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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Interview with Writer , Podcaster - Hugh Sterbakov

Hugh's the one in the middle by the way 
Today on my blog i have a interview with Hugh Sterbakov, Emmy-nominated and Annie Award-winning writer of Robot Chicken, the award-winning graphic novel Freshmen and TV scripts for Disney, Paramount, AMC, SyFy and Fox.

Ross :- Was writing something that you always thought you would do for a living in your younger days ?
Hugh :- It was obvious from when I was very young, but it took me a long time to realize it. I learned to read from comic books, and when I was very little I'd write and draw comic book sequels to my favorite movies. When we had creative writing assignments in school, the other kids would turn in three paragraphs and I'd write three pages.

When the GI Joe figures came along, my friends and I took them apart and customized them into new characters, so I imagined my own worlds. I got more serious about comics in junior high, and started an ongoing series that I'd xerox, put into sealed bags and sell to my friends and family. Well, I put a price tag on them and then gave them away.

I always knew I wanted to go to film school, but I wasn't until college that I realized I wanted to write. Once I made a film and realized how slow and technical the process was, I realized that my place was writing scripts.



Ross :- What was your first paid writing job and looking back on it now is it something you’re proud to have put your name to ?

Hugh :- I guess I'm lucky, because I don't think I've ever done a writing job I wasn't proud of. I think my first paid gig was a videogame review for a magazine called Flux. That was about six months out of college. Right around the same time, I got a development deal to develop a TV series for AMC, and that was my first paid creative writing job.


Ross :- how did you get into writing for video game magazines ?

Hugh :- I got my undergrad degree and moved to Los Angeles to break into screenwriting, but I needed to pay my bills. I'm a fast writer, so I figured if I could get a writing gig I'd have a lot of extra time for my screenwriting and the classes I'd planned to take.

I asked one of my college writing professors for advice, and she told me to reach out to another of her students, a guy named Dan Amrich. He was breaking into the magazine business and might have some leads.

I got in touch with Dan, and he asked me if I play guitars or videogames. I'd always been a videogame nut, so he tossed me a couple unpaid assignments for a little section he was running on AOL called Critics' Choice. My first attempt was ridiculous--it read like a puff promo piece, not a critical review. I don't know if I'd ever read a game review. This was 1995, so there weren't dozens of gaming websites. But Dan could tell that I had chops, so he rejected the piece and not me. He had me start over, and gave me some examples and a primer.

And that was it, from that moment I became his sad Chewbacca. I eventually took over the AOL site, and Dan got me gigs at just about every job he ever landed. A lot of them weren't paid, but my resume grew to the point where I was getting comp copies of almost every game for PS1, Saturn, Dreamcast and N64. I had a cheap apartment, a dog and a working girlfriend, so I was happy. Eventually he got me on staff at GamePro, and right as that came to an end I started making a living in Hollywood.

The Famous Gamepro Magazine

Ross :- When did you have the idea for Freshmen was it a long standing idea ?

Hugh :- I think it was in the fall of 2003, and Seth and I were playing ping pong in the garage of my old house. I sold a script in 2000 and lived in this great party house with a hot tub. The garage was full of posters of Charlie's Angels and Britney Spears. We'd mounted a toilet seat I'd broken on the wall.

Anyway, we'd put back a few already, and I started craving some bananas sitting on my kitchen counter, but they were still green. And I said I wish I had the mutant power to ripen bananas. We spent the rest of the night coming up with silly mutant powers.

I chose some of the more interesting abilities and crafted themes around them and developed characters. Seth had just worked with producer Donald De Line on Without a Paddle, so we brought it around Hollywood with him, describing it as "X-Men meets Revenge of the Nerds." The pitch was well-received, but we were advised to do it as a comic first. All passes. This was another in a long string of great things I'd worked hard on that everyone seemed to like but nobody bought, and I was really frustrated.

The next fall, Matt Hawkins from Top Cow comics called me out of the blue. A few people had taken meetings with him and dropped my name, and he wanted to see what the fuss was about. I sent him a couple things I'd developed, and he chose to do Freshmen. I don't think he even knew at that point that Seth had co-created it with me.

I'm very proud of that comic. It was my first opportunity to get my creative work out of the Hollywood development community and into the hands of regular readers. And the reaction was really heartwarming. Reviews for those books have been so positive that I sometimes feel like people are lying to me. And our fan base was small but incredibly devoted. We had about a dozen fans post on our message boards every day for two years. Some of them made custom costumes of The Seductress and The Beaver for Halloween. And they were relentless about getting the book into the hands of new readers. And I've heard stories about Freshmen being discussed in college classes in Seattle, San Diego and Ohio.

The reaction to Freshmen made me very eager to get my work out of the studio development cycle and into the hands of readers, which led me to write my novel.

Freshmen 
Ross :- You’re soon to release your debut novel how long has this project been going for ?

Hugh :- I came up with the basic concept, a massive outbreak of werewolves in Manhattan, in 2002. I have a white board in my office with a list of my favorite ideas, and that one sat at the top for two years while I let it sit in my head. It took me two years to break the story--to figure out the answer to the question "why." I was sitting in a movie theater with a friend and telling him all about the big action scenes I'd devised, and then it just came to me. You'll see what I discovered in the last 30 pages or so of the book.

So I wrote it as a screenplay, which went "out" in May of 2004. My agent and manager took a gamble on the success of Van Helsing, and released the script to producers and the studios right when it came out. Obviously, we lost that gamble. Not that Van Helsing was entirely to blame--this was a budget-busting hard-R movie that would be too frightening for kids even if their parents brought them. And although I have a great female lead, it'd be a tough sell to women.

Like everything I wrote, the script had a lot of fans. Tom De Santo, one of the producers of the X-Men films, sat down with me to try to pare down the budget. I was told that Bruckheimer's company liked it, but the budget was a problem. And it opened doors for more development with other great producers as well. Most importantly, it was one of my favorite things that I'd written.

After a couple more near-misses in Hollywood, I decided to take a swing at writing it as a novel. But mechanically, narrative writing has nothing in common with screenwriting, which is all about fragmented sentences and white space. The characters and the story unfolded beautifully with all of the extra room, and I learned a lot about myself in the process--but it was long and hard. I finally wound up hiring a book editor, which may have been the best decision I've ever made in my life. Once I did that, I could finally let go and prepare everything else--the cover, the website, promotion, etc.--and get back to creative writing.

I can't tell you how excited I am to get this thing out. It's slightly incredibly terrifying, of course, but I guess that means it's right.
The title of Hugh's upcoming novel
Ross :- with the release of city under the moon imminent how important is it that all the listeners to the One of swords podcast go out and pick up a copy. ?

Hugh :- Well, I'm willing to take strong odds that they'll survive without it, but I can't guarantee that it'll be a happy life.

Seriously, I appreciate the support, but I'm not looking for charity. If you're not into reading or this isn't your genre, don't throw me your hard-earned money. But if that's the case and you enjoy my work on the show and wanna support the kid, pass the word along to someone who *would* like to read it. Word of mouth is better than gold, because it can make gold.

I don't want to bust out any violins, but at the heart of this is a guy who is, to be honest, taking a major life gamble on himself. It's a tremendous personal investment and risk to self-publish, and I'd be lying if I said I know what to expect. If the book is a major hit, you might look back on this statement and laugh, but right now I'm understandably nervous. I've got two kids to feed, and they've made it perfectly clear that if I can't provide food they'll be happy to eat me instead.

Don't get me wrong, I'm absolutely confident that I've got the goods here. And I'm giving away the first quarter of the novel as a sample, so you should feel that way too before you plunk down your dough. But the process of getting the word out is scary. Trying to market yourself in today's media is like standing up in a galaxy-sized stadium and attempting to start the wave.

Also, in this case, my self-deprecating humor works against me. It's just not in my nature to throw my shoulders back, lift my head and say, "Hey folks, I did something here, and I promise you it's awesome." That's on the opposite side of the universe from my comfort zone. So I guess the fans of the podcast will have an inside look as I try to shift my image in an unnatural manner.

The one of swords podcast from Activision
Ross :- do you plan on having any serious advertising campaign for your novel or will word of mouth and amazon etc reviews be good enough for you ?

Hugh :- I'm going to pull as many strings as I can, but I can't compromise folks' integrity. And I don't even know that I should.

Back when Freshmen was on the shelves, Mila Kunis did an interview for Stuff Magazine and hawked the book. They even ran the cover that featured her character, without us having to ask them. Seth Green co-created Freshmen, and went on Conan O'Brien to talk about it. Sarah Michelle Gellar gave us a cover quote--and so did Joss Whedon, George Lucas, and Stan Lee. Brad Meltzer--the great freaking Brad Meltzer--got in touch with me on MySpace and told me he liked the book, and offered up a quote. Best compliment of my life. Wizard did articles on us. Seth and I went to conventions. The reviews were better than I could have imagined. And we had a rabid core fan base, I mean they were relentless.

But look--it's no secret that Freshmen isn't coming out anymore.

The problem, I think, was this: In order for something to be a success, it needs to find its own audience. Not just any audience, but the particular audience that will embrace it. I don't think the Freshmen spark was ignited in the right place for it to really catch fire. If we'd put up posters of The Intoxicator in college towns, if we'd gotten the story of The Seductress into some high school counselors' offices, then I think we would've been a smash. But we used conventional means to market a comic that wasn't necessarily right for the conventional comic book consumer. I mean--I THINK this is the case. I could be totally wrong, and by no means am I taking anything off of my own shoulders as the writer. And I'm also not criticizing Top Cow, because they busted their asses and spared no expense to push Freshmen. But there is a lesson to be learned.

Long story long: I need fans of action novels, thriller novels, horror, mystery and just plain fun writing to discover this book, and the best way to do that is to get those communities talking about it. I hope they find it on Amazon, and I'm going to try to reach out to them as best I can, in a target manner.

And quite frankly, I can't afford major advertising. :)

Ross :- Speaking of the One of swords podcast how did you become involved with that project ?

Hugh :- Dan Amrich called me up and said he was starting a new podcast, and asked if I'd like to co-host. I'd never done it before, so I shrugged and did it. And every Wednesday since, I wake up, shrug and do it.

Ross :- How important to you is it to have a platform to just release what ever is going on in your head every week ?

Hugh :- It's great, and the show is a ton of fun. I used to have my blog for a release, but I shot myself in the foot too many times on there. I'm still trying to figure out how to distinguish my personality on the show--miserable, hopeless Hugh--from the real life guy who does have those instincts, but also has a wonderful family. That's why Twitter has worked out for me, because I've warned all of my friends and family not to follow me, and I... well, to a certain extent, I play my character.

Having a presence on the Internet is a mixed bag, because you have to limit your exposure as a writer. There's a shroud that's supposed to fall over an author--I think you're not supposed to know much about him or her. They should be like the puppeteer hidden in the rafters. I hope this isn't the case, but I think a lot of our listeners will be thinking about me when the read City Under the Moon--like, they'll see shades of the Superman II story, or my sarcasm, or whatever. My real fear, which I mentioned before, is that they won't feel like they're in capable hands because I'm so constantly self-deprecating. Or they'll know when I'm talking out of my ass, because they know I've never worked for the FBI, or flown helicopters, or been a werewolf.
And, of course, being public and available leaves me open to some whopping danger from the angry, evil, anonymous (with a lowercase "a") folks on the Internet who might decide to insult me or my writing. I didn't get much of that from Freshmen, but we'll see what happens here.
Hugh's Blog check it out Here

Ross :- here in the uk Robot Chicken isn't massively well known within the general public , could you give any of the readers go aren't familiar with it a brief synopsis of what the show is and what your role on it is ?

Hugh :- It's a sketch comedy show done in stop-motion animation, using actual toys. We might play on the established personalities of the toys, or create new ones, or just do original stuff with this aesthetic. Each episode is only 15 minutes long, but it moves lightning quick.

I buy all of the toys for the show, a job I dubbed "Toy Wrangler." It's a great gig, and it allows me to still write in my downtime. I've only been on the writing staff for a couple episodes, including the first and third Star Wars specials, both of which earned me Emmy nominations--which are the US version of the Oscars for TV. Lost both times, but it was pretty cool to get free dinners.

 

Ross :- how did your friendship / working relationship with Seth Green come about ? 

Hugh :- Seth and I met in kindergarten. We had all of the same interests, and became good friends. He moved out to LA in the middle of high school, and I went off to upstate New York for college. I moved to LA to become a screenwriter, and we kinda fell in love again. We've worked together because it's so much fun, but we've also both gone off and done our own things. We actually have very different tastes, so sometimes I'll see his stuff or he'll see my stuff and we'll just laugh and say, "That's awesome, and that's never how I would have done it."

Ross :- how is It living the hollywood lifestyle ? 

Hugh :- Well, you'd have to define that more specifically. And it's likely that if you did, I'd break down all of your illusions and make you depressed. So I'll lie and say this: It's incredibly, unstoppably awesome. Us Hollywood folk never get sick, we never have to pay bills, and when nobody's looking, we can fly.

Hugh & Seth

Ross :- are there any future projects already in the pipeline ? 
Hugh :- I've written the screenplay for a stop-motion movie that's in production right now, called Hell & Back. TJ Swardson and Rob Riggle are the leads, and we have some phenomenal casting news coming up that I can't quite talk about just yet [although it might be released by the time the interview runs, so check back with me, or check IMDB.] I don't know when that will be released, though.

My immediate goal is to write more novels. I'd be very happy doing this for a living, and letting someone else deal with the nightmarish rigamaroll of getting the movies made.


Now just a few quick random questions from people who were excited about this interview

Ross :- who is the most famous person in your contact list ?

Hugh :- That's hard, and I'm not being cagey. Is Macaulay Culkin more famous than Seth Green?

Ross :- who is the hottest actress In Hollywood ? 

Hugh :- For my taste, Kate Beckinsale. Jessica Alba is pretty darn hot too. I really like hair. This Mila Kunis chick isn't bad, either.

Hugh might be on to something here 

Ross :- do you have a man crush in anyone we should know about ? 

Hugh :- My man crushes begin and end with the McCounaghey. He is the ultimate incarnation of man.

Ross :- do you follow any sports and if so which teams within those sports 

Hugh :- Philadelphia Phillies and Philadelphia Eagles. So close... so far. I always enjoy watching tennis and poker, no matter who's playing.

 And finally what is your favourite video game of all time.

 Oh, so hard. I'll say Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Hugh's book City under the moon can be purchased in Kindle format Here. I would like to thank Hugh for taking the time out of his hectic schedule to take part in this interview with me and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did , Enjoy 

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