Part 2 of my long-form interview with actor, improviser, writer and sci-fi nerd Colin Munch. (Read Part 1)
Not five minutes into our conversation, after asking me about my book and my goals for this blog, Colin came out with his own epic tale of struggling to write the novel that has been with him since he was a kid. We discovered a shared love of science fiction, and that led the conversation far into some of the more fertile pastures of nerd-land, to the SF and fantasy series of our youth, a little Disney movie that’s coming out later this month (‘Star…’ something-or-other?), and – more seriously – to questions of genre that vex and intrigue him now. So I thought I would assemble these into a separate post.
And here it is: the Colin Munch interview Part Two – cue the Muppets voice-over – ‘Munch In Space!!!’
Colin: “I’ve been writing the same novel since I was 12 years old, and I just keep throwing it away and starting it from scratch, as my sensibilities and my politics change. And my interests change. Now I want to, of course, go back to my initial concept.”
Peter: Do you still have it?
God, I wouldn’t have the heart to completely throw something out and start from scratch.
“I am ruthless about it. I love throwing stuff out. I love editing things. I think that’s a side effect of being a scriptwriter, because you have to edit. You have to cut for time and sense. I love editing. I am ruthless.”
So what is it about?
“It’s a science fiction story. My three main characters are – and this is where my teen and adult sensibilities intersect – I want to tell a story about fighter pilots in space, because I love that so much, but as I’ve gotten older my distaste for imperialism has become a lot stronger, and as I have made a living in the arts, I am really interested in the culture of celebrity. So I want to tell this story where these pilots are so highly trained that they have become celebrities in their culture. But they are so distant from their actions that they have no sense of the impact that they are making.
"I want to tell the story of these guys and the people that they are fighting against, who are just settlers on a planet that wants its independence. And essentially what the radical elements among these settlers do is they cut off the faster-than-light ability of the military, so they strand these people in a localized space and cut them off from their reinforcements. And also reduce the ability for them to wage war over long distances. So the radicals make the war much more personal, which is what it is for them. So these military people are forced to confront the reality of what they do, which is ugly, destructive and horrible.
“And then the third element in all this is a CIA-type character, an intelligence character, who is aware of the complexities of both sides – the ugliness but also the necessity for it – and he’s sort of the mercurial element that plays both sides against each other.”
And how has that basic idea changed over all these different iterations?
“Well, when I started writing it when I was about 9, it was about the United States of America fleeing earth after WWIII, and then going into deep space and coming back on a war of conquest. And they were super-right wing Christian religious zealots. But my anti-religious fervor has subsided in the 20 years since that first draft.”
What moves you to keep revisiting this story? There must have been other stories that have developed along the way.
“Oh, yeah. For sure. This is just the one that sticks with me because I still think fighter pilots in space are neat, even though I find them logically impractical now. That’s probably not going to happen. But I still like that idea.
“And my grandfather was a fighter pilot, one of Canada’s first jet fighter pilots. He missed the Korean War by three months. He got his wings just before the Korean war came to a close.”
You knew him?
“Yeah, he died about five years ago. But all of that happened in Ottawa, so I wasn’t there to watch his descent.”
Did you have opportunities to talk to him about being a fighter pilot?
“No, that’s the thing – I never talked to him about it. And it’s something I’ve been interested in my entire life. One of my earliest memories is playing a video game with my father where you are a space fighter pilot. So it’s something that has always interested me. But the reality of it has never interested me as much as the fantasy – when I was younger. And now I’m kicking myself because that door has closed.”
Munch asked me if I had been an early reader. “Not so much,” I said. “I remember teachers telling me I needed to read more, and eventually I did. But I fumbled around for a long time trying to figure out what I should read.”
Munch and I both loved the stuff we read in high school: Shakespeare, Orwell, all that dystopian fiction that’s part of the curriculum. I read some Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke for pleasure, but movie and TV science fiction had mostly spoiled my appetite for more serious literary SF. I liked Arthur C. Clarke’s speculative writing from the ’60s (‘Profiles of the Future’) that could actually happen – and some of it has, like geosynchronous satellites and 3D printing.
Then I turned the question back on Munch—was he an early reader?
Colin: “I read a lot of Star Wars books when I was a kid, and there was a series about Star Wars fighter pilots, so I borrowed liberally from that when I was writing this thing. But I’m so bored by the ‘Hero’s Journey’ now that I can’t even think of writing a story like that now, because it’s so boring.
“So my new draft of [my novel] actually starts on the settlers’ planet and I think my ideas is going to be this teenage girl who’s was raised to be a mechanic and a farmer, and she’s a settler, a futuristic settler, but she lives in the dirt. I think her role in the story is to keep her community together as it slowly becomes radicalized by necessity. As they get bombed and attacked and everything, she tries to keep them peaceful and safe and I’m interested in exploring the impossibility of that.”
In televisual pop culture there is very little true science fiction. There are very few true science fiction ideas in Hollywood movies.
“My view is that the ‘serious’ hard science movie that Hollywood pumps out every five years is just '2001: A Space Odyssey'. They just remake ‘2001’ over and over. And usually they’re great. ‘Sunshine’ is great. ‘Interstellar’ is a garbage movie for stupid people and anyone who says otherwise is a moron. But it’s just ‘2001’. It’s Hollywood’s hard sci-fi movie. Sometimes they put a monster in it. ‘Alien’ is just ‘2001’ plus a monster. And it’s terrific – I love that movie.”
Are you a fan of ‘BladeRunner’?
“Oh, yeah. I just found out Denis Villeneuve is doing the sequel, which makes me a million times more excited for that thing.”
Yeah, I'm cautiously optimistic. I don’t know. They’re going to have a 70-year-old Harrison Ford doing something. Oh, and they are going to make it explicit that Deckard [Harrison Ford’s character] is an android.
“Cool. That’s cool.”
Yeah…. I don’t tend to like things that eliminate ambiguity from the original.
“Fair enough. But at least they’re picking that one. Of the two possible options, that’s the more interesting one to me. The other one – that he’s just human, just some detective? – that’s boring to me.
“I saw that film in theatres first, with my dad. And that was a big one, for sure. Not when it was originally released, but I saw it young. There’s a theatre in Ottawa called the Mayfair that does second-run films, and they do classics sometimes. It’s this beautiful old theatre. I actually went to junior high school right next door.”
Does your dad share your interest in Science Fiction?
“Big time. Yeah, he’s the reason. But my mom too. Watching ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and ‘The X-Files’ was family time, when I was growing up. My parents split up when I was really young, but one of my earliest memories was watching ‘Terminator’ it must have been right when it came out on video. I was 3 or 4, wa-a-ay too young to watch Terminator.
“But that kind of 80s Hollywood style sci-fi, the really real, practical effects, gritty, boxy tech. I love that. I love the real feeling of ‘Alien’. And the original ‘Star Wars’ films have that. I think it’s swinging back to that now. ‘Interstellar’ was a nice step in that direction back toward practical effects.”
I think Christopher Nolan is one of a small group of blockbuster directors who tries to avoid using digital effects as much as possible.
“Yeah, and he’s great at that. He’s a terrible writer, but he’s a great director. And we’ll see how the new Star Wars shapes up, but a big thing [Director J.J.] Abrams has been saying is ‘Real sets, real props’, and that’s really encouraging. And I’m interested in seeing what their homages to the original trilogy are going to be. Because structurally it’s obvious that it’s the same movie. Just what we’ve seen in the trailers it’s very clear that they are just making the movie again.”
SF and horror are still the main genres that attract you. What is it about those two genres that you find so rich? What do you want to express through them?
“Horror is all about the fear of the unknown. And SF is all about the possibility of the unknown. And I like where those two things intersect. The first story from 'Tales from the Black' [Munch's monthly "true" horror/sci-fi/fantasy storytelling showcase at Bad Dog Theatre] "I opened it with a story called ‘The Pit’ and it’s about a guy who goes home to check on his dad who he hasn’t heard from in a while, and he finds that his dad has dug a pit in the earth in the dining room in their house, and has made a bunch of tunnels under their house. So that kind of stuff – what happens to the mind when it is allowed to fester and wander?
“And I’m interested in the concept of what it really means to be human and to be conscious. How our senses which we take as truth really only encompass a tiny slice of the universe. Even what we see is just light bouncing off of objects, right. Something as simple as colour could be entirely different for everyone, and the fact that it all works for everybody is amazing to me. Those kinds of things – questions of perception, reality and humanity.
“The story I wrote for December’s ‘Tales from the Black’ is about an android who falls in love with his customer support rep, with his technical support person, and tries to find her. Because I love stories – and ‘BladeRunner’ is a big influence on this – I love stories about robots who don’t know they are robots.”
Were you a fan of Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’?
“Yeah, oh, yeah. And I was a big fan of the ‘Battlestar Gallactica’ reboot, because it’s about two of my favourite things in one: space fighter pilots and robots who don’t know they’re robots. When that show came out I couldn’t believe it. And I know people who are in it, because it’s filmed in Vancouver, and I felt like, ‘My life is a failure because I was not positioned to be in this show.’ ”
(Sympathetic sighing on my part.)
“I don’t feel that way anymore. But in 2007 it hit pretty close to the bone.”
How do you approach the writing you do for ‘Tales from the Black’ differently than the other writing and performing roles you have?
“I just talk to myself all the time. I always have. I always will. I talk to myself in my room, in the shower, walking down the street, and sometimes the things I say, I write down. So there is no separation for me.”
Do you typically write in first person?
“I write a lot of dialogue. I don’t like writing description or action. But I like directing, so it’s kind of a weird synergy where I write almost in the sense of ‘We see this’. I don’t literally write that, but that’s the way I think about action and description. And I think my love of video games informs that quite a bit, because this whole amazing world is here, and all this detail is here, and individual artists have spent countless hours designing little things that you are just going to run by, so I think about that as well. All of this stuff is here, but I am not so in love with it that I need to tell you every single thing about it. It’s like what I talk about when I teach, ‘Let the audience fill in the blanks.’ ”
Other than your SF novel, are there other longer pieces that you are working on? What would be the optimum scenario for you? Do you aspire to publish a novel some day?
“Yeah, I’d like to. I’d like to write for TV. I have written for television. I really love ‘Rick and Morty’ right now. It’s the best show on TV right now. Oh, man, you’ve got to watch it. It’s a cartoon, it’s comedy, but it’s really dark. And the basic premise is like Doc Brown and Marty from ‘Back to the Future’ – an eccentric old man adventurer and his idiot teenage grandson. And it’s brilliant, it’s amazing. It has a real improvisational quality. Chris Parnell of SNL plays the dad in it. But the writing is also really tight, and the plotting is really good.
“In the first season in particular they basically take two science fiction tropes, or two movies, and kind of run them in parallel. So they have a show that is both an ‘Inception’ parody and a ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ parody, and – if you think about it – that just makes perfect sense. And that’s just the A story, which is a high-concept thing, and then the B story is a family drama.
“Jocelyn, my producing partner, is writing on the new ‘ReBoot’ show, and I am very jealous. I would love to write on that show.”
I sometimes think about science fiction that in a way it’s the ultimate contemporary genre, because technology is impinging on our lives all the time and the future can be so scary at times. So if science fiction serves a social purpose, presumably it’s to help us imagine a future we want to move towards.
“Yeah, totally. I think about this all the time. Nerds grow up reading science fiction and then go into engineering and make it happen.”
But at the moment, at least in terms of mainstream media culture, most science fiction is very scary, very dark, very disempowering. It’s not Star Trek. Star Trek was, ‘The world is messed up now, but 300 years from now we’re going to have racial harmony, ecological harmony, and we’re going to be exploring the universe in peace.’ Now, most of it is, ‘Five years, ten years from now it all goes to hell and the worst of human nature takes over.’ So I wonder, is science fiction actually interfering with our ability to imagine a future that we DO want to move toward?
“I think it’s changing and becoming more hopeful.”
Where do you see signs of that?
“Well, ‘The Hunger Games’ is about good triumphing over evil, just as a crude example. ‘Interstellar’, although clumsy in its execution, is about living life beyond earth. Although it comes from a pessimistic place. They've just announced a new Star Trek television show, and I am cautiously optimistic for it. I would love a slow, boring science fiction show right now.”
I wasn’t a fan of the new Star Trek films, the J.J. Abrams ones. They’re very entertaining movies, but you can’t take Spock – who’s a hero of intellect – and turn him into a punch-’em-up character. And they’re not real science fiction.
“No, they’re adventure fantasy. But Star Trek isn’t real science fiction either. Their science is all bullshit. But Picard is one of my favourite characters because art and intellect and patience and humanity, he comes unhinged at times, he has flaws, and I think a lot of that is the writing, and a lot of that is Patrick Stewart’s performance.”
Who is a genuinely great actor.
“And who knew that that show would turn into what it would turn into? Ron Moore, who was the showrunner for that show and ‘Deep Space Nine’, got frustrated with the Star Trek-ness of ‘Voyager’, so he took what he wanted Voyager to be and turned it into ‘Battlestar Gallactica’, and you can see those parallels really clearly, the ship on its own with limited resources, and the distrust between two different camps of people – a lot of that is in the pitch doc for ‘Voyager’. And then it got homogenized.”
Yeah, I never liked ‘Voyager’.
“No, it sucked. Why would you? It was garbage. And the first episode was the best one. It ends on this dangerous note of ‘We don’t know what’s out there, and it’s going to be dangerous, but it’s also going to be exciting.’ And then on one of the next episodes they solve one of their major problems through space magic and totally pull the rug out from under the whole concept for the show.”
Do you read much contemporary fiction outside of SF and horror? Are there other writers you admire?
“I am working my way through all of Vonnegut’s stuff. He’s definitely my favourite writer. I kind of just keep coming back to ‘Slaughterhouse Five’. I read it at least once a year. You can read it in a couple of hours. I read it at least once a year. He’s great. And his voice is really similar to mine. I love the way he writes.
“And I like that as he gets older he’s less interested in being a novelist, and more interested in his experience and the world he’s leaving behind.
“I just read ‘The Martian’, which was cool as a cultural moment, and I’m reading ‘Ready Player One’ [by Ernest Cline]. It’s one of those things I read and on every page I am kicking myself for my own inertia, because it’s a book about all the stuff I grew up caring about, that I take for granted and don’t even think of as special or unusual. He’s slapped all that stuff onto the hero’s journey, and it’s really brilliant. It’s delightful to read. It’s super pop-y – but it’s fun and easy to read.”
What about Cory Doctorow? He writes in that same vein of video games and very up-to-the-minute technology in a popular, accessible way.
“I haven’t read any of his stuff, but I really want to. He’s local, isn’t he?”
I’m not sure. [Yes – according to Wikipedia, he was born in Toronto. He also, apparently, is not related to E. L. Doctorow, the writer of ‘Ragtime’ and ‘The Book of Daniel.’]
“He’s cool. I’ve read more interviews with him than I have his stuff. I like Neil Gaiman. I want to read some Haruki Murakami, because I am hearing a lot about him.”
Well, your pit story connects with Murakami’s ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.’ A lot of it is about someone in a pit.
“Oh, no way?”
But it’s not about tunnels.
“Well, good – it’s completely different.”
Yeah. I have mixed feelings about Murakami. Having lived in Japan, I find his non-fiction really interesting. He wrote a really good book about the Tokyo sarin gas attacks in the 1990s where he went out and interviewed victims and cult members – not the ones that were directly involved, but members of the group. It was a series of magazine articles that was expanded into a book. It’s just a very odd window into contemporary life, and amazingly a lot of the victims don’t seem to blame the cult but the rigidity and meaninglessness of the society that produces the cult.
“Geez, we could use some of that cultural introspection right now.”
He’s also got a nice light book about writing called ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, which is referencing the Raymond Carver book ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,’ so he’s talking about writing and running and how they both serve each other.
“I’m read a really cool article in which Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro are talking about Ishiguro’s recent book about trolls, ‘The Buried Giant’, and he got slammed by literary critics saying, ‘What are you doing writing this fantasy novel with trolls?’ And he and Gaiman were talking about genre, and I’m really interested in this idea now because genre is just a marketing tool at this point, as far as I’m concerned. And I’m aware of that as a producer. I have to sell something based on its genre. I hate that ‘Tales from the Black’ is the ‘true sci-fi horror storytelling show’. I wish I didn’t have to put those labels on there, because people go in with an expectation that is valuable to me as a producer and a director, but that I chafe under as a writer.”
(Munch clarified in a follow-up email that the tales are ‘true’ – in quotes on the show’s poster – in so far as they are told in the first-person, as if they happened to the storyteller. But otherwise they are fictional and written in advance.)
“But Ishiguro in this interview talks about how all these literary critics slammed him for writing a silly book with trolls in it, and all of the genre fans reacted with, ‘Who is this snooty lit jerk trying to write a fantasy novel?’ And, ‘Look how foolish he is trying to write this fantasy novel.’ And he was baffled by both of these responses because he just writes the books he wants to write. And then Gaiman, who is a genre king, has always seen himself as more of a literary writer, because his books are full of literary references. It’s a very cool article."
“I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction too. Last summer the New Yorker made its entire back catalogue available online for free. So I found a list on Reddit of the best New Yorker articles, so I’m working my way through that. The last story I wrote for ‘Tales from the Black’ was based on an article I read about free divers, people who dive in the ocean without oxygen. So I wrote a story about people who jump into space without a space suit. So it’s the next evolution of that, with X-Games and RedBull sponsorships and that kind of thing.”
Is it possible to do that without just getting killed?
But only for a super-short period of time, I imagine.
“Longer than you’d think.”
It would be extremely painful, though, wouldn’t it?
“Yes, yes. Your body puffs up because all of the nitrogen in your blood gasifies. So you expand, but you don't pop because your skin is very stretchy, but you could theoretically expand to maybe twice your size, which would be awful. And you have to exhale all of the oxygen and methane in your body before you do it, because it will burst out of you if you don’t. So you basically have to fart and exhale before the door opens, and then you can go through. And it’s actually not freezing cold in space, because there’s not enough matter in space for the heat or the cold to transfer between molecules. The molecules are just in a state of inertia.
“And where my story takes place is in the thermosphere. The ambient temperature in the thermosphere is 2500 degrees Celsius, but because the molecules are so inert there’s no heat transfer. This is the second highest layer of the atmosphere. It’s where the ISS [International Space Station] orbits. Yeah, I did a bunch of research – it was fascinating.”
You should publish all these stories as a ‘Tales from the Black’ collection.
“After our first year, for our anniversary, I want to do an anthology of our best stories and sell it at the show. I got a ‘Moth’ book for Christmas two years ago, from my ex’s dad, the writer. We also record all the shows, so in the springtime my friend Paulo Aflalo is re-launching his podcast from the No More Radio network. So we’re going to release ‘Tales from the Black’ as a podcast.”
So if, one of these days, you see a crowd-funding campaign online to raise the $200,000 it would cost to send Colin to space with Virgin Galactic, DON’T DONATE! Just between you and me, I don’t trust Colin not to pop the hatch and try free diving in the thermosphere. But he’s too young to die. He’s got too many other stories still to tell.
The next installment of ‘Tales from the Black’ is January 15th at Bad Dog. Catch Colin this week and next as part of the rotating cast of ‘The Pageant’ (Bad Dog’s outrageous annual Christmas show) running Friday to Sunday, December 4th to 18th. To read my previous improv- and comedy-focused interview with Colin, click here.