“SPEAKING WITH… DAVID WISE
Part Two

Welcome back to my 51st column. Next week I’ll conclude my first year by finishing my comic book writing columns. After that, who knows what we’re going to do? I have an interview coming up with Mark Millar as well as several others being worked on. So keep reading.

And now, back to David Wise. As I mentioned last week, David is a wonderful writing of animation, movies and much, much more. For many years David also reviewed video hardware and he has always been on the forefront of video technology, including having the only actual THX audio system I’d ever seen set up in someone’s house. His wall-sized screen and sound projection made watching DVDs as close to the movie theater experience as I’ve ever seen. David and his wife Audrey are also deeply into manga and anime and are currently working on one of their own creations for a future comic book.

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

DAVID WISE: This is a hard one for me to answer because, having trained myself to write for tight deadlines where things have to work right out of the gate, I seldom revise beyond a simple polish. (Generally speaking, my revisions mainly involve cutting, as I tend to overwrite things.) This suits my nature, as I absolutely hate rewriting scripts. As far as TV/movie work goes, nine times out of ten my revisions make things worse rather than better.

Again, this is largely due to the fact that I am congenitally incapable of writing something that isn't working for me. If I don't like it, I can't write it; if I do like it, I can write it, and I usually still like it a year later.

By the way, a lot of this has to do with my work habits, which involve a tremendous amount of thinking and pacing before I write a single word. I often spend more time thinking than I do actually writing, so I have stuff pretty well worked out to my satisfaction before I commit it to paper. For me, the actual writing is basically taking dictation from what I've worked out in my head.

MW: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CREATING A CHARACTER?

DW: As I said above, for me characterization tends to spring from the needs of the story. Let's say I want to do an episode of a series with a lot of robot action. The evil robots need a leader. But a robot leader could be fairly boring, so let's make him a human. Okay, now what the heck is a human doing leading a robot uprising? Well, he could be the mad robotics engineer who was horribly injured in a lab explosion and replaced 75% of his body with mechanical parts -- but that's kind of old-hat for my taste. So what if he was a mad robotics engineer who replaced 75% of his body with mechanical parts just because he thought it was really cool? Now we may be onto something fairly amusing -- a guy who identifies more with machines than with people. There's nothing new under the sun, but you can always do interesting variations on what's been done.

Generally speaking, ticks, quirks and shtick should arise organically from the character and his/her situation. And differentiation, both in the characters and their dialogue, is crucial. Each character needs a distinct voice. Two intense, brooding guys are going to cancel each other out. A Marx Brothers with two Harpos is in trouble. In developing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I was faced with the problem that the four leads were virtually without any characterization whatsoever in the source material. The need to differentiate the characters led me to think in certain directions: all foursomes, whether it's the Marx Brothers or the Beatles, have a certain archetypical qualities (body/mind/spirit plus a leader to rule the first three) which I brought to bear on the Turtles. We needed one of the four to be a leader, and logically he would be the most serious martial artist. It's action-adventure superhero stuff so we needed a science guy, the team geek.

Because the very nature of the title suggested that this series was going to have a high comedy quotient, we needed a smartass, somebody to bounce wisecracks off the stock action-adventure villains and situations the Turtles were going to find themselves in. And lastly, I felt, we needed a character who really embodied the spirit of the team, their teenager qualities, and this became Michaelangelo, the only turtle to say "Cowabunga dude" in the series. (I always said he was like Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols -- the one who was completely incompetent but was really the essence of what they were about. And note that in the TMNT movies, they basically made all four Turtles into Michaelangelo!) And ultimately, each of the Turtles came from a part of me -- who I am, who I was, who I wish I was, who I'm afraid I really am. They are four aspects of myself.

No one character is complete, not even the hero -- characters are only aspects of human nature, as seen through the author's own psyche. In a really good story, the hero + the villain = a whole person.

MW: WHAT MAKES A STORY?

DW: What makes a story is conflict. Stories are about the resolution of conflict. All the interest, anxiety, and empathy an audience brings to a story is basically centered on their desire to see the conflict resolved satisfactorily. This is why, in action-adventure at least, the stronger the villain, the stronger your story, because a good villain maximizes the conflict. The villain is the engine that drives your story.

That much said, the story needs to be about something. Personally, I'm not much interested in politics, social issues, and so on -- I'm interested in psychology, what Faulkner called "the human heart in conflict with itself." Kind of a high-flying from the TMNT guy, huh? But the truth is, even action-adventure can address this issue -- and in ways that are nicely unobvious. For instance, "Die Hard" is ostensibly about a guy fighting a bunch of terrorists in a sealed-off high-rise. But what it's really about is a guy getting his wife back, a process that requires aloneness, self-discovery, and the quest for redemption, which is why that film has much more resonance than your average action film.

My own personal rule is that story, plot, characterization, incident, theme and subtext must all feel as though they were all cut from the same cloth. In my own work, I let everything emerge from the basic story to insure a "whole cloth" feeling. I may have an idea of the theme going in, or it may come to me as I go along, but I'm always working from (or digging toward) what I consider to be the heart of the story; everything else -- characterization, incident, plot twists, etc. -- flows from there. If I start a story with a theme or purpose in mind the results often seem heavy-handed. Rather, I find it's better for me to allow the theme to emerge from the story rather than the other way around.

But always, stories are comprised of two elements: 1) What the story is about (the plot), and 2) What the story is really about (the theme, the character story).

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

DW: A pitch is always about engaging the interest of the people who are going to pay you. Toward that end I always focus on the intriguing/interesting/different about the idea I'm presenting. However, as much as they may think they are looking for something "new," story editors and producers also require familiar touchstones, which is why writers often make comparisons to familiar (and, I would recommend, successful or at least trendy) stories in their pitch, to enable the executives to easily get a handle on the story. ("It's 'Seven Samurai' meets 'Jackass.'" "It's 'Die Hard' in an office building.") Always focus on what's intriguing and entertaining about your story, having examples of scenes or characters or bits of business that demonstrate this -- but avoid getting too detailed. Detail can suffocate a good idea in the pitch process.

It's as though you're trying to sell a cake -- get to the heart of it fast: "Chocolate cake. Chocolate icing. Raspberry filling between the layers." Not everybody may like it, but the ones who do will be made hungry, and you won't convince the ones who don't by telling them how many eggs are in the batter or what the shape is of the little swirly icing-flowers on top.
In pitching episodic TV, I always try to leave 'em wanting more. Virtually without exception, all my premises end with a question-mark. "Will the Turtles make it to the launch-pad on time to save both Splinter and the rocket full of nuns?" So if they want to know how the story ends, they have to pay me!

Having said that, I should add that it's a good idea to have the story more worked-out than what you actually pitch: you don't want to give them too much (otherwise they'll start picking it apart), but you want to have ready answers for whatever questions they may ask. If there are elements that feel thin or shaky, it's smart to actually have a few alternatives worked out.
Ultimately pitching is about knowing how to tell a good story -- fast.

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

DW: Walking in nude might work.
Other than that, all I can say is have your own unique voice and believe in it. They are very insecure people -- insecure about their decisions, insecure about how much longer they can hold onto their jobs, and so they respond well to passion and intensity and self-confidence (without arrogance).

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

DW: I’m always looking to find what I find interesting about the property, and work from there. As I said, I try to write stories that I really want to see. If I'm not entertained I get bored and the whole process becomes painful; so I'm always trying to find an angle on the material that entertains me.

If it's a series/comic/whatever that I really respect, then I'm also looking to do justice to it. When Russell Bates and I wrote our animated "Star Trek" script, we weren't looking to re-invent the Trek universe, but rather to live up to the standards that had been set by Gene Coon, D.C. Fontana, and the others who worked on the original series. Ditto with Batman: TAS and others.

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?

DW: Total obeisance.

Oh, hell, I don’t know –- usually I’m just happy if they can mimic the characters’ individual voices. I’m certainly looking for consistency with the characters and authenticity as to who they are. (I wouldn’t brook Michaelangelo quoting Pliny the Elder – unless it got a laugh.) But at the same time I always hope the writers will bring something fresh to the characters, uncovering some facet of their personalities I hadn’t seen before. Doesn’t always happen, though.

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

DW: Story editor/producer: I can save your ass and make you look good to your superiors. So shut up and leave me alone. (I hasten to add this approach seldom works. Oh, but when it does: Sweeeeeeet!)
Writer who works for me: For the love of god please write a halfway decent script!

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

DW: Care about what you write. You’ll get your heart broken, but at the end of the day you’ll still have a heart, which is more than can be said for a lot of people in this industry.

***

I’d like to thank David once again for taking the time to answer all my questions. I’ll see David at the next poker game, and I’ll see the rest of you next week for my first anniversary column. Thanks for sticking around.

-Marv Wolfman

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