Q&A WITH ORSON SCOTT CARD
Orson Scott Card is an American author, critic and public speaker. He writes in several genres, but is primarily known for his science fiction. His novel Ender's Game and its sequel Speaker for the Dead both won Hugo and Nebula Awards, making Card the only author to win both of American science fiction's top prizes in consecutive years. In 1989 he wrote the novelization for James Cameron's The Abyss.
JamesCameronOnline.com had a great pleasure conducting a short Q&A with Mr. Card.
JAMESCAMERONONLINE: You allow the
reader to get into the characters head and even see their way of thinking and
viewing the world. Obviously to be able to do so you have to know the characters
very well. Did you have a little free hand in shaping their psychological
profile or did it all come from James Cameron?
ORSON SCOTT CARD: James Cameron asked the publisher to bring me aboard as the novelist because he wanted, not just a “book of the script,” but a real science fiction novel that he could be proud of. With that in mind, it was vital to go outside the information in the script and create backstories for the key characters. That’s why I began by writing the introductory chapters. Then I ran them past Mr. Cameron for his approval. He not only approved, he showed them to the actors — though I have no idea whether they made any difference in their performances (I expect not; these were excellent actors who needed no help from me!).
JCO: How did you come up with the backstories for the main characters like Bud, Lindsey and Coffey? Any story behind that?
OSC: I did what I always do in developing a character. I looked at what they had to do in the story — in this case, their words and actions in Mr. Cameron’s script — and then allowed my mind to free associate about possible experiences in their childhood and later that might lead to their behaving as the script required them to behave.
Beyond that, it’s just a matter of personal judgment. I had a lot of ideas I rejected; when I found the ones that resonated with me as being interesting, plausible, and appropriate for the characters as Mr. Cameron defined them, I tried my hand at writing key scenes from their lives. I was glad that Mr. Cameron liked the choices I made and did not ask for significant changes.
JCO: It is said that The Abyss novelization is one of the most canon novelizations out there because of the close cooperation with the director and his team. Would you agree?
OSC: I’m not sure what you mean by “canon novelizations.” A good novelizer is bound by the events and words of the script. But Mr. Cameron and my editor both provided me with an opportunity few novelizers are given. I wanted to see the rough cut of the film instead of working from the script alone — I wanted to see the way the actors said the lines and see what Mr. Cameron actually shot.
However, usually the novel needs to be turned in at the very least six months before the book will come out. If the book was to come out at the same time as the movie, that meant I had to turn in the manuscript months before shooting ended.
I explained to the publisher that I work very quickly, when I know what I’m doing (which is much enhanced when I have the actual film to look at!), and I turn in a nearly perfect manuscript (I average about one error every six pages). As long as the publisher respected my use of commas and other punctuation (I handle them as oral guides to reading aloud rather than following the strict logical rules of formal discourse), the edit should go very, very smoothly. So I wanted to turn in the manuscript in late April for a June publication date. Mr. Cameron assured me that he would have the rough cut by that time, and he assured the publisher that he wanted me to be able to work that way. So, incredibly enough, the publisher complied.
This means that as I wrote the scenes that came from the movie, I was watching a videotape of the scene as Mr. Cameron shot it. I had their inflections, their facial expressions; I had the camera angles, the lighting, the exact view and mood. How many novelizers get to see and hear all of that prior to writing? So if the novel of The Abyss is the novelization closest to the actual film it was based on, it is owed to those courageous and generous decisions by the publisher and by Mr. Cameron.
JCO: You visited the set quite few times. Any particular story that stands out?
OSC: The actors were incredibly nice to me (though I never actually spoke with Ed Harris, M.E. Mastrantonio, or Michael Biehn except one casual greeting; I actually got to spend quality time with Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, John Bedford Lloyd, J. C. Quinn, and Kimberly Scott) and tried to get me to put on a helmet and go into the water in one of the practice tanks. They even explained how there was a little fan inside the helmet that blew air across your face so you wouldn’t get claustrophobic and panic. I had to assure them that the little fan wouldn’t be enough — I didn’t want to cry and throw up in one of their nice helmets and so I wouldn’t be going in the water. They were disappointed — though whether it was because I wouldn’t be able to write authentically about being underwater or because they thought watching me cry would be amusing, I can’t say.
Instead, I asked them what it felt like and their descriptions were very helpful. They had cool suggestions for how to beef up their characters’ parts — they had thought about their own characters’ backstories — and since I hadn’t already written intro chapters about anybody but the leads, I was able to take notes and make use of some of their ideas.
Plus they were terrific people — talented and kind and enthusiastic. It made me like them and my attitude toward the actors undoubtedly influenced my attitude toward the characters as I wrote them.
Mr. Cameron also invited me to watch on the monitors as they filmed inside the deep tank. Unfortunately, he was so successful at duplicating the lighting conditions in deep water that all I could see on the monitor was a murky blur, which lost its entertainment value after about four seconds. Since I was going to be working from finished shots, there was really no point in my watching the process of filming — I wouldn’t be writing about the shoot, I’d be writing the STORY ...
The greatest value of my visits (I only went twice, as I recall) was the time I got to spend with Mr. Cameron’s assistant, Van Ling. He was an eager kid then, constantly working on ways to enhance and bring to life Mr. Cameron’s ideas by bringing his own suggestions to bear. He filled me in on all kinds of information about what was going on underwater and how the ROVs worked and how everything about the station and the ship and the connection between them worked. He especially helped me understand the liquid breathing medium — what a great concept, and how wild that it actually worked! Van Ling was the perfect source for me — he knew all the things that as a novelist I absolutely had to know in order to make a plausible novel, and he had time (because Mr. Cameron GAVE him the time) to fill me in extensively.
I also had a few chances to work with Gale Anne Hurd, who was incredibly supportive during some key decisions, most notably the need for me to completely explain the NTIs. As a science fiction writer, I knew that this would be essential to making the novel a good novel by sci-fi standards. So Mr. Cameron’s desire to leave them quite mysterious in the film could not be carried over into the novel; on the contrary, the whole point of a novelization is to be able to tell the readers things that can’t be shown in the film.
Because Gale Anne was so helpful, I won the right to invent the NTI society, which is, I think, what sets The Abyss apart from all other novelizations. I include so much that was not in the script, which I invented myself, that I think the NTIs become a fascinating alien society in their own right. The novel gives them personality and motives; the film gives them cool visuals; neither medium can do the OTHER medium’s job half so well. The movie would have been tedious and confusing if there had been any attempt to tell what I was able to tell about the NTIs’ “home life.” And the novel would have been frustrating to readers if I had been limited to the visual impressions that the movie made so much better than any novelist could ever do.
JCO: Looking back now, was it anything that you would change or do differently?
OSC: The only frustration was that when the film came out, two months later than scheduled, key scenes had been slashed from the rough cut that I saw, especially truncating the ending, and some visual effects seemed, in my opinion (though I have been given no information on this), not to be finished. I had expected that when the NTI “city” arose from the water, it would be finished in the same slick-water surface texture that the NTI water probe had when it went into the station. THAT would have been dazzling; instead, we got something that looked rather like a fiberglass pool toy, which was frustrating. I think the audience, after one of the best buildups in film history, got something that felt anticlimactic to some.
Yet I’m glad I did NOT have to change the novel to fit the film as it was released! Because I worked from Mr. Cameron’s original rough cut, the novel immediately became the TRUEST version of the story — the one that included the entirety of Mr. Cameron’s original vision. And if something had to be cut from the film to bring it down to a 140-minute running time, I’m glad that what was left in stayed! Because for me, the key scenes were in the brilliant sequence where one character decides to die, with the promise that the other would revive her. Who thinks of moments like that? It was reading that scene that made me decide to do the book, even though it meant NOT writing a book that was wholly mine during those months.
JCO: What is your favorite James Cameron movie?
OSC: While I’ve enjoyed most of his movies, I have to say that my favorite remains The Terminator. It was such a great idea, and he wrote it and directed it so well, making the best use anyone ever made of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s real but limited acting range, and creating a gorgeous human relationship between Kyle Reese (Biehn) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).
JCO: The NTIs are referred to as females. Can you elaborate more on that?
OSC: I honestly can’t, because I don’t remember my thought processes at the time. I think it was simply a matter of choosing a pronoun; our language didn’t evolve to describe their society!
Thanks for giving me a chance to remember my one and only novelization. I’m still proud of the book, and I wish there were some practical way to get it back into print — even if only electronically.
We want to sincerely thank Mr. Card once again for giving us this opportunity! We wish you good luck in your future projects!