Q&A with Alfred Gough & Miles Millar, Authors of Double Exposure
By John ValeriMarch 28, 2019
Alfred Gough and Miles Millar are screenwriters and showrunners who have worked extensively in film and television but are best known for creating the iconic series Smallville. The duo’s latest hit, Into the Badlands, is in its third season on AMC-TV. They met while attending the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC and have been creative partners ever since. Gough and Millar are embarking on a new creative endeavor with the publication of their debut thriller, Double Exposure, which introduces protagonist David Toland—“the Indiana Jones of film restoration.”
The duo recently took time to reflect on the genesis of Double Exposure, how their experiences in screenwriting informed the story’s development, why their creative partnership works, the ways in which facts inform fiction and the past recalls the present, and the cultural importance of film as a medium. They also offer a brief overview of their upcoming projects.
What compelled you to write Double Exposure, and why did this particular story seem fitting of a novel rather than some other form of storytelling?
In terms of career advancement, writers are generally advised to stick to one genre. It helps readers and publishers easily identify your work—think Grisham, Crais, and Connelly. But we’ve never liked to be creatively pigeon-holed and have hopscotched from buddy comedy to superhero to fantasy and now thriller. We have always liked to stretch and challenge ourselves as writers and creators. So, the idea of doing a thriller was both refreshing and inspiring. We were excited to add our particular spin to a genre we had never tried before.
We initially imagined Double Exposure as a movie, but as soon as we started breaking the outline, it became clear that the scope of the story was too big and would be more suited to a novel. The period setting, the globetrotting locations, and the elaborate action set-pieces—all turnoffs to dollar-conscious film executives. Since we started the book, Hollywood and the world have shifted away from movies and toward long-form TV series. The timing is perfect for Double Exposure as we feel it would actually be better suited to TV than film. In success, our plan is to approach Netflix and the other streaming services.
To follow-up on that: You are both well known for your contributions to television and film. In what ways did that background inform your approach to writing a book, and what skills did you find to be most transferrable vs. not?
Although Double Exposure is our first novel, we came to it after spending the entirety of our professional lives as screenwriters. We approached the story exactly the same way we would if we had been writing a movie or TV pilot. Like any great movie thriller, we wanted the narrative to have a propulsive drive. We have a motto of “never boring,” and we applied that to every beat of this story too. We didn’t want anything to slow the novel’s page-turning momentum.
Screenplays follow an incredibly rigid format. You have a maximum of 120 pages to tell your story from beginning to end. It makes you very disciplined. Every word counts. There is no time for descriptive digressions or meanderings. You have to set the scene as dynamically and economically as possible. Same for dialogue. This was exactly our approach to Double Exposure. We wanted it to be lean and muscular.
Our background as screenwriters also transferred to our desire to tell a satisfying story. For many novelists, the brilliance of their prose style often outweighs the imperative to deliver a dynamic beginning, middle, and end. We can’t tell you how many novels we’ve read that narratively peter out or don’t have endings that match the potential of the premise. We never launch into a screenplay unless we have a firm grasp of how our story is going to end.
Ultimately, writing is writing. Be it in novel form or a screenplay. Both require discipline, imagination, a worthy story, and memorable characters. Although obvious, the biggest difference is that writing a screenplay is a sprint, whereas a novel is a marathon.
Creative collaborations are uniquely intimate. Tell us about your working dynamic. Also, what are the greatest strengths that each of you brings to the process individually?
We have been writing together for over 25 years. We are workaholics and have always treated writing as a job. We meet every day—often seven days a week—and work from nine to five.
Our process has evolved over time. Being partners has really served us well; it’s a rare phenomenon in publishing but quite common in Hollywood. We have been able to enjoy and suffer the rollercoaster highs and lows of our career together. We always have multiple projects on the go. Some in script form; some mere ideas.
The most important part of the process for us is “breaking the story” and figuring out the structure. This can take days, weeks, or even years. We don’t subscribe to the Stephen King approach of writing as “excavation,” where you dive in and the story magically reveals itself. We like to figure out the beats of our stories before we launch into a draft. Each writer is different, but this works for us. We keep it flexible and are open to where the story takes us once we get going, but we need this rock-solid foundation before we feel confident to start.
We have a motto of “never boring,” and we applied that to every beat of this story too. We didn’t want anything to slow the novel’s page-turning momentum.
In terms of individual contributions, Al is naturally very funny and has a great ear for dialogue and characterization, while Miles is more visual and an idea generator. In truth, we have been working together for so long that we have almost melded into one. We are at a point where we can finish each other’s sentences. We very rarely argue about story points or character turns. If one of us has a problem, we figure out a solution that works for both of us. We also don’t believe in writer’s block. If we get stuck, we head to our favorite coffee shop and order pie. A good slice of pie can fix all things.
If ever there was a case to be made that the truth is indeed stranger than fiction, the CIA would arguably be Exhibit A. What historical facts formed the basis for your fiction, and how does the novel’s premise support the idea that the past and present are inexorably connected?
Without giving too much away, we loved the idea of starting with a real historical event and then using it as a jumping off point to spin our own wild, globe-trotting yarn. In our case, it’s documented fact that the Russians were the first to enter Hitler’s bunker when Berlin fell at the end of World War II. The novel takes place against the backdrop of the Cold War, and we tried to be as true to the period as possible without being slavish. That said, we wanted our hero, David Toland, to head the National Film Archive, but in reality, that wasn’t established by the Library of Congress until the 1970s. We decided to change that timeline to suit our story because we didn’t feel a reader would either know or care. Sometimes, story convenience trumps historical accuracy. Hopefully, the fact checkers will forgive us.
The idea of past and present being inexorably connected definitely factors into Double Exposure. We live in a time of deep mistrust, conspiracy theories, fake news, and arctic East/West relations. All these themes are threaded through the fabric of the novel. The manipulation of information is central and something we all confront on a daily basis in our contemporary lives. In a world drowning in information, what should we believe? Is a clip on Facebook real or created? This is the same dilemma faced by our hero, David Toland; the only difference is he embarks on a global adventure to uncover the truth.
Film plays an integral role in the story. What do you view as the importance of moviemaking, both as it pertains to your plot and more broadly? Also, why can fiction be an especially powerful lens through which to explore reality?
We are both die-hard movie buffs and have dedicated our professional lives to the art form. We first met at USC Film School and hit it off because we shared the same taste in movies. When we were dreaming up the hero of Double Exposure, David Toland, film restoration seemed like a unique skill set—one that hadn’t been explored before in either a novel or a movie. We imagined him as the Indiana Jones of film restoration. The character and concept were also great vehicles for us to explore our passion for movies.
While the MacGuffin of the novel pertains to a reel of film being smuggled over the Berlin Wall, the wider idea of “movies” permeates virtually every aspect of the book, from character to tone. For example, when the reader is first introduced to David, he’s regaling a bunch of school kids about his job and ends up screening Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
There are also dozens of movie references seeded throughout. It’s going to be intriguing to see if movie-savvy readers can find them all. The most obvious is David himself. We named him after the acclaimed cinematographer of Citizen Kane, Greg Toland.
Movies have played a vital cultural role for over 100 years. They are a unifying phenomenon in which people from all walks of life, socio-economic backgrounds, and races can sit together, entranced by a flickering image on a screen. Movies are a leveler, a point of emotional connection, in a way that novels haven’t been since Dickens. But sadly, the cultural significance of movies is fading—particularly the shared cinematic experience.
Fiction can be a very useful tool to explore reality. In the case of Double Exposure, we took a notorious real event and gave it our own fictional spin. The novel poses a giant historical “What if?” Hopefully, this twist is credible enough to make readers question their assumptions about what is fact and what is fiction.
Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?
We would love to continue David’s story in a series of novels. All would begin with David restoring a piece of film that launches him on another unexpected adventure. We have already written the outlines to two follow-ups, but we obviously need to wait and see the reaction to Double Exposure.
In terms of our screenwriting, we have spent the last four years writing and producing two epic television series. The Shannara Chronicles is a fantasy adventure that we shot in New Zealand, and Into the Badlands is a post-apocalyptic martial arts drama that we filmed in Dublin, Ireland. Recently, we have been working on a trio of new TV projects—so stay tuned.