Tuesday, 1 December 2015

interview: Michael C Gross

When I was researching Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, I really wanted to find out the truth about Ivan Reitman’s unmade 1980s feature film of Hitchhiker’s Guide. I couldn’t get hold of Reitman himself but I knew that there were two associate producers attached to the project: Joe Medjuck and Michael Gross (not the Tremors actor). Through a bit of online sleuth work that even I found impressive, I located an email for Joe, who not only gave me a great interview but also put me in contact with Mike. Their contributions to the book were invaluable. In December 2015 I learned that Michael Gross had passed away the previous month, aged 70. I immediately dug out this interview, conducted over the phone in April 2002, and posted it online as a tribute.

How and when did you first meet Douglas Adams?
“I don’t know the specifics. I was at National Lampoon in New York, I was the art director, and after that I designed a book by Terry Jones and Michael Palin.”

That would be Dr Fegg’s Nasty Book.
“Thank you. It wasn’t officially Python. We designed the updated American version for them at National Lampoon. I know that Terry knew Douglas but I didn’t know anything about Douglas then. Then in 1980 Joe Medjuck and I worked with Ivan Reitman on Heavy Metal. When I did Heavy Metal, it was my first film as associate producer and art director. We had a lot of production in London, so I found myself going to the sci-fi stores, where Hitchhiker’s was well into its swing at that point. I was unaware of it in America. So I started listening to it; very cool stuff. I still hadn’t read the book but I’d heard the radio show.

“Time passed, nothing much else happened. I still don’t know how Douglas came to us. I know at one point, ‘82 or ‘83, after we’d done Heavy Metal, I was part of Ivan’s office. And I was up for directing what might be a sequel to Heavy Metal. We had high hopes for Heavy Metal but it didn’t do that well so we didn’t do a sequel. We were going to do an animated sequel, I was going to do it. Then it morphed into: okay, what kind of animated film can we or should we do, if we’re not going to do a sequel to Heavy Metal? And Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came up.

“I don’t know who put it on the table. It wasn’t me; it might have been Joe. We looked at this thing; Joe and I loved it. We read the book, loved it, saw it as an animated feature and went to Ivan. Ivan saw the potential in it, said, ‘Okay, let’s do something here.’ And Douglas was wooed. Now who really did that I don’t know. But I do know at one point that I was the pivotal point in there being any relationship, any dealings with Douglas. Douglas came to see what we had done, because at that point I don’t think we’d even finished Heavy Metal. Maybe it wasn’t released, because I remember I couldn’t show him the film. I guess it was finished, yes.

“He knew we’d done Heavy Metal, and he didn’t want to do an animated feature particularly. But he was interested in me and my talents, and Joe and he got along beautifully. They just chimed at a certain level. I remember taking a long walk on the beach. He really didn't want to go forward with Ivan Reitman because at that point all he knew from Ivan was Animal House and Stripes. And he didn’t see Hitchhiker’s at the same level. American is difficult enough, without it turning into Animal House, which certainly he didn’t view Hitchhiker’s Guide as. Neither did we, but I think Ivan’s point was he saw the commerciality in it. Joe and I saw the - if you’ll forgive the word - intellectual side of it. We connected with the material more strongly.

“I took a long walk on the beach, I remember, with Douglas and kind of sold him on it. He was fascinated with the technological changes that were starting to take place. I know he was a fanatic with Apple and computers. I wasn’t, but I was tuned into special effects. We couldn’t do an animated movie, he absolutely did not want to do an animated feature. Then the decision was: if it was live, how the hell would you do this? We were aware there was a television show, and he’d had some funny experience at ABC that didn’t work out, and how does it not be another Doctor Who?

“I said, ‘You know, there’s great potential in all this because of what’s starting to happen in computers. You can generate these things.’ They didn’t have CGI backgrounds like now, or computer-generated animation per se, but what they did have was the ability to create a fanciful graphic, like reproducing a photo of the ocean and then putting it on a ball. That sort of thing. So I said, ‘There’s the potential for leaping through these worlds and places. It’s starting to develop now.’ We were just aware of it. I don’t know whether that connected with him, or my enthusiasm or my Lampoon background, or a combination or the potential here that he saw. He then came back and said, ‘We’ll do this.’ I remember Ivan calling me up and congratulating me: ‘Congratulations on swinging that with Douglas Adams. You took him over the line.’ Because we were all wooing him. And there we were - we were off to a running start.”

Was this a fairly hefty deal that you signed?
“I don’t know the deal. I wasn’t privy to that.”

How did Ivan and Douglas get on?
“You’ve got to remember that Ivan was doing several things at one. Ivan’s structure was that Ivan was the core of the thing, the rest of us were his support team. Joe went right back to college with him; my connection started in earnest with Heavy Metal but went back a little bit to Lampoon days, peripherally. I helped him with some Animal House stuff and I knew Animal House people. I wasn’t really involved but we were part of the circle. I think he saw me as the graphic end of it mostly, and Joe as many ends of it but in particular the literary side of it. And sometimes those functions meshed together.

“So Ivan might have a position on something, then Joe and I implemented it. Very often Joe and I brought our positions to Ivan and he’d go, ‘Good idea.’ It went two ways. Joe and I had this project while Ivan was doing at least two or three other things. This was one of many. It was never intended for Ivan to direct it. I remember the point when Ivan called me and he said, ‘I know we said you were going to direct the next animated feature, but I hope you understand that if we do Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you can’t direct it. You’re not qualified. We’re going to have to look for a director.’ I agreed to that, I understood that, that was fine. I didn’t have the history.

“So a lot of what happened between Ivan and Douglas was buffered both ways by Joe and I. We understood how Ivan worked, we understood his vision, we understood his popular view. We understood where he wanted to go. Then we also understood Douglas. And they were further apart than was ever possible to make out. Joe and I kept thinking we saw some sort of compromise situation because we just understood both sides of it. We thought some place in the middle was our vision of it. But in fact they never really reconciled. As a consequence, Douglas would meet with Joe and I, and we really became dear friends, I’d like to say. We socialised quite a bit and had parties at my house, pool parties. We really got along as friends and we were sympathetic to each other’s needs.

“When we got along with Ivan, Ivan would speak Ivan-speak, which was a very blunt, singular, focused point of view, which at its core was not Douglas’. He had a hard time being in a room with Ivan, and Ivan had a hard time being in a room with him. Ivan did not have a great history of working with the English. Gerry Potterton who did Heavy Metal - he and Ivan didn’t get along. We had an English director later on for a picture that was a flop, and Ivan voiced at one point, ‘I just don’t see what the English see. I may be Canadian but I’m quintessentially American - and these people are too English.’ Somehow Joe and I were more sympathetic to the English sensibilities than Ivan was. Even a bit of that was at its core.

“And the real problem for Douglas at that time was: Douglas was Hitchhiker’s Guide-ed out. I mean, he’d had it. It was just too much already, it was driving all the fame, but it was enough. Already ABC had tried to do something, already it was a radio show, already it was book, already it was recorded. For him to sit down and do a draft, he was in pain, regardless of who was with him. He struggled so hard with it, he tried so hard, and he just hated the whole process.”

Legend tells that the first draft he handed in was an enormous script that was basically the book.
“I think so. One of the problems, the reason it never got made by us, is Ivan is a structurally conservative film-maker. He really believes in the three acts, he really believes in motivation, a ticking clock, characters that develop. That’s not what the Hitchhiker’s Guide is, period. Some would say the Hitchhiker’s Guide is perfect bathroom reading. You pick any chapter and just laugh at it for a while. Once you know the characters, it doesn’t matter where you are in the story. Ivan always voiced something that frustrates him in certain kinds of films, time travel movies and things like that: once you know anything can happen, then there’s no conflict, there’s nothing. Because anything can happen. Just when we think it’s all going to go - ‘Oh, they’re not really dead, they’re alive.’ ‘Oh, the Earth didn’t blow up, it’s really still there.’ And it keeps on going to the point where the audience does not care about anything. Well, that’s not Hitchhiker’s Guide.

“What Ivan saw was the humour. He got the humour, he loved the characters, he loved the robot, he loved the interaction, he just loved so much about it. But structurally, it wasn’t right. And Douglas came to understand that. That’s why, long after Douglas left the project, we went through other directors and writers and even more drafts of it. Ironically today, if you did it right now, probably you could go back to its original form. Because the audience has shifted and they could see it now. But it’s also been knocked off so much now. Who knows? I certainly wouldn’t get up on a pedestal now and say, ‘I think it’s time to do Hitchhiker’s Guide.’ But you certainly could do it closer to its original form now than you could have in our hands in the ‘80s.”

Can you remember the changes that were made to the story?
“They were always trying to put some kind of: what is the goal, what is the race, what is the three-act structure? We had to focus on something, so let’s focus on these characters. You had these discussion which were irrelevant to the book that were really what staked it. All these very fundamental things. Part of Douglas’ success was breaking all those rules and here we were trying to rope it back into those rules again, just to drive the story.

“So what they did do, though, is manage to simplify things: we won’t go there; what we need to do is have this race about the Earth’s about to be destroyed and these guys are out to do something. So we just kept it more linear. In the end, if we had made that, I think the fans would never have liked it. And would the public have found it accessible? That’s the long history of Hollywood – you could play this out forever. What makes a movie from a book? Sometimes easy, sometimes impossible.”

Was any thought given to the film’s look or design?
“No. The wonderful thing about it is - you’ve got to remember it’s the early ‘80s. Just to digress for a second, as we continued over the years - because we had the thing about five years - as it went through Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, we were making progress with them because they were very filmic. Even through there, what happened is Ghostbusters came and that was it. We knew what we had to focus on. And we were exhausted by the process, so we let it go. But when we started Ghostbusters, or in that period as opposed to now, not so many sci-fi films. Apart from Star Wars and Alien, you hadn’t seen nothing. Everything that I can think of that we started to think of doing, you’ve pretty much seen in films since.

“We knew we weren’t going to go back and draw on the TV series or any of that. The magic was: boy, this is going to be a movie, and a big movie, and we could do all kinds of neat things. Part of it was trying to figure out the nearly impossible vision. I did think that it opened the door to wonderfully imaginative, ‘Terry Gilliam’ style thinking than standard sci-fi movies. We knew that. And I was really jazzed about that part of it. But I didn't have any specific visions. We never did a drawing, or if we did I don’t remember it. We figured at that point, having a good art director was going to do the job.”

Douglas always cited this meeting with Ivan where Ivan asked him to change the answer from 42. Do you remember that?
“I wasn’t there. But I know that kind of meeting happened. That was the crux of the problem. In hindsight, we should have realised that this could never be reconciled. You can’t make a Hollywood commercial feature out of it without abandoning something as fundamental as ‘the answer is 42.’ What made us getting in, knowing that, and yet get in conflict with it, is complex. Maybe we jumped when we shouldn’t have jumped. Maybe we maintained our enthusiasm when we shouldn’t have. Maybe we were fighting our own internal conflicts.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book about the Heaven’s Gate scandal? It’s a fascinating book. I always recommend it to anyone who wonders: how does that happen in film? How do you get there? How do you get so far in and not see it? That answers it very well. What happens is you fool yourself. You think it’s a minor problem when it’s the core of the problem. You think you can solve it, but in fact it reaches deeper than you thought. We were kind of in that mess when we should have gotten out - which we did. But it’s hard; you talk yourself into a thing, you love something. We loved him - what’s not to love about Douglas? He was on all the time of course.”

Did Douglas understand how Hollywood works?
“No. Well, maybe he did, maybe he really did. It worked like he most feared it would work, so maybe he did. I think he was surprised. He thought we wouldn't be like Hollywood. We weren’t ABC. We weren’t six executives in a room with: ‘Here’s the formula.’ We were a little more advanced in our thinking. After all, we did do Heavy Metal. Which, even in its time, there was nothing like it. We were running the front of things. Ivan had done Animal House. Whether you liked Animal House or not, it broke Hollywood rules. So we were probably, to his mind, not the standard Hollywood guys. And even if Ivan was, Joe and I weren’t.”

As I understand from Joe and Abbie Bernstein, Douglas did three drafts.
“It was a contractual obligation to go to three in a way, but your definition of what’s a first draft, what’s a second draft gets murky. But yes, we drafted him out. He got exhausted. He dreaded going in there every day, having to look at those goddamn things again. We just knew he wouldn’t work unless we tried to keep him on track. I’m amazed that Ivan kept going with it, actually.”

After so many drafts, why did it eventually disappear?
“I believe that five years was because that’s what the option was. Part of the reason for continuing to run through this was because there was some studio money presumably to pay for this development. Ivan’s involvement wasn’t heavy - he was doing other things - and as long as we owned it within the five years, we might as well keep trying different ways to do it. I think, because I wasn’t part of the process, Joe brought the writers on and Joe brought Rocky and Anabel on. By the way, I always thought the most successful version we had was Rocky and Anabel’s. It was a very good script. But why did it end? The five years were over, it would have meant renewing it, and Ghostbusters was there. It was time just to give up.”

Did you see Douglas much after that project?
“No, I didn't see him at all. We talked a little by phone. There were parties with Terry Jones. I guess Terry became a good friend of his later. I remember that somewhere in the early ‘80s they were good friends. I remember we had parties. They had a party at a restaurant in LA for Terry Jones. If Douglas was really bitter about it he certainly didn’t reflect it in our presence. He was frustrated and disappointed and we understood. It’s not like anyone was really pissed at each, except maybe him and Ivan! We said, ‘Look Douglas, we know what you went through and you also have to know what we went through. And you also know where our loyalties are and you also know that we believe in what Ivan believes in. This is not like toothpaste - that’s the way we make movies.’ We just thought we could connect the dots and make things work for everybody. And we were wrong.”

RIP Michael C Gross, 1945-2015

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