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My interview with Daniel Pyne posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

20 Apr

Bosch show runner Daniel Pyne discusses writing plot twists, research, and updating novels for the screen, and offers great advice for screenwriters.

Screenwriter, novelist, show runner, producer…In a career spanning over 30 years, Daniel Pyne has become known for his knack of creating works filled with suspense and twists.

He is also a busy man. He published his latest novel Catalina Eddy in March, he is the show runner for season three of Bosch which airs this weekend on Amazon, and his next film Backstabbing for Beginners will premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Despite this, Pyne remained self-effacing as he spoke with Creative Screenwriting about writing plot twists, research, and updating novels for the screen.

How did a graduate from Stanford with a degree in economics become a screenwriter and a novelist?

My father is a painter and a sculptor. He didn’t want me to go into a creative field, so economics sounded to him like a really practical degree, although it really wasn’t. It was almost like philosophy of mine. But what it did help me do is understand what I was getting into, and it’s helped me divorce the business of Hollywood from my art.

Name a couple of movies that inspired you.

I came of age in the ‘70s, so I was very influenced by The Godfather and The Conversation, by Apocalypse Now, M*A*S*H, and all the Robert Altman films. I also liked the French new wave stuff like Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Melville, and all those French directors from the ‘60s.

I was really interested in early French films by Jean Vigo – noir. What else inspired me? There were lot of films, foreign films – I mean (Federico) Fellini was huge. I love Fellini.
You studied screenwriting at UCLA?

I took one film course at Stanford. My father would watch old movies on TV. I think I got a love for movies from him, but it wasn’t until I got to UCLA that I was really exposed to the critical studies of film, and film as an art form.

Where did you learn your trademarks in screenwriting: shocking twists, reveals and betrayals?

I like turns in stories. That goes back to novels – the idea of an epiphany – of a reversal, some kind of reversal of fortune. But I was very influenced by thrillers – by Alfred Hitchcock and The Third Man, detective stuff by Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett (who wrote The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, Miller’s Crossing). And I did love the notion the loner in the dark streets, battling and trying to find their way, trying to find the good.
Which comes to your mind first, the twists or the story?

Usually the characters come first; some kind of situation with a character put into a dilemma comes first, and the twist comes last. The twist, I always hope, is a natural consequence to what’s happened before. It’s just how things play out.

How did you research your current screenplay, Backstabbers for Beginners?

It is based on a non-fiction book by a whistle-blower named Michael Soussan. It is about a corruption scandal at the UN that happened in about 2003 with the UN Oil-For-Food Program, a multi-billion dollar program to feed the Iraqi people, when they were hit by sanctions because of Saddam Hussein – weapons of mass destruction and all that.

Your 2004 adaptation The Manchurian Candidate is based on both Richard Condon’s original novel, and George Axelrod’s script for the classic 1962 film. How did you approach this project?

I did do an extensive amount of research as I was writing it around 2002–2003, and the events in the world were overtaking us.

I had to keep changing the script because things that we would make up would actually happen. They were already old news: things about the corporations and the military/industrial complex, corruption, and a lot of the backdrop of the 2000 election.

You wrote 25 episodes for The Marshall in 1995. How was the experience of writing for a television series?

My first jobs were Matt Houston and Miami Vice, so I had been well-trained as a show runner. The writer is king in television. So you really do get to have a lot of power, and have a lot of influence over what gets made.

Staying with television, you became the show runner this year for Bosch, based upon the best-selling novels about Harry Bosch by Michael Connelly. Where does Connelly’s storytelling begin and yours end?

He is an executive producer, so he’s on staff. The Bosch show universe is like a parallel universe to the books, because we’re using some of the plots of the books to tell the series each season, but in a different order from the order that he wrote them in, and 20 years later.

So a lot of times, the science of police work and technology has changed, and changed the way the crimes play themselves out and get solved.

Bosch is also a little bit different. In the books he’s a Vietnam veteran and in our telling he’s a Gulf War veteran, and the order of events with his family and his personal life change.

It’s a lot like doing an adaptation. I feel like a part of our responsibility is finding Michael Connelly’s voice in the novel, and making the direct translation of that.

It’s like adapting Sum of All Fears (a screenplay that Pyne and Paul Attanasio wrote as an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s novel) or Manchurian Candidate. You have the luxury of having original material to build your structure on, but at the same time you have to figure out how to do it cinematically and dramatically as opposed to in prose.
What is the best advice you have given your students at UCLA and at Sundance?

The best advice I can give is: you write a script, you send it out, you see if it hits the market place. And if it doesn’t, you write another one. Don’t either give up because one didn’t, or keep slogging that single script thinking that somehow that’s your ticket.

It’s a career; it’s not a single thing.

I have gotten the same advice from novelists. A lot of novelists have written novels that they didn’t get published, and they just wrote another one. You learn from it; you get better. You never know what’s going to hit the marketplace; that’s the part you can’t control.

You have also worked as a film producer, director, novelist, journalist, advertising copywriter, cartoonist, sculptor and silk screener! How have these experiences contributed to your storytelling?

Copywriting taught me economy, because with advertising I wasn’t so good at the selling part. It taught me to do economical writing, and commit to writing things with very few words.

You have been quoted as saying “the narrative becomes more important than the truth.” This concept seems to define your novels?

I like to write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, rather than the other way around. I like to write about people who have normal abilities and have to rise to the occasion.

I like those kinds of stories, and I am also fascinated by memory. Fifty Mice deals a lot about memory: how we remember what we remember, what we remember, whether what we remember is true or not, and how we delude ourselves.

Then we have the whole idea of fake news and alternative facts, but I haven’t quite gotten into that yet.

All of your work seems to possess similar touchstones about memory.

We can’t ever remember anything exactly the way it happened, as the mere act of remembering changes it. It is already changed when you’ve experienced it, because you’re looking back on it with a certain emotional framework.

That is really fascinating to me, especially in storytelling and cinematic terms. Because the way that we tend to write memory in films and in novels is as flashbacks, and as very accurate flashbacks.

I’m more interested in a jumble. Our memories jump around. They’re not accurate flashbacks; they tend to be almost like dreams. That’s how we remember ourselves; it’s the whole concept of our identity.

Do you have any tips for writers?

The only rule is don’t be boring. You need to engage and pull the person through. I’ve tried to apply that to everything – to prose too. You want to pull your audience or pull your reader through the story, as opposed to pushing them. You want them to be anticipating where you might go.

The books that we love are the ones where we think we know where they’re going, and we can’t wait until they get there, and when they get there they surprise us.

Also please see my article about Daniel Pyne on Creative Screenwriting magazine’s website at:

https://creativescreenwriting.com/daniel-pyne/

 

My interview with Hurd and Chaidez about ‘Hunters’ posts to CS magazine

6 Apr

Avoid the Formulaic: Gale Anne Hurd and Natalie Chaidez on Hunte“They are many. And they are angry,” reads the tag line for the new television series, Hunters, which premieres April 11 at 9 p.m. CST on the Syfy Channel. The hybrid gritty crime drama and sci-fi thriller based on best-selling books by Whitley Strieber, puts a new spin on aliens as monsters that look just like us.

Gale Anne Hurds 35-year career as producer reads like a ‘best of science fiction’ list, including The Terminator, Aliens, Tremors, and The Walking Dead. Natalie Chaidez has worked as producer and writer on some of the best recent TV shows, such as The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Heroes and Necessary Roughness.

Gale Anne Hurd and Natalie Chaidez, together with actress Britne Oldford, talked with Creative Screenwriting about the ambiguous nature of character and why screenwriters should never attempt to figure out a screenplay’s plot before writing it.

How closely did you adapt Strieber’s book Alien Hunter: Underworld, for this show?
Natalie Chaidez: Strieber’s book is really a jumping off point. Gale is a long time fan of Whitley and that is how Gale found the project. We then met each other through our agents at UTA. Then the project really took its own path. So we really did deviate from it, although I’ve worked really closely with Whitley.

Whitley came to the set in Melbourne and performed a cameo, you’ll have to look for that in season one.

His new book (The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, written together with Jeffrey J. Kripal, and J. Newton Rayzor, professor of religion at Rice University), came out recently.

Gale Anne Hurd: There’s also another one (of Strieber’s books) that has been renamed Hunters. It has Julian (McMahon) on the cover.

The show’s antagonists don’t value human life. Did you base the criminals’ MO on ISIS in any way?

Natalie: I landed on Hunters not wanting to do what other shows have done about aliens. I really wanted to create a different mythology. So, I created a group that is behind the eight ball that doesn’t have a lot of resources, that’s desperate, that’s alone, and that’s hungry. That sort of led me into the allegory that hunters are terrorists.

Are there ISIS references? I mean they’re operating as terrorists and that’s who are in our collective mind right now. I think someone looking hard enough will see some references to that, but it’s not based on ISIS in any way.

Gale: This whole process started three years ago, or three and a half years ago. The idea of not being able to look at someone and know if they’re a terrorist just as you can’t look at a hunter and know they’re a hunter. What does that mean, how do you pursue them, and what happens when you do capture them?

Those are some of the issues of the day that we’re dealing with, and people are divided about that, and that’s where great drama arrives because you can have characters representing all sides here. And because it’s dealing with aliens, it’s not pressing those same buttons.
Did you incorporate Homeland Security thinking with the idea that “everybody’s hiding something?”

Natalie: Yes. As Gale says, The Walking Dead are the monsters that are chasing you and Hunters are the monsters inside of you or sitting next to you.’ There is that idea of how close people are, the bad people and the idea that the terrorists are hunting us. That’s something that we’re all scared of.
Gale: I’ll tell one short anecdote. One of the younger actresses in Hunters, Shannon Berry, was reading a book I had sent her, Brothers in Arms: The Story of al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists (written by Camille Tawil in 2011.) It’s about a reporter who poses as a young girl to communicate with real jihadists.

Someone pulled her out of school and wrote a police report. They said ‘we’re worried that you’re going to join a jihadist cult.’ They called her family, but they wouldn’t tell them what it was about.

Natalie: She said ‘it’s research; I swear it’s research.’ That just shows you how real our fears are. My fear is that a school administrator could see a monster in a young girl reading that book.

Gale: And not even know that the book was exposes ISIS as a terrible thing and what their tactics are. Assuming instead that it was a manual about how to become a terrorist.

Natalie: But it speaks to this question as to how high our fear and anxiety is and how our society determines who is a monster.
In Strieber’s book, Flynn has been forbidden to take lethal action against the alien murderers when protecting Earthling civilians. Tell me about this interesting dichotomy and how it plays out in your TV series.

Natalie: Flynn is looking for his wife, Abby. He doesn’t know what she has to do with the Hunters, why she has apparently joined them. How far Flynn will go and what he will do to protect his wife is definitely addressed and what lines he will cross. He will definitely have some challenges.

As The Walking Dead characters spend more time living under duress fighting unknown forces, they become aggressors. How will you handle this same psychological aspect in the series Hunters?

Natalie: Flynn is a vet so he struggles with PTSD. He doesn’t know if what he is experiencing is a product of his symptoms or if it’s real life. The great mystery to me about Flynn chasing Abby is, you never really know the person you love. That’s kind of the fear that we have. Who is inside of you?

The idea that someone or something might be inside of the person that you love is a mystery that needs chasing. He asks ‘Who is this person that I love?’ He finds an answer by the end of the first season.
Like the TV shows Heroes and The Walking Dead, the main theme for the Hunters series at times feels personal. How personal is it and how do you weave that into the storyline without being preachy?

Gale: In Walking Dead, you can identify the monsters. The zombies you can tell; obviously part of the issue there is what happens if the zombie is someone you love or a family member.

But in this case you can’t tell by looking at someone what they are. Like with anyone, whether they are hunter or human, you don’t know what their motives are. So you’re always off kilter in Hunters even more so than in The Walking Dead where the villains make themselves apparent very quickly. That is not the case here.

You have a personal attachment to saving the planet and saving humanity that is very evident in The Walking Dead and also in Heroes.

Gale: What I find most interesting is taking ordinary people, thrusting them into extraordinary circumstances and seeing how they cope, how they succeed, how they fail. And always like in so much of the things that I’ve done, the stakes in this case for failure are global.

Natalie: We are living in a time of epic changes. Whether it’s ISIS or global warming, somebody needs to save the world. Hunters really asks: ‘at what cost?’ and ‘at what cost to ourselves? How far will we go to save the world?’

So it’s a little grayer world than Heroes, literally grayer. We ask an additional question about character: how do you maintain your morality and save your soul while you’re trying to save the world?
Britne, how would you characterize the moral compass of the character you play, Allison Regan?

Britne Oldford: I think it can be completely debatable whether Regan — off the jump — is good or bad. That’s strictly based off of her motives, based off of certain things she may do or why she is working against her own kind.

But also, that question can be posed to any human being. Are you good or are you bad? What makes you good? What makes you bad? Because good people can do bad things. So it’s a difficult question definitely and you’ll see that develop for every single character throughout this first season of Hunters.
Your shows do a really good job at not coming across as preachy.

Gale: Look, there are only complicated questions and no easy answers. That’s what I think any great fiction should be. Which is ‘let’s ask questions. Let’s see how our characters deal with them.’ We’re never going to say that we have the answer and we’re never going to say especially that we have the right answer.

What is one bit of advice you would give a screenwriter?

Gale: My big thing really is the writing that I don’t respond to is clearly where writers have figured out the plot first and they’ve tried to shoehorn characters in to get to a certain point in the plot. You have to know your characters inside out and once you do, they will guide you. They will almost make the choices for you. It’s a mistake that a lot of people who take these screenwriting courses make, who basically say there is a formula for writing and it’s all plot–come up with a plot, and it’s dead wrong.

Natalie: I also don’t do any formulaic writing. My best advice would be to write a lot, and write something good and if it isn’t good, go back to step one and repeat. Basically, that’s all there is to it.

Please see my article posted on Creative Screenwriting magazine by following this link: http://creativescreenwriting.com/avoid-the-formulaic-gale-anne-hurd-and-natalie-chaidez-on-hunters/

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