Friday, May 24, 2013

Interview with J. Michael Straczynski

J. Michael Straczynski is a man of many firsts. Back when the Internet was unknown to everyone except a tiny number of techies, geeks, wealthy dilettantes and nerds, he was the first showrunner (Hollywood-speak for a television show’s executive producer who handles day-to-day operations) to go online and interact with fans.

He was the first – and will likely ever be the only — scriptwriter to write 92 out of 110 episodes of a show, his brilliant creation “Babylon 5.” B5 was the first television show meant to run a certain number of seasons, five, with a definite beginning, middle, and end, and included dynamic storylines the characters and multiple, overlapping story arcs. Long form television writing is now common thanks to Straczynski.  He did it first.

He is probably the first journalist to cross over into a successful television career, likely the first journalist and television writer to cross over into mainstream comic book writing, and absolutely the first television and comic-writing journalist ever to become a major Hollywood screenwriter.

Other “firsts” include developing his own comic book line (Joe’s Comics), his own multimedia studio (Studio JMS), directing his first movie and creating an original series for Netflix.

The word “first” applies to Straczynski in many ways, including as a fiery, intelligent defender of the First Amendment.

From 2009 to 2010, students, faculty members, Sun journalists, and concerned citizens fought with a corrupt Southwestern College administration and governing board to keep the First Amendment Freedoms of Speech, Assembly, and the Press alive on the campus. In 2010, when the administration attempted to strangle the newspaper by tying its purse strings around its throat, Straczynski responded by undermining the administration the best way possible – financially.

It was definitely the first time that had happened.

And now, for the first time, an unbridled, warp speed first person Q&A interview with the 2013 Southwestern College Honorary Degree recipient:

First Amendment Warrior

In September 2010 Straczynski personally funded an issue of The Sun after former superintendent Raj Chopra and his vice presidents attempted to block publication. The issue broke the story of construction contract corruption involving college board members and administrators.

Sun: In the fall of 2010, the Chopra administration dug up a never-used print bidding policy to force the Southwestern College Sun to prevent printing a controversial issue. You stepped in and paid for the entire issue. Why did you feel this was necessary?

J. Michael Straczynski: I hate tyranny and I hate bureaucracy, and when I found out what was going on and the way an obscure rule was being used to suppress the truth and repress the rights of the students to publish and hear the truth…well, no way was I going to let that stand. I think we are defined as people as much by what we won’t allow as what we do, and when it comes to a subject like this, I draw a hard line in the sand. If the only way to ensure that the truth got out there, and the issue came out, was for me to pony up the cash for that to happen, then so be it. What’s life if you don’t stand up for something from time to time?

Sun: How did you find out about the Sun situation in 2010?

JMS: Because it was known that I’d graduated from SWC, I heard about it from a number of folks at Southwestern, from folks at The Sun, some fellow graduates, staffers in the library. They felt that something had to be done, so something got done. That this was, in some ways, the first pebble falling downhill that later resulted in indictments, and further exposes about corruption, is icing on the cake.

Sun: Given that you are famous for your belief in, and support of, the First Amendment, how strongly did you feel about it?

JMS: I think it’s important in every circumstance to confront bureaucratic stupidity, cupidity, deceitfulness, malice, intimidation and manipulation – especially when it’s being done deliberately to either repress the truth or otherwise stomp on First Amendment freedom of the press. I don’t believe in a sliding scale. You fight all of it. Otherwise you have to start reconciling yourself with the idea that some evil is okay if it’s small evil. No. You have to make sure that not one of those snakes gets past you or they’ll multiply and grow and eat you when you’re not looking. In this case, the abuse was so obvious, so offensive in its deliberateness, that it practically demanded response.

Sun: Are you glad you got involved?

JMS: Hell yes!

Sun: You are being given an honorary associates’ degree this year. How long did it take you to decide to come down and accept it?

JMS: Ten seconds, nine of which were taken up by typing “Yup, I’m honored and will happily attend.”

Growing Up and Attending College

Sun: What part of your life was spent in Chula Vista and the South Bay? I know you moved here when younger and I believe you graduated from high school here, but how long did you live here?
Straczynski / Photo: Furr

JMS: That’s a more complicated question than it might appear at first blush. My father had a unique economic philosophy: blow into town, run up a lot of bills, then split. So we moved 21 times in my first 17 years, averaging about six months in any one place. We moved from Inglewood to Chula Vista in the fall of 1971, so I put in some time in the fall semester at Chula Vista High School, then graduated in 1972. It was at CVHS that I had my first articles published, including one from JoAnn Massie’s creative writing class, Under the Sun. She and Rochelle Terry got me to write small parody plays that we’d perform from class to class, which culminated in writing a play for a general assembly that was performed before the whole school and started the Smile Day tradition. It was that experience that really confirmed for me that I wanted to be a writer.

We then moved to Kankakee, Illinois for one year, followed by Richardson, Texas, for one semester. During this time I kept lobbying and hoping for a return to Chula Vista. I considered myself fortunate that we returned in February 1974 and immediately enrolled at Southwestern.
I lived in Chula Vista until about 1977 when I moved to El Cajon, so if you add it all up it was nearly five years. I lived in San Diego from 1977-81, picking up two B.A. Degrees from San Diego State University, one in Psychology, the other in Sociology, and a bunch of writing credits along the way.

Sun: Your description of your father’s economic philosophy seems quite negative. Did you have a strained relationship?

JMS: Strained is putting it mildly. My father was probably the most intrinsically evil person I’ve ever known: a drunk, a philanderer, a wife-beater, a cheat, a thief, a racist and a generally violent man. I broke off all contact with him in 1986, and never spoke to him between then and the day he died.

Sun: Why did you decide to attend Southwestern College — reputation, price, location, or something else?

JMS: The choice was based on necessity and comfort. Because we never had any money, I basically put myself through college through a combination of published articles, part-time jobs, student loans and grants. So on the one hand, Southwestern was all I could afford. But on the other hand, I genuinely liked SWC. I liked the campus, the somewhat laid-back attitude, the friendliness of the staff and the opportunities it provided. It didn’t hurt that some of the folks I knew from CVHS were also attending SWC. So even if I’d been able to afford SDSU, I would’ve preferred Southwestern.

Two interesting asides to that point: one of my part-time jobs while attending SWC was at the CVHS library, where I worked part-time as a combination bouncer, book-filer and shusher. So if anyone using the library back then remembers being a bit loud and getting shushed by a 6’3″ geek weighing in at 140 pounds – that was me.

Also, many Chula Vistans who were around during the mid-late 1970s will remember that there was a somewhat cultish group operating out of the First Baptist Church called the House of Abba, which was part of the Jesus Movement of the period. They owned and operated a bunch of communes around Chula Vista housing anywhere from 10-15 people who lived together. I was part of that group, and lived in a communal household on Mitscher Street during a good chunk of my time at SWC.

Sun: Can you describe the kinds of courses you took here, your major? Any interest in journalism, perhaps?

JMS: I felt that the best use of my time at Southwestern was to take care of as many of my general education requirements as possible before transferring to SDSU, so I didn’t really have a major. My AA from SWC is in Interdisciplinary Studies. At the time, I was more interested in fiction and stage work than journalism, so I tended to take lots of creative writing classes and some theater classes.

It was during this time that I met Bill Virchis, who saw something of value in my work and quickly began giving me a regular venue on campus for my one-act plays. They proved very popular, and he assigned me to write a take on Snow White that ran in summer stock at SWC’s main stage in 1975.

I went on to continue writing plays, some of which were performed at SDSU while another ran for a while at the Marquis Public Theater. I was sure that I was going to be a playwright, and the Chula Vista Star-News ran the very first article anyone ever written about me, June 17, 1977, announcing rather foolishly that I was on track to become the next Mel Brooks.

So throughout that entire period, from the day I returned to the South Bay and for the next four years, Southwestern and Chula Vista were not just recurring themes, they were absolutely essential to my becoming the writer that I am today.

Sun: At SDSU, you were known for writing anything there was to write. In fact the Daily Aztec became colloquially known as the “Daily Joe.” How did you develop such a drive to write in so many different fields?

JMS: I believed, even then, that if you’re going to be a good writer, you should write everything. You need to be willing to experiment, try new things, and if necessary fail gloriously, pick yourself up off the cement, and try again. I knew that as a student, I could fail and learn and try things without the pressure of doing so in the outside world. College is where you can experiment to your heart’s content and not get killed. So I did as much of that as I could in order to then walk out into the world of real-life publishing with all the tools I would need to claw my way into the business.

Early Work in Television

Sun: Given that you seemed to know you wanted to be a writer, initially what did you want to do? And can you tell us how you crossed over from prolific college graduate to television?

JMS: The dream was always there, practically from the moment I was born, but the specific form of that dream morphed with time. Initially I thought I’d make my living writing novels and short stories and plays. But it took a long time to sell any of my fiction. At best most of the very few markets around paid a hundred bucks or less for short stories, so the idea of making a living at it seemed pretty remote. So I focused on writing articles for magazines and newspapers. I appeared regularly in The Daily Californian, the San Diego Reader, and the San Diego bureau of the Los Angeles Times. I did a year or so as an on-air reviewer for KSDO. I got to burn through a lot of words in a short amount of time, which is crucial for a writer because the only way to get good at it is to do a lot of it.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I continued that by working for the Herald Examiner, Writer’s Digest and other magazines, and finally ending up at Time, Inc. It was at this point around 1984 that I made the decision to try and flip to television. I wandered in the wilderness with no income for over a year before I finally scored a spec sale with [the animated program] “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.” I sold three or four freelance scripts and they were good enough that they hired me on staff…and I was on staff on one show or another pretty much nonstop until 2003.

Sun: You somewhat-famously took over “Murder, She Wrote” several seasons in and took it in a vastly different direction — adding a real career for Jessica Fletcher, real deadlines, and real authorial hassles. What sort of reaction did you get for doing this, and how much did it appeal to you to take a long-standing (possibly staid) concept and turn it on its head?

JMS: To say that I “took over” “Murder, She Wrote” is overstating the situation by several orders of magnitude. David Moessiner, for whom I’d worked on “Jake and the Fatman,” was hired as executive producer and showrunner, and he brought me on to work with him. It was David’s idea to move her to New York, and to support that I came up with the notion of making her a teacher and digging in more to the writer’s life – which Angela Lansbury loved. In the past, there was very little about Jessica Fletcher’s life that showed her as a working writer. Because I’d been in the prose arena quite a bit by then, fiction and nonfiction, I could apply those aspects to her character in ways that felt real. The audience responded to it in a big way, the show jumped substantially in the ratings, and stayed there while we were working on the show.

Sun: Of your early TV work, what are you the proudest of?

JMS: “The Twilight Zone.” Not even close. You can write the best “Jake and the Fatman” script in the world, but in the end, it’s a “Jake and the Freaking Fatman” script. It’s like taking ten years to teach a pig to sing. In the end, even if you pull it off, all you have to show for your efforts is a singin’ pig. When I worked on “The Twilight Zone,” I was able to tell the stories I wanted to tell in the ways I wanted to tell them. For the first time, I could write about battered wives, and loneliness, and loss, and the lure of the past and the fear of the future and the reawakening of love and all the things that matter to me on a personal basis. That’s desperately important because at the end of the day I’m a storyteller. That’s not just what I do. It’s who I am at a cellular, possibly genetic level.

Sun: You are regarded as the first showrunner ever to go online and communicate with fans, on GEnie and CompuServe, I believe – up to the point of taking some of their questions, comments, and worries to heart. Given that, it had never been done before, what was the impetus for reaching out into that completely unknown atmosphere of communication, the internet?

JMS: Part of it stems from being a stubborn pain in the ass who doesn’t like to change his habits just because suddenly he’s a Known Entity. I’d been online – as much as anything pre-1994 counts as being online and logging on from a 28.8 modem – since the late 80s. I enjoyed the discussion boards and sites like GEnie and CompuServe, and saw no reason to reason to change that. Yes, suddenly I found myself deluged with questions, but that eventually became another part of the reason for staying online.

I believed, and still believe, that unless people understand how television is made, why things are done and why certain decisions are made, they can never bring the necessary influence to bear that will let them get the shows they want instead of the shows they are given. So I set out to create a document, tens of thousands of messages long, documenting the day-to-day production of a TV series from end to end. That document is still out there, being used by academics and fans and others curious to see a real-time log, or a blog as it’d be called now, about the making of a TV series.

But yeah, at the time, everybody else in The Business thought I was insane to put myself out there in the very Wild West that was the internet then, heavily populated by trolls and psychopaths. Or as one showrunner said, “those people are crazy-mean.” Some were, sure, but the majority weren’t, and those were the ones I stuck around to chat with. Now everybody does it.

Creator of Babylon 5

Sun: When did you start coming up with the idea of “Babylon 5,” and how did you work to start moving toward it?

JMS: I’d been playing with ideas for what I thought initially were two different series: a big, expensive, galaxy-spanning saga with empires rising and falling in the course of an interstellar war, and a smaller, more confined story about a group of people living on a deep-range space station. Then one day I realized that they were the same story, with the big events of the saga writ small on the lives of those living on the station. When I had that flash of understanding, I was suddenly able to see the whole five-year arc of the story, with a beginning, middle and pre-set ending, which was something that no one else in American television had ever attempted. Now, of course, with shows like “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica,” multi-year arcs are the norm, but we were the first.

Sun: Was the five-year plan part of the development of “Babylon 5,” or did you realize that’s what you were going to do a little further down the line?

JMS: No, the five-year arc was there literally from the moment the story crystallized in my head. I saw the whole thing in one massive flash, a moment of perfect clarity, then spent the next several years extracting those threads and putting them into story form. Kind of a Big Bang that spread outward in every direction.

Sun: I believe “Babylon 5″ was first aired via the Prime Time Entertainment Network [a venture affiliated with Warner Bros. and other independent television stations]. Did you find it easy to work with them?

JMS: It was a mixed bag. On the one hand, because we weren’t an in-house Warner Bros. show, we tended to get short shrift on just about everything, from publicity to budgets. On the other hand, that benign neglect let us do pretty much anything we wanted to do, allowing us to tell stories that no other network in its right mind would ever have allowed on the air.

Sun: Why did you put yourself through the grinder of writing so many episodes of “Babylon 5?” There is probably no other human being in history that can claim that much writing in that little amount of time.

JMS: We were shooting 22-episode seasons, and I’d written roughly half of Season One and half of Season Two, when I realized how tight the arc was getting, and consequently how difficult it was becoming to assign stories to freelancers. It became consistently harder to figure out where one episode was going to end and the next begin. The stories began to flow together. So in Season Three I decided to write them all myself. It just seemed simpler than trying to explain it. It worked out well. Warners was happy, so they asked me to do it again. And then again for Season Five. Though year five did have one freelance script from Neil Gaiman.

In the end, I singlehandedly wrote something like 92 out of the 110 episodes and all five of the TV movies. What I didn’t know at the time was that this had never been done before, and there was a very good reason it had never been done – because it was impossible…especially if you’re functioning as the day-to-day showrunner handling physical production.

Happily, no one told me it was impossible before I started doing it, so I was able to pull it off.

Sun: How were you able to create such vivid, disparate, and often alien characters – like Centuari Ambassador Londo Mollari, Narn Ambassador G’Kar, Lieutenant Commander Susan Ivanova, Captain John Sheridan, and Minbari Ambassador Delenn – and frankly, everyone else?

Londo Mollari, John Sheridan, G'Kar

JMS: Writers write from what they know and have experienced and believe. We cloak it in other characters, and sometimes borrow a bit from one source or friend or another, but at the end of the day, it’s us. B5 was no different. All of the characters are pieces of me. Sheridan is who I had to be to make this show, Ivanova was the dour Russian in me that is sure we’re all going to die. I like to think that I’m a lot like G’Kar and Delenn, but I suspect I’m probably closer to Londo. It’s all visceral material given form. They’re all still alive in my head, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t get at least one of them whispering to me about one thing or another. It makes me crazy some days, but on other days it’s nice to hear from old friends.

Sun: There’s a sense of humor running from beginning to end in all B5 properties. Did you feel this was something missing from the science fiction of the time?

JMS: Absolutely. There’s this weird thing that happens when someone puts on a wardrobe piece that belongs to a science fiction series. They get all serious, as if thinking that if they don’t take it really seriously nobody else will. At that time in particular there was a definite lack of levity in shows like “Star Trek,” where you had to treat the characters with white gloves, as though you were afraid of breaking them. Me, I’m a goofball, and consequently my characters were, at times, goofy. Unlikely, improbable things make me laugh, and pound for pound, where are you going to find more unlikely things than in a science fiction series?

Sun: Did B5 accomplish what you wanted it to do?

JMS: We wanted to change the way storytelling in television was done – very episodic, pushing the reset button at the end of every episode. We did this by introducing the five-year arc. We wanted to change how science fiction was done by showing flawed characters and creating a massive space-opera saga. We did that. I could go on, but yeah: everything we set out to do, we did.

Sun: If I’m not mistaken, Warner Bros. owns the television rights to “Babylon 5.” What sort of relationship do you have with them, and is there ever going to be a time when B5 will be available on Netflix, or in its entirety on Hulu — or somewhere else? Studio JMS TV, perhaps?

JMS: Warners has never really understood “Babylon 5.” We’ve always been their little-favored stepchild, complicated further by the fact that the folks running regular network TV programming were kind of shut out from what PTEN was doing, leading to resentment toward the show. Consequently there’s never been any real desire to keep the show on the air in the US, though it continues to do very well overseas. As to the future: the problem is that WB owns the TV rights and I own the film rights. One can’t be done without the other, so maybe one day we’ll find some way to make this work.

On Superheroes and Careers

Sun: You moved into comic books and earned yourself a stellar reputation in the field. I know people who’ve never heard of “Babylon 5,” but consider you to be one of the greatest comic book writers in the past couple decades. What led you to doing this, and taking on new careers?

JMS: I’m a geek and a fan, and as a writer I do the stuff I like to do and don’t do the stuff I don’t like to do. I like comics. I read comics. Hence, I write comics. I learned to read from comics, learned my sense of morality and ethics from comics, so it’s great that I have a chance to give back to the next bunch of dreamers coming over the hill.

To the question of personal identification, it’s kind of a funny situation, because I’ve had four completely separate, whole careers. I had this whole career as a journalist, publishing over 500 articles, landing at Time, Inc., which would be enough on its own. Then I had this other whole career in TV, writing over 300 produced episodes and having my own shows, winning two Hugo awards and Emmy awards, which would be enough on its own. Then there’s the movie career, working on five movies that have earned nearly a billion dollars worldwide and netted me a British Academy Award nomination, and that would be enough on its own. Now there’s the comics work, writing over 300 books, having my own line, picking up Eisner and Inkpot awards, and you’d think that would be plenty. But here I am at 58, still going, writing as fast as I can to keep up with the dreams, still looking for the next horizon to explore, the next mountain to climb.
And that, all of that, comes down to just three words: follow your passions. The stuff I cared about as a kid, the things that excites me, are the things that I pursue and write about and fight for. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a career at it.

Sun: In that vein…what sort of advice would you give to young writers?

JMS: Write what you care about. Nothing else is worth the time, the sweat, the blood, or the energy.

Sun: Are there any particular Marvel or DC characters that you particularly enjoyed writing – given your penchant for creating well-rounded, vivid characters?

JMS: For Marvel, it was Spider-Man in first position, with Thor coming up fast behind. I really got to dig into those characters and show colors that they hadn’t much shown before. For DC, it’s Superman, hands down. Coming from a position of being a huge Superman fan, to have the chance to reinvent that character for a new generation…there are no words how stunning that is for a guy like me.

Sun: You worked with Marvel Comics for years, but also created your own comics – “Midnight Nation” and “Rising Stars.” Granted, there are many more people to answer to at Marvel, but how would you compare these two different companies?

JMS: My assessment of Marvel is less than valid because I’ve been outside of that world since Joe Quesada moved on to fish in broader waters, so any comparison I’d make would be equally flawed.

The Silver Screen and Points Beyond

Sun: How did you get involved with the “Changeling” script?

JMS: I’d heard about the story years before while working as a reporter. When I decided to flip from TV to movies, I revisited that story and spent a very long time researching it until I felt I was ready to write it. There were no secondary references, so I had to go down to City Hall and the County Library archives, and the LAPD archives, to dig out the material. I wrote the draft on my own time and my own dime, gave it to my agent without a heads-up, and within days he’d sold it to Ron Howard. They brought on Clint Eastwood to direct, and Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich to star, and before I could digest that this was actually real, they were shooting the thing.

Sun: Screenwriters are notoriously ignored on movie sets. What sort of reception did you get?

JMS: Clint was profoundly welcoming and always made a place for me on the set. Sadly, the Writers Guild strike that happened a couple of weeks into filming made it impossible to be on set for most of it, but I was there for the start and the end, and it was a great experience.

Sun: Do you have any comments on your early scripts for “Thor” or “World War Z”?

JMS: “Thor” was fun to work on because the thing really had to focus in on that sibling rivalry. Everything else would work if you bought that aspect, and that was something I emphasized a lot early on.
In terms of “World War Z,” I was the first writer brought in to figure out how to turn [Max Brooks’] book of interviews into a narrative story, and finally cracked it. The thing got changed a lot later on, but I get screen story credit, so I’m a happy guy.

Sun: You recently announced the creation of Studio JMS. Can you describe it for people unfamiliar with it?

JMS: The thing about being a writer in Hollywood is that in many cases you’re a hired gun working for other people. You don’t actually own much, or any of what you’re touching. Having gone as far as I could as a producer and writer, the next logical step was to create a situation where I could own what I wrote.
Now, there are any number of writers who have a bigger footprint than me in comics or TV or film, but nobody has the same footprint that I do in all three. So we launched Studio JMS to create TV shows, produce movies, and publish comics. And in less than a year we’ve had a ridiculous amount of success. We have a ten-episode order for a new series called “Sense8” for Netflix, which I’m doing with the Wachowskis of “The Matrix” fame. I’ll be directing our first film in Berlin very soon. And our in-house line of comics, Joe’s Comics, debuted last week with “Ten Grand” #1, which has rocketed in sales, logging in nearly 68,000 pre-orders, great reviews, and has just gone back for a second printing. Again, everything we set out to do, we did, and this is just the beginning.

Sun: What’s coming next?
JMS: Issue Two of “Ten Grand” hits stores the first week of June. We’ll keep going with that for as long as we feel we can tell good stories, then we’re done. Our second title, “Sidekick” – about a sidekick whose mentor/hero partner is killed, and then begins a long slow descent into madness – will debut at San Diego Comic Con in July. In my copious free time I’m writing a movie based on Valiant Comics’ Shadowman character, working on a screenplay for Will Smith, doing another film project for Disney, an online graphic novel for, and the next “Superman: Earth One” graphic novel.

Coming into my middle 50s, I thought I’d begin to slow down a bit, but I’m busier now than at any time in my life, and it’s great. Yeah, there’s a lot to get done, but it’s all good work, and I’m enjoying it immensely. So I expect I’ll be pounding away at the keyboard until the game is finally called on account of darkness…and maybe beyond. We’ll see….

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