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Thrills, Chills, and General Silliness (with Weldon Burge)

Meet Thriller Writer John Gilstrap

Most people know bestselling author John Gilstrap for his thrillers, especially his Jonathan Grave novels (No Mercy, Hostage Zero, High Treason, Damage Control, End Game, Threat Warning). But fewer know that he is also an accomplished screenwriter, writing screen adaptations of novels by Nelson DeMille, Thomas Harris, Norman McLean, and of course his own work. Outside of his writing, John has an extensive background in hazardous waste management, fire behavior, and explosives—knowledge that he has incorporated at times in his fiction.

John welcomed an interview for Suspense Magazine, and I thoroughly enjoyed our Q&A session!

Let’s start with your screenwriting. Your first screenplay was an adaptation of your own novel, Nathan’s Run. Apparently, you knew nothing about screenwriting before taking on the job. Yet you wrote the screenplay in, what, less than a week? What did you do to get up-to-speed on that project?

Two years after I’d sold the movie rights to Nathan’s Run, my film agent at CAA called with the bad news that Warner Bros was putting Nathan’s Run in turn-around—the first in a complex series of steps that generally lead to a movie’s death. All because of script problems. I told my agent that the previous scriptwriters were missing the point of the story; that I could do better, if only given the chance. Important Hollywood Lesson: Be careful what you say.

“Hmm,” my agent said. “Do you think you could do it by next week?” The word “sure” escaped my lips before the filter in my brain had a chance to stop it. Sure I could write a screenplay in a week. Why should I let a little detail like never having seen a screenplay—let alone write one—stand in my way? Bravado, baby.

So, with so little time to deal with the deadline, what did you do?

I dashed out to my local bookstore and picked up a copy of William Goldman’s book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, and read it cover to cover in a day. In it, he’s got the complete script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and when I finished it, I thought I had a handle on this screenwriting thing, so I started writing. Three days later, I had a completed script for Nathan’s Run.

Wow, three days? How did it go over?


My agent loved it. The executives at Warner Bros. loved it—enough to pull it out of turn-around and back into active development. But best of all, I had a decent writing sample for my agent to shop around Hollywood, in search of additional screenwriting work. And, of course, Nathan’s Run is back in turn-around, where it has languished for 20 years now.

You’ve also adapted the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean, and Thomas Harris. I can’t imagine taking an 800-page DeMille novel and squeezing it into a two-hour movie. Can you share a little bit about your adaptation process?

The first thing a screenwriter needs to remember—and it wouldn’t hurt for authors to remember this, too—is that a film adaptation of a book is an entirely different work of art than the book from which it is adapted. As a screenwriter, my job is to tell an engaging story on the screen that captures the feel and the throughline of story I’m adapting. It’s much easier to do with an author like Thomas Harris because Red Dragon, the book I adapted, is written very cinematically. That is to say it’s written with a scene structure that lends itself to direct adaptation.

With an author like DeMille, whose stories are less structured with lots of flashbacks and character development—all of which add page count—tougher decisions have to be made. The book of his that I adapted, Word of Honor, was very long, and while very rich in detail (DeMille is one of my favorite authors), there were a number of plot lines, mostly dealing with protesting the Vietnam War, that had lost their social relevance, so those were fairly simple to excise.
I guess what I’m saying is, it’s a balancing act.

Joe Lansdale’s novel, Savage Seasons, was recently produced as a TV series, Hap and Leonard, for Sundance TV. Would you consider writing a short-run series of one of your books for television?

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