|Cumberbatch As Alan Turing / Daily Mail|
Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do in high school?
Not really. I played a lot of music. I was in a couple of bands. I played guitar and I sang. We were never any good, but it was a fun thing. I played through and after college, when I was a sound engineer. But my sensibility now is still informed by being in bands – the collaborative work. Quite consciously I think back to how much I miss, and long for that sort of collaboration.
Because writing can be so solitary?
Because writing can be so solitary and that’s my least favorite part about writing. But I think that finding ways of writing that aren’t solitary or feel less solitary is a great goal.
Did you think you were going to go into music?
There was this big question of whether I was going to go to college, or was I going to stay in Chicago and play music. My father actually really wanted me to stay.
That’s a nice unexpected turn.
My father is a funny guy. He didn’t think it was worth it. My mother said, well, apply to a couple of places and just see how you feel. So I only applied to colleges in New York and U.T. Austin – those were the only two cities I could see myself living in because they had a lot of bands, and they seemed cool. Honestly my impressions were largely from television and records. They looked glamorous in that wonderfully grimy way. So when I got into Columbia, my mother put her foot down. “You’re going.”
Were you a big reader in high school?
I read a lot. I lived really far apart from my friends, so I had a lot of time on trains and buses. I still get a lot of work done on planes. There’s something really nice about not having any internet, no one’s calling, no one’s texting. It’s just you and the thing. I get very nervous about the people next to me, but other than that, I enjoy being so focused.
Flying is so romantic, and writing is a romantic act.
I think so. There’s something about the concentration required and flying helps with that.
What were the big books for you? And what were the big albums for you?
I love mystery novels. I literally learned to read by reading Agatha Christie. When I was a kid, I had a terrible time learning.
Are you dyslexic?
No, I think I was just bad at it. A teacher asked my mother to spend more time reading with me at home and so, for whatever reason, it was Agatha Christie that she and I would read at night, back and forth. I would read a page, and pass it to her, then she would read and pass it back to me. We would stay up late reading while my younger brother was asleep. Those are my first memories of reading, those are my first memories of caring about books and stories. Everything I’m working tends to come out like a murder mystery, even when it’s not supposed to. It’s what I was seeped in. The Poiroit series were my favorite, growing up. I dressed as Hercule Poirot for Halloween three or four years in a row. I had the little glue-on moustache, I would part my hair.
Did you consider the dangerous possibility that someone could mistake you as Fancy Hitler?
I remember going around the neighborhood and people clearly thinking, “Who is this? Who is this nine year-old dressed as Belgian detective?”
What records were you listening to?
It was Chicago in the 90s, so that meant the Smashing Pumpkins, that meant Wilco -- long debates with my friends about Urge Overkill. To be in Chicago in the 90s meant that you either really loved Urge Overkill or really couldn’t stand them.
And where did you fall on that line?
Then I could not stand them and now that I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to appreciate the majesty of it.
It got to you!
It got to me later. I did not understand it in high school. I think I had the opposite response that people in the mid-west are supposed to have.
You were delightfully contrarian.
Even then, I did not like the things that someone was obviously supposed to like. I got to see Hum, they’re from Champagne, a lot, a bunch of mid-western bands.
If you try to sell yourself on your expertise, you limit yourself. There’s only so much a person can be an expert on. But if you present yourself as someone who is ignorant and curious, you have no limitations. That’s what I like about what we do. I don’t know anything, but I like finding it out.
I feel so lucky to spending my days going off and learning about things I don’t know anything about, and talking to people who know lots and lots about various subjects and just trying to get them to teach me.
It’s a good place to get to when you can enjoy how ignorant you are.
It’s scary. I work a lot in historical fiction and it’s always scary when I’m going to show my work to someone who is an expert and is like, “You are totally full of shit.” You have to welcome that, “You are right. Please help me fix this and show me what I can do to crack this.”
You had your academic life and your music life, and they ran parallel to each other. Did they every intersect?
Only in terms of my group of friends who I would work with in both worlds. I wasn’t very invested in school. My grades were perfectly acceptable, but nothing to write home about. I knew at the time I was just there to pick up some interesting things, but it didn’t really matter. Every now and then there was a twinge of “Maybe I would want to go to grad school?” and perhaps fortunately, the week after graduation, someone broke into my apartment and stole my laptop that had everything I had ever written in college on it. It was actually kind of freeing – I mean, I hadn’t e-mailed anything, so it was all just sort of… Gone.
So your academic career vanished.
I was like, “Great! Now I can’t go to grad school!”
What was it about the studio that caught your imagination?
I really loved, and continue to love, working among small groups of very committed people. Now when I’m working in film or tv, some of the hard parts can be when I’m working with a big group. Invariably there will be people who are not very committed to what you’re doing and who don’t care as much, and that is the one thing I have a very hard time dealing with. I love dilettantes, I am one myself, but part of the joy of dilettantism is that when you are doing something that you care about, fully committing. What I loved about the studio and, when I started recording things for other people (because I very quickly learned that I was not a great musician) and that was this process of realizing that I really liked music, but I wasn’t that good at actually playing it, so maybe I shouldn’t play so much and help other people play. And I found very quickly that was just as much, if not more fun.
Because the pressure was off?
Yes, and because I was better at it. I was a better engineer.
What makes a good engineer?
There’s the technical thing of if you know how you want something to sound, making it actually sound that way; the series of knobs and buttons that need to pushed and pulled to make that happen. And then there’s the creative side of, well, how do you want it to sound? And making that decision. It’s the same sort of stuff that you deal with when you write every day. There’s the technical things in writing of how do you physically get the words out in the effect that you’re trying to engender and deciding what effect you’re going for. One side is not easier than the other, they’re both really difficult. On the engineering side I could get through the technical side well enough so that I could get the sounds I wanted, but then I had a lot of fun working with musicians to get to that point.
Who were you working with at the time?
It was a lot of friends, no names you would probably recognize. I think the first record we did was a band called Gold Streets.
When I spoke to Suzanne Joskow, we talked a lot about how she spent her weeks working trying to get so-called “legitimate” projects made, but on the weekends she would produce tiny things just so she get stuff actually done. Not to always knock the big studios. It makes sense that this is how they work, they have to keep projects in the realm of the hypothetical for as long as possible because as long as it’s hypothetical, no one is going to cash their check.
At the end of the day there are lots of people who are really good plate spinners. They’re playing the game so well, and they’re making a ton of money, and they’re happy. And I’m happy for them that they have found something that fulfills them, but it’s not something that would make me happy.
What do you like about research?
On a personal level I like learning about stuff I know nothing about.
I like the school supplies.
Friends will make fun of my diorama phase, when I’m just making arts and crafts projects every day. It’s just a procrastination tool. I get colored highlighters and colored pens, and cards.
But there’s no judging of process. That’s why it’s so great.
I keep vowing to cut out the arts and crafts phase.
No! It’s integral. It’s why I got into this. The school supplies.
It’s a pretty good deal. I wear a tie every day, so I’m always sitting at my desk, wearing a tie, glueing things to other things. It looks ridiculous. I’ll do these things with colors and someone will come by and ask what they mean and I’ll realize that I don’t remember. Why are those scenes yellow?
Did you think of yourself as a writer before? Did you think of yourself as a writer after? Do you even think of yourself as a writer now?
I think the other theme of this conversation is constant quitting. I still think about quitting. I still think, maybe I’m not good at this. So no, I don’t feel like a real writer. It was cool to have an editor who had worked with writers I had respected. And the fact that 12 put money behind it, I mean, I had never had a marketing budget. I’m actually in a position where I could lose money for a corporation. I mean, what corporation would ever be dumb enough to put money behind me and my silly ideas that I wrote in my bedroom on 139th street? I’ve never had any sort of binary experience where I went from feeling like I hadn’t made it, and then I had, or went from feeling like a failure and then I felt like a success. There’s no button for that, no on/off switch.
It would be so much easier if there were. I mean, I go back and forth in a single day.
Exactly. I mean, by what measure, by what standard. You’ve done a lot of really cool stuff, you have your books, you have what you’re doing here. But there’s also stuff that you want to do in the future, and I know there are other things that you haven’t written yet. So you’re not going to feel good until you’ve written them, right?
Yes. Yes. Internal and external versions of expectations and validation is a constant battle, especially when you’re still trying to convince the outside world that you can do.
I mean, I’m still trying to convince my parents that I have a real job.
Can you speak to that? Where are your parents on this when you’re on a t.v. show, and sell a book, or as you are now, about to head off on production for your first feature?
The book really mattered a lot to them, they took that really seriously. To date, the movie stuff I think they think is still imaginary. I’m leaving next week to go to London to shoot my first movie that I wrote and I’m on the phone with my mother and I said, “If you want to come visit, you can come to set.” And her response is, “There’s going to be a set? With a crew?” It’s a real movie! Famous people are in it! It’s not just me and my friends.
Everyone in my family are artists, so in a family of artists you get gold stars, the work goes on the fridge, as they say, until you’re like… nine. And then you get notes.
Did that hit very early on for you? That the A for Effort stops short?
Yes. But I’m grateful that they know what I’m talking about when I’m talking about my work. I’m grateful that I have parents who are in the creative world, they’re not what I would call, though I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense, they’re not what I would call civilians. They understand the imaginative struggle. Your parents are civilians. How much energy do you spend trying to get them to understand what you do?
They’ve learned there’s not going to be a point where this is my job, this is my career and it’s set. There’s no such thing as steadily employed forever and ever in these fields.
That’s what Suzanne Joskow said. Her parents want a level of career stability that you can only really get when you’re tenured at MIT and you’ve been there for nearly four decades. This business is project is project, and any time what you’re working on could fall part.
You hope that people will continue to hire you. You’re only working until you’re done and then you’re unemployed again. Especially on the sorts of things that I’ve worked on: specs (speculative) scripts and books. I wrote my first book without a contract and now I’m writing my second book without a contract. Having a deadline is great. My second book has taken at least a year longer than we thought it would, and part of that is getting distracted by film work, and partly because I knew I didn’t have a deadline. But I still wonder if people will like it at all.
Oh, I don’t think that part ever goes away.
Of course. But I still hope that someone wants to publish it, because no one has to. No one’s obligated, no one’s spent a dime. I hope I’ll write a third book, but I’ll figure that out later.
The day ["The Sherlockian"] came out, I went to the Barnes and Nobles down the block from where I was staying in Manhattan and there it was, in New Releases section, at eye level.
Great placement, thanks to everyone at 12 Publishing. Randomly a friend of mine who was in the Peace Corp in Benin, West Africa, calls me on my cell phone to catch up and I said, “Hey man, I’m in this bookstore and my book is here for the first time.” He’d bought a bunch of minutes for his cell phone – in Benin – and he said, “I’ll stay on the phone with you, let’s do this together, watching people go by.” So I sat with him for 45 minutes while he’s idly telling me about life in Benin, while I’m narrating every person who walks by and looks at my book, squints at it, and then walks away. I remember one lady picked it up, thumbed through it a little bit, made a face, put it back, and walked away again. I sat there until the security guard kicked me out for setting my iced coffee down on one of the display things.
Did you say, “Do you know who I am?”
Yeah, I said, that’s my book! And he said, “You can’t put your iced coffee there,” and then I left, because I was so embarrassed. That was my day. Seeing it do well made me think, oh, well, okay, maybe I can do this?
And you’re about to leave for London—
Because the Alan Turning movie is being shot with Benedict Cumberbatch, the internet’s favorite being.
Favorite Sherlock! We are full circle!
I am waiting for him to realize that I had a Sherlock Holmes book – we have not talked about it.
That’ll be awkward. What are you excited about when it comes to production? What are you scared?
I have never been on a movie set before. I’ve never visit one? How many have you been on? Hundreds?
Do you have any advice?
I think the only real rule of being on a set is to be nice and to stay out of people’s way – they’re working. My favorite part is that it’s like joining the circus -- everyone has a story. I like to find a quiet moment and ask people for their stories. On set you have a much clearer idea of just how many people it takes to make a movie -- and you're not even seeing the accountants and lawyers and production designers and costume assistants. But everyone has a story and more often than not it’s the people who don’t have the “glamorous” jobs who work the most and have the best ones. But really, just turn off your phone and don’t stand in front of the monitor. Never stand in front of the monitor.
I think as we’ve gotten closer and closer to production, I’m more and more aware of the difference between writing a script and making a movie. I’m more aware and more aware every day, of what a small part of the process writing that script is.