Izzy Ezagui is a decorated soldier who has transitioned from battlefields to public speaking and writing. Ian Blake Newhem is an experienced ghost writer who has won awards for firefighting. Together, they founded 15 Digits, LLC and are currently developing a dystopian drama with Council Tree Productions called IRL (In Real Life). Wanting to learn more about their backgrounds and IRL, I’m grateful that they have allowed me to interview them for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved experiencing? Are there any that you still enjoy revisiting?
Ian Blake Newhem & Izzy Ezagui: The thing you have to understand about Izzy is that he was a huge nerd. HUGE. You have to picture him alone in his Miami bedroom at 10, 11, 12 devouring the entire Animorphs series – all 64 books – and getting pissed off at the authors for taking so damn long between volumes. You can imagine the girl trouble (i.e. no girls) that ensued and continues as the bane of Izzy’s existence. Ian, on the other hand, was an entirely different kind of nerd. The kind who memorized Whitman poems at 10, 11, and 12 – imagine the boy trouble – and eventually became an English professor, specializing in Chaucer and Milton. We both like good stories, still, but Ian tends to favor literary and lyrical, and Izzy the popular and penetrating. We both strive for high-concept, but resonant. Working together is a nonstop struggle toward the middle way—solid stories, indelible characters, several levels, an element of surreality, and our number one rule: Never Boring.
Yanes: When did you two know that you wanted to professional write as part of your careers?
Newhem & Ezagui: We’re a mixed bag: a jaded veteran (Ian), and an enthusiastic newbie (Izzy). Izzy’s inclination to write, at least, professionally, is still relatively nascent. When he completed his service in the Israeli military six years ago, he was compelled to write about that adventure—a rough and inspiring one. He hooked up with Ian to write that book (Disarmed, which drops in March, 2018 from Prometheus). But he figured that, once the book was finished, he could leave writing behind. Yet here we are. The experience of working with each other was so rewarding and mutually beneficial, we launched several other writing projects, and took the big leap together to Hollywood. It’s a natural progression for Ian, who won his first writing contest in the second grade and hasn’t stopped since.
Yanes: Ian, you have been a ghost writer for years. How did this experience help you become a better author?
Newhem: Nothing in my long career has proven more valuable than the decision I made on a cult compound in Oklahoma (long story) to ghost my first book. First of all, all writing’s good practice for every other kind of writing, so you can’t go wrong dedicating your life to it. If you can get paid – and there’s lots of lucre in ghosting – you’re golden. Then I’d say that the industry insistence that most nonfiction be structured prescriptively has helped out a lot in other genres. My space is articulating and organizing authors’ books. Those skills are totally transferable into screenwriting. But the big secret is that a person’s real life story, before it’s told, while it’s told, and after it’s told, remains fiction. What I mean is, you can write up someone’s life, accomplishments, and missions, in infinite ways. The lens through which you look, the tone you choose, the points of view you adopt, and all the elements in their life you select to write about—all that requires the same exact mechanisms as fiction. You start with a blank page. By the end you’ve got a life or a message or some prescription for something. In between is all storytelling.
Yanes: Izzy, your military background is incredibly impressive. How do you feel this experience has shaped your approach to storytelling?
Ezagui: I discovered that discipline is half the battle. I learned how to tap a far deeper well, to not only go on, but prosper in ways I couldn’t have imagined before a mortar took my arm. I learned the importance of humor, especially the self-deprecating kind. I learned about heroism. Certainly not my own, but that of all soldiers. I learned that heroism isn’t always of the Chris Kyle or Marcus Luttrell variety. People become heroes in their own lives and those of others in far subtler but much more important ways. Also, I think an ongoing theme for me is how we’re all our worst enemies. The hero of any story must face adversaries – the antagonists – but the hardest to overcome is the one you’ve got inside.
Yanes: You two are currently developing a show called IRL (In Real Life). What is the elevator pitch/logline for this project?
Newhem & Ezagui: We started pitching with the logline “The Walking Dead with kids. And no zombies.” Seemed to work pretty well. Now industry people are saying things like, “An LGBTQ Lord of the Flies.” That’s pretty awesome, too.
Yanes: On this note, what was the inspiration behind IRL? Were there any real world events that shaped this story?
Newhem & Ezagui: Ian grew up on Logan’s Run and Izzy on the more recent dystopian fare. But we also both spent lots of time with kids, Izzy as a commander in the IDF, and Ian as a professor. We were both struck by how dependent “kids today” have become on technology. So we started with a fundamental question: What would happen if some catastrophe occurred that took all their tech away? You get all kinds of shitstorms: No Waze. No Google. No Snapchat. Young people, their whole sense of identity is built around social media. But you take away Twitter and Instagram, it changes the hierarchy, the power dynamics. The kid with a hundred thousand “followers” suddenly has to look elsewhere for self-empowerment and social status. On the other hand, the loner kid with real-world skills like hunting – or sophisticated social intelligence – can become the new queen or king. We’ve also seen a dramatic shift toward more fluid sexuality among young people, even in the time Izzy’s grown up (he’s 29 and Ian’s 48). So we wondered what would happen if you took all the rules off the table entirely. How would young people restructure their own society? Would it come close to utopia—or wind up like Lord of the Flies?
Yanes: As you two developed IRL from an idea to an actual sizzle reel, were there any characters or plotlines that unexpectedly popped more?
Newhem & Ezagui: It was thrilling to see the work we did in the writers’ room – we, two, plus Leonora Stein, Michael Tencer, and Drew Grauerholz – take flight. We’ve got this badass, wheelchair-bound soldier, Sunny, who rigs an Abrams tank with ropes and pulleys so she can operate it solo. Seeing her come to life gave Izzy chills. He can’t wait to see what she does next. For Ian, it was the juvenile delinquent character, Nolan. Even though we wrote the lines, Ian was at the edge of seat, wondering what the kid was going to say next. The heart of our show’s a threesome, two boys and a girl—it was sweet to watch them in their first bloom of love and exploration. All this is a testament to the skills and passion of the young actors we cast for the sizzle reel. To our casting director, Melissa Skoff, who was at Warner Bros. for years. Our EP, Joel Eisenberg at Council Tree. Our DP, Paul Wiedt. And of course, our director, Deborah Pratt, who co-created shows like Quantum Leap.
Yanes: Additionally, how did it feel just to see your idea being filmed?
Newhem & Ezagui: Super cool. Humbling. We shot at GeekNation studios in Van Nuys. Brian Keithly gave us the run of the place. And up at the Koch Movie Ranch in Acton, where they shot Sharknado, among other things. We definitely got our hands dirty, and we’re grateful to Deborah for letting us get a feel for every aspect of filming: Usually, writers don’t get to do that stuff. It takes a village, and it was awesome to be villagers in that world.
Yanes: When people finally have the opportunity to watch IRL, what do you hope they take away from this story?
Newhem & Ezagui: We hope they care about the travails of our core characters as much as we do. We hope they love the sci-fi twist: You assume it was a virus that killed off all the adults in a single day—but it’s much more complicated than that. We hope they see us as serious, career-oriented writers, not one-trick-ponies.
Yanes: Finally, what are some projects that you two are working on that people can look forward to?
Newhem & Ezagui: We’re most excited about a show we’ve developed called Special Elect, about an autistic U.S. President. The twist is he’s the best thing that ever happened to America.