We've been wanting to ask Buffy/Dollhouse creator Joss Whedon random science-fiction questions for ages... but he wasn't available. So instead, we're asking Josh Wheaton, who's responsible for everything you hate. He's almost as good, right?
About Josh Wheaton: he created the television shows Burfy, Agnel, Fryfly and Doghouse. He also wrote Anal Resurrection. He's got literally hundreds of days' experience in the entertainment business, and he's here to help you. (If by "help," you mean spatter bleach in your eyes through your computer screen.) Got questions for Josh? Send them to me, and maybe we'll make this a regular feature.
For now, we came up with our own questions for Josh, and here's what he had to say.
What would you say is the most important theme in your work?
Be yourself, unless someone with really cool toys wants you to be someone else. But the toys better be cool. Oh, and get paid in advance. And spend more on the catering than special effects. Well-fed actors are the best special effect there is. Wait, are we still talking themes, or have we moved on to the creative process?
How can I become a famous science fiction impressario like you, Josh Wheaton?
Did anybody ever tell you you look really cute when you're desperate? No? Then it's probably not true.
In that case, you gotta go with plan B. Write a graphic novel - you don't actually have to finish it or anything, because nobody will read past page 10 or 11.
So it can be like ten pages of story, with a real artist, followed by a hundred blank pages that nobody will ever see. Or an essay, to prove you're intellectual! Or maybe just your sketches of clouds and racecars. You can even make that a deluxe feature: "PLUS Bonus section: Clouds and Racecars!" You just gotta have a graphic novel, and then you can wave it at people and leave it on their windshields and use it as a tray for serving their drinks off of, at your waiting job. Get your graphic novel's main character tattooed on a part of your body that people will want to see. If your body has no such part, try your girlfriend/boyfriend/nanny's body.
It's all about promo, promo, promo. Speaking of which, hey. Do you like my T-shirt design? "Josh Wheaton Is Your Master Now." Pretty catchy, huh? I got a few thousand of them in my van. So far, the only person who's wearing it is me, but that's okay, because you'll notice it says "your master," not "my master." So I'm just putting people on notice by wearing it. But I can give you one, if you want. For free. No, really, it's yours. Take it. Don't leave me hanging here.
Where do you get your amazing story ideas from?
Where do I get my ideas? I get my ideas from you, my friend. I watch you when you're not looking, and I take notes. I sneak into your house and I lick your dirty underthings, and I hide in your storm drain while you're playing Wii Fit in the nude. Yes, that's why your drains are so clean. If you've ever watched an episode of Burfy and thought, "That's just like my life," then know that it probably IS your life. Just kidding! Except not.
But it's also okay to steal ideas from existing works - as long as you're REALLY BLATANT about it. If you're subtle, it's a rip-off. But if you're super obvious, it's an homage. (Side note: Lots of things are unacceptable unless there's a French word for them. Like, say, if I wanted to write a book about my friends and what assholes they are, that would be slander and I'd be sued into the Crackhouse Dimension (from Agnel.) But not if it's a roman a clef - then it's totally fine.)
So yes, lift ideas from everywhere - like, books are great! I don't read books, but my P.A. does, and she occasionally tears out a page that's idea-rich. Like, here in my briefcase, I have three separate pages from the paperback edition of Never Let Me Go - and no, I won't tell you which three pages, because that's proprietary information.
So I've come up with the most amazing story idea ever. How do I turn that into a story that people are going to fall in love with? How do you structure a story to make it last a full 42 minutes on television?
The most important ingredient of storytelling is "people freaking out about shit that just happened." Some storytellers skip over that, and just have stuff happening without anyone ever freaking out about it. Other so-called writers have people freaking out, when nothing's actually happened. But those two elements are like inactive chemicals that explode when you put them together - or like pop rocks and hydrochloric acid. Boom!
It's like my relationship with Swoozie, my P.A. She and I have a random hookup in the back room of Yubitsume Sushi (which technically doesn't have a back room, but ever since that "pinky roll" scandal, you can get away with anything there without getting thrown out). And then Swoozie and I spend fifteen minutes talking about how we feel about our hookup, what it does or doesn't mean. And then later, she puts clear nail polish into my office vodka, and I don't notice for a couple days. And she and I spend fifteen minutes hashing out how we feel about my having drunk all that nail polish. That's your formula right there - incident, introspection. Rinse, repeat. Boom!
Other television-writer types talk about how they break stories. But screw that, I've seen their stories, and they're barely broken. Maybe dinged here and there, but still basically in one piece. When I break a story, I do it right - you won't even find some of the pieces. The third act is under my car seat, with the half-eaten fried pig knuckles, and the denouement is entangled in those unnaturally purple weeds under the 10 Freeway. Where's the teaser? I'm not telling, and you'll never find it - or rather, the 27 jagged pieces of it that I left behind after I was done breaking it. You probably swallowed one of those pieces just now, buried in that donut, and didn't realize it. Ha, you ate part of the teaser!
Is science fiction about escapism? Or is it really about confronting us with the reality of the world through the prism of the imaginary?
Neither, and yet both. And yet, I like to think of science fiction as being about "suspension over disbelief." The audience is roped by the ankles, dangling with their heads like pendulums, over a giant chasm of disbelief full of snapping alligators of inconsistency. We lower the audience - slowly, so as to prevent vertebral accordionism - into the Ravine of WTF. By the time the audience's heads actually touch down, they're so traumatized by the descent, and grateful to have their heads on the ground, they barely even notice the jaggedy surfaces and continuity-teeth all around them. Wow, that metaphor actually made sense. It made sense, right? It totally made sense. What else you got?