- Story mechanics and the importance of character-driven stories.
- Setting a goal each time we sit down to write will help us increase our productivity.
- What inspires us to write weird fiction.
You can’t just sit down and “write a screenplay.” It’s a very mechanical discipline; a science all by itself.
In this episode, I had beers with local writer Andrew Hope, bonding over movies, screenwriting and H. P. Lovecraft.
A. Macabe: So, you wrote Fantomex. I understand you had to do a significant re-write. Did you feel a lot of pressure when doing the re-write on your first big project? Especially of someone else’s work?
Andrew Hope: It was definitely a more conceptual rewrite than just changing some characters and elements. When Axel sent me the plot, it was a pet project of his and he wanted to get it off the ground – I suspect to maintain hold of the property, since Grant was the creator. My biggest two questions were, how closely do I need to stick to both the original plot, and Grant’s 616 creation. The answers to both were do anything you want. Which was good, because I hadn’t read X-Men since Vince left the art and if I didn’t have to sink myself into continuity that was fine with me. The Fantomex you see in the series was not – and never intended to be – Grant’s 616 version. When I came up with the plot, I changed the nature of the villains too, made them less the “shadowy operative” types, and made them a bit more human and flawed by their own weaknesses – I was a big fan of the old British show The Champions, and based the villains on that trio. Also, I’m clearly a fan of Carpenter’s The Thing, and that was an element I wanted to play around with. The directive from Axel was that the story needed to feel more cinematic and Bond-like because everything needs to have sell-on appeal for the movie and TV studios. The original plot was more rooted in the 616 mythology Grant had created for the character, and I wasn’t burdened by that.
A. Macabe: You indicate you’re a character driven writer. Using Fantomex as an example, you discuss Fantomex having a weakness and the villains becoming aware of his flaw, then using it against him. Also, Fantomex changes over the course of the story, being something different from what he was in the beginning. I’ve sat down to “write a book” many times, and had to do a lot of education on my own to understand the mechanics of story progression. How did you come to be able to write like this? Was it natural to you, or did you have training or education in screenwriting?
Andrew Hope: Screenwriting is the best discipline for writing, in my opinion – especially if you’re a genre writer. I’ve been involved in a number of screenwriting projects from original scripts to 4th draft rewrites of other writers’ work. Screenwriting forces a writer to think in terms of plot mechanics and character development almost all at once. You can’t just sit down and “write a screenplay” – it’s a very mechanical discipline, a science all by itself. Most people who can’t write think it’s all about the Three Act Structure – so how hard can it be, right? – but screenplay writing is a process, and you need to know the format back and front. In Fantomex, he’s a flawed character, but also perceptive enough to see the flaws in the foes he’s facing.
A. Macabe: I love your movie reviews on your blog. During your review of The Last Jedi, you mention – regarding Rian Johnson – you “were never convinced by his writing ability.” For new writers, what does this mean? What should we take away from this? What about Rian Johnson’s writing isn’t convincing? You use the example of Benico del Toro being conveniently in the same cell as Fin and Rose as garbage writing. Can you expand on this a bit more?
Andrew Hope: Thanks for the kind words on the reviews – I love doing that, and it also keeps me writing in between prose. No, I don’t rate Johnson, but I don’t say that out of any kind of hubris. In Looper, I absolutely hated the handling of the effects of time travel. When Paul Dano is being dissected in the past, his future self’s body parts disappear at the same time they’re being removed in the past. A nerdy argument? You can choose to see it like that, but I see it was writing for the sake of convenience, and that isn’t my thing. Tying it back to The Last Jedi, and that specific scene, you have two major characters who are thrown in jail – that in itself was an unexpected development to those characters. Not only that, their cellmate just happens to be as good a “hacker” as the maguffin they have come to find. Not only that, we find that he had the skills to leave the cell whenever he wanted, but chose not to. Everything element of that scene was designed to move from plot point A to plot point B as easily as possible, breaking the rule of conflict resolution. When everything is so convenient it appears to have been planned that way from the beginning, there is no sense that there’s any actual conflict to resolve. I had similar thoughts about Del Toro’s horrible script for The Shape Of Water.
Writing can only happen if a writer is intellectually honest with his or her self.
A. Macabe: In your review of Chappie, you mention it’s typical of Neill Blomkamp to have plot holes, specifically: “It’s clear he needs to work with a different screenwriter if he’s to evolve as a writer himself.” How have you developed you’re writing skills to avoid this? Have you had a mentor?
Andrew Hope: No … I haven’t been mentored directly. I’ve had influences, but I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to not stoop to the level of parroting someone else’s style. I try to be analytical about what influences me and why, and try to extract that particular knowledge and use it. In terms of developing skills – it’s something I think about from time to time. “Literary techniques” is something I Google every couple of years. I think there always things you can learn about the mechanics of writing, just like any other skill, but capital W writing can only happen if a writer is intellectually honest about his or her self, otherwise I feel plot will overwhelm the important part of writing, which is character. In terms of who my influences are, the names haven’t changed, but I feel that at this point in my life I’ve already absorbed the kind of things I wanted to learn from them. Those writers are Stephen King up to the mid 80s, Clive Barker up to the late 80s, Lovecraft of course, and Ramsey Campbell, who is my biggest influence.
A. Macabe: Did you like District 9? Where there plot holes there?
Andrew Hope: I’d have to go back and watch it, which I rarely do with movies. Nothing is jumping to mind right now. I did like it, though. Aside from the well-realized ghettoization of the aliens, and that social commentary, I’ve always been hugely interested in the transformation of the self, the subjugation of the persona, the loss of what it means to be “you”. Even though that aspect of District 9 wasn’t up to the more focused parallel in Cronenberg’s The Fly, there was enough there to attract me to that part of the story.
A. Macabe: What do you think of the Avengers movies and other comic book movies now?
Andrew Hope: I’m a Marvel guy through and through. I’ll watch all superhero movies, because I’m a geek in general about that stuff, having grown up with comics as part of my life since I was a kid in Scotland, but Marvel’s always been my thing. I enjoy them, but they don’t rise to high art for me, and never will. Both two Avengers movies were mostly mediocre, though, and to me that’s the fault of Joss Whedon, who I feel is a shallow writer. If anyone can ‘splain to me why Age of Ultron needed to end the same way as The Avengers – with The Avengers fighting lots of anonymous flying gnats – I’m interested in hearing that. And I tend to think that the first movies in Marvel’s franchises are weak, since they all seem to boil down to the hero fighting an evil version of himself. I mostly enjoy them, though.
A. Macabe: Why do you think they keep remaking Spiderman?
Andrew Hope: Rebooting, right? The awful Garfield movies were needed for Sony to maintain ownership of the license (like DC continuing to print Watchmen), and the latest version was needed to fold the character into the MCU, having already allowed Garfield’s pay or play contract to lapse.
I write because I feel compelled to write.
A. Macabe: Talking about other screenwriters and directors, what do you think about about Christopher Nolan’s adaptions of batman?
Andrew Hope: Nolan is forever going to be the guy who made Memento in my eyes. He’ll never make a movie that approaches that kind of quality. In terms of rebooting the Batman franchise, yeah, I was onboard with that. If anyone was going to reboot it after the previous debacle, Nolan had the chops and legitimacy, and I think it was mostly successful. My only big problem with his movies was that I had already gotten tired of the previous four movies blowing up significant portions of Gotham City – Batman, the comic book Batman, isn’t an action hero, he’s a thoughtful, deliberate detective, and I don’t that kind of Batman’s ever been seen outside of the comics. The Dark Knight was mostly mince, though.
A. Macabe: On your blog, you mention going to Del Toro’s At Home with Monsters exhibit. My wife and I went as well. What did you think of his comics collection?
Andrew Hope: I liked it! I have a lot of the same comics! I was pleasantly surprised to see that it wasn’t just the kind of comics you’d expect Del Toro to own like EC or Eerie, or the like, there was a lot of Silver and Bronze age superhero stuff too. Del Toro liked John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, who’da thunk it
A. Macabe: What did you think of Del Toro’s notebooks? Do you have something similar to keep track of your ideas?
Andrew Hope: I thought they were great, but it isn’t the kind of thing I’ve ever done. For the last few years, I’ve used Evernote, and that works well for me. When I started writing, it was all longhand, then transcribing that to the typewriter/word processor, but why do the same job twice? The trouble was, I wasn’t able to think using a keyboard, so I would fill up notebook after notebook with stuff, which would inevitably get misplaced at the right times. Once I started using Word in the mid 90s, I gradually lost the ability to think while handwriting – but gained it while keyboarding. I don’t usually sketch, though I’m a decent enough artist. When visualizing stuff (which I do frequently) Google Images is what I turn to. I use that as a jumping off point, and usually find myself disappearing down a rabbit hole for a while – tangents are great for seeding ideas.
I’m not a fan of writing “Lovecraftian” horror, because that adjective has mostly just come to mean “Oh, I must put Cthulhu or fish people, or ancient elder gods in my story”
I’m not a fan of writing “Lovecraftian” horror, because that has mostly just come to mean “Oh, I must put Cthulhu, fish people or ancient elder gods in my story.”
A. Macabe: You’re hosting your blog now and you’re on Twitter. How do you balance this with actual writing for new projects? Are you on Twitter for self-promotion? Are you a full-time writer or do you have another form of employment?
Andrew Hope: I’m the financial controller of a midsize company here in the Twin Cities. I’ve never been that kind of fearless dream-follower, and sometimes envy people that are. The one thing I value above all else is financial security for me and my family, and I’ve seen a lot of starving writers and artists in my life that have yet to become wealthy. Twitter I use for self-promotion, sure. My movie reviews are linked to Twitter and Facebook, so when they post, they also appear on those sites too. I enjoy posting on Twitter, but I’m smart enough to realize that when it comes to strong opinions about things, I don’t care to share them – mostly just because I find other people’s opinions uninteresting twaddle for the most part, so why would mine be considered any different? The short answer is: they’re not.
A. Macabe: Where do you write? Quiet or to music? Do you ever have problems with focus or motivation to write? Do you have a daily writing goal? Word or content goal each time you sit down?
Andrew Hope: In the past I’ve had the dreaded writers’ block – sometimes for years – but I think I see that as laziness on the part of the writer, at least that’s how I saw it in myself. I write wherever I can have a space to myself, so that’s mostly at home in the office, and I need quiet. Not complete and utter silence, but I can’t write within earshot of the telly, or music. In terms of word goal – when I am writing prose, it’s a minimum of 1,500 words. I write mostly extemporaneously, never going back to rewrite a sentence or paragraph, so 1,500 words is about an hour and a half for me. But it’s not always about word count. When I sit down to write, I’m always thinking about where I need to be by the time I stop writing. It doesn’t necessarily need to be at the end of a particular section, I just have to feel comfortable that I hit the plot point I wanted to before starting that night’s work. I tend to never go past it unless I’m on fire. It’s like practicing something – after a certain point quality plateaus. You have to know when that is approaching and down tools for the day.
A. Macabe: Does your blog title, “At the Foothills of Madness,” have any reference to HP Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness?” Also, how cool will it be when this finally comes to the movie screen? If you were writing the script, would you keep the story to the original writing? Or would you make changes?
Andrew Hope: Yeah, I’m a massive fan of Lovecraft’s work. I’m not a fan of writing “Lovecraftian” horror, because that adjective has mostly just come to mean “Oh, I must put Cthulhu or fish people, or ancient elder gods in my story”, but that doesn’t even come to close to the truly great aspect of Lovecraft’s work, something Ramsey Campbell just agreed with me on while on a Twitter thread about TED Klein’s The Ceremonies. I have written with Lovecraft in mind in the past, but simply using his toys and tropes doesn’t make one’s work Lovecraftian any more than sitting in a Honda Civic makes one think one is driving a Bentley, just because it has four wheels and an engine.
Would I like to see At The Mountains of Madness made into a movie? Yeah, and as much as I’m unimpressed by Del Toro’s English-language work, he’s one of the people who I’d pick to direct. The only other people I’d trust is the team of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. If I was writing it, I’d probably make very few changes, because the story itself is already perfect in my opinion.
When I was 13, I was already “that guy” who would fill up an entire notebook when given creative writing homework.
When I was 13, I was already “that guy” who would fill up an entire notebook when given creative writing homework.
A. Macabe: What draws you to horror or “weird fiction?”
Andrew Hope: That’s a super long origin story, so I won’t go into why I think I’m drawn to it, which I think is the real meat of the answer, so all I can say is that for as far back as I can remember, I’ve been into dark material. My Dad took snuck me into the Exorcist when it was on its second run in the UK, I’m thinking that would be 1975, when I was 8, but I grew up watching the Hammer and Amicus movies that would be on late night TV, and a staple of my childhood was the few years when BBC 2 would do a horror double bill on Saturday nights, usually a black and white one first, then something from the 60s/early 70s. In terms of writing, I can tie that back to my English teacher, George Forfar. When I was 13, I was already “that guy” who would fill up an entire notebook when given creative writing homework. I wrote multi-viewpoint horror/sci fi starring my classmates, and they all got a kick out of passing the notebook among them. George asked me if I’d ever heard of HP Lovecraft, and I hadn’t at the time. He had me over to his place for dinner with him and his wife one night and showed me a library full of books and writers I’d never heard of before. I left for home that night with a borrowed copy of The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but I found Lovecraft’s style hard to get into. It wasn’t so long after that that I started reading King, and his style was much more comfortable to read. It wasn’t until I went to college and became pretentious that I picked up Lovecraft again, and that’s when I “got” him and his work. When it comes to horror as a genre, I’m definitely more into the less explicitly violent or sexual material. I’m no prude, and I’ve written my fair share of it, but context is everything.
A. Macabe: Have you written “weird fiction” before? Do you have a favorite weird fiction piece you’ve written? Tell me more about your anthology and your trilogy you’re working on.
Andrew Hope: I think most of my work I would call “weird”. There’s a fine point where horror can cross the line, turning characters into fodder, but “weird” fiction is all about the effect of horror on character, the individual, not just a collection of tropes we’ve all seen in the movies. I have been assembling enough material for a two volume anthology which will be named “Don’t Look Now”, and volume 1 will DEFINITELY arrive towards the end of 2018. The main issue is that when is there ever enough? In terms of short fiction, I’m relatively prolific, and I don’t particularly care about the magazine market, so anthology it is, and it has to be on my own terms. I’m in no hurry to “make a name for myself”, I just like to write, and if people enjoy it, mission accomplished.
The trilogy is completely different – it’s a superhero concept that has more in common with high fantasy than movies or comics. I was a huge fan of the early books in the Wild Cards series, and always wanted to attempt something like that in long-form. The books are in various stages of development, but the entire arc has been mapped out already.
A. Macabe: Do you find it easier to write horror? Could you ever see yourself writing a comedy script? Or something very out of your comfort zone?
Andrew Hope: The original screenplays I’ve written range from action-horror to comedy, but as I mentioned earlier, screenwriting is an entirely different discipline that lends itself to get you at least thinking about other genres. My preferred form of writing is prose, and so horror through and through, mostly just because I’m character-driven and find great enjoyment in getting into someone else’s inner workings.
A. Macabe: Who is an old writer – no longer around – you wish you could meet and talk to? What would you ask them?
Andrew Hope: Lovecraft, hands down. The new trend is to demonize Lovecraft for his racism, but I’m all about not letting historical context lead to a conscious, impotent loathing of events that are over and done with. There’s nothing that be changed the past – all you can do is learn from it. So if I go back in time to meet Lovecraft it wouldn’t be to pepper him with questions about his work or his life, it would be to hang out and get to know him, see if we had things in common we could chat about. I think Lovecraft would have taken a lot of enjoyment from the fact he and his work have attained cult status.
A. Macabe: Thanks so much, Andrew, for talking with me about your writing and the process. I can’t wait to read more of your movie reviews and perhaps get a look at your anthology. We’ll have to check in again in a few months to see how it’s coming along.
Next week in Episode #4, I chat with Tobias Klausmann and his great science fiction books, Slingshot and Retaliation. He has great writing advice for plotting a character-driven science fiction story.