Friday, March 2, 2012

KGB Interview: Hugh Sterbakov of City Under the Moon, Robot Chicken and Lots of Other Awesome

Once again, we've been lucky enough to score an interview with one of our favorites here at KGB. Today's interview is with Hugh Sterbakov: writer/toy wrangler for Robot Chicken, former Boba Fatt of GamePro, and current co-host of the One of Swords podcast. Hugh's just launched his first novel this month, and he was kind enough to spend a few minutes with Chris to talk about City Under the Moon, his career, and lots of other great stuff!

I want to thank you for taking the time to agree to this interview. I can’t think of a better time to talk with you, what with City Under the Moon launching soon. Don’t worry about potty mouth. We love naughty words. Fuck.

Sounds great, man. Thanks for having me!

Q: Can you start us off with the elevator pitch of your career? You seem to have worn quite a few hats in your time.

My day job has been screenwriting--I've sold film and TV scripts to Disney, Paramount, SciFi Network, yadda yadda. A lot of that is taking meetings and a tremendous amount of it is writing for free. So I frequently need other jobs.

Right after I got my undergrad degree, one of my professors put me in touch with fellow alum Dan Amrich, who set me on a path for a great little mini-career in the games journalism business, with high-profile gigs like GamePro. I grew up with Seth Green--he did some guest cover art for those junior high comics--and together we sold a movie script to Disney, and he co-created my comic, Freshmen. When he created Robot Chicken, I got best job on the show: the guy who buys all of the toys. I also wrote for a couple of the Star Wars specials, which earned me two Emmy nominations and an Annie Award (they're like the Oscars for animation). I also did some story editing for a reality TV show, some marketing for The Force Unleashed and, with my fellow Robot Chicken writers, I wrote some scenarios for Spore Galactic Adventures. 

Just recently, I did a last-minute page-one rewrite on an R-rated stop motion comedy that's already in production, called Hell & Back, starring Rob Riggle, TJ Swardson and a couple more huge names that are going to be announced any day now. I've also been tinkering in producing in the past six months, and that's been fun and fruitful. 

My biggest news is that I've written a novel, City Under the Moon, about an epidemic of werewolves in Manhattan. It's a science, political, military, and spy thriller all in one--all extremely realistic--with the obvious twist of supernatural horror. I spent two years tirelessly researching this thing--I did interviews with an FBI Agent, two world-renowned scientists, a government lawyer, a retired colonel, an Apache helicopter pilot, and a marine sniper; I worked with a book editor, a book designer and an incredible artist; and I decided to self-publish and do my own marketing. I'm figuring it out as I go along, but it's incredibly exciting.

Q: When did you realize that you were pretty good at writing? Has it always been a passion for you?

It was always a passion, but I never quite realized it. In grade school, when the other kids turned in three-paragraph short stories, I'd turn in three pages. When we got into action figures, most of my friends played with the established characters, but Seth and I took ours apart and made new characters and stories. I wrote a short novel on a typewriter when I was around 12. And then there were the comics, and I wrote a mishmash script/novel in high school, and then a first-person novel early in college, which I later turned into my first screenplay. And there were my comics. 

I realized I was good at it in college. I discovered I was faster and better than everyone else--my own little "Unbreakable" moment--and, for a college kid, that meant one thing: Take as many writing classes as you can, because then you have more time to drink, play videogames and have sex. So I took every writing class I could find, wrote my papers in as little as 10 minutes, and collected A's like cheap stamps.

Q: You are credited as being a “toy wrangler” for Robot Chicken on Adult Swim. Is that job as awesome as it seems to be? What was the most difficult part of wrangling toys?

It's awesome. Best job in all of Hollywood. I hate to complain about it, but once in a while there's something that's just impossible to find in a short amount of time. Usually, if I hit a brick wall, it's because of scale--for example, we shoot in 10", or Mego scale, but Star Wars toys are 12" or 3 3/4"--or lack of availability.

Also, sometimes it's hard to watch the beautiful toys get destroyed. We can't shoot anything without absolutely ripping it apart. That can be tough when all you could find was a vintage version that had been perfectly and lovingly preserved, and you're taking that away from the world with corporate money. First world problems.

Q: You’re currently the co-host of the One of Swords podcast, along with Dan Amrich and his wife Kat. As a somewhat official Activision podcast, do you ever find yourself having to pull your punches with what you can and can’t say on the show?

My mandate is specifically not to pull punches. But I've conducted interviews and been interviewed, and I've reviewed and been reviewed. For Freshmen II, I was profiled for Wizard Magazine by the guy who edited Freshmen I. So I feel empathy for the guys we're criticizing. There's a human endeavor behind every shitty game, idea or statement, and you can't forget that. And I have a black heart, a sharp tongue and an itchy trigger dick, and sometimes I just blurt out shit that doesn't need to be said. Dan doesn't tell me that--I tell me that.

There have been a couple times I've needed to recount things I've said, in regard to both professional and personal issues. But we all do that. On the episode we taped just yesterday, Dan reconsidered our coverage of a topic in the news and we cut out a 5 minute section. 

But all of that's talking about what I SHOULD say. I've never had anyone tell me something I can't say. The only thing that would fall into that category is corporate secrets, and Dan doesn't tell me them. When friends are under an NDA, it's courtesy not to ask them questions they shouldn't answer.

Q: Your story about wanting to see Superman II is horrendous. Please tell me you were at least embellishing a little? Right?

Unfortunately, no. But it sounds a lot, lot worse than it really was to actually experience it, because at the time I didn't know other moms weren't like that. A lot of people hear that story and their eyes go wide and they shake their heads and they say, "That's not funny." I understand. But you have to realize, I'm not laughing at the fact that my mom beat me, but that I kept going back for more.

Also, there's an important lesson to be learned here: I grew up, and I have a great family. I've never been in a serious fight, I've never raised my hand to any of my girlfriends, no matter how batshit crazy they drove me--and I've never had any instinct to raise a hand to my kids. It's not even like I'm suppressing it, I don't have some flash of my mom that just stops me--it's just not part of me. 

So the next time some asshole tells a judge that they molested a defenseless kid because they were molested themselves, send them my way. I call bullshit. I'm proof positive that people need to take responsibility for their own actions.

Q: As someone who has dipped their toe in the world of games journalism, how have you seen the industry change? Do you ever long for the good old days of print journalism?

Well, the whole world has changed. When I started writing game reviews, nobody had ever heard of Amazon, Google, or Facebook. America Online was a niche thing, and it was the biggest thing (some thought the ONLY thing) on the Internet. 

If we panned a game at GamePro, it was a big honkin' deal. If you really wanted to rape a game, someone generally had to (and SHOULD HAVE HAD TO) take a look over your shoulder, just to keep you covered. Now it's all about aggregators. You're just a spot on the bell curve (this excludes Famitsu, for now). There's less room for personal taste.

But there's more room for words. WORDS, WORDS, WORDS. I learned to write a review in 50-350 words, and cover graphics, sound, controls and overall gameplay. At first, that's constricting, but you quickly realize that you DON'T NEED ANY MORE WORDS. People don't care about you and your personal experiences, and they don't need an objective summary of the game. They just need you to clearly and dynamically elaborate on the scores your opinions. I see game reviews at websites nowadays and I'm critted by wall of text and Hugh needs food badly and then I eeeeeooooooWOP WOP. Long story long, I don't read those 2,000 word reviews. And I'm sorry to touch upon reviewers' egos, but I'd venture to guess that no one does.

Q: You’re launching your first novel, City Under the Moon, in a few weeks. But this isn’t your first major printed work. You previously co-created The Freshmen comic series from Top Cow. How different is it to write for comics than it is for print? Do you prefer one over the other?

Core storytelling is the same across any medium, but I think it's up to the author to discover and utilize each medium's strengths and weaknesses. The problem, for me, with narrative, is that I shoulder the entire burden of communication. There's no actor to deliver a glance and no artist to draw a background. I wrote my comics in a slightly modified version of screenplay form, and I've been writing screenplays for almost 20 years. Writing a novel was completely new and foreign to me, and it was HARD. 

That said, I'm super excited to get this thing out there. Anyone who knows of me probably knows my reputation for self-deprecation, but, as unnatural as this is for me to say, I done good this time.

The teaser for City Under the Moon, available now!

Q: Speaking of City Under the Moon, what can you tell us about it? Is this the most nervous
you’ve ever been to share one of your creations? Fiction writing can be a pretty personal thing.

It's by far the most nervous I've ever been, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, there's no buffer. I talked to a few novelists, including the great Brad Meltzer, and everyone advised me to self-publish, given the current trends in the industry and my ability to self-market. So I didn't even approach publishers. I hired a book editor and my incredible friends pitched in for the cover art, the book design and marketing advice. Which is great...

...except now I can't blame anyone else for anything. This is all me. And that makes it hard to separate it from myself. But that's also a good thing--a GREAT thing. I've made a big investment in myself, and I'm betting that folks are going to like it.

Q: Do you feel the the sudden popularity of werewolves (Twilight, Teen Wolf, Underworld, etc) has helped or hurt the public perception things like City Under the Moon? Do you feel like people have judged it before they’ve even given it a chance?

I have to laugh it off. Trends come and go so quickly that you can't keep up. 

I came up with this story when I was in high school, over 20 years ago. And it's born out of an extremely traumatic childhood fear of werewolves from my childhood. I obviously had a famously rough childhood to begin with, then things like American Werewolf in London and Thriller came along, and I identified in the worst way with the concept of a person you love and trust turning into a monster. City Under the Moon is not about glamor and romance--it's about people undergoing a terrifying transformation and attacking innocents.

Yeah, when I first tell someone that it's a werewolf book, I get an occasional eyeroll. But that's okay, I'll win them over eventually--if not through the plot, then for love of my characters. It's not a race, I'm prepared for this thing to take a year or two to build momentum through word of mouth. I think that once folks have read it, they'll tell their friends--even readers who aren't inclined to read a werewolf novel, and the word will spread.

Q: Finally, if (and hopefully when) City Under the Moon is successful, what are the plans for the future? Film rights, sequels, first-person shooters? Any plans for other novels kicking around?

Well, at the moment I have some responsibilities at the day job--with the stop-motion movie in production, I have to get back to fast-writing mode. City has to take on a life of its own now, and we'll see where that leads. In other words, I can't say anything yet. I haven't even thought about pursuing it as a videogame, but man this thing would make for an amazing shooter. My next novel won't be related to City, but I am working on some supplemental material for City. And I'm going to kick out a very black [humor] self-help book in the meantime. 

As for a sequel to City, I don't think I could outdo the size, scale and emotional resonance of this story. But I'd like to see some of the characters in different kinds of adventures, maybe even with non-supernatural plots. We'll see.


Thanks again, for your time Hugh.Good luck with your book!

Thank you sir! And thanks for spreading the word!

City Under the Moon on Amazon

Hugh Sterbakov on Twitter: @DarkHugh

Hugh on Facebook

Christopher Linendoll is ready for the werewolves. He can be reached via Twitter, or found in the hummus section of your local grocery store.

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