Alan Dean Foster Interview

Alan Dean Foster: Great Novelizations

Alan Dean Foster book coverA long time ago… in this galaxy… during the mid-to-late seventies and early eighties, it wasn’t so easy for a movie buff to own a film they’d enjoyed in theaters. DVDs and the Internet weren’t invented; and Beta/VHS tapes, which did exist, weren’t as abundant or readily available as DVDs are now or that VHS would be only a few years later.

But one thing that fans of “Alien”, “The Black Hole”, “The Thing”, “Clash of the Titans”, and many other films did have were novelizations: books (usually paperbacks) that covered the scripted story but also provided insight into back-story, character-development, and scenes that didn’t make the film’s final cut.

Alan Dean Foster imageOne man, Alan Dean Foster, wrote some of the best novelization-movie tie-in novels ever. Author of his own original science fiction/fantasy since 1972 (and having written several “Star Trek” Log books), he was the perfect candidate as ghostwriter for a young filmmaker named George Lucas, who had embarked on a risky science-fiction project titled “Star Wars”.

To this day Alan Dean Foster continues writing novelizations and his own original stories as well.


How did George Lucas come to you about ghostwriting the novelization for “Star Wars”?
My agent was contacted to see if I might be interested in novelizing this soon-to-be-released SF film called THE STAR WARS, being done by George Lucas. I knew George's work, of course, from both THX 1138 and AMERICAN GRAFITTI. I subsequently had a meeting with George's lawyer on Sunset Blvd. I believe something was said about someone close to the film having read my ICERIGGER and that they felt it was close in spirit to the upcoming picture.

George Lucas imageNegotiations ensued, with my participation for two books being agreed upon. One of the conditions was that George's name be on the cover and that, if asked, I deny having done the book. I had no problem with this... it's George's story, and business is business. But it was difficult having to occasionally lie to friends. I don't think any of them hold it against me.

You were the first to write an “Expanded Universe” novel from “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker”, something that is quite common today… The book was “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye”… How did this come about?
Splinter of the Mind's EyeAs I said, the contract was for me to do two books: the novelization of the film and an original sequel. With the caveat that I could not use the character of Han Solo (because, as I recall, Harrison Ford had not yet come to terms to do any sequels), I was given a completely free rein to write whatever I wished... except that George asked if I could write the story so that it could possibly be filmed on a low budget.  

He was always thinking ahead, and in this regard he felt that if the first film was only a modest success, he would still be able to do a sequel with existing props and such. That's why the film takes place on a fog-shrouded planet, underground, etc....eliminates the need for expensive backdrops (no cgi then, remember). When SW was the overwhelming hit that it was, he was free to pursue any visions he desired.

Was a Chewbacca cameo ever discussed for “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye”?
No Chewie without Han. No Abbott without Costello.

Provide a glimpse into each of the following novelizations and how you went about expanding on them from the original source…

DARK STAR: Guys sitting around in a spaceship talking about how bored they are. Hardest film novelization I've ever had to do. I had no choice but to explore their thoughts in detail... sometimes endless detail. There was nowhere else to go. The cheap beachball alien posed a problem, xenobiology-wise, until I realized I couldn't describe it as anything other than what it was. So I just called it the beachball... and lo and behold, it worked.
ALIEN: A haunted house story, mostly atmosphere. It's a lot easier to show atmosphere than describe it, but I had to keep thinking up new ways to describe the character's sense of dread. More critically, Fox wouldn't let anyone not directly connected with the filming see a picture of the alien. So I had to write the book without knowing what the alien looked like. Damn difficult.

I was able to add a good deal about the space jockey ship, how it was found, and in particular I was able to novelize the scene that shows Ripley finding Dallas wrapped up in the alien cocoon, which is critical to understanding the alien's motivations. I wrote the book in three weeks, often at night looking over my shoulder.

ALIENS: Alien was all about atmosphere; Aliens about action. Readers should know that I kept Cameron's language intact and in fact added to it in the dialogue I created. It was Warner that decided to bowdlerize the talk and have the Marines saying things like "Darn!" An absurd piece of censorship, but as it was a work for hire I had no control over the final edit.
THE BLACK HOLE: Bad film, but that's no news bulletin. I spent a lot of time trying to correct and rationalize the science. The meteor rolling down the center of the ship like a giant flaming bowling ball almost made me give up in despair (velocity? momentum? oxygen?). I felt terrible for the Ellenshaws and especially Ellenshaw sr. They did some beautiful matte work for the picture, but the story and science were beyond juvenile.

After I finished the book I made a list of 75 changes that I felt could be made to the picture in post-production to improve it and turned it in to my contact at Disney. Nothing was heard. Years later I ran into the same guy and said, "I guess no one at the studio ever saw my suggestions." "Oh no," he replied. "They had a meeting about it. There was a lot of anger expressed". I was hardly surprised. How dare some cheap-ass novelizer make suggestions about their big-budget extravaganza!

See, in certain areas of the film business the only thing worse than being wrong about something is being right.
CLASH OF THE TITANS: I'd grown up loving mythology and the chance to work on a story about the Greek gods, never mind novelize a Harry Harryhausen picture, was a delightful change of pace. In the book I tried wherever possible to bring to light other aspects of the gods and how they related to one another within the accepted Greek pantheon.
OUTLAND: Underrated picture. I remember gasping (pun intended) when I read the big shoot-out. You don't use projectile weapons in a closed environment with vacuum or poisonous atmosphere outside. Fixed that.
The ThingTHE THING: Most notably, the final scene differs from the one that was used in the film. And I was able to get even gorier than the picture. Another very underrated film and much truer to John W. Campbell's original story WHO GOES THERE? than the 1950's version.
THE LAST STARFIGHTER: Lots of expansion in the alien vs. alien war, the details of the technology, and particularly Robert Preston's character, who I tried to render as a more serious figure in the book. There was a war on, after all. And for some reason, non-SF writers continue to think you can build a wall in space.

KrullKRULL: A truly disappointing film. One of the big problems dealing with Hollywood types who want to make science-fiction and fantasy films is that they don't understand the difference between the two. It's something that's always bothered me about a lot of SF-related Japanese anime. Krull lost me when the bad guys stop sword-fighting, turn their weapons around, and shoot death rays from the other end. Why not do that in the first place? Ask the screenwriters and the producers. If not for the crystal spider sequence the film's pretty much a total loss as far as I'm concerned. As usual, I tried my best to rationalize the lethally incongruous portions of the story.
Pale RiderPALE RIDER: Wonderful to be able to do a Western. Gave me a chance to do lots of description of the countryside, the characters, the props and settings, and to work with different speech patterns. The biggest thing for me was trying to present the fantasy aspect of the film (is Eastwood's preacher an avenging angel? A gunslinger returned from the dead to have his inevitable meeting with the leader of the hired guns?). If he'd only faded out a little bit quicker in the final ride-off shot...

STAR MAN: Lovely film. Great performance by Jeff Bridges. Excellent example of how to make a good SF film without exploding spaceships and laser battles but still preserve a real sense of wonder and otherworldliness. In the film, due to budget constraints among other things, we mostly see the alien in its human form. I was able in the book to take a deeper look at his alien-ness.
STAR TREK (LOG BOOKS): Judy-lynn del Rey, editor of the Ballantine (now Del Rey) SF line, had found a gap in the contract Bantam Books had with Paramount regarding books based on Star Trek. That gap failed to cover animated versions, and she quickly snapped up the rights.

Star Trek Log FourKnowing that I knew my way around a screenplay, and had already done two novelizations for Ballantine (LUANA, DARK STAR) she asked if I could novelize the TV scripts. I agreed. But when I received them, each twenty minutes in actual length, I told her there was no way I could get a book out of each short script. I suggested using three scripts per book and tying them together as best I could. We did this for the first six books.  

She then called me and explained that the books were selling so well that I had to get a book out of each of the remaining four scripts. I struggled with the idea, but eventually decided to use one script as the basis for the Star Trek Log Sixfirst third of each book and then write original material to fill it out. So the last four books contain mostly original material.

Fortunately, I had saved what I felt to be the best scripts for the last, including two by actual SF writers, Larry Niven and David Gerrold… I remember wondering if they would cut the scene I added in one book where a love-struck (or actually lust-struck) ensign chases Uhura around the tree at an on-board Christmas party. They didn't…

Luke Skywalker and Biggs DarklighterWhen you write something in the book that isn’t in the film, is this from a scene that was deleted from the film’s original cut, or is it something you come up with on your own?
Both. The cocoon scene in ALIEN and the scene in Star Wars where Biggs Darklighter returns to Tatooine to announce that he's going to join the Rebellion are both examples of material that was filmed. The first was put back into later cuts. The Darklighter scene was not. 

I once asked George why he cut it. He explained that at that point in the story, the character of Luke has not yet been established and that Biggs overpowers him in that sequence. So he cut it. Makes perfect directorial sense.

What are you provided with to prepare for writing a novelization?
I don't have any time to "get prepared". The publisher always needs the finished manuscript yesterday. I work (obviously) directly from the most recent script available. If I'm lucky I'm given access to production photos and often pre-production art. TERMINATOR SALVATION was especially generous in this regard. I've already discussed ALIEN.  

In the case of THE BLACK HOLE I spent a day on the set... very boring, if you know anything about the actual process of film-making. STAR TREK was unique in that I was able to see the finished film before beginning the book.

Princess LeiaHave you ever had to describe characters before an actor/actress was cast for the movie?
No, because the assignment of the novelization always takes places so late in the process that the film, or at least the live-action filming, is already in the can. I describe them as they are in the film... provided the production company supplies me with photos. Otherwise I'm reduced to using my imagination based on the (limited) descriptions in the screenplay.

How long had you been writing before getting your first novel published in 1972?
I'd sold a couple of short stories, one to August Derleth and another to John Campbell, before Betty Ballantine bought my first novel (THE TAR-AIYM KRANG). I'd been writing occasionally and submitting stories for a couple of years. Betty's acceptance of the novel was on its third submission. The first was to Campbell, who liked it a lot, thought it saleable, but was bought up on serials for Analog for three years. Doubleday sent me a typed rejection missive.  Then Betty bought it.

Any advice to aspiring writers?
Don't give up, and make sure that the manuscript you submit looks as professional as possible.

Of you original work, which are your favorites?
My short stories, which are partly available in seven collections. Non-genre novels like INTO THE OUT OF, MAORI, and PRIMAL SHADOWS. Among the SF and fantasy, it's hard to choose. I'll leave that to the readers.

How does your original work end up influencing the novelizations (or vice versa)?
I put the same effort into the novelizations as into my originals. I think the readers can detect that. I regard each novelization as a collaboration between writers, and I do my best to maintain the style and feel of the original writers' prose.

Alan Dean Foster picWhat’s in the future?
Forthcoming from Del Rey: a new trilogy, THE TIPPING POINT. The titles are THE HUMAN BLEND, SICK, INC., and THE SUM OF HER PARTS. I have a new fantasy trilogy being read now that's set entirely underwater, OSHANURTH. The first book, BLUE MAGIC, is completed. And there's a young adult fantasy novel set in Pennsylvania and Manhattan, THE DEAVYS. Right now I'm writing STAR TREK: REFUGEES, which will be the first sequel novel to the recent Star Trek film. And I've just done an original story for Wizards of the Coast set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe.

Interview by James M. Tate


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