Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski talks World War Z, The Twelve, and More

The prolific TV, film, and comics writer discusses his various projects.

by | July 24, 2011 | Comments

A cleanly shaven J. Michael Straczynski greeted the packed room with a loud “howdy.” The popular creator, almost unrecognizable without his signature goatee, was clearly in a good mood. He opened by sharing with a crowd an anecdote about being at a previous panel for another convention, where he made a joke that there should be shirts that said “Joe you suck!” He then proudly held up a new shirt with his joke slogan that someone had made in the time between conventions.

Straczynski explained his newly-shaved face as being the result of a shaving accident. Apparently, the cleaning people at his hotel knocked his electric shaver onto the ground, and when they picked it up, they accidentally changed the length setting, so when he woke up to shave, he ended up taking a whole chunk of his beard off.

It was a laid back, fun panel as Straczynski let fans pepper him with questions. The first fan opened by mentioning they had just finished a first draft of their screenplay and wondered how many more drafts it usually takes until you have a final one. “You have a long way to go,” the writer replied, elaborating that it takes work to make a complete, tight story. His advice was to “find someone who doesn’t like you, and have them read it,” because they have no reason to lie to you or protect your feelings like a close friend or family member.

Straczynski moved the discussion into his recent screenplay work from there, saying Underworld 4 is finished and will release soon, “World War Z is currently filming and he recently sold a script to DreamWorks based on the real life friendship between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. The new script idea came to him over Christmas vacation, and once complete, it took less than a week for the script to be picked up by the studio.

Saying, “I do what I love for a living,” throughout the panel Straczynski told the audience to follow their dreams and find a way to do what you love for a living.

Before anyone had a chance to ask, Straczynski announced happily, “The Twelve is done!” All the scripts are completed, and Chris Weston has only few pages left to draw of the last issue. “It’s frickin’ done!”

The future of Babylon 5 is still being negotiated, Straczynski said in response to one questioner, explaining that two years ago, when he was last asked to work on a new Babylon 5, he told the producers, “I need three things. Two to $3 million per episode, a full season commitment and creative control.” At the time, they seemed amiable to his plan, but some parts of the deal fell apart. That said, negotiations are still ongoing.

Straczynski also sold a television series to Will Smith’s production company titled Epidemic. Not much was revealed about the story, but it was described as an adventure mystery.

Asked about World War Z, the writer described the adaptation as tough to write, “because there is no main character.” His breakthrough came when he realized that the book, presented as an after-action report, had to be written by someone. Someone had to interview all those people, and thus he figured out his central character for the film. He isn’t completely sure, but Straczynski assumes it will be out sometime in 2012.

The writer then took a moment to share something personal, telling the crowd that growing up he had to move 21 times in 18 years, that he had a horrible father, whom he described as both a drunk and wife beater. Straczynski had not seen any of his family in 25 years, even when his father passed away last February. The happy ending to his story is that right before the panel started, he saw his sister for the first time in years. He pointed his sister out in the audience, eho was clearly touched and teary eyed by her brother’s words.

Moving along to his original graphic novel Superman Earth One, Straczynski proudly stated, “It did really, really well!” It made so much money for DC Comics that they told him to drop everything he was doing and get started on the next one, which he said was why he had to suddenly stop writing Wonder Woman and Superman. The second graphic novel will be out in mid-2012, “depending on when DC needs the profit points.”

Straczynski also said he would be taking a two to three year sabbatical from writing monthly comic books. He wants to improve as a writer before he returns to monthly work, as he prefers having a longer lead-time to complete a script and improve on drafts.

The time it takes for him to finish a script varies per medium, but on average it takes him about five days to complete a comic script, after he has thought about the idea from beginning to end, having the story fully realized in his head before he sits down to type. Screenplays for film usually take about “eight to 12 weeks, which is pretty fast.” As an extreme example of this timetable, his said the rewrite of the Wachowski brothers’ film Ninja Assassin was done in a week, only sleeping about two hours each night.

Also on the film front, JMS has written four drafts of The Lensmen for Universal, but the studio is unsure if the property is known enough by the public to be a success.

Lastly, Straczynski will not be involved with Thor 2, explaining he just isn’t available, but he made certain to stress that the new writer, Don Payne, has done a terrific job on the screenplay.

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Written by Chris Evans for Comic Book Resources.

For more stories, head over to the CBR Comic-Con 2011 page.

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