After publishing several successful non-fiction books, he began writing his first full-length novel, Robopocalypse. Before it was even finished, he received an offer from DreamWorks to purchase the movie rights, which is pretty much equivalent to winning the lottery. When news later revealed that Steven Spielberg was signed on to direct the now bestseller, the excitement for Daniel grew.
Almost immediately, Daniel was whisked away to Hollywood where he met Spielberg and screenwriter Drew Goddard to discuss the finer points of his book.
Last summer, Daniel celebrated the release of his next techno-thriller, Amped–a story about people implanted with a device that makes them capable of superhuman feats.
To add to his laundry list of accomplishments, including earning his Ph.D. in Robotics and hosting a TV show, Daniel has a number of exciting projects planned for the next couple of years including the release of the paperback version of the widely popular novel, Amped (due out this February) and the highly anticipated sequel to Robopacalypse.
Recently, I had a chance to speak with Daniel–a polite and easy-going guy who currently resides in Portland Oregon with his wife and daughter.
In 2011, your first fiction book Robopocalypse was published, which became a New York Times bestseller. Then in 2012, you followed that up by releasing another widely successful fiction book called Amped. I’m curious to know, how has your life changed since the success of these books?
I sold the film rights to Robopocalypse in 2009, the day before I sold the book rights. So, I’ve had a long time since then to digest the success of that book. I’ve been really happy about it because Robopocalypse is the first novel that I wrote. So without that success, I would probably be done writing novels. Over the years my life really hasn’t changed much, except that I get to sit around and think of fiction to write everyday instead of doing all the research that’s associated with non-fiction.
You mentioned that you sold the film rights to Robopocalypse the day before you sold the book rights. From what I understand, the book wasn’t even finished and it somehow got leaked. Is that true and how did that come about?
Yeah, I would describe it as winning some kind of cosmic nerd lottery. *laughs* I have no idea how it came about, I didn’t even know there were people that leaked stuff like that in New York at the publishing houses. But of course, now it seems obvious that there would be. The studios are very eager to be the first to jump on new projects–even before they’ve been sold.
You know, I have to say that I was really blown away and I still feel really really lucky. There’s nobody that deserves that level of luck. *laughs* It was a crazy and spectacular situation, like your lotto numbers coming up.
With that said, when I look at my writing career–which of course started with getting a degree in robotics and then playing to that strength–every book was kind of a paving stone laid that took me a little bit further until I reached the point where I had enough credibility and enough contacts to try to write a novel and try to get attention for it. In retrospect, I suppose I bought the lottery ticket myself.
It’s been confirmed that Steven Spielberg is directing Robopacalypse and from what I understand, Alex Proyas is directing Amped. Is that true?
In regards to Alex Proyas directing Amped, that was on the table for a while, but actually that’s no longer the case. It’s a really topsy-turvy world with films. So as of right now, the Amped rights are very recently available.
There’s no downside to having Steven Spielberg direct your movie. With A.I.–coming from the academic side–I mean, I have a degree in A.I. specifically and I love that movie. I love how true he was to the robot characters. It makes me really confident and happy that he’s the one making Robopocalypse.
Recently, it has come out that Spielberg has delayed production of Robopocalypse about six to eight months. According to sources, Spielberg said that the film was costing a lot of money and had found a better and cheaper way to tell the story. Spielberg stated, “I just told everybody to go find other jobs, I’m starting on a new script and we’ll have this movie back on its feet soon.” Can you shed more light on this situation?
I would of course love to see the Robopocalypse movie sooner rather than later, but I am excited to hear that Steven Spielberg has had a breakthrough on the script and grateful that DreamWorks is taking the time to execute the absolute best version of this project.
I follow you on twitter @danielwilsonpdx and you posted a picture of Chris Hemsworth saying he’s not exactly who you envisioned in the lead role (Cormac Wallace). Who in Hollywood would you have cast, if you couldn’t pick Chris Hemsworth?
Actually, you know what, the more I thought about it… I totally get it now. I had only seen him in Thor, and he’s this huge guy, he’s like this pro wrestler, you know. Cormac Wallace, the character in the book, is really just a regular guy. But now that I have seen Chris in some other roles, I realized that they had done a lot of work to make him look like Thor–the God of thunder. So yeah, I realized that he could play Cormac, I’m pretty excited about it actually.
How much say do you have in the development of the screenplay and what actors are cast?
Oh, I don’t have any say. Everything that I contributed to the movie I had contributed by the time I had finished writing the book. They’ve got my full trust. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they’ve done.
A book is a book and a movie is a movie, and there is no rule that the movie has to be completely identical to the book. Ideally, the movie is the best version of the book, so that’s what I want to see. And it’s not going to be exactly the same. The book is very epic–it’s sprawled over lots of time and lots and lots of characters, and different continents. Things come together slower in the book so I would imagine that the movie would be different, but I don’t really know. I will just be watching like everybody else.
That must be so exciting for you.
Yeah, you know, I wrote the first hundred pages and then it sold. I then wrote the rest of the book knowing that these people were interested, but not really believing that it would be made into a movie because almost all my previous books have been optioned at some point, but never a movie. Over time, I started realizing, ’hey, man, this might be a real movie with merchandise, and toys, and video games, and stuff like that.’ I don’t know for sure, but how cool would that be? Luckily that sort of pressure and that kind of thinking never really hit me until I finished drafting the book.
The first time I saw Robopocalypse, I walked into the bookstore and saw the amazing cover art and was drawn in. How did that come about? Was the robot built for the cover picture or is it a computer graphic?
That’s completely the marketing folks at Doubleday; they did an amazing job on the cover. They really knocked it out of the park. You can tell that it’s a great cover because every international edition of the book has pretty much the same cover because it’s just so iconic. Normally they’ll change the cover depending on different countries. So Doubleday really killed it.
It’s actually a 3D model that was public domain and whoever the artist was started with that and then modified it to make it look the way it does. It’s not exactly the same as the original 3D model. In fact, I found the original 3D model because the people were so excited they were tweeting about it, because when the book came out they were like, ‘those are our models!’ So that was pretty funny.
In addition to an obvious robotics theme throughout much of your writing, you also focus a lot on morality. Can you touch a little on that and talk about why that is important to you?
Technology, I think of as just a multiplier on our morality. I mean, every real story is about good and evil, there’s no way around it. That’s what’s interesting, that’s the struggle we all have every day. Whenever you give human beings really advanced technology, our capacity to do good and evil is multiplied. I mean, you can do really great things or really terrible things when you have the right technology. I think of technology as a way to sharpen the drama that characters are experiencing in the real story.
You also focus a lot on technology that either currently exists or that will exist soon? Why is it important for you to remain true to the current realm of possibility?
I think it’s important because I want people to read it. There are only so many worlds that you can absorb, and memorize all the names of the races, and the locations, and the types of weaponry, and vehicles. There are only so many Middle-earths and Dunes that you can hold in your head. In my work, I want the reader to really hit the ground running–to already be immersed in my story without having to do a lot of exposition.
If I set this thing on Mars and it was a thousand years from now, no one is going to be able to relate to the characters. I’m going to have to unload a ton of exposition in order to make people understand the setting. Also, what’s the value?
On some level it’s tempting as a writer to go crazy in the role of God, which you have as a writer–you get to make worlds and people. But at the end of the day, you have to remember that it’s about the reader, it’s not about exercising your power as a writer for the heck of it. You are trying to get people to read it, and have a good time, and convey whatever your message is, or whatever your themes are that you want to play with.
Do you write with the intent of conveying some sort of message?
I usually don’t have any explicit message. I’m not trying to convince anybody of anything except that they had a good time reading the book.
You published a short story in December on nightmare-magazine.com called Foul Weather, which is a lot different from some of the other stuff you are known for. What was the inspiration behind that?
That story was just me on an airplane daydreaming, so I threw down the bones of it.
It is about this old man who used to be a meteorologist, reminiscing about something that happened that was kind of horrifying and supernatural. One afternoon, I was writing on that short story and I was like, ‘well, let’s get into this character. Who is this guy?’
So I started calling meteorologists and I ended up talking to this meteorologist out of Oklahoma who was older and had been around when computers showed up on the scene. So to me, that was really interesting, thinking about this field and what happens when technology changes everything and whether there is some underlying intuition that lurks below the technology, or maybe even invisible to the technology, that you might have if you started out doing meteorology with pencil and paper and the breeze in your face. So that was the impetus of that story.
So are you going to try to get away from writing about robotics because I imagine at some point those stories would be harder and harder for you to write?
No, it’s actually funny, it’s easier and easier. There’s so much, there are so many different angles. I mean, think about someone like Asimov, did he run out of robot stories? Not really.
I write about whatever I feel like is a good story, and a lot of the time it has to do with technology because I spent a lot of time studying that stuff, and that’s what’s kind of floating around in my dome.
Whenever something better floats along, I’m happy to write it, too.
What writing projects are you currently working on?
I’m writing the sequel to Robopacalypse. It’s called Robogenesis and it’s going to come out around when the movie comes out in October or December 2014. I’m also working on an anthology called Robot Uprisings with John Joseph Adams–it’s a lot of short stories. It has been really fun to interact with some of the science-fiction writers that I’ve always loved. Now I get to email them and say, ‘hey, can you contribute a story?’ We’ve got all our people picked out and we’re starting to receive the stories, so it’s pretty exciting.
Article by Edward Mullen
Host of The Edward Mullen Podcast