Interview: Neal Romanek

Speaking with us this week is Neal Romanek, a veteran screenwriter, novelist and teacher currently based out of London. Neal took the time to discuss his latest projects (including the novel Conestoga and web project “The Cyclopedia of Worlds“) with us, as well as his experiences and influences in SF and horror film.

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IFP: Tell us about your current projects. What are they about?

NR: I’ve spent the last year feature film screenwriting, doing almost exclusively period drama movies, which I could just do forever. One of them was a movie about the beginnings of the Spanish Inquisition, which was a near-ideal pairing of material and writer. You get to live in another world and do real world research at the same time – great combo. But screenwriting is a pretty rough gig, all around. The money can sometimes – sometimes – be very good. But the likelihood that what you’re writing is going to make it to production – let alone to a theatre near you – is very, very slim. So, you have to be really in love with the project or material – or be paid a lot – or it can get disheartening, fast. But, to answer the question, now I’m writing a science fiction novel – inspired loosely by a movie treatment I pitched around to studios a few years ago. Not to give away too much, but it follows the general outline of a famous tragedy of the American frontier era, told from the point of view of a young girl whose family has made a tragic decision to join this doomed expedition. It’s called Conestoga.

I’ve been working on a labour-of-love web project, too, called “The Cyclopedia Of Worlds“. “The Cyclopedia Of Worlds” is set up like a wikipedia that might have been written 600 years from now. “A complete history of the future” is what we’re calling it. It’s basically a repository for a lot of the sci-fi ideas I’ve had over the years, and is also an attempt to do a kind of “non-fiction sci-fi” – to treat certain sci-fi ideas and stories as if they were absolutely true. A kind of “reality TV” sci-fi, done with a completely straight face. The novel, Conestoga, dovetails with a lot of the material in “The Cyclopedia Of Worlds“. From the business perspective, we hope there will be some synergy between the two. I’m starting to talk in the third person. I’d better shut up. Actually, I do have a lot of great help. I can’t do anything alone.

IFP: What do you want to tell the audience in your story?

NR: The themes in Conestoga, and it’s dangerous to talk to much about it while I’m in the process – because by the end of it, I’ll find out it’s not what I’d thought about at all. There’s the saying about screenwriting, “The screenwriter is the last person who knows what the movie is really about.” As a screenwriter, I find that insulting. But I think it might be, in part, true. But the themes in Conestoga are a lot of the same kinds of things I write about in my other work. Larger-than-life situations, sometimes excruciatingly painful ones, or terrifying or awesome situations, and real live, very-fragile human beings trying to cope with them. For example, in my version of Star Wars, you’d have Darth Vader getting out of bed in the Death Star, lonely, a little hungover maybe from whatever space drugs he’s doing all the time, and thinking to himself: “How did I get here? (breathe, breathe) You know, somewhere along the line, I really made some bad decisions (breathe breath). Okay, let’s not think about that. Let’s just try to get through the day (breathe breathe).” I love presenting an audience with that grand, heroic experience – the spectacle – and then have revealed within it the same heartbreaking human struggle. That’s the ideal for me anyway with Conestoga. It’s a fine line, because if you blow it, you have not just “Space Opera” but “Space Soap Opera” – which is about as silly as it gets.

IFP: How do you feel your project fits into its genre?

NR: Conestoga is in the tradition of “pioneers in space” stories. Taking the – specifically, the American – pioneer era and transposing it to an exploration and colonization of space is a tried & true element of science fiction writing. And in films, sci-fi films have westerns in many cases. The frontier makes more sense to a modern audience as a place far, far away. The idea that the trip from St. Louis to California was something that might very well kill you doesn’t make sense to many people. The distances and remoteness that a sci-fi story can conjure are more immediately frightening and daunting. You get it immediately without needing to know any history, or needing to be brought up to speed by the writer.

The Cyclopedia of Worlds” is the other side of the coin. It’s entirely web-based and information-based. We are so swamped with facts and information and the idea of reality TV – even though nothing on TV is real at all – and glimpses of the private lives of real people on our social networks. I want to try to do science fiction that way – give people “facts”, snapshots, statistics, bits of history – and allow them to browse it in a meandering, non-linear way, at their leisure – just as they do with all their other media on the web. There are “Cyclopedia Of Worlds” Twitter feeds, too – one of which is a completely fictional set of news headlines – from the future. And the audience begins to fill in a story – hopefully, if they keep coming back – and a universe based on the bits they’re seeing. The Discovery Channel’s Alien Planet – repeating the Walking with Dinosaurs formula – did some great work presenting this kind of “docu-sci-fi” – “sci-fi verité” – for TV. And that show is based on the great work of Wayne Barlowe. I love Wayne’s alien designs, but the real literary forerunners of “The Cyclopedia Of Worlds” are the Stewart Cowley “Terran Trade Authority” books. There are a few fun websites out there, too, like “Orion’s Arm“, that try things like it, too. “The Cyclopedia” is still experimental – very beta – but since, at least right now, I’m not answerable to a production company, I can keep playing with it and experimenting. We’re just bringing some new sci-fi illustrators onto it now too.

IFP: What other projects have you done? What was your favourite?

NR: I was very lucky, and unlucky too, to have a sci-fi script I wrote, Carnival Earth, optioned by Carolco as soon as I got out of USC. It was Mario Kassar and Carolco in its heyday and they were writing great, big checks drawn on mysterious banks with foreign-sounding names, and everyone was promising the moon. I got thrown in the deep end and it was a fascinating ride. The movie was never made and the option expired, and I got handed back the script eventually. I really love Carnival Earth – and since it’s now back to me, there’s still a chance it could be done some day. It takes a lot of those pre-Star Wars 1970s sci-fi movies I loved – Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, Rollerball – movies which took themselves seriously as drama, not just as popcorn movies – and puts it through a wringer of horror and spectacle. I always think of it as “if Peter Greenaway made a large-scale action movie”. In other work, I used to drive Rodney Dangerfield around when he worked on his animated vanity project. But that’s a different science fiction story.

IFP: What is your favorite genre in film?

NR: My taste has expanded the older I’ve gotten. I love period adventure movies – and sci-fi, which is period, but just in the other direction. When it comes down to it, though, it’s hard to beat a very, very good horror movie.

IFP: In your blog, you talk about the future of 3D in television and film. Would you be willing to write or edit for a 3D project? If so, what kind of project and what kind of things would you like to do in it?

NR: That article was primarily addressing the interests of broadcasters and big-screen content producers. But I think the real 3D content explosion is going to occur on the web – via game technology which is already there. 3D will start to be applied across all kinds of web content. I’m already looking into finding ways to do that. One of the important things that creators will have to learn in doing quality 3D content is that 3D isn’t just “Movies PLUS!” You’re actually starting to move into the realm of stagecraft and sculpture – and other art that happens in 3D spaces. I want to play with that kind of crossover of media. Having images that use the 3D effect and also – which you can do with game and web interfaces – additional features in front of or behind the image that compliment it or act in concert with it. I can imagine, for example, a graphic novel, where some panels are completely flat and others – depending on what the content is – move backward and forward in 3D space. There have been stabs at 3D comics since the 1950s. But doing it on a monitor with the brightness and color and image control at your disposal could be really beautiful. Exciting stuff. But it isn’t a replacement for a two-dimensional moving image, anymore than sculpture is a replacement for painting.

IFP: Where do you see film going in the future?

NR: It’s funny: when I was going to film school, everybody was dead-set on working in feature films, because TV was…well, you know…second-rate. Now, it’s reversed, I think. The real quality content, in terms of character, stories, writing, design is being created in TV. The institutions that have evolved around the idea of The Cinema are hard to just dismiss, so we’re still going to have feature films that are premiered in big-screen cinemas. I think the business model is becoming increasingly unworkable, but its going to be around for a while. I think that theatre experience is going to become more and more just “spectacle content” and almost all of the moving-image media you watch will be on your monitor – and you might have a computer hooked up to that monitor, or a cable box, or a disc player, or a whole bunch of things. Or that monitor could be on your handheld too. Moving images have finally broken through into the same distribution model as music. The idea that you would only go out to a club and hear music with a bunch of other people, or listen to it at a prescribed time of day via a specific type of transmission is silly. Same now with the moving image. My private – egocentric, really – hope is that moving-image technology will allow lone-content creators to author their own motion pictures with the same sophistication that only a big studio could have managed 25 years ago. I think this is happening now. So, you will have motion picture composers, who do these virtuoso performances with story and image.

IFP: Tell us about some of the challenges you have encountered as a screenwriter?

NR: The biggest challenge for me has been learning how to work – which sounds like an evasive, glib thing to say, but it’s true. The biggest struggle has been learning how to get in front of the desk and put sentences on paper and bring something to a conclusion. I don’t lack for ideas. Nobody does. There are so many great, great ideas flying around out there. But being able to do the grunt work is something that is very hard for me. I don’t think it’s just laziness. I have a fear of writing. I’m a writer with scribophobia. I used to write in bursts – like someone sprinting through a scary cemetery at night – trying to get a second act finished before morning – and it’s a lousy way to work, for me. I’m now much better at just putting in the time on a regular basis and not worrying about it too much. I’m a terrible perfectionist, too, and that can be an awful handicap. A phrase that has always helped me is “‘Done’ is better than ‘good’.” And I often find then, looking back at it, that what I’ve written is better than I thought it would be.

IFP: What is your favourite film and why?

NR: It’s always changing, but my standard answer seems to be Lawrence of Arabia because it has taught me more about screenwriting and filmmaking than any other movie. I will still find myself walking down the street, thinking about the movie, and have an “AHA!” moment where something new about it is revealed to me. I’m finding myself thinking a lot about Ridley Scott’s original Alien recently and what a perfect movie it is. I took someone to see it a few years ago who had never seen it before and they were like, “Yeah, whatever. Same old, same old.” And I realized it was because Alien has influenced every other horror and science fiction film since. In fact, Alien has had a much greater impact on science fiction films than Star Wars. I love Peter Watkins’ nuclear war film The War Game and Kevin Brownlow’s alternate history WWII, It Happened Here. I aspire to do films like those.

IFP: Name your favourite filmmaker and why?

NR: David Lean and Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger have made so many of my favourite movies. All their movies, almost without exception, are these amazing examples of meticulous craftsmanship and explosive creative impulse. David Cronenberg is great. Kurosawa is great because he unites these two opposing elements of Western romance and drama with Japanese clarity and precision. I like filmmakers who are able to combine opposites and come out with something new and startling. And I’m going to say William Hobbes, too, who isn’t a filmmaker in the narrowest sense, but has been the fight choreographer on all my favorite sword-fighting movies: Robin and Marian, Excalibur, The Duellists, the Richard Lester “Musketeers” films, etc.

IFP: What artistic accomplishment are you the most proud of in your career so far?

NR: Finally quitting doing all those Artist’s Way morning pages.

IFP: If you could be a Lovecraft/Mythos monster, which would you be? Why?

NR: I am utterly ashamed to say that I’m not up enough on my Lovecraft to answer. Can I just opt for clawing my own eyes out at the very horror of the question??

IFP: Please tell us about your upcoming projects.

NR: The main thing will be finishing the novel [Conestoga]. I’m also trying to adapt some of my movie stuff into graphic novels – which is maybe the best home for a lot of it, since they were inspired by comics and illustration anyway. I’ll keep playing with “The Cyclopedia Of Worlds”, too. I’m done writing screenplays on spec, thank God. So that’s freed me up for a lot of new stuff.

IFP: What is your dream project?

NR: Apart from adapting Edgar Rice Burrough’s “John Carter” books? Writing/producing an ongoing pseudo-documentary nature series on creatures from other planets. Or anything with a lot of sword fighting in it.

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Bio: Neal Romanek is an American genre fiction writer living in London. He began his career as a screenwriter, working with some of the industry’s biggest producers, including Dino Di Laurentiis, Joel Silver, Lisa Henson, and Mario Kassar. Neal also contributes to a variety of media technology publications and teaches a course called “Writing For Pictures: Skills For Writing Film, TV, Comics, Games”. He is author of the horror fiction blog “All The Hells” (http://allthehells.nealromanek.com) and the sci-fi universe “The Cyclopedia Of Worlds” (http://www.cyclopediaofworlds.com). Neal’s official site is: http://www.nealromanek.com. His new novel, Conestoga, will be available next year.

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IFPInterview: Neal Romanek