The story, Senator Warren, Dakota and amazing actors
A Q&A with Producer/Writer
Q: How did you come up with DEAD EXIT?
DS: It’s a story premise I had for a long time. I was in college. I was into Hemingway, Vonnegut, Jim Harrison, Dirk Wittenborn and John Irving. But I’d always been a sci-fi movie fan: Planet of the Apes, The Twilight Zone, Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, Rollerball – classics. Anyway, I wanted to break free from the fiction I’d been doing and so I wrote a three-story sci-fi suite suite. One story was about two actors and at the end we learn one literally killed to get a part.
Flash forward a dozen years. I was between writing my first novel [Pookoo] and thought I’d write a movie script. I wrote the first draft of Dead Exit in 6 weeks. I was lucky I never lost it in any apartment or house moves.
In the Fall of 2015 I took a break from my third novel and thought I was ready to tackle Dead Exit. It took 7 revisions. I wanted to crowdfund the graphic novel version of it and here we are.
Q: The story really speaks to society and what’s going on with violence, hate and other things.
DS: It does. The feedback is that it’s a thing that could really happen in the not-so-distant future. Man can do wonderful things but we also have a dark side, the kind of thing in us that goes back to the Garden of Eden. The dystopian story really has a lot to work with. I just crank it from where I see things.
Two of my favorite movies when I was young were The Time Machine and Planet of The Apes. Both were unreal, fantastic worlds and the writers brought in a literary sense to them being more than your average science fiction story. It’s the best when there’s an eye-catching surface and a strong undercurrent. I don’t like doing cookie-cutter stuff or predictable work.
Q: There are a lot of proposed layers for the overall project.
DS: There are, but first, we need everyone’s help to crowdfund the graphic novel! It’ll really pave the way for a lot of bigger things. The second stage is to work up a pitch presentation for a 5-year TV series. It’s being outlined, with expanded story and character arcs. Crowdfunding really is a “thumbs-up”, a way for fans to put in a vote that counts.
Q: Big time! Did you think of the bigger picture with arcs as you came up with it?
DS: No, I just wrote a stand-alone story without any backstory or future storylines. Funny thing is, it’s been a good process to develop more. Maybe I just know the characters. When I did the first draft of the screenplay I was writing a very deliberate story.
Q: Deliberate in what way?
DS: Deliberate in writing a screenplay, not a literary piece. Deliberate in a producible story. For a long time I really resisted what’s a commercial work. That was the ‘artiste’ in me, the college student with the French beret –
Q: You wore a beret in college?
DS: No, a metaphorical one. It’s an old argument: to be commercial or not to be, so to speak. There are two goals for a writer: expression, and sharing one’s writing. So writing producible, compelling commercial stories for a larger audience really fits in.
Q: What can you say to writers about ‘writers’ block’?
DS: I’m having a hard time coming up with an answer that.
DS: Everyone gets it. What I keep in mind is that a lot of storytelling is having fun, playing ‘pitch-and-catch.’ Every kid plays and has an imagination. Just approach it that way. As you’ve written a lot and gotten some training and read a lot or watched a lot of movies and TV, go with your instincts. After a certain point you have most of what you’re gonna get. Don’t get psyched out. Remind yourself you’ve done it before. You’ll get it going again.
Q: Let’s talk about the graphic novel project. What can you tell us?
DS: If you like great artwork, a compelling story with a twist – and a backdrop that is relevant and will be for years, this is it. The goal is $25,000 total for artists fees, prepress fees, 2,500 physical copies, a full digital version, a rare coin, taxes, ISBNs, and Kickstarter’s fees.
You can get a digital copy for just $10 or the paperback edition for $20 and that’s shipping included to anywhere in the lower 48 U.S. states. If you want, the paperback and the digital version can be bundled for $25. If you want to be a character, the bundled reward package is just $30. We’ll be funding for a “CineCoin” for $15. Only 600 will made, so imagine if we get to the TV show stage how collectible it will all be.
Q: Let’s talk a bit about the story. It’s very different than Pookoo.
DS: In a lot of ways, but I’d hope that you could read either and go ‘yeah, it’s the same writer.’
Q: Pookoo is a satire set in Chicago circa 1991, while Dead Exit is set in ‘the near future’ in Hollywood.
DS: Pookoo is a ‘meaning of life story’ in a very literary genre, with psychology and late-20-something characters in a real-life philosophical gloom whereas Dead Exit is an action story with a twist. I didn’t want to pin it down to an exact date, but by the headlines you can see where Society is going and it’s suddenly not that hard a leap of the imagination within our lifetime that it could happen. That’s a chilling thought.
With a novel you have a certain luxury; you can dig deep, the focus can be on various things. A screenplay? A graphic novel? Both are very finite. At the outset Dead Exit was a very different animal. It has to be. The script has to be producible. If a movie or TV show is made, I don’t foresee a lot of CGI. You could go nuts with all the Technicolor fireworks but it’s all about the story’s premise and the characters and that’s king. That way, the budget is doable and realistic. On the other end, it could be made into a low-budget schlockfest, sure, but I won’t greenlight that. The themes call for something bigger.
Q: Do you have a preference of what medium to write for?
DS: I started writing poems and lyrics – 30 lines max – so I trained myself to being succinct. A screenplay is that. I have the second and third novels to revise but they’re so personal. I really want to focus my time on graphic novels and screenplays and producing. When I was working on-and-off Pookoo, I devised 17 screenplay ideas. Since then, I’ve done more. All genres.
DS: You bet. A screenplay is like a short story. I’m very fierce in polishing a work. I think I can say what I want to say and tell a story best with the most impact through screenplays. And a screenplay takes less time to write than a 90,000 word novel, even with a lot of edits.
Q: How else is Dead Exit different than Pookoo?
DS: The biggest is the mood and attitude. One of the main characters in Pookoo is a serial-suicide. It’s an offbeat story, akin to a 1970’s novel or an early Nic Cage or Johnny Depp movie. Dakota (in Dead Exit) is up against life-and-death, but the energy is so different. The audience will latch on to the two main characters (Warren and Dakota), but I always like strong characters no matter where they are in the ‘line-up.’ Every character has a part to play and the actors involved can do the part. Their enthusiasm has really driven me to ‘do them proud.’
Q: Senator Warren. A villain for the Ages.
DS: He really is and he does it without any superpowers. Warren could be a real person, the embodiment of power. He starts out a ‘good guy’ and due to tragic events (see “Prelude to Pain“), he’s blinded by rage. The Senator is not in the book or on screen in every scene, but his impact is everywhere. He’s the architect of this world, so he’s everywhere. He’s the Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer of this unreal twisted world. The screen time of Darth Vader in A New Hope was a mere 10 minutes yet his impact is felt.
Q: Can you identify with Warren?
DS: Who hasn’t wanted revenge? In Warren’s case, he just never let it go and it spiraled way out of control. One way Pookoo and Dead Exit are similar is that I write characters who are Obsessed and about Redemption; it’s something I noticed. Now I just run with it.
Q: Kind of a trademark.
DS: What Warren devises is plain wicked and it’s because he’s obsessed. As a writer you create a world, and I can identify with him because that’s what he’s done. I could easily see a sign on a hill by The Program Studios which reads
W A R R E N L A N D.
Q: Let’s talk casting. You’re using real-life actors in this project. Some real stunners! For instance, you were able to enlist AMC TV actor Rich Graff to portray Senator Warren. Amazing!
DS: It is. Rich is extremely talented and his future is wide open. His work does all the talking. He can play comedy and drama.
He was very executive-cool as Lucky Luciano in “Making of the Mob” and yet could unleash that power.
Warren is about 50 years old in the story and so the artwork reflects a middle-aged man. Rich is just in his early 30s, but for the AMC show, they changed his hair style and even his eye color. Rich’s power is the ability to fit into the skin of the character and make it his. But if you look at the highlights from “Making of the Mob”, Rich is the actor for the part. Just recently he was named Number 5 in an IMDB poll of who’s portrayed gangster Lucky Luciano. Do you know how many actors who have played that? It speaks volumes about Rich and at such a young age.
I know producers, directors and casting agents look for a “type” but I really believe the best actors have range. Some can be physically molded to a part… but when they climb in to that character’s skin, that’s where the real magic happens.
The best become that character, whether real or fictional. At everything I look of his, Rich is the real deal.
Q: Josh Dakota, a.k.a. Dakota, is an unusual character for you. Tell us about him and actor Ernesto Nodal.
DS: Devising Dakota was a major break from the downbeat and quirky characters I was creating. Dakota has to counter Warren’s evil touch. Basically, Warren is the king of his land; nobody’s challenged him. He’s judge, jury and executioner. God-like, as reporter Liz Reynolds [Jeannie McGinnis] said. Dakota doesn’t have a prayer, really.
(L) Dakota, (R) and actor Ernesto Nodal
Dakota is thinking all the time – but then he takes action. He has to use his wits – and his sarcasm; he’s physically trapped, so what else does he have? He is so against odds.
Ernesto really can play the sarcasm needed for Dakota and that’s why I wanted to bring him on board for this project. Like Rich, he has range. His theater and experimental work shows that. The part as Orlando in “Fallen Brother” on his reel shows that he’d kill it as Dakota.
Ernesto isn’t a guy built like The Rock [Dwayne Johnson] but Dakota isn’t that type of build or disposition. He’s a normal body-type human being. I don’t write of some superhuman types, but real people. Yeah, Dakota has some athleticism but I didn’t want him to have Spiderman powers because he really typifies anyone: backed against the wall in life-and-death. So you need a guy like Ernesto who brings a realism to the part. And he can knock sarcasm out of the ballpark. Casting a 20-something actor wouldn’t be a fit for Dakota.
Q: The casting process – tell us about that.
DS: I spent from Thanksgiving 2015 and to mid-January 2016 casting most of the parts. Every time I was looking for an actor who’ll be known as the character, not just who could play it. A thousand people could do the job, but who owns it? Who could make it theirs? Who was able to bring “it” with life experience, acting chops and add to the canvas that’s the story? When that’s done, and done right, the winner is the audience.
I really enjoy the casting process. As a writer I know the characters better than anyone. I’m looking for people who’ll own the character, get into the story, people with drive. I have to say, our cast is quite a cast: everyone has something happening. During New Year’s Eve people were tweeting about 2016 and the energy they felt. I’m humbled by who’s involved because everyone has a career that’s established and building.
Q: Tony Denison, from the TNT hit series “Major Crimes” is on board!
DS: His career is perfect for the character of Director John Brandt. Is Brandt a good guy or both? It depends on your perspective. He’s played gangsters and the police, equally well.
Q: You’ve also brought in two singer-actresses for key parts. Nina Bergman and Roxy Saint.
DS: Nina is amazing because she can do it all. Roxy, who was a late casting, brings an energy that is needed for the whole story. Both portray very key parts that are on the opposite sides of the spectrum. Both women are widely talented in their own right. Both are the definition of independent.
Q: I noticed there are 12 major parts cast and that four are held by women (Nina Bergman, Roxy Saint, Sienna Taylor, Jeannie McGinnis). That’s radical!
DS: Talent is talent and it’s more a representation of the world. Comics and movies don’t have to be male-orientated. Women love graphic novels and movies, too. I found a whole group of extremely talented people. Jimmy Star is a great pick for Johnny B. Hollywood. One exciting thing about future plans for a TV series is that everyone in the cast has pro experience – we have a built-in cast. They would easily slip into any production. I’m really blessed they are on board.
Credit: Reels courtesy of Rich Graff, Ernesto Nodal, Nina Bergman, Roxy Saint.