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Shelf vs. Screen: Smallville Creators on Co-Writing a Novel

Smallville creators Miles Millar and Al Gough Talk about making the leap from the small screen to co-writing their novel Double Exposure.

Smallville creators Miles Millar and Al Gough Talk about making the leap from the small screen to co-writing their novel Double Exposure.

Full disclosure: We are accidental authors who wandered from our career as screenwriters into the uncharted land of novels. It’s been a fascinating and rewarding journey and our book, Double Exposure, is the result.

Smallville creators Miles Millar and Al Gough's novel Double Exposure.

We initially imagined Double Exposure as a movie. The hero, David Toland, is tailor-made for any one of a dozen Hollywood stars. But when we started breaking the story we quickly realized that the period Cold War setting, globetrotting locales, and elaborate action set pieces would make any movie prohibitively expensive. In Hollywood, size really does matter and this story was just too damn big. The only way a studio would take it on is if it had been a bestselling book first. It’s hard not to notice that Hollywood is in the grip of an IP (intellectual property) obsession. Validation in another medium adds instant credibility to any project. As we thought it about it, we also began to see that the story would work even better as a novel. The compression of a movie would limit us.

Screenwriting is very restrictive. There is an Amish-like adherence to rules. You must tell your story in under 120 pages, your act breaks must have the clarity of Waterford Crystal, and your scenes better not last longer than three pages. Of course, part of the joy and intellectual challenge of screenwriting is working within these boundaries. There is a comfort and familiarity to following the rules while still giving your work its own distinctive voice. It also makes you distill your story to its essence. There is no space to digress. No fat on the story bone. No room for your characters to narratively meander off course.

For us, a novel is like writing without a safety net. You get to make up your own rules. Decide how long it’s going to be. How short the chapters are. If it’s going to be told in the first person or narrated. So many damn decisions. It was initially intimidating and certainly made us think about writing in a whole new way. We wanted Double Exposure to have the momentum and propulsive drive of one of our movies or TV shows. A page-turning adventure that somebody could binge-read in a single sitting. The style needed to be crisp and muscular. Maybe this was all because we spent our childhoods low-key obsessed with Indiana Jones. We also wanted to infuse the writing with a sense of fun. Once you have determined your own rules, the challenge is to stay true to your stylistic decisions.

One of the reasons our transition from the screenwriters to novelists was perhaps less traumatic than we initially anticipated was because there are two of us. Partnerships are rare in publishing but commonplace in Hollywood. It no doubt speaks to the brutality suffered by screenwriters where they are routinely fired or belittled by directors and studio executives. We have found it a comforting necessity to have somebody to share the whack-a-mole reality of the business. It’s also a key advantage when it comes to breaking the story and working out those pesky plot points. Two minds really are better than one—at least we think so. We also outline our scripts in detail and used exactly the same process when figuring out the structure of Double Exposure. Our golden rule: Never start a draft unless you know how the story is going to end. Never.

Novelists feel like a superior alien breed. It’s hard to shake the cliched notion that they are introverted loners who prefer the company of their laptops than their fellow humans. To be a successful writer in Hollywood, you have to play well with others. Maybe that’s why so many literary giants, from Raymond Chandler to F. Scott Fitzgerald, didn’t fare so well in the studio system. The idea of authorship is antithetic to the collaborative process of movie-making.

With the recent rise of television, this trend of collaborative writing has become even more prominent. Every show has a writing staff consisting of anything from six to 12 individuals or teams who are paid to sit around all day and talk ‘story’ and write scripts. You are on the creative frontline—working against a production clock to ensure stories are broken, scripts are written, and episodes shot. You learn when to speak up and when to shut up. Episodes emerge from the fog. You have the preciousness beaten out of you. There is no time to be defensive and rewrites are a way of life. The process is fast and feedback relentless—be it from the actors, executives, or the audience watching. There is nowhere to hide.

While most people don’t have the luxury of a Hollywood writers’ room, they can replicate the experience by joining a writers’ group or even forming their own. Spend time talking through your story. Work out the kinks before you launch into a draft. It will save time and heartbreak.

We naively thought our experience in TV would ably equip us when we embarked on Double Exposure. It gave us a fearlessness. Unfortunately, the one thing we weren’t prepared for was just how long the process was going to be. We have had movies that took years to get made, but that was usually because the studio was dragging its feet or they couldn’t find the right movie star or director. The sheer length of a novel is a psychological barrier. A seemingly endless climb to a summit that remains frustratingly unattainable. Fortunately, words of wisdom from a movie director came to our rescue. One of our first big breaks was writing Lethal Weapon 4. We were nervous wrecks. The director, Richard Donner, gave us a single piece of advice that we have used ever since: Write one scene at time. It seems obvious, but it immediately took the fear out of the process. Make each scene great and ultimately they will add up to a satisfying whole.

Alfred Gough and Miles Millar are the authors of Double Exposure(March 2019; Grand Central/Hachette). They are also screenwriters and showrunners who have worked extensively in film and television but are best known for creating the iconic series, Smallville. The duo’s latest hit, Into the Badlands, is in its third season on AMC-TV. They met while attending the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC and have been creative partners ever since. You can visit them at millargoughink.com

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