Breaking into the rec room: An Interview with S.S. Wilson by Kent Hill

 

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Steven Seth Wilson is the writer, director, producer best known for his work on the Tremors films and TV series. These credits though, are not all he has accomplished in his fascinating career. He also gave us Johnny 5, *batteries not included, episodes of the animated series MASK, and had the misadventure (one might say) of heading out into the Wild Wild West.

Time, however, has elevated the films he has penned (along with long-time friend and collaborator Brent Maddock) into that of cult status, and has seen him go from not only writing, but to talking them helm of his productions as a founding member of  Stampede Entertainment.

It was a treat for me recently to be granted the chance to interview this filmmaker whose works I heartily admire.

KH: Sir you are the writer connected to some of the cherished movies and one animated television program of my youth thank you for this opportunity?

SSW: I am happy to contribute.

KH: Did you always want to work in movies?

SSW: Believe it or not, my father “pushed” me into the film business.  He is a psychologist, so when I left for college, I signed up for psychology courses.  When he found this out, he went to my advisors and changed my major to film and television, saying to me, in effect, “You’ve been making movies in our back yard since you were twelve!  What are you thinking?”  I had not thought of trying to have a career in film making until that moment.

KH: What was your first job in the industry?

SSW: I began work as a stop-motion animator, doing animation scenes for educational short films that were sold to schools and libraries.  I was enraptured by the films of Ray Harryhausen (7th Voyage of Sinbad, etc) and had studied stop-motion techniques from an early age.

KH: MASK was one of my morning cartoon staples; how did you come to work on that show?

SSW: Like most jobs in Hollywood, it was “who you know.”  My first roommate when I came to California to go to University of Southern California film school was Terrence McDonnell.  We kept in touch and, many years later, he landed the job of story editor on M.A.S.K.  The story editor approves stories and oversees the writing of all the episodes.  The show was unusual in that the studio had ordered 65 episodes at once.  That was an absurdly large show order, so the editors had to develop lot of stories as fast as possible.  Terry joked, “I was hiring anybody I knew who could type!”  I ended up writing quite a few of the episodes.

KH: We now come to the adventures of Johnny 5, can you tell us of the genesis of Short Circuit?

SSW: It spawned from an educational short film.  One of them I wrote, called “Library Report,” starred a stop-motion robot that I also animated.  The film was so successful, my writing partner, Brent Maddock, and I decided to write a spec script featuring a robot.  We had written several other scripts with no success. We couldn’t even get an agent.  But this one turned out to be the one that got us the break.  A fellow Brent met in a screenwriting workshop knew the son of producer David Foster, and knew that Foster was looking for scripts with robots.  He showed it to the son, the son showed it to Foster, and the next thing we knew we were being called to a meeting on the old MGM studio lot (now Sony).

KH: A couple years after Short Circuit 2 arrived; was this commissioned purely on the success of the first or did you simply have more to say?

SSW: We always have more to say!  But in truth it was green-lit because Short Circuit 1 was quite successful (No. 1 at box office for a time).   By the way, this was long before the remakes and sequels craze in which Hollywood is now mired.  You may be surprised to know that our agent lobbied against our writing the sequel.  Back then such work was regarded as best handed off to hacks.  But we didn’t want anyone else coming up with stuff for Johnny Five.

KH: *batteries not included is a wonderful movie, it brought to mind my bedtime stories like the elves and the shoemaker. Can you tell us of the making of the film and the Spielberg connection?

SSW: Spielberg was making the TV show Amazing Stories at his studio, Amblin Entertainment, at the time.  *batteries  was based on a script written by Mick Garris for that show.  Spielberg liked it so much he felt it should be a feature instead of a TV episode.  Director Matthew Robbins and Brad Bird then wrote a movie-length version, but became so busy in pre-production they didn’t have time to keep re-working it to fit the budget.  Brent and I were already working at Amblin on other things, so Steven Spielberg asked us to do the revisions, working closely with Matthew and Brad.   It was a very intensive process, as the movie was already in pre-production, with sets being built, robots designed, etc.  Spielberg was personally involved every step of the way, often in the script meetings when we turned in each new version.

KH: Are you, or have been one of those writers that have been ever present on set?

SSW: Hah, it’s a rare writer who ever gets that opportunity.   In general, writers aren’t welcome on the set.  The director wants to do his/her own thing with the material and doesn’t want to be bothered with your petty ideas and complaints.  We were frustrated by this reality, and our agent counselled us that if we wanted more creative control, we’d have to become producers/writers. 

KH: You have written a couple of films with a similar keynote being Heart and Souls and Ghost Dad, spectral comedies?

SSW: That’s just by chance.  Spielberg originally came to us to re-write Ghost Dad (which was originally called Ghost Boy).  Then, for a variety of political reasons, the movie was not made at Amblin.  Since the script was owned by Universal, it got re-written and re-considered by other people over the years, eventually being made by Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby.  We had forgotten all about it.  Indeed, we did not even realize it had been put into production until we read about it in Variety (that’s how much power writers have in Hollywood).  There was very little left of our original script. 

Heart and Souls was a movie based on a short film, called “Seven Souls.”  By the time it was made, we were known for the fantasy/sci-fi slant to our writing, so Universal approached us about turning the short film into a feature.  We worked with the film’s creators, adding ideas to flesh out the story — and successfully lobbying them to let us reduce the original’s seven ghosts to four!

KH: Before we come to the Tremors films, can we touch on another monster: the Wild Wild West? Big budget, Big losses, Jon Peters and the Razzies?

SSW: Oh my, long story.   Two producers acquired the rights to the much-loved TV show and contacted us about writing the feature.  They’d already had some scripts done, but didn’t like them, and wanted us to start from scratch.  We loved the show, re-watched episodes, contacted fan groups, etc.  Then came up with our story and turned in our script.  At first it didn’t go anywhere and, as one must with many Hollywood projects, we forgot about it.  Then, maybe a year or so later, we got a call that Barry Sonnenfeld was going do it.  So we were plunged back into the action, working on a revision under his supervision.  Somewhere along the line, since it was now a BIG movie, it was handed over to BIG producer Jon Peters.  The story we like to tell there is that, in our first meeting, he did not realize it was a Western, and wasn’t pleased to hear it.  Anyway, we worked very hard on it, occasionally being given some very strange demands.  As an example, at one point the Peters group insisted we change the spider machine to a modern stealth bomber.  We tried to compromise, shading it toward a Victorian era steam-punk flying machine.  In the end, Barry didn’t like the flying machine, and late in the process he asked to see earlier drafts with the spider machine, which we happily gave him.

Then, quite suddenly, we were off the movie.  We turned in our latest revision and never heard from anyone on the production again until we were sent tickets for seats in the back of the theatre at the premiere.  It was rewritten many times by many writers after we were fired and, like Ghost Dad, very little of our original script remains, other than the spider machine itself.  We were surprised that the Writers Guild ended up granting us shared screen credit.

So, yes, you get Razzies for something over which you had no control whatsoever.

KH: Let’s talk Graboids, tell us of the genesis of Tremors?

SSW: It grew out of the desire to have more control.  We took our agent’s advice and wrote the script on spec, so that we could dictate what happened when it was sold.  It was a tough sell, but with a great deal of behind-the-scenes deal-making, agent Nancy Roberts finally sold it to Universal, getting them to agree to let us produce and our long-time friend (from the short film days) Ron Underwood direct.   We were delighted to be in the trenches with Ron every day on location, battling the elements and coming up with creative ways (with much help from our brilliant crew) to stay on time and on budget.  Eventually, the dailies were looking good enough that the studio even gave us little increases here and there.  The famous car-sinking scene was originally cut, for example, but finally got approved and was the very last scene shot.

KH: One good turn deserves another. Was Aftershocks a given?

SSW: Not at all.  Tremors was not a box office hit.  It did not become a cult film until much later, thanks to the then-new world of movies going out for rent on VHS tape.  Years later, as Universal began to see how much it was making in that secondary market, they came to us and asked if we were interested in making a sequel, for less than half the original’s budget.  But we said yes.  And I got to direct it.

KH: Three, four and even more. You directed a couple of instalments and then came the series?

SSW: Yes, the movies were all quite successful in the DVD universe.  Universal had a whole division dedicated to making sequels to its theatrical features and they kept asking for more Tremors.  We had total creative control over all of them, so they were a delight to make even though we worked for the minimum rates.  And Universal was fine with us directing them, our now business partner in Stampede Entertainment, Nancy Roberts, “the mother of Tremors,” producing, etc.

The series came out of the blue, when Sci-Fi network (now the comical “SyFy”), asked us if we wanted to do it.  As always, we said, “Sure!”  Ironically, we had tried to sell the idea of a Tremors series a few years before, with no takers.  So it was fun to be able to use some of the ideas we’d already come up with.

KH: What happened regarding Bloodlines (Tremors 5)?

SSW: You will have to ask Universal.  We had written the script ford Tremors 5 immediately after making Tremors 4.  But Universal chose not to make it at that time.  Then, some ten years later, they let us know they’d decided to make it after all.  They asked us to rewrite/update it, but were adamant that we would have no other creative control of any kind.   We could not direct, produce, go to the set, etc.  We were given no explanation for this decision.  For us, the only reason to make these low budget movies was for the fun of continuing to innovate while staying true to the creature rules and character personalities that fans had told us for decades they loved.  So we felt we had no choice but to decline.  The studio quickly hired another writer and the movie was made without us involved in any way.

KH: Can you talk a little about your friendship/collaboration with Brent Maddock and the rise of Stampede?

SSW: Brent and I have written now together for some 35 years.  We just consistently seem more successful working together than independently.  Broadly speaking, he’s the “character” guy and I’m the “story” guy, though by the end of each script we work together line by line in polishing.

Stampede was the brainchild of our agent, then manager, then partner Nancy Roberts.  It grew out of our desire to make our own movies the way we wanted to.  For many years we maintained an office and staff.  For now we have downsized, with the ability to ramp up again if we sell something we can control and produce or direct.

KH: IMDB is not always reliable, but I noticed Short Circuit was at the top of your credits with (announced) following it?

SSW: The rights to a remake were granted by the owner (not us) to Dimension Films.  Since David Foster was involved, he invited us to work on the remake our own movie.  It was actually fun to try to solve the problems of updating it, both technologically and artistically — and there are problems.  After all, in the original it was easy for Johnny Five to remain hidden.  No one had cell phones or, for the most part, even home computers! 

But after a couple of drafts, Dimension rejected our version.  For one thing, they insisted that the remake should star a little kid along with the robot.  So we were fired and they moved to other writers and directors.  It has been years since then, so it is unclear if they are still on track to make the movie.

KH: Sir, thank you for this opportunity, as a fan of your work this has been a privilege?

SSW: You are most welcome.  Thanks for your interest.

 

That was S.S. Wilson dear readers. If you haven’t kicked back and enjoyed any of his movies recently then do it now Laserlips, ’cause your mama is a snowblower…

Coming Soon: Zero Defects: Remembering Innerspace with Vernon Wells by Kent Hill

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