Peter Hanson explores what screenwriters do when they’re not writing. Follow Peter on Twitter: @GrandRiverFilms.
A lifelong affection for pulp storytelling led 3:10 to Yuma co-writer Derek Haas to create a website featuring short fiction by screenwriters.
Most screenwriters probably have a prose itch that needs to be scratched,” says Derek Haas—and he should know, because he’s spent the last decade writing big-budget studio movies even though his original literary aspiration was to become a novelist. To scratch that itch, Haas created the website Popcorn Fiction, which delivers a new short story nearly every week to more than 1,000 subscribers.
A-list screenwriters, including John August (Big Fish), Scott Frank (Out of Sight), and Brian Helgeland (Mystic River), have contributed original pieces to the site, as have dozens of other notable film and TV writers. “The attraction is that it’s not the writer and 10 other people collaborating on a script,” Haas says. “At least one reader is going to read exactly what you wrote. Not many writers use Popcorn Fiction to present ideas for film projects—it’s a way to try out ideas that would never sell as a pitch.”
The site also allows writers to leave their comfort zones. Haas notes that screenwriter, Jeff Lowell, known for light entertainment like Hotel for Dogs, wrote a dark story about a young woman whose life spins in unexpected directions after she’s propositioned by an older man, and that Craig Mazin, a frequent collaborator on raunchy Wayans Brothers spoofs, wrote a “mystical blues story” about a musician seeking out an elusive drummer. “I started realizing early on that ‘popcorn’ means different things to different people,” Haas remarks. “What I was surprised by was how well-written the submissions were—a great writer is a great writer.”
The story of Popcorn Fiction parallels Haas’ ascension in Hollywood because the site’s focus on pulpy entertainment grew out of its editor’s lifelong affection for genre fiction. A Texas native who earned his M.A. in English literature at Baylor University, Haas fell in love with language at an early age. “I wanted to be a writer from the time I was a kid,” he says. “I got a typewriter for my twelfth birthday and wrote little stories. My dad was a huge reader when I was growing up, so there were always books lying around. When I was 10 or 11, I picked up Stephen King’s short-story collection Different Seasons, which includes ‘Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘Apt Pupil,’ so all of a sudden I was reading the story of a guy breaking out of prison, and the story of a guy hunting down a Nazi. That’s when I fell in love with pulp fiction—what I call ‘popcorn fiction.’”
As Haas bluntly states, “I honestly didn’t know shit about literature until I got into graduate school. That was like getting thrown into the deep end of the pool—Donne, Shakespeare—so for years, I didn’t read any contemporary fiction. I was reading classics.” It was at Baylor that Haas met Michael Brandt, who eventually became his screenwriting partner, but during college, Hollywood wasn’t part of Haas’ career strategy. Instead, while Brandt headed to California to work as a film editor, Haas drifted to Atlanta, where he spent several years in the advertising business.
In his spare time, Haas penned a novel, but the writing wasn’t satisfying. “I was trying to write literature,” he recalls. “Then I picked up a Stephen King book again, and I realized you can write like he does—you don’t have to write ‘The Great American Novel.’ I’d call Steinbeck and Hemingway my two favorite authors, so it’s not like I reacted negatively to literature, but I felt my strengths were not in trying to set the literary world on fire. I just gravitated to pulpier things. Maybe those formative years stuck with me.
“Or maybe,” he adds with a laugh, “I just don’t have anything important to say.”
Haas eventually generated the idea for a screenplay titled The Courier, and reached out to Brandt. They wrote the script together, and the piece generated buzz in the late ’90s when Brad Pitt expressed interest. That established Brandt and Haas as a major new screenwriting team, even though The Courier got stuck in development hell; the duo’s impressive credits now include 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Wanted (2008), and this year’s The Double, which Brandt directed and Haas produced.
“It just seemed to me you never read about some new short story getting optioned by a studio. People were scouring old stories, but nobody was looking at what’s coming out now.” —Derek Haas
The Courier will finally hit screens this year, with Mickey Rourke in the lead, but Haas says the film is vastly different from what he and Brandt wrote.
Once his Hollywood career was established, Haas returned to his pulp roots by taking a second stab at novel writing, this time in the cozy confines of crime fiction. The Silver Bear came out in 2008, Columbus followed in 2009, and a third novel will be released later this year. Yet, rather than satisfying Haas’ writerly urges, crafting these books opened a floodgate of creativity that produced Popcorn Fiction. Early last year, Haas started tinkering with the idea of publishing short stories that he and other screenwriters had written. The impetus was his realization that Hollywood tends to favor short stories that have been around for decades.
“It just seemed to me you never read about some new short story getting optioned by a studio,” he notes. “People were scouring old stories, but nobody was looking at what’s coming out now.” Haas briefly entertained the notion of publishing the stories in print, then realized costs would be more reasonable with a website. He sent an e-mail blast to his Hollywood connections in order to drum up interest, and knew he was onto something when Oscar®-nominee Scott Frank agreed to participate. Haas insists on paying writers a tiny commission for each story, and contributors retain copyright on their stories so they can change, pull down, or republish the stories at will. The site launched on July 24 of last year, and its audience has grown with each new story. Haas says he’s thrilled by feedback from readers, who coined a term for the site’s most exciting stories: Instead of referring to the tales as “page-turners,” fans call the stories “scrollers” because each Popcorn Fiction story begins and ends on one long page.
“What does ‘Popcorn Fiction’ mean? It’s like when you go to see a summer movie, you know what you’re gonna see. This isn’t The New Yorker. It’s entertaining literature. For me, genre boils down to crime, sci-fi, horror—things that, as soon as you say the word, it puts an exact type of story in mind. So I don’t think you can call a drama a genre story, but when you say ‘horror’ or ‘sci-fi’ or ‘Western,’ you know what you’re gonna get.”
Ironically, the first time Haas himself used the site to get an offbeat story out of his system, it led to a Hollywood deal: His crime story, “Shake” was bought by Jerry Bruckheimer shortly after appearing online. And Bruckheimer isn’t the only power player to notice what’s happening at Popcorn Fiction. Late last year, Haas struck a deal with Mulholland Books, an imprint of the venerable publisher Little, Brown and Company. Mulholland took over administration and marketing of the site, with an eye toward reaching out to contributors as possible novelists. No money changed hands in the deal, and Haas retained full editorial control; contributing writers were asked for permission before their Popcorn Fiction stories were “mirrored” on Mulholland’s well-trafficked website. “As the publisher of Popcorn Fiction, one of the responsibilities I didn’t expect is making sure as many people as possible read the stories,” Haas says.
The timing of the Mulholland deal was fortuitous, because the success of the website meant that Popcorn Fiction was starting to take more of Haas’ time than was practical, particularly since he’s never drawn any income from the endeavor. The deal also took a burden off Haas’ younger brother, a Texas-based computer whiz who built and maintained the original site. So now, with Mulholland doing the heavy lifting, Haas can get back to the part of administrating the website he loves: helping screenwriters tell stories they’re not able to tell within the parameters of their Hollywood careers.
“It’s not like I said ‘There’s a hole in my life that needs to be filled’—it was more like a creative artistic challenge,” Haas says. “What different aspects of writing can I try my hand at? I love writing prose and writing screenplays. I just have this compunction to get writing out. I love storytelling, so I’m always working.”
Looking back on the fast rise of his website, Haas smiles when he talks about writers who’ve thanked him for encouraging them to flex “prose muscles” they hadn’t used in years, and he beams when he talks about his interaction with fans. “It’s so gratifying that the feedback is 99-to-1 positive,” he says, “especially since the Internet is a place where it’s so easy to rip someone who tries to do something original.”
Originally published in Script magazine March April 2011.
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