J. Michael Straczynski: Origin of a Writer

When asked by moderator Jason Davis why he became a writer, "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski responded, "I had no choice. I knew from day one I was going to be a writer." The former "Amazing Spider-Man" scribe spoke at Screenwriter's Expo last Friday about his experiences as a professional writer for television, film and comics.

"I come from lower-middle class, blue collar, working, New Jersey-born roots," Straczynski continued. "At fifteen, I just started writing one day."

Format agnostic at the time, Straczynski began selling short stories, articles and plays shortly thereafter. To him, the difference between the writer and the wannabe is very well defined: "There are some folks who just want the point hat of having sold something. Writing is a day-in/day-out profession," he said. Utilizing another analogy, Straczynski called writing "Digging for oil. Before you can get the oil out, you have to pump out water and mud and dinosaur bones and crap before you get to the oil."

While in a dry spell during junior college, Straczynski called writer Harlan Ellison, who had put his home phone number in a novel. Straczynski took the opportunity to glean some advice from the notoriously blunt author. Ellison said to him, "My advice: stop writing shit." An important thing a beginning writer must be willing to do, he says, is "be willing to fail."

On breaking into the television industry, Straczynski remarked, "I snuck in." Working in the magazine trade in the early 1980s, he moved to Southern California. Eventually he found himself at People Magazine. Of that experience, Straczynski said, "If there's a tenth circle of hell, it's probably People Magazine." One morning, Straczynski was in a meeting with the West Coast Bureau Chief and the other writers to pitch stories for upcoming issues. One writer pitched a story about the National Rape Hotline, which had recently started. The Bureau Chief responded, "Rape's been very good to us." When it was Straczynski's turn to pitch, he drew a blank, went to his desk and packed up his stuff. "I thought I had to get clean," he said of his decision to quit the magazine.

After a time, he wrote an animation script. Breaking the rules, he sent it directly to producers. Eventually he met with one, sold a handful of scripts, and was offered a staff position in the Writing Room. Straczynski said, however, that this is only one story of breaking in. "You are constantly breaking in," he said. " There's no point where you think, 'I made it.'"

Straczynski did give one tip to aspiring TV writers: "Pitch [a story] for the star, but aim one or two [ideas] at the supporting cast. They're always looking for those stories." Supporting players have contractual obligation to appear in certain number of episodes a year, but often find their characters given very little to do. Producers constantly look for material to give to those overlooked players.

After difficult times on the television series "Crusade" and "Jeremiah," Straczynski was getting a reputation as a "pain in the ass." He said, "I've been working in television non-stop for twenty years; which is two hundred years of normal person time." Needing a break, he worked on the concept for feature script "Changeling" and entered comic books.

Straczynski always avoided features until that moment. "It's a crap-shoot. In television, they order twenty-two shows, you produce twenty-two shows. With features, you can be in development hell forever and I didn't want to be there," he said. Feeling he tried all the other formats, he decided to roll the dice. Using the story he heard about years earlier, Straczynski worked at "Changeling." His agent read the first draft, passed it along to producer Ron Howard, who quickly bought it with an eye to direct the film. When that fell through, Clint Eastwood came onboard -- and the shot Straczynski's first draft.

"At that point, you just want to shoot yourself because there will never be anything better than that," Straczynski joked. "Suddenly, I was an A-list writer. People were calling me and saying, 'Who are you? Where did you come from?'"

Subsequently, Straczynski was offered the job of adapting the zombie novel "World War Z." The writer says his choice to take it was simple. "It's zombies!" This baffled studio people because he'd just come off a serious Oscar-caliber drama. The same impulse got him involved in the upcoming re-imagining "Forbidden Planet." "If you can't enjoy the process and the writing of the story, no one is going to enjoy reading it," he clarified. "Try and find things that fun for you to do."

In regards to "World War Z," Straczynski said the challenge was creating a main character out of a book that reads as a UN Report on the zombie wars. Straczynski's solution: "Create the guy who wrote that report. Follow his process."

To Straczynski, comics offer one major advantage over screen writing: limitless budget. "You can write 'a planet blows up' and it costs as much to draw as a guy standing in one room," he explained. The major disadvantage is the lack of movement. Not having the luxury to give a character dynamic action like "he walked out," Straczynski felt he needed to relearn his own profession when he first came to comics. "I couldn't wrap my mind around that. The first few things that wrote are kind of marginal, in my opinion."

Straczynski says the best thing that has happened to him in comics is the 9/11 issue of "Amazing Spider-Man." "Out came this prose poem mediation in a style that I've never written before or afterward in." It took Straczynski forty-five minutes to write the issue.

During the question-and-answer session, Straczynski let it slip that he undertook a major rewrite of the Wachowski Brothers' "Ninja Assassin."

Straczynski recalled another story from his early days. While at college in San Diego, he set up a table during a career fair. A man came up and read his stories. Afterward, he told Straczynski, "You have a great and abiding talent for someone of your age. I have two pieces of advice for you. First, cut every third adjective. Second, never let them stop you from telling the story you want to tell." The man was Rod Serling, creator of "The Twilight Zone." Straczynski marked him as one of his favorite writers.

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