Category Archives: interview

>From the Archive: Paul Dooley

>

John’s note: I conducted this interview with comedian Paul Dooley in 2003, while I was researching my book, Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company. The subject of the interview was the cult kid’s show, The Electric Company.

Interview with Paul Dooley

Paul Dooley may be best-known to contemporary audiences as the cantankerous father-in-law of Larry David on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, or perhaps as a semi-regular in director Christopher Guest’s repertory company, in comedies such as Waiting for Guffman (1997) and A Mighty Wind (2003). However, three decades ago, the acclaimed actor, talented improviser, and respected graduate of Second City played another important role: he “turned on” a generation of American kids to the joys and rewards of reading as the head-writer of the PBS education series The Electric Company during its initial season.
Recently, Dooley, who has guest-starred on TV series as diverse as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (as a Cardassian!), Seinfeld, Tales from the Darkside, Grace Under Fire and Millennium (“The Well Worn Lock”), shared his recollections about The Electric Company, and his behind-the-scenes effort to promote literacy while entertaining the youth of the 1970s.

Muir: How did you come to be involved writing The Electric Company?

Dooley: Well, I didn’t know it until years later, but Carl Reiner recommended me for the job. Carl appeared on Sesame Street, as many celebrities did during the first year or two, like my friend, Carol Burnett. They would come on and recite the alphabet or count to ten, just a little short thing they could film in a half-hour and then leave. So when Carl was there, he was asked by the producers if he knew any good writers in New York, because they were trying to put together a new show. He said, ‘Paul Dooley’s a funny guy, and he lives here.’ And I never knew this until the job was over! Twenty-five years later, I finally got to say ‘thanks.’ I met Carl at a writer’s guild screening of a movie and stopped him and said ‘I heard you recommended me for The Electric Company years ago.’

Muir: Why do a follow-up TV series to Sesame Street?

Dooley: The producers wanted to address actual reading problems, not just A B C, 1 2 3. They began to realize from Sesame Street that kids were learning from it and wanted more. They were doing it so well after one season of Sesame Street that they had the alphabet; they had their numbers. They also learned things like fairness and morality. The producers started to go further and began to do short words and syllables, and then realized there was a need for another show. Sesame Street was for ages three to six, and our show was from six to nine or ten, just when you are learning to read. Research showed them that this was something that kids were ready for, and could make a difference.

Muir: How did work on the series begin?

Dooley: They had funding of seven million dollars for the first season. They didn’t know what would be the title, the format, the cast, or the writing. They didn’t know how any of that would work. So they made a decision to have some experimental writing done. They brought in seven writers to work on it, and I was one of them. I thought when they asked me to do it that it was a six week job, and that they got a hold of me because I was known in New York as a writer of radio commercials. I spent a great deal of time in the advertising business right out of Second City. First, I was hired to take copy and make it better. Then I’d spike it up with humor or character or even timing. And after a while I realized they were only paying me as an actor when I was writing the whole thing!

Muir: So your experience in writing and performing in radio ads was a plus on a childrens’ show?

Dooley: Well, with children you tend to do short segments because of the attention span, which was why Sesame Street had short pieces, animation and songs. So it was similar to commercials in some important ways.

Muir: So the group of seven began imagining the new series…

Dooley: Well, we all wrote in this kind of limbo for six weeks. Then, at the end of that time, the producers came to me and said they’d like me to sign a contract and be the head writer for the first season and supervise the material and be in charge of the shape of it. Which immediately made the other six guys hate me, because we had been peers. The reason that the producer told me he thought I was the guy to do it was that the other folks had written sketches that just seemed to be in limbo and could be used or not used, and had no cohesion or shape to them. They didn’t mean anything in aggregate. But totally unconsciously, what I created was a scene with a character who could be brought back once a week.

Muir: In fact, you created several of that series’ most memorable and colorful characters. How did Fargo North, Decoder come about?

Dooley: I have a penchant for names, particularly pun names, so I named a guy Fargo North, Decoder. I was in a meeting with several reading experts who were giving a crash course in reading techniques, and we had to teach reading to the audience, so we had a lot to learn. The experts used a lot of twenty-five dollar words like”encode” for reading and “decode” for reading. So I was sitting next to another writer who was a friend of mine and I wrote in the margin of my notes, “Fargo North, Decoder.” Just a little riff, you know. He told the producer about it the next day and he said to me, ‘That’s a funny idea, let’s do something with it.’ So I figured he [Fargo] could be a word detective and I kind of based him on Inspector Clouseau, a guy who was tripping over his feet all the time. And then it turned out that almost every sketch I thought of could be used as a running character.

Muir: Tell me about another of your characters, J. Arthur Crank.

Dooley: He was a guy who calls up to complain. I named him J. Arthur Crank based on J. Arthur Rank. And of course, no kid is going to know J. Arthur Rank, and most of their parents – if they were under thirty – weren’t going to know him either. But I think it didn’t hurt anything, and had a ring to it. And the few people who did hear it and knew Rank would think it was cute. He was a crank caller and instead of just calling him Crank, I called him J. Arthur Crank.

Muir: You’ve hit on one of the delights of The Electric Company. It was educational and funny for the kids, but there were also little jokes in there that only the adults would get.

Dooley: we did things for the adults that kids might not get, but it didn’t cost us anything. The Electric Company had a hip-ness about it. We were told never to look or sound anything like Sesame Street. We didn’t want some six-year-old kid to say, ‘I’m not going to watch that, that’s just like Sesame Street! That’s for little kids!’

Muir: You also created a very famous character — played by the actor Morgan Freeman, before he was a star.

Dooley: Easy Reader. He was based on Easy Rider, but he was a junkie for reading, and that was Morgan Freeman. And the counterpoint of the junkie for reading is the Count on Sesame Street. He could not stop counting. To a fault. So I made a guy who would not stop reading to a fault, and that was Easy Reader.

Muir: Where did the idea come from to call the series The Electric Company?

Dooley: The reason we called it The Electric Company is that the first name we made for it had the word eclectic in it. The producers kept saying that were were going to be very eclectic in our reading techniques, phonics, all these different things, so we would kid around with the word eclectic. Like, ‘did you pay the eclectic bill?’ And eventually, somehow, we called it The Eclectic Company, and then The Electric Company.

Muir: And the theme song took it from there.

Dooley: Joe Raposa wrote this wonderful opening song. I said ‘Let’s suppose it is The Electric Company, what would you write? What kind of song would you have? And he wrote some great lyrics. ‘We’re going to turn you on, we’re going to give you the power’…And it was terrific.

Muir: Other elements of the show also utilized the motif of electricity

Dooley: A lot of those things I thought of — like having a hand come in at the end of the show and turn on the light bulb — because we called it The Electric Company, and that tied it together. I created the line which said: ‘Electric Company gets its power from the Children’s Television Workshop,’ based on Sesame Street, which said things like ‘brought to you by the letter A.’ I found a bunch of things to hang it on, which made it seem unified.

Muir: Do you ever feel like you’ve covertly educated a generation?

Dooley: We had this charge that if you make the show entertaining for the parents as well as the kids – if they sit with the kids – not only will the kids learn something about reading, but the parents might learn something they don’t know either. Plus, if they sit with the kids, the kids are more likely to watch, and it becomes a family thing.

Muir: You left The Electric Company after one year as head writer…

Dooley: Yes. I worked on the first season and then went back to my real career. I was doing a lot better [financially] when I didn’t work for them, because they had a pretty low salary. I was making four or five times as much by working on commercials. I did enjoy it, and it was challenging and rewarding. I said to my wife at the time, ‘Finally, I’m doing something with comedy techniques for good instead of evil!'”

>From the Archive: Brian Johnson (February 2001)

>

John’s note: I conducted this interview with award-wining special effects guru Brian Johnson (Space:1999, Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, etc., in February 2001, via e-mail.  The subject was Space:1999, and the occasion was the new release of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series on DVD.

Interview with Brian Johnson


John:  After twenty-five years, the world finally seems to hve caught up with Space:1999 in some senses, with stories about the program running in The New York Times, Cinescape and TV Guide. And the series is being released on DVD. Did you know this day of re-assessment would come, and is there a sense of vindication?

Brian Johnson: I always tried to make Space:1999 a quality show in terms of visual effects. Vindication is not the word. Quiet satisfaction is probably nearer the mark.

John: Have you seen the DVDs?

Brian Johnson: I haven’t, though I would like to. Every dog has his day, and the show deserves some extra acclaim. We all gave it our best bang for the buck.

John: I know you’ve mentioned that DVD is a different format than Space:1999 was originally intended for, and that the format throws off your “wire threshold.” What exactly does that mean?

Brian Johnson: The resolution of TV images was low in those days. We had a margin with which we could view our dailies and say “That will never be seen on TV.” I never re-shot stuff if I thought we couldn’t improve the action, and it didn’t show wires when projected at 25-30 frames per second, not rock and rolling and freeze-framing the way people do now, just to see how a shot is done. Wires were a bloody nuisance – I hated them. As often as possible, we avoided them.

John: If you were to do a new Space:1999 today, would you in any way change the look of the series? Do you see a role for CGI in a new Space:1999?

Brian Johnson: I would change everything – but not completely. The Eagles would be subtly changed with better undercarriage systems and “bits” on. The Moonbase could do with a spring clean, but not too much. I liked the launch pads. The planets would be much better now. I would use a huge amount of CGI work. I would shoot digitally and make subtle camera moves to enhance production values.

John: The Eagle may be one of the most beloved and believable spaceship designs in TV history. Can you tell us how you came to design it?

Brian Johnson: I was in my “modular” design mode in those days. I reasoned that it made sense to make Pods that were interchangeable. The command pod could serve as a lifeboat, Eagles could be “chained” together, etc. I sketched the basic idea and got Michael Lamont (then a draughtsman/art department) to draw up the full scale 44″ plans. I then added sections and thickened tubes until it looked “right.” The final cladding was added, and then the different scale versions were finished to match the 44″ model. My basic ideas came from looking at dragonflies and insects of all sorts. I copied nature to some degree – I think it made the Eagle believable.

John: Moonbase Alpha?

Brian Johnson: Moonbase Alpha was an unashamed homage to Harry Lange, Tony Masters and Stanley Kubrick from 2001, with my own ideas too.

John: One of the things that constantly amazes me about your work is how the miniatures of Space:1999 blended so seamlessly with the live action. How did you manage to coordinate the live action with the miniatures on so tight a schedule?

Brian Johnson: I was always about ten days behind the Main unit live action shooting, so Keith Wilson would do his thing. I tried never to interfere with his imagination, and we used the Main Unit shots as keys to our establishing shots. The trick was to “lag” the Main Unit. Also, editor Dave Lane was just the best at using everything we shot.

John: What was the one thing you wanted to do on Space:1999 that you never had the opportunity to do?

Brian Johnson: Motion controlled moves and such, but we didn’t have time or money. We had just started to build our first motion control system, but it was cranky and slow.

John: At the time it aired, Space:1999 was roundly criticized for being mystical and anti-science. What do you think about such criticisms?

Brian Johnson: I have to confess that I was never really moved by the concept of Space:1999. I find the most exciting sci-fi ideas are those that obtain some semblance of reality. Frankly, the Moon traveling through space (other than in the company of the Earth) is dumb. We would have stood a better chance if we had been an Asteroid Mining Company, or something. I could have really gone to town in terms of visuals. We had good writers and good directors, and yet we never really got to know the main characters. It was all a little superficial. However, I am being picky here, and in its time, it did push the frontiers a bit. I think TV politics had something to do with the demise of the series.

John: What were the primary strengths of Space:1999, in your eyes?

Brian Johnson: Quality and attention to detail. A whole slew of superb actors who lifted some of the more esoteric storylines. Good directors like Charles Crichton, who, because of his background, was given the weakest scripts.

John: The primary weaknesses?

Brian Johnson: We didn’t really progress as we went from Series 1 to Series 2. I still feel the first series had the best stories. The whole Maya thing was just a gimmick, though Catherine was superb, and we took on board an established American script advisor who led us away from the audience we had already established. I don’t know what figures were charged for each episode, but I think the quality we put out allowed a much higher figure to be charged than was actually the case. If the unit cost was less, we might have gone on for years. Hopefully on an asteroid, not the Moon!

John: Any thoughts on the fans?

Brian Johnson: I’m always amazed by the enthusiasm and loyalty shown by so many different types of people. From the absolute nutter through the sci-fi buff, to the cerebral. Even Mums have a lot of nice things to say about the show – maybe it kept their kids quiet for an hour or so. I also do not have the retention of memory for lines in the script that many fans can recite, ad infinitum. I’m always flattered by the nice things they say about Eagles and Moonbase Alpha.

>From the Archive: John Newland

>

John’s note: This interview with John Newland, director and host of One Step Beyond, was conducted in the year 1999, as I was researching my book, An Analytical Guide to TV’s One Step Beyond.  Mr. Newland — a true gentleman and great talent — passed away in 2000.
Interview with John Newland

John Newland came of age as a theatrical artist just as television developed into a national obsession.

Perhaps the foremost leading man of the 1950s, Newland guest-starred on programs such as Playhouse 90 (1956-1961), The Loretta Young Show (1953-1961), Kraft Television Theatre (1947-1958), Climax (1954-1958), Suspense (1949-1964), Studio One (1948-1958), Robert Montgomery Presents (1950-1957), Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953), Science Fiction Theater (1955-1957) and Inner Sanctum (1954).


Though Newland is best remembered for his role as the host of One Step Beyond and its syndicated sequel, The Next Step Beyond (1978-79), he also had a long and distinguished career as a TV director, helming episodes of Police Woman (1974-1978), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), Dr. Kildare (1961-1966), Star Trek (1966-1969), Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-1973), The Sixth Sense (1972) and Wonder Woman (1976-1978).

He also directed the memorable (and chilling…) TV movie starring Kim Darby, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973).


The following interview focuses on the production of One Step Beyond:

MUIR: How did you come to be involved with Alcoa Presents, the series known now and forever as One Step Beyond?
NEWLAND: Producers Merwin Gerard and Collier Young were my friends, and we had done other shows together. We came up with idea of doing a program called Fantasy, a series that would highlight fantasy one week, horror the next, science fiction the next, and so on. But all those things had been done before, so we decided to focus on psychic phenomena instead. There were so many sources to call on for stories, and we had Larry Marcus, a formidable writer, and I would direct the episodes.
MUIR: And that was how the pilot “The Bride Possessed” came about?”
NEWLAND: Yes. We made “The Bride Possessed,” and it had enough visual appeal to make the series seem worthwhile.

MUIR: Do you recall how much it cost to make the pilot (in 1959)?

NEWLAND: Around $30,000 dollars, I believe. We shopped it around, and Alcoa liked the show, so it became our sponsor.

MUIR: One of the things that made One Step Beyond so unusual was that many of the episodes were based on reported accounts of the paranormal, “based on fact,” as it were. “Night of April 14″ concerned a psychic web surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. “The Day the World Wept” reported President Lincoln’s precognitive dreams of his own assassination, and “Earthquake” and “Eye Witness” told of people who forecasted real life natural disasters, such as the quake of 1916, or the volcanic eruption at Krakatoa.

NEWLAND: That’s right. The stories had to be real, and there had to be proof, either anecdotal or published. Of course, we got some letters from people who said I was the Anti-Christ for pursuing this kind of thing. Ivan Klapper was our consultant, and it was just as the narration said. [He breaks into the series narration here - and it's a little uncanny to hear the voice coming through my phone]: ‘Explain it? We cannot. Disprove it? We cannot. We are simply inviting audiences to explore the unknown..”
MUIR: How long did it take to film the average episode of One Step Beyond?
NEWLAND: Three days. We’d work for five days a week, stop for two days to take a breather, and then start shooting again. We had a spectacular crew.
MUIR: And the budget per regular half-hour show?

NEWLAND: Between $30,000 and $50,000, I believe.
MUIR: And the shows were mostly shot inside. In the studio, right?
NEWLAND: We shot on the MGM lot. And we had access to their vast costume department, which meant that we could do period pieces.

MUIR: Were you allowed to improvise dialogue, or re-write any of the teleplays on the set, or were the stories pretty much filmed as written?
NEWLAND: We didn’t need to improvise. We had good actors, good movement and good dialogue. We had four cameras, and the benefit of vast experience.
MUIR: Did you have complete creative control in your directing choices?
NEWLAND: I had a totally free hand…and a lot of help too! Henry Berman [editor of the series] was a major reason for the success of One Step Beyond. After lunch on any given day of shooting, he would approach me and let me know what he thought he needed in order to deliver a satisfactory cut.
MUIR: What kind of advice did he usually have?

NEWLAND: He would say: ‘I need a two-shot here, John,’ etcetera. And usually his recommendation was something that would have never entered my mind. Cutters are very helpful to directors, and I always listened to Henry and placed stock in his advice/

MUIR: What were your feelings about Harry Lubin, who wrote the creepy signature music of One Step Beyond? That theme, “Fear” still gives me shivers whenever I think of it….
NEWLAND: Harry was a very articulate man, and a great composer, and he really loved the idea of the show. I think the music reflected his genuine interest and feel for the material. When an album of his work on One Step Beyond was released many years later, it was quite successful.
MUIR: Since One Step Beyond was an anthology, you had the opportunity to work with a variety of famous performers. Can I ask about some of your memories of the actors who appeared on the show?
NEWLAND: Sure.

MUIR: Suzanne Pleshette appeared in “Delusion,” the premiere of the second season. She played a duplicitous nasty girl, and the recipient of a blood-transfusion of a character played by Norman Lloyd. What was your impression of her?
NEWLAND: She was one of the best actresses I ever worked with. Period.

MUIR: In the print I saw of that episode, there was an abrupt cut as soon as Norman Lloyd began to strangle her. Was that a network-imposed cut, or did I just see a bad print?

NEWLAND: Well, I’m sure I told Norman to strangle her good. I don’t recall if that cut was a result of the network asking us to change something.
MUIR: Any thoughts on William Shatner, who you worked with again on Star Trek? He appeared in “The Promise” as a German bomb expert, and gave a very sensitive and restrained performance….
NEWLAND: He’s a charming actor, and a hard-working actor. I thought he was adorable, and he has been an excellent friend to me. I thought he gave a terrific performance in “The Promise.
MUIR: “The Visitor” was a deeply moving episode about how marriages can change over the years…with a psychic twist, of course. It featured a very young Warren Beatty as a man in his twenties, and then as the same character – but in his fifties. What was he like to direct?

NEWLAND: Warren was a friend. Of course he was a nobody back then, but Joan Fontaine [his co-star in "The Visitor"] wanted him for the part. I thought he was quite charming – and good in the role. He was dating Natalie Wood at that point, and she would come over to watch the dailies to see how he was holding up. He wasn’t in [old-age] make-up that long, and it wasn’t severe.

MUIR: Christopher Lee appeared in “The Sorcerer,” just as he was becoming an international star for his portrayal of Dracula.
NEWLAND: Oh, he was funny and charming. He makes his living being spooky but he’s really got a great sense of humor.

MUIR: How did you feel about the fact that you were always on-screen, in every episode, as the series narrator?

NEWLAND: That was a necessary selling point. Having me as an “established star” of television at the time, helped get the show sold.
MUIR: Part of your job, as I recall, was to hawk aluminum products for your sponsor, Alcoa. Was it ever awkward being their pitch-man?

NEWLAND: That was just part of the business. They were happy with my work, and I was happy with their money. It was a good relationship.
MUIR: While you were shooting the first season of One Step Beyond, you had an interesting encounter with Rod Serling, is that correct?
NEWLAND: I knew Rod, and he knew me as a director, and he was a splendid person to work with, and a real supporter. He called me up and asked me to meet him for drinks. Well, once we were at the bar, Serling told me he was going to be producing and writing an anthology series of his own. He assured me that The Twilight Zone was going to be pure fantasy, with no discussion of proof or psychic powers.

MUIR: Why do you think he wanted to tell you that?
NEWLAND: Because he was a class act. He just wanted to let me know in person that he wasn’t going to rip us off.

MUIR: Any favorites among the 96 episodes of One Step Beyond?
NEWLAND: I liked “The Devil’s Laughter” [ a story about a criminal who kept escaping the noose by luck]. The story was good, I liked Alfred Ryder’s performance, and felt engaged by the storyline.
MUIR: Least favorite?

NEWLAND: The one about the vine in Mexico.

MUIR: That was “Blood Flower,” about an American professor being possessed by the spirit of a Mexican revolutionary whose blood had spilled on a plant…
NEWLAND: It was a dumb, silly concept. The pits.

MUIR: One Step Beyond had a location shift for the last part of its third season. Thirteen episodes were filmed in Great Britain.


NEWLAND: That was my idea. We thought it would be a little boost to the show. Great Britain offered good actors, good locations, and good settings. We sought permission from Alcoa, and they okayed it.

MUIR: What was ABC’s general response to One Step Beyond?


NEWLAND: They were very enthusiastic. The show always won its time slot. Alcoa was even more enthusiastic. It was a solid success.
MUIR: How much interference was there from Alcoa and the network?

NEWLAND: These were the days before Proctor and Gamble. We had a totally free hand.

MUIR: Do you know why the series was cancelled?

NEWLAND: We’d done 96 episodes, and there was the inescapable feeling that we were no longer the new kid on the block. The show was still drawing high ratings, but the decision was made that we needed to make room for new product.
MUIR: Okay, you know I’ve got to question you about the episode called “The Sacred Mushroom.” This remains one of the most notorious episodes in network TV history, because you are seen on camera literally sampling mushrooms with hallucinogenic properties in a California laboratory. In your own words from the beginning of the show, “the story featured no actors, no script.” Basically, it was a travelogue to Mexico to experiment with these mushrooms. What was going on with that story?

NEWLAND: That was our most popular episode. It was a spooky trip. We landed in a tiny airstrip in Mexico near a mission. From there, it was a donkey trip of four days to reach the village. It was a dangerous journey, but we got phenomenal footage.

MUIR: That portion of the episode involved Dr. Barbara Brown (a neuro-pharmacologist), David Grey (A Hawaiin spiritual leader), Dr. Jeffrey Smith (a philosophy professor from Stanford) and Dr. Andrija Puharch sampling a mushroom called “X,” given to them by a local with doctor called a brujo. The peyote was supposed to enhance psychic abilities, and it was pretty damn unusual to see people getting high on TV in 1961, wasn’t it?
NEWLAND: Alcoa told us that the show was so bizarre, that we don’t dare put it on the air.
MUIR: So how did you salvage the episode?
NEWLAND: Well, Puharich asked me to take the mushroom, and I was game, so we took a camera crew and drove to Palo Alto and Puharich’s laboratory. Once there, I had three cameras rolling the whole time, and I told the cameramen to just keep shooting until we ran out of film. We decided to shoot and shoot and shoot and see what happened.
MUIR: Did you feel anything strange when you sampled the mushroom?

NEWLAND: I felt light-headed…and a sense of well being…the stuff was distilled. It was very powerful, but not poisonous, so I didn’t have any trepidations.

MUIR: Were there after-effects?”
NEWLAND: I had flashbacks and hallucinatory moments for about a month.

MUIR: But nothing psychic or paranormal happened?
NEWLAND: No. Not a grain.

MUIR: I guess I should ask you then, have you ever had a psychic or paranormal experience?

NEWLAND: I’ve not had a single experience. I’d like to have one, and if I were offered one, I’d certainly jump at it instantly.

MUIR: Going back to “The Sacred Mushroom,” your involvement with Puharich in the lab saved the show for broadcast.
NEWLAND: Alcoa saw it and considered my testimony “proof enough,” to air the show. As I said, it became our most popular episode.
MUIR: In 1978 you embarked on a syndicated sequel to One Step Beyond called The Next Step Beyond. It only lasted a season, and at first was shot on videotape.

NEWLAND: It was very inferior quality. We thought videotape was the medium of the future, but the results were not what we had in mind. We switched to 16mm halfway through the series to try to improve its look, but by then it was too late.

MUIR: With revivals of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, has there been any serious thought about another new One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: We talked about doing all kinds of revivals, even recently, but as The Next Step Beyond proved so dramatically, you just can’t go home again.

MUIR: Is there any message you would like to share with fans of One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: Thank you for your years of interest and belief. I am very grateful.

MUIR: And lastly what is your ultimate, final take on One Step Beyond, forty years later?

NEWLAND: It was the best production I ever worked on, period. It was the best time I had working in this industry, and it was the most creative and satisfying atmosphere in my life, both personally and professionally.

Sci-Fi Pulse Reminder: Interview with JKM at 5:00 pm (EST)

Hey Sunday Readers:
Don’t forget, I’m interviewed on Sci-Fi Pulse with host Ian Cullen and Marx Pyle today, at 5:00 pm (EST). We discuss my writing career, the state of sci-fi TV, web series and much more.

Don’t miss the show, and thanks for tuning in.

- JKM

JKM Visits Sci-Fi Pulse!

Hey everybody, I’m the guest this week on Sunday’s Sci-Fi Pulse Radio Talk Show, episode 55.

The popular genre talk show is hosted by Ian Cullen with writer Marx Pyle, and together we all discuss everything from sci-fi television and film to my dramatic web series, The House Between (now nearing the fourth anniversary of its debut on Veoh), to my upcoming stint as film festival judge in NYC.

Sci-Fi Pulse airs tomorrow, Sunday, February 7th at 5:00 pm, EST. So check it out. Here’s the link and the advert:

“For episode 55 we feature a discussion with journalist and writer of many science fiction reference books. John Kenneth Muir. Over the years John has written a number of books, his first of which was Exploring Space 1999. During our chat with the Writer Marx Pyle and Ian Cullen asked the writer not only about his view point on the current state of genre television, but also about his web series The House Between. Want to learn more? Tune in this Sunday.”

Interview with Chris Carter

If you boast any familiarity with my blog, you probably already know that — across the last five years — I have written frequently abut the TV and film productions of Chris Carter and Ten Thirteen Productions.

There are many reasons why I find myself continually drawn back to Carter’s oeuvre. In broad terms, these reasons involve television history, the artistry of the particular programs, philosophy, and of course, personal taste.

Historically speaking, The X-Files and Millennium have grown virtually synonymous with the decade of the 1990s. Carter’s programs captured the Zeitgeist of that epoch in sometimes challenging, sometimes stunning fashion.

By the end of the decade, various Ten Thirteen productions had gazed at the teen culture (“Syzygy,”) pondered the Human Genome Project (“Sense and Anti-Sense,”) skewered nineties tabloid culture (“The Post-Modern Prometheus”), satirized Scientology (“Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense”), peeked behind the closed-door mores of our affluent gated, McMansion communities (“Arcadia,” “Weeds”), considered domestic terrorism (“52266″), dissected the mentality of cults (“The Filed Where I Died”), and much more. This is Who We Were.

In terms of my continued appreciation of these series, I find myself again relying on Roger Ebert’s insightful and useful refrain — that it isn’t what a movie (or TV program) is about that’s important; it’s how that production is about the narrative that truly matters.

And the “how” of Chris Carter’s genre programs — The X-Files, Millennium, Harsh Realm, and The Lone Gunmen — is also the thing that perpetually intrigues and fascinates me. Specifically, I enjoy that these productions invariably deploy symbolism and literary allusion to further their themes. I’ve written about that facet in regards to Millennium, specifically, in my essays: “Enemies Within: Chris Carter’s Millennium and America’s Suburban Apocalypse, and “Snakes in the Grass and Snakes in the Open: Animal Symbolism in Millennium’s Second Season.”

I also admire the unconventional and cinematic visuals forged on these series, which stand apart from the majority of dramatic programs in television history. Television tends be…visual radio.

But not The X-Files, Millennium or Ten Thirteen’s other works. They regularly utilize expressive, unconventional camera-work and always seem to find a way for the image to marry theme. If you have any doubt of this fact, just go back and watch The X-Files episode “Triangle,” a dizzying, audacious balancing of “real space and time” with “fantasy space and time” in the Bermuda Triangle. It’s Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope meets the split-screen climax of De Palma’s Carrie meets The Wizard of Oz. And that’s just one example.

Notably, Carter’s programs were also at the vanguard of the movement in dramatic television towards multi-episode, multi-season story arcs. And gazing across nearly 300 hours of filmed entertainment, I find myself fascinated by the connections between Ten Thirteen’s many works; and the consistency of world view I see across the spectrum of Carter’s universe.

For shorthand, you might call this “the Chris Carter mystique,” or his “brand.” It’s the same thing with Joss Whedon (another artist I deeply admire): the alert viewer will be aware within minutes that he has stepped into Chris Carter’s world.

So, after I received a happy birthday note from Chris Carter last week (!), I decided this was a great opportunity to open a dialogue with him regarding some of these ideas. To my delight, he agreed to a wide-ranging interview, and that’s what you see transcribed below. I re-arranged the interview to group my questions by themes to present, hopefully, a cohesive picture.

The Building Blocks: Symbolism, Story Arcs, and “The Chris Carter Man

JKM: One of the threads I’ve noticed running throughout your work is your use of symbolism.

For example, the Yellow House as paradise and then paradise lost in Millennium. Or the Arthurian Chair in Harsh Realm. I guess my question is simply, why?

CARTER: I don’t set out to throw these symbols in as anything other than what interests me.

It’s done on a case-by-case basis, and then they only become symbols to everyone else. What I can say about everything that I’ve created or worked on is that it’s been about what interests me at the time.

JKM: In terms of Millennium and the yellow house — this perfect place of safety and happiness — where did that idea came from?

CARTER: It came out of the bigger concept of a guy who was trying to paint away the darkness.

I had worked on X-Files for three to four years at that point, and we were dealing with some very dark subject matter. After awhile — after writing about that dark subject matter and realizing how powerful it can really be — you try to come up with remedies, yourself, for the darkness. It’s not always fun to write about the darkness.

JKM: So the yellow house was a place of safety for you, as well as for Frank?

CARTER: It was. And it’s funny, when I look back at Millennium now, I think, in a way, the concept was actually too complex. Especially when I look at shows that have become hits, like CSI, or other procedurals. They don’t deal with ideas like the yellow house. They don’t deal with things like family, necessarily.

JKM: But that’s what made Millennium so great. It had all those elements. I know I wrote once that Millennium must be the most-often imitated show in TV history. But other series have sort of stripped it down to the component parts: the paranormal angle (Medium, Ghost Whisperer); the forensic (CSI) angle, the serial killer (Criminal Minds) angle. Everybody’s taken a page from it, but nobody’s been able to sort of re-assemble the totality of it.

CARTER: It was also a show set on a specific schedule, which was the countdown to the Millennium, and of course nobody can duplicate that in this decade. It had…complexity.

And it’s funny, when it went off the air it did so with ratings that are better than many of the shows that are on the air right now. In a weird way, if you look at Millennium and Harsh Realm, you can say that Harsh Realm kind of booted Millennium off the air, which now — looking back — is very unfortunate.

JKM: It would have been good to have them simultaneously.

CARTER: That would have been my preference as well.

JKM: Another aspect of your work that I see repeated throughout is the depiction of men. My wife is a therapist,and as much as she enjoys the way Joss Whedon writes women, she likes the way you write men. She’s suggested a clinical classification: The Chris Carter male.

In short, the leading men in your programs are chivalrous and heroic, but essentially unavailable emotionally to the women in their lives. Frank Black blocks himself off from Katherine in the act of protecting her. To save his Sophie, Hobbes elects to stay permanently separated from her in Harsh Realm, and so on. Is this representative of your view of men, or just something that you find dramatically interesting?

CARTER: I’d have to say it’s dramatically-interesting to me. It’s what’s withheld that counts, or that is important.

If the character is remote or unable to speak about these things — because it’s series television we’re talking about here — it becomes something that needs to be discovered. So if you discover these things too quickly; if a person is too emotionally available, it actually takes away from the interest in the character. It makes that character less dramatically interesting.

JKM: And less tragic?

CARTER: The characters are tragic. That’s what makes them interesting. Their flaws and their weaknesses. And also their strengths. By not telling his wife about the darkness, Frank is painting it away. By not telling her about the polaroids, he’s painting it away. It’s a strength, but one which could be viewed as a weakness in terms of how men relate to women.

JKM: Not to push a point, but it does seem that your men seem to suffer from this quality, but the women don’t have that level of remoteness.

CARTER: I think that’s the women’s strength. They stay there. They don’t shy away from the entanglement. From the darkness. That says a lot about the women. Look at Scully. She’s a very, very independent person. Her strength is measured against Mulder’s; it’s not measured by Mulder.

JKM: There’s a period of rebellion against Mulder, by Scully. Like she’s rejecting in a sense, his control, his remoteness.

CARTER: In season five you can say that for sure. They really have a falling out. They’re of two different minds. Scully actually pursues Mulder’s path, and Mulder, in a weird way, pursues Scully’s. That was all a plan.

JKM: You don’t see relationships go up and down and back and forth like that on many of the dramatic series today. Take CSI For example.

CARTER: Well, they are murder mysteries and they work very well as that. I think that programs that are character pieces work on an additional level.

JKM: Which brings us to another topic. In terms of genre history – Star Trek, Kolchak, programs like that — they were not able feature a story arc.

CARTER: That arc — which arcs over nine years — has been the subject of a lot of debate.

JKM: Does that mean you long for the days when TV stories were simpler? When you could just say, “next week, we start over.”

CARTER: You look at Law & Order. It’s an amazing television series. It really has what you’re talking about. It starts anew each week, and it doesn’t feature characters’ personal lives over and over again. That is not part of the series. It’s a luxury. I never figured out how to create something that would interest me that would be as simple as that.

JKM: And that may be the very thing that precludes a series like Millennium from running for nine years. Some people can’t take that journey, but the people who do take the journey usually end up feeling very rewarded.

CARTER: We did an X-Files charity day recently, and we had a lot of people there from all over the world. One of the things that someone said to me — and pointed out as a regular watcher of the show — she said: “people say the mytharc of the show is complicated. It’s not complicated. You just have to pay attention to it.”

I think one of the things that happened, certainly — and this is part of it being a nine year show – is people say that it got too complicated. I think that what it did — rather than becoming overly complicated — it became stretched-out. It took on a complexity given there were 202 episodes.

JKM: In some sense, broadcast television in the 1990s — before DVD box sets — worked against you there, I think. It’s very difficult when you have to stop your story momentum for Thanksgiving, or play-off games, week-in and week-out. This was the case with Twin Peaks as well. But when you watch a season on DVD — in a week or two weeks — it’s easier to see how it all makes sense. I don’t know what this fact says about our attention span, but it seems that series like Millennium and X-Files are much preferable to watch on DVD, back-to-back, rather than with weeks of interruption in-between.

CARTER: Of course, when you’re producing the series, it is a week-by-week experience. So you’re not thinking about the DVDs. I never thought about the DVDs. You really are thinking about what it is– week-to-week — that interests you. You do it simply on that basis. So when you hear that people watch it from beginning to end, it’s very satisfying that what you were pondering, and working out carefully, elaborately, and painstakingly plays out on a grander scale.

JKM: It does. Millennium, in my opinion, is one of the most pure works of art I’ve ever seen on television. It holds so many resonances of things half-spoken and suggested. It’s a beautiful puzzle.

CARTER: I appreciate you saying that. That was what it set out to be, and I know that’s what the writers set out for it to be. In the second season — which I had so little involvement in because I was working on The X-Files and The X-Files movie — Glen Morgan and James Wong came in and put their stamp on it. They added layers to it. It was truly a collaboration of points-of-view, and of I guess you would call it an artistic approach to what was I think, an interesting subject matter.

JKM: Taken together, all the seasons lead you to this inevitable conclusion about what is going to occur at the Millennium. You almost have three meditations from three perspectives– in three seasons — on the same subject, about the same man, the same organization, and the same situation.

CARTER: If there is a mystique, it’s truly collaborative. On The X-Files it was also truly collaborative. There were so many good people that came to work on the show: who wrote the show, who directed the show, and who became involved in the show. It’s one of those things where you have to spread out the accolades for what the series became; and what they did

JKM: I think Millennium is the first time I heard on network television the descriptor “the culture of fear” as applied to the United States. In the last decade, we’ve certainly become well-acquainted with the culture of fear in this country. But not many of us were thinking about that in the 1990s. But you were. And your shows were. All of your programs feature this brand of “anticipatory anxiety.” You know, there’s going to be a doomsday. An alien invasion in 2012. Millennium went through many end of the world scenarios. Even Harsh Realm. What were you seeing that other people weren’t seeing? How did you tap into this?

CARTER: I don’t know. That is a sensibility of mine. I just sensed that there was something bad coming. Probably, the combination of Y2K and the Millennium; the Millennial anxiety everyone was feeling. The word “Millennium” wasn’t actually a popular coinage. People didn’t know what Millennium meant, by and large, so while there was nervousness, it was truly an instinctual gut nervousness. There wasn’t a whole lot of intellectual effort being put into the decade, into the turn of the century.

JKM: But you started doing this in 1993, even before people started talking about Y2K or the Millennium. The Cold War was over. We had peace and prosperity. We had no enemy. We had all this technology, and the economy was booming. But you still found this underlying uneasiness. If you look at it today, your programs are even more timely. People wondering about vaccinations, the government, etc…

CARTER: Oh, there’s much more paranoia today.

JKM: In a decade in which a lot of people seem to think nothing happened, your shows were saying a lot’s happening. You even issued a challenge in the opening credits of Millennium when you flashed up the words, “who cares?”

CARTER: Right. “Who cares” came up, and then the question mark came up a moment later. It really was a two-edged sword. Frank Black represented the people who had the weight of that worry on their shoulders. The few people who actually were looking forward; or feeling the anxiety. Who weren’t lost in, as you say, the good times.

JKM: If you look across Millennium, X-Files, Lone Gunmen, and Harsh Realm, you also see that in addition to the anticipatory anxiety, you return again and again to the idea of the unelected privileged — a small group, a cabal — whether it be the Syndicate, the Millennium Group of the military industrial complex in Harsh Realm dominating the many. Is that something really interests you?

CARTER: Yes, it interests me, and it’s continuing to interest me. Sometimes, I don’t even stop to consider these things, but I’ll find something of interest. A conversation with someone, for instance. I’m looking at the Zeitgeist of today and trying to make sense of it in what I’m doing. Sometimes these things are commercial, and sometimes they aren’t.

JKM: That’s the tragedy of Harsh Realm. The show got better and better and better, but only three episodes actually aired. At the end, you’re left mourning what could have been.

CARTER: I feel the same way. I look at a show like Dollhouse, and if we would have been given the opportunity that Dollhouse had…we might have lasted. The same thing happened to Joss Whedon with Firefly. He had a great idea and didn’t get a chance to develop it.

JKM: In creating your shows, you had to research the paranormal, conspiracy theories, Scripture, forensic science. Are these all interests of yours?

CARTER: I always had this question that I would ask myself and I would ask the writers as we went forward. Why this story? And why this story now? Those questions set the bar high, and they were relevant philosophically and dramatically to their times. It’s important, as a television writer, to ask yourself that question. It deepens the work. That’s not to say it’s always a good thing. Sometimes it makes it less accessible or more intellectual than it needs to be.

JKM: Which brings up the end of the X-Files series. I’m sure you’re aware of the conventional wisdom: that the series sort of petered-out in the last two years and was not so good. But I watched Season 8 recently and it is incredibly creative; it can stand up beside any other season of the X-Files.

CARTER: Thank you.

JKM: Was it just that we had gotten so attached to Mulder that we couldn’t make the leap to a new leading man? Or did the culture move beyond The X-Files at that time?

CARTER: It was easier to say, it’s not the X-Files anymore, because it had changed. The characters changed. Mulder became the absent center, which was an interesting approach, I think, and made for an interesting season. It changed, though, and so — like it or not — people who would tune in to see Mulder and Scully wouldn’t see them anymore. But creatively, the show sort of took on a new life. The stories were interesting, and the new characters made the stories interesting.

JKM: Robert Patrick was terrific. And in Doggett you suddenly had a non-veteran set of eyes on these X-Files cases. You saw someone with vulnerability in “Via Negativa,” for instance. We always knew after seven years that Mulder and Scully would be there for each other, but we didn’t know yet about Doggett. He was alone, in a way, and suddenly you had this new uncertainty, which the show got a lot of mileage out of, in my opinion.

CARTER: It was kind of meta-X-Files because it was commenting on itself at the same time, and the show turned inward, in a way. The characters deepened. The concept deepened. And I think for some people that was interesting and for some people it became inaccessible.


Expressing Terror and Mystery: The Visuals of The X-Files and Millennium

JKM: One thing that’s important to me as a viewer and a critic is the visual component of television. Not all TV looks like the X-Files or Millennium. They’re very cinematic. Why is that important to you?

CARTER: First of all, in television people haven’t quite been given the opportunity to produce things that were so visual. It was sort of by demand on our part. We had to tell these really scary thriller stories, and they couldn’t be done from one angle, two-shots. They needed to be done in a multi-faceted, delivery-of-information way. So we got to emulate a lot of what I loved about film, and we got to do it on a television schedule.

It didn’t happen right away, but not long after we started, we were given what I call respectable budgets. We needed to tell these stories in interesting visual ways; we took an artistic approach. We were one of the first shows to give credit to the director of photography and the production designer, and other people up front in a television show. So we had the budget and the desire to push the limits. I always say “we didn’t understand what we didn’t understand” about producing a TV show like this. We tried everything.

I point to something like the conning tower coming out of the ice in season two (“Colony”/”Endgame.”) We refrigerated a sound stage, brought in tons of snow and ice and built this conning tower. I didn’t know you couldn’t do that. So we just started doing things.

JKM: It seemed as if we were watching a movie every week. So much so, that I must hold you responsible for the fact that horror movies in the 1990s didn’t do particularly well. Every Friday night, for many years, you could get a better experience at home watching The X-Files or Millennium instead of going to the theater and being disappointed.

CARTER: I always said that we weren’t doing horror and couldn’t do horror based on the standards-and-practices that were applied to the shows. We did an episode like “Home,” and the day after we did it I was given a very stern lecture about never, ever pushing those limits again.

And you see where horror went after The X-Files. The Saw series for instance. It had to push limits that we couldn’t push on television.

JKM: Given those limitations, would it be possible to do another series like The X-Files today?

CARTER: I don’t think so. I mean, we had 22 days to shoot Kill Switch — that’s including second unit work too — but 22 days. That’s just unheard of. That’s why I don’t think there will ever be another series like The X-Files. People ask me that, and I just don’t think there can be in today’s climate.

JKM
: In general terms, what are some of your film inspirations?

CARTER: For The X-Files, I point to Silence of the Lambs (1991). Another movie that I love — which is horror in a certain kind of way — is the David Lean version of Great Expectations (1946).

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)

JKM: I want to talk to you about I Want to Believe. Although critics including Roger Ebert, The Flick Filosopher, Whitney Pastorek, Stephanie Zacharek, and myself all appreciated the film, by and large it was met with savage, dismissive reviews. I mean, people — including critics — just categorically refused to engage with it.

Do you think this was because it was not at all the typical summer blockbuster — it featured few big special effects and almost no gunfire — or because the subject matter was so dark that people just weren’t willing to engage with it?

CARTER: I think it was about as you say, the summer blockbuster mentality, and what we delivered and what was expected. What we attempted to do; and what the audience expected.

All these things played into how I Want to Believe was received. It’s funny, but on the series, we prided ourselves each week with making a little movie. Then, when it came time to do the second X-Files movie, we were given the money and the opportunity to make, literally, a little movie. That’s what we did. We realized we had no money for big special effects. We had to come up with a story that didn’t rely on those special effects, and hence wasn’t a summer blockbuster kind of movie.

So we came up with a movie that was about faith and forgiveness and redemption. And then you put it up against The Dark Knight in late July, in the heat of the summer, and what happened to us was that we met with some valid criticism, and also what I call lazy criticism.

But we also met with box office results that showed there was a hardcore X-Files audience out there, six years after the series had been off the air. The people who had hoped for another X-Files movie — or were willing to see another X-Files movie — were probably hoping to see something bigger than the first X-Files movie.

JKM: In a way what you gave us was bigger emotionally than what you gave us in the first X-Files movie.

CARTER: That’s a feature of not having a money to do anything else that was bigger than the first X-Files movie.

JKM: Father Joe is a really fascinating character in the film. And how you use him in I Want to Believe really challenges the audience. You tell us this is someone society has judged as irreedemable, and yet on the other hand, as the film points out, we have this little work called the Bible that preaches forgiveness and redemption. And our culture says it believes in those things. And so Father Joe is looking to be redeemed, and is doing positive things, so why can’t people take that extra step and at least try to forgive him?

CARTER: It’s an idea I’ve been holding onto for a long time; the idea that Father Joe lived in this complex with these other men, where they sort of policed each other. I had read about that a long time ago, and I always thought that was so intriguing and relevant to the idea of redemption, the idea of forgiveness, of living life after the point of judgment.

Another thing that wasn’t talked about much in the criticism of the film was the Frankenstein idea. I had run across something on the Internet: a Russian doctor creating two-headed dogs. I mean he was really doing this…creating two-headed monsters. It’s a Frankenstein story, yet nobody really reviewed it as a kind of modern Frankenstein story.

JKM: Some critics also suggested the film was homophobic or anti-gay.

CARTER: It was the opposite.

JKM: That’s how I read it. It was about going to extreme possibilities to save the life of someone you care about. Whether it was the sick boy, Christian, Mulder’s obsession with the case, or the villain’s obsession…he was going to do anything to save his lover’s life….

CARTER: Don’t give up. He wasn’t giving up. I always said that the film was really a multi-layered love story. There was the love between Mulder and Scully. Then there was the Russian character who had been collecting these body parts and his love for his partner. So the love stories reflected each other. But again, I just want to say that some criticism of the film was valid.

More Millennium? More X-Files? The Truth is Out There…

JKM: Bottom line, did I Want to Believe make enough money to ensure production of a third X-Files movie?

CARTER: I wouldn’t use the word ensure. But because of the business the movie did, especially the international business, it is a possibility.

JKM: I know that you’re paying attention to this. There’s been this fantastic movement, and a group, called Bring Back Frank Black, dedicated to the resurrection of Millennium. The show seems more popular now than ever. Is a Millennium feature film something you are interested in pursuing?

CARTER: I would like to do it. But it is going to take interest on the studio side for it to happen. Everyone involved with Millennium has left the studio. The people there now know it ran for three years and that it starred Lance Henriksen, and that’s all. You have to find reasons to interest them.

JKM: Given that the Millennium is passed — and without giving away specifics — what kind of storyline would interest you for a Millennium motion picture?

CARTER: Considering we’re engaged in a War on Terror that is ongoing, I’d like to see Frank and the Millennium Group distill something from that war that is…interesting.

JKM: If you could take one episode from any one of your shows and put it away in a time capsule for 100 years…and say this is who we wre in the 1990s, this is who Chris Carter was, what episode would it be?

CARTER: Well, I think maybe “Post-Modern Prometheus.” In a weird way, it captures so much. And I really like that moment at the end with Mulder and Scully dancing together. It’s just a sweet moment.

JKM: I wouldn’t presume to tell you your answer is wrong, but I also really liked The Millennium pilot.

CARTER: David Nutter did a great job shooting that. I love the final moment with the polaroids, when Frank realizes this isn’t over. That it’s just beginning. …

JKM: Thank you so much for sharing your time with me today.

CARTER
: Thank you.

On Ken Russell, and Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist

Recently, I mentioned here on the blog that I contributed an essay to a new Scarecrow Press anthology on the films of director Ken Russell (Altered States [1980], Lair of The White Worm [1988]).

This was a great joy for me because I’ve always been drawn to Russell’s cinematic work, particularly his dazzling, often-incendiary visuals. I’ve also been fascinated on his commentary about religion, and Christianity in particular. As you can probably tell by my affection for De Palma, Carpenter and Friedkin, I prefer the expressionist form of film making, and in particular directors who can reflect their daring content with powerful visuals. Russell fits that bill perfectly.

Well, since my first report on the book, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with the editor of Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist, Kevin Flanagan, about Russell, his career and this project.

JKM: Kevin, can you tell us about how you first personally “discovered” the films of Ken Russell, and why they stuck with you?

KF: I first consciously discovered Ken Russell in 2000, but my first experience with a Ken Russell film was in 1999. In those days, the cable channel Bravo had a series of films which they called “Five Star Cinema,” often shown in prime time, especially on Friday nights (this before their nose-dive into cooking shows, fashion shows, and other “reality” programming). Typical, repeat titles included Patton (1970) and Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (1983).


O
ne night, I stumbled upon a remarkable film, which featured what to my mind was one of the most striking sequences I had ever seen: a man, in profile, with a look of contemplative agony, as the rhythmic shadows cast by a speeding train undulated across his face. I recall a few other sequences, none of which (removed of context, title, or who the principle people were, made much sense): a woman dancing a can-can on the coffin of a man about to be buried alive, children on a row boat in the middle of a lake asking about angels. For some reason I had to go meet friends that night, so I didn’t get to finish watching the film. Also, this being the time before reliable “programming channels” on cable itself (that interactive “whats-on-what” channel that cable users are now tied to), I consulted the listings in my local iteration of TV guide, to no avail (just a generic listing for “Five Star Cinema”).

Anyway, it took me over a year—during which time I got a job at a video store and saw Russell’s acknowledged masterpiece The Devils (1971) for the first time—to do enough sleuthing in order to figure out that the film in question was Russell’s biopic Mahler (1974), which to this day remains one of the films I most admire.

JKM: What, in your eyes, makes Russell such a unique artist, and one worthy of book-length study?

KF: Well, there are two main reasons, each equally valid, though each of which positions him slightly differently vis a vis other directors. On the one hand, he has the most striking visual sensibility. In a cursory comparison to other (I’ll stick with British) directors, he is justifiably paired with Nic Roeg, though I think that Roeg attains his best effects mainly through a combination of painterly camerawork and analytical montage (which is to say, Roeg’s best films tend to work based on how they string their shots together). Russell’s stuff has more to do, for me, with his taste in framing. He is able to use fantastic, often symmetrical, but also often off-beat, framing to isolate his subjects in the pictorial frame.


In the introduction to Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist, as the title of the book implies, I situate this within the Italian Mannerist painterly tradition. Russell works within a classicist’s vocabulary, to an extent, but his content and the types of stories he seeks to tell usually verge into the weird, off-beat, and sometimes the horrific. Other comparisons might be made to celebrated British directors like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman (a Russell protege, having worked on The Devils and Savage Messiah [1972] well before his own films), whose work tends to be understood primarily by notions of a painterly, “art film” tradition, over and above narrative concerns.

So, outside of the kind of stock answer—that Russell’s films have a “vision,” that he is a maverick, etc, though these sentiments are starting to feel like shopworn cliches—I had always felt that Russell’s work had been done a great disservice because of how it was talked about, either in praise (the praise usually coming for the same set of reasons, and usually only in relation to his Monitor films and The Devils), or in dismissal. Russell has made an extraordinary variety of films, on subjects ranging from a man who paints agricultural steam engines (Mr. Chesher’s Traction Engines [1962]) to an illicit staging of an Oscar Wilde play in a Victorian brothel (Salome’s Last Dance [1988—incidentally, available for free viewing here: http://www.hulu.com/search?query=salome%27s+last+dance), yet he tends to only be celebrated in a few ways.

So I commissioned essays and worked with a number of film scholars on fleshing out the great variety of Russell’s career. Not only did I want people to write about Russell in ways beyond what was already out there, but I hoped for a mix of pieces that at once gave due credit to some of Russell’s lesser known films and provided justifiable criticism. Russell himself has at times been a harsh critic of his subjects within his films—in his biopics, especially, he has been unafraid to show limitations, flaws, miscalculations—and I feel that he deserves nothing less than this mutual sense of respect from those writing about him.

JKM: When did you know that you wanted to write/edit a book about Russell, and how did you get the project off the ground?

KF: This is a long story, so I’ll tell a condensed version. Many years ago, while doing work on a quickly ballooning honor’s thesis that was partially to do with Russell, I realized that I had enough material, had accumulated enough of Russell’s obscure films, and had enough of a differing perspective from the prevailing critical winds to write my own book on the filmmaker. I had envisioned something along the lines of a critical filmography that delved into areas that previous books did not. This was before Joseph Lanza’s Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films (2007), when the most recent book on Russell that was not written by the man himself was Ken Hanke’s book Ken Russell’s Films (1984).

Anyway, with this project in the back of my mind, I kept doing research. I came across John C. Tibbetts’s excellent book Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography (Yale University Press, 2005) soon after its publication. John, who had been studying composer biopics for years, did a very substantial chapter on Ken Russell, which covered his earliest composer films for the BBC arts programmes Monitor and Omnibus, including the oft-mythologized and controversial Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), a film which elicited a vitriolic response from some viewers and critics for its treatment of the life of Richard Strauss in caricatured, comic-strip form. Anyway, Tibbetts was essentially the first person to have written about that film since its long-obscured broadcast date of February 1970 (the earliest writers on Russell, namely John Baxter and Joseph A. Gomez, had seen the film closer to its premiere: since then, it had languished in obscurity in the National Film and Television Archive). Thus inspired, I got in touch with John and discussed my own project, asked him about how/where he saw the film, mentioned some films I had which he didn’t, etc.

We became friends and I was invited to contribute to a book that he and Jim Welsh—founder of the journal Literature/Film Quarterly — had been planning on Russell, to be published by Scarecrow Press.

Because of my research into Russell’s recent—which is to say, post 1990—career, I was to write the last section of what was to be a 3 section book detailing Russell’s career more-or-less chronologically. However, in 2007, I was invited to present at the Literature/Film Association conference in Lawrence, KS, partially in honor of Russell’s 80th birthday. In addition to screening Russell’s early short film Amelia and the Angels (1957), I presented on Russell’s recent work. At the conference, I learned that John was bogged down by other projects, especially his book on director Tony Palmer and that Jim was likewise in the midst of several things (he has most recently done The Literature/Film Reader and a book on adapting No Country for Old Men . Anyway, to make an already long story short, I was asked to continue our project, but as an edited collection.

JKM: I believe you’ve met Mr. Russell on several occasions. Is he different in person than you might have expected, after seeing films like The Devils? What were/are your impressions of him?

KF: Yes, I’ve met Russell on two separate occasions. At first I was a bit worried. My friend Ken Hanke—critic at the Asheville Mountain Xpress and author of a formative biography on Russell—gave me Russell’s phone number when I visited the UK for a summer. My first call was pretty disastrous: I had clearly called at a bad time, all of my questions were met with snappy answers. In short, it was initially disheartening. Anyway, through friend Paul Sutton (another Russell expert), I learned that Russell was to be at the Clerkenwell Film and Video Festival in London in a few days. Despite the fact that I was taking summer classes, I managed to rope a friend into an impromptu trip down to London to attend the festival. Turns out, Russell was very nice in person! The atmosphere was casual, and I had a chance to chat with him a bit (not a ton—he was the celebrity judge for the festival’s contest).

I was next able to meet him at the Asheville Film Festival the following year, 2005, when he was guest of honor. He and his wife Lisi were very nice, supportive, and gracious. Russell even sat through a short interview, a portion of which appears in Mr. J.K. Muir’s excellent book Horror Films of the 1980s! Since then, our contact has mainly been in writing. But Russell’s a major celebrity again—thanks to his stint on Celebrity Big Brother, his newspaper column, his teaching appointments, etc…—so I try not to bother him too often.

JKM: Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist — which you edited — was just published by Scarecrow Press . What can you tell the readers about this project? What, in your mind, does it attempt to achieve? And how does it go about achieving it?

KF: As mentioned above, I saw the project as a chance to bring a lot of articulate people together to write about Russell in ways that had previously been ignored, or not even thought of. My own personal goal was to combine my long-time study in Russell’s films with a number of complimentary academic interests. I wanted to frame Russell’s films in debates that had been complimentary, but generally relegated to other spheres, such as a larger discourse over governmental structures as potentially repressive cultural technologies, or the multi- and inter-disciplinary conversation about Britain’s economic dependency on showcasing and exporting its cultural heritage. Personal goals aside, I wanted to showcase a few pieces of exemplary scholarship on Russell that already existed—I settled on Barry Keith Grant’s fantastic essay on Russell in the 1980s, and on a largely archival and interview-driven essay by John Tibbetts on The Debussy Film (1965) as reprints—but otherwise wanted the book to consist of new work.

My introduction gives a very brief career overview and otherwise frames Russell as a mannerist, but that is not a guiding theme for the whole book. Rather, the authors come up with a number of different interpretive frameworks for talking about Russell, his films, and in at least one case, his entire career.

JKM: The book includes thirteen essays, covering all aspects of Russell’s film career. Can you tell us, in broad terms about the essays and about some of the contributors?

KF: Of interest to your readers is your essay, which discusses Russell as an auteur in the tradition of 1980s horror (so feel free to say more about that yourself)! I won’t spoil all of the surprises but: Tom Wallis has done a great job writing about Tommy (1975); Tom Prasch has written a highly informed piece on Salome’s Last Dance (1988) which questions a lot of the iffy things that have been said about the film in the past; and Paul Sutton has provided the largest scale account of Russell’s pre-1970 television films yet. The contributors range from younger to seasoned veterans. I think between us all, the authors of the various essays have written or edited over 50 books. Some are full professors. All, I think it is safe to say, are passionate about film!

JKM: Russell has been a biographer, a maker of horror films, a provocateur, and more. In what mode to most prefer Russell? Where do you think he’s flourished, and where has he faced pitfalls?

KF: Well, I think that Russell has done some amazing things in all those areas you mention, but has also occasionally faltered in said areas. His greatest critical success, Women in Love (1969) means that many think of him most specifically as someone who does literary adaptations, esp. of D.H. Lawrence (those also, as you know, of Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Paddy Chayefsky, etc). If one is inclined to rock and pop modes, he’s the man behind Pop Goes the Easel (1962), Tommy, Lisztomania (1975), and The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2001), a gonzo pastiche of Poe which also stars a rock-star (James Johnston).

Organizational clusters aside, I’ll go with a safe answer overall: Russell is at his best when working with friends or constant collaborators, when he is given more-or-less free creative reign (yet, I’ll qualify this: free creative reign that is mediated by close collaborators like editor Michael Bradsell or cinematographer Dick Bush, who worked with Russell in constructive ways and arguably brought as much to the table as Russell did), and when the topic of the film is something that he is interested in. His work-for-hire jobs, while occasionally wonderful, tend to be less interesting simply because Russell best directs his own material, from his own sustained research.

JKM: What about your essay, “Television, Contested Culture and Social Control: Cultural Studies and Pop Goes The Easel?” What did it crystallize for you about Russell as an artist?

KF: Again, I don’t want to give too much away (where’s the fun in that??), but that essay of mine seeks to help people work toward rethinking Russell’s cultural contribution during his early BBC years. The conventional wisdom—commentators, critics, and Russell himself—casts his Monitor and Omnibus career as a kind of struggle with the documentary form and Huw Wheldon, one that was ultimately beneficial both to the programmes in question and to Russell’s own method.

In this account, Russell’s legacy with these films was the successful integration of dramatic elements into what was seen as a documentary form (i.e. his early films on artists were originally supposed to use talking head/still image visuals, were to have been purely told in voice-over, etc, whereas he fought to be able to use actors to portray dead artists, wanted to recreate key sequences in that person’s life, etc).

While this contribution is certainly important—think of how mainstreamed this approach is now on the History Channel!–I also located at this early point in Russell’s career a different contribution. The short of it is that, whereas films previous to Russell’s (specifically Pop Goes the Easel, from 1962) tended to talk about art in purely venerable terms, idolized the isolated artistic individual as someone above most forces of social strife, and tended to approach the television audience in an explicitly educational, some would say patronizing way, Pop Goes the Easel showcases a more democratic understanding of what art is, who it was for, and how it could be used and enjoyed. It showcased 4 pop artists, who worked as a group and benefited from the dynamic interplay of their peers, and showed how they negotiated popular and commercial culture in the creation of their artworks.

I frame my discussion of the film using many key historical texts in the field of British Cultural Studies, some of which were explicitly contemporaneous to the moment that Russell captures. In some ways, the film is the actualized embodiment of that rarest of things: an autonomous text (in this case a creative documentary) that visualizes much of the emergent thought and theory of the day.

JKM: How do you contextualize Russell in terms of cinema history. Do you see him as an auteur? A part of a specific movement? A pioneer? An artist shunned by his own country, to some extent?

KF: Well, all of those things…but also none of them. He is an auteur, but not in the strictest terms or in the most waterproof way. As I think the book makes clear, it simply isn’t that interesting to only thing about his work in those terms, when there are so many other ways of thinking about his films and their status in a wider world. As a maverick, he has peers but no exact parallels. In fact, he was recently chosen as one of Sight & Sound’s “Wild Bunch” of cine-mavericks who continue to shock, thrill, and provoke. But beyond that level of sensation (remember, Russell took great care with Tommy’s credo of “I’m a Sensation”–the phrase applies as much to the director and his career as to the film in question), his works constitute a great contribution to 1980s horror, British cultural history, the biopic genre, and the personalized documentary.

JKM: What are the reasons, do you think, that Russell isn’t making films for Hollywood right now?

KF: His films have basically been absent from the mainstream of first-run cinemas since Whore (1991). There are a number of factors, many of which Russell discusses in his autobiographical books and films: his theatrical films of the 1980s were slightly fringe, made for Vestron, who went out of business at the end of the decade; the vogues for his types of films had waned by the end of the 1970s, a decade when chances were taken on a great many strange films, most of which could not have been made under the more conservative production slates of Hollywood in the post-Star Wars blockbuster era. Remember, as great as films like Jaws and Star Wars are, their success changed the entire paradigm of US film production. While Russell’s films, despite their bombast and their appeal to a number of audiences (for the most part), worked better through word of mouth, as gradual roll-out art films. Moreover, despite the fact that Russell is still active as a filmmaker—see his strong contribution of the recent horror anthology Trapped Ashes (2006)–he is getting on in years. Older directors can’t get as easy of a break. Cinephile audiences tend to get screwed over because of the hesitations of the money-men.

JKM: Tell us where readers can find the book…

KF: Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist is published by Scarecrow Press. It is available on their website, Amazon.com (where it is currently being offered at a discount!), Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold—or, more appropriately, can be special ordered, since this is something of a niche title. The book is being sold worldwide, so check the Amazon site that services your country or region!