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Interview with Alan Dean Foster, Author of Terminator Salvation: The Official Movie Novelization

09/10/2009 05:12 am 05:12:02 | Updated May 25, 2011

Science fiction/fantasy author Alan Dean Foster is known, not only for his prolific genre work, but for a stunning number of major motion picture novelizations, from Alien to Transformers to the newest version of Star Trek. Most recently, he's written the official movie novelization of Terminator: Salvation. I got a chance to interview Foster via email about his process, his uncredited novelization of Star Wars: A New Hope, working with film makers while writing, and his upcoming projects.

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How were you approached about this project? At what point in the film's process were you brought in? Were you a Terminator fan?

As you know, I have something of a reputation for this kind of work. Titan asked me to do the book, and I agreed. As is typical, the film was already barreling toward completion when I was brought in to do the novelization. I enjoyed the first two Terminator films, but I'm more a fan of good cinema than any particular opus.

I've always wondered how much an author of an official movie novelization is given to work with. Was it an outline? A script? If it was a script, how was the action broken down on the page? You have an incredibly extensive history of film novelizations. Did the process differ in any way for Terminator?

You obviously have to have a script to work with in order to do the novelization. An outline would be horribly inadequate. You also hope for supplementary materials such as preproduction art, set stills, even photographs of individual props and sets. Sometimes none of these are available. It depends on how interested the producing entity is interested in the novelization, how far along they are in production, and how paranoid (beyond the typical Hollywood norm) they are. For example, when I was doing Alien, 20th-century Fox refused to show anyone outside the immediate production any pictures of the alien. As you can imagine, this made rendering it in the book more than a little difficult. So in the novelization of Alien there is no description of the alien.

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Author Alan Dean Foster

Did you work with the script writers? Is that your usual style for film novelizations?

Once their contribution is completed, the screenwriters can usually be found sitting on a beach in Cabo or Maui sipping pina coladas and monitoring their stock portfolios on their iPhones. Seriously, they have better (and far more lucrative) things to do than bother about a minor ancillary right like the book.

Did you know who was cast when you were writing?

I knew some of the cast because I was given access to production stills. Obviously this is the kind of thing that is a great help when describing the characters in the book.

How does the process differ from your general writing style?

It doesn't differ at all. I make no distinction in style or approach between an original work and an adaptation. The novelization proceeds more swiftly because the basics are already present.

What sort of NDA (non-disclosure agreement) did you have to sign? Were you allowed any access to the set while the film was in process?

NDA? If I revealed which tooth was missing in which lead characters head, the studio then has the right to drain all the blood from my body (come to think of it, studios do that to writers automatically...it's a given).

NDA's are more important than ever in these days when the bulk of a film's box office is made in the first two weeks. No, I was not given access to the set. Generally the last person a producer wants to see on the set is another writer, even if their oeurve consists of nothing but slogans to be put into fortune cookies. It's probably a wise decision, since writers have this awkward habit of pointing out things like lapses in story continuity, character incongruities, and flat out idiocies. As far as producers are concerned, all writers are afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome.

How much input did the script writers and director McG have during the writing process? Did you send drafts to them or were you given complete freedom?

I had zero contact (unlike on the Star Trek

Who gets to read your work when you're writing?

Nobody. Well, there is this persistent demon I can't seem to shake....

Are there any particular touches that you added that the film makers used?

Producers never (almost never) utilize any suggestions made by the novelizer, or their gardener, or dog walker, or anyone else, for the simple reason that the eagle-eyes at the Writer's Guild make it their true and just business to ensure than any writer who contributes to a film receives payment and/or credit for their contribution, however minor. The fact that such suggestions might improve the finished film is immaterial.

So I hear that when the book was released, there was an alternate ending and that you got to go online and download the film ending after the release. How did that work? Did anyone else have input into the alternative ending?

Remember the example of Alien that I mentioned earlier? The producers wanted to protect their ending until the last possible moment. So I was forced to come up with an ending that would provide a satisfactory finish, but one that also would not contradict their intended wind-up...whatever it might turn out to be. I hope I did that.

I particularly liked your description from the Terminator's perspective. How do you get into the head of a robot?

You have to identify with the character, trite as that may sound. If you're writing from an alien point of view, you have to try and think and perceive like that creature. Robots are much easier.

You're known for you environmental approach to storytelling. How did Terminator fit into your philosophy?

Terminator really has very little to do with the environment. Now what would be interesting would be a film where machines akin to the Terminators regard themselves as the true stewards of the planet, and that's why they go to war with humans.

I know you've been asked this before, but it's been said that you co-wrote the original novelization of Star Wars, which was attributed to George Lucas. Can you tell us a bit about that?

I did not co-write it. I wrote it by myself. George wrote the script, I wrote the novelization, George vetted the result, and Del Rey published it. It was no different from any other novelization project, except that George was utterly unparanoid and I had access to everything...the sets, the props, rough cut material, everything. It was an absolute pleasure. A more innocent time, I think.

What novelizations do you have coming up? What other projects?

You've probably seen the novelizations of Star Trek, and Transformers. At the moment there are no novelizations in the offing... we'll see what the Fall brings. I'm presently finishing up the middle book of a near-future SF trilogy for Del Rey entitled The Tipping Point. The first book, The Human Blend, is finished, and the second, Sick, Inc., nearly so. I'm pausing to write Star Trek: Refugees, the first sequel novel to the new film. And there's a fantasy trilogy set entirely underwater, Oshanurth, that's being read.

Terminator Salvation: The Official Movie Novelization is out now from Titan Books.