“It’s all storytelling, one’s just longer than the other, and with a larger budget,” says J. Michael Straczynski regarding his feature script, Changeling. “You still have to keep up the pacing, deliver strong characters, and tell a coherent, internally consistent story.” Despite a varied career of writing for magazines, newspapers, comicbooks, novels, and television, Straczynski’s aversion to film has been based on the industry’s uncertainties. “In tv, when they say, ‘Here’s a series order; go make x-number episodes,’ that’s what you do. When you get into film, suddenly there’re all kinds of things that can go wrong…you have to get foreign investors, there’re various distribution deals; it’s go, then no-go, then go again…it can make you crazy. It’s too much like going to Vegas and betting your house on one roll of the dice.
“Consequently, I only go to the feature world when I think the story really, really merits it…and even then it’s with great caution,” says Straczynski alluding to Changeling, a spec script he sold in June to Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment. “For many years, I’d been a freelance reporter/stringer with such publications as the LA Times, the LA Herald Examiner, TIME Inc. and others, and as such you develop a lot of contacts around town,” said Straczynski, recounting the screenplay’s origins. “I’d gotten a call from one source at City Hall who was getting rid of some records from the ’20s and came across a transcript of a hearing he thought I should see. So I zoomed down there and was allowed to read some of it before it was destroyed. As I read the transcript, I initially couldn’t figure out what had been going on, and when I did finally figure it out, thought, this can’t possible be real, this can’t possibly have actually happened. I was able to copy a few pages before they took it away, just some critical pages, enough to get dates and places to launch into several years of research into the events of that story.”
“The main thing with this story—which involves a woman whose young son goes missing, and is later supposedly returned, but there’s something very much wrong here—was just getting it as accurate as possible,” Straczynski continues. “I didn’t want to fictionalize it much, because the story is so extraordinary, so hard to believe, that if you start faking things suddenly you call the whole story into question.” Rigorously adhering to the facts, the writer found his greatest challenge was determining which material would be left out of the screenplay. “I went through several iterations of the script, tried various different approaches over a very long period, then put it away to stew. Finally, one day, it dinged like a toaster in my head, and I sat down and I knew suddenly how it had to be written. I blasted through the script in eleven days.”
Upon finishing the draft, Straczynski ran it past his feature agent, Martin Spencer of CAA. “He was stunned by it,” says Straczynski who notes that Spencer read the script in one sitting. “He was also kind of taken aback by it because, as he put it, it’s ‘outside the box’ of what I’m known for, which is for being a sci-fi kinda guy,” says the writer best known for creating the science fiction television series Babylon 5. Refuting the industry pigeonhole in which he’s often filed, Straczynski notes “I’ve written, and sold, comedy, mainstream drama, murder mysteries, cop shows, sf, fantasy, horror…but in this town you are what you’re most recently known for, and that’s B5.”
On the script’s reception, Straczynski couldn’t be more pleased. “As was expressed to me by a number of folks after the fact, when a spec comes in the door, there’s usually some measure of backing-and-forthing, where one person likes the A-story, another the B-story, this or that needs work. But this one came in over the transom fairly bulletproof, which I attribute more to the original events than my skill as a storyteller.” With one suggestion from Spencer, Straczynski revised the script and the agent sent it out. “I have to say that my agent approached this in a very strategically smart way. He kept a tight rein on the script, and let it only to a couple of people in a very measured fashion.”
“We could have taken it to auction and probably made twice or three times what we ultimately got for it—which is already rather substantial—but my agent believed in the story as much as I did, and wanted not just to sell it, but to do everything to get it to the right people who could get it made—someone who was temperamentally suited to the material.” This led to Spencer sending the script to Imagine Entertainment, the company founded in 1986 by director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer. Straczynski continues, “They got the script on one afternoon, the president of Imagine read it that night, called Ron the next day, got it to him, Ron read it that night, and they opened negotiations the next day.”
For Straczynski, “The hardest part of the last stages of negotiation was doing nothing. When you get down to the wire, it’s easy to micro-manage your agent, to take what’s on the table and run, but I know and trust Martin as one of the best.” Thus, the writer did not hover over his agent while the deals were being made. “He’d call when there was something to say, and if I heard from him just once during a day, or not at all, I knew he was in there doing what he had to and I kept out of it.” As Straczynski puts it, “I do what I do, and leave him to do what he does. It wasn’t easy, but I did it.” When the deal was done, Spencer thanked Straczynski for giving him free reign. “I think you hire good people and leave them to do their job, otherwise what’s the point?”
When asked how he feels about having conquered another storytelling medium, Straczynski says, “I don’t think I’ve conquered anything. I’ve written over 200 produced tv scripts, created the Babylon 5 franchise for Warner Brothers, written some of Marvel’s top-selling books with their main core characters, now sold this…but I’m still learning and I’ve never considered myself having ‘made it’ at any point. I think the moment you get complacent, the moment you think you’ve conquered something, that’s the moment you get creatively dead.”
Originally published in Creative Screenwriting, Vol. 13, No. 6 (Nov/Dec 2006).