Today, my guest on Portals and Pathways is producer, screenwriter and author Joel Eisenberg. He’s a very kind, humble and inspiring man, and it was my great pleasure, honor, and a lot of fun to have this chat with him.
CG: Joel, which came first—wanting to be a writer, or wanting to be in the movie business? And when did you know that was what you wanted to do?
JE: Good question. I wanted to be a writer in the movie business. That’s not a copout answer but the truth, and I knew it from a very early age. When I was a boy, I eschewed sports and leisure activities in favor of writing. I wrote short stories based on my favorite television shows and movies. A typical plot was the crew of the Starship Enterprise teams with the Six Million Dollar Man to save the world from the Planet of the Apes. It didn’t matter that the Planet of the Apes was earth; this was my creation after all. I wanted, no, needed to create for a living. Writing was the passion from early on. And then I saw “Star Wars” (“A New Hope” before it was “A New Hope”) for the first time at 13 and that sealed the deal.
CG: Which of the many projects you’ve worked on is your favorite (I realize this may be like choosing a favorite child) and why?
JE: “The Chronicles of Ara” by far. I’m working in a playground of personal obsessions and creating a monster fantasy story out of it all.
CG: Tell us a little about “The Chronicles of Ara.” How did that come about?
JE: Several things. Years ago, I knew an old-time Broadway producer, Ernest Martin. He was the “Martin” of (Cy) “Feuer and Martin,” the legendary Broadway team who produced “Guys and Dolls”, “Can-Can”, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and numerous others. He was also great friends with John Steinbeck. Years after his death his widow, Twyla, asked me to go through a box of Ernie’s effects. There, I found nearly 400 pages of handwritten John Steinbeck material. Many months later while pouring through this material at home, I realized what a treasure this was. The pages mostly comprised the notes and work that was ultimately titled “Sweet Thursday”, along with some unrelated letters and the handwritten manuscript of “The Log of the Sea of Cortez”. I immediately became fascinated with missing literature, as this material was considered “lost” for over 50 years. Another inspiration: Months earlier, as a special education teacher, my principal walked into my classroom and asked a student to turn her T-shirt inside-out. The student was well-behaved, generally, and was at the top of her class scholastically. The T-shirt had the image of Marilyn Manson on its front. The principal threatened to suspend her if she didn’t comply. She complied. I had words with the principal after class and resigned a few weeks later. This student was not bothering anyone, and I resented the attempt at suppressing her free speech. From there, I was always fascinated by the concept of “dangerous art”, which would become a hallmark theme in the “Ara” series. This videogame and movie is bad for kids, that TV show is anti-religious, and so on. Between Steinbeck and this scenario, I had a book brewing. All of this came to a head when I met Steve Hillard, the co-creator of this series with an earlier book called “Mirkwood”. We teamed up to further the mythos and “The Chronicles of Ara” was born.
CG: One of the things that strikes me as unique about the Chronicles is that J.R.R Tolkien appears as, himself, a character in the series. How crucial an influence do you see Tolkien as in your own work?
JE: The unexpected answer, honestly, is no more than the other authors featured. I love Tolkien’s work and believed him to be, for several reasons, the best author to dramatize in Book One of “The Chronicles of Ara”. Future volumes include appearances by Poe, Lovecraft, Verne, Wells, Doyle, Mary Shelley, etc. I consider all these writers, certainly Tolkien, as creators who peeked into the darker sides of human nature – only to return with stories and themes that had a primal, lasting impact. 5) You describe the Chronicles of Ara as deeply concerned with the force of artistic creation. As it happens, that’s something that’s always informed my own work as well. Why, do you think, are artists and creative people so important? Because I believe everything that is a cause for action begins with the word. Artists, perhaps being more interior than many, seem to troll (their) human nature more than most. I believe a powerful artist is a powerful influencer who can shape cultures. For example, IF The Bible is looked upon as literature only, what kind of impact have these writers left in the world? And so on.
CG: What is at least one goal or dream that remains unrealized for you, thus far?
JE: Honestly, writing in Japan for a year and I could not begin to tell you why. I haven’t yet figured it out myself.
CG: Is there a single writer, artist, or other creative person who has had the most influence on you?
JE: Tough question. Let me say honestly – and I may be criticized for this considering the reception of some of his efforts – George Lucas. The “Ara” series is the antithesis of light and airy, which is how many view the “Star Wars” saga. But I believe Lucas shook up the world with his original trilogy, and pop-culture has not been the same since. Besides, look at how many artists that series inspired. I would say Lucas and Walt Disney for the same reasons.
CG: In the dedication to “Creation”, the first volume of the Chronicles, you give an indication of the importance of your relationship with your Dad. Can you tell us just a little about your father, and the influence he had on you?
JE:And here you’re going to make me cry. But it’s all positive. My dad was the finest man I’ve ever known. I almost didn’t make it to Junior High School. I was flunking 6th grade, as my teacher said my reading comprehension levels were sub-par. My parents and my teacher made a deal. I would write a book report on a book I wanted to read, as opposed to a book I was forced to read. I was a big horror fan (still am) and chose Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” My teacher was shocked and she gave me an A+ on my report. I also think she learned something that day. If it wasn’t for my dad devising that deal … And one more thing. When I was a small boy, I had the most severe asthma. My dad said we needed to relocate from Brooklyn, NY to Colorado. I was so sickly, I was taken in a baby stroller to the airport at 7 years old. I lost my asthma in Colorado. So, added to my dad’s resume, so to speak, he saved my life. As the years went on, he always taught his three boys – myself, Mike and Neil – the virtues and necessity of self-reliance. I don’t know who or what I’d be without Richard Eisenberg, my beloved dad, in my life. I miss him every day.
CG: What advice do you have for authors, artists, or other creative folks who are just getting started, or who want to get started?
JE: Clive Barker once told me, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Never pause to consider how absolutely impossible your task is. Just do it.’ This is the greatest advice for artists ever, as far as I’m concerned. Create from the soul and if you choose to make a living through your art, strategize and find support systems. Listen to the negative that you will sometimes encounter but never hear it. Forge your own path. 10) Do you have a favorite book or film? Favorite Book (3-way tie): “Dune”, “Frankenstein” and “The Brothers Karamazov”. Favorite Film (3-way tie – I’m cheating): “Star Wars”, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “A Clockwork Orange.
CG: I’m a huge fan of Star Wars and A Clockwork Orange as well….Clockwork is easily my fave Kubrick film.
I can still vividly remember first reading the Burgess book, too.
JE: Same here. In some ways I think the film is the most well-made ever.
CG: It’s pretty flawless, and I think that may account for why, in our era of rampant remakes, that’s never been touched. Andy Warhol tried to tackle it before Kubrick did, but Warhol’s is a very loose interpretation, and doesn’t even have the same title.
JE: I wasn’t aware actually. Need to follow up with you on that. Gonna go though as I have one percent battery left.
CG: Alright. Thanks for the interview!
JE: Thanks for the opportunity. That was fun.
CG: I’m glad. And you’re welcome.