As a long-time blogger, I’ve seen the wonderful highs and the terrible lows of the Internet firsthand, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like the story of writer James Erwin.
What began as a thought exercise on the social news website Reddit.com has turned into the opportunity of a lifetime for Erwin, an Iowa-based technical writer and reference author – and it all started with a simple question.
Last week, Reddit user “The_Quiet_Earth” asked”Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU?” In response, Erwin began writing Rome Sweet Rome, which literally tells the story of an Afghanistan-bound MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) that is inexplicably transported through time to Rome in the year 23 BC.
A few thousand words later, the Reddit community was hooked and Erwin’s story was getting the royal treatment. Not only were people reading and loving Rome Sweet Rome, they were adding to it with custom-made movie posters, book covers, and even music inspired by the story.
Within days, Erwin’s fiction had caught the attention of some Hollywood managers and suddenly, Rome Sweet Rome wasn’t just a piece of Internet fiction, but a possible feature film. Can you say serendipity? At this point, I reached out to Erwin by email to talk about his overnight success story and learn more about the status of his project.
Erwin was very generous with his time and agreed to answer some of my questions. Check out our conversation below. If you haven’t already, you can read the beginning of Rome Sweet Rome for yourself at Reddit (Day 1-7; Day 7, Part 2; and Day 8) or in PDF form.
Screen Rant: How did Rome Sweet Rome get started?
James Erwin: I happened on a hypothetical question – “Could I conquer the Roman Empire with a single Marine battalion?” and it struck me as a really cinematic idea. So, it seemed natural to begin writing a story about it. In very little time, thousands of people responded – I’d struck a real chord.
Once the Reddit community was on board with the story, how did things progress from there?
Well, within an hour, Redditors set up a subreddit (a dedicated community within the site) asking me to show up and continue writing, so I did. I got a lot of attention very quickly.
Thanks to all the buzz around your story, you were able to secure meetings with some big name Hollywood managers. Were you nervous at all about these meetings? Did you have any idea what to expect?
Very little idea what to expect: I’ve written two encyclopedias but no one options an encyclopedia. I was nervous, but I went in determined not to make any decisions while I was nervous. That helped.
You recently announced that you’re working with Adam Kolbrenner of Madhouse Entertainment to develop Rome Sweet Rome into a screenplay. How was your meeting with Adam and why is Madhouse a good fit for this project?
Excellent. I got a good vibe from Adam and his whole team very quickly. Fom the beginning, Madhouse made it clear that they believed in this project and myself as a writer. That was very important to me. They’ve had opportunities to cash out quickly if their plan was to milk a lucky rube from Iowa and get out, and instead they’ve taken the long view and urged me to do the same. Like me, Madhouse believes that the best long-term plan is always to work hard and be honest. I’m excited to work with them.
What are the next steps for the screenplay? Will you write it yourself? Will you work with an established screenwriter?
I’m working with Madhouse to develop the treatment and screenplay myself. That will take time, of course, but thanks to Reddit, Madhouse saw immediately that I had enough skill to be worth training.
It can take writers years before they get the attention of a manager or agent, and you were able to do it in a matter of days. Obviously, that speaks to your skill as a writer, but it also speaks to the power of the Internet as a buzz-building tool. What do you think your success means for other writers? Is this tantamount to catching lightning in a bottle?
Here’s the thing. I was very, very lucky to post what I did at the moment I did. It wasn’t just the idea of coming up with just the right answer – if I’d posted the same text an hour later, everyone would already be bored with the question. They wouldn’t have seen it and it wouldn’t have blown up. So that was definitely a lightning-in-a-bottle situation.
On the other hand, I’m not a fresh-faced young kid hitting it out of the park the day after landing on the LA tarmac. I’m a 37-year-old who’s been writing nonfiction (encyclopedias, reviews, software documentation) for a decade. I have years of experience as a communicator and a professional. These are all skills you need to succeed whenever you declare yourself any kind of writer. So, with a week of perspective, I think there are a couple of lessons here. First, when you see an opportunity to write about something you love, take it. Second, when you don’t, write anyway. Try your hand at new genres, new techniques. Experiment, and study, and look earnestly at any feedback you get. The best way to be a writer is to write. That will give you the experience and confidence to make the most of an opportunity when it arises – and you never know when you’ll create one for yourself.
It will be very interesting to see how this project develops going forward. Rome Sweet Rome is exactly the kind of high-concept sci-fi story that studio executives drool over, so there’s definitely a lot of potential here. Hopefully, James Erwin and his Hollywood team can bring us an epic Black Hawk Down meets Gladiator film soon. For more updates on the project, visit the Rome Sweet Rome subreddit or the official Rome Sweet Rome Facebook page.