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A Conversation with Derek Haas and Rian Johnson (Part II)

Nov 17, 2010 in Film, Guest Posts, Popcorn Fiction

Continued from Monday, Derek Haas and Rian Johnson discuss Johnson’s forthcoming time travel epic, Looper, Haas’ next project, The Double; Dashiell Hammett, The Hardy Boys and the eternal question:  screenplays vs. novels?

Rian Johnson: Now that we’ve discussed Popcorn Fiction, we get to the real question that all of the Americas is asking: when can we expect a sequel to Catch That Kid?

Derek Haas: [Laughs] You know, we’re just waiting for Kristen Stewart’s star power to rise for her to be big enough to merit a sequel. I think that could happen and then we could get Catch That Kid 2.

RJ: Catch it this summer.

DH: Rian, what is the latest on Looper? Your science-fiction time-travel dystopian script that everyone in Hollywood is talking about? I mean, you already have Bruce Willis and Joey Gordon-Levitt attached to star. When can we expect to hear more about Looper?

RJ: Well, if all goes well and why shouldn’t it—knocking on wood here—we should be shooting it in late January. So hopefully, near the end of next year we’ll have something. Yeah, not there’s a lot to really talk about without people knowing the movie except that it’s science fiction, but it’s time-travel science fiction, it’s much more in the tradition of the first Terminator movie, where time travel is part of the setup, but the movie is much more about a small group of characters dealing with what the setup has put them into. Rather than, say, Back to the Future 2, where you’re constantly zapping back and forth between different realities. Hopefully, it’s a time-travel movie where time travel kind of gets out of the way to a certain extent and it’s more about the characters. But we’ll see.

DH: Fantastic. And where do you think you’ll be shooting?

RJ: We’re still looking around. But it probably looks like it’s going to be New Orleans.

DH: New Orleans. Great. If I may, can I ask about naming the main character Jim Looper?

RJ: You may, you may. I guess that’s why they call me Looper. That’s going to be the last line. That came to me about a third of the way in.

DH: This is why I get paid to rewrite movies. I just gave you that one for free.

RJ: That was it? Like I said, you poop these things.

Mulholland Books: Rian, were there any books you were thinking about when you sat down to write Looper?

RJ: Not in the same way as Brick; Looper was more, there were certain ideas that I had and, this stuff always sounds terrible when you talk about it divorced from the actual work itself, but there were thematic things I wanted to deal with, so that was more the starting point as opposed to specific books or a specific author.

RJ: Derek, Michael Brandt just directed a script of yours. You were just off shooting a movie that you two wrote and Michael directed.

DH: Yeah. Michael, my partner, directed his first film, which is a spy thriller called The Double starring Richard Gere and Topher Grace and Martin Sheen and Odette Yustman. So, yeah, that was this summer and so hopefully it will be out sometime spring or fall next year. We’re not sure when.

RJ: We should just call each other, you know, we’re not doing anything, and plug each other’s stuff because it feels really good. Just middle of the day I’ll call you up and just …

DH: That sounds good. You’ve written three different movies now that all feel like they came from the same person but they are also sort of hopping genres. If you were going to sit down and write a novel, what area do you think you’d shoot for, like crime or sci-fi or … ?

RJ: I have no clue. I think I would do an unofficial prequel to the Silver Bear series.

DH: [Laughs] Some fan fiction?

RJ: I would do some decent slash fic, some Silver Bear slash fic. Yeah.

DH: That would be great.

RJ: Yeah. No, I have no clue at all. But we’ll see. For a screenwriter … when you were saying before that all these screenwriters jump at the chance to write short stories, that makes total sense to me because when you are writing a screenplay, you know, it has a lot in common with building a bridge. You know—a lot of it is engineering, a lot of this is planning out structurally. You’re kind of a slave to the narrative. And it just feels so good to write prose and it really feels like just getting to kind of, you know—to use a ridiculous analogy, it feels like getting to run free or something like that.

DH: Yeah …

RJ: I’m a horse running free in a field of daisies.

DH: You’re not encumbered by budget and set pieces and actors and all of those things that make screenplay writing beyond just sitting at your computer.

RJ: Sure, yeah.

DH: And you know that Michael Brandt wrote a Popcorn Fiction piece. And [even] if his name hadn’t been on it, I would have published it. He wrote the perspectives of a hunter and a wolf in equal columns on the opposite side of the page. Something that would never be a movie, but, you know, is just in his head. So, those things are fun just to indulge, those impulses …

RJ: Yeah, exactly, yeah. I look forward to the day when I have enough time, or a day when I’m not napping, and can write a Popcorn Fiction short story again.

MB: Derek, can we talk about Columbus a little bit and why you wanted to dive into writing prose and novels and what you experience creatively through that process that was different than the screenplay or what you brought from screenwriting to prose?

DH: With my novels, I’ve written two books about a contract killer named Columbus. The first one was called The Silver Bear and the second one was called Columbus and I actually have a third one coming out next summer. And what’s been fun about writing prose is really getting inside the head of the main character. And I write these novels in first person and it’s interesting to write this character’s thoughts as things are happening to him, which would probably not make for an exciting film but for me makes for exciting prose. What I brought to the novel that I learned from screenwriting is really about pace, and it’s the same concept as writing a screenplay in the genres that I write: you really just want the readers turning the pages as fast as they can and I think I was influenced as much by reading The Hardy Boys and Jonny Quest when I was a kid as I was by reading Stephen King and Crichton and those guys now. Whoever wrote The Hardy Boys was smart because every chapter would end with “The car went off the cliff” and you’d be like “Well, I can’t stop reading this now! I gotta keep turning these pages.” And I don’t know why, but that’s always stuck with me and I try to just have this drive going.

The other thing you can do in prose, and you can do it in screenplays too, is to really try to tie some themes throughout the work all the way through that you don’t have to do visually, that you can do more intellectually. So, I try to, for example, in the first book, I have this underlying theme of nature versus nurture, of what kind of person would have sired someone like Columbus. This person is on a quest to find his father, but he also wants to kill his father, which in turn would let him know how he became who he is. So those are fun to try to write with an overarching theme that no studio executive would really care about. And then all of the things that Rian said about Popcorn Fiction are the same. With the book, you don’t have to worry about set pieces and budget and focus groups and hitting the broadest audience possible, all of the things that we do have to worry about when we’re writing screenplays. I can be darker, I can make my protagonist grayer. I have an inordinately good time writing these novels and so I would encourage Rian to give in to that muse and sit down and write one.

MB: Yes, one thing I was struck by in your first book was your constant ability to create very classic crime fiction  scenes but then twist them into really surprising directions, such as the moment where Columbus and his childhood friend finally get free of the abusive father. You think the scene is going to build up to the traditional “guy kills abuser, gets injustice righted” etc. but then it takes a far different turn. And you’re like: wow.

DH: You try as a writer to make people guess and hopefully they guess wrong and it’s even more satisfying when they do. I’m always trying to surprise people and there are familiar tropes, you know, you’re writing a contract killer and you’re going to have some of the familiar things as you go, but as a writer it’s your job to come at it from a different angle. A friend of mine, a writer, always says that to me: “Well, why don’t you try to come at it from a different angle.” And if you can sit there and think about it and try to come at things from a different angle, it’ll make your writing so much better.

DH: I think writing-wise in all three books now, I kind of realize about a third of the way through what the last line of the book is going to be. And I just try to work toward that last line and I don’t know if that method makes for stronger endings, but that certainly is my intention.

MB: Well, Truffaut said, maybe it wasn’t original to him, that he could write any story as long as he knew the end.

DH: [Laughs] That’s good.

MB: Rian, have you faded away to your Rolex-filled bathtub?

RJ: [Laughs] Derek, yeah, sorry, I dozed off there for a bit. Derek? Can you repeat what you just said? That stuff about your book, just one more time? I’ve been on Twitter, I just …

MB: Rian, Brick, to me, was just so indelibly, as it was intended to be, a perfect update of so many classic noir and crime tropes, realized in this setting which we normally don’t think of as being classic noir. In crafting Brick, what were you reading? Watching?

RJ: Thanks, first of all. Yeah, leading up to it the thing that kind of spurred it was reading Dashiell Hammett’s novels, that was what the whole thing kind of came from and I’m sure if you are familiar with Hammett’s stuff, if you read the script for Brick, it’s very obvious that I am blatantly lifting lots of stuff from Hammett. But I guess you steal from the best. And that is where it all came from. I had been familiar with film noir and loved it, but the world he created in those books hit me in an entirely different, really powerful way. A big part of where the decision to set the whole thing in high school also came from, you know we all love film noir, but we’re also all very, very familiar with it. And the instant we see it done on the screen in a traditional way, the detective in his office with hats, we instantly know where to file it in our brains. And when I read the Hammett, it hit me in a very fresh and unexpected way and so throwing the setting off into something that you would have to process anew was kind of the first step of trying to get to that.

MB: That’s very cool and now that you mention that, I definitely do file Brick in a different place, a place that’s moving forward to a new noir crime conception as opposed to something like Miller’s Crossing, which the Coen brothers said was also a re-up of Hammett’s The Glass Key, but seems to stick closer to the classic evocation of those tropes.

RJ: Absolutely, you know, Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorite movies of all time, I actually discovered Hammett’s books through that movie. But it is more of a straight-up imagining of it. But, also, I think that Miller’s Crossing gets closer to the feel of Hammett’s books than a lot of classic film noir. It’s not just “doing the thing”; it has its own soul behind it, I think.

DH: It’s a great movie.

MB: It’s a genius movie on many levels. Genius in terms of being as you said, its own touchpoint. Just as an aside, when I watched Brick for the first time, the moment when they find the drawing of the tunnel and then we go to the tunnel was just like wow. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I can only discuss it in broad strokes, but that was, in a visual sense, that was one of those moments where you were referencing a very classic noir feel but just really making it fresh for this everyday American setting in a really dramatic and ominous way. It was really fun to see that particular sequence.

RJ: That’s cool, man, thanks. Can I make a direct note to the reader?

MB: Of course.

RJ: The note to the reader is this: that Derek’s name is pronounced to rhyme with “ass.” As opposed to rhyming with “Santa Claus,” although he bears a distinct resemblance to him.

DH: This is what I have to deal with. Thank you guys so much for setting this up.

Photos 1 and 5 by Rian Johnson. Photo 2 by Ron Phillips.

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