Ain’t It Cool? News (AICN) was one of the pioneers of fan-based journalism. During the internet’s infancy, AICN bypassed the exclusivity of main stream press and fed readers inside scoops, reviews and interviews served on a familiar and homegrown plate. Writer Eric Vespe, AKA “Quint” was there from the beginning, and has since become one of the the site’s most prolific, widely read, and engaging scribes. I, for one, read everything he posts. Eric was gracious enough to take some time and sit with us at TuffGnarl.com and play the part of interviewee this time. Topics range from his and AINC’s history, his favorite moments, screenwriting and our mutual adoration of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Read On!
TuffGnarl.com: Okay, first all, please explain the origins of your name on Ain’t It Cool?, for those reader’s who might not know.
Quint: Way back in the wild, wild west days of the Internet the studios really, really, really didn’t like online movie news people. This was before the term “blogger” was coined. Back then there was the legit press (i.e. newspaper, TV folk) and then us troublemakers doing things they didn’t like, such as reviewing test screenings, posting set photos and reviewing scripts.When Harry Knowles started AICN he did it as an offshoot of reports he’d make in news forums. To hide his sources he gave them spy names and invented entertaining backstories for them. That set a precedent for his website. Everybody except him had a screen name. The idea was that even those of us not in the industry would have a handle so we could help hide the real deal people who would lose their jobs if they were known. A welcome side effect is that people really wanted to have their own AICN spy name, so people who wouldn’t have contributed scoops did so just so they could get their own funny name. When I began writing for the site I sent in a review from a local film festival and at the end of the review I told Harry my favorite movie was Jaws, so he could pick either “Quint”, “Brody” or “Hooper”. He chose “Quint” because that allowed him to make a “Crusty Seaman” joke in every intro. That was in 1997. I was 16 years old. I include my own name in every piece I write now, but Quint has become a nickname of sorts. When I was still anonymous I was able to get into just about any test screening every time I’d visit LA. Not so much anymore.
The caricatures were made by D. Campbell MacKinlay, a Canadian animator who was an early reader of the site. He also is responsible for all the Harry Head animations. We call him “Cartuna.”
This is a long story, but the short version is that I fell into it. I bought tickets to the first Quentin Tarantino Film Festival in Austin. I think this was ’96 or ’97. He’d bring in 35mm and 16mm prints of his favorite movies, do intros and hang with the audience. Harry and his dad were both there, too. I was the only person who went every night, including the all-night horror marathons and the kiddie matinees, that Harry didn’t know, so he invited me over to some of his backyard movie parties where he’d show some films on 16mm. I started going to those and meeting up with him when he’d be at the local City Wide Garage Sale events once a month. Before the site started generating income, the Knowles family sold movie posters. In fact before I met him at the QT Fest I had already bought a few movie posters off of his dad and sister. I still have the Friday the 13th one-sheet I bought from him. Back in the early days of the site Harry just had his friends writing for him, so I ended up writing for AICN within the first year of it existing. I’m pretty sure I was a sophomore in high school when I started writing for him. It helped that I was pursuing interviews already for my school newspaper. Before I wrote one word for AICN I had already interviewed George Carlin, Mike Judge and David Prowse.
Yeah, I’m very proud of The Home. It was a long process that ended in heartbreak. We were weeks away from filming when the financing fell through, but we had our cast, which included a ton of Academy Award winners and some geek-friendly names. We had monsters half-built by KNB, amazing production art by Weta and the skeleton of our sets constructed. I’ll always be proud of the work my co-writer Aaron Morgan and I put into it and proud that we actually sold a project, which in and of itself is a win. We hold the rights, so maybe it’ll be resurrected some day. I still do write on the side, sure. I think anybody who’s fascinated by storytelling feels some compulsion to add to the art form they love. There’s no question that my work on AICN impacted my screenwriting. I was just a kid when I started. My early reviews and interviews are tough for me to read because I really was starting out about as novice as someone can be. I had no real training, just passion. The only way to get good at something is to practice, so every review, every interview, every conversation with someone in the industry, every friendship struck up with working filmmakers and screenwriters, every negative comment, every positive comment and every minute spent on a working film set all helped make me who I am today in all aspects, but especially in my writing.
My favorite thing to do for the site are set visits. I grew up addicted to learning all I could about the process of making a movie. I adore every minute I’m on a movie set, watching something come together. Even the boring parts that drive most of my colleagues crazy. When the stars align and I can get an exclusive day on a set visit and can write up my experiences in a detailed enough way to make the readers feel like they were there with me, I feel like a million bucks. That’s the goal.
I write a lot of reviews, but they’re not my favorite thing to do in the world. I love covering film fests, but reviews rarely come easy to me. The Holiday Gift Guide is so rewarding, but goddamn is it a ton of work. It stresses me out more than just about anything else I do for the site, but I rarely feel more accomplished with anything else I do in a given year. It’s like completing a marathon. The great thing about the site is Harry lets his writers have absolute freedom in covering what they want to cover, so if there’s something I do regularly, I’m doing it because that’s what’s interesting to me.
Do you have a favorite set visit then? One that stands out?
I have a few favorite set visits. The Mist jumps to mind because of the crazy amount of freedom I had not just as a visitor, but in how I could write about it. Frank Darabont knew I was a Stephen King junkie and we’d talked a lot about me coming out to visit when he finally got his version of The Mist up and running. They were shooting in Baton Rouge, which is about an 8 hour drive from Austin, so I ended up paying my own way driving up there, staying in a hotel, etc, and I spent 3 days on the set. Darabont let me use my own digital camera to take photos and encouraged me to write up my experiences on the set every night. The reports were immediate and the only okays I had to get were any actors that appeared in any of the pics I took. I’d spend 12 hours on set, sitting directly behind Darabont, then go to the hotel and write up my day’s experience, which would usually have me up for until 2 or 3 a.m., then I’d catch a few hours of sleep and be back at it. I ended up coming back a couple weeks later and doing a few more days. There’s also a special place in my heart for the time I spent in New Zealand on the set of Return of the King. Once again, I paid my own way, but who wouldn’t if they had access to visit the for-real Middle Earth? Also, once again, I went twice. The first trip, I was there when Legolas slid down the Oliphant trunk.
Peter Jackson let me be an Orc, so I’m there running around in the background somewhere. That was a few days on the set. On the last day I was in New Zealand I had lunch with Peter Jackson and he said, “I feel bad that you came all the way down here and all we had for you to see was a bunch of green screen. You should come back in six weeks, when the main bulk of pick-ups are scheduled. Everybody will be here for that.” The site wasn’t paying when I did this trip. I was a poor geek working for minimum wage at Hollywood Video. I couldn’t afford two New Zealand trips in as many months, but fate smiled on me. On my way out of New Zealand I had a day in Auckland and was staying the night at a big hotel/casino there call SkyCity. I had about $200 to my name. I took $75 of that down to the casino and walked out with about $1200, which was most of the way towards paying for the next trip. In total I spent six weeks in New Zealand in 2003, most of that time on the set of Return of the King. I saw everybody work, got to chat with Christopher Lee while he was in his full Saruman get-up about Wicker Man, was crouched behind the tent flap behind Aragorn as Anduril was passed over to him by Elrond, saw Gollum fight with Samwise on the side of Mt. Doom and Eowyn comfort her dying father on the battlefield. I can never go back in time to visit the set of Star Wars in 1976 or Jaws in ’74, but I did get to witness history with that visit.
It’s hard for me to answer this question because I don’t have much perspective. I first noticed a big shift in AICN being the leader of the pack around the time Slashfilm rose to power. AICN still has some pull and did then, but that’s definitely when I noticed a new geeky blog that was taking some of our limelight that was pretty much all us for a good chunk of time. There were other movie blogs around, and good ones like CHUD, Dark Horizons, ComingSoon, etc., but none of them really did it like AICN. Slashfilm didn’t copy AICN or anything, but they hit a similar pure-geek tone that AICN had cornered the market on up till that time. The dam kind of broke around then, not just in a glut of movie news sites, but in how studios dealt with online media. The geeks were taking over the world and sites like AICN helped that along. I look around today and see the exclusives studios used to give to their “geek sites” debuting on Yahoo and Entertainment Weekly. Geek culture has gone mainstream and weirdly the big dogs who fought against that for so long (giving us geekier sites a whole lot of power) have realized that error and are overshadowing us in a way. Our numbers aren’t all that different from our numbers at the height of the sight. We still pull in millions of unique readers a month and are pretty competitive with all the big sites out there. Do I feel like we need to grow a bit? Yeah, I’d love to get the site a redesign, I’d love to see more video content, I’d love for us to have a regular podcast, but all things considered I think it’s pretty amazing that our readership has stuck with us as dozens of new sites have popped up to demand their attention, many of these sites owned by big corporations. AICN, for good or ill, has always been independently owned.
The site has changed very little, as its “retro” design can attest to. I think that’s part of its charm, but like I mentioned above I’d love to see a new iteration that embraces more of the kinds of daily content that’s more the norm these days. We play things a little safer now, unquestionably. Stuff like posting shots of films shooting on location has become tricky because copyright trolls have retroactively bought the rights to some street shots and then sue every website who posted the image. Pretty much every movie geek site you know has gotten hit by these guys and have been forced to settle or pay hundreds of thousands to fight the case. So now it’s better to be safe and not post any pictures we don’t have explicit permission on. Stuff like that. Most of us are pretty open now.
The Dark Tower hit me at just the right moment in my life. In Sixth Grade I read Cujo because I liked the movie and at that point I decided I wanted to read everything Stephen King did. I was looking through the Stephen King section of my middle school library a year later and they had the illustrated paperbacks of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Lands, the only three Dark Tower books out at that time. I checked out The Gunslinger and it was so wholly different from anything I had read from King up to that point. The combination of genres, the heady conversations about whole universes existing in a single grain of sand in a vast desert, the anti-hero central figure and the continuing adventure sense to the whole thing really grabbed me.
For every new Dark Tower book released I would pre-order the limited Grant Edition because I’d get them 2 weeks before the regular edition hit shelves and that was something I did from Wizard and Glass on. The movie I’m unsure of, but I love certain elements. Starting Roland with the Horn of Eld was an idea I had immediately after finishing the seventh and final book. It’s the perfect way of letting us hardcore constant readers off the hook of comparing the movie directly with the books since it’s another turn of the wheel. I read Akiva Goldsman’s draft with Jeff Pinkner and had some major issues with it, but one thing they got right was the relationship between Roland and Jake. I don’t know how much of Goldsman’s draft is left in Arcel’s shooting draft, but I have heard they’re going a little different, which is good. The main issue with the early draft was that they dumbed down everything for general audiences. They literally explained exactly what the Dark Tower was in the first 5 pages of the script, something that took the series a couple books to fully solidify. I dig the cast, I hear Nikolaj Arcel is as die-hard a fan of King’s books as one can be, which is something that’s pretty crucial to this series in particular. We’ll see. I wish Sony would fully get behind it instead of testing the waters with a mid-level budget and only green-lighting one movie at a time. The ideal would be something at HBO telling the entire story, but I heard that was on the table at one point and the creatives behind the project nixed it for features.
So outside of AICN, what are you working on? Anything you want to tell us about?
Outside of AICN I have a few plates spinning. A couple of scripts are in various stages of being packaged together, there’s a possibility I’ll be writing a book about something I have a huge amount of passion for and I have a couple podcast ideas I’m trying to make a reality by the end of the year. We’ll see what lands and what turns to ash.
Since TuffGnarl.com is a pop-culture site as well, I like to ask about recent favorites. What are your favorite films of 2016 so far?
2016 is actually a pretty good year for entertainment despite some high profile flops. My favorites are Sing Street, Kubo and the Two Strings, Hell or High Water, The Nice Guys, Midnight Special, Captain America: Civil War, The BFG, Don’t Think Twice, Deadpool, Popstar, Eddie the Eagle, Zootopia, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Green Room, Gleason, Pete’s Dragon and Don’t Breathe.
I’m one of those nuts that adored Stranger Things. The Get Down is also pretty spectacular. I’m also digging the hell out of Vice Principals. Jody Hill isn’t to everyone’s taste, but boy do I love his stuff. Walton Goggins for everything!
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