Interview with Owen Egerton

January 16, 2012

About a year ago I sat down with Owen Egerton, author of The Book of Harold, co-writer of the 2008 Black List screenplay Bobbie Sue, and Austin’s favorite author in 2007, 2008, and 2010. It was a great interview, but I got caught up in trying to transcribe the whole thing before uploading it, which was just a terrible idea. So here, a year late, is that most excellent interview about the life and art of being a writer.

Listen to the interview with author & screenwriter Owen Egerton

For those that would prefer to read the abridged version, below are some highlights from the interview.

On Family

One of my writing instructors, Debra Monroe had said that as humans we want to often avoid conflict, but as writers we need to make conflict happen. Take two people that you’d never wanted them to meet, you’d never put them in the same room, you’d never invite them to the same dinner party, and force them together and see what happens. I find when I do that in writing, eventually they form some kind of family. Or they kill each other. But more often than not, they form some kind of family which of course slowly kills each other.

On the Role of Fiction

I find that the role of fiction is to expand the questions and to expand the mystery, not to pat ourselves on the back for our own opinions. There’s fiction out there that does that, that says, “Gosh, I think that was injust as well, I’m so glad that I got to see this movie that made me feel good about my own opinion. Racism is bad! I agree with the hero of the movie!” Sometimes what we need more is something that troubles us, something that takes us a place we don’t necessarily expect to go and leaves us there with some questions.

On Collaboration

Working in comedy, there was always the need to collaborate, and always collaboration led to something better and grander than I could have come up with on my own. The analogy I used to use is like children playing blocks in kindergarten and each of the kids is only given so many blocks, and they all want to build a tower, each tower can only be seven blocks tall. But if the kids start working together, stacking each other blocks, then you’ve got a huge tower over twenty blocks tall. It’s a tower none of them could have built on their own. And that’s what I find when it comes to improv, or shows at the Alamo, or working with Chris and Russell, we collaborate in such a way, and we say, “Yes and” to each other’s ideas in such a way, and we’re loose enough with our own ideas that eventually a script comes out that there’s no way I could have written on our own.

On Comedy

There’s an interesting danger that happens in screenwriting where you’ve been working on a comedy script, and sometimes it can be a year that you’re working on it, and there’s some joke that’s still funny but you have to recognize that it’s funny because it doesn’t seem funny anymore. You have to have a craftsman’s eye for comedy, as opposed to a connoisseur’s eye.

On Instant Gratification

I was writing a novel which I knew was years away from being done, and longer away from being in print. At the same time I was writing sketches that I knew I could show my sketch group on Monday, we could rehearse it on Wednesday, perform it on Friday, and I was thinking, “This is immediate gratification.” And improv is even faster. I’ve gotta be careful, because I really want to do the novel, but I’m getting so much gratification immediately if I come up with something funny on stage.

On Job Security

I have some friends who have said, “Well, I don’t want to make the risk of going into being a full time artist,” whether that’s as a performing artist or as a writing artist, or whatever, “because I need the security of a job.” But if anything can be learned from the last few years of recession it’s that those secure jobs are not secure, and that’s a false security.

On Specialization

The advantage, I think, is the way these different genres of expression play off each other. The playfulness with which I approach improv comedy very much affects the way I approach the storyline of a novel or short story. Also my understanding of novel story structure has really helped me when I go to a screenplay. So I find they all bleed into each other and improve each other for the most part.

On Raising Children

There’s a greater gift to give our children than financial stability. There’s an example of striving to live a full life. There is the adventure of taking steps and not knowing where your foot’s going to land.

On Optimism

I’m pretty cheerful, but I don’t know that I’d call myself an optimist. I’m pretty disappointed in a lot of the world around me, and I see life can be a pretty dark, dark experience. But with all of that, I guess maybe you’d describe me as a pessimist with hope. That’s why I smile.


Who’s Your Hero?

August 31, 2009

We finally got there.

As you may or may not know, I’m taking an improv class on narrative longform – that’s improv that tells a story, as distinct from shortform improv (the kind you see on Whose Line Is It Anyway?) or what I call montage-style longform (where there’s no narrative throughline, you just do one long show with random scenes).  And after several weeks of scenework, this week’s class was all about establishing the hero.

Think of some stories you like, and then answer the following question: How do you know who’s the hero?  This was one of our exercises, and the results we came up with were not surprising:

  • He’s the person the story is named after.
  • He’s the person we’re rooting for.
  • He changes over the course of the story.
  • He’s the person making the most active decisions.
  • He appears in more scenes than anyone else.
  • Any scenes he’s not in are there to support his story.
  • He’s got the biggest obstacle to overcome.

Then we set out creating scenes in which we established, as early as possible, who the hero is.  One of the guidelines I’ve established for myself is that whoever’s first to appear on stage, on screen, or on the page, is more often than not the hero.  There are exceptions to that rule, but usually those exceptions exist to establish the tone (Hamlet), or as part of a broader scene to establish the need for the hero (The Dark Knight), who is often then be the first to appear on screen after the scene is over.  Interestingly, an early draft of the Star Wars script has Luke Skywalker first appearing somewhere around the 4th minute – not really doing much, just showing up all by his lonesome to show us, the reader, that he’s the person we’re meant to be following.

Improv & Vampires, or How to Stay Awake on a 3-hour Drive

July 27, 2009

I’ve started another improv class, this one at MerlinWorks at the Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin, TX.  I chose this one from the growing hoarde of improv schools in Austin (I can name 5 off the top of my head … an impressive feat, considering three years ago it took me 15 minutes of Google searching to find one) for the simple reason that they have a track that focuses on narrative improv – i.e., improv that tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Day one, hour one, we’re introducing ourselves to the other people in our class by finding out what stories we have in common.  Like, what kind of stories we both like.

Vampires came up a lot.

I haven’t seen or read Twilight, by love Interview with the Vampire and Underworld.  I’ve always wanted to do a vampire story, but Interview is a pretty tough act to follow.  As an adolescent I tried, with a short story I called Blood Moon.  Although I think that one was actually inspired by the movie Hocus Pocus.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about my take on vampires and how you might incorporate them into a modern world.  Of course, Twilight and Underworld, and Blade have done that to varying degrees of realism, but I’m looking more at the descent-into-hell melodrama that characterizes movies like Natural Born Killers and Requiem for a Dream. I’ve become intrigued recently by the concept of hedonism, and combining that with a vampire story fascinates me.

There’s nothing more beautiful as a writer than being on a long journey, coming up with an idea, and then using the next several hours of that journey to flesh that idea out.  The entire plot of Charisma came to me during one of our long hikes through the Alps.  And all of a sudden I had that turning point, and I had that character arc, and I had inciting incident, and I had that image of the opening scene.

Before I knew it, I was at home, sitting down at my computer and banging out the treatment.

I need to get back to work on Charisma. To hold myself to account and finally finish a story I’ve started.  But when I’m done, I know what’s next.

Ups & Downs at ColdTowne Stool Pigeon Tomorrow!

February 13, 2009

I know it’s short notice and I know it’s Valentine’s Day, but Ups & Downs was just given a slot at ColdTowne Theater‘s weekly Stool Pigeon event tomorrow (Saturday) night at 8:00 PM.

If you’re not familiar with it, Stool Pigeon is an improvised comedy format in which a featured guest (in this case, me!) tells stories from their life, (or in this case, reads excerpts from our awesomely hilarious travel adventure, Ups & Downs: The (Mis)Adventures of a Crusty Old Fart and his Bouncy Son as they Trek Through the Alps.  At appropriate intervals, the guest (me!) will step to the side and hilarious improv comedy will ensue, as the improvisers twist the stories into funny, unpredictable, and completely made-up-on-the-spot scenes.

After the show, I’ll be selling advance copies of the book at a discounted rate, so if you want to get it now, come on down!

Come to Ups & Downs Stool Pigeon at ColdTowne Theater.

Golden Rules, Part II: The Creative Law of Continued Growth

December 15, 2008

I’m making up my own law.  It probably already exists in other places, and if it does, don’t tell me, because I’m still reeling over how much of a genius I am.  One time, when I was 15, I wrote Fur Elise.  I thought it was pretty good – and it was pretty good – but then my Dad told me that Beethoven wrote it first.  I was shattered.

Anyway, my law, which I’ve aptly named the Creative Law of Continued Growth, is this: Creativity grows in one’s mind like snow grows on the ground.  With continued application, the amount of creativity will build; but left on its own, the creativity will melt away, leaving you starting from scratch the next time around.

Last Friday I worked on Charisma in the morning, and later that evening, warming up for our improv show, I felt a remarkable strength that I hadn’t felt in a while.  Our show was awesome, and when we got our notes at the end the instructor called me out for coming up with the big payoff moment.  I was, needless to say, busting with pride.

Looking back to my most recent post, on the Golden Rules of Writing, I realized that this plugs directly into two of them: rules #1 and #9.  Writing every day isn’t just a good idea; it flexes the creative muscles, so that next time you write it’s a little bit easier.  Being in a creative environment – regardless of the type of creativity – does the same.  Your brain, just like a bicep or a calf muscle, increases its strength, endurance, and muscle memory, so that next time you work out, you can lift more weight, recover quicker, or run further or faster.

An interesting idea to ponder is that in exercise, cross-training is critical.  Marathon runners don’t just run 26 miles a day: they lift weights, they interval-train, they cycle, they stretch, they do situps, they work on treadmills and run around tracks … all of these are important aspects of the marathon training regimen, to say nothing of weight and diet management.

I’ve found improv incredibly helpful in developing my skills as a screenwriter.  Reading and editing plays and short stories is helpful, too.  All of these, I think, can teach us something about our particular craft, and are a valuable part of training.  And I’ll definitely be writing before my next improv show.

Things I’ve Learned from Improv

December 10, 2008
  • Heighten, heighten, heighten. To keep it interesting, the stakes should always be going up.  This applies within each beat, from beat to beat, from scene to scene, and from act to act.
  • Don’t talk about the future, cut to it. It happens to everyone: you’ve got a really funny idea, and then you come on stage and start talking about it.  An improv rule of thumb is that when you find yourself talking about an event that is going to take place in the future, just cut to that event.  This correlates directly to the “show, don’t tell” rule: avoid spending time talking about events that will take place in the future; focus on the now.
  • Include rich details. Yesterday we were working on second scenes, and to do that, we workshopped first scenes.  There was one that had a really funny “scene game” going on, where things were being heightened, and then at some point the instructor called out “Move to the next beat of this scene” – as in, move past the scene game they were on and explore a different game.  So they did, and at some point Applebee’s was brought up and glossed over, and the instructor called out, “Explore Applebee’s some more.”  So one person started talking about all the things she wanted to order from Applebee’s – an appletini, a salad with ranch dressing, and a single chocolate-covered strawberry that her scene partner could feed to her – while the other mentioned that his grandmother used to take him there every Sunday, and she’s dead now.  What’s interesting is that when we started working on the second beats, every one of them came from those rich details that were generated out of exploring Applebee’s some more, and it made those second beats awesome.  So the point is, rich details can set up huge payoffs.
  • Avoid being offensive. Last week I was in a show, playing a priest-like character and brought in the child-molestation thing.  And I discovered quickly that humor of that sort can alienate your audience in a hurry.  If you’re going to be offensive, do it for a reason, or make sure you earn it elsewhere in the scene; otherwise, you can completely kill your future.

Creating Characters You Care About

December 6, 2008

I just got back, not too long ago, from my second ever improv performance.  What I’m actually interested in talking about, though, is something I saw in one of the troupes that performed after us.

This was a group of really experienced improvisers, and they are the owners and/or instructors of the ColdTowne improv theater.  So these guys know what they’re doing.

The show was chugging along nicely, and it was entertaining, but then about halfway through there was this huge turning point.  It was a two-person scene.  One’s fiance had just left him because he was a cheapskate, and he was confiding in the other, a friend of his.  The scene got its laughs, but what was really amazing about it was that that wasn’t really the point – there was this tremendous level intimacy between these two characters, and the scene went on for about 8 or 10 minutes; far and away the longest scene in the entire show. After that, the rest of the show was uproariously hilarious.

I found it fascinating how this one scene, that wasn’t really all that funny in and of itself, set up another 10 or 15 minutes of hilarity, just by creating characters and relationships we care about.

Applying this to movies, there’s this sense that comedies are all about jokes; but if we look at the truly great comedies – The General, Some Like It Hot, Back to the Future, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, and even spoofs like Airplane! or Spaceballs – what makes them great is not just the jokes but having characters and relationships  we really care about.  Even in Airplane!, we want Ted and Elaine to get together at the end.

There are some, I think, that violate this rule: Monty Python springs immediately to mind.  But I think that’s off in it’s own realm, having achieved cult status for its immense quotability.  South Park, I think, falls somewhere in between; the kind of movie that gets better every time when you can quote along to it.

But I’ll be looking, from now on, for the relationship-development scene early in every comedy.

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