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At the Drawing Board with the Creators of 13 Legends

Juli C. Lasselle

Jon Eastman is a screenwriter and Stuart Thomas is a screenwriter/playwright who have been collaborating on a variety of film projects. Recently, they have written a graphic novel, 13 Legends, which centers on the Arthurian myths. I sat down with the two of them at Stuart’s home in San Francisco to talk to them about their graphic novel, their process of collaboration, and other writerly things.

SB:
What is 13 Legends and how did it come about?

Jon EastmanStuart Thomas
Jon Eastman left, Stuart Thomas right

Jon: 13 Legends is a loose retelling of the Arthurian legends in an alternate history. So, we’ve taken the Arthurian myths from more of a Dark Ages background, and placed it instead in an alternate timeline where the stories take place in the 1770s but in a world that is less familiar to you because the pace of technology has increased dramatically. There is a point in time—the point of departure—where everything has changed; the timeline has split from what we’re used to in our history. That point is 1492 in our series. In 1492 something happens that changes the history of the world of 13 Legends and by the time you get to the story in earnest in the 1770s, It’s a more technologically advanced, superpower dominated, militarized world. It’s in this totally new setting, in a new time, that we retell the classic myths. not that they’re a very strict retelling of the Arthurian legends so… there’s a lot of moving parts to it.

SB:
Where did the idea come from?

Stuart:
It was Jon’s idea.

Jon:
Stuart and I wanted to do something Arthurian.

Stuart:
Years ago.

Jon:
Long time ago. We tried a few things that didn’t speak to us. Much later I came up with this mash-up kind of idea and then wrote a draft of the first part of the script. Stuart liked it and so we developed the script from there.

SB:
Did you always know a graphic novel was the form it would take?

Jon:
Yes.

SB:
You actually conceived of it as a graphic novel versus some other form?

Stuart:
Very quickly it became a graphic novel, didn’t it? When Jon first floated it ages and ages ago… we were thinking about TV weren’t we?

Jon:
The other idea that didn’t work was a TV idea and we both agreed that the amount of story in anything Arthurian required something bigger than one feature film. When I wrote the original draft it was the first time I wrote anything in a graphic novel form. I did it with that form in mind because we had talked about TV and know a lot more about TV and the mechanics of that from our backgrounds. It’s a graphic novel series but it is definitely in the vein of an HBO TV show.

SB:
13 Legends is the title for the entire series and you have conceived of 13 different graphic novels in this series. Is that correct?

Jon:
13 installments. Episodes if it was TV.

SB:
Do you have all of those plotted out?

Jon:
The broad strokes… yes. Where it’s going, why it’s going there, what it’s all about. I’m doing the broader strokes but the thing about development is that, once you get to the script, then you really have to start re-thinking things like characters, their interactions, the meat. The bones are there but that’s not to say things won’t change, that’s not to say we won’t discover things in the script…

Stuart:
What we learn going into something of this scale… because a movie is different… the restrictions of time and pages are different and there are no restrictions other than the ones we set. Unlike when we work collaboratively on a script, this requires a single driver. Within the broad strokes things are constantly mutable but it needs that big shape, a big overall shape.
SB:
How long have you been working together?

Stuart:
About six years. Since 2006. Informally we probably started about then.

Jon:
Informally about that long. We actually tried unsuccessfully on two or three projects. We were learning screenwriting in school while trying to do something even more complicated, which is collaboration.

Stuart:
I think our styles are immensely complementary. But are very very different and until we found the perfect way… and the graphic novel is another incarnation of our collaborative sensibility. It’s not the same as when we write a screenplay.

SB:
If Jon is doing the broad strokes then what role do you play?

Stuart:
I come in and we write the actual scripts together.

SB:
How important is character development? You have these characters, some of which are familiar already to the reader.

Stuart:
The interesting thing is… and this is something we found really early on… there’s no single cogent story. Every Arthurian character that you think you know is to a lesser or greater extent transformed with every telling. Particularly the women characters. Like Guinevere is, in some of the stories, totally benign…

Jon:
Or absent.

Stuart:
…or absent. In some of the stories she’s a seductress, some of the stories she’s a villain. The character work is considerable. They’re not stock figures. They can’t be because it’s not going to be satisfying. You need to reinvent them.

Jon:
Everybody knows a version that has been popularized in modern times. We did give ourselves the freedom to not necessarily use those versions in all cases. We tread carefully with the really beloved characters because we know that’s dangerous territory. If we made a change or decided to go with an earlier form of a character that is less known, we did it for a reason. For the story. We haven’t made any arbitrary adjustments.

Stuart:
Once we’re actually into the body of the story it’s like any other story: the characters have to rise or fall on their own merit. If you came into this and didn’t know the Arthur stories it would be a different experience but I think it would still be a rewarding narrative.

Jon:
You don’t need to know the Arthur series to read this.

SB:
How much was research a part of this process?

Jon:
It was, is, and will be a lot.

Stuart:
It’s especially compounded because… I think we both quite like research, don’t we?

Jon:
I like it. That’s my background.

Stuart:
Me too. Some of these texts are so…

Jon:
You have to pick your battles depending on how determined you are to make your way through some Old English…

Stuart:
…they go on forever and repeat things endlessly and then sometimes contradict things. There’s a lot of research and not all of it fun.

SB:
Then there’s the research into everything from 1492 to the 1770s and beyond.

Stuart:
That was fun.

SB:
What research are you doing to create that historical and technological mash-up?

Jon:
Before I wrote the script in extremely broad strokes, I did figure out time frames. Then when we started writing the rest of the script and rewriting the first part that I’d done, we had to really think about what could be reasonably different.

Stuart:
That’s also such fun because there’s part of it when we focused on what happened in Britain at a certain point. The idea that Edward V, the boy king, who died and then Bloody Mary took the throne and then Bloody Mary died and Elizabeth I took the throne. We thought, what would happen if the kid didn’t die and then finally Elizabeth gets the throne because Mary died as a princess and by that time Elizabeth is really old and she’d married Robert Dudley and that was great fun. We also played around with if Mary Queen of Scots hadn’t had the face off with Queen Elizabeth and she ended up being this kind of Catherine de Medici despot, Machiavellian, doing stuff behind the throne. It was really good fun.

Jon:
All that said… you might not get any of that reading the book because that became fun of its own. Maybe you’ll feel that we did that work but you won’t directly know it.

SB:
How much did the research affect the stories that you end up telling?

Stuart:
It’s hard to know directly. In terms of the version of the world we end up with at that particular point in the 18th century, it’s definitely a different world climate. I don’t think that was directly informed by the historical alterations that were made. It’s definitely a different world and I don’t know if that’s a direct result of…

Jon:
The only way that this could be done… at least with mine and Stuart’s skill sets… and most people I’ve met who do this kind of thing…it’s nice to think you can start at A and go to Z but what really happened was we had to justify an idea I had in reverse. We kept finding the sections of script that required that. So it’s a lot of retcon-ing (retroactive continuity)–coming up with things that explain why… it’s plugging up all the holes. I think there are a few people that I respect who are world-renowned storytellers who may not have done it that way. Tolkien. He developed an entire world. Languages. Histories. I don’t like history that much. Or doing research that much. Our method is more: here’s what we want, how do we justify it?

SB:
Does this process differ from the other kind of writing that you’ve done or are doing?

Jon:
In terms of the graphic novel, yes. Because the other writing we’re doing is speculative and, hopefully, will find a home with an entirely different set of people who will make it into films, TV, what have you. But with this we’re actually producing it.

SB:
What about the process of the writing?

Jon:
The answer is probably different for Stuart than it is for me. I do pretty big genre heavy, wide scope stories.

Stuart:
Also, you’re very attracted to more fantastical stories.

Jon:
I like more complex plots. There needs to be something supernatural or alternate from our world to really interest me. I inevitably end up doing that in all of my work. Stuart may have a bigger scope of research… more books under his belt that he’s read to be so well informed about the worlds he’s written about. Such as a screenplay he’s written called Afra. It is the real world. It could have happened that way. I don’t get the sense that he resorts to that technique [retcon-ing] in his own work.

Stuart:
I agree. This is quite a departure for me. Every time you write something different your writing changes anyway. It has to. You enhance or augment certain aspects of your style while others get diminished. This is a world I wouldn’t normally have been drawn to. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything in this particular genre.

Jon:
The area where our skillsets met was with the characters, the Arthurian myths

Stuart:
Because we both grew up with them. I can’t imagine anyone not having some kind of interest in the Arthur stuff because its core deep, isn’t it? Especially if you’re British. It really is. Then the chance to put it against a different world… I don’t get the chance to do that very often because my stuff is much more anchored in everyday stuff than yours [Jon’s] is.

SB:
Don’t you tend to be drawn to historical realism? Actual events or people inspiring a story.

Stuart:
Yep. I guess this is an opportunity to write something in a history that didn’t happen. That is really freeing. When Jon showed me the first chapter… that was ages ago now. How long ago?

Jon:
A couple of years.

Stuart:
And it was amazing. And I use that word in all its meanings. To get a chance to step outside of real history and go into a world that is as rich as any real history, and then put these characters in that I’ve know my whole life, since I was a kiddie. Every time you turn around King Arthur is buried underneath you. The films are on the tele all the time. All the time. So it’s like family members. I know that sounds a bit overly stated but it really is because of the constancy in Britain.

SB:
Everyone always says, “Write what you know”. How did you invest yourself in these characters? Or did you?

Stuart:
It’s like any other job, isn’t it? You have to because if you don’t your material is compromised.

Jon:
In terms of such a sweeping project… I push pause on that while writing the broad strokes because there are just too many variables already. Those complexities come only at the script level with something this vast.

Maybe in a film, especially a short film, you probably start there. Or a poem or some flash fiction, you probably start with the feelings and the insight into the characters. If you did that in this you’d find yourself lost. You just wouldn’t know where to go. Especially when you’re shooting for something specific because, to tell a series like this, you have to be able to deliver something that makes sense later on. Just like a television show. Considering you know where the bulls-eye is you’re steering the characters around a little bit. What you need to do, and what I feel we’ve done successfully in the first volume, is mix that up a little bit. Don’t be too strict with the outline. We know we’ve got to hit that bulls-eye but we need well-rounded characters too. You do another draft. We’ve done 30 drafts of that thing. Easy.


Stuart: Then you bring in the artists.

Jon:
Then you do more edits as it’s going through production. It’s just like production on a film really. You start making decisions in the moment and if it doesn’t work out you try something else. As far as writing what you know… with fantasy, obviously that’s not literally possible but that’s never stopped anyone from writing that genre.

Stuart:
There’s also what you know and what you know at a core level and that’s where the character stuff comes in. These are just people the same as any other people we’ve ever written about. They just happen to have very specific destinies and very specific identities. But then you have to look past all that and they’re just people trying to do whatever it is that they’re trying to do. That’s the what-you-know bit, isn’t it?

Jon:
It depends on how philosophical or deep or technical or academic you want to get on the question. For me, from the character’s point of view it’s all what you know inside and externally it’s what you’re willing to research and teach yourself.
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