Friday, October 25, 2013

'On Writing' with Cole Haddon...

It may be a rare move for a writer to go from writing about television to writing for television, but for some that is exactly the dream. For some, writing about television is merely a means to the end of writing for television-- a way to make connections, circulate a name in the industry, and prove he or she knows the medium and therefore knows what he or she is talking about when saying his or her project is the next big thing. Cole Haddon is one of the lucky few who have made that move successfully.

Haddon started his professional writing career as a journalist, but he did so with the direct intention of getting into screenwriting. Working as a journalist was a way to get himself out to Los Angeles and begin having conversations with some of the people he admired the most. A self-proclaimed "intense cinephile" who tries to watch a movie a day, Haddon knew "there was no other way to sit down with Quentin Tarantino for an hour or talk to James Cameron or meet somebody like Sam Raimi who in my native Detroit is a bit of a God to aspiring filmmakers," than to study the medium, review their work, and schedule interviews with them. Haddon was building a track record for himself as a writer as well as a lover of the business but that didn't necessarily mean transitioning to the creative side of things was easier just because he already had some connections.

"There was mostly complete indifference," Haddon said of the response he received when people learned he wanted to trade journalism in for a screenwriting. 

"At the end of the day, unfortunately, some journalism is not respected like it used to be. It's deluded by just the evolution of it really, and so some journalism doesn't necessarily mean intelligent journalism or quality journalism. So for the most part I think people found it interesting that I could talk about filmmakers. I think people always appreciate my passion and knowledge about film history that I used while [I was] a journalist."

Coming from the journalism side of things, Haddon knows very well the kinds of questions that circle new projects. He understands the way the business works, the compromises that often have to be made between the various creative entities on a project and the studios behind them, and the anticipations of the audience. Haddon also knows those things can be distractions for a creative writer, whose main job is to create a nuanced world full of unique characters. 

"The thing [from my time as a journalist] that benefited me most as a screenwriter, as ridiculous as it sounds, [was] the four years that I spent transcribing people, transcribing interviews. It is the worst thing to do as a journalist, and I would constantly try to find extra money to pay people to transcribe for me because it's just tedious; it's horrible. And yet that transcription, because of the huge amount of words I'd have to churn out in order to actually pay my bills, it really taught me how people speak individually and how distinct voices should be, patterns of speech, word choice, regional differences in language, that sort of thing," Haddon said.

"I'm incredibly focused on that. With Dracula in particular, you have people from wildly different backgrounds and that really had to be reflected in their manner of speech... Dracula himself is playing an American. An Eastern European aristocrat prince warlord who has his language poisoned by two continents worth of sort of stampeding for centuries… And now in this bizarre sociopathic way, he's mimicking an American industrialist. He's trying to play human, so his language is really about what he thinks human beings are like."

Haddon's screenwriting career thus far has been made up of taking beloved stories and characters from his childhood and re-imagining them with his own spin, and NBC's Dracula starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is not only the most recent but also perhaps the biggest undertaking yet. The network drama was ordered straight to series which was a big deal in itself but made even more so by the fact that Haddon thought he had "accidentally, maybe arrogantly" talked them out of wanting the show, which has themes of "reason versus faith, science versus religion," in his pitch meeting.

"I wanted the bad guys to be fundamentalists. It was about fundamentalism to me, and they were technically Christians, and so that can be a scary thing to say to a network out-loud-- that your villains are going to be fundamentalist Christians," Haddon, who noted that NBC always told him to "go for it" in his scripts, said.

"I think the show is really still an expression of that conflict. You still have a vampire of supernatural origins with delusions of bringing light and progress to the world versus a fundamentalist religious organization that is interested in doing the opposite... And given the world today, especially in America where there's such a conflict between those who want to regress to the past, those who want to move to the future, those who want to look to science for a solution to our problems, and those who want to bring about some sort of state of permanent war in order to bring about horrific world, it just seemed very relevant to have this conflict manifested in the war between Dracula and the Order of the Dragon."

While such a serious and deep serialized show can still be a scary thing for a major network to tackle, the major challenge Haddon himself found with the story of Dracula was a way in that interested him but also paid respect to the story as it used to be, as opposed to how vampires have been homogenized and sensationalized in the last few years.

"I hesitated…because he's been so abused and really embarrassed by pop culture for so long. His cinematic heyday, for the most part, has been behind him for thirty plus years… Vampires have turned into something else in that interim, sort of a younger, sparkly version [that] really taints it. It's hilarious that the most novel thing about this show is that we return vampires and Dracula to the original period that it really became popularly known, which is Victorian England," Haddon said.

"One of the biggest challenges is that in the novel he is a villain through and through and has nothing to elicit sympathy from others about him, and that really was an impediment in me wanting to pursue the world. It wasn't until I found my way in, which was providing him an origin, which Bram Stoker never did…and giving him a trauma that he had to avenge-- something that would allow audiences to emphasize with him about."

Having a name as well-known as Dracula, Haddon is aware that many people will come to his new show with certain specific expectations for the titular character as well as the world around him. It's unavoidable when a property is as iconic as this one. But that just means he will know he truly has a success on his hands when he manages to blow those expectations away and give audiences even more than they knew they wanted. 

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