Harrison Glaser, AFF Conference Department Intern, takes time out from Festival planning pandemonium to interview 2012 AFF panelist, Ashley Miller (writer THOR, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, AGENT CODY BANKS, Fringe, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Andromeda)
Harrison: You’ve been writing a lot of sequels and adaptations of works that are already beloved by many people. What sort of pressure do you feel from these types of projects and what steps do you take to ensure you’re being faithful to the source material and its fans?
Ashley: There’s always pressure to do your best work and tell the best story you know how to tell. Certainly, there are more eyes on you when you’re interpreting a story that’s already been told, and is already beloved. But you can make yourself crazy if you try to serve every individual detail of those stories that someone out there might love. You have to serve the essence and experience of the original work, and develop an eye for the things that make it what it is.
Step one for me is that I have to love the original material, myself. When we started Thor for example, the conversation with Marvel began with the fact that I’ve loved Thor since I was a kid. I have the complete Walt Simonson run of the book in my collection – I had a subscription. The damn things came in the mail. My parents would send them to me when I was at summer camp because I couldn’t bear to miss an issue. So the first fan I set out to please is me. It was much the same thing with X-Men. No one had to tell me who these characters were. It was very easy for me and Zack to imagine them in those circumstances and let them do their thing. X-Men was a little different in that we were also trying to be faithful to a previous interpretation – and on top of that, explore the emotional roots of that interpretation. If it were about “that time Professor X still had hair”, First Class would have been a failure.
We see Starship Troopers through a completely different lens. Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier have interpreted it once already. Zack and I both love that film for what it is. We’ll cheerfully defend it to its detractors, while recognizing the very significant differences between that film and the book that inspired it. Our hope is to translate the novel in a way that matches the tone, intent and many of the details that Heinlein brought to it. We want to capture that experience in a new way rather than remaking an existing film.
Fundamentally, we approach every adaptation with the same pitch: “Hey, you know that book you bought the rights to because it’s awesome and people love it and there’s a movie in there? Let’s do that.”
Harrison: Can you talk about how you write with a partner? How do you divvy up the script, so to speak? What’s your writing process? What happens if you have a disagreement?
Ashley: Zack and I have been working together now for fifteen years. We met on the Internet, during an ugly little flame war. For the first 3 years of our partnership we never met – we never even saw photos. It was all telephone and email because we were 2500 miles apart. This turned out to be great because it forced us to be organized and disciplined. We had enormous email trails that laid out what we wanted to do with stories and helped identify what worked and what didn’t. The process we developed was pretty simple: first, outline. Plan like the invasion of Normandy. Then we split the story by acts and write individually, before bringing it all together and beginning a series of rewrites and polishes that continue until we’re both happy.
We developed two rules that have served us well in the partnership and to some extent in collaborating with other writers, directors and executives. First, don’t be precious. The story is boss, and every choice serves it. We don’t write to save darlings. Second – and this one is not for the weak of heart – the first writer proposes, the second writer disposes. What that means is that whoever has the draft for a round of polishing is assumed to know what hell he’s doing. If Zack changes something and I think it’s a mistake I get to make the case for why he should reconsider, but I’m not allowed to just flop it back. Zack gets the last say in that case, and vice-versa. What’s great about the rule is that it forces us to examine our darlings and really articulate how they serve the script…or how they don’t, and why they have to go.
We never, ever write in the same room. Some partners stand over each other’s shoulders and pitch dialogue, etc. Not us. There would be blood. We can’t function that way. On the plus side, one of the reasons we came together was that we recognized a similarity of voice and that we had compatible sensibilities. Almost no one can tell our raw pages apart or correctly assign who did what. Over time, we tend to forget that too.
Harrison: There seems to be a fine line between ridiculous, inaccessible fantasy and fantasy that’s really effective and believable. What do you think is the difference between good fantasy and bad?
Ashley: Good fantasy is emotionally real, and exists in a world that has rules. You can imagine the version of it that exists without the fantastic elements, or what would happen if those elements went away. This is true even if you’re exploring the consequences of that fantastical element, because the consequences that truly matter are emotional. They’re about character. Wordsworth once defined poetry as powerful emotions recollected in tranquility — he could just as easily have been talking about the visceral experience of film. Fantasy or science fiction that hews to this will succeed as well as anything else.
Bad fantasy is often about itself. There is an expectation that the audience will see whatever you’re showing them and think how cool it is. It isn’t cool, because there is no context. The audience doesn’t know what it means – usually because it doesn’t mean anything at all. Or there is no attempt to impose dramatic discipline on the story. What I mean by that is there are no rules governing the action of the characters or the story elements. Rules are the most powerful tool a writer can have. Rules establish limits. The imposition of limits and subsequently overcoming them is the essence of drama. If anything can happen in a story, then nothing happens at all.
The other benefit of a rule is that it helps you flesh out a world and create details and grace notes that communicate to the audience that you are telling the truth. The Lord of The Rings is the best example of this. Tolkien created an incredibly detailed world with rules, and thought through the consequences of those rules. That makes the world immersive. It gave Peter Jackson the opportunity to come in and populate it with more richly realized versions of the characters for the screen, real people who could connect emotionally with the audience.
Harrison: How do you go about creating a world for your characters and story to inhabit? Do you develop the world before you start writing or does it come to you through the process?
Ashley: Zack and I generally work from the outside in, and then back out. What I mean by that is we imagine a world first. We talk at length about how that world works, and why it works, and the interesting things that fall out of it. We hypo test the shit out of it. Then we start imagining who lives in that world — not just individuals, but institutions and cultures. Our protagonist and antagonist generally emerge at this point, although we usually have a rough idea who they are from inception. We just try not to be married to our first idea. Sometimes we start with an idea for a character and then ask ourselves how their world had to work to get them where we found them. Specifics vary, but we’re always thinking about why things happen and why people do things.
When we start to write, little details will emerge in scenes we otherwise might not have thought about. That goes for the world as well as the characters. The most amazing thing that happens in this process is when we’re working on separate sections and unconsciously one of us will set something up that the other pays off…without knowing the other piece exists yet. That’s how we know we’ve done our homework and really prepared adequately to write.
Harrison: Your films often feature comedic scenes or lines that break up the tension. What’s your process of inserting these into the stories? How do you find the balance where the comedic elements help smooth out the story but don’t overpower it?
Ashley: We never, ever set out to write a comic set piece. When comedy occurs, it’s because it emerges naturally from the drama. The character tells the joke or does the funny thing because that’s who the character is. We’re allergic to winking at the audience, or letting comedy undercut emotion. It works best when it’s most human. Judd Apatow says to write comedy, you have to write drama first, then go back and find more of the funny stuff. We follow pretty much the same rule — there is no moment where we say, “insert hilarity here.” It’s there because it wants to be there.