It’s hard to believe screenwriter Alex Tse once thought he didn’t “get” film theory. One half of the screenwriting duo behind 2009’s Watchmen, it’s easy to see that Tse “gets” it. We recently caught up with Tse to ask him a few questions about on his screenwriting background, his next project (his directorial debut ’87 Fleer), and how speaking with a scientist can help the writing process.
Tell us about your background. Why did you become a screenwriter?
Something always drew me to storytelling. Even at a young age I would watch cartoons and read comic books and want to change the endings or create my own stories with the characters. I’m not sure how exactly that came about but my family did enjoy movies and took me to see quite a few that were probably inappropriate for my age. Also my mother always encouraged me to read. I initially wanted to create comic books but I wanted to draw them as well and I can’t draw a card out of a deck so comics were out. I thought about writing novels but that seemed so daunting. As I got older, into my teens, and the desire to write persisted, I veered toward journalism because I thought that would be the only way I could make a living putting words together. Still, a life in film and TV kept nagging at me so I went to film school and thought I’d get it out of my system before I entered the real world. Well, I still haven’t gotten it out of my system, nor have I entered the real world.
What memory or experience stands out as a turning point early in your career?
I would say there were four important moments on my path in becoming a screenwriter. First, in 6th grade English class I wrote a Sherlock Holmes story for which I got an A. After class, my teacher pulled me aside and very politely asked if I plagiarized any parts of it. I was stunned at the accusation but it was the first time I thought I might actually have some writing ability. Second, when I was in film school, I was surrounded by kids who were “students” of film. Someone like me was a fan of films but because I never dissected film like some of these kids, I’d sometimes question whether I was missing things. Often times, I was told by other kids that I was, that I just didn’t “get” it. I took a film theory class with one of the toughest professors on campus. He actually tried to kick me out of class the first couple of weeks because I hadn’t taken some of the lower level film courses but I dug my heels in and told him that I would do whatever work he thought I needed to do on the side in order for me to continue. I ended up getting the highest or the second highest grade in the class. That made me a lot more confident that I did in fact “get” it and I became much more assertive in my opinions about films. Third, after graduating, I moved to Los Angeles and became a studio temp. A studio executive I worked for read a script I wrote and passed it along to a manager who signed me off of it and is still my manager today. Fourth, a year after getting my manager, I wrote a script, ’87 Fleer, which is the one that finally got me work.
How does speaking with a scientist help your writing process as you create a story? Can you give us any example of questions you’ve asked science consultants?
It’s invaluable for me to have access to experts in their fields, especially since I know so little about, well, most things in life. Although storytelling may require invention outside the bounds of actual science, I tend to veer towards making my material at least feel more grounded and having discussions with experts helps provide that grounding. I’ve talked to scientists about three different projects, dealing from anything from high speed space travel to robotics to the possibilities of the human mind travelling to other dimensions.
What are you currently working on? Do you think you’ll be using science advisors for it and other future projects?
I’m currently putting together my directorial debut, ’87 Fleer, which will not require science advisors as it’s a small film dealing with teenagers (though I suppose parents of teenagers may sometimes think a scientist might be necessary to deal with them). For future projects, I always keep The Exchange in mind whenever the story calls for it.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
I would say that both filmmakers and scientists should keep pushing the boundaries of their respective crafts. Both fields can change the complexion of the world but you have to push yourself. Failed ambition is better than lack of it.
What else would you like to share?
I think The Exchange is an important resource for both communities because the communication between both can make movies and quite possibly, science better.