Saturday, October 6, 2012

Jeff Lyons talks about making movies, specifically his Billy Miske: Dead Man Fighting

I first met Jeff Lyons in one of my UCLA novel writing class and we almost instantly became friends. Since then, Jeff's mentored my scripts, helped me with story structure (I can't imagine writing a novel without him) and is such an integral part of my life, that if he left the planet, I'd have to go after him and bring him back. A regular guest lecturer at the UCLA Extension Writers Program, as well as a webinar instructor for The Writers Store and Writer's Digest University, he's also the founder of Storygeeks, a professional services company offering story consulting, training and editorial services to screenwriters, novelists and nonfiction authors. More information can be found on his website, Follow @storygeeks on Twitter and “like” Storygeeks on Facebook. In 2012, he will be publishing an e-book entitled Anatomy of a Premise Line: 7 Steps to Foolproof Premise and Story Development.

But most excitingly, Jeff has a movie deal for a script he wrote, Billy Miske: Dead Man Fighting. Thanks so much, Jeff, for coming on here!

Can you tell us about the story? 

The movie is called Billy Miske: Dead Man Fighting.  Miske was a boxer in the mid-1920s from Minneapolis-St. Paul.  He was a contender for the heavyweight title against Jack Dempsey, who’d he’d fought many times.  Billy was secretly dying from kidney disease and ended up betting his life on one last, winner-take-all fight in order to secure his family’s future before he died. It’s one of the last, great, untold American sports stories.  And, it’s a Christmas movie—as it all takes place over the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years holidays in 1924—1925.

So, who’s making it into a movie?

The production is going to be a U.K. production through M4West Pictures Ltd. in London.  Rebecca Tranter is the lead producer there, with Stephen David Brooks producing in the U.S.  It’s ironic that a U.K. production company is telling this archetypal-American sports story, but there it is.  What got them, I think, hooked on this was the love-, family-story aspect, and the fact that this is, as I said earlier, one of the great untold American sports stories.  Plus, boxing is a huge sport in Britain and Ireland. 

What was the aspect of the story that really struck you personally and made you want to write the script? 

Two things: first that it actually happened, and second that this man literally sacrificed his life to save his family in such a public way. Also, I loved the flawed nature of the man.  Understand, Billy Miske was no hero; he was a driven man who lied to his wife and family for years, hiding his condition so that he could box.  If the boxing world had known he was sick, Miske would not have been able to get his grandmother to fight him in the ring.  His career would have been over, and so his dream of getting the world championship. It was only after life handed him and his family a sack of dirt that he was forced to step up and make the ultimate sacrifice.  But, he did it.  He found his higher principles and became a hero by changing as a man.  That’s the stuff of great drama and that makes great movies. 

What was it like to write this script—pulling teeth or pulling taffy? 

Actually, neither. The writing process on this was kind of magical; the kind of script writers dream about.  I wrote this in five weeks and later drafts were very minor.  Almost no changes.  It just poured out fully formed.  I’d been thinking about it for a long time, especially about the story structure, so I’m sure I did a ton of writing subconsciously, but there was also the feeling that there was an unseen hand working.  So, when writers say, “The story wrote itself,” they’re not joking.  It really happens. 

One thing that anyone creative needs to understand is that these things can take a LONG time. Tell us about the trajectory of your movie. Where'd the idea come from?

Billy’s story came to me through an old friend, who is no longer with us, sadly.  He was a producer and he was thinking of doing a movie himself (this is back in 1998).  But, he never did anything with it.  We knocked the story around for a little while, and I kind of just kept thinking about it for years, after my friend had moved on.  It never let go of me.  I finished the script in 2005, just after Cinderella Man was released.  Russell Crowe and Ron Howard were not my favorite people that year.  Almost universally the response was, “Great writing, great story … but too much like Cinderella Man.  Pass.”  It was one of those pitching nightmare scenarios.  Everybody saw the value, recognized the good story and the good script, but were unable to see past their noses.  It’s nuts.  Even if they bought my script it would take two years to get it into theaters.  Cinderella Man would have been ancient movie history.  But, no, producers just weren’t able or willing to see past Cinderella Man’s theatrical release window OF THREE WEEKS! It was crazy making.  And the fact is, I didn’t keep going. I shelved the project and it stayed in my “drawer” until I got that phone call from Stephen David Brooks in May 2012 telling me to, “Mail Rebecca Billy Miske—now.” Stephen and I are writing partners, and it just so happened that he had gotten attached to a directing project (The Second Sight of Father Cooper) through Rebecca Tranter in the U.K. (M4West Pictures Ltd.). Stephen told Rebecca about Billy Miske and it just took off from there.  Fortunately, Rebecca saw the potential of the story and loved the writing.  It all came together quickly after that. That’s how it always happens.  Unexpected, unpredictable, and totally out of the blue.

The film is based on a true story--but when you are dealing with story structure, you often have to twist things to make the story resonate. Did you? And how?

Yeah, biopics are problematic, as are “true story” nonfiction books. With this story I couldn’t find the way in.  All the angles I took were boring and “life story” dull.  I then decided to adopt that old writing adage, “never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”  As soon as I realized that staying true to history was a straightjacket, that’s when the story came to me.  I’m not saying I reinvented Billy’s history or fight record.  No, some facts have to remain faithful, but the personal story, the marriage, and the family stories could be played with to augment to drama and the man himself. I made up a lot of the supporting characters and situations, while remaining accurate to the big picture.  I think it paid off.  But, your question is a great one, because writers have to grapple with this all the time.  The bottom line is that story is story.  Just because something happened (historically or in one’s life), doesn’t mean it will make a good story.  As movies, “based on” kinds of stories still have to be entertaining and tell a good story that you can present in a couple hours.  Adaptation is just that, adapting—not cloning.  As a writer you are creating a whole, new work when you adapt something.  Some facts are at service to the story, others are not.  Big historical facts have to stay the same so you don't look stupid, but everything else is at service to the adapted story.  It’s not about telling the facts, it’s about telling the truth, and sometimes that means playing with the facts to tell the human story.  This might shock purists, but that’s okay—being shocked is good.

What's the difference in doing a film outside the US and doing it in Hollywood? (Ha, as if I didn't know, but tell us anyway!)

I wish I knew (smile).  I’m “just” the writer, so I’m not in on all the particulars on the producing side.  But, I imagine that the differences are not very dramatic.  The reason being that any productions that want to really have any financial success have to be global, so everyone has to be international in that sense.  This will be a U.K. production with British and American actors, shot in multiple countries (potentially) and financed with American and British money, including incentives, etc.  So, the line gets blurred these days. 

What is up next, when does the film go into production? 

Production is scheduled for early next year.  Right now they are still working on funding and packaging.  Anyone whose been involved in getting a major motion picture (or even a minor one) off the ground knows that funding and packaging take forever and the process can go right up to the first day of principle photography.  I know friends who have literally been getting on planes to go to start a movie, only to be told funding has fallen through or some actor has pulled out, literally on the first day of production.  So, things grind to a halt and back to square one.  I’m not saying that’s going to happen here (knock wood), but it’s a crapshoot from day one.  The minefield is huge, and you’re not home safe until you’re in a theater with popcorn in your lap and the movie is playing on the screen. 

You also teach story structure, particularly with using the Enneagram, and you also take on private clients. I personally can't imagine writing a novel or a script without you. Can you say a bit about how and what you teach?

Well, thank you for that—you are one of my favorite guinea pigs (smile).  I would refer people to my website for more info on the Enneagram and story structure stuff (, but I teach two main things: how to use the Enneagram system to uncover your story’s right and natural structure, and I teach a story development system called “Anatomy of a Premise Line,” which is also a book I’m publishing this year, Anatomy of a Premise Line: 7 Steps to Foolproof Premise and Story Development.  The idea behind all the stuff I teach is that there are ways to develop and structure stories that facilitate rapid story development WITHOUT compromising creative process.  My stuff will literally save a writer months of development time (as you know first hand, Caroline).  People are always afraid that “writing systems” cramp their style and artificially structure the creative process.  This is total bunk.  The material I teach helps a writer quickly get to the heart of any story and structure it properly so that the creative process is helped, not hindered.  Proof is in the pudding, however.  You have to try it to really “get” it (hint, hint, wink, wink).  Look, I don't blow smoke.  I hate story gurus and I hate snake-oil story salesmen-women.  Who has time for bull?  We are all stumbling in the dark.  But, while stumbling I’ve tripped over some things that are pretty powerful and cool and I’ve decided to share them with whoever is willing to listen.  My mantra:  listen to everyone, try everything, and follow no one.  You are your own story guru.
What's obsessing you now?

A story I’ve been trying to write for years.  It’s still not working and I’m determined to figure it out.  You see, even the so-called experts don’t know squat when push comes to shove.  Stories are mysteries and sometimes they just kick your ass until you get out of their way.  So, I’m trying to move over out of the way on this one. 

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

“Jeffrey, why aren’t you selling aluminum siding instead of being a writer?”  Have you been talking to my mother?!


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