Monday, January 21, 2013

Trek Interviews: Ron Wilkerson (Part 1)

Hello everyone! Here in our second interview with Trek franchise creators, we have Ron Wilkerson, a screenwriter for both The Next Generation and Voyager. Ron has full writing credits on TNG "Lessons" and Voyager's "Learning Curve," and story credits on episodes such as "Lower Decks" and "Schisms."  Our questions are in bold-face, while Ron's answers are in regular type.

TNG writers get one free time travel trip to the 24th century. Lucky ducks.

Q: How did you become involved in Star Trek?

I've been a scifi fan since I was a kid, devouring the works of writers like Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut and Rod Serling by flashlight, under the bedcovers, in our home where I grew up in Western New York.  The stories that particularly appealed to me were those that used science fiction to deal with the human condition.  A unique attribute of the scifi genre is speculating about future scientific developments in order to ask the big questions about philosophy and values.  This, obviously, was Gene Roddenberry's imperative with Star Trek, that all stories must be "about something," which led me to a real appreciation of TOS, which I saw mostly through reruns long after it had gone off the air.

I had been interested in creative writing as a career, but felt for quite a while that I needed to live a bit more in order to experience life and develop story ideas that were original, and not just regurgitate the work of others.  I was also heavily involved in music, which is the other great creative love of my life.  By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation came on the air, I had been transferred to the West Coast, and was subsequently running an advertising agency, working mostly in the music industry, where I developed my writing chops on a daily basis, writing everything from ad and catalog copy to press releases to radio and industrial scripts.

I was an immediate fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation when it debuted.  I loved the new ship, the cast, and the much-improved visual effects.  However, I was not so knocked out by many of the scripts in the first two seasons, and, in my hubris, thought I could do better (or at least as well) as what was being produced.  At that time, scripts were not available on the Internet, so I paid a script service for "Lonely Among Us," one of the episodes from the first season, mainly to learn the proper page format for a television script.  I was also taking screenwriting classes at UCLA Extension, which is a great place in which to learn screenwriting, in that they only employ (as instructors in their program) writers who have actual produced credits.  Writing for TNG was my only goal, and I had some great teachers at UCLA who taught me the basics of writing a story for television.  Pitching the story, was something I had to learn on my own.

My girlfriend at the time, Jean Matthias, was also a fan of Star Trek, and together we decided to write a spec teleplay for a TNG episode based on a story idea I had for the show.  A spec (for speculative) teleplay or screenplay is the new writer's "calling card," a writing example that shows what you can do in the medium.  Making a very long story short, we eventually found an agent who sent our spec script to the producers at TNG, who promptly rejected it.  We wrote a subsequent TNG spec script, which was also rejected.  Realizing that I needed a bit more development as a creative writer before sending them another script (I was unaware of the "three-strikes and you're out" policy for TNG submissions), I focused my next three writing projects on original screenplays for motion pictures.  By the time I had written my fifth script, I felt I was a better writer, and I had a new agent who heard that there was a new writing staff at TNG, different from the ones who had rejected the earlier work.  He suggested that I polish up one of our old scripts, re-title it, and submit it to the show.  They didn't buy that script (spec scripts are rarely ever produced), but it did get us through the door to a pitch meeting with Jeri Taylor, who was, at the time, Supervising Producer under Michael Piller and Rick Berman.

Q: What is the difference between a Story and Writer credit? How much control does either role afford you over the final product?

A: There are two levels of writing for television and film.  Story is the essential idea that answers the basic question --what is it about?   This is the first level that a writer achieves when an idea is sold to a television show or production company.  On TNG, Story was finalized on a document called a Story Outline, which was a five-page (no more) double-spaced document that told the basics of the episode: who is in it, what it's about, where does it begin, where does it go, where does it end?  If you write this, and no more, you get Story By credit.

Teleplay By (or Screenplay By in film) is the actual script from which the project is produced.  The Teleplay is based on the Story Outline, but also based on the Beat Sheet (or Step Outline), which is the next development, in which the Story Outline is broken down into a number of specific scenes.  In television, the Beat Sheet is also broken into a number of Acts, depending on the deal that the show has with the network.  The Teleplay is based on the Beat Sheet, and it is the final realization of the story as it goes into production.  As a further development, the Teleplay also includes dialogue and stage directions for the actors.

If a writer writes both Story and Teleplay, he is credited with Written By, which is the situation most writers prefer, for reasons of pay, as well as for creative control.  When writers first start writing for television, their stories are bought by the show (they get Story By credit), and the actual Teleplay is written by staff writers.  As the Show Runners have more confidence in a writer, they are allowed to do the Teleplay.  The more writing a writer does on a project, and the closer his writing is to the production, the more creative control they have over the overall direction of the project.  That being said, in television, every script (Story and Teleplay) ultimately passes through the computer of the Executive Producer (also known as the Show Runner) before it goes into production.  The EP is the one who does the final polish on the script and makes sure that it conforms to the rest of the episodes in the series.

Q: Do you have any story ideas that went unproduced? If so, can you tell us about them?

A: Scores of my stories went unproduced, if not hundreds.  If you want to be a writer in Hollywood, you have to be absolutely tenacious, and develop what I call "rhinoceros hide," which is a form of personal deflector shield that allows you to handle rejection without it affecting your self-confidence.  Jean and I made many trips to the Star Trek offices on the Paramount lot where we came up empty, both as a writing team, and individually as we decided to go our own ways in our writing.  For every idea I sold, I probably pitched a dozen or more.  But I keep all files of all these ideas, and sometimes, if one was a good story idea, I'd re-work it for another show.  I've sold stores to TV shows that had first been rejected by other shows.  Sometimes it takes a while for a good idea to get produced.

We actually sold two stories to TNG in the seventh season that ultimately didn't get produced.   This is not unusual, in that shows will sometimes buy more stories than they need, in case a story they begin to develop doesn't turn out as well as they'd hoped.  Though it's an additional expense (and comes out of the production budget), it's always good to have a spare.

One story was about a former girlfriend of Geordi's.  She arrives on the Enterprise one day along with her teenage son, who she claims was fathered by Geordi.  He had had a romantic relationship with the woman years earlier, but broke it off for reasons of incompatibility.  We eventually find out that the "son" is actually Geordi's clone, created by the woman through nefarious means from his DNA after they had broken up.  Geordi at first is horrified to realize that he has been cloned, but softens somewhat when he also finds that the boy is going blind, much in the same way in which he did at that age.  Geordi takes on the role of mentor, helping the boy to come to terms with his blindness, which, of course is not easy because, despite sharing the same DNA, their life experiences have made them into two very different people.  I did a lot of research on people adapting to blindness and spent time learning from teachers at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles.  This was personally enriching as a life experience for which I was grateful.  Jeri and Michael both liked this story a lot, but ultimately decided not to produce it, because they were simultaneously developing another story "Bloodlines" to which had been added a "son" Picard never knew he had.  They felt that two "sons" coming out of the blue in the same season was too much of a coincidence.  We had to agree, even though ours would have made a good episode for Geordi.

Another story that was bought from us by the TNG producers, but not produced as an episode, was a story we developed about Captain Picard's old friends from Starfleet Academy, Corey and Marta, who were introduced in the episode "Tapestry."  Our concept was about what happened to these two characters, friends to whom Picard owed a debt for becoming the person he had become.  Marta had gone on to a stellar career in Starfleet, but Corey had been less successful in his career as a Federation scientist.  Encouraged by Marta, Corey now trades on his old friendship with Picard, to get him to conduct an experiment on the Enterprise that might restore his reputation in the scientific community.  Picard is conflicted between the desire to help his old friend, and his role as Captain of the ship, which might be put in jeopardy by the risky experiment.  Both of these stories got as far as the Story Outline stage but ultimately didn't go into production in the final season.

Q: How challenging was it to switch from one series to another (i.e. TNG to VOY)? Your TNG credits are all late in the run, while Voyager credits span the series. What challenges does each scenario present?

A: As I said earlier, we sent spec teleplays to TNG in its second year, then, after rejections by the (then) producers, took our efforts elsewhere to develop our writing skills.  We came back later in TNG's run, after Michael Piller had taken over, and we had episodes produced in the 5th, 6th and 7th seasons.  We also pitched a couple of times to DS9, but we didn't feel as much of a connection to the show, since our main cheerleader on Trek was Jeri Taylor, and she wasn't involved in DS9.  Since Jeri was one of the creators of Voyager, it wasn't as much of a stretch for us to pitch that show in the beginning of its run.  Also, I think that if the show had gone as originally conceived it might have been a little bit different for us.  As I remember it, since Voyager was set in the Delta quadrant, far away from the home comforts of Starfleet and the Federation, the show was supposed to be a bit darker in tone than TNG or DS9.  But after it was cast, and the first episodes produced, I don't think Star Trek: Voyager turned out to be fundamentally different in tone from either of the two previous shows.

So, in pitching stories to Voyager, we basically had to adapt our story ideas only to a different cast of characters (who each had different back-stories and needs from their TNG counterparts) as well as different environment.  But Michael Piller was emphatic in carrying forth Gene Roddenberry's ideal that stories had to be about some aspect of the human condition, so we felt that, despite a different cast, ship, and quadrant, we were on fairly comfortable ground.

I would say that the differences on Voyager occurred midway through its run, when Jeri and Michael left the show, and Brannon Braga took over as Co-EP with Rick Berman.  Brannon had different likes and dislikes from Jeri and Michael, and I didn't feel as comfortable pitching there as I had in the past.  I had only one episode produced during Voyager's later run, and frankly, it didn't turn out at all as I had hoped.  So I turned my attention to other scifi shows and eventually found a home on Stargate SG-1.

Q: What is it like collaborating with someone on a story pitch or on a teleplay? It seems like it could be difficult, if not to work, than to determine who did what.

A: Collaboration is inherent to writing for TV and film, so whether you have writing partners or not, you're going to be collaborating with others: producers, directors, actors, etc., credited or uncredited.  So a new writer has to make peace with that issue as soon as possible, otherwise, they're not going to get very far as a writer in Hollywood.  I will say that, most of the time, this collaboration results in a better story, particularly on TV where your collaborators, for the most part, are writers themselves.  As to sharing credit with another writer, it's best to have an understanding upfront before you begin work.  Make a verbal agreement to share story credit, or teleplay credit or whatever, and agree to a division of responsibilities.  Then, just go with it.  If it works, great.  If not, establish a different relationship for the next project.  Writers should always be thinking of the next project, not just the one they're working on.

Q: Does it change your relationship as a fan to a show to have written for it? Do you care as much about it going forward?

A: Actually, the writers on a TV show are its biggest fans, and when you write for a show, you join that fraternity.  So, if you were a fan of the show prior to writing for it, (and I don't see how it would be possible to be otherwise), you become a bigger fan once you've actually had your work produced for the show.  This only changes if you leave the show.  When that happens, you tend to become a bit less of a fan -- for all the obvious reasons.

Q: What are your favorite characters in the two series you wrote for? Are your favorites different insofar as writing vs. viewing?

A: It may seem odd, but I don't really have favorites.  Since both TNG and Voyager were well-written shows, the characters were all generally well developed before we started writing for them.  So, as a writer, you're not thinking about "this is a character I like so I want to write something for him or her."  Rather you're thinking "this is an interesting idea that can take a character into a different place than they've been before."  It's the idea that leads you to a character, rather than the character that leads you to the idea.

The biggest challenge in writing for the Star Trek series characters that came after TOS was something I've not really heard discussed much, and that was Gene's insistence that the mankind had evolved so much since TOS that inter-personal conflicts were a thing of the past.  Therefore, all the characters on TNG and the subsequent series, at least those in Starfleet, had to get along.  We even had a Ship's Counselor to make sure that they did.  You would never hear a character on TNG refer to another bridge character as a "green-blooded half-breed" or something that was more a part of TOS.  The hard part of this, is that it eliminated nearly all conflict between the main characters, and that made writing dramatic situations more difficult.  The TNG bridge characters might disagree from time to time, but it never got personal.   It couldn't.  Gene wouldn't allow it.  The only character that was allowed conflict was Worf, because of his Klingon background.  And even he had to keep that in check most of the time.

Q: What do you think of the new movie(s)? 

A: I have very mixed feelings.  First off, I'm happy to see that Star Trek is still alive, but I've always felt that it has functioned better as a TV series than as a movie series.  While some of the films have been good, others haven't lived up to the series standard.  From a business standpoint, a theatrical motion picture has to do different things than a TV series, and Gene Roddenberry's vision for Star Trek (that the stories must be about some aspect of the human condition) doesn't translate as well to the movie screen where things, by nature of drawing a paying audience, have to be bigger in terms of cinematic scope and special effects.
As to the new movies, the idea of Kirk, Spock and others from TOS being iconic characters who could be portrayed by other actors is interesting, and I liked most of the cast of the new movies, especially Karl Urban as McCoy.  But I felt that others, particularly Simon Pegg's Scotty, was too much comic relief, and didn't enhance the character created so indelibly by James Doohan.

I also question the basic concept of a re-boot for Star Trek.  I fear that after a few films from the current producers,  that they'll get tired and move on, and then the franchise could fall into the Superman/Batman/Spiderman syndrome of re-booting every few years with a new writer/director who brings a "fresh" creative vision.  That would be awful.  I also think that Gene's vision for Star Trek, in telling stories about humanity, is something that works better on a weekly basis.  There are lots of great stories to tell, and philosophical issues to tackle.  Why wait two or three years between episodes?  It's a waste of the Star Trek concept.  And frankly, classic Star Trek type stories don't work as well on the big screen.  They're best told in an hour format with a limited budget where we can focus on the characters' ethical and moral challenges and not the bombast of action sequences and VFX.  How many times did we see Jim Kirk hang from a precipice by his fingertips in the latest movie?  So I'd prefer it if the series could go back to TV.  But that's not likely to happen while the movies are making money for Paramount.

And finally, I'm not nuts about the whole "alternate timeline" they established with the new Star Trek movie.  The alternate universe concept was fun as a one-off back in the days of "Mirror Mirror," and I remember that DS9 also played with this idea with a bit of success.  But, honestly, I find the alternate timeline scenario to be a convenient (and that's not a compliment) plot device that allows the writers to dispense with Star Trek canon and go wherever they please.  This doesn't respect Gene's legacy.  And also, while I find the multi-verse concept  plausible from a scientific standpoint, I find the odds of stepping into another universe in which we have another timeline with another exact Kirk, Spock, McCoy, etc. to be a bit incredible (and that's not a compliment, either).  In my view of the multi-verse, in an alternate reality, Kirk, Spock and McCoy would more likely be protozoa, if they were on a starship at all.

Q: Where would you go with Star Trek from here, if you were given control of the franchise?

A: Though I liked a lot of what they did on Enterprise, I thought, at the time, that it was problematic to go back into the past, prior to TOS, for the stories.  Their plan was to see the development of warp drive, transporters, phasers and other technology that had become Federation standards by the time of James Kirk.  That was a cool concept for hard core fans, but I think it had limited mass audience appeal.  And, setting the stories in TOS past also  became a kind of storytelling straitjacket in that the writers constantly ran up against rules that had been well established in TOS.  I know, and appreciate the fact that they really respected that canon, but it imposed many limitations on the stories they could tell on Enterprise.

So, if I ruled the franchise, which has about a snowball's chance in Malibu, I would consider using the same technique Gene used with The Next Generation.  That is, we would jump ahead 70 - 100 years into the future of TNG/DS9/Voyager and see what kind of stories lay ahead for humanity and the other alien cultures we know and love.  Perhaps the Federation is going through some problems as its ideals are being challenged after hundreds of years of expansion.  Maybe some new republics are joining the Federation while others are breaking away.  Old alliances are being strained and new ones are being tested, much as the changes our nation is going through at the moment.  Star Trek was always about dealing with present day philosophical and ethical issues through a 24th century filter.  That concept still works in the 25th or 26th centuries.

It might also be fun to see the story from two different points of view: one from the seat of power at the Federation High Council and Starfleet Command, and another point of view from the lead ship in Starfleet, the Enterprise, of course, headed by a new captain and crew.  It could follow a similar paradigm to HBO's Rome, in which we alternate between the seat of power (the Emperor and Senate in Rome) and the expansionist Starfleet (Caesar, Brutus or Antony's military).  It could still be about boldly going, and seeking new life and civilizations, but also could be about holding together or reforming the civilization that has been established by the Federation, which may be under threat from a powerful new adversary.

Q: What can you tell us about the show you have in development? How likely a prospect is it?

A: It's an historical fiction, the story of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as seen through the eyes of a distant relative, W.R. (Billy) Wilkerson II, the founder and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter.  Billy Wilkerson founded The Reporter in 1930 as the movie industry's first trade paper, and he became one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood due to the influence his daily editorials had over the studios.  He also changed the culture on the West Coast by creating the Sunset Strip with his glamorous nightclubs, Cafe Trocadero and Ciro's as well as the Las Vegas Strip by founding the Flamingo Hotel in partnership with, among others, Bugsy Siegel.  He's a fascinating character whose story has never been told on the screen.  It's also the story of the powerful movie moguls like Louis B. Mayer, the influence of the movies and media on our culture, of the rise of unions and the mob in Hollywood.  Since it begins in 1930, during the Great Depression, it also tells the story of the haves and have-nots, which can find interesting parallels with society today.  My writing partners on the project are Billy's son Willie, (W.R. Wilkerson III) as well as our show-runner, Rob Cooper, a good friend with whom I worked on Stargate SG-1.  We're working with Johnny Depp's production company, Infinitum-Nihil and GK-tv which was the first place we went with the project.  Johnny Depp is a huge fan of the 1930s, the era in which our series begins.  We sold the pilot episode to Lifetime Network last year, and, at the moment we're waiting for a green light to produce the pilot, and hopefully to go to series.  The show is called Dreamland, and though it's not scifi, it would definitely deal with ethical and moral issues in the same way that was done on Star Trek and other great TV shows.

Q: Did writing for screen impact your writing for a novel format? Does a freedom to create characters and scenarios help or hinder the process, or is it simply different?

A: Thank you for allowing me to introduce my new novel, Houdini & Lovecraft The Ghost Writer, to your readers.  I've been fascinated by the development of tablets like the iPad, Kindle and Nook, and saw this as a paradigm shift in publishing, filmmaking, and, to some degree, storytelling.  I developed a great relationship with my Kindle in the last year, and I wanted to test the waters by taking a story directly to the audience without interference of a studio or a publisher in between.  So I looked around for a project I could use to help facilitate my transition to this new medium.  I had written a screenplay a few years ago, H.P. Lovecraft: Ghost Writer, that had made the rounds of the studios, gotten close to a deal, but, like many other projects, ultimately didn't happen.

So, this year, while I was waiting for the series pickup for Dreamland,  I took this feature script off the shelf, dusted it off, and rewrote the screenplay as a novel.  This gave me a lot of opportunity to flesh out the story, the relationship between my two main characters, the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and the master magician, Harry Houdini.

As to the transition between novel writing and screenwriting: storytelling is storytelling.  The biggest changes for me were in making the transition from telling the story in the present tense (which is what we do in screenwriting) to telling the story in the past tense which is the most common novel form.  I'm a big proponent of story structure, having taught screenwriting for a number of years at UCLA Extension.  Well structured stories work equally well in either medium as we see with the Game of Thrones series and others.  So, having felt that my screenplay was pretty well structured, I didn't change the basics of the story, so much as I fleshed it out in much greater detail.

The other challenge in going from screenwriting to novel writing is like going from writing in shorthand to writing in longhand.  Screenplays require minimal scene description and stage direction because so much is added later by directors, actors, costumers, art directors, cinematographers, etc.  Novels are the exact opposite.  I remember talking to Jeri Taylor about this when she was writing Mosaic, the first novelization of Star Trek: Voyager.  She said she'd be writing on the project all day, and look to see that where she would have written five pages of teleplay, she had only written one page of novelization.   Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather put it this way,  “Script writing, compared to novel writing, is much less labor intensive.  If I had discovered screenwriting first and been successful at it, I never would have written a novel.”

Q: How much research goes into an historical fiction scenario? Or is characterization paramount?

A: Before writing the original screenplay, I had done years of research on H.P. Lovecraft and Harry Houdini who have become two of my favorite characters, mainly because they are so different from each other, which forms great conflict.  Lovecraft came from a wealthy family, but, by 1924, had fallen on hard times, Houdini came from abject poverty, and had raised himself up to the absolute pinnacle of fame and fortune.  Lovecraft was a proper Yankee blue-blood, Houdini was a Hungarian immigrant who spoke with an accent.  I read several biographies of the men, in addition to all of their writings.

Q: Why Houdini and Lovecraft? Is there really a record of the meeting you mention?

A: They were, in fact, introduced to each other in the 1920s by the publisher of Weird Tales, and Lovecraft was hired by the magazine to ghost write a story Houdini had come up with called, Under the Pyramids.  They also had several subsequent contacts in which Houdini attempted to aid Lovecraft's career.  I was fascinated by the relationship between these two men, absolute icons of their era, and the fact that they actually collaborated on a short story.  Houdini was one of the first true multi-media artists in that his work encompassed stage, screen and print.

I also thought that there was a natural conflict between the two.  Lovecraft, a man of infinite imagination would become "the believer" in an other-worldly investigation.  Houdini, who always knew that there was a rational explanation for any supposed magic trick would be "the skeptic."  So in a way they were a 1920s version of Mulder and Scully of The X Files. I thought it would be fun to write an historical fiction about these characters, playing with a "what if?" scenario, and came up with the idea that there was, in fact, another collaboration between Houdini and Lovecraft, only this one became an adventure that was so horrifying and shocking that the true story couldn't be shared with the rest of the world... until now.

I set the story in 1924, an era of emerging technology, but also of spiritualism and magic.  In the story, Harry Houdini, well known as a psychic debunker, is hired by an obnoxiously wealthy young man, Caswell Bullock, to put together a team to investigate a purportedly haunted mansion Bullock owns in the hill country of western Massachusetts.  He wants to sell the mansion and needs Houdini to disprove the myths so he can get a better price.  Meanwhile, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft is down on his luck and struggling to pay the hospital bills for treatment of his wife, Sonia, who is seriously ill. Houdini drafts the reluctant Lovecraft to join his team for pay as his “Ghost Writer,” to chronicle the magician's adventures in the paranormal.  There is little love between the two vastly different men who come to have entirely opposing views of the happenings in the strange mansion.  But their investigation triggers events that cause the team to become trapped in the mansion, and its members soon find themselves under attack by deadly invisible forces.  Lovecraft's research ultimately uncovers the truth of the place, and it's no mere ghost story.  The central question of the story is: can Lovecraft, the believer, convince the skeptical Houdini of the real danger before they are all destroyed?

Anyway, I'm glad it's on Amazon's shelf now and not just on mine.  It's a great read on Kindle, but also available in paperback or computer download.  It's lot of spooky fun, and It's a nice mix of horror and scifi (which became Lovecraft's metier) along with some great supporting characters I've created.  Some readers have said that it has echoes of my TNG episode "Schisms," and I have to agree there are some parallels, although it is definitely its own story.   I hope your readers will give it a look.  If they liked any of my writing on Star Trek or Stargate, they'll definitely appreciate this story.  Here's the link.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview, in which we quiz Ron about some of the specific episodes he worked on!

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