Robert Blake Whitehill is the award-winning author of the bestselling Ben Blackshaw series, which is available in English and German.
He’s the winner of the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Screenwriting Fellowship for Unexploded Ordnance and the Hudson Valley Film Festival for Blue Rinse, and was a finalist at the Telluride IndieFest for Blue Rinse. He’s a proud native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore and now lives in New Jersey with his family.
Matty Dalrymple: Welcome to Episode 8 of the Indy Author Podcast. Today my guest is Robert Blake Whitehill. Welcome, Robert!
Robert Blake Whitehill: It is a pleasure to be with you, Matty. Particularly because I was just reading the last 20 years or so pages of your manuscript for Rock Paper Scissors. It’s an exciting read. It was almost hard for me to jump off this manuscript to come and be with you here, but I love it.
Matty: Robert, you are the best. I had the same reaction in reading your Deadrise so we’re doing each other a favor. We’re keeping each other entertained.
Matty: We’re going to be talking about screenwriting today and screenwriting is a totally unfamiliar area to me and I suspect it’s a pretty unfamiliar area to many of my listeners. We’ll probably cover some pretty basics but I wanted to start out with the question, what came first for you, novel writing or screenwriting?
Robert: Believe it or not, screenwriting. I simply looked at the economics of it and said playwrights get so much money and novelists get so much money but screenwriters, at the time I was looking at it, they were getting hundreds of thousands of dollars for writing a simple idea on the back of a napkin. I’m thinking Joe Eszterhas in particular, back in the late 80s or early 90s. I said, “You know, that’s a great way to invest my time,” and then I look at a novel and as you know well, a novel can be around a hundred thousand words. A screenplay is about twenty thousand.
The thing that I realized once I dived in to screenwriting is you have to pick with such care the words that you choose in a screenplay. It’s almost as if in a novel, you’ve got a little room to ramble, a little room to explore ideas and inner thinking. But a screenplay is kind of like a long form haiku. It’s got to be done within a lot of industry parameters, specifics and formatting. Just things that you have to know to provide to producers and what they’re expecting.
The first being, they just pick it up and see does it weigh too much? Meaning, is it too long? It could be that simple. Then there’s the other nightmare myth where they read the first 10 pages and the last 10 pages—if they like it, you’re in, they’ll give it a good thorough read. Those are some of the myths that I suspect are not exactly as mythological as people might like to think.
Matty: Does that hold true whether it’s a movie screenplay or a television treatment? Would that also be called a screenplay?
Robert: They can be called scripts, screenplays, teleplays. I’m not as familiar with pitching an original idea for television. When I’ve written for television for Discovery Channel on shows like The New Detectives or The Bureau or Daring Capers, basically I was hired by a company and they had a format in mind to which I had to conform and make the voice of my writing sound like the voice of existing shows in prior seasons.
There’s a little bit more that was given to me that I would imitate, I guess is a fair word. It’s not me trying to roll out a new idea as a potential ‘created by’ title, or a showrunner, which is the big name at the front of any series. I really can’t answer that with any degree of accuracy, just because I was hired to write those TV shows. They were going concerns at the time I stepped aboard and I just basically joined a team with a concept in place.
Matty: How did you get into that role?
Robert: That was through connections. I was very fortunate that I was introduced as a writer to a head writer on a show—a company that is hired by Discovery to make programs for Discovery took an interest. I did a writing test. They give me a few examples of the show and they said, “Here’s a case”—it was a forensic show so it’s about murder—“How would you write X number of pages of the show?”
I said, “Okay.” I looked at their material and I looked at the case and then I came up with something that I thought had a similar voice to what they already had and what they were doing regularly and had already been approved by Discovery. We’ve got so many bosses and once we’ve finished our initial manuscript, of course, as you already know, and I passed that test. They liked what I did.
Matty: What were the experiences that you were bringing to the test you took that suited you to that work?
Robert:I think it was just an innate writing sense, an ability to absorb a voice, a style of writing. Then to relay facts of a case in an interesting way that was maybe slightly purple, maybe a little turgid in styling, so it was a little bit like a fact-based Penny Dreadful, in a way. But I didn’t go over the top.
There were certain life experiences from reading and turns of phrase that seemed to fill the bill. Other than that, I would just have to say, life experience is what got me that role. I mean, I’ve taken other writing tests like for soap-opera writing and it wasn’t a fit and the interesting thing is I came to volunteer on our town’s ambulance after I did that work on the TV show. Now, of course, between writing for The New Detectives, working on the ambulance, the seamier, grittier, macabre side of the Ben Blackshaw series, I’ve got so many things to draw upon now. But I was going to riffing there at the beginning with The New Detectives.
Matty: When you have an idea now, a new idea for a story you want to tell, how do you go about deciding whether you want to frame that up as a book or frame it up as a screenplay?
Robert: That’s a very good question. Right now, I do have some free standalone screenplays that are circulating around and that’s good for me to have from before. But now that I’m working on the Blackshaw series, I’m more looking for stories that might fit that Blackshaw filter, that might be something that he and his co-characters might be involved in. It’s a little bit of a different kind of a story line.
There’s got to be some water involved because he lives on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay, though that’s not necessary. The fourth book in the series, Geronimo Hotshot, takes place in the American Southwest in Arizona, on the borderlands with Mexico. That is the driest of dry lands, so it may not necessarily be that. But I’m kind of sorting for potential Blackshaw adventures.
Ideas come to me through wrongs that he needs to right, injustice that he needs to set straight. Maybe, it has its existence in newspapers or Southern Poverty Law Center or other places where news that needs to be reported but is underreported—I can play with those as plots because he is, in his character, kind of a moral enforcer. He wants to do right, bring justice, avenge wrongs. That’s the sort of filter I’m working through right now when I’m sorting for ideas.
Matty: Is screenwriting for you a solo activity or is that something that you do in partnership with other people?
Robert: I’m not formally trained as a screenwriter so I really benefitted from an early collaboration with a good friend—a couple of people I’ve collaborated with. I find that your first draft is a little bit more developed if you’ve worked with a partner because you’ve had a chance to spitball ideas back and forth. That’s good for when you’re cutting your teeth, making your bones, learning your craft, but for me, there came a time when I wanted to be able to write faster so partnerships, existing scripts written with partnerships that are still in existence, they get their circulation. Sometimes they get optioned and get into the development chain. But for me now, I prefer writing solo.
Now, for other people, formal training, you already get that kind of collaborative environment. You’re collaborating with your professor. You’re collaborating with classmates. If you’re not formal trained, there’s a screenwriting university in other areas. Plenty of books on the subject where you can learn so that if you’re, let’s say, a novelist who wishes to have a screenplay adaptation of your novel, you can learn how to do that. It is just a new craft. But it’s always storytelling. Structure is key and having a good turn of phrase and being able to write crackling dialogue, those things help.
Matty: You had mentioned a couple of terms like optioned. I’m wondering if you could use Unexploded Ordnance or Blue Rinse and walk through the development of that to help explain some of those terms in the process that you go through to nurture a screenplay through its life.
Robert: Well, if you or a representative or your representative have presented a script to someone in the industry who is a decision maker, who has the power to sign on with the clout of their name or with financial backing or both, then they would do is they option it. It’s essentially renting the exclusive right to represent your work for a period of time.
In exchange for that, they give you money and you vet their wherewithal, does the check clear, do you like the terms—the overall agreement which is doped out in the short form or a deal memo. Then they go to work, maybe, they’ll have some ideas for rewrites and you have to be comfortable with that and that would be memorialized in the agreement that you’ve got, that there might be a rewrite or two.
Beyond a certain point, you’ll get paid for additional rewrites, in addition to the option fee. Then they began to gather allies around the property in order to get it made. That could be financing. It could be getting elements attached. An element could be an actor. An element could be a director. And finding more and more champions for the idea.
Let’s say, with Ben Blackshaw, yes, it started as a novel and it was just one novel of me shouting in the wilderness. With my PR firm, that was helping me get bloggers to talk about it. Then I actually called a classmate that I haven’t spoken to, Stephanie Bell from HatLine Productions, by that time I had two or perhaps three books out and I had known her school and she was an actor and I was an actor at the time.
She’d moved on into producing stage plays and then she was producing films. I said, “Stephanie, take a look at this property. See what you think of it for feature films.”
And she said, “I want to do them all. I really liked them all,” and then the option agreement proceeded from there. Does that help you understand a little bit about what an option can be?
Matty: Absolutely. Where do things stand with the Ben Blackshaw effort?
Robert: Well, we’re in that development phase. It can be interminable or feel thankless. But what we’re doing right now is we’re finding the property itself, making the script sing and we’ve got it in a very good place. Now, we are gathering some allies. I wish I could go into the wonderful people that we’re talking to right now—it’s not a matter of jinxing, I just don’t want to dissuade anybody by feeling suddenly like a blabber mouth.
We’ve got some incredibly powerful folk in the feature film industry and they are looking really hard at it. But it’s interesting, they’re looking at it, not only as a possible feature but as series material. Series are very interesting because you can dig way deeper into secondary characters and subplots. They can really allow you in 8 or 13 or 20 hours to explore far more than you might be able to in the two-hour feature film format. But a feature film was a great introduction to an overall idea.
Matty: The series that springs to mind for me is Longmire, where I love the books and watched the series. I think that what they did there is that they would take a small part of a particular book. If you’re familiar with the books, you can watch a particular show in the series and then say, “Oh, I recognize where they got that idea,” but then they expand it beyond what they did in the book. The general story arc is very much like in the books but the details are, as you’re saying, expanded out and it is pretty exciting to be able to spend that extra time.
Robert: Isn’t that great?
Matty: Yeah! And do you continue as the writer through that whole process? Is it possible that at some point, someone else will take over the screenwriting side of Ben Blackshaw?
Robert: It is a possibility but in order for me to remain at the table where decisions are being made, I don’t say as a decision maker because once more powerful entities come into play, of course, I’m working at their beck essentially. But in order for me to stay at that decision making table for a little bit longer, yes, I did because of my background, I want to be the person to take the first whack at adapting the screenplay and plant my flag as to what the vision for the script could be. I’m adapting the second book into a screenplay and I will adapt the third book into a screenplay.
Typically, if they want to get you off of a script though, and they say, “You don’t have the right to do it,” Or that kick you upstairs into a more of a production role, a consultancy role, but being hybrid with experience in both formats—both the novel and the screenplay—it seems, as in the case of Scott Smith and many other novelists who have also adapted their own work. Scott Smith wrote A Simple Plan and The Ruins. He does his own scripts and boldly changes some of his outcomes.
Robert: I was very surprised because I thought that part of what he would do as a novelist, staying as a screenwriter would just be defend to the bitter end every little idea in the novel. But he and the producers made decisions that said, “You know what? This outcome in this medium might be a little bit better, might be a little more impactful.” Plus, it threw me a kind of a cool curve and it was a great education that a novel is a novel and it will always be the novel. But when you adapt it into a new medium, now, you’re talking there may be more significant changes. You may discover that in that visual medium where you can’t dive headlong into the thought process of a character—unless, of course, you are defining that thought process by the character’s actions, which is an essence, their truth in many respect—you’ve got some significant changes to consider and many of them are very simply.
Do you have a scene in Asia, for instance? Because we’ve got backers from Asia. I guess I could put one in! That’s something that you’ll find that’s so that wonderful—talented actors and actresses from China, from Hong Kong, they can be included and that will make that property more interesting to that marketplace. There are all kinds of things.
Once you get that first draft, it’s all yours, baby. But as soon as other people take an interest and begin investing their sweat equity or their hard cash, you’ve got to listen to them and their concerns. Typically, if they’re in that position or gotten into that position, where they’re accomplished enough and respected enough to wield that kind of power in the industry, their advice is well worth taking. It’s not going to be worse.
Sometimes, you get an Ishtar or sometimes you get like 37 writers credited on the Flintstones Movie or something like that, where everybody just sort of throws up their hands and they just start throwing writers at a problem. I don’t know, I wasn’t part of that process so I can’t figure where it all went off the rails. But I think it’s important for me, for the Blackshaw franchise to be at least, if not a decision maker, a listener to the ideas that other people are putting forth.
Matty: I would think that one of the areas that a writer would definitely want to be involved in is the casting. One of the funniest experiences that I’ve had it at book clubs that I’ve attended has been to hear the people the reader pictures for my books. Sometimes, I’ll go, “Oh, yeah. That’s a really good idea!” You had made some suggestions—if I could get those people in the movie version of my book, that would be great! But every once in a while, you think, “Oh, my goodness. What did I do wrong?”
Robert: Somebody once said that they thought Harrison Ford would make a good Ben Blackshaw and I absolutely agree. But my thinking is he’d make a better Ben Blackshaw’s dad today. But I’m wondering, when they think Harrison Ford, what decade do they have in mind because Ben is in his late 30s, early 40s, that sort of nebulous age range, where we can find so many potential leading guys.
Matty: If you were coming up with your dream Ben Blackshaw, who would it be? Can you say?
Robert: That is a difficult question because a lot of that conversation is actually being realized in submissions today, to those very people. I would have to say that there are a lot of potential candidates that bring extremely different qualities to it. But it could be someone who’s very physical, like a Channing Tatum. There could be somebody who is a little bit more of the Loki energy, as in Loki the Norse God, not low key. Like Chris Pratt, who’s mischievous.
You’ve got a lot of different put potentialities there. Sometimes, you’re casting against the role that they’ve usually play because Ben Blackshaw is more of a laconic guy. It’s not that he is a hermit or anything like that. He just doesn’t speak much and when he does, it’s very much to the point. If somebody is known better in comedic roles, that would represent a change for that actor, which could be very cool for their career or completely destroy their brand. You’ll never know how people are going to be, it will all depends on the casting and the relationship that the cast has with the director.
Matty: When I was reading through your list of works here and saw Unexploded Ordnance, having read Ben Blackshaw I totally can understand that you would write a screenplay called Unexploded Ordnance, but Blue Rinse? I have to ask—if I had to guess the title of something that a Ben Blackshaw author would write, Blue Rinse would not be it. What is the story behind Blue Rinse?
Robert: It’s a little lyrical. The actual story of the script is three older ladies accidentally run over the enemy of the town mobster. They just mow him down with their car. It’s an accident. The mobster is grateful that they did a favor, gives them a little money send them on their way and says we won’t call the police. But a few days later, he realizes that older women are invisible in America and he blackmails that trio into being his new hit team—
Matty: I like it.
Robert: —It’s that dark, edgy comedy where they’re well-paid for their work, they grow into it reluctantly of course, and unfortunately, part of the invisibility that older women suffer in America is because they’re financially disenfranchised. But when they have more money, they start to become more visible and skyline themselves and drawing attention.
Two ideas that came together to form that. One was, I belong to a Quaker meeting in Montclaire, and one of the members of the meeting shot a documentary video called Chromes and it was about Quaker women in retirement homes and how many of them feel overlooked, warehoused, and their talents and wisdom and nurturing capacities were not being tapped. That was an untapped resource.
Then I saw the movie Devil’s Advocate, in which Al Pacino said, “I dress down, I take the subway,” because of course, he’s Satan and incredibly wealthy, “and nobody sees me coming.”
I said, “What if the wrong person exploited exactly the wrong traits and qualities of older women and that’s how that idea of exploiting an invisible class of people to be killers, running totally against their character as nurturers.” Like I said, they grow into it, they hit a glass ceiling in the business, they branch out on their own. There’s all kinds of nuances that are really fun in that property.
I do have a dark sort of comedic side as well and that’s sort of a topsy-turvy world, I guess, instead of young, chiseled, studly hired killers, you’ve got these elderly ladies walking in with some really sharp knitting needles.
Matty: Yeah, it’s closer to how I would think of Blue Rinse than I expected. I wasn’t expecting that it was actually going to be about little old ladies. But that’s kind of fun to hear.
Robert: You know what? Try casting a little old lady these days. You’ll probably find that it’s someone in the Meryl Streep range. I love Diane Keaton. It would be really wonderful to see her cast in that because she really knows how to mine an insecure character and having to go through with contract murder—I would love to see her play that. But it would probably be drawn down in age. We’ll see.
Matty: Is there anything going on with Unexploded Ordnance or Blue Rinse now?
Robert: They’re being submitted around town so yes, I would say that with Unexploded Ordnance and Blue Rinse, they’re being read by some wonderful people that I would be only too happy to work with. I think that in the hands that my manager Liza Ledford has put them in, she’s made some really wonderful choices and they’re responding well to the material. It’s just how well so we see where that goes.
Matty: I would imagine most of that activity would be around LA. Is that true? Or are there is other hotbeds? Especially with indy movies, I would think that it would be more spread out than perhaps it was in the past where it was probably all localized in LA or New York?
Robert: I think the lowering in the technological and financial barriers to actually shooting a story to the degree to which we find them today, where you can take out your cellphone and craft a story from that, it’s amazing that you can at least, show that you’ve got the chops to visually tell a story. That definitely decentralizes much of the aspirants away from LA, New York, Toronto, London, or Hong Kong, those sort of filmmaking centers that we think of off the cuff.
But that said, a lot of the companies that we’re in touch on the Blackshaw side are based in Los Angeles but some of the properties we find it the producers actually living on location where some of their TV series are being shot so we find them all over. For instance, the way you and I are working together now on Skype, we don’t have to be in the same room to hold an interview.
It was years writing The New Detectives before I ever met my head writer face to face and that was just for coffee. It wasn’t on business. Most of our business was conducted over the phone. Now, we’ve got Skype, FaceTime. There’s so many ways for us to aggregate all the resources from remote places. But I think Los Angeles is still an important center. From what I hear, everybody’s doing business pretty much like you and I are right now over Skype, even if they’re in the same town.
Matty: Yep. I hope that they wouldn’t relocate Ben Blackshaw to somewhere else. I hope they wouldn’t say, “This is great but it would really be better if it were outside Seattle.” That’s would be really disappointing.
Robert: It really depends on the producers. Washington DC has some wonderful production facilities, which would mean that you could shoot interiors in DC studio spaces but you could always revert back to the actual Smith Island for your exteriors, which I think would be of course, a real boon financially to Smith Island itself, which was such a quiet, lovely, and remote place, but there are a lot of options.
Message In A Bottle, that was originally conceived of being shot on Tangier Island, also in the Chesapeake Bay, just a few miles south of Smith Island and it didn’t work out. They didn’t get the agreement to shoot on Tangier Island so Message In A Bottle was shot on Martha’s Vineyard.
For every awesome location, there are probably surrogates that could step in elsewhere in the world but being a Marylander, I’m certainly plumping for the folks on Smith Island to get at least the exterior shot there.
Matty: Describe a little bit about Smith Island for people who might not be familiar with it.
Robert: That’s a great question. It’s not technically an island in of itself. It’s a bunch of little islands with rivulets and streams running through them. There’s marshland, beach, and wildlife refuges. Actually, there are three hamlets on Smith Island and two of them, you can walk between. The third one, you can only get to by boat.
Folks, particularly the initial immigrants from Cornwall, have been making a living from the Chesapeake Bay in various ways: water fowl, fishing, oysters, clams. For a while, there was a terrapin or a tortoise business but they just sort of couldn’t reproduce fast enough to supply the incredible demand so that business was set aside. The Maryland Terrapins you might have heard of, there’s a reason that they got that name. There are more terrapin sports players right now, and athletes, than there are actual terrapins alive just because they over-harvested but that’s what they do on Smith Island.
They are primarily Methodists today. There’s a church in each hamlet and one minister serves all three, staggering the services throughout Sunday morning and they are wonderful, rich people. They have their own kind of patois, where they have sayings and expressions that hearken back to decades, to centuries ago. From Cornwall, where they came over here and there was a time when the ancestors of the current residents were pirates. Part of the plot of Deadrise is having them connect with their inner pirate, in order to repel an outside invasion, when in fact, they’re just incredibly hard working, good people who are happy and content to be Methodist. But man, when they get their dander up, they really connect with that inner pirate.
Matty: I can imagine there would be many Hollywood character actors who would be very excited about playing some of those Smith Island residents when that movie gets made.
Robert: I’m a recovering actor myself and I would love to take on a small background kind of role.
Matty: That would be fantastic.
Robert: Oh, that would be so neat just to see folks doing and see if I get my chops back. I think acting was really important for me to learn how to write actually, memorizing all those great English language writing for the stage. That was a big help.
Matty: That’s fantastic. Well, we’ll have to get together again sometime and talk more about your novel specifically and your background of acting as well. But I love the information about screenwriting and why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books in your screenplays.
Robert: Sure. You can learn all about the books at my website: RobertBlakeWhitehill.com. You’ll learn where I’m speaking. You’ll learn where I’m signing, learn about the books in English and their translations into German through the wonderful publisher, Luzifer-Verlag.
If you want to track the movie side of things a little bit more closely, go to HatLineProductions.com and they have fairly regular updates on where things are on the feature film side. That’s a great resource as well. But certainly, RobertBlakeWhitehill.com, learn about the books, my e-mail address is there. If you’ve got further questions that you’d like to pose, I would be happy to respond. Maybe a little slow sometimes but I do respond to my e-mails.
Matty: That is great. Well, thank you so much, Robert. This has been very interesting.
Robert: The pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much, Matty.
Matty: Thank you.