REFLECTIONS: J. Michael Straczynski, Part I

Prolific writer J. Michael Straczynski rocketed to fame in television by creating and showrunning the popular "Babylon 5" series, won high praise in comics with the epic "Rising Stars" and made big waves with his controversial run on "Amazing Spider-Man." Straczynski's tenure on the Spidey title began with a tweak to Spider-Man's origin and ended with one of the most notorious Spider-Man stories ever, "One More Day," which saw Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane Watson literally wished away. Straczynski was unhappy with the final product and went public with his feelings, sparking a huge debate on editorial mandates within the superhero end of the comics industry. Straczynski did not end his relationship with Marvel, of course, and is currently penning the maxiseries "The Twelve" and the critically-lauded and best-selling re-launch of "Thor."

Straczynski has also written one of the most buzzed about films of 2008, "Changeling." Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie, the film is set in the 1920s and tells the story of a woman who suspects the child returned to her after a kidnapping is not in fact hers.

In this week's REFLECTIONS, Straczynski talks about all that and more, including updates on his work with the Wachowski Brothers and his adaptation of "World War Z."

You've just returned from the Cannes Film Festival. How did that go for you?

It was an extraordinary week there for the premier of "The Changeling." Being in a twenty-one car motorcade preceded followed by French police to a premier with thousands of people including Angelina Jolie and Clint Eastwood was an experience.

The "Changeling" reviews coming out of Cannes have been rather glowing.

Yeah. There is a lot of work coming my way, with great people to work with in surprising numbers and density. There is a validation that any writer longs for that is coming out of it. So it's safe to say I'm doing very well right now.

Tell us a little about making "Changeling."

It was very painless and very gratifying. The usual process in this business is that the director comes to the script and makes changes, and then there are more changes from the set, but here [Clint Eastwood] basically shot the first draft as written. That does not happen very often.

First they said Ron Howard wanted to produce it. Then that Clint Eastwood wanted to direct it. Then that Angelina Jolie wanted to star in it. And they shot my first draft. I can't say that, because they did change the word "Scrabble" to "Crossword Puzzle" because that was not invented until a few years later, but that was the only thing that got changed.

Angelina was gracious, and on set they kept the press at arm's length so she would be left alone enough to focus on the work. She gave a terrific performance in the movie, and I could not be happier.

Now that you've seen the finished product, is it safe to say it met all of your expectations?

Ultimately, the question is whether it is a good movie or not. I know that it is a great film. The performances are so strong and the directing is great. It survives the script [laughs]. Everyone around the production and the critics are saying this is Oscar bait for next year, and I can see this being nominated for direction, picture and actress.

Writing, who knows? Right now that would be beyond my comprehension.

You are also working on a Wachowski Brothers film called "Ninja Assassin,"

The Wachowski Brothers are friends of mine and have been for several years now. They called me on a Monday to ask if I could come in and help them out. They were six weeks to camera on a movie called "Ninja Assassin" and said they needed a new draft written. I asked when they had to have the script and they said "Friday."


I went home and wrote a new script, front to back, top to bottom, fade in to fade out, in fifty-three hours. I put in seven hours of sleep in three days. Warner Bros. loved it, had no notes, and it's shooting right now. It's quite the land-speed record.

What else are you working on, film-wise?

Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass and I are working on a film called "They Marched Into Sunlight." They loved the script, though the only note they had on it was that they wanted to see more of the Vietnamese Army's point-of-view. It's based on a non-fiction novel from the '60s. Paul wants to make it his next film. Once I get that revision turned around we will see what happens.

The adaptation of "World War Z" is in and done. Everyone is very happy with it, and now they are figuring out the best marketing campaign for it, since it is a political/thriller/zombie movie, which is not something you tend to see a lot of. That is for Brad Pitt's company.

I'm also doing a draft of "The Greys" for Wolfgang Petersen, based on the Whitley Strieber novel, and that is due at the end of this month.

What's it like to work with Wolfgang Petersen?

He's the nicest guy on the planet. He's a warm fellow with great ideas and is a hoot to work with.

I'm working on a spec script called "The Flickering Light" for Ron Howard as well. The best part of what I am doing is that I am working with nice people, and that is great.

Have you any aspirations to direct any of these scripts?

It varies. I know where my incompetence sets in, and that is a very good thing to have since there is so much of it in my case. [laughs]

There are some things that would be interesting to direct, and I have been told by Joel Silver that they want me to direct, it just comes down to finding the right thing. "World War Z" would be much too big for me to direct, but at some point I would like to direct, as long as all the scenes are night scenes. That would be ideal because I write every day from about seven at night to three in the morning. Then I crash and get up eight hours later, try to find my face, and after my face and I have been united, I get back to work.

With all this mainstream film work coming after years in television and then years in comics, does it feel like you are starting a new chapter in your professional life?

I am 53-years-old. That is not terrible. But I've spent the last 25 years in television, and finished up with "Jeremiah," which was horrible. I took a couple years off, then looked back at it as the story of me. Financially I am fine, and so if I stopped writing tomorrow they could look back on me as the creator of "Babylon 5," which is a perfectly worthy and fine thing to do.

And then along came "Changeling," and now the third act has been rewritten, and it seems I have woken up in someone else's life. It is a new chapter, and it is an unexpected and welcome chapter. When "Changeling" was written, those with whom I met, for the most part, did not know who I was. It was all based on the words on the page. I could have been 80, or I could have been 20. It was all down to the words. That is the message for those out there trying to break in. It all comes down to the quality of your storytelling. It doesn't matter what school you went to, or what your grades were, or whether you have friends in the business or not, if the words and story are there, and you are in the right place at the right time, things can happen.

What new expectations have you set for yourself in this new chapter?

I am unable to quit writing completely. It is something that I love and something I can do well, and there aren't many of those. I will always write. But it would be nice to, over the next several years, slow down a little bit. I have been writing ten hours a day since I was 18. I am basically looking for all the best stories to do and having a good time with them.

In two or three years, I'd like to pull back and do one screenplay a year and the comics I want to write, and have fun. This past November I took the first vacation I had in 20 years. Not even a weekend vacation.

What did you do?

I went to London and Paris. There is this book of "Lord of the Rings" that has this great picture of Tolkein on the back cover standing next to a tree, a proper tree, next to a stream, and he looked content. He had proved everything he had to prove and now he could sit by a stream and watch it. And when I saw that at age 21, I knew I wanted that. And now I think I'm in a position to get that. I also want to teach a little bit. I enjoy teaching.

Let's break down what specifically you love about all the mediums you work in, beginning with film.

I love the degree with which you can dig into a character. With comics you've got 22 pages and are done. In a movie, you can drop anchor into a character and do things visually that you can't do elsewhere. It is also a venue that is exposed to billions of people, and for any writer, that is the ultimate goal. If your goal is to touch people with your story, then the more you touch the better it is. It is highly lucrative and you work with smart people.

And you get to see it up on the big screen.

What about television?

The difference between television and film is that television is more of a writer's venue and film is a director's venue. There is complete control over the material, and you can hire the director who shares your vision.

There is also the immediacy of it. You are constantly chased by this train, throwing pages out behind you into the engine and cannot stop from the moment you start production for six months. There is something scary about that, but something very exciting as well. You write it, and then four weeks later or six weeks later you see it on the air. And you do it 22 times. I like that challenge and that kind of adrenaline.

What are you watching on television that you are really enjoying?

I love "Dexter," which is probably the smartest show on television. I enjoy "The Tudors" a great deal. I am watching a lot of British television as well. There isn't a lot of dramatic television on now that jumps out at me.

Let's talk about what you get out of comics you can't get elsewhere.

Comics is where I feed the geek. I grew up on comics. It taught me language and a sense of morality that I have to this day. There are no budget restrictions. You can blow up a planet and have all the extras your artist can draw, with all the creative freedom you want. You don't have to worry about commercial breaks, either.

Looking back over what you have written so far in comics, what were the high points for you?

The restart of "Thor" has been terrific. I love the "Silver Surfer: Requiem" miniseries I did. I am pretty critical of my own work, and I am pleased with those.

Then there is the 9/11 issue of "Amazing Spider-Man." That is probably a peak experience. It represented a chance to use comics for a higher purpose. Kids don't tend to watch "Nightline" so that was not the venue for them to understand what was going on, and that put the event into perspective while being a meditation on what happened. I heard from policemen and firemen who were there and passed it around in schools and heard that reverends used it in sermons. That issue had a tremendous impact on readers.

When they asked me to write it initially, I didn't know how. Peter Parker was the obvious choice, since he was a New Yorker, but I didn't know how to tell it. One day we were shooting on location for "Jeremiah" and I was in the producer's trailer in a beautiful, mountainous area, and tried to take one final try at it. I pulled a pad out, and this thing came out, and in 45 minutes the whole thing, end to end, came out. I had never written in that style before and don't know where it came from. The whole thing is a prose poem, really. I sent it out to Marvel and there were tears when they read it, and it came out as written.

We hit the high points, now why don't we talk about the low points.

When I'm left to my own devices, I can do what I feel is a competent job. When I start to get mandates and edicts written into my ear and am suddenly being pulled into events and crossovers and being yanked one way or the other, I don't do my best work because I can feel the hand on my shoulder. Cases like those are the low point moments.

To credit Marvel and [Editor-in-Chief] Joe [Quesada] and [Publisher] Dan [Buckley], every so often, everyone runs into a bump with those above in the creative food chain. As executive producer I would have to step in with writers working below me and tell them something had to be done a certain way, and we would argue, but in the end I had the pointy hat and I won. At Marvel, I have to respect that, at the end of the day, they have the pointy hat. When we disagree, it is because we care passionately about what we are working on. No one cares more about Spider-Man than Joe Quesada. He has strong ideas, I have strong ideas, and sometimes they run into each other. But anyone who says anything negative about Joe Quesada has to go through me first. I say that sincerely. I'm sure the writers under me said that when we argued and they were overridden were their low points. Ultimately, it comes down to the person at the top of the ladder making the tough decisions. Fans can yell about Joe and Dan, but he turned that company around from a company that was bankrupt to something of value. People tend to forget that.

Tell us about "Thor."

Joe had mentioned they were bringing back Thor, but were talking to Neil [Gaiman] about it. I thought, "Damn!" because I really wanted to do it, but respected the food chain. Ultimately, Neil didn't have the time to do it, and it got bounced to Mark Millar, and when the ball came to play I jumped as high as I could to get it. I'm a huge Thor fan and had a very specific notion about what to do with that.

When they asked me what I would do, I said, "Asgard in Oklahoma." I told them to trust me, and I wanted to go back to the roots of mythology in general. If you look at classic Greek, Roman and Norse mythology, you can walk across a field and walk into Diana or any other god who was part of a landscape. They were accessible, and their presence defined their relationship with us.

I wanted to get away from the middle-English style of writing. I could never understand why they did that. I wanted to go for a more stylized and more authentic dialogue style that had the weight without the style getting in the way, because it could get really thick sometimes. It's really had to be more subtle, yet give it weight. Of all the things I write, the Asgardian dialogue takes the most time, because I take extra time to make sure it sounds right and proper. The writing is formal and accessible, and it took forever to write, and Marvel yelled at me, rightly so. That is the challenge of it.

You mentioned wanting to get back to the roots of the mythology, which at times can be so dense and convoluted. Give us some examples?

Loki is more subtle now. He is now the hammer coming at your head, he is the serpent at your breast whispering in your ear and makes you question yourself. The vast range of characters is part of the fun. Fitting all the characters into the tapestry of "Babylon 5" made me feel at home, for example.

Do you read reviews of your work or follow the sales?

I tend not to read reviews because if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones. I know "Thor" got a lot of positive press, and has been getting glowing reviews. That is great, but you cannot buy into that or you believe your own PR, and that is death. You cannot think your stuff is pretty cool, because you can always do better.

Tell us a little about your "Thor" artist Oliver Coipel.

He is terrific. When I first talked to Marvel about taking on Thor, I talked to Marvel about getting an artist who could give him weight and make you feel like he could knock over a mountain. Not necessarily a hulking brute, but someone who has been chiseled out of stone. He brings so much to the structure of Asgard and the faces of the cast, which is so critical to the things I write, because if you can't see the emotions, then you are dead. He can play the humor as well as the seriousness. It is a joy to see his work.

What? Not enough? Just wait until next week, when the writer talks to CBR News about working with DC Comics, advising aspiring writers, what team-ups you will and will not see in his new series "The Brave and the Bold," and much, much more.

Now discuss this story in CBR's Marvel Comics forum.

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Tags: j michael straczynski, thor, one more day, changeling, reflections

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