When people find out I write novelizations, they usually ask the same questions: Did you get to meet the stars? (No.) Did you help write the script? (No.) Did you get to see the movie ahead of time? (Well . . .)I’ve written three novelizations so far: xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle. I’d always heard that authors of novelizations never get to see the films before they write the books. And that was the case for my first two novelizations. But that changed when I got to travel to LA and see Kingsman: The Golden Circle almost four months before the rest of the world.
I enjoyed the first Kingsman film when it came out, and when I was offered the gig to novelize the sequel, I was thrilled. Not only would it be a lot of fun (I hoped), but the film would be the highest-profile novelization I’d worked on yet. Maybe this project would be a step up career-wise, but if not, the fun – not to mention the money – would be enough.
Once I signed the contract and non-disclosure agreement, I was given access to the script. For the Resident Evil book, I received a print-out of the script. For the xXx book, I received an electronic copy of the script. For The Golden Circle, I was given access to the script on Fox’s intranet – and my access was only good for a few days at a time. No one told me this, so when I suddenly couldn’t access the script one day, I had a minor panic attack. As it turned out, I needed my access renewed regularly, which the good people at Fox were happy to do for me.
I started as I usually do with novelizations. I read through the script, making notes about places where I could expand the story, and then I typed in all the dialogue into a Word file to see how many words I had that were already prewritten for me, and how many more I’d need to write to reach the contracted length of 80,000 words. The dialogue came to around 12,000 words, so I only had 68,000 to go. I also scoured the Internet for images of the actors in costume and stills from the film to use as visual references.
There were some song lyrics in the script, so I emailed Ella Chapell, my editor at Titan Books, and asked if we had the rights to use the lyrics in the book. Presumably the studio had the rights to use the lyrics in the film, but did that deal extend to the novelization? Ella wasn’t sure and said she’d check. During our conversation, it came out that the script Ella had read used different lyrics than the one I had. We both assumed that she’d been given an earlier draft of the script, and we thought no more about it. (Eventually, Ella told me to cut the lyrics. I could mention the song title, but that was all.)
I continued writing, and a few weeks later I finished a draft and sent it to Ella. She suggested changes, I made them, and she sent the draft off to the licensing department at Fox for approval. And that’s when we learned that somehow I’d been given the wrong script. I had the earlier version while Ella had the most current one. This was frustrating, of course, but I knew it was an accident, so I got to work on a rewrite using the correct script. When the new draft was finished, off to Fox it went. And that’s when Matthew Vaughn, the film’s director and co-writer, chimed in. He told Steve Tzirlin, the head of licensing at Fox, that it was vital that the novelization be exactly like the finished movie. This meant I had to see the film . . . which also meant I would have to revise the book a third time.
When you write tie-ins, you are hired to write for a flat fee. The more work you have to do on a project, the lower your per hour rate becomes. But that’s all part of the deal when you write these kinds of books, so I didn’t worry about it. (My agent did, though. She did her best to make sure I didn’t do more work than I was being paid for, God bless her.) So Titan Books arranged for me to fly to LA to see the film, stay at a hotel overnight, then fly back the next day. I’d never done anything like this before, so I thought if nothing else, I’d get to have a bit of an adventure.
I live in Ohio, which is on Eastern Standard Time. I was scheduled to view the film at 4:00 pm Pacific Standard Time on Friday, June 2nd. My flight left at 6:00 a.m. EST, which meant I had to get up around 4:00 am to leave for the airport. So of course I didn’t go to sleep until after 1:00 a.m. – the curse of being a night owl – so by the time I finally reached LA the next day, I was wiped. After checking into my hotel, I decided to head out in search of lunch. The hotel was located within walking distance of Fox Plaza, so I headed that direction and hoped I’d find somewhere to eat along the way. For years, I’d heard that, as the Missing Persons’ song says, “Nobody walks in LA.” The area of town the hotel was in had plenty of buildings – most notably some smaller studios – but it was mostly just empty sidewalks with cars zipping by on the street. No restaurants or fast-food joints anywhere. I walked around for a while, trying to find something to eat. I had several hours to kill before my screening, so I went to the Fox Plaza building – the 35-story skyscraper which served as Nokatomi Plaza in Die Hard. Lucky for me, inside was a combination café and coffee shop. I bought a turkey sandwich as big as my head, got a cup of coffee that wasn’t much smaller, and set up camp.
The Plaza’s first floor interior isn’t very large. Most of the space is taken up by central elevators. There are two entrances on either side of the building, each with a small kiosk staffed by a security guard. Employees have to stop at the kiosks and scan their ID cards. They also need to use their IDs to activate the elevators. I told one of the guards that I was there for an appointment and was going to get something to eat first. The man cheerfully let me pass, no ID required. (Everyone I met in LA during this trip was pleasant and friendly. It was kind of creepy.) It was a Friday afternoon, but there was a steady stream of people coming and going – and the majority of them appeared to be in their twenties.
In the café-slash-coffee shop, I worked on a short story while I watched people. A lot of younger employees came to pick up to-go orders that had been called in. Assistants, maybe? Once in a while someone in their forties or older came down to get something, but they were rare. I’m fifty-three, so I occasionally received curious glances from some of the older patrons, as if they were trying to figure out who I was and what the hell I was doing there. The younger people ignored me.I saw a number of men – usually in their late twenties to early thirties and carrying leather satchels – come and go. After listening to one such man complain to a friend who worked in the building that he’d had a meeting scheduled with an art director who cancelled due to illness without informing him – “If I’d known, I could’ve set up another meeting somewhere else and not waste the time.” – I decided the satchel-carriers were probably writers and artists coming to pitch ideas and look for freelance work. They all exuded an odd combination of nervous energy and world-weariness. My guess is that this is a fairly common emotional state in the entertainment industry. (And before you ask, I don’t know why I didn’t see any satchel-carrying women that day.)
While I was writing, observing, and eavesdropping, Nicole Spiegel from Licensing texted me and asked if I’d like to come up early to get some swag. Of course I said yes. She met me in the small reception area near the café, and she took me up to the Licensing Department. It was a cube farm with only a handful of actual offices, and by this point it was around 3:00 pm and hardly anyone was there. Maybe they knock off early on Fridays in LA. The desks were decorated with all sorts of cool products that tied into Fox properties like The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Alien, Predator, Planet of the Apes, etc. Nicole was really nice, and she took me to a couple storage areas filled with T-shirts, mugs, action figures, books, etc. She tried to give me way more swag than I could possible take back with me on the plane, but I managed to resist and only accepted almost more than I could carry home.
Around 4:00 pm – or maybe it was closer to 5:00 – Steve Tzirlin arrived. He’d been in a meeting, but now he was ready to screen the film for me. He’s a great guy, and we chatted about movies and books as well as what it was like to work at Fox as he led me to the studio lot. A security guard let us pass through a metal turnstile gate, and it felt like we were entering a prison. The lot looked just like the stereotypical movie lots you see in photos and films – a collection of plain warehouse-like buildings. No one was on the lot that I could see. It was like Steve and I were the only two people there. We entered a building, one of the oldest on the lot, Steve said. It was filled with offices, but all of them were empty. Even the security guard who was supposed to be on duty was nowhere in sight. The hall was lined with extremely cool framed movie posters and photos from film shoots, and if I could’ve found a way to steal a few and sneak them home, I’d have been sorely tempted.
Steve took me downstairs to a screening room, a small theater which he said execs once used to screen films. Now there’s a full-sized theater elsewhere on the lot, and employees get to watch movies before they’re officially released. I liked the idea of watching The Golden Circle in the smaller, older theater. It looked like the screening rooms I’d seen portrayed in TV shows and films about Hollywood over the years. Steve and I took our seats, and a gentleman in the booth worked the projector, which in reality was probably a computer system of some kind. Steve wanted me to write down everything that happened in the film: every line of dialogue, every action beat. Because that was what Matthew Vaughn wanted.
The film began, and I wrote in my notebook as fast as I could while Steve followed along with the latest script he had, noting major differences. He periodically checked with me to see if I’d gotten down all the information regarding a particular scene. If I hadn’t, he’d ask the man in the booth to rewind the film one minute, two minutes, three, five . . . The film would start again, and I’d write feverishly once more.
It took more than five hours to watch the film that way. Five hours of me writing like a madman in my notebook without a break. By the time we finished, it was around 10:00 pm PST. One a.m. by my biological clock. I’d been awake for twenty-one hours, and my brain was beyond fried. Steve graciously offered to give me a ride back to my hotel, and I gratefully accepted. Almost as soon as I entered the room, I flopped onto the bed and conked out . . .
. . . only to wake a couple hours later with a start of horror when I realized I’d left my own leather satchel with all the notes I’d taken in the back of Steve’s car. I didn’t have his cell number, but I had his work email, and I sent him a message. I figured since he worked for a studio, he probably checked his email regularly, even on weekends. Thankfully, Steve did, and he dropped off my satchel the next morning before I had to leave for the airport.
Back home, I began the third revision of the book. A number of changes I’d had to make from draft one to draft two had to be changed back because that’s the way the material appeared in the film. Working from my barely legible notes, I wrote what I hoped would be the final version of the book. Most of the film’s action sequences were somewhat more elaborate and exaggerated than in the scripts I saw, although in some cases the action was scaled back or eliminated entirely in the finished movie. Most of the character development in the two scripts disappeared from the film, too. (The same thing happened with xXx: the Return of Xander Cage and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. So before you complain about lack of character development in action films, know that at least with these three movies, that material was in the script, even if it didn’t make it onto the screen.)
Before I’d left LA, I told Steve that I was going to have to keep some material from the two scripts, regardless of what Vaughn wanted. Otherwise, there would be no way the book would reach 80,000 words. Steve understood and said we see what Vaughn thought when I turned in the new revision.
So the last draft of the book was cobbled together from three different version of the film – two scripts and the finished movie – and I kept everything that I thought was cool: all the action that didn’t make it into the final film, as well as all the character development. I also kept the scenes that I created myself to flesh out various aspects of the story. There’s one thing I didn’t change to match the finished film, though. In the movie, Fox New appears in several scenes, and the network is portrayed as a legitimate non-partisan news organization. Fuck that noise. I kept the more generic news broadcast scenes as portrayed in both scripts. I haven’t received my author copies yet, so I don’t know for certain if everything from my last draft made it into the final printed novel, but Steve told me Millar approved the text, so I’m hopeful. I’d hate to give Fox News any goddamned publicity.
So what did I learn from all this? I got to work more closely with my editors and the licensing folks than ever before on a tie-in project, and they were all thoroughly lovely people who did everything possible to help me write a good book. I learned that while LA’s entertainment industry might be mythologized in most people’s minds, it’s just another place where real people do real work. Cool work, yeah, but real. Most of all, I learned that Matthew Vaughn is a control freak. But despite all the extra work I had to do because of him, I think it’s cool that he cared so much about how the novelization turned out.
Who knows if I’ll get to do any more novelizations? I hope I will, but you never know. But if I do, I know that none of them will probably be as frustrating, challenging, and ultimately as much fun as working on Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
After reading all of the above, you know you want to read the novelization of Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Why deny it?
With their headquarters destroyed and the world held hostage, members of Kingsman find new allies when they discover a spy organization in the United States known as Statesman. In an adventure that tests their strength and wits, the elite secret agents from both sides of the pond band together to battle a ruthless enemy and save the day, something that’s becoming a bit of a habit for Eggsy…
Earlier this month, I had another tie-in project released. Supernatural: The Men of Letters Bestiary is a guide to the monsters, demons, and foul fiends the Winchester brothers have battled over the years, written by Sam and Dean themselves! (Really written by me in the voices of Sam and Dean, but why nitpick?) There are lots of cool illustrations by Kyle Hotz to accompany my text, too.
This immersive in-world guide based on the highly popular Supernatural television show reveals the strengths, weaknesses, secrets of the deadly ghosts, demons, angels, and creatures that the Winchesters have hunted.