“SPEAKING WITH… DAVID WISE
Part One

Welcome back to What Th--? We’re two weeks shy of our first anniversary. I can’t believe I’ve been doing it this long. I’m going to finish up my first year with a column about writing dialogue, bringing the “how to write a comic” lectures to a close. As always, I want to remind everyone to send in questions – we’re running low again. Ask anything related to comics and send them to marv@silverbulletcomicbooks.com. Also, don’t forget to go onto the “What The Hey” Message Board.

Now onto this week’s column.

Every time you hear a Mutant Ninja Turtle shout “Cowabonga” or eat pizza, you can thank David Wise who took the four heroes in a half shell, rejiggered it, added a whole slew of new elements, and created the original 5-part Turtles animated series that propelled the property from a relatively unknown black and white comic into a multi-billion dollar phenomenon. David is a writer of many things, including animation (Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mighty Ducks, etc.), movies(Beastmaster 3) and more. David describes some of his work in the interview itself, so I won’t elaborate here. David is also something of a child prodigy – or he was when he was a child (duh) – having appeared, back in the middle ages, on an episode of the TV quiz show “I’ve Got A Secret” as the world’s youngest animator. You should catch that show when it cycles around on the Game Show network. When he’s not writing, David is an excellent model maker and painter – his beautiful house, decorated in original 1950s collectables, is also filled with the most incredible SF models, all painted with amazing detail. I met David a long time ago at a party and over the past few years we’ve become friends. David, and his lovely wife Audrey, also have one of the greatest video libraries I’ve ever seen as well as the best video and audio equipment I’ve ever seen. David is one of our weekly poker crew. David, and his lovely wife, Audrey, are now putting together a wonderful manga-styled comic which they are going to show around. Having read the script and seen some of the art, I’d be surprised if you don’t see it in print within the year. I want to thank David for taking the time to answer these questions.

MARV WOLFMAN: HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS?

DAVID WISE: I started off, at age 7, as a kid animator. This was before Super 8, home video, etc . I worked in 16mm and was very lucky to have parents with the inclination to support my interest. By age 15 my projects became too ambitious for me to execute single-handedly. Having no formal art training and being something of a control-freak, I decided to become a writer.

For the next two years I read voraciously, befriended numerous writers and attended two Clarion SF Writers Workshops. At first, my writing was imitative and dreadful. However, on the first day of Clarion '72, I received an assignment from Avram Davidson that was seemingly so impossible (it involved writing a story that featured the themes of "Alpha Centauri" and "laughter") that I decided to chuck any preconceived notions about what I "should" write and just let fly with what I wanted to write. That was the moment I became a professional writer. The story sold, as did several others.

Not long after this, I moved to L.A., and it was probably inevitable that my knowledge of filmmaking and writing would come together. I teamed up with another Clarion alumnus, Russell Bates, in writing an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series. (As always in Hollywood, it's a matter of who you know; Russell had studied TV writing some years earlier under the great Gene L. Coon, and knew D.C. Fontana, Trek's original story editor who was now story editing the animated series.) That episode was responsible for the animated Trek winning the Emmy for Best Children's Series, and my Hollywood career was off and running.

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

DW: I'm still most proud of my early SF stories, but obviously my work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (developing it for television and adding most of the elements that made the series, the movies, and the toys so successful) would have to be considered most successful on terms of sheer cultural impact.

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

DW: I really have no regrets in this area. The five-part pilot for TMNT was pretty close to what I wanted -- wild humor grounded in solid action-adventure. In fact, when it became a regular series and the producers wanted less drama and more comedy, I quit. (Yeah, eventually I came back; I needed the money!)

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

DW: Always. However, the audience is usually me. If I'm writing an SF story, it's because nobody else has done that particular story and I want to read it. In children's TV, I'm always writing for that 9-year-old kid in me who was addicted to Marvel comics and Universal horror films and Ray Harryhausen's special effects. I figure if I'm entertained, the audience will be entertained. Having said that, I will sometimes be just as easily inclined to write something that completely transgresses the audience's sensibilities and expectations, but this too can be entertaining if done properly. (TMNT's wild swings between drama and comedy were an attempt to do this.)

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

DW: With prose, I often begin with an opening sentence or paragraph, or a simple image or idea, then let it sit and percolate. Frequently I'll write the beginning of the first page of a story, set it aside for days or even weeks, and then one day the rest of the story will appear full-blown in my head and I'll simply sit down and type it out. (Or, often as not, the story will fail to appear. I've probably got a boxful of first pages!)

This is not the case for a TV or movie script, however. Writing for the screen is 99% structure. (Characterization is a structural element in screenwriting as far as I'm concerned.) Everything else, especially dialogue, is just icing on the cake. In writing a story for a TV series, I'll first come up with the basic overall concept. In a space show, it might be something like: the heroes have to protect an asteroid settlement from an impending attack by space pirates, "Seven Samurai"-style. From that point I will immediately figure out what I want the climax to be. (Sticking with the space show, let's say it's the pirate ship blowing up.) Then my work simply becomes a matter of getting from Point A (the heroes learn of the settlement's plight) to Point Z (the climactic battle where pirate ship blows up) in as entertaining a manner as possible. This would involve adding character issues (the heroes don't want to help the settlers at first, and must be made to feel for their plight), figuring out ways to inject some action early on, since the actual pirate attack won't come until more than halfway through the story, and a twist or two (one of the pirates is actually an undercover agent for the good guys' team, and they have to rescue the poor sap at the last minute). The point is: all this other stuff, the character issues and plot twists, will all feel integral to the story because they come out of the demands of the climax. And the story will be full of verve and momentum because I am working furiously to get to the climax where the ship blows up. That's why I always plot the ending first, at least in any form of action-adventure screenwriting.

I should add that for me the ending usually involves the resolution of a character issue, played out against the action-adventure resolution (i.e., the spaceship blows up). In the best scripts they are practically the same thing: action is character.MW: HOW DO

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

DW: I have a really easy way of recognizing story problems: If what I'm writing isn't working, my entire writing-mechanism freezes up and nothing will come out. Literally, my fingers will not press the keys. Usually, I have unconsciously realized there is a problem, and I then have to stop and figure out what my subconscious already knows!
In writing for TV I seldom have this problem because in the years of cranking out entire scripts in a matter of days (sometimes two a week for several weeks straight), I have trained myself to work like a chess-player, always thinking three moves in advance: By the time I submit the premise, the story-outline is already pretty much written in my head; by the time I write the outline, I'm already mentally working out dialogue and scene-blocking. In this way, I've always got one eye on the next several steps, and can correct any potential problems before they become full-blown headaches.

When working on larger projects such as screenplays, this isn't really feasible. In those cases I find that the old dictum is true: if you're having trouble in your third act, the problem is really in your first act. (In other words, you haven't set things up properly.)

***

That’s it for this week. Come back next week for the conclusion of our talk with David Wise. I’d like to thank David once again for taking the time.

See you in seven.
-Marv Wolfman



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