Gilstrap is not only the bestselling writer of "kid-on-the-run"
thrillers published around the world and in over 20 languages, but
also a Hollywood screenwriter who has adapted books by Thomas Harris,
Norman Maclean, and Nelson DeMille. His novels include SCOTT
FREE (just published), EVEN STEVEN (2000), AT ALL
COSTS (1998), and NATHAN'S RUN (1996). His screenplays
comprise RED DRAGON (adapted from the Thomas Harris novel),
WORD OF HONOR (adapted from the Nelson DeMille novel), YOUNG
MEN AND FIRE (adapted from the Norman Maclean book), and
NATHAN'S RUN (adapted from his own novel of the same name).
John, you write screenplays as well as novels, which makes you both
versatile and busy. How did you become a screenwriter?
I became a screenwriter entirely through the back door. After the
movie rights to my first novel, Nathan's Run, sold to Warner
Brothers, I got my first taste of how the studio system really works.
The first screenwriter they hired to adapt the book completely missed
the point of the story. In Nathan's Run, the character of
Nathan Bailey is the key to the story. He's this little kid accused
of a horrendous crime, and battling a media blitz to have him thrown
in jail forever. He's only twelve, yet the authorities are talking
about trying him as an adult for a murder that was in fact self-defense.
As he tries to stay one step ahead of the law, only two people --
a cop and a talk radio host -- are willing to believe his claims
that he is himself being pursued by a killer. That's pretty heady
stuff, I think, with lots of character moments. Unfortunately, the
first screenwriter saw only action set pieces. The result was a
flat screenplay that everyone found to be disappointing. So, WB
hired a second screenwriter who, it turns out, never actually read
the source material and instead depended only on the work of the
first screenwriter. You've heard that a camel is a horse designed
by committee, right? By now, the story was so screwed up that no
one wanted to make the film.
years after this saga began, I got a call from my agent telling
me that the project was going into turn-around. Pissed, I ranted
that of course it's going into turn-around. I could write a better
screenplay, I said, and I've never even seen a screenplay. He asked
me if I could have it finished in a week. I did, and for a very
short time, Nathan's Run was rescued from turn-around, only to return
a short time later as the studio had moved on to other things. Still,
I had my writing sample, and that led to other work.
So what makes screenwriting different from writing novels?
For me, the differences lay not so much in the process as in the
outcome. In a novel, I write with the full knowledge that every
word I write will appear in the final form exactly as I wrote it.
Characters and story will all flow in exactly the pattern I describe
for them. I get to be actor, director, cinematographer and best
boy. Film, on the other hand, is of necessity collaborative. Even
after the producers and I reach a meeting of the minds on where
the story should go, there are so many other players downstream
-- and so many writers, potentially --that I have very little confidence
that my vision of the film story will in the end be presented on
the screen. It's just the nature of the film business. Thus, I find
that I have less emotional attachment to film projects than I do
to my books. I work just as hard, with the same dedication, but
with less anticipation, I guess.
Are there special challenges you've encountered in adapting novels
to the screen?
I try very hard to be true to the story that the author is trying
to tell. That said, however, I have to also recognize that every
book will have more detail than any film. In my experience adapting
the work of other authors, I find that it is the subplots that take
the most punishment. Some authors so richly characterize their protagonists
and support players that it actually hurts to trim the subplots
that make them so human in the book. These trimming decisions can
trigger a snowball effect: In Word of Honor, for example,
the brilliant Nelson DeMille novel, the protagonist and his wife
had marital problems that infected much of their relationship through
the book, even as it defined what made their relationship so interesting.
I worked hard to include that element of their relationship in my
adaptation, but it just wasn't possible to give that story line
its due without distracting from the primary narrative spine, which
itself was a pretty complicated story. By cutting the subplot, I
had to then introduce new story elements to cover for it, thus changing
essential natures of some characters in the book, and cutting out
others entirely. If I recall properly, I even reduced the main character's
family by one child. When it all settled out, I was very pleased
with the result, though I'm confident that Nelson DeMille will be
less pleased than I am.
Has it been easier to adapt your own novels than those by other
Given the choice between adapting my own work (which I've never
done, except for that first effort with Nathan's Run) and
adapting the work of others, I' d choose my own in a heartbeat.
It goes back to the control issue. If I got to do that, then there'd
be at least one draft of the screenplay floating somewhere through
the ether that looks like the vision I wanted to see on the screen.
For the most part, I think it's only the first writer on a film
project who pays any real attention to the source material in an
adaptation. After that, given the hugely imperfect process by which
film credit is assigned, future writers have huge incentives to
change every element of the story simply to get their name on the
Oh, no! What recent trends have you seen in the screenwriting trade?
To be perfectly honest, I don't think I've been doing this long
enough, or written enough screenplays to speak with any kind of
authority about trends. I only know what I see, and what I see is
often disturbing. Perhaps it's always been this way in Hollywood,
but with my primary experience being in the world of novels, I'm
confused by the commonly held assumption in LA that everyone who
has an office in a production company or in the executive wing of
a studio is by definition a storyteller. It just is not true, and
any creative person knows that it's not true. But because it looks
easy, everybody has an opinion, and every opinion seems to have
equal weight -- unless you're just coming off of a hit (read: yesterday's
news), in which case you're the 800-pound gorilla, whether you've
got an idea in your head or not. Truly, I'm not a cinema snob. I
like a good chase scene as much as the next guy; but I long for
the day when the chase was tied to a compelling story.
the mind-numbing summer blockbuster season approaches yet again,
I pray that the studio decision makers will have come to realize
that punches, explosions and CGI effects are not plot points. Unfortunately,
$80 million opening weekends tend to undercut my argument.
Okay, bottom line: what skills does today's screenwriter need?
This is a tough question for me. I've written four screenplays,
of which only one has been produced, and at that, without my getting
a screen credit. But because I never clawed through the dirt and
really earned my dues the way I did in the publishing business,
I'm not sure that I'm the best role model for up-and-coming screenwriters.
Shooting from the hip, I'd say that a strong sense of story is paramount.
The best way to break into any business -- whether it be novels,
screenplays or toothpaste -- is to have a dazzling new product that
makes people gasp. Something that they've never seen before, presented
with passion and a command for the language that screams from the
What other advice would you offer new screenwriters?
As I reflect on my previous answers, I realize that there's
something of a negative spin to this interview, and I honestly don't
mean for that to be the case. I've been very fortunate in my Hollywood
career to date. I've gotten to work with some very talented, creative
people, and I've collected life experiences that I could never have
found anywhere else. For all the frustrations and disappointments,
Hollywood is a very sexy place, and I look forward to my next assignment,
when and if it ever comes around. But if you let it, Hollywood will
steal your soul. I don't mean that in a religious sense, necessarily,
but rather in the sense that it is a town rife with bitter disappointment
which is rendered all the worse by the vaunted success of the few
people who truly "make it."
you're a writer, my suggestion is to write in all media. Don't limit
yourself to film because it is singularly the most difficult way
to break in. Write short stories and novels. Work for a newspaper.
Write greeting cards or instructions for the VCR. Just keep writing
and build a track record of success that will make the long Hollywood
haul more bearable.
Thanks for your frank insights, John! We look forward to seeing
more of your works on bookstore shelves and the silver screen.
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Copyright Web del Sol, 2003