I'm re-posting the interview here only because I think it would be of interest to aspiring screenwriters as an account of a so-called "production rewrite," a high pressure situation in which tweaks and changes are made to the script during production. As one writer put it, "it's like trying to change the wheels on a moving car."
If your looking for Conan spoilers, I don't give anything away, but fans of Robert E. Howard may find several of the discussions interesting.
RS: How did you get the gig? Why did you take the gig? What attracted you to the project?
SH: I got the gig because I had already written a “swords and sorcery” style script for producers Joe Gatta and Boaz Davidson called HERCULES (now moving forward with Brett Ratner attached). Joe was once my literary agent and Boaz has become a kind of mentor figure for me, so when one of them calls and says, “We need your help… drop everything,” I generally do. I had also previously worked closely with Marcus Nispel on the script SUBTERRANEAN which he is planning to shoot later this year. Luckily, both the producers at Paradox Entertainment, who control the rights to Conan and other Robert E. Howard characters, and executives at Lionsgate, who are releasing the film domestically, were familiar with my work as well.
I took the gig because I enjoy working with Joe, Boaz, and Marcus (check out my blog My Dinner with Marcus). I was attracted to the project because I am a Conan fan. My father introduced me to the work of both Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft when I was a kid.
RS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the first script was by Dean Donnelly and Oppenheimer. What was it about their work that the studio thought needed rewriting?
SH: My understanding is that everyone at Millennium, Paradox, and Lionsgate were VERY happy with Donnelly and Oppenheimer, who are two accomplished, sought-after, and extremely busy writers. I know of no reason they couldn’t have continued working on the script, but as I understand it, after laboring two years on multiple drafts, they had to move on to other very prestigious and high profile projects, including DR. STRANGE (Marvel), and DRAKE’S FORTUNE, which will be directed by David O. Russell and star (so I’ve heard rumored) Mark Wahlberg and Robert De Niro.
After Donnelly and Oppenheimer left, and CONAN got closer and closer to production, Marcus Nispel began imagining some striking new visuals and some ambitious story changes that were difficult to incorporate in the existing script. All the various producers had ideas and notes of their own. So, a talented young screenwriter and filmmaker, Andrew Lobel, was brought in to try to fit all these new ideas together. But the more changes were proposed and new ideas added, the more convoluted the script seemed to get.
As sometimes happens, all the talented and passionate people analyzing and working on the script had slightly different visions of the movie, and ultimately, just three weeks before production, all these pieces – good ideas in and of themselves – didn’t fit together in a way that was satisfying to the producers, the studio, or the director.
Shortly thereafter I was on a plane to Bulgaria (where Conan was being shot).
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I was Mighty Mouse flying across the ocean to save the day. To put this in context, a movie like Conan can spend three or more years in the “scripting” stage. Writers come and go, based on availability, and the different drafts often indicate that a different direction is being taken rather than one writer “fixing” another writer’s work. There is a lot of collaboration going on throughout the process with the director, producers, studio executives, actors and other creative people involved in the film, and a big part of “rewriting” is taking all these contributions and “connecting the dots” so that the story has clarity and unity.
I teach a class at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts called “Advanced Rewriting Workshop,” and one point I emphasize again and again is feature screenplays are protean documents, under constant revision from the first draft, through years of development, through shooting, editing, reshoots, and even sound design. There is no “final draft,” until the day of the premier.
The Donnelly and Oppenheimer draft has already circulated the internet, and I know some fans didn’t like it. I’m sure that at some point in their own interviews, they can shed light on their vision and frustrations with the project. Eventually my shooting script will leak out too, and fans can judge it for themselves. The movie that will appear on screen ultimately emerged from very heated and collaborative effort.
RS: How much change did you contribute to the initial script?
SH: I ended up spending six weeks in Bulgaria, working throughout production, and even on the reshoots, so I contributed a lot more than I expected I would when the producers first called me. Based on the WGA arbitration in which the final credits were determined, about 35% of the story and 50% of the screenplay were revised. A lot of the work I did was script doctoring – revising action sequences, simplifying and clarifying mythology and filling plot holes with original scenes. But I did make major contributions the characterizations, especially of the villains. For example, the character Marique, played by Rose McGowen, was my invention.
Also, most of the dialogue had to be rewritten to fit the new scenes and new circumstances. And the last third of the shooting script is almost entirely new. Ultimately, I think the tone and the themes of the film changed as I worked on it.
I should mention that although he did not get screenplay credit, Andrew Lobel, contributed some distinctive and imaginative elements that made it into the final film.
RS: since CONAN goes through post-conversion 3D process, you mentioned on your blog that screenwriters will have to eventually be able to imagine stories in 3D.. was that the mindset you had going in and rewriting CONAN?
SH: I think both writers and filmmakers have to look at 3-D as not as a special gimmick to be exploited, but as just another tool in the toolbox (like color, sound, or selection of camera lens). You can read my thoughts in my blog Screenwriting For 3-D. Every writer’s first priority is story, and the best use of 3-D comes when an action, location or story beat seems to call for vivid depth of field.
I suspect that Marcus Nispel, the director, was thinking in 3-D when he proposed a several key locations in the climax: Escher inspired mazes and ruins. It’s hard to imagine him visualizing them any other way.
RS: Did you set it up so that the movie would have scenes that jump out at your face? or is it going to be more depth of field type 3D like Pixar’s UP and TOY STORY 3? What is the goal to have CONAN in 3D besides to have audiences pay more for those pesky glasses?
SH: Unlike many recent fantasy films, in which the images and action look more like a digital cartoon than the natural world, the director was very passionate about filming Conan in a way that looks gritty and realistic. In other words, the stunts, the fighting, and the visual effects were done, whenever possible, IN CAMERA.
I think that audiences are hungry for this kind of action film. In this Conan the Barbarian, people don’t flip backwards through the air in gravity defying bullet time or leap across chasms as if playing Nintendo. Swords are heavy, armor is cumbersome, and when people break bones or crack skulls, the audience winces. The action feels visceral and authentic.
The 3D elements in Conan are meant to enhance this concrete and naturalistic style. In scenes of warfare, you feel trapped between spearmen and archers. In scenes in ancient ruins you feel dizzy with vertigo. In this movie, 3D is used to enhance the effects of a barbaric world and to push the story forward. It’s more about immersing the audience in the environment than “jumping out in your face.”
Of course, I haven’t seen a cut in 3D yet, and something tells me they won’t be able to resist a sword thrust or two into the audience’s eyes. And, it’s always fun when your date dives onto your lap to duck an arching spatter of blood.
RS: There have been arguments about if you wanna have a 3D movie, then shoot the movie in 3D (with 3D cameras) as opposed to going through 3D post-conversion process which obviously gave a disastrous result for CLASH OF THE TITANS remake and Shaymalan’s THE LAST AIRBENDER what is your take on that issue?
SH: Well, I think everyone agrees that the post-conversion method isn’t always as spectacular as the images shot with 3D cameras, but Conan is not the kind of movie that is supposed to be a gimmicky 3-D carnival ride.
I can’t speak for the director or the producers, but my understanding was that shooting with 3D cameras would have required a substantial increase in budget, and significant limitations on the kind of naturalistic style and evocative camera work that Nispel wanted for the film.
They could have made a soft, PG-13, Conan with lots of gimmicky 3D effects, but they decided on an R-rated Conan, that was more realistic… but this meant a tighter budget (if an estimated 80-90 million, as I read on IMDB, can be called “tight”). I think it was the right choice.
RS: Now some time ago a rumor hit the web that CONAN THE BARBARIAN had to go through reshoots.. that the casts had to return to Bulgaria for reshoots and that the film might not be released in 3D after all.. Was the movie in trouble?
SH: “Reshoots” for Conan consisted mostly of individual shots, a close ups, inserts, bits and pieces that our talented and tireless editor, Ken Blackwell, needed as he spliced action sequences and transitions. There are no new scenes, no new story points, and no significant changes… just individual shots, and a few bits of action and dialogue at the climax that we weren’t able to complete during production. I know this because I wrote the pages of alternate dialogue and studied the storyboards for all the shots. These were very minor reshoots.
I have not heard rumors you refer to. My understanding is that the film will be released in 3-D, and I know of no reason why it wouldn’t be.
RS: Some say this whole thing is not that big a deal because it’s not straight up adaptation of Howard’s books, it’s just “an interpretation,.. a spin on the character”
SH: Conan The Barbarian is not a direct adaptation of a specific REH novel, but great care was taken to be sure that both the Conan character and details of Hyboria were true to Howard’s vision. Two of the producers Fred Malberg and Dan Rosenfeld, both of whom are experts on Howard and are developing Howard’s Kull of Atlantis, were deeply involved in both script development and shooting. Each would send me volumes of notes every week to make sure that every detail fit with “the Howard cannon.” Fred himself was present on set to be sure that the cities, tribes, costumes and behavior were in tune with the source material.
In writing the script, we did NOT set out to do “a spin on the character.” We set out to make Conan. Howard’s Conan. Ultimately, the fans will decide if we were successful.
RS: Why do you think this reboot is necessary? And why did it take this long to finally get off ground?
In my opinion, the previous Conan movies are a bit campy, dated, and soft. I think audiences are hungry for an R-rated, gritty and bloody, sexy and brutal Conan film. However, spending a large budget on an intense R-rated film makes ANY studio cautious. A good rundown of its years in development can be found HERE on Wikipedia. I should emphasize again that this is NOT a remake of the Arnold film.
RS: Did you get to interact with director Marcus Nispel and star Jason Momoa? Did you get to visit the set? How involved were you in that process?
SH: Because there were so many ongoing revisions, I spent most of my time in Bulgaria typing feverishly in my hotel room. For many weeks I barely slept, as various members of the 300 person cast and crew clamored for new pages. I visited set briefly from time to time, but after being greeted warmly by producers and given a cappuccino, I was then sent back to my room with new changes to wrangle and problems to solve.
I did get a chance to work directly with Jason Mamoa, Rose Magowen, and Rachel Nichols all of whom, despite the pressure, were very helpful to me, offering ideas and providing feedback. It was a rare treat, as a writer, to be involved in the actor’s process, so I was glad to work with them.
In general, I had to stay involved with what department heads and production were doing so in order to incorporate elements (everything from wardrobe colors to tentacled monsters) that were already in place. Mark Yates, the inventive and talented storyboard artist, was a big help as I struggled to make changes within the context of what others had already spent months preparing for.
A couple of times, under absurd time pressure, I did invent brand new scenes and brand new sets and saw them built and performed only a week later. That was truly satisfying. There is nothing quite as exciting as writing in the heat of the actual filmmaking. But, most of the time I had to work within very strict limits set by the substantial work and careful planning that had been completed before I got there.
RS: Young actor Leo Howard plays young Conan? How much of the story keeps turning into flashbacks along the way or is the timeline pretty much clear.. from Conan when he’s young all the way to when he finally becomes Cimmerian fighter?
SH: That’s hard to say until I see the final cut. The bulk of Leo’s work is in the beginning, and he an extremely intense and physical kid – he makes one badass boy barbarian, and I think fans are going to love his performance.
RS: Correct me if I’m wrong but I understand Stephen Lang plays the villain Khalar Zym, what type of villain can we expect here? How brutal is he in the story?
SH: Steven Lang plays a very sadistic villain, but the changes we made in the shooting script gave him a very sympathetic and “human” goal. So much so that some were worried during shooting that his motivation was TOO sympathetic for the “bad guy.” Luckily, he brutally hacks and tortures so many helpless victims with his unique double blade, that I have no worries that people will find him too “human.”
But every good villain thinks he is justified, even heroic, in his actions… and so does Khalar.
RS: I understand that CONAN will go back to hard R.. .. so how strong are the R-rated stuff here? How strong are the violence and the sexual content in the story?
SH: The world of Hyboria as Robert E. Howard described it is fleshy and brutal. Bloody beheadings and bare-chested slave girls abound. However, while the movie is unflinching, the violence and nudity is part of the fabric of the story.
Robert E. Howard’s novels, although violent and perverse for their time, were not intrusively graphic either. So this is ultimately a movie about the character Conan, a character that will hopefully launch a healthy franchise of movies with stories and characters that celebrate Howard’s work. Yes, you’ll see blood and boobs, but this isn’t an exploitation movie.
RS: As a screenwriter, how would you construct the elaborate fight sequences in the story?
SH: An action sequence is just another story with a beginning a middle and an end. You’re main character wants something very badly, but there are obstacles to him getting it, and the “story” of an action sequence is all the steps he takes and problems he faces getting to that goal.
In writing these sequences, I thought less about making the action spectacular, and more about making the logic and the intentions of the characters clear. My ultimate concern is that the audience cares deeply about what “actions” the characters are taking at any particular moment, and that the results of the action move the plot forward.
The Stunt Coordinator, David Leach, deserves primary credit for the excitement and effectiveness of the action sequences. I could write, “The pirate slays the Pict warrior,” and David Leach would turn that into a spellbinding and violent ballet.
Also, Jason Mamoa, did quite a number of his own stunts. His athleticism and physical dexterity added a lot to the authenticity of the action sequences.
One of the major choices that Marcus Nispel made was shoot action and violence “in camera.” He felt that the digitally enhanced fighting of many current action and fantasy films are unnatural and stylized to the point of looking fake, and that this lack of authenticity can make the action boring. Nispel wants you to feel the weight of a tumbling bolder breaking a soldier’s back. He wants you to feel the bite of steel.
RS: Is this CONAN movie going to have other themes besides just a story of a man bent on revenge? Did you format the character in a way that would make the audience sympathize with him? Does he have a love interest? Does it have redemption themes? family themes? Or is it just going to be straight up revenge, The Punisher-style?
What type of audience are you targeting with the story? Or is this not meant for a broad audience?
SH: Yes, Conan does have underlying themes, but I don’t want to give away the story.
The “revenge” plot was handled very carefully. While in this particular chapter of Conan’s long life he seeks revenge, Conan himself is not a character defined by revenge. This is not Deathwish or Punisher.
I can’t really speak to choices that were made before I joined the project, but as I understand it, a revenge story was thought to be the most simple and accessible way to introduce a character like Conan to a wide audience. Die hard REH fans bristle at this, because “revenge” wasn’t part of Conan’s origin in the books, but I think they should get over it. If you expect to spend millions and millions of dollars of somebody else’s money, you have to choose your battles and make a few compromises. The movie has to introduce Conan to a whole new generation of moviegoers who don’t know Hyboria from Hiaku, or Crom from Chronic.
Conan himself, as he is depicted both in this film and in future films, is a very hardened, somewhat amoral, and “existential” hero. And this is tricky character to introduce. I feel that the opening sequence, involving Conan as a boy, creates sympathy for the character, and establishes themes about father/son relationships and finding balance and meaning in a world of violence and chaos.
I tried to keep the authenticity of the world and the possibilities of the franchise in mind while working on the project. Conan does have a “love interest,” but one in line with the kind of female character REH wrote in “Red Nails.” We are trying to bring the character to a wide (but adult) audience.
RS: You’ve worked on horror gigs in previous years.. so did you incorporate horror into CONAN story? will it have scary elements?
SH: My deepest wish is that after Conan, I will no longer see Halloween Resurrection or Cube 2 in parenthesis after my name. If you are curious about what it’s like to write B-horror movies, and if you wonder why the writer of such films would every get hired to write on anything again, read my blog Why You Should Write Stigmata 3.
Fans will be relieved to hear that none of my previous credits, including The Crow: Wicked Prayer, had any influence what-so-ever on Conan the Barbarian.
RS: Lionsgate decided that the title for this reboot is CONAN THE BARBARIAN.. some say it’s because it would help with marketing because there’s a familiarity to it, do you agree with that?
when you rewrote the script, did you ever suspect that the title will go back to basics, so to speak? Or did you have a different title in mind? What do you think it should’ve been called?
when you rewrote the script, did you ever suspect that the title will go back to basics, so to speak? Or did you have a different title in mind? What do you think it should’ve been called?
SH: “Conan the Barbarian” is the best title for a general audience. “Conan the Cimmerian” would confuse the average viewer, and “Conan 3D” might evoke the late night TV host.
RS: I chatted with TRON: LEGACY screenwriting team at the premiere and they explained to me briefly about finding the balance between connecting with the fans of the original and connecting with today’s audience who may not have seen the original 1982 film
How did you, while rewriting the script, find the balance between connecting with Howard’s fans, with fans of Arnold’s movies, and today’s younger audience who may not have a clue about CONAN’s mythology at all? I know that as a screenwriter of an adaptation work, it’s impossible to please everyone,.. but how would you make that work, what did you do to the story that you think will bridge all those 3 categories of fans?
SH: My heart is with the Robert E. Howard fans, but many of them will never be happy with anything less than a strictly faithful adaptation of a specific Robert E. Howard story. I was not in a position to change the story concept that was already in place, but even if I started at square one, trying to map a compelling movie plot out of Howard’s language-heavy stories would be a daunting task.
So, my goal for the Howard fans was to try to stay true to the world he created, and to Conan himself. With the help of Dan Rosenfelt, I tried to pepper the dialogue with phrases and bits taken directly from famous Conan quotations. We tried to remain faithful to the names, tribes, locations, religions and attitudes that one reads in the book.
I didn’t think much about the Arnold films when writing. Marcus Nispel, while often praising John Milius, wanted his film to look and feel very different. We were not remaking the earlier Conan the Barbarian, despite the superficial similarity of the revenge plot. Our version has no connection to the Arnold film.
I think I was most concerned with new fans. Most of the work I did focused on making the story clear, compelling, visceral, emotional and entertaining. Ultimately, if you can make a good movie, everyone is happy. If you worry about pleasing one fan base or another, you will end up pleasing no one.
RS: How would you respond to CONAN fans out there that haven’t been so kind to this reboot from the beginning of its development? That they think its a bad idea to begin with.
SH: I would urge them to give the movie a chance. A lot of talented people worked hard to put these fans’ favorite character on screen in an authentic way. If after seeing the film you feel we failed, then go back to the books. I recently re-read “The Tower of The Elephant” and greatly enjoyed it.
The joy in reading a writer like Howard (or Lovecraft) is the uncanny and archaic language, something that can never be translated directly to a purely visual medium. Some of the graphic novels have done a good job, by combining vivid art with Howard’s language, but doing it in a Hollywood action film is another story.
Furthermore, Conan The Barbarian is not a Character like Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter. First of all, both Tolkien and Rowling’s books are about one particular unified quest (the destruction of the ring, the final confrontation with Voldemort); by contrast, the Conan stories are disconnected, always containing new characters, themes, conflicts. The reason some have called Conan an “existential hero” is that these stories are filled with randomness, chaos, and ambiguity. There are no consistent supporting characters. Conan just moves from one adventure to another, with a kind of freedom from higher purpose or ultimate goal. He lives in the moment. “I live, I love, I slay. I am content,” says Conan, to paraphrase a line from the books.
Second of all, while the general public was very aware of the world of both Harry Potter and The Lord of The Rings, the general public knows far less about Conan and the world of Hyboria.
I’m not making excuses (and of course, it was hardly my decision to make anyway), but I think that making a Conan film at a major studio that was strictly faithful to a Howard story would have been impossible.
RS: Is this new CONAN movie faithful to Robart E. Howard’s material/creation?
SH: It is faithful in spirit, in tone, in the details of Hyboria, and the character of Conan. It invents plot (the slaughter of the Cimmerian village and Conan pursuing the man who killed his father) that is new. Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories are remembered by the general public for genre he invented (swords and sorcery) and the Character of Conan. We tried to stay faithful to the character and to the world.
RS: Which aspects of your story that you think Howard’s fans would appreciate and which aspects/elements will be new that you think Howard’s fans should give a chance?
SH: They will appreciate Jason Mamoa. Arnold was a stiff and awkward bodybuilder who could do little more than pose, becoming unintentionally hilarious when he tried to move or speak. Jason Mamoa is a true athlete who handles a sword convincingly, speaks with both gravity and humor, and embodies the barbarian better than anyone I have ever seen. He is much closer to Howard’s description of a ““a born fighting man with a catlike speed that blurred the sight which tried to follow him.” In Mamoa, fans will recognize, not the older graver King Conan, but Conan as a young man who is just beginning a life filled with “red meat and stinging wine…the hot embrace of white arms, and the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson.”
I’ve already mentioned the revenge plot – that’s just the bitter pill that die hard fans will have to swallow. I’ll also mention the dialogue. Some fans think that the movie dialogue should directly reflect Howard’s dialogue as it is written in the books. As a filmmaker who often works with actors on dialogue, I would ask for a little sympathy.
For example… try reading this Howard dialogue out loud:
She rose lithely to her knees and caught him in a pantherish embrace,”My love is stronger than any death! I have lain in your arms, panting with the violence of our love; you have held and crushed and conquered me, drawing my soul to your lips with the fierceness of your bruising kisses. My heart is welded to your heart, my soul is part of your soul! Were I still in death and you fighting for life, I would come back to the abyss to aid you–aye, whether my spirit floated with the purple sails on the crystal sea of paradise, or writhed in the molten flames of hell! I am yours, and all the gods and all their eternities shall not sever us!”
As Harrison Ford once said to George Lucas, “You can write that shit, but you can’t say it.”
What I tried to do was distill the tone of the dialogue, using snippets of Howard’s language where possible, but ultimately the long, eloquent, melancholy speeches are difficult to pull off in a movie.
RS: Your next project is BLACKWELL, you yourself listed the plot on IMDb, what can you tell us about BLACKWELL?
SH: BLACKWELL is a thriller based on a famous newspaper article written by Nellie Bly, one of the first female investigative journalists. The script, set in 1888, follows Nellie as she fakes insanity in order to go undercover as an inmate at Blackwell’s Island, an impenetrable women’s asylum. However, once inside she discovers that it is nearly impossible to get out.
David Higgins (Hard Candy) at Sobini Films is producing this project, but Nellie Bly is the type of “big female part” that would require an A-list actress, and while several directors have tried to get the project cast and off the ground, it will probably remain in limbo until an actress like Ellen Page or Natalie Portman falls in love with the role.
As for my other projects…
I have written THE HAUNTING IN NEW YORK which is third in the franchise of films than includes THE HAUNTING IN CONNITICUT and THE HAUNTING IN GEORGIA (which is currently filming). I hope shooting will begin on my installment later in the year. I write about that project in my blog, here.
I am currently rewriting HERCULES, to which Bret Ratner is attached to direct.
My other projects have not yet been officially announced, but there are more swords and more action, and a little TV movie I wrote for MTV, that is psychologically twisted in the vein of Black Swan.