SPEAKING WITH… TED ELLIOTT

So where have I been for the past week or so? Why did I miss my silver bullet column for the first time in a year? Well, in the Department Of More Information Than You Actually Want To Know, Department...

What a mess! Two week and a half weeks ago, the rough plot for a project Len Wein and I are working on suddenly vanished from my computer. It was nowhere to be found. Not even Norton's Utilities could find it. Unerase couldn't locate it. It was gone. Vanished. It was an ex-parrot of a file. Thank goodness I had printed it out so we still had it in time for our meeting the next day.

At any rate, I immediately began backing up my system and files - which I normally do anyway, but decided now was the right time. And thank God I did because the next day my computer wouldn't boot at all. There was no way to get into the computer, not even with a system disk. This is not a normal Mac problem, more like something you'd expect on a windows machine, but it happens.

So I brought the computer to my local Apple Store and they took it away from me for a week. They replaced my hard drive and gave it to me back yesterday, a week later. Until then I'd been working on a PC laptop but without the interview prepared for this column. So, anyway, I got back the computer, loaded most of my software and then decided it was time to load my printer driver. Only they hadn't put back my utilities folder which has everything needed to do most anything needed, including printing. So I called Apple Care, the Apple protection people, and they told me I had to reinstall Jaguar, which is the most recent operating system. That would, of course, erase everything I had just spent a day putting back into the machine.

Reluctantly, I did, only, well, before I tell you what happened next, I have to say this won't make sense to any windows user, but iMacs have two operating systems on them. We have system 9 and system 10. System 9 is what Macs used to use. System 10 is like incredibly better. But, so we could use our old software or software that hasn't been updated, they put two systems in the computer. Hands up if you think Bill Gates would give a fig if you couldn't use your old software and would have to buy all new stuff. Yeah. Right.
So I put in Jaguar, which is the new OS X software, but somehow it erased my OS 9 system. The next morning, Apple Care helped me install system 9 and, well, I spent yet another day replacing everything on the computer. This is on top of trying to get the project done in time. Trust me that I was pulling out the last of my hair over this.

Why have I even bothered to tell you all this? One simple reason. Since I lost ALL my email files, which is where I store the letters you send me with questions and other bits of business, I no longer have ANY of the questions you guys have been sending me. So, if you’re reading this and you’ve sent me ANY questions that I have yet to answer in this column, please RESEND them. Thanks.

And now, Ted Elliott. Unlike most situations where I don’t remember exactly where I met someone, I do remember meeting Ted, and his writing partner, Terry, at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Francisco. We were in the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers Association) room. Len Wein had already met Ted and Terry and introduced me to them. Now, Len is a night owl whereas I’m someone who fades real early (ask the weekly Poker crew, which Ted is occasionally one of, and they can’t wait for 11:00 or so to chime in because that’s when I’ll lose any of the money I may have won, when that [all-too rarely] happens). So, when I met Ted and Terry I was half asleep and probably said little more than “Hi” before fading out and heading off to my room. But I kept meeting Ted and Terry at parties and functions and we finally became friends.

Ted and Terry are the kinds of writers most of us envy. Not because they’re good – and they are – but because they get to do the kinds of movies we’d love to do. They got to do a Zorro movie, for God’s sake. I love Zorro. I even threw him into an issue of Tomb of Dracula, way back when. I watched all the Disney shows and the old Black and White movies. And they not only did a Zorro film, they did the best Zorro film ever! They got to do Godzilla – not the one you saw, but the real Godzilla, and it was a great script. Ted talks about Godzilla below and he, and I, recommend you go to his website and read the T’s original script. They did Shrek, which was a wonderful spin on the Fairy Tale movie, and they most recently did Pirates Of The Caribbean, which was a great Pirate movie as well as a great fun film.

Ted and Terry are not only good writers, they understand why they do what they do. And so, I’ll shut up now and let Ted speak. Return next week for part two.

MARV WOLFMAN: HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS?

TED ELLIOTT: From the very beginning of our working together, Terry and I figured we'd give ourselves ten years to make out first professional screenplay sale. The thinking was, if you spend ten years doing something, you'll be an expert at it. You may still suck at it, but at least you'll have the expertise to recognize that you suck.

Basically, we figured that there was more to writing screenplays then formatting -- although some of the advertising for screenplay formatting programs may lead people to believe otherwise. So we wrote in a number of different form -- two hour, one hour episodic, half-hour sitcom, some short film scripts -- just trying to learn the craft, what worked, what didn't work, what we still needed to work on. After five years, we finally wrote a screenplay that we felt was of high enough caliber to submit to production companies ... and it sold. So we beat our own deadline.

Unfortunately, the movie that eventually got made was abysmal. It's funny -- with the given value for "funny" being "so tragically stupid, all you can do is laugh" -- so often, the very thing that gets everyone excited about making a movie -- the screenplay -- is the first thing that gets compromised when it comes time to actually make the movie. We were substantially rewritten, either by the producers or the director, and the movie reflects their sensibilities far more than ours. And I believe I have the expertise to say "It sucked" -- and they clearly lacked the expertise to recognize their own suckosity (the movie was LITTLE MONSTERS; I'm not trying to be coy here).

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

TE: There's really no versus -- the movies we feel most reflect our story and cinematic sensibilities are the ones that have been the most financially successful. Wait, one exception: GODZILLA (1998). We've made some nice money off of our rather small contribution to the final movie, but I can say without qualification that the final movie is nothing like what we wanted to make.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL is the most satisfying of all the movies we've worked on, in large part because we did a few things in terms of story and structure that were, by Hollywood standards, unconventional, but which proved to work -- not the least of which is that it's a freakin' pirate movie. But there's other things, like giving the audience enough information to figure out all the intricacies of the plot from the things the characters say and do, instead of spoonfeeding it to them. Of course, the downside of this is that if people don't expect to have to think while watching the movie, or expect that if the plot does make sense, then there'll be a scene where one character will directly explain it to another while sitting on a park bench or something -- then you end up with the criticism that the story is full of holes and doesn't make sense ... but for the most part, it seems as though people have enjoyed the fact that there is more to find out about the movie than can generally be caught on in a single viewing (and, of course, the upside is that it does encourage people to want to see the movie more than once ... ).

Basically, we intentionally designed the story so that there would be stuff for the audience to think about after the movie was over, if they were so inclined. Think of it as the "I fought beside your father in the Clone Wars" theory -- unintentional or not, those eight words in the original STAR WARS movie generated nearly twenty years of speculation and millions of words of fanfic. I don't expect PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: MAN, THAT’S A LONG SUBTITLE will have the same result, but it is nonetheless proven to be an effective technique for engaging an audience in the story being told.

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

TE: I'd say GODZILLA, except the answer doesn't really fit the question, because we knew then that there were certain things the story had to do to be A ) good, and B ) successful. We actually began the writing process by coming up with a list of absolutes -- Godzilla absolutely had to be onscreen in the first five minutes (he could be offscreen for a good time after that), Godzilla absolutely had to be portrayed as a nearly-unstoppable, always-advancing force of nature, Godzilla absolutely had to fight another monster ... I can't remember all of them, but I do know that the finished movie did not include any of them (for anyone interested in reading our GODZILLA screenplay, its up on our website, www.wordplayer.com in the ARCHIVES section ... along with our original spec screenplay for LITTLE MONSTERS, and our unproduced screenplay for SANDMAN, based on the comics)(I should say: our as-yet unproduced screenplay ... hope springs eternal, right?).
(The best review I ever heard of that GODZILLA movie came from a seven-year-old boy who, while watching the movie, asked his mother "When is Godzilla going to show up and fight that other monster?" Exactly.)

In all honesty, in regards to our produced works that suck (or even that mostly don't suck but still kinda do, specifically, SMALL SOLDIERS), I don't think that there's anything we could have done differently. In every case, we did everything we could to prevent stupid decisions from being made, but there's only so much power the screenwriter has over the final movie. I think we may know better how to exercise that power, but even then ... the truth is, for the screenwriter, the quality of the movies they work on is almost entirely dependent on the quality of their collaborators in making those movies. The better the collaborators -- and by that, of course, I mean the more the sensibilities of the producer and director are aligned with your own -- the more the final movie will reflect the movie you set out to make in the first place. And this is not limited to screenwriters, either -- had Joe Dante been free to make the version of SMALL SOLDIERS he wanted to make, it would have been a far better movie then the one that did get made.

***

Come back next week for the rest of this excellent interview. In the meantime, don’t forget to resend those questions to me, and while you’re at it, take a look at Ted and Terry’s website, [www.wordplayer.com], and, if you still have a free moment after going through all their wonderful pages, come over to my site at marvwolfman.com.

See you in seven

Marv Wolfman



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