Interview with Michael Lent

Michael Lent is an interesting man.  He is the author of the fantastically awesome THE MACHINE STOPS from ALTERNA comics, a graphic novel adaption of the classic tale from E.M. Forster from the turn of the century that is hauntingly prophetic to today’s world of social media and technology.  Illustrated by the Uber talented Marc Rene, this epic tale tells the tale of humanities struggle to break free from the comforts of technology.  It is both brilliantly crafted both with words and pictures.  Highly recommended for those who enjoy science fiction-Noir.

He is also the co-creator and co-writer on the western/horror tale BRIMSTONE published by ZENESCOPE.  He has co-authored a series of graphic bios on Stephen King, Keith Richards, JRR Tolkien, and Stephen Hawking.  He is the creator and co-writer on PREY: ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES published by MARVEL COMICS.  He wrote a best selling holiday humor book, CHRISTMAS LETTERS FROM HELL, published by SIMON & SCHUSTER.  He wrote a book on the business side of screenwriting called BREAKFAST WITH SHARKS, published by RANDOM HOUSE. He has written video games, SCAPS AGENT and VIGILANTE 8 ARCADE, and is an executive producer on films, IF YOU’RE SERIOUS, WITCHES’ NIGHT, and HARD SCRAMBLED.  He has also worked for MTV, graduated from the U and lectured at UCLA; he met the iconic George Lucas and hung out at ComicCon with George RR Martin.  Hell, a clerical error even landed him an actor credit on TANGO & CASH on IMDB.  In terms of comic book fandom, he is like Arthur Fonzarelli.

I had the pleasure to chat with Michael, about his experiences in film production, his process as a writer, and his definitive stance on the Han/Greedo debate.

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YOU WERE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER ON, IF YOU’RE SERIOUS, A FANTASTIC SHORT FILM BY ZHI LI, HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN THAT PROJECT?

IF YOU”RE SERIOUS is an independently produced film, shot in China without government approval or censorship. Co-writer/producer Qingling Liu had been a graduate student of mine at the University of Miami. She told me about the project when it was still at the concept stage. Both Qingling and director Zhi Li are forces of nature — people who operate with the assumption that all things are possible and just a matter of logistics — I love their energy so I wanted to help any way I could. Qingling tends to take on the most difficult challenges and turn them into positive, rewarding experiences. Basically, IF YOU”RE SERIOUS, is an uplifting story about three people who meet online to form a suicide club. In order to do the deed, the trio shows up in a town none of them have ever been to before. Right away, there’s a complication with the first attempt that leaves the three with, pun intended, some time to kill. Rules of the club is that you don’t know anyone’s real name or backstory and you can’t ask questions like “Why do you want to kill yourself?” So when Qingling told me her idea to create a story about suicide that was both funny and life affirming, but structured where you wouldn’t be able to give any back stories for the characters in any of the regular ways, I knew it would be a huge challenge.  So first we talked a lot about the story and how to make it arc.

HOW WAS FILMING IN CHINA AND WHAT EXPERIENCES REALLY STAND OUT FROM YOUR TIME THERE?

My principal duties on, IF YOU’RE SERIOUS, were offering input in the business plan and helping in development, post, and some marketing. I didn’t go to China with production and had no duties aside from seeing footage during production. That was all Zhi and Qingling and the team from China. Of course, there was a part of me that wanted to be there — I had spent a month freezing my pens off in the Arctic on a Disney book project in 2010 and love those kind of firsthand experiences — so would have loved to be in Fenghuang to help in any way I could, lugging equipment or whatever, but we were trying not to attract undue attention to ourselves given the subject matter. A white guy from California wouldn’t exactly be going under the radar.  We even created a dummy project in case anyone official started asking questions. Those fears were never realized, but we were prepared. The reality was that the people of Fenghuang were wonderful and we had a lot of freedom to do what we wanted.

MEETING GEORGE LUCAS, HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT AND WHAT WAS GOING THROUGH YOUR MIND WHEN YOU MET HIM?

For IF YOU’RE SERIOUS, we had this amazing team of overachiever’s from all over the world. In 2014, Jorge Fernandez, our sound editor, and Giampiero Paglione, our Foley artist, were nominated for the Verna Fields Award in Sound Design by the Motion Picture Academy of Sound Editors. As a producer on the film, I got to attend the Golden Reel awards ceremony where George Lucas was a presenter. Despite Jar-Jar and the Han Solo/Greedo incident, he’s one of my heroes. In 2011-2012, I co-wrote a series of graphic bios on Stephen King, Stephen Hawking, JRR Tolkien and Keith Richards. Afterwards, I got to pitch Lucasfilm on a graphic bio of Mr. Lucas. It was well received, but when the project didn’t happen for logistical reasons, I was disappointed, especially since part of the plan was a sit down with Mr. Lucas and key members of his team, as well as research in the archives at Skywalker Ranch. Actually meeting him was an out-of-body experience. Afterwards, I was just glad that I hadn’t passed out or started speaking in tongues. As you know, George Lucas is a pioneer of sound design in film, so I’m glad I met him in that context. It gave us something to talk about beyond the obvious. When George Lucas congratulates you on a job-well-done, its rocket fuel that inspires you to do your best work.

SO WHO SHOT FIRST, HAN OR GREEDO?

Definitely, definitely HAN! When you’re confronted with someone named “Greedo,” Queensberry rules are out the window. Blasters don’t have a parrying mode and Han didn’t give first shot to the intercom in the Death Star’s attack station, either. Argh! Han’s the same guy who said, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, Kid.” Being a moral pragmatist one step ahead of an adversary is the only way his character makes sense and is a true spectrum point for Luke’s education. Now I’m all worked up…

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IN YOUR IMDB PROFILE IT SAYS YOU WERE AN UNCREDITED ACTOR ON TANGO & CASH.  WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?

Ha-ha! Unfortunately, that’s not me. Aside for being forced to appear in things when I was at MTV, I’ve never acted. No interest in being on that side of the camera, oh, and I suck. When I was writing/producing for the Slime Sandwich game company, I would sometimes do the voice of, say, Mutant #4, but after hearing myself in play back, I would always think, “Man, that is not… good.” Actually, I was in school at the time that Tango & Cash came out. IMDB hasn’t corrected the profile even though I notified them a few times. Meanwhile, I worked a studio project as a writer for a year that went uncredited because of Guild rules. I used to have a few wacky credits listed like Tango & Cash that did get fixed but for some reason IMDB left that one. Maybe there’s another alternate dimension Michael Lent, or maybe someone is pranking me and every time I report it, they resubmit. Not sure.

LETS GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING, WHEN DID YOU DECIDE THAT YOU WANTED TO MAKE COMICS?

As a kid, I applied to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters but didn’t get in. I think the experience scarred me for life to the point where I had to become a writer. That place is so clicky. It’s all about who you know that you can vaporize with your particle accelerator vision. Actually, I did relate to Spider-man, the Hulk and X-Men growing up. 

HOW DID YOU BREAK IN TO THE INDUSTRY? 

I got my start in 2005 when I wrote a screenplay called PREY, a sort of JAWS/ALIENS story set off the coast of Southern California, which won some competition awards and attracted the interest of Dabel Brothers Publishing in Atlanta. They wanted to adapt the script into a comic book series. The Dabels were working with George R.R. Martin, Orson Scott Card and Laurel K. Hamilton among many others, so it was an exciting time to be there. In fact, my first signing at ComicCon was with George R.R. Martin! We actually had a lot of downtime between signings and chance to talk about craft and business. By then, Dabel Brothers had become an [short-lived] imprint of Marvel. I had gone to graduate school in screenwriting at the University of Miami, but my mentor in comic script writing was Mike Raicht, who was an editor at Marvel and is a very good writer in his own right. Mike worked on a lot of series including X-Men, Spider-man and the Hulk, and he taught me a variation of the full script method. One of the most important lessons Mike imparted was a deferential respect for the medium and the stories. The business side of comics can be brutally byzantine but Mike never allowed these challenges to bleed into the creative side. Ten years later, I still think cynicism is a currency of dubious worth. I just don’t see much value in thinking success is all about “who you know” and that sort of stuff. I’d rather just get to it. 

CAN YOU WALK ME THROUGH YOUR PROCESS? 

Hmm. I kind of feel like every writer has one major theme in their life that they keep returning to no matter what the genre is. For me, it’s the Lazarus Man. Basically, it’s the individual who is sleepwalking through life, then one day something incredible happens to wake them and say, “Now what the @$%! are you going to do?” Basically, THE MATRIX. But it actually happened to me. After undergrad, I was preparing to go to law school, working on Wall Street in New York. I hated it but didn’t know what else to do. One morning in the middle of what was going to be a 30-hour shift, I entered a bathroom stall and discovered someone had planted a bomb behind the toilet. Luckily it didn’t go off and the bomb squad came, but later, it hit me that if I was going to get turned into ceiling pizza, might as well be while doing something I cared about. So I quit the well-paying job on Wall Street and instead of law school, took an unpaid internship at MTV. That got the ball rolling. 

HOW DO YOU BREAK AN ISSUE? 

I look for the thematic spine to get a fix on the story. My actual writing process starts with putting my Lazarus Man or Woman in some interesting world on autopilot, then throw the bomb into their briefcase, car, spacecraft or relationship. My series THE MACHINE STOPS is this dynamic, for sure. In this scenario, there’s always someone who doesn’t want the individual or the situation to change in a positive way, so that gives you both internal and external conflict. It’s crucial to know where every character is at in terms of their point of view in a given scene; otherwise, your story starts to flatten out. Once you have your character, the situation, the conflicts and antagonists, it’s time to line-up the beats. Both protagonists and antagonists should ascend from A to Z or descend from Z to A (a reverse arc). One of the reasons I’ve struggled to identify with a character like Superman is that it’s hard to see a lot of imperfection and growth. I mean, he arrives on earth as a baby who can lift a truck. At least, crap your diaper while doing it. Jeesh. 

Anyway, there should be a B story that dovetails with the A story. 

HOW DO YOU WRITE THE SCRIPT? IS IT MARVEL STYLE OR FULL SCRIPT? 

I’m definitely a DC full script guy. That said, my style has evolved as a direct result of working with some incredibly talented artists. It had to. I used to cram in lots of detail and exposition and imagine every aspect of every panel. I had lots of panels on a page. Some artists told me in the most respectful, gentle way that if I didn’t stop, they would strangle me with my own laptop power cord. So I learned that it’s better to have great art and let some story elements take a back seat for a bit. It was cool when I worked with artist Marc Rene on THE MACHINE STOPS because he was able to put back story and Meta elements simply by virtue of his panel designs. It was amazing. These days, I start with very detailed panel notes because otherwise I feel like the artist can be flying blind and set up to fail because of poor communication. When the art starts coming in and we get in sync, my scripts will get leaner and leaner, relying more and more on trusting the artist and the partnership we’ve struck.  Also, I’ve worked with cover artists like Ben Templesmith, Greg Horn, Kody Chamberlain and Stjepan Šejić. Most of those artists, it’s better to let them look over the material and decide what they want to draw. Those guys can pull things out of your work that you might not have seen yourself. I’m dying to work with JH Williams and Fiona Staples for this reason.

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HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A COMIC BOOK WRITER?  

I love everything about being a comic book writer. If someone is on the fence and is thinking about taking the plunge, do it. It’s a huge rush and you will be astonished by the result. Sometimes when I’m working on a few projects at once and new art or lettering is arriving via email every day – it feels like Christmas. Landing a publishing deal, so awesome. And when the book comes out and you see it on a shelf in your local shop (for me, that’s the Golden Apple in Hollywood and House of Secrets in Burbank), it’s indescribable.  I like meeting fans and hearing their personal stories. And comic book shop owners are often these cool maverick, walking Wikipedia, people who keep our universe going. One time, I was visiting family in Virginia Beach and stopped by a neat shop called Local Heroes. When I introduced myself, the owner set up a signing event while I was in town. This symbiotic relationship between the vender, the creator and the reader is very special. 

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU HAVE LEARNED OR PERHAPS A MISTAKE YOU MADE THAT YOU WOULD SUGGEST ANOTHER CREATOR ENTERING INTO INDEPENDENT COMICS DO DIFFERENTLY? 

Once the artist gets what you’re going for in terms of character and universe, get out-of-the-way and trust them to do what they can do. The results are almost always better than if you controlled everything. The operative word is “get”: you have to do all the heavy lifting in terms of thinking out story and character so you can make sure the artist is able to “get” what’s required of them. If the elements are half-baked, a lot of frustration and finger-pointing will ensue. One time, I was hired on a project where the creator kept adding elements in illogical fashion. Things didn’t add up story wise, even as we were going to art. The artist and I were on the project for six months and yet we still weren’t sure of the concept because it kept shifting. Very frustrating. Later, we discovered we were just one more team following the failed attempts of others. Without telling us, the creator was basically inserting elements from those other ill-fated voyages. It was like, “Now that you’ve created a plausible dystopian universe, all we need is… a telepathic squirrel!” Definitely not an optimal way to work. 

IS THERE ANY ADVICE YOU CAN OFFER TO A CREATOR LOOKING TO BREAK INTO COMICS IN TODAY’S MARKET? 

I believe in DIY because I’ve learned the hard way that if you wait for someone else to pick up your project, you may be sitting around playing pickup-stix with your butt cheeks for a long time. Sometimes I run into would-be creators at a con and they show me some killer concept work or an ash can, then a year later, I run into them again and see the same samples. I try to encourage them to push forward but some lack confidence in either themselves or the overall concept. One guy even told me that he hadn’t worked out the storyline but was hoping to sell the book and make it someone else’s problem. 

THE MACHINE STOPS IS AN ADAPTATION OF A CLASSIC SCI-FI STORY FROM EM FORSTER.  WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO ADAPT THIS STORY TO COMIC BOOK FORM?  

I discovered EM Forster’s “The Machine Stops” as an undergrad at Hamilton College. At the time, I was reading many foundation writers including Bradbury, Orwell, Asimov, Dick, Gibson and Wells, but there was something about the Forster short story that jumped out. The story felt so “human” and tangible. Far better known as the novelist of Room with a View and Howard’s End, “The Machine Stops” is the only science fiction story Forster ever wrote.

Fast forward to 2012, when I picked up the story again and was shocked by how even more prescient it felt. Updating and adapting the 100+ year-old piece became a passion project, and I finished a draft of the script in May of 2012. The project sat gestating, while I worked on other things. Then came a meeting with artist Marc Rene in early March of 2013. We were collaborating on another indie book assignment together, enjoying the process immensely, and saying, “What the hell — let’s keep going.”  That’s when it hit me like a brick that Marc’s style, with its emphasis on emotions and juxtaposition of light and shadow of inks that feel both very modern and intensely personal, was perfectly in line with what The Machine Stops required. Inside of 24 hours, Marc read both the original story and my script and we were off and running.  Both of us continued to work on other projects throughout so sometimes we would be working together on TMS at 1 in the morning. The project inspired that kind of intensity.

So the series finished its arc in January with ALTERNA COMICS.  Since then, a few producers have contacted us about availability for adaptation. Hopefully, it will happen. 

IS THERE ANY OTHER CLASSIC SCI-FI STORYS YOU ARE INTERESTED IN ADAPTING? 

Frank Herbert’s DUNE adapted into GN and a new film would be exciting and challenging. For fantasy it would be CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN. 

PREY IS AN ECOLOGICAL THRILLER, THE MACHINE STOPS A CAUTIONARY SCIENCE FICTION TALE, AND BRIMSTONE IS A HORROR WESTERN.  DESCRIBE THE PROCESS SWITCHING GEARS BETWEEN GENRES LIKE YOU DO AND WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES YOU FACE? 

I’m a method writer. By that, I mean that my process starts with so much research that for a nanosecond I’m something of a layman expert on that particular subject. I try to immerse myself in that world to the point it’s all I think about. With a horror Western you think about all the cool visual juxtapositions – horror being created with short depths of field and the feeling that something is right behind you and Westerns with their wide expanses and huge scale. When you create a character used to operating out in the open, suddenly trapped in confined spaces, it is interesting. 

HOW CLOSE DO YOU FEEL THE MACHINE STOPS (WHICH WAS WRITTEN AT THE TURN OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY) MIRRORS THE STATE OF HUMANITY IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY? 

Forster was a real deal Nostradamus. He wrote The Machine Stops in 1909. This 12,000-word story foretells our modern way of information gathering and social interaction through cyberspace, while expressing concern for our dependence on technology at the expense of personal experience and all that makes us human. Many of the best predictions about the future rely, not on an understanding of technology and future industrial trends, so much as an understanding of human nature, language and culture. That was Forster. 

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE COMIC STORY, MOVIE, AND NOVEL AND WHY? 

My “Favorite…” list evolves and morphs. Right now, SANDMAN: OVERTURE and SAGA stick out. As for movies, EX MACHINA. That was fascinating, 

IS THERE ONE PROJECT IN PARTICULAR THAT STICKS OUT IN YOUR MIND THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF? 

I look at projects as journeys with travel mates that form a sort of Fellowship of the Ring. Some of these go on for years and when they break apart (because the project is finished or because we failed), sometimes you never work together again. After a while, the finished work takes on a life of its own and I start to lose the sensation of having written it. What I’m left with is the fellowship and the historical chronology. Working with Marc Rene on THE MACHINE STOPS stands out because it’s so recent and because it was just the two of us for the longest time and everything felt intense because Marc conducts himself like a Ronin when it comes to craft. Another project was ON THIN ICE based on the Ice Road Truckers of the History Channel. For that I was embedded up in the Arctic Circle for a month, sometimes freezing my pens off in 45 below zero. Someone froze to death while I was there and then there was a collision between a big rig and a fuel truck. The drivers had to be evacked from the middle of nowhere. 

WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE COMIC BOOK CHARACTER THAT YOU HAVE YET TO WRITE AND WHY? 

I have a pantheon that includes Hellboy, John Constantine, Morpheus and Batman. I relate to them because they’re like me: a bit scuffed up with strengths constantly in flux with their weaknesses. I think most writers come to their craft because they feel like they have something to say but hate direct confrontation. The written word or image on the page or screen is their mask or veil. So essentially writers are tortured super heroes. Ha! 

WHAT IS ON YOUR CURRENT “MUST READ” LIST? 

I’m reading David Flores’ DEAD FUTURE KING. Just finished BURIED GIANT. 

ARE THERE ANY UPCOMING CONVENTIONS OR EVENTS YOU WILL BE ATTENDING YOU WOULD LIKE OUR READERSHIP TO BE AWARE OF? 

I’ll be at SDCC in July. Currently, I’m working on a new project with Dark Horse artist Dan Parsons (GAME OF THRONES, LOTR, STAR WARS) and television producer David Rambo (Empire, Revolution, V, CSI). We hope to unveil Issue #0, then.

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