A Conversation with Alan Dean Foster

“The fact that Dr. Who is still around is more than a bit mind-boggling.”

As the two worlds of interactive content and traditional publishing undergo their inevitable transition into an indistinguishable sole entity, thanks in part to recent release of iTunesU and its nefarious cousin iBooks Author, it might surprise some of todays more tech savvy youth to discover that the live action films of the 1970 and ‘80s not only dominated the silver screen but also held a respectable presence on bookstore shelves as collateral merchandise; the result of the studio’s pimping scripts to publishers to exploit through the adaptive process of novelisation.

And with the Gold Coast Film Festival about to kick of its 2012 program late April, one of the most prolific and successful hired guns of the film adaptation game, Alan Dean Foster, will headline an exclusive seminar to discuss a remarkable body of work which encompasses such celebrated film properties as the Alien, Transformers & Terminator franchises, John Carpenter’s The Thing & Starman, Alien Nation, Dinotopia, 2009’s Star Trek & 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (which will also enjoy a rare 35mm outing as a highlight of the 2012 GCFF ) and of course the infamous Star Wars: A New Hope novelisation.

So with the publicity machine gearing up for his Australian arrival, and in respect to his chosen profession, I unplugged the phone, logged off Skype and sat down at my ever-faithful keyboard for a candid email interview with acclaimed author and wordsmith Alan Dean Foster.

Fletcher: Do you think in today’s climate an author; screenwriter or filmmaker has the luxury of working in a single media? Or is there a NEED to have a broader ‘adaptive’ view toward their work regarding the various media platforms out there?

Alan Dean Foster: Depends on the writer. If Stephen King wants to write only novels (or for that matter short stories, or radio scripts, or ads for kitty litter) he may do so. Mid-list writers can also choose to be selective, but they may not make a living at their trade.  Versatility is and always has been the hallmark of the craftsman.  Bernini did architecture and theater as well as sculpture.  Rembrandt painted a lot of fat businessmen.  Of course, if you wish to remain aesthetically pure and starve in a garrett, that is also an option (though empty garretts can be difficult to find in this day and age).  I personally enjoy the challenge of working in as many different media as possible.

F: With so much of your work having intersected the silver screen, can you offer some insight into which projects were a joy to work across and which, if any were difficult collaborations and why?

ADF: Film, or at least commercial film, is and always has been a collaborative media, no matter how many French critics write endless essays praising the auteur system.  There is so much ego and so much money involved in commercial film that it is difficult for a writer’s work to shine through.  In the film business people realize they can’t direct, can’t produce, can’t make the costumes or set the lights or do the special effects.  But everyone thinks they can write.  Obviously, the best situation for a writer is one where the producers or editors tell you that your work is wonderful…and then actually treat it that way instead of “tweaking” it.  This happens far less often than one would wish. 

I did a screenplay for a full-length animated film based on a children’s book, THRUMP-O-MOTO, by James Clavell, of SHOGUN fame.  The film, alas, was not produced, though it came close (it featured a young Japanese boy-wizard and an Australian girl).  But working with the producers, Rankin-Bass, was a pleasure.  In contrast, doing the novelization of Alien 3 was no fun at all.  I was forced to discard much of the original material I created for the book due to the insistence of the producing studio.

F: I understand, much to your credit, that you’ve always been very gracious about the fact that George Lucas has been credited as the author of the Star Wars: A New Hope novelisation. Do you think in today’s climate that a similar situation would be allowed to happen? Or is the industry now too serious and self-protective?

ADF: It had nothing to do with graciousness.  The situation was spelled out in the contract, with which I was happy to agree.  It was and is George’s story, not mine.  I simply made a novel out of it.  The fact that he wanted his name on his story didn’t bother me at all.  Similar book releases come out all the time, but in the age of the Net it’s much harder to keep such secrets.  Fun to guess at who is actually responsible for what, though.

F: Theres so much reverence toward Star Wars from both its original cast and crew through to the fan base. Were you surprised by the success of the film back in 1977, and did it have any influence on you as a writer? If not, can you recall any particular film or series that has influenced your career?

ADF: As soon as I saw the finished film, which was at a cast-and-crew screening in a rented theater on Hollywood Blvd., I knew it would be a hit.  It may sound strange to say so now, but everyone who was in that theater could sense it.  Subsequently I sat in the back of Graumann’s Chinese theater on Hollywood Blvd. and watched the very first public screening…and also watched the audience. Their reaction cemented my own feelings.  Of course, no one knew it would become an enduring global phenomenon, as opposed to merely a success.

Gunga Din remains my favorite film, though the sense of adventure it portrayed didn’t influence me as much as certain books and comics I had read.  Certainly 1956’s Forbidden Planet helped to expand my horizons as far as science-fiction visuals were concerned.

F:  I’m curious as to your opinion of Hollywood’s fixation with the so-called ‘brand recognition’ trend that is currently dominating the Box Office?

ADF: As the writer William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, The Princess Bride, etc.) famously said, “In Hollywood, nobody knows anything”.  Given that as a starting point, it’s hardly surprising that sequel and spinoff films are considered the safest bets, especially when big money is involved.  What people today forget is that this has always been true of The Business, going back to repetitive Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks films and continuing on through series like Charlie Chan (“Let’s do our own oriental detective series…we’ll call it Mr. Moto”), the Thin Man pictures, and much more.  It’s not new.  What has changed is that there are far fewer films made by the big studios, and the need to play safe is multiplied accordingly.

F: What are the most surprising (both good and bad) projects that you’ve seen in the past decade, either in film, TV or literature?

ADF: The fact that a juvenile fantasy series about a boy wizard should become the biggest publishing phenomenon in that decade is something no one foresaw.  In TV, I think the overwhelming success of The Sopranos stunned everyone (though not as much as the series’ ending did).  The fact that Dr. Who is still around is more than a bit mind-boggling.  Even more boggling is the continued presence and re-invention of STAR TREK.  What other TV series has kids watching and enjoying the reruns with their grandparents?  Worthwhile science-fiction has great staying power.  Books from the 1940’s by Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and others are still in print and sell steadily.  How many “contemporary” bestsellers from the ‘40’s can lay claim to that?

F: In today’s digital age when writers and fans have such easy access to each other thanks to social networking and live media, is it more difficult for authors to remain creatively independent against so much influence and opinion emanating from the fan base?

ADF: On the contrary, I find the feedback stimulating.  The majority of my colleagues feel the same way.  I’d far rather receive criticism and suggestions from readers than work in a great nonreactive sphere of silence.  Criticism from most fans tends to be constructive, as opposed to that from critics.  It’s useful when a specialist in, say, rainforest research points out an error in your alien ecology that you can hopefully correct the next time.  What is the point in writing a story if no one responds to it?

F: I understand that your visit to Australia will also give you an opportunity to discuss the pending adaption of your Spellsinger series to film. Can you tell us a little about the original inspiration behind the series, how that inspiration remains relevant 30 years later and what your hopes are for its adaptation to the screen?

ADF: I had been writing science-fiction for years when I decided it was time to try a fantasy.  But I dislike imitation, although a competent writer can make an excellent living at it.  I was profoundly influenced by Carl Barks, who wrote and drew all the great Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck comic books.  I was also impressed by the work of the underground artist Vaughn Bode, who created worlds of cutesy characters into which he injected violence, war, sex, bad language, drugs, and much more.  In other words, he put the real world into his fantasy worlds.  SPELLSINGER is dedicated to him and Jimi Hendrix, the latter since rock music plays a big part in the stories. 

I wanted to do a story featuring intelligent animals but treat them as real characters.  Real people.  Just because a character happens to be a cockney otter doesn’t mean he can’t have hopes, dreams, desires, bad moods, nasty habits…in other words, personality.  The same goes for a bat, or a dragon, or any non-human character.  I wanted these animal characters to be believable individuals, not the stereotypes we so often see.

As for the film, I hope it holds to those truths.  The result will not be Disney or Studio Ghibli.  And if the first film does well enough to spawn the sequels, you’ll get to meet the koala warrior…who’s unfortunately a bit too much of a heavy drinker, and I don’t mean of magic potions.

F: And how about your speaking commitments with the young filmmakers and writers at the Gold Coast Film Fest and the fans at Supanova Pop Culture Expo. What do you draw from these events and the interactions with emerging talent and die-hard fans?

ADF: Fans see what creative personalities often do not because the artist is too close to his or her own work.  Different perspectives are always valuable.  I’m often introduced to stories, films, comics, music, and more that I otherwise might have missed…because I’m too busy writing.  Then there is the pleasure of encountering potential story ideas that only travel can bring, such as my novelette WAIT-A-WHILE, which is based on a true anecdote that was told to me while I was visiting the Daintree back in ‘89.

F: And lastly, looking back over your career and the evolution of the industry, do you think its an exciting time to be in the creative field, or has the industry become too difficult an arena to play in?

ADF: My problem has always been too many ideas and not enough time to write them all.  For the dedicated writer there are more avenues and more freedom to create now than ever, thanks to electronic publishing.  I wrote a novella, BOX OF OXEN, set in the Middle East.  Awkward length for magazines or anthologies, not easily classifiable genre.  I put it up myself on Amazon’s Kindle story, and a few people buy it every month.  Less than ten years ago a writer couldn’t do that with a story editors regarded as “difficult”.  As for film, the success of independents is driven now by better and cheaper equipment that can allow anyone to make a professional-looking finished product, from films like The Blair Witch Project, which cost US$22,000 in 1999, to 2009’s Paranormal Activity, which came in at US$15,000. 

By some estimates these films are better bets than the stock market.  Making one is certainly more fun than going to casinos in Las Vegas or Macau.  I’d do it myself if I had the time.  One good camera, a computer with Final Cut Pro or the equivalent, a few simple sfx programs, and fair dinkum, you’re your own studio.

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