drawings of bizarre plants, animals, and people practicing strange customs.  Oh, and it comes complete with various text entries that are written in a language that also doesn’t exist – one that Serafini completely made up and has defied linguistic analysis.  It’s definitely surreal.  Clearly, it was modeled after a legendary book known as the Voynich Manuscript.  Recently, Rizzoli issued a new edition — and while still quite expensive, at least this edition is somewhat more affordable.  If you are a bibliophile like me, this book is a must.

Pop Culture Mashup

Weird, pop culture mash-up last night.  Sitting on the ‘Demons’ set with Tom Riley between takes.  Discussing DKR, the annoying ubiquity of Gotye’s song, and watching the Batman, Bane, 60s Robin send-up on YouTube.  Then, later on, checking the live Twitter feeds from Zack and Henry’s Man of Steel panel at Comicon — wishing I was there, while being ankle deep in Welsh mud.  Well done, Zack.  So happy some of Steel is finally trickling out into the blogosphere.