Sunday, December 09, 2012

Q&A: Author R.S. Mellette

R.S. Mellette is a fiction writer, screenwriter, actor of stage and screen and a font of clever ideas that translate into enjoyable, engaging, and fascinating characters. He is currently between agents. In 2012, he had short stories published in each of the anthologies produced by Elephant’s Bookshelf Press. He shared some thoughts with us about the similarities and differences between writing for film and television versus writing for print as well as a little bit about what shaped him as a writer.

EB: How long have you been working in the entertainment industry?
RSM: Depends on what you want to call working. I caught the bug my junior year of high school when I realized that my dream of becoming an astrophysicist might not be within my skill set. I was acting in a school-sponsored show at the same time and was told in a serious way that I was good. That's when I decided to go into theatre.

If you want to count bill-paying jobs in the industry, I moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and started working at Universal Studios around 1990. Since then, I've been employed in one way or the other in the business. Sometimes I'm in an office doing work that could be in any other business. Sometimes I'm on a set with the director and producer keeping up with script changes. There have been times when I was in charge of everything and times I was a lowly extra.  I'd like more of the former.
EB: How does your background in theater, television, and film inform your writing?

The skills definitely transfer. In fact, most of the actors I worked with at North Carolina School of the Arts are now writers. Peter Hedges (What's Eating Gilbert Grape?) was a year ahead of me. In my acting group alone we had Mary Beth Bass (Follow Me), Richard Register (TV's Make It Or Break It) Bobby Bowman (Yes, Dear; My Name Is Earl; Raising Hope), Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games), just to name a few.
When actors train -- and I mean a university degree, study-as-hard-as-a-doctor-or-lawyer type of training -- they are really studying writers. A stage actor will say "I've done Mamet" or Simon, or Shakespeare, or Moliere, or whoever. By not only reading these stories, but getting inside the characters, seeing everything from the character's point of view -- literally -- then joining an ensemble to tell the story live in front of an audience for immediate feedback, an actor learns very quickly what works and what doesn't. We also see words on the page turned into a real thing, like a set, costumes, sound, lights, etc. This helps the budding writer learn what words do inside other people's heads.

As I've become more of a novelist, I constantly marvel at the little things that work in all of the arts. In college we actors were told to make a list of active verbs, since that's what we play. An actor can't play an emotion. We can only try to achieve a goal against great obstacles. Any writer who doesn't find that sentence familiar needs to study more.
When writing, I try to approach each character as if I had to play the role live on stage -- where a slow scene feels like death. I could never do that to another actor, nor my characters.

EB: Can you share a few tips you’ve learned from screenwriting that translate well to novels? 
RSM: Working on Xena: Warrior Princess, I learned the importance of the "Act Out" -- the beat just before they cut to commercial. This is the same as a chapter end in books. In TV, like in theatre, these need to have an extra strong hook, since the audience will literally walk away for a while. You have to have a big story beat to make them want to come back.

When I got into film editing I learned things like "always cut on motion." If there's nothing happening on screen just before a cut, then the scene will feel slow painfully slow, even though it's really just milliseconds too long. In a novel, if there are too many words in a sentence, the read feels slow -- regardless of the style.
There are a thousand other little things like this in my head.

EB: What is Dances With Films?
Dances With Films is a film festival in Los Angeles with the motto: “No Stars. No Politics. No Sh*t.” My film premiered there in 2000 and won best screenplay. I've been working with them ever since.

Again, the similarities between industries is fascinating. A screenwriter/director will have a project that they'd like to be distributed by a major studio, just like a novelist has manuscripts they'd like to have published by one of the big six. The filmmaker may make the movie, just like the writer may self-publish the book. The difference is the filmmaker then has to find a distributor to sell his/her movie, where the writer has to sell individually.
Dances With Films gives uber-indie filmmakers a place to show their work. We break the ice for a lot of filmmakers. I guess in the publishing world it would be like having a convention where unpublished writers are chosen for the quality of their work to do a reading for a live audience. Sure, there might not be editors or acquisitions execs in the audience -- but having the feather in your cap of being chosen might help along the way.

EB: You’ve had some feathers in your cap from the television world. For example, a character you created for an Internet project happened to become the first to translate to screen. Please share what happened and how that came about.

RSM: It's kind of a long story, but I've gotten good at condensing it over the years. One of my first jobs on the lot at Universal was for Television Information Services. They did all of the computer stuff for TV production, sales, etc. When I left that job, I "floated" on the lot -- which is like being in an old-fashioned temp pool. I landed the job on Xena when a fax from the Hercules office in New Zealand landed on my desk. Someone handed it to me saying, "This came to the wrong number, throw it away." It was the final approval for the series budget on a new TV show, so I called the Renaissance office to ask if they were waiting on it... a couple of months later, I had a job.
Later, I ran into one of my old bosses from TVIS. He was doing this thing called a webpage for Xena. I was vaguely familiar with what that was and asked if he wanted to meet with the writers. I knew full well an idea would come out of that meeting, and that I'd be the only one available to write it. That's how The Xena Scrolls were created. A year later, when they did an episode based on my characters on the website, I got the story credit.

A year after that, when all my friends in TVIS were replaced by an entire department called New Media – and companies wanted to merchandise products based on my characters that were only on the website, and not in any episodes, the lawyers came in and it all got shot to hell. A few years after that, the WGA had a long strike asking for many of the same things I was back in 1995. I don't think either one of us got them.
Did I say I'd gotten good at condensing this? I lied.

EB: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer first and actor or filmmaker second?
I've always written, but I never thought of myself as a writer until I temped as a writer's assistant on a Fox TV show called M.A.N.T.I.S. The writer I was working for asked me if I'd like to stay on full time. When I said yes, I knew I was putting acting on the back burner for long time.

After making my movie, JACKS OR BETTER, I wrote a script called HANNAH'S ADVENTURES IN SPACE, which did well in a couple of script contests and landed me two different managers, but everyone said it was such a big budget project that it couldn't sell without a built-in audience. I had been told for years that I should turn it into a book, but I didn't want to be one of those bad screenwriters who show up in theatres in Los Angeles trying to do their movie as a play so they can sell it as a film.
My beloved theatre is not their stepping stone.

My Dad has always been a struggling novelist, so I knew that writers felt the same way about their art as I did about mine. When I did decide to try Hannah's Adventures In Space as a novel, I worked hard to learn the art, the world, the culture of being a novelist. I worked with my Dad on that manuscript. He taught me a ton. Even with the suggestions I didn't agree with, I learned that I have a voice. Through a writing group here in LA and on Agent Query Connect, I polished even more.
Now I consider myself a writer -- be it stage, screen, or novel -- whatever is best for the story and the marketplace.

EB: That’s an important distinction I think a lot of writers don’t understand. How do you determine whether a story is a novel, a screenplay, or a play? 
RSM: In a word? Budget. (laughs).

I think the story is the story is the story, regardless of the medium in which it's told – but the telling of the story changes. You have to take advantage of what each format brings you. POV for example. In Hannah's Adventures, the screenplay, I can put the leads in different locations and cut between them even though Nadir, the sidekick, is the narrator. That's an excepted convention of film. The book is in first person, too, but the medium isn't so forgiving. Nadir had to be involved in every scene. At first, this stopped me dead in my tracks. My Dad and I worked hard on how to "introduce the evidence" into the story – but once we did, it became much stronger. Now, if I ever get to go back to the screenplay, I have to put those changes in where they help the telling of the story in a movie, and keep them out where they don't.
My current project, Billy Bobble Has a Magic Wand, started as a bad short story, became an even worse TV pilot, then a pretty good novel. At least I think so. Now, I've gone back to the TV pilot, taken a breath, and slowed my pace. A TV series gives a writer hours and hours of time to tell the story. Each episode is just a chapter or two. Characters can develop almost in real time. It's a whole new challenge, and a whole new field to run around in. I'm having fun.

EB: How do you approach a new story or novel? What spurs your ideas?
RSM: Damned if I know. If I'm actively trying to come up with a new story I try to get really, really bored. I wrote in high school that, if necessity is the mother of invention, then boredom is the father. If I give my brain nothing to do, it will start entertaining itself, then I just listen.

I also try to forget a new idea as soon as I get it. The ones that keep coming back are the ones worth working on. Right now I have ideas lined up like planes landing at LAX. My problem is juggling writing time, selling time, and life time. But every writer knows about that.
EB: Yes, indeed. I just saw an arrivals board appear in my mind with the titles of a dozen of my works in progress and works in a mental holding pattern. Seems like everything’s being delayed. Must be bad weather over Cleveland.

RSM: And don't you love it when someone says, "You're a writer? You know, I have an idea for a book..." You want to point to that board and say, "try another airline."
(Both laugh)

EB: Anyway, the stories that appeared in Spring Fevers and The Fall were both pieces you’d written years ago and had to revise to make a bit more accessible to a contemporary audience. In digging through your trunk, what have you found about your writing and how it’s progressed over the years?
RSM: I think every writer has those moments when they read some old work and think, "I wrote that!?" This can be an exclamation of joy or dread. I have a lot of stories in the trunk that I hope to burn before I die for fear of someone reading them -- but with “The Idea Exchange” (Spring Fevers) and “The Last Performance of the Neighborhood Summer Theatre Festival” (The Fall), I felt like I'd channeled some other, better, writer. Sure, they needed polishing, but not as much as I had thought they would.

That's the thing about short stories, there really is no good reason to write them except that you must. There is a lot of passion in short stories, and that almost always makes for great writing.
EB: I think that’s a great way to close. Thanks, R.S. for your time and sharing your experience with us.

RSM: Thank you.

The Elephant's Bookshelf


RSMellette said...

Matt - once again, thank you for a great time with Spring Fevers, The Fall, and this interview. Always a pleasure.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thank you! And I trust we'll hear more from you.