I met Todd Berger at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival for an interview for the post-apocalyptic comedy he wrote and directed, It’s a Disaster. While I waited for him to direct another movie, he wrote a book instead. Showdown City is the first book by Todd Berger.
Showdown City is a modern day western. Mr. Swords hires Huey Palmer to fly his team of treasure hunters to find a valuable gun. They end up in Showdown City, a town locked in the frontier. Showdown City is out today on Amazon and other sellers. I spoke with Berger last week about his new book.
Was Showdown City something you thought of as a movie that may have been too big for what you could accomplish?
Absolutely. I’ve been a writer officially for 14 years now. I started when I was 22 and I moved out to L.A. I very quickly learned that there are certain movies that Hollywood makes and there are certain movies that Hollywood does not make unless they are based on pre-existing material. Unless you are the Wachowskis or Seven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino, it’s really hard to do a very big, expensive movie that’s not based on something else. So when I came up with the idea for Showdown City, I was like, “Well, no one’s ever going to make this as a movie” because it would cost a lot of money, and it’s a western. Westerns are very tricky because they’re kind of a hard sell outside of the country in some markets, is what I’ve heard. Also, some of them are successes like Django Unchained. I think 3:10 To Yuma was a success but a lot of them are failures so Hollywood is sometimes skeptical of them.
So when I had this idea, I was like, “Well, I’ve been wanting to write a novel since I was a kid.” So this was the perfect thing because I think it’s a story that could work as a novel and then maybe one day Hollywood will be like, “Hey, pre-existing material. Let’s now turn it into a movie.” Maybe not.
It’s sort of sad that you have to create the pre-existing material yourself, but it’s a smart twist.
Oh, Fred, there are companies that do this. There are production companies that I’ve met with before, where I will pitch them an idea, and they say, “We actually have an offshoot of our company that publishes books so that we can then sell the rights to the books that we ourselves are publishing. Because the first thing that a Hollywood executive is going to ask when you pitch a book is, “How many readers does it have? How many fans does it have?” Hollywood is like those are people who already like the property, so that’s less people we have to explain what this movie is.
So there are companies that do this, that make the book first. They will take screenplays and hire authors to adapt a screenplay into a book so that they can then sell the rights to the book that the screenplay is already written for. It’s an incredibly brilliant model when you think about it. It’s big in the YA community.
How did you find the process of writing the book different from writing a screenplay?
I found it super liberating. Screenplays, since the beginning of time, have followed a mathematical formula that we’ve all learned about in screenwriting classes and in books. There’s a three act structure. Page 10 is the inciting incident and page 33 is the end of the first act and then the midpoint is the turn. This is when the second act begins. Every movie you can watch, except for some arthouse filmmakers who are like “Well, I’m not going to do that,” but most movies follow a formula.
With novels, you can do whatever you want. You’re like, “I’m not going to introduce the main character until halfway through. Or I’m going to kill off a main character very early on. Or I’m going to stretch out the explanation of this.” There’s not really any rules you have to follow and you can just do whatever you want. Writing a movie is often filmmaking by committee. If you write a spec script, you can write the first draft but then you’re going to get a lot of notes on it from a lot of people. When you’re writing a novel, you can do whatever you want.
You do have a book agent to help you out. My book agent was very helpful explaining, because this is my first novel, so he was like, “You did a couple things that are very screenwriter-y.” There were a lot of pop culture references and I was like oh, that’s a really good point. The way I would shift from character and person, things like that, but he was very hands off with creative, telling me, “This character’s motivation wasn’t clear.” People are much more respectful of the author. Once you get a publisher, the publisher and the editors come in and help you shape it into a better book but they still are very respectful of the creative and like, “Well, this is your baby. We’re just here to give you advice.” Oftentimes, Hollywood is: this is our baby. You’re being paid to work on it. You’re the nanny to the baby that we bought from you.
So I found it very liberating. Everything in a screenplay has to be there for a reason. In novels, not necessarily. I always loved Michael Crichton growing up and I loved how Michael Crichton would go on these tangents about stuff. I remember in Congo he went on a chapter tangent about the history of African diamond mining. I was like, that’s really interesting, doesn’t have too much to do with the story but I really like that.
The French New Wave used to do that in movies.
That’s true. No kidding.
You say you can do whatever you want in a book, but aren’t there still story rules so you have to be very careful when you do something like that?
Sure. You don’t want to piss people off. Maybe if you’re established enough you can start messing with story conventions too much. As an early novelist, I was trying to keep it pretty linear, have heroes and villains and some sort of story structure. It’s not nearly as regimented as a screenplay.
As a fan of westerns, how did you come to this idea of a modern day story that becomes a western with this town, as opposed to doing a period piece?
My first idea was to do this as a movie, so my friend shot a short film in this old west town near Palm Springs. It’s a privately owned old west town that this man owns and does cosplay on the weekends with his friends where they dress up in western costumes and carry around six shooters and drink whisky. I was like, “This is such a cool location, I should shoot something here. But I don’t really want to do a western because that’s expensive.” I was like, what about a time travel movie? Someone who goes back in time to the old west. But Back to the Future III has kind of claimed that corner.
25 years ago, no one can ever do that again?
[Laughs] I know I’m just going to be comparing myself to Back to the Future III. Then I was reading an article about Nevada, because I love Las Vegas and I’m always going to Las Vegas. I read this article about Nevada and how something like 85% of Nevada is owned by the Federal government. You can’t go there. The entire middle of Nevada where Area 51 and the Nellis Air Force Range is, we can’t go there. It’s just off limits. If you look at a map of Nevada, I always like to look at cell phone coverage maps of Nevada because the middle of Nevada has no cell phone coverage. It’s government owned land you can’t go it.
Then I was like, what if there’s just something out there that no one’s ever really gone to? I’ve always read about these Amazonian tribes that remain uncontacted because they were off in the middle of nowhere. That’s when it hit me. It’s not time travel. It’s what if you discovered an old west town which is still out there, uncontacted. That snowballed into the idea.
Could you not help but add some humor to the story?
Oh, absolutely. I’m a through and through existentialist and I find everything kind of funny. That’s another fun thing about writing a novel is you get to get into people’s heads, you get into their thought process. Even when characters are in the most dire of situations, they can have these random funny thoughts. When there’s a gun pointed at their heads, they can think about how dirty the gun looks. In a movie, there are characters that make funny quips. There are the John McLanes that can make funny quips but not all the characters are going to do that. In a novel, you can much more have random characters think about random things at the worst possible times. Oftentimes it’s very funny because that’s how we are as people. We often have these thoughts that pop in our head at the worst possible times and I thought that was really fun to explore.
What were your favorite westerns and western influences?
I kind of was never into westerns growing up. I grew up in Lousiana where we were kind of averse to Texas and the whole western thing. My family wasn’t into westerns and I’d never really read a western. I hadn’t seen a lot of westerns. I’d seen The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and a handful of Sergio Leone. Then when I started thinking about this idea, I went on a huge deep dive of reading a bunch of westerns and watching a bunch of westerns. What really did it for me was, I always loved Elmore Leonard back from when I saw the movie version of Get Shorty and went on a deep dive of Elmore Leonard. I read all of his books but I knew that Elmore Leonard started as a western writer but I’d kind of ignored that part of his bibliography because I didn’t like westerns.
Five or six years ago, I came upon The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard and I was like, “Well, I’ve read most of his other stuff. I’ll give this a whirl.” It was great. It was Elmore Leonard stories set in the old west and it had his voice. I really loved that. That was really inspiring to me. It made me really respect the genre of westerns and all the things you can do with it that you can’t really do in a lot of other genres, because westerns are all about isolation and lawlessness and people having to get out of trouble themselves because no one knows where you are. You’re just out there in the middle of nowhere and it truly is the frontier, the wild west. So then, I started reading more westerns and watching more.
I gotta say, Once Upon a Time in the West is not only my favorite western but it’s one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe I have never watched this movie before. How can call myself a filmmaker without having seen this movie? I’d also never seen How the West Was Won which is great. It feels like a product of its time but I got to see it at the Arclight Cinerama Dome in Cinerama. It was shot in Cinerama and it was so awesome. It was so cool to see it projected in Cinerama.
I haven’t made it to the end yet, but is Showdown City open to a sequel? Would it be other people visiting Showdown City or perhaps the further adventure of Huey and Swords?
Just like all great westerns, both novels and movies, they seem to be able to make a sequel out of any western in any way they can. Like The Magnificent Seven, something like six of them die, but guess what? The Magnificent Seven Return. They find ways to make sequels, like Return to Lonesome Dove.
Butch and Sundance: The Early Days.
Exactly. So the ending of Showdown City I could see being a lcosed story and never returning to it, but I could also see Return to Showdown City in some form or another. In honor of the classic westerns, Return To…, where maybe one or two, or all of the characters return.
Or like the Man with No Name trilogy where they’re sort of different characters in each story.
Yeah, and you’re not sure of the timeline. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly seems to take place during the Civil War and is the origin story, but then you’re like, “Is this even the same guy? I don’t know.”
Do you think your next project will be another book, a film or a show?
I’m working on all three, Fred. I wrote a screenplay a couple years ago for fun that I was like, “No one will ever make this movie.” But I had this idea so I wrote it. So I was like, “I’m going to turn this into a novel because no one’s ever going to make it as a movie” for kind of the same reasons as this. It’s too weird and it would cost too much, so I’ve been working on that for the past few months.
Then I also have a couple indie movies that I’m hopefully going to direct too within this year, maybe one within a month. Then I have a couple big Hollywood specs but TV’s where it’s at. So I have a big TV project I’m developing with my manager that I’m hopefully going to go pitching in a couple months.
Are these comedies or more departures?
One of the features that I’m doing, there’s comedic elements, but it’s much more of a Tarantino-esque crime thriller I guess you could say. It’s all inspired by Rahomon and multiple perspectives. So I went back and watched Rashomon and Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. And then the TV show is kind of my version of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, a funny sci-fi-ish supernatural show. I’m from New Orleans and I’ve always wanted to do something with New Orleans and its black magic history.