My Momma Didn’t Raise No Fool
By PJ McIlvaine
Sometimes, if all the planets in the constellation line up in just the right way, you hit paydirt not once, but twice. That’s the delightful situation John Gilstrap found himself in. Two days after selling the North American hard cover rights to his novel Nathan’s Run, he suddenly found himself in a bidding war for the movie rights that most writers can only dream of.
But hold on. It gets better.
The script for Nathan, which was penned by another writer, subsequently gets stuck in development hell. Indeed, it’s declared DOA. Undaunted, John told his Hollywood agent that if given the chance, he could do a better job. Famous last words. John didn’t know the first thing about script writing, but he got himself to a bookstore, bought a book and boom, three days later he had a completed script, and not just a completed script, mind you, but a script that was good enough to bring it back from the dead. And, in John’s own words, he now had a “decent writing sample for my agent to shop around Hollywood, in search of additional screenwriting work.” Work such as adapting Nelson De Mille’s Word of Honor and Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon.
Of course, John’s streak didn’t stop there. He finished another novel, At All Costs, and he and his agents, mindful of the ways of Hollywood, decided that no one would have an advance sneak peak at it.
Everyone would have a chance at it at the same time.
Sounds reasonable to me.
That is, until producer Arnold Kopelson (you might have heard of a couple of his movies, like The Fugitive, that was a mild hit), strode into John’s lit agent’s office one fine day unannounced and asked to see John’s new book.
Well, when Kopelson asks, people perk up and obey. The lit agent finally relented and slipped a polished draft to Kopelson, who immediately made a preemptive bid for big buckaroonies.
Did John hesitate? Not on your bippy.
As John put it so succinctly, “I had my second mega bucks movie sale, and the champagne flowed in the Gilstrap home. Plus, this one was virtually guaranteed to be made! Was that cool or what?”
But you know Hollywood. Things never quite work out the way one planned… but at least the check cleared!
A little background: John says he always wanted to be a “journalist in the vein of Woodward or Bernstein.” He was the editor of his high school newspaper and graduated from the College of William and Mary with a degree in American History. John subsequently became the managing editor for a small trade journal, and hated it. Frustrated, John returned to college and earned a Master of Science degree in of, all things, safety engineering from the University of Southern California.
In the 1980s, John embarked on a new career and became an expert on explosives safety and hazardous waste. All the while, however, on the side, John kept writing. Nathan’s Run was actually his fourth novel, and to date, has been published in over 20 countries.
But John played it smart and didn’t quit his day job until he had sold the book and movie rights to At All Costs. Another novel, Even Steven, was released last year in hardcover, and will be a Pocket Books paperback this summer.
On a more personal note, John lives in Virginia with Joy, his “best friend” and wife and their “perfect son” Chris. John loves to ski, which he readily admits is the only sport “at which I’ve excelled” and golf, at which he “righteously sucks.” John loves “good food and good wine” and by his own admission is on a perpetual diet.
PJ: How does your family and friends view your success?
John: My family and friends were blindsided by my success in writing, if only because none of them knew that I was a closet writer. It’s not that I kept it a secret, exactly, but when you harbor a ridiculous dream like becoming a writer, you’ve got to be careful with whom you share it. I didn’t want people asking about it all the time, in effect reminding me that I wasn’t achieving my dream. Fact is, no one felt more blindsided by my success than I did.
PJ: You say you always wanted to be a writer, so I gather screenwriting came almost as an afterthought. True? How do you feel about switching from one genre to the other? Which, in your opinion, is more lucrative, either from a financial or a creative standpoint? It seems you took to screenwriting like a duck to water.
John: I’m not sure that “afterthought” is exactly right. A better way to put it is, I never thought of writing anything but novels, early on. In fact, it wasn’t until I saw how thoroughly the screenwriters had botched the adaptation of Nathan’s Run—and in the process seriously damaged the prospect of the movie ever being made—that I even considered writing a screenplay. As luck would have it, I was in frequent contact with my friend Lorenzo Carcaterra at the time of the Nathan’s Run debacle, and he constantly encouraged me to take a shot at writing screenplays. A novelist himself (Sleepers, Gangster, etc.), he assured me that it wasn’t a difficult transition to make. So, faced with a book-to-film project in turn-around, I stepped into the breech, and discovered that he was right; that screenwriting and novel writing require just slightly different spins on the same set of talents.
From a creative standpoint, I much prefer writing the novels, where I get to play all the parts, be the director, and end the day assured that my vision of the story will be the one seen by the public. Plus, from a strictly commercial standpoint, books give you a shot at the creative trifecta—you get paid for the book, a studio buys the movie rights and hires you to write the adaptation. Thus far, I’ve yet to nail the adaptation gig for my own book.
Still, there’s something really sexy about writing screenplays. Because I do mostly adaptations, I avoid the hardcore, torturous plot development nightmares, thus making screenwriting a little “easier” in my view, although that is an extraordinarily relative term. Plus, I enjoy the collaborative process that is filmmaking.
PJ: When you wrote the novels, did you see them as movies?
John: I’m a very visually oriented writer, by which I mean that I see vivid pictures of the scenes as they unfold in my head. I’ve been told that I have a cinematic writing style. That said, I don’t think I see the stories as movies, so much as I see them as real events unfolding in real time.
PJ: What is your writing routine? Do you use any particular computer program?
John: I work all day (8-6) Monday through Friday, and usually a few hours on the weekends.
I’m a software company’s dream client. Once I latch on to a program, I’m as loyal as a lap dog. I’ve been a WordPerfect purist since way before Windows, and my favorite scriptwriting software is ScriptThing for Windows. Recently, though, I’ve had to use ScriptWare because the director I’m working with uses it, and it’s the only way we can email scripts and notes to each other.
PJ: What were your three other novels like (before you hit it big with Nathan)? Any plans to do anything with them?
John: They were awful. They are awful. I owe the world an apology for the trees that gave their lives that I might print them. What limited moments of competence existed in those stories have already been cannibalized in my published works.
PJ: How did you get a lit agent? And then a script agent?
John: I got my literary agent the old fashioned way—through cold queries. After 27 rejections by other agencies, uberagent Molly Friedrich took me on as a client on a Thursday, and a week later, between book and movie rights, she’d made me a millionaire. My script agent is Matthew Snyder of CAA. Molly snagged him for me.
PJ: I assume you’re in the WGA, yes? Which means I have to ask, what do you think of the strike? Will it affect you and if so, how?
John: Yes, I am in the WGA. I enjoy the benefits of membership, and because I do, I will certainly support a strike if it comes. That said, I believe that strikes are horribly wasteful—the business equivalent of scorched-earth warfare. Historically, neither side emerges from a strike an unconditional winner, and as the main combatants bludgeon each other, the collateral damage is terrible. I think about all the minimum-wagers and below-the-line folks who stand to lose so much if Hollywood shuts down for a few months, and find it very sad. I just hope the two sides keep talking constructively.
PJ: Which do you prefer, writing novels or scripts?
John: Not a fair question, for reasons stated above. In a perfect world, I’d like to do a book and a screenplay in each 18-month cycle. That way, I get to exercise both sides of my brain.
PJ: Would you like to direct? Any ambitions towards TV?
John: At this moment, I have no desire to direct. I watch what directors do—the thousands of tiny details that they have to manage—and to me, that’s the stuff of nightmares.
As for television, I guess it depends. Sitcom work would make me crazy, as would some of the highly derivative lawyer/cop/doctor shows. On the other hand, I think it would be thrilling to be part of (head of?) a creative team that brings something fresh to the small screen. Certainly, I have some ideas along these lines, but a few things have to fall in line before I actively pursue them.
PJ: Tell me how making the big sale changed your life. Did you splurge? I’m guessing now that you make your living writing full time now.
John: Yes, I do make my living from writing now, and that fact probably defines the most significant way in which the “big sale” changed my life. Now, I get to live out my dream of being a writer.
As for how we splurged, there’s a funny story in that. When word came that Nathan’s Run had sold for quite a pile, there was a lot of cheering in the Gilstrap home. I got the Big Phone Call around 7:00 in the evening, and because it was a school night, and our son was only 8 years old at the time, we couldn’t go anywhere to celebrate. As fortune would have it, we were also late in the weekly grocery-shopping cycle, so the pantry was pretty bare. So, how did we celebrate? Cheap champagne (left over from New Year’s Eve) and peanut butter crackers.
PJ: Please tell me about your experiences thus far in La La Land and Development Hell. Have you had pitch meetings with big mucky mucks?
John: Here’s where I find that my outlook differs from most of the writers I know. When I sell the movie rights to my books now, I assume that the film will never be made. Ditto the scripts I write. Here’s hoping for lots of pleasant surprises, but I don’t need to see my stuff on the screen to feel self-actualized. My job is to write a kick-ass script. It’s the only piece of the process over which I have complete control, and I think I do it very well. The rest of the process belongs to someone else, and that’s really okay with me. When I get notes back, I argue my case if I disagree, but in the end, that’s not my call either. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’d love to see a bunch of my stories on the big screen. But I’m enough of a realist to know that so many things have to go right—with nothing going wrong—that the odds on any given project are hopelessly stacked against me.
I don’t do pitches. I’m not good at them. I do a lot of public speaking, and through that I’ve learned to react to the audience. The problem with pitches for me is the cold start and the lack of real-time, ongoing feedback. It unnerves me.
PJ: What’s happening with Kopelson?
John: My experience has been that Arnold Kopelson is a class act. He bought At All Costs with the best of intentions, and I believe that he’ll continue to work toward getting it made as a movie.
PJ: How do you feel about rewriting another writer’s work and how do you feel about other writer’s rewriting your work?
John: I think it’s all part of the process. It’s what happens; it’s how movies are made. With the exception of Red Dragon, where I was the first writer, every script I’ve done was a rewrite at some level. In most cases, I started all over again, changing probably 90% of the previous draft. I’ll strive to keep the stuff that I think is really good, but when it’s all done, I find that I’ve changed virtually everything from the previous draft.
And this isn’t a slam at the previous writer(s). Because of the collaborative nature of filmmaking, the vision of a film evolves over time. As such, that original draft—while well written in its own right—often no longer reflects the producer’s or director’s vision of the story they now want to tell. As the (re)writer, I get to influence that new vision, but once we all understand what the end game is, my job is to put it all on paper.
PJ: Has the Internet helped or hindered your work?
John: The Internet has certainly made research a breeze. On the other hand, it’s helped me to raise procrastination to a high art.
PJ: Where do you see yourself in five years?
John: Five years from now, I’ll have been in the business for 10 years, and by then, I hope to be seen as a journeyman writer and storyteller. In Hollywood, I’d like to have the reputation of a guy who will work his ass off for a project, and will always say exactly what’s on his mind; respecting a hand-shake deal as much as a signed contract. In the literary world, I want to be an author whom readers trust, knowing that I’ll always give them a wild ride, and that I’ll always give them a satisfying ending.
PJ: Any pearls of wisdom for us newbies?
John: As pearls of wisdom go, I’m still too much of a rookie to offer reliable advice to others. I do think, though, that aspiring writers should remember that storytelling is and always will be primarily about the story. All that other stuff you read about—i.e., structure, and thru-line and high-concept-ness—means nothing without a good story.