Over the course of this week, we’ve serialized an extensive interview with writer J. Michael Straczynski about a wide range of things, and in this fifth and final installment we turn to the world of film and movies. Those two mediums are where Straczynski has made his name to the world-at-large, as creator & showrunner of Babylon 5 with a television series, spinoffs and several standalone movies. In recent years he’s become an in-demand screenwriter, penning the movie Changeling and several more original works, as well as adaptations, coming soon.
Straczynski comes full-circle, talking about a potential return to Babylon 5 as well as the director’s chair – not just in television, but on the big screen.
Newsarama: You’ve said online that you currently have a very good relationship with WB about this. There have been several straight-to-DVD movies and specials, and even two television series. What would you say the current status of Babylon 5 and it’s future?
J. Michael Straczynski: I've kind of drawn a line in the sand, saying no to any more low-budget DVD releases and the like. It's a big-budget movie or nothing. Oddly, WB -- which is being very nice to me at the moment, given how things are going film-wise -- has been coming around to say "So how much money would you need to make this work?" so there may be something to this. We'll see.
Nrama: We’ll hold you to that, then.
Television has changed a lot since the Babylon 5 series went off the air, with a multitude of channels and even online venues. As a long time TV producer and showrunner, what do you think of the state of television – particularly for sci-fi/genre work that you’re known for?
JMS: Television right now is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I think we're seeing some of the best television we've seen in a long time, with the caveat that most of the really compelling, innovative stuff is happening on cable. Dexter, The Tudors, Generation Kill...these are amazing shows. The broadcast networks are trying to keep up, but it's hard given the handcuffs that are involved in over-the-air broadcasting and FCC licenses. I just finished developing a pilot for Fox Network which, alas, didn't get picked up -- they solicited 12 pilot scripts and only picked up less than half that -- but they couldn't have been more welcoming. The networks (cable and otherwise) are really open right now to creators' voices, and I think that shows in the wide range of shows we're seeing.
On the SF side, I think we're still pretty much the bastard child of television, it's still a less-than-serious genre to many folks, which just baffles me given how well Avatar has done. Battlestar was the last serious attempt at it. I look at that, and Buffy (one of my favorite shows of all time), and then look at what's being done now, and it almost feels like we've slid back instead of moving forward. I'd still like to see a solid, smart SF series on a major network approached with the same seriousness of intent as any of their mainstream dramas. I just don't know if it'll happen in my lifetime.
Nrama: You mentioned earlier a pilot that didn’t get picked up by the Fox Network, but that brings up the point: you’re working to do more television. What else are you working on for TV?
JMS: Aside from the project noted above, I recently co-created and co-wrote with the Wachowski's the first three episodes of what could be a massively cool series. It's right on the very edge, just really innovative (which I credit to them). There are several networks interested, but we'll see where it goes. It'd take a really open company willing to go right out there on the edge with us to make this work. So it's a matter of finding the right place.
Nrama: Interesting. For those not in the know, you did a rewrite on the recent film Ninja Assassin which the Wachowskis produced.
In the last few years you’ve surged in the movie world after Changeling. What I find particularly interesting is news of two original scripts you turned in: one called Flickering Light and the other titled Proving Ground. Can you tell us anything about that, in terms of story or chances of seeing it on the screen?
JMS: Proving Ground was purchased by MGM just before it went into receivership, so I don't know what'll eventually happen to it. It's an SF film with a heavy action component, set in the present. The Flickering Light is set during WW2 and, like Changeling, based on a true story. The news to come out of this is that there's a 50/50 chance that I may be directing this myself. I'd originally sold it to Ron Howard, potentially for him to direct, but the more I looked at the script, the more I felt that I could direct it. So I went back to Imagine and asked if I could re-acquire the script, and they were gracious enough to let me do so. I'll be in Berlin for a few weeks this Spring to try and nail down the situation. If all goes according to plan (like that ever happens), we'd prep in November in Berlin at the Babelsberg Studios, then shoot starting in January 2011 through about March.
If that shouldn't come to pass, and you never know, I've been offered other pictures to direct lately (and in some cases, to both write and direct), and will probably bite the bullet and get in the director's chair at some point.
Nrama: Although you have a long list of shows you’ve directed, in the past dozen years or so you’ve really excelled as a writer – both in film and comics. Part of that is writing other people’s material, such as in comics with Amazing Spider-Man but also with several recent film projects.
You’ve also become an able screenwriter for adapting works, and you’re working on scripts for Forbidden Planet and Lensman. First the latter – you’ve said Lensman’s been one of your dream projects, but not many people in this modern day know about it. I didn’t find out about it until I saw the anime and then ventured into the books. What’s the draw for you on Lensman?
JMS: I love the scale of the thing, and the degree to which it became a template for so much SF that followed it, everything from Star Trek to Star Wars and the like. I like the journey of Kim Kinnison toward something greater, toward the creation of humanity 2.0. As it happens, I recently got my next batch of notes from Ron Howard et al, so I'm deep into the next draft, which is going very well. Universal is also very excited about it, feeling this could be a multi-film franchise.
Nrama: Forbidden Planet – that’s got to be a foreboding project to sign up for. What’s your mindset in taking a new take on such a revered movie?
JMS: For me, it was one of the seminal films I saw as a kid (bringing us back to “the food we ate as children”). It scared the bejeezus out of me, while at the same time presenting a world that seemed truly alien and advanced. The idea of what could be done with current tech in that universe is very exciting. The story is one that will be fun for both long-time fans and those new to the film. I had to dump the first screenplay after it leaked onto the internet -- WB and I want to make sure the film doesn't lose its more surprising aspects two years and more before it might come out -- but the good news is that what's on the page now is even better, and the draft went in shortly before the Christmas hiatus.
I wanted to approach it as a fan, but also to see where it could be updated and made relevant. Bear in mind that when the film was first made, it wasn't intended to be camp. It only became that with the passage of time. It was intended to be cutting edge. So if you're going to make a new version of it, then you have to approach it with that mindset. If we made something campy, it'd be a total betrayal of the original film-makers' intent.
I'm also adapting [a video game called] Shattered Union [for film] for the Bruckheimer company, and there are a couple of other deals currently being offered, so there's more cool stuff coming down the road.
Which, in sum, is why I tell people that I have the best job in the world. I get to play in these amazing universes every day. I get to tell stories. I actually get paid to do what I'd have to for free otherwise, because I love what I do and can't imagine myself doing anything else.
And here's the miracle: I grew up thinking, wouldn't it be great to write Superman someday? Woudln't it be great to create my own show, or work on Lensman, or Forbidden Planet? Those were very literally the goals I set for myself, the dreams that I thought I didn't have a chance in hell of ever actually achieving. But it's happened. All of the items on the list, my only list, have been hit. I mean, how improbable is that? How unlikely is it that a kid from Jersey would even be in the same room with some of these people and opportunities?
At conventions and elsewhere, I've always said that if there's anything at all to be learned from me -- and I'm not entirely sure there is, but let's make that assumption now just for the hell of it -- it's that if you hold onto your dreams, if you follow your passions, it doesn't matter where you come from, or what school you went to, or how old you are, you can do it. It's possible. That's the lesson. Not that you will, but that it's possible. Which is all most of us ever really need to know, to strive for what we want, what we believe in.
Example: a friend of mine from college spent 25 years of her life working in a cubicle for a faceless master on a distant mountaintop. There was very little of her in the work, and she called one day to say what am I doing it for? I've never done anything I wanted to do and it's too late now. Nonsense, I told her. What do you want to do, what are you passionate about? She didn't know. I asked what she likes doing. I like my cat, all pets, she said, and I like taking photos, but I'm not a pro.
"So combine what you enjoy. Start taking pictures of pets. For free to start, then for money. Point is, follow what gives you joy."
She did. And now she works three days for the faceless master, and two days a week doing what she enjoys, and making a living at it. Within the next year, if she keeps it up, she'll be working full time at what she loves.
Follow your passion. The rest will attend to itself.
If I can do it, anybody can do it.
And it's your turn.
So go for it. It's never too late to become what you always wanted to be in the first place.
Chris Arrant is a freelance writer that's written about comics for Newsarama, Publishers Weekly, CBR, TOKYOPOP and Marvel Comics. For more, visit his website at www.chrisarrant.com.