Saturday, 28 December 2013

interview: Kenneth Johnson

I have done face to face interviews, interviews over the phone, e-mail interviews and even interviews by fax, but my interview with Alien Nation creator Kenneth Johnson was unique. He was busy producing the movie Steel at the time (not a great success, in fact I don’t think it even went theatrical in the UK) and the only time he had spare was on his drive to work. So I faxed or e-mailed him a bunch of questions and he dictated his answers onto cassette as he drove to the studio, then sent me the tape to transcribe. This would have been in early 1997, I think, just as the last of the five Alien Nation TV-movies was set to air. A version of this interview was published in SFX.

To what extent were V and Alien Nation intended as socio-political allegories, and to what extent were they intended as SF?
“Back in the early 1980s I read a book called It Can't Happen Here, written by Sinclair Lewis. It was written in the '30s, about the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany and how it could happen here, and how it did happen here in the course of his story. Suddenly America was a fascist regime. I was very intrigued by the notion because I felt that there was a great complacency among the American people that no real sea-change would ever take place in their life. They'd have their small personal triumphs and tragedies, but no great societal shift in their daily life. I thought: 'Gee, suppose there were a right-wing shift in the United States, and suddenly we found ourselves living under a police state.'

“I wrote what I considered was a very powerful script called Storm Warnings about just that occurrence taking place. My friend Brandon Tartikoff at NBC read it, and was very intrigued by the notion of America living under a totalitarian regime, and a resistance force growing to fight against it. But he was concerned about the notion of fascism and suggested to me that perhaps it was a Soviet or Chinese invasion which prompted the situation. I told him I didn't believe that the Soviets or the Chinese could sustain a protracted occupation of the United States, and somehow the idea came up - it may have been from Jeff Sagansky, who was Brandon's assistant at the time and now is the head of Sony pictures.

“Anyway, the suggestion came up that perhaps it was an alien force that caused the change-over in our lives. I was at first very against it, because I was tired of doing that kind of thing, having done The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk. I wanted to stay a little closer to reality. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt I could do a really interesting, stirring allegory about the rise of the Third Reich and about how ultimate power can either corrupt someone or turn them into a hero.

"That's what V is certainly about, is power. The power of the alien force; the power that certain humans got by allying themselves with the alien force, much like the Vichy French with the Germans in World War II; the unexpected power that one finds in oneself when one is pushed to exploits of heroism, which is what happens to the character of Fay Grant, playing Julie. The heroes, incidentally, are named for Julie and Michael, two of my children. My oldest son, David having given his name to David Banner on The Incredible Hulk a few years earlier.

“So this is a long-winded way, I suppose, of saying that indeed V was particularly intended as a socio-political allegory, right from the very beginning. And it also commented on the people like the George Morfogen character, who wanted to just keep his hands over his eyes and pretend nothing was going on, even while his son was becoming part of the Hitler Youth. And the corruption of youth, played by David Packer in V as Morfogen's son, who was seduced by 'the power of the dark side', shall we say?

“The whole sci-fi aspect of it was sort of by happenstance. And all of the spacecraft and weaponry and such, which you will notice was designed after the World War II Germanic fashion: our guns look a lot like the German Lugers, the symbol of the alien force, the visitors, has a resonance of the swastika. You're probably saying, 'Well, duh?' at this point. What we were trying to do was keep those resonances going, and fortunately the American public, as well as the worldwide public, seemed to understand it.

“I think one of the most rewarding things I heard about V was after the government of South Africa had put it on the state-operated television as "an example of black people and white people working together happily". This was back in the days of apartheid, remember. But the day after it aired, there were big red 'V's spray-painted all over the walls in Soweto and Johannesburg. It was very interesting.

Alien Nation was a movie that Fox had made, which I looked at, which I thought had a fascinating premise about the world's newest minority. But very quickly the movie turned into Miami Vice with Coneheads and got totally uninteresting. I told Fox that if they wanted me to make a series out of it, which they were pressing me to do, I wanted to take a different tack and explore what it was like for the two cultures to be clashing. What it was like for these people to be the newest people off the bus. The most interesting moment in the feature for me was one in which Jimmy Caan picked up Mandy Patinkin at his alien house and Mandy - that's George Francisco - his family was standing on the front porch, waving to him. And I remember sitting in the screening and coming out of my chair and saying, 'Wait a minute - who are they? I want to know what their life is like and how it interrelates with human life and such. And forget all this cop stuff.'

“So Fox gave me a leeway to do that and that's what I did. And throughout the whole series and all of the subsequent TV movies, one of the things that we've enjoyed doing the most is presenting a situation and seeing how the two different cultures respond and react to it, and how it resonates through each of our characters. We never start out by saying, 'What's the plot going to be of this script?' We start out by saying, 'What do we want to write about? Is it about greed? Is it about “the enemy within”? Is it about lust? What is it about?' And then go from there to play it and see how that theme resonates through all of the characters. Andy Schneider and Diane Frolov, my old dear friends who were producers on the series with me, were masters of that sort of writing, and we had a wonderful time doing it.

“When you're writing in an allegorical genre, such as we are, it offers us a wonderful opportunity to make comments and allows us to see the human world through the lens, if you will, of the alien consciousness. So it was always a lot of fun to do. And speaking of fun, Diane Frolov was one of the writers who helped me to create the sequel to the original four hours of V. Diane helped me write the story and then wrote one of the two-hour instalments of The Final Battle. The script that we wrote was extraordinarily good. It was much better than my first four hours had been, by the time we were finished. It was much more intricate, it was more sophisticated in many ways, partly because I had some very strong minds working on it with me.”

How much of your original idea for The Final Battle made it into the filmed script?
“I only ever saw one small piece of the completed work of The Final Battle, because I heard that the script was pretty well decimated and screwed over by Blatt and Singer and Brian Taggert, and that it was only a pale reflection of what we started out with. I heard from people who did see it that they just made all of the wrong choices, wherever there was a choice to be made: in the writing and the casting and the directing and the execution.

“The only scene I ever saw, which was by happenstance, was the one in which the priest had given Diana The Bible to read. We had written a very carefully crafted scene, in which for the first time we thought we were seeing into Diana's soul, and discovering her very troubled by the morals and values that were spoken of in The Bible. And she appears to be about to bare her soul and then turns around and blows the priest away in a startling surprise. The priest incidentally was meant to be a very young, hip, good-looking guy - like Father Karas in The Exorcist for example.

“The piece that I saw from the completed picture was Diana having her conversation with the priest, whom they had cast as an old, Irish, Barry Sullivan stock priest, who was playing against Diana doing her most leering, moustache-twirling impression of a bad guy. The whole scene just telegraphed where we were going from the beginning and was totally awful. After I saw that two-minute honk, I could never bring myself to look at any more of the movie, and to this day I never have.”

Were there any unused ideas from V which made it into the Alien Nation series?
“To the best of my recollection there were no unused ideas from V that made it into the Alien Nation series. The Tenctonese - a name invented by my daughter Juliet, incidentally, who's an NYU Film School graduate; she also invented for me the language that they use. The Tenctonese were really a separate item entirely, and there was never really any connection between the two shows.

Alien Nation we all felt had been cancelled very prematurely. We felt that it had a lot more life in it. And indeed, Peter Chernin, the head of Fox, later apologised to the Television Critics Association for cancelling the show. He said it was the biggest mistake they ever made at Fox, and it only took me three more years to convince him that we ought to do some more.

“So returning to Alien Nation was a gift for all of us involved because the actors all really cared about each other. They all cared about their characters and about the show. The writers and the entire production was, along with myself, totally thrilled to be able to go back and do some more. And to be able to do five more was really the icing on the cake.”

How important were the fans in the revival of Alien Nation?
“I think the fans of Alien Nation certainly were very important in keeping the show alive. I think the constant stream of letters that was received by the Fox Network, by myself and by the various actors - we always managed to send those to the studio and the network as well - really let them know that there was indeed a core audience for the show which hinted at an audience that was even larger, that the show had yet to reach because of the lack of proper marketing from the Fox Network.”

What advantages/disadvantages does the two-hour, occasional format of Alien Nation have over the one-hour, weekly format?
“The disadvantage of doing two-hour movies is that the network is looking for us to save the world every time we go out which begins to get a little tedious and predictable. It's tricky to come up with stories which involve our family of players on a strong emotional level, yet still hint at larger metropolitan - or even cosmic - issues. It's been a battle from the beginning with the studio and the network to make them understand that the personal and the emotional stories were what really drove Alien Nation and made it the darling of the critics that it has always been. Indeed I don't think we've ever got a bad review from anybody. It's extraordinary in that regard.

“The advantage of doing two-hour movies is that we're given a larger budget. A normal budget for a one-hour episode when we were doing it was about $1,250,000. A normal TV movie gets in the neighbourhood of about $3 million, which is obviously more than two one-hours would cost. And in our case, because the show had demonstrated that it had some legs, our budgets consistently exceeded $4 million. We always brought the pictures in on time and on budget, but they were always in the $4 million to $4.5 million range, which is what's necessary for the make-up and the special visual effects. For point of reference, the make-up budget on a normal TV movie is about $50,000. On Alien Nation it's $500,000.

“Each head that our aliens wear can only be worn one time. After that they're thrown away because they tear and they can't be put back on. Each one is carefully crafted, hand-painted by our little cottage industry out in the San Fernando valley. And it takes an enormous amount of time and effort and supervision on the part of Rick Stratton, our make-up supervisor.”

What is the likelihood of further Alien Nation telefilms, or even a new series?
“The likelihood of more Alien Nation films rests solely on how well the last movie performs. It has yet to air. It is called The Udara Legacy and Fox still has yet to schedule it, although I anticipate that it will be shown sometime during the Spring or early Summer on Fox. If it does well, then they may order some more and we may see them in late 1997 or early 1998. If it doesn't do well, then we all will feel very pleased that we got to make at least five more TV movies when we thought the show was dead and gone. We all really counted our blessings over that one.”

How well is the production of Steel coming along?
“The production of Steel is going very well. I'm dictating these as I drive back and forth to Pasadena where we have our first audience preview tonight. So it will be the first time an audience has seen the movie. I'm very proud of it. It looks very good. It's a friendly action-adventure about a real guy who becomes a sort of blue-collar Batman. He's played wonderfully by basketball star Shaquille O'Neal who was completely charming and captivating as a hero. Everybody who has seen the movie so far has had good things to say about it, and I'm certainly hopeful that tonight's audience on Pasadena will not throw tomatoes at us.”

What can we expect from Steel that will set it apart from the current crop of comic-book-based superhero movies?
“I think the main thing that sets Steel apart from the current crop of comic book heroes: first of all, I've avoided those ever since The Incredible Hulk. I've had dozens of offers to turn some comic book or other into a movie or a television show or a TV movie or something. And I've always turned them down because I can't deal with people in funny costumes. When they first approached me about Steel, my first question was: 'Does he wear a funny costume?' And once I convinced them to take the cape off and just leave it as a high-tech suit of Kevlar - a suit of armour to protect him from the bad guys - then it became more palatable for me.

“I think the key difference between it and... well, there are several key differences. One is the budget. The Batman budget is about $100 million and mine was about twenty. But that's really in keeping with the organic nature of the show. Instead of operating from a sort of Bruce Wayne financial base with Wayne Manor and the Batcave and all of that, my guy operates from a junkyard in the ghetto area of Los Angeles and is a very real guy that has to piece together stuff himself. At the same time, he believes earnestly in what he's doing and that makes him a real hero. The key for me throughout has been to keep him absolutely as real and all the effects as realistic as they could possibly be so that an audience seeing the movie will say, 'Yeah, this is really happening.'

“I'm also excited about the fact that the female lead in the picture, her character is written as a paraplegic and she's in a wheelchair through most all of the movie. And the Hasbro toy company I understand, as they fashion their dolls to go into toy stores, they're actually making a doll in a wheelchair, which I'm very excited about. I think it'll probably be the first mass-marketed handicapped doll. I think that's terrific mentally for handicapped youngsters to be able to play with, but also for able-bodied kids to be able to think about what it's like to be in a wheelchair and to see that just because you're in a wheelchair you don't have to be handicapped. Which is one of the lessons that my heroine learns in the course of the story.

“If everything goes on schedule, the movie should be released in late Summer on '97, and I certainly hope that you guys over there enjoy it as much as we've enjoyed making it.”

interview originally posted 14th January 2007

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