“It’s amazing to wake up and read a tweet that says: “Please kill yourself.'” That was Seth Grahame-Smith, the screenwriter behind this summer’s poorly received Dark Shadows remake and the horrifically received Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Grahame-Smith was onstage at Nerd HQ — Zachary Levi’s offshoot demi-convention, located a few blocks away from San Diego Comic-Con — and was joined by Lost co-creator, Prometheus co-writer, and fellow nerd-rage victim Damon Lindelof for a freewheeling chat session called “The Art of Being Despised.” Both Lindelof and Grahame-Smith stressed that, even having written major motion pictures, they are still first and foremost fans. “And we are simply incapable of ignoring what our fellow fans are saying,” explained Lindelof. The implicit promise was that the Q&A session would function as a real-world analogue to the firestorm of criticism that both Prometheus and Abraham Lincoln suffered from online.
That didn’t quite happen. Nor, for that matter, did the writers reveal a vast array of hidden behind-the-scenes knowledge about how their movies went so wrong, probably because they both want to work in Hollywood again. But both men had a lot of interesting things to say, if you don’t mind reading between the lines. Grahame-Smith talked about writing 21 drafts of Abraham Lincoln — which, keep in mind, was based on his own novel — and talked with great pride about a September 2010 draft which he thought was excellent. His collaborators apparently disagreed. Referring to Lincoln director Timur Bekmambetov, Grahame-Smith said: “I love Timur. He’s a wonderful man. He’s so brilliant visually…with him, ideas come at you like bullets.” Those idea bullets may have been too much for him: Grahame-Smith noted openly that he left the project in January 2011.
Lindelof came at Prometheus from the opposite direction. The screenwriter talked about receiving a script by Jon Spaihts called Alien Zero, which had all the hallmarks of an Alien prequel: Eggs, face-huggers, chestbursters, xenomorphs. The one big new idea that stuck out to Lindelof from that script was: What if the Space Jockey from Alien was humanoid, and was responsible for creating mankind? Lindelof described his initial reaction to that idea thus: “This is bulls—. I don’t like this, because it’s retcon.” But he ultimately found himself fascinated by the idea, and came on board the project. Still, like Grahame-Smith, Lindelof both accepted his mistakes while minimizing his own authority: He compared his role on the movie to that of a sous-chef, translating Ridley Scott’s vision rather than necessarily expressing his own.
Both took the opportunity to casually tease their future projects. Lindelof said that he was currently working on a pilot script with Tom Perrotta for their HBO TV adaptation of Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers. “We’re turning in a draft around Labor Day,” said Lindelof. “If HBO likes it, then we’ll film a pilot.” Meanwhile, Grahame-Smith confirmed that he is currently producing a two-film adaptation of Stephen King’s It, to be directed by Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre). The first movie will focus on the characters as children; the second picks up their storyline 26 years later.
Despite the apologetic tone that both screenwriters took in their talk, the actual questions from the audience were mostly adoring softballs — typical panel stuff. One audience member asked about the possibility of a new Lost show, which Lindelof blessed in theory. Another asked if Lindelof enjoyed working in TV more than movies. Another asked how Lindelof changed Star Trek for a new generation. Still another asked Lindelof, “How does it feel to be a gamechanger?” (All the questions were for Lindelof.)
The closest anyone in the audience came to asking a penetrating question came early on. A guy stood up and asked about the episode of Lost‘s first season that focused on the fractious marriage of Jin and Sun. “How come you have them speaking Korean and not English?” said the guy in the audience. “I feel like I’m watching a foreign film. I can’t understand what they’re saying!”
Now, this was a stupid question, and Lindelof responded with a long and beautifully composed response. He noted that it wouldn’t have made sense to not do the Jin/Sun episode subtitled, because Jin’s whole season-one storyline focused on his inability to speak English. He explained that ABC was nervous about all the subtitles. He compared the Jin/Sun subtitling to the “Red October” method they used with Sayid-centric episodes, which gradually shaded into fake-translated English.
You have to admire Lindelof for maintaining his status as a fan, and respect the fact that he treated such a silly question like an actual thoughtful query. Still, the main lesson from “The Art of Being Despised” was an old truism: Writers really are their own worst critics.
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