Monday, January 14, 2008

Mike Scully interview

I'm sure this interview originally ran with a witty or clever headline, but if it did, I sure can't remember it. At the time, I was for some reason convinced that The Simpsons couldn't possibly stay on the air for more than another year or so, and that we'd never actually see a Simpsons Movie. I also thought John Kerry would win at least 300 electoral votes, and that Mitt Romney would cruise to the GOP nomination after winning in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Anyway, this is a fun look back at what's now just about the midpoint of one of the longest-running shows in TV history.

by Chris Galdieri
webdate: 11/24/97

The Simpsons has been hailed since its 1989 premiere as an innovative, groundbreaking, and intelligent animated comedy, and deservedly so. No other television show could match The Simpsons' insane plots, seemingly infinite cast of supporting characters, and graduate-level cultural and historical references. As the show nears the midpoint of its ninth season, however, The Simpsons has become an institution, as well. The man behind the production of The Simpsons, executive producer Mike Scully, sat down with Mania to talk about the challenges of keeping the show fresh and original and the future of America's favorite cartoon family.

After nine years, it's not uncommon for the quality of a show to decline; just look at Happy Days or Murphy Brown. But Scully says he and the rest of the show's writers, directors, and producers are determined not to let that happen to their show. Scully attributes this to one simple, but powerful, emotion: Pride. "We all take a great deal of pride in the show," he says. "We don't want to overstay our welcome and get to the point where people are yelling at you to get off the air. We try to keep the stories fresh and the jokes funny."

The Simpsons paved the way for the successful prime-time animated shows of the last several years, such as MTV's Beavis and Butt-Head, Fox's King of the Hill, and Comedy Central's South Park. Scully is pleased to see animation gaining acceptance among mainstream audiences, but points to the spate of failed animated series that premiered in the first years of The Simpsons' run as proof that animation alone is no guarantee of success. "For a while there were other shows that tried, like Family Dog and Fish Police and Capitol Critters. The mistake the people behind the shows made was thinking that the audience was responding to just the animation, that just because The Simpsons was animated the show was a hit. In reality, it was the writing, and the animation was secondary."

Scully thinks that the nature of animation makes quality writing critical to the success of any animated show. "It really is writer-driven," he says. "You don't have to worry about making Roseanne happy or whether or not somebody's locked in their dressing room refusing to come out." At the same time, Scully credits animation with allowing writers to push the edge of the envelope. "Animation allows you to do certain jokes you couldn't do in a live action show because there's a certain level of reality that's removed with animation. Like last week, where Homer bought a gun and he had it right in Marge's face and it was going off at the dinner table. If you saw real people sitting there, it wouldn't be funny anymore."

The Simpsons has always sported political and social commentary as pointed as its plots are outrageous. Past targets have included atomic energy, secret societies, censorious parents groups, and Social Security. Scully points out that the show's social criticisms are usually nuanced and omnipartisan. "[The NRA] show is a real mixed message show, which is the kind of message we like the best, just lay it out there and let the audience figure it out. Initially, the gun people we portrayed as gun nuts, but as we got to see them over the course of the show, they were very safety conscious and Homer was the nut and they kicked him out. If a gun owner got mad at the initial part of the show he'd really miss the point of it."

Scully is proud of the show's willingness to address controversial topics in a satirical manner, and considers it a trademark of the series. He is also proud of the show's willingness to take aim at a broad spectrum of sacred cows. "We like pointing out hypocrisies. We try to spread it around, and hopefully if people see all the shows they realize they're not being singled out. I guess when it applies to your particular belief it feels like it's targeted at you. But it's there for fun. All it's there for is to make people laugh, and if we make you think once in a while, then so be it. But we're not trying to single anybody out."

The Simpsons is also famous for its guest-stars. Celebrities ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Dustin Hoffman to Leonard Nimoy have voiced guest characters. Indeed, all three surviving Beatles have appeared as animated versions of themselves. Scully promises that this season will be no different. "Coming up is Apu facing the prospect of his arranged marriage. We have Andrea Martin from SCTV and Jan Hooks from Saturday Night Live guest-starring in that one. In February, we have Krusty the Clown retiring from comedy, and the guest-stars are Jay Leno, Janeane Garafalo, Steven Wright, and Bobcat Goldthwait. And in May is our two hundredth episode, it just happened to fall in May sweeps. The guest stars on that one are Steve Martin and U2."

While it seems like everyone and his brother has already been a guest on The Simpsons, Scully says there are still a few "dream guests" that haven't yet made it onto the show. "Janet Jackson expressed interest in doing the show, and we're still looking for something for her. Steve Martin we had actually been after for several years, but we finally got him this year. Tom Hanks I'd love to have on the show sometime, and I'd love to have Bruce Springsteen on. But we don't want to approach people until we have the right part. And if they say no, we start stalking them."

While Scully has big plans for this season and next fall's tenth season, he does admit that the creative minds behind The Simpsons do occasionally give some thought to what the final episode of the series would be like. "There are certain things you would like to see happen," he says. "I'm sure people would like to see Smithers confess his love for Burns. People would like to see stuff like that, I think. We always talk about what would be a great last episode and we still haven't gotten it yet. Sometimes there's one that, after they air, we're like, "That would be a great final episode!"

Just as some episodes seem in retrospect to be perfect final episodes, occasionally there is an episode that, in hindsight, would have made a perfect movie. "The Hank Scorpio episode, where the Simpsons move to a town called Emerald Cavern, we thought, whoa, that might have been a movie. We cut so much out of that show, we realized later that maybe we could have opened that one up to a movie."

Scully does see a Simpsons film as a real possibility "somewhere down the line. We want to make sure we do it right. We don't want to take people's money. If you do a bad job on the movie, we'll taint the memory of the series. It's also a matter of money. It would be far more expensive to do than the weekly show, in terms of the quality of the animation. But I'd love to see it. If we find the right idea, I think we'll do it."

Whatever the future holds for America's first family of animation, Scully hopes that The Simpsons will continue to amuse with a sharp, satirical edge. "We've always maintained that every joke can't be for everybody," he says. "When you do that you wind up with Three's Company. We're hoping people are enjoying it."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Walter Koenig interview

Walter Koenig was one of the last of the original Star Trek cast members to publish a memoir about his time on the show and his life and career afterward; this interview was made possible by his book's promotional push. Koenig's personal web site is located at

Chekov's Log: Walter Koenig's Take on
Life, Trek, and Everything

by Chris Galdieri
webdate: 5/8/98

The first sign that Walter Koenig's book Warped Factors: A Neurotic's Guide to the Universe is not your typical Star Trek memoir is the cover photo of the author, who played Chekov on the original series and in seven motion pictures. Instead of a heroic, square-jawed portrait, like those that adorned the books of William Shatner and George Takei, Warped Factors depicts Koenig with a bemused expression, with raised eyebrows and a smile that can be safey described as a goofy smirk. It aptly captures the humorous tone Koenig brings to his recounting of his life and his career before, during, and after Star Trek.

Koenig almost didn't use the photo that appears on Warped Factors' jacket. "When [the publisher] chose that one, my vanity was abused," he said. "But then I said, 'You know what, this really says what the book's about more than any other photo that I have.' There's a little bit of whimsy, there's a little bit of craziness. It stands out, it's different, and it marks the difference between my books and the others."

Warped Factors certainly has a lighter tone than many of his fellow Trek actors' tomes. The light touch nicely balances Koenig's recountings of his early difficulties in school, his constant worry that "the other shoe" was always about to drop, and his early career as a struggling actor. "A lot of the events were quite disastrous at the time they occured. I was not able to see the humor in them. With distance, you know, you develop some objectivity," Koenig said. "And I thought, if I was going to tell these stories, rather than beat my breast and ask the audience to pity me, I could show them the humor I see in it now [and] then we would all be better off for it."

One of the refreshing aspects of the book is that it is as much about Koenig's life, from his early acting career to his efforts to break into scriptwriting in the 1970s (at one point he nearly became the story editor on The Incredible Hulk) and his heart attack in the early Nineties, as it is about Star Trek and Chekov. "It's an autobiography. It's about me. That it is about Star Trek is secondary to the fact that it's about me," he said. "Maybe it's just an uncontrollable ego to think that somebody would want to read this. All I know is that I had a great time writing this, and I'm tickled that people are enjoying it."

While his roles on Star Trek and Babylon 5 have made him famous, Koenig emphasizes throughout the book that he considers his success in many ways to be the result of good fortune. "The point I make from start to finish is that I don't consider myself to be an extraordinary person. I think I have a respectable gift as an actor, but I don't think it's at genius level. And I had gone through all the pitfalls, the potholes that everybody else does in life. And I just managed to survive and prevail in a modest way. I think it would be a book that would be encouraging," he said.

There's still plenty of Star Trek in Warped Factors, of course. Koenig opens the book with an imaginary story of the cast joining hands and sharing a moment of spiritual harmony on the set of "The Gamesters of Triskelion." It's a glimpse at the Trek every fan wants to believe in, despite the public disputes between some cast members. "Everybody would like to believe that we were this wonderful family that loved each other and Bill was our spiritual leader as well as the star or our show," Koenig explained. "It was setting the tone as well. There will be stories that will, hopefully, tickle you a little bit."

Koenig also addresses the subject of the problems some members of the supporting cast, whom he dubs the "Gang of Five," had with series star William Shatner. While other cast members have discussed their displeasure with Shatner's reblocking of scenes to focus on his character, Captain Kirk, in both the original TV series and the subsequent motion pictures, Koenig is the first to suggest that part of the problem was the supporting cast's unwillingness to confront Shatner. "I felt as intensely as anyone else did about the things that went on," Koenig said. "But it occurred to me at one point that, yeah, we all got up and complained about him at conventions and interviews, but I couldn't remember any time that any of us stood up to him and told him straight to his face that he was behaving badly. Bill protests, and I kind of believe, that he had no understanding of how we felt. He'd go from his trailer to the set and back to his trailer. So if he didn't know and nobody told him, then maybe we should have told him. We never put ourselves to the test. So if my position is a little different, it's because I feel that we all hold some responsibility."

During the filming of Star Trek: Generations, Koenig finally did refuse to shoot a scene as Shatner suggested. While it was cathartic for him to do so, he doesn't consider that an especially brave act. "He was not the star of that movie, and this was the last movie I was going to do, and there wasn't any danger [of] injury in the future. I think it would have been more courageous if I did it in spite of what the consequences would have been."

Koenig has had one of the most successful post-Trek careers of any of the original series' cast members. He has, of course, won acclaim as Babylon 5's villainous telepath Bester. Though he only touches on the role and B5 briefly in Warped Factors, it's clear that Koenig is having a terrific time playing the part and he has nothing but terrific things to say about his co-stars and B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski.

Koenig also belongs to the Los Angeles-based repertory theatre company Actors' Alley. "We're looking for something that I could direct right now," he said. "I've been to half a dozen plays or more, trying to find something that would be exciting to do. I like to do comedy, Moliere or something of that nature. Or I'd like to do something very modern, Pinter or Pirandello. Something where there's real input by the director. I just don't want to be up there having the actors move from one part of the stage to the other. I love being an integral part of a piece and through direction elaborate on the writing."

Generally, Koenig leaves his science fiction credentials at the door when he's directing for the theatre. "I don't promote it as 'Directed by Walter Koenig, formerly known as Chekov.' The audience is generally not even aware of me in that capacity. I don't even put it in my biography in the program. I don't want it to distract from the work," he said.

When he's not acting or directing, Koenig writes. In addition to Warped Factors he's had several screenplays optioned, written one novel, Buck Alice and the Actor Robot, and plans to return to another, The Man Who Wasn't There, when he finishes promoting Warped Factors. Koenig found his inspiration for The Man Who Wasn't There on a plane ride home to Los Angeles. "It's kind of a mystery. I was on the airplane and I was thinking, what would happen if I came home and the next morning I discovered in the newspaper that the plane I had flown in on had crashed before it landed and there were no survivors? That was my springboard. One agent in New York thought it was quite extraordinary and compared me to Philip K. Dick. Another agent thought it was utterly incomprehensible and didn't know what the hell was going on. So I've got to decide who's right," he joked.

Comedy Central has also given Koenig a chance to showcase his lighter side, both in a sketch on Viva Variety and as the host of a series of cult science fiction movies. "The money was impossibly modest and I had to fly to New York to do Viva Variety. But I did it because it was comedy and I want the world to know that I do comedy, and I thought it might lead to something," he said. "And though it didn't lead to a lead on an NBC sitcom, they did think of me again when they decided to have somebody host this month of cult movies. And maybe this, in turn, will lead to something else."

"I pretty much live my life one step at a time," he said. "I don't know how to plan in advance. I don't know how to take control of my career in an industry which is so capricious, where you blow hot and cold by the rise and fall of the sun. It's just not in my power. So I just do what I can, and hope that I'm planting seeds as I go along."

Darren Aronofsky interview

In the summer of 1998, I had the chance to interview this up-and-coming filmmaker whose indepenedent, black-and-white movie Pi was picking up some healthy buzz. Since then he's directed Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, and married Rachel Weisz. Clearly, he's doing something right.

Putting Ideas Back in SF Movies

by Chris Galdieri
webdate: 7/24/98

Pi, a stark black-and-white film that cost $60,000 to make, may turn out to be one of the best science fiction films of 1998. And it doesn't feature a single asteroid, comet, monster, or special effect.

That's fine with writer-director Darren Aronofsky, who financed his debut film by soliciting $100 donations from friends and relatives. "The idea of making psychological sci-fi films, as opposed to effect-driven sci-fi films, is really attractive to me," he said. I think Hollywood's sort of forgotten that science fiction doesn't mean special effects. Science fiction could be concepts and ideas. So we tried to avoid the special effects and make it more about the haunting mind of a mathematician."

That mathematician is Max Cohen, the protagonist of Pi, played by Sean Gullette. Cohen is a reclusive young mathematical genius obsessed with finding a numerical means of predicting the stock market. As his research progresses, he finds himself pursued not only by a Wall Street conglomerate but also by a group of Hassidic Jewish Kabbalah scholars certain that Cohen's research will reveal to them the long-lost true name of God. Aronofsky didn't worry that the film's eclectic themes would alienate audiences, however.

"I don't think Pi is strictly necessarily a math movie. The hardest math problem in the film is 41 plus three, and we give you the answer, like, five, ten seconds later. Mostly it's the really cool math you hear at cocktail parties," he said. "The most important thing about this film for me was to make a thriller. I wanted to make a very tight-knit roller coaster ride, so that in 90 minutes we try to keep people glued to their seats. And I figured that if I succeeded in that, then I could introduce some more esoteric ideas. At the core of Pi is a chase film."

Aronofsky's interest in his film's theological themes stems from his experiences with Kabbalah scholars he met during a trip to Israel. "They showed me a lot of their secrets, not knowing I was going to put them into a movie," he said with a laugh. "When I was studying with them, I saw things that were pretty much miracles, that, as a secular person, totally blew my mind."

The use of the Kabbalah scholars as major players in Pi is also the movie's most visible manifestation of Aronofsky's desire to make his film and his cast as diverse as possible. The decision, Aronofsky explains, had more to do with defying expectations than with political correctness. "Hollywood is very limited in what they'll cast, and so, besides having badass Jews, which you'll never see in a Hollywood film, we had one of the bad guys [be] a black female, which you'll never, ever see...besides being a bad guy, she's also head of a Wall Street firm, which is breaking stereotypes, too," he said. "It was very intentional to cast as many interesting actors as possible."

Casting isn't the only distinctive part of Pi, however. Aronofsky shot the movie on high-contrast black-and-white reversal film to give it a look unlike any other film around. "It was purely a creative decision. In fact, it cost more money to shoot the film stock we shot than color film. It's basically used for music videos. It's never been used in a feature film before," he said. "If you expose it correctly, you get the effect you want, which is a black or white movie, not a black and white movie."

Aronofsky is also a comics fan, and comics influenced several aspects of the film, from its gritty look to the voice-over narration by Max Cohen. "Frank Miller's Sin City is what inspired the look of Pi...Kevin Smith said that Pi is a comic book and that was great. We were trying to make a comic book," Aronofsky said.

Pi will become a comic book in form as well as style later this summer when Dark Horse Comics releases a graphic novel based on the movie.

Aronofsky also had comics in mind when he and Sean Gullete wrote Max's voice-over. "When I was writing the script I didn't spend any time working on the voice-over, because I knew when I had the images and cut it together I would have a better sense of the type of stuff to write. When it got done [Sean and I] just basically sat around for a long time to get it where we wanted," he said. Finding the right balance between the images on screen and the words of the voice-over was a priority for Aronofsky. "It was a hard process because there's a danger of being cheesy and a danger of being too much on the nose, so we tried to get a very careful balance for the voice-over."

The movie's bare-bones budget forced Aronofsky to be extremely creative in constructing sets, particularly the set for Max's supercomputer, Euclid. "What we did for that is, we basically recycled about three tons of computer parts. We begged cop stations, hospitals, universities, called up everyone around the tri-state area, asking them for any parts they had. We drove around in a white van and loaded up on old Macs and IBMs. The concept was very much like Terry Gilliam, to take old technology and reinvent it as new technology," he said. In retrospect, Aronofsky thinks Pi's tight budget turned out to be a benefit in constructing the supercomputer. "If I had a million dollars and built a Euclid supercomputer it would look dated in five or six years, just the way HAL [of 2001: A Space Odyssey] is dated. So, we wanted to make something that would be timeless. So we took all these computers and we shelled them and ripped out different microchips and created, basically, a computer sculpture."

Now that Pi has been released, Aronofsky is working on two new film projects, Proteus, a science fiction/horror film set on an American submarine during World War II, and an adaptation of the Hubert Selby Jr. novel Requiem for a Dream. "[Proteus] will be the scariest movie you've seen in the last ten years. I know it's a boast. And the reason I say it is, for me, I haven't seen a scary movie in a long, long time," he said. "I haven't had nightmares from a movie in a long, long time. And I've been wondering why that is...I have a feeling that, like sci-fi, horror has gone down a road of effects movies...horror's become just about gore. So for me, it's about trying to figure out how to make stuff scary again. I think the way to do it is to be psychological."

Aronofsky thinks that his success with Pi can serve as an example to other aspiring filmmakers. "Six months ago, I was nobody. So anyone can do it. It's a lot of homework and a lot of hard work, that's all it is," he said. "It's all about the work. It's all about the craft." And what's his advice to anyone with dreams of directing? "Be as completely and fully original as possible. Be completely yourself. Pi, if anything, will hopefully show people that you can do something totally different and find success through it. It's much easier to get recognition for something completely original."


From 1997 through 1998 I was a staff writer for AKA, AKA's Mania -- a web site so far ahead of its time it flamed out years before the dot-com bubble burst for everyone else. This blog is simply an archive of some of the more interesting things I wrote during that time, and occasionally to put some of these writings in the context of ten years later.