Writer and director Eric Luke has worked on films for Paramount, Disney, and Fox TV. He’s the writer of the science-fiction cult classic Explorers, which starred Ethan Hawke and the late River Phoenix.
I recently chatted with Eric about story development and narrative structure, as well as his latest project, the self-aware audiobook Interference.
How did you get into screenwriting?
I’ve wanted to make movies ever since I can remember. I picked up the family wind-up 16mm camera, started shooting, and very quickly found out I’d need a narrative to keep people interested. The first scripts were more like verbal storyboards, and I’ve always tried to hang onto that: just enough description to get an image into the reader’s head, then onto the next and the next: a really fast read. M. Night Shyamalan talks about the Sixth Sense script where he rethought the format: sentence fragments to keep the pace as fast, as visual as possible.
When I graduated from UCLA film school, the only way into the industry without a really slick, really expensive reel was to write a spec script and pitch it, and that’s when I seriously started hitting the keyboard every day: as a way to be able to make the movies that were in my head.
Where did the idea for Explorers come from?
I was driving home from a frustrating job editing Special Effects in North Hollywood, literally looked up at the moon and was hit by the idea. When I was kid the first NASA moon shots were happening and everybody’s imagination was captured. I used to sit in an empty garbage can and pretend with my brother and sisters that we were launching it into space.
So the idea was to recapture that childhood feeling when anything was possible, when your imagination was more real than the world around you. It was about trying to bring that particular childhood dream to life, make it come true in the real world, and the reel world of course.
Once you had the idea, what steps did you take to develop it into a story?
I ran it through a series of science fiction requirements: what would it take for kids to actually launch themselves into space? Couldn’t be propulsion or they’d be flattened; they’d need protection from that harsh, airless environment: the cosmic rays, the temperatures, etc. A lot of the character and plot points came from addressing those problems, and then developing them into something entertaining. The three kids were based on friends I had at that age, and the particular ones who had the skills to actually build a spaceship.
It’s pretty rare for a screenplay to make it into production, let alone become a beloved cult classic like Explorers. How did this happen?
It almost DIDN’T happen. My original agent rejected it, I went to another agency, they sent it out and all the studios didn’t get it. Then a producer responded, I did a rewrite, it got sent out to particular executives and one at Paramount really liked it. It got picked up and I was put on a studio contract, something pretty much unheard of now. Then it was passed on by a whole list of directors until Joe Dante signed on. It was a tortuous route but it all led to production.
It was a strange film in the end, too. It wasn’t a hit initially, but I’ve met many people over the years who remember it fondly as one of their childhood favorites. It hasn’t evaporated from the public consciousness, which has been really gratifying.
For people my age, Explorers was one of those films that every kid was talking about. And even today, it still holds up really well. Is it true that you had a cameo in it?
It’s true. We needed a teacher who was a complete jerk and somehow I got cast. Hmm.
How important is structure to telling a great story?
In some ways structure is the most important part of any narrative. And the dance between instinct and structure. Planning a narrative you find yourself shifting back and forth between inspiration (a great idea for a scene) and structure (how does this fit in?). It’s a constant struggle between right and left brain, isn’t it?
In your experience, is there any specific structure that lends itself really well to telling a story?
It’s different for every story. If it’s a big canvas like INTERFERENCE, you want a mosaic structure: several independent, intersecting story lines. If the plot involves memory, do you want parallel timelines running? If it’s a smaller, more intimate story, you probably want one point of view, but do you want to cut outside that to an omniscient narrator? Will you lose focus by doing that? You constantly question your original concept of the structure to make sure you’re not stagnating, that the reader will be surprised not only by the plot, but by how it’s revealed.
You said that there’s a tension between inspiration and structure. Can you elaborate on that?
I go through a period when the “big idea” first pops into my head where I try not come up with a structure at all. If I consciously keep things loose, like pinning index cards randomly to a bulletin board, you give yourself the freedom to fully explore the whole concept, take it to places it might not have gone otherwise.
There’s lots of great software out there to capture ideas in this stage. My favorite is Scrivener, because it helps you move to the next stage: as you look at all the ideas, you feel the structure emerging, to involve as many of your favorite ideas, scenes, dialogue, etc, as possible. And the ones that don’t fit start to become obvious. Sometimes you have to get rid of your favorites because they’ll actually weaken the story.
Then once you’ve got the structure, it can actually suggest more scenes to illustrate missing parts of the plot. That’s where the balance comes in: it tips back and forth. Great scene: necessary plot point: back again.
How is structuring a novel different from structuring a film?
Writing a novel is a luxury. You get to craft moments, passages, play with the actual language. A novel is the finished product; you’re writing the actual word that the reader will see, perceive, adopt, and hopefully transform into an image or emotion. A screenplay is a blueprint for the final product: the film. You’re writing for the studio, the director, the actor, trying to get them to imagine the movie in your head. It’s all about economy, shorthand. How can I get this image, this cinematic moment, into the reader’s head in the shortest amount of time, create a film experience for them through reading? Lots of short, choppy sentences. Lots of visual images. No poetic passages. Maybe a few. Very few. Like. That.
Film structure is very strict and sometimes confining. It has to work like a well-oiled machine because it’s so brief and fast. The three act structure (four acts if you’re James Cameron) is sometimes obvious, and clunky at its worst, because you have so little time; one scene has to lead directly to the next at a rapid clip, with little or no time to stop and explore. With a novel you feel the same highs and lows, the general act structure, but again, you have the luxury of exploring how you get there. A character can literally sit and think about what’s going on, make a decision, and it can be one of the most dramatic scenes in the book. That rarely happens in film because it’s an almost purely visual medium. The ability to write interior drama makes all the difference, even affecting big structural changes.
What is INTERFERENCE?
INTERFERENCE is an audiobook about an audiobook… that kills. (to be said in deepest, raspiest voice possible.)
It’s “meta horror” because it’s self-aware, self-referential: you’re listening to the same thing that the characters are listening to. I was able to incorporate all sorts of audio production that plays with the levels of reality. When the Voice of the Narrator, the Unknown Evil at the heart of the horror concept, talks to the characters, it’s addressing you too at points. When the characters hear bursts of static that become a trigger for mayhem, you hear that static in your own ear buds. The effect is very creepy and I think keeps the listener off-balance. It works well on the page, but it’s really meant to be downloaded and listened to as an audiobook, just as the characters are doing. Response has been great; the download numbers keep climbing.
How did the idea for this project come to you?
I got the idea from listening to the self-recorded audiobooks at Podiobooks.com. The authors are almost always impassioned, completely devoted to their creative vision, published or not. I realized that during the many hours you spend listening to an audiobook, you develop an intense, personal connection with the narrator. On some level it reminds you of being read to as a child, before you could read by yourself. Well, what if the narrator was in some way exploiting this? What if this Voice was aware of your life, and was trying to manipulate you through the narrative? The concept grew from there, and the idea to record it as a self-recorded audiobook: the exact thing that’s inspiring fear in the narrative.
What were some of the challenges of structuring this particular story?
It needed scope. It’s about four characters and the effect that the central horror conceit, the Voice of the Narrator, is having on their lives in different ways: seduction, blackmail, threat, emotional bullying. So the mosaic novel structure was the best way to go.
George R R Martin does this extremely well, of course. You see the whole plot through many different lenses, points of view, so you simultaneously get intimate character development and become involved in solving the puzzle of what’s going on because each character is only aware of their piece of the story. It draws you in. The danger is that you’re thrown off balance by skipping between four or five narratives, but you also get to write chapters that lead up to cliff-hangers that don’t get resolved until you cut back to that character again. It’s a great way to propel the plot.
How can someone listen to INTERFERENCE?
INTERFERENCE is available free on iTunes here.
For more info, including future projects, my website is Quillhammer.com
Finally, do you have any practical tips for a writer who is having a hard time working out the structure of his story? Is there any sort of system or method that you would recommend?
I’ve tried a lot of the approaches that are out there, including Dramatica, and finally realized I was always coming back to Scrivener. It’s not so much a story system as the perfect organizational Inbox. It catches all your loose ideas and then helps you organize them, mine the structure, with complete flexibility.
I think each story creates its own approach, but one of the most important phases is that initial time when ideas are just going off in your head like fireworks. Anything you can do to enable that is most important. And anything you’re doing that limits it is the worst thing you can do to a story.
Keep your mind open as long as you can before you decide on a structure. That way you’re sure you’ve explored just how good it can be. You might pick a direction and miss a whole better story. Keep stepping away from it and looking at the big picture. Then have a cup of coffee, put in your earbuds and go for a walk. That’s the best method I’ve come up with.
Question for Our Readers:
How do you go about structuring your stories? Do you follow a purposeful structure, or let things fall where they may?