SPEAKING WITH… BOB SKIR

You’ll be hearing this a lot from me, but I almost never remember when I first met someone. The first time I do remember meeting Bob, and his then-partner, Marty Isenberg, was at a party. I remember they had written a character into the Beetlejuice animated cartoon series named Len Wolfman and gave me the storyboards for that sequence. Naturally, being the egomaniac I am, I was flattered.

I’ve since come to know Bob very well. I’ve written for various Bob shows (Beast Machines, Godzilla, etc.) and he wrote stories for me on Pocket Dragon Adventures. Bob is also an unabashed comics fan who defies description - he’s a professional who still reads tons of comics. I’ve always felt the best way to stop being a fan of comics is to become a professional. Doing this column is my way of reclaiming that part of my soul.

One of my favorite Bob Skir stories deals with a show I developed, but, because of the ever-changing winds of Hollywood, he and Marty got to story edit, and therefore make all that big Hollywood moolah. I developed Beast Machines, the last Transformers animated series, for Hasbro. I worked up the entire story line for a two year run, indicated many of the characters who would later be used, and later on wrote a bunch of episodes. Transformers fans castigated Bob for his work (Bob goes on line and Marty never does – a lesson to be learned) because of changes made in Transformers lore while praising the episodes I wrote and saying Bob should learn a thing or two from me (not that I disagree, mind you, but that’s neither here nor there). What I love is he got blamed for my development while I got praised for my writing which he story-edited. So, neener neener on you, Bob.

Though, all in all, I would have rather gotten the big Hollywood bucks.

Bob’s bio: Robert N. Skir grew up in Oyster Bay, Long Island. His love of comics, science fiction, and fantasy led him to make films as a youth, major in English at the University Of Virginia (where he concentrated in writing short fiction), and earn an Masters in Screenwriting at UCLA. Having written several unproduced features, he and then-writing partner Marty Isenberg were invited to pitch for the animated Beetlejuice for Fox Kids in 1991. Since then, they have written for the animated X-Men, Batman, Superman, and many other series. They have served as Story Editors/Head Writers on Extreme Ghostbusters, The Mask, Transformers: Beast Machines, and Godzilla. They have also developed such properties as Youngblood and X-Men: Evolution. As a solo writer, Robert has written the award-winning short film "Peacemaker", a slew of screenplays, and developed a new version of Speed Racer. (A complete bio and resume can be found at bobskir.com.)

MARV WOLFMAN: HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS?

BOB SKIR: I broke into the business by having the business break into me. Basically, I always loved all things science fiction, fantasy, horror, comics... you name it. A consuming passion. So from a very early age I read/watched/consumed everything I could get my hands on.

And from an early age I tried my hand at everything I ever loved. I loved Ray Harryhausen movies, so I took model kits and action figures and made my own animated films. I loved the Cantina Scene in Star Wars (and was a huge fan of Rick Baker's work for years by that point) so I taught myself how to make masks (by turning my basement into my own person mask-making studio).

But the thing I loved most of all were stories. Short stories. Novels. The stories within films (more so than the way they were directed, initially), so I read everything I could get my hands on (Harlan Ellison stories, Stephen King novels, the Dune and Foundation trilogies) and tried my hand at writing. And writing was the thing I loved most of all because it employed the greatest use of my imagination. It seemed the like the further out there your ideas were, the greater the reward. So from early on, I wanted to be a writer, and I used my love of the other skills (and art forms) to propel my writing.

In terms of training, I took classes in writing and film whenever possible as an undergraduate, and then went to film school to specialize in writing for film. (Making films and learning every aspect of filmmaking -- including animation -- at the same time.)

Having earned my Masters, I had several screenplays under my belt. Nobody wanted to buy them. So I continued to write spec screenplays. Nobody wanted to buy them. So I got whatever jobs I could find to pay the bills (working in a videostore) and advance my career (writing coverage for various studios and small production companies) while continuing to spec screenplays that people continued to not buy.

Eventually, one of my part-time jobs, writing coverage for a company that produced short films, led to my writing a short film script for them, entitled "Peacemaker", which featured Lucas Haas and Marg Helgenberger. And whereas the short didn't propel me into the bigtime, it won several awards and marked me as a produced writer, which was really encouraging at a time nobody was buying my spec features.
There was a lot of rejection back then, and the way I dealt with it was by continuing to write. The entertainment industry is one of the many wherein stubbornness actually does pay off, so I figured if I kept hacking at it, eventually my efforts would pay off.

(In a pique of stubbornness I wrote an X-Men feature that I knew would never actually get produced... but I wrote it anyway because I had to. That screenplay is a piece of work I'm particularly proud of, and it led directly to my being extremely involved in the development of the original X-Men series, and also in my actually developing the current one.)

MW: WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR MOST SUCCESSFUL WORKS, AND WHY?

BS: I don't equate success with financial returns; my barometer is how well the story turned out, and how close I came to fulfilling my goals on any given project. So I'm really proud of the X-Men spec feature I wrote back in 1990 (which will never see the darkness of a movie theater after the Bryan Singer film, which covered pretty much the same turf) as well as the other features which haven't sold yet (and may never actually sell).

Of my produced work, each one was really satisfying for different reasons. I loved my work on Beetlejuice because it began my professional career. And I love my work on X-Men (and later X-Men: Evolution) because it put me officially into the X-Men universe. (I even got to create an X-Man, Spyke, for the Kids WB series.)

I really enjoyed BattleTech and Beast Machines, because each of them were done as novels for television: each episode was a chapter in a larger story. Each of these series was incredibly difficult to write, because of the absolute strict continuity that had to be followed when building such a huge, ongoing story... but when they were finally done, they were pieces I could really be proud of.

I also loved spearheading the Godzilla animated series because he's the biggest and baddest of them all. Any chance I get to work on the characters I loved as a kid (and beyond), I grab it with a passion. And on Godzilla, I got to write a story in which he destroyed my hometown, Oyster Bay, including my grade school, my high school, and the house I grew up in. (I provided them with photographs, so the actual buildings were stomped and blown up.) Now that's living the dream!

MW: KNOWING WHAT YOU KNOW NOW, WHICH OF YOUR MORE FAMOUS WORKS WOULD YOU REDO IF YOU COULD? WHY AND HOW?

BS: My only regret, and it's a huge one, is that X-Men: Evolution was offered to me when I had just finished Beast Machines. I was tired after the hectic schedule, and left X-Men: Evolution after merely developing it. If I had been in a better "place" during that development, I might have enjoyed the assignment more (it was, after all, my dream to spearhead my very own X-Men series) and probably would have stayed on it much, much longer. I think the series has turned out great, and I'm very proud of the bible I wrote (which remains at the foundation of the show).

MW: DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR AUDIENCE WHEN YOU CREATE A STORY?

BS: I write for an audience of one: Me. Trying to cater to the whims of an imaginary group of kids would only make me insane (which is why I think focus groups are stupid, annoying, and totally unnecessary -- not to mention utterly destructive!).

When I'm writing, I try to come up with stories that capture my imagination, trying to find new depths to old and new characters, stories that have twists that surprise me.

I never forget that the target audience for animated shows is aged 2-11 (although the shows I write for tend to skew higher: Batman and X-Men had huge college audiences); and I try never to leave my younger viewers behind. But I don't cater the stories to them.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS WHEN YOU SIT DOWN TO WRITE A STORY?

BS: My goals are directly based on whichever show I'm working on at the time, and based largely on the characters. What do we need to know about them, how do they relate to each other in ways we haven't seen before, that kind of thing.

The preparation I do for any given series is to immerse myself in whatever's out there. If I'm pitching ideas for somebody else's show, I'll read whatever bibles, scripts, and whatever else they've got available. If it's based on a comic, I'll read as many of them as I can get my hands on. If I'm creating a series, I'll just immerse myself in the characters and the world (woolgathering, daydreaming, and reading anything that might jar an idea loose). I love having a job wherein daydreaming is so heavily rewarded.

As far as whether one begins with plot or character, I honestly can't say. Starting with one usually leads directly to the other, so it really not so much of an either/or thing as much as it is a both/and thing.

MW: HOW DO YOU RECOGNIZE WHEN A STORY ISN’T WORKING AND WHAT DO YOU DO TO FIX THE PROBLEMS?

BS: When I read a story in whatever form it's in (premise, outline, or script), I try to experience it as a fresh viewer. And by pure intuition I know whether it's working for me or not; there's no way to quantify it, after all. When things begin to ring as untrue, in terms of characterization or plot construction, I try to figure out exactly why it's going wrong and at what point it needs to be fixed.

Talking about a script is a great way to figure out where and why it's going wrong. This is where having a partner can be invaluable; they always have a fresh pair of eyes and can offer a different perspective (or, if something isn't working for you, in the course of articulating your reservations, you can suddenly understand precisely what those problems are).

Once I know why something isn't working for me, it's a matter of rolling up my sleeves and, usually, fixing it myself. The time-crunch on shows often doesn't allow for me to give notes to writers and having them do the rewrites, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on whether the writer feels burdened by having do to rewrites or whether they don't like having their work "tampered with". I have to admit to being one of those horrible "tampering" Story Editors, but that's largely a function of the production schedule rather than ego.

MW: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FIRST DRAFT AND FUTURE DRAFTS?

BS: That depends entirely on the show and what's going on behind the scenes. Sometimes there are very few changes (usually very late in the run of a series, when all of the fundamental artistic decisions have been made). But early on in a series, entire characters may change and the entire tone of the scripts may shift as people try to figure out what the series is really about.

Usually the difference between drafts comes down scripts running too long and having to be cut back, or else simple BS&P notes/cautions. (BS&P stands for Broadcast Standards And Practices; these are the people who read through scripts and storyboards hunting for things that may be inappropriate and/or offensive to viewers.)

MW: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CREATING A CHARACTER?

BS: The short answer is... I don't know, I just do it. Usually characters are based on the needs of a show, and its central character. Once you see your central character, the others seem to take shape (usually by contrasting with him in some hugely dramatic way).

Oftentimes characters are created based on genre demands. On Action Man, you had a solid central character who we surrounded by satellite characters (essentially, his pit crew). The satellite characters each had a function as part of Team Extreme, but the trick became (as always) how do we make each character different from the equivalent characters performing the same narrative tasks on other shows. If you succeed in doing this, the show develops its own voice. If you fail, then you wind up with a set of generic characters doing just another action show. On Action Man, I think we succeeded in giving Alex a pretty well-rounded group of characters who read more as people than as types.

MW: WHAT MAKES A STORY?

BS: Basic Aristotle: every good story has a Beginning, Middle, and End, with rising tension, and a character coming to learn something about himself and/or his place in the world. It really is that simple.

As far as defining the terms: plot is (very simply) what happens within a story, whereas theme is (again, very simply) the message the writer is trying to convey by telling the story. (I'm going very basic here, because it's a very fundamental point). The theme should be clearly articulated by the story, but it shouldn't rule the story, otherwise the writer runs the risk of becoming didactic. Really, it's a matter of making the theme the consequence of the plot, and not the other way around. Toward that end, I try to come up with a story first, and then try to figure out what message such a story is trying to convey; once I've figured out the theme, I try to beef it up, making it more clearly articulated within the framework of the plot.

Making the various elements such as plot, theme, subtext, et al come together is all a matter of focus, paying attention, and experience (the longer you've been doing it, the easier it is to make them line up).

It really is just a matter of intuition matched with experience; as with all writing, the longer you keep at it, the better you'll be.

MW: HOW DO YOU PITCH AN IDEA TO AN EDITOR, STORY-EDITOR, PRODUCER?

BS: First of all, I try to read as much material on the series as I can, so I'll know which stories they've already told.

Most pitches take the form of a one to one and a half page Premise, in which I try to map out the basic story. What's the setup, where does the story go from there (the complications), whose story is it, that kind of thing. And I usually only hint at what the ending is going to be; it makes the Premise more alluring if the Story Editor is left wondering how the story's going to end.

As a Story Editor, submitting Premises to producers is pretty much the same process, with only one small difference: your batting average is much, much higher! Since you are the Story Editor, you know what you want the stories to be shaped like. And since you're dealing with the producers on a regular basis, you already know what they're looking for, too. Freelance writers have it much harder, because they might not know precisely what the Story Editor is looking for, and they haven't been privy to every single conversation with the producers.

To paraphrase Mel Brooks, It's Good To Be Story Editor.

MW: HOW DO NEW WRITERS GET THE ATTENTION OF STORY EDITORS, PRODUCERS, ETC.?

BS: My favorite way to meet new writers is by having people I trust highly recommend them. I also like "discovering" new writers, usually through conversation; if I meet somebody, and they seem bright and enthusiastic and demonstrate a firm grasp of story (while discussing recent films or whatever), then I'm willing to give them a shot.

At the risk of being discouraging, I'm not a huge fan of spec scripts. I never read unproduced writing samples of animated shows (largely because I don't have the time).

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AND WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO WHEN WRITING IN OTHER PEOPLE’S UNIVERSES?

BS: I try to work on projects based on characters that I love, and then I try to translate whatever it was I loved about them from one medium (comics, for example) into another (TV animation). When writing X-Men, I was crazy in love with the characters, and tried to write scripts demonstrating why. When developing a new Speed Racer series, I tried remembering back to being five, when the thought of missing an episode was unthinkable to me; then I tried to rethink the property in a way that retained all of the elements that made the original show so wonderful, while trying to add a layer of sophistication (by giving the characters more solid back stories, by making the world of racing more central and in a sense more real, by figuring out why Spridle allows a chimp to be dressed as his twin, etc.) so that adults today could watch the show with their kids with equal enjoyment (the way you can with Batman, X-Men, and the like.)

Overall, I try to figure out what makes people love a given property, and remain faithful to it. (A major departure from this philosophy was Transformers: Beast Machines, in which we were discouraged from watching the original series. Hasbro wanted something new and different, so they deliberately hired writers who never wrote for the old show and had never actually seen it. The result was a fresh, new Transformer series which the new audience loved... and the longtime Transfans loathed! I felt bad for the Transfans, who vilified us; I know what it's like to have a world I like "corrupted". But they have the old shows to go back to, and the next set of series may return the Transformer universe back into something more to their tastes.)

MW: WHEN YOU ARE IN CHARGE AND OTHER WRITERS EVER WRITE YOUR CHARACTERS (NOVELIZATIONS, TV SHOWS, COMICS, ETC.) WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR AS THE EDITOR AS WELL AS THE CREATOR?

BS: You have to look at the core concept and find new ways to explore it. It's pretty much that simple. (Example: When you create a character like Superman, you don't want somebody coming in and giving him a gun; it negates the core concept of the character. You want to hire people who understand where such a character came from, and who are able to enrich the character without corrupting the ideas that brought him into being.)

MW: HOW DO YOU DEFINE YOUR RELATIONSHIP UP FRONT WITH YOUR EDITOR, STORY-EDITOR, PRODUCER, THE WRITERS WHO WORK UNDER YOU?

BS: Usually, I'm the guy working under people. Producers hire me to bring a project to life, and I just try to match their vision. Toward that end, I try to hire writers who "get" the property.

MW: WHAT IS YOUR GENERAL ADVICE TO WRITERS AND WOULD-BE WRITERS?

BS: Read. A lot.

Write. A lot.

And when spec-ing a script, follow your own particular tastes and whims. Don't write for some imagined marketplace, because whatever's hot now will be ice-cold by the time you get there. Try to stay ahead of the curve; write ideas that fire up your imagination, knowing that if you're enthusiastic about developing an idea into a script, somebody will be equally enthusiastic when they read it. But overall... just keep on writing.

I’d like to thank Bob Skir for taking the time to answer all my nonsense questions. I’ve been really blessed to know so many good folk who actually understand not only what they’re doing but why they’re doing it. Bob is certainly one of them. He and I have often lunch and talk ideas and what makes a good comic or cartoon or, especially, what makes a good movie. Bob is, always, enthusiastic about his ideas.

Although you might see the same answers from many of the folk I’m speaking to, I think it never hurts to have the basics drilled into you. I took a structure writing course a dozen years back – to remind myself intellectually what I’ve been doing instinctively – and every year or two I play back the tapes.

I hope those of you who want to be writers, or merely like to hear how writers think, will continue to enjoy these columns. I’ve already got a number of interviews sitting on my hard drive that I hope you’ll like. I’m also working with a few artists to develop a series of good questions for them. I hope to get them in print as soon as possible.

Take care and see you in seven.

-Marv Wolfman

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