In 1979, George R.R. Martin gave up a teaching position in Iowa and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to become a full time writer. As he'll tell you himself, he came for the natural solitude but stayed indefinitely for the green chili and mosquito-free sunsets.Thirty-five years later, Martin isn't only a global icon of the fantasy genre, but he's also a man who has helped facilitate the rise of the arts in Santa Fe. In 2006, Martin reopened the city's oldest independent movie theater, the Jean Cocteau Cinema, renovating the concession area and installing a new screen and digital projectors. To put it mildly, this renovation of the famous theater helped Santa Fe explore its artistic identity, as has rising festivals such as the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, now in its sixth and most-attended year yet.
To celebrate Martin's city contributions, the directors of the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival not only gave him the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award. but they also programmed a Master Conversation moderated by his friend and colleague, Oscar-nominated filmmaker and screenwriter Pen Densham ("Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"). "Thrones" may be dark and full of gruesome twists, but Martin is quite the jolly presence in front of an audience, full of energy and compassion for his craft. From dishing out parental advice to exploring his adoration for comic books, here are the highlights from SFIFF's George R.R. Martin Master Conversation:
Martin Loves Talking, Except About "Game Of Thrones"
Anyone hoping the writer would reveal tidbits from the final two installments of "A Song Of Ice and Fire" was surely disappointed by the conversation. Ironically, the only time Martin spoke about "Thrones" was when admitting to hating having to speak about it in the first place. The reason: talking about it is tiring nowadays. As Martin put it, "I've done so many interviews recently and I think I’m going to cut down on that. I just did a film festival in Switzerland and France, and I was in a room for two days having different journalists come in every 30 minutes to ask the same questions over and over and over again. I was drained halfway through it. It's creatively stifling." There's also the reoccurrence of his least favorite question in the world: what's going to happen if he dies before finishing the books? "I got pissed at one guy and gave him the middle finger when he asked that," the writer admitted to uproarious laughter. "I really don't like that question. But honestly, I probably wouldn't have done that if I wasn't so tired from the proceeding seven interviews."
Comic Books Inspired Him to Read and Write
If there was one takeaway from the Master Conversation it's that Martin is completely infatuated with comic books, so much so he credits them for instigating his entire career. "I'm so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer. In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet. They lived in this white bread suburban world that was absolutely of no relevance to me living in the densely urbanized Bayonne [NJ]. I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived. When you read comics you start to identify with the hero. You can be Batman, Green Lantern, John Carter of Mars or whoever you want to be. It's a great way to have adventures you can't have in real life. You can live a broader life. Comic books really kept me going."
Sorry DC Comics, but Martin is a Marvel Guy
Martin wasted no time searching for an answer when asked what the most inspiring piece of literature he ever read was. "The Marvel comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s," he claimed proudly. "I had been reading DC comics before that, from Superman to Batman and The Flash, but when Marvel came along Stan Lee broke all the rules. Nothing ever happened in the DC comic books. They were circular. Superman would have an adventure but by the end he would finish in the same place where he started. Batman would have an adventure and come right back to where he was before. Nothing ever changed. There was no conflict. There were good guys and there were bad guys."
Martin singled out the Fantastic Four as a major reason Marvel was so influential for him. "Those early issues were amazing. Heck, one of them was a monster, The Thing! That was just unheard of at the time. Here you had this guy who didn't like being what made him special, and he was really angry at Reed Richards for making him The Thing and not being able to cure him. There was even a romantic triangle in those early comics where The Thing was interested in Sue Storm but she was interested in Reed."
Spider-Man was another. "Spider-Man went through all these girlfriends and he was in high school and then he actually graduated. He was with Liz Allan and Betty Brant and Gwen Stacy!" he said with excitement. "That kind of thing never happened in DC! It was just Louis Lane and Superman for 30 years, and it was just always going to be Louis Lane and Superman. They never had any progress in their relationship and they never broke up. Sometimes Jimmy Olsen would become a giant turtle boy, but then he would stop becoming a giant turtle boy by the end of the episode and you'd be right back where you started. The idea of comics where something actually happened was tremendously powerful to me."
You Can Thank Wonder Man For Martin's Career
You wouldn't be mistaken for drawing parallels between Martin's own work and the love triangle/identity complications of "Fantastic Four," but it's a more obscure Marvel character the author pinpoints as having the most influence on his own novels. "Clearly one of the biggest influences on my own work was that Marvel actually killed people," Martin admitted with a grin as audience members laughed while bitterly remembering The Red Wedding. "One of the best issues of 'The Avengers' is the one that introduced a character called Wonder Man. He was this new character that came in and joined the Avengers but he was really a bad guy. He was like this plant in the team who was supposed to destroy them from within. But then when it came time to destroy them he ended up liking them too much and was unable to carry through with the plan. He ultimately gave up his own life and died to save them. So here you have this grey character who pretends to be a hero but who is really a villain, but there’s actually some decency in him because he can’t do the villainous act at the end, and then he dies in the same issue that he's introduced.” Martin concluded the only way he could, "Stan Lee was the great comic genius of our time."
Martin's Career Was Started In Fanzines
Martin was first published in comic book fanzines before selling his first story to Galaxy when he was 21. "I had a letter published in 'Fantastic Four,' and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them. Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could. So I wrote stories and they published them and people would write into the fanzines saying they liked this guy George. That was crucial to my development – the early praise encouraged me to do more. Eventually I started sending out some of my other stories and it was one of those a couple years later that sold to Galaxy and got me my first $94 check."
Development Forced Martin Out of Hollywood
After plans to turn Martin's failed novel "The Armageddon Rag" into a movie fell through, producer Phil DeGuere ("Simon & Simon") courted the novelist to help him write for the remake of "The Twilight Zone." Thus began Martin's ten years in Hollywood, the first half of which was spent writing for various shows at once, including "Max Headroom" and "Beauty and the Beast." As time went on, Martin turned to the lucrative business of developing pilots, but constant rejection soon pushed him out. "They were paying a lot of money for these pilots but none of them got made!" he shouted in annoyance. "We shot one pilot that didn’t get picked up. We developed three or four other pilots but none of them ever got made! But I eventually learned something about myself during those five years of development, and that was that I'm an entertainer. I want an audience. Spending a year of my life creating this world and setting up characters only for the studio to decide not to do it was awful. Nobody ever saw these works except for four guys in a room. I don't care how much money they pay you, it's just so not emotionally satisfying to be in development."
But HBO and the "Television Golden Age" Brought Him Back
When asked why he returned to Hollywood for "Game of Thrones," Martin snapped back with the most hilarious answer of the event – "It's not TV, it's HBO!" His real answer was more in line with what has drawn other talents to the small screen over the past several years. "Television is largely run by writers. The showrunners who are in charge of shows are writers 95% of the time," he reaffirmed. "Writers long ago lost the battle for feature films, which was taken over by directors. We can blame the French for that and the auteur theory, which basically said the director is the real author of the film. As a result, writers are treated horribly on features. They're fired on a whim, they're replaced or you get 12 different writers on one script. It's not a good system to produce good movies. That's why we're in a Golden Age of TV because TV is where the real drama is. TV is where the real writers are."
Martin Hates Syd Field
Martin believes nobody has a clue what they're doing in Hollywood. These beliefs were bottled up in a hilarious tirade against American screenwriting guru Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it's his guide to writing screenplays and it's probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry," he criticized. "For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call the suits, the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start cirticizing screenplays like, 'Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won't do!' Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules. If there really was a formula as he says than every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet." So who does Martin think young screenwriters should turn to for help? William Goldman and his novel "Adventures in the Screen Trade."
Hollywood Can Make a Difference When Cities Offer Tax Credits
After being asked what cities can do to bring in more Hollywood productions, Martin pointed out the obvious answer: tax credits. He singled out the "short-sighted stupidity" of current New Mexican Governer Susana Martinez for eliminating certain tax credits, and Martin's impassioned rebuttle drew the biggest applause of the event: "Even if all the actors and directors come from Hollywood, and even if the production is being made by a Hollywood studio like Paramount or whatever, they're still hiring a ton of grips, gaffers, Kraft service people and they're staying in hotels and they're eating in the restaurants."
He supported this response by proving how influential "Game of Thrones" is to the community of Belfast, Ireland. Shockingly, Belfast pays "Thrones" $1 million a year to shoot there and gives them access to the country's largest sound stage for only $1 year. While some people are opposed to their taxpayer money going to the budget of "Thrones," Martin refutes these claims since the production in return contributes $40 million to the Belfast community. "The government gives $1 million to us, but the $40 million we give back goes to the hotels, to the people who are hired to grip and gaff. It goes to the restaurants we eat at and to the taxi drivers who are driving us all around. It goes to all the people who make our costumes and the local actors who make up the extras. You give up a $1 million and you get $40 million into the economy, which is the kind of stuff politicians have to realize."
We're the Reason Martin is Taking So Long to Finish "A Song Of Ice And Fire"
"Writer's block isn't to blame here, it's distraction. In recent years, all of the work I've been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It's like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who's passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don't write when I travel. I don't write in hotel rooms. I don't write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day. I have assistants and minions whose main job is to make sure people don't bother me so I can actually get writing done."
Martin's Big Advice to Parents: Read to Your Kids!
"My mother thankfully read me stories as far back as I can remember. Something like 'Beatrix Potter' and 'Peter Rabbit.' My mother would even read me horror. There was something about this weasel. I don't remember exactly what it was, but god that weasel terrified me when I was three years old. Like learning a foreign language, reading is something you absolutely have to start learning early in life. If you have a kid, start reading to them now. Encourage their imagination and creativity." Martin thinks reading is more important than ever in the age where there are so many consumption possibilities. "When I look at it, I think some of my creativity was a result of being forced into making things up because we didn't have so many things available for us to consume. Now there's so much to consume and some of it is so detailed that you can loose yourself in things even like video games." For Martin, reading is a way to blur out distractive consumption and get the creative juices flowing.