Thursday, March 24, 2011

Interview -- C. Courtney Joyner, screenwriter and novelist

C. COURTNEY JOYNER is a screenwriter and director with over 25 produced movies to his credit, including the cult films PRISON starring Viggo Mortensen, CLASS OF 1999 directed by Mark Lester, and the new RETURN OF CAPT. NEMO.   A graduate of USC, Courtney’s first produced screenplay was THE OFFSPRING starring the legendary Vincent Price. His other scripts have included TV movies for CBS, (DISTANT COUSINS), the USA Network (BETRAYAL, GUILTY AS CHARGED), and Showtime (WHITE RUSH). He has written action films (VIETNAM, TEXAS and NAUTILUS) as well as a number of films for Charles Band's Full Moon company, released by Paramount, including installments in the very successful PUPPET MASTER series and TRANCERS 3 starring Academy Award winner Helen Hunt and Tim Thomerson.  He also directed this film, as well as the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, THE LURKING FEAR.   Staying in the horror vein, Courtney co-wrote all 13 episodes of the series WILLIAM SHATNER'S FRIGHT NIGHT for the SyFy Channel.

As a film journalist, his articles have appeared in WILDEST WESTERNS, ROUND-UP, FANGORIA, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, and others.  He has written chapters for such non-fiction books as JOHN FORD – A LIFE IN FILM, THE CINEMA OF H.P. LOVECRAFT, THE BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR, and DUKE: WE’RE GLAD WE KNEW YOU. 

His latest movie book is THE WESTERNERS – INTERVIEWS WITH ACTORS, DIRECTORS AND WRITERS, which was published by McFarland in November to excellent reviews. He will be following it with a new book of interviews, VOICES OF THE WEST.

His short story “Bloodhound” was included in Express Westerns' FISTFUL OF LEGENDS, and his story “Two-Bit Kill” will be appearing in the new anthology LAW OF THE GUN from Kensington in November. He is currently finishing his first western novel, TRACKING THE DEVIL.

Courtney is a member of the Western Writers of America, the Horror Writers Association, and The International Thriller Writers. He lives in Los Angeles.

Tell us about your new novel

The “new” novel is the first one!   This has been a long-time coming, frankly, because I was wrestling with about a dozen approaches to five different stories; I psyched myself out pretty well, and finally settled on an idea that had been suggested to me by Nik Morton, who edited the anthology A FISTFUL OF LEGENDS, for which I wrote the story, “Bloodhound.”  Nik was very supportive of that first work, and really helped me blend the western and supernatural; he took me to school and his notes were excellent. He said he’d like to see my little story continued, so I decided – after all the false starts - to write a novel-length sequel to “Hound,” and TRACKING THE DEVIL is the result. You’re never in this process alone. Matt Mayo is the one who turned me on to the anthology in the first place. Larry, you were quite kind in your comments about the finished tale, and that encouragement helped a hell of a lot – but there was still the writing to be done, and I’m basically a newbie to the novel form. Lots of pages went into the trash. That first novel can be a scary thing; although I’ve written my share of movies, some non-fiction books and short fiction, this is my first real long-form prose that I’m putting in front of discerning eyeballs.  It was killing me, because I wanted – needed - to get over the “first novel” mountain, and at least I made the trek.  Now, let’s see what folks think when it gets out there, and then I can start mustering up the courage for the second one…

Do you feel like you have to defend yourself for writing "genre fiction"?

This is an excellent question to ponder while studying a scotch on the rocks at one in the morning, but I’ll take a whack right now, cold sober – No, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need defending. Writing is writing, even if genre writers are sometimes stigmatized, the process is the same: an author must put it down on the page, which ain’t easy no matter what.  Because of movies and other media, I think critics are a little more accepting of genres now, and look at popular fiction as something valuable, and not just a time-waster. God knows it’s the genre work that keeps the publishers (and movie studios, cable networks, games, etc.) alive.  Like everything else, there’s always been lousy genre fiction, and there always will be, but fine writing in any area impresses and endures.  Most of the giants of modern literature are genre writers - Leonard, Bradbury, King, etc. – and you can go back further to Poe, Verne, Conan Doyle, and others.  That’s pretty tall company, and if we can lay claim to even a tiny sliver of that association, then that’s something to be proud of.

The trick is to keep the feeling of pride in your mind when you’re facing the slings and arrows of reviews, websites, various editors, and party chatter (“Haven’t you ever wanted to write something that was worthwhile?”).  This is a tough racket, and we’ve all done bogus assignment work to keep the lights on – I even wrote auction catalogs for awhile – but the first inspiration – that initial spark - to actually sit down and write, came from reading western and horror books, comics, and watching cool movies and TV.  I loved them then, and love them now, so working in genre fiction – even when there’s little or no money – means I’m working in the same field as the writers I truly enjoy and, to me, that’s a great thing.

Why do you write westerns?

Because I love to write action and I love history.  I was always drawn to monster flicks and western movies – an Anthony Mann/Christopher Lee double feature is perfect for me; I started to read western fiction as a teen in the 70’s, and got hooked on Elmore Leonard and Frank O’Rourke.  There was something dynamic in the use of language and action description that was so new to me that I wanted to try it. “Wanted” is the operative word, since it took me such a long time to finally dive in. I think the western genre demands a certain economy of language, while still drawing amazingly complex characters, and setting it all against a broad landscape. It’s making something seem simple and spare on the page, when it really isn’t; the ideas are lurking behind the words. To me, that’s about the hardest thing in the world for a writer to pull off, and so I kept going back to the books that excited me to try and see how it’s done. My copy of Hamilton’s THE BIG COUNTRY ended up in tatters, but thankfully my SHANE was a hardback.  And then, there are the writer’s whose own voice is so distinctive – Elmer Kelton, Max Evans – and their tale telling is so deceptively folksy, but the author-ship and craft is amazing. These are a few who’re on my permanent re-read list to study over and over.

I think it’s great that some type of history plays a part in every western story, so you’re rooted in something real. You have to do your research – if only for period weapons and clothes - and I enjoy that process because of what you can discover.  A historic episode, like the hanging of Tom Horn, or the first gold strike in California, is a great jumping off point for your story’s structure and can lead to all kinds of exciting directions, even if what you’re writing is pure fiction. To try and bring those elements into play, as the great writers I love already have, is such a difficult task – but who can resist it; and how the hell do the big boys do it?  To me it’s like the Ultimate Writing Challenge, and I’ll keep struggling – and struggling - to try to meet it.  I have to add that I am in awe of the writers I know who’re so prolific as novelists; to set a high standard for yourself, and reach it in book after book, is amazing to me.

You also write screenplays.  What's your latest project, and how is the writing process different for fiction than it is for screenplays?

The script that will start filming the soonest (I hope and pray) is RETURN OF CAPT. NEMO, that’s being produced by Page Four Productions in Wales and Beijing, with Hugh Bonneville playing Nemo.  It’s a period-action piece that I wrote years ago – it got derailed by LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN – but was taken off the shelf in 2008, and finally starts shooting in the fall. Total timeline from writing to production: approx. eight years, which isn’t that unusual for a spec script (sadly).  But I’m very excited it’s going to be made, and with cool, quality people on board the Nautilus. I’m also working on the novelization of NEMO.  The other current film I’m writing is MAYHEM, for director Mark Lester (COMMANDO), which is a JUSTIFIED-style shoot ‘em up. Mark and I have done a number of movies together, and this was a fun assignment for the two-in-the morning HBO crowd.

For me, the biggest difference between the prose and screenwriting is making the “freedom adjustment.”   I try to make my scripts “good reads,” and choose my words carefully, but you’re still dealing with a truncated form. In scripts, you have to be careful about detail – very select – and indicate things in a very precise manner.  With prose, there’s freedom; you have to choose the right words and phrasing – but you get to explore with language in a way that’s not appropriate for screenwriting.  When I write fiction, my first drafts tend to be very terse. That can be great, because it gives energy to your words, but you want to paint a picture as well, and letting things roam a bit – really filling the canvas – isn’t something that I’m used to, so you have to shift creative gears; let the characters and situations play themselves out a bit, and then edit if need be. Of course, I’ve written so much dialog in scripts that prose dialog comes easily, so the screenwriting has really helped me in that aspect.

What is your latest non-fiction project?

I’m currently writing WARNER BROTHERS FANTASTIC: A GUIDE TO THE STUDIO’S HORROR, SCIENCE-FICTION AND FANTASY FILMS for McFarland.  We’re giving capsule reviews, background notes, etc. on every Warners’ genre film from THE TERROR in 1927 through the new RED RIDING HOOD.  We’re also looking at all the sci-fi and horror Looney Tunes, and the direct-to-dvd releases.  That’s a lot of flicks to cover – so that’s the big non-fiction project for 2011 (and I hope not too far beyond!).

When did you know you were a writer?

Pretty early on; I followed the usual 1960’s geeky kid route with comics, Famous Monsters, models, making super 8 movies – and that meant writing the scripts for them.  I was also trying to write my own comics – so it was always pen-to-paper.  My mother was an author and a newspaper woman and my father was a cardiologist, who wrote several medical texts that are still used today – so it seemed like a natural thing to pursue.

What’s a work day like for you?

I wish I could say I have a set pattern, but I really don’t.  I tend to do a lot of reading, and watching, and feeling my way around a book or movie premise before jumping in, unless I have a pre-determined deadline and then it’s just full-steam ahead.  When I start writing, I tend to be a night owl, and always have.  I crack as many pages as I can while the sun’s down, catch some sleep, review it and start again.  I do tend to re-write as I go – so I’m constantly re-reading what I’ve done – not to toy forever, but to “get up to speed” as I move forward.  When I work, I cocoon a little bit.  No dinners out or spending mucho time with friends; I go it alone. I retreat into my own space  – even if all that means is sitting at Denny’s by myself for five hours thinking – until the first draft is done.  But once that first stack of papers exists, then I can breathe and be a (kind of) normal person again. 

What’s a day off like for you?

My life really is my profession in a lot of ways, and vice-versa; when I’m not writing, I’m combing bookstores or checking out movies.  My fiancé has her own business, and I pitch in to help with that when I can, and hopefully, we find a little time to travel, until the bills come due – and then it’s back to the keyboard.

If you could be anything other than writer, what would it be?

I’m a pretty lousy actor, so I wouldn’t want to go back to that.  I cartoon a bit, so that would be a path for me. And I’ve taught a little, both English and Film History. All these choices seem to point down the same road in a way. 
How do you define success?

A whopping bank account is one way, but since that certainly isn’t the case with me, I’d say it has to be the ultimate enjoyment of the task.  For all the hassles, disappointments, struggles, and all the bloody rest that writers share as their common ground, we’re still doing what we love to do – and very few people in this world get that chance, so I feel very fortunate. And, in that context, successful.

What’s next for you?

The WARNERS book is the daily grind, while working on some new script ideas.  I might be writing a western graphic novel this year, so that’s exciting to me, as I love to work in the comic medium. And I wrote a play about Pat Garrett, so we’ll see if we can get that on the boards.  If I could end on any note, it’s one of opportunity. One of the coolest aspects of what we do is adapting ourselves to all the different outlets that need product.  The past few years, the publishing world has been in an uproar, as we well know, but I really think that downloads and printed books will find the best way to co-exist. Plus, there are so many new opportunities in different media, from film, to comics, to gaming, to audio books, to web series. On and on. I think it’s vitally important to understand the new genre markets, and be prepared to write for all of them. That’s Writer Survival 101. Who would have thought of book trailers five years ago?  And the social network promotion of our work has become as vital as a number two pencil. The “delivery systems” are ever-changing, but the need for the product is out there, we just have to find our way into those markets that keep the western alive and kickin’.

For more information about Courtney, visit:


Matthew P. Mayo said...

Yet another fab interview at Tense Moments! And with one of my favorite chums, C. Courtney Joyner.

This man can do it all, folks. I admire his short fiction, his screenplays, his non-fiction (check out THE WESTERNERS), and I look forward to reading his novels for years to come.

Jeremy LC Jones said...

The part about "filling in the canvas" is terrific.

Great interview, Larry!

Larry D. Sweazy said...

Thanks, Jeremy and Matt. I really enjoyed Courtney's take on the writing life as a whole.

Anonymous said...

Good interview. I, too, enjoyed seeing Courtney's perspective on writing. As Matt says, Courtney is a good chum, and it is interesting to see what he has to say in his sustained comments.

Laurie Powers said...

Great interview - I'm amazed by the amount of experience Courtney has. The adjustments he had to make from screenwriting to writing novels was very interesting, and I'm trying to do the exact opposite. (Or something close to it.)


Thank you all so much for the very kind words and even more kind support! Delivery systems for our work changes (sometimes by the hour!) but writers will always be writers. Salute, amigos!