INTERVIEW: Joe Straczynski

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

Today we're speaking with Joe Straczynski, the creator, producer, and main writer of "Babylon 5," and "Jeremiah." Mister Straszynski has created and/or produced a half-dozen TV series, he's been a radio host, he's a comics writer, he's a novelist, he's written the best damn book on Screenwriting you'll ever read, he's been nominated for a BAFTA, and won two Hugos, a Saturn, a Bradbury, an Eisner, an Inkpot, and he's the only person I've ever spoken with who has an asteroid named after him. Mister Straczynski, thank you very much for being with us today. It's a huge honor.

STRACZYNSKI:
Glad to be here. Did you really mean to wear those pants with that shirt? Just asking.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0
What, you don't like plaid? Anyway, first of all - forgive me for fawning - but thank you for like fifteen years of solidly above-average entertainment! One of the things I've always liked about you was your desire to 'demystify' the whole television production process during the 'ninties. I loved how you explained to people what you were doing, and how a show is made, the different stages in production, writing, and so on. I have to believe that went a long way towards transforming the medium from something magical to something do-able that people could aspire to and work towards. Now that you're writing Feature Films, I was curious to know how the creative process differs for you nowadays, compared to when you were primarily writing episodic TV shows.

STRACZYNSKI:
On the writing side, the process isn't that dramatically different. It's still story-telling, still making black marks on a sheet of paper and stacking them up until you hit the end. The main difference is that for most of my TV work, I was also a producer. In features, I'm the writer, and can let others handle the heavy lifting of producing, which is actually kind of nice. (I'm starting to get offers now to both write and direct, some of which I'm now strongly considering, which will be another universe I can explore.)

REPUBLIBOT 3.0
Since you spent so much time attempting to demystify the production process, I've got to know what your take on the emerging fan film subculture is. Also, I've noticed that aside from the last act of Star Wreck: In the Pirkenning, there really haven't been any Babylon 5-related fan films. What's your take on all that?

STRACZYNSKI:
I think that by and large, they're happy with where we ended, and are okay to leave it there. If we'd ended the series on a cliffhanger, or been cut off midway, then I think there would be more of an impetus to do more fan fiction and films. But we ended on "full stop," and that makes all the difference.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
I kind of feel cheated that "Jeremiah" didn't get any kind of conclusion. If the opportunity and the money and the cast presented themselves, would you be willing to continue that story, or give it some kind of wrap up? I know you don't like to give away unused story ideas, so I won't ask you anything terribly specific, but can you give us a general idea what would have happened in the third season of the show, if you'd been allowed to make it?

STRACZYNSKI:
I didn't think past year two because I wanted to get the heck out of there at the end of year two. I gave it as much of a resolution as I could, then ran like hell.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
NASA was interested in the "Starfury" design for use as a kind of space tug for the ISS. That had to be amazingly gratifying - as far as I know, there have only been two vehicles from Science Fiction shows that have been seriously studied by "Real World" agencies. The Navy did wind tunnel tests on the Flying Sub from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in the '60s (It failed), and then there's your Starfury. Can you tell us what that was like for you? Do you know if they're still looking in to it, or has it fallen prey to budget cuts?

STRACZYNSKI:
I haven't heard anything new about this in several years, so I have to assume it's dormant for now.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Ok, I've been dying to ask you this one: In the Series Bible for Season 1 of Babylon 5, there's a lengthy and intriguing description of a recurring character named "Mister Jones" who never actually turned up in the actual series for whatever reason. Was Mr. Jones a technomage? I've managed to convince myself he was.

STRACZYNSKI:
No, he wasn't a technomage. What he was is something I may hold on for a different show.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Oooh! Interesting! When the Technomages showed up only to say goodbye in the second season of B5, several of my friends commented at the time that they felt too developed for just a one-shot appearance, they were too fleshed out. Of course they returned in force in "Crusade," but in hindsight, I've noticed a couple things that felt "Technomagey" in the early episodes of the show. The Ikarran Warrior from "Infection," for instance, and perhaps Mr. Abbut from "Deathwalker." Were these characters originally intended as Technomages before they evolved off in their own directions?

STRACZYNSKI:
No, neither of them extend from Technomage technology.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Ah, nuts. I was sure I was on to something there. Oh well. Moving on, I have to say, I was very impressed with the "Posession" story in "The Lost Tales of Babylon 5." You took a trope that's been used-to-death, and you found a very interesting logical double-blind in there that I'd never seen done before. I've made a point of showing it to some of my more religious friends in the last couple years, and everyone is very impressed. For an athiest, somewhat counterintuitively, you've always shown the ability to handle religious topics with great deftness and respect. Why do you think it is that you can do that, and why do you think so many other people can't?

STRACZYNSKI:
I come at it from a fairly objective point of view. I don't have a theology to try and shove down anybody's throats, I don't have an agenda, so I can treat the issue fairly and even-handedly, by treating them as people with flaws and virtues. As the saying goes, only Nixon could go to China.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Quite a few theists and atheists could learn from that attitude, I think.
As a novelist, you've written Demon Night, Othersyde, and Tribulations - I really liked "Othersyde," by the way - are you working on any books now? If so, can you whet our appetite?

STRACZYNSKI:
I've been working on a novel for a while now, which is about two-thirds finished (mainstream, an international thriller) and a play set in the Medieval period that's taken years to almost finish, but I hope to have it done soon.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0
There's a number of dangling threads in the Babylon 5 universe - Crusade, "The Hand," Prince Vintari, the whole Telepath War - has there been any thought given to continuing the story in some other format? Novels or even comics? I know there were a whole passel of B5 tie-in books of course (My favorite was the Psicorps trilogy), but it's been like eight years since the last of them came out. They didn't really tell us too much about events after the wrongful death of Crusade, either. Will we ever, maybe, see a novelization of "The Memory of Shadows," or anything like that?

STRACZYNSKI:
Nope.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Damn. So without betraying any trusts or giving away any spoilers, can you tell us what your latest project is?

STRACZYNSKI:
Remaking Forbidden Planet for Warner Bros, I have Ninja Assassin coming out in November, I'm adapting Lensman for Ron Howard, and I just placed a pilot project (mainstream) with the Fox Network. As well as writing comics for DC.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
And that's it. Again, I'd like to thank you again for being with us today.

STRACZYNSKI:
Happy to be here.

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Comments

Good stuff

neorandomizer's picture

Ron Howard is going to do Lensmen that should be interesting I had not heard that before. I wonder if it’s a planned one movie or a trilogy, one movie would be cramming a lot of story into something watchable.

A remake of ‘Forbidden Planet’ I can do without it’s a classic I wish Hollywood would leave stuff like that alone you would not remake ‘Gong with the Wind’ would you. It is like when they tried to redo ‘Casablanca’ as a TV series magic only happens once.

Good interview but I guess we will have to use a truth serum or mind reading ray to get the unanswered info on B5.

Oh, we got a bit of new stuff there.

Republibot 3.0's picture

We know that some people who looked like Technomages weren't, I take his "nope" comment to mean that the B5 universe is done in any format, and we'll only get what we've already got. I was very surprised by his answer to the Jeremiah question.

As to Forbidden Planet, were it anyone - ANYONE - other than JMS doing it, I'd be dreading it. That's not just hyperbole, the man has earned my faith. I don't believe he'd tackle it just to tag his name on to a classic, I think he must have some kind of specific vision or concept to justify the exercise, or else I don't believe he'd be doing it. He's that kind of guy.

That said, I always wanted to do a sequel to Forbidden Planet: It'd star Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen, reprising their characters, but essentially it would be King Lear in space, set fifty years later, and still shot in technicolor, in a world composed of googie architecture.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Forbidden remakes

neorandomizer's picture

The thing about Forbidden Planet is you can never recreate the feel of the movie. There was a special synergy that happened when they made that movie that can happen only once. The look of the matte paintings of the planet and the great machine, the sets, the chemistry between the actors the soundtrack all combined to create something that could be imitated but never reproduced.

I am sure that Straczynski will write a good screenplay but for someone like me who grew up watching the original movie there is no way no matter how talented the people working on the project are that they can remake that movie and have it be compared favorably. Like I said before it is like trying to remake Casablanca without Bogart, Rains, Lorrie and Greenstreet it would not be the same no matter how one tried.

Is it a remake?

Republibot 3.0's picture

I don't have any inside word on what he's doing, but the word on the street is that it's something kind of new, sort of halfway between a remake and a prequel, that's supposed to expand on some other aspect of the story, or whatever, depending on who you talk to.

You've got a valid point about never recapturing the tone of the orignal movie. A decade or two ago, when I was spitballing the "Lear" sequel concept, you know, just as something to talk about over dinner and at parties and stuff, it was interesting: I couldn't seem to convey to people that I wanted it to have the same clunky look that the original had. They'd look at me like a dog shown a yo-yo trick. "Why would you want to do that?" Because it would be internally consistent. "So...what? It would be on the same planet?" No, the planet blew up . It would be 40 or 50 years later, on a more populated planet, but the planet would have that same googie look that the original had. And we'd film it in technicolor. "Why?" Because - follow me here - this isn't an extension or an extrapolation from our own world, it would be an outgrowth of the original movie, and therefore it should look similar to it, kind of like westerns look similar... "I don't understand."

What I took from that - and I had a lot of those discussions - is that most people don't think in those terms, they don't care if it's inconsistent visually or stylistically, they just want 'cool crap' as 'cool crap' is defined at that exact moment, regardless of whether it fits or meshes or what have you. The Star Wars Prequels proved me right on that.

None of which has anything to do with JMS tackling the movie. I know he's got gobs of respect for the original, I know he's a very talented writer, he made the only SF show of the 90s that was worth a damn, and arguably the only SF show since the original trek to be worth a damn as well, I trust the guy. It's possible that he'll let me down, but I have enough faith in him not to prejudge his work.

Also: think about this: If they're going to be remaking the movie *anyway*, who would you rather have doing it? A brilliant guy who loves it, or some hack like uwe boll?

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Two ways to go

neorandomizer's picture

There is two ways you can remake a movie you can do it overtly or covertly. An overt remake is like Keanu Reeves’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ you use the same name and basic idea. Done that way you run the risk of being panned when you deviate to far from the original movie like they did with this movie.

The covert way is like the ‘Omega Man’ it was a remake or more a reimaging of the ‘Last Man on Earth’ you change the name and that gives you a little more leeway in changes you want to make. Using either way to remake a classic has its benefits and draw backs. Using the original name gives you name recognition but ties you closely to the original, changing the name people might not even know it’s a remake unless you use that in your marketing.

The change the name and no marketing was done with ‘Gladiator’ it was a remake of a 50’s movie ‘ The Fall of the Roman Empire’ they made no big deal about it so people did not compare the two. With ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ they did make a big deal about it and it helped the movie bomb.

If they remake ‘Forbidden Planet’ it might be smart to go the covert route so fans of the original will give it a chance.

Can't do that, it's directly tied to the original story.

Republibot 3.0's picture

Same characters, same names, same premise, same setting, same everything. But we're basically blowing smoke, becuase like I said, we dont' know exactly what it is - it could be a remake, a prequel, a combination of the two, or some fourth option that hasn't occured to us yet.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

This reminds me of REF on CompuServe

Ginrummy's picture

Back in the day of pre-internet, some authors (like Raymond E. Feist, of the Riftwar series) sometimes hung out in online forums, and actual normal people could ask them direct questions and get real answers. It really made you feel nice that they were approachable and intimate to us normals. Much of that is missing today, now that filters and buffers are once again in place to remove everyday people from the Names. This was a nice interview I guess, but it didn't seem like he told you hardly much at all, except evasions and denials. In fact, the more I look at it, the more it seems to be a Carvel Ice Cream cake made out of nothings and emptyness. He shot down every single lost idea that you tried to make sound interesting.

@ petervesterbacka

Republibot 3.0's picture

Ok, I'm there, but I'm not really sure what it is I'm looking at. I think I need a native guide...

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Joseph Michael Straczynski

Joseph Michael Straczynski (born July 17, 1954), known professionally as J. Michael Straczynski and informally as Joe Straczynski or JMS, is an American writer and television producer. He works in a variety of media, including films, television series, novels, short stories, comic books, and radio dramas. He is also a playwright, former journalist and author of The Complete Book of Scriptwriting, a well-regarded tome on the subject. He was the creator and showrunner for the science fiction TV series Babylon 5, its spin-off Crusade, and Jeremiah. Straczynski wrote 92 out of the 110 Babylon 5 episodes, notably including an unbroken 59-episode run through all of the third and fourth seasons, and all but one episode of the fifth season. He also wrote the four Babylon 5 TV movies produced alongside the series. John