Friday, July 29, 2011 Questions and Answers

The fans on the forum asked me a number of questions about the upcoming movie Conan The Barbarian 3D. Here are my answers:

1. I know that you know the original stories and the Conan character as good as any. Which part of the script would you have loved to change but weren't allowed/able to because whatever reason? And what would you have changed it to?
When I started the bulk of my work on the film, there were only two weeks until shooting was scheduled to begin. Sets were already built, characters were cast, stunts were choreographed, and special effects were pre-visualized. Although a lot of scene, story and character elements ultimately changed, I had to work within some very tight parameters under intense pressure to deliver pages quickly. Production rewrites are sometimes described as “changing the wheels on a moving car.”
To get an idea of what kind of Conan film I’d make if it were just me writing for myself, check out this answer/link:
What are the best Conan the Barbarian stories written by Robert E Howard and which story would be the best to adapt as a motion picture?

2. There has been a ton of disputes here (Conan The Movie Blog) about the look of Conan in the 2011 movie and I was wondering why he doesn't have the blue eyes that R. E. Howard gave him? It just seems like that was the one main missing feature that really stood out.
It was my understanding that Conan was going to have blue eyes, and yes I think he should have had blue eyes. Ultimately, I heard that there were problems with both the blue contacts and the digital effect changing Momoa’s eye color. I don’t really know anything more about the technical details.

3. How many humans does Conan slay in the film?
More than John J. Rambo kills in Rambo 4.

4. How many monsters does Conan slay in the film?
Only a few, but they are fierce, Lovecraftian nightmares.

5. How many women does Conan kiss in the film?
More than Khal Drogo does in Game of Thrones… and yes, Conan does a lot more than kiss them.

6. Have you been asked to develop ideas for a future Conan sequel?
I have NOT yet been asked to write a future Conan film. But you can get an idea of the kind of movie I’d like to write by following the link to question #1.

7. How much of the Donelly/Oppenheimer story is left on the final screenplay?
About 50%, and their early drafts laid the bedrock for the story and characterizations. Their names appear before mine in the credits because the WGA determined that their contribution ultimately was larger than mine, and I agree.

8. How much of the Andrew Lobel draft is left on the final screenplay?
According to the WGA arbitration not enough to get credit on the film, but a number of key lines (“How many names do I need?”), memorable locations, and general concepts of Andrew’s remain in the final shooting script. Lobel is a talented and humorous young writer and you will hear more from him.

9. How many of the "new" elements of the script are from Marcus or the producers and how many are your own invention?
Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and I there were a lot of people – from producers to studio executives to actors to the director himself – who were giving notes and making suggestions. Many of the elements of the action/fight scenes were choreographed by stunt coordinator David Leitch before I even got there. The idea for the climactic moment on a bridge came from Marcus Nispel. I also worked very closely with producer Boaz Davidson.
However, the writer must ultimately take responsibility for everything that goes down on the page, and since many of the “notes” I was getting from all the different sources were wildly contradictory, I had to trust my own instincts, and write what I believed was best (given the realities of shooting and limitations of what had already been set in stone.)
I would say that most of the “new” elements on the pages of the shooting script did originate from me. However, the film you will see on screen is definitely Marcus Nispel’s.

10. This is your first "Big Budget" movie. The responsibility is difficult to handle?
The movie had an estimated budget of some 80 million dollars, so yes, it is by far the largest I have ever worked on as a writer (although as a prop guy and set dresser I worked on some big ones like Fight Club and True Lies). The pressure of writing while shooting was in progress was intense, but it was also exhilarating.

11. What is your favorite Conan story? Why?
My sentimental favorite is Red Nails, because that was the first one I ever read as an 11-year-old boy. (You can read more about that by following the link from question #1.)

12. What is, for you, the most important part of Conan's psyche? What are his traits, virtues and ideals?
I tried my best to make sure that in the shooting script, Conan’s character reflected the vision of REH. In my opinion, Conan has few “ideals.” While he shows fierce loyalty to friends, a hatred for the practice of slavery, a respect for female warriors, and a disdain for "civilization," he is not driven by a "higher purpose." I would call him “amoral” in that he is not concerned with traditional issues right and wrong. 

As far as his virtues, unlike some heroes who "learn a lesson" or "grow" in the course of a story, Conan is compelling precisely because - despite enormous danger and pressure - he stubbornly refuses to change. So his virtues are strength, stamina, and cunning. He is after all a thief, a pirate and a slayer.

Other words I'd use to describe his traits are: 

- Charismatic and lusty. He likes drink heavily and carry off naked, eager slavegirls.

- Brutal and a bit bloodthirsty. He loves "the feasting of swords!"

- Dark and brooding. He's prone to deep melancholy.

Ultimately, I think that Conan, as he appears in the Robert E. Howard stories and in the new movie, lives in the moment. This is why you hear him say, in the trailer, "I live, I love, I slay. I am content."

13. What part of the hyborian world do you find more interesting?
Robert E. Howard was a history buff, and enjoyed writing historical fiction. What I enjoy about the Hyborian age is that every race, every country, every conflict and every individual story contains a shadowy reflection of our own history. For example, in Red Nails, we have the idea that civilizations, in their corrupt mismanagement and feuding over precious natural resources, carry the seeds of their own destruction. That’s an idea I see echoed in books like Guns, Germs and Steel.

14. It seems that there are a lot of Lovecraft elements in the representation of Acheron. Why did you take that approach? Did you include any further references to the "mythos"?
I didn’t refer to Lovecraft directly, but stories like Rats in the Walls were favorites of mine growing up, so there may have been some influence in the depiction of Acheron and in monsters like The Dweller.

15. What was the most difficult scene to write and which was the most fun?
The most difficult sequence involved the Artus’s pirate ship and the battle at sea. The sequence changed many times and many elements were ultimately cut. It also came about two thirds of the way through the second act, a notoriously tricky place in any script, where a story can easily drag.
The most fun scenes to write involved Khalar and Marique, because I was able to explore their twisted relationship. They are each so narcissistic and deliciously perverse.

16. Whiat was your approach to the villain's motivations and personality? Why you took that approach?
When writing a villain, even one as sadistic and brutal as Khalar Zym, it is important to give him an authentic and almost sympathetic motivation. Khalar doesn’t see himself as a villain. He thinks he is avenging a horrific murder, and resurrecting the woman he loves. Even if it means torturing and slaughtering thousands of people, he feels he is perfectly justified.
Likewise with Marique: underneath the sadistic, perverse sorceress is a little girl who just wants daddy’s attention.

17. What was your approach to the old-fashioned dialogue of the hyborian age?
Distillation. I wanted the dialogue to have that Hyborian age flavor, but there is no time in an action film the long, portentous speeches and grim histories recounted in Howard’s dialogue. I did my best to lift actual lines from his stories and work them into the film.

18. How important was being faithful to Howard's canon to you?
Conan The Barbarian 3D is not a direct adaptation of a specific REH story, but I took great care making sure that both the Conan character and details of the Hyborian age were true to Howard’s vision… at least in the script. Two of the producers Fred Malberg and Dan Rosenfeld, both of whom are die-hard Howard fans, were deeply involved in the actual 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.

19. How important was being faithful to Howard's main theme (barbarism vs civilization) to you? 

It is a major element in the conflict/relationship between Conan and Tamara. I gave the character Artus a short speech describing Conan’s disdain for the “civilized world.”

20.Why does a character shown in the trailer refer to the world as "Hyboria"?
You know the Hyborians are a racial stock, right? It's akin to saying "Europeans". We don't refer to the world as Europe or Europa or Europia. Why would you have a character refer to Conan's world as "Hyboria"?

It’s true that REH never used the word “Hyboria” to describe the world, but it’s become quite common in current video games, comic books, and maps made of the Hyborian Age:

When characters refer to “Hyboria,” they are referring to the continent dominated by Hyborian peoples during the Hyborean age.  It’s meant in the same way Asians might refer to Asia, Africans might refer to Africa, or REH’s own Atlanteans might have referred to the continent of Atlantis. It doesn’t necessarily refer to the entire globe, just to the “civilized world” of Hyborian nations that dominate that particular continent at that time.
Would the Picts or the Cimmerians or Stygians have a problem with the entire continent being named after the Hyborians? Yes, they probably would, just as Native Americans probably wonder why the two continents they settled 14,000 years ago are named after Amerigo Vespucci.

21. Now that Fassir is telling Tamara that she is destined to meet Conan, how will Mitras's request to Yasmela be handled if Black Colossus ever gets translated to film?
In Black Colossus, queen Yasmela prays to Mitra, and she is told to go out into the streets and hand over the defense of her kingdom (that is being attacked by a 3000 year old sorcerer) to the first man she meets. This turns out to be Conan, who already has a position in her army but is then promoted. These circumstances are quite different from those in the film, so I see no reason why a future adaptation couldn’t remain faithful to Black Colossus.

22. Why do they feel so at liberty with a character that is not their own, to make fairly egregious changes that in actuality do not really advance the plot or story, nor enhance the original character, but speak rather to the perceptions they have of their audience?
My ten-year-old daughter asked me the same question after we saw the most recent Harry Potter film. She’s a fanatic for the books, and the simplification of the climactic battle between Harry and Voldemort didn’t sit well with her.
The question contains two assumptions that make it hard to answer.
One assumption is that all changes to a character that first appeared in a book or graphic novel are always unwarranted and “egregious.” That judgment really depends on the movie. I don’t think Nolan/Leger’s and reinvention of the Joker was egregious, even though it was far different than Bob Kane’s original character. Would many people want to see a James Bond movie that was perfectly faithful to Ian Flemming?
The other is assumption is that there is a particular person or persons who arrogantly decide that that “they” can do better than a famous author like REH.
To whom does “they” refer? There are they studio, production company executives who work for years, and in the case of Conan decades, to get a movie greenlit. “They” often are working under the thumbs of larger corporations who are only concerned with the bottom line. If an 80 million dollar film flops, it can bankrupt entire companies, ruin careers, and make stock values to plummet.
“They” could also refer to distributors, marketers, DVD manufacturers, cinematographers, actors, editors, production designers and other collaborators whose livelihood depends on the success of the movie.
I imagine that you are referring specifically to decisions made by the director, Marcus Nispel, and the screenwriters on Conan, and that you hate the changes you imagine we made to REH’s Conan. All I can tell you, is that whole hordes of people weigh in on these decisions, that none of us set out to make a bad movie, that none of us think we are somehow “better” than REH, but that yes, ultimately the tastes of a wide audience come into play when making a Hollywood movie.
Lastly, if anyone on has 80 million dollars to spend on a faithfully adapted Conan film, please, PLEASE contact me. I would be more than happy to write a faithful adaptation for you, and I work for cheap. J

Does the success of such movies and works as LotR, the upcoming Hobbit, Harry Potter, even Twilight and True Grit, and now Game of Thrones inform their decisions at all, and if not, why don't they?
Anything that is successful will affect “their” decisions, whoever that nefarious and mysterious pronoun refers to. I happen to think that the best and most sophisticated medium for adapting novels is television. I loved Game of Thrones. With lower budgets, better actors and writers, and 10-13 hours to work with, TV series just do the best job of it.
Did anyone, at any point, advocate for a direct adaptation?
The producers at Paradox Entertainment, Fred Malberg in particular, have always advocated for direct adaptations, and will continue to do so for future films.
And if they still think they can improve on the original, why then do they not just take their own story and create their own character?
I myself am an advocate for original screenplays, but because a fantasy film costs between 50-250 million, studios are only willing to risk the money on characters and stories that audiences are already familiar with – so-called “pre-branded” material.
This isn’t a “lack of originality” so much as it’s an investment strategy. Audiences flock to “Spiderman” and “Batman” and other big brand names. If mass audiences reliably went to see “original” films, that’s what the people holding the purse strings would invest in. But at the moment, people flock to Transformers, so that’s what they get.
But believe me… if by “they” you mean writers and directors, we would all rather be doing something original – conceived and executed for the silver screen.

23. Why haven't they been more engaged with the crombots?
Again, I’m not sure who you mean by “they.” I myself have done my best to engage with REH fans, even when they are critical, because I think the discussion can help make for better REH inspired films in the future.

24. I noted how similar the Picts in the film are to their depictions by the Keegans and Manchess in the Del Reys, not to mention how they're depicted in the Conan roll playing game (1st edition). Other people have noted the simularities the look of the film has to the Age of Conan video game, which I really can't comment on because I haven't played it. Is this mere conicidence, or is a part of a greater effort on the part of CPI to make Conan's world look uniform across several forms of media?
That’s really a question for Fred Malmberg and Paradox entertainment, who oversee the development of REH based media.

25. If a person's introduction to the character is the 82 film, the original stories are a shock to them because the character is so different than how he's depicted on film. Will people who are led to the original stories by thenew film have a similar reaction, or do you feel that the transition will be more seamless this time? Can someone read The Pheonix on the Swordand imagine Momoa in the role with no cognitive dissonance on their part?
Yes. I believe that the new Conan film will bring a whole new generation of readers to REH’s stories. Everyone who reads a book may have a different vision of what the character looks like, but Momoa is the best we’ve had yet.

  26. From what I know about the script, there is a gap in time between the destruction of Conan's village and when Momoa emeges onscreen as a full grown adult, where he apparently has several adventures already under his belt. Without giving too many plot points away, how is that transition handled? Are REH's writings acknowledged to account for this gap in time? ie. Did Conan spend time with the Aesir? Was there a battle of Venarium? Did he spend time as a thief in Zamora?
I made several references directly from REH including the battle of Venarium and Conan’s days as a thief in Zamora. Micheal Stackpole expands on them in his novelization. Not all the references made it into the final cut, but it’s clear that the adult Conan has had a number of adventures under his belt.

  26. What ethnicity is Khalar Zym? What country does he hail from? Assuming he's from the far East, how could he possibly move an entire army across several sovereign nations in order to invade Cimmeria?
Originally, the character was named Khalar Sing and he was from Vendhya, producers were going to get an Indian actor to play him, but the role was cast with Steven Lang. Since Steven doesn't look like he's from Vendhya, Khalars ethnicity was changed to Nemedian and his last name was changed to Zym.

  27. Judging by the trailer and the most recent promotional materials, there seems to be a big effort on the part of the producers to attract the "300" crowd. How important was this demographic when putting the film together?

Again, in order to justify the expense of the movie, especially since the director/producers demanded an R-rating, considerations and comprises had to be made in order to reach a wide audience, most of whom don’t know Aquilonia from Aquafresh, Crom from Chronic. That said, the film does NOT! have the look or style of 300, and the music in the trailers isn’t the music you will hear in the final film.
(Thanks to John Prejean for setting up this fan Q&A)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why Screenwriters and Filmmakers should join Quora

There are quite a lot of websites, blogs, and forums on the internet related to screenwriting, filmmaking, and movies. There are also quite a lot of social networks, most recently Google+, that allow filmmakers and movie buffs to share links, tips, and build filmmaking communities. What then is Quora, and why should filmmakers use it? 

"Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question."

For a longer explanation read Quora's about page. I myself learned about Quora from a Wired magazine article, Does Quora Really Have All The Answers?

Here are the reasons that screenwriters, filmmakers, and movie buffs should join Quora:

  • To CurateI maintain that it is the job of filmmakers, film lovers, and film critics to actively curate and promote amazing films that few people have scene. Why not stop complaining that you hated Transformers 3 and start reading and adding to lists of truly amazing and frequently neglected films? Start with What are the best movies nobody has heard of?
  • To Research: Where do you start if you are writing a story that involves a subject you know very little about? Need to know what's its like to be a private detective or a catholic priest? Do you have a very specific question about bio-engineering or the manufacture of candy? Do you want to know where a character in Chicago might go for breakfast? Someone on Quora is liable to have the answer, and you can often ask an "expert" directly. Ultimately, Quora hopes to grow into the Wikipedia of question/answer websites.
  • ...So you can Follow Me: I enjoy answering questions on a variety of film-related topics, and I enjoy getting feedback. Find me here: Sean Hood.
  • ...So that I can Follow You: I suspect that you yourself have personal experience and knowledge that I'd benefit from reading about. Join up and share what you know. I personally would love to read your answers.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bad Reviews

My favorite website of late is called Quora, and I spend a lot of time there answering question and reading spectacular answers by experts on subjects I'm curious about.

Today I saw this question: How do screenwriters feel about bad reviews, in particular claims of formulaic writing? The questioner continued: For example, this week's The New Yorker rips apart Bad Teacher("Academic Questions," July 4, 2011) and even says that one scene was lifted from Cool Hand Luke.

NOTE: my answer has been revised in light of the flurry of bad reviews for Conan The Barbarian. Read it here:

How do screenwriters feel about bad reviews, in particular claims of formulaic writing?
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