Interview with Chris Millis

Earlier this semester, Chris Millis met with Kim Daigle, our MFA Graduate Assistant, to discuss his writing career and recent projects, and to share some advice for young writers. IMG_6063

Chris Millis is a prize-winning novelist, screenwriter, producer, cartoonist, and best-selling celebrity collaborator. In the year 2000, he won the International 3-Day Novel Contest with his book Small Apartments. Millis has since turned the book into a film, having worked very hard to adapt his novel into a screenplay.

You can catch Chris Millis on March 11, from 4:00-5:00 p.m. in room 369 of Albertus Hall/Science Center. Millis will deliver a presentation on demystifying the writing process, revealing all the seams in Hollywood’s great films.

Your novel Small Apartments won the International 3-Day Novel Contest and was later optioned for film. Before participating in this contest, what did your writing career look like?

Immediately before that I was writing sports for The Saratogian, and I had done some stuff for the AP. My beat was hockey. I covered US short track speed skating for the AP. I was essentially just a local sports reporter. Immediately before that, I was an art director and editorial board member/writer for The Rochester Free Press, a metro daily that folded, which is why I came back to Saratoga. Before that, I was just writing humor columns and stuff for my student newspaper at Buffalo State. And I was cartooning! That’s important, too. I did a ton of cartooning through college—political cartoons. They were primarily for my student paper, but also for a national college newspaper/magazine. I would do spot illustrations and editorial cartoons. I was doing work for The Saratogian from Buffalo. Then, in Rochester I was doing a daily editorial cartoon and I was a member of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. Then, I came back and was still doing cartoons for The Saratogian while I was writing sports. Plus, I would do a cartoon 2-3 times a week during the track season, which was really popular for seven years. It was called “Let it Ride.” Then, I met John McPherson, who draws “Close to Home,” which is a syndicated panel in about 700 papers. I met him in ’95, and we’ve been working together on “Close to home” in some capacity since then. I’ve always had a foot in the cartooning world. I would format and color all the “Close to Home” sundays, and went through that whole transition of doing it by hand. It was really labor intensive. It used to take 5-6 hours to do a week’s worth of cartoons. Then, when the computers came along, it took like half an hour. It was incredible! I was writing jokes, too. I was writing with John, writing all the gags for the cartoons, but before I wrote Small Apartments, I had never really written any fiction. I certainly hadn’t tried to publish any fiction.

When it comes to projects, do you usually work on a short timeline?

Yeah, and I think being in newspapers and being a cartoonist was ideal for me. It was ideal training because it’s all deadlines. You have to accept the fact that sometimes it’s just good enough. You have to get it done. You have to get it in. You have to write to a specific structure in newspapers, the old inverted pyramid where you can lob stuff off the end for space. And you have to deal with lots of personalities in the newspaper business, not just in the newsroom but out in the community, so that was really good training ground for writing screenplays, being in Hollywood, and dealing with people.

Not only did you write Small Apartments the novel, but you went on to write the script for the movie as well. Describe your experience translating the novel into film. Was anything lost? Was anything added?

So, I optioned the book and wanted to write the screenplay. They rarely ever want the novelist to be involved in the screenplay, but I made it a condition of the contract that I would at least get the first crack at it. I really didn’t know what I was doing, so I went away to Lake Placid where my friend had a house. I spent a week with the screenplay for Sideways, which had premiered the year before, and I learned my formatting by reading that and picking that apart over and over—not the structure so much but the format, the way the screenplay looks. I wanted to know how they visualize certain elements of a story. How does your brain go to that other place where narrative just won’t do the trick? How do you avoid voiceover if you don’t need it? By the way, there was not a lot of voiceover in my final script for Small Apartments. It’s the director, Jonas, who had that put in. He felt like he wanted it. He’s not afraid of voiceover. So anyway, yeah, I wrote that script and it wasn’t great. That’s when I went away to Goddard College for my MFA. And I was really fortunate in my first semester that Neil Landau was there. He teaches at UCLA, and wrote Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and he wrote for Melrose Place, Doogie Howser, and Undressed on MTV. He was really good at structure. He’s an awesome guy. He just happened to be teaching an adaptation workshop my first semester. I got really lucky. And then my other advisor was perfect for me because he was a newspaper and magazine guy. His name’s Richard Panek, and he was a by the book, deadline oriented, here’s-the-assignment-get-it-in-on-time, no nonsense kind of guy. It was a really good dynamic. So, I took what I learned from Neil in structure and I went back, basically tore my script apart and built it back up again, and the producers really liked it. So they optioned the screenplay as well, and I ended up being the novelist and the screenwriter. And then, I worked really hard to get better and better so that at no point in the process would I get dropped from being the screenwriter. I was really lucky to have a director, Jonah Akerlund, who is collaborative and counts on his writer. We really bonded, so that was another bit of luck for me to stay the screenwriter.

Your second novel, God and California, was also optioned for film. What is it about your writing that lends itself so well to film?

I think I’m probably a better screenwriter than I am a novelist, anyway. I think just because of my age and generation, I think more visually than somebody from the generation before me. I think we’re all just weaned on television and film, and all just think scenically and cinematically. Plus, I’m a cartoonist and a visual artist. My undergraduate degree is in art, so I think in pictures. I think that the writing, the way that I design scenes in my prose is really just kind of a blueprint for pictures in other people’s brains. I think that it translates really well. People are able to see it. That’s what they always tell me about my writing, that they can see it. It’s a real asset. Academically, and being respected as a novelist, it’s a huge detriment. You’re just not considered a “serious writer.”

What does your writing space look like? What tools do you need when you sit down to write?

I’m really old school. I like to use a pencil and legal pad. I like to use post it notes and 3×5 cards. I like to put the puzzle of the story together. I have notebooks and moleskins. I always carry Moleskines with me—big ones and little ones—and I write down tons of little thoughts and notes. Most of them never go anywhere. And my workspace is usually wherever it’s quiet. I have an office at my house, but I rarely write there because it’s just too much activity and when you’re at home there’s just a million things that you see that need to be done, so I write best when I’m in somebody else’s borrowed space. When I am writing at home, I switch to writing standing up a lot. I have this little footstool that I put on top of the desk and I write standing up. I like that.

You focus a lot on structure, emphasizing the importance of outlines and planning. How do these techniques help the writing process?

Like I said, I came from it backwards. I kind of did it, but I didn’t know how I did it, so I wanted to figure out how I did it so I could do it again, and kind of demystify the writing process as much as I could. I wanted to break it down into its basic elements. I learned there was this whole world of structure that was as old as time, and that some brilliant scholars and modern day advocates had done a terrific job of describing it. I was like YES. This is exactly what I know it to be. Now, with my picture brain, I can picture the story. I can see it in blocks. That discovery was exciting to me. It was really exciting because you have this vague notion of a story idea, and then you have this mechanism, and you can start to plug things in where they would belong in the structure—this classic three-act structure— and then you see what kind of story you really have. You see how much is really missing. I think, for me, it was really good because I think the thrust was always for me to be screenwriting. And that’s just a necessity. Even if you don’t fancy yourself a structured writer, you still need to be able to know it if you want to be in that industry because it’s eventually going to be structured regardless of how you arrived at the story. It still needs to be broken up into film structure because of the process—the process of production, the process of editing. I was just talking about Boyhood with Matt Lucas, who plays Franklin in my movie, and we were talking about just how wonderful Boyhood is for its lack of structure—how non sequitur some of the stuff is, and how it really mirrors real life. It would just be nice if you could make more movies like that because there is something very satisfying about Boyhood, but I think it can’t be done unless it’s under this guise that it’s somehow real, even though it’s built on a fictional narrative. It’s a real 12-year process with real people. Basically, with structure, I think you have to know it first before you tear it apart. The danger, always, is that you feel like it’s this oppressive thing you have to follow step-by-step.

In your opinion, how much of writing can be taught? Are there aspects that can’t be taught?

I think structure is the best tool that you can give a young writer. It demystifies the mystical process of writing and says, “Here is a way that lets you in.” It’s and open door where you can go in, plug in your story, and start to figure it out from there without feeling so daunted by the blank page. It helps you just start to get things down, and what you do with it from there is limitless. Then, of course, the part that can’t be taught is you. You are the unique voice that you’re going to slowly bring out through the process of writing. Nobody can copy the voice that’s in you. Some people’s voices are really good, and some people’s voices are, you know, as good as they can do. That’s the X-factor. That’s the part where everyone says writing can’t be taught, but writing is a craft. The WGA is a guild. Writers are craftsmen and craftswomen, and they are in a trade. Every trade has its tools.

After achieving success with Small Apartments, you went on to pursue an MFA at Goddard College. Do you think you benefited from having completed a novel prior to your formal education? Why or why not?

Yeah! I can only speak about it from my own perspective, but I thought it was a huge advantage that I had already published a book when I went back to school. I was really struggling with the adaptation of the screenplay. So, I think I was fortunate in the fact that I kind of had this surprising success, which I went back and academically did an autopsy on. I think that was a huge advantage for me because that was a true process of pulling back the curtain and seeing the wizard. That took all the mystery out of it. Then I was like, Ah! Of course! It’s these little wheels that turn the big wheel. Then I wrote another novel as my thesis. That’s God and California, which I wound up optioning, and we’re making that into a film now, too.

Who are your film and literary heroes?

There are easy ones like Monty Python, which really influenced me. The Coen brothers have been a huge influence on me. They have the ability to write in their style and their voice in any genre they choose. I love that. Vonnegut was a huge influence on me—that you could write a novel like that, have that kind of fun with your writing, and be that personal. Charles Portis is one of, if not my favorite, authors. And Cartooning too—particularly political cartoons. Pat Oliphant was a huge influence on me because I gravitated toward political cartooning. It’s just more cynical. It speaks truth to power. It’s ironic. It tells a visual story. I loved Mad Magazine, just like every young boy my age.

You’ve said the screenplay writer is often the last to receive recognition. Why do you think this is so?

There are lots of reasons. The most obvious is because Hollywood has designed it that way. There are a lot of big personalities in the entertainment business, and they muscle for recognition, and they’re just better at boxing out the fact that nobody goes and shoots a movie with 100 blank pages.

In Small Apartments, main character Franklin Franklin could be described as an antihero. What inspired you to write an antihero rather than a hero?

That’s a good question. I think the only answer to it is just that those are just the people in the stories I’m interested in primarily. I feel like at this stage I can write in any genre, but antiheros and black comedy is the genre I want to write in, if given my choice. It’s just more interesting to me to challenge myself to build empathy in a character who by all accounts should be unlikeable. I never bought into that whole concept that your hero needs to be likeable. They just need to be compelling.

Despite the bizarre events taking place throughout Small Apartments, I still got a sense of the real, rational world. How do you balance the probable with the improbable?           

That’s at the heart and soul of my style. That’s who I am because it’s just not weird to me. It’s so weird to people, but that’s just not weird to me at all. It’s just what happens. It’s just how it happens. And I think that’s why I bonded with certain people who I really respect because they sort of just get it. It’s a small audience, unfortunately.

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