10 Screenwriters to Watch
J Michael Straczynski is a writer possessed. “I write 10 hours a day every day, except my birthday, Christmas and New Year’s,” he says. “If I don’t have an assignment, I’ll write a short story, I’ll write a spec script, I’ll write a novel. I just enjoy the hell out of it.”
For 20 years, Straczynski, who goes by Joe, applied this passion to the TV world, breaking in with ’80s shows “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” and “The Twilight Zone.” But he’s most known as the creator of sci-fi skein “Babylon 5,” which still boasts a rabid online fanbase.
After dozens of shows, Straczynski finally took a break from the smallscreen. He worked in comics and spent a year researching a sprawling story set in 1920s Los Angeles about a missing child, police corruption and a serial killer. “Changeling,” his feature debut, was picked up and produced by Ron Howard and directed by Clint Eastwood. It went on to bow in Cannes to very enthusiastic response last month.
“That experience was utterly transformational,” he says. “It suddenly put me on the map in a way that I never would have anticipated.”
He’s now got a boatload of jobs: Paramount’s “World War Z”; UA’s “Proving Ground”; “March Into Sunlight” for director Paul Greengrass; “The Flickering Light” and “Lensman,” both for Ron Howard; and a rewrite of “The Grays” for Wolfgang Petersen.
After cracking the complex story structure of “Changeling” in his head, he wrote a draft in 11 days, the same version that Eastwood shot. “I didn’t change it at all,” Eastwood says. “If someone has done something really well, I say leave it alone. He’s a really good writer, and he has a nice sensibility: intelligent, and he made it with a dramatic soul.”
Though “Changeling” is a shift from the sci-fi work for which he is most known, Straczynski considers himself a “generalist,” ready to tackle any story. “I go with what William Faulkner said: At the end of the day, the only thing worth writing about is ‘the human heart in conflict with itself,’ and that applies to any genre,” he says.
Now in his 50s, Straczynski may not be the youngest aspiring screenwriter, but he’s got the energy of one. “It’s a reboot,” he says of his second career. “It’s like the ending of ‘The Natural’: You get one more shot at the game.”
Influences: Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, Norman Corwin, Harlan Ellison. “Guys who knew from language,” he says. “Writer’s writers. Whenever I feel cocky, I pull down a Rod Serling script and I feel like a rank amateur. The man knew what he was doing.”
Favorite unproduced script: None. “I have a lot of specs that my agent asks me to give him, but they’re just written for me.”
Up next: “Ninja Assassin” for producers the Wachowskis and Joel Silver. (“I wrote a whole new draft, fade in to fade out, in 53 hours flat.”)
Reps: Agents: CAA; attorney: Kevin Kelly at Gendler & Kelly, APC