21 December 2010

Interview with Nate Zoebl

Scenes from Our Town Attacked by Zombies, feat.
the Historian and Stage Manager, and of course,
zombies. Photos (c) Nate Zoebl.
Here is a long-awaited interview with my fellow writer Nate Zoebl. As a recap, he adapted Thornton Wilder's Our Town by unleashing a horde of zombies on Grover's Corners. The idea for this zombie attack came from Eric Muller, a fellow friend and creative accomplice, and our alma mater Capital University was happy to premiere the production under the direction of Dr. Dan Heaton. I was lucky to see the script in advance, and then even luckier to see the show when it was performed. Hooray!

I asked Nate a whole slew of questions ranging from the production itself, what it felt like to collaborate, when an author gives and receives credit, and about the current trend of zombifying literature. Interesting viewpoints and discussions await you!

How did you and Eric come up with the idea to adapt Our Town? Were you familiar with the work previously? Did you consider other famous works to zombify? Were you only thinking about zombies or were you considering other creatures?

My friend Eric Muller came to me one day and proposed a mash-up -- Our Town with zombies. I loved the idea because of the imaginary staging of the Our Town play, which would allow for all sorts of dramatic irony where the audience knows everything because we can see all, but the characters do not.

Plus, Our Town is all about the death and remembrance and most of Act 3 takes place with people who are dead. It seemed like a zombie mash-up made artistic sense and would hold some internal logic. From there the idea percolated in my head for a couple months before I decided to do something about it. I re-read Our Town, which I didn't care for in high school, and began taking notes as I read, underlining sections I might want to reuse. I hacked a lot of the script out (it's about 80% new material).

Then the plot really all came out after one night. I drew a crude outline of the stage, determined which characters would be stationed at which house, and literally just began writing an outline from there. It seems in retrospect like I was possessed. Ten days or so after beginning that drawing the play was complete. My wife didn't see much of me during that creative binge. I passed it along to several friends, one of them being Dan Heaton. Secretly I was hoping that Dr. Heaton would read it and immediately say, "This, this is what should be my next play! We need to perform this." Months later, he e-mailed me and we hashed out potential legal avenues with it being an "experimental parody" and then he decided that he did indeed want to direct Our Town ... Attacked by Zombies as his first show of 2010.

How did the collaborative process work? Do you have any advice for writers in terms of collaboration (give and take, who gets credit, the process itself)?

Our process so far consists of Eric and myself throwing ideas at one another, sticking some together, and usually I go off and write by myself and then come back and he gives notes, and we repeat the process. I find that I have a hard time getting started with projects but once I find that creative groove I can go into a little hibernation mode and write away. I don't really have any advice when it comes to collaboration because each collaboration will be different depending upon the people involved and the idea involved. For Our Town, it was less a collaboration than our previous efforts. Eric gave me the idea and I ran with it.

I would normally ask his advice but I finished the whole thing in one quick swoop and felt so strongly about it that I didn't feel major revisions were needed.

Credit can be an issue whenever there are multiple people that helped bring forth an idea to fruition. Whenever I have collaborated with someone I tend to give them equal credit regardless of their contributions. I also put their names first even under circumstances where I wrote, say, 70% of s script. It's a small thing to do and it really is no skin off my nose what order the writers are positioned in.

However, with Our Town, I was conflicted. I credited Eric with conceiving the idea but I truly felt like it was a one-man creative binge and felt like I needed to properly credit only myself for the writing. In a way it made me feel like a dick but I also feel like the credit is warranted.

Did you use other sources for your material (such as zombie movies, new zombie lit, etc)? What were your influences?
Mama and The Preacher from  Our Town Attacked
by Zombies. 
Photo (c) Nate Zoebl

I'd say movies, in particular survival horror, has influenced the play the most. The play is meant to be deconstructive but also somewhat reverent. I will not fancy myself a double for Thornton Wilder, but I tried to replicate his tone and characters, so hopefully nothing stands out too much as a distraction.

My intent was to re-open the play for an examination, a fun "what if" scenario, but I also wanted to make this a sly parody of action/horror movies, and you should find little moments that seem familiar, from the person hiding their bite to the one-liner quips and comic relief sidesteps.

I never wanted to rub people's noses in it, though, so I wanted everything to come across as credible and not in danger of breaking tone. I went through the play and thought, which characters would break under this situation? Who would rise up as a leader? Who would try and deny the reality? Who would take advantage of fear? I really wanted to keep all of the character actions grounded in their motivation and behavior established by the play.

All of the character deaths align with the deaths in Wilder's work, though I must say I did slay many more supporting characters (I did make up two new supporting characters just to kill them). Part of the fun was finding out how to get to the same points under a wildly different scenario. I'm quite please with how everything plays together and flows. I won't make this sound like it's this grand analytical piece of literature, but I'd like to believe there's more thought in it than just having a character throw a gun over their shoulder and say, "Let's waste these bitches!"

What was your favorite part to write and see performed? How about the most challenging part to write and perform?

My favorite part of watching Our Town was just trying to dissolve within the audience and capture as many reactions as possible. Hearing people laugh, cheer, and even cry at parts was intensely rewarding knowing that something I wrote is having such an impact on people. It's flattering to know that an audience is engaging with your work, and it's nice to know that when people are satisfied with your plot structure and character dynamics.

The most challenging part to write was figuring out how the hell they were all going to sneak out of the home with zombies everywhere. That probably gummed up my creative momentum for a couple days. I literally drew a map and started plotting different scenarios that would connect the dots and get to the ending that I had always desired. Also, I quickly ran out of turn-of-the-century colloquialisms for exclamations and interjections.

Emily Webb and George Gibbs from Our Town
Attacked by Zombies. Photo
(c) Nate Zoebl
Do you think horror has a place in theater? Do you see this as an area for potential growth? What type of subject matter would a theater audience prefer over a film audience, or do you see no distinction?

I think horror, just like any other genre, has a place in theater. Horror succeeds on atmosphere and tension, fearing the unknown. It's a more difficult prospect with theater given that the audience sees and hears all. you can't really just have a cat jump out set to a loud bang on the soundtrack. But really horror is about dreading what will befall your characters, and I don't see why that can't happen regularly in the environment of a theater stage. I think a theater audience is already gauged to have a different experience than that of a film, though the lines are blurring. Theater audiences will be more patient and accepting of a dialogue-heavy format, but at the same time they want to be entertained.

I don't think you're decrying the "theat-tah" when you actually want to entertain your audience. Pacing and editing can be an issue. With Our Town, once the zombies hit at like minute 35, there is something happening every couple minutes. It keeps you on your toes. In that regard, I think it feels more like a screenplay in style and structure. This is probably because I have written ten screenplays before and am an ardent lover of film and film analysis.

What do you think about the current trend in "monstrifying" literature? Are there any monsters you are sick of? What would you like to see tackled next? How quickly do you see this trend dying? What are the challenges of this trend?

I think it's a fun and creative way to spice up classic works of literature as long as there's some kind of logic to the pairing. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies made sense as the zombies became just another "unmentionable" item of proper Victorian society. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, not so much. I think it all rests with the idea. If the idea doesn't have some connection to the source material than it simply becomes a gimmick. But the monster + classic lit equation will probably be run into the ground and become a cheap and hollow ploy to sell old catalogs of titles soon enough. Personally, I've had enough with vampires; at least these New Agey touchy-feely vampires.

I completely agree with you. So, do you have any up-and-coming projects you'd like to tell us about?

I have a few irons in the fire in different forms. I just completed an edited DVD of the show to give to cast and crew and every single person I know as a Christmas present. I have a long gestating screenplay I am co-writing called Bob the Antichrist (it' a religious satire). And I imagine it won't be long before Eric and I write a sketch or something to film.

There's also a TV show I've co-written and directed for years that I'd like to finish up a new batch of episodes if I can persuade my co-writers/stars to be as involved in it as they could. If not, there's another locally produced TV comedy that has made inroads asking for assistance with direction.

Everyone has been asking for the last month, "What's your next play?" I have no response. This is my first. I mostly write scripts and screenplays. That's probably why the show has the feel for a screenplay. This was the first idea I thought would play well in the environment of theater. My next play will happen whenever I get another idea I think would succeed in that environment. Who knows when that will be.


Nathan Zoebl is a graduate of Capital University and has been writing stories and making movies since he was a wee little child. He's written several screenplays, ten years of film reviews, stories, articles, and scripts for a TV show he co-writes and directs with his friends, The Edwin J. Hill Social Club. He's also written several religious-related parody videos for church groups, and is a proud first-time playwright with Our Town Attacked by Zombies. You can see more of his work (including some award-winning independent shorts!) here.

Since this post's original publication date, more wonderful things have happened for Nate and his writing: his screenplay Keeping Time was recently picked up at Cannes by Bon Aire Productions and his current work, the romantic comedy web series The Boyfriend Project, has wrapped the first season and will be available for viewing soon.