You left screenwriting for a little bit after Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and went and got a PhD?
Unfortunately it wasn't that easy. I kept writing while getting a PhD...
Oh wow, you did both at the same time.
Which means I had a lot of coffee for three years. I have no idea how other than coffee, Red Bull and lots of sugar.
What inspired getting a PhD in mythology?
I'll give you the shortest version. I was in Santa Barbara about five or six years ago for a three-day celebration of what would have been Joseph Campbell's 100th birthday and I discovered that it was sponsored by this place called Pacific Graduate Institute, where you could get a PhD in Mythological Studies. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist of The Hero's Journey, willed his actual physical library to this school and they built a myth program around it. And I just love that stuff! I love comparative religion and philosophy and the history of storytelling and mythology and it was all these things in one degree. I was like "I have to do this!" Primarily just for my own fun and edification, but also knowing it would most likely make me a better writer, which I think it did. It's not like I want to leave my job and go be a professor somewhere. But it was really a lot of fun. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
How would you say your writing has changed?
I mean, just look at my credits. There's clearly a line in the sand drawn of pre-PhD work and post. Pre-PhD was like Cheaper by the Dozen and Scooby-Doo. Just sort of fun and frivolous comedies-not a whole lot of substance to them. Post-PhD was my 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea script for Sam Raimi, Percy Jackson, my work on The Clone Wars. It's just a deeper, smarter, more confident level of writing.
Is it a coincidence that your first feature screenplay back in Hollywood dove-tailed with your PhD, or were you holding out to find something that you loved?
It was a happy coincidence or an intervention of the gods or something cause literally as soon as I finished, literally a week away from finishing my three years of classroom work for the PhD before you go off and write your dissertation, Chris [Columbus, the director] had submitted me this book, and I'm like "Wow-this is so awesome! What a way to hit the ground running after my PhD work to write about the Greek gods." So it was coincidental, but I like to think preordained by the gods and Poseidon himself. It was Poseidon. Mythology was key in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, so I just stayed in Poseidon mode for awhile.
How do you balance it when you know something as intimately as you know mythology, but you're adapting it for a bigger audience with things that you have to reshape and change.
I think it was fairly easy because I am first and foremost a writer and a pop culture junkie. And I grew up on the Ray Harryhausen Greek god movies like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans which were kind of the same thing, taking the Greek gods and bringing them into a pop culture context. So I don't think it was all that difficult. I think on occasion I got a little too smart for my own good, with like nuances and things that didn't end up in the script. They were like "Nobody cares about that, except you and your 12 classmates!" I'm like "Yeah, you're right." To me, it was just fun to take these great characters and put them into the context of a Hollywood movie and introduce Zeus and Poseidon and Hades and Medusa to a whole new generation of people.
I don't know if it's just a coincidence of the release calendar, but it seems like there is a resurgence of interest in mythology.
I think it's been true for ages. You can't keep the gods down. You can forget about them for awhile, and then they rear their heads some how, some way. Now, through pop culture they remind people that they are still alive and well. In the academic world, people who study mythology from the academic prospective, they have taken note and there are all kinds of these academic articles being written about them, conferences about the reemergence of the gods in pop culture and what that means. There's definitely something in the air, it's definitely the gods trying to be known again. And I don't mean that in a crazy, "I believe in these gods and worship them." But psychologically speaking, the theory is that these stories were originally created to explain facets of our personalities. Why am I suddenly out of nowhere angry? Well, it's because Ares or Mars is at play. Why did I suddenly fall in love with somebody I just saw? Well, it's Cupid's arrow. These are psychological states that they used to be aware of-they would talk about them in stories like this. I think that's the way these stories resonate with people, and they clearly resonate on a deep level because they have existed forever and every generation is fascinated by them anew. It's because you can relate to them. You see something in these characters that is within you, and you may not be intellectualizing it, but you feel it.
It's a cycle-every 20 years, we have to get interested in them again as a reminder?
Yeah, I think it's cyclical. And again, the academics talk about the whole move from polytheism to monotheism back to polytheism and etcetera is this ongoing cycle. I think it happens on a worldwide basis over millennia, but pop culture has its own cycle as well. They're just great stories, great creatures-it's not even a straightforward, "This is Zeus. This is Poseidon. This is Medusa." We're telling these stories in disguised form over and over again. Barton Fink is a journey into Hades. They are disguised in all of our movies. We're just making one that's undisguised.
Their writers of the time, like Euripides, when they wrote the story of Medea, they weren't trying to write a new story. Everyone in the audience was already familiar with what happens-what the writers wanted to show was a new perspective. It was always about, "What does this story mean today? What am I using this story that you already know to accomplish?"
That's exactly it. Which is not all that different than what we're doing: taking the same old stories and characters and giving them a new modern context and a new reason for being. Things haven't changed that much. Not that I'm in a category with Euripides and Homer, but I'm carrying the torch, so to speak.
And I actually think it's true for even genres outside of mythology. Updating The Wolfman now as opposed to 1941, we're doing a different Wolfman, and the changes show the changes in us.
Very much. It was very much on my mind during the adaptation and I think that Rick Riordan hit on this in his novel. It's basically Percy's story and Percy is all of us coming to the realization that there is sort of the god within, because we as a society have sort of gone off and become sort of selfish and non-spiritual and self-centered and how ever many ways you want to look at this. And there's sort of a renaissance in recognizing the divine within us, if you will. That sounds all New Agey, but that's what Percy Jackson is. It's these kids realizing the divine is within themselves, they are special and they have something godlike and good within their nature. And I think that is very much of the time. The catharsis the world is going through right now.
Is there anybody who is going to freak out that in this version Athena has a daughter?
I'm glad you asked that. That's so funny. That's one of those moments where I was being Mr. Smartypants. I kept saying to people "But Athena's a virgin goddess!" And they were like, "Nobody except you and your 12 friends cares about that." There was an early draft of the script where I address that. Perseus is first at the camp and discovering that the gods are alive and well and have kids and he meets Athena's daughter. He's like "Wait a second, how can you be Athena's daughter? She's a virgin goddess? What happened?" And she says "The Sixties." Which was my solution to that whole problem, but that didn't make the final cut so now there's no explanation. And me and my whole class-and you-will be going "Wait a second! This is impossible!" But yeah, assume that over 2,000 some years that Athena finally had her moment.
Yes, exactly. Enough is enough, already. That still bothers me that the line is not in there. People are going to be running out of the theaters going "Blasphemy!" Of course that's not true, just in my warped head. But there's another big inconsistency in the film with Greek mythology, which is in the Hades scene. Persephone is there, but as we know from the setup of the movie, the time of the season is the summer solstice. And Persephone lives half her life-or a third, depending on the version-above ground in the real world, and half in the underworld. And she was in the underworld only during the fall and winter. We have her there in the summer.
Are there other things in there that you think only myth geeks would get?
Those are the two biggies, and again, no one is going to care or notice, quite honestly. I think I threw Persephone in there myself because we needed her as a plot/story device. I didn't even notice at first, but then I was like "Uh oh-made a mistake We can't do this!" And everyone was like "No leave it. It works." I think everything else is pretty darn accurate, which is what I loved about the source material in the books because he put these things within context of the original stories. And he also had the explanation that if you kill the minotaur, as we saw in Greek literature, they stay dead for awhile, but then their energy comes back, so you can't kill Medusa forever, or the minotaur forever. They will eventually come back.
Let's talk about the 20,000 Leagues prequel. It is a prequel, yes?
No, there were two competing projects. There was the Disney one with McG, which was a prequel. Then there was the one I wrote for Sam Raimi, which he is producing not directing. And ours is an adaptation. There has been this competing thing-"There can be only one!"-but now that Disney's Nautilus has sunk, so to speak, we're the only ship in town. So hopefully we'll catch a director and be off with this thing.
What can you tell me about it?
One, it's true to the spirit of the novel. It's period. It's very Pirates of the Caribbean in tone, very sort of swashbuckling and action-oriented. And I'd like to think that I did Jules Verne proud because the actual book and even the 1954 Disney film, which I love, are plotless. And that's not a bad thing. It's the way a lot of books were written at the time.
They're very episodic.
I used to call it "Rub a dub dub, four men in a sub-we're just gonna travel around and look at all the pretty fish." That's pretty much the entire narrative of the story. Now obviously it's brilliant, but there is no real story. I had to create a story, so what I did-what I tried to do as best I could-was get in the mind of Jules Verne. Okay, so if Jules Verne were alive and well and were assigned to adapt his own novel into a movie, how would he do that? I used a lot of Indian mythology, Indian being India, because Captain Nemo as revealed in The Mysterious Island, was an Indian prince. So fresh off my work at Pacific and my study of Hinduism, I used a lot of Indian mythology with Nemo and his backstory and his ultimate plot. He wasn't just cruising around under the sea for the heck of it. He had something he was actually up to. I incorporated Indian mythology, and specifically the Indian god Shiva-who coincidentally is related to Poseidon, who is Percy Jackson's father.
It all comes back around. Maybe next you can do Gilgamesh.
Yeah-that'd tie in as well.
Who would you like to see as Nemo?
My dream casting for Nemo was Naveen Andrews. I was watching a lot of Lost at the time I was writing it because I always envisioned him as Nemo and Josh Holloway as Ned Land.
Well, after this last season, they won't have anything to do.
Exactly, it's perfect timing. Bring them back, get the gang back together. JJ Abrams can direct.
How do you think Sam Raimi pictures the tone of it? Does he see it as a vintage homage or more like a raw action film?
I think the tone is very much Pirates of the Caribbean, which is my favorite tone and they didn't invent it. It goes back to like Gunga Din in the late '30s and Indiana Jones in the '80s, that mix of high adventure and fun with a smart, credible plot. I think that is very much the tone: just make it a lot of fun and get it out of the submarine, so there are a lot of stops along the way. Some land adventure as well, because we don't want to make a movie that's claustrophobic and takes place entirely in a submarine. Then it's Crimson Tide or Das Boot. I really wanted to make it a big, high adventure.
So what's next for you?
I'm kind of circling some things. Working on some pitches. I actually took some time off during the buildup to the release of Percy to make some progress on my dissertation so I can get that off my plate and be Dr. Titley. Which sounds somewhat pornographic, but I can't help that. So yeah, I'm just looking for the next project that's going to excite me.
Are you going to be one of the only doctors in Hollywood screenwriting?
There's gotta be somebody somewhere, maybe somebody who was a doctor beforehand and went off to write screenplays. But I think I might be the first screenplay writer who became a doctor during the process, and not for the reason of changing careers. I don't know that it helps my career because I think at the end of the day, it's whether you can write or not. But I always thought it would be fun after I get my PhD to do something really lame, like See Spot Run 6, or The Ghost of Mr. Partypants by Craig Titley, PhD. I thought that would be really funny.