Daniel Pyne on the differences between writing for screen and page
Daniel Pyne’s new novel Catalina Eddy is a crime novella told in three parts, across three decades: the 1950s, ’60s, and ’80s. Named after during the southern Californian weather phenomenon that causes “June gloom” across those parts, the three sections of the novel loosely overlap plots, characters, and themes, but Pyne pays more attention to fully immersing the reader in each snapshot story as a standalone piece.
With years of experience writing for film and television, (he is currently a showrunner on Amazon’s series, BOSCH) Pyne writes with cinematic flair, grit, and pithy prose that frees the characters from the page and sets them roaming in the reader’s mind, all the time nodding his cap to traditional noir storytelling along the way.
EW caught up with Pyne to talk the challenges of and differences between writing for screen and page, his crime fiction influences and being sure to leave the reader wanting more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: At this point you’re a novelist, a screenwriter and a television writer. Which was originally intended to be your career?
DANIEL PYNE: In college I thought maybe I could be a fiction writer and then when I got out of school I was out here on the West Coast and long fiction seemed really intimidating. I’d always had this interest in dramatic writing so I applied to film school and got in and that put me on the screenwriting track. I loved it and I kept writing fiction too in the background thinking TV would support me while I wrote novels, but I quickly realized that that was a whole career in and of itself. I did TV for a little while and then got an opportunity to rewrite a movie under my TV deal at Universal. Suddenly I was a screenwriter and I had a television career for a short time. For about five or six years I did both television and screenplays. People in movies didn’t know that I did TV because I never really surfaced as a celebrated television writer, and people in television knew that I was doing movies and wondered why I still did television.
Do you have a preference of the three?
Novels and movies. I love movies more than television — I hate to admit it. I like stories that begin and end. I like being able to examine character in a compressed state rather than in the open-ended format of much of television. One of the things I like about BOSCH is that it’s a little bit like doing a film adaptation because you have books that you’re basing the material on. So you’re trying to find the author’s voice and the dramatic interpretation of his voice and there’s an ending. It’s like a 10-hour movie. I remember when I was a baby writer I was doing episodic TV which began and ended every episode. Every episode was its own story and once television made this jump into Breaking Bad or Mad Men where it just kind of went on and on, I felt a little lost. Fortunately by then I was doing features and then I kind of circled back to novel writing.
Do you prefer the opportunity to be collaborative on a movie or the freedom of going it alone in novels?
I like both. What I like about novels is what I liked the few times I’ve written and directed things: You have so much control and what you intend — for better or worse — is what people see or read. The first time I saw the first words of Twentynine Palms in print it was thrilling because before that I would write a screenplay and no one would ever see what I wrote. They would see an interpretation of what I wrote, but they would never see the description that I’d done — so that was really gratifying. But, collaboration is the great thing about movie making. You have all these really talented artists that come together to contribute their specialty and then the job of the director is to oversee that and the job of the writer is to martial the forces and suggest how they might make the movie.
Has writing for screen affected how you write fiction and vice versa?
I think that screenwriting had two effects on me. One is that it enabled me to try some things and not be self-conscious about it because nobody really cares what a screenplay reads like; they only appreciate it if it reads well. It also made me a very concise and accurate writer and I could experiment with structure and form.
Screenplays are very direct and there tends to be no room for directions or wandering off into the woods for a while and circling back around, the way novels can. A movie is still like a filmstrip; it starts with frame one and it ends at the end. It can never go back, so it has to have a very aggressively linear form; even if you’re jumping around in flashbacks everything has to fall into place. Whereas in a book, the narrator or the writer can jump forward and backward within a paragraph; they can allude to things that happened before; they can hold back things that happened that they decided not to let you see and now they’re going to tell you later. That was then challenging because I got so used to the screenplay form and I got so comfortable in it that I have to push myself to go outside the boundaries of a screen story. The irony is that a lot of the stuff that I used to see — when I was doing adaptations and doing rewrites in the movie business — felt like novels that were written as treatments for movies. They were doing the same thing that I was doing and it was really annoying. When I first started writing books I thought, well A) I’m going to write books that you can’t make into movies, but they’re going to feel like movies. B) I’m going to take what I learned in movies and bring it back to literature. That was kind of pretentious and I realized that that really didn’t matter — it was more about telling a good story.
Catalina Eddy is definitely very visually written — you put the reader firmly into each scene as the story unfolds. The characters are so developed in such a short space that it really feel like they could each break out and become the star of their own series of novels, let alone part of one. Was that the intention?
The idea was that we’re seeing this little glimpse as it rolls by. I was going with that tip of the iceberg thing: Wouldn’t it be interesting if you had just this glimmer of an era, and a person and a situation in southern California and it’s kind of familiar but not fully familiar. After I wrote it I gave it to a friend to read and he said, “you should follow this up, you should do this again,” and but I knew if I did I’d jump out of time. I created a whole timeline for each character and then just picked them up at this crucial time, at some really important water ship time in their career.
If I did one character in one novel I don’t think I’d be satisfied and then it would just be like everything else; it would be a character that you’d have to do three or four more novels and I’m not all that interested in doing serialized novels. I really didn’t want to have a single plot that played through all three eras – I didn’t want to connect them in that way and I had this weird idea of connecting them through less important character.
Did the characters or the crimes come to you first for each of the three stories?
The characters came to me first, sort of situational-y. I was interested in bridge between Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald in the detective world. You have Philip Marlowe who’s kind of the man in the ‘40s and then you have Blue Archer who’s really more of a ‘60s character. I was really interested in this guy who was a detective — but not a Chandler-esque L.A. detective — that reflected more of the Los Angeles that I’ve come to know which is Aerospace and CIA and a lot of things that people don’t see as much. In The Big Empty, I wanted to develop a character during the transition time between the early ’50s and late ’50s in Los Angeles. In Losertown, I was really interested in this U.S. attorney who came out of the private sector and went back into federal law, the difference between local and federal law, and the beginning of the politicization of federal law enforcement in the ‘80s. And I was really interested in San Diego as a landscape. I have a friend that grew up there in Chula Vista and he loves to talk about it. He’s the one who coined the term “losertown.” He would talk about this weird blend of beach culture and golf culture – sort of upper-middle class Republican golf culture – and the military; there’s such a big military presence there. In Portuguese Bend, I have the police forensics photographer and the detective. I was really interested in exploring what happens when somebody who is really active gets paralyzed. What’s their job going to look like now? How does a woman detective go from being physical to cerebral? She fascinated me.
Catalina Eddy is out now and season 3 of Bosch premiers April 21 on Amazon.