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  • Writer's pictureRua Fay

An Interview with Screenwriter, Nick Sagan

This week, I had the incredible opportunity to interview Nick Sagan with the help of my friend, Julian Martin. Mr. Sagan is a former screenwriter for Star Trek: The Next Generation, a published fiction author, professor, and son of legendary astronomer, Carl Sagan. At the age of 6, his voice was put onto the NASA Golden Record and sent off into space, for decades he served as the youngest screenwriter to ever work on Star Trek, and he currently has three published sci-fi novels. Over the course of our time together we were able to discuss many topics from his his experiences as a young writer, to the film industry, to his father's legacy, and even his favorite dinosaur.

Rua: "Welcome, Professor can you start us out by introducing yourself?"

Sagan: "Sure, I'm Nick Sagan, professor at the Park School of Communications, screenwriter, author... cosmic ambassador. I wear a lot of hats."

Rua: "I've always wondered, do you believe your father's work as an astronomer inspired your love of sci-fi?"

Sagan: "Oh, absolutely. Y'know I guess we'e all kind of products of our environment, I had an agent whose father was a screenwriter and his mother was a psychiatrist and he said that as an agent he was pretty much 'a shrink for writers.' In my case, my dad introduced me to a lot of wonderful science fiction growing up, Isaac Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, and some of these people were sort of friends of the family. My mother would throw these lavish dinner parties and I would come down stairs in my pajamas and there would be all these scientists and science fiction authors. I apparently sat on Isaac Asimov's lap when I was two and absorbed a lot of his science fiction through osmosis. Meanwhile, my mother would introduce me to great, classic fantasy stories including Tolkien and Alice in Wonderland and a whole bunch of Newbery award winning fantasy books, and so I, as an angst-ridden teen I really didn't know what I wanted to do but I'm sure these influences led me to becoming who I am today."

Rua: "Out of all your work as a screenwriter throughout the years, what would you say is your favorite or something you're most proud of?"

Sagan: "Ugh, you can't Sophie's Choice me like that, there are a lot of things I'm proud of. Probably the things that have reached the most people are my Star Trek episodes. It was a series where the original episodes meant so much to me growing up, so to be able to give back to that sort of mythology is really gratifying and meaningful to me. But my novels are probably the most personal things that I've written. Y'know I've written graphic novels and planetarium shows...I've had the good fortune of working in a variety of different mediums and I get something different out of each one so it's hard to say that just one is what I got the most out of."

Rua: "Now you've been a professor for almost two decades, correct?"

Sagan: "I mean it feels like twenty but yeah."

Rua: "Do you often notice a certain arrogance when it comes to film students?"

Sagan: "Haha, why what ever do you mean? I mean, I am I am truly a Parkie, I rarely interact with other parts of the school. So when you say 'arrogance' it's hard to compare to other types of students. But yeah, people who go into film and television tend to be very passionate and some people can be very arrogant and dismissive of other ideas. One of the things I try to do is foster an environment where people can freely exchange thoughts and opinions. Some people can be jerks about it but that's just the nature of the beast.

Rua: "Just off the top of your head what are your favorite movies?"

Sagan: "Well, for a long time it was A Clockwork Orange, I was a big Stanley Kubrick fan. When I was a teenager I had a lot of affection for the films of Alex Cox who made Sid and Nancy, which was my favorite movie for a long time, and before that, Repo Man. There's a wide range of things I enjoy from comedies to dramas to horror to you name it."

Rua: "One of your first episodes of Star Trek, Attached, is perhaps one of the most acclaimed in the show's history. Do awards and praise matter as much to you now as they did when you were first starting out as a writer? Did they ever matter to begin with?"

Sagan: "What a sweet question, first of all, thank you. I think I benefit and suffer from a mindset where I never want to rest on my laurels. And so I tend to be skeptical of positive criticism because I don't want to stop trying to do new things. So the praise I've gotten for stuff I've done has been very gratifying and I really, deeply appreciate when I've done something that's affected someone in a positive way and left them different than how they found them. But I also think I'm more attuned to what people didn't like because I want to make sure that I learn from that and am better the next time. So that's kind of a good skill set on a certain level, but it's also stopped me from fully appreciating and enjoying how much people get out of the stuff that I've done."

Rua: "Four years ago you said this really beautiful quote you said that your father was, 'more present in his absence than some people are in their presence.' Can you just elaborate on that?"

Sagan: Yeah, well researched, first of all. My dad was, in addition to being my dad, he was also the best teacher I ever had and one of the most inspiring people on the planet. And his ability to awaken a sense of wonder and imagination in millions of people around the globe and to encourage critical thinking and skepticism, these are really valuable elements of sort of the challenges we're facing right now, we need more of that. People often tell me how much he meant to them and even though he's not here, his legend keeps growing and he continues to reach people, which is a kind of presence, it's as if he's here in a way. And yet, looking at the existential challenges we face, it feels like there's a sort of Carl Sagan-shaped hole in the universe, where we need more of the kind of wisdom he brought. And I don't mean to...kind of overstate what he did...

Rua: "Is that really possible?"

Sagan: "I'm very lucky, there are people who have a famous relative who have done something horrifying and I have one who engendered a love of the universe and learning. I'm an incredibly lucky in that respect even though I often wish he was still here, he died very young when he was 62, so I often think about if my daughter could meet him now?"

Julian: "Can you tell us a little bit about your work with David Fincher and Martin Scorsese?"

Sagan: "Oh, well I think that overstates it, it's not like we were all together, rolling up our sleeves working on stuff. When I was an early screenwriter David Fincher was really more of a friend of a friend Actually, one of my scripts got bought by Martin Scorsese's production company and they sort of helped me develop it and for a while it looked like we were gonna make that movie go into production and then there was another movie coming out that was a little similar to what I was doing called The Sixth Sense and that kind of torpedoed that. But as a big Scorsese fan growing up, that was like a dream come true."

Rua: "Now, you were born in Boston but spent a large portion of your childhood in Los Angeles. Do you believe growing up in LA inspired you to become a part of the film industry?"

Sagan: "In a lot of ways, yes. Filmmaking is so ubiquitous in Los Angeles, I remember Ed Solomon said that you could interview people coming out of a movie theater and say 'how's the screenplay going?' and they'll say, 'good, how did you know I was writing a screenplay?' My mother was originally an artist, wound up writing for a number of 8 o'clock dramas and a couple soap operas, and so as an impressionable teenager I would watch her write and she would bounce lines off me and then increasingly I started to learn how television writing and no doubt that was an inspiration for me."

Julian: "I'm curious as to your perspective on film school since there has been a huge debate as to the importance of it in recent years. So from your perspective, do you think film school is worth it?"

Sagan: "That's a great question, honestly it depends largely on the individual. A friend put to me once 'Nick there's life and then there's film, make sure there's life in your film.' And to extrapolate on that, the college experience both the academic education and just being on your own for the first time with a bunch of likeminded people, that's something you can't get elsewhere, so there is a value in it. Having said that, employers won't care if you have a degree in screenwriting they're going to care about what you write and if you can tell a story. I really believe college is about the experience more than anything else. Myself, I graduated from UCLA and I enrolled in the MFA program there and within six weeks I was getting job offers. I don't regret launching my career at that point instead of staying in school. Often I find that classes push people into doing things they wouldn't normally do, if you don't have a deadline, a lot of people just won't do it, and if that's the kind of person you are that structure can be very useful. It's really a case by case kind of thing, does that answer your question, Julian?"

Julian: "It does, it does, thank you."

Rua: "Can you tell me how to sort of navigate the area between the artist and the businessman in the film industry?"

Sagan: "Yeah, that can be a challenge. I personally, am someone who doesn't like to talk about money if I can help it. I've benefited from having good representation over the years both in terms of agent and entertainment lawyer, you really want people on your side for that sort of thing. You kind of have to make yourself a...commodity, which is kind of a bad word when it comes to someone's brand but you have to. Part of it is understanding what value you bring, because unlike novels, films are blueprints on how to spend millions of dollars. But then there's a whole question of how do you protect yourself as a business person, how do you argue and advocate for yourself, how do you not get screwed over by people who would want to take advantage of a young writer. My stepmother is a really great businessperson, she learned it from my grandfather, Harry who was a very successful New York garment business salesman. Part of it is just saying 'no' to people at times and seeing if they'll come back with a better offer, and that's scary when you're starting out because you don't want to rub people the wrong way but standing up for yourself is an important part of this.

Rua: "What are your thoughts on the art vs. artist debate that's been more emphasized in recent years?"

Sagan: "I struggle with it. My general default is that I think it's worth studying great art regardless of who that person is as long as you make it clear that there is a separation of art and artist, and that great filmmakers and storytellers are not always great people. There's a lesson there about not falling in love with your heroes and also to not become a monster if you're lucky enough to successful. Spike Lee talked about how they would fawn over Birth of a Nation at NYU and say 'yeah it's racist but look at all the good filmmaking' and how that felt to be in the audience. So I think it needs to be approached with some caution but I think it's worth exploring this stuff instead of hiding from it.

Rua: "I've always found that debate really interesting especially when you're talking about film because when you look back, the man responsible for the moving image, Edweard Muybridge was convicted of murder. It's impossible to explore film without running into bad people, and you could even argue that film is an evil art form.

Sagan: "Yeah, and he was released and sort of given a pass."

Rua: "It's impossible to explore film without running into bad people, and you could even argue that film is an evil art form. When you commit yourself to not consuming art by bad people, you're closing yourself off to so much incredible and important work."

Sagan: "Yeah, and what's odd to me is that if I were teaching a history class instead of a film history class, we wouldn't skip over things like the Trail of Tears so why is it different for film? One of the things I'm going to show in class soon is a clip from Ren & Stimpy because it's important to show how animation goes from the sort of 80's style to Spongebob and things like that. But then again, the creator, John Kricfalusi is a terrible, terrible person, in the same category as Polanski and Woody Allen. But I don't think you could understand that bridge to modern animation without Ren & Stimpy. And then there's an argument of: 'well what about all the other people that worked on that show other than John K?' Y'know, does that mean all of their hard work has to be shunned and invalidated all because John is such a creep?' I'm still kind of struggling with that."

Rua: "That's kind of what's happening with Rick and Morty right now."

Sagan: "Yeah, it's very similar."

Julian: "Personally, I'm curious about your thoughts on the over-saturation of Marvel and superhero movies that we've been seeing at the box office in the past few years? There was a sort of viral screenshot that surfaced last year of an AMC in New York City that just had dozens and dozens of showings of Multiverse of Madness in just one day. Where do stand on that issue?"

Sagan: "On one hand I believe that people should be entertained and the market goes where the market goes, but having said that there is a criticism of Hollywood that it's become safe and you get 'sequel-itis' because studios know that people are going to go see it so they'll put their money in that as opposed to the original, daring, original, smaller movies, because they have to put all their money into this big blockbuster to keep the momentum going. I'm sympathetic to my colleagues that miss how film was in the 70's and so on but I also feel like that's a kind of bellyaching that's not productive right now, but I do think there's something to be said about making Hollywood less safe, if that makes sense."

Julian: "I completely agree."

Rua: "Over the course of your career, have you found yourself having to rebel against being known as simply 'Carl Sagan's son?'"

Sagan: "When I was a kid that weighed very heavy on my psyche, I was very much uncomfortable as a teenager because this is when Cosmos came out and we would watch it in my science class and then again in my social studies class, and it was just kind of odd. So it was important for me to establish myself, but nowadays I look at it as 'I am so lucky to have had that time with him and to have people come up to me and say how much he meant to them and I think that's a very glorious, healing, positive, wonderful way of keeping him alive, it helps me through my grief. I see it as positive thing now but when I was an angst-ridden teen there was definitely a feeling of wanting to be sort of anonymous and being known for my own thing and through a lot of good luck and hard work I'm now known for my own stuff so I don't have the negative feelings towards that like I used to."

Rua: "Okay, now this is going to sound like a really stupid question..."

Sagan: "Oh, not at all."

Rua: "My boyfriend, Liam has this theory that you can tell a lot about a person based on their favorite dinosaur..."

Sagan: "Hahahahahaha."

Rua: "So...what is your favorite dinosaur?"

Sagan: "That's funny because in one of my classes I talk about one of my favorite dinosaurs being a Diplodocus. I also like some of the carnivores like the Allosaurus and I love the Pterodactyl, I like how dinosaurs just sort of turned into birds, I think it's amazing-"

Rua: "Like the Archaeopteryx?"

Sagan: "Yeah! That's amazing to me!"

Julian: "I've always wondered what's your favorite scary movie?"

Sagan: "Haha, I feel like we're in Scream all of a sudden. Gosh, growing up I had a lot of love for The Shining because I saw it by myself when I was 9 and it hit me on a very deep, emotional level. It's not exactly a horror movie but I find the horror of Requiem for a Dream very powerful. I tend to like horror movies that tie into real life themes like grief, I responded to Hereditary and The Babadook, that kind of stuff is my jam. That being said I love all kind of late night, not very well made horror movies as a sort of comedy. There's a couple that stay in my head that are not as well known like Pontypool."

Julian: "I've heard of Pontypool, I hear it's really good."

Rua: "My last question that I ask all my guests, a-la the style of Inside the Actor's Studio...what is your favorite swear word?"

Sagan: "Haha, oh wow, again a Sophie's Choice question. The creator of Veep did a film called In The Loop, there's a character who sort of loops the F-word into every sentence and my favorite is 'fuckity-bye!' That one's got a special place in my heart.

Rua: "Okay well, thank you so much for your time, Professor Sagan. This was easily my favorite interview I've done, cannot thank you enough."

Sagan: "Thank you for having me."

Big thanks to Mr. Sagan and Julian Martin for helping this interview come to life. If you would like to check out more of Sagan's work you can visit his website here. Once again, thank you for supporting and remember to never stop watching!

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