J. Michael Straczynski has carved out a special place in the hearts of geeks everywhere with “Babylon 5”. The series was one of the first shows on television to set up long-term story and character arcs that paid off in later seasons, in effect creating the template for the Novel for Television that made subsequent series like “The Shield”, “Alias”, and “The Wire” possible, to name a few examples.
Since the conclusion of “Babylon 5”, JMS has kept busy with adapting the European Science Fiction graphic novel series “Jermiah” into a series is Showtime, branched out into comics writing with his run on “Amazing Spider-Man”, and is set to bring back Marvel’s resident thunder god Thor in a new series to be drawn by Olivier Copiel.
“Hi, there, I’m Joe! To those outside, there’s free cocaine in this room!”
That set the tone for the irreverent and self-deprecating informal talk, with adoring fans laughing at every joke, drinking in his every word.
As how he managed to write the foreshadowing and twisting plotlines of “Babylon 5”, he replied, “I have a mind like a snake.”
Straczynski talked about his time making “Babylon 5”, how in fifty years of television, there had never been a show set on a space station, though, ironically, “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” came along around the same time as “Babylon 5”. He reminisced about the show, how the characters were based on himself and friends “that haven’t sued you”. “There was a lot of me in Londo – more than I’d care to admit, a lot of me in G’Kar, a lot of me in Delenn.”
Warner Brothers had not interfered in the making of the show and let him get on with it the way he wanted to, which was very rare in television.
“85-86-and-a-half percent of what I wanted got up there on the screen.” Said Straczynski.
He talked in some detail about the fifth season of “Babylon 5”. He had originally planned to tell the story of Earth’s civil war in the fifth season, but concluded that arc in the Season Four when he didn’t know if the show would be renewed. When a fifth season was greenlit, he had to re-jig several storylines, and at least got the opportunity to tell the story of Londo and G’Kar in greater detail and bring it to a more satisfying end.
Asked about his favorite episodes, he admitted that “Sleeping In The Light” was his favorite for the emotions, and his favorite on a technical level as “The Face Of The Enemy”, with director Mike Behar receiving special praise for his handling of the episodes.
The fans in the audience got a chance to ask about Straczynski’s stint writing “The Amazing Spider-Man”, praising him for revitalizing the character. He told them his more mythic and philosophical approach was influenced by his admiration for the writing of Alan Moore. He was also reminded that Peter Parker was prophesied to meet three totems that would carry revelations about his role as Spider-Man, but to date, he has only met two. No one seemed to mind very much.
Asked to comment on upcoming projects, Straczynski talked about the upcoming “Thor” series from Marvel.
“It’s going to be Asgard in Oklahoma.”
The series will see the fabled land of the gods plunked into the flat, tranquil planes of the southern state, and the comedy of manners that ensues once the local people adopt the Asgardians and try to interact with them on a day-to-day basis, navigating the clash of cultures when gods and hapless Southern mortals come together.
“Imagine Oklahoma: flat-flat-flat-flat-flat-ASGARD!-flat.”
Straczynski described the city’s arrival with a farmer walking up and knocking on the gates of Asgard. An irate Thor opens peers his head out to see what he wants. The farmer tells him that they’ve landed on his land, and they can’t have a whole city dropped in the middle of his property. Thor grunts, summons thunder and lightning, and proceeds to lift Asgard off the farmer’s land – by ten feet, hovering just high enough for people to walk and drive under.
Straczynski also added that Thor would not be speaking in “thees” and “thous”, since he never understood why a Norse god would speak in Middle English. In this series, Thor would speak in a kind of formal English of antiquity, not unlike Aragorn from “Lord Of The Rings”.
But Straczynski never let “Babylon 5” slip too far from his heart. He has just finished production on a Straight-to-DVD original movie, “Babylon 5: The Lost Tales”, which will be released on July 27th 2007.
Warner Brothers had approached Straczynski with the idea of making a “Babylon 5” feature film, but since Richard Briggs and Andreas Katsulas, the actors who played Doctor Stephen Franklin and G’Kar, insisted on staying dead after their passing, he could not see how a feature film could be made. Instead, he proposed a Direct to DVD movie featuring smaller, more intimate stories from the show’s history. Warner Brothers agreed to let him write and shoot the story the way he wanted, and the movie is now in postproduction.
As a taster, Straczynski showed some of the video blogs shot during production. Not wanting to make pompous blogs explaining for the umpteenth time how green screen works to audience that already knows all that, Straczynski spends much of the time making fun of himself and the process of movie-making, taking about how he had wanted to shoot the movie using sock puppets instead of human actors, but was overruled by the studio, who insisted on casting real actors. Another blog featured a scared and insecure Straczynski sitting in a Starfury cockpit in order to hide from the cast and crew, muttering “I am a small brown cat,” and “They’ll probably find me still here years from now…”
Straczynski announced that some of the video blogs will be on the DVD, some online, and some will premiere at the San Diego Comic Convention in July.
“The Lost Tales” reunites cast members for a story that takes place in the intervening years where President John Sheridan returns briefly to the space station he once commanded, now overseen by Colonel Elizabeth Lochley, and the Technomage Galen is also on hand. Tantalizing tidbits included brief clips of a new character, the young Centauri Prince Behar, played by newcomer Keegan MacIntosh, who has a pivotal role in the story and has a surprising relationship to a familiar character. Sheridan and Delenn’s son David is also mentioned in the story.
Straczynski proceeded to preview the title sequence of “The Lost Tles”, which featured a new CGI rendition of the destruction of Babylon 5 upon its decommissioning, created by Zoic Studios, the special effects house that created effects for “Firefly” and “Battlestar Galactica”, featuring the now-familiar Zoic-created image of debris flying into the camera. This was accompanied by a voiceover speech by G’Kar that served as an introduction to the story, and as a tribute to Andreas Katsulas.
Straczynski also mentioned the possibility of a Straight-to-DVD “Babylon 5” movie featuring the Psi-Corps and covering the Psychic War.
Apart from “Babylon 5”, Straczynski continues to keep busy with other projects: he is working on “Changeling”, which is schedule to be directed by Ron Howard and shot this summer. He is also adapting Max Brooks’ novel “World War Z” into a feature for Paramount Studios.
Talking about “World War Z”, which told the story of the war between humans and zombies in a series of interviews, years after the end of the war, Straczynski brought up the challenge of finding a protagonist for the story, since the book did not feature one, and he found a main character in the person of the journalist interviewing the survivors of the war.
One bit of news that particularly excited the audience was that Sam Raimi has picked up Straczynski’s comic series “Rising Stars.” The script is underway and it is hoped that there would be a draft to take out in the Summer.
Straczynski noted that interested in “Rising Stars” has rekindled in the wake of the success of “Heroes”, which is only fair since “Heroes” took off from “Rising Stars,” so now “Rising Stars” can take off from “Heroes.”
When asked about the cast, Straczynski opted to keep mum, but teased, “When you hear the names that are involved, you’re gonna plutz!”