Thursday, December 3, 2015

Jeff Lyons and Stephen David Brooks talk about JACK BE DEAD, Jack the Ripper, whether a cat is better than a dog, and so much more

Who isn't fascinated by Jack the Ripper? Screenwriters Jeff Lyons and Stephen David Brooks have begun a publishing venture focused on the wily killer, a series of books called Jack Be Dead.

Jeff Lyons has more than 25 year's experience in the film, television, and publishing industries as a screenwriter, novelist, story development consultant, and editor. He has worked with literally thousands of novelists, nonfiction authors, and screenwriters helping them build and tell better stories. Ah hem. Including me.

Jeff is an instructor through Stanford University's Online Writer’s Studio, University of California at Riverside's Extension Program, and is a regular lecturer through the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences, as well as a contributor and advisor to leading entertainment industry screenwriting and producing fellowship programs, such as the Producers Guild of American's "Power of Diversity Producing Workshop," and the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab.

Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, and The Writer Magazine. His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is the only book available today devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His other book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, will be published by Focal Press in late 2017.

Stephen David Brooks is a former Visual Effects Supervisor turned multi-award winning screenwriter and director. Stephen’s first feature HEADS N TAILZ won the Audience Award at the 2005 Dances With Films festival in Los Angeles. Stephen’s latest feature FLYTRAP has played four festivals worldwide and won three best of awards: The Remi from Worldfest Houston, Best Non-European Independent Feature from ECU The European Independent Film Festival in Paris, France, and the Special Jury Prize from the Chelsea Film Festival in New York City.

Thank you both for being here!

 So tell me about this new venture? What sparked it and why now?

Jeff: “Jack Be Dead” was originally a script Stephen and I rewrote together, from an original script and story by Stephen. It was always intended to be a TV series. While we have always had high confidence in the story, and felt it was perfect for TV, getting from confident to a deal is a horse of another color. So, we kind of shelved the story for a while, while I pursued my own writing and Stephen worked on his directing career. So, now we’ve decided to self-publish the series (3 novellas) under the Storygeeks Press label and go after a genre fan base. The time is right for this format and we think the audience is there. Self-publishing has come of age, and we both think that with the right effort we can build a franchise that will keep readers coming back for more. Now it’s all about the readers and fans, for us. We want to turn out a fun, exciting, and genre adventure that can take on a life of its own and grow with a print and digital fan base. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m very excited about the publishing strategy we’ve adopted.

Stephen: Well “Jack Be Dead” first came to me as a screenplay idea many years ago. The idea was a bit of a departure for me, really. A revelation. I was starting to bend conventional film genres at the time and “Jack Be Dead” provided the perfect vehicle for bending the supernatural thriller genre. I’ve lived my entire adult life in the film business. So for me this venture is about trying something new, creatively. And about reaching a different audience. About a different way to tell a story. This is also an attempt to be more subjective with my storytelling. It is nearly impossible to “get into the head” of a character on screen, but is oftentimes the hallmark of a character in prose.

What's it like to collaborate with each other?

Jeff: Stephen and I have known each other for a long time, and we’ve written a lot together. It’s become one of those relationships where we’re finishing each others sentences when we break stories together. The thing that really clicks between us is we are both twisted and sardonic and we both are passionate about story structure and narrative design. We think structurally about story and this makes such a huge difference working with a collaborator.  I don’t have to explain myself when I say, “The moral component isn’t working,” or “the opposition structure isn’t personal enough.” Stephen has that “story gene,” so he thinks in these terms already, naturally. Plus, he’s well educated and experienced in story development, as am I. So, this is story development marriage made in heaven. He completes me—(tear).

Stephen:  It’s a bit like a marriage. We argue. We discuss. We agree. We disagree. But in the end we always find we are literally on the same page story wise. And that’s the important thing. The story. We never lose sight of that. And how we work is never about us. It’s always about the story.

I know that you, Jeff, like me, are a structuralist, but how do you work Stephen? And do your two styles compliment each other?

Stephen: Well I come from screenwriting story structure. I’ve studied every variation of screenwriting story structure. Now I’m an absolute devotee of Jeff’s Rapid Story Development method. It is far superior to everything else out there. I used it for the first time on the re-write of my feature FLYTRAP, which has played 4 film festivals and won 3 best of awards. (Best Non-European Feature at ECU The European Independent Film Festival, The Remi at Worldfest Houston, and the Special Jury Prize at Chelsea in New York.) I should note that other winners of The Remi are Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Francis Ford Coppola. So I’m in pretty good company. Audience members have come up to me after festival screenings saying the film is the most original they have seen in years. I give much of the credit to the underlying structure of the piece.

Jack the Ripper has captured imaginations since he began his killings. Or she, if you believe some of the stories. What's your unique take on all of this?

Jeff: I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but we do have a unique twist on the Ripper mythology. The coolest thing I think we can say about the whole adventure is that we end up transcending the mythology and the legend in a way that has never been tackled before. This is pure thriller-supernatural genre stuff, with a twist.  Like the tagline says: “Sex. Violence. Buddhism.”

Stephen: Ultimately all stories are not about the characters, they are about US as human beings. How we live. How we think. How we actually act and how we should act. And we’ve taken a unique genre-bending perspective on story. There are several earth-shaking reveals built in, and we are going places with the mythology where no one has ever gone before. It’s a strange mix of “back to the roots” of the myth, but contemporary and relevant for modern times.  We just don’t want to give too much away!

What is it like moving from screenwriting to prose?

Jeff: Voice and point of view for me are the biggest challenges. Stephen and I are both screenwriters first and prose writers second. Writing scripts for years you get into the groove of third person present tense. That’s the voice and tense of every screenplay.  After years of writing that way (and reading that way), I find it very hard to adapt my thinking at the scene level to a omniscient narrator POV, or limited omniscient, or even first person. This one issue has stopped me dead in my tracks more times than I can remember. And I’m sure it will haunt me on this project. But, I have a good therapist and I’ll get through this.

Stephen: Screenwriting is an extremely lean form of writing. Sentences are often clipped, staccato. Description is in cinematic shorthand. Since a screenplay is really the blueprint for the film it is the director’s vision and creative crew who fill in the details. The exact opposite of prose where the “movie” plays out in the head of the reader. On a personal level screenwriting is more of a self-denial form of expression. By that I mean I see the entire film in my head as I am writing and I would love to include every detail. But I can’t do that. So I have to pare away all the lovely details I have created. I have to deny myself the joy of seeing those images and visions on the page. I think it is the creative equivalent of a monk entering a cave after a vow of poverty and silence. I have to pare away everything that is unnecessary for the survival of the screenplay. I’m hoping that prose will at least allow me to upgrade my cave and furnish it with a few modern conveniences.

What's obsessing both of you now and why?

Jeff: Right now “Jack Be Dead” is my obsession.  We have to get the three books completed, launched, and marketed. This is a huge job.  We’re shooting for presales on “Jack Be Dead: Revelation,” the first book in the series, to open up in January 2016, and then launch the book in March or April. Then, release the other two volumes every 90 days. It’s going to be a fun year. I’m also obsessing about my historical novel, “The Abbess,” about an abbess in the late middle ages who creates a huge uproar for the Holy Roman Empire and does some pretty crazy stuff in the Vatican with the papal elections. Obsessively reading about the history and religion of the time. And we think our world is screwy with religion and politics. Think again.

Stephen: Like Jeff,“Jack Be Dead” is the front burner obsession. But I’m also starting soft-prep on my next feature, which I cannot announce officially yet. But it’s going to be big. I’m also on the last legs of the film festival circuit for FLYTRAP and starting to get offers of distribution. But that’s business. I don’t obsess over business the way I do over story telling. So it will soon be all Jack all the time.

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

Jeff: Dog person or cat person?  Dog.
Stephen: Cat.

Jeff: This collaboration will never work.

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