Sunday, September 18, 2016

Flies in the Soup: John Scalzi Part 2

 Interview: John Scalzi
Part 2
By Chris Large

Interview first appeared in Aurealis #82.

Welcome back John. At the moment your new book Lock In, [discussed in the last issue] is a standalone novel. Are you considering writing more in this world? Or is this it?

No! I’d be happy to write more in this world if there was a desire from my publisher and from my audience. I don’t ever write anything but standalone novels. Old Man’s War was a standalone novel. I wrote that one book, right? And then it took off and my editor said, “You need to write another one,” and gave me some money.

I said “Okay. I see how this works.” That’s how Old Man’s War became a series. Android’s Dream was supposed to be a series. I’d signed a contract for a second book but when I started writing it, it was terrible so I stopped doing that and wrote something else. So Lock In is currently a standalone book but if my publisher comes to me and says, “Yeah, I want you to write the second instalment.” [I’d write it]. In fact I have an idea that I’m ready to start going with. It really depends on sales and the level of interest. Another factor is that at the moment it’s optioned by Legendary Television, a production company here in the United States. And if they manage to get it onto TV, there will be sequels.

Game of Thrones, here we come. So you have Old Man’s War, Redshirts and Lock In television shows in development right now. You’re an executive producer on each of those projects. What does that mean? Do you have any leverage? Can you say, “No! That writing’s rubbish. Go do it again!” Is that how it works?

The title of executive producer can mean many things. It can be an extra credit that entitles you to more money, and they expect nothing else from you. Or it can mean you’re expected to be on the set, offering perspective, possibly writing or whatever. All three of these are pre-green-lit, which means we still need to get the full go-ahead from the studios. So at this point I’ve met with the script-writers, I’ve spoken to them about the stories, spoken to the other producers and in some cases I’ve seen initial drafts of the scripts and given them notes. So there has been a fair amount of involvement. When and if they get green-lit, then the question becomes how much more involvement will I have? And how much more involvement do they want me to have? Some of it will be contractually obligated.

If I’m going to be paranoid about it, and go like, “They’re destroying my art!” they can’t cut me completely out of the loop. It is contractually impossible for them to do that. But at the same time that means that if one of them goes into production I will need to play an active role. But how will I manage that with all the other things I need to do, like writing books and the other projects I have lined up? That will be very interesting. At the end of the day a lot of decisions will be made by other people and sometimes I’ll agree with them and sometimes I won’t, and that will just be the nature of the beast. At the very least, if I think they’re going to do something wrong I can say, “I think that’s a really bad idea.” And if it turns out to be a bad idea I can then say, “I told you so.” And if it turns out to be a good idea I’ll say, “I never said that was a bad idea. I said that was a great idea!”

Okay, so I guess this will be a tricky one. Which of the three would you most like to see green-lit by a studio?

I’ve got to be honest with you and I’m gonna say I have no preference. I was having a meeting recently with some producers about a different thing entirely and they asked me the same question. “Which one do you like the most?”

And I said, “I like the one that has the best chance of getting made. Whichever one of the three it is, that’s the one I will love. ” I like all of the books, obviously. From a practical point of view it doesn’t matter which of them makes it onto TV. As soon as it does, that particular book will likely sell tonnes and tonnes and tonnes and then the other books will also see an uptick. So it doesn’t matter which one makes it. It doesn’t matter which jackpot I hit is what it comes down to. If any of the three make it, then that is my favourite. If it’s all three, then that’s good too.

I was reading a ten point deconstruction of the Star Wars universe you wrote back in 2009 –

Was it the Design Fails piece?

Yes, exactly. And in one of the points you made, you said: “Lightsabers need a cross-guard! This is ridiculous. Everyone’s getting their hands cut off!” Now [with the release of the first Star Wars VII trailer] we see it’s actually happened, are you going to own that call? Are you going to stand up and say, “That’s a Scalzi!”?

I saw people really getting worked up about the lightsaber cross-guard. Saying things like, “That’s just not safe!”  And I was like, “And… They were before?” I mean one slice and there goes your hand. Like, “Arrrghh!” Why did Luke lose his hand? Because he did not have a cross-guard. Now, that particular cross-guard that we’ve seen, do I think that is practical? Not necessarily, but at the same time I still don’t think it’s a bad idea. When I saw that cross-guard I said, “Finally! Someone gets it!” That particular cross-guard may not be the best one, or it might be. I mean, we actually have to see it in practice. We only saw like two seconds of it, right? We don’t have nearly enough information to go by.

Although the one thing that I did think was that it seems like it would be really easy to stick yourself. But that’s a problem with lightsabers in general. People say “Oh! It would be so cool to have a lightsaber!” But 99.9% of you – the first time you swing that thing you’re gonna give yourself a lobotomy. You’re gonna lose an arm. You’re gonna lose a leg. You are not coordinated enough.

I think that’s actually part of Star Wars lore that only Jedi and Sith can really use a  lightsaber because they’re a dangerous weapon! They’ll cut through anything so you have to have a Jedi’s abilities just so you don’t cut your own head off. In one of the prequel movies we saw the tiny little padawans in training and I was like, “I hope these are low-powered lightsabers; that the worst that they get is a second degree burn. Otherwise you are going to literally cut your padawans down to a small number very quickly.” I mean, think about when you were 5 years old. Could you be trusted with a sharp implement?

Oh, no way.

So what I’m saying is the cross-guard is still a good idea. It remains to be seen whether that design implementation is the best one.

Okay, just one last question. There are probably only two people in the world I’d ask this question – the other being JJ Abrams [note to self: must get in touch with Mr Abrams] – As the person who quite literally wrote the book on redshirts (and won a Hugo for it), who would win the stormtrooper V redshirt smack-down? It’s a quandary for fans because stormtroopers, when they shoot, can’t seem to hit anything – yet redshirts always die.

There’s an internet meme that says, “Stormtroopers fire at the redshirts and miss every shot, but the redshirts die anyway.” The fundamental problem for the redshirts is that they are designed to die. That is their Kama. That is their thing. So when confronted with the stormtrooper? The stormtroopers might miss. The redshirts might defeat the stormtroopers one way or another – but the redshirts would still then die. So it really wouldn’t matter what happened, at the end of the day the purpose of a redshirt is to die in service to the plot. So they would lose.

So even if they beat the stormtroopers, they would still all die?

The stormtroopers would not win! That’s important. It’s not that the stormtroopers would win. It is that the redshirts would lose.

And on that note I call this interview done. I’m not sure John gave us a truly definitive answer to that last, and possibly most important question, but at least it was an answer from someone who should know. I heartily thank Mr Scalzi for indulging my geekiness and urge anyone who hasn’t read Lock In to do so without reading any reviews, forums or spoilers such as the ones hidden within Part 1.5 of this interview, beforehand.  Don’t read them. Resist temptation. Read the book. You won’t be disappointed.

Flies in the Soup: John Scalzi Part 1.5

Interview: John Scalzi
Part 1.5 
By Chris Large


John, in your latest book, Lock In, remotely controlled robotic bodies called threeps are developed to give those suffering the ‘locked in’ form of Haden’s Syndrome a greater degree of freedom. It basically allows sufferers who are trapped in their own bodies to interact with the world, but the long game of the corporations is for the technology to be used to give older people more freedom of mobility. Do you see this as humanity simply trying to avoid getting old? Or are you suggesting this type of technology could be the next step in our evolution?

I don’t want to use the phrase “next step in our evolution”. I think that’s a loaded phrase. But say if you were 75 years old and your mobility had been compromised simply by being 75. Your knees are shot, you might be overweight, or you might have a bad back or anything that makes it more difficult for you to do the things you used to do. Then you get offered the ability to have this robotic body that basically allows you to go around like you’re a twenty year old. Why wouldn’t you do that? You wouldn’t necessarily use it every day, but if a group of friends wanted to go mountain climbing in Yosemite, would you take the 75 year old body, or would you take the android body? If you get the full sensory experience from the android body I’ll take that and stand at the top of Half Dome and go “Yep, here I am.” Because you are not limited to what your body can do.

For me it’s a no brainer that anyone would want to use this technology if it was possible to use it. I don’t see it as evolution any more than glasses are evolution. In the book, the reason the Threeps are used exclusively by the Hadens is that in order to use it you need to get a neural network and brain prosthesis which is highly invasive. When I was world building I kinda thought of it like this: liability would be insane because you put this stuff in someone’s brain and what if something goes completely haywire? Your company’s going to be sued. Whereas somebody who is already locked into their own body is willing to accept that risk. So that was part of my world building as to why one group would have this technology but not others, but eventually other groups are going to want that opportunity and the companies that are addressing the Haden market would want to address the rest of the market because the rest of the market is so much larger. It’s not just the Haden’s sufferers. It’s everyone because everyone gets old.

Moving on to your Lock In protagonist: Rookie FBI agent Chris Shane, Chris’ skin colour isn’t an issue for most of the book. As we discussed earlier on, if something doesn’t need to be described, why describe it, right? Chris is suffering from Haden’s Syndrome and is locked into his body but then a third of the way through the book it becomes clear that he’s black. We also said earlier that the reader will make assumptions if things aren’t spelled out for them and I made the default assumption of white male.

I wanted Chris’ parents to be interesting and in this particular case it just seemed the way to go. I didn’t really give it too much thought in terms of building it. I knew I wanted Chris’ dad to be an athlete. I knew I wanted to reflect the trend here in the United States in terms of who marries who. So I didn’t think that 40 years into the future anyone was going to think anything of it one way or the other. The funny thing to me actually, is that we’re talking about Chris, and you’re talking about Chris as a he.

Yes, I was. And you know what? You totally got me. I did not even question it [Chris’ gender] until the end. This is going to contain massive spoilers and I don’t know how we’re going to put this into the interview, but I read the protagonist as a white guy, right? But then when I went onto a forum after reading Lock In and was asked if I read Chris as a girl or a guy, I was like “What? No! He did not just do that!” 

What was really fun about that was that I knew when I was going in that I was going to do it that way because having someone who was a Haden, it was not going to be an obvious issue. I knew people would apprehend Chris as the Threep, not Chris the dude, or Chris the woman. It was Chris the Threep. That being the case there was no reason to specifically gender the character and I decided before I started writing that I would not gender Chris. 

I did it for a couple of reasons. First, in the context of the world I was creating it was something that could be done. Second was the writing challenge of “How far can I get away with this?” It helped that Chris is written in first person so Chris does not have to reveal gender one way of another. 

People’s apprehension of Chris is not going to be “He did this,” or “She did this,” so that made it a little bit easier. But really I just wanted to see if it could be done and whether people would pick it up, because that was part of the writing challenge for me. Dropping in the fact that Chris’ dad is black and his mum is white, so he’s actually bi-racial, would make people question their own assumptions because they’ve been thinking of Chris as a white dude because that’s the default so I knew that would be a jostle. I didn’t necessarily want Chris’ gender to be a jostle. I didn’t want that to be something people thought about until they closed the book and they went online to discuss it with other people and it was brought up by someone else. And I’m really happy about the fact that not only did I get it past a lot of readers, I got it past my editor! And when he read it he was like “Oh, this is great! Blah blah blah blah blah.”

And I was like, “Great! What did you think of Chris?”

And he said “Well, you know, he was a really good character. It was really interesting what you had him do.”

And I said, “Well, why do you think Chris is a he?”

And Patrick was like, “Oh! My God!”

Well, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one.

You should not feel bad. I had about twenty first line readers and really only one of them said, “Hey, I noticed that you’re not using pronouns. Is there a reason for that?” So there was really only the one person who noticed it. I mean my wife, when she read it, she naturally slotted Chris as a woman. And it’s been interesting to me how the breakdown goes. 

Almost all men see Chris as a dude, right? Half of women see Chris as a woman and half as a man. Part of that speaks to what our defaults are. I don’t describe a lot of my characters, how they look, unless it has a very specific bearing on the story so there’s no reason they couldn’t be whatever racial composition you wanted them to be. But almost everybody defaults to white, regardless of what race they are because that’s what we’re all so used to. So not describing people is not necessarily the same as having [diverse] representation, right? In this case the reason I did it this way was because I wanted to – in a very non-judgemental, not get-on-your-soapbox, way – have people think about what their implicit biases are after they’ve enjoyed the story and invested themselves in it and have it be non-confrontational. I’m not pushing them to think a certain way. You can get all the way through it without thinking about it one way or the other, and then you can talk about it. People ask me, “Well, is Chris a man or is Chris a woman?” and it’s like I literally do not know.

It’s entirely possible that Chris is neither. Chris could be intersex for example. Or, alternately, because Chris has spent an entire life using a threep, a lot of the gender expectations that are implicitly put upon us would not be put on Chris, because no one’s going to necessarily put a cute little pink sun bonnet on a threep or say that a threep can only play with particular toys or whatever. All the cultural baggage to do with masculinity and femininity won’t necessarily apply to someone in Chris’s situation.

So what that means is, let’s suppose for the sake of this particular discussion that Chris is female. Chris will not have the same gender pressures that a typical woman would. She would not have to conform to gender roles or to sexual roles. I mention in the book that Chris had a romantic relationship in college, right? I don’t specify with whom, but even if Chris was a woman and had a relationship with another Hadan who was also a woman, would they think about it in the same sort of gender/sexual sphere that the rest of us would, particularly when they live their entire life in a world where gender roles are not necessarily imprinted in stone?

One of the really interesting reviews said that I was just assuming that all the Hadens and all the threeps would have completely blank slates in terms of culture and gender and sexual and that wouldn’t always be the case and I think that’s absolutely accurate. So this what I’m thinking about when I’m writing but if this stuff starts oozing all over the story it’s not necessarily a good thing because fundamentally I want people to enjoy the story and not feel like they’re being lectured to, or that I’m saying “Hey! Look at this great utopian vision of gender and sexuality I’ve created!” Because... it’s not. So all that is there for people to explore later. Stuff about gender and sexuality. Stuff about disability culture, which is a whole other topic. It’s all there to be part of the world. It’s all there to be explored and unfolded and discussed if you want. But if all you want is the murder mystery you can go straight ahead with that.

Just to get back to the threeps, in the world of Lock In they don’t have any super-human abilities. In fact they’re quite fragile. If they get shot, they fall over like anyone would. From the point of view of the FBI, or on the policing side, why didn’t you give them any special abilities like armour plating, or speed, or strength?

I think there were a couple of issues. The first was you want them to be non-threatening. They don’t constitute a robot uprising because they don’t have any particular special abilities. But it’s also the simple fact that the majority of people using threeps were not born into a lock in situation. They were used to having human bodies. I think people underestimate the problems you would have adjusting to a body that was substantially more powerful than the ones they already have. The fact of the matter is, if you used to pick up a can...

*John picks up a soda can from his desk.*

Just by using an action like this. If you gave me a body that was four times as strong, I make the same action and this happens...

*John crushes the soda can with his bare hands like a boss*

Sure okay.

So basically you’d have a bunch of people with these bodies who would be buying trouble. We’d be giving them bodies whose range of strength and agility and everything else that does not match what they’re used to, or what is the norm. It sounds kinda ridiculous but it’s a user interface issue. Take a guy who has driven a Toyota Corolla his whole life and put him into a Lamborghini and tell him go as fast as he can, but then here comes the curb. You know what’s gonna happen to that car. It’s gonna go straight into the wall. You can’t just put people into Lamborghinis. That’s what super-strength or super-agility would be. They’d be a danger to themselves and a danger to others. So that’s why you have the Threeps being – aside from being non-threatening – why you try to replicate the human range of abilities.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Flies in the Soup - John Scalzi

John was the second fly to fall in my soup. He's probably my all-time second-fave sci-fi writer after Douglas Adams, and since I can't talk to him anymore, chatting with Mr Scalzi was a big deal for me. Aurealis split the interview into 3 parts, the second of which was published on SoundCloud, but I'll load a transcript here as Part 2.

Interview: John Scalzi
Part 1 
By Chris Large

(Love this Picture)

Hugo award winning author, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (2010-2013), feminist and all-round super-powered good-guy John Scalzi spoke with me in this three-part interview in early 2015. Check out Part 1 below, originally published in Aurealis #81.

John’s latest book, Lock In, is a near-future murder-mystery set against a backdrop of a world ravaged by a disease known as Haden’s Syndrome. Haden’s victims suffering from ‘lock in’ find themselves unable to move or communicate with those around them and must instead utilise specifically adapted technology. I asked John about his inspiration for the story and more broadly about his writing style and philosophy.

Welcome to Aurealis John, I really admire your writing style which comes across as sparse and uncluttered. Does that come to you naturally in the first draft?

I really don’t write drafts. I write and then edit as I go along and when I’m done, I send it off so what you see is the first draft. But I think actually it’s just the way that I write. Most of what I do is heavy on dialogue. The dialogue itself is sparse in description. If you’re talking to someone, unless you’re describing a specific thing, [description of it] just doesn’t come up and unless it has something to do with the story it’s better to leave it undescribed. Give that to the reader to imagine.

There are a lot of readers who really dislike my style because they want their six-page descriptions of beasts, and what people are wearing. I have no criticism of that. People like what they like and I’m a big fan of giving people what they want. At the same time, I find description very boring to write and if I spent a lot of time writing it I think it would become clear to people that I was bored. So yes, it’s naturally part of my writing style. It’s easy for me to do it that way. That said, the things that you find easy to do can become a crutch, so every once in a while I’ll write something that’s heavy on description, just to force myself to do something I wouldn’t typically do.

So you’ll try to take yourself out of your comfort zone?

Yeah, you have to. My comfort zone is dialogue, which is very easy for me to write – and humour. So every once in a while I will intentionally write something different. A good example of that is a novella I wrote several years ago called The God Engines. When people read it they’re like, “Were you in a bad place mentally when you wrote this?” But no, I was actually gleeful when I was writing it because it was fun to do something that I don’t normally do. The whole point of it was to avoid my comfort zone becoming a trap. You don’t want it to become a comfort cage.

And that lack of description you’ve talked about also allows you to be a little deceptive at times, doesn’t it?

I think that’s possible. I mean I certainly have left things out that later a reader will assume I’ve brought up, but actually they have just filled in with their natural bias. When that happens I think that’s kinda fun and interesting for both of us.

You seem to enjoy the body-swap theme, or the idea of taking a consciousness out of a body and putting it somewhere else, whether it’s into a machine, another body, or some kind of human/alien hybrid like in Agent to the Stars.

I don’t really think it’s a conscious sort of thing. I don’t dwell on mind-body duality. For one thing, consciousness transfer is something that is still very definitely in the science fiction sphere. We don’t have brain or consciousness transfer as part of our daily lives at this point, so when you use that as an element in a story, you’re definitely writing science fiction. Something that’s very difficult to do these days, particularly if you’re writing near-future science fiction, is to keep up with technology. Technology advances in leaps and bounds and sometimes the things you write end up being overtaken.

Sure, like Star Trek, right? So many things we have now have already surpassed what they had in those shows.

Yeah. You look at Captain Kirk’s communicator and you’re like, “That’s adorable. All you can do with that is make phone calls?” My cell phone is so much more complex than Kirk’s communicator it’s not even funny.

So consciousness transfer is still something that is very definitely science fiction. That said, I don’t think the consciousness transfer is the interesting thing, but more what it allows you to do. In the case of Old Man’s War it really was the most efficient way to get old people into new bodies. I didn’t see the value in injecting old people with chemicals or nanobots to strengthen their old bodies.

Then for Lock In [John’s latest book, released in late 2014] very simply I wanted to posit a disease that was terrifying. For most people, being locked into their body would be terrifying. But I also wanted the people locked into those bodies to be able to participate in the outside world. That’s where using the threeps [remote robotic bodies] – which is not technically consciousness transfer, it’s really like driving a very cool car – comes in.

You refer to yourself as a feminist on your blog and in various forums, and your books are often structured to portray gender equality.

When I say that I’m a feminist it’s the very basic belief that women have the same rights, responsibilities, obligations and opportunities that men have – or they should. And I’m also very conscious that by saying I’m a feminist there’s a lot of baggage that comes with that, including, “Oh God, here’s another guy saying he’s a feminist, and now he’s going to speak for all women everywhere!” So there’s a lot of stuff that goes with that and I’m very cognisant of it.  At the same time, particularly in the last couple of years, there have been so many people – particularly men – who’ve just lost their minds on the internet about women.

A couple of years ago I wrote quite a lengthy piece on my website about why I did not call myself a feminist because there’s so much intellectual and academic reading and responsibility that comes with that revelation that I am cognisant I don’t have. But the last couple of years have convinced me that someone like myself, who believes in the very simple feminist idea of equality between men and women, and rights, opportunities and obligations, should say so.  Then again, I’m not the world’s best feminist. I still have moments where I show my ass, and people are more than happy to point that out.

Be that as it may [being a feminist] is something that I think it’s important for me to say right now.
With regard to my characters, it’s never been a problem because generally speaking I’m a believer in the philosophy that if you’re going to send a message, use Western Union. That is to say don’t use the fiction to get up on a soap box. It brings the story to a stop and so I’m very careful not to do that. If you believe in equality, and you believe in matters of representation then you’re going to put into your worlds the representation you want to see.

I believe that sometime in the future we will see more women in more roles and so my worlds reflect that. I believe that we will see a wider spread of ethnicity than we do in science fiction literature right now and so I put that in. Here in the United States in the next twenty or thirty years, non-Hispanic whites are going to become less than 50% of representation. It’s not a stretch to imagine that in the future it’s not just going to be straight, white dudes doing all the cool stuff and so it’s not a big deal to put that in. In the Human Division, one of the things that happened was that with the named characters there was 50/50 representation between male and female. I didn’t bring attention to it. The reason I did it wasn’t to say: “Hey, look what I did. Aren’t I awesome?” It was simply to have it there. And for about a year nobody seemed to notice until some dude sent me an email saying “You sure have a lot of women in here.”

I said, “No, it’s actually not a lot. It’s just 50/50.”

As you’ve said, you find humour easy but in your first book, Agent to the Stars, you deal with one of the least funny things ever: a holocaust survivor’s story. Agent to the Stars contains a strong contrast between what is essentially a humorous first-contact story and something which is not funny at all.

I think in that particular case there are two things going on. The fact that you have a dynamic range of material meant that there was the potential for more of an emotional connection. With humour, or with any emotion, if you keep hitting the same note over and over people are eventually going to become tired of it and it’s going to be less effective as you go on.  So if you’re writing in a humorous mode you still need to have those moments of seriousness.

It wasn’t difficult for me to address the Holocaust because, quite honestly, it fit the mode of the story, which is a story about Hollywood. And as everyone knows, if you want an Oscar you go back to World War II. This was joked about in the show Extras. There was an episode with Kate Winslet where she was playing a nun who hides Jews from the Nazis and she says, “Yeah, I’m gonna win an Oscar for this.” And what did she win her Oscar for? She won it for The Reader which is about her being a prison guard at one of the concentration camps. Rarely has the humorous aspect of that situation been so clearly proven in real life.

My character in Agent to the Stars wants to get respect and her way of doing that is to take on this very serious role about the Holocaust, even though this particular character is horribly unsuited to the role. If you have this beach blonde, Californian girl saying “I wanna play a 50 year old Holocaust survivor for this movie,” people see the inherent humour in that and you can use that aspect to build the emotional range of the story. That helps to give you the serious beats that make the humour more successful, and that’s a lot of what humour is. It’s not just the funny bits, right? What makes successful humour is the pacing, is the rhythm. You have to be able to give people those respites, so that’s what talking about the Holocaust, in a very superficial way, did for this particular story.

In your latest book, Lock In, remotely controlled robotic bodies called threeps are developed to give those suffering the ‘locked in’ form of Haden’s Syndrome a greater degree of freedom. It basically allows sufferers who are trapped in their own bodies to interact with the world, but the long game of the corporations is for the technology to be used to give older people more freedom of mobility. Do you see this as humanity simply trying to avoid getting old? Or are you suggesting this type of technology could be the next step in our evolution?

John’s answer to this question, and subsequent questions about Lock In, contain some major spoilers. As someone who read and enjoyed the book immensely, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone so I’ve contained all the major spoilers within Part 2 of the interview, which I’ll post here shortly. You have been warned!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Flies In the Soup - Shane Abbess

Hi All,

I'm back! With interviews! I've decided that rather than letting my interviews languish on my hard drive once they're out of contract, I'll put them up here. So you can expect to see a few of them popping up here from time to time. I've mostly interviewed Aussies, but there's a healthy sprinkling of others in the mix as well. So without further ado, feast your eyes upon my first ever interview with Aussie writer and filmmaker, Shane Abbess, which first appeared last year in Aurealis #79.

Interview: Shane Abbess

By Chris Large


It’s no secret that Australian films struggle to gain traction internationally – particularly in with respect to fantasy and science fiction – but that seems likely to change sooner rather than later.  Australian writer and director, Shane Abbess, has spoken frankly on what is being done to improve both the appeal of Aussie film and its global reputation. Shane is best known to audiences as the director of Gabriel (2007), a film he co-wrote with Matt Hylton Todd, set in purgatory.

Welcome to Aurealis, Shane. Throwing you in the deep end, I’m going to quote you as having said “ of the fundamental flaws in Australian cinema in the past few years is that we haven’t been able to connect with an audience, especially internationally. We shouldn’t be making films to satisfy funding criteria or industry peers, it should be about the audience and what they want...”

I made that remark back in 2008 and it’s interesting to see how it’s all evolved since then. I believe we are actually trying very hard right now – perhaps harder than ever – to broaden our scope and deliver a more appealing range of stories, but the measures of success of a film, and the delivery mechanisms available seem to be the things now that we need to address. The government funding bodies have been doing an amazing job of stepping up and listening to what’s needed and will support filmmakers who show the right kind of initiative or have proven success.

I’m seeing all sorts of films come through now, from very brave genre indies, to larger scale dramas, but the market just doesn’t exist like it used to. DVD/Blu-Ray is forever on the decline, piracy is worse than ever and people want more for less when they hire – especially with the new subscription-based entertainment options. So it means studios go MASSIVE and that floods the cinemas, while the mid-ground films are all fighting for your attention in a very cramped space. So when an Australian film ‘underperforms’ at the box office, I’m always skeptical, because that’s not where the audience is nowadays for films that aren’t tentpoles. They’re at home, waiting for it direct, especially overseas. So I think we’re actually moving in the right direction now. We just need more access here [in Australia] to things like Apple TV etc.

Netflix coming here is great and I also want to see a really short window from cinema to VOD [Video on Demand]. I’m a big supporter of day and date release on everything, which is why I’m pushing for it on Infini. So however you want to experience it, you can. As far as overseas goes, we’re actually kicking ass. You just never read about it here. Movies like Predestination, The Babadook, and Wyrmwood received a mediocre response here but are smashing it overseas. The same thing happened with Gabriel.

With that in mind, and with the benefit of hindsight, how should burgeoning Aussie filmmakers hoping to compete in an international market, go about sourcing investment for their projects?

Do something bold. Fund it yourself. Know the value of every dollar you earned and borrowed to put on the screen. Then you’ll always be able to answer the question: ‘Is this worth doing?’ It’s harder now than ever to be an independent filmmaker in terms of seeking finance but it’s also a wonderful time technologically. Find the medium and go from there. Be very clear on your audience going in, and how you’re going to sell it.

As a writer I identify with the emotional rollercoaster of pushing ahead with a project with no guarantee of a positive outcome at the end of the process. But writers need only motivate themselves. Your job is to herd hundreds of people toward a single endgame. How do you do it?

By relying on people’s pride and passion. Everyone has a reason for doing something, hopefully besides money. Find what it is. If you give people the love, recognition and ultimately the arena to be the best they can be and believe in themselves and their art, you can make magic out of very little. It’s always just people coming together for a common cause and that has to be worth it. No-one wants to play on the losing team. You always have to have a shot at the grand final. 

Your upcoming sci-fi film Infini has proven cause for excitement among fans of the genre. Right now the teaser trailer is all we have to go on. The atmosphere is dark and tense. The characters are far from their happy places. There’s a lot of shouting going on which is generally a sign things are going pear-shaped. It looks for all money to be a film in the vein of Alien, or perhaps Event Horizon, but you’ve said that Infini isn’t a horror flick, that it’s something entirely “unexpected”.

Infini is a beast unto itself, featuring unconventional narrative, high-intensity performances, and an approach which is unusual in the genre. It doesn’t care what you want it to be. It just is. The general response to it is that you don’t know where it’s going to go next and it’s very intense – not scary, but intense – which is how we allowed ourselves to experience it while making it. Some people will like it, some people will hate it, some won’t even understand it and that’s great because it’s trying to do something. It doesn’t play safe at all.

How are you handling expectations surrounding Infini?

I don’t really have any expectations for it – good or bad. I just know that the team and I are really proud of the work we’ve done and are grateful for the opportunity to have been let loose in such a way. As Sam Mendes said in a recent interview, ‘There’s no right or wrong. Just more or less interesting.’ I already know from the test screenings that Infini is a trip for those willing to go on it.

Ultimately I learned not to worry about expectations though after Gabriel, which was slammed on release in Australia but went on to have great success and gain a healthy cult status worldwide. If you know your audience going in and stay true to it, you’ll find them eventually.

There’s a gravity to Infini’s environments which tentpole films seem to lose once they take that flying leap down the CGI slip n’ slide. While there’s no doubt that when done properly CGI can be awesome, do you agree its allure has been tarnished of late through overuse?

I believe the best era of cinema was pre-CGI, so even though I love it, I also love the older principles of filmmaking and not having people say ‘Wow, what a great effect’, when they shouldn’t be aware of any of that. Real, and in camera, is the best way to do it which also gives meaning to the CGI elements because then they’re crucial to the story at that point. Not just there because they can be. 

You’ve said of Infini, “'This movie became like an illness of the mind for myself and many others. We pushed ourselves as hard as we could and at some point in there, I realized we'd crossed a line we couldn't come back from. So we didn't.” Travelling down the same dark paths day after day, physically or emotionally, can leave permanent scars on a person’s psyche. Is that how you feel about Infini?

I do. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be able to talk about everything that went into creating the energy required of Infini because it’s pretty insane. I think the cast and many of the creatives would agree. We wanted to see how far you could go to find a moment or experience a truth in all of this, and a lot of it isn’t even on the screen. It’s more just baked into the picture’s soul. You think about the reality of the situations these characters are in and it’s terrifying.

In order to make that more than just a word or a notion, you have to expose yourself to truths and moments – the reality of it – which is something we spend our lives running from traditionally. This was an infection of the mind and the soul. It took some of the cast literally months to recover. I’m still not sure where I ended up... I know I’m different though. Happily haunted.

Once a story’s told it no longer belongs solely to the teller, a degree of ownership rests in the minds of the audience.  How do you feel about giving up ownership of something you’ve clearly poured so much of yourself into?

I love it. I give so much of myself to the process, we all do, that by the time it’s done. IT’S DONE. It’s not for us anymore. I love that an audience takes it and the experience is always evolving.

And we can expect Infini to hit screens in Australia…

It’ll be out May/June in theatres worldwide. Hopefully VOD same time too! E1/Hopscotch are distributing here. Dates are locking in now.

You’ve been working hard to add those finishing touches to Infini, but do you have any other projects on the horizon?

We have a high-end television series based on the world of Infini in development. Film-wise it’s down to the wire on three actually, pending casting schedules: one being Lucifer, the next installment in the Angel Saga after Gabriel, 7th Day which has been around for a long time, and another which shall remain nameless!

Hmm, a nameless project. Intriguing. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for that. And an Infini-based television series in development prior to the release of the movie. Clearly there’s a lot of faith surrounding this venture and I for one can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Aussie Spec Fic Snapshot: 2016

Hey, the unstoppable David McDonald interviewed me for the 2016 Spec Fic snapshot. Read about that, and plenty more HERE.

But be warned: once you start reading these snapshots it's difficult to stop.

Monday, April 11, 2016

How to Interview Authors Pt 1 - Interviews Can be Awesome (But Often Aren't)

Author interviews are a dime a dozen, so how many of them are worthy of your time, and how many are just white noise? I'm not saying some aren't worthwhile. There can be something to be gained by reading even an average author interview, but with every hipster and their blow-dried poodle running some kind of author interview/latte appreciation blog, there's just so much emailed-in, beige-carpet dross around, it can be a real splash of ice-water to the face to read a smack-down between two people who genuinely care about their topic of discussion.

Ann Leckie - Ancillary Justice
I've been interviewing authors for a couple of years now (you won't find my interviews here, but in magazines and elsewhere on the inter-webz. I gave up writing for free a while back) and I've learned some really important lessons I'd like to share. The fact is, the difference between a could-find-this-crap-anywhere interview, and a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a really interesting person isn't much, but it takes some commitment from both sides.

Let me make it clear before we go any further, I'm not trying to paint myself as the all-perfect, all-knowing, bard-king of interviewers. Far from it. I've certainly submitted some interviews for publication of the 'dental tug-o-war' variety. The interviews I'm least proud of are the ones in which I've obviously struggled for either continuity, or content. These were - without exception - interviews for which the interviewee had a declined a face-to-face, in favour of an emailed sheet of static questions. Hence:

Lesson 1. An Emailed Interview is Your Last Resort

If you're an interviewer with even the slightest affinity for the subject of your interview, gird your loins and face your interviewee. I learned this lesson very early on from a small-time hack going by the name of John Scalzi. Mr Scalzi is a man who knows what it is to sit on both sides of the table. When I first contacted him about doing an interview he immediately agreed, on the condition it was a Skype discussion rather than an email full of, you know, words and stuff.

John Scalzi - Lock In
He didn't want to dick about writing answers to questions he'd most likely had thrown at him a hundred times before. May as well just cut and paste! I was the interviewer. I was the one getting paid for publication of the piece. Why should he have to write it out for me? All John really wanted, of course, was what any interviewee would want: a genuine discussion about his work. I was terrified. He was only the second person I'd ever interviewed for cash and the man has a formidable intellect and business acumen.

But it was amazing. We nattered for maybe ninety minutes and I loved every second of it. What I didn't realise at time the (but John understood all too well), is that the difference between a written, and a spoken-word answer to a question is the true difference between a very good interview and a very average one. When an author sits down to answer a bunch of emailed questions from all sorts of interviewers who think they're asking cool and interesting questions, but are actually just asking the same questions as everyone else, they do so with a stiff drink and a heavy heart.

When an author talks to an actual person, however - like, face-to-face and shit - even if they've answered a similar question before, you never really know what's going to come out of their mouth. It could be rehearsed, or it might just be spur-of-the-moment gold.

Lesson 2. People Say More Interesting Stuff When They Can See Your Ugly Mug
Jennifer Fallon - The Lyre Thief
Some authors don't do face-to-face. They're either terrified they'll say something stupid and everyone in the writing community will call them Dumb-Dumb for the rest of time, or maybe they resent being asked to climb out of their jim-jams to talk to someone who might just be a dick. Who knows? Who cares? You can't control that.

What you can do is ask the author to participate in a Skype interview. They can only say no, right? Actually - not true. They can also say yes, and most often do. When they say yes it's awesome because it provides you with the chance to get a really good interview. People (authors are people) interact with human faces much more readily than they do with computer screens full of words, or a tinny voice emanating from a small telephonic device covered in earwax. Authors hear enough voices as it is!

If the interviewee can see you smiling at something they've said, or nodding in agreement, or simply making a gesture of acknowledgement of some kind, they will take that as a cue to provide more information of that type. Sometimes you don't even need to ask a question because you've guided your subject to the topic simply by offering visual encouragement. You're not being tricky, or deceitful. You're employing the tools you would subconsciously use in normal conversation with anyone you might encounter in your day-to-day life.

Lesson 3. Don't Ask Dumb-Ass Questions
Should be a no-brainer, right? Remind yourself before the discussion begins that you're unlikely to be the first person ever to interview this particular author. If you Google their name with the word "interview" after it, and get two or more pertinent hits, it's probable questions like, "When did you first start writing?" or "What inspired you to write?" aren't going to generate original answers.

John Flanagan - The Ranger's Apprentice
The answers to those kinds of zombified, could-literally-be-asked-of-anyone questions will already be available to any twelve-year-old with access to the internet, probably on a half-baked blog called 'Book Blogs R Sus' or some such. You are styling yourself as an intelligent interviewer. There are hundreds of people out there, just like you, also styling themselves as intelligent interviewers. The author's publicity agent has provided you with a free copy of their client's book - a free copy of a year or more's worth of hard toil on the part of their client.

Aim to repay that investment by at least attempting to avoid the dumbest of dumb-assed questions, while at the same time asking yourself what it is your audience would really like to know about this awesome person. Leave the brain-dead questions to others. Ask your author about the things that set their work apart. What was it about their writing that inspired you? What made you feel whatever it was you felt while reading their work?

Don't be confrontational but try to push them for the story behind each answer. Don't pause after each answer to read out your next question. Keep the momentum of the conversation going by being as fluid as you can. If an author shoots off on a tangent, taking the discussion in a completely different direction than you envisaged, let them go. Follow them into that deep, dark forest. Authors can be pretty messed-up individuals. Chances are they're about to launch into a topic they're passionate about, which will be fantastic for your interview, and your likelihood of selling it to a publisher.

In short, keep cool, try not to fanboy, and don't be a dick. While you may be giving the author an opportunity to promote their work, they're giving you their time, and the potential to sell your interview for money. Be respectful of their work, even if you didn't enjoy it. Remember that your opinion might not be shared by your readership so examine as many angles as you can. Most of all, try to have fun! It will shine through if you can.