Spotlight on J. Michael Straczynski
Transcribed by Jan Schroeder
JMS arrives at 5:00 PM and a tech helps him find a microphone with a long cord so he can walk around as he usually does.
JMS: Howdy (inaudibly-the mike’s not on)
JMS: This one has a long cord, he says, it’s gonna be great. How ya doin’? (applause and whistles)
It has been a year. What I usually do with these things, for those who are new to this, I usually give an update of what’s been going on lately and then I open it up to your questions because I look to you guys to determine the tone, tenor and terror of the conversation. (I needed another ‘T’ word and couldn’t find one so the truth came out suddenly.)
First off, I’ll give you some of the news that’s been going on. Oops, folks are still coming in. Come on, come in…Come! Come! Frolic among your own kind! It’s a happy place. God, they’re still coming in…[comments from the audience about the huge line there’d been] They were waiting for the Briscoe people to leave. They have free horses over there. I got one. I’m taking it to bed tonight. Questions while we’re waiting for the line to come in…in the red.
Audience: Asked if JMS ever intended to expand the scriptwriting book to include comic book writing or to write a book on it.
JMS: I’ve been asked numerous times to do that but I haven’t felt I’ve been doing it long enough. [A bearded man crosses in front of the stage and drops a CD in front of JMS] Who was that masked man?] to have an opinion that matters at all. So I think after I’ve been for a few more years and I know what I’m doing better…right now for me to do a book on comic writing would be the height of ego and I’m not quite at the heights yet, I’m like one step below the heights...I’ll get there, but not right now.
I think that was the last of the line…So for those who might not have heard, first I’ll update the news: I sold a movie to Ron Howard [applause] which I’m really excited about. It’s a thriller/mystery/movie set in the ‘20s here in Los Angeles…pardon me…up there in Los Angeles. I’m 52 years old, I forget where I am sometimes, gimme a break. They want to get it into production as fast as possible. I’m flying up there on the third to meet with Ron Howard and those guys personally to sort of go over the script and make sure everything’s where it needs to be. It’s going to be a big budget film.
There are more people coming in…holy smokes. So for those who’re coming in late: Ron Howard movie-period:20’s-thriller/mystery-working on now.
Ron Howard is the nicest guy in the world, I gotta tell you. The first time I had a phone conference with him about the script I said “Mr. Howard,” and he said “Nonono, you hired my dad on Babylon 5, you can call me whatever you want.” Truly a nice guy. SO smart on story, the conferences we’ve in email and phone conversations were just terrific. They’re already talking about cast and schedule and everything else, there’s some large names lined up…and some shorter names... It’s been a great experience…So that might possibly be in production by the first part of next year which is terrific. So…there’s that…
I was up in Toronto recently and we did a twelve episode radio drama series for the CBC called ‘The Adventures of Apocalypse Al’ which is sorta like a film noir style comedy/drama/science fiction/supernatural series a la ‘Men in Black’ or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. It’s in little five-minute chunks and it’s just fall-down funny. And that will be debuting on the CBC in September I believe and also on Sirius Radio at the same time, then it goes to NPR and BBC and Radio Ireland and other foreign places. I love radio drama. You don’t make a lot of cash in radio drama but you do it for the love of the words and for me that’s the most important part. Let’s see…what else…
A pilot for Touchstone has started for a dramatic prime-time network series called ‘Borrowed Lives’. We sold it last year but it was too late in development season to get the script going so now we’re actually in the script stage and that’s going really well. What else…I’ve gotta use a cheat-sheet now…
‘Rising Stars’, the comic, is in development with Sam Raimi’s production company for a series.
This has all happened in the last few months. You’ve gotta understand that between February and now, it’s like a truck every day.
‘Midnight Nation’ is being bid on by two different studios for a movie.
We pitched ‘Dream Police’ to a major studio, they want to do a motion picture and we’re actually in negotiation right now for me to write it. And…there’s something else…
Every so often, Warner Bros. calls me up and “We have to do something with Babylon 5.” It’s usually like Lucy and the football, you get up there and it’s not there anymore. They made half a billion dollars on the DVDs…that’s with a B…and my profit statement still says 50 million dollars in the red, by the way. We needed a hundred million to make the show, 50 million in the red, they’ve made half a billion on the DVDs…I don’t think so. I mentioned that to the Warner Bros. guys at a recent meeting. “How come I’m still 50 million dollars in the red and you’re making half a billion in profits?” WB Guys: “We made a really good deal, didn’t we?”
Anyway, they call every so often and want to do something with B5 and asked “Do you want to do a feature film?” and I thought about it for a while and I said, “No.” And here’s why: A) I don’t trust movies that much but B) most important, I can’t see the structure of a B5 movie right now as long as long as Andreas and Rick insist on staying dead. As much as B5 was about the stories of Sheridan and Delenn and those guys, there’s the Londo and G’Kar arc that was the clothes line from which I hung all that. And without G’Kar…maybe in a year or two I can start to see the structure of it but right now I can’t do something big right now. I’d love to but I can’t.
WB: “Do you want to do something else? Whatever you want to do, let’s do.”
So I thought about it and I came back to them and said, “Here’s what I’m thinking. When we did Babylon 5, what I liked were the small little stories that we did as ‘B’ plots and as short stories. What if we did a whole bunch of short films? Little mini-movies, each one worked around established B5 characters, not somebody else. One that’s worked around Sheridan, one that’s worked around Delenn, one that’s worked around Lochley or Garibaldi or whoever it is, and put these things out on DVDs and sell them to networks, whatever you want to do, make them short stories. An anthology show set in the Babylon 5 universe. They said, “Okay.” We already have a network that wants to carry them, by the way. We’re negotiating with them now. In addition to the network who wants to broadcast them, put them on DVD, three per DVD and sell them and build up an inventory of these: Babylon 5: the Lost Tales, basing a lot of them on stories I had for the series but never had a chance to actually put into gear-a bunch of different stories I never had time to produce.
JMS: And I want no interference. What I write is what I write. I don’t want notes, I don’t want interference, I want complete creative support and I want it in writing.
JMS: And I want to direct it.
We will shoot in September. It’s greenlit. We had a meeting a week ago where they turned on the lights. It’s greenlit. I’m still writing the script. We haven’t figured out which three actors we’re going to use out of the B5 repertory company. We have to figure out which those three actors are going to be and I’ll write the script around those three actors and we’ll shoot three mini-episodes with these actors. I’ll direct it and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
I want to do things that I can sink my teeth into the characters-to do nice little character stories which we all like. The best scenes in B5 for me were the elevator scenes-two guys in a room. I’m a playwright by nature and love those kinds of small stories so to me that’s the joy of it. To have Warner’s say “You’ve got complete creative support. You can do whatever you want, you can direct it, black and white, we don’t care, do whatever you want, go bugfuck, we don’t care.” is terrific. So we’re going to go ahead.
I just started the script and we’re looking at stages now. The theory is that we get it shot in September, Post October, November, December-there’s a lot of CGI in this thing-then we’ll probably come out in the second quarter of 2007. So that’s the big one for B5 fans out there. Babylon 5: The Lost Tales. [looks under con tote on the table] Oh, there they are! I found them again.
Q: Congrats on the new series. Is there any chance you’ll get Harlan to write for this new series or is this all you?
JMS: At this point Warner’s says “We want this to be you.” I’m sure that down the road I can get Harlan to do something for us but right now they’re saying “We know you, we like you, we want you to do this, go ahead and do this.”
Q: Babylon 5: The Lost Tales. Thanks you first of all. Any chance of Ivanova?
JMS: Who can say? Who can say?
Q: You trust them? After Crusade, after Rangers, you believe them?
JMS: Warner’s has never actually lied. What happened with TNT and Crusade was a different situation where they said, after we started making the show, they [TNT] said they weren’t getting a new audience with science fiction and they wanted to get out of the deal at TNT. Which is a different division over here and they set about to sabotage the show. And then Rangers was a good show and Sci-Fi would’ve picked it up except that it wasn’t owned by Universal, it was owned by Warner Bros. and the deal was not something they wanted to get into. But Warner’s themselves have always been very stand-up. With B5 itself, starting with episode 2 of year 2, they never gave us any notes. They just brought in the guy who’d been our liaison on B5 the series, a guy named Greg Maday, to be our liaison on this as well. Greg’s a great guy; he’s a former Jesuit student, a scholar. Seriously, he’s a really smart guy and understands story and he’s coming back to be our liaison. Very smart guy. So Warner’s, yeah, I do trust them. They actually have kept their promises to me. The contract negotiation was a different scenario but that’s just business. Creatively they’ve been great.
Q: Just curious, what actors have already consented to going into these Babylon stories?
JMS: We just now got the green light about a week and a half ago so we haven’t gone to the actors to make deals yet. We’re going to be in that process starting about ten days from now and see who’s available, what kind of deals can we make, who wants to do it, what the story is, that sort of thing. So once we have determined that we’ll know which ones we’re going to use.
Q: Since TNT kind of screwed over Crusade, is there any chance, and maybe this has been on the newsgroup but I don’t really follow it, is there any chance that we’ll ever get to find out—in some form, either in the Lost Tales or a graphic novel or novel—what really would have taken place over the course of the five seasons. Because I know it couldn’t have been just been the plague, there had to have been more to it.
JMS: There are no plans for that right now. We will eventually be issuing the scripts through the script company we’re using and my notes will be in there. (JMS goes on to explain to the crowd about the script book project)
Q: I’m curious about how much of the Babylon 5 tool kit you still have available to use for your project. For example, the old CG tools, or props, sets, costumes, that kind of thing. In other words, go you have to start from the ground up?
JMS: We have some stuff but not a lot. Over the years Warner’s has used it for other stuff, other shows, sold it off, lost it. The costume inventory…when we closed Babylon 5 we had racks that went from there to there [indicates the width of the room which sat about 40 people across], like four of them. We asked them what they had and it was from there to there [indicates about one third of the room across]. I said “What’d you *do*? So to some extent we have to start over with that. But that’s fine; due to wear and tear over time, it happens. They’re a great studio but every studio has its problems. We were constrained when we re-edited the pilot movie, some things we couldn’t do, there was stuff we couldn’t incorporate in the re-edit because Warner’s had stored the film, the originals and the negatives and the prints in this one vault which was cracked. Rats got in and ate the negatives. Somewhere there’s a Narn rat running around right now. Or a Centauri rat. Their storage facilities aren’t the best although their intentions are. So to a large extent we’re starting over on stuff.
Q: Do you imagine that the look and feel of the show will be the same or reimagined?
JMS: I want it to feel the same but not be exactly the same. We have tools available to us now with CG and virtual sets and environments that we had a little bit of in B5 but not that much. I want to try and … if I were starting B5 now without the prior show behind me, but keeping the same cast…what would it look like? What tools do I have now that I didn’t have then? I want it to be fresh but still be of that same universe so it feels like B5 but [as an example] When I saw Simon and Garfunkel in concert, it was the same songs but they did a good job at reimagining how they were put together so that kind of thing.
Q: My question is, there is still a great big gaping hole in the Babylon 5 story. Will we ever see anything of the Telepath War?
JMS: As I’m laying out these DVDs I’m thinking “We can do this story with Sheridan, this story with so-and-so, this story…ooh, Lyta…the Telepath War. So I’m starting to play with that for down the road. Here’s the deal, if these first DVDs sell well, if the broadcast get good ratings, these will be an ongoing thing. We will keep putting out ‘The Lost Tales’ and broadening that out until we’ve got ten thousand of them, whatever it is. If you want to get to the Telepath Wars, get the first ones. Eventually we do plan to get to that, yeah. Or I plan to get to that anyway.