Sunday, December 6, 2009

Renko Vega and The Jennifer Nine

Have a nice little treat for you today. As I mentioned, the Black List is only four days away now and it looks like we have a review for a script that will likely make the list. But the fun doesn't stop there. Afterwards, Roger does an interview with the writer himself, John Raffo! I want to give a big thanks to RB because he set up and put this together himself. And of course thank you to John for giving today's review a little extra kick. -- By the way, to all you development execs and readers out there, if you have any advance word on scripts that'll make the Black List, let me know. The more I know, the more I'll have ready when the list is released. Here's Roger with today's review...

Genre: Action, Science Fiction, Space Opera
Premise: Renko Vega, a disgraced cosmonaut, has resorted to a life of thievery with his best friend and partner, a sentient spaceship called the Jennifer 9. When a group of space pirates called the Augmentics take hostage the passengers and crew of The Starlight Revolver, Renko has the chance to redeem himself as he’s forced to choose between self-preservation or saving the people onboard.
About: John Raffo wrote the notorious post-apocalyptic actioner spec, “Pincushion”. His theatrical credits include “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”, directed by Rob Cohen, and “The Relic”, directed by Peter Hyams. John Shestack (“Air Force One”, “Dan in Real Life”) is attached as producer. Ryan Rowe (“Charlie’s Angels”) helped Mr. Raffo write the three-page treatment.
Advance word is that this script will make the 2009 Black List.
Writer: Screenplay by John Raffo. Original Story by John Raffo and Ryan Rowe.

(Concept art not affiliated with script)

I’m not gonna lie. I have a lotta love for this script.

The first thing I noticed about it was the awesome title. Sure, it stirs up images of a pulp serial adventure, but what kind? A name like Renko Vega evokes the cultural melting-pot nomenclature of cyberpunk.

And the Jennifer Nine?

Thoughts of cloning, sentient machines and artificial intelligence were swirling in my head as I opened the script.

So what’d you discover, Rog?

Imagine if there were a Star Wars film solely about Han Solo and you’ll have an idea what “Renko Vega and the Jennifer Nine” feels like. It’s a blaster-style adventure yarn that melds the Golden Age comic-book spell of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the swashbuckling charm (and franchise opportunity?) of something like “Pirates of the Caribbean”.

We meet our hero, Renko Vega, as he’s being pursued through a city by an angry mob of people. He clutches a trunk-like case, which, presumably, he has just stolen. The intimate female voice in his ear guides him through the maze of alleyways, hopefully leading him to an airlock.

Alas, there is no airlock, but there is a Plexiglass wall. Undeterred, and having no other option, Renko begins to slam the case against the wall despite the panicked outcries of the mob. Clearly, this is insane behavior and they don’t know if they should charge him or get the hell out of this area fast.

Turns out they should have turned tail and ran, because when that case penetrates the wall it’s like Ripley hitting the big red button to open the airlock on the Nostromo. Everything that isn’t nailed down, including people, starts to fly towards the hole. Renko takes a deep breath and dives through the hole.

We suddenly get the big picture.

As Renko floats through space, the Méliès-like mise-en-scène lets us know that our man just crashed through the wall of a dome that houses the colonists of a moon. And now he’s floating through space, chasing the case, running out of oxygen.


But don’t worry. A spaceship, winged, sleek and Lamborghini-meets-Bentley cool scoops Renko out of the nebulousness darkness. This spaceship possesses the feminine voice that helped Renko escape the moon colony.

Her name?

Jennifer 9.

(Concept art not affiliated with script)

So the Jennifer 9 is a sentient spaceship?

Yep. And the case that he stole contains the precious, restorative fuel rods for Jennifer 9.

You see, Renko Vega is a space pirate, and the Jennifer 9 is his trustworthy ship. Renko, a disgraced hero and cosmonaut of the United Planet Earth, is also the type of guy that has lost faith in humanity. He doesn’t trust his fellow man. Instead, his only companions are the Jennifer 9 and the artificial life-forms that serve as her crew.

He’s a man that only trusts machines.

And as such, one might also conclude that, emotionally, he has developed what might be described as an inappropriate relationship (get your mind out of the gutter) with Jennifer 9. He’s bonded to her in such a way that she’s very protective of him.

Jennifer 9 sees Renko Vega as a charming rogue, and she sees herself as his beautiful and brainy side-kick. She would do anything for him. Yes, there’s love between them, and we will learn that love will be to the ultimate test.

So what’s the dilemma?

Jennifer 9 helps Renko infiltrate The Starlight Revolver, the largest spacecraft ever equipped with a jump drive, with the goal of stealing a priceless necklace called The Lady of the Shadows. The ship is a real luxury liner. Think the Titanic in space.

Not only is Renko recognized as a notorious outlaw, we also learn that he’s been branded a traitor. If anything makes Renko angry, it’s being called a traitor.

The plot thickens when a cruel-looking corsair dubbed “The Bloody Henry” attacks the Starlight Revolver. A nasty crew of space pirates called Augmentics crash the party. They’re humans who are into an extreme form of body modification, sort of like transhumanist Hell’s Angels who are in the business of scaring and robbing people.

Things get complicated when Renko learns that the Augmentics are led by Creighton Bevilaqua, a man Renko used to work for when he was a Captain in iNASA.

Things get even more complicated when we discover that he is here to capture Miss Elizabeth Ardmore, daughter of James Joplin Ardmore, Commander in Chief and President of United Planet Earth.

Jennifer 9 is extremely concerned with getting Renko the hell off the ship, and he’s not really one to argue. Selfishly, they’re only interested in survival.

Not saving the Princess of Mars (Elizabeth’s nickname).

(Concept art not affiliated with script)

Of course, in the stealthy scramble to find an exit, Renko butts heads with Kathryn DelRio, Elizabeth’s handler and bodyguard. DelRio is armed with a Merc-Matsu gun, an awesome piece of hardware that she uses to blow holes through walls and kill multiple Augmentics at a time.

Of course, Jennifer 9 is instantly jealous of her.

Once Bevilaqua learns that Renko Vega is on board, helping DelRio cause all sorts of problems for the Augmentics, he decides to kick matters up to Phase 2. “We need to find that girl before the ship comes apart. Mister Shiz, fetch the Nebulon project and prepare it for release.”

What’s the Nebulon project?

The cases that contain the Nebulon project read, “Radically altered genetic material contained within.”

It’s “the brain-child of a black ops program on the moon about ten years ago. Their mission was to develop the ‘ultimate individual combat module.’ But they abandoned the project.”

“Why did they abandon it?”

“Oh, ‘abandon’ is probably the wrong term. They didn’t actually survive.”

It is a genetically altered biological construct that is thought to be invincible in hand-to-hand combat. It’s the ultimate soldier, lacking only in the critical areas of dedication and loyalty.

As you can probably guess, we’re treated to a ten-page monster mayhem-sequence that involves Renko Vega, his Sentient Space Suit, and his Sentient Robotic Hand as they all battle the Nebulon.

It’s a scary, humorous, and riveting battle that jeopardizes the entirety of The Starlight Revolver. Naturally, I loved every word of it.

And I’m here to report, there’s a lot to like in this script.

What separates this script from an average Space Opera?

It’s the characters, baby.

And the execution thereof that elevates this from the type of Buck Rogers-esque Space Opera that science-fiction novelist Brian Aldiss calls, “The good old stuff.”

Sure, there’s witty Whedonesque repartee and talking Space Suits and chatty cybernetic body parts (not to mention one of my favorite characters, Renko’s loyal robot, Bill.1), but there’s some emotional depth that really makes this script more than an entertaining pulp actioner. It does something that doesn’t just make me care about a protagonist or merely be interested in his endeavors.

It makes me feel.

See, Renko Vega isn’t just a disgraced cosmonaut who has become a space pirate. He’s a hero, and DelRio remembers him as such, “Renko Vega was one of the first interplanetary astronauts. When I was your age he was always on the newsfeeds, ‘Renko Vega Leads Scientists in Exploration of Mercury’, ‘Renko Vega Saves Sixteen off Ganymede.’ He singlehandedly flew into the heat of Tartarus and towed out a disabled lightship. Renko Vega. Even his name was magical. They wrote songs about him –- Which made it all the more disappointing when he screwed up.“

Renko is a character who wears the veneer of a charming rogue to mask his own hurt, his own fall from grace. He has the chance to redeem himself and clear his name of treason when fate pits him against Bevilaqua, the man who framed him. But to do so, he has to step out of his comfort zone and actually help other people.

He has to step up and be what he once was, a hero.

(Concept art not affiliated with script)

How are the stakes raised in Act 3?

Without giving too much away (you guys really should read this for yourself), there’s a pretty major reversal that involves the bad guys getting control of Jennifer 9.

If there’s a spaceship battle involved, it might mean Renko has to battle his own ship (and best friend) in the more low-tech Bloody Henry.

It’s the stuff in the finale that moved me the most. Because it’s a situation where Renko is forced to harm a machine that he’s always seen as a person. In fact, Jennifer 9 has been the main friendship (and crutch) that’s nurtured him all these years. And what’s heartbreaking, is that he believes he’s worthless without her.

In a weird way, it’s like a husband faced with the potential loss of his wife. What will he be without her? What worth will he have? How will he move on? What will happen to his sense of identity once he loses his partner and best-friend?

I’ll just say that there’s a heartwrenching and redemptive speech during the middle of a battle that almost seems to physically slow down time. It’s amazing writing, and for me, it’s the heart and soul of this script.

And it’s a cinematic moment that, for an artificial intelligence, is an instance of singularity that convinces an audience that a machine is capable of human feeling. It’s really good.

I haven’t really talked about some of the other great moments. Like how funny Bill.1 is or the great scene where Bevilaqua tortures the twelve brains of the Starlight Revolver. Or the budding friendship between Renko and DelRio.

It’s something you should discover for yourselves.

“Renko Vega and the Jennifer Nine” is a colorful New Wave Space Opera that has the comical ingenuity of “Galaxy Quest”, the slick narrative gestalt of “Dr. Who”, and the engaging character drama of “Star Wars”.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Is there a theme more powerful than redemption? I struggle to think of one. Maybe it’s the man inside me that feels stained, that feels like I need to somehow find a way to “right” things. I don’t know. Maybe it’s why I like noir so much. Characters trying to wash the blood from their hands, characters trying to balance a ledger that’s been corrupted by their own misdeeds and mistakes. I connect with these characters, and I love it go on the journey with them as they try to break through a wall and come out a more honorable person. It’s not only cathartic, there’s something about it that’s peaceful to me. In Renko Vega’s case, what’s so astounding to me is that he’s a character that re-discovers his own worth. He’s a character that learns how to believe in himself again. And belief, the ability to hope and to dream and to matter, that’s a powerful thing. I think, as writers, we shouldn’t be afraid to aim high. To dream big. Don’t be afraid. And writing about redemption, well, I think that’s as high as you can get…


Since there’s advance word that John Raffo’s script, “Renko Vega and the Jennifer Nine” is going to be on the 2009 Black List (and I’m not surprised), I thought it would be a good idea to interview the man himself.

Raffo broke into the industry after the infamous 1988 Writer’s Guild strike when his spec script, “Pincushion”, sold for $500,000 to Columbia. Amy Pascal bought it for Scott Rudin to produce. It’s still considered one of the best unproduced screenplays in town. At one point, Demi Moore attached herself because Joel Silver told her it was the best script he ever read.

Raffo’s theatrical credits include Rob Cohen’s “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” and “The Relic”, directed by Peter Hyams. He was asked by the producers of the latter to doctor-up the action sequences. Raffo directed “Johnny Skidmarks”, a script he co-wrote with William Preston Robertson, a writer he met through the Coen brothers. The film stars Peter Gallagher, Frances McDormand, John Lithgow and Jack Black. Raffo was also the writer tasked with translating the classic Neal Stephenson cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash” from prose to screenplay.

Raffo is a Hollywood veteran and has been writing and selling screenplays for two decades, and accordingly, he has a lot of knowledge and wisdom concerning the craft. I’d like to publicly thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk about his screenwriting career.

RB: You made big waves when you broke in with your science-fiction script, “Pincushion”. How many scripts did you write before “Pincushion”? And -- why did you turn to screenwriting in the first place?

JR: I wrote one script before Pincushion, a thriller. It was terrible. I kept trying to rewrite it but I had a filmmaker friend who had the good sense to tell me to throw it out and start something new. Of course at first I hated his advice and tried to ignore it, but ultimately, he was right. I already had the idea for "Pincushion" and started working on that.

At the time I was a photographer working in New York. I made a decent living but I really wanted to move into film... and didn't want to be a cinematographer. That seemed like a more natural move but ultimately would be just me shooting someone else's stories. I wanted to be the storyteller. Screenwriting seemed like the place to start. I had an actress girlfriend at the time and I read all the scripts that she got, and I solicited them from other people I knew. Of course there was no Internet, no digital medium at all. Scripts weren't published; you couldn't buy them in a store. It wasn't easy to get your hands on them at all.

RB: Twenty years later, “Pincushion” has yet to be made, but it’s still a script people remember and talk about. Was there ever an attempt to pigeonhole you as the guy that wrote solely science fiction and action?

JR: I'm not sure how much they remember it anymore, and I'm not sure how much it helps to be the guy who's been around that long (my agents tell me never to talk about how long I've been working). But, no, I don't think I was ever pigeonholed as a sci-fi writer... though I LOVE sci-fi. All kinds. Still like it, read it as much as I can.

I have been pigeon-holed before though... after "Dragon, the Bruce Lee Story" came out I got tons of martial arts stuff sent to me and tons of "bio-pic" ideas. I remember someone sent me a huge box full of stuff they had gathered for a movie about the life of Connie Francis. I've got nothing against Connie Francis and I'm sure her life would make a wonderful movie, but I have no idea why anyone would think I'd be interested in writing it. And the parts of Bruce Lee's life that interested me really had nothing to do with Kung Fu. That's like being interested in car chases. A car chase in and of itself is kind of meaningless... it's really what motivates the chase that's interesting....

RB: You wrote “Pincushion” on a typewriter. Do you think this affected the voice and tone of the script? And, do you ever break out the typewriter for your current work? Or are you strictly a computer guy now?

JR: Hmm... did I say I wrote "Pincushion" on a typewriter? That's only partly true. I certainly wrote the first draft or most of the first draft on a typewriter, but by the time it sold I think much of it was written on a computer... an old CP/M machine with a tiny little screen. The floppy drives were unreliable and you needed a bunch of them to store a script. Chunks of revisions were typewritten but chunks were written on a variety of different computers. I've never had a complete draft of the script on a hard drive... and I didn't know there was a digital draft of Pincushion until I saw it reviewed on Script Shadow a couple of months ago. Of course, I guess that's a .pdf file... a scan... and it was probably a scan of a paper draft.

I no longer own a typewriter, but I touch-type and I'm pretty fast at it. But I rewrite constantly and only ever from a paper copy. I'm not sure if everyone doesn't work that way? So, I write on the computer, print, read, scribble a lot on the paper copy, re-enter it in the computer and do it again and again. I'm not facile at writing. It takes me days to write a letter. I think the "voice" you talk about in Pincushion was a product of rewriting myself over and over again. I found the voice along the way, and then tried to maintain it throughout the script.

RB: I’ve heard people say that the average career-span for a Hollywood screenwriter is 3-5 years. You’re a guy that has worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood for 2 decades. First off, how do you do it? And secondly, what advice would you give to a young (or old) screenwriter that just broke in?

JR: Three to five years, really? I don't know about that. I enjoy writing scripts. I've gotten better and better at it. I try to write only what I like, and try not to worry about what people think I should be writing... nobody thought Pincushion (which was set in a post-apocalyptic plague world with a female hero) was a good idea for a Hollywood movie. Nobody thought writing Renko Vega... a space movie... was a good career move. But they are both good scripts and they are what I wanted to write at the time.

But when I get hired to write a story I didn't initiate, I try and figure out two things: (1) What I can best bring to the project and (2) what the producer or studio actually needs from me. You figure out where those two things overlap and... that's what you try and write. But you've got to be working with like-minded people. You've got to find producers and executives who see stuff the same way you do... and you've got to be able to give them back what they want... and... it isn't always what you want. I guess you've got to be flexible but still maintain what makes you a good writer. I don't think of myself as an artist, I'm a screenwriter... it's a skill you can learn... like making shoes.

RB: Do you prefer creating original screenplays or adaptation work? When adapting an already existing property, what are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve faced in distilling the story into a screenplay? Are there any old scripts out there of yours that you’re particularly fond of?

JR: I like both, but I think I've been more successful at writing original screenplays. There's more room to let the story grow organically that way... and it's more mine that way. But it's harder to pull off as well... and, unfortunately, original material is harder to sell than ever before.
There are several unsold specs of which I'm fond. One is called, "The Seventh Sword"... it was an attempt at combining sci-fi with a kind of Kurosawa movie: A soldier is sent to a distant planet to put down a rebellion by the colonists. The counter-rebellion fails and his comrades leave him behind. The planet has a chemical makeup that is unfavorable to explosive weaponry so there are no guns. The hero is a kind of neo-Samurai who carries a legendary sword known as a "Malathane". There's another busted spec called "Hydra" that's a kind of contemporary techno-thriller about a guy who discovers his dead brother created a computer program that's turned dangerous. He's got to figure out how to turn it off. It's one of those giant continent-spanning chase movies. I was shooting for a modern version of "The 39 Steps"... one of my all time favorites.

There's also a smaller independent thriller called "The Lake" that I wrote with Robert Harmon for him to direct. I'm very proud of that script as well, but we've been unable to get the money and the cast all at the same time.

RB: I want to bring this up for selfish science-fiction nerd reasons, but you were the screenwriter who adapted the famous Neal Stephenson cyberpunk novel, “Snow Crash” for producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy. Can you shed some light on this project for us?

JR: I read that novel when it first came out in trade paperback in '93 or '94 and, once I got into it, I loved it. Talk about a voice... Neal Stephenson has a voice. A year or so later I discovered that Kennedy/Marshall had optioned the book... and I knew a guy who worked for them... and they were looking for a writer. But, here's the thing... I didn't really think the book would necessarily make a good movie. It was certainly going to have to be vastly different than the book. I passed. Twice. But they were determined to make it into a movie and it was by far the best opportunity for employment out there. But, by that time, maybe '95, the book had become pretty popular and I no longer felt I could cut the book up as much as was probably necessary... it would have been kind of unrecognizable... and, for me, Neal was and is, pretty iconic. He is a real writer. But through the process... he was incredibly helpful and gracious and available and... he read and reread and reread everything I wrote. And I found myself pretty able to mimic his voice... that William-Gibson-with-a-sense-of-humor-thing he does. And he seemed to genuinely like the script. It was, like the book, crammed full of stuff. It was interesting, but... and here's the thing... I'm not sure it was ever going to be a great movie. A cool movie, sure. One that sticks with you maybe, but is it one a lot of people are just dying to pay eleven bucks for... I don't know.
Then they tried to find a director. Marco Brambilla came in and I wasn't involved anymore. So that's my story.

RB: What was the genesis for “Renko Vega and the Jennifer Nine”?

JR: Back around 2001, I had this idea for the character... a fallen astronaut in the future gone rogue... he's become a small time pirate, a kind of charming second-story man. And I had the idea for the space liner and bad guys would appear and he'd have to be heroic again. I didn't exactly know what to do with it but I knew I wanted it to be funny and I wasn't sure I could do it by myself so I took it to my friend, Ryan Rowe, who's much more of a comic writer than I am. Over emails and coffee we beat out a story. The Jennifer 9 was in it, the "Nebulon" was there, the villain, the jewel, and Bill.1. We turned it into a three-page treatment and took it to Jon Shestack (who is a big sci-fi buff and a guy who I've worked with before) and he liked it and helped us a little on the story and we took it out as a pitch. We went to a couple of likely places and we got hammered. No one wanted a space movie. They weren't polite about it. So, we threw it in a drawer and it sat there for a couple of years. Until sometime in 2007 or so, I was looking for something to write and complaining and Shestack said, "The best thing you haven't written is Renko Vega." He went on to say, that if I wrote the first act, he could probably sell that. That was BS of course, but it sounded easy enough, so I called Ryan and he told me I was crazy and he was too busy, so I wrote the first act myself and it's pretty much is what's in the script now. Jon showed it to a couple of people, and of course they said, "What am I supposed to do with this?" By that time I was pretty committed to the story and decided to just write the rest, despite the misgivings of almost everyone. Of course, by the time I finished it, Star Trek was in production and there were other space movies on the scene so... I don't know. There's some kind of lesson in there.

RB: I loved the characters in “Renko Vega and the Jennifer Nine”. Can you tell us a little about your process when it comes to creating and writing characters? What’s the secret to creating memorable characters? And does this approach differ when writing villains?

JR: I don't really have a cogent answer for this. The characters I write are all versions of me, or who I'd like to be, or who I would not like to be but fear I am. Villains, heroes, male, female, they're all me. When they're not versions of me, they don't work very well.

So, when you need one, how do you make yourself into a thirteen-year old girl? You don't. You pretend. In "Podkayne of Mars", Robert Heinlein wrote a whole book in the voice of a pre-teen. It was great and I think he was an ex-Naval officer in his sixties at the time. Of course, it might be interesting to note that when I was writing Renko Vega, I had a thirteen-year-old daughter... (now fourteen). She is completely unknowable to me, but I asked her to read some of "the girl's" stuff in the script. She did and said, "I don't where you're going with this... seems pretty stupid to me..." which is pretty much what the character would have said, so... I felt like maybe I was getting it right.

I remember when I was working on "Snow Crash" I went to visit Neal in Seattle, and we were walking down the street (to the original Starbucks ("the mothership", Neal called it)) and I asked him how he got the tone for "Y.T.'s" dialogue (I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to capture it, it's singular stuff). We passed a newstand and he said, "Here," and walked over and grabbed a couple of skateboard magazines... "I got it from here. This stuff is priceless." And of course, he was right, it was right there. He just mashed up that skateboard-surfer-dude stuff, processed it in his head and... out came this great character. And I thought, well, if Neal, great man of letters that he is, can use such a humble source, than so can I. Now I don't worry about it.

On a side note, when I asked Neal trepidatiously if he minded my trimming some stuff from the book, he said, "Are you kidding? That's just... plot!" I don't think he gives a damn about plot, which is why his books are what they are. It's all about the stream of consciousness for him. I don't think a screenwriter can think that way. My work is mostly in service of the plot. The plot's gotta be right, cause everything hangs off it.

RB: Let’s talk about action sequences and set-pieces for a minute. In a modern-day movie climate where blockbusters often sacrifice the overall story for action-scene spectacle, how do you balance character and story amid all the explosions and fisticuffs? What are the things you take into consideration when designing an action sequence and making it organic to the bigger story?

JR: Well, that's certainly what I want to do... balance character and plot and action... but, judging by a lot of stuff that's out there, I'm never sure anyone but me really cares. I get really bored watching movies where everything's exploding. I need characters I care about first, then they can run around and do cool things. You create a character, then you create a dilemma, then you complicate the dilemma, and the character has to get out the other side, only, because he's human, he's gone the wrong way, and he's got to find another way. Then, in the end, he's different, his point of view has changed.

RB: Not to get into spoiler territory, but there’s a moment in “Renko Vega and the Jennifer Nine” that absolutely blindsided me. It was an emotional sucker-punch, and it involved the humanity of the artificial intelligence, Jennifer 9. Do you have any tips on how to make a script connect with readers, how to actually make them “feel” when it comes to your story?

JR: You can't look at Jennifer Nine as a machine. She's a character, as valid as any human character. It's interesting, because it was one of the things that wasn't really in the original concept. But we realized (by we I mean myself, Jon, and Ryan. Those guys read every scene as I was writing...) that the story was gaining depth... more than I think we originally intended. Renko was always affable but also bitter, he hates society, hates people and surrounds himself, however unintentionally with machines. He loves the machines... and very simply, the machines love him back.

I'm not sure if it was the cause or the result, but the "hand" and the "suit" all appeared as I was writing. That finally, is the beauty of writing on spec. You can let stuff bloom... and that relationship... Renko and his machines formed the themes of the movie. I stumbled on it all as I was writing. When that happens... I don't know... it's awesome.

RB: I want to bring up a little flick you wrote and directed called “Johnny Skidmarks”. It’s a disturbing yet honest noir tale that, I think, makes a great double-feature with something like the Coen’s “Blood Simple”. It definitely feels like a hidden gem. How did the opportunity come about for you to direct? Would you consider directing again?

JR: I co-wrote Johnny Skidmarks (a title I abhor) with William Preston Robertson. Bill is a real writer, an Iowa Writer's Workshop guy. I met him through Ethan and Joel Coen, who were friends of mine from back in NY. (Ironically, I met them when they were cutting Blood Simple.) I think Ethan and Bill were roommates at one point. I think it was Ethan who suggested we write something together.

Now, Bill and I are not at all alike. Bill is from the South and talks in a magnificent, comical, almost Foghorn Leghorn style. He's also well educated. I am not; I have no degrees from anywhere and no formal training of any kind. We were a weird mix.

I had an idea for a story about a photographer who works for the cops and as a part of a blackmail ring simultaneously. That's all I had and I couldn't figure out how to write it... the story didn't have any explosions or car chases (or space pirates for that matter)... nothing I thought I needed to write a screenplay. I told the story to Bill and he liked it enough to come to my house and camp out. He was there for three weeks... exactly 21 days... and we were done. The fastest I've ever written anything. I learned a lot from Bill. When something's not working in a script or scene, I usually stop until I figure it out. Bill doesn't, he writes around the problem... and he is completely capable of knocking you out with his gift for words.

The script was well-liked and it was always written with the intent of my directing, but it took five years to find the financing. Finally we put together enough cast to generate some money and we made it. When it was finished we cut it and were preparing to enter it into various festivals including Sundance. But the financiers simultaneously took the movie to Mifed and sold it to HBO. We were however, invited to screen it at Sundance that year. I took the movie up there, where it screened once at a midnight show on a Sunday night. The next day Variety reviewed the movie and it was brutal. The reviewer absolutely hated it and hated me... and the financiers vanished with the only print. It played on HBO for a while, a slightly shorter, better version than the DVD version and that was it.

I have mixed feelings about the movie; I only see the things I could have done better. I'm not fond of the violent, almost sadistic vibe the movie wears. Were I to do it again, I would do it differently.

I'd like to direct again, but it was hard on me and hard on my family... and by the end of it... it took too long. I didn't write anything, didn't create anything for almost three years from the beginning of prep to the end of the movie. Not a great way to run your career.

And that three-to-five year career thing, you mentioned earlier? It's worse for directors. Hollywood treats writers and directors as commodities, this is true. We are all replaceable. But it's worse for directors. In my opinion much worse.

RB: Along with your own success, you’ve worked with a lot of successful people. Is there a parallel you tend to see with successful people in this business (whether they be writers, directors, or whomever)? Is it all about talent? Or is there something more?

JR: I don't know how successful I've been. I'm a screenwriter and I'm often working and sometimes I even get paid. That's great. Right now, I'm just trying to write good stuff.
As for other people I've worked with... I don't know. Sometimes it's talent, sometimes it's enthusiasm or luck or some combination of the three. Some really talented people can't get through the door.

I can tell you that my own failures have been almost entirely my own fault. That's the single thing I've learned over the years. I've fired agents and managers and occasionally made their lives unpleasant because something didn't happen the way I thought it should. But Hollywood is not a meritocracy. Deal with it. Move on. Write something else. Write it better.

RB: Your stories deal with the theme of redemption. How important is redemption to you? Do you think it’s important to tell stories about hope?

JR: Yes. No. I don't know. How many scripts are not about redemption or hope? It's important to me that the characters have hope at the end of a story. I care for them (remember, "they're all me"!) so...

RB: What's the biggest difference as a screenwriter now compared to 15 years ago?

JR: Well, it seems like there was a lot more in development years ago, but I'm not sure. I just do stuff one thing at a time... sometimes I'm busy, sometimes I'm not. Lately less busy than before.

RB: What's the best approach for going out there and getting writing jobs?

JR: If you ask my agent or manager that question, they would tell you that I am the worst person to give you an answer. I look like a troll, I'm not loquacious, and I'm not real great at pitching. But when I get it, a story or a character, I really get it and have been able to communicate that. If I don't get it, I can't fake it, I just plain suck.

RB: Is there anything else you can tell us about the current status of “Renko Vega and the Jennifer Nine”? And, can you tell us anything about the new scripts your working on now?

JR: People have been flirting with Renko Vega. It has a lot of fans. But it hasn't landed anywhere. We're trying to get a director on it. There are some good directors who like it who might not be big enough. I try and stay out of it.

I'm working on a couple of things, rewriting an old spec (my reps hate when I do that, but I'm not terribly good at giving up on things), preparing a pitch based on a graphic novel... a kind of family-oriented spooky thing. I'm preparing another original story... that might wind up being a pitch or a spec, it has aliens and talking dog (deal with it)... another family movie.

RB: Okay, one of my last questions. ScriptShadow is a site that emphasizes how important it is for amateur screenwriters to read scripts. In a way, it’s like stealing fire from the gods. How much emphasis would you put on reading in general for someone who wants to be a screenwriter? What type of things would you encourage fledgling writers to read and absorb?

JR: I don't read that many scripts... not because I don't like them, I do, but you can't really steal from them (!) Every script I've written comes in some way, from other material. Sometimes it's just inspiration, sometimes there's a little kernel of an idea that the original author ignored but I want to explore. The source could be a newspaper article or a character from a book. It all goes in my head and gets blendered with the other goop and then, hopefully, sometimes, it comes out again.

And I read. I'm a reader. I love books. I guess that's first and foremost. But when I started out, as I said before, I read a lot of scripts. You have to. But I also spent a lot of time watching movies... in those days I would regularly sit through double features at dusty old repertory movie houses. I'd go back three days in a row and watch six Fellini films or the entire Mario Bava canon... or Hitchcock, I'm a huge Hitchcock fan, which is interesting because he never went near sci-fi... which of course, I adore.

But it's good. ScriptShadow's good. I appreciate the discourse you guys generate... because it's about scripts, stories, and it's not about who's buying what or the chess game of Hollywood. I can't control that... so I don't want to focus on it.

But I don't entirely buy the idea that scripts are "artful" though I'll admit to some confusion on this point. As a writer, I'm not an artist... or don't look on myself that way. Rather, I'm a craftsman... a shoemaker, as I said. I try and make a good shoe. But here's the dichotomy... there are ugly shoes and there are beautiful shoes. I want to make beautiful shoes that people want to wear and want to walk in. Know what I mean? Yeah, it's complicated, but then again, it's not.
What's your favorite script that you've read? And are there any unproduced scripts out there that you've read over the years and loved?

It might be better if I leave the unproduced scripts to you guys. Your knowledge (and your readers, I imagine) is far more catholic than mine. Since I see a lot of broken scripts (or I used to anyway), I might know those better than ones I've loved. And the scripts I tend to read these days are either already in production or headed there.

I can tell you that, early in my career, there were two scripts I read that opened my eyes as a writer. The first was, "Raising Arizona". There's so much beautiful language in there and the first fifty pages are… well they're a lesson in screenwriting. I like the script better than the movie. The second was "Silence of the Lambs". Everything in the book is in the script, but the book was 400 pages long! I still don't understand part of the plot (Hannibal Lecter's relationship with Buffalo Bill) and Ted Tally didn't fix the problem, he just left it alone, only weirdly, it was done with such skill, I didn't care.

RB: And are there any books that you've read that you wish were being turned into movies?

JR: Have to hold back a little on this, for my own selfish purposes, but I think in the classic sci-fi scene I'm a little baffled as to why no one's better exploited the Robert Heinlein library. I'm not talking about "Stranger in a Strange Land" which is too obviously a Christian allegory, but "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and a lot of the earlier "juvenile" stuff is pretty cool. I don't think there are easy adaptations in this stuff, Heinlein was funny and ribald and, oh yeah, a bit of a fascist. But, in my opinion, he was an infinitely better writer than someone like Asimov, who's stuff is borderline unreadable.

Of course, we all would like to see a great version of "Ender's Game" brought to the screen. I don't understand why that can't happen.

Robert Silverberg is always interesting, his stuff is diverse, and he's still kicking ass. (Perhaps I should have mentioned Greg Pruss' version of "Passengers" above. Great script.)

Of more recent sci-fi writers, Connie Willis might be the best... especially the time travel books. "Doomsday Book" would make an awesome mini-series... but I don't think I could sell it. That book will rip you up. It's nice to see someone doing something with hard sci-fi like in "Flashforward". Robert Sawyer is more than worthwhile. Interesting that he's found a home on network TV.

Hey, you know what, they've made and remade all those English costume dramas, Jane Austen and the Bronte stuff, and they keep making pretty boring movies out of Shakespeare's plays, but for me the most interesting dead English writer is Charles Dickens. Dude could tell a story. If he were alive he would have written Harry Potter.

I'm sure there's another hundred things I'm forgetting.

Ask me again tomorrow.