Jan 24, 2017
The award-winning screenwriter and author of the debut novel All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mastai, dropped by the show this week to talk about his fiction debut, the science of time travel, and finding inspiration in dark places.
The writer and producer has written movies for both indie and Hollywood studios, including scripts for Fox, Sony, Warner Brothers, and Paramount.
His most recent film – What If, a comedy starring Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, and Mackenzie Davis – premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. Elan won the Canadian Academy Award and the Writers Guild of Canada Award for his script, and the movie played in over 30 countries.
His new novel – All Our Wrong Todays – is a sci-fi tinged, time-travel romance and much buzzed about debut that is rumored to have landed the writer a seven-figure book deal worth north of a million dollars.
The book has been described as “Dark Matter meets Back to the Future,” and even prior to the book’s publication, the film rights were sold to Paramount Pictures.
Andy Weir, bestselling author of The Martian, called it, “A thrilling tale of time travel and alternate timelines with a refreshingly optimistic view of humanity’s future.”
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In Part One of this file Elan Mastai and I discuss:
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Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I’m your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. The award-winning screenwriter and author of the debut novel, All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mastai, dropped by the show this week to talk about his fiction debut, the science of time travel, and finding inspiration in dark places. The writer and producer has written movies for both indie and Hollywood studios including scripts for Fox, Sony, Warner Bros., and Paramount. His most recent film, What If, a comedy starring Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, and Mackenzie Davis, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013.
Elan won the Canadian Academy Award and a Writers Guild of Canada Award for his script, and the movie played in over 30 countries. His new novel, All Our Wrong Todays, is a sci-fi tinged time travel romance and much buzzed about debut. It is rumored to have landed the writer a seven-figure book deal worth north of a million dollars. The book has been described as Dark Matter meets Back to the Future, and even prior to the book’s publication, the film rights were sold to Paramount Pictures. Andy Weir, best selling author of The Martian, called it, “A thrilling tale of time travel and alternate timelines with a refreshingly optimistic view of humanity’s future.”
In part one of this file, Elan and I discuss his grandfather’s vintage sci-fi collection and how it inspired him, how he launched his screenwriting career by translating Pulp Fiction into a kid s movie, why writers need to know their weaknesses, how the busy screenwriter and producer found time to write a novel, and the hard science of time travel and storytelling. If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.
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We are rolling on The Writer Files today with Elan Mastai, I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly, author extraordinaire, screenwriter, and author of this fantastic new book that we’re going to talk about here shortly. Thanks for joining us.
Elan Mastai: Thanks for having me.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, so All Our Wrong Todays is this amazing book. I don’t really know how to describe it, so I might let you do that one, but you are an award-winning screenwriter who has a debut novel coming out. It’s getting a ton, a ton of press, a ton of buzz. It’s really exciting to see, because the book itself is kind of jaw-dropping, but yeah, do you want to give us the …
Elan Mastai: Sure, yeah. By its very nature, it’s a book … there’s a lot of things going on in the book, and I wanted to write something where the place you and the character are when it starts and where it ends is unexpected, you wouldn’t be believe where we go with it. So that is what I was going for when I was writing it, as a very unexpected, twisted journey. But of course, it does make summing it up a little challenging.
But basically, the book opens in the present day in 2016. But it’s the 2016 that people in the 1950s and 60s thought we were going to have, this sort of techno-utopian future of flying cars and robot maids and teleportation, where all of humanity’s problems have basically been solved by technology. Doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect, people still have their own individual problems, romantic problems, family challenges, personal obstacles. But the big picture has been solved.
And there’s all this incredible technology, which of course I get into, and my protagonist, Tom, ends up working for his father, who is developing, basically, time travel vacations. And of course, whenever you introduce time travel into the mix, things get complicated. Through basically a time travel accident, Tom finds himself stranded in what appears to him to be a terrible, dystopian alternate reality, but which we recognize immediately as just the real world, our version of 2016, which to him seems like everything has gone horrible awry.
And so here … He’s not from the future, he’s from the present, but it’s a very, very different present where the last 50 years of history went off on a totally different trajectory and then trying to find his way back to the world we’re supposed to have, or at least what he always thought we were supposed to have. But of course, as he finds himself increasingly enmeshed in our messy version of 2016, it starts to get complicated, and he starts to question exactly what kind of future he really wants to have.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, I mean, it makes one’s head spin a little bit, but once you start reading it, it just sucks you right in, so kudos on the-
Elan Mastai: Thank you.
Kelton Reid: The buzz … At the time of publishing this, it will be coming out very shortly. Man, if you like … Well, I guess it’s been described as reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker s Guide to the Galaxy. I don’t think that really pays it justice, but it’s also been kind of described as a … Well, you described it as a cross between Vonnegut and Tropper, who I understand is a friend of yours.
Elan Mastai: Yeah, actually my agent described it as that. As a first time novelist, I’m a little reluctant to compare myself to Kurt Vonnegut, let alone Jon Tropper. But somebody else described it as … I know you had Blake Crouch on your show-
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Elan Mastai: And so we described it as Dark Matter meets Back to the Future, and I thought that was a pretty good description.
Kelton Reid: Yes. Oh, that’s perfect. I love it. Okay, cool. So, listeners, writers, readers can find it out there for pre-order. Oh man, it is a lot of fun, it’s just wild. Let’s go back a little bit in time ourselves. Talk a bit about your origins as a writer. I know that you have done screenwriting, and you’ve produced movies yourself, a pretty impressive slate there. Let’s go back a little bit and talk about your origins as a writer. How did you get here?
Elan Mastai: Well, I stole a time machine. No. My origins as a writer … I grew up in a house surrounded by books. The very earliest sort of foundation of this book itself … My grandfather, who was a chemist, he had this extensive collection of old science fiction, from the 50s and 60s, and I loved these old books. When I was a kid in the 80s, they were already brittle and the covers were starting to fall apart, so I had to be very careful with them. But I loved staring at these garishly painted covers of these sort of impossible futures, and imagined futures and robot maids and flying cars and adventurers and bosomy space aliens and …
But even in the 80s, I knew there was a disconnect, that the future that these writers and artists in the 40s and 50s and 60s had imagined, it didn’t actually come true. I did not get a jetpack for my 12th birthday, and it seemed a terrible injustice. I just found myself really interested in that disconnect. What happened to the future we were supposed to have?
It was something that I had thinking about well before I ever decided to turn those questions into a novel. My mom, when I was young, was an actress in the theatre, and so we were around people who were making narrative art, playwrights and directors and actors. I didn’t really know anybody in the movie business, per se, but the theatre community was something that was around me. So that idea that, Oh, the art, entertainment that I enjoy, like, somebody’s making that. That’s like a job you can have. And I just was really compelled by that.
But even so, to be honest, when I was growing up, and even when I went away to college, the idea of being a writer, that being your profession, like you could actually make a living doing it, It seemed very far off. It seemed kind of impossible. How do you actually do that? Who’s going to take a chance on you when there’s so many terrific writers out there? Who’s going to give you a shot?
Elan Mastai: So I kind of stumbled my way into my first writing job. I was still a student and this woman that I had gone to school with, she had gotten a job as an assistant to a producer. We ran into each other. She knew I was interested in writing and I had made some short films in college, and she had liked them. So she offered to get me an interview with her boss. They had made a kid s movie that had done well, and they were looking to do a sequel really quickly. And she said, “You’re not going to get hired. There’s no way you’re going to get hired. But I can get you a meeting. He’s meeting other writers.” And I was like, “Meeting?” A meeting was so far beyond my actual plans. I didn’t even know how you get a meeting with a producer. So I was like, “Great, I’ll go to the meeting.”
When I look back on it, I don’t think she actually explained to her boss that I had never written a movie before. I think he just thought, well, if I’m sitting there, I must know what I’m doing. And so, he basically sat there with his feet up on his desk and told me what he thought the sequel should be about, and because I was told in advance there was no way I was getting hired, I was like, “I don’t know about that idea. I don’t think that’s a good one. I think that there’s some interesting things there, but here’s what I think you should do for your sequel.” And so I basically just pitched him, off the top of my head, what I thought he should do with his sequel. Because I was like, “What do I have to lose?”
Kelton Reid: Right.
Elan Mastai: He’s inevitably … The best case scenario was he would steal my idea and hire a real writer. But he liked the idea and he thought about it and the next day they’d called me and said, “Would you take what you said in the meeting and write it down, and we’ll pay you to write an outline.” So I had to find out what an outline was. And they liked my outline, so they hired me to write the movie. And at every step of the way, I kept thinking I was going to get fired. At some point, someone’s going to realize I don’t know what I’m doing.
I knew so little about screenwriting, I went out … One of my favorite movies of the time was Pulp Fiction. So I went out and bought the published screenplay. Nowadays you can get any screenplay online. But at the time it was actually hard to find a screenplay. But they had published Pulp Fiction. So I figured Tarantino does basically everything in that movie, anything you could do in a movie, he does in that movie. So I figured if I had to figure out what something looked like, I’d would just look it up in Pulp Fiction.
So this is a kid s movie, but I followed Tarantino’s model to the point where … You know, Pulp Fiction is 134 pages, so I made my screenplay 134 pages, which, if you know anything about screenplays, is really, really long.
Kelton Reid: It is.
Elan Mastai: Yeah, a kid s movie should be about 80, 85 pages long. And the producer described it as “War and Peace, with chimps.” But, fortunately, he thought there’s enough of a movie in there that once we sort of cut about half of my ideas out of it, there was something to hone.
And so it all happened very quickly. I wrote like three drafts of the script in five weeks, constantly assuming I was going to get fired. And then the movie got green-lit. And I found myself in this position of being on set … I only went to set like once or twi- …. I think I was on set maybe twice. It wasn’t a situation where I was on set doing re-writes. It was very much the classic, I wrote the script, they said, “Thank you very much,” and went off and made the movie.
Kelton Reid: Right.
Elan Mastai: I did come to set but I found myself in this weird position of … I’m on set. I had named all the characters after my friends, my roommates from college. I’d named locations, the shops after just people in my life. Because, I just assumed someone was going to rewrite all of this. But here I am, on set, with characters named after my friends, delivering dialogue that I wrote, in locations that I had imagined. It was like walking around inside your own dream. And even though writing kid s movies was not my ambition, that feeling of dozens and dozens of people scurrying around building this story that had only existed in my head, but in the real world, it was this magical moment. And I feel like my entire career as a screenwriter was to keep trying to recapture that dazzling feeling of wonder that I’d actually, while awake, walked into my own dream.
Kelton Reid: Wow.
Elan Mastai: And even though that movie, it’s a silly kid s movie, it did well enough that inspired some sequels. I didn’t write any of them, because writing kid … I mean, I really appreciated the opportunity, but once I’d been through the process, I’d realized writing kid s movies wasn’t my personal … It wasn’t really what I wanted to do. But I’d had a movie made, and Warner Bros. picked it up for international distribution, and that really kickstarted my screenwriting career.
So I had this thing where I felt a bit like Chauncey Gardiner, from Being There, or Forrest Gump, except that was like I kind of stumbled into this career, and did this opportunity anyways, and then once I’d had the opportunity, which, I have to admit, looking back, I was still a college student. I didn’t take it that seriously at the time. And then suddenly I was like, “Oh. I could actually do this.” I had no idea how you could even start a writing career, but I somehow stumbled into it.
Elan Mastai: Now I have to actually really start taking this seriously. It’s not just a lark. It’s not an exam that you tell everybody you only started studying for the night before to protect yourself if you do badly. Now I could actually do something. The door is open a crack. And the only way to get through it is to just get to be a much better writer. That’s the other thing about … There’s nothing like seeing actors on set and people spending all this money and delivering your dialogue to make you aware in the most cringe-worthy fashion, that your writing sounded a lot better in your head.
Kelton Reid: Right.
Elan Mastai: Because people are speaking it out loud. And so that experience, in addition to the sort of magical sense of being in this waking dream, it was also the sort of kick in the pants that, yeah, I need to work a lot harder and get to be a much better writer if I’m ever going to write the kinds of movies or the kinds of anything that could compare to the things that made me want to do it in the first place.
So then I went through a very intensive period. I was lucky I had a great early opportunity. But I went through a real intensive period of just trying to get better as a writer, trying to close that gap between what I wanted it to feel like in my head and what was actually coming out on the page. I got a couple other movies made and I got better and I just worked really hard. It s just that thing The movie business, I mean really in anything, in the movie business, but in any kind of writing field, you have so little control over how your work is received. But what you can control is the actual writing itself.
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Elan Mastai: Each word, one at a time. That’s what you can control, and that became my mantra. Just focus on the writing, figure out what your strengths are, figure out what your weaknesses are, try to make your strengths better, try to make your weaknesses stronger, and just keep plugging away, basically, and not even worry so much about how it’s going to be received, what the reviews are going be like. Just worry about every single day, doing the best writing you can.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, wow. That’s a good takeaway. You’ve had so much success, it seems. You’ve written for Fox, Sony, Warner Bros., Paramount. And then you had a film premiere at Toronto International Film Festival, is that right?
Elan Mastai: Yeah, that’s right.
Kelton Reid: Called What If, Starring Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, who I love. Mackenzie Davis, also. Fantastic actor. So you wrote and produced this movie …
Elan Mastai: Yeah.
Kelton Reid: And got to tour around with it, and it was very well received. It’s a lot of fun, it would seem. So you were on the set for that movie.
Elan Mastai: Yeah. What I learned through a couple movies … I had a few movies made early on in my career where I really just handed off the script. I didn’t have a lot to do with it. What I realized was that wasn’t fully satisfying to me. I started taking more and more of a role on my projects, and that turned into a producing role. I started being on set for the entire shoot, being involved from the very beginning in budgeting and casting and hiring crew, and on the other side of production in editing and even just the marketing and promotion. I made the decision to team up with people who were looking for a partner.
Also, on What If, I was working with a director … I didn’t know Mike Dowse before we started working on it, but we became very close, and we became real creative partners. So I was able to be on set every day, and be at the monitors, and be an integral part of the production process, not just somebody who hands the script off. Producing a movie is not super fun. It makes you want to tear your hair out.
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Elan Mastai: But if you can figure out the skill set to produce your own work, it’s the best way to protect your writing. In the case of What If, I didn’t need to protect my writing, insofar as I had a great director, I had an incredible cast who were already very protective of my script. But, making sure … If you’re going to have a place at the table, you actually have to make that decision well before the movie ever starts marching towards production. You have to make it at the earliest stage. You have to say, “I’m going to be a producer on this movie. I’m going to hope I find a terrific director, terrific actors, who really want to partner, who love the script. But, I don’t know that that’s going to happen. So I’m going to install myself as a producer at the earliest stage-”
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Elan Mastai: So that I always have the opportunity to protect it, even if I don’t need to. You don’t get an alarm system installed in your house while the break-in is happening.
Kelton Reid: Because that’s a great point.
Elan Mastai: I’m going to call the police. “Someone is breaking into my house, I need you to send the police here, and if you could send a security, like an alarm installer, that would be terrific.”
Kelton Reid: Well, you’ve clearly been influenced by some great romantic comedy directors and producers yourself, that being a romantic comedy, What If, that actually won a Canadian Academy Award. You won a Writer’s Guild Award as well.
Elan Mastai: Yeah.
Kelton Reid: So you found success there, but then how did you make the jump? Were you working on the novel that whole time, or did you decide to take a break to work on the novel?
Elan Mastai: No, actually. I started the novel actually during the press tour for What If. I was on a press tour. I had never been on a press tour before. None of the movies I’d ever written had invited me along to be a part of this multi-city promotional process that happened when the movie comes out. But on What If, I was invited along.
Being on a press tour is weird, especially if you’re not used to it. Someone like Daniel Radcliffe has been doing it since he was a kid, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s got it all on lockdown. When you watch him handle interviews, it’s like you re watching a competitive swimmer.
Kelton Reid: Right.
Elan Mastai: But, I wasn’t like that. It was a weird process. I also found that I didn’t have any time to write. You’re scheduled in almost 15 or 30 minute blocks, someone’s always telling you where to go, who to talk to, where to sit. And I like to write every single day.
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Elan Mastai: One might even say I need to write every single day, if one was perhaps a psychologist. So I found that I had very little time to write, but at the same time I also had intentionally not taken on any screenwriting projects, because I knew the promotion was going to take up a lot of time, and I didn’t want to get behind on deadlines, or have promised something to somebody that I couldn’t deliver, so I took a little break.
I think it was just my mind … I was travelling a lot, I was in new cities, I was meeting all kinds of people. And I just started thinking about this story. And the more I started thinking about it, the more I got excited about it. But I also realized that there was a way I wanted to tell this story, and it wasn’t a movie. It could be a movie down the line, and I think it will be a great movie. I sold the rights for the movie to Paramount and I m working on that right now. But, I realized that I wanted to tell the story as a novel, particularly as a first person kind of faux-memoir that I wanted to not just be a story that I was telling, but a story that the protagonist was telling about this thing that happened to him.
So while I was on the press tour, it was this sort of weird fugue state where it wasn’t like my real life. My real life does not involve dinners and screenings and interviews and staying in hotels. That’s not my regular life. This is the sort of alternate reality that I’d been thrust in. So whenever I’d have a little break, I started the process of thinking about … And started writing this novel, in little spurts. In fact, if you read the novel, the chapters are very short, and I really embraced that, those short chapters. But the actual original reason the chapters are so short is that I only usually had 15 or 20 minutes of time to write. So each chapter was just how much time I had to write that day.
So I started just trying to do it every single day. If I could just take 15, 20 minutes, if I could just write 250 or 500 words a day, then I would feel that I got something done and that I was just challenging myself, pushing myself, trying something new, while I was in this weird state that was outside my regular daily writing routine. And I started to like the idea of the short chapters, aesthetically, I started to really enjoy it. And I started to like what I was writing.
So the press tour ended and I didn’t want to stop. Like a lot of people, I had a day job. I’m like a lot of people; my day job is writing movies. I’m a working screenwriter. I have contracts, I have deadlines, I have things I have to deliver to people. So I just started writing the novel basically evenings and weekends. Every day I would carve out half an hour, 45 minutes. I set myself a word count of 250 to 500 words, not a lot, very small, manageable, but I did it every single day. So just on the side, I started writing this book. You do it every single day. After five months, you start to actually have … I had a rough draft of this novel. It needed a lot of work, it needed a lot of massaging and polishing.
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Elan Mastai: I cut tons, I added new stuff, I moved stuff around. But, by doing it a tiny little bit every single day, while I was doing my day job, which is writing movies, I actually was able to complete a very rough but finished first draft.
Kelton Reid: Wow, wow. Well, it’s an incredibly impressive debut. I love how people talk about the overnight success, and obviously you’ve been working in film and narrative storytelling itself for quite a while, so it wasn’t a surprise that you put together this fantastic story.
Elan Mastai: That’s nice of you to say. I didn’t think that when I was starting it. I was like, “I’m a screenwriter, why am I spending all this time writing a novel.” I didn’t have a publishing deal, I didn’t have a literary agent. I didn’t know if anyone was going to want to publish it. So I appreciate you saying that. The finished book that people are saying such nice things about is the result, of course, of a lot of rewriting, of a lot of polishing, a lot of hard work to get it to the place where it was ready to be unleashed on the world. In the beginning, there was very much of like, “I don’t know why I’m doing this other than that I have a story to tell and I feel compelled to tell it.”
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. Well, it is really fun. I will point back to your website, I think, Elanmastai.com, where you can pre-order the book and/or order it if you’re listening to this after it’s been published on all these fantastic platforms. It seems like a lot of research went into some of these things. Now, I haven’t asked Andy Weir what he thinks about the science behind it, but I would be curious. But he did plug it. He loved it. He said it was a “thrilling tale of time travel, alternate timelines, with a refreshingly optimistic view of humanity’s future.” He was also a guest on this show, which I will point to in the show notes for listeners also. But, tell me about the science. Were you just having lot of fun? It seems like you were just having so much fun writing this. But were you also consulting, like, Wikipedia from time to time on the time travel stuff?
Elan Mastai: Not necessarily Wikipedia-
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Elan Mastai: But, yeah. My grandfather, who was the one who really introduced me to science fiction when I was a kid was a chemist; he was a scientist by trade, and he loved science fiction. But he often would complain that these sci-fi books are terrific, but they get the science all wrong. They don’t even try. And in fact, the science is very interesting and if they would just … He was always going on about it. If they would just take a little bit of time to figure out the science, they would actually find their story would be more interesting. Because it would be grounded in reality.
I guess that’s always been in the back of my mind. So when I started writing I would definitely just write where my imagination took me, and I would just run with it. But then I made the decision, I’m going to figure out how as much of this stuff as possible would actually work. So whether that’s what traffic patterns might be like in a world with flying cars, or how exactly radiation works. Most specifically, creating a model of time travel that takes into consideration that the planet moves. And not just that the earth is constantly moving, but that it’s moving very, very quickly. At its equator, the earth rotates on its axis at a 1000 miles an hour. Every second of the day, the earth is rotating around the sun at about 67,000 miles per hour. So that’s very, very fast, and that’s not even taking into consideration how fast the sun is moving through the galaxy.
I’d never really seen a time-tr- … I love time travel stories; I read lot of them. I had never personally found one that actually acknowledged that the earth is constantly moving. And if you’re going to throw somebody back in time, you’re actually also throwing them back in space, and not just a short distance; thousands, tens of thousands, millions, even billions of miles, literally, back in space to land very precisely on the spinning outer crust on our planet, and not embedded inside the planet, not so far high up in the atmosphere that you fall to your death, not in an ocean, not in an object, not out in the empty vacuum of space, but actually right on the planet in the exact spot.
And I thought, “Well, this is very complicated. It involves math. I’m not a mathematician or a physicist, but if I’m going to ask my reader to read this, I’m going to figure it out. I want to see if I can come up with a model of time travel that actually takes into consideration orbital mechanics and astrodynamics.” And by doing that, I opened up all these other really cool areas of storytelling that I wouldn’t have actually found in the writing process had I not started that process of actually trying to work out the orbital mechanics.
Kelton Reid: Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM and you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.