Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Interview with Bill Martell - part one

Bill Martell, as you should know by now, writes the kind of movies that air late at night on your TV, movies that star actors your recognize but can't quite place, the guys who might be the next Steven Seagal, and even a movie with Seagal. He's written over 19 produced scripts and teaches all over the place about how to create and maintain a writing career, and he does this with no representation. He runs a website with daily script tips - Script Secrets - and a blog - Sex in a Submarine - where he talks about more personal experiences. If you are not reading this stuff then you are missing out on one of the most informative sources of screenwriting education materials on the Internet.

Whenever I end up at a party with Bill I eventually corner him and chat it up, no doubt blocking his chance at meeting loose women, so it was only a matter of time before I went ahead and convinced him to do an interview. Actually it didn't take much convincing. Bill has a lot to say and he's pretty much the nicest guy I know, plus he's brutally honest.

If you've ever ended up in conversation with me at a party or anywhere, really, you know how much I love Zombie Strippers. On one such occasion Bill mentioned that he has his own version - a robot hookers from outer space movie called Droid Gunner. Of course I was overjoyed, so he brought me a copy of it. As I watched the film I began to formulate questions about how one creates a movie like this, so I asked. Here is part one of that interview.

Why, when I watch Droid Gunner, does the title screen come up as Cyber Zone?

George Lucas. Seriously. Though there are some countries where it was released as DROID GUNNER, and it was supposed to be released under that title here - the producers got a nice letter from George saying that “Droid” is his word and no one can use it without his permission. I thought this was BS - how can you own a *word*? I suggested they just put an apostrophe in there - ‘DROID GUNNER - but the producers caved and changed the title to CYBER ZONE even though there is no “cyber” or “zone” in the movie. We had all kinds of publicity and an article in Femme Fatales magazine about the film under the title DROID GUNNER... and all of the people who read the article may be still waiting for DROID GUNNER to come out. I have found through 19 films that titles often change, and often even change into titles that make no sense at all.  One of the movies that began with one of my scripts had a working title that seemed like random words thrown together - THE ENEMY OF THE INVISIBLE. Maybe it was translated into Chinese and back or something, I don’t know.

But watch the commercial for the Droid cell phone... at the end is some legal fine print that says the word “Droid” is used with permission of Lucas Film. When you get as big as George, you can own *words*.  

So weird that you are asking me about this movie - it has the lowest budget of any movie made from one of my screenplays (most are $2-$3 million HBO World Premiere Movies or USA Network MOWS or Made For Showtime movies... one is a $15m Sony Studios film with Seagal), it’s not available on DVD in the USA (though it’s a huge cult film many places - I just did two interviews with Russian movie magazines about it), and it’s stupid.  Though, it *is* my infamous robot hookers from outer space movie, and I don’t hate it the way I hate many of the other wretched films which began as my screenplays - I knew going in that it was going to be stupid, so I tried to make it the best movie ever made about robot hookers from outer space. Something my old co-workers at the warehouse would love.  We used to buy a case of beer or two and rent some stupid action movie... so I wrote the movie we’d have loved to see. Which means it must be viewed drunk!

I noticed in reading the treatment that you built a whole world for this story. How do you approach building a world? What are the key elements you feel are necessary to make it work?

The original treatment was called STEEL CHAMELEONS, a title that I have since stolen from myself for use on another script, and took place in a near future where androids were part of every day life - kind of a robot slaves. Through the course of the story we learn that these androids have developed feelings, and there is an underground railroad to get them papers so that they can live among us as humans. 

There was a period in the 90s where I was writing a lot of science fiction screenplays because it was a popular genre. For the most part, a science fiction movie is really just an action movie that takes place in the future. Sure, there are exceptions like GATACA, but mostly you have TOTAL RECALL and JUDGE DREDD and TERMINATOR and I ROBOT and MINORITY REPORT. In a science fiction script you start with what one big thing makes the world different - Apes have taken over? Food shortage plus population boom so we all eat Soylent Green? The Zombie Apocalypse happened and now you are the Last Man On Earth? There are psychics who tell the police who to arrest before they commit the crime? There is one big change, which is tied to the theme (point) of your story. That’s the concept, it is your basic idea.

But now we have to grow the world around it. Part of that will be to take that basic concept and see how it effects everything else. So if we have these lifelike androids that can pass as humans, someone is going to use them for criminal activities.  In the STEEL CHAMELEONS story, every state except Nevada has laws prohibiting the use of “Pleasure Droids” - PDs.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some illegal brothel in Los Angeles where you can find male and female Pleasure Droids and can have disease-free sex. Oddly enough, the whole concept of that story probably came from the herpes and AIDs sex scares - you couldn’t just have casual sex anymore, you needed a blood test on the way from the pick up bar to your swinging singles pad. The idea of some guaranteed disease free sex partners was a potential common fantasy among people who bought movie tickets. So that’s what I was tapping into, I hoped.

And once you have a class of “people” who are not given the rights and respect of everyone else, you will have groups that work to see that they have those rights - either through changing the laws or doing things that may be illegal under these laws but is morally right. You will also have the other political camp, and people and androids who are struggling in the middle. 

Once we have that main piece of the future world, we look at our current world and extrapolate what they future might be like. In another science fiction script that was made around the same time, I took two facts about Los Angles in the early 1990s (when the scripts were written) and extrapolated them into the near future:

1) The EPA demanded that L.A. have 20% electric vehicles by whatever the date was (since rescinded), so in the future all vehicles would be electric. For film purposes we would find the most futuristic looking current cars and remove the sound of the engine and add a low hum. At the time, the Dodge Silhouette van and the Saturn were my picks.

2) Los Angeles is a desert that lives on imported water... so I had your typical public drinking fountains with a place to slide your credit card.  To me, the more mundane the item you “futurize” the better. Oh, and there was no such thing as cash anymore, everything was done by debit card - that may not seem like sci-fi to you now, but when I wrote the script an ATM card was just to get cash from a machine.

Oddly enough, the things I created for these movies included the Smart Phone - called the Pippin - which was a combo phone and computer that was pocket sized and had no keyboard - they worked by voice command and had a “human” interface on the screen, you had your choice of faces/voices (kind of like your GPS). That was a simple jump from the smaller cell phones in the early 90s and the internet.  I haven’t read the STEEL CHAMELEONS treatment in ages, but there may also be guns that only the owner can fire - which just combines a fingerprint scanner with a gun, and all kinds of other small things which are part of today re-imagined for tomorrow.     

So in STEEL CHAMELEONS we have our PD s which are discovered by a female detective in the Police Department (also PD) during an investigation of a serial killer who preys on recently divorced women - like our female detective. Some of the victims have connections to the world of PD s - there’s a Gloria Allred-like attorney who defends androids and a woman involved in the Android Rights movement, etc. That way we can explore all of the “side effects” of androids as part of every day life though the murder investigation. Also helps with clues and suspects and plotty stuff.

When we get to DROID GUNNER/CYBER ZONE, the only thing that remained from the STEEL CHAMELEONS treatment was “Pleasure Droids”.  After a wonderful story meeting (sarcasm) I was told to write a whole movie about robot hookers from outer space. Which is a whole new world. So, I extrapolated again - earthquake knocks California into the ocean, and Phoenix is the new West Coast (the film is called PHOENIX 2 in England), the early 90s Christian Coalition lead by Ralph Reed has turned into a major faction in the future - and the underwater mining city of New Angeles is *ultra* conservative Christian, but needs employees who will sign a 4 year contract that says they will never think impure thoughts. Phoenix and the rest of the country is divided into the poor surface dwellers who do manual labor and the wealthy people in the penthouses above the smog... I swiped that from Lang’s METROPOLIS!  Because I’m a working class guy, one of my things is to show people who do manual labor in films, to counteract the whole Hollywood thing about every protagonist working in an office doing advertizing or something. Since this film was written for my warehousemen buddies from back when I was doing forklift jousting for a living, I made the protagonist live in that surface world. Because this was a more cartoony world, things were exaggerated for humor. Then I wrote the script in 9 days, they shot the film in about 9 days, and it was on Showtime before the paint had dried on the sets.     

Oh, and the film made 5 times its production budget in foreign sales alone! It was a major financial success for the producer. In fact, almost everything I have written has made a ton of money for the producer of the films. At one point in time after CRASH DIVE when I was writing a bunch of military action things for a company called Royal Oaks, the producer handed me a script by another writer that was not getting much interest from foreign territories in pre-sales to read... and it was an action script with no action! It had, like, two action scenes in it and the rest was characters sitting around talking. And the dialogue wasn’t good enough to make the talk scenes work. So, I told the producer all of this, and he said I must be wrong because the script was from some big agency. Whatever, not my problem. The producer didn’t use any of my notes, made the film... and it flopped. They had trouble selling the film, even with a much better cast than some of the stuff I’ve written. Many people believe that it’s easy to write a genre film, but I’m sure you’ve seen many genre films that were boring or crappy or just not fun.  The writers who think doing some direct-to-video action flick is easy should give it a try and see what happens. A few years ago there was a writer on one of the message boards who was represented by one of those 3 letter agencies and loved to rub it in... only, after a couple of years of representation still hadn’t gotten any work. So he thought he’d just write a DTV action flick and pop his cherry. Except nobody seemed much interested in his script, and it ended up going to a really small company. It was made... but still has not been released! I check it out every once in a while to see if maybe it’s on DVD yet. Nope. Like that all-talk action script, it’s tough to sell a movie that doesn’t satisfy the basics of the genre. An action film needs action scenes. A horror film needs horror. A thriller needs suspense. So it really does come down to the writing - you have to know the genre and how it works and know the audience and what they look for in a movie. This should be easy if you write the kind of films you regularly pay to see. If you are just crapping out some script you don’t care about because you think you can sell it, you will end up with unsaleable crap. You have to really love what you are writing... even if it ends up being a movie about robot hookers from outer space.

Look for Part Two tomorrow, where we discuss how Bill muddles through bad notes.


  1. Great interview. Looking forward to hearing more stories from Bill.

  2. Anonymous4:04 PM

    First thing, Bill Martel is the coolest and his book and info is very helpful and inspiring and extremely inspiring. Unlike others who got bizzare/useless forums/blogs. His blog rocks.

    I read his blogs every time.

    Bill is a hard worker and his humor and talent is worth the ticket.

    Bill's the best and his blog is sizzlingly decilious. One of the best in town.

    Okay, I'm saying this because, its because of his hard to find book that I write action scripts.


  3. Curious4:33 PM

    Hey Anonymous, who's blog is it that really ticked you off. It seems you can't post here without making a backward slapshot at some other bloggers out there. Are you that guy who's really been going after Julie Grey on every blog and posting board?

    The insult of useless forums seems like an attack on Go into the Story and their GITS Club, which I can't understand at all why you'd insult them. Scott's one of the best out there and he devotes a lot of time to helping screenwriters so why attack him?

  4. Anonymous4:40 PM

    Don't know if Bill is reading.
    But would like to know his humble opinion on the action in this cool action packed trailer.
    So Bill are you reading? if yes, is it advisable to write a short sub-script of a screenplay before the trailer goes into production?

    Thanks Sir.

  5. Found out two cool things today, there's a robot hooker in Fallout 3 New Vegas (my darling, "I just had sex with an industrial sexbot") and New Scientist (best magazine ever) is having a "flash fiction" competition, 350 words, juried by the ever lovely Neil Gaiman.


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