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.

Six Things I Can’t Live Without

August 1, 2011

Friend and sex writer Harmony Eichsteadt just posted a blog on how to answer the “6 Things I Could Never Do Without” question on your OKCupid profile. I commented with my six things, which you can read here. Three of them have to do with my chosen profession.

The Meet of My Thighs (11.11)

April 26, 2011

Harmony Eichsteadt is the kind of woman most men dream of. Or at least most men like me.

A self-described sex-positive feminist, she’s a fan of Neil Strauss, is writing a book–from the woman’s perspective–on how to be an effective pick up artist, and in a few weeks will be performing a strip-tease at her book-launch party as punishment for failing, on one particularly day, to write for an hour. (You can thank yours truly for suggesting the punishment.)

The launch party is for her book of “feminist erotic poetry,” which is a nice way of saying “a graphic depiction of my sex life for all the world to see.” Aptly titled The Meet of My Thighs, it is a salacious exploration of the boundary between the erotic and the obscene; challenging the limits of what can be eroticized: from farts to bestiality to menstruation to rape, leaving few stones unturned (I didn’t see anything about gynecologists, but I probably wasn’t paying close enough attention) and pulling the reader into a fantasy world that many would no doubt prefer to pretend doesn’t exist.

The poems range from the sacred to the profane; from the not-quite-subtle “Ghost” (which is either about a dead relationship or necrophelia) to the even-less-subtle “Odes to My New Dildo” and “Things I Have (and Have Not) Masturbated To.” Perhaps the most controversial piece is “Love Song to My Rapist,” written from the perspective of the raped and murdered woman, but in such a dulcet tone that it comes across as a romance. Fresh off a viewing of the movie Hereafter, I was left with the peace of the dead, who bear no grudges and hold no hate and have nothing but forgiveness and compassion in their hearts. But nevertheless, it takes courage to publish this kind of story, whose title alone is enough to invite hate mail from all kinds of grieving and wounded individuals.

I’ll be performing one of the poems at the launch party on May 14th, along with some good old fashioned roasting of the lady of honor. It’ll be an entire night of sex and poetry. After all, what could be a more perfect combination?

10.10 – The Sex Lives of Cannibals

July 20, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I was at a conference talking to an agent about my book, Ups & Downs, and she chastised me for not being familiar with J. Maarten Troost. “You have to do your homework,” she said. I mentioned that we’ve been comparing our book to Bill Bryson, to which she replied that Troost is “like a younger, hipper Bill Bryson.”

So I decided to do my homework, stopping by BookPeople to pick up this one – the best of Troost’s three books according to consumer reviews on – to bring with me on a trip to Calgary for a cousin’s wedding.

I have to admit, I was more than a little hesitant to bring this book along for the ride. Although I was fairly certain that the title was just a clever attention-grabber – that in fact the book would talk about sex for at most a chapter or two – I wasn’t certain it was a great idea to bring on a trip with my in-laws a book that says “Sex” in big bold lettering on the cover.

I was right, by the way. In fact, I was a little disappointed at the lack of sex discussed in the book, although upon reflection I realize that the topic was probably discussed as much as necessary. Maybe I was just expecting some more lurid descriptions, rather than the uncomfortable discussions of how a  man, wanting a woman to marry him instead of her fiance, kidnapped and raped her for two weeks until her fiance wouldn’t marry her because of the shame. So she married her kidnapper, and was happy in her marriage, because he didn’t drink or beat her. There’s also the celibacy that precedes the independence day celebration and a discussion on the courting rituals of dogs, which, in case you were wondering, were really the only cannibals discussed in the book. Unless you count biting off someone’s nose, which is an accepted course course of action for a jealous spouse.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific is Troost’s recounting of his and his wife’s two years in Kiribati, a group of islands in the South Pacific whose landmass is roughly the size of Baltimore but is spread out in 33 pieces across a vast expanse of ocean roughly the size of the continental United States. Although he went expecting the proverbial tropical paradise, what he found instead on Tarawa, the capital island, was littered, disgusting, and disease ridden.

The agent’s assessment of Troost was overall pretty accurate. The book fits the “good-natured curmudgeon-style travel adventure” genre, with  a mixture of shocking, disgusting, and groan-worthy observations, much of which is gut-wrenchingly hilarious. As food and weather serve as recurring themes, I thought back to Ups & Downs, where we expressed similar tribulations though of an altogether different sort. I noted how he managed to repeat those portions without overdoing it, which is something we worked really hard on ourselves – letting the reader know just how the rain and our meals played to the forefront of our minds, without hammering you with it so much that you get sick of hearing it. I was also struck by how incredibly similar the books arcs are. Of course, we have two authors where Sex Lives has only the one, but he starts out recounting his prior adventures that led to this particular one, before immersing himself in the complete culture shock of the adventure that in many ways was completely unlike what he expected. We hear struggle after struggle, each chapter forming its own story with its own conflict, ending on a satisfying victory with an obstacle overcome. And then, at the end, the reverse culture shock of a reintegration for which we were not altogether prepared.

So if you, reading this post, liked Ups & Downs, you’ll no doubt like The Sex Lives of Cannibals, and the reverse is also true.

Our b0ok has more sex in it though.

Subplots – The Love Story

January 11, 2009

When I started writing Charisma, I was really trying to avoid a love story between our heroine and Ben, her roommate/mentor.  As a general rule I hate romantic B-plots in action movies, because they’re so trite and predictable, so I wanted to have the love between them be completely in the subtext and not addressed on screen.

But the more I write, the more glaring is the omission.  While I like the fact that it’s all in the background, it’s becoming obvious to me that something in there has to be addressed, or else it’s going to hang out in the room like a really nasty fart.  And the more I think about it, the more I realize that no producer or director would let the screenplay go to production without it being addressed somewhere.

One of the themes of this film is the dichotomy between nudity and sexiness; the nudity in strip clubs is so gratuitous that it stops being sexy, and were I to direct this film, one of the ways I would do it is to exploit that theme by having the nudity (in the strip clubs only) be so rampant that you stop noticing it, while the other moments in life – when Ben and Chelsea are having an honest conversation, or when Chelsea is seen doing something completely banal and human – would play up the sexiness.

I have no idea, yet, how I want to address it, so I was bouncing ideas off my wife, and as soon as I mentioned the idea of Chelsea and Ben having a sex scene, she went through the roof.  “No, you can’t do that to Ben!” she exclaimed.

I was a little surprised, and not a little pleased by her reaction, because it meant that I’d created characters she cared about and hit on an idea that elicited an emotional reaction, which is what film is all about.  So in spite of her protests that I was being a jerk, I continued down that train of thought.

If they were to have sex, I like the idea of an incident not unlike the Meredith/George debacle from Grey’s Anatomy.  Because the stripper with the heart of gold who falls in love with the boy who’s trying to save her is cliche, and that’s the thing I have to avoid.  On the other hand, I kind of like it when films hint at that love or sexuality, where they have an almost experience, and then decide not to, for whatever reason – which would be easy to manufacture given the vast amount of history between these two characters and the vast amount of baggage each of them carries.  It would also set up some good internal conflict, and would make for a good Gap Between Expectation and Result and break the stripper cliche, since you’d expect sex to be no big deal to her, except that it is.

So I’m still thinking about it.  In an early draft outline, I had Chelsea walk in on Ben while he was masturbating.  I loved the idea, but it didn’t fit into the plot, so I replaced it with something else entirely, and now I get to bring it back.  That excites me.  But more than that, I like the fact that I’m opening up my second act , and giving myself more to not to say in those unspoken love scenes.

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