Speaking With…Larry Ditillio

If you’re a comic book reader only, you might not be familiar with Larry Ditillio’s writing, unless you’ve also happened to be watching cartoons sometime in the past 20 years or so. Larry’s been a writer and/or story-editor on a slew of series. He’s also done a great number of live action TV shows, including many episodes of Babylon-5.

Larry is also a friend with whom I get together about once a month for lunch and talk. Always one with an opinion that he’s more than willing to share, Larry will discourse about writing, the future, the doom and gloom of mankind, and, mostly, about gaming. Larry loves to play games. He helped introduce me to Magic. Now he’s trying to get me hooked on the Heroclix games – he already has AL the figures that have come out. I decided not to get involved and only buy the figures based on characters I created.

Larry is a fun guy to be around and a really good writer. That we named our daughters Jessica Morgan (on my side) and Jessica Morgana (on his) is purely coincidental.

Anyway, let’s start with Larry’s resume and then we’ll see who the man actually is. Enjoy!Larry DiTillio has been a member of the Writers Guild
of America - West since 1973. Larry's last full-time writing
position was as the Executive Story Editor of "Beast Wars:
Transformers", a top-rated CGI animated TV series. A specialist
in the fantastic his script work has appeared on such live action
TV shows as "Hypernauts", "Babylon 5", "Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future", "The Hitchhiker" and "Swamp Thing".
He was nominated for a cable Ace Award in the category of
"Best Writing, Dramatic Series" for his script "Hootch",
an episode of "The Hitchhiker". In animation, Larry has
scripted over 100 teleplays including episodes of "He-Man",
"She-ra, Princess of Power", "The Real Ghostbusters",
"Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids","Galaxy High School" and
"Conan the Adventurer". He has also written one produced featurefilm and 20 speculative scripts. Philosophy of Life - To Live is to undo your belt and look for trouble.

MARV WOLFMAN: HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS?

LARRY DITILLIO: Sheer idiot luck. After 6 years of film school (4 at NYU, 2 at UCLA Grad) I was stupid enough to go door-to-door on Sunset Boulevard looking for an agent. Most of them threw me out with horrified looks. One was so amused she
agreed to read my scripts. She became my agent; a few months later she got me a deal to write a movie and presto I was in the business. 13 years later I was actually able to make a living at it.

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

LD: There are all kinds of ways to look at "successful" but from a pure writing standpoint I would have to say two scripts I did for "The Hitchhiker" were my most successful. The first "Hootch" was about a traumatized Vietnam vet and his sister. It got me a Cable Ace Nomination for "Best Dramatic Writing - Television". I lost, but got to sit right behind Jerry Lewis and across from Whoopie Goldberg at the Awards ceremony. Whoopie's got great legs.

The second "Wanna Be O.G." was written for a season of The Hitchhiker, which never happened. It was about a gang recruit whose drive-by attempt on a rival gang ends with the death of an 8-year-old girl.

Why do I consider two of my admittedly more obscure television scripts my most successful works, especially since one never got made? Easy. Both dealt with subjects I was passionate about - war and gang violence and both were
written without much restraint or meddling from suits and producers. In fact on "Wanna be O.G.", the suit in charge took a chance when she okayed the script. It was a good work situation. Money was so-so. Yet the real reason I dub these two my most successful was that when I showed the scripts to people who had a lot of experience with the subjects, their reactions were uniformly that the scripts were very powerful and "exactly how it is". I set out to create a powerful and real statement and it worked. In the writing - since the script of "Hootch" was way better than the production and "Wanna Be O.G." was never made. They are really my best work because I was left alone by the usual de-flavoring process of television scripting.

I am similarly fond of my Babylon 5 scripts "TKO" and "Gropos", also scripts that evoked intense personal reactions in fans. There is one guy who came up to me at an SF con and thanked me for writing "TKO". His grandfather had died and he was very close to him and he said my story comforted him and helped him through his loss (the B-Story of "TKO" involved Ivanova sitting Shiva for her father). That to me is success.

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

LD: Oh lord; this is why I am so glad I have no famous works. The truth is, I would redo every one of my scripts. I am never completely happy with the result and I doubt any good television writer is. There are just too many cooks in tv and film and every one of them can turn your script from filet mignon to prairie oysters.

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

LD: If you write for TV and especially for animated TV you have to consider the audience because there's a legion of folks who are certain they have the inside track on whom this audience is. You can do it kicking and screaming or you can say, "I'm a professional", smile a lot and give them what they want, assuming you can't talk 'em out of it.

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

LD: Money comes immediately to mind. If you plan to make a living at writing, you tend to gravitate toward paid projects. Past that my goal is always to touch people, to give them an emotional response whether it be tears, laughter or even outrage. I hate outlines for scripts, to me I don't get to story until I get to script but first you have to convince people your script will be good so I'm stuck.

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

LD: When you read a story and start to read faster and faster so as not to dwell on certain aspects of it, you know you have a problem. Most of these problems stem from not knowing what the heart of your story is. Why should these people do these things? You go back to that every time. What moves your characters moves your story. Of course sometimes you just get stuck on the next step and when that happens, move on and come back to it. Which segues into the next question:

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

LD: The first draft should always be about getting it down. The emotion here is what's important. Indulge the hell out of yourself in first drafts, overwrite, get purple with the prose. Play! Don't worry so much about plot, just write what you feel.
And never turn it in. I always do what is tantamount to 2 or 3 drafts before turning in the FIRST draft, unless time is pressing. Once you get it down(ART) then you can make it good (CRAFT).

MW: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CREATING A CHARACTER?

LD: Its not as hard as raising a child and you have a lot more control over how they turn out. I generally start with a name and a general idea of how the person functions in the story. If it's an on-going character for an episodic series I try to provide some depth by providing a lot of detail about relatives, past history, hobbies, skills etc. My goal is to make characters seem real to the audience by showing them many sides of the character. I don't "think of an actor" because then I feel I am thinking of someone else's character in someone else's script. Your best bet is to use your own life experience and that of others. My Vietnam vet character in "Hootch" came directly from an old friend who was a vet and told me a lot about his experiences. Character comes from really listening and looking at yourself and all the people around you.

When I worked on series I always went to the actors and asked them what they thought of their character and what kind of things they liked. That's why Bruce Boxleitner's character was shown hitting baseballs in Babylon 5 and why Claudia Christian's character listened to jazz and read books in her spare time.

MW: WHAT MAKES A STORY?

LD: Characters, period. Stories have to be about people, about people changing, growing, developing or being destroyed by their own inability to do so.

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

LD: I throw them an overhand curve and they throw me out. I am seriously not the one to give advice on pitching. The pitches that got me jobs turned out to be the worst jobs I had. I did better working on staffs. I had a strength that worked well for TV, I could take an "ordinary" episode and give it something a little special or new and that's why I was a hot staff writer at one time.

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

LD: Write the best piece you can and be prepared to sell yourself since nobody else will. Original pieces are better than simply parroting a hit series for a sample. Don't be shy, this business hates shy but don't be obnoxious either. People buy ENERGY in the media business.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AND WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO WHEN WRITING IN OTHER PEOPLES' UNIVERSES?

LD: The goal of any professional writer is to do the best with what you have to work with. My goal is to contribute to a show, to bring something no one else thought of to it. My long-term goal is to write a single movie that wins the Academy Award.
MW: WHEN YOU ARE IN CHARGE AND OTHER WRITERS EVER WRITE YOUR CHARACTERS. WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR AS THE EDITOR AS WELL AS THE CREATOR?

LD: Alas I am never in charge, always a soldier never a general. I have story-edited quite a few tv shows and what I look for there is WRITERS WHO GET IT. That is, they get the show, they get the people on the show, they fit. You would be astonished how many people DON'T get it, even when you spell it out for them. The best example I can give is from my days as a story editor on "The Hitchhiker". That show was very clear in what kind of stories they wanted - psychological horrors, not supernatural ones. Yet week after week writers would come in and pitch me werewolves and zombies and vampires, which was not what the show was about at all. On a very basic level, they didn't get it.
Past getting it, I look for writers who can capture the tone of the characters and the show and give me a decent pass at a script for it. The less work for the story editor the more chance there is to be hired a second time.

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

LD: I like to work with people who enjoy the work and don't get bogged down in petty dragon-dust. I believe in being upfront about any concerns I have about scripting a show and don't want to dance to somebody's tune just because they have a title. My best relationships have always been honest ones.

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

LD: Get a good therapist and be prepared to weather many, many storms. Professional writing is all about proving yourself every time out and if you don't make it in 5-10 years, seriously consider pursuing something else. I had about 13-year drought after my first movie but I wanted it and when I got a shot I worked steadily for 16 years. Then I turned 50 and the roof of the world fell in on me. The storms just don't stop. You need talent, desire, persistence and luck to be a pro. Everything else is just speculation. Aloha…

***

I’d like to thanks Larry – who I had lunch with less than an hour ago as this is written. As we speak, Larry’s working on an episode of He-Man and the Masters Of The Universe. Keep an eye out for it and you’ll see a writer who has the ability to fit into an animated series without much problem but still have his own voice. Not an easy task.

I also wanted to remind everyone to visit the “What The Hey” message board here on Silver Bullets, and to announce that I’ve added a message board on my own site at marvwolfman.com. Please come by and start a thread, ask questions, have a discussion, or just argue about what’s the best comic being published these days. I’m also adding new features all the time, so there’s always something new to check out.

See you in seven.
-Marv Wolfman

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