Thursday, February 21, 2013


John Penney is one of those rare talents who can write screenplays, direct films, and create novels with the same effortless ability to keep you on the edge of your seat.  He's worked with actors like William Hurt and Katherine Heigl and yet finds himself turning to novel writing as his outlet for free expression.  It's the one great advantage an Indie author has over any other medium--he/she can let the creative juices flow without a filter or an agent telling them to stay within the lines.  This choice requires accountability, however, and John speaks with us about the measures he takes to assure the quality of his work and many other things Hollywood and publishing. 
 1- You've written more than a dozen screenplays which have gone on to make it to the big screen.  Tell us about that process from concept to production.

I’ve had a relatively pleasant experience as a screenwriter.  I think it’s because I managed my expectations. Aside from my early work, where the projects never made it out of development Hell at the studios, the films that I have had produced have never been extensively rewritten.  Of course, the entire filmmaking process is a real team effort, but I came up through the ranks of film production as an editor so I went into screenwriting with my eyes wide open.  I knew what I was getting into and I used my background in production to help get on some of the projects as a producer, which in turn allowed me to stay on and do the production rewriting.  Still, even with the advantages of being involved through production, I learned to take my satisfaction from the process of writing, not the end result.  Once I turned the script over to the director and the production I let it go.  No matter what, when you’re dealing with film, if you expect it to be what you had in your head you’ll inevitably be disappointed.  It’s a kind of Zen mind set, I suppose.  Even now that I am directing my own material, there are so many moving parts and unpredictable elements that go into making movies that the script never comes out exactly as written.  The advantage now is that I am able to go through the birthing pains and make the adjustments that must be made when you take a story from the page to the screen.

2- As a director, do you treat every actor the same, or is it a bit like being a schoolteacher and knowing how to deal with the problem child?

Knowing the various techniques and approaches to acting is important, but basically I have found you have to relate to every actor as an individual.  I need to give them the tools they need to do their job and find their footing with the character.  Sometimes it happens through endless discussions over the script, some times they just need to know which direction to head.  I have only directed movies that I have written, so I have lived each character as I created them and I have the answers if they want to hear them.  Some of the great actors that I have worked with like William Hurt are able to see their character’s arc and also see how their character fits into the whole of the story.  They are your story telling partner.  It’s a lot of fun when it works, but it can also be a real struggle if your actor is having trouble seeing the same story you want to tell.

3- Your books, like your films, tend to be dark thrillers. Have you always been interested in the dark side of humanity?

I think it’s a journey to find your voice as a writer.  You have to try it all.  I have tried comedy, but I think at the end of the day, I am really most interested in exploring the shadows.  However, I don’t think my work is pessimistic or nihilistic.  Far from it.  I took a charcoal drawing class once and one of the exercises was to create a picture by defining the shadows.  In other words, define the light by drawing the dark.  I think that’s what I do.  I define the dark side of man to reveal what is inherently good and positive.   I have a supernatural thriller I wrote and directed out now from IFC Films entitled “Hellgate” with William Hurt and Cary Elwes.  It’s about a man who suffers a great loss and goes though a very dark journey but finds his way out the other side. I spent time on the festival circuit with the movie last year where we were fortunate enough to win Best Film at the Bram Stoker International Film Festival and also Best Horror Film at the Fantasy Horror Awards in Italy.  In the question and answers sessions that I did afterward, I was able to really get a feeling for how the film played.  What struck me was the sense of optimism it conveyed. The film really stood out against the other more pessimistic films in competition.  People’s response to the film depended on their underlying beliefs about the human condition.

4- Have you considered developing a screenplay for either of your novels—Killing Time or Truck Stop?

I absolutely have. A couple of years ago, my friend Steve Carpenter ( “The Grimm Trilogy”) turned me on to the whole Amazon Kindle world. The means of distribution and publication are finally in the hands of the artist. We can reach out directly to the audience with our stories.  At the same time I was working with Brian Yuzna (“Honey I Shrunk the Kids” “Re-Animator”) on a couple of film projects that were being simultaneously developed on several platforms at once (graphic novel, screenplay, novel.)  The experience of developing the story in more than one medium was really exciting to me.  Each form can tell the story differently and each one informs the other. The screenplays for both “Truck Stop” and “Killing Time” are already in place and I am currently writing a new novel with a companion screenplay. As I mentioned, the greatest pleasure I get is in the process of writing and the chance to tell the story in more than one form is very thrilling for me.   I am hoping to make “Truck Stop” the next film I direct.

5- As an Indie author, there's a lot of responsibility to make your work look as professional as possible.  Tell us about your method of writing novels and the editing process.

The ability to publish on your own is very exciting to me.  The hurdles are removed between you and the audience, but it does come with a great responsibility.  You have to provide an experience to the reader that is worth their time and money.  I take that very seriously.  I want readers to follow me from one novel to the next and the only way to do that is to offer them something of top quality.  I employ an editor for my novels.  The editor takes a hard and careful look at continuity and logic as well as the technical and grammatical side.  I think this is very important to do.  I also employ a graphic artist to help me design the cover.   I usually throw out ideas, then the graphic artist comes up with a few approaches.  We go back and forth until we zero in on one concept.  Then I try it out on a number of people to get their response.  Because the e-book cover is usually seen in a form no bigger than a postage stamp, it has to be bold and easy to grasp.  Nick Rucka, the graphic designer I use has a background in designing DVD covers for films that are sold on Amazon.  He clued me in on the realities and limitations of the covers.  So far, the covers have worked very well in reaching the people interested in reading the kinds of suspenseful fast-paced supernatural thrillers that I write.


  1. Hello Gary & John,

    Your background in the entertainment is fascinating, John. Working alongside masterful actors like, William Hurt, must be very rewarding. As a screenwriter to see your vision for the character played out as you imagined, I expect would be very satisfying.

    I look forward to checking out both, Killing Time and Truck Stop. Wishing you continued success with your current and future books.

    Thank you

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Stuart. I'm very grateful for the support you've shown me and my blog over the past couple of years and appreciate your contributions.

  2. Gary,

    I really enjoy these interviews that you do, and Mr. Penney, thank you for sharing so much insightful information with those of us hungry to improve our talent.