Bookpleasures.com is honored to have as our guest John Wilder. John has written and/or produced nearly 400 hours of prime-time television drama on network and cable and been commissioned to write theatrical features by Columbia Pictures, Warner Brothers, TriStar, Orion, 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures.
Among his many awards are the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Long-Form Teleplay, and his WGA nominations for Best Long-Form Series and Best Episodic Drama.
He has received two TV Academy Emmy nominations for Best Dramatic Series, and received Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture Made For Television and for Best Drama Series.
He has also received the Western Writers of America Awards for Best Western Screenplay and Best Western Television Film; two Western Heritage Awards for Best Television Film; and the Chicago International Film Festival Award for Best Television Series.
John had the honor and privilege of mounting the biggest television event of its time, the epic twenty-six hour mini-series of James Michener’s Centennial for NBC, adapting the best-selling novel and Executive Producing the film for Universal Pictures.
John has worked with Larry McMurtry to write and Executive Produce a sequel to Mr. McMurtry’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, creating the seven-hour mini-series Return To Lonesome Dove for CBS. He adapted and Executive Produced John Jakes’ best-selling novel, The Bastard, as the premier film for the ground-breaking OPT channels; was chosen again by James Michener to adapt and Executive Produce his best-selling novel Texas for ABC; was selected by best-selling author Anne Rice to adapt her novel The Feast of All Saints, which he Executive Produced for Showtime, and adapt her biggest selling novel, The Witching Hour, as a ten-hour mini-series for Warner Brothers Television and NBC.
He created and Executive Produced two critically–acclaimed series for Warner Brothers, The Yellow Rose (NBC); and Spenser: For Hire (ABC), on which he teamed with the Dean of Crime Fiction, Robert B. Parker.
He first came to prominence as a writer/producer/director while guiding the top-rated, critically-acclaimed police drama The Streets of San Francisco (ABC) starring Karl Malden and Michael Douglas, and later wrote, directed and Executive Produced “Breaking Home Ties” (ABC), which starred Jason Robards, Eva Marie Saint, and Clair Trevor. He recently adapted The Smoke Jumper by best-selling author Nicholas Evans for Universal Pictures and wrote and Executive Produced Shuffleton’s Barbershop, an original TV Movie for The Hallmark Movie Channel in 2013. He is currently developing COACH, a play about legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, and adapting Short Nights of The Shadow Catcher, the biography of Edward S. Curtis by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Book Award winning author, Timothy Egan.
John graduated from UCLA with a BA in English Literature in 1963. He lives with his wife and granddaughter in Santa Barbara, CA, where he is Writer in Residence and Adjunct Professor of English at Westmont College.
John's debut novel Nobody Dies In Hollywood will shortly be published and introduces a contemporary take on a traditional genre, with private investigator Michael Drayton.
Norm: Good day John and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started as a screenwriter, director and producer for television?
John: Thank you for having me, Norm. The door to my career behind the camera was opened by an actor I worked with in front of it. Chuck Connors and I met while rooming together on location in Nevada on a film about the battle at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. He was the grizzled Gunny Sergeant in a USMC unit, and I was the baby-faced Corporal.
The film was Hold Back The Night. It starred John Payne, Mona Freeman, and Peter Graves, and was directed by D.W. Griffith’s protégé Alan Dwan. Chuck had just finished his professional baseball career with the Los Angeles Angels, and I had just left USC where I had gone to play baseball.
We were fifteen years apart, but kindred spirits. He knew I wanted to write. And a couple of years later, after I had gone back to college at UCLA, he called to tell me he had a series going on the air and he wanted me to write an episode of it. The series was The Rifleman, and the producers bought what was my first script. After I graduated from UCLA in 1963, and was working as a Social Case Worker to pay off college debts, Chuck called again to say he had another series, and he wanted me to come write all of his dialogue. That series was Branded. I became a Story Editor on that series, and owe everything that’s happened since to Chuck for giving me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do. He was a generous man, and a loyal friend. I miss him.
Norm: How does writing a novel and writing a screenplay differ?
John: Interesting question. Good screenplays are primarily structure. The stories must grow out of character, but the characters and the plot have to meld. We often set stories in locales that play an important part in the stories, as the city itself did in Streets of San Francisco, but the visual images then provide the atmosphere. In a novel, there are three basics: Character, incident, and atmosphere. I think creating that atmosphere is the primary difference. But it’s my first attempt, so you might well get a different answer from a more experienced hand.
Norm: Why does Hollywood love adapting books?
John: The thing to remember about “Hollywood” is that it’s an industry. A business. We call it Show Business, but we should remember where the emphasis has to be placed. Show Business. Yes, film is an art form, but, no money, no movies. No profit, no more movies. Novels have a track record. They are already notable stories, or promotable ones. They deliver the potential for profit. They also give decision-makers a solid blueprint to look at. Everybody starts on the same page. Page one of the novel.
Norm: How do you approach adapting a book to film and what generally are the challenges? Do you have particular habits or working environments that you find helpful, and how does the collaboration process work for you?
John: I believe the thing screenwriters should do, but most, for some reason, don’t, is to remember that the story is not theirs. Another creative mind and talent has told the story, and told it well enough to be published, and, in most cases, found a healthy audience. I begin with that in the forefront of my mind. I outline the novel scene-by- scene, beat by beat. Then, knowing that even in a mini-series, there will be far more material than can be filmed, I look for the through-lines that drive the plot. I thin it down until I know, or sense, that the structure is taut. The character scenes usually have to be distilled to their essence, and are always best presented in conflict, because as, I’m sure you and your followers know, conflict is the essence of drama.
The other thing I focus on are locations. When you’re writing screenplays, you have to keep in mind that you are writing pictures.
I work in a book-crammed office at a desk I can raise and lower, so that I’m not always sitting, not always standing.
As for collaboration, most book authors do not have creative control of their work when it is adapted to film. They are generally given consultation rights. Personally, if the book is really good, and the author seems like they have common sense in addition to talent, I want their input, their thoughts and concerns. They are, after all, the source of the idea someone is willing to invest in as a film.
Norm: Would you say that the biggest challenge in adapting a book is being able to meet the fans’ expectations? If so, why?
John: I really don’t. I want to please the author. If I do that, the fans of the book should be pleased.
Norm: Why, generally speaking, do novelists stay away from writing films?
John: I think a lot of authors would like to adapt their own books. I have seen a few attempt it and fail for reasons they don’t see. It really is a different medium, and the story plays at a different pace than in a novel. It takes some experience to find that pace. And as I said earlier, it is a business. Usually studio execs would rather have an experienced hand at the keyboard. Studios and producers may have found, too, that an author might take too proprietary a stance, and not be a good collaborator. Collaboration is a given in filmmaking.
Norm: Having accomplished so much in Hollywood, what does it take for you to get excited these days?
John: A good idea. I’m digging into an adaptation of a brilliant biography of Edward Sheriff Curtis, Short Nights of The Shadow Catcher, written by a fine writer, Tim Egan. The idea of telling the epic adventure of the photographer who devoted his life to trying to capture Native American culture before it vanished from the earth is exciting to me. The Indians called Curtis the Shadow Catcher. I want to help pull his story out of the shadows and onto the screen. It’s a story that hasn’t been dramatized, a story that deserves to be dramatized. I’m stoked.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
John: Of course, you can keep creating. We are all creative, all part of this great creation we wake up to every day. Learn what the different genres require, work at the requisite skills. It’s about talent, yes, but it’s also about taste, and tenacity. And, yes, luck. Being in the right room with the right person at the right moment. But we can make our own luck, too. My meeting Chuck Connors was “lucky.” But we met because I convinced Alan Dwan to recast a part after he had already settled on another actor. I pushed for something and got it. In doing that, I got a whole lot more.
Norm: What served as the primary inspiration for your first novel Nobody Dies In Hollywood and could you tell our audience a little about the book?
John: There never was a man like Philip Marlowe, or Sam Spade, or for that matter, Natty Bumpo or Shane. I think most of us regret that. I know I do. And, at a time when anti-heroes are rampant, I wanted to create a character like the ones I grew up with, characters born as reflections of what D.H. Lawrence called the essential American soul. A spirit born of the frontier the Puritans came to with their intense individualism, and the conviction that man earned his eternal reward by performing good acts for his fellow man. A character like the ones I’ve loved in literature from the Leatherstocking Tales to Huckleberry Finn, from The Red Badge of Courage to The Sun Also Rises. Characters with moral integrity. Lone individuals who stand in contradiction to a society that espouses values like honor, and compassion, and sacrifice, and courage, but does not practice them.
The detective genre offers that opportunity. What I wanted to do, specifically, within that genre was to create a character that represents the multi-ethnic nature of twenty-first century America. I wanted to provide him with a background that could give him stage-door entrances into stories set against the entertainment industry. I wanted to write about the city I grew up in, a city that is a constant magnet for youthful aspirations and holds enduring fascination for people of all ages.
When I bounced the idea off my friend Bob Parker, he said he wished he’d thought of it, and urged me to get to it. It took a while, but I finally did.
The crime that begins the story resulted from my reaction to the deaths of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. The first headline I saw about that shocking tragedy was, “Nicole Simpson and friend found murdered.” The second victim in that gruesome slaying had a name we would learn later, but the immediate reaction in a celebrity-worshipping culture was to dismiss Ron Goldman as less important than the woman whose name was known because of her famous husband.
The lurid crime story I based on that double murder, and my reaction to the inequity in the reporting of it, let me explore the legendary allure and cruel realities of Hollywood and Los Angeles. And Michael Drayton’s journey -- as he does what all detectives must do – pursue truth to peril – illuminates, I hope, the cultural foundation of parenting, and how different approaches bear vastly different fruit.
Norm: How did you go about creating the character of Michael Drayton in your novel?
John: I wanted my protagonist to be the face of today’s America, to be a product of mixed races. I wanted him to have one leg on each side of the racial divide that must be overcome. To that end, I gave him DNA flowing equally from Anglo settlers of the West Texas plains and African slaves on the plantations of Haiti. I gave him a set of values rooted in the cowboy culture and open spaces of the nineteenth century, chivalric values that, themselves, stem from the medieval stories of King Arthur. I wanted those character-defining values to confront the chaos and corruption in a sprawling twenty-first century city as he works to maintain his personal integrity and find meaning in life.
In homage to two masters of the genre, I chose to name my detective after the Renaissance poet who succeeded Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser. That would be Michael Drayton.
Norm: If your novel were adapted for the screen, whom would you want to play the role of Michael Drayton and why?
John: I’m really not comfortable with that question, Norm. It’s akin to one I’m asked often even while still writing a screenplay. Everybody wants to know what actor you see in the different roles. Sorry, but, for me, it’s putting the cart way before the horse. If a writer starts thinking about actors, he can lose the face of the character he’s created. All of our characters have to have their own three dimensions; physiology, sociology, and psychology. Putting an actor’s face on a character you’re creating is just not a good idea. You might start writing to what you know about that actor, and not be writing truth.
I realize my book is finished. But I like the character. I will most likely want to keep developing him, living with him, walking around in his skin. I don’t want to have an actor doing that in my mind. It has to be Michael Drayton, not a screen persona that brings baggage along with it.
Then, too, there’s the reaction my friend Anne Rice had to the casting of Tom Cruise as Lestat. It felt one thousand percent wrong to her. Until she saw the film, and what a convincing performance he brought to it. People have the same problem with Cruise as Jack Reacher, but the films change their mind. As I said, novels and film are two different mediums.
Norm: Was there anything you found particularly challenging in writing your novel?
Norm: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
John: Definitely. What it takes to write a book. Whew!
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your debut novel Nobody Dies In Hollywood?
John: The publisher,
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
John: How about the pub date? It is October 8th.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
John: Norm, thank you.
At the risk of punning on your title, it really was a pleasure.
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