You may have never heard of Neil Russell, but if you’ve ever been to the movies or turned on a television, chances are that you’ve seen his handiwork. He is currently the president of Site 85 Productions, a company engaged in the creation and acquisition of intellectual properties for entertainment media. But he is also a former senior executive of Paramount, Columbia, MGM/UA and Carolco Pictures (producers of the Rambo movies, Terminator 2, and Total Recall), where he also founded and headed Carolco Television Productions. On top of all this, he is a novelist who the legendary Clive Cussler described as “one of the finest, skilled, and accomplished writers in the country, a true master of intrigue.”
Neil’s new book Wildcase is the second in his Rail Black series and the follow-up to City of War. It follows the exploits of Rail Black, an ex-Delta Force billionaire, Hollywood insider, and freelance avenger.
In a desert town on the road between L.A. and Vegas, all hell has broken loose . . .
In a bedroom community populated by good cops and bad cops, a retired police officer and his wife have been brutally tortured and slain. A “wildcase” with no apparent rhyme or reason, it has caught the attention of the FBI . . . and Hollywood billionaire, ex-Delta Force operative Rail Black, who called the slaughtered pair his friends.
With his frighteningly efficient skills and more money than he could ever spend, Rail believes in helping people he cares about—even if it means clashing with the government’s enforcers. But this wildcase has toxic tendrils rooted in a distant past, snaking through a shady megachurch, through Sin City, and into shadowy places halfway around the globe. And the precious blood already spilled is nothing compared to the deluge to come—with Rail’s own added to the mix if he gets too close.
Here’s what some real-life Delta Operators had to say about the writings of Neil Russell:
“Russell will be the next master of the international thriller. Clancy at his very best in The Hunt For Red October was terrific, but Russell is better and the Rail Black character will soon join the legends of Jack Ryan and Mitch Rapp.” – Current Delta Operator Deployed in Afghanistan
“Suspense, tension, mayhem, and action are propelled throughout…This is definitely among the finest adventure fiction being written in America today.” – Former Delta Operator
I had the great honor and pleasure of interviewing Neil and discussing his new book, his life and career in the film industry, and what comes next for a “a true master of intrigue.”
Let’s talk about the origin of the name for the book. What is a “wildcase”?
With most crimes it doesn’t take a great deal of thought to figure out who did it. It’s the issue of proving it and the leg work of getting that done, getting the arrest and the prosecution, etc. Then, there are the oddball or random crimes that are difficult to assess because it’s hard to pin it on any one person. For example, a bad run of drugs that kills some people. But who do you go after: suppliers, etc? How did it actually happen? These are tough issues. Serial killers fall into that category as well. But there are these cases that don’t fit any known profile. It’s often a body found somewhere it shouldn’t be. Someone who disappears without a trace. They just vanish into thin air. Someone who shouldn’t just disappear. Best estimate I can get from people who are in the business is that there are roughly between 1 and 200 of these a year that end up in a holding pattern where they try to figure them out. These are what I’ve dubbed “wildcases.”
I read that you’ve produced or financed 31 films and mini-series. After all that, what made you decide to start writing books?
This was a peculiar situation. I had always written stories for my kids and short stories, mostly for my own amusement. I also wrote screenplays, and I some very large screenplay deals for some pictures that never got made, but it was a good pay day. And I had a story in there that I had talked to a number of screenwriters to try and get them involved to write it. I was unsuccessful in getting anyone to sign on to do it. So I ended up with my notes and ideas, but no writer. Then, my parents both became ill fairly close together, which took about a year and half to play out. So you spend a lot of sleepless nights walking the floor waiting for the phone to ring, which you know is gonna be bad news. Rather than just pace, I decided to sit down and write. So I ended up writing the first Rail Black book, City of War, that way. I had it in my head anyway, so in the middle of the night I started writing it. I didn’t really know what I expected it to be, but I figured it would be better in written form as a book. Then, maybe we could turn it into a picture. And Harper Collins ended up making a two book deal with me. Wildcase is the second book, and I’m writing the third now. I had also written a book about cancer and kids a few years ago. I had been diagnosed with cancer, and you wander around trying to get someone to explain how you’re supposed to tell you’re kids about it. Nobody really had an answer, so I figured out my own way. Next thing you know, I ended up writing a book about it.
What kind of research did you conduct for the book?
The story of Wildcase is multi-layered and really isn’t revealed till well into the book. But research was really minimal. I obviously had to check my facts, but one of the things that happens when you’re in the entertainment business or the movie business is that you get invited a lot places. A lot of doors open. Everybody returns your phone calls. And when you travel, people show you things that a lot of other people don’t get a chance to see. Having spent as many years as I have in the business, I’ve been a lot places, met a lot people, and heard a lot of stories. Then, I catalogued those stories, because I’m always looking for elements that will fit into another piece of business. So this was another story that had sort of evolved in the back of my head, and it seemed a natural progression from the first book to this one.
You’ve described your method of working through a book by its major scenes as being the same way that you would write a movie or TV show. Can you give us some insight into this process and how it should work in regard to writing a book?
I don’t write in sequence, page 1 to 400. I write in scenes. The motion picture business is all about scenes and trying to find those five, six, seven moments per picture that the audience goes home and talks about over dinner. You’re always looking for those, and then you bridge. So that’s how I wrote the novel. I wrote those big scenes, and then I bridged. The story sort of reveals itself as you’re doing that, because I didn’t really know what it was going to be when I started. For those big scenes, I think in terms of visual opportunities for motion pictures, because all of this was predicated by wanting to turn the stories into movies. I grew up in the movie business. I don’t really know anything else. So as a young kid, when you’re going with your dad and sitting in screening rooms with guys who make pictures, everybody’s always talking about “that scene.” It’s always about that big visual. So that’s how my thinking evolved. No matter what I did from that point on, whether discussing a television series or a movie, it was always about what scene can we elevate and what can we add to it. Then, you’ve got a bunch of scenes in your head, and they seem to fit into something of a pattern. So I write them. But sometimes a scene is a great scene, but you just can’t find a way to bridge it into the story. I probably have two hundred scenes sitting around that don’t fit anything now, but maybe they’ll fit something else down the road.
Rail Black is described as an ex-Delta Force billionaire, Hollywood insider, and freelance avenger. That’s an interesting combination. What led to this intriguing combo and (if it’s not a secret, of course) how did an ex-soldier become a billionaire?
It’s not a secret. In this case, he inherited the money. He’s half-Brazilian and half-British, but once he came to the United States, he fell in love with the country and became a citizen. He carries British citizenship as well, but he’s an American first, last, and in-between. And in the books, he makes this abundantly clear. His father was a very wealthy, titled person, but both of his parents were killed. And the first book explains how that happened. He ended up in the US going to the Army/Navy Academy High School in Oceanside, then he joined the army. He liked it and progressed through special operations, ultimately into Delta. So he has the money by extension, and the business is run by professionals in London while he lives in Beverly Hills where he helps his friends or people he finds in difficulty. You can’t hire him. And he’s got a series of his own problems as well. He’s lost a wife and child, and he was there but unable to prevent it. So he carries that burden. And he had lost both of his parents, who we find out in the first book were murdered. So he’s writing some wrongs. In creating Rail, I wanted someone that you’d want to hang around with, someone you’d want in your rolodex. I wanted people to be able to count on him and say that I wish he were my friend. He’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and find a creative solution. He likes to fix things.
The rights for your first Rail Black novel, City of War, have been acquired to be turned into a major motion picture. So when can we expect to see Rail Black on the big screen?
Hopefully, about a year from now. The screenplay is being written now, and the second book is now part of the process. The motion picture business has changed dramatically over the years. It used to be that you’d go to the studios, and they’d option your material. It’s not a studio business anymore. The studios release the movies, but the financing is done by investment groups that fund motion pictures. You’ll see their logos on the pictures, and most people don’t know who they are, but there are about twenty to twenty-five big funds in the business. And both of the movies for my books are expensive. You have to deal with these funds, and I’ve brought in some investment bankers to bankroll the picture. It’s not your ordinary novelist situation. I’m also fortunate enough to have a major producer attached to the film, Mace Neufeld. He has the ability and the credentials to make the pictures credible. So it’s much easier to raise money around him. He’s the producer that made Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan movies and many other huge films. There are about ten guys in Hollywood that are really at the top of the heap, and he’s one of them.
What does Hollywood or yourself personally look for when acquiring the rights to bring a book to the big or small screen? Is it all about story potential or are you only looking for bestsellers?
It varies. Nobody’s ever been able to determine what’s going to work and what isn’t. For action films, which is what I’ve been involved with for most of my career, you’re almost always looking for compelling characters that can be cast. Motion pictures are about actors, the stars. The stories come and go, and a lot of stories are similar. But movies get made or financed because of the star, because an actor wanted to play a role. So you’re looking for a unique character or that interesting situation that a character can be put into that he hasn’t been in before that will attract a star to the material. From a motion picture standpoint, you’re acquiring rights to a story that can be cast. Financing follows actors, so we try to hit that mark. It can be done the other way, and people are doing it that way, but it’s much easier to find the financing with a star attached.
Working within the film industry all these years, you must have countless anecdotes to tell about some of the world’s biggest stars. Do any come to mind that you could share with our readers?
Some of the things you see and hear really aren’t for public consumption. I don’t mean that they’re embarrassing, but the context isn’t there. If you’re not there when it happens, it doesn’t have the same effect. It’s funny among the insiders but doesn’t really translate to others. Some of most interesting stories are those behind how the pictures get made. Stories about people who were supposed to be in the movie but passed and someone else got the part and it became a legendary role, etc. But those are pretty well known now. The Internet has been a real eye-opener in terms of getting that type of information out. My personal experience with people in the industry has been largely positive. It’s a pretty positive business, unlike it’s sometimes portrayed. There are massive ego battles from time to time, but for the most part, it’s a difficult business and people are working cooperatively to try and get something done. It’s generally not an in-your-face, rough-and-tumble business. It’s pretty cooperative once you start the process. Generally, everyone’s heading in the same direction because no film in the can, no money in the bank.
What are you reading now, and who are your greatest creative influences?
I’m reading a British spy book called Operation Mincemeat, which is a true story about a deception done in World War II by the British. I’m also reading Project Azorian, a book about the sinking of a Russian submarine, K-129, and it’s recovery in the Pacific. I also love thrillers. Writers are my favorite people. I’ve always had more writer friends than producer, actor, or director friends. Writers are the most interesting people I know. From a creative standpoint, John D. MacDonald is a huge influence for me. I started reading him when I was young, and I never stopped. I love his style and his character, Travis McGee. But I take something from everybody, whether it’s Dante or Mark Twain. You snatch from the best.
What’s something that you’ve learned about the publishing business that you weren’t expecting?
Because I was a buyer of rights for so many years and continue to do so, there wasn’t a great deal about the business that I didn’t understand. But I’d never been “talent” before. In my business, I’m an executive that makes decisions. I’m sort of in charge of what happens. While the talent (writer, director, actor, etc) are people you deal with and hope that they put forth their best effort for your project. But they’re talent, and I’m a suit. Now, all of a sudden, I became talent, which was a new experience for me. I had to realize that I’m the author, and I’ve got to do it their way. I couldn’t decide how they ran the publishing house, which caused some moments and I’m sure I ruffled some feathers. But they had power, and I didn’t. When you’ve had power for a long time, and then suddenly you don’t, you get to learn humility.
What’s next from Neil Russell?
The next Rail Black novel is entitled Beverly Hills is Burning, and it takes place inside the entertainment business, which is an industry I’m destined to write about. Then, the most important thing in conjunction with that is getting the movies made for the first two books.
Neil Russell is president of Site 85 Productions. A former senior executive with Paramount, Columbia, MGM/UA and Carolco Pictures—producers of the Rambo movies, Terminator 2 and Total Recall—he also founded and headed Carolco Television Productions. A graduate of Parsons College, he is a member of the Naval War College Foundation, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Writers Guild of America West, BMI and other entertainment industry organizations. He has also been made an honorary member of the Hmong community of Laos for his fundraising efforts to provide Hmong children with prostheses for limbs lost to mines.