Wednesday, March 27, 2013

7 Questions: Author Bart Baker

Bart Baker is one of the hardest working writers in showbiz and now he's on track to claim that title in the world of books.  He's had an enviable career writing for both film and television and has self-published two novels, Honeymoon with Harry and his latest, What Remains, which was released this week.

DISCLAIMER: Bart and I graduated from the same high school. Go Spartans!

Here now, seven questions for Bart Baker:

Bart Baker
1) Tell us a little bit about your background and how that led to a career in film and television writing.

I studied film in college.  I have a BA from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in Film Production.   I moved to Los Angeles at 21, having never been west of Kansas City (I grew up in St. Louis.)  It hit me about Arizona that I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do when I got to Los Angeles.  But you can do that when you’re 21.  With the help of my uncle I got a “day job” and I took acting classes at night and wrote at every conceivable moment in between.  I was blessed to land some acting work on the soaps and in a few night time shows and movies and when I landed a small recurring role on GENERAL HOSPITAL, I quit my day job.  That gig lasted about eight months, all the while I was writing screenplays and plays.   After the GENERAL HOSPITAL gig ended, I had two plays go up back to back in Los Angeles, RELAY and SEACLIFF, CALIFORNIA.  An agent from Writers and Artists saw both of them and signed me.  My agent, Hillary Wayne, got me my first writing gig at Tristar Pictures, sold two specs, CHILDREN OF THE BRIDE to CBS, and LIVE WIRE to New Line Cinema.  And sold the movie rights to RELAY to Warner Bros. (it never got made…though it came close once but a regime change killed it.)   All in all, it took about five years or so of frustration and struggle from arriving in L.A. to selling my first screenplay and being considered a working writer.  It took another three or four before anything got before a camera.

2) I know your first novel, “Honeymoon with Harry,” has an interesting story (or two or three) behind how it came to be published. Fill us in on that journey and why you eventually decided to go the indie publishing route.

HONEYMOON WITH HARRY has had a crazy journey.  I had finished writing a movie, SUPERCROSS, and it was a horrible experience with these horrible producers.  I was in my mid-40s, had been writing for over 20 years and been blessed to have a substantial resume of produced films under my belt and I was being treated like crap by guys who knew far less than me and were simply unscrupulous.  I remember driving home one day and saying to myself, “I’m too old to be treated like this.”  I had this idea for a movie, which I pitched and everyone turned down.  And I decided to write it as a novel.   I mean how hard could it be, right?   So I embarked on this emotional tale that became HONEYMOON WITH HARRY.   HARRY is written first person from Todd, Harry’s never-to-be-sin-in-law’s point of view, so I had to feel everything Todd felt.  Todd has a very funny way of looking at life, he’s sarcastic, brash, and takes no prisoners.  Yet what happens to him is tragic (I love big emotions.)  So I spent three months day in and day out, writing from this rough and tumble point of view while crying for days on end as I worked.  The result was the book. 

I had just parted ways with an agent and met these managers who signed me.  And right before Christmas I gave them the book.  They were surprised I had written a book, since I hadn’t told anyone.  The first work day back after the holiday break, my phone rings early in the morning and it’s my new manager, a fairly low-key guy, and he says, “Dude.  You made me cry.”   The book went through the management company and each manager would call me and praise the book.  Even my lawyer read it and admittedly, he told me he hated reading books.  He told me his girlfriend, whom he lived with, had never seen him cry…until he started reading the book.   Anyway, my managers made a game plan of producers they wanted to expose the book to and were calling publishers and book agents.  Well, a producer at Plan B, Brad Pitt’s company, read the book overnight and flipped.  While they were pushing the Mr. Pitt to read it, Paul Haggis, who had written and directed the Oscar-winning film CRASH, came into their offices for a meeting.  Before he left, he asked, “Have you guys read anything good lately?”  The executive gave him HARRY.  The next day, my managers gave the book to producers while we were dealing with book agents – who were turning us down.   Now I had been through a few spec sales in my career and there’s a certain heady, craziness that occurs, but HARRY took off, the buzz around town was wild.  I was getting bits and pieces from my managers in quick phone calls like, “Guess who just called here and asked for the book?!  Steve Spielberg.  Spielberg called himself!”   That’s when I knew this was getting really insane.   An hour or so later, I get a phone call from the managers with my lawyer, and they tell me New Line Cinema has placed a $750,000 offer on table.  And I had a half hour to decide or the offer was gone.  Now I knew there were about three or phone other possible suitors for the book that were meetings talking about the book as this was occurring.  But being a Midwesterner, I knew that a bird in the hand was better than what might be.  And that was more money than I had ever made on a project in my life.  Sold!   I took the New Line offer.  The next day, Paul Haggis calls New Line and tells them he wants to adapt the book and direct the movie.  I’m quickly bumped from writing the screenplay myself and Haggis goes to work.

He does a terrific adaptation and was very, very kind and respectful to the book and to me.  He pulls together a reading with Vince Vaughn and Jack Nicholson.  The reading goes well and they are interested.
Suddenly, I have agents and publishers interested in the book.  Cynically, I knew they were more interested in the free PR this movie would bring the book than the actual book itself.  HARRY is a tough novel in the respect that it’s a highly charged drama told from a uniquely male point of view.   To boil it down, it’s a book that women would love but told in a hard-nosed, opinionated man’s voice about two guys who love the same girl but hate each other.  Not an easy fiction sell.

Well, the movie version with Nicholson and Vaughn falls apart over money.   For New Line it was too expensive of a film with all these big money players involved.  And with that all the interest from publishers dries up.
Then New Line is sold to Warner Brothers.  Warner Brothers lets them keep all their franchises and a few other select projects, HARRY being one of them…which was interesting because Warner Brothers always loved HARRY and execs from Warners would call periodically to see if they could snatch the project from New Line.
Then about a year and a half ago, the producer, Mike Karz, is shooting a movie with Bradley Cooper and gives him the script.   Cooper loves it and gives it to DeNiro, who he wanted to work with again.  DeNiro is in.  Director Jonathan Demme comes aboard to direct.  They all sit down and do a reading and everyone is thrilled.  Word gets out and now agents and publishers are back sniffing around.

Demme decides that the script needs a rewrite and he and his writing partner, Jenny Lumet, do a rewrite.   Now, there are different versions of what happened from here.  I’ve read a few of them that were planted in different news outlets, but from what I understand is that the new script was pretty much hated.  DeNiro especially didn’t like it and told Demme he refused to do this version of the movie.  Demme wanted to replace him but Cooper and DeNiro were friends.  So the producers cut ties with Demme.  Now, I never read the script so I can’t say if it was bad or good, but it was the only draft of the script the producers told me, “You don’t want to read it.   You won’t be happy.”   I took their word for it.

So the movie version of HARRY was left at the altar again.  And all interest in the book had ceased.  Then I was told by the producers that Bradley Cooper had called them and expressed interest in directing the movie himself.   And that’s when I decided to publish the book myself.  I was over the unfulfilled romance with the big publishers and the world had changed.   I had a few writer friends who had pretty sweet publishing deals with big publishers and I called them and asked their opinion of what I should do…should I wait for the next romance or should I self-publish.  To the person they all said self-published.  They all hated their deals, they all hated how little support they got from their publishers and the changes that had occurred in the previous years in the publishing world.
So I took their advice and like driving to Los Angeles when you’ve never been west of Kansas City, I jumped in.  Because I knew if Bradley Cooper did indeed direct this movie, it would get enormous attention, and I needed the book out there, on its own, before that happened to reap some of the benefits of having Cooper involved.  But it was daunting.  Not because I was afraid of the work but because I didn’t know what the work was.  Working with artists to create cover art, formatting, more editing, more rewriting, more formatting, more proofing, getting quotes, begging for reviews, give-aways, all the stuff that self-publishers have to do.  I had a mentor, Mike Loynd, whose book ALL THINGS IRISH, had been published a few months prior, and he talked me through step by step.  I was blessed to get some interview in big publications, on line and in print.  I was blessed that this book had such a unique story behind it, having sold the movie rights first before I attempted to publish it.  I was blessed with stupidity about the process so that I wasn’t frightened by it.   Because it’s hard, it requires thinking with the other side of the brain than we are used to, it required a lot of hours of the day…and I have two small children who also require a lot of hours of the day.  But I pushed and pushed and shamelessly plugged my book anywhere I could.   For a while HARRY sold modestly well.  Then it fell off but strangely now, 10 months in, the book is back selling modestly well if not slightly better.  And I am hearing from people around the world who are now discovering the book.   I am used to the movie and television business where results are almost immediate.  I’ve realized that with books, and probably more so with self-published books, this is a longer, more circuitous route to success.
 
3) What’s involved in taking one of your novels from vague idea to published book?

Wow.  Big question.   I am not a huge outliner.   Never have been.  Because I have been writing since my teens and am now in my 50s, structure is second nature to me.  Now HARRY’s structure, for anyone who has read screenplays, is very much in three acts.  Avid readers can tell that.  But it also worked well for that book.  But I am a person who dives in and writes.  Though I am in control, the characters often dictate their journey.  It’s this weird symbiotic relationship that works for me.  I don’t suggest other writers write like me.  I hate when any writer touts his process.  I’m glad it works for them but leave me out of that lesson.  I have what works for me. 
And once I have a first draft (HARRY took me about three months.  WHAT REMAINS took about twice that long,) I whine and complain for a while about having to rewrite and once I’m completely sick of myself, I sit down and I do it.  I cut, I rewrite, I focus and focus and focus the story.  Truthfully, I love rewriting.  I find magic in it.  And I love spending time with the characters I create so it’s not an arduous chore.  But I try and do right by the characters and what they are going through as well as I try and do right with my readers to tell the story as best I can.  I have a certain style.   I teach, and I am always on my writing students to ‘find their voice’ and get great at it.  It took me years to find mine.  And I try and stick to writing in it because it is where I write best, it is unique to me, and in that voice, I will find the audience that connects.   Not everyone is going to love it.   And yeah, sometimes that hurts, but you get over it.   It’s where I am best.

I know I’m done writing when I find myself changing verb tenses or adding adjectives and adverbs where I don’t need them.  Changing for change sake rather than for the sake of the story.  And then I hand the book to a few people and wait.  And when they come back having read it, I listen.  I don’t argue.  I don’t much talk at all unless I need clarification.  But I need to hear what they have to say.  I have a theory about notes: what sticks sticks for a reason, what falls away was never meant to be in my work.  So any of their notes that stick with me, I know they are right and I go back to work.   And then I have someone who edits for me.  Who will read the book in tell me what to cut.  I remember in HARRY, my friend and fellow writer – and terrific book editor – Bob Elisberg, would write in the margin (now I’m giving away a big plot point in the book) “Oh just kill her already!”   And I would go back and cut stuff to keep the story moving.  Now coming from a screenplay background, where you don’t have a lot of time for personal moments or to get into characters’ heads, I have to sometimes stop myself from being too plot driven and make sure I spend time with the characters.  Character is my forte and I love the characters I create, even the bad ones.  That’s the joy and luxury of prose over a screenplay.  Spending time in the heads of the people who are involved with the story instead of just making them run around and react.

And after the editing and rewriting comes the proofing of the book.  I am a notoriously awful speller.   I cheated on spelling test in grade school.  I blame that.  So, a proofreading is an amazing skill to me.  And they are usually the first person to see what is pretty close to being the actual manuscript that will be published, so if you have a good proofreader who will also give you character notes and is honest with their feelings about your work, you are doubly and triply blessed.  Find one that is.  They are worth what you pay them and probably more.
After the book is proofed, it is formatted, the cover art selected, writing a dedication, etc.  And then it goes off to be printed…and you go to work on the business side of publishing a book.  Press releases, contacts, getting books and sending them off for reviews, blogging, guest blogging, interviews, PR, PR, PR, PR.   It’s the true work of self-publishing.  And yes, I wish someone else were doing it.  And yes, other people know infinitely more about it than me and are better than me at it.  But short of hiring one of them, I do the pushing and pulling for my novels.  And I do it shamelessly.  I believe in the books I create, I believe in the stories I tell and the characters I create and I want people to read them and enjoy them.

4) What are some of the differences between writing for film or television and writing a novel?

I like to say writing is writing, and at the core of both is the art of storytelling.   But there is one huge difference.  A novel stands on its own.  A script is meant to be filmed.   Film or television scripts need to be a certain length or studios are going to toss them into the trash.  Film is a moving medium (they didn’t call them ‘moving pictures’ for nothing.)  You have to keep the stories moving ahead with externals, keep the character work intrinsic to the action, and recognize that your writing is – for lack of a better term – a blue print of what will be filmed.   Writing novels can be more internal, you can get into a characters thoughts and desires more readily.  I find it easier to use your unique voice because the book is an entity unto itself and won’t be turned into something else – that may or may not resemble what you’ve written.  Writing a novel is about creating images in the mind of the reader and allowing them to hear the voices and see through words.  Writing a screenplay is about creating movement from the images and seeing a film through the words.

5) Are there writers who influenced your own style both as a screenwriter and an author? If so, what about their work inspired you?

I have two writers that influenced my writing because they both wrote so uniquely unto themselves.  Pat Conroy, who in a single sentence could have me laughing and crying.  I found that such an incredible gift.  I’m in awe of his novels.  The detail, the humor, the pathos.  I love that stuff.   And Hunter S. Thompson.  I think I’ve read just about everything he’s ever written.  Completely and utterly unique and insane.  And laugh out loud funny and strange.   Two very, very different writers, two entirely unique voices.

6) Your new novel, “What Remains,” has been getting great feedback from just about anyone who’s had a chance to read it. What’s the book about and what was it like writing it compared with “Harry?”

WHAT REMAINS is about family.  Ultimately.  About what constitutes a family, how a family is created, how people become ‘family.’   In a nutshell, it’s the story of Conner Carter, who is banished from New York after cheating on his socialite wife.  With no friends of his own and nowhere to go, he flies to Sonoma, California to stay with his younger brother, Cody and Cody’s uber-wealthy husband, Rhett, who comes from old, crazy Southern money, and their two adopted Cambodian children which they have named Trevor and Claire.  Trevor and Claire speak no English and know that they have a ‘daddy’ and a ‘papa’ but somewhere in this mess there’s supposed to be a mommy, so they call Conner ‘mommy.’   Conner is a guy who has skated through life on his charm and looks.  Until now.  And he’s resented his brother since childhood because Cody has always gotten everything he wanted through hard work, something Conner has an aversion to.  Coming to Sonoma and seeing how his brother is living only exasperates Conner’s resentment.  But Conner soon learns that Cody’s gilded life isn’t as perfect as it seems, especially as Conner upends it at every turn, including by hiring a black/Puerto Rican nanny, Zinzi, for the kids while Cody and Rhett are away.   Zinzi has endured a dark violent past and sizes up Conner pretty quickly.  She’s grateful for the job but recognizes him for who he is…and subconsciously for who he could be.

When Rhett goes missing in Colombia on a documentary film shoot, Cody’s life, which has already been surprisingly fragile, spins completely out of his control.  He goes to South America to search for his husband only to get himself into trouble and need his brother’s help, something that Conner has never been much good at. 
But Conner comes through for Cody…not without a lot of kicking and screaming, but he goes above and beyond for his brother in Cody’s time of need.  And then Conner surprises even himself and does it again for Zinzi, as Conner finds himself drawn to this woman who is antithetical to any woman he’s ever been attracted to. 
These disparate characters find the truth in who they are and the depth of their understanding for themselves and each other, and form a bond.  After surviving some really crazy stuff, Conner finds something that he’s been missing all of his life: a real sense of belonging and family.

It’s another highly emotional book with some big moments and unique characters.  Only with WHAT REMAINS, I tell the story from the first person point of view from the four lead characters, Conner, Cody, Rhett and Zinzi.  They tell the story chapter by chapter in their own voice from what they are experiencing.  I love first-person, I find it a very internal way to let the reader into the characters.

7) What are you working on these days?

I finished a rough draft of a YA novel, AFTER OZZ, that is the first of a trio of books I am going to do using the characters I created in the book.  They are adventure books set in the future, in different dimensions.  I have a pretty cool idea of what I want to do with the three books.  And then I have two other novels in the works, a sequel to HONEYMOON WITH HARRY and BORN BAD/MARRIED BAD, a novel about what happens in a large family when one of the sisters is divorcing her husband, and the rest of the family likes him more than they do her.
And I sold a script a couple weeks ago, so I will be doing rewrites on that.  I don’t want to say too much until the deal is completely done (sometimes things can fall apart in the eleventh hour.  I don’t think that will happen but no need to test fate…) It is a very cool project with some interesting people already attached.   This has always been a script I loved and wanted to find a home and so this happened out of the blue when a cable network was actively looking for a completed script to pair up with a performer who had a hit song.  My script and the song have a similar theme, so they are marrying the two in the hopes of creating something unique and I think quite moving.   I can’t wait to get the deals done so I can start the rewrites.

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Thanks, Bart! If you'd like to learn more about Bart Baker and his writing, check out  his Amazon Author page and his website.
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