Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Catching Up With Christine Boylan '99


Christine Boylan majored in both English and drama as a Hofstra undergraduate. She was very involved with the drama program, both on stage and behind the scenes. She was also on the staffs of Font (Hofstra’s literary magazine), Nonsense and The Chronicle. Following graduation, she received a Fulbright grant and studied at the Ludwig-Maximilians Universit├Ąt in Munich, Germany. She used the grant to prepare for a career in English scholarship, studying the work of Hans Walter Gabler on James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Although she says the Fulbright was an enlightening experience, her professional plans changed when two of her former professors submitted a play she wrote to the Samuel French Festival. Subsequent events led her on a creative journey that has included working in theater, for DC Comics and now two television series. Boylan is the executive story editor on the TNT series Leverage and a writer for the new ABC series Off the Map. In fall 2010 she married screenwriter Eric Heisserer, whose credits include A Nightmare on Elm Street (2009), The Thing (a prequel to the John Carpenter film) and Final Destination Five, both scheduled for release in 2011.

To what do you attribute your successful
writing career?
I’ve adopted two habits that have helped me in my career. The first has to do with practicing my craft as much as possible. I have been writing, in one form or another, since I was a child. At some point in my 20s, I realized that I would be writing for the rest of my life. It’s a healthy compulsion. Needing to write means you crank out a lot of pages, and practicing your craft that much means that you may eventually be good enough to do it as a career.

The second habit is working with many different kinds of people – the dramatic arts are, after all, collaborative. Even before you have the luxury to choose which jobs to take and which to turn down, take every job you can, even the weird ones, because you will always learn something when you work with someone new.

What were the interests you had as a student and following graduation that helped you find your way professionally?
I read comic books as a kid, mainly superhero books and Archie, of course. When I was a teenager the whole Vertigo revolution changed “grown up” comics [Editor’s note: Vertigo is an imprint of DC Comics geared toward a mature audience]. I devoured books like Sandman, Hellblazer, and Lucifer – these hit me at a time when I was studying playwrights and novelists, and the larger themes overlapped quite a bit of the time. They were profoundly influential for me. After I graduated from Hofstra, I had a Fulbright grant in Munich, Germany. Two things brought me back to New York to pursue a writing career: [Associate Professor of Drama and Dance] Jean Dobie Giebel and [Associate Professor of English] Erik Brogger had submitted one of my one-act plays to the Samuel French Festival, and it received a production off-off-Broadway. That was a huge turning point — participating in that production and hearing my words spoken in a real New York theater.

That changed everything, and there was no going back for me. I spent many intervening years as a reader and development assistant. I worked for film producers and Broadway producers and ingested a steady diet of good, bad and indifferent plays and screenplays. I also worked as a theater critic for several small papers, which allowed me to see professional shows for free and gave me an opportunity to think critically about not just the play, but all aspects of the production. None of this work paid very much, but it was all essential to learning about dramatic writing. Eventually I moved to Los Angeles. I had written a spec script that won the TV competition at the Austin Film Festival, and used the prize money to move to the West Coast. At that time I got involved with Tokyopop, doing English adaptations of Japanese manga [a type of Japanese comic]. That job was essentially giving characters distinct voices and condensing long dialogue into pithy chat. It helped me learn about panel flow and sequential storytelling. Those skills got me a few auditions at DC Comics. I’ve done some work there, for Superman and The Legion of Super-Heroes. I’ve since done short horror stories for Boom! Studios, original Star Trek comics for Tokyopop and a
Doctor Strange story for Marvel’s Girl Comics series. The comic book appeals to me because there are no budgetary limitations on your imagination — a scene set on a space station costs as much as the interior of a bedroom. Also, like poetry, it’s an exercise in brevity.

What are the pressures and pleasures of
working on a TV series?
Ultimately, all great drama (and comedy) is, at its core, about the human experience. The first show I worked on as a staff writer was Leverage, the TNT series about a group of do-gooding con men and thieves. It’s an absolute pleasure to work on, though crafting a heist or con with the necessary number of twists and turns each week is a bear of a job. I’m currently writing on the first season of a new ABC medical drama called Off the Map, about a team of doctors working with very little resources in a remote town in South America. It’s part romance, part adventure, part medical drama, and the writing and production has been a really great ride so far.

Which Hofstra professors were most
encouraging?
I’ve mentioned Erik Brogger and Jean Giebel – they were integral in coaching me to stick to the dramatic writing path, even when I faced a severe lack of confidence. [Professor of English] Phillip Lopate put up with my pretension and taught me what sophisticated screenwriting was. [English faculty members] Susan Lorsch, Lee Zimmerman and John Bryant taught me to read deeply, and to have high standards when it comes to a work of art. I owe a lot of my career to skills and ideas picked up at Hofstra.

What advice would you give current
students who are aspiring to write
professionally?
Write as much as you can, whether you are being paid or not. I’ve only landed paid gigs when editors, producers, agents or executives read the work I wrote for myself, for free. Next, write the kind of work you want to see. Don’t write what you think other people are looking for. Write the kind of show, movie, play or comic book you would enjoy as an audience member. That’s how you get better at your craft, and that’s how your voice
emerges.

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