Executive Producer - 'Alien Nation'

Interview by Julian Knott - December 2006

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

The TV series began very soon after the original movie. Did work on the TV series only start after the film’s theatrical release, or was it being developed before then?

The TV series was created after the original movie. I had no contact with anybody who was involved with the original movie. My friend Harris Catleman who was running Fox Television at the time asked me if I would take a look at the movie. I was not really excited about it, because I had done so many ‘larger than life’ and ‘alien’ things in the past with my mini-series V being pre-eminent among those, that I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue it.

But when I look at the movie, at first I felt that it was just a ‘drug movie’ disguised with an alien context, sort of “Miami Vice crossed with Coneheads”, but there was one scene in the movie where James Caan picked up his alien partner Mandy Patinkin and Mandy waved at his family - his wife and two little kids standing on the porch – that was the only time you saw them in the film. But when I saw them in that scene, a little bell went off in my head and I realised, “Wait a minute, that’s what this picture should be about, it should be about what it’s like to be the world’s newest minority. This should be a story, not about cops and robbers, but about culture clash of one society trying to blend into another one, what it was like to be the latest people to arrive in a minority situation in a new country.” And that’s what inspired me to do the new series.

What changes were made to make Alien Nation suitable for a TV audience (the movie is quite – for want of a better word - ‘sleazy’)?

At the outset, Fox believed that with Alien Nation, they had a show that could conceivably be sort of “Lethal Weapon with aliens”. I convinced them that that was the wrong way to go, that it was much more interesting to do an alien version of In the Heat of the Night, where we wouldn’t be so concerned with police procedurals as we would be with the relationships that the cops had with each other, the conflicts that arose because of their cultural differences, and also what their personal lives were like as regarded the inter-relationship of the two species. That, to me, was the core of the show that would allow it to go on and on and be much more interesting than just another cop show.

Both lead parts were re-cast for the TV series. Were James Caan and Mandy Patinkin invited to reprise their roles? Were you looking for Caan / Patinkin “types” when you cast Eric Pierpoint and Gary Graham?

The leading roles were recast for the series because James Caan and Mandy Patinkin both had feature careers – Mandy at the time had not yet ventured into television and neither had Jimmy. And I was looking for a pair of guys that I felt would be appropriate to take on those roles.

I actually made the very first call to Eric Pierpoint whom I had worked with before – I had met him in 1984 when we did a pilot on a series for NBC called Hot Pursuit – the fugitive as husband and wife – and Eric impressed me then as really just a powerful actor. He was classically trained at Catholic University in Washington DC, he’d had a lot of theatre work and was really a consummate actor in terms of being able to just get everything you wanted out of a line of dialogue and a character. He also had a wonderful sort of ‘zen factor’ which I felt would be very important for somebody who was going to have to spend an hour and a half getting into that makeup every day and another forty-five minutes at the end of the day getting out of it, and spend his life literally with his hands over his ears. That’s what it sounds like when you’re inside one of those heads. It’s very difficult to hear and I needed an actor who could not only do the role, but also would have the stamina to survive that sort of *chuckles* abuse that we’d have to put him through!

Gary was selected from a number of actors that I read, and he was just absolutely the standout guy. Once Gary had read for the role, all of us who were involved with the casting felt that he was absolutely the right guy to put playing opposite Eric. He gave us a wonderful ‘streets’y sense, a wonderful sense of reality and also he’s just an excellent actor.

You had to add several characters to the movie’s relatively simple Sykes / Francisco pairing. Can you tell us about giving George a family, and how those roles were cast?

I had to flesh out the Francisco family and Susan, his wife, was of critical importance to us. George of course is the one that is trying to fit in the most among the humans. Susan has a little more struggle with it. The daughter Emily, I was anxious to have her be a young woman, a young girl at that time, who was really very open and ready for connection to human society. But I also wanted a spoiler among the family and that was the idea of casting Sean Six in the role of Buck as the troubled teenager – we used to refer to him as ‘Alien Without a Cause’ – and who was still into the most Tenctonese ways of doing things. He was the one who still spoke in their language of Tenctonese which incidentally was a language created by my daughter Juliet and she also created the name of Tencton – the planet that they came from.

The other supporting players were…of course Terri Treas as Cathy, the alien across the hall, which gives Matt a real push-pull situation. Here is someone he’s attracted to, and yet at the same time he’s a little queasy about being involved with an alien. And that was one of the pivotal relationships in the series.

And in addition to them, of course, there was Albert Einstein, the sort of low-IQ janitor who worked in the police station. I called my friend Jeff Marcus who I had worked with on a TV series called Senior Trip back in 1981 and whom I loved as an actor. At the time he was doing theatre, regional theatre, and I rang him up and said “Jeff, I’ve just written a great part for you if you want it, it’s a retarded alien janitor!” And Jeff jumped at the role.

And then in casting the police captain I was looking for someone who could bring a real sort of edge to the piece, and also some interesting colours and I remembered Ron Fassler (who had also been in Senior Trip when he was a kid for me back in 1981) and he read for the role and got it immediately. They helped to form the spectrum of people that would give us a wonderful cast to work with and players to fill out the roles.

How did you find the writers for the series? Presumably you had to find a lot of scripts very quickly? Was it difficult to find writers who wouldn’t deliver routine Miami Vice-style buddy cop stories?

Any Executive Producer in television will tell you that the hardest chore is always finding a writing staff that can fulfil the job. While we were doing the pilot, Fox went ahead and gave me a script order for several additional episodes and I contacted my friend Diane Frolov who had written a number of episodes for me of other shows, including the sequel to V back in 1984 and she was very happy to do so.

Her husband, Andrew Schneider, who had been my story editor on The Incredible Hulk and had then gone on to produce a number of shows himself and was currently on The Fall Guy at the time said hey, he’d really like to write one too, he really loved the idea, and even if we ended up putting Diane’s name on it (since he was under contract somewhere else).

But as we got into it together, we realised there was a possibility of getting Andy out of his contract on the other show so that he could come and join me. And he and Diane became…I think Andy was the Supervising Producer on the show and I gave Diane her first Producer credit, to which she said “Oh no no no, I can’t do that” and I said “Yes, you can!”

The two of them began writing together as a team – generally they had written individually in the past – and when they started writing together there was just this remarkable synergy that happened and the scripts were just truly extraordinary. Plus I was gifted with Andy’s skills as a producer on the show so that I could be the ‘admiral’, making sure the ‘fleet’ was sailing in the right direction and Andy and Diane would take on the roles of the ‘captain’ of the ship and fight the day to day battles.

I also knew I needed more people to help write the piece and I read a number of scripts that were submitted to me, but I found myself looking toward comedy writers more than one-hour episodic drama writers because I wanted a sense of humour in the piece. I was struck by the writing of Tom Chehack who had done a number of good scripts for other shows and produced a couple of other shows. Tom had a wonderful sense of humour about him that I really felt would be an adjunct to the series and I was lucky enough to get him to come on board.

We also hired a pair of story editors, Steven Long Mitchell and Craig Van Sickle who were young guys starting out at the time, and they did some wonderful work for us as well and that was the core of the writing team. Steve and Craig went on to create The Pretender and a number of other shows, I think they did The Flash as well and have become quite successful as writer-producers themselves.

Andy and Diane went on to do Northern Exposure and rack up a whole lot of Emmy wins as well as a number of other projects. They are currently working on The Sopranos right now. But I was very lucky to have such an extraordinarily gifted group of writers working together on the show.

You directed the original TV movie. Did you try to establish a particular look and tone for the series? Alien Nation is very different to V, which dealt with a similar concept?

Yes, one of the things that a producer-director does when creating a TV movie is to try to establish a particular ‘look and tone’ that will carry on into the series. Certainly I was looking to do that with the Alien Nation pilot.

There was a certain grittiness about it – I was anxious to have it fit into the real world of Los Angeles, and have perhaps just a little bit of noir-ish quality to it as well. In addition to that though, of course I was anxious to establish the overall feel of the piece and the sense of humour that existed as well – the bi-play between my two lead guys particularly, but as well between Cathy Frankel and Matt Sykes as well as the family dynamic.

It’s very exciting and as a writer – it’s funny, I always write something and I know exactly how I want it to sound and how exactly I want the tonality of it – the line to be read with a certain pace and a certain style and texture – and then I would get on the set and these actors would read these lines sometimes 180 degrees different from what I had in mind and it would be better! *chuckles* It was always a wonderful revelation to discover that what I had written was not nearly as good as what they had turned it in to! That’s part of the push-pull and fun of working with such a talented group as we did on this series.

The TV series dealt with numerous issues raised by having an alien culture becoming integrated into our own (discrimination, disease, etc). Were there issues that you think the series dealt with particularly well? Are there episodes you’re particularly proud of?

I was raised in a very bigoted, anti-Semitic, household, and so a good deal of my work in film and television has become devoted to breaking down intolerance and prejudice. What I saw with Alien Nation was the wonderful possibility of being able to deal with those issues head on and deal with discrimination in a way that ultimately wouldn’t offend anybody because we were talking about an alien race as opposed to a black or Hispanic or Jewish or Asian minority.

The interesting thing was, as the series went on, we got awards from virtually all of the different minority communities because virtually every minority, including gays and lesbians, felt that Alien Nation in some way was about them. One of my favourite letters came from a black doctor in Detroit who wrote that when he saw our show was going on he said he was really angered because he thought ‘What do we need another show about aliens for? Why don’t we do a show about the black experience?’ He said, “but then I saw your show and realised that it was about the black experience.” That was an element that we tried to thread through virtually all of the episodes – sometimes as minor elements of a story, sometimes as elements that were right in front.

There were so many episodes that made me proud of the show that it’s hard to pick out one or two because it was a constant feeling that the writers and I all shared, where we would always say OK, what makes this uniquely an Alien Nation episode, a show that could not appear on any other series? And that always drew us back to our thematic underpinnings of the cultural clash and the idea that we all need to work together.

Some episodes of the series dealt with the Newcomers’ somewhat unusual sexual practices. Did this – or any other aspect of the series – raise any problems with the Network censors?

I realised early on that since we were dealing with an alien culture, I had a wonderful opportunity to explore not only their psychology, but their physiology. I remember walking into the office one day and saying to Andy and Diane and Tom, “What if it takes three aliens to procreate as opposed to just two?”

Immediately everybody’s heads started spinning and we thought of the wonderful possibilities which lead to the great script that Andy and Diane wrote called Three to Tango in which it was revealed that a third person (in this case the dim-witted janitor Albert) was required to catalyse the female before she could be fertilised by her husband, which was handled as a ceremony in the living room rather like a briss in the Jewish tradition.

Sykes of course, the human, just flips out, and it gave us a wonderful opportunity for comedy to play the two cultures against each other because Sykes says ‘I can’t believe you’re so exciting about some guy boffing your old lady right in front of everybody!’ and George swooning and saying ‘Oh yes, I cherish the memories!’

So it was a wonderful opportunity for us to show the way that cultures do clash and bang into each other and great conflicts that came from it. Of course, when I came up with the idea, the fact that on earth male seahorses carry the female eggs to fruition and it’s actually the male that gives birth to them as it were, that also stimulated Andy and Diane’s imagination immensely and we ended up doing a show which was called Real Men which is one of my absolute favourite episodes of the series.
I remember Andy and Diane coming to me and saying, Look, why don’t we do a show where the theme is “what makes a real man?” and we’ll set it in the world of bodybuilding where these guys are all pumping up so that they can be all muscular and everything. But then we’ll learn that in order to pump up to the extreme they end up using drugs that take away their potency sexually which is very confounding to George because he doesn’t get the fact that guys try to be strong and pump up and yet they lose their sexuality and Matt, on the other hand, can’t understand when George says a line like “Oh yes, giving birth is when I finally feel fulfilled as a male Tenctonese”!

So again, it gave us a wonderful chance to develop the characters and to have conflict and drama and humour among them. It was a natural organic outgrowth of what the series was to begin with.
Incidentally, it did not raise any questions with the censors. They all thought it was a wonderful idea!

When did you know that there wasn’t going to be a second series of Alien Nation? What were Fox’s reasons for cancelling the show? Didn’t they later admit that they’d made a mistake?

The series ended on a cliff-hanger where we had all kinds of threads that were hanging loose, not the least of which that Susan and Emily had been poisoned and were facing death, because we absolutely anticipated that the show was going to go on and on and on, we all could see that it had a wonderful life in it and that we’d only begun to explore the possibilities of the characters. It was stunning when I got a call from Peter Churnin saying that they had not been able to find room on the schedule for it, that in fact Barry Diller had cancelled all of the Fox one-hour series because he felt that he could do better with comedies.

A year later, incidentally, his comedies had all tanked so badly that Fox had to give their Monday nights back to their affiliate stations because they didn’t have any programming to put on and Peter got up in front of the Television Critics Association and publicly apologised for cancelling Alien Nation, said that it was one of the biggest mistakes that they had ever made.

I was on the phone the next day saying “So…?” and he didn’t think that it fit into their schedule again at that point but I pounded on the door for a couple of years, and finally, with the help of Steve Bell and Kevin Burns, managed to convince Lucy Salhaney who was then running Fox TV that there was a lot of life left in Alien Nation and they said “Well OK, go ahead and do a TV movie that will pick up the threads and pay off the cliff-hangers and we’ll see how it works.”

So we did a movie called Alien Nation: Dark Horizon which did exactly that and became, incidentally, one of the highest rated, if not the highest rated, made-for-TV movies Fox had ever done. It was a gift from the gods for us because we all got to get back together and play together again and we had such a wonderful time doing it and everyone came running back to do it.

The success of the show, not only with the critics but with the audience, inspired Fox to buy two more movies and then ultimately two more after that, which will be released as a box set on DVD this coming summer. It was a glorious experience.

Alien Nation returned after a four year gap as a series of TV movies. What was happening during that hiatus? What led to Alien Nation’s return? Were the TV movies adapted from left-over series two scripts?

We did have several scripts remaining that had been written but not produced and they did become the basis of Dark Horizon and later of Body and Soul – two of the movies that we did subsequent to the series demise.

There also had been several novelisations of Alien Nation scripts that saw the light of day and also Fox was anxious to have the movies look a little bit bigger than the episodic shows, since they were going to be stand alone TV movies, so the budget was fortunately increased somewhat and allowed us to do pictures that were somewhat bigger.

In some regards, I would almost preferred to have gone on with the series instead, where we weren’t trying to save the world every time or have such grandiose stories to tell, but on the other hand it was so wonderful just to be able to go back and reclaim all of the material that we had not been able to see to fruition. It was certainly a joy to be working together again. I can’t emphasise to you what a wonderful experience it was for all of us.

This last July we had a little reunion here at my house of all the Alien Nation cast and I wonder how many casts still like to get together ten years after their last movie so that they can laugh and hug and enjoy each other and reminisce? It was a wonderful experience. There were no jerks on Alien Nation, everybody was terrific and they all loved each other a great deal.

Between the Alien Nation TV series and the Alien Nation TV movies you worked on a Sherlock Holmes TV movie. Can you tell us a little about your involvement with that – was it a pilot for a TV series? If Sherlock Holmes Returns had spun off into a series, would there have been no Alien Nation TV movies?

While I was struggling to get Alien Nation revived after the series was cancelled, I came up with the notion of bringing Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes into the 20th century. He would still be the same enigmatic, eccentric, sexist, cocaine-addicted genius, but he’d be a hundred years out of sync. I thought I could have some great fun with that.

I pitched the idea to my friend Jeff Sagansky who was running CBS at the time. He loved it and I wrote the script, probably the most difficult script I ever wrote. I discovered why Conan Doyle killed Sherlock off after the first thirteen stories, because it’s… you say, ‘Ok, I’ve got to write a script for a genius!’ and then you start to write and you realise ‘Wait a minute, how do you do that if you’re not a genius yourself?!’

The only consolation I had was that Conan Doyle had the same travails when he did it! There were days when I would honestly be in physical pain trying to figure out how to make a piece work in the Sherlock Holmes tradition.

It was designed to be a franchise of TV movies. Jeff and I saw it as an on-going series of TV movies as opposed to a one-hour episodic series, although ultimately that was considered as well. It ended up being quite a wonderful experience and a very fun film to do. We were going to go forward but Sagansky left CBS at the time and it sort of got lost in the shuffle, as things do under those circumstances.

Even in the midst of doing that, if the opportunity for Alien Nation had presented itself sooner, I would have crawled across broken glass and found a way to do it. I loved Alien Nation so much, as did everybody who worked on it.

While you were making the Alien Nation movies, did it ever seem likely that the series would be revived?

There were a couple of times when we talked about reviving the series because the movies were so successful, but on the other hand Fox was enjoying such success with the movies that they didn’t want to mess with it. They loved the fact that they could count on the big audience response and the big critical response from the movies. It’s interesting to note that we never got a bad review. Astonishing! I mean, I’ve done some very successful stuff in my career, but I don’t think anything was as universally loved by the critics as Alien Nation was.

Are there any plans to release the Alien Nation TV movies on DVD?

There are plans to release the Alien Nation movies on DVD! They’ll probably be released as a box set of five in the US mid-2007, I’m told. I’ve already done commentaries for the first two movies, we’ve put together some behind-the-scenes footage, some gag reels, and we’re just now in the process of organising the special materials for the last three movies which may even include a roundtable discussion with all the cast members, much like happened at my dining table this last July. It’s an exciting prospect and we’re all happy that Fox is going to release the movies on DVD.

If you were dealing with the same concept in 2006, do you think your portrayal of 350,000 members of a benign alien species arriving on Earth would be very different?

I think if we were to pick up Alien Nation as a concept today, the portrayal would not be very much different. I think its circumstances that we still face. Indeed, the immigration issue not only in the United States but around the world, has become in the forefront of so many peoples’ thinking and I think that to be able to explore the cultural differences and the involvement of a relatively alien or foreign group into an established country is a timeless story that never goes out of date.

It’s been almost a decade since the last of the Alien Nation TV movies, The Udara Legacy. Have we seen the last of Alien Nation?

I’ve gone back to Fox a couple of times and suggested it would be worthwhile to revive Alien Nation, particularly given the news-worthiness of immigration and such today, but they just don’t seem to be interested in trying to go forward with it as a TV series at this point. Of course, Fox no longer has a TV movie night, indeed none of the networks do any more. It’s become very frustrating and difficult to get any long-form project launched. But if they said ‘Would you like to do it?’, I’d be there in a second!

What can you tell us about the series you’re working on now, V: The Second Generation?

When I was putting together the DVD release of my original four hour mini-series V for Warner Bros, I was on the dubbing stage, because I re-mastered the sound of the whole thing, and at the last scene I was watching my leading lady Fay Grant send a message into deep space trying to contact an enemy of the visitors, hoping that ‘the enemy of my enemy would be my friend’. Over the years a number of people have come to me and talked about trying to remake or redo or revisit V somehow and I never had really wanted to because I felt that I had done it pretty well the first time, it had become something of a television classic, and I didn’t want to try to fix something that wasn’t broken.

But I got to thinking when I watched that scene, "Gee, what would happen if indeed somebody did get that message – our distress call – and did come to help? Or did they come to help?"

I thought, "Hey, that could be really interesting" and sold NBC on the idea of doing a four-hour mini-series that would pick up the show twenty years later, pick up the story and the characters and everything, and show what has happened to the earth in the last twenty years.

NBC sort-of got it, and we went forward and ultimately Warners and I ended up pulling the project away from NBC and we are endeavouring to set it up elsewhere as a four-hour mini-series.

It’s quite a strong script that I’m very, very proud of. As a matter of fact, it’s going to be published as a novel which I have written. I turned it into a novel because I liked the characters and the stories so much. Tor Publications is going to publish it as a hardcover novel in 2007. Then they’ll follow up with a mass-market paperback edition in conjunction with the mini-series when we get it made.

We are still pressing to get it made. It’s a tough market right now because, as I said, the long-form television has dried up in most regards and V is an expensive project. This is a $19m – $20m four hour mini-series. But Warner Home Video has recently come into the loop because V has become such a successful title for them over the years selling vast amounts of DVDs and bringing in huge amounts of revenue. They are helping as well, so we are determined to find a way to get the mini-series made and hopefully we’ll be able to talk about that soon.

In the meantime, the novel will be out in the middle of next year so the fans will be able to get a preview of what the miniseries will be like.

I will keep updating and putting the latest information on my website and anybody who has anything to comment about, about any of my shows, is more than welcome to contact me through that website and I do answer all of the mail that I get from the thousands of fans around the world to whom I am so grateful and appreciative that my work has stimulated their imagination.

With special thanks to Kenneth Johnson

Thanks, too, to Victoria for arranging the interview; and to Sandra McGechan for transcribing it!

Alien Nation - The Complete Series is now available on DVD

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