J. Michael Straczynski didn't waste a minute of his Spotlight panel panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego last weekend. As fans of his work filed in to fill the 1,508-person capacity room, Straczynski, or JMS as he is known, reminisced on growing up in San Diego and going to college at San Diego State. He moved a lot when he was younger and found that places were always different but the books he found were always the same so those were always a comfort for him. The writer told of being at the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France earlier in the year alongside Clint Eastwood, Angelina Jolie and Ron Howard, all contributors to "Changeling," a movie for which he wrote the screenplay, and how amazing it was to be there, being "a kid from Jersey" by way of San Diego. JMS's reminiscing followed words of encouragement to writers and creators to follow their dreams, a theme he returned to often throughout the panel.
After his introduction and once everyone had settled into their seats, Straczynski, always standing, opened up the floor to fan questions, which were every bit as varied as the work he has done, touching upon everything from his earliest writing to teases about what he has planned for the future. The line of fans with questions only became less then a dozen people long toward the end, before attendees realized they didn't need to be so respectful in not asking about the controversial Spider-Man story "One More Day."
The first question was about the "World War Z" movie, for which Straczynski wrote the screenplay. He said it would be a straight adaptation of Max Brooks' popular novel and he wasn't going to change any of the really great scenes in the book. The script turned out well and now they're looking for a director. He added to this that his career has hit a high point, having written 10 movie scripts in the last two years, and that he has started his own production company called And The Horse You Rode In On Productions.
The next question, about writing DC Comics' "Brave & the Bold," brought the announcement that DC had re-acquired the rights to the Archie superheroes and that those characters would be re-introduced in stories co-starring Batman. The characters would have a clean slate and their new first appearances would be their origin stories, origins which might even involve Batman or other DC Universe characters. The Shield would be the first hero re-introduced in this way. In between the stories with the Archie heroes, there would be team-ups of strange pairings, like Supergirl and Solomon Grundy.
Jumping to Straczynski's most popular creation, the television series "Babylon 5," a fan asked if there were future plans for the show and its spin-off movies, especially stories featuring individual characters. Straczynski seemed dismayed about what happened to the property but was appreciative of the continuing interest by fans. He said that Warner Bros. never quite understood the series -- they never had much faith that the DVDs would sell well, and when they eventually did, only gave JMS $2 million to make a straight-to-DVD movie. The budget severely limited what they could do with a movie and Straczynski said he has no interest in doing anything with the property that would be less than a big-budget feature film. The audience seemed disappointed that there would be no future "Babylon 5" but were respectful that Straczynski would only do it if it was as good as it could be.
A question about "Lensman" had Straczynski telling a story about how he was a big fan of the books and that there was even a blurb by him on a cover, so the rights were bought for him to write the screenplay with a franchise of films in mind, with Ron Howard directing. JMS plans to start prepping this in the next year.
One fan asked if he has ever considered writing a textbook on producing television and movies and Straczynski said that he was certainly interested in teaching and passing what he knows to the next generation. He would like to teach at a junior college, which is where he had the most important parts of his education. He said he may indeed write an educational book in the future.
"Midnight Nation" was the next work Straczynski was asked about and he said that it was always intended to be a finite series. He said further that, as well as being one of his favorite stories he has done, it was also his most personal. JMS said the story happened when he was at a very dark part of his life, at a point where he had an "it," as a person always defines their life "before 'it'" and "after 'it'." He also said that he plans to make "Midnight Nation" into a screenplay. Speaking further about the personal nature of his story, he said that you have to feel your writing, to touch events emotionally, and that the best writing is about touching passion then coming back and telling about it.
The next fan asked about Straczynski's work on the "Ghostbusters" cartoon and Straczynski surprised the audience by saying that working on that show was one of the best creative experiences he'd had, as he had the freedom to do what he wanted with his stories and that was where he learned to trust his instincts in his writing.
The next question was about "Squadron Supreme"/"Supreme Power" and what happened with it, that not only did he leave the book but that he also left it on a cliffhanger. Straczynski said that when the focus of the book shifted from Mark, the main character, to the rest of the team, the air went out of him and the stories went downhill. Joe Quesada and the editors of the book decided to keep the series going, which he was fine with and seemed confident that new writer Howard Chaykin could do a good job on it. He apologized more than once for leaving the book as he did.
In answer to a question about his upcoming television work, Straczynski hinted about a new series he was about to begin work on that would first be on the BBC then in America, and that would begin preparation next year at the soonest.
A fan bafflingly asked about work by Straczynski's friend Harlan Ellison and Straczynski used that moment to give another lesson about writing, telling a story that early in his career he found he could mimic any other writer's style but that he had to learn to tell stories in his own voice and the best writers are those who write like they talk, and vice versa, and that the best writing is the simplest.
Asked about a Babylon 5 video game, JMS said last year was happening but that he vetoed the deal when, once again, Warner Bros. wanted to do it too cheaply for it to be any good.
Next was "Amazing Spider-Man" and how Straczynski had gone about writing that. He said that, as a writer, he had to respect what had come before his stories but that he also wanted to ask questions and do something new with the characters.
When asked about "Changeling," Straczynski told a lengthy story about how the story that is the movie came to be and how it originated from complex but true events in a corrupt and dark 1920s Los Angeles. The audience gasped as he glanced over parts of the plot of the movie, just detailing enough to make sure everyone in the room would surely see it when it comes out. He also said that after doing two years of research and thinking about the story, he wrote a draft in 11 days and that is what the filmmakers shot. Clint Eastwood, when asked about why he shot the movie straight from a first draft, said that he had made a lot of movies and knew when to not mess with a good story. Straczynski said the only alteration made to his script was changing Scrabble to "a crossword puzzle" because Scrabble wouldn't come out for another two years after when the movie takes place.
When a fan asked about "Silver Surfer: Requiem," which is astory about how a man with the powers of a god faces death, Straczynski took the opportunity to repeat that a good writer writes for him or herself.
A fan asked about "Jeremiah" and Straczynski said that working on that show was the worst experience he's ever had in writing. He only stayed around because he had a contract, and that he would have nothing else to do with the show if it continued.
The next fan asked for advice on writing large projects, something Straczynski has had some experience in. Straczynski said that he treats each scene as its own story and that he breaks any big story into small bits. He advised to look at the big picture in the story just enough to pull the story together then zoom in on what's in front of you and work on that.
When asked about what Straczynski had planned with "Babylon 5" if he could have continued with it, Straczynski said the outline he had included in the "Babylon 5" scriptbook included what he had always planned and that what he had planned originally, including the ending, never changed.
Closing in on the end of the panel, Straczynski said, when asked about the Brand New Da era of Spider-Man, that he had not read it. A fan suddenly jumped to ask a question about how Straczynski ended his eight-year Spider-Man run. Straczynski said that Quesada had come to him with the idea for "One More Day" and basically dictated the story to him. Straczynski disagreed with what Quesada wanted to do but respected that the Editor-in-Chief was the custodian of the care of the Spider-Man character and he still wrote the story.
Straczynski then thanked the audience for coming and put the microphone down, a nice note to bring the panel to a close.
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