*This interview was edited for content and clarity.
Every scriptwriter dreams about it. Toiling alone in front of a computer, each of us has paused to imagine the words we are writing coming to life on a giant screen in a dark room, as a packed audience sits breathlessly enveloped in a world that we created. The road from the page to the screen is rarely a short and simple one, if the road leads there at all.
Author Eric Maikranz didn’t begin telling stories with that intention or motivation.
“I actually worked as an industrial welder and decided that I wanted to go to university, because one of the things that you notice when you look around a welding shop is that you don't see very many old welders. So, I thought, you know, let's go to university. I went to University of Colorado and studied Russian language and literature. And that's where I first sort of got bit by the story bug.”
Maikranz began writing for The Denver Post and a few other publications, as many lit majors are prone to do. However, the desire to tell his own stories never left.
“As a correspondent for a couple of outlets, [I] got a contract to write a few non-fiction books—tour guidebooks about Italy—which was a lot of fun, and started working on The Reincarnationist Papers around that time.”
Maikranz’s book originated from two primary areas.
“We've all said this and heard other people say this. Oh, my gosh. If I only knew what I know now that I’m 30 or 40 or 50 or 60, when I was 20 years old. What would that be like? I took that idea to its extreme, which is a lot of what storytelling is about. I imagined what it would be like if you had the memories of several lifetimes, and you basically had the wisdom and the human experience of a 250-year-old person in a 20-year-old body.”
The other area of the story’s origination is more personal for Maikranz.
“The second area gets a little weird and metaphysical. But I actually have three memories that don't belong to me. They're very short. I call them memory shards. The longest one is probably about 30 seconds long. The shortest one is probably about ten seconds long. They seem to come from a time period from like the 1970s until the 1940s, definitely predating me. But they're as real as any other memories that I’ve had."
Maikranz took his book out, tried to get an agent, and heard glowing praise, but received no offers.
“It's kind of a genre mashup. It's a bit thriller. It's a bit historical fiction. It's a bit metaphysical fiction and urban fantasy. People had a hard time visualizing who the buyer for this book would be. So, I did something fairly unique. I trusted my readers. Every reader that I ever shared the book with early on loved it. I really believed that there were readers out there, and I just needed to find more of them."
After trying the traditional publishing route, Maikranz decided to self-publish his story. “I'm a huge fan of self-publishing, and I'm a fan of traditional publishing as well. I would encourage anybody to try the traditional publishing route. But it's hard, and there's a ton of rejection. There's nothing that prevents a writer from getting their work in front of an audience today. If you think back to the 90s, to the 80s, to the 1970s, if you didn't get a publishing deal, you were pretty much shut out. But that's completely changed now. And the real magic happens when readers and writers interact.”
Maikranz’s opinions on self-publishing aren’t just based on his unique success.
“I'm not the only one. Andy Weir is famous for The Martian. People forget that this is a guy who published The Martian serially on his website until it got enough readers that he gained the attention of traditional publishing, got a deal, and off he goes. There's nothing preventing the self-published author from being able to get their stuff in front of readers today.”
While he had found a dedicated group of readers for his stories, he also wanted to see them brought to more people.
“I decided to trust my readers to help me reach a wider audience. In the original self-published version of the book, I put a reward on the first page. The reward was an agent's commission for any reader who would introduce the book to a Hollywood producer or New York publisher, where the story would get picked up in wider release. It sounds like the zaniest ‘message in a bottle’ marketing idea outright. Each one of these books is sort of its own little marketing engine until it works. And it did work. What I didn't realize was how far it would have to go in order to work. But actually, that's an amazing story [too].”
Screenwriter Ian Shorr, who adapted Maikranz’s book for the screen, picks up the story from here.
“[Eric] was telling me that the first run [of his book] sold under a thousand copies, but one of those copies somehow wound up in a hostel in Kathmandu. This executive named Rafi Crohn is in Katmandu on vacation, and he is staying in that hostel, and finds a copy of the book laying on a shelf. He opens it up, and on the first page, there's a bounty that says whoever finds this book and helps me get it sold to a studio or a major publisher, I will give you 10 percent of whatever I receive. So he's like, I like money and starts reading it and realizes, oh, my God, there's this movie in here. So, Rafi comes back to the U.S., he tracks down Eric, and they start sending it out to writers. Basically, after a series of near misses, the book made its way to me. And I just instantly fell in love with this thing.”
Along the way, the title for The Reincarnationist Papers becomes Infinite.
However, like with most projects, even after assembling a team, success will still be years away. “Three years later, I'm still not done with the script. It's a complicated adaptation, and it's something that I had to put aside any time I would get a paying gig [as I was working on spec]. We finally finished this thing. We take it out to the whole town. We take it out to Paramount. Paramount comes in first and buys it. Okay, great, we got a studio. This must mean that we're off to the races. But immediately after that happened, the president of the studio left, and a new guy comes in. He takes a look at the slate and sees how much my movie is going to cost to produce—a $200 million movie—it was the biggest, craziest, most expensive thing I'd ever written. And he's like, yeah, we're not spending that kind of money on something that's not a well-known piece of IP. He crossed it off the list, I don't even know it yet.”
In a rare turn of events, however, the story that began as a self-published book on Amazon is resurrected.
“The movie is dead. The thing that brought it back to life was Antoine Fuqua had been called in at Paramount because they were interested in having him do Snake Eyes. The producer of Infinite slips him the script. Antoine comes back to the studio and says, ‘This is my next movie.’ They're like, ‘Great, we love that movie.’ So, they bring him on. I do a bunch of drafts for him. We put together this incredible cast. And it’s shot in the UK, Thailand, Mexico, Cambodia, and New York over the course of a few months in 2019. We were supposed to come out in theaters all around the world in August of 2020 with our first trailer dropping on March 15th. As we were leading up to that, I get this email from Paramount. They're like, ‘Hey, there seems to be a slightly bigger story in the news this week. Let's hold a beat on this trailer.’"
The film was finally released on Paramount+ on June 10, 2021.
“This is the culmination of ... If the book came out in 2009, then that would be like 12 years worth of work.”
Every project comes with a collection of lessons learned. For Maikranz, the journey is circular.
“It all goes back to the lesson that I embraced at the beginning, which is to trust readers with the story. And that is really the moral of the story. There is one [lesson] of collaboration. The life of a novelist and the work ethic of a novelist is a very solitary endeavor. You engage the blank page on your own. It's not a committee. It's not a writing group. It's you and the blank page. But in order for it to become a commercial product that is going to reach a wider audience, there has to be collaboration there. Even if you're just collaborating with an editor, with someone who's helping you publish the book. If you're collaborating with other people who are taking the story into a screen version, you have to open up and collaborate and trust others with that vision. And that's part of the payoff in the Faustian bargain.”
For Shorr, it goes back to basics as well.
“If you want to get better odds of selling a spec, write a role that could change a movie star’s life.”
He recalls an early lesson he remembers from the sale of his first spec script.
“I had gone through my first round of notes with the studio and was about to go in for a second meeting with them. And it was very clear that the studio did not actually want the movie they had bought. What I wrote was a $40 million hard-R action movie starring teenagers. And what they wanted was a $10 million PG-13 movie that kind of felt like 'Gossip Girl.' I was very upset about this. I was thinking this is why everyone thinks writers are bitter and cynical, because we are. So I asked Ed Solomon [my former boss] about it. I have to go back and talk to these people. I’ve got to defend the movie. I’ve got to figure out how to save my vision here. How do I approach this? What do I do?”
Solomon, a seasoned veteran scribe of franchises ranging from the Bill and Ted films to Now You See Me, offered him advice that changed his entire perspective.
“What he told me was to approach them from a place of gratitude and compassion. And that was not the answer I was expecting because I thought ass-kicking is what is called for here. But he was absolutely right, because at the end of the day, everyone that you work with is just trying to exist as a storyteller or as a creative. And if you're able to approach all of those interactions from that place of gratitude and compassion, then it means that you're not just wasting your time in this industry and you're not going to lose yourself to anger and resentment and defeat. A lot of what we do involves rejection and hearing the word ‘no’ and things falling apart. Most of what we write doesn't make it to the screen. But if I had taught myself just to approach everything from that place of gratitude and compassion all those years ago, I would have had a much easier time, emotionally, when my career was first starting out.”
To watch the complete interviews with Eric Maikranz and Ian Shorr, and to hear them give their detailed account of the story behind Infinite, watch here.
Infinite is now streaming on Paramount+.
*Feature Photo: Mark Wahlberg in Infinite / Paramount Pictures