Tell everybody a little about yourself
My name is Dennis Copelan. I grew up in Beverly Hills, but now live in Orange County, CA with my wife Judi, son Josh, and our mini goldendoodle Ellie. My father, Jodie Copelan, was a well-known film editor and (sometimes) director in Hollywood, which had a big impact on my life. I loved visiting the studios as a kid, and hearing my dad talk about the film industry.
Although I’ve always had a passion for writing, I went to law school and pursued a career handling Professional Liability Claims (Physicians and Lawyers malpractice) for insurance companies because in life, sometimes, you need a back-up plan. My writing skewed more toward humor, but I occasionally write science-fiction and horror. Most of my stories use Hollywood for the setting.
I am proud to admit that the biggest influences on my writing have been Mad Magazine, the National Lampoon, the Twilight Zone, Laurel and Hardy, EC Comics, and all the science-fiction books I could read growing up.
My favorite authors are Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Sheckley, T.C. Boyle, and Ray Bradbury. But let’s face it, there are so many great writers, it’s hard to pick sometimes.
Was your creativity affected in any way during the lockdown?
I’m currently retired. So, except for the lockdown, my schedule has been he same. I usually write in the morning to early afternoon. Later in the day, I read or watch movies for inspiration. Overall, I don’t believe the lockdown has affected my creativity yet.
Was it therapeutic doing creative work during the lockdown
Yes. Being creative has allowed me to focus on something other than our current world. To be able to write during these uncertain times is uplifting. One of the most important things a person can do is to create art. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.” I think he was right, and that’s how I feel.
How do you start to write a story, do you think of an outline? Do you think about characters? What is your usual starting point?
My approach has changed over the years. Initially, I used to think of an idea and then outline the entire story. Now, it has become more comfortable to write a story organically. I’ll start with an idea and determine the probable ending. For me, it’s always important to know the ending first. That way, I’ll mentally have a roadmap in my head, which makes it easier for me to navigate the story.
As for character, sometimes I’ll start with an archetype and let the dialogue define the character as the story progresses. Many times, characters will say things that surprise even me. I usually adjust the story to adapt to the character on the rewrite.
Going to Law School actually helped me with my writing. One of the skills they teach is how to organize and think logically. Basically, it’s like peeling an onion; you always ask questions. What would a reasonable person do in this situation? Would this actually happen? I am always trying to figure out the logic of everything.
Do you go directly on to a computer or hand write some notes?
I usually go directly to a computer. I’m a very visual person and think cinematically. I guess I can thank reading comic books and watching endless hours of movies and TV for that. Occasionally, I’ll write down some notes, but with short stories I keep most of the ideas are in my head.
What is the tone of your stories?
The tone of my stories are usually humorous. My early stories, some of which are included in my book, Welcome to Hollyweird, were more horror and Twilight Zone influenced. However, the more I wrote, my natural writing voice came out, which is a mixture of humor and fantasy. I’ve always written comedy whether it was for my own Mad-inspired magazines in Junior High and High School, or the spec sitcom episodes and screenplays I wrote with my former writing partners, Benny Bartley and Mark Onspaugh. Writing humor just feels comfortable to me.
Which famous book would you have liked to have written yourself?
There are two books I would have liked to have written. The first is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which is a black comedy that is still poignant today.
The second book is Nathaneal West’s Day of the Locust. West really gives an insight into Hollywood during its golden age. What made it interesting for me was that it focused on the unseemliness of the industry and characters who lived on the fringe of that dream.
A majority of your stories typically center around Hollywood. Why do you have a fascination with Hollywood?
It’s because I grew up in that environment. I am familiar with the setting. It’s fascinating to me because Hollywood is an industry based on image, yet has a large, seedy underbelly. II find the conflict in that interesting.
How does Hollywood compare to real life?
Hollywood is real life. Sometimes, it’s just more exaggerated. I grew up in Beverly Hills during the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, it was a normal town. We had drugs stores, book stores, J.J. Newberry’s, a record store, and family restaurants.
Have you met any stars? Can you tell us some anecdotes?
I don’t have any real anecdotes, but I’ve met a lot of stars. My parents were friends with Gene Barry and his wife, so I met them. My dad would take me to the studio occasionally and I met Clu Gulager, Diane Baker, and Susan Day George on different sets. When I worked as a box boy at Food King Market in Beverly Hills, I met (or more correctly stated, I bagged groceries for) various celebrities including Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mary Tyler Moore, Carl Reiner, Stan Freberg, Jimmy Durante, Rosalind Russell, Cheryl Holdridge, and Deborah Raffin (who went to my high school). In high school, my classmate for one semester was Lorna Luft (Judy Garland’s daughter). It was just normal to see and interact with these people. Over the years, I’ve been at restaurants, waiting in line at the movies, or at an UCLA Extension course and introduced myself to Sid Caesar, Jesse White, Harold Ramis, and Milton Berle. Unfortunately, there are no contemporary stars on my list. That’s what happens when you move away and live in Orange County for 32 years. But we do live near Disneyland. Does Mickey Mouse count?
Have you got any tips about being a successful screenwriter or writer in general?
Wow! I was hoping somebody could tell me this information.
Anyway, I’ll give it a try. I don’t think there is any magic formula to success. Sometimes it’s based on luck, or someone you know, or hard work. What I do know is, you need to finish what you start. You have to write and keep writing. You can’t be a writer if you have no product. You have to be open to suggestions, especially if you’re in a writing group. And, finally, you have to be persistent. Be willing to promote yourself. Writing is only half the job. There is a business side, too.
Do you watch any films from other cultures?
I’ll be honest. A majority of the films I’ve seen are American films. That doesn’t mean I don’t like foreign movies. On the contrary. During the lockdown, I’ve made a point to watch more films on the Criterion Channel, which includes many famous foreign art films. Movies I probably should have watched when I was in college. I especially like films from the French New Wave, which I find very provocative and entertaining.
Are you working on any new projects?
I am currently editing a new collection of my short stories, tentatively titled, The Dating Bureau. It covers various love stores set in Los Angeles and Hollywood between the 1940’s and the 22nd Century.
I am also adapting one of my short stories, The Kona Tiki Hawaiian Drive-in, into a screenplay.
What are some of the links to your work?
Welcome to Hollyweird is available in trade paperback and digital editions.
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