Diane O’Bannon & Matt R. Lohr on Dan O’Bannon’s Screenplay Structure

In January 2013 Dan O’Bannon’s book about the craft of screenwriting, “Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure,” was posthumously published four years after his passing. O’Bannon had conceived and authored the sci-fi/horror classic “Alien” and amongst other notable genre favorites, also directed and wrote the zombie horror/comedy classic “The Return of the Living Dead.”

This following interview was graciously granted by his wife Diane, and the book’s co-author Matt R. Lohr, originally at Cinemachine in December 2012 – along with a review of the book.

How long was this book in the making?

DIANE O’BANNON: Dan had some version of this book in the back of his mind for a long time. Back around 1974, I was going through some of his papers, and among his notes I found a single sheet titled “O’Bannon’s Rules of Writing.”  That page only had one rule on it: “Never Bore Your Audience.” At that time, it was clear that Dan was going to continue from there with different rules, but the message was obviously a central and simple one.

Really, like Dan says in the book, this project was thirty-five years in the making; his whole career was part of the writing process. The basic discontent Dan had with his own work is something that hits the heart of writing, and is essential to his method and really to writing in general. He was never satisfied, never complete, always open to suggestions, and all of this gave his work a distinctive fluidity. Many writers are like this. Sam Hamm, the writer of Tim Burton’s Batman, sent me a blurb for the book, and later revised it because he wasn’t happy with one word. Writing is a living communication that changes over time, and Dan understood that.

MATT R. LOHR: I came onto the book in 2001, and at that time, there was already a manuscript that was fairly far along. The main sections still in the completion phase were the film analyses and the breakdowns of the other major screenplay structural systems that Dan chose to include in the book. I spent the majority of my initial time with Dan (about two years working with him directly) mostly concentrating on those sections. And of course, the intensification of Dan’s illness and his eventual death led to the book being delayed even further.

What were the challenges in completing this book for publication after Dan passed away?

DIANE O’BANNON: When Dan first came to what he felt was the end of the book, I sent the manuscript around and got a brief sniff. At that time, I was told that nobody wanted another screenwriting book; the market was considered to be over-saturated. Michael Wiese Productions was not yet as prominent in the film book market, and were not on my radar. Naturally, if you were starting to submit a book like this now, they are the first people you would take it to.

I had one publisher who was interested, but they wanted us to lose the chattier parts of the book, where Dan discusses the Hollywood lifestyle. They were looking strictly for “how-to” books. I went through the manuscript myself and excised those parts of the book, but I felt that what was left was frankly somewhat dull. This was non-negotiable for the publisher, and we came to an impasse. It wasn’t until some time later, after Dan’s death, that Wiese came across the manuscript and approached me about publishing it. And when they had their own suggestions and ideas for revising and updating the manuscript, I said, “homina, homina, where’s Matt?”

MATT R. LOHR: I came back onto the project in the spring of 2011, and at that time, there was a manuscript that was, I would say, about 90% ready. The main issue to be addressed was that there were a few sections that sort of ended mid-stream, and the ideas of those chapters needed to be resolved. The section on hedonic adaptation in chapter 10 was a late edition to the manuscript.

DIANE O’BANNON: I had talked to Dan about including hedonic adaptation in the original book, but he had wanted to keep it for himself. “I can’t give away all my secrets,” he told me, in that slightly mischievous way. But once he was gone, my feeling was, well, he’s in a place where keeping it to himself won’t benefit him now.

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O’Bannon as Sgt. Pinback in Dark Star (1974)

MATT R. LOHR: So Diane provided me with some research that Dan and she had compiled on the subject, and I finished off that section. One of the film analyses in the finished book is also brand new, and we took out a few that had already been written. We had an analysis of The Godfather in the original manuscript, and also Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, which Red Letter Media’s Mr. Plinkett has since covered in more exhaustive detail, and with far more humor, than we had. (A lot of his conclusions are the same, though. Man, that is really not a good script…) We also had a section on Dan’s evolution from typewriting his manuscripts to dealing with some of the various computer writing programs on the market, but the technology had leaped so far ahead since we originally wrote that section, it was severely outdated, so we just excised it.

The biggest challenge I faced was simply not being able to discuss ideas and edits with Dan, and also when I had to add something to the book, making sure that it was in Dan’s voice and not my own. It was an interesting challenge, and not easy, given Dan’s very erudite, sometimes sardonic tone, but I think the resulting book reads as all of a piece. And there were also some housekeeping issues to be addressed, mainly finding attributions to the various quotes in the book. Logged in some time at the library and on GoogleBooks taking care of that. You can actually find Plotto, an archaic story-structuring book Dan read while writing Alien, on GoogleBooks.

Was it Dan’s idea to do all the analytical exercises based on classic films?

DIANE O’BANNON: The analyses were in the book from the start. The major after-the-fact addition to the book, other than the stuff Matt mentioned, were the exercises at the end of each chapter. These were a suggestion from Ken Lee at Michael Wiese Productions, and I think they enrich the book and take it from being an interesting read to a really workable tool for writers looking to beef up the structural strength of their work.

The book has a lot to say about screenwriters from Hollywood’s golden age.  Were there any screenwriters whose work Dan admired as his contemporaries?

DIANE O’BANNON: Interestingly, considering some of the comments Dan makes in the book about directors, many of the screenwriters whose work he respected were people who also wrote their own films. Kubrick was his favorite director, and he co-wrote most of his films, and Robert Towne, who did some directing as well, was also someone Dan admired. He liked the kind of movie where the director’s vision was essential to the finished product; Kurosawa and Hitchcock were two other favorite filmmakers.

Most of Dan’s produced screenplays had co-authors, several by Ronald Shusett and later Don Jakoby.  How did he feel about the challenges and rewards of having co-authors in screenwriting?

DIANE O’BANNON: Every writer Dan worked with brought something to the table that Dan appreciated. Ron, who was also a producer, had a strong commercial sense, in terms of what would play with an audience, and Dan had a lot of respect for Don as a writer of dialogue and characterization, and as someone who was not intimidated by the blank page.  Writing is a lonely business, and Dan enjoyed collaborating with other writers. He was never the type who felt he had to have the last word; he liked to bounce ideas off other people and see what came back to him.

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O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett

I saw Dan work with people, and quite frankly…it’s not that every idea was his, but those people were so much better when they spoke to my husband than when they spoke to anyone else. And so was I. I was a better person, and a smarter person, for having known him. He was brilliant. He had a great synthetic mind; he would take ideas from all over, something he heard in the news, a science fiction story, and synthesize them. If he deigned to work with you, it made you a better writer and a better person. You became brilliant by virtue of the fact that you worked with my husband. And it’s not that people didn’t have good ideas or say interesting things, but he needed someone to spark off, that give-and-take, so his mind could play. He brought everything to his work, his years of reading, everything from Aristotle to Spongebob Squarepants.

MATT R. LOHR: I knew Dan later in his life, and by that point, his creative process had become so innate. He had such a sense of what he knew and when he knew it, that it was very natural for him, and he was able to transfer that knowledge to you almost by way of osmosis. I honestly can recall very few didactic moments with him, moments where he took me by the metaphorical hand and said, “Here’s what you need to know and how you need to use it.” But just like Diane said, just by virtue of working with him, I know it has improved my sense as a writer and a storyteller. It’s very much a sitting-at-the-feet-of-the-master sort of effect, and I experienced it firsthand. Just…the vibrations in the room changed when Dan spoke, and it works even now that he’s gone. When I was working on the book, I would frequently read something back to myself, and I would hear it in my head in Dan’s voice.  That’s when I knew we were okay; Dan approved, and was sharing his approval with me in his own voice.

Dan was not shy about voicing what he felt were mishandlings in the production of some of his screenplays.  Which films did he feel were the best productions of his scripts?

DIANE O’BANNON: Dan always thought everything could be better, even his own writing. He was always reluctant to turn in a draft and was always grabbing it back to try to take it to another level and make it better. He was fair in that he held everybody to the same creative standard to which he held himself. He could have been a little more diplomatic sometimes, but he was a “true nerd” and he sometimes couldn’t understand how others could see it differently. Like when he struggled to understand the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid in Total Recall.

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Total Recall teaser poster

MATT R. LOHR: Isn’t the character named Quail in the original story?

DIANE O’BANNON: Right, which is a much more fitting name for a milquetoasty everyman, the way the character is in the original story.

MATT R. LOHR: I remember Premiere Magazine saying that if you were casting that story based on what was actually on the page, Woody Allen should be playing the lead.  Can you imagine that?  “Cohaagen, how can you steal the people’s air?  That that that that that’s cray-zee!” (laughs)

DIANE O’BANNON: Alien and Return of the Living Dead were probably the most satisfying experiences he had, in terms of his vision making it onto the screen more or less as he saw it. The original drafts of Blue Thunder were more science-fiction oriented, less of a straight action story, and Total Recall was a project that went through dozens of drafts over the years, both with and without Dan’s involvement.

The Return of the Living Dead and The Resurrected share the distinction of being Dan’s only scripts which he directed himself. Did the storylines of either film undergo many revisions from script to screen?

DIANE O’BANNON: Dan had some of the typical complaints about the end results of both of these films. The Resurrected was actually written by Brent Friedman; Dan was the director only. That film was re-cut against his objections and released without his approval; it was re-edited without the humor that Dan had attempted to put into it. That film was more or less lost in the collapse of Orion Pictures. It was one of those final films of theirs that trickled out in the midst of the company’s death throes. That’s just one of the many disasters that can happen to your flick. The last moment at which they can fuck you over.

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The Resurrected, aka Shatterbrain (1991)

He was happy with Return for the most part. Dan’s original ending was lopped off. The film was originally supposed to conclude with people picking up infected dirt and putting it in a train car, and the zombie fluid leaking from the train. In the end, Dan was like a lot of writers. He was never happy about any of it. He didn’t see any of the sequels to Return. He did see Aliens, and we went to the premiere of Alien Vs. Predator, but that was the extent of it. He wasn’t interested in the sequels.

Comparing Alien with Prometheus, the big difference between the films seems to be that Prometheus is deliberately obtuse about the causes behind each twist in the story. Is there a place for deliberate obtuseness in movie storytelling? If so, did Prometheus accomplish this successfully?

DIANE O’BANNON: Matt and I have discussed Prometheus at great length; we actually did an online presentation on this very subject for the Michael Wiese Productions website back when the film was first out. In the book, Dan says that the concept of “entertainment” has to be thought of generously, that it encompasses a lot of different things. Everyone finds different things entertaining, which is why there are so many different kinds of films to begin with. Some people despise horror movies; some won’t watch anything but horror movies.  It’s all entertainment, and the idea can take on many different kinds of things, including an obtuse narrative approach.

That said, Dan was not much for deliberate obtuseness in his storytelling. He wasn’t afraid to withhold information when he felt it would add to the suspense or mystery of a piece, but he wasn’t one for keeping things vague just to make it difficult on the audience. Prometheus seems to spend a lot of its running time holding back information that the audience could honestly use just for the sake of being mysterious and taking a stab at profundity. If that’s not done well, it just gets an audience frustrated, and all the online response to Prometheus after its release seems to bear out that frustration. People had dozens of questions, and no feeling that the film had any desire to answer those questions for them.

MATT R. LOHR: There’s this sense in a lot of modern cinema, especially potential tentpole films like Prometheus, that the filmmakers can hold back more narratively than they otherwise might under the assumption that, “Oh, we’ll get to that in the sequels.” Well, if you’re only going to tell us half a story, then really, we should only be paying for half a ticket.  I remember about ten years ago, when someone told me that I wouldn’t entirely understand the Matrix sequels unless I had played the Matrix video game through to the end first. My response to that was that the filmmakers should have sold all the tickets a month in advance and sent you a copy of the game along with your ticket. I don’t have any moral objections to the concept of synergy, but if it keeps me from being able to enjoy your film on its own, that’s a problem. I don’t want watching one film to turn into a part-time job, and Prometheus is a film that could very well have gone that way.

DIANE O’BANNON: Yeah. “What do you do? I watch Prometheus.”

MATT R. LOHR: “That’s my hobby.” (both laugh)

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sketch by O’Bannon of Facehugger egg for Alien

Regarding the recent remake of Total Recall, Dan is still credited with screen story. Does the new film adhere to his and Ronald Shusett’s story outline any closer than Paul Verhoeven’s film?

DIANE O’BANNON: The ending of Paul’s film was substantially different than Dan’s original version. In the film, Quaid never truly remembers everything that has happened to him, and there’s still this ambiguity about whether or not he is truly dreaming all this. In other words, he never really has total recall. The new version more or less tries to do this as well.

Truth be told, every version of this story is a fairly strong deviation from Phillip K. Dick’s original short story, which is extremely short. It basically ends with Quail going in to get his implant, he’s under the spell, and the Rekall people realize he’s actually a secret agent. In other words, the end of act one of both films is basically the end of the actual short story.  Everything that happens after that, in both films, is invention.  I believe that I still have Dan’s original draft of the screenplay, and I will attempt to locate it and put it up on Dan’s website, www.danobannon.com.

What is the “Dan O’Bannon Writing Workshop”?

MATT R. LOHR: The Writing Workshop will be a presentation by me of Dan’s dynamic structural concepts in an interactive live classroom-style format. I will take the audience through a breakdown of Dan’s principal ideas from the book, the particulars of his three-act structure, the different types of conflict, the idea of positive and negative antagonists. We will also do structural breakdowns of films, as in the book, though the classes will focus less on the classics and more on contemporary films that are in theaters at the time of the presentation, allowing the class to illustrate how essential Dan’s core concepts are to the bedrock that propels cinematic storytelling even today.  We hope to present the Workshop at different venues, conventions and seminars throughout the world; the first Workshop we have booked is on March 23 at the ScriptWriters Network in Los Angeles. You can follow Dan’s book on Facebook or on Twitter @DanOBannonBook for all the most current updates on upcoming appearances and events.

Sincerest thanks to Diane O’Bannon and Matt R. Lohr for this interview!

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