Interview with Alan Dean Foster

In the second of his interviews for SFFWorld, Optimutt (Rob Queen) interviewed prolific author Alan Dean Foster. Alan talks of travel, Star Wars, Transformers, Homeland Security, and Scrooge McDuck.

Optimutt: You are a prominent writer of more than 105 books. What does that mean for you?

Alan Dean Foster: It’s a lot of trying to find the same way to say essentially the same thing, like “The sky is blue” 83 times, and not sound stupid.

O: What drew you to sci-fi?

ADF: I’ve written westerns, mysteries, fantasy, contemporary fiction, historical novels. But I think most writers tend to write what we enjoyed growing up. The first sci-fi book I read was “Space Ship Under the Apple Tree” (by Louis Slobodkin) which is still in print.

O: What is the attraction for you, of Science Fiction?

ADF: From my time as a child, I always wanted to be a traveler. I got that from Scrooge McDuck. People ask me “Who are your classical influences?” I say Herman Melville and … Barks. Carl Barks wrote and drew Donald Duck, and created Scrooge McDuck. Scrooge has feathers and a cane, but is basically an old man. To my knowledge, he’s the only senior citizen hero in comic books, but nonetheless went around the world to have heaps of adventures. Barks did not travel but as many writers do, he read national geographic. He was very scrupulous of the world and of sciences, and I thought “I’d like to do this too.” I don’t have a money bin, like Scrooge, but I do travel. As to Science Fiction; I’m stuck on one planet. This is the only one I’m going to see, but in my imagination, I can invent places I’d like to see, cultures I’d like to experience, people I’d like to meet. None of whom really exist, but I can invent them and through them go to all these places. So it works out great. I’m sort of an interstellar traveler.

O: Are there any places in world that you are stuck on that give you the sense that you have stumbled upon a truly amazing place?

 

ADF: I get that at every spot. My wife says I have no taste. I like everybody and everything. I’ve never had a really bad experience anyplace, and never been in any place that I didn’t like. I love Prague; it’s my favorite city in Europe. Papua New Guinea is the most exciting city I’ve ever been to. I love Africa just because you have to love Africa. Calcutta has the worst poverty I’ve ever seen in the world; it’s so bad, it makes the rest of India look unimpoverished. But there are beautiful, fascinating places to see in Calcutta. My book, “Sagramanda” published last year, has something based on Calcutta: The city of Sagramandahas 100 million people in it. Aside from the problems that all come together at the end of the book, it gave me the chance to work out how one administers a city that big; the police, sanitation, medical aid, basic city services; how do you organize that? And it’s basically an expanded Calcutta.

O: Did the local population touch you as much as the city did?

ADF: Yes. I had an Indian driver from New Delhi whose English was very poor, just as bad as my Hindi; but we managed. His family comes from a little village in the Himalayas. As I found him in New Delhi, I asked him why he was living here rather than in his village. He gave me two reasons: 1. There was no work in the village for money. 2. A leopard ate his dog. That kind of line you just can’t invent, and that’s how I started the book. “Sanji Gosch came to Sagramanda when a leopard ate his dog.” It’s like southern California where coyotes eat poodles. Since we don’t have leopards, we think it’s exotic. Travel teaches you things that you simply don’t expect. Had I not been to India, I’d never have known these cities, met these people, and written a book.

O: As a child, who did you want to be?

ADF: I always wanted to be Sir Francis Burton. A man who spoke 45 languages fluently when he died, who wrote a book on swordsmanship, was a co-discoverer of the source of the River Nile, first translator of The Arabian NightsThe Kama Sutra, who traveled all the continents, save Antarctica; he was the first non-Muslim into Mecca. He dressed up as a Muslim, affected an accent to cover any imperfections in his speech, got a circumcision to help the disguise, and went in, knowing full well that the Muslims would have killed him when had they discovered him. Things I could never do because we’re in the wrong century now, there aren’t enough unexplored places on the map, and I don’t have the resources. What little unexplored places are left will all be gone in a hundred years. This is the age where Google Earth can pinpoint your house from dozens of miles up.

O: Which leads into an interesting question. One theme that has been beaten to death in Science Fiction is the notion of spy satellite observation. Has this been much of a theme in your stories?

ADF: No. I don’t like dystopian stories about paranoia. A lot of people do, but I’m just not interested in it. I like having a good time; and I like having a good time writing. No, I don’t like those stories but I have to be aware of what they can do. I’m a part of something called The Sigma Group, which is a small group of sci-fi writers, most have technical degrees, but I have world experience, and we work for the (US) Department of Homeland Security. Our job is to think outside of the box. We have to come up with ideas, scenarios and solutions to problems that regular people employed by the Department don’t think of. For example: the flooding in New Orleans, if we were asked to find a way to prevent that from happening again, our job is not to think of “bring more sandbags”, but to come up with something different; something unique, even going so far as to suggest robotic floodgates. If we have one useful idea of several hundred, then it’s very worthwhile to us. In that sense, we have to be very aware of Homeland Security threats. But paranoia just isn’t my personality. But you have to have villains, and I like writing a good villain as much as anybody else, but villainous satellite networks just isn’t a main theme in my work.

O: Since we’ve opened the door to the real world of Science Fiction, let me ask you about your adaptation of the newTransformers movie. I loved the book. I loved the movie. What are your thoughts about it?

ADF: The success of the film was a big surprise to a lot of the people. Most were surprised that it was such a good movie. It was the biggest film of the year. A lot of people expected it to flop because they didn’t like Michael Bay – I don’t understand why people hate him. I never met the man; I don’t know him from Adam. He’s made some big budget movies, some have done well, others haven’t, but that can be said about just about any director. Why does this guy inspire such vitriol?

O: As a Transformers fan, I can tell you that many of my peers saw the designs for the Transformers and flipped out. They had nothing but gripes and complaints about the style Bay chose to use to design them, saying “This isn’t how it should be.” Surely you encountered some of this stuff. But hopefully not as much flak as Bay.

ADF: Not as much, because people realized that I had to work with what they were doing and I couldn’t change it. If you can’t change it, there’s no point in dumping on you. This whole problem has a “Never spit in someone’s holy water” theme to it.

What those fans don’t understand is that in making a big 100 to 200 million dollar budgeted film – which is more than some countries earn per year – you have to make money back. A general rule of thumb is that a film has to take in 2.5 times the cost to break even, so if you a 200 million dollar film, they have to make half a billion dollars. That’s through sales, DVD, but that’s still a lot of money. So when you make a film, one thing you have to do is figure out how to do this film so that it appeals to 20 other people without losing the other 20 people. This has nothing to do with story, but everything to do with simply appealing to that other tiny fragment of the demographic. I thought, as I came into this project. I’m the last one to defend the Hollywood producers, but I thought they and Michael Bay were bending over backwards to listen to the fan websites, and yes, accommodating the people to whom, Transformers is canon.

The fact that they took so much crap onto top of that, people in Hollywood, they take a look at that and say, “Look what DreamWorks did, and look what they took in response. Why should we bother to put that kind of effort into our picture? If people aren’t going to respect us for what we’re trying to do, why should we put up with it?” It’s something fans don’t realize. You have a 200 million dollar movie, it’s always 2-3 years out of your life. If Joe from Des Moines writes in and says Optimus Prime shouldn’t have lips, that’s not a decision for him to make. That becomes an economic decision of the company.

O: As for the book, your adaptation of the movie, I was impressed by how true you stayed.

ADF: Thanks. I try to.

O: Some authors would be tempted to make it their own work. What keeps you from doing that?

ADF: You can’t do that with a work for hire. It’s like you’re hired to paint somebody’s house, and you think it should be sandstone but they want it green and pink, and though you may go puke in the corner, you go puke in the corner and come back and paint it. Normally, I’m not bothered by that. The book adaptations are such an ancillary right. The producers and main writers are so absorbed in making the movie, they have no time to worry about what burger king wants to do with their promotional products, and the book is left alone, I can fix certain problems that I find. The better the script, the less I have to monkey with it. The worse the script… You know, something like “The Black Hole,” what work I had to do to rationalize the mistakes they make in that movie! Normally, it’s not that bad. But when they leave me alone – as they usually do – I can get a lot done. I didn’t do Alien 4: Alien Resurrection because they wouldn’t leave me alone. I had done the first two. I did the third one and I thought the third script was much too dark for Alien. I thought that killing the little girl takes away Ripley’s motivation for living, too. So I fixed a lot of stuff. And I got a letter from Walter Hill, the producer, who said (I) “Did a very good job with a movie with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy…”

O: 48 Hours?

ADF: – Yeah. But sci-fi is different. In Alien 3, I did motivations and histories for all those convicts. Walter Hill, though, he said, “take all that out, write the original script, and it’d be a much better book.” And instead of writing a letter saying that I did the first two and that James Cameron was perfectly happy with that, I threw out all that original stuff, and just did it straight. And that’s why I didn’t do Alien Resurrection. I didn’t want to have to go through that all over again. Normally, they don’t bother me, and that’s great. I did Star Wars: Episode IV, and went to a meeting one day, in George Lucas’ office, and George said, “I love what you did with the book, great job,” and that was it! He had me take two things out of the second book, “Splinter in a Mind’s Eye:” one because it would be expensive to film. The whole idea of “Splinter” was that if Star Wars wasn’t a big success, and there was be enough money to make another film, he wanted something that could be filmed on a low budget. That’s why it’s all set on a fog-shrouded planet. The book opened originally with a big space battle, but that would have been too expensive to shoot, so he had me take it out. It was really a very minor thing, but those two changes were the extent of his involvement with the book. “Nice job. Thanks.” Usually they leave me alone. But I regard the adaptations, back to your question, as a collaboration with the screen writer; not as something I have to take and make my own, transform and change it around.

O: Do you find it hard to separate your ego from the work?

ADF: No. The only time I get a twinge is when something is so bad that I just can’t fix it no matter how hard I try. And I simply have to write it straight on through. That bothers me because people write me and they will say, “Why did you do this, you stupid so and so,” and I have to say it had nothing to do with me. But as that, it’s work for hire. I tell people that Michelangelo – this is a true story –when he was asked to do the Sistine Chapel, he said, no, well, I’m really a sculptor, and I really don’t want to do this ceiling. Still, he ends up spending 12 years of his life painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because it was a work for hire. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s cool. You have to satisfy your client. It’s different from doing a completely original work. A better analogy, perhaps, is Rembrandt. I really don’t think that Rembrandt, as good as he was, really wanted to spend the majority of his life sitting around painting fat businessmen. He did some lovely landscapes and allegorical pieces. But to make a living, he did portraits just like the guy down the street who does portrait photography and that’s true all through art.

O: How did you get into adaptations?

ADF: In 1972, somebody in Ballentine bought the rights to a really horrific Italian movie about a female Tarzan. The character was on-screen for about 5 minutes, played by a diminutive Vietnamese girl that doesn’t look anything like your image of a female Tarzan. It was a horrible low-budget film, but, the guy in charge of promotion and advertising of the film, who got the rights, was a fan. The only smart thing they did was the advertising department got Frank Frazetta do two images, full oils, both of which have been reproduced many times in his various art books, but they don’t say “Rawanna” they say, “Girl With Cat”. Nobody saw the movie; to this day, I’ve never met anyone else that’s seen the movie. So Judy-Lynn del Rey, who had just taken over Ballantine, knew I had a master of fine arts and knew my way around a film script, asked me if I’d do the adaptation to this film about a female Tarzan, and I said, “Sounds great! When can I see a script?” She said, “There is no script. But I can arrange a screening in Los Angeles for you.” So I go down Hollywood Boulevard, into a typical schlock screening room, where they have a little 16mm projector, and run the film, which is all in Italian. So I have no script, and the film is all in Italian. I have no idea what anyone is saying and the film is just so awful. When I finished, I dedicated the book to Frank Frazetta who did the novelized cover. As you can imagine – this being Frank’s work – the cover is exactly what you want a female Tarzan to look like. After that, I did Dark Star, which was a John Carpenter film project. And from those two, I developed quite a reputation as an adaptation writer. I do two or three a year, if it’s something that seems interesting. And I turn some down, sometimes I do spin-off books, too. But don’t do those often because, I didn’t really want to write about Han Solo’s second cousin in Corellia. The Transformers? You know, I wasn’t going to do that in the first place.

O: That’s an interesting piece of information. What got you to do it? What changed your mind?

 

ADF: I asked myself, “Do I really want to do a book about alien robots based on children’s’ toys?” And what got me to do it finally was that I thought it would be a real challenge to take a story about giant fighting alien robots based on a line of children’s toys and turn it into a real novel. And that’s what got me into it. The other thing was I knew Spielberg was executive producing it. If there’s a magic word in Hollywood, it’s Spielberg. Even his bad – his not as good movies – like 1941 are worth watching. And he understands Science Fiction! He grew up with it, he loves it, just like Lucas and Cameron, and I knew that he would not do something just to make money, because he doesn’t need money. So I asked for a script and the script (arrived?); which was much better than I thought it would be; in fact, it was pretty good. This whole sub-line about the teenage kid, there is some very funny dialogue, the characters were very interesting. I liked the fact that the girl was the car buff, and the boy wasn’t. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman wrote a really good screenplay that just happens to be about giant robots. And the way I remember it, the thing that got Spielberg involved was that it was not about giant fighting alien robots, it’s about a boy and his car – that human element that he has in all his movies, and sure enough that’s the basis of the movie: the relationship between Shia Lebouf and Bumblebee. A lot of the fan criticism that I read, claimed that there’s too much teenagers and not enough robots. And I have to tell them, there may not be enough Transformers for you, but you’re going to go see the movie anyway. However much you complain and bitch, you’re going to go see it, and the producers know it too, so you’re not fooling anybody. The 10000 of you die-hard-live-for-Transformers fans are not the ones that are going to make up the budget for this film, and the producers have that in mind. But these guys could have done some very standard things, like the conventional model girls, but they really worked on it. The other gal in the story was a big-time hacker: every nerd’s dream is someone who looks like Angelina Jolie, who can sit down and talk about the latest Intel chip, and kick ass every once in a while. It was a very smart movie. But it also could very well be a disaster, too, special effects aside.

I always tell people that no matter how good the special effects are, you will not have a successful film without the human element. People go to see Star Wars and they say the cities and battles are great, but they really want to see what happens to Luke and Vader and Leia. All the other stuff is window dressing. And I feel that way about books as well. You can write big ships, and space travel, and big battles, but if there’s not that human interest, whether it’s a human being or an alien or whatever, but if there’s not an emotion at the center, you have no story.

O: What projects are you working on now?

ADF: I have three books coming out by Del Ray. One is my seventh short story collection called Exceptions to Reality, and there is a book that resolves 35 years of loose ends about a character called Flinx. It’s not necessarily the last Flinx book, but it ties up all the loose story ends, called Flinx Transcendent. I’m also working on a fantasy trilogy that is currently in negotiations. And beyond that, including the adaptation to the Transformers movie sequel, we’ll see.

Copyright Rob Queen, November 2007

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