SPEAKING WITH…
Rockne S. O’Bannon

Although I’ve met Rockne, I actually don’t know him well. But I have been an admirer of his writing. Rockne says below that he has some reservations about his film, Alien Nation, but I really thought it was, right down to its core, a wonderful story. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of seaQuest (see his comments below) when I heard Rockne was doing a new science fiction show called Farscape, I was incredibly anxious to see it. Unfortunately, my first reaction, even before I saw the actual show, was – there’s a puppet in it. This has got to be a comedy. Screw this puppy.

I didn’t watch it at first, but friends said it was really good. But, thought I, as much as I love the Muppets, and I really do – there’s a damn puppet in it! Anyway, I went to a science fiction convention where the Sci-Fi Channel had a booth that constantly played Farscape, and, standing there, I realized that my irrational prejudice against felt was keeping me from something special. I quickly borrowed tapes from a few friends and caught up with everything I’d missed.

Farscape was incredible. I like Star Trek (geek confession: yes, I’ve seen every episode of every series, even Voyager) but Farscape was…different. You could never predict what was going to happen next. And the people who were doing it actually seemed to like doing it. I was hooked as a fan. When I heard Wildstorm was doing a Farscape comic, I pitched for it as I’d never pitched for a comic assignment before. I only wish we’d done more than two issues.

As of this writing, word has come that the Sci Fi Channel has cancelled Farscape at the end of its fourth and current season. Say it ain’t so, Joe. I’m hoping that Farscape will find another home somewhere (you reading this Showtime? UPN? TNT?) and that Rockne will return to the series he created and nurtured for its first three seasons and guide it into a half dozen more. At least.

And now, Rockne S. O’Bannon.

MARV WOLFMAN: HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS?

ROCKNE S. O'BANNON: My first professional writing sale was the mid-1980s revival of The Twilight Zone. It was one of those instances of overnight success that’d taken twenty years to occur. I’d been writing passionately since I was ten years old. My very first screenplay was a television pilot – how prophetic. I was a huge fan of the spy series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which had spawned a spin-off that year titled The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. So my first screenplay was the pilot for yet another spin-off titled The Boy from U.N.C.L.E. Write what you know, right (not the “spy” stuff, but the “boy” stuff).

I wrote it in longhand, and my older sister typed it for me – typed it on lined notebook paper, as I recall! I believe I still have it tucked in some file somewhere. Maybe I should pull it out and show it to CAA, see what they say… I continued to write – write everything – spec screenplays, spec TV series episodes, short stories. Eventually, I wrote a couple of spec scripts for a genre anthology series that ran briefly on ABC titled Darkroom. The series when off the air before I could properly submit them to that show, but later, when I heard that CBS was reviving The Twilight Zone, and NBC was doing Amazing Stories, I pulled the specs out and submitted them to both shows.

I received positive feedback from both places (you can imagine how exciting that was after so many years of writing spec material without a single sale). The Twilight Zone people bought one of the spec Darkroom scripts that I’d submitted, then they invited me in to pitch. I sold them another story, and after turning in my rewrite of the original spec script, they hired me onto staff. I was in heaven. I’m proud to say it never would have happened if I hadn’t just kept writing, writing everything, including a couple of spec scripts for a series (Darkroom) that I probably knew didn’t have a great chance of staying on the air very long.

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

RO'B: Somebody figured out recently that my works have grossed something like a third of billion dollars over the past fifteen years. Granted a very, very, very infinitesimal fraction of that sifted down to my bank account, but it’s still a startling revelation. It’s remarkably gratifying to know that I’ve always started with a blank piece of paper and over the years have generated ideas and characters that others seem to appreciate enough to fork over otherwise perfectly good Big Mac money to see. Is it any wonder that I’m so attentive and grateful to the greater sf community? In terms of specific creative success (the projects I feel most proud of creatively), I’d have to put my film, Fear and my television series, Farscape at the top of the list. Fear was my first writing/directing gig, I didn’t have as strong a control over the directing process as I would have liked, but with a lot of help from a tremendously supportive team of technicians and actors, I managed to complete a film that’s something of a cult favorite.

After playing on the Showtime network, it garnered an nomination for Best Cable Film for its year, which is pretty amazing for a thriller. Farscape, of course, has just been an incredible experience from the very beginning. It’s an example of the best elements – actors, writers, Aussie directors and crew -- coming together and making something that just sings. I also have a very warm spot in my heart for Alien Nation. Candidly, the final film is a little more superficial than what I originally intended with my original screenplay, but I’m really not in a position to complain. The subsequent television series better captured the tone that I’d tried to instill in the screenplay, so, ultimately, what I wanted to say found it’s way to the audience at large.

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

RO'B: The one project of mine that I wish I could relive would be seaQuest DSV. It was such an incredible opportunity, to work with all those creative people (Spielberg, Scheider, just to start). But I thought at the time that I could just write the 2-hour premiere episode, help cast it and develop the design, then step away. Not so. I learned from my seaQuest experience that creating a TV series isn’t just writing the pilot, it’s writing and rewriting the first season or two of the series itself, until the project finds its voice. On Farscape, I was the Exec Producer for the entire first season, wrote or rewrote half of the first season episodes. That show didn’t really find its voice until episode nine of season one. There’s a lot of cool stuff in seaQuest that I would have loved to explore, but I had other projects that I’d put aside to write/produce the 2-hour premiere, and I didn’t stick with the show. I sure wish I had. It still might never have been a success, but as it stands now, it got handed off to other people too soon – so I’ll never know for sure.

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

RO'B: Absolutely. My number one consideration with every scene I write is, “What is the audience feeling at this moment?” I ask myself that question not only about the entire scene as a whole, but it’s my touchstone as the scene progresses. I’m writing to be produced and watched – and experienced. That’s not to say that I write outside myself, only thinking of other people’s reactions. Because I consider myself as a member of that same audience. Writing Farscape is so much fun, for example, because I’m writing characters and scenes and situations that would tickle me if I were watching the show at home myself.

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

RO'B: I’m constantly praying that I even recognize when a story isn’t working! You don’t always know. I often write pages that I just know stink, but others tell me is the best part of the story. Other times, I write material that I feel is going to be my legacy, and folks who read it look at me like I’ve drowned their kitten. I have a pilot I wrote for Aaron Spelling and the FOX network some years ago titled Wilder and Wilder and it’s the boldest, quirkiest thing I’ve ever written. Or so I believe. FOX turned up their nose at it, and no matter how often I try to get some other venue interested, they all do the network equivalent of pulling their children in off the street and bolting the door. I wrote Farscape after Wilder and Wilder, so some of the bizarreness has rubbed off on Farscape, so I shouldn’t complain…

MW: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CREATING A CHARACTER?

RO'B: I don’t do character bios or anything that detailed. But I do want to know the character’s super-objective (what’s the overriding drive in that character’s life). I make sure each important character has a very strong super-objective. Then I make sure that every scene that character is in some what about that character trying to achieve that objective, either directly or indirectly. But every scene is driven by that single desire. One of the places writers can fall down on the job is in creating supporting characters who are rich and well-rounded characters in their own right. My little secret: with every character, even if it’s only a hotel clerk with a couple of lines of dialogue, I ask myself: How would I perceive this character if this entire story was about this character, how would I write this character if he/she were the lead character in his/her own television series? It’s amazing how changing the perspective in the scene to put the emphasis on this other character suddenly suggests more colorful dialogue, a stronger attitude or point-of-view for that character. I don’t necessarily want to give this ancillary character more lines to speak, but this trick usually finds me rewriting the character’s dialogue to something far more character-filled and interesting.

MW: WHAT MAKES A STORY?

RO'B: Story to me is one most important thing: Keeping the audience asking, “What’s going to happen next?” I use what I call The Fascination Factor. Every dialogue exchange, every scene, every Act should ideally have multiple questions hanging open which the audience simply must know the answer to. The more question hanging, the more fascinated the viewer. The most successful movies are the ones which set up the most layers of , “How are they ever going to get out of this?!” Jim Cameron, one of our most consistently satisfying filmmakers, is a master of this.

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

RO'B: I’m not sure I’m a particularly good pitcher, although I have sold things based on a pitch. I prefer to write it on spec than to pitch it. The problem I find with pitching is that it doesn’t inspire the writer to answer all the story questions before you go out to pitch it. When you write something, you’re constantly finding holes and plugging them up, going up dead ends and finding your way out. But when you’re preparing for a pitch (at least, when I’m preparing for a pitch), I find myself getting lazy and just hitting the flashy highlights, because I know those are the elements that will hook the listener. More than once I’ve sold something in a pitch, then sat down to do the work of actually writing it, and it was agony because what I sold in the pitch wasn’t the best way to tell that particular story. My advice (to others, as well as myself) – go the distance in developing the idea completely, then create a “highlights” version which becomes your pitch. In my case, I just find that if I go through the process of developing the idea completely, I’ve pretty much written it on spec already, in which case I’d just as soon type it up and sell it as a spec, and forego the pitch!

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

RO'B: Honestly, getting your material “over the wall” and read by someone on the inside of a studio or production company isn’t hard at all. You probably won’t get it read by Jerry Bruckheimer himself, but if you can get some assistant-who-aspires-to-be-a-reader at Bruckheimer to read it and like it, then you’re on your way to Jerry. It’s the underlings at studios and production companies who would love nothing more than to make a splash with their boss by bringing them a hot piece of material by a fresh writer that they’ve discovered. What’s key to this is knowing that everybody on the inside, underlings as well as staff readers as well as Jerry Bruckheimer, read mounds and mounds of material. The old admonition that you need to snag the reader fast and hold him even faster couldn’t be more true. The number one component necessary in a spec script is something I mentioned above: The Fascination Factor. You have to set up some question in the first few pages (the very first page ideally) that makes the reader think, “Ok, I’ll just keep reading until I find out how the character gets out of that, or handles that, or finds out about that…” Then, the secret is, always keeping one or more of these Fascination Factor questions pulling the reader through the entire story.

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

RO'B: I’ve done a couple of adaptations of novels as mini-series. I wish I could say my goal was to stay true to the original author’s material. If I were working with a classic work, or the author entreated me to do so, I would have done so without hesitation. But in both my experiences, the original authors themselves knew that their novels were not easily translated into mini-series scripts, and therefore gave me their blessing to go “off the page” and develop a screen story that was more appropriate to the form. I don’t believe in changing material just for the sake of changing it, but I think I’d also find it very difficult to write something, even an adaptation, and somehow constrain my own creativity.

MW: WHEN YOU ARE IN CHARGE AND OTHER WRITERS WRITE YOUR CHARACTERS, WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR AS AN EDITOR AS WELL AS THE CREATOR?

RO'B: I love it when other writers take my characters and show me some new aspect of their personality that I hadn’t thought of. Anything that can enrich and deepen a character, I’m all for it. It’s so nice when you don’t have to pull that heavy load all on your own. Of course what’s key to this is being in the position of final arbiter, so that the character(s) remain consistent. The writers who get hired onto staff are the ones who “get” the show, understand how to write within the style and tone of the existing series, but then are able to push the boundaries of the series beyond what’s been done before without stepping outside those boundaries.

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

RO'B: My personal experience has also been one where I’m forever finding myself in situations where I’m in charge of something despite the fact that I’ve never done it before. When I directed, for example, I’d never directed anything else ever before. When I Executive Produced the inaugural season of Farscape, I’d never done that before. So I’ve often found myself in the situation where the people under me actually have more experience in that particular endeavor than I have! This has taught me the necessity of being very, very open to the ideas, suggestions, comments of everybody around you – even, and some times especially – those working under you.

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

RO'B: Number one piece of advice: you can’t be a writer if you don’t write. Writing is the one job in the entertainment business that you can do without a great deal of expense, or without the need for other people. And you better love the process of writing itself, or at least come to terms with it. Because the process itself doesn’t change at all once you begin selling. William Goldman and Robert Towne may be able to jet off to Paris any time they want for inspiration, they may have big beautiful swimming pools to write beside – but when it comes to doing the actual work, they do it exactly the same way that you and I do it. Either keyboard in front of us, or pad in our lap, all writers face the same blank page, writing one word after another, staring off, wrestling with the story’s structure, rethinking, rewriting… That’s the most encouraging and discouraging notion I can leave you with: every time you sit down to write, you are at that moment already living exactly the life that every other writer, past and present, lives. It’s not going to change no matter how successful you become. If you don’t love that process, don’t expect it to change once you begin selling. Get out of it now. But if you really want to be a writer, go write, right now, and be content knowing that when you do, you’re already living the life that you dream for yourself.

***

I want to thank Rockne for his wonderful answers. I’m trying to get people whose work I admire, not only in comics, but in all writing fields, to talk frankly about the process of writing. I hope those of you reading this are enjoying this as much as I am.


See you in seven.

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