Q & A with Chris Mancini

Headshot Chris Mancini T-Rex
Chris Mancini (l) and friend (r)

Chris Mancini is a Writer, Director, Comedian, Author, Producer, Podcaster, and Parent, which also makes him very tired. He has also written, directed and produced on everything from soap operas to parenting books to horror films, which are all more closely related than you think.

His feature films include Asylum from Lionsgate Films and Ear Buds: The Podcasting Documentary from Comedy Dynamics. His award-winning short films include SKINSHitclown, and Rainbow’s End. Chris has screened films and spoken at various prestigious festivals and conventions including Slamdance and Comic-Con in San Diego.

His published works include Pacify Me: A Handbook for the Freaked Out New DadThe Comedy Film Nerds Guide to Movies, and the graphic novel Long Ago and Far Away.

A strong advocate of podcasting, Chris is also the co-founder of Comedyfilmnerds.com with Graham Elwood. The site features a podcast with over 6 million downloads and features comedians and filmmakers talking about movies. His scripted horror anthology podcast Conversations From The Abyss is now in its second season. Chris was also one of the founders of the Los Angeles Podcast Festival.

What’s the last thing you read or watched you thought was incredibly well-written?

The two extremes would be Avengers: Endgame, because it was the culmination of years of storytelling, and Paddleton because it was a small two actor character piece that just sucked you in. The relationship and the drama of the two leads and their interaction was incredibly engaging. Mark Duplass and Ray Romano did an amazing job.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 16. I submitted short stories to magazines. Yes, that was a thing. Ironically, I got published first with non-fiction. I was a journalist for a local newspaper for a while (also a thing), starting at age 18.

What are some of your favorite comics and/or webcomics?

I really enjoy Hellboy. I also like anything by Neil Gaiman, and grew up on a healthy dose of Spider-Man and Daredevil. I actually remember when Spider-Man first got his black costume. It was an alien symbiote that came out of some weird machine during Secret Wars. I remember not being happy because I always liked the red and blue one. But you get over these things. I am also reading a lot of kids’ comics with my son, like Cardboard and Amulet which I am really enjoying.

How’d you get your start writing comics?

I kind of made it happen on my own. I’ve always wanted to write comics, and I had a story I thought would be perfect for the medium. I met Mark Waid through a mutual friend and podcast fan and he championed it. So I found an artist I loved and kickstarted it. I was able to fund it thanks to the generosity of the fans and then Starburns Press picked it up. I am very happy to be over there, and I think it’s a great fit for the book. I just got my first offer for a short piece in their next comics anthology. My first comics writing assignment! I’m hoping for many, many more. I would love to write more comics.

A lot of people hear the term “comic book writer”, but don’t really know what the job entails. How would you describe it?

Interestingly, since I have a background in indie film what you’re really doing as a comic book writer is writing and directing. You’re writing the script but also describing the action, pacing, and what goes in each panel. Basically you’re storyboarding like you would for a film. In indie film you have to wear a lot of hats, but with comic book writing you’re not just writing some abstract script. You’re describing each panel and basically directing the book. That’s why it’s so important to have a great artist to be paired with like I was with Fernando Pinto. Eventually you develop a shorthand and it gets quicker.

What inspired you to write your graphic novel Long Ago And Far Away? What was your process for writing it?

I’ve always loved fantasy stories, and growing up was a sucker for the stories about kids from our world who go into a fantasy world to save the day, like The Chronicles of Narnia. But I always thought about what would happen when those kids come back to our world and become adults. How would it have affected them? And then what if they had to go back into that world as an adult? The process was very, very long. I had the story a few years ago and it was in and out of development at various companies as an animated show, etc. But it never moved forward. But it was the kind of story that stays with you, and insists on being told. We all have stories like that; ones that won’t let you go. So I thought that a comic book would be a great way to tell the story. And I wouldn’t have to worry about there not being enough money for computer effects.

LAAFA was funded via crowdfunding. With a lot of comics creators taking that route to self-publish, is it something you’d recommend, and what are some tips you’d offer?

I recommend anyone who wants to create to just get out there and make it happen, any way you can. If someone buys your idea or hires you, great. But more often than not we have to greenlight ourselves. So if you’re a filmmaker, make a short film. If you’re a novelist, self-publish. If you want to make a comic, you need to raise enough money to pay the artist and make the book. But it can be done. Just know that crowdfunding is a full time job for that window of raising money. Don’t just think you can put a project up and money will magically appear. You have to promote, get endorsements from other artists, and also promote. Did I mention promoting?

You’ve also had experience writing for film, both narrative and documentary. How do you compare writing for the screen to the comics page?

I really, really, love it. It’s like filmmaking with an unlimited budget. No one comes back and says “we don’t have the budget to blow up Manhattan” in a comic book. If it can be drawn, it can be in the story. As far as story goes, film story progression and storyboarding can be really instrumental in writing for comics and guiding your panels.

A key component of writing (and not just for comics) is to make the stories and characters relatable. What sort of approaches do you take to accomplish that?

Characters we create often have traits of ourselves or people we know in them. That grounds them and keeps them believable. Even when it’s a supervillain, there’s a relatable trait you can give him or her. I always try to figure out what kind of character they are by how they would react in certain situations. Character reactions can convey lots of information about a character. As far as the story goes, keep the story progression organic. It should only have crazy twists in it if you were slowly leading up to them all along. The best narrative twists are the ones the audience didn’t see coming, but in hindsight were justified from the very beginning.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

Write what you know.

Make the story personal, regardless of the genre or scope of the story.

Get help from other writers, and help them in return.

Don’t write for free for millionaires. If someone is serious about your work, they’ll make a deal with you.

Don’t neglect your body. Take time to exercise and unplug. It will help your mind focus and clear your head, which will improve your writing.

Filmmaker. Comics writer. Podcaster. Stand-up comedian. What’s next?

I really want to focus on writing right now, so I’m taking a break from stand-up, but may return to it at some point.. While I do the Comedy Film Nerds Podcast with Graham Elwood every week, I also have a scripted horror anthology podcast called Conversations From the Abyss that just finished its second season. I’m also hoping to get my next comic project going called Rise of the Kung Fu Dragon Master with the same team. It’s a martial arts/fantasy/comedy about a small time crook in Los Angeles who gets mixed up in a perennial battle between good and evil from ancient China. I also have various TV and film projects I’m developing and hoping to get into production.

How can people find out more about you and your wide body of work?

My website has links to my books and movies, including Ear Buds: The Podcasting Documentary. There are also links to the podcasts and my demo reel.

http://www.chrisjmancinionline.com/

http://www.comedyfilmnerds.com/

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Peach. ‘nuff said.

Bonus feature!

Here’s an episode of the Comedy Film Nerds podcast where Chris goes into an extensive recounting of his experience with his film Asylum. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for aspiring filmmakers, plus it’s just an extremely entertaining tale. Well worth the listen.

http://comedyfilmnerds.libsyn.com/ep-219-dean-haglund

peach pie

Making it not what it was before

spiderverse
Well-known material, executed in an entirely new and original way

The key word for this overhaul of the pulpy sci-fi spec is exactly that: an overhaul.

And a really big one at that.

One of the notes I got on the previous draft was “It’s a fun story, but there’s still a feeling of ‘we’ve seen this before'”.

What a powerful motivator to really shake things up. The last thing a writer wants to hear is that their work is predictable or just filling in the blanks for a template with this kind of story. Readers and audiences want originality, so that’s what we need to give them.

Regarding this story, while the overall concept and primary plotline are still the same, a good majority of the rest of the details have changed in some way or another, with no doubt more to come.

Even though I’ll jot down ideas for particular moments, scenes or sequences occurring throughout the story, I gather them up and then write/develop them in a linear manner – working my way through the story from start to finish. A leads to B, which leads to C, and so on and so on. Not everybody’s style, but it work for me.

It’s probably safe to say I worked my way through at least four or five versions of Act One before arriving at its current version – the one I felt was the strongest. And even that’s been tweaked here and there since then.

Despite having a hard copy of the previous draft readily available – more as reference material than anything, a key part of this process has been for me to NOT look at it – especially when I was feeling stuck. My objective is to keep trying something really different, and sneaking a peek at what I’m trying to avoid won’t help. If anything, it would probably point me in a wrong direction.

I’ve written before about a writer should do what they can to avoid having the reader/audience know what’s going to come next. Such is the case for this rewrite.

As I work my way through, it’s with a mindset that looks at a scene or sequence as a whole, along with “what’s the most likely thing to happen here?”

That’s followed immediately by “what would be the total opposite of that?” or “what would be completely and totally unexpected here, but still works within the context of the story?” Really striving towards taking a new approach is yielding some positive results. It’s quite a thrill when an idea pops out of nowhere, and it works even better than expected.

Added bonus – by forcing myself to come up with new ideas, there’s less need for me to keep the hard copy of the previous draft nearby. The more I avoid looking at it along with figuring things out for this draft, the more changes it produces. All that being said, I’ll still hold onto it, since there’s always a chance I might need something in there, but with the story constantly changing, even that’s becoming less likely.

The whole point of overhauling this story is to take what I had before and put an entirely new spin on the initial concept. I have a pretty good idea of what needs to happen, what I’d like to happen, and that big nebulous category of what could potentially happen (still working out the kinks on that one).

The road between what I started with and what the end result will be is without a doubt one that’s going to be very long, very twisted, fraught with hazards of numerous kinds, and might, at times, seem to go on forever.

Sounds like quite a hellish journey. And I’m loving every step of the way.

Time for a much-needed distraction or two

I was originally going to write about getting notes from a writer (whose bio & accomplishments remain unknown) who made quite an effort to point out everything that’s wrong with my work.

No doubt what they’re saying is exactly what I need to hear, so if I want to make it in this business, I should heed every priceless word of advice they offer.

You get the idea.

But they’re not worth worrying about, and I don’t feel like dealing with this kind of idiotic nonsense right now.

So here’s some much better idiotic nonsense.

Like this.

This.

This.

This.

And this.

-for those dying to know, my time for the half-marathon this past Sunday was 1:58:21, for a pace of 9:03/mile. Not too bad. Next one is March 22nd. Taking this weekend off, then back at it.

An extraordinarily jam-packed couple of days

The mind reels at what could possibly happen next
Who knows what could possibly happen next? (but it’s fun to guess)

It’s been quite an exciting time ’round these parts, my friends.

-Wednesday. As has been previously chronicled, my script was in the top 15 percent for the Nicholl. Not enough to be a quarterfinalist, but that’s okay. There are so many other avenues to explore, and I’m already mentally rewriting the script I’d enter next year.

-Friday. I won a pair of tickets to a Giants game, which includes a pre-game VIP party where Stan Lee will be in attendance. With any luck, I’ll be able to get my ESSENTIAL SPIDER-MAN VOL 1 signed, and maybe a picture with him.

-Sunday. Ran the Giant Race half-marathon. Perfect conditions – cold, foggy, windy and a mostly flat course. Steady pace, positive attitude. Finally achieved the until-now impossible and broke the 1:55 barrier – 1:53:07 (a pace of 8:38, which I’ve never done before either). Next race is another half-marathon in October. Highly doubtful I can duplicate this kind of time, but still looking forward to it.

-Sunday, part 2. While I was recovering from the race, DREAMSHIP got its second Black List review. 8/10 overall (yay!), including 9/10 for character and setting (double yay!). That was enough to place the script on some of the top lists, including uploaded for action/adventure, family and sci-fi/fantasy.

-Monday. Because of my scores on the Black List, DREAMSHIP will be included in this week’s ‘industry member highlight email,’ which goes out on Friday to around 1900 industry pros.

You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face if you tried.

It’s probably safe to say there may not be a week like this ever again, so I’m definitely enjoying the positive vibes while I can.

My mettle is being tested, and then some

Some days can feel like this...
We’ve all been there, Spidey.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

A week after receiving my query letter, an agent responded, asking for a one-page synopsis.  Fortunately, I had one ready to go and sent it, trying hard to not get my hopes up.

The response came just under an hour later, including this:

“Sorry to say it doesn’t promise a unique storyline with surprises that would appeal to the young audience.”

Okay…

Not sure I would necessarily agree with most of that, but then again, I’m slightly biased.

What could have made them say this? Was my synopsis bad? Did the gist of the story not come across? Is this just another way of saying “Thanks, but not what we’re looking for?”

Hard to say.  Oh well.  Nothing else I can do about it.

So with my hopes temporarily dashed on the rocks below, onward I continue.  (Don’t worry. My hopes are pretty resilient, and should be back on their feet relatively soon.)

Probably like a lot of writers, there’s always going to be that dreaded feeling of second-guessing myself. Did I do enough? Is this right?

I could (and do) ask myself these questions, but the more time I spend worrying about them, the less productive I am.

It all comes down to doing the best I can, putting it out there and seeing what happens. Hopefully, it’ll yield positive results. If not, I’ve got no choice but to fix the problem where I can and see if that works.

They don’t call it a never-ending process for nothing, you know.

I’ve been working at this for quite a while, getting a little closer to success each time. The goal is obtainable, and I can do this. This long, drawn-out part can be pretty frustrating, but I’ve made it this far. A little longer won’t be that bad.

-Movie of the Moment: CABIN IN THE WOODS (2011)  I don’t really care for horror, but this was fun. If Joss Whedon is involved, you know it’s going to be written smart. I’d heard there was a unique twist to it, and there was (no spoilers here).

What was most impressive was how they took a lot of horror movie tropes and made them integral parts of the plot, including the all-important setting up and paying off.