Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Author Todd R. Baker author of Secrets of Men in a Lifeboat.
Todd worked in the film industry where he produced and developed movies for 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Disney, Miramax, and Universal Pictures, starring Kevin Costner, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Robert Downey, Jr., Adam Sandler, Elijah Wood, Robert Duvall, Anjelica Huston, Whoopi Goldberg, Raul Julia, Daryl Hannah, Chris Farley, Steve Buscemi, Brendan Fraser, Christopher Lloyd, and Kenneth Branagh.
Norm: Good day Todd and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you become involved in producing and developing movies? What did your work entail? What was the most difficult film to produce and why?
My showbiz start: My dad was an antiquities dealer in Los Angeles and had sold some art to an entertainment attorney. That attorney, with his partner, bought low-budget film studio New World Pictures from legendary “B” movie producer Roger Corman, just as I was graduating college. I wrote the attorney (and company Co-Chairman) a letter begging for an interview/job and was hired six months later as a gofer for $250 per week, for which the Co-Chairman told me I should be paying him for the opportunity.
I was 22, had no real world skills and knew nothing about the film business, except that I loved movies. I basically picked up the senior level executives’ laundry, got their cars washed, and Xeroxed scripts and memos for close to a year.
Then one day, the head of the newly-formed television department handed me the script for the Joan Collins mini-series SINS (which the company was producing for CBS) and asked me for my notes—to make the script better. He was too busy to read it again and wanted another opinion. The next thing I knew, he invited me into his office with the producers of the mini-series and asked for my opinion on how Joan Collins should serve her revenge cold, or something culturally monumental like that!
Needless to say, the producers weren’t happy that a newbie like me was asked to spout plot changes. But the department head liked my notes and ideas and decided to make me his first development executive. Within five years, I was head of the TV movie and mini-series division for the company, overseeing scores of network projects.
Still, I yearned to make feature films. I left New World and became a senior creative production executive for a major producer at Paramount Pictures. From there, I became Executive VP of Island Pictures/Polygram, where I eventually produced my first studio films for 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures.
The most difficult movie I produced was THE CURE for Universal Pictures. I’m sure you’ve never heard of it, because it barely opened and was out of theaters within weeks. It was a brilliant, heart-warming, comedic screenplay, but it was also about an 11 year old boy dying of AIDS, which is a difficult subject for any paying audience. We shot all summer in Stillwater, Minnesota, with the director and the executives at Universal Pictures at complete odds over the tone of the film as the weeks rolled on.
The film was supposed to be funny until the tragic end, but every scene seemed to be more dramatic than not—and I was caught between the director and the studio. My job was to support the director, but also to get the studio (who was footing the bill) what it wanted. It was a no-win situation: everyone on the set was angry over unresolved conflicts, it was mercilessly hot and humid, and I was miserable and couldn’t wait to get home to Los Angeles.
Norm: I believe you are no longer producing and developing movies. Why did you retire from the industry?
Todd: I left in 1998 to start my own Internet startup. The Internet was roaring, the movie business was ever-shrinking, and I set out to make my fortune. But that never came to pass!
Norm: How did you become involved with the subject or theme of Secrets of Men in a Lifeboat and what served as the primary inspiration for the book?
Todd: I wrote the novel because I had a story to tell and I couldn’t stop myself. I guess there is a thorn in my side to understand fate and destiny, and a desire to find out why people want what they want and how they decide to behave the way they do.
I also needed to explore how luck shapes our contemporary lives for better or worse, and I wanted to explore the narcissism and brutality of a powerful billionaire in America—to try him on, if you will, for my ideal readers, who, possibly wondering what it would be like to be ridiculously rich, walk the line of integrity in their own lives.
Norm: Could you tell us a little about your novel?
Todd: By a magical twist of fate, an empathetic man who thinks he has nothing gets everything but loses his soul—with a last chance at redemption.
Norm: How much of the novel is realistic and is there much of you in the novel?
Todd: Well, I was a single dad with an 8-year-old son, and that’s where my story begins. I was the founder of an Internet start-up company that cratered, and impressions of that experience are in the novel too. So I’ve struggled, just like everyone else. But of my actual life and personhood, that’s where it ends, the story and characters are fiction.
Norm: Did your career as a producer and developer of films have any influence on your writing? If so, explain.
Todd: My career making movies surely influenced my writing. I visualized my story in a filmic way, from years of working with film writers, directors and editors. I think Secrets of Men is filmic, but not because I set out to write a story that would become a film. It’s filmic because that’s how I understand story.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your story serves and what matters to you about the story?
Todd: It’s a story that I hope, above all, encourages an understanding of what’s really important in life.
I think it’s an incredibly common experience for millions of Americans in the business world to have careers that don’t work out like expected. We have education, we think we’re smart enough and talented enough, yet our dreams don’t quite come true; our lives, in real life, don’t turn out anything like we planned. Luck or destiny? Our faults because of the choices we made or the risks we took? Were our well-reasoned (or unfortunately harebrained!) schemes worth it?
It’s easy for us to be disappointed or defeated and wish for another, better life—one of ease and endless fun that might just include incredible money, fame and social fortune.
But with that new life, what might we lose instead, who might we become?
Norm: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Todd: I learned that if I wrote my story with an open heart, I would finish it.
Norm: Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Summarize your writing process.
Todd: A believable story needs logic, or at least logic that readers will accept, and I certainly wrote the novel ever mindful of logic, even when magical events took the story in Part Two to a new realm.
The rest, I suppose, is intuition; when I’m actually writing the novel, I never know how the dialogue, the descriptive language, or the characters will actually turn out on the page, which actually makes writing for me a joyous experience.
The actual nuts and bolts process of creating the novel, however, was just determined work. I knew the story’s crucible and the words of my final page before I began, but then I had to build a foundation and frame the book.
I see stories in scenes and arcs, and I outlined the novel brick by brick—using headers on my notes like “Part 1, Section 1, Building Blocks.” I would finish a “section,” then outline the building block scenes of the next section, adding in important lines of dialogue, character, and theme to my notes as I went. Writing the actual chapters, for the most part, came easy, because my roadmap was 75% complete.
Norm: What has been the best part about being published?
Todd: That my story might somehow, someday, make its own small ping in the universe.
Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
Todd: I read a lot of history and non-fiction for pleasure, and when I find out down the road that any of those authors took liberties with the facts, I’m usually disappointed, because I’m fascinated by what really happens in life. But fiction to me is just that, it’s all about whatever fictional liberties are needed to tell a fictional story well.
Norm: What do you think makes a good story?
Todd: I know it’s trite but in the film business, my colleagues and I hunted for stories that could make us (and hopefully the audience) laugh and cry. We wanted stories that entertained us, but that also came full circle and slayed us in the end. If readers are moved and find the story fulfilling when they reach the last page, the story works.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Secrets of Men in a Lifeboat?
Todd: MY WEBSITE
Todd: A peaceful drive home on the freeway, excellent take-out dinner with my family, and a remaining lifetime bound with gratitude!
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
Todd: Why has the novel resonated with so many women readers?
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors