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Interview: Leigh Dunlap

October 31st, 2012 (07:10 am)
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If you like A Cinderella Story, Doctor Who, good books, good sports, behind-the-scenes stories regarding publishing and filmmaking, and creative people who are multi-hyphenates, then you should read this interview with novelist-screenwriter Leigh Dunlap. Allons-y!

What inspired your new book, Halifax?

Halifax was inspired by my love of sci-fi, stories about teenagers, and Doctor Who. I wanted to write a teenage Doctor Who.

Did it begin as a screenplay or was it a novel from the get-go?

Halifax started out as a screenplay. I had been dabbling in writing novels and hadn't quite hit on a story and a structure that I could really run with. I thought that Halifax would be perfect to turn into a novel and that it lent itself to the format. And since it was already a screenplay, I had a great template to work off of. Sometimes, for me, just getting organized is the biggest battle. So the organization was already done and then I had to move on to more important things --- like writing actual paragraphs! It was definitely a learning experience, but I loved the process.

At what point in the writing process did you determine this story was a trilogy?

I had envisioned the story at one point as a TV series, so in my head there was always more story to tell. The book is actually the beginning and ending of what would have been the first season. The second book is really what would have been the second season and the third book is planned along the lines of how the series would have ended. Of course, there was a lot to change along the way, but there is definitely a bigger story to tell and three books seems about right.

Which character in Halifax is the most like you? The least?

Oh no! The dreaded question! Well, every character is a bit like me, more or less. I can be like all of them. Maybe when I was younger, I was more like Nora, though certainly not popular! I'd like to think I'm more like Farrell now. He's pretty straightforward, gets things done, damn the torpedoes! Though I make plenty of mistakes like Farrell will in the future. I'm least like Rom. He's a unique little guy. He's smarter than me for sure. Also more naive.

Halifax is described as a mix of Torchwood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Breakfast Club. (Now if we could only get Anthony Michael Hall, John Barrowman, and Sarah Michelle Gellar in the same project...!)

What a dream cast that would be...

Wouldn't it be fun? What do you think a good teen story - be it a film, a TV series, or a novel - has in common with a good sci-fi story?

Sci-fi stories tend to be about outcasts. Aliens are, of course, not like the rest of us. So there's that element to it, where teenagers feel different or lost or out of place. I think you feel that way if you're popular and pretty or a nerd and geeky. And maybe you still feel that was when you're an adult too. It's being different and trying to find your way in the world. Some times that's battling through school and in sci-fi that may be battling evil forces. Either way, you are trying to survive.

Upon learning that Leigh was a Doctor Who fan, I gave her a virtual high-five and informed her that I was still in mourning over the Ponds. She responded, "I loved Amy! So sad to see her and Rory go, but that is one of the wonderful things about Doctor Who: you get new companions, and when an actor wants to leave, he just regenerates into a new actor!"

Ahem. We now return you to our proper standard Q&A format...and continue to talk about those who travel on the TARDIS:


Who are your favorite Doctor Who companions, and why?

Rose was absolutely my favorite companion and the love story there was amazing. Though I have to say I also loved Donna. Just the idea of this person who didn't think they were worthless was actually the most important person in the universe was brilliant. I guess I'm going for a little bit of that with Nora in Halifax.

Who is your favorite Doctor? I'll go first: David Tennant. I think he's brilliant, not just in Doctor Who, but pretty much every role I've seen him tackle.

I, too, am a big David Tennant fan. Although I think Matt is great and the new seasons are wonderful, they don't have the same amount of heart as the David Tennant years.

Changing the subject from aliens to princesses: How long did it take you to write the screenplay for A Cinderella Story, and how long to sell it? Did you write the screenplay because you were fond of the fairy tale?

I was actually approached by some producers to write a "modern take on Cinderella" and went from there. It didn't take long to write originally but it took forever to sell. There were several competing Cinderella projects at the time. When Hilary Duff finally signed on that was that. She was the hottest teen star at the time and everyone wanted to work with her. It became a bidding war at that point and we almost immediately went into production. It was a total whirlwind.

How much of the original script made it to the screen? Were there a lot of changes, or very few, and were you satisfied with the final product?

Warner Brothers hired a million screenwriters to start re-writing the script and it was a very sad process for me. It's no fun to see what you've written destroyed and there's no one involved who thinks the finished script was better than the original. But that's what the studio wanted and they ended up with a huge hit, so you can't fault that. I think just enough of what I had, though, and the heart of it, was left and I like to think that's one of the reasons it worked. Writing books is a much more satisfying experience. What I intended is there on the page, for better or worse.

Not only did you write the screenplay for the film 16-Love, but you also served as executive producer. That's got to be both thrilling and nerve-wracking! What was the coolest experience you had on set or behind-the-scenes?

That was an interesting experience. The entire movie was made for what would have been the catering budget on A Cinderella Story. It was totally nerve-wracking, but exciting at the same time. It was a daily battle on so many levels, but I got to work with some amazing people who worked hard for very little money and were a joy to deal with. I loved going to the set. Loved helping to solve problems. It wasn't a perfect experience by any means and again a lot of what I wrote didn't end up the way I wrote it, but somehow we all survived and it's a sweet movie.

I was most proud to have Chandler Massey as one of the leads. I fought hard to have him cast in the movie and he's wonderful. Since then he's won an Emmy for Days of Our Lives. He's going to be a big star.

Many of your screenplays, including two of your pilot scripts, have sports-related storylines. Are you an athlete, or did play sports growing up?

When I grew up there wasn't a lot of opportunity for girls to play sports. I was invited on the tennis team but had to work after school so I couldn't participate. I probably would have been awful anyhow!

My dad was a big sports fan and I grew up watching baseball and football with him and we'd go to car races. Maybe my love of sports comes from wanting his attention. I don't really know. But I'm a sports fanatic and I think sports tends to have exactly what I look for in stories: underdogs, great characters, inspiration, action, comedy, heart. Sports is growing so much in media that it's only a matter of time before networks finally embrace it. I wrote a script about a female sportscaster and I hope I'm the first one in the door, but it's tough. But it will happen with or without me! Girls like sports too. We are the fastest growing segment of sports viewers, both on TV and in stadiums, and people are starting to recognize that fact.

Amen to that. Do you have any other screenplays in the works, or are you focusing on the Halifax trilogy for the time being?

Right now, all I'm concentrating on is the second Halifax book, which I'm having a blast working on. I love being back in their world. Although things get very though for all the characters in Halifax in the second book, both professionally (versus aliens) and personally (versus each other) I find their world a very happy place to hang out in.

Last but not least: Please name your ten all-time favorite books. Any genre, any age, any type.

Oh, you're going to get a bunch of sports books, I'm afraid!

"Money Ball" - Michael Lewis
"The Blind Side" - Michael Lewis
"Luckiest Man" - Jonathan Eig
"Opening Day" - Jonathan Eig
"The Soul of Baseball" - Joe Posnanski
"Ted Williams" - Leigh Montville
"Game Six" - Mark Frost
"Tim Tebow" - Tim Tebow
"Pistol" - Mark Kriegel
and because it's not all about sports....
"Bridget Jones' Diary" - Helen Fielding

Visit Leigh Dunlap's website.