Vin Diesel or the Rock? Shea Serrano talks movies — and other things
The author of The Rap Year Book and Basketball (And Other Things) is back, with film on his mind.
Four years ago, I was an aspiring professional writer, struggling to find a way into the industry. One day, Shea Serrano, a hilarious writer for the now-defunct sports and pop culture website Grantland, posted his email address on Twitter and said he had received help from others when he was coming up, so reach out if you need any advice. I did just that, and to my amazement I received a detailed reply within two hours, giving me realistic suggestions of how to stand out and make my place. “Hope some of this helps, vato,” he signed off.
It did. Within a year, I moved to Los Angeles and started my dream job at EW. Now, for the first time since, our paths crossed again for the most important interview he’s ever done.
If you’ve ever wanted thoughtful advice, or to know whether Titanic would have been better with the Rock, or to figure out which movie villain would be the best hang, then Shea Serrano is your guy. The former middle school teacher has gone from molding young minds (and writers) to answering these important cinematic questions and more in his new book, Movies (And Other Things) (out Oct. 8).
This isn’t the first time Serrano — now a staff writer at the Ringer with an incredibly loyal Twitter following — has taken on such a task. He previously landed on the New York Times best-seller list with 2015’s The Rap Year Book and 2017’s Basketball (And Other Things), the latter of which earned the Texas native a spot on President Obama’s annual list of his favorite new books. And when Serrano isn’t writing a book or dissecting the perfection of Den of Thieves, he’s connecting with his readers (a.k.a. the FOH Army) in other ways, from newsletters to illustrated essays about The Office to grassroots charity campaigns.
Ahead of the release of Movies (And Other Things), EW asked Serrano about the book, movies, and, well, other things.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the genesis for this book?
SHEA SERRANO: Once the basketball book came out and it did as well as it did, I knew that we were going to have the chance to do another book. I really enjoyed the process of the basketball book, and I like the way it was structured. It allowed me to hit a bunch of different things in very specific, acute ways and then stitch them all together with a common through-line. So I wanted to do that again, and movies made the most sense to me. A year in movies is really similar to a year in a basketball season: You’ve got big winners, big losers, disappointments. We want to eventually make it a three-book series: Basketball (And Other Things), Movies (And Other Things), and then I don’t know what the last one is yet, probably Rap (And Other Things) or Television (And Other Things).
You’re a fellow Fast & Furious diehard, and you have chapters about both Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel, which raises the question: Are you Team Vin Diesel or Team Rock? I’m Team Vin, because we both know he’s the heart of Fast.
You’re absolutely correct, it’s Vin Diesel. I remember when that whole fight first started and I was like, “What are you doing? I get that you’re the Rock, but the reason these movies work is because Vin Diesel is in there grumbling about family 25 times in a row.” You saw the difference when Hobbs & Shaw came out. Hobbs & Shaw, not a great movie. A fun movie to watch, but it didn’t have that emotional punch that the best Fast & Furious movies have. Like Furious 7, people who had not even seen other Fast movies cried at that end scene with Paul Walker. The Rock could have never done that; there’s a reason they left him out of that scene. He doesn’t have that same sort of weight. If you need a guy to pull a helicopter out of the sky, you call the Rock. But if we have to pick one of those two people, it’s got to be Vin Diesel. The movies just don’t work without him.
What was the process of coming up with the questions for MAOT? Are these things you’ve always wondered about? And what was the balance between the more serious and the more fun?
There were a few of them that I knew immediately I wanted to write. Like you mentioned, you watch a movie or a group of movies enough times, you pick up on things and go, “This is interesting, I’d like to write about this.” That’s usually how it starts — you have three of four that you know you want to do, and then it’s a matter of filling in the blanks with all the rest. I’ve got these different categories, like, “Okay, I’ve got these chapters that will allow me to just be all gas, no brakes. Let’s get silly for a few minutes.” But I also need a few that will allow me to give the book some kind of gravity, something that will allow me to discuss the history of movies without it being about the history of movies. When you’re done with it, it should feel not too much like an academic book, but also not too straight jokey and silly. You’re just trying to figure out a way to make this book obviously smart, but also like secretly smart. Like, the Rock chapter is a very silly, dumb thing, but at its center it’s about movie stardom and this person who became a global star and global character when that wasn’t a thing anymore.
You’ve done a podcast on John Wick and you’ve done a podcast on villains, so who should be the villain of John Wick 4?
You need two different types of villains here. For example, in John Wick 3 you had the Mark Dacascos character that John Wick [Keanu Reeves] has to fight, and he’s the main muscle. But if you look a little further at the movie, the main bad guy is the High Table and, by proxy, the Adjudicator, Asia Kate Dillon’s character. So if I get to cast who is going to be in John Wick 4, my main bad guy in the Mark Dacascos vein, the person I want John to fight, is Iko Uwais, from The Raid. I think he is hand-to-hand, foot-to-foot, the greatest movie fighter that we have ever had. Ever. In any type of movie. He can do all the stuff that everyone else needs the camera tricks to do. This is why Mile 22 was only 60 percent as good as it could have been; they’re doing a thousand quick-cut camera shots like they’re filming Liam Neeson in a fight scene and trying to make him look fast. You don’t need to do that with Iko, just turn the camera on and get out of the way and watch this f—ing magic.
But I want him as the main muscle bad guy, and then you can bring Asia Kate Dillon back as the Adjudicator, but there probably needs to be somebody at the head of that table who is just very intense and very creepy. I think one way you lean is that you just get a tall, intimidating, villainous kind of white guy, like Alexander Skarsgård. You get someone like him, or you go the complete opposite direction and get someone you’d never expect, which is probably what’s going to happen because the people that make the John Wick franchise are just a little bit smarter than everybody else.
Between your books and newsletters, you and artist Arturo Torres have formed a great partnership, and your work uses illustrations better than anyone else. What do you love about that form of storytelling?
I really like including those in there because a lot of the stuff that I write about is just weird. I’m always uncertain and insecure that I’m not a good enough writer to fully express what I’m trying to say. And so if I have an illustrator, I can be like, “Yo, I wrote this whole chapter about putting the Rock in other movies; the way we can make this feel a little more concrete is if we see a picture of the Rock in one of these movies.” In the case of the book, we did the scene from Titanic where Rose [Kate Winslet] hangs from the front of the ship and Jack [Leonardo DiCaprio] holds on to her. Everybody knows what movie scene that is, everybody understands the importance of that particular movie and moment. So if we take the Rock and put him in there and you see it after you read about it, it just makes all the other stuff make sense. When you’re reading about another movie, like we’re putting him in Predator, your brain will automatically now just insert him into it in whatever role we’ve said he should be. It just makes everything feel a little more real, a little more alive. Because it’s the difference of me telling you what a monster looks like and showing you. If you can see it, then that’s a game-changer.
I know you’ve seen the epic news of a Face/Off reboot, so who should we get in the John Travolta and Nicolas Cage roles?
I think you run it back with Travolta and Cage. Same characters. Castor Troy and Sean Archer are back, baby! Why not? Who cares? It’s going to be either fun to watch or sucky to watch, but it would be interesting, so let’s just do that. Who are you putting in there?
Travolta and Cage would be fun, because we also need those two back in our lives. We mentioned it earlier, but wouldn’t this be the perfect reunion of Diesel and Rock? And with their faces, you almost wouldn’t tell the difference. Obviously, the height would be a problem.
That would be funny. People would absolutely go for that.
You’ve found ways to get content to your readers beyond the Ringer and your physical books, like your newsletters or The Office Illustrated essays. What was the inspiration for that? Did you feel like you needed another way to connect with the readers?
Yeah, that’s a big part of it. Like when we did the newsletter, that was right after Grantland closed and everybody lost their jobs. I was still getting paid but I wasn’t doing any work, and I was bored and wanted something to do. With The Office, I wanted to write about The Office and knew I wanted to spend a fair amount of time with it, but I didn’t want to do the whole book process. I just wanted to see what happened if I did it myself and how it works. A lot of times it’s just boredom, and it’s fun to experiment with stuff. You know this, you’re a professional writer; it’s a scary time to be a writer. Everybody is always at risk of getting that email where it’s like, “It turns out we’re shutting this down, you have three weeks of severance, and good luck.” So I like to try to do stuff that lets me know, if this fell apart, if the Ringer shut down or if my book didn’t make enough money, could I survive on my own? I’m just trying to do stuff that makes me feel a little bit more comfortable with existing in this space. I’ve got a wife, I’ve got kids. The bills aren’t going to stop if the money stops.
We mentioned The Office essays, but you’ve recently been all in on watching and talking about Scrubs. So, The Office or Scrubs?
You’re catching me at a weird time right now because I’m so far into the Scrubs universe, it’s just what I watch every night now whenever it’s time to turn my brain off and wind down. So my natural reaction here is to say Scrubs, but if I step back far enough and can only pick one, I think The Office edges it out, just barely. It’s a close contest. This is a 94-91 basketball game. I think someone hits a jumper at the buzzer to win it for The Office. [Ed. note: LeJim Halpert?]
No one engages their fans quite like you do with the FOH Army. I woke up this morning and you’re giving away $1,000 on Twitter. Why do you think you’ve been able to develop such a large, passionate group? Giving out $1,000 helps, but it’s more than that.
If I had to guess, it’s probably just because at this point we’ve done enough stuff like what’s happening today that everybody understands: You show up here, the whole point is we’re making jokes and then every once and a while we’re going to raise money. We’re going to feel good about ourselves and then keep it moving. And that’s probably what brings the most people in and makes it the most interesting. For example, I could donate $10 myself to RAICES — not “a racist.” [Laughs] So I could do that on my own privately, or I could put it on Twitter that I’m going to donate $10, then we might get 1,000 other people to also donate $10. All of a sudden we’re not donating $10, we’re donating $10,000. And it feels cool to be a part of that. Also, everything is super-unofficial. Like, we don’t have merchandise we’re trying to sell, we don’t have a nonprofit that we’re trying to fund ourselves. We’re just doing s— whenever we feel like doing s—.
Lastly, my most important question is: What is the most important thing you’ve ever written?
[Laughs] Yeah, so the whole gag with that is every new thing you do, that is the most important thing, because that’s the one you’re doing right now. Who cares about every other shot that you made before if you miss this one? So I would say the movie book is the most important thing I’ve ever written… until it comes out. And then whatever the next thing I do will be more important.