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Auspicious Debut: Ken Kristensen on Screenwriting & Comics

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
Auspicious Debut: Ken Kristensen on Screenwriting & Comics
Writer Ken Kristensen was awarded the Gree Nicholl Fellowship from the AMPAS, and his first graphic nove, “Todd, the Ugliest Kid on Earth”l will be released this year

Though the cross-pollination of Hollywood screenwriters and comic book scribes has intensified in recent years, Ken Kristensen finds himself emerging on both scenes simultaneously. Kristensen’s first graphic novel, “Todd, the Ugliest Kid on Earth,” will be published this year by Image Comics, and the writer has recently been awarded a Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization responsible for the Oscars. The Nicholl fellowships are awarded annually for feature-length scripts with the purpose of funding writers as they work on new screenplays throughout the year. CBR News spoke with Kristensen about the award, comics, and what might be on the horizon.

Kristensen described his Nicholl-winning screenplay “Out of Breath,” which he co-wrote with Colin Marshall, as a semi-autobiographical “dramedy” with several interconnected plot lines. “Two estranged brothers, drawn together by their father’s sudden illness, cross paths with a Mexican gambling addict on the run from the mob, and a old Jewish widower who’s intent on dating a married woman,” Kristensen told CBR. “It’s fun and funny, and sometimes dark. But it has a big heart, which I think holds all its parts together. It has the structure of a film like ‘Amores Perros’ or ‘Babel,’ three or more stories interwoven with a related theme,” he said, adding that the script features “a big mystery at the center of it and a pretty satisfying reveal at the end.”

As to what that mystery might be, the writer said it would focus on a gambling addict’s unexpected infusions of cash. This character is a Mexican illegal immigrant in debt to the mob, but his story does not follow the expected path. “He needs to raise $15,000, but every time he makes a little bit of money, he gambles it away,” Kristensen said. “He just can’t help himself, like most gambling addicts. But he begins to receive cash by a mysterious benefactor who keeps sending him cash every time seemingly unrelated people die. So he begins to kind of get addicted to these deaths — every time someone dies, he gets money, and so he’s able to stay alive another day. It’s never quite enough to pay off his debts, and the few times he seemingly does have enough, he gambles it away. So the mystery is, who is this person and why are they giving him money randomly?”

In addition to “Out of Breath,” which he hopes to see made soon, Kristensen has also recently completed a script for an action film that he has begun shopping around. “Based on my Nicholl fellowship, I’ve got dozens of meetings with studios and producers and production companies,” he said. “A lot of them are interested in my action movie, so [selling that script] is my immediate goal.”

Even as he establishes himself as an up-and-coming screenwriter, Kristensen is also emerging as a new writer to watch in the comic book industry. His first project is due to be published this year, and there is the possibility other books will appear, as well. “Todd, the Ugliest Kid on Earth,” illustrated by “Air” and “Cairo” artist M.K. Perker, will be published as an original graphic novel by Image.

“‘Todd’ is the story of a boy who is so ugly that his parents make him wear a paper bag on his head. And he is actually the most beautiful kid in the world on the inside. But his world that he lives in–his town, his parents–are about as ugly and dysfunctional as you can get,” Kristensen told CBR. “He unwittingly picks up some evidence that the town uses to scapegoat Todd as a mass murderer who’s been killing children in the town. And so Todd ends up going to prison — adult jail– where he is befriended by Eddie Bunker, the [real-life] writer and ex-convict, and he helps Todd navigate through prison.

“It is a multi-story plot, so we deal with Todd’s parents each have their own sub-plot, and then Todd himself, and the chief of police in town,” the writer continued. “And then of course the real Maniac Killer, as he’s called, we deal with his story as well. It’s about five different interwoven plot lines with Todd, of course, representing the good in the piece. And it’s a satire on small-town American culture.”

Ken Kristensen (far right) and friends

Kristensen and Perker also collaborated on a short story for Dark Horse’s “Escapist” anthology, based on Michael Chabon’s characters from “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” — though with that series on hiatus it’s difficult to say when or if that story will appear. Kristensen’s story imagines a French “Escapist” comic from the 1970s.

Kristensen did say, though, that he and Perker have another project in the works. “We’re looking at our next graphic novel project, which is called ‘Playground,’ so hopefully I’ll have another graphic novel sold and a feature film or two sold in 2009.”

As to how screenwriting compares to comics, Kristensen enjoys working in the similar yet distinct media. “I’ve always been a hard-core comic guy since birth, and wrote comics long before I even knew screenplays existed. Obviously, they’re two completely different types of writing, comics being, for me, a little bit more collaborative,” he said. “Usually having an artist already on-board means a great opportunity to collaborate in terms of writing the visual aspects of the story, whereas feature films, there are whole pieces that you can pretty much count on being 100-110 pages.

“Comics are actually a lot more liberating to me. I find the comic audience’s ability to accept stories told in a variety of formats and a variety of themes is so much more refreshing than what Hollywood demands. So I enjoy writing comics more than I enjoy writing screenplays, but both have their merits, that’s for sure.”

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