Friday, June 5, 2015

SCHOLARLY STEVEN GRANT

Scholarly Steven Grant (2 GUNS, THE PUNISHER) held court in the Recondite Pictures commissary and offered us a peak into the mind of the consummate action writer!

Here's what he said:

RP:  2 Guns was a great action movie. How did you come up with that story? How long did it take you to tighten that story for 2 Guns. That story was so tightly written. I really admire how breezy it seemed while every single element played a part in the narrative. Every motivation was clear, etc.  It was very skilled economical writing. How did you write such a tight story? How long did that take?

SG:  I assume you mean the comic, as I didn’t have anything to do with the screenplay aside from providing the basis for it, but Blake Masters, who did write the screenplay, I know made a point of sticking close to the graphic novel’s plot points. 2 Guns was a long time in the making, but it was made in a relatively short period. I got the underlying idea – undercover cops pitted against each other because they think the other undercover cops are criminals – sometime in the early ‘90s but it wasn’t an era where anyone in comics was willing to entertain that sort of material. I don’t recall exactly when I had filtered it down into 2 Guns, but Ross [Richie, Boom! publisher] remembers me running it past him c. 1997. By the late ‘90s I’d hit a lull in my schedule & wasn’t working, & 2 Guns was just an idea that kept nagging me so I threw caution to the winds & decided to write it up. It took three or four months but I didn’t work on it constantly. It was one of the few stories, though, that pretty much came to me full blown (Badlands was another) & the main problem was working out the structural mechanics of it. It’s kind of like fitting a jigsaw puzzle together. All the pieces are there but you don’t necessarily know how they fit together or recognize off the bat what any individual piece might be. But once you figure out the frame, the rest of it just falls into place.

I kind of work like that anyway. I’ve read the books & taken the courses, etc., where they tell you to work out the structure, & develop the character backstories, & identify your theme & work out this & work out that, & do all this prep work & THEN start “writing your story,” but I find it very difficult to work like that. It’s basically asking the writer to do the work of the critic, but approaching a story through its pieces is alien to me. A story shouldn’t be an assemblage of pieces. We all start with some sort of underlying idea, sure – with 2 Guns, it was “Two low-rent crooks rob a drug bank, but what neither of them knows is both of them are undercover cops & it’s not a drug bank, it’s a CIA money laundry. Hilarity ensues.” Literally. That was the pitch – but you can’t really know what your plot is until you see how your characters behave, you can’t really know how they’ll behave until you know how they think, & you can’t know how they think until you hear how they talk. You never really know what your theme is until you’ve finished the story, & you never really know what your story’s about until you know how it ends. I think it’s dangerous to plan out too much in advance. You can get too attached to bits, whether scenes, characters, dialogue, whatever, & fight too hard to keep them when the story ends up shifting gears. The toughest thing about writing is having to shoot your favorite children in the head. You have to believe whatever you’ve thought of you’ll think of something better before you’re done.

RP:  How do you come up with characters?

SG:  I take a tripartite approach to characters. All stories have three types. 1) The focal character(s). This is the person (or person) the story is about, usually the person the story starts with. Bobby was always the focal character, by a slight margin, of 2 Guns, though in practical terms Bobby & Marcus share the role of focal character. But it’s Bobby who brings us into the story, & Bobby who takes us out of it. You can think of your focal character as the story’s psychopomp; s/he’s there to escort us through hell. 2) Secondary characters. These are characters – villains, romantic interests, employers, rivals, etc. – that have important, lasting & usually recurring influence on the story & the focal character. What happens to them and what they do has important, lasting impact on the story. 3) Ancillary characters. These are basic placeholders, the characters who are there specifically to serve a plot function, provide information some character needs but has no other access to, or get shot by the bad guy to prove what a badass they are, that sort of thing.

As the story develops, you layer in the different types of characters as you need them. There’s no formula for it. Different stories make different demands. In something like 2 Guns, you start with your main characters & your basic situation, then start working out what would land them in that situation. It seemed to me they’d be working off some sort of intel, so who’d be in a position to influence their behavior toward that end. A lot of things come to you as you go along. For example, I didn’t know until well into writing it that Deb was behind everything happening to Bobby, but once I realized it I found everything I’d already written supported it.

RP:  How do you come up with action sequences?

SG:  Seat of the pants, man. Action sequences are one of the toughest things to work out. You have to think in terms of choreography, you have to research the physics of things so you don’t end up with something completely impossible, you have to be very studied in what has already been done, what’s clich├ęd, etc. And you have to be able to fit it all comfortably within your context. Way too many people approach action as an element that can be tossed in as window dressing. Window dressing action is ultimately pretty unconvincing. You want all action to seem absolutely necessary & inevitable, & preferably not something that only happens because your character does something unconscionably stupid.

RP:  Is plot important?

SG:  Yes & no. I think it’s overemphasized, because being one of the most mechanical aspects of fiction it’s the easiest aspect for most people to quickly grasp, so people latch onto it over aspects that seem more nebulous to them. I find plot useful to the extent that it helps to know how you’re going to begin your story & how you’re going to end it. I’m a big advocate of figuring out your ending first, because, as I said, how your story ends tells you what the story is about. Endings can change your entire perception of the rest of the story. You don’t have to be shackled to your ending – anything about a story can change in the writing of it – but in its barest terms a story is a trek from point A to point C. If you have a pretty good idea where point C is, you can always find your way there from point A. If you don’t know where point C is, you just don’t know where you’re going. Who wants to wander in the desert for 40 years? Life is too short.

But beyond that, your story is not about your plot, it’s about your characters. You should be willing, within limits, to let them determine the plot. I’m a big fan of writers like William Gaddis & Thomas Pynchon, whose plots are frequently obscure & fragmented. Their characters are wonderful, their themes are wonderful, their dialogue is wonderful, the language of their writing is wonderful. Their plots are there, but only as hangers everything is displayed on like shirts. Plot isn’t story. You wouldn’t hold up a hanger & try to tell me it’s a shirt, right?

RP:  What appeals to you about writing comic books?

SG:  I’m used to it now. I like the visual aspect. I like the control, & the necessary economy of comics storytelling. Fitting the allotted space is always a challenge, often a frustration. I like the way the comics format allows you to trim connective tissue to the bone in a way prose doesn’t. What it really comes down to is I’ve just always liked comics, & now they’re home.


RP:  What is the most important characteristic of a good villain?

SG:  Credibility. They need to make sense in the story. You should always try to write them from their POV. Most villains operate from a stance of entitlement; they have a RIGHT to do what they do, because whatever. They wouldn’t see themselves as evil, just expeditious. A villain sees the hero as the villain, the obstacle to the desired outcome of the situation.

It pays to think out something a little more specific than “evil” as your main identifying characteristic of a villain. I would identify villains by their lack of concern for collateral damage, at minimum; certainly there would be those who’d even get a thrill out of it, but mania need more explanation than callousness.

RP:  How do you build interesting character relationships?

SG:  I wish I knew. Again, it’s a function of the story, & using your characters to play out the underlying concerns of the story in interesting ways. I know that sounds like circular gibberish, & it is, but, really, to the extent you impose things artificially on your character you risk turning them into little more than functionaries for your plot. To be interesting, characters have to at least maintain the illusion of independent existence, & if you throw them together they’ll naturally start colliding with each other.

Then when you rewrite you see what you can amp up without distorting things. Most of the time it’s really a matter of hoping for the best.

RP:  How long does it take you to write a regular 22-page issue? Please walk us through the process.

SG:  It depends. On 2 Guns I wrote the whole thing start to finish as a single story, & then broke it down into issues, & that’s how I’m doing most of my original projects these days. I’ve written whole issues overnight, it has taken me a month to write a single story. There’s not really any one process. When I wrote Whisper, I would lay in the action/descriptions first, with dialogue notes here & there, then go through & write the dialogue. Then I’d go through a third time, laying in captions to cover any information necessary to the story that didn’t fit comfortably in dialogue. This quickly led to lots of narrative experimentation as the narrative captions became increasingly divorced, in plot terms, from the rest of the story, but (hopefully) impacting understanding of it through juxtaposition… which became increasingly random. It was fun.

Most comics issues I do the same way. Generally start with an overall plot outline for whatever arc – most things are done in arcs these days – with the caveat that I can & most likely will change things radically during the writing. Again, figure out the last page or last couple of pages first, then go back to the beginning & try to come up with a “catch” opening, something that will grab the reader’s attention, then just write it page by page straight through. Often it helps to start the next day by going back over & making changes to what was done the day before, cleaning it up & tightening it, sometimes chucking it for the sheer crap it is. (It happens.) I know the “scholarly” wisdom is to only rewrite after you’ve finished a first draft, but who really wants to tell the same story twice? I edit/rewrite constantly as I go along. These days I generally do four or five pages a day, so a 22 page comic might commonly take a week. Writing plot/dialogue (aka Marvel style) is really the easiest & quickest way to work – I can do a plot in two days, usually one; same with dialogue once the art comes – but it frequently results in the most displeasing work, unless I’m working with an artist I’m very sympatico with, like Mike Zeck. But, really, I’m happy to work any way an editor or artist would prefer. I don’t really care how I do it, I care what the end result is like. Anything that lands me with a great end result, I’m there.

RP:  What is the most important thing to remember when writing a comic book?

SG:  That you’re not writing a comic book. You’re writing a story. A story is a story is a story. It doesn’t matter what medium you’re writing for. Aside from the mechanics, it shouldn’t matter than you’re writing a comic book. The medium is no less demanding of its content than anything else, though there are plenty of people – editors, artists, fans, civilians – who will try to tell you otherwise. The second you approach it as “oh, it’s just a comic book,” that’s the death of YOUR credibility.

RP:  What is the hardest thing for you to write when writing a comic book?

SG:  Scenes that are nothing but talking. Sometimes you need them, even in action stories, & some stories absolutely require them & nothing else to get across what you want to get across. Keeping a story interesting without visible action in theory goes against the entire form (it doesn’t really, but that’s the popular wisdom) & takes a lot of work & talent to pull off.

RP:  How do you make characters stand out?

SG:  Again, I wish I knew. I think the ones we really remember are the ones who best express the stories they’re in & the designs of their authors. We remember the characters who surprise us in some notable way. But it usually can’t be completely out of the blue; it’s figuring out a really unexpected surprise that’s nonetheless keeping with what you’ve established as the character that rounds out our understanding of that character that the trick that’s difficult to pull off. Sometimes the most memorable characters are the ones that don’t necessarily surprise but that simply play out their own logic to the fullest extent, the ones that make the rules set down pay off. Readers like payoff, & that doesn’t always mean a swerve. That’s the problem with trying to formulate things like this; the more you manipulate your characters into being something that will serve a function other than telling the story, the more you risk making them something unable to credibly surprise. Again, credibility has to be at the heart of it.

RP:  What are the themes of your work?

SG:  I don’t know if any of us really know what the themes of our work are, & often it’s only really apparent in hindsight. When I did Whisper, I intentionally wrapped it around a theme of betrayal. Only in hindsight did I realize the theme was that betrayal is a natural function of our existence. Looking at my broader output, I think my overarching theme is western civilization as vast criminal conspiracy. There’s another, even broader theme, I’ve found in my work, but I’d rather not share it as I’m slowly working on a project dealing with it specifically whereas previously I’d only (unconsciously) hinted at it, & that may end up being the real theme of my work. We’ll see.

Like plot, theme is useful but your real themes are likely not what your imagined themes are. I tend to approach things with a theme in mind but not worry about it too much. There’s an aphorism popularized by Brian Eno: honor thy error as hidden intention. A lot of writing flows from the unconscious mind. As Heraclitus put it a few millennia ago, latent structure is the master of obvious structure.

RP:  Who are some of your favorite writers?

SG:  William Gaddis is my favorite. Great, very little known talent. Thomas Pynchon, Malcolm Lowry, JG Ballard, Thomas Disch, James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler, Ronald Sukenick. These days I tend to think more in terms of books than authors, since many authors I like have turned out books I can’t stand. Ken Kesey wrote an amazingly great novel, Sometimes A Great Notion, that does brilliant things like long, long passages where perspective seamlessly shifts between character in mid-sentence yet remains totally coherent & compelling. I’d kill to be able to write like that. Most of the rest of his books are fluff or worse. Go figure.

Comics… Anyone writing comics needs to bone up on Will Eisner & especially Harvey Kurtzman. Looking back, I’d say John Broome, who wrote Green Lantern & many other DC comics, was maybe the biggest influence on what I think makes a good comic, & most of his stuff still holds up if you approach it in the right spirit. (Remember it was mainly written for 10 year olds.) Johnny Craig’s the other “classic” writer I’d recommend. Currently I’ll read anything by Ed Brubaker or Warren Ellis, & would even if they weren’t pals of mine, & I generally look forward to anything by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison. I’m not especially picky about what I read, but not a lot sticks with me these days. I’m kind of off in my own little territory now.

RP:  What back issues should people seek out to get a good taste of your writing?

SG:  Whisper. The Punisher mini-series AKA Circle of Blood, &, if they can find it, the Punisher graphic novel Return To Big Nothing. Badlands. There’s a graphic novel called Damned, back in print now courtesy of Boom! I did a run on X-Man in collaboration with Warren Ellis back around the turn of the century I’d grandiosely say is worth picking up. 2 Guns, of course, also available from Boom! I know a lot of this is available in trade paperback through Amazon. I know I’m forgetting things; I’ve done an awful lot of work.

RP:  What mistakes do you notice most often in comic book writing?

SG:  I don’t pay enough attention anymore to have a current opinion on it. I can tell you the biggest single mistake of budding comics writers: trying to have a single character perform two SEQUENTIAL actions in the space of a single panel. Can’t be done, outside of occasional goofs like someone sweeping an arm to pull a trigger rapidfire, where you’ve got afterimages of the moving arm, but that always looks hokey & always has. You can have two or more simultaneous actions in a single panel, you can have different actions taking place on different planes in a single panel, but a panel is a crystal of time, a singular moment. You can’t have two sequential actions in a single moment of time.

Other than that, there are lots of things I don’t like but I wouldn’t call them mistakes. I just don’t like them.

RP:  What makes a good comic book writer?

SG:  That one I REALLY wish I knew. It would make life so much easier. I feel lucky I’ve been able to have a career as a comic book writer at all. I can only hope I’ve been lucky enough to be a consistently good one.

RP:  What is the key to writing action?

SG:  If you can’t see it, no one else will be able to. You have to be able to visualize it, not just conceive of it.

RP:  What comics do you have coming up?

SG:  Next out is The Rook, a revival of the old Warren character that Paul Gulacy & I just finished for Dark Horse. Paul & I are working on some other things, more on those later. Currently I’m finishing a 5 issue crime series for Legendary Comics called Cops For Criminals, drawn by Pete Woods. Not sure what the schedules are on those, I’m tempted to say late Fall. I’m working on a couple more revivals, one of Gil Kane’s His Name Is Savage, publisher to be determined, & a revival of my own creation, Enemy, for Dark Horse, who published the original run c. 1994. Slowly working on a couple new creations for Boom! & several other projects elsewhere, as well as several Hollywood things, but these cannot be spoken of yet. Keeping busy, though.


Scott Amundson writes LET ME GO, beginning November 2 in Aces Weekly, Volume 19

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