When two very different industries work together for the first time, unexpected creative differences can arise. AdWeek looks at some of the compromises that were reached in the making of Defiance:
The development cycle had its speed bumps. In the end, some of the
negotiations over the complexity in the game versus the effects in the
show were handled as a hostage exchange: You give us jetpacks, we'll
give you horses and nobody gets hurt. "They really didn’t want to do
horses in our world," sighs Mark Stern, president of programming for
Syfy—the critters present too big a target for this kind of game. "So
the agreement was, 'OK, as long as you agree to no flying, we’ll agree
to no horses.’"
The stakeholders still fantasize about their perfect version. "We
wanted flying vehicles, and Mark and his crew were like, 'Screw flying,
it'll blow up our CG budget,’" grumbles Beliaeff. "So we ended up
creating this whole mythology where the Ark ships blew up and that
created this low-flying asteroid field that made flying in the world
I've been tagged by prolific writer pal Brian Hodge to participate in an online viral roundtable called The Next Big Thing.
Started by horror writer Tim Lebbon, The Next Big Thing is a quick Q&A session that lets creative folks sound off about current or upcoming projects. I'm also tagging a good friend, the multi-talented writer Kira Snyder, to sound off on cool things she's doing. And if more friends decide to chime in, I'll link to them from here as well.
So big thanks to Mr. Hodge for letting me take this opportunity to tell you a little more about my work on an upcoming TV show called Defiance.
What is the working title of your next project?
A one-hour TV drama called Defiance, which premieres in April 2013 on the Syfy Channel. And I'm going to feel like an idiot if I don't point out that this is not my project. I was just fortunate enough to have been hired as a member of the writing staff.
Where did the idea come from for the project?
For years, Hollywood and the videogame industry have been looking
for ways to better interconnect story properties. Recently, the profits of some
videogames have outgrossed the take of blockbuster films, but it's not just about
the money. There are challenging and innovative narrative
possibilites to be explored here. Audiences are looking for
something new, and so are storytellers. This convergence might be the place to find new forms
Defiance is a collaboration between game publisher
Trion Worlds and the Syfy Channel. With online MMOs like Rift, Trion
was already rocking the game side of things when they came up with the
basic scenario for Defiance and pitched it around Hollywood. Syfy knew a
fantastic opportunity when they saw one and, as this Forbes article points out, they're betting $100 million that we can pull this thing off. But although everybody instantly
understood the world of the videogame, the big question was: how do you make
this into a weekly TV drama?
Lots of writers came in to pitch their take on the
characters who would live in this world and the kinds of stories you could tell. But it was Farscapecreator Rockne O'Bannon's original pilot
that finally got the big ball rolling. I'd worked with Rockne on
the ABC series V and he liked me well enough to bring me along for the ride.
For that, I'll be forever grateful. And I think I'll be forever washing his car or something like that. I really need to take another look at the fine print on my contract.
What genre does your project fall under?
This is balls-to-the-wall science-fiction with a bizarre canvas and
a wide-ranging mix of human and alien characters. Our storylines also
coincide and cross-over with the MMO videogame of the same name. It's still TBA, but I believe the Defiance MMO goes live six to eight weeks before the pilot movie airs next April. You
don't have to play the videogame at all to enjoy the show, but if you
do, you'll see characters and events crossing over from the show to
the game and back again. Setting up and executing such cross-platform events is trickier than you might expect. Over the course of the project, we all learned a lot about the videogame industry's workflow process. And they
learned how TV shows are created. Now both sides think the other is completely crazy for working that way. And both sides are right.
What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie rendition?
But before any actors had been hired, each of the writers had their own
idea of the perfect cast. When you're sitting in a room spitballing
stories for months, you've got to have something to hang onto. Often we'd point to
an actor as more of a character-shading thing than an actual casting
suggestion. For example, when talking about our lead character, Josh
Nolan, more than once someone would reference Gary Cooper. There's a
solid, everyman core that Cooper radiated in almost all his roles. We wanted that for Nolan and Bowler nailed that as soon as he walked into the room.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your project?
In the aftermath of a war that drastically changed (and almost
destroyed) planet Earth, humans and aliens struggle to rebuild
Will your project be self-published or represented by an agency?
All the usual Hollywood agencies are repped here via cast and
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the project?
It's my understanding that Rockne pitched and cranked out his original pilot in just a few
months. But it underwent many more revisions as the project gained
steam. Even after hiring a full writing staff, the network and game
publisher encouraged us to revamp much of the original concept. The world and characters of Defiance went through many iterations before we landed on the show we all wanted to make.
aboard the writing staff for 54 full weeks, which is pretty much unheard of for a
show with just a 13-episode order (most 22-episode network shows wrap in far
less time). Due to the extensive conceptual revamps and detailed coordination with
the videogame side of things, we generated a vast amount of story
material, far more than we could use. Some if it might carry over in some form to future seasons,
but most of it will probably never see the light of day. It all served
its purpose to propel us onto the stories we landed on. Onward, as they
What other projects would you compare this story to in your genre?
The above-mentioned Forbes articles says Defiance has elements of Deadwood meeting District 9. That's pretty accurate, but for my money I'd add the 1990s space opera Babylon 5 into that bowl before mixing.
Who or what inspired you to write this project?
My work at Defiance (contributor to many scripts, mad prophet blabbing ad nauseum in the first five show bibles, and a solo writing credit
on the eighth episode) was inspired by everybody I worked with.
I know it sounds like I'm being a suck-up but I'm just giving credit where credit's due. The writers room was amazingly open and collaborative. Our showrunner Kevin Murphy set the tone by declaring everybody had to check their titles
and seniority at the door each morning. That made the writers room a
safe place for anyone to speak up. Ideas and characters could grow
organically without any politics or other distractions. I can't stress how valuable
We all watch a lot of TV and no small amount of time was spent admiring and analyzing what other shows are able to do, from Breaking Bad to Homeland to The Wire to Sons of Anarchy and even Louie. Each of those shows is a great example of how cable television has the freedom to break new narrative ground. We let them inspire us as we worked to push the serialized story of Defiance into unexpected territory.
Once we shot the pilot, all of our individual and sometimes very separate visions of the show coalesced into something that inspired us to write more. From the incredible sets and detailed costumes to the actors nailing down
characters who had existed only in our heads, the show was suddenly real and alive and therefore much more fun to flesh out. Our choices got bolder and more confident. Once other parts of the
project began to clock in -- Gary Hutzel's mind-blowing visual effects, Bear
McCreary's thrilling and emotional score, and the skilled editing of our
post-production team -- Defiance became a very generous muse indeed.
For months after my gig ended, I walked around with
this world and these characters churning in my subconsious. I had trouble writing anything new because as soon as I'd start typing -- boom! -- I was back in Defiance. Only recently have
I begun to emerge from the show's influence (which is great because I owe my very patient
agents a new pilot very soon -- as in yesterday).
What else about the project might pique the viewer's interest?
Defiance is a grand and cinematic sci-fi tale the likes of which we
haven't seen on TV in many years. It's a bold and multi-layered story,
at once familiar and alien, filled with an array of characters seeking
to survive on a strange planet that used to be Earth. For all of its
genre trappings, however, it's ultimately about survivors who have found
themselves far from the world they once knew and how they are trying to
build a new home. That makes it an immigrant story, and therefore a very American
It shames me to admit that Andrei Tarkovsky's cerebral sci-fi movie Stalker is the first movie that sent me literally running for the exit door. (There have been plenty since but none with this film's pedigree.) You should know this was many years ago when I was a naive teenage kid living in Alabama. I'd never really seen a foreign movie, unless you count the occasional late-night Godzilla flick.
I heard a nearby university film club was screening a Russian science-fiction film about aliens (this was in 1982, three years after Stalker's theatrical release, and three years after I should've walked out on The Ravagers, but didn't). I was the sorta well-read nerd kid jonesing for all the sci-fi I could find. Russian SF? Huh. I was a kid in the South during Uncle Ronnie's paranoid rants about the Evil Empire. Everybody feared nuclear destruction back then and we saw it reflected back at us through many post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows. My pals and I wondered if the smelly and dank high school basement would really prove to be a safe fallout shelter as promised by a pair of ancient metal signs bolted to its doors.
So it wasn't cool to like anything from Russia except maybe Yakov Smirnoff. But if there were cool spaceships or bad-ass monsters to be seen, I was happy to temporarily renounce my American citizenship and check out Close Encounters of the Communist Kind or whatever it was.
What I saw was ... not quite what I expected. Not. At. All. Let me channel what was going through my teenage head: This painfully slow-moving story opens with three bitter-faced men muttering and drinking in a dingy bar before deciding to dash around a bit in a jeep evading some inept guards. For thirty minutes. After more hiding and grim-faced muttering, they finally take a tiny train car into a place called the Zone ... and this train car is rolling ... and rolling ... and rolling ... it takes, like, forever ... until they reach a green wooded field where the aliens are. But there are no spaceships, aliens or cool landscapes in sight. Not even a hot space chick.
Understand that in addition to being somewhat aesthetically stunted by blockbuster sci-fi films and the backwards cultural norms of a place like rural Alabama, I was also restless, sugar-fueled and, thanks to tidal waves of teenage testosterone, my neurons were popping like black-market sparklers. I was still heavily under the influence of the amphetamine pinball rush of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Even though I knew scads more about film history and technique than most of my peers (thanks to Famous Monsters and Starlog and making my own Super 8mm movies), I can now see that I was about as cinematically seasoned as a dried cow turd. So I didn't "get" this Stalker movie at all. Those 30 minutes were the longest of my life and when these dour travelers finally reached the sinister-sounding "Zone" where something maybe evil and maybe magical but definitely alien lurked, I was flabbergasted to see it looked like the overgrown field of weeds across the street from the K-mart on Woodward Avenue.
That did it. I'd had enough. I got the hell out of there. I can still remember standing from my seat and walking up the aisle past the rows of expressionless faces still watching this glacial, impenetrable and apparently endless strip of celluloid. I sought out the nearest videogame arcade and furiously pumped photons through my optic nerves to replenish my dulled mind.
After handing down the most damning verdict an audience member can serve to any art form, you'd think I would have gone on with my life not thinking one further whit about Stalker. But over the years, I've thought more and more on those 30 minutes than I have about most films I've seen in their entirety. Yes, it was a slow and measured pace, a near-eternity spent in a drab, dour and fatalistic world. But something about that unfinished story always stuck with me. From time to time over the years, I wondered if those strange and haunted men found whatever it was they were looking for. Whatever their mysterious destination was, they seemed obsessed with finding it. It's their obsession that resonated for me. I didn't understand it at the time. Only now, years later, am I just barely beginning to "get" this film called Stalker.
Art can be obsessive. People have always obsessed over stories and music and painting and theater. When art strikes a deep chord, it's something we like to return to again and again. Today technology allows us to indulge our obsessions in ways never before imagined. As a writer on an upcoming TV show that attempts to cross-pollinate with a videogame counterpart, I'm fascinated by the technological possibilities of bridging art from one medium to another.
We call obsessed art lovers fans, from the Latin fanaticus, which means insanely or divinely inspired. (This digression reminds me that I had two years of Latin in high school, so maybe I wasn't as dull-headed back then as I fear.)
Ever since its release, Stalker has become an obsession like no other. Growing legions of fans claim the film changes upon each viewing, revealing some new hidden depth of meaning. (I certainly experience that with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I've written about here and here.) Stalker is an obsession for me, as well, even though it's taken decades to develop into something I could sense. Until recently, it's forever been those 30 minutes (which felt like 30 years, but that's part of its hold) of three men frowning, drinking, sulking, then charging through a fence as bullets hail around them, and later standing and sitting motionless on a tiny train car, sad Soviet statues lost in sad Soviet thoughts as a sepia-toned landscape slides past their eyes ... only to become bright and green. And something else entirely.
I'm not the only one haunted by this movie. Tarkovsky fiends are keyed into the filmmaker's extended shots that continue beyond the bounds of ordinary patience and become extended trance-like meditations on life itself. Many other filmmakers have fallen under this spell. For example, there's Christopher Nolan, obviously a Tarkovsky fan, whose mystifying final shot in Inception is a direct homage to the last image in Stalker:
And here's the amazing actress Cate Blanchett in a brief video explaining why it's the one movie she would send to the future for audiences to watch.
I recently watched Stalker in its entirety, on DVD from Kino International. I thought for sure I could plop down and watch this movie in one go ... but I couldn't. It took me two days to work through it -- accent on the work. While I felt keyed into the film's dreamlike pacing and imagery, there were too many things that pulled me out of that trance and made me restless. The characters don't act like real people ... or are they too real? Their mystifying soliloquies and random naps, often in the middle of running streams, are frustrating and almost impenetrable. But then again, aren't we all bizarre and unexplainable to some degree?
So I fidgeted and watched with furrowed brow, but two days later I got through it. And I felt something weird taking hold.
Thanks to posts from people like writer Warren Ellis, I've been pointed to additional material that helps me understand why this story is so primal and haunting. It begins with the movie's origins -- not a screenplay as you might expect, but a novel, and a pretty amazing one at that.
In 1972, Russian science-fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky wrote a novel called Roadside Picnic. It's about aliens contacting Earth. Well, actually, they don't contact us at all. They drop by in the middle of the night and then leave before we wake up the next morning. No messages, no gifts -- it doesn't look like they gave a damn about us at all. Maybe they were changing transmission fluid. Taking a leak. Or just enjoying the roadtrip repast of the title.
They left behind strange things -- we think they're gifts from the gods (and devils), but they're probably nothing more than alien beer cans and sandwich wrappers. These landing zones have become places where the laws of physics have broken down. They are mysterious. They are deadly. In the several nations where the landings took place, these areas are quickly cordoned off by military. People -- scientists, politicians, soldiers -- go exploring in these Zones and never return. Everybody wants the artifacts that lie inside, even though nobody can understand their origin or intent.
Into these zones go scientists and explorers. Some legit, others mad and driven, all of them looking for something beyond financial gain. It's a strange, thrilling and memorable tale, and Boris Strugatsky's afterword details the novel's Kafka-esque journey through the Soviet censorship board.
Not long after, Tarkovsky commissioned the Strugatskys to produce a screenplay that he rewrote, paring the story down to its barest dreamlike essentials. He filmed it but discovered that a technical error rendered his footage completely unusable. The filmmaker's luck was such that he had to shoot Stalker twice more before it could be edited and released. Perhaps Tarkovsky should've abandoned the project after the first ill-fated attempt because his final version was lensed in a highly toxic industrial zone. It is widely believed that exposure to these elements contributed not only to Tarkovsky's death, but also the deaths of his wife and the film's leading man.
If that's true, we can call Tarkvosky's relentless pursuit of this story the first documented case of Stalker obsession, a seed planted before the film was even released.
The film found a small and loyal following among cinephiles but is stature was, at best, that of an obscure and cultish art-house film. Its cultural impact might have peaked then and there, but a few years later something happened that caused a strange cultural harmonic resonance: the bizarre and tragic story of a place called Chernobyl in 1986.
That entire city, located within the Soviet Union, was rendered unliveable by radioactive contamination, the result of a nuclear power plant failure. The death and devastation is documented in this incredible pictorial. Today it stands decrepit, mysterious and dangerous, just like the Zones from the novel and movie.
Fast-forward two deacdes to 2007 and there's another resonance in the release of a first-person shooter videogame. It involves people who penetrate the zoned-off area of Chernobyl. It also involves extraterrestrial contact. That game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, was produced by a Ukrainian software company and has spawned several sequels.
Last year, novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer wrote a book that hits all of these things (and so much more) with the unfettered ease of sparkling conversation over a nice glass of scotch. Zona is, as the subtitle says, a book about a movie about a journey to a room. Dyer's one of those fanatics who walked into a screening of Stalker back in the 1970s and never left the theater.
It's a short book by a free-ranging intellect. Everything from high art to fast food gets referenced here. It helped me appreciate and make sense of this strange and compelling movie. For an even shorter take on Stalker from Dyer, here's a piece he did for the Guardian back in 2009.
This year we went back back to the Zone via the movie Chernobyl Diaries. It's a found-footage horror story about American travellers who go exploring in the forbidden radioactive zone of Chernobyl. Of course what they find there isn't very nice (and probably not very good, judging from most reviews) but the ruinous imagery is pure Tarkovsky, even if the hyperkinetic pacing and hand-held camera isn't.
That's the American movie poster, which I think is cool. But here's the incredible international film poster that could almost serve as artwork for a Stalker re-release.
I've been thinking of a way to succinctly wrap up all my myriad thoughts on this -- this post has been weeks in the making, as I've amassed notes and thoughts and images -- but there's simply no way to offer any profound conclusion. Obsessions never conclude. Most of them fade away, or are transmuted into something newer, more urgent. Some of them ebb and tide from our consciousness. The story of the Zone is like that. It's been echoing across cultures and media in some form for more than four decades now.
Stalker wasn't the first movie to feature the hallmarks of post-apocalyptic imagery. To my knowledge, Arch Oboler's stirring 1951 drama Five marks the first time movie screens projected images of civilizations falling into ruin (unless you count Things to Come, which I don't because the civilizations rebound too quickly from the rubble). Produced mostly on one set, this post-nuclear war drama works on a shoestring budget but does manage judicious shots of abandoned cities, weed-choked streets and human skeletons in cars. As America's nuclear-driven Cold War against the USSR progressed, these visuals would become cemented into our filmic imagination as icons of a dystopic future.
Even today we see Stalker's iconic imagery -- troubled souls wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland of our at once rural and urban contemporary world -- recreated in TV shows like The Walking Dead and the upcoming NBC drama Revolution. And here's an interesting film collage for an alternate-world version of a Roadside Picnic adaptation-- it's uncanny how seamlessly frame grabs from the Iraq-set movie The Hurt Locker blend with actual photographs from the Chernobyl urban graveyard.
Part of Stalker's magnetic hold is the juxtaposition of urban wasteland with strangely verdant landscapes. The cities and civilizations die but nature is always there to take over. That's what worked about the dead rocket garden in The Ravagers. Even if nothing else in that movie is worth a damn, I'm glad it was made for that scene alone.
We all want to experience the "other," either through religion, extraterrestrial contact or other forms of mind expansion. We have hopes and wishes we want fulfilled. As the earliest folk tales told us, it is often our bravery through a treacherous landscape that will prove us worthy of our dreams.
We have been to the Zone many times before. We will go there again.
A long time ago, I took a strange trip to the future.
On a crisp fall afternoon, I found myself walking silently in a surreal post-apocalyptic landscape. It was a rocketship graveyard, filled with towering metal hulks covered in brown rust and grime. Once they had lifted men and machines into space. Now they sat silent, neglected, horribly earthbound. Thick kudzu vines crept across sealed hatches. Rivets and panels were caked in rust. These engines had been forged in giant furnaces and sent aloft on columns of smoke and fire. Now nature sought to reclaim the metals that had been wrenched from her soil. The blazing glory of these spaceships was long gone. They stood like tombstones to a forgotten dream.
This was at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the first Alabama tourist attraction you hit driving south from Tennessee on Interstate 65. Located about an hour east of the town I grew up in, it's actually a nice, clean and endlessly optimistic place. Those historic rockets are very well-kept and power-washed on a regular basis.
This "rocket garden," as it's known, was at the time lorded over by a gargantuan Saturn V rocket, the kind that lifted Apollo missions to the moon and to this date is the only spacecraft ever to carry humans beyond Earth orbit. The giant Saturn is still there, only it's been moved inside a hangar and hangs suspended on huge brackets. Huntsville has the peculiar honor of hosting this space flight museum because of a rich aerospace history that is the pride of Alabama's high-tech corridor running from Huntsville to, well, Huntsville. These rocketeering roots stretch all the way back to 1945 when former Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun, in a canny post-WWII technology power grab, was transferred to America under the auspices of Operation Paperclip. He spent decades at Huntsville's Redstone Arsenal designing numerous rockets and spacecraft, and even today his name is spoken of fondly by Alabamians, with little reference to his work for Adolf Hitler.
On the day I walked the rocket graveyard, a long ago future the calendar calls 1978, a Hollywood movie was being filmed on the site. Movie crews spent days clambering over these historic rockets, draping plastic vines and spraying them with fake rust stains that would be rinsed off later.
The day following my visit, the cameras rolled as Irish actor Richard Harris, dressed in rags as a survivor of a nuclear holocaust, wandered through this eerie scene, staring up in wonder at the spires glinting in the sun. Inside the facility, he would encounter an insane military man maintaining a dutiful watch over these broken spacecraft...
This film is The Ravagers and I am definitely not here to tell you it's a lost gem you should seek out. In fact, I would tell you to avoid it at all costs, but it's been hard to find since its release. Until recently, the only available version was this foreign-dubbed VHS transfer segmented across YouTube. For those with $15 to throw away, a standard definition letterboxed copy is now available for $14.99 via iTunes.
As a rabid sci-fi fan, one who mowed lawns all summer to finance his own Super 8mm movies, I was desperately hoping a bona fide science-fiction classic was to be filmed near my hometown. This was just one year after the brain-altering pinballl machine called Star Wars changed my life. All I knew about The Ravagers was that it was far-future science-fiction (and 1991 did seem pretty far away at the time). Richard Harris wasn't exactly my idea of a sci-fi action star, but he had been cool in films like The Wild Geese and A Man Called Horse and gosh, that rocket graveyard I'd seen in Huntsville was grimly spectacular.
Maybe you're thinking I was just some corn-pone redneck dazzled by Hollywood bullshit. Not true. A lot of movies were filmed here, most notably Richard Mulligan's adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It was also well-known among Alabamians that Steven Spielberg had filmed most of Close Encounters of the Third Kind at an abandoned Air Force hangar down in Mobile. A native boy named John Badham had gone on to direct a huge hit movie and cultural touchstone called Saturday Night Fever. Plus, hell, we gave the world Gomer and Goober Pyle, fer chrissakes, two impeccable comic actors whose work still makes people laugh their asses off. Maybe we were country but we weren't fucking stupid.
You see, this was the kind of knowledge that certain people in the Deep South -- the geeks and freaks -- latched onto like a lifeline. You knew the majority groupthink in Alabama sucked. You knew there was more to life than Bear Bryant football and deep fried pig turds and rampant racism. You knew you had to get the hell out someday. Having a creative outlet was vital for those dreamers. For some of my best friends, playing music provided the refuge. For others, it was the stage. For me, it was storytelling -- short stories, movies or just plain old back porch bullshittin'.
The following year The Ravagers premiered at a local cinema. The audience was filled with locals who'd served as extras during the sweltering shoot ("You made the poster!" squealed the girlfriend of a biker-looking dude who had indeed made the poster, but then again, so had half a dozen other biker dudes and damned if I could tell 'em apart). I stood in line with friends and family and bought popcorn and felt excitement as the lights went down. It didn't last long.
There's a promising title shot, an evocative panorama of a decayed city. You keep thinking this scene or others like it will appear again, that the producers are announcing they've spent some serious money on visual effects. But no, it turns out this was just a nice Matthew J. Yuricichmatte painting recycled from the Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
We encounter Harris foraging for food in a decrepit steel mill called Sloss Furnace in nearby Birmingham. He looks dashing and earnest but is sorta sleepwalking (or maybe sleep drinking) his way through the movie. He's followed by some shady-looking bad guys called Ravagers. Harris and his pretty girlfriend are attacked and she's raped and killed. Soon after Harris kills one of them in revenge and the rest of the gang sets out to take their revenge on his revenge.
In less than 15 minutes, I was shifting restlessly in my seat. I felt in my bones this grim low-budget effort was a stale, misguided and very boring movie. Not even the added presences of screen stalwarts like Ernest Borgine, Woody Strode and Art Carney could compensate for the unimaginative script.
I'd seen plenty of bad movies but this was experience was different. I was mad at this movie like I'd never been before. What pissed me off the most was the rocket graveyard scene. It could've been glorious and haunting. I know because I walked the set. You can watch it here on YouTube at about the 11-minute mark. It's sad to see that director Richard Compton lacked the visual instincts to make the most of this creepy set-piece. It's fantastic production value he just pisses away.
For example, he pans past that gigantic Saturn V rocket so quickly there's no real sense of its immense scale. I've walked all around the thing and it's jaw-droppingly huge. It's how scuba divers must feel when they encounter a blue whale. Compton zips the camera past plenty of other nifty spacecraft and a couple of lunar buggy prototypes that are actually pretty cool. None of this neat stuff registers on the retina longer than a second or two. For a movie that plods along like a geriatric coupon-shopper in the Wal-mart discount aisle, this is the one place where Compton should've slowed the pace and lingered on those haunting rocketships. It wouldn't have saved the movie, but at least it would've been a nice scene.
As I watched the movie, an angry and exciting thought dawned on me: I could've shot this better on my Super 8mm! Despite the countless terrible movies I'd endured up to this point in time, that particular subversive thought had never crossed my mind. You see, I'd always been inspired by movies whose magic I knew I'd never be able to match. You could always see the strings on my spaceships. My laser beams were lumpy animated blobs, the best I could do using single-edge razors to scratch emulsion from a series of film frames. But this lost rocket garden opportunity was different.
(An aside: Director Compton had churned out several notable grindhouse movies, notably the hugely profitable 1974 exploitation flick Macon County Line [produced by and starring Max Baer, Jr., better known as hillbilly boy Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies]. In the 1970s, independent movie distribution was a often regionally-driven system and the right kind of cheap movie could rake in millions of dollars. 1973's Walking Tall, a rowdy serving of deep-fried Southern justice, was one such movie. It played in a local theater for well over a year because each weekend saw sell-out audiences. After The Ravagers, Compton would spend most of his career directing TV, including the pilot movie for the 1990s sci-fi series Babylon 5, a show I admire but whose pilot I advise all but the most forgiving viewers to skip.)
(Another aside: Years later, I would pay another visit to a movie filming at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. The 1986 ABC Motion Pictures production Space Camp lensed there. Several friends served as extras and I was on-set in official capacity from Starlog Magazine, for whom I provided a set report. It's a lightweight family picture, one whose release date was delayed because of the Challenger disaster, but if you want a better look at those same rockets [gleaming and well-washed this time], it's got 'em.)
(Yet one more damn aside: Recently another post-apocalyptic movie was filmed in Huntsville: 20 Years After (titled Like Moles, Like Rats when I saw it screened here in LA). It's an odd and sometimes ponderous film, but visually interesting, especially for its budget. And when compared to dreck like The Ravagers, it comes off like Citizen Kane. The filmmakers are hungry and they're actually chasing something, even if they're not clear on what that is. This film doesn't use the U.S. Space & Rocket Center as a locale, but does make great use of other places you see in The Ravagers, especially the cavernous rock quarry at historic Three Caves.)
(Okay, this is the last damn aside, at least until the next one: Apparently the source material for The Ravagers' screenplay is a novel called Path to Savagery by Robert Edmond Alter, a minor pulp fiction writer. I've never been able to locate a copy so I can't comment further. But sometime in the 1980s I read the "Cape Canaveral" cycle of short stories by British sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard. In these tales, he paints a dystopic and pessimistic future where mankind's greatest endeavors are left to rust and crumble in a ruined world. The rocket graveyard I walked was a fully-realized imagining of what Ballard was reaching for. It explained clearly the sense of being haunted I got from walking the set. A future had died here.)
The only piece of notable writing I've been able to find online about The Ravagers is this J.R. Taylor article for a Birmingham-based alt-weekly. It's a witty and informative story. And here's a local news station's lamentable look back at a major motion picture that nobody really remembers.
So why the hell am I writing about an artistically inept piece of shlock like The Ravagers? Because it gave me the chance to walk through a post-apocalyptic landscape. Because it put me, for the first time, but definitely not the last, dead-center on the set of a Hollywood production. Because it taught me that nobody sets out to make bad art on purpose. You plan and hope and work your ass off and pray it turns out well. I'm sure everybody working on this movie had the best of intentions.
It also got me thinking that despite our desire to imagine futures, these sci-fi visions don't really predict anything. It's not a failing, mind you, they just don't work that way. You might as well blame a hammer for not being a telephone. At best, these imagined futures act like mirrors that reveal interesting things we're experiencing at that very moment. In the 1970s, America had plenty of bleak moments: the oil crisis, Watergate, the sour hangover from 1960s idealism that didn't exactly pan out. There was lots of ugly urban violence (New York City, Detroit, etc.) and people generally felt afraid. They had shit-all hopes for the human race.
That's why this particular decade produced films like The Ravagers. And The Omega Man and Soylent Green and Logan's Run and A Boy and His Dog and and Peter Fonda's little-seen Idaho Transfer and Walter Hill's The Warriors and ...
Oh hell, that gets depressing quickly, doesn't it? Let's just look at another picture of post-apocalyptic sexpot (and soon to be Harris' ex-wife) Ann Turkel ...
There. Now my palate's cleansed somewhat. (God, she even looks like she's plotting the divorce here, doesn't she?)
When pulling together my scattered memories of The Ravagers, it was the image of that damned beautiful and haunting rocket graveyard that beckoned me. They couldn't fly anymore but something specific and tangible launched from my imagination that day: the knowledge that I could pick up a camera or a pencil and create something just as real, as visionary, as far-fetched as anything I was seeing in pop culture. With my home-brewed comic books, my first fledgling short stories and plays, with the Super 8mm movies I was making, I was already doing that. But when I saws The Ravagers, the end result was such an absolute failure that I found myself motivated for the first time not by awe and wonder but by anger and frustration. Dude, your music fucking sucks! Gimme that damn guitar!
That's a wonderful and terrifying power, and it's got to be central for anybody who's ever tried to create. You have to believe you can do better than what's out there. Otherwise, why even try? It's an ethos that forms the molten core of punk rock. It's cocky and undisciplined and its best creations will never be refined, just explosive. The most useful tools are those you teach yourself how to use.
Something else was happening in 1979 that would resonate hugely with all these frustrated yet inspired creative vibes ringing through my body. On the other side of the globe in a faraway land called Russia, another celluloid vision was being unspooled on movie screens. Like The Ravagers, it featured grimy, rag-clad figures walking through a post-apocalyptic landscape, searching for a paradise they'd never find.
That film is called Stalker. And it would turn out to haunt me just as much, if not more, than those dead rockets ever did.
That's what I'll talk about in the second and final part of this post.
(I promise, all of this is leading somewhere. I think.)
I was told recently of a TV writer wanna-be who has dismissed the various writers' programs in Hollywood. He's so convinced of his own singular talent that he doesn't need to bother with such things. In no small amount of time, he believes that his genius will be recognized all on its own.
Look, I'm all for self-confidence. You need it if you're gonna stare down a blank sheet of paper or screen every day for a living. But you also need at least half a brain when it comes to making opportunities for yourself. By my unofficial guestimation, the various studio-sponsored programs for new and emerging writers will staff anywhere from 30 to 50 first-time staff writers each year. Anyone passing up a chance to be included in those ranks is clueless.
While you're waiting for the spotlight to find you, pal, every other writer in LA just got to take a step forward because you left the line. You just made it that much easier for everybody else to have a shot, and that much harder on yourself.
But don't listen to me. I don't know anything. Except that I'm a working TV writer thanks to the Warner Bros. Writers' Workshop, which I cannot recommend highly enough. But be warned: you have to bring your A-game not just to your spec, but to your personal essay and (if you advance) to the personal interview as well.
The submission window is fast approaching for the WB workshop. You have from May 1 until June 1 to apply, and you've got a wide range of approved shows to spec.
The submission process should not be approached lightly. I cannot stress that enough. Here are some sobering statistics to prove the point. When I applied to the WB Workshop in 2009, there were over 1,300 spec script submissions. From that pile, my script was one of 10 that made the final cut. In 2011, the number of submissions rose to 1,800 -- again, only 10 were selected. Expect even more this year.
Yes, those odds are staggering. But guess what? The odds are always staggering. If you're a wanna-be TV writer with half a brain, you already know there are thousands of people just like you in Hollywood right now. They are your coffee baristas and waitresses and bartenders and cubicle monkeys writing and scribbling whenever they can, cranking out specs and making themselves ready and available for any break at all.
Of course, these programs aren't the only way into the industry. Some people land the coveted position of writers' assistant or PA on a show. This is hard and thankless work, and sadly it cuts into that valuable writing time, but it can often serve to open doors for new writers. Other wanna-be's are talented and lucky enough to write an original spec that gets someone's attention and maybe, just maybe, is actually bought by a production company or studio.
My point: you need to be doing all of these things. You never know which door is gonna open, so the last thing you wanna do is block a potential path with arrogance or stupidity.
Below are links to some of the other programs for new writers. All are worthy of your time. These aren't the only ways to break into TV writing. But wanna-be TV writers simply cannot afford to pass them up.