Derek Haas and Rian Johnson on Popcorn Fiction

We’re thrilled to announce that PopcornFiction.com, the brilliant genre fiction short story showcase created by screenwrtiter Derek Haas, has joined forces with Mulholland Books. In the weeks and months to come, we look forward to shining a light on Popcorn Fiction, and running select Popcorn Fiction stories on MulhollandBooks.com. Follow the PopcornFiction.com link today to read a short story by Alvaro Rodriguez, writer of MACHETE. And much, much more…

To learn more about the origins of PF, check out the below conversation between Derek Haas (WANTED, 3:10 to Yuma) and writer/director Rian Johnson (BRICK, THE BROTHERS BLOOM).

Rian Johnson: Derek Haas, you and your writing partner, Michael Brandt, virtually poop little nuggets of box-office gold. At this point in your career, you could, without exaggeration, afford to just fill a claw-foot bathtub up with gold Rolexes and luxuriate nakedly for the rest of your days without lifting another finger. Why, then, I put to you, start Popcorn Fiction? Why start a site dedicated to the … I don’t want to call it the lost art, but something that definitely had its heyday back in the fifties, this kind of pulpy short-form fiction. What was the thing that kind of spurred you to start the site up?

Derek Haas: First of all, it’s an honor to get to be interviewed by one my contemporary heroes of the modern cinema whose award-winning and well-loved films …

RJ: [Laughs]

DH: Never mind. I can’t do that with a straight face. OK, now, Popcorn Fiction, the idea originated when I was just thinking that I love old genre fiction, and it seems like screenwriters every week were setting up some story, a Philip K. Dick story, to be adapted into a movie, or an Isaac Asimov story. Michael and I had adapted an Elmore Leonard short story from the fifties into the movie 3:10 to Yuma. I was just thinking to myself where has all this great genre fiction gone? I’m sure there are magazines dedicated to it, but if there are, no one in Hollywood is reading them. I just thought so many screenwriters who I know love genre movies, love the L.A. Confidentials of the world, The Bourne Identitys, but no one seems to be writing that stuff in short form anymore and in prose. I just, literally, went to ten or so of my screenwriting friends and said, “Would you guys be interested in doing this? Maybe I’ll start a magazine.” Then I realized quickly I had zero idea on how to start a magazine. So I turned to the Internet and set up the site Popcorn Fiction. I got a great response from my screenwriter friends and commissioned them to write 2,000- to 8,000-word stories and really went for genre stories, not the kind of thing that would appear in The New Yorker. Let me qualify that by saying that, obviously, The New Yorker publishes the top, top short-fiction writing in the world. Not to take anything away from The New Yorker, but it’s not the kind of thing that is usually turned into films. Anyway, so that was my goal—get screenwriters writing short fiction, get executives in Hollywood reading short fiction, and maybe we would have a new door into getting original films made because it just seems like everything these days is based on a sequel or a comic book or a graphic novel or an old TV show. I just thought, “Well, maybe here’s a new way to generate some ideas.”

RJ: That’s interesting, from the very inception, the idea of this being geared toward the transition from print into movies was something that was on your mind from the very start.

DH: Yes, I had a publicist when this first started who was going to help me get it out there. And I told her, I really don’t care about the rest of the world reading this, I’d be delighted if this reached outside of Hollywood, and we found readers and fans around the world. But my primary target is Hollywood executives, and within the first six months of publishing, really the first ten to fifteen stories I published—I have a little subscriber button on the site and the subscriber button is basically asking people to just give me their e-mails and I won’t use that e-mail for anything else, and I will notify you when the new story is up—and within the first six months, I probably had five hundred subscribers and I would bet half of those were Hollywood executives.

RJ: Oh, wow. I know a lot of the writers who have contributed to Popcorn Fiction have been screenwriters and you have some, some titans of the screenwriting initiative, you have you know, John August and Scott Frank, but then you also have lesser-known poetasters like myself, and Craig Mazin. (Kidding, Craig, kidding.) What percentage of the contributors do you think are actually screenwriters, as opposed to people who are novelists or write short stories for living?

DH: It’s got to be 80 percent. Because I have written a couple of novels, I’ve met a few more novelists but because I live in Hollywood, I know more screenwriters, and I didn’t open up the site to outside general submissions at first. It was really just who my contacts were, who I could call and say, “Do you want to do this?” and so I just don’t know as many novelists.  The ones I do meet, I immediately hit up and say “Are you interested?” and I published a Sam Reaves short story.  A few weeks ago, I ran a woman named Alicia Gifford’s short story, she’s a novelist.  So, there are a few but they would be an exception.

RJ: Well, since you’re saying it, back in the heyday of pulp fiction, in the fifties, it seemed like a lot of novelists got their start in magazines before they launched into their careers. I guess there were a lot of screenwriters also, but you have Isaac Asimov, Dashiell Hammett, guys like that. How do you think it affects the stories that are on the site, the fact that these are now screenwriters who are doing this, who are maybe more consciously gearing their work toward the screen? As opposed to, like you said, screenwriters who are drawing from now, in the past they were coming from more of a short story background.

DH: It’s funny because at first I thought, you know, I am a pretty cynical guy myself. And so I thought I was going to receive stories that were basically movie pitches written out in prose form. And there have been a couple of those, but for the most part, I think writers are writers. And there is a prose itch there that screenwriters wanted to scratch and maybe take chances with things that wouldn’t sell, but that they had in them.

And especially those early stories—well, really all the way through—I keep getting surprised by the fiction that I get where the stories are not obvious movies.  But you know, some of the best movies that come from stories weren’t obvious movies and it takes a screenwriter breaking it down into a whole different format.

But I would say really a much higher percentage of the short fiction I’ve received is literature. And it does remind me of that heyday of the fifties.  Take, for example, Brian Helgeland’s story, “Veronica Majeure”—Helgeland is an Oscar-winning screenwriter. And I thought, well, maybe he’ll be sending me whatever his next pitch is or whatever he wants to do.

But no, it’s this little tight smart short story about a contract killer stuck in Dublin because the Icelandic volcano has grounded all the flights. And it’s great. It’s an enclosed story in probably five thousand words that isn’t a movie. You know—it’s just a tight little story. So I have been surprised and feel gratified that this is taking on its own life.

RJ: I know that one of the early successes in that way for the site was a short story you wrote called “Shake.” At this point, have there been other stories that have sold as pitches or are now on their way toward becoming movies?

DH:  It’s funny—I flat out don’t care about monetizing the site. And when I first started, everyone was trying to tell me how they could set up ads and do all these things and I should get a percentage of whoever’s story I publish and all this. And I said, I don’t care, I just love genre fiction. I love classic radio, you know, where a lot of these writers cut their teeth too. These old radio programs like Gunsmoke and X Minus One and Philip Marlowe stuff. So I told the writers that if you publish on here, you keep your copyright, I have nothing to do with it.  You 100 percent maintain it—if you want to set up the rights, if you want to sell the rights, set up the movie, whatever you want, it’s all on you.

Besides mine, I know Beth Schacter got her story optioned. And I know Michael Gilvary wrote a couple of short stories on my site and then got hired to work on the new television show called Breakout Kings. Hired directly off of someone reading his stories. So I think there are success stories from writers that may or may not be that story getting adapted, you know what I mean?

RJ: Well, as you know, radio dramas are something that are very near and dear to my heart also. We’ve geeked out over them many times. Have you ever considered any sort of crossover? It seems like a lot of the short stories on the site would lend themselves really well. I know it would be kind of talking about dead art forms, radio drama, but have you ever considered a crossover with that world?

DH: Yeah, funny that you mention it. Sirius XM radio has a great classic radio channel. Greg Bell is the host, and I contacted Greg just on a whim. I said, “Greg, I started this website but your channel was an inspiration …” and Greg is one of those—he’s almost like an encyclopedia of classic radio. So he immediately e-mailed me back and he said, “Oh, I would love to do a brand-new radio drama.” And he loved Gilvary—the writer I just mentioned—his first story is called “Unconditional”—and said, “This would be a perfect adaptation!”

And so I put Gilvary in contact with Bell and just said, you know, “Go with God” [laughs] and told him I don’t know how this will turn out or whatever. Popcorn Radio may be in our future.

RJ: Yeah, exactly. I could see it. A podcast.

DH: We need you to direct one, Rian.

RJ: I’m in for it, man, just give me a ring.

DH: So, Rian, I have a question for you. You wrote a Popcorn Fiction piece that was different than every other one.  Can you talk a little bit about your “Man in the Herringbone Hat”? The inspiration? I’d love that.

RJ: “The Man in the Herringbone Hat” is a kind of like a story-poem. It’s inspired by this poem that Shel Silverstein wrote that I heard Ricky Jay perform. My main exposure to that type of thing comes from songs, actually. It’s kind of like a story ballad. So it’s in this very loose cockamamie meter and rhyme. It’s a story about a guy who meets a mysterious stranger on a train. The nice thing about writing in verse—it’s much more spread out on the page so you can write much less and it still looks just as long. And I still get my twenty dollars from you.

DH: [Laughs] Did you already know about Popcorn Fiction when you thought “This is what I wanna do,” or had you been toying with the idea of this and —

RJ: I had been toying with it before, but just kind of put it in a drawer—but when the idea of the site came up, I wondered how malleable the restrictions were on the site and wondered whether this would fit in. But it seems like it kinda fits in …

DH: I thought it was great and I know the reader response to that particular one … it’s always nice ’cause on Monday nobody knows what’s coming next. Is it going to be sci-fi, is it going to be crime, is it going to be a humor piece? We had Larry Doyle do a couple of humor pieces—he’s a New Yorker writer … and when yours popped up, I got a bunch of letters back about how much [readers] enjoyed it. ‘Cause it really is a short story … it just happens to be in a poem. More importantly, when are you gonna write me another Popcorn Fiction piece?

RJ: I’d love to. Can I, can I?

DH: Yes. And have you ever thought about writing a novel?

RJ: Yeah, yeah. I love writing prose, man. I would really … I would love to someday, it’s just that if it’s possible, I’m even lazier than you, so that’s been my only obstacle so far. But yeah, someday. I will, I will.

Part two of this interview where Haas and Johnson discuss their various film projects and Haas’ award-nominated Columbus series.

Derek Haas is the co-writer, with his partner Michael Brandt, of the films 3:10 to Yuma and WANTED. He is the author of the novels THE SILVER BEAR and COLUMBUS, and his third novel in the series will be out next summer. His partner directed and he produced the film THE DOUBLE, starring Richard Gere and Topher Grace, which will be out next year.

Rian Johnson has written and directed two films, BRICK and THE BROTHERS BLOOM. He is currently hard at work directing his third film, LOOPER, which will star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt.