In Discussion with David Klass About His New Novel ‘Out of Time’
BY Felix van Kann, December 9, 2019
2020 is proving to be an eventful year for faculty member and co-head of the TV Writing concentration David Klass. On July 7, his new novel, Out of Time, will be released by Penguin Random House. In addition to that, he will also adapt the novel into a feature film for Netflix, a first in Klass’ long and distinguished career.
The environmental thriller is about a fiendishly clever serial bomber and self-styled “eco-terrorist” who hits targets across America and a conflicted young FBI agent may be the only person possessing the unique skills needed to catch him.
I sat down with Professor Klass to talk about his experience in jumping between the mediums of novel and screenwriting, his personal journey in both industries and what he believes makes a good story.
How did your idea for Out of Time come to be?
David Klass (DK): I’ve been interested in the environment and writing environmental novels for years. In the early 1990’s, I wrote a book called California Blue about the clash between loggers and environmentalists in a Northern California logging town. In 2006, I wrote the young adult novel Firestorm which was the first in a trilogy and a SciFi thriller. For various reasons, it didn’t go as a movie and while I was very proud of the novel, it wasn’t the smashing success we hoped it would be. But it gave me the real desire to write a popular book that would seriously address our environmental issues. And yet, I didn’t really want to write a new novel. Then I had lunch with my agent of 30 years and he said to me: “When are you going to write me another book?” Well, my mother, who was also a writer, got to 19 novels before she passed away and out of respect for her memory, I wanted to quit after my 19th as well. And Aaron (Priest), my agent, said: “I knew your mother and she would have wanted you to write 20.” And he was probably right.
Two things came together in my mind: One of them was a conversation with my daughter where she announced she didn’t want to have children because my generation had screwed up the planet and it wasn’t fair to bring children into this world. That was hard to hear at the dinner table, but I understood and I also didn’t disagree. Secondly, when I wrote California Blue, I was researching the environmental groups in Northern California, I came across a radical group that was driving spikes into trees, so when loggers would try to cut them down, their saws would bounce off and hurt them. I asked them if I could sit in on their meetings and I was absolutely fascinated. On the one hand I’ve been brought up to think that violence is always wrong, but I found them to be thoughtful and committed people who have an absolute certainty that what they were doing was necessary. So these two things collided and without even thinking about it, I sat down and started writing the first chapter. The rest of the book just followed that.
Out of Time is a thriller, a genre you seem to know very well…
DK: It’s a genre I feel very comfortable with because of Hollywood. I never thought I would go into it, but in over twenty years of writing more than forty action based thrillers I became experienced with it. There were two novels on my mind when I wrote this book: William Goldman’s Marathon Man and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré, which is the novel that taught me the most about writing. And even though the main characters of these books couldn’t be more different from one another, they were both smart nerds. They defied the genre because they were completely different than a James-Bond type, both so far from our regular heroes. This became my model for Tom, the FBI agent in Out Of Time.
How different is it for you writing a novel versus writing for the screen?
DK: Personally, I have always considered novels to be about character. If I have their voices in my mind and I understand their arcs, I let them take over and am wise enough to keep out. I’ve never written a novel from outline and I never really know where I am going when I start writing. I sort of let the story tell itself whereas a screenplay to me is about structured conflict. It’s impossible to do that without a very detailed outline.
When I first came to LA as a young novelist in love with the idea of letting the story run its own way, I tried to write my screenplays with this approach and it was a disaster. But with this novel, I went back to my process of not knowing exactly where it was going. I certainly didn’t know there was going to be a young FBI agent hunting the eco-terrorist until he wrote himself into the novel. I didn’t know he was going to be a green sympathizer and that is really the most fun for me in the book; the only man who can catch this eco terrorist is starting to believe that his ideology might be right. And if he does his job as a law enforcer, he might be depriving the world of its last chance – that’s his obstacle.
How did you make the transition from novels into screenwriting?
DK: I wrote a novel when I was in my early twenties called The Atami Dragons while I was teaching in Japan. The novel was published here as well as in Japan. After that, I was planning on going to law school because I didn’t know what else to do which would have been a terrible mistake. When I was already convinced to do so, I got a call from Hollywood that my book had been optioned to be made into a movie. The producer was flying through Asia with his family and they asked if I could meet him at the airport to translate. I spent a week with him and at the end of it he told me to come to Hollywood to be a screenwriter. So I came and gave it my best shot. However, the movie was never made.
Did you find something in your novel-writing that was particularly beneficial in how you approached a script?
DK: No, I really had to relearn the craft. A lot of what I did as a novelist came more natural to me since I wrote a lot of short stories when I was younger and I also come from a family of writers, so I was comfortable with prose. A lot of what I was doing like not outlining or writing novelistic dialogue didn’t work for me as a screenwriter. I was stubborn, I thought it was stuck between the mediums, but it would eventually transition naturally. But that was simply not true. It took me a good five to seven years to learn - and I’m not sure I really mastered it as I’m still learning - how to jump from one into the other. But to be honest, it’s always been a dream of mine to write a novel I love and then be able to adapt it into a movie and really explore this difference. I may get the chance to do that with this one.
What’s the main difference between the publishing process of a novel versus the development process of a script?
DK: One big difference is that if you write a novel, you own it. If the publisher wants to change a single word, they have to get your permission. When you write a screenplay, for example for a studio, they own your script when you sell it to them. You are basically a hired gun, it’s more collaborative. If they want to fire you and change everything you wrote, they can do that, they own the story. In some ways that’s a good argument for play and novel writing. But if you write a movie and it gets made and it goes into wide release, it reaches a much broader audience than any novel. When my first movie Kiss the Girls came out, I went to the gym and heard three people talking about it. I had never heard anyone talk about my novels except my parents.
Which form do you prefer?
DK: That’s difficult to say. I think we all love what we do first and I started as a novelist. However, the immediacy of TV, the scale of the feature world, the excitement to be able to reach so many people is a very different kind of reward. But you get so close to your characters in a novel there’s almost nothing like it. I was so proud when I finished this book, but I was also very sad because I knew it might be my last one. Chapter by chapter, I had to say goodbye. As I mentioned, I wrote my first novel in a small town in Japan and when I was writing Out Of Time, I was going to Japan with my family and I waited until then to write the last few chapters there, closing the circle.
Why do you think it’s your last one?
DK: I don’t know it for sure, but I hadn’t written one in a while and I’m really happy with how this one turned out. I had some very good help along the way. I mentioned my agent, Aaron Priest, both of my children and my wife who have read it and supported me and my wonderful editor at Dutton Randomhouse, Lindsey Rose.
How did the movie deal come to be for Out Of Time?
DK: When the book sold to Dutton Random House before it was finished, I told my agent and manager: I feel like this is my best work and it might make a good movie. I wanted to come out to Hollywood to take a shot at my five dream producers who would be my top choices to work with. If it didn’t work out, we’d have enough time when the book came out to find something to do with it. Number one on the list was a wonderful producer called Liza Chasin, the former head of Working Titles in Los Angeles. I have known her for thirty years and I have tremendous respect for her taste. She started a company called 3dot Productions who has a movie deal with Netflix. She asked me to finish the novel first. Once I did, I sent it to her and she made a deal with Netflix to option it for a movie. Now I'll adapt it, so if I screw it up I won’t have any other screenwriter to blame but myself.
Last but not least: What advice would you give young writers who want to break into either the novel or film industry?
DK: I think it’s really great to come to a film school and learn the craft and attack the industry by writing features and TV scripts, but there are so many people doing it, writing good features and teleplays. There are so many good scripts! Less people are writing novels or plays or journalistic articles, so if there’s another kind of writing you do at a high level it could be something you can send to agents to set yourself apart. This other piece of writing you have might be the way to open the door into your career of feature writing.
And my other suggestion is about the question students always ask me: Should I write something commercial or should I write something I believe in? I think there’s a lot to be said about writing something you really care about, that resonates with you and that you always carry around with you. Like for example, before sitting down to write this book, I have been thinking a lot about my children and the world we’re leaving them. It worries me and I keep trying to figure out what we can do differently. Out of this urge, I wrote a commercial novel about something I really care about. I think that’s what gets you the best results.
David Klass has written feature screenplays for all the major studios, including: Kiss the Girls starring Morgan Freeman, Desperate Measures starring Michael Keaton, Walking Tall starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and most recently Emperor starring Tommy Lee Jones. Klass’ TV credits include the Showtime movie In the Time of the Butterflies (starring Salma Hayak, based on the novel by Julia Alvarez), the ABC TV Movie Runaway Virus (based on a Malcom Gladwell article) and working as a writer/producer on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Klass has developed numerous shows for the networks including the medical show Austen’s Razor (developed by CBS in 2014, ABC in 2015). Klass’s nineteen published novels include You Don’t Know me (Farrar Straus Giroux, published in fifteen languages) and Firestorm (an environmental thriller published by FSG, optioned by Warner Bros., the first novel ever endorsed by Greenpeace).