J. Michael Straczynski | The Backlot | New York Film Academy

Eric: Hi! I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you writer J. Michael Straczynski.

J. Michael Straczynski: I write 10-12 hours a day every day except New Year’s Day, my birthday, and Christmas Day.

Eric: He’s such a prolific talent. His work spans pretty much every form of media there is: film, TV, comic books, novels. He’s even branching into web series. Mr. Straczynski created the beloved syfy show Babylon 5 as well as Sense8 for Netflix and the comic books. He reinvented Spider-Man Thor and Superman amongst many many others and on the big screen, he wrote Clint Eastwood’s the Changeling and he helped adapt World War Z.

— I am Thor Odinson.

The Old ways are done You’d stand giving speeches while Asgard falls.

What worries me is that you have stopped looking for my son.

Why would we be looking for someone we’ve already found?

You are an old man and a fool.

Humans and aliens wrapped in two million five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal all alone in the night.

You’re a liar and a troublemaker and if you ask me you’ve got no business walking the streets of Los Angeles.

This drink I like it. – I know it’s great right? – Another! —

Eric: He’s done all this despite admitting to almost sabotaging his own career multiple times.

Tova Laiter: How did you start in the business?

J. Michael Straczynski: I’ve actually started numerous times that I have a tendency to firebomb my own career on a regular basis. I think it’s important to do that from time to time. I started off as a – writing plays that were produced locally when I was 17 years old. I always knew I was going to be a writer and began preparing from the moment I could actually read a book like age four or five. So my first four years were wasted but after that I began preparing to become a writer. I knew just coming into it. And the thing about it is I come from ridiculously poor roots no connections to the business at all. We moved my first 17 years 21 times. Because my father had a unique economic philosophy blow into town run up a lot of bills and split. So we’d be in a different city. You know guys would show up at the door with badges and bills and that night the U-Haul backs up and we go somewhere else New Jersey to Illinois to Texas to California. And guys who were in my neighborhood the guys who I grew up with were never expected to do anything and we were considered dead-enders. Either you’d end up working in a mechanics shop when you got older or you end up in jail. Those are your options. So when I said I want to be a writer they all kind of laughed you know, as would I have done. But after studying and studying and studying when I was 17 the engine turned over in my head. What had happened was I was I had gotten most of what writing involved but voice and style the difference between voice and style was eluding me and I couldn’t figure out what the distinction was. I was reading a book by H.P. Lovecraft whose style is way over the top and it was so big that I understood something of what that was. I realized that voice is who you are and style is the clothes you wear so you could adopt a different style but your voice within that style’s always the same. And when I realized how that worked the engine of my head turned over and suddenly I that day I wrote two short stories couple of poems The next day I wrote two more short stories and began having them sold locally as little articles for magazines and newspapers and began working in plays and getting those produced and was a reporter about 10 years I actually did pretty well at that and ended up going from L.A. Times to L.A. reader to time Incorporated which is what got me out of journalism it’s a whole different story a different time. But I left that firebombed my career in reporting went into television animation where I worked on shows like pardon the expression he man the masters of the universe. She-ra Real Ghostbusters and others and then. And then firebombed my career in animation went from there to live action and was on that up through Jeremiah for Showtime which was a hideous experience then I firebombed my career in television. I went from there to films and did that now I circled back to television again so I failed upward is the answer to the question. Embrace your inner failure.

Eric: The seeds for Mr. Straczinski’s comic book work started years back as an unhappy child who found solace and connection in the pages of Superman. And as he explains he might have even received some of Superman’s bravery.

J. Michael Straczynski: I grew up being the geek of the schools that I went to. But for me in all the comics I read as a kid. Superman was kind of it for me because coming from a background of poor and no opportunities and the horrific family Superman could do anything he could fly and he could you know. And nothing could hurt him. And I learned my ethics from comic books and Superman in particular. So for me it became not just a fun thing to read it became a survival mechanism. A few years ago I was at a comic book convention in Chicago and you ever been to comic cons like the big ones like San Diego or whatever else the dealer’s rooms are like you know from here to New Jersey. They just really really long. And the guys selling at booths art work and tchotchkes and expensive stuff and cheap stuff and just general garden variety crap and I’m in this row of booths in Chicago dealers room the convention. I hear someone yell stop him and I looked down the row. And then there’s a guy like in his 20s who just grabbed a bunch of expensive artwork like tens of thousands of dollars worth of art. And was making a run for it and the crowd like the Red Sea they parted you know and I brought him down tackled him like a gazelle brought him down. The guy who caught up with me who’s booth it was we held him for the cops to show up and afterward they’re taking him away and the guy who runs the convention Mike walks up and says. Why did you do that. You could have been seriously hurt. I took him back to where I’d been standing under a ten foot tall cutout of Superman. I said How could I stand in front of that and do nothing. And Spider-Man would be even better given the mythology of that but it was Superman.

Eric: Mr. Straczynski doesn’t shy away from potentially alienating hardcore comic fans for the sake of an original emotion based tale. He boldly gave Thor a makeover by bringing the Norse god and his entire kingdom of Asgard to the fantastical world of Oklahoma now if this sounds familiar it’s because he also helped write the first Thor movie.

J. Michael Straczynski: I had been writing for Marvel Comics for a while and wanted to bring back Thor who had been gone for a few years and nobody wanted to get near the character. They offered it to Neil Gaiman he ran like hell they offered it to Mark Mallar. He ran like hell and I wanted it. I want to give it I want it and so alright give it to Joe. And the problem was that no one knew what to do with the character because he doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else. He comes from this tradition a very faux Shakespearean dialogue.

— You have no idea what you are dealing with.

Shakespeare in the park doth mother know you weareth her drapes? —

J. Michael Straczynski: And what do you do with Asgard and so they give it to me and say what you want to do. I said first off main thing is I want to move Asgard to Oklahoma. And they looked at me as if I had three heads and feathers which I was wearing that day but that’s a different story. And they said why. And I said Iron Man next to Thor. Not much of a power difference. Thor next an ordinary person makes him more godlike but also makes him more human. Plus visually it’s really cool to go to Oklahoma to the flatlands it’s like flat flat flat Asgard flat and I’m all about contrasts and so they said. None of them wanted it anyway. Sure go out and have fun. We’ll see you on the way down on the Titanic. So I did it and really focused strongly on the characters I reimagined How Thor spoke I made it more not Shakespearean. But formalized you think who it is not for burning. Christopher Fry that sort of thing and more accessible to a modern audience was still formalized and created relationships with the local townsfolk and often in very funny ways. I mean they want to send him some letters and there’s no address for Asgard so you have one of the folks from the town comes out with a mailbox you know by Asgard one Asgard road you know and the cops tell them you can’t just put Asgard in the middle of this on this land. So with the incantation he raised it for at above the ground. It’s not on the ground anymore it’s 4 feet above the ground just to mess with them and what to their surprise happened was that the book became one of the top five sellers for Marvel and stayed that way for the entire time that I worked on it. There wasn’t a lot of action in it. There wasn’t a lot of big huge events. It was just a strong character story and people reacted to that. And they responded to it. That’s what makes the character work because of those small moments. One of the things I did in the book was as Asgard is now by this small Oklahoma town. We see how they interact and at one point the Town Council asked do you have indoor plumbing and they said no we throw it over the wall. But my favorite scene there is a guy who’s a chef cook in a diner who begins falling in love with this Asgardian woman who is a goddess and she likes him a lot also and he keeps thinking how is this ever going to work. And he’s in the diner and Donald Blake was the alter for Thor is there. He’s lamenting this and his dad used to say to him you know a fish can love a bird but where would they build a house together. And Don Don says by the edge of the river. Ah and that’s when the guy decides to pursue it. And that set the template for the movie. They wanted to put that setting into a small town. The outfit that he wears here is based on the outfit I and the artist came together and put together. So they said we want you to be involved with the film. I had a outstanding obligation to another film so I said I could do the outline for you but I can’t do the entire script so I came onboard did the outline for them and they proceeded to go off from there. And of course the great irony is that Ken Ken Branagh who directed this wanted me to do a cameo in this really bad idea. So I show up just to be one of a bunch of guys in line. And he said I want you to actually act in the scene. No you don’t trust me you don’t He said I want you to. So there’s a scene where a red truck after the hammer’s been thrown out of Asgard it craters in the ground a red truck drives up and a guy gets out and tries to pick it up and yeah I said you know despite all evidence to the contrary Ken decided that I could act. So there you are.

Eric: The fans’ reaction to Thor pales in comparison to how they responded to what he did to Spider-Man during the storyline one more day. Mr. Straczynski not only broke up Peter and Mary-Jane he erased their marriage and their entire backstory from existence. That one still hurts. But like with all his work he used the fictional web slinger as a response to what’s happening in the real world.

J. Michael Straczynski: The difference between creating your own characters and working for in-house established like Thor Superman whoever else is that when you’re writing your own characters you can go as far as you want to go. You can make them terrible people you can have terrible things happen to them. I did Spider-Man for seven years and during that time you know that you go from here to there but you really can’t go much further because you will you know break the equipment and they hand you these characters as a trust they think you’ll serve the character well don’t hurt it. You know. So you really do have I wouldn’t say mittens on. But certainly the fingerless gloves you know just partial mittens and you also realize that you have a much larger responsibility with that character because they’re a known icon. So for instance I was writing Spider-Man when 9/11 hit and Marvel called me up and said we need to respond to this and Peter Parker is the obvious choice because he lives there he’s a New Yorker it’s how we identify him. We need you to write an issue that somehow addresses 9/11. Swell you know. And for days I kept trying and I’d call them and said I know the words are in the dictionary somewhere but what order to put them in and which ones to use is eluding me they said well give it one more day and think about it some more. And we were shooting Jeremiah TV series for Showtime in Vancouver and I was in the producer’s trailer on location and I had this note pad in front of me and I wrote down. There are no words and another sentence unfurled itself to me. And in 45 minutes this prose poem meditation. A style I’ve never written before emerged that I can’t even take credit for. And I sent it off exactly as written to Marvel and Axel Alonzo was the editor at The Marvel closed his door and read it and was in tears for the right reasons for a change. And when that book came out the New York Times covered it and firemen shared it at fire stations. It was used in schools as a teaching device about 9/11. And I got letters from guys who were there and firemen who were there who said what your book captured was the emotion of that moment. He said people understand that what we needed the most as we were working in the ruins was shoes because the heat from below was so strong that our soles kept melting. I thought what a metaphor that is. You know and when you have a character like Spider-Man you can address those kinds of important things because he is an icon. Whereas your individual characters that are not going to be as well known probably can’t do that.

Eric: His writing on the Superman comic was equally as bold making Clark Kent more human in an attempt to relate to the majority of us who just can’t solve our problems with superpowers.

Tova Laiter: How is your approach towards Earth one? Superman?

J. Michael Straczynski: Comes from a number of different things but probably the seminal image that guided me in that book the first one in particular it was on the New York Times bestsellers for like half a year. Again this happened while I was still working up in Vancouver on Jeremiah and every Wednesday I would go down to my comics sticks downtown anybody been to Vancouver anybody know Vancouver at all. There is a street called Granville which is where folks of your tribe know guys and gals in their 20s tend to congregate. You know and younger you know 15 18. It’s that age 15 to 20 and you see them sitting on the curbs. They’re panhandling asking for money. Hanging out drinking. My favorite guy there had this sign he had held in front of them said you know need money for weed. I thought that was really honest of him. And when I went to get my copy books. What I discovered was every once in a while one of those guys would come into the comic book store and walk down the row of garishly colored books his eyes hungry for something he could relate to. And he got to the end that you saw the light in his eyes go out and he would go to leave and I would follow him out and said what happened just now what’s going on and he said there’s nothing there that is like the world I live in you know. And when time came to do Superman I thought let me create a character for that tribe who don’t know where they fit in. Don’t know where they’re going. Clark Kent early 20s fresh out of college come into metropolis what does he want to do with his life. Not sure he wants to be Superman so he can do anything he wanted to do and be found profoundly successful at it. But he has to figure that process out. Let’s focus on that and that became a large part of it. I’ve introduced a character to a second volume who is next door neighbor who works as an escort. And people were at first you know horrified by the fact that Superman that Clark Kent was friends with a hooker and he wasn’t trying to get her out of the life. He knew she wanted to get out. That wasn’t an issue question is do I respect you for who you are while you’re trying to do this you know. And they became really good friends. And there were a lot folks were up in arms about that. But in the third book we make that work pretty well. So I try to look at this from a different point of view and addressing the concerns of economics of direction of sexuality things that you can just not hit too hard because you’re still writing for a certain audience but enough to make it a fresher approach to the character. But it all started with the image of this guy in a hoodie which is the Superman in the first issue first book book wearing the hoodie which also freaked everybody out. Walk into that store and not seeing somebody he could relate to and filling what that need was.

Eric: Mr. Straczynski has been a TV writer for over 30 years from He man to the reboot of Twilight Zone to Walker Texas Ranger starring the one and only Chuck Norris but his work as a creator and executive producer of the sci fi series Babylon 5 truly showed his mettle as he wound up writing almost every episode of the show. No small feat particularly for a program that had over 100 episodes.

J. Michael Straczynski: Babylon 5 was really kind of a one man show to its large extent for the first two years we had freelance writers for half of it. Then it got so convoluted that I had to do all the writing myself because I couldn’t separate it out by saying this episode ends here and that one begins here. There’s your assignment. It was the first series to do a five year arc we were the first ones to do that. And because I needed to figure it out as I did it it was hard to assign episodes so I ended up writing out of 110 episodes 92 as well as showrunning the darn thing so I was kind of a one man show. Whereas Sense8 was the three of us sitting in a room and just chewing through all the details and all the background of where these characters come from. Who are they. And we ended up covering the walls with these boards a metallic magnetized boards that had three by five cards on them with it going this way with who the characters were then the backgrounds who they were where they came from fathers parents. And this way across was their individual arcs. And we did over a period of like a couple of months we finally worked this thing out that everything laid out day by day and time by time what the whole thing was. And I’m looking at this construction one day and I went oh crap. And Lana said What I said time zones. Because they’re all connected telepathically. And if one of our characters in San Francisco is in trouble the character who is in Seoul can’t help them because they’re asleep. So we now have to redo the entire thing to incorporate time zones and they kind of hated me from that point on for you know for obvious reasons. And there was a lot more travel involved in doing doing sense8. We went to we shot the show on location. As opposed to if that was all done onstage in San Francisco Chicago London Mexico City Berlin Iceland Mumbai Nairobi and Seoul. No stage work at all. It was it was quite an experience so it was pretty much as different as you can get from each other on every possible level.

Eric: Mr. Straczynski’s current Netflix shows Sense8 is a collaboration with the Wachowskis the innovators behind the Matrix trilogy. Despite the show’s massive scope and globetrotting locations the show spawned from an intimate and emotional central theme.

J. Michael Straczynski: We worked on what the story was going to be and what the first three episodes on spec took it out and our first meeting was at Netflix and figured okay fine that went well lets book the next meeting and they called to take it off the market and said we’re going to give you the budget to make the show. Do you all know what the concept the premise of sense8 what the idea is Lana and I particularly are big believers in the notion of community. The problem we have as a culture right now is that we have been marginalized and tribalized and factionalized to within an inch of our lives. If the country were divided geographically as it is politically right now you’d be hearing gunfire in the distance. And we wanted to talk about the fact that whatever your gender identity is or your sexuality or your ethnic background that the common coin of our shared humanity is stronger than all of it stronger than what divides us. And we wanted to do a story on a global scale that was about community and one of things that entered into discussion was I have friends three dubious words but I do have friends who will when they’re in different parts of the world they’ll all queue up a DVD at the same time of a movie and as the movie plays they will text back and forth with each other about what they’re seeing and they’re sharing that experience even though they’re in different parts of the world. So I said what about you know characters who become telepathically linked to each other and suddenly there’s someone in your head who knows everything that you know about yourself and only you can see them but no one else can. And that person knows your secrets your background your skills your abilities and theres eight characters who share this hive mind and to me as a writer what’s appealing about that is I have a theory that there are five kinds of truth the truth you tell the casual strangers the people you meet the truth you tell to your friends and to your family. The truth you tell to only a few people in your entire life. The truth you tell to yourself the truth you won’t even admit to yourself. And we wanted to do a story about truth number five because suddenly someone’s in your head and has access to your secrets and our secrets are what define us. In many respects so that became the core of it. And then we built out the universe from there.

Eric:Despite years of success in television. When he went out with his feature screenplay Changeling he was considered a newer writer. Fortunately he won over two titans of the industry which ensured the true story would reach the big screen.

J. Michael Straczynski: Ron Howard bought the script to direct initially for himself. He couldn’t do it brought in Clint and how the town works is that the director comes on they give you notes and you come back with a draft. So they finally said Clint wants to meet you so I went down to his office at Warner Brother on the lot and comes in we’re sitting on the couch and the funny thing is Clint doesn’t really look at you a whole lot. So we’re sitting like this he’s looking that way the entire time I’m talking to him he’s talking to me and finally we’re done with the meeting. I say you know do you want any revisions because obviously he has some thoughts that I can change a few things and suddenly he looks at me and it’s Clint Eastwood And you remember what your colon is there for and he says you know how many movies I’ve made a lot. A lot. That’s I thought point is he said. I’ve got more phone calls about this script than any other script I’ve ever produced saying Don’t screw it up. My job is to not screw it up. Don’t change a word. The ultimate irony of Changeling was that we went to Cannes and we missed winning the Palme d’Or by one vote. We discovered from a French critic who didn’t believe the story was true he said police would not handle someone in this fashion. Obviously not from here. And Clint called me because then the story had based on a true story in the credit and and he said half of what he said was unrepeatable. But what the gist of it was. Sit down with the universal attorneys go through all your notes with them. Show them where every single scene of the script comes from to get a true story not based on a true story. On the screen from now on. So I sat down with universal attorneys and I had done a year’s worth plus of research. I had like 25 hundred pages of documentation about that story and I show them every single case where every single line came from a transcript or a hearing document or a court record or a hospital record. And we got a true story which is very rarely ever been awarded to anyone. He’s still pissed off about it.

Eric: After working as a writer for over 20 years the changing turned Mr. Straczynski into a Hollywood big shot a role he was less than thrilled to portray.

J. Michael Straczynski: After being in television for 15 years I wrote Changeling which got all of this attention and suddenly I was invited to all these studio meetings and most of them didn’t know that I had been in television before they thought this is my first script and again this up and coming screenwriter. So I’m at this reception with like eight guys in their 20s and me the best part of it was after Changeling became Changeling. I ended up going to all the different studios they all want to meet me and see who this Yeti was who had just done this. And I walk into this studio visualize if you will a long conference table and along the sides of the conference table. There’s the presidents vice presidents of production development. Yes Men flunkeys plenipotentiaries toadies the whole catastrophe and at the end of the table is Mr. Big who runs the studio and he begins giving me his background I ran Paramount for two years. I was in charge of Fox for three years I was head of production for this studio for two years. I ran this studio for three years. Give me the whole litany and then sat back to see my reaction. I said what you’re saying is you can’t hold a job and the president vice president of production the development people the flunkeys the yes men the toadies went white Mr. Big took a moment to realize what I just said and started laughing. And could not stop laughing because most people who walked into that room did so from a position of fear. The most important thing you can do as writers is never ever ever be afraid. There’s nothing they can do to you. And because I was not afraid of him he respected me and actually I walked out the door with an assignment. So never ever ever ever let him see you being afraid.

Eric: Before they work together on Sense8 J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis were mutual fans of each other. This led to perhaps his hardest gig ever doing a page one rewrite of a feature film in one week for all your non-writers out there. That is literally impossible.

J. Michael Straczynski: They actually were fans of mine. They were Babylon 5 fans and like my comics work. I didn’t know that till I got the invitation to see the last Matrix movie at the Disney center downtown. And I didn’t. My lawyer said we got this invitation do you know anybody involved with matrix I said No but I’m happy to go I love the movies. So I go up to the Disney theater and up the balcony and this couple sits next to me and the woman says What did you do with this. I said nothing. I’m just here to see the movie and this is who I am. She leaned over said Lana it’s the Babylon 5 guy and Lana came over and began talking Spider-Man and Babylon 5 and all the stuff and they were trying to run the movie and they’re like we’re talking Babylon 5 and comic books and so we became friends after that and we worked a few years later together on Ninja Assassin which not a terribly deep movie because it’s well Ninja Assassin. But what’s funny about that is this is kind of again where the effortless approach to writing pays off. I didn’t know they were working on Ninja Assassin until I got a phone call from Lana saying we’re in a bind. Can you come see us this is on a Monday. I come the next day on Tuesday and they said we are six weeks from camera on this movie and the script doesn’t work. We need to have a complete rewrite fade into fade out. Can you do it for us. I said you’re my friends whatever you want me to do I’m happy to do it. When do you have to have it. They said it has to go out to actors’ agents on Friday. This is Tuesday. So they said we know how fast you are. Can you can you pull this off. And I said I’ll have it on Friday. Went home. Fired up the coffee maker. I did the math. How many pages per hour that would have to be and how many hours I could sleep each day which is three. And I just made sure that every hour I hit that number and I didn’t go to sleep until I hit that page count for the day. And would doze at the desk I would put my pillow on the keyboard and nap get up have a cup of coffee. Keep on going. And on Friday morning I emailed off the script which Warners had no notes on which scared the hell out of me. Because if Warner would have like something you’ve got to worry so then they shot it

Eric: Mr. Straczynski gave our students some great advice about writing for one read a lot of screenplays or TV scripts. The good news there. So many of them are available online legally. So you literally have no excuse for not reading them.

J. Michael Straczynski: The best thing you can do seriously is to read scripts read because when you’re watching the film what works is often invisible but you can see it on the page but you can’t always see it on the screen and particularly look at I wouldn’t say read the scripts for but look at really really bad films because what works in a good film is often invisible. But what is crappy in a bad film is pretty obvious sometimes and you can learn more from seeing a bad film sometimes than a good film because like the magician how the hell I can see what they did wrong over there and just write every day. What you have to become is transparent as a writer and write all the crap out of your system. It’s like writing is like digging for oil you have to pump out the mud the yuck the dinosaur bones the water and then you get to the good stuff. The more you write whatever it is that you’re writing do it because what you want to get down to is your authentic voice. Writing is nothing more than talking on the page in your own natural voice. When you hang out with the writers a lot you learn that they write the way they talk and talk the way they write. There is this notion. Somehow writing should sound literary and sound a certain way. No writing is your natural voice. What you have to sell what all of you have to sell each of you stands on a piece of turf piece of ground that no one else stands on. No one else has your background your experience your knowledge your information no one else has that lens in the middle of your head that was formed by your experiences. If a diamond has value because there are few of them how much more rare and valuable is your particular perspective when you hire a writer you’re hiring them for their point of view. You’re hiring them for how they see the world and how that story will come through that filter. As a result you can give 10 writers the same basic idea you’ll get 10 very different stories. So whatever you can do to write just your brains out nonstop to get out of your own way and become transparent which only can happen by every day. Writing writing writing writing writing. I started writing nonstop when I was 17 years old. I’ve never stopped every day and the first three or four years my stuff sucked. It wasn’t the smell it was the burning of the eyes. It was that bad. And eventually I wrote out the crap and got to the good stuff. I’m still writing out some crap in my system there’s still some left over there. To this day I’m still working on it but the more you can get those words out of your system and learn to just be transparent and just here’s what it is there’s trying to write and there’s writing effortless joyful fun that’s where you have to get no matter what material he approaches be it thor a ninja assassin or the changeling’s harrowing tale of a mother losing her son. Mr. Straczynski comes at the story from the exact same place to me writing it’s all about emotion. That’s ultimately what it comes down to I don’t care how good your plot is or your effects or your action sequences if you don’t care about the characters you have got nothing. People may not remember you know all the whaling technology that was discussed in Moby Dick but you rember Ahab. For me it all starts and ends with character and my writing process is built around that in a kind of a weird way that you want the secret to write the real the real deal. Don’t tell anyone I told you this it’s you know imagine your best friend for a second if they haven’t got a best friend borrow one from the person next to you walking across the living room at night lights are off and they bang their shin on the coffee table. Now you know your friend. You know exactly what your friends gonna say when that happens. You didn’t have to work at it. Have to think about it. You just know and you can write it down. Writing is exactly the same. It is getting to know the characters so well that whatever you drop them into you lay back and you write down what they do. It’s very zenlike that way. It’s not supposed to be homework it’s not supposed to be hard it’s supposed to be fun. And by focusing on the characters. Let them do the work for you. It becomes effortless and keeps the character always at the center of the story. I worked with Jim Cameron awhile back working on a Forbidden Planet remake and he said one of the smartest things I’ve ever heard. He said he used to think that writing science fiction was about writing familiar characters in unfamiliar settings. It took me ten years to realize I was wrong. It’s about familiar relationships in unfamiliar settings. So. Terminator 2 is a father son relationship even though it’s not aliens is a mother daughter story even though it’s not. You may not be able to buy into you know alien civilizations or strange futuristic events but the emotion of what a father son or mother daughter relationship is will bring you in every time. So I always believe in going through the emotions first and foremost as the gateway drug and pulling back from there into what the plot is another piece of advice from J Michael Straczynski. Learn how to take feedback without letting your ego get in the way of ideas that can help develop the material.

You have to be honest. You have to step outside your own ego and say does the note make sense. If it does do it there’s nothing wrong with doing it. You get to bask in the reflected glow of the smartness of that note. If the note is wrong because your heart says it is wrong because your logic says it is wrong you don’t do it and you tell them that or you lie. I used to do this. Here’s how I wouldn’t say not bright but less in tune. Sometimes executives are at studios where the example would be someone says to you okay in your script. We have them coming in the door I think they should come in the window because that’s more dramatic. It doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Fine. You wait 6 weeks turn in the script and you tell them you know that note you had where instead of having them come in the window you have them come in the door. You were absolutely right with that. It works every time. They just want to be heard. They just want to earn their salary. And lying is a completely moral point of view when you’re working with some of these guys. But other times if you disagree with it and your heart says this is wrong you have to fight. You have to be a pain in the ass I cultivated that from a very early age to just say no if I thought it was wrong. But just be honest with yourself. Oftentimes it’s getting more to the spirit of the note and the heart than the actual letter of the note. Something in you was bothering and this is bothering you. You’re saying cut this sequence. Well are you actually saying that the sequence is too long because if that’s actually the concern I can take out this part over here which is not essential. Opposed to the point you want to take out which is the whole core of the scene. Yeah and lastly don’t worry about what the audience will think belief in your material is what will see you through this industry.

I think that the moment you begin thinking too much about the audience you’re doomed. It has to interest you because we all containe within us as I mentioned before the same basic elements we all want happiness. Love you know better future for our kids If you write something that’s true for you. The odds are it will be true for everybody else. At some level the moment you think what you should be writing about then you lost that and you what you write will be driven by the market driven by outside forces rather than your own heart. And again as I mentioned earlier the only thing you have of value to sell. Is your point of view. The audience changes you can write to a trend right now but that trend started four years ago when the developing process began on those films you’re now four years behind the times. Where as your. Your heart will always be on time. Because your heart’s writing to the culture right now. Yeah. Never. The worst that will happen is it won’t sell write the next one. That’s what a writer does. You write it you put it on the market it sells or doesn’t sell you write the next one and the next one and the next one I know a lot of aspiring writers who work for 10 years on a script. And the problem is you only learn the lesson that one script had to teach you. The more you write the more tools you acquire for your toolbox we all start in the same place with a pair of rusty pliers and a screwdriver that’s all you got. You only make so much with that. The more you write the more scripts you write the more tools you get for your toolbox so you can make more interesting things with that. But that box only opens up with your own heart. The moment you come from the outside of it and say I think I should be writing about this because that’s what the audience wants the box won’t open. So write your heart. The audience if they believe in you will find you Sense8 is that that kind of a show. It’s a show driven not by plot or by gimmick a lot of science fiction show’s about the gimic the gadget the mission the team. It’s about what William Faulkner called the human heart in conflict with itself. It’s the only thing that’s worth writing about in the long run. Only thing worth the sweat and the blood and the grief. And we sat there for days asking ourselves the most intimate questions Lana Wachowski who worked on this project with me is transgendered and one of our characters is transgendered so we get into some into the tall grass in some of our conversations. There were times he said Do we really risk going there do we want to go that far with this. Because it’s really intimate stuff. You’ve seen a bunch of it and it works and it has galvanized the Internet in ways that no other Netflix show has ever done. For those of you who don’t know the show we were logging 200 tweets a minute at one point people were just like oh my god look at this show by staying true to the human heart. If you’re going to be a writer what are you selling. Are you selling your point of view or are you selling what you think people want. If it’s the latter. Get the hell out. It was the former stay in

Eric: Mr. Straczynski’s Q&A showed he’s as great a teacher as he is a writer. So thank you to novelist TV writer producer comic book writer publisher and screenwriter J Michael Straczynski. And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated and produced by Tova Laiter co-moderated by Crickett Rumley to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As. Check out our youtube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden our creative director is David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Tova Laiter Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple’s podcasts or wherever you listen see you next time

No, Kristian. It’s not just a comic book it’s Spider-Man. Mary Jane Peter their marriage was perfect and you know what they did. You know what he did. He ended it and it wasn’t just oh they got divorced. No none of that he erased their marriage and their entire backstory from existence. It doesn’t make sense.

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