At NBC’s Television Critics Association presentation this month, I had the good luck to be sitting at a table next to The Expanse writer Ty Franck. When I asked him to join our table and talk about Syfy’s new adaption of The Expanse and his writing process, he graciously agreed. This was not a pre-set interview. It was a conversation that Franck was kind enough to let me record and share with The Expanse fans. If you haven’t read the books, there are no major spoilers. I hope you enjoy.
The show’s beautiful.
Is that how you pictured it in your head?
No. But this version is amazing. The great thing is that you hire these really talented artists and they do stuff that’s better than what you would have done. How can you complain about that?
As someone who read the books and really likes them, I find it hard to adjust sometimes to how I pictured it when I was reading, and I’m sure how you did when you were writing, and who they chose in casting. Is there a point where that switches for you and you’re able to buy into this person as the character?
So you know in the book, height differences are a big deal? Our showrunner, Naren, early on in the casting process said a comment that I have grown increasingly… I increasingly believe that he is right. He said, “Height doesn’t act.” And he’s right. If we had cast only on height, we would have had a much worst cast. The people who don’t look exactly like they do in the book, they got hired because they’re great actors. A couple minutes on screen…it doesn’t matter any more.
I found that with Holden, I pictured him older.
He’s thirty in the first book and the actor [Steven Strait] is 29.
It’s weird, he looks so young, though.
He does. He’s like a year younger than the character in the first book.
It was about half way through [the pilot], when you see him becoming the boy scout, that’s the character. Now I believe that that’s him. I have Nemesis Games but I haven’t read it yet because I was in school this summer, but I think when I go back to read it, I’m still not going to picture Holden as Strait.
That’s fine. I mean, they’re separate things. And it’s fine for them to be separate things. I used to work for George Martin and I love his books, but I love the show, too. They’re very different. It’s fine. That show doesn’t make the books go away. They’re still there.
Did [Martin] give you any advice on handling deviations between your material and the show?
No, we pretty much never talked about that kind of stuff. But I got to see it, which was really handy cause I spent a bunch of time on set with that show. I knew the writers. Just being around the process was great. When this happened I kind of knew what to expect.
Are we going to get to end of Leviathan Wakes in the first season?
I don’t think I’m allowed to say. I think that’s one of those secret things.
I’m not going to spoil it in my article for anyone who hasn’t read the books, but it was such a shocking twist [in the book] that you think you’re going down the road of the typical alien invasion story and then it just became something completely different.
That’s what we always say about the protomolecule. It’s a magic mirror. Whatever you want to see when you look at it, that’s what you see in it. People keep assuming what it is…the military people see it as a weapon, the politicians see it as power….
Do you have an ending in mind for the series?
How many more books do we get?
We’re in a contract for 9 books and we know exactly how it ends. We know the end of the 9th book.
I know you do some novellas and shorter stories, will we have more of those?
We’re under contract for 2 more novellas. I don’t know if we’ll do more after that maybe.
Nemesis Games did really well when it was released.
It did. It did.
That has to feel good also.
The series is doing very well and it does very well internationally. I’m hoping the show has the same thing where it becomes international. That’d be great.
In season 1, it looks like they’ve collapsed together some of the characters from the first couple books…
Well, I wouldn’t describe it that way. I think what they’ve done is created interesting early stories for characters who aren’t until later books. It’s not that they’ve pulled the stories from later books. It’s just that we get to see what those people were doing in books where they weren’t in point of view, like Avasarala. We get to see what she was doing during the events of Leviathan Wakes. I think that’s great.
Do you help guide the writers with where you want that story to go?
I’m a writing producer on the show. I’m in the room every day. We wrote a script in the first season, probably write two scripts in season two. So, I have as much voice as any other writing producer would have. Obviously, the showrunner is still in charge.
What did you think about how the protomolecule looked in the pilot?
I think it’s looks cool.
I pictured it more gooey.
It’s not exactly how I pictured it. But it looks really cool. I can’t complain.
I pictured it a bit more gruesome with body parts everywhere.
It is fairly gruesome.
So we’re going to get more of that?
We don’t shy away from it. There’s some stuff later that’s pretty hard to watch.
[Laughs] Body horror.
Does The Expanse keep you pretty busy for your universe of work right now?
It’s pretty much this and the books. That’s it. It’s hard to juggle both. And we can’t complain. We’ve been given unprecedented levels of access on the show. George is a producer on Game of Thrones, but it’s sort of an emeritus position. He doesn’t ever go there and do things. We visited a few times, but it was just was just visits.
[On The Expanse], I’m in the writers room every day and when we were shooting, I was on set talking to the directors and the production designer and visual effects artists. They still email me all the time – the visual effects artists are always emailing me, “What does this look like? What direction would the sun be from this thing? Where should the shadows be?” I don’t think any other book writer has gotten that kind of access on their own show. It’s very unusual.
Seeing how detailed the books are, it seems like that also makes sense. You guys have a very definite idea about what this universe looks like.
Right, but I’ve found…. I didn’t think it was weird that I got to do all this stuff and then found out that it was weird later when people said, “Yeah, writers are usually a pain in the ass to deal with.” So fortunately for everyone involved, apparently we aren’t. [Laughs]
Otherwise you might have had a lot less access….
I think it would have quickly gotten smaller.
Where did they film The Expanse?
It was filmed all in Toronto at Pinewood Studios.
Is it a lot of green screen, obviously with the effects it has to be, but did they build a lot of sets also?
We had 80,000 sq. ft. of stage space. They built, this here [points to TV with ship image] that’s all practical, the ship interiors for the large part are practical. There’s set extensions. There’s corridors that end in green, but we wanted our actors to have things to interact with. You watch shows that are shot only on sound stages on green screen, everybody is kind of stiff and they don’t move. At least, that’s my perception. Nobody moves because they have to imagine the space that they’re in. They don’t really know what it is. But this stuff, they can grab onto things. He’s flying up through and grabbing actual handrails to pull himself around. And there’s a lot of extemporaneous stuff that happens on the bridge of the Canterbury. When they’re talking, people go and lean on chairs, grab bars and lean forward, lean on ladders…. That stuff is there for them and it creates this sense that this is a place where they live. They’re not all kind of stiffly standing looking at each other. I respect that they wanted to do that. It’s even really a budgetary thing because visual effects have gotten so cheap and set building so expensive that they’re almost kind of the same now.
Is there any actor where you look at him/her on screen and think, “Ah, that’s it. They’re exactly right”? I feel that way about Naomi (Dominique Tipper).
Naomi’s great. We love Dominique. She hadn’t been in a bunch of stuff before this, but man, she’s talented. She’s very talented. I think she’s going to be doing a lot in the future. Shohreh is, of course… what a talent she is. I pictured her more gray-haired, but [her] attitude and her just regal majesty is just exactly how I pictured the character in the book. There’s just something very regal about Shohreh. I don’t know what it is. She just holds herself like she’s apart from everybody, which is awesome.
We’re not going to get all her cursing, though, are we? Cause that would be really awesome.
Not so much in the first season, but who knows. That may change. Standards are always getting slacker.
I pictured Miller to be kind of more dumpy, Columbo-y. I love Thomas Jane and I think he’s going to do great…
I think everybody did, but as soon as we found out that Tom was interested, everybody was like, “Yeah, get him. Get him.” Cause we could probably have found a guy that looks more like Columbo, but would they have been as good an actor as Thomas Jane? Probably not.
He’s got a gravitas that I think is important for that character.
Having watched all ten episodes of the first season now, I have enormous respect for him, because it’s clear that he had an arc in mind that he wasn’t telling anybody. He was just doing it. You watch how his character evolves over ten episodes… I’m stunned cause that’s real chops. He’s got real skills there that he’s bringing to the table. He decided that that’s what was going to happen and had the acting skills to do it. Would I trade that for someone who’s a little more dumpy? No, probably not. [Laughs]
Do you feel more comfortable in the television-writing domain than doing your novels? Which do prefer?
All writing is painful, but TV writing is so much easier. So much easier. You can take a lot of time on an episode script and spend a week doing it. That’s like slowed down and thought about every page. Writing a novel is like horrible and painful and takes a year. Plus, in a novel, if I say, “The detective goes into the dark scary warehouse,” I have to spend a page and a half describing the dark, scary warehouse and what the detective was thinking, and all that. In a script, I wrote, “Interior. Warehouse. Night.” Done. [Laughs] Some production designer somewhere has to figure out what that looks like, and some actor is going to read that line and go, “Ok, I think I would be scared in this scene, so I’m going to play it that way.” I don’t have to write any of that! It’s so much better.
The producers are pretty amazed at how quickly you guys are able to churn out material. Which it is impressive…
We do write fast. You can write much faster when you abandon quality. That’s sort of our strategy.
Well, then you guys are lucky because you’re doing really well. I’m pretty snobby and they’re very well written.
Well, thank you. It helps to have two people reading over everything. We catch each other’s mistakes. We have different blind spots, which is nice. So I can go, “You’re doing that thing again that you always do,” and he says the same thing to me, “Oh, you’re doing that thing again.” Which is really nice. If either of us had done it individually, all that stuff would still be in there. So that really helps. We just buckle down. We both have the same kind of work ethic. Where it’s like—we need to write for ten hours a day, we gotta get 4,500 words done, and then we just do it.
That’s a lot.
Yeah. It is a lot. We wrote half of a Star Wars novel in a long weekend and it was brutal. It was a grind. It was horrible. Book came out ok.
That’s what’s important. I’m in a literature grad school program and one of the things we were talking about this summer was the writing process. For me, I’ll get stuck where I start thinking, “Is this good? Could I be doing it better?” Do you get those moments?
So one of the tricks that you have to learn, and everybody has to learn it individually, is how to turn off your internal editor. The way Daniel does it is he obsesses over word count. So he’s like — this chapter is 3,000 words and I have 5 scenes, so each scene is going to be 600 words. He obsesses about that. You get to the point where you know 600 words is about 2 ½ pages, so he’s trying to fit the scene into 2 ½ pages and that’s what he obsesses about so that he doesn’t obsess about the actual words themselves. What I do is I have lifelong insomnia, so I never sleep so I’m always kind of in a haze, all the time. I do my best writing when I’m super sleep deprived. So he would come over to my house, we’d be working on something… [I’d say] Ah, I didn’t sleep at all, I was up til 4, I got up at 8 to start working on the book so I’m totally spacing out, and then I would hand him stuff and he’d be like, “You wrote this when you had 4 hours of sleep?” “Yeah.” “This is the best thing you’ve ever written.” So apparently, the way I turn off my internal editor is just writing in a fog, eyes closed, going like this [typing]. The words just come out. If you think about what you’re writing while you’re writing it, you never get anything done.
You feel like you take one step forwards and two steps backwards.
And re-writing is what you do when you’re done, not what you do while you’re doing it. So you write the book, and then you go back to the beginning and read the whole thing, and then you can come up with a plan. If you try to rewrite on the fly, you don’t have a plan. You just break the stuff that’s right and you don’t make anything better. You don’t.
Have you deviated from your initial plans from when you started the books? Did you think you were going to take the story in one direction and then decide to change course?
Not really. The biggest one is that we had 2 outlines—a 9-book outline and a 12-book outline. We’ve had those since book 2. The big thing for us was that we really felt like the 9-book version was a stronger version. So we just got rid of one whole subplot that was going to take up a few books. I think it’s a lot better. But for a while there, we weren’t sure which one we were going to do. Fortunately, we didn’t build much stuff in early for those other 3, so nobody will notice when it doesn’t happen.
Are you still enjoying them?
Oh god no. [Laughs] Who is it Dorothy [Parker]…who said, “I don’t enjoy writing, I enjoy having written.” I get done, I’m like, “Ahh.” It’s such a perfect quote, right? I get done, and I reread and I’m like, “I love this thing that I just did!” Not that I think I’m great. I’m just so happy that I finished this thing, and look at all these amazing things that I didn’t realize I was doing. I will edit to make it even stronger. That’s fun. But…
Ugh. You sit down and you know you have to write 3,000 words. It’s just brutal. It’s like, “I gotta get through these 12 pages.” You get 4 pages in and you’re tired, “I gotta write 8 more….”
I had such a similar feeling with a paper that I wrote for school last week. It was brutal.
They do. You gotta get it done.
You gotta get it done.
Then my blood pressure is going through the roof….
Alcohol. A lot of alcohol helps. I think that’s why all writers end up being alcoholics. Because you get half way into it and you’re just like, “I just can’t stomach doing it. I’ll just drink Scotch.” Keep going now…
Then you drink too much coffee and you want to sleep but then can’t…
That’s your mistake because you’re doing coffee. Scotch.