The writer/director of these films talks about his long-running involvement with this series
Kenny Johnson has been involved with Alien Nation since creating the Alien Nation TV series that lasted for just one season at Fox. The series was brought back to life with five TV movies that are all available in the Alien Nation Ultimate Movie Collection, which hits the shelves on April 15. I had the chance to speak with Johnson over the phone about his longstanding passion for this series.
Why was this the right time for this to come to DVD?
Kenny Johnson: Well, it's obvious, because Fox finally got around to it.
Ah, of course.
Kenny Johnson: It's so funny. I was astonished that they hadn't gotten it out long before now. They finally just released my pilot and the episode series a year or so ago then sort of realized, 'Oh, we also have these five movies.' I had also been telling them that for some time and I also let them know that I had all this great behind-the-scenes footage and gag reels and photo galleries and all that stuff. I was happy to do commentaries on the movies and I dragged my daughter Katie along, who is sort of the repository of all things Alien Nation. Katie and I, still once a week, will still email each other with a new Newcomer name, because they all had those peculiar names. She emailed me the other day and said, 'Dad, I've got a new one. Perry Winkle.' Her husband came up with Nick Knack and his girlfriend Patty Whack, of course. It never stops, Brian. We are shameless. I'm delighted that Fox finally put this out because I am so proud of the work we did on that show.
How did you first become involved after the (original) movie was released in 1988?
Kenny Johnson: Well, I had created The Bionic Woman and I did The Incredible Hulk and I did |V, my big epic mini-series. My friend Harris Cattleman, who was the head of Fox Television at the time, called me up and said, 'We've got this movie coming out. We'd like you to take a look at it. We think there's a series in it.' I said, 'Sure, Harris. I'd be happy to.' He said, 'It's called Alien Nation' and I said, 'You know Harris, I really don't want to see it. I'm so tired of aliens.' I was trained in the classic theater, Brian. I went to Carnegie-Melon. We studied Sophocles and Shakespeare and Strindberg, all the classics. I've always been drawn to that, but you create The Bionic Woman, you create The Incredible Hulk, you do |V and pretty soon you're the sci-fi guy. I always tell my students in UCLA and USC, 'Be careful of what your first success is, because that's what they'll want you to do the rest of your life.'
I sort of walked in the screening room over at Fox with a chip on my shoulder as big as a block of ice and said, 'O.K., show me.' The movie came on, and I don't know. The movie always struck me as Miami Vice with Coneheads. But there was one scene where the alien cop was waving goodbye to his wife and two little children standing on the porch. There's only one shot of them in the movie, but when I saw that moment, Brian, the bell went off. I went back to Fox and I said, 'You think you've got Lethal Weapon with aliens, right?' They said, 'Yeah, yeah!' and I said 'No, no. What you've got is In The Heat Of The Night. Let me do a piece about what it's like to be the latest folks off the bus, the newest minority that arrives in town.' That's a show that can go on and on and on because it's about societal conflicts. It's about discrimination, it's about prejudice. I said that's great stuff to deal with on an ongoing basis and great characters to develop. They weren't so sure at first, but they finally got it. They did get on board and was able to do it and it was sort of a personal triumph for me. I was raised in a very bigoted, anti-Semitic household where every day I heard hate words and racial epithets. Everybody was not as good as we were. Somehow, it just didn't stick with me. I just kind of instinctively knew it was wrong. Beyond that, it was just hurtful and harmful. So when I had a chance to take on something like Alien Nation, it was like a gift from the gods because I was now able to do a piece that, sure, had this great commercial appeal and eye-grabbing quality about it, but really underneath it was about intolerance. It was totally cool. Early on, I got a fan letter from a black doctor in Detroit. He wrote me and said 'When Alien Nation was coming on I was really mad. Why do we need another show about stupid aliens? Why doesn't someone do a show about the black experience? Then I watched your show and I realized it was about the black experience.' It was great. All the minority groups thought it was about them. We got awards from the Spanish-Americans, the Asian-Americans, the gay and lesbian Americans. It was fabulous.
These movies continued right where the series left off. Were these movies what you had in mind for future seasons?
Kenny Johnson: Well, some of them were, yeah, absolutely. When the show was cancelled after one full season, it was a bit like hearing that a young friend had been killed in an auto accident. You say, 'What? There was so much life in that person.' I still remember Peter, the head of television saying, 'Well, Barry really feels we can get better ratings with comedies,' and I said, 'This is a huge mistake.' Barry put on his comedies and the Fox network went so far into the tank that they had to give up their Monday nights back to the affiliates because they had no shows to put on. And Peter, bless his heart, went in front of the Television Critics Association and said, 'Cancelling Alien Nation was the biggest mistake we've ever made.' It took me two more years of banging my head against the wall when Lucy, the new head of television said, "I think it's a good idea to do some more Alien Nation' and I said, 'Yes!' Dark Horizon, which was the first of the five movies, we had some ideas for it and it was going to be the continuation because we had some cliffhanger elements dangling because we were sure we were going to get a pick-up. So what I set out to do in Dark Horizon, was we fulfill the expectations of the fans who had things left hanging, but at the same time bring in and make it accessible to any new audience coming to it for the first time. Low and behold, it was one of the highest-rated TV movies Fox had ever put on, so, naturally, they were inspired to buy four more. Again, it was like a gift from the gods because all of us were not finished. We wanted to get back in there, the cast came running back to it because they loved it so much. A lot of the crew people broke away from other shows they were doing so they could come back and work on it.
One of the special features on the DVD is called A Family Gathering where I got the whole cast together, sitting them down in my living room. I had four video cameras rolling and I just let them talk. It's funny because I don't know how many shows where the actors don't want to know each other 20 minutes later, let alone 10 years later. We all became such a family. We have always stayed in touch with each other. My wife and I, every three or four years, will have a barbeque in the summer and the whole gang will get back together again. I'm going to the theater this Friday night with Eric Pierpoint and Michelle Scarabelli. We all just love each other. It's such a love fest. What can I tell you, Brian.
When they ordered the four more, they came out in rapid-fire succession. Did you film them back-to-back?
Kenny Johnson:Dark Horizon was filmed by itself. It was their trial balloon to see if anybody care, and not only did the audience care, but the critics sort of adopted us as their little darling. We never got a bad review. With the success of Dark Horizon, they came to me and said they'd like to buy two at a time, we'd like to do two more. We did shoot them back-to-back because, obviously, it saves money, the sets are up. Andy Schnieder and Diane Frolov came back to write one of them, Body and Soul, and I wrote the other one, Millenium. We just charged ahead. All of them were made on a budget of a little over $4 million each. I was so gratified because one of my movie friends would come to the screenings and ask how much it cost and they'd say, 'How come it looks like a $15 million movie?' Isn't that what I'm supposed to do? So we did those two back-to-back and they did well and almost immediately Fox bought the additional two. If they'd call me tomorrow or this afternoon and go, 'Would you like to do some more?' we'd all be there so fast that your head would spin.
Is that sort of an underlying hope with this release, that you might drum up enough interest?
Kenny Johnson: I don't know. I've been back at them a couple of times and they just don't seem to get it. I guess they feel that immigration isn't a hot-button issue anymore (Laughs). I mean, hello? It's almost more apropos and more of an allegory and more important and more in the public's conscious now than it was back then. I don't know. It's a different crop of people, a different group of executives. It's not their idea. I'm just happy that the DVD is out there and the people get to see the special stuff, the behind-the-scenes stuff and the gag reels, also, give you a feel of what it was like to be on our set. Brian, we were laughing all day long and we had so much fun in spite of how hard it was, in spite of the difficult makeup. Poor Eric Pierpont, when we were doing the series, he was in that makeup every working day for almost nine months. That's part of the reason I asked Eric to do the character because, not only did I know that he was a fabulous actor and that he and Gary (Graham) would play so well off of each other, but because Eric has this wonderful sort of Zen factor of being able to sit in that makeup chair for 90 minutes every morning and survive without being able to hear very well. If you put your hands over your ears really hard, that's what it's like inside those heads and it's really hard to hear. You feel isolated. I'm surprised Eric didn't go nuts in the course of it. Gary reminded me, after I hired him to do the gig, that he had done something else for me years earlier. He was an actor on one of the The Incredible Hulk episodes. I said, 'Get out of here. Which one?' He said, 'I am the guy that gave David Banner a dose of LSD.' It was one of the rock-and-roll episodes we did and the LSD Hulked him out. It was a trip, what can I say. Gary, when I finally had the opportunity to work with him as a director, one-on-one, it was so gratifying because he's so natural and funny and smart. All the actors on the show were, they were all really smart. One of the things you'll notice in the movie is, I tend to use a lot of two-shots and three-shots, a lot of wider shots where you could see them all working at the same time. The editors would come to me sometimes and say, 'We cut this together one way, but we could've cut it six other ways because everybody's doing something.' It wasn't like the actors were waiting off camera and coming on when their lines are up. It was so, so great. Do you think I like this show, or what, Brian?
I think just a little bit, yeah (Laughs). It's kind of odd since TV was run by sitcoms when this was on and now it's hour-long dramas. It's kind of surprising that this show couldn't find a niche in today's audience.
Kenny Johnson: It's very frustrating because as early as last week, we were talking to Fox and they said they don't really want to do it, so I said, 'OK, license it to me and let me take it somewhere else.' Long pause... 'Nah, we don't want to lose that either,' because they're nervous of losing something and have somebody else do it and it's a hit and they have egg on their face. It's very frustrating.
I was wondering, since you created the original The Bionic Woman, what your thoughts were on the recent, short-lived NBC series?
Kenny Johnson: Oh, was there a new The Bionic Woman? (Laughs)
Yeah, for about a second or two.
Kenny Johnson: You know, it's amazing. NBC put about $4 or $5 million into advertising for that. You couldn't walk down a street without a bus passing you with her face on it. They thought we'll take this iconic name, because it was the only name-brand show that they had going into the new season, and they feel like that will do it. When I saw the pilot last year, I thought this wasn't my cup of tea. It doesn't have the humanism or the humor at all that we strived for in the original. They worked less with having the kind of level of actress I had in Lindsay (Wagner). When I was writing it and producing it I spent a lot of time with Lindsay and listening to Lindsay the actress and how she spoke. We always fashioned all of the shows so that they played into her strong suits. It was a natural kind of spontaneous feel that the show had and also a sense of humor. I don't quite get it when somebody gets bionic parts and suddenly they become a martial artist. It's like a skill. Also in the original I was very anxious not to get it too violent and also never to have her hit anybody. That was way too easy. For me, it was just fun and clever and interesting to have her pull a rug out from under somebody, literally. I thought it just seemed to miss that level of humor. Another thing too is, usually, you wait until about the third season, when you need a shot in the arm, when you introduce what I call the 'evil twin.' To have the 'evil twin' appear in the pilot episode, I thought, 'Uh oh. I don't think these people know what they want to do here.' I heard David Eick recently say that, that they never figured out what the show was about. It's too bad. I'm going through something with that now with V. I have a new novel out which is V: The Second Generation, which picks up my original story 20 years later and also I own the motion picture rights to V and we're in the process of trying to find the best place to set up that movie. People are always like, 'I wanna re-imagine it,' and I say, 'Whoa.' Let's be very careful about the 'R-word' re-imagining. The Bionic Woman was a re-imagined, we saw what happened with that. Hulk was re-imagined as a theatrical feature which was also a fiasco. (I don't want) to make a movie called V and have the audience come and expect, V and discover that it's W or something. There's a reason that the show was so successful to begin with and in the novel I carried that same vein and that same tradition, with a lot of the same characters and I'm very wary about letting someone else get their hands on it and re-imagine it and turn it into something that is not what it ought to be.
At what stage are you at with that right now? They have it listed on IMDB that you're writing, directing and producing.
Kenny Johnson: (Laughs) Well the situation is I wrote the Second Generation originally to be a four-hour mini-series that was going to be a sequel to the original |V. Management had changed at NBC and it wasn't quite like when I did the original with Brandon Tartikoff 20 years ago. We were good friends and I sat with him for an hour and a half and told him the whole story. He never read it, he just heard me tell the story in the office and he said, 'This is great. Go write the script.' I said, 'Do you have any notes?' He said, 'What notes? Go write the script.' I came back 19 days later with a 230-page screenplay that Brandon read over the weekend and on Monday he said, 'Here's a check. Come back when you're done.' That's what we did. With the Second Generation, I was kind of hoping to have the same kind of ride (Laughs). It didn't quite work out that way and NBC dragged their feet and they lost a lot of money, they bought a couple of other mini-series including Hercules, that's fresh, which tanked, of course. It got terrible reviews, terrible ratings and then all of the sudden, by the time we wanted to go forward, they decided they didn't want to make TV movies or mini-series anymore. I already had written the novel because when I was writing the script I realized there was just too much good stuff to try to do it all in a screenplay and I wanted to get into it deeper, so that's where the novel came from. The plan right now is to do a theatrical motion picture remake of my original four-hour mini-series. All of the major studios have been after me, they all want to buy it but they all want to turn it into something I'm very nervous about, an over-bloated, tentpole movie, and having them lose sight of what it's about. |V was never about big spaceships and reptilian races and things like that. It was about power. Like Alien Nation was about intolerance, |V was about power, people who were in power, people who sucked up to it and people who fought against it. It's kind of a timeless story and I want to hold onto that. We don't need another Independence Day, thank you very much.
No, not really.
Kenny Johnson: It's funny. I was at an awards ceremony once and Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich came up to me and said, 'Kenny, hi. We've always wanted to meet you. We've been ripping you off for years.'
Kenny Johnson: The advertising poster looked exactly like the |V advertising posters. Dean and Roland and I had a good laugh and I asked where my cut of the $400 million was. The check still hasn't shown up for some reason.
When you look back on everything you've done, how high does Alien Nation stack up to everything else?
Kenny Johnson: People ask me a lot, because I've been very lucky. If you can create one thing in your lifetime that becomes sort of iconic in the culture, that's a real achievement. One thing I should tell you too, Brian, is that working in science-fiction, one of the things that's unusual about my work is that I attract as many females as I do males. In the case of Alien Nation, The Incredible Hulk and |V, the largest segment of the audience was adult females and I think that's because I've always been more concerned about character and relationships and the emotional life of the characters, rather than the bells and whistles. The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk and Alien Nation were all, one way or another, adaptations of something that's already existing. |V, of course, came entirely out of my own little pea-brain, and because of that, I'm probably most proud of |V. I've gotta say that the show that I absolutely loved the most and had the most fun doing was Alien Nation. I'm very proud of that too, but, by far, it was the most fun of anything I've ever done, and I think it shows on the screen. The joy we all had behind the cameras and the actors in front of the cameras comes across in the spirit of the show and what we were doing. The critics loved it, the audiences loved it. I get emails by the score every day about all of my stuff, but particularly about Alien Nation. It's so rewarding.
Well, that's about all I have for you, Kenny. Thank you so much for your time and I hope this new set really takes off.
Kenny Johnson: Oh, thanks a lot, Brian. I really really appreciate it. Thanks so much for your interest and I hope to talk to you again sometime.
Alien Nation Ultimate Movie Collection hits the shelves on April 15.