Middle school English teacher, television writer/producer, and screenwriter for Thor and X-Men First Class – Ashley Miller shares his thoughts on science, inspiration, and the creative process.
Tell us about your background. Where are you from, and what did you want to do when you grew up?
I'm originally from the suburbs of DC in northern Virginia, where I'm proud to say I was a member of the first graduating class of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology. I was a techie. Even so, I wanted to be a writer since the time I was a toddler. My first instinct was to become a novelist, but I lacked the discipline. Then I thought I'd write short stories, but the bottom fell out of that market in roughly 1890. Finding screenwriting was great because it gave me a fabulous tool for finding discipline: structure. A novel I wrote with my partner Zack Stentz is coming out in November, so I feel as though I've come full circle.
What was your first job writing for television and how did you get it?
No one wants to believe this story, but it's all true. Our first television job was on Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, and it came about in part because of a flame war on the Internet. That's how I met Zack – he'd written an article that got him in hot water with some usenet fan boys, and I leaped to his defense along with DS9 (Deep Space 9) producer and future Andromeda creator Robert Hewitt Wolfe. Our partnership emerged from that, as did a friendship with Robert who later bought a pitch we'd initially developed for Voyager. That turned into a script assignment that became a staff job, which became my IMDb page. Also, Robert became my son's godfather. None of it could have happened without the Internet.
Can you give us some insight into the creative process? Where do story ideas come from and how do they end up in television shows and movies?
Story ideas come from everywhere. Mainly, idle “what if there’s a guy who...” questions. Thought experiments. Like Einstein, only not nearly as cool. Or as smart. But still, there are thoughts and there are experiments. I'd love to say only the good ones wind up on screen, but the truth is that the best ones sometimes like to take their time getting up there. (Ask Christopher Nolan, who reportedly spent 10 years working out the story for Inception). In general, it's like Lennon and McCartney said about how they decided what songs to write – it's usually the one you think of that you find yourself humming the next day. The ones that work are “sticky.”
Back to that idle question, “what if there’s a guy (or girl) who...” That 's where characters come from. Zack and I work outside in, then work our way back out. What I mean by that is we tend to imagine a world where a particular thing is possible, or there's a particular challenge or history. Then we imagine who lives in that world. Then we imagine the guy who doesn't belong, and the guy who does. We build stories around moving them both from one place to another. You can see this in almost everything we write – ultimately, characters in our stories almost invariably discover they are outsiders and they remake their world in some way, in their image. That's how we structure things. When we write, we hook into the characters and let the scenes become the scenes. That's where all the best stuff comes from in terms of themes and emotions. If you nail that part, the audience believes your character, connects with your character, and willingly goes along for the ride.
Why have science fiction, fantasy, and heroes born in comic books become so fashionable? Do you think the growing interest will lead to more kids wanting to study science and become scientists when they grow up?
Become? When have they not been? They've always been popular, since their invention. What's happened in the last 40 years or so is that they've gained mainstream credibility. The art of it has been recognized, at least in some quarters. Also, George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry discovered it’s a great way to make a buck. Steven Spielberg expanded the brand. Together, they created a vocabulary of genre filmmaking and created a marketing framework that helped bring these ideas and heroes into the popular imagination. This was all happening at the time that I and guys like me were growing up. It was part of our experience. When our turn at bat came, technology had developed to the point where it suddenly became cost-conceivable (if not always effective) to do pretty much whatever the hell we wanted. And we wanted to do what every storyteller has always wanted to do: tell the stories that excite and move us. Build myths. Provoke emotional responses. Move people. We live in a world where Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson is following up his Lord of the Rings trilogy with a trilogy based on the freaking Hobbit. That's an amazing world to live in and do this job in. It's a privilege.
I honestly do not know if movies will make kids want to be scientists. I am willing to bet that is true. There is probably a kid out there determined to become an engineer because of Tony Stark. Just as I know Captain Kirk and Spock inspired people to become astronauts. I think if I can write a story that inspires a kid to grow up and become a good and loving person, I am doing okay.
Do you read the comments on websites devoted to your television shows and movies? If so, what has been your reaction to them?
Our career was born on the Internet, so it's hard to stay away from it now. You take the good with the bad – and you have to be philosophical about both. You're never as good as your most glowing review, or as bad as your most vitriolic excoriation. Zack and I view it as an analytical tool. The question for us is less about what people liked or didn't like, but what they responded to. What they engaged in, and what they saw versus what we thought they'd see. Early on, we were very active on Andromeda message boards and our message was always “we value your opinion but you don’t get a vote.” Fan service is fine, but the best fan service is to tell a story the fans don't see coming and tell it the best you can.
Have you always been interested in science?
Even as a little kid, I was into science. I loved astronomy. I loved neuroscience. I even had a chemistry set that today would probably get my parents and me arrested. I loved math, too, I just didn't know it until I got a job where it became important and practical.
You started out writing for television. What is the major difference between writing for television and writing for the movies?
Television is a business. I don't mean that in a pejorative way – I think television is largely much better than film, at least in the last 15 years or so. It just means that because television is produced more quickly and efficiently than film, there is no room for dithering. You write. You produce. Our feature career has emerged in part because our television experience gave us the tools to handle high-pressure production situations, from cranking out pages to dealing with executives and directors and being the guys who can't be shaken or broken. We walk high wires without fear, and that confidence is something people in the feature world need and feed on. Creatively, the big difference is that writers run television. It's not a game of telephone between writer and director. Everyone does the part of the job they're great at, and the story always comes first. Also, the compressed schedule can become your ally if you understand how to make it work for you. No one wants to derail a high speed train when it's in motion, spending millions of dollars and even one day delays can destroy your budget. No one wants to be the guy who distracted the driver.
If you could go back and change something in a television show or movie you wrote, what would it be?
There are always things you want to change. There are always things you think could be better. Always. There's a saying that art is not completed, but abandoned. It's totally true. I do look back on early work and wonder what it would be like if it had the benefit of my experience now, but I had to write those things to get that experience. Also, sometimes work benefits from a lack of polish and undisciplined storytelling. You take more risks as a child because you have no idea that electrical socket is going to zap you, or the stove will burn you, or the knife will cut you. You play with forces beyond your comprehension for a reason – so you can learn about them. I don't regret rookie story choices that didn't work, I celebrate the ones that did. Sometimes in spite of me.
How do screenwriters benefit from working with science advisors?
First, a great science advisor isn't there to take things away from you – he or she is there to open your eyes to the possibilities of what you can do. See things you might not have seen. Second, drama comes from limits and overcoming them. One of the reasons Voyager didn't often work is that problems could be solved by rerouting power through the EPS conduits. Well, god damn. Is that all it takes? When we first started on Andromeda, we were always asking “what happens if you can't do X – what's Y?" So our very particular rules – no faster than light communications, no shields, no beam weapons past a certain range – made space combat fun to write, for example. Limits and rules tell the audience that the hero is facing a challenge, and make it enjoyable when the hero overcomes that challenge. Breaking the rules or outwitting them or flipping them to his advantage is practically Captain Kirk’s franchise. He is the ultimate “what’s Y?” guy. If you find a great science advisor, you'll find yourself coming back to them again and again.
Our advisor on Andromeda was Paul Woodmansee, a JPL engineer who also consulted on DS9. When I started on the show, Paul and I had a thousand-page email exchange on the vagaries of space combat. It was like the Edmund Burke Society, only with math and spreadsheets. We still consult with Paul, and don't tell anyone, but we play D&D together once a month. So the third benefit is you might make a lifelong friend.
What is in the pipeline? What can you tell us about your next project or projects?
Our first novel, Colin Fischer comes out November 1st. It's about a 14 year old boy with Asperger’s who sets out to prove that the kid who's been kicking his ass since kindergarten is innocent of bringing a gun to school. His efforts on the bully’s behalf evolve into a friendship between them, and the bully realizing the kind of person he's been and the kind of person he needs to be. The story is about a lot of things, but mainly it's about how people find each other, the relationship between truth and justice, and how empathy defines us. The book is filled with facts, too – everything from shark behavior, to film history, to mathematical methods for identifying an excellent parking spot. It's a grab bag of what excites us, really.
What advice do you have for the next generation of screenwriters?
Too many screenwriters go to film school, graduate and think they're ready to write. They're wrong. Most of them haven't lived a life yet. They have nothing to say yet. They get thrown into situations where they're essentially regurgitating what they themselves saw in the movies or on television. Before we became professional screenwriters, Zack was a journalist who worked in a wide variety of fields of interest. I was a middle school teacher, then I worked for the DoD. We both had real people and real things to write about, or use to inform our characters and situations.
The other hugely important thing is to write and read constantly. Be disciplined. Keep a schedule. The only way to learn how to do this job is to do it and do it and do it – and if you're not sitting your ass in front of a computer, or you don't have a book in your hand, or you're not watching a film and deconstructing how it was cut together and why, you're not doing it. You're pretending to do it. You will fail. Executives ask us sometimes how we work so fast, and we tell them we don't. It's just that when given a three month writing period, most writers will spend two months procrastinating and one month writing desperately. We cut out the two months and skip ahead to the desperation. Discipline takes care of the rest.
Finally, when I first started in this business one of my friends saw Neil Gaiman at a book signing for American Gods and asked him to autograph a copy for me with advice for writers. He wrote: “Ashley – Finish things.” Finish things. If nothing else, do that.
Photo credit: Doug Hac