Tuned In Journal: 'V' creator speaks

Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008

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I pretty much backed into today's story on the state of movies and miniseries. It was inspired after I learned that a novelization of producer Kenneth Johnson's proposed "V" revival would be published. As an eighth-grader in 1984, the TV series "V" was my first real television obsession. I even took notes on the episodes and compiled an episode guide without knowing at the time that that's what it was.

"V" featured an invasion of earth by an alien race that looked human but had strange voices, and a secret. It was eventually revealed that these Visitors were actually a race of reptilian aliens dressed in human disguises and led by the attractive, menacing Diana (Jane Badler). Not only that, they were stealing our water and storing humans in pod-like chambers to later be consumed by the Visitors as food. A band of rebels worked to reveal the truth about the Visitors. Juliet Parish (Faye Grant) and cameraman Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) led the resistance. It was a fantastic meld of action, drama, science fiction and allegory as the Visitors rounded up humans and took them away, scenes reminiscent of Nazi atrocities during World War II.

"V" creator Kenneth Johnson previously developed "The Incredible Hulk" and "The Bionic Woman" for TV and subsequently adapted the movie "Alien Nation" for Fox as a TV series. It was canceled after one season but was followed by a series of TV movies. A boxed set of "Alien Nation" movies will be in stores April 15.

Johnson developed "V: The Second Generation" for NBC in 2003 but by 2004 the project was dead at the network. Johnson and Warner Bros. continue to shop the revival to other networks, and in the meantime, Johnson turned his script into a novel ($24.95 hardcover; $14.95 paperback, Tor Books), due in stores Tuesday. Here are excerpts from my conversation with Johnson about the "V" saga:

Question: Why are networks not making miniseries anymore?

Kenneth Johnson: Here's the perfect example. When we did "V" originally in 1983, [NBC programming executive] Brandon Tartikoff and I envisioned [the first miniseries] as a pilot for some ongoing series. After the four-hour miniseries, it became clear it was going to be too expensive to do as a one-hour episodic show. Instead of doing it as a one-hour series, we said, let's do it as a six-hour sequel miniseries and Warner Bros., [which owns the rights to "V"], said no, we don't want to do that. The reason is there was no upside for them. On a series, if you get a hit, the studio stands to make quite a bit of money. But as a one-off six-hour event, it doesn't take them into that world. It wasn't until Brandon said, if Warner will do a six-hour sequel, then NBC will give Warner an additional order for a separate one-hour series, 13 episodes, a put series commitment. Nobody had ever gotten that. Warner Bros. agreed, viewing the miniseries as a loss leader for a blind series commitment. That's the only way Warners would go forward. Even back then they were looking at the longer term of how to make money on series.

Q: Remind me why you quit after the original "V"? How involved were you in "V: The Final Battle"?

KJ: I hired three writers to work with -- Craig Buck, Peggy Goldman and Diane Frolov -- and sat in my office at Warner Bros. and fashioned the six-hour sequel. It was better than what I had written in the first four-hours and Brandon loved it. We were just starting down the road and Warners called and said they were concerned I wouldn't direct it as quick and cheap and dirty as they wanted it. They were anxious to get it over with and out of the way and not pay too much attention to quality. And I said, "You realize by asking me not to direct, you're breaching my contract?" And they said, "We don't care, we want you to work on the blind series commitment." And I thought, if they won't let me make "V" the way I want to direct it, I should depart the studio. They said, "Nobody walks away from a 12-hour series commitment on the air." And I said, "You're forcing me to do it, what can I say?" So they handed off the script and had it re-written for a different group of people. It was a bit like having a baby and giving it over to the foster parents you didn't know or trust. ... To this day I've only seen 30 seconds of it and watched them make every wrong choice in 30 seconds.

Q: How much from what you wrote did they use: The alien babies, the conversion chamber, the red dust?

KJ: Yes, but at the end of ours when the Visitors were leaving, Donovan and Juliet didn't want them to go and take all of our people and we had them in a fighter that flew into a departing Mothership without the Visitors knowing what they had done. Maybe they would have found a way to save everyone. We left it open-ended that way.

Q: Why did you decide to re-visit "V"?

KJ: When I was putting together the DVD [of the original] for Warner Home Video, the last scene had Faye [Grant as resistance leader Juliet Parish] sending a message to deep space hoping that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And I thought, what if I picked up the story 20 years later to see what happened? We see Visitors control all the media and all communications and they can make the truth be whatever they want the truth to be. On the other hand, they cured AIDS and cancer and heart disease, but they're taking our water and half the oceans are gone. They say it's dialysis on a planetary scale, that they're just cleaning the water and will bring it back. It's a little like living in Paris in 1943 during the German occupation. You could have your cappuccino on the Champs Elyse if you didn't mind soldiers sitting next to you. You could go to the theater if you didn't mind that it was carefully edited and some of your friends would disappear occasionally. I thought it became an interesting allegory for what's been going on today in the world, particularly since when we wrote the original "V" the Soviet Union and the United States were the superpowers and now we have only one hyper-power, led by a group of people who say, "We are your wise leaders, we know what's best for you, stay the course, don't ask questions and we'll do what we want, undermine the Constitution a little bit, but we'll take care of you." ...

By the end of the first third of the book, it does look like our resistance is hobbled and they have no hope of winning and then there's a knock at the back door [and a new race of aliens arrive and say], "We got your message. We're here to help." That became a very exciting concept for me to pursue.

Q: In "V: The Second Generation," the events of the second miniseries and series are completely ignored. Characters that died are alive again, including scientist Robert Maxwell, fifth columnist Martin and other characters. Why ignore all that?

KJ: I figure a lot of water can go under the bridge in 20 years. I felt by introducing a "great purge" of the Resistance in the late '90s when many people were lost and swept away by that. ... I wanted to go back to what I had built to begin with and what my original intent had been. I felt that I wasn't that informed about all the changes they made in "The Final Battle." I knew the character of Ham. He was supposed to be in a wheelchair. [Actor] Michael Ironside went to the producers and said, "My name's Ironside, you can't put me in a wheelchair." They made all these changes of such a gross magnitude. ... I have found among people who got an early read of the book who had seen "The Finale Battle," nobody seems to have minded. This is a new piece that builds off of what I originally had done and carries on with the characters that were most important in the original and introduces a new set of characters.

Q: Did NBC executives have concerns about ignoring the events of the second miniseries or the series?

KJ: Not at all.

What they were concerned about was that they did a miniseries about the Warsaw ghetto and it didn't do well because it was such a downer. They were concerned about this being too grim and dark and I said, it has to be grim and dark for people to triumph over it.

Q: How did your experience differ between pitching the original "V" and "V: The Second Generation"?

KJ: When I went to Brandon in 1983, I told him the story. He never read it. At the end, he said, go write the script. I wrote a 230-page script in 19 days brought it back, he read it over the weekend and on Monday he said, "Go to production." On scripts you do revisions on different color pages. The first draft is white, the second set is blue. With "V" we shot the white pages of my first draft. Same thing happened on "The Incredible Hulk."

When I sold [a script commitment for] "V: The Second Generation" to NBC, it was a time when there were corporate takeovers. In the midst of this, there was a management change and suddenly NBC was buying Universal and the whole big tangle there. Instead of Brandon reading it over a weekend, these guys would take five and six months to read a draft and then be not certain. One of the things I got was, "This is a good script about apples. What if it was about oranges?" And I said, "We already agreed on the story!" It was a very frustrating situation. ...

At one point they said, this is a pretty good script, maybe we should re-make the original miniseries first. Warners and I said, Why? We were sitting with the creative heads of NBC and they said, "It wasn't our idea. It was the marketing department that thought it would be a good idea." I think that says it. It gives you a sense of who's running the show, why networks have gotten themselves into bad places.

Q: So now you're shopping "V:TSG" elsewhere, maybe to a cable network?

KJ: Yes, but your market is limited because they're also branded. "V: The Second Generation" won't work on The Cooking Channel or Lifetime in spite of the fact my largest audience has always been female.

Q: Sci Fi Channel would seem like the obvious outlet.

KJ: Sci Fi wanted to do "The Second Generation" as is and Warners refused to make a deal. It wasn't just "V." Warners had at least two or three other projects. They were trying to work out a deal for "V" and a new version of "It" and something with George Clooney. Warners and NBC Universal, which owns Sci Fi, could not work out a deal. It was like Ford and Chevy trying to get together to make a car.

We got close at AMC. They were interested but after the success of their first miniseries they only wanted to do Westerns and World War II. After that, there are not a lot of places that have the kind of money we need, $20 million, in order to do it right. ...

But writing the novel was so much fun, delving into the motivations and depths of psychological drama and still maintain for fans of "V" the level of action and drama and intrigue and paranoia and suspense of living in nightmarish alien occupation. I'm tickled that people are enthused about it. I can now take it out and say, "Look, it's a book, it ought to be a movie!" That's part of the process we're involved in now. I think there's a good chance "V" will find its way behind the camera pretty soon.

Q: Did you discuss this sequel with the primary cast members?

KJ: The principals I did. Any of them could have been recast. We see that happen. But I have huge affection for Marc [Singer], Faye, Jane [Badler] and Bobby [Englund] as well as some supporting players. For me the fun for the audience was having them see the same faces 20 years older. What a rare thing to be able to do that.

Coming soon: I'll post a review of "V: The Second Generation" in Tuned In Journal as soon as I finish reading the book, hopefully within the next two weeks.


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