How to tell a Hollywood-level story in web3 where all limits are off and anything is possible.
Blaise Hemingway has written scripts for short films and feature lengths, children’s movies, and adult fare, television, stage plays and comic books, and even a script for a movie based on one of the world’s most famous board games: THE SETTLERS OF CATAN.
He’s also a self-proclaimed comic book geek, and the co-creator of RUNNER, alongside director and animator Cedric Nicolas-Troyan. We spoke to Hemingway about the challenge of creating an entirely new world, the art of constructive collaboration, and the future of entertainment in the age of web3.
Where do you even start when it comes to creating something like RUNNER that has so much depth and complexity, and such a wide variety of characters and nations? How do you find an entry point to something so sprawling?
The process for starting every book, comic, screenplay, stage play, or whatever is always different. But for RUNNER, it was thanks to [Clubhouse Pictures founder] Bryan Unkeless. He had worked with Cedric [Nicolas-Troyan], and they had the beginnings of an idea about telling a serialized story that involved badass-looking cars that could jump through wormholes in the course of a race. I’d worked on narrative stuff set in the world of racing before at Disney Animation, and I’d actually immersed myself as I prepared to write that stuff — learning how to drive different racing cars, from three-speed shifter karts to Indy 3 cars.
So I knew a lot about racing. And I knew the challenges of telling a racing story. These kinds of stories can become repetitive, and the stakes are kind of low. Because even if you’re really invested in a particular driver, if they don’t win, is it really the end of the world? So I said to Bryan, if I’m going to tackle this again I want to make sure that we have plenty of story, and we never run out of stakes.
I proposed what if, instead of having a warrior-based culture — like every culture is on earth, — what if all seniority and power in OUR world was centered on how fast you were. How might that inform cultures? How does it inform the look of different people, their clothes, their vehicles? Once killing one another isn’t the focus, instead it becomes about innovation and speed, coolness and sexiness and aerodynamism. Once you make that one pivotal shift in the DNA of the world, we know that it spiderwebs out and there are endless possibilities for storytelling.
That really opened it up for me. I pitched the idea to Bryan and Cedric that we should have a whole new world where we sort of build culture and humanity from an entirely different starting point. And once they were down with that, it was about taking that idea to its fullest realization. That approach continues to pay dividends: The deeper we delve, the more new branches present themselves.
It really speaks to my collaboration with Cedric, too, because we’re constantly challenging one another. We’re both like hobbyist anthropologists, so we keep diving deeper and deeper into these individual cultures. We’re taking inspiration from cultures of our own world, but also aware that the world of Omega is fundamentally different from ours. Also, the stakes are impossibly high. If you win the Omega Race you literally rule the world. We’re so rich in terms of story and characters and cultures and stakes. Really, as a storyteller, it’s been game changing.
How do you get the world to feel coherent, while still introducing enough diversity to keep it interesting?
I think it’s about building it organically and not trying to shoehorn elements in that don’t belong. For example, if we’re setting a particular culture on this new world on an archipelago, how will it differ? Yes, they’ll race, but they will probably be sea-based races, right? And for the sea-based cultures of Omega, we’re not just taking inspiration from the Caribbean, but also Fiji, and Polynesia, and other island nations. What is racing going to look like for each of these different nations? What are their vehicles going to look like? What are their pressure suits [which they wear when racing] going to look like?
Once you set the rules and parameters for the world — in this case, that racing has become how disputes have been settled for centuries — then it makes sense that snow-based societies will be dressed and equipped to contend with those conditions. What are the religious implications? What might you worship if you lived on an ice cap? In the same way some cultures have a variety of words for something pivotal to them, how many words might there be to represent different elements of racing if that’s something so integral to your life and community?
Do you know how the story ends from the beginning? Or do you only have a vague idea, and it becomes clearer as you ride it out?
Well, there’s two answers to that. First there’s the story that we’re telling about Omega… and the story that we’re telling about RUNNER culture in general. There are a million stories to tell within the wider world with a million different protagonists. I think that’s what most excites me about working in the web3 and NFT space: The community is going to have their own stories to tell with their characters.
Second, there’s the specific story that that I am trying to tell is with a group of characters who are operating in the very same world as the characters held by the rest of our community. I know how the story ends for the heroes and antagonists of the story I’m telling, yes, and where it takes them and how it relates to the larger world. If this was an animated series with 22 episodes a season it would take about four seasons to get us to that point. But there are myriad other stories on Omega and I’m excited about other community members telling some of those and working with our Runner community to tell new ones.
How similar is the process of writing for screen and for comic books given they’re both visual, frame-based mediums?
They are similar, but the cool thing about comics is you’re a little bit more of a director than you are with screenplays. In screenplays, you’re writing the dialogue, you’re writing the setting, you’re giving a broad description of the action that takes place, but you’re not really getting hyper-detailed. With comics, you’re literally describing everything — how many frames on a page, how to lay them out, what’s happening in each, what’s being said in those frames. It was really fun to approach telling a story in this medium.
I got so excited, I would write the comics — the individual issues — in one long sitting. In one instance, I started writing at 8am and I finished at midnight, and I delivered it to Cedric. Because we had preloaded so much of the world and the characters and had talked about it so much in the abstract, when it came time to realize this narrative it was so clear in my head. I feel fully immersed in it: I’m in the cockpit with the runner, piloting the racer, going through these insane environments… it feels really immersive. I’ve never had anything feel quite so immersive in my career.
What was it like working with Cedric and the Clubhouse Pictures team?
Cedric and I think the same way about a lot of things. He also seems to have access to any part of the RUNNER world at any one moment. And we’re starting to develop this hive mind, him and me, where even if he’s exploring a part of the world that we haven’t necessarily talked about, we’re sort of in sync about it. Well, I’d say 95% of the time we are in sync, and the other 5% it starts a fierce debate.
When Cedric and I met it was sort of like a creative blind date. By our third meeting, I thought, “Wow, we’re creative brothers!” We love working together. Those kinds of authentic, creative collaborations are rare. And when you have one that works, you have to take care of it. We fight sometimes, but it’s only because we both care so much about RUNNER that the passion spills over. I could gush about collaborating with Cedric forever. I’ve only known him for maybe 18 months, but we’re going to be friends for life. It’s been awesome to build this together. Because he’s just got such incredible creative vision, and he’s relentless in his pursuit of visual perfection, and in fleshing out the whole world in minute detail.
Then there’s Bryan, who’s a genius. He’s one of the most successful young producers in Hollywood, and he has a different way of operating than a lot of producers I’ve worked with. The way he puts things together and his ability to herd us cats… you know, when we’re going too far down the rabbithole he’ll pull us back and get us back on course. It’s a useful and important gift.
Bryce [Anderson, from Clubhouse Pictures], is our web3 and NFT expert. I call him “the professor”; dude knows his shit. Bryce is really the one who saw the potential of this story to live in that space. I didn’t know that much about web3 going in, but the more he talked about it and the more time I spent exploring, the more I realized not only could this story work in web3, but it’s the best space to tell this story.
Did knowing the mechanics, know that there are going to be NFTs and comics to start with, did that influence the story at all?
What it really did more than anything was to take the governor off completely. When you’re writing for stage, for television, for movies, there are practical, economic restrictions that you have to put on yourself, or if you don’t, the environment, or the budget, or your executives will. But working within the comic and NFT space, all limits are off. The characters, their outfits, their vehicles, their countries, they can look however we want them to, and we can explore them as deeply as we want to. I’ve never felt so liberated as a storyteller.
I’m just really enjoying telling the story in this space. And that’s why I get so excited about the community engagement to come. When people see their NFT what will they think? Where do they think the story will take that particular character based on the traits that they’ve got? What is their backstory? What are their personal stakes? What are their dreams, ambitions, fears? What are their limitations? That’s totally thrilling, because we’re making the sandbox, but everybody can play in it. It’s new, and it’s really exciting.
How important is it for even the villains to be relatable in some way?
You know you’ve got a good villain when, if we told the story from their point of view, they’d be a sympathetic hero. Our villains are antagonistic forces in this story and in this world, but they have really good reasons for why they’re doing what they do. Evitus Otho, for instance, is a Runner who races for The Avalonian Union, which is the dominant power on Omega, she has this incredible sense of honor, and she may appear to be on the wrong side of things, but she still has a strong moral compass. She won’t cheat to get ahead. She comes from a long line of five generations of people who have been the best at doing what they do, and that’s racing at the highest possible level.
There’s familial pressure, the expectation of legacy, the pressure a lot of high performers feel. There’s a pressure on people who come from greatness and who have been taught to be great to continue that, and what that pressure does to an individual and how that informs their decisions, their relationships, their ability to love and to receive love is all worth investigating. But, I don’t want to say too much.
Will all great storytelling, it’s about peeling away these layers as the narrative goes along. So, a character that you may have hated in Issue #1 may become your favorite character by Issue #10. And vice versa. If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job. Because every character is the hero of their own story.
In a world packed with the Star Wars universe, Game of Thrones, Dune, the MCU, etcetera, why should people pay attention to RUNNER?
Like a lot of those, we’re not faking it — we have a full world built out. And like any great sci-fi it gives us an opportunity to comment on issues that we’re struggling with today. We’re not going to shy away from real authentic representation and difficult implications, from racism to economic disparity.
We’re also going to lean all the way into the violence of racing itself and not put a gloss on it. We are building authentic characters that are dealing with issues that should be relatable to everyone. We are willing to go where the story takes us. We’re not beholden to an existing IP, we are creating the IP. And so as these characters continue to reveal themselves to us, we can follow them wherever that takes us, even if it’s into places that are uncomfortable, and I don’t think stories of this size, scale, and scope, tend to do that. With all due respect to a lot of great storytellers out there, we have the nimbleness and the willingness to do that.
In addition to it being spectacular, really well designed, and hellishly cool, there’s also this fresh IP, in a fresh space — web3 — free from the constraints of the studio system. We’re going to take as long as necessary to tell the story. With a lot of stories it feels like as soon as they take off someone’s already thinking about the landing. Of course, we want to be mindful of delivering a satisfactory conclusion to the individual stories that we’re going to tell, but how long that takes will be dictated by the story, and that’s huge for me. I love telling stories in Hollywood — don’t get me wrong — but taking the usual limitations away is incredible. Usually that’s impossible. But with RUNNER, the opposite is true, and the opportunities are limitless.