The ‘Use Only As Directed’ Interviews: Doug Van Belle

6 08 2014

It’s a little disconcerting to realise that I’m not 100% sure how many of Doug Van Belle‘s stories I’ve edited now: I believe ‘Uncle Darwin’s Bazooka’ is the fourth of them, but it’s just possible that it might be the fifth. In an ideal universe, of course, I’d get up and check, but who has the time? And so, instead, onward full-pelt into the eleventh of the interviews with the Use Only As Directed authors …

So, without further ado, for your reading pleasure, Doug Van Belle:


(The picture, by-the-way, is not author-supplied; it results from a trawl of teh intermanets, and dates, I believe, from Aussiecon in 2010, which was the first time I’d met Doug in the flesh, us normally residing on opposite sides of the ditch and all that …)

What should readers know about you before they sit down to read ‘Uncle Darwin’s Bazooka’?

All that stuff that THEY told you.  Lies.  All lies.

What provoked you (or, if you’d rather, encouraged you) to tell the story you did? What was the germ of the idea that led to it?

I wrote the story because desperately needed the $40.  Back in my 20s I developed a pretty bad mortgage habit and no matter how hard I try, I just haven’t been able to kick it.  $40 keeps me going one more day.

The germ of the idea was literally a germ.  Plagues and viral gene transfer leads to the mechanisms that viruses use to hijack the reproductive systems of bacteria which leads to sexual reproduction starting as a viral parasite etc.

If you were told you were only allowed to keep one sentence from the published story, what sentence would that be, and why?

It’s probably be one of the ones you cut out while editing the story.  You’re mean and I know you cut that stuff just to hurt me.

If I’m not mistaken, you’ve had one or two screen-based projects in the works recently. Is there anything you’re able to tell us about those? What has the process been like?

I can tell you that studios are very serious about what they call information embargoes.

The one project that isn’t currently embargoed is Johnny Ruckus.  We shot the pilot at the end of last year and it is in the possibly eternal process of pre-distribution marketing.  Regardless of what happens with that particular show, it led directly to a feature film project.  That film is in the possibly eternal process of pre-production, but it led directly to a second feature film project.  And that has wandered off into possibly eternal hinterlands kind of stuff, but it did lead directly to feature film project #3, which has escaped purgatory and is moving ahead with surprising speed.

Sounds kind of like building a castle in a swamp, doesn’t it?

As far as process goes, it’s basically a Monty Python takes Douglas Adams through the looking glass kind of thing and I have found that the best way to approach it is to pretend that you’re a contestant on a game show where your challenge is navigate the not quite random but totally mandatory “suggestions” from a seemingly endless parade of people who stand between your script and the first day of shooting.

The slightest whiff of a tax incentive shifts the setting to literally anywhere in any universe, real or imagined.  This step is repeated often and at random times during the process.

The rumour that an actor might maybe possibly be interested in a certain kind of role will cause any character to suffer an urgent radical regenderization so the producer can get the script in front of him/her yesterday.

A marketing survey leads to a rewrite that takes it from an M to PG rating.  Top to bottom rewrite.

The realisation that the marking survey was for an American release, not a British release completely flips the balance between blood and naughty bits in that PG rating.  Off for a top to bottom rewrite.

An investor is found, but he has a thing for race cars, so you have to add race car driving to the space ranger’s skill set and shift the setting from Mars to Daytona.

That mucks up your tax break, so you have to shift the setting to that really famous car race in Madagascar to get a different tax break.

A government bureaucrat applies his own special interpretation to a criteria for that new tax break and you have to find a way to spend five days filming in his sister in law’s abandoned coal mine and make it seem totally natural to the story.

Finally, a director is hired, but he/she wants to stamp his or her “creative vision” on the the project.  You soon discover that “creative vision” is entirely defined by finding an excuse to offer the lead to the hottest possible actor who is desperate enough for a part to sleep with said director.

Some guy on the crew knows someone at HBO who can totally get a spin-off show going there.  Top to bottom revise back to an M rating.  Change all mentions of costume detail to “full frontal nudity”  Change all adjectives in dialogue to “fucking”

Find out guy on the crew was high.  Revise back to a PG.

Director liked all the “Full frontal nudity” parts, revise back to an M, but put real adjectives back in dialogue.

Two key members of cast discover that nothing in their contracts will get them out of full frontal nudity so they suddenly discover scheduling conflicts.  One cast member is replaced by Sylvester Stallone, causing a second radical character regenderization and necessitating the hiring of an English-Stallone translator to rework dialogue.  Second key cast member is replaced by an animated wombat so she can call in her lines while “shooting” a film in Iceland.  Top to bottom revision.

Director is surprised to discover that wombat inclusive sex scenes are generally frowned upon in civilised countries. Rewrite all sex scenes.

Discover that someone on the cast got knocked up way back at the start of pre-production (see creative vision) and you either have to rewrite the ninja, spaceranger, race car driver into a pregnant ninja, spaceranger, race car driver, or revise for the director’s new “creative vision”

Director’s new creative vision was hired from Disney.  Director goes to jail.

Hire new director.

Repeat as necessary.

OK, it isn’t really like that at all, but sometimes it seems that way.

I think it feels that way because as a writer of print fiction you control 98% of the final product.  Even the cuts Simon makes just because he’s mean, are run by you for at least some degree of your approval before it is finalised.  But as a screenwriter you control maybe 70%, probably less, of what the audience experiences and you have to anticipate that as you write.

The result is minimalism to an extreme.  A producer will literally make a spreadsheet with every detail you put in the script about every character and every scene and that spreadsheet will list when and how each detail pays off.  You can have a few in there that get listed as “Tone setting” but most have to be absolutely necessary.  If you mention an axe in a scene description, somebody better get hacked up before the film ends.  If it is an old theatre, you have to resist your instinct to give the details that show it’s old and instead simply state that’s “It’s an old theatre and shabby theatre.” and trust that location scout, the props people, the set builders, etc. will get the job done.

And there’s no real way to learn it, other than by doing it.  All the seminars, books and other things you might turn to in a desperate but futile attempt to learn something about screenwriting are absolute crap and generally do more harm than good.  Basically, everyone goes on an on and on about structure, and screenplays are indeed highly structured, but structure is the 4th or maybe even 5th most important thing in putting together a screenplay.  Once you start working with a producer you discover that the only reason all the books, seminars and film school instructors obsess so much about structure is because it is easy to teach.

What are you currently working on, and what would you like to tell readers of this blog about your current endeavour?

Working on a lot, actually, but can’t say what except for the short film ‘Breathe.’  When a space station suffers a catastrophic failure, nine people end up trapped in a refuge that can only recycle enough air for four.

‘Breathe’ will be my first directing job and it is intended to spin up into a feature, so some wishing of luck etc. would be nice.

The other thing I can mention is that have have had a brief discussion with Larry Niven regarding the film adaptation of his Gil Hamilton stories.  I have $4Million of the budget arranged, all I need is the remaining $6Million.  So maybe check behind the couch cushions and see what’s lying around and get back to me.


When Doug is complaining about how mean I am as an editor (and I’m curious that it was me who was singled out for that description, with my partner-in-crime Edwina Harvey getting off scot free) he’s actually a pretty good writer, and I’m looking forward  to seeing his screen output as well. I’ve read the script on which ‘Breathe’ is based, and I think it has the bones of a very promising movie. And I’ve posted previously about Johnny Ruckus and the possibly-stalled Orion 66 ... and a movie based on the Gil Hamilton stories would be intriguing. But alas, I have teenagers who check behind the sofa cushions far too regularly for me to amass anything like that amount of money …

If you’re now feeling motivated to read ‘Uncle Darwin’s Bazooka’ and the other stories in Use Only As Directed, the links are here: (PBB (publisher, pbk, epub, pdf, mobi); Amazon (mobi))

I’ll post any further interviews in the series as they come to light.





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