The Intern’s Handbook, AKA Kill Your Boss, was published in 2014. A sequel titled Hostile Takeover, AKA Shoot The Messenger, came out a year later. The series is known for its extraordinarily darkly comedic and cinematic tone so I decided to reach out to the hilarious and extremely intelligent Shane Kuhn, the author of the series, and talk a little bit about John Lago, his prior work in the industry and the movie adaptation of his books.
Why don’t we start with you telling us a little bit about yourself?
SK: I live in Colorado with my small, nuclear family. In addition to being a novelist, I am also the Chief Creative Officer of a corporate events and video production company in the Bay Area. I like Tacos, ’71 Cabernet, and my favorite color is Magenta. Kidding. I stole that line from a famous 80’s comedy movie. If you can name the movie, you win a prize. Outside of work, I am heavily into music. I sing in 2 local bands. One is an original funk/soul band and the other is a U2 Tribute band. I am also a surfer, a skier, and a cyclist.
So you’re a writer, director and producer but the John Lago series was your first debut novel. What were you doing before then?
SK: Before I wrote The Intern’s Handbook, I was a very unhappy, occasional screenwriter. I went to film school at AFI in ’92 and spent many years pounding the pavement trying to sell scripts and direct movies. I directed 2 awful films and decided to focus on writing. I was working with a partner and, although we’re friends, it wasn’t a very productive partnership. We sold a couple of pitches and wrote some straight to video sequels, but never really broke into features or TV properly. Within that time, I sort of gave up on it and moved to Colorado so I could have a real life outside of La La Land. I was sick of the entertainment biz, so I decided to write a novel. It’s not my first. I wrote a novel when I was in film school and plan to try to publish that deeply whacked piece of work sometime in the future. I started out way back in middle school and high school, writing short stories and poetry. So, novel writing wasn’t new to me. I pitched Intern’s to a lit agent that my movie agent introduced me to and she loved it. I wrote it over a summer and sold it in the fall. It just came naturally and that’s when I realized books are really my thing.
John Lago is a very distinguishable character in a genre of archetypal action leads. Where did the inspiration for his story come from?
SK: I am a huge fan of action comedies and I love love love anti-heroes. Additionally, I have always been obsessed with assassins and some of my favorite books and movies are about assassins – The Professional, The Day of the Jackal, La Femme Nikita, Grosse Pointe Blank, and the list goes on. For years, I wanted to do an assassin story – script or book – but the genre felt done to death (ha ha) with little or no room for originality. Then the 2008 financial crisis came along and it occurred to many of us that the biggest criminals in the world are corporate executives. A mobster might extort protection money from you, but a CEO will empty your pension fund and sail off to Grand Cayman with a hundred-million-dollar severance check. At that time, I was trying to develop a TV show around the real “organized crime” of corporate America. Of course, when I got into it, I approached it with my tongue firmly in my cheek, and I started to think of all the nefarious characters to draw. Interns immediately came to mind because they are automatically funny. Just say the word “intern” and you will laugh, even if it’s a little bit. I was thinking they could be the minions in my crime world, but then I did what I love to do when I’m concepting and I flipped that notion upside down. What if they were actually the powerful ones? I asked myself. And that question immediately reminded me of my desire to write an original assassin character. It was perfect! Interns are invisible. The perfect cover. From that, our friend John Lago was born.
His tumultuous relationship with Alice is akin to Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Deadpool and Vanessa on the silver screen. Sony Pictures have bought the rights to your books so who do you hope to see play John and his former FBI wife Alice?
SK: Man, that is a very difficult one to answer. There are so many amazing actors out there that would crush both of these roles and I am just about the worst casting director EVER. But, just for shits and giggles, let’s throw out a few names. In the John Lago category, it would be cool to see one of these guys: Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Nicholas Hoult, or Charlie Hunman. In the Alice category, maybe: Emma Stone, Saoirse Ronan, Blake Lively, Chloe Moretz, or Nathalie Emmanuel. I’ve seen the work of all of these people and admire their chops. I also think they can pull off the attitude and swagger. Are there others out there who would also do an amazing job? Of course! But these are people that stick out in my mind.
Can you tell us anything else about the film? What kind of involvement did you have in the production?
SK: Almost none. When I had two offers on the table for the book rights, there was one wherein I would be involved as the writer and one wherein I would have no involvement beyond being an executive producer. I took the second because, at the time, I had just signed a two book deal with Simon & Schuster – for Hostile Takeover and The Asset. I did not want anything to get in the way of me either delaying their release or delivering the best books I could write. So, in my mind, I took the more disciplined, book-friendly approach because I am fully committed to having a long career as an author first.
Is there a third John Lago book on the way or are you moving on to different projects? I saw that you released a different book called The Asset last year, are you hoping to continue that story?
SK: Currently, I am working on a 4th book with another publisher and it’s very exciting. Top secret, of course. It’s a science fiction thriller so John Lago will not rise again just yet. But trust me, he will rise again. I have ideas for many subsequent books in the series and I will find a way to ensure that John lives forever.
How do you find writing a book differs from screenwriting?
SK: Book writing is like going to an orgy. Screenwriting is like sex with yourself. When I write a novel, the world is massive, the characters vivid, and there are almost no constraints. Screenwriting is constrained and technical. It’s very difficult to add deep layers to that kind of work. Movies are a directors’ medium, full stop. TV is different. Writers can live and breathe in that world, but not movies. You have a finite amount of time/pages and a very unforgiving story structure. Not to mention the fact that you might sell the damn thing only to have it sit on a shelf FOREVER. To me, screenwriting is like failing to follow Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory rules. It’s tempting, but a total waste of your golden ticket.
Do you have any advice or titbits for people aspiring to break into the industry as writers or producers?
SK: If you’re talking about the movie industry, my advice is to try to work in Television. There are too many good shows to even count. The stories are cutting edge and the producers and distributors are willing to take huge risks with the material. It’s like a creative free for all! I would avoid movies unless you want to be a director. And I would avoid being a director unless you can make independent films. This is advice for people who want to be creative. If you just want to make money, maybe be an agent!
Thrillers seem to be your genre of choice. What is it about them that makes you so keen on writing them or are you expanding out and delving into different genres in your upcoming projects?
SK: That’s a name that publishers gave my work to make it fit into a marketing box. I never thought Intern’s was a “thriller.” I would call it an “action-comedy” but that’s more a movie term. The way I see it, I want to write “literary entertainment.” When you see my name on a book, you will think to yourself, “self, I am going to the beach this weekend and want to lose myself (you) in a fun, occasionally funny, always exciting, often sexy, book. I want to be the guy you want to curl up with in front of the fire. Please please please call me your guilty pleasure!! As I said, I’m delving into Science Fiction, one of my favorite genres of all time and I have a few new concepts I want to explore that might fall into the “Crime” and “Humor” buckets. I also have a memoir I am going to write on my experiences with grief. Both of my sisters and my father died when I was younger, so I want to explore grief from an artist’s perspective, sort of like C.S. Lewis did with his book “A Grief Observed.”
There’s a very clear-cut lack of representation in the media. John’s a straight white dude and while Alice is definitely not just his love interest she is a secondary character. What are your thoughts on diversity as someone who’s been in the industry for almost two decades?
SK: I think television is diving into diversity head first. Studio movies are running from it. Some indies are embracing it. It’s hard to say with books, mainly because it’s difficult to really be aware of what is out there. But for my taste, I want to see more of it. At one point, Michael B. Jordan was attached to play John Lago. They asked me if I minded. I said, “I love that idea!” To me, nothing about John makes him being white a requirement. And when it comes to strong female characters, they are my favorite to write. I feel like the canvas with women is so much wider and full of possibility. Finally, that book I mentioned that I wrote in film school has an androgynous assassin character and I never reveal that character’s gender. Being creative means looking for the most interesting characters with the greatest number of interesting characteristics and greatest depth. Does that necessarily mean you must choose a specific race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other defining trait? Absolutely not. But by default you may find yourself exploring people who dazzle you with their complexity and the spectrum of diversity for them is infinite.