Troubled Spirits Haunt Screenwriter Stolberg’s First Novel
An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Josh Stolberg
Columnist Anna Roins
by Josh Stolberg
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Josh Stolberg has been writing and directing movies and television shows for over 20 years. His most recent blockbuster is Jigsaw (2017), the latest addition to the popular Saw horror franchise. In television, Josh has developed pilots for Fox, NBC, CBS Studio, and Dreamworks Television to name a few.
His debut novel, Incarnate is about a psychiatrist, Kim Patterson, who works at a regional hospital in Alaska trying to finish her internship without breaking the rules. She’s assigned a new patient, 19-year-old Scarlett Hascall, who has attacked a few people seemingly without reason. Kim suspects that Scarlett suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder, only to discover that among the persons Scarlett channels is a recent murder victim called Isabel. When Scarlett becomes a suspect in Isabel’s disappearance, Kim tries to convince the police of her innocence.
Incarnate is infused with suspense, humour and drama that will make you race through the pages until you reach the desperate end
|“Coming from the movie world, mapping out the story is probably the most important stage in the creative process . . .”
AUTHORLINK: Mr Stolberg, thank you for taking time to talk to Authorlink today. Your debut novel, Incarnate, is an interesting, action-packed read with plenty of twists and turns to keep us guessing all throughout. Did you know the full story from the beginning and then stick to an outline? Or did you just sit down and write and see where the story took you?
STOLBERG: Since this was my first novel, I knew how important it was to outline. Coming from the movie world, mapping out the story is probably the most important stage in the creative process — it’s not the most fun, not by a long shot, but it’s certainly the most crucial step. Very rarely have I had success sitting down and just “seeing what happens”. That said, straying from the outline, while writing, is what keeps it exciting and lets me surprise myself as I go. I have to admit that, with this story, I cheated a little bit… you see, I’ve been living with these characters and the core mystery for years because I initially wrote Incarnate as a television series. And that’s a LONG process. After mulling the concept over for a few months, I pitched the idea to Alloy Entertainment (the production company in Hollywood), and after they came aboard, I sold a fully-fleshed out pitch to Warner Bros television studio, and then later to the CW. Then, after reworking several outlines of the hour-long pilot script, I wrote the pilot (all of the main characters from the book were in that episode). When the CW liked what I had written, we eventually hired a writing staff to “break story” on a potential first season for the show. The entire process, from start to finish, lasted about two years, during which I had written extensive character bibles and backstories and had most of the twists and turns all mapped out. By the time I got around to working on the book, it was more of a cathartic release than anything else. I basically turned what would have been my first season of the show into the first book.
AUTHORLINK: How fascinating; we hope there’s a sequel! You usually have a few projects going on at the same time. You write screenplays, direct independent as well as blockbuster films, scripts for TV shows and now, write books. Is it challenging to do them all well and at the same time? Are you more partial to one medium over the other?
STOLBERG: I’ve been writing for movies and television shows for over twenty years now and I absolutely love it. I’ve learned how to work efficiently on several projects at the same time… which comes partly out of necessity because you never know which shows or series will get picked up, and partly because it helps with writer’s block — when I’m in a creative rut, I just pick up another project that is speaking to me at the time. Also, I’m lucky enough to work with several partners who grab the baton when things get hectic — I’ve been writing with one of my best friends since college, Pete Goldfinger, on mostly horror films (Jigsaw, Piranha 3D, Sorority Row), and I’ve been working with another good friend named Bobby Florsheim in the comedy world. So those guys sometimes help with a release valve when projects are due. I was smart enough to marry the other person who is always there to help out with ideas when the well is running dry – my wife, Leila, helps me with all my projects, partially by acting as my harshest critic. As far as directing, most of the films I work on as a director are smaller indie films, with tighter budgets that don’t take up the time that a big studio project takes. For instance, one of my favorite films I’ve made as a director, a little indie called Conception, was shot in 10 days. By contrast, most studio films shoot for several months, with some even stretching out to over a year. Eyes Wide Shut shot for more than 400 days. Writing novels is new… so it took some time to find a groove and find my voice, but I’m in LOVE with it now and I’m excited to write more books.
|“When you’re writing screenplays, it’s all about “white space” on the page — you tell the story with as few words and as succinctly as you possibly can.”
AUTHORLINK: Who was your first reader/editor for Incarnate? Was the final version very different from the first?
STOLBERG: The first person to read everything is my wife. And she usually makes me cry. And not tears of joy. If I hear, “Yeah, it’s not bad,” I feel like I’ve just received a donor kidney two weeks after hitting end-stage renal disease. Besides Leila, I had also written several drafts of the television pilot, which I received notes on from many creative executives and producers and other writer friends. But the principal editor on the book was Alloy Entertainment’s, Lanie Davis, who was instrumental in helping me NOT look like a fool, and she also worked with me to translate the TV pilot into a story that would flow well as a novel. When you’re writing screenplays, it’s all about “white space” on the page — you tell the story with as few words and as succinctly as you possibly can. It’s not that way with novels, which is all about the journey.
AUTHORLINK: Tough love then? You mentioned having written projects with Pete and Bobby. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a co-writer?
STOLBERG: The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. When you take on a writing partner, it’s a little bit like a marriage. My wife tells me when I have food in my teeth and shmutz on my shirt, or when I need to apologize for saying something inappropriate at a dinner party — it’s much the same with my writing partners, except it’s all about the material. If a joke is falling flat, one comes in to the rescue with a better punchline. If a plot point is too on-the-nose, another will offer a more nuanced direction. It’s also about having someone who you keeps you in check, not allowing you to overindulge in your own writing weaknesses. It’s also great to have someone there to be your WITNESS (Are you writing enough? Does the writing matter?) As far as disadvantages, the most obvious is… you get half the money, and it’s not always “half the work”. I’ve also had issues with one writer feeling that they are the “alpha” in the relationship… and that can get tricky, trying not run over someone else’s ideas, or not allowing your own vision to get steamrolled. I try to balance my writing so I’m always working with a co-writer on something, while also making sure I’m working on solo projects at the same time.
|“One of the reasons that I was so excited to write a book is because the book is the finished product. It’s the final dish being served to the audience. It’s not that way with screenwriting.”
AUTHORLINK: That is so interesting. We understand that as with most Hollywood movies, a studio will hire a group of writers to work on a script once it has been purchased, rather than one. In your experience, do they often ask the original screen writer to be part of that team? And if not, why not? And why are there so many writers on board for the one film? Is it a way of damage control?
STOLBERG: So, that’s a REALLY tough question, because there isn’t just one answer. Every movie is different. One of the reasons that I was so excited to write a book is because the book is the finished product. It’s the final dish being served to the audience. It’s not that way with screenwriting. Writing a script is one step in a very long collaborative process that includes dozens, if not hundreds of people, who will have a hand in the finished product — the directors, the actors, the studio executives, the producers, casting directors, publicity departments, etc. I’ve written scripts that I’ve LOVED, that I was really proud of that got turned into lousy movies or didn’t get past the starting line… and I’ve written flawed scripts that we saved by an amazing team of filmmakers. Getting back to your question, there is no “right way” to make a film. So-called auteurs, who write and direct their own material can create incredible works of art, but they can also make crap movies. Personally, when I’m making a film, I don’t care where an idea comes from… a producer, a grip, my mom, I don’t care… as long as it’s a good idea and helps the film. Sure, movie studios sometimes attempt to do damage control by over-tinkering with scripts, and sometimes it backfires horrendously. But sometimes it works out — look at Wonder Woman, that film had several writers over the years, who took multiple cracks at the script, and it turned into a fantastic film. What I DON’T appreciate that Hollywood sometimes does is to hire multiple writers at the same time, having them “compete” for the best script — and then, sometimes, they Frankenstein together the best parts of the different scripts. That usually results in a disaster. Throughout my twenty years in Hollywood, I’ve seen it all — I’ve been fired off of projects, I’ve been hired to come in and rewrite other writers, I’ve been brought in for a few days to polish scripts. Good films are made when everyone is working toward the same goal… to deliver a memorable movie-going experience, and no one’s ego is placed ahead of the film. Then again, sometimes those movies suck, too.
AUTHORLINK: What an insightful answer, thanks for that. The word incarnate, means, “Embodied in flesh; given a bodily, especially a human, form”. What made you think of combining troubled spirits with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which is a mental disorder characterised by at least two distinct and relatively enduring identities. It’s a fascinating topic. Did your research uncover many ‘legitimate’ cases?
STOLBERG: Yes, I did a ton of research about D.I.D. when I first started working on the idea. But… (mild spoiler alert)… I also always knew that Scarlett (the teenager who is diagnosed with the mental disorder) didn’t actually have D.I.D., so I wasn’t ever beholden to the symptoms of the actual sickness, which is already incredibly controversial in psychiatric circles. There is no clear consensus as to how it should be treated, or if it really exists. Most patients who are diagnosed with the disorder manifest the illness differently… some display two or three alters, while there is one recorded case where a patient had more than 4000 individual, distinct personalities. For me, D.I.D. was the way IN to Incarnate, but the question that the reader and our main character (Dr. Kim Patterson) are always asking themselves is not “Does Scarlett have D.I.D.?”, but rather, “Have the lost souls of the dead somehow found their way inside Scarlett… or is it all a con?” As far as the title, ‘Incarnate’ was always the title — from my very first pitch, when I walked into the office of Cheryl Dolins and Les Morganstein at Alloy. I loved the word, partly because it was part of “reincarnation”, and how the lost soul could find its way back into the “flesh”… back into a “human form”. But I also loved that when we hear the word “incarnate”, it’s usually used in conjunction with the word “evil”… “Evil Incarnate”… the devil in human form. And I wanted to invoke the question about who that evil might be…Is it Scarlett?… Or is there an evil soul inside of her?… Or is there another truly evil character, a devil cloaked in human form?
AUTHORLINK: It’s a compelling theory. We note you have been obsessed with horror films since you were a child and in fact, you once said you need a “good kill” in a horror movie to be able to sell it – but you need to be able to laugh in it too (just as well!)…
STOLBERG: Yes, I had a poster of Michael Myers (from Halloween, not from Austen Powers) up on my wall growing up. I saw Halloween WAY too young and became obsessed with all things horror. And yes, indeed, a “good kill” is essential! It’s part of the horror movie culture. For me, horror movies are like rollercoasters — you put yourself in a scary spot, hoping to experience what it might feel like to almost die.
|“that the vast majority of horror films are more about the jumps and action than about the characters and the dialogue. And that’s a problem.”
AUTHORLINK: Yes, if you like rollercoasters! Unfortunately, usually ‘character’ and ‘dialogue’ are the first elements to be sacrificed in these kinds of films because you need to make room for explosions and special effects. Which horror movie(s), in your opinion, contain all the elements mentioned above?
STOLBERG: You’re definitely correct that the vast majority of horror films are more about the jumps and action than about the characters and the dialogue. And that’s a problem. It’s antithetical to what actually makes a good scare — if we connect with the character, it’s much easier to the ratchet up the tension because we CARE about the person in danger. Usually, though, there’s a mandate for a higher “body count”, which makes it even harder to spend time with your movie’s characters. Most of my favorite horror movies have slow builds; they take the time to get to know the characters before starting to pick them off. Horror movies that I really love, that succeed with this slow burn, are films like The Shining, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby. There’s a French film this year called Raw which I absolutely adored. Get Out did a fantastic job of building characters that you really care about. The Orphanage. John Carpenter’s The Thing. Alien is brilliant — that is one of the all-time great SLOW BURN horror movies — Ridley Scott really takes his time introducing the characters before the creature starts bursting through chests. One of the real problems with horror films is running time — most of these films are limited to roughly 90 minutes, and there is such a push from marketing to “get to the kills”, it makes it even harder for filmmakers to trust in the slow burn. That’s why I love reading horror… there’s nothing like being up at 2:45 AM, unable to put a book down, in a dark room while reading Clive Barker or Stephen King. With novels, there are no standard rules when it comes to page count, not like you have with films.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, I remember with Misery, I was reading and screaming at the same time! The main character of Incarnate, Kim, is a quirky, courageous and quite a brilliant psychologist. Where did she come from? Did you base her on someone you know? Will we see more of her in a sequel?
STOLBERG: The character of Kim is a completely fictional creation. But I did “borrow” her name — I had a good friend from my childhood named Kimberly Patterson, who was diagnosed with leukemia and died when she was barely 29 (the same age as my character). Kim lived nearby me, growing up in Sarasota, Florida, and she was such a warm and beautiful soul. I asked her Mom and Dad, whom my family is still dear friends with, if I could use her name for my book… not because I was basing my character on Kim, but because I loved this character… I thought it would be nice to be able to think about my friend Kim every time I wrote her name. Now, getting back to the “fictional” character– I love writing strong female protagonists, which may come from my horror background and how most horror movies have a “final girl” who saves the day and dispatches the killer… Laurie Strode in Halloween, Ellen Ripley in Alien, Sidney Prescott in Scream. I really love writing powerful women. In fact, many of my favorite unproduced scripts also feature them — I co-wrote a screenplay for Paramount based on Lisa Lutz’s series The Spellman Files, whose protagonist Izzy Spellman is one of the all-time best spirited protagonists. I also wrote a screenplay adaptation of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, which has one of the most wonderfully intelligent, full-blooded female characters in any book I’ve ever read.
|“I’m really hoping to find a way to get Incarnate to the screen. Even if it takes me writing a few books to get there.”
AUTHORLINK: Has there been any interest in Incarnate being made into a film? Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead characters from Incarnate? Would you want to be involved in the screen play as well?
STOLBERG: I’m really hoping to find a way to get Incarnate to the screen. Even if it takes me writing a few books to get there. As I said, the whole thing started as a series, so it’s always been in the forefront of my mind. I love these characters and I have many more stories to tell in this world. As far as actors, there’s an actress named Leah Pipes whom I absolutely adore. She was one of the main actresses in my Sorority Row film and she also played one of the leads in my indie film, Conception. I always envisioned John Goodman as the character of Holt. And I’ve dreamed about Michael B Jordan playing Zack. See, now you’ve got me all revved up about making the movie, but I’ve got to get it set up first.
AUTHORLINK: Well, good luck with it all! What are your thoughts on good and bad reviews? How do you handle constructive criticism?
STOLBERG: Well, no one ENJOYS getting bad reviews, but I’ve developed a pretty thick skin when it comes to critics. It’s much more important to me that my friends, my family, and, and well, myself… that I’m proud of what I’ve done. But even the greatest baseball players of all time strike out half the time. Also, you don’t usually have much control over the finished project… as a matter of fact, you RARELY have control. Even for films that I’ve written and directed myself, I was at the mercy of the budget, the shooting schedule, who the producers need you to hire for the poster, the weather… You’re always fighting something! But you do the best work you can. Sometimes it’s enough, and sometimes it isn’t. I made a film many years ago called Good Luck Chuck that got obliterated by the critics, I mean, some of the worst reviews you’ve ever seen, I think we were a 5% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was really hard on me, I was incredibly sad about the reception, but eventually the open wound scabbed over and healed. About six months after the film came out, I picked up the Los Angeles Times and was reading the Lifestyles section and there was a food critic talking about a new Dominos menu item called Oreo Pizza… it was a dessert pizza, and the critic HATED it, said it was awful, and his big zinger was: “It’s not just bad; it’s spectacularly bad. It’s the ‘Good Luck Chuck’ of fast food.” I couldn’t even get away from the hatred of my movie while reading about cookie pizza. But the zinger really made me laugh… by that time, I had gotten past it. But it always hurts at first. Sometimes, you’re surprised by reviews, too — I mean who would have thought a movie called “Piranha 3D” would be certified fresh.
|“. . . what advice would I give to my younger self? Certainly, one thing would be to believe in yourself MORE and fight back on notes that that you disagree with.”
AUTHORLINK: You gave this great piece of advice in an interview a few years ago. You said, “… just go out and do it. There’s a learning curve, whether you’re writing or directing or editing, and you’re going to get better with time… so get busy getting the misfires behind you.” With all that you have learned, what other advice would you give to your younger self?
STOLBERG: I said that? That sounds too smart for me. Because that’s actually great advice. You always think your first script is gold, and then when you read it five years later, you’re embarrassed you ever let anyone read it. But let me see… what advice would I give to my younger self? Certainly, one thing would be to believe in yourself MORE and fight back on notes that that you disagree with. I tended to spend much of my early career in the role of ‘people pleaser’, instead of fighting for my vision. While it’s always important to keep an open mind and try to see the “note behind the note”, you also shouldn’t make a change just because you want to be affable. I don’t always make the right decisions, but now, when something doesn’t work, it’s usually my own fault, which is slightly more comforting.
AUTHORLINK: Finally, what are you currently working on now? Can you tell us a bit about it/them?
STOLBERG: I am having a great time right now. In film, I co-wrote the new installment of the Saw franchise, called Jigsaw, which is coming out in October of this year. And I’m writing three other feature films… none of which has been announced yet, so I can’t get into the specifics, but one is a broad comedy, another is an indie horror film for Killer Films that I’m writing for a very famous comedian, and another is a dream project that I’m writing for MTV and Paramount about one of my favorite musicians. I’m also working with one of my horror writer heroes, Clive Barker, on a television adaptation of one of his best-selling books. At the same time, I’m starting to outline a sequel to Incarnate, and I have an idea for a true-crime thriller that’s been gnawing away on my brain for several years now. It’s already a busy 2017, but it doesn’t seem that 2018 is going to be any less hectic.
AUTHORLINK: You sound like you’re having a ball! Mr Stolberg, thank you for your time today and for talking to us about your exciting and varied career. We wish you all the best with your fantastic debut novel, Incarnate and your next adventures which sound amazing.
STOLBERG: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Anna, and thank you for the kind words on my book. Cheers.
|About the Author:
Although INCARNATE is Josh Stolberg’s first novel, he’s been writing for film and television for over 20 years. Film credits include JIGSAW, the newest addition to the popular Saw horror franchise, as well as the horror/comedies PIRANHA 3D and SORORITY ROW. In television, Josh wrote on two of the pilot episodes of the Nickelodeon series AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER as well as the Disney shows, SO WEIRD and HONEY: I SHRUNK THE KIDS. He also wrote the comedy GOOD LUCK CHUCK and the romantic indie CONCEPTION which he also directed. Other films Josh has directed include KIDS IN AMERICA and the indie thriller CRAWLSPACE. Currently, Josh is adapting Clive Barker’s books Weaveworld and Cabal into television shows.
See more information at: http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Incarnate/Josh-Stolberg/9781501136573
|About Anna Roins:
Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.
She has studied creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.
Anna enjoys writing novels and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.