Christopher Monfette discusses his career, Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, and the film Abattoir

"The piece of advice I give to new or aspiring really bred from that experience: Put yourself where lightning can strike"

Christopher Monfette began his writing career as a journalist for IGN and G4. Instead of becoming a superhero like Peter Parker and Clark Kent, he got into writing comic books, then television, and now film. His TV credits include Syfy’s 12 Monkeys and he wrote the screenplay for the upcoming horror movie Abattoir. Wanting to learn more about his career and his work, Monfette allowed me to interview him for ScifiPulse.

To learn more Christopher Monfette’s projects, you can follow him on twitter at @cwmonfette.

Nicholas Yanes: When did you know that you wanted to become a professional writer? Was there a specific story you think pushed you the most in this direction?

Christopher Monfette: Books are really the gateway drug to being a writer and I used to read constantly growing up. I remember getting into genre fiction fairly young – Stephen King’s Eyes of the Dragon and Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always were good “young-adult” entry points at the time. But The Stand and Imajica followed pretty quickly. I apparently had a thing for books that were taller than me. I started dabbling in short stories – when you’re a kid, you write five pages and feel like you’ve finished a novel – but it wasn’t until later that I started reading stage-plays and screenplays. Those were the Miramax days of indie cinema; television was becoming more long-form, more cinematic.

As much as I loved writing a great, complex paragraph, I had an obsession with dialogue. I was in love with writers like Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, Tarantino – and soon after, folks like Joss Whedon appeared and suddenly that stylized, rhythmic, intensely clever writing was being reflected in the genres I grew up loving. I think over the last several years – you see shows like Breaking Bad, Mr. Robot, Fargo – and while they’re all essentially dramas, they feel like genre. They’re written and created by folks who’ve mastered those two languages. They incorporate all the strange, quirky, often powerful ingredients of writing that I love.

Yanes: You spent a few years an entertainment journalist. How do you think that experience helped you become a writer? Was just the opportunity to professional network, or was there something more?

Monfette: Pop culture lead me to writing and writing lead me back to pop culture. I always dreamt of being a writer, a director, but that more realistic part of myself was always in search of angle that would – at the very least – keep me in the realm of what I loved. I wasn’t built for the 9-to-5, punch-the-clock day-job. I’m terrible at it. And so I spent five, six years with an extraordinary group of colleagues thinking and writing critically about the landscape of our industry, our culture. Was it intended as networking? No. Was it? Absolutely. I never would’ve met Clive Barker – who basically handed me my start as a “professional” writer – were it not for my job as a journalist.

The piece of advice I give to new or aspiring writers – on the rare, rare occasion that I’m asked for it — is really bred from that experience: Put yourself where lightning can strike. Beyond that initial spark of talent or ability, so much of success is pure, utter, holy-shit luck. You can’t control it, you can’t manufacture it – you’ll spend most of your time waiting and hoping for it – but lightning will never strike you in-doors. You can only control what you write and where you position yourself.  I positioned myself at the edges of a world I wanted to be a part of – in a place I would’ve been genuinely happy to stay – and I hoped that the tide would somehow pull me ashore.  And through luck and hard-work and (some?) skill, it eventually did.

Yanes: Now that you’ve been on both sides, what do you think many entertainment journalists don’t understand about writing for television and film?

Monfette: I think it’s less about understanding and more about empathy. Most journalists I know are incredibly knowledgeable about the particulars of the business – there’s very little they don’t broadly understand. But it’s impossible to really convey the experience of living and breathing in a writer’s room second-hand. It’s an intensely emotional thing. It’s collaborative, competitive, joyful, heated, hilarious, uplifting, disappointing, rewarding – all often in the span of an hour!

Film writing is a bit more individual; you’re more of an island.  All the people in the room are basically in your head. Then you start to fold in the realities of creating and producing something – why this scene is great, why this scene is less-than, why this super important thing got cut or why this really stupid thing got included – or how this simple, ordinary scene was elevated by 100 craftspeople who made it far better than I (or we) ever wrote it.

Yanes: You went from comic book writing to television. What are some ways that comic book writing prepared you for TV writing?

Monfette: Visual and episodic thinking. Knowing the story you’re trying to tell over so many chapters, then figuring out where to begin and end each chapter so that it feels, itself, like a story. Writing comics – Hellraiser most of all – taught me a lot about directing. Because you’re not simply writing abstract action, you’re dictating the content of each panel. You form a sense of what images are required to convey each idea or suggest every action. So to sit on a film set or a TV set and have a sense of what pieces you need to tell the story is hugely helpful.

Yanes: You have written a few episodes of 12 Monkeys. What is that process like and how do you think it has improved you as a writer?

Monfette: As for the process? See above. As for how it’s improved me? Immeasurably. You can’t be exposed ten hours a day to a roomful of such brilliant, fantastic minds and not be made better. The writers on 12 Monkeys aren’t just wonderful men and women, they’re exceptionally skilled storytellers. I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve accomplished and I couldn’t be more thankful for what they’ve taught me.

Yanes: You are the writer behind the upcoming movie Abattoir. What was the inspiration for this story?

Monfette: Abattoir was based on a comic series created by Darren Bousman for Radical Publishing. I’ve known Darren for years, so when he came to me with the project, it was too great a concept not to explore. That notion of how one might build – might physically construct — a haunted house just felt so unique. And that Darren wanted to approach it as a kind of anachronistic, modern film-noir was another insanely meaty challenge to tackle.

Yanes: While developing this story, did you do any research on murder homes?

Monfette: I didn’t really dive into the world of murder homes too deeply, largely because I didn’t want to borrow too liberally. We tried to come up with our own set of visuals and grisly circumstances that feel unique to the look and tone of the film.

Yanes: How does it feel to see a story you’ve worked on come to life on screen? Were there any moments in the script that hit you the most while watching the film?

Monfette: Mostly, it’s humbling. To see a series of words that you typed on a page be produced by a small army of craftsmen – be acted – be edited – be scored – and ultimately be made better and more meaningful is a deeply affecting thing. With Abattoir, just watching Lin Shaye bring that character to life was an absolute joy. She’s such a thoughtful, instinctual actress and a sincerely kind person. With 12 Monkeys, it’s the entire cast. Each of these men and women is a perfectly tuned instrument in some exceptional orchestra. To write a few notes for each them, it’s an honor.

Yanes: When people finish watching Abattoir, what feeling do you hope they leave with?
Monfette: Abattoir was never meant to be a traditional film. It’s a weird little neo-noir, haunted house, Wicker-Man thing. So I hope that when the credits roll, people say to themselves, “Well, I’d never really seen that before.” Like it, love it or hate it. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to get a number of positive, enthusiastic responses from folks who loved the movie and connected to its originality.

Yanes: Finally, are there any projects that you are working on that people can look forward to?
Monfette: We’re hard at work on the third season of 12 Monkeys – which, I can honestly say, is shaping up to be something incredibly special – and there’s a very cool film project I’m attached to that hopefully we’ll be able to discuss soon. Good things on the horizon for 2017!

To learn more Christopher Monfette’s projects, you can follow him on twitter at @cwmonfette.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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