Features | Written by Nick Joy 08/05/2011

Interview: Kenneth Johnson


Kenneth Johnson is the writer, producer and director of many shows, including the original V, The Incredible Hulk, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Alien Nation, and the director of movies like Steel and Short Circuit 2.


STARBURST: Has science fiction always been a first love for you?

JOHNSON: As a young person I was intrigued by a lot of science fact, and although I red a lot of other material as well, I certainly red my share of science fiction. When I was in the 8th grade I saved up my money and brought a tape recorder, and came across the radio play that Orson Welles had done of War of the Worlds, I found the script and got a bunch of my 8th grade friends together and we did our own radio play version of Wear of the Worlds, so one of my first attempt at doing anything in drama did involve science fiction oddly enough. 

How’d you get involved in The Six Million Dollar Man?

After graduating from the department of drama at Carnegie Mellon University, I went to New York where I very quickly became a producer and director in television, and I was doing pretty well but I really wanted to come to California to make movies. When I first got to Los Angles, my friend, Steve Bochco, who had been a classmate of mine at Carnegie, told me that I really needed to write if I was trying to get my foot in the door that was the best way. And I hated it but I said “Ok, I’ll try”. And I became a great writer of unproduced screenplays, but Steve gave one of them to friend of his called Harve Bennett, who was at Universal producing The 6 Million Dollar Man at the time, and they were in desperate need of scripts. And so I met with Harve and suggested that we do the Bride of Frankenstein, that we create a mate for his Six Million Dollar Man, and that’s how The Bionic Woman was born. The original 2 parter for The Bionic Woman was so successful, that even though they had made me kill her off, the network and the studio said “Hey, bring her back to life. We think this is too good to let go off” and indeed they were right. We even got a letter from the head of the psychology department at Boston University who said “How dare you kill such a brilliant female and role model for young women and toss her away so cruelly.” And I was delighted to be able to come back and do it again. By then I had joined The Six Million Dollar Man as a producer and writer, because Harve convinced me the producer got to hire the writer and the director, and I said “That sounds like a great idea, I’ll take that job”. The Bionic Woman episodes took The Six Million Dollar Man into the top 10 for the first time, and it also inspired ABC to buy a separate series, The Bionic Woman, which I produced, wrote and finally directed, but it was very challenging to try to write and produce two top 5 shows simultaneously, so eventually I let go of Six Million Dollar Man and stayed with my baby, The Bionic Woman.

How’d you get involved in The Incredible Hulk, were you already a fan?

Late in the second season of The Bionic Woman, Universal approached me and said they had acquired the rights to 5 of the Marvel Comic titles, and asked which one I wanted to do. When I said “Gee, none of them”. I wasn’t eager to become known as the sci-fi or super hero guy, I now tell my students at my film making seminar you have to be very careful what your first success is, because that’s what they will want you to do for the rest of your life. I had always envisioned having a more eclectic career, rather than just being stuck in the genre of science fiction, and I was not interested in doing something funny costumes, spandex or primary colours, but I was reading at the time Victor Hugo’s great novel Les Miserables, which my wife Susie had given me. And so I had the idea of the fugitive concept in my head, and Jean Valjean, the hero, fleeing from Inspector Javert, who was relentlessly pursuing him, and I realised there was a way to take a little bit of Victor Hugo, a little bit of Robert Louis Stevenson, and this ludicrous comic book I’d never heard of before called The Incredible Hulk, and turn it into a really gripping, human drama. So I told Universal I would do it if everyone would just leave me alone, if the casting would be my choice. Bill Bixby was the first and only actor I sent the script to, as I wanted a classy guy who would bring an adult following to project, that I absolutely intended to be an adult, psychological drama, and that’s what we did. I said in return for doing The Incredible Hulk, I wanted something different, and that was to be a 4 hour mini-series which I would write, produce and direct, based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe. I wrote The Incredible Hulk pilot in 6 days, we shot it and it became an immediate success. It was released in Europe as a theatrical feature, it was the top grossing motion picture in Europe for 2 months, and went on for almost 5 years as a TV series to great followings and winning Emmy Awards.

Was it hard to come up with continuing stories for The Hulk?

The premise that I had come up with for The Incredible Hulk series gave us basically 2 ways to go with each episode. The episode could either involve Bill Bixby trying to get to some place where he might be able to find a cure or an episode where he contacted a person who might be able to help him find a cure. That was the underlying premise of the picture, that he was endeavouring to try and bring his curse, his nightmare, to and end. I was very lucky to have a very strong staff of writers over the years, first and foremost Jim Parriott, and Nick Corea. Later on Karen Harris, and Jill Sherman, joined the show, first as story editors, then as executive story consultants and ultimately they became producers. And we would all brainstorm ideas together, as well with Andy Schneider, who became a story editor for me and later went on to produce Alien Nation for me and a lot of other shows and won many Emmys. It was challenging but always fun; and it was always fun to work with Bixby, and watch him take the words we had written and really turn them into full blow human drama. The Incredible Hulk became more than just a cult classic; it was a very, very broad based audience that we enjoyed. Our largest audience were always adult women, and then secondly men, and then teens and then kids. It was the ideal demographic. I think maybe at the beginning the kids tuned in to see big green guy crash through walls, but then the adults realized “Wait a minute, there’s something going on here”. These are real human stories, about a man who is struggling for self control, which is the essence of what the piece is about. And there was a very clear moment when I was actually making the pilot, when I really sensed we were going to have an enormous hit on our hands. We were filming at the California Institute of the Arts, and I heard that the white contact eye lenses had come in, and I wanted to see how they felt in Bill’s eyes, and so I asked him to go to the make-up trailer and put them in. And I was busy doing a set-up, and I heard a voice behind me saying “Kenny”, and I turned around and walking up the hall towards me, with a big grin on his face was Bill Bixby with these white eyes, glaring (laughing). And I said “This show is a hit”. There’s a photo that was taken of me and Bixby on the set that day, both grinning into camera, Bill with the white eyes, and that’s the very first day he’d put the white eyes in, and we knew we were onto something.

Did you enjoy the more recent productions of the Hulk by Ang Lee and Louis Leterrier?

Gail Ann Herd had been trying to get the feature version of The Hulk made for about 10 years, and had gone through a dozen writers. And I was at the premiere and I felt, unfortunately, it was one of the biggest messes I had ever seen. It was pretty bad. The New York Times review said that by the time Nick Nolte bites into a high voltage power cable at the end of the movie, the audience will have wished they had too. That’s sort of how I felt. And although I’m a big fan of Ang lee, the director, after the premiere someone came up to me and whispered in my ear “Mr Johnson, don’t make me Ang Lee. You wouldn’t like me when I’m Ang Lee”. A little riff on my line from the original. Although the movie opened very big it had the largest drop off in Hollywood history, I think it dropped off 75 percent the second weekend, and was totally a bomb, unfortunately. I was startled, as everyone was, when they decided to do a sequel. Although I thought Ed Norton might be able to bring his considerable talent to bear, and indeed when I saw that they were building sets to mirror exactly the shots that I had made in my pilot, it was a very lovely homage. I appreciated it. And when I saw the trailer, at first it looked like “Boy, they’ve really captured the emotion stuff that The Hulk was really all about”. And for about the first two thirds of the trailer it was great, until the big green CGI hand came out of the street, and then you have a disconnect. And the way I characterise it is, if you were watching a Shrek movie, you wouldn’t suddenly put a real human being in the middle of that. Your brain just goes “No, this isn’t right, it doesn’t work. That human being can’t be in this cartoon”. And likewise I think that’s why the big CGI stuff doesn’t work in the movies of The Hulk. When you’re doing Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, you can get away with characters like Gollum and creatures like that, but you’re in a fantasy world. You’re not on the streets of San Francisco or some other real city, and that’s why the movies just won’t work. The second one, unfortunately, had the same results as the first one did at the box office.     

Were you surprised by the big success of V when it came out?

One of the absolute highlights of my writing/producing/directing career was when I sat in a screening room with one of the editors and looked at the very first rough cut of V over at Warner Brothers. There were no special effects in it. There were no big space ships, no matte paintings, lasers, none of that stuff. We hadn’t had time to do any visual effects yet. It was just the actors performing the story. And the drama was so intense and so potent, and all of the performances across the board were just so spot on, that I was incredibly excited about the prospects of it. And I called Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC, and I said “I think your really going t be happy with this”. The only problem was I said it’s not 4 hours as I said it was. Its 4 hours and 15 minutes. And he said “Well, we’ll take a look and see what we can cut.” And I said “Brandon, you’re going to have to come and take a look, because I need some fresh eyes on this. I don’t see what we can cut that won’t hurt the picture”. And he came the next day and looked at it. Came out of the screening room, shaking his head, and I thought “Oh my gosh, what’s he going to say”. And he said “You know what, I gotta go to the affiliate stations and get 15 more minutes”. I said “Can you do that?” He said “Beats the shit out of me, but I’m gonna try”. And he did. Unprecedented in the history of network television. There was a brilliant guy at NBC, who was the head of advertising and publicity named Steve Sohmer, and I took Steve thee idea of putting up propaganda posters all over the country. Big billboards and posters that didn’t say anything about the show or the network. It just said “The Alien Visitors. Our Friends”. And they were crafted after the Nazi propaganda posters, such as Germans had put up across Europe in World War 2. A week after the posters went up, we sent out crew of kids with cans of spray paint, and they sprayed a big red V right over the poster, like the resistance did in Europe in World War 2. And then the last week right before the show aired, we just added a little banner on the corner on the billboard that said “The battle begins on NBC”, along with the date and the time. That was combined with a very carefully planned out, on air television campaign that Steve and I fabricated, which really whipped up enthusiasm and interest. And by the time the show went on the air, we were pretty sure it was going to do pretty well. Although I was pretty stunned to see that it brought in an audience of over 80 million viewers in North America, and then a year later when it was released in Europe and around the world, against the 1984 Olympics, we beat the Olympics 2 to 1 around the world. It was astonishing, and has always seemed to continue to capture the public’s imagination.            

Tell us a little about your thoughts on V: The Final Battle, V: The Series and the current, modern day version of V, and what’s going on with a possible V: The Movie?

I supervised the writing of the sequel that ultimately became known as The Final Battle. It was written by myself, Greg Buck, Peggy Goldman and Diane Frolov. It was a massive piece of work. It was in many ways better than the original 4 hours had been. After I left the show, all of my actor friends and crew friends, who continued to work on it, told me that I should never see what was being made, because it was very, very different than the script that we had written. And that it would not be very comfortable for me to try and watch it. Over the years I’ve only ever seen about 30 seconds of it. And in those 30 seconds I watched them make every wrong choice that they could possibly make, and I have realised that I never would have survived seeing what had become of the original, really wonderful script. I never saw any of the 1985 series that was then produced, and of the current television series that has most recently been on ABC, I only ever saw the original pilot, which was very loosely based on what I had created. None of my characters were there and none of my storylines. It was a very different take that they went with. I do however own and control the motion picture right to V, and when word got out about that around town, about a year and half ago, I suddenly had a lot of new best friends (laughs). We had a lot of meetings with all of the major studios, but their take on the way they wanted to do it was not exactly in the direction I wanted to go. They saw it more of a popcorn, big summer blockbuster kind of movie. And they were really missing the essence of what made V so special, that fact that it really was a human drama, the fact that it was not an invasion picture, but a picture about occupation, and the paranoia and suspense and stress that that brings to peoples lives, which was always the story I wanted to tell. So we’re currently in the process of trying to set V up as an independent picture with a budget of about $50 million, which is very expensive for an independent picture, but it’s what we need to do V correctly. We’re very close, I think, to getting the financing, so stay tuned.

Was Alien Nation heavily influenced by your work on V?

Alien Nation was not really influenced by V, I don’t think at all. I got a call one day from Fox, who said they had this movie that had not done very well, but they thought it might be the basis of a TV series called Alien Nation. I didn’t even want to look at the movie, frankly, because I was so tired of doing alien things and that sort of genre stuff. But I had a friendship with the president of Fox, looked at the film, and it was pretty much like Miami Vice with cone heads, I felt. It was just another drug movie with an alien thing, but there was one scene where we saw the alien cop’s family, a wife and two little alien kids, only one shot in the movie, but when I saw them the bell went off in my head, and I thought “I get it, I see what we can do”. So I went back to Fox and said “You think you’ve got Lethal Weapon with aliens, right?” And they said “Yeah, yeah”. And I said “No. what we’ve got here is In the Heat of the Night. Let me do a piece about intolerance, prejudice and discrimination, and what its like to be the lowest people on the totem pole. The world’s newest minority”. I said we can really make a cool show out of that, that will have wonderful drama, wonderful conflict, and also wonderful opportunities for innate humour, and that’s what we did.

How was the experience doing Short Circuit 2?

My friend, Jeff Sagansky, who had been a vice president at NBC when I did V, later went on to head CBS and also to head Tri Star Pictures, and he sent me the script for Short Circuit 2, and I said “Gee, Jeff, I don’t want my first movie to have a number after it”. But he really stayed after me, and I kept on saying no, and then he said “Why?” And I said “What you’ve got, the script you’re using right now, the leading character, this little robot, Johnny 5, as a prop. And getting a lot of laughs and a lot of funny side gags and stuff, but your missing the fact that what you’ve got here is The Elephant Man”. And Jeff said “What are you talking about?” And I said “He’s (Johnny 5) a stereotype, people look at him and they can’t see past the surface. It’s like they could see pas The Elephant Man’s exterior to see there was a human soul burning inside of him”. It’s like the people who look down on Quasimodo, because of his ugliness on the outside. They couldn’t see the humanity on the inside. And I said “Let me mind the script with the actors, and really work to bring out all those great humanistic aspects of it, and I won’t loose any of the humour or the side gags, but we’ll end up with a movie that will have people, not only laughing with us, but also emotionally involved and ultimately crying with our hero”. And that’s what we did. It was really a great experience. And a very strange thing happened after the picture was done, because Johnny 5 had been brought so much to life by the 3 puppeteers, Rob, Gordon and Trish that he was really a human being. He was really a character that was there among us all the time on the set for the 75 days that we filmed the picture. But when the movie was over, Johnny 5 was gone. I can still talk to Rob, Gordon or Trish and all the other people I worked with on the picture, but Johnny was a combination of all their talents, and because they weren’t all together in one place at the same time, it was as though Johnny had died. And it was very strange; I really went through a period of mourning after the movie because I loved him. And I was so pleased that so many people around the world came to love him too.               

What would you say is the greatest lesson you’ve learned in being a producer and director?

I think probably the greatest lesson I’ve learned as a writer/producer/director is there is a tremendous amount of responsibility that goes with it. Because when you’re making a picture, it has the opportunity to reach literally hundreds of millions of people, and so it’s very, very important to consider always what you’re putting before them to see. One of the things I tell my filmmaking students is always to think about all of those millions of people that are going to be seeing their work, and what it is you want to get across to them. And certainly there’s a lot of money to be made in exploitation pictures and violent pictures and all of that. But I always urge them to try and reach higher than that. To try and emulate the great humanistic film makers of the world like William Wiler, like Akira Kurosawa, my particular favourite. And I hope what they choose to put into their movies; I’d say I hope they’d choose wisely. I think that’s the most important thing a producer/writer/director can do, is really choose wisely what they bring to the audience at large.

Which, out of the all the various projects you’ve done, has given you the most pleasure?

Of all the projects I’ve done, the one I had the most fun doing, clearly, was Alien Nation. We just never stopped laughing. If you get the movie DVD set and look at the family gathering, where I invited the whole cast to sit in my living room and just reminisce about our times doing Alien Nation, you get a sense of what it was like for us to work on the pilot, the series and the 5 movies afterwards, we literally never stopped laughing, and had such a joyous time. And at the same time, we knew we were doing a project that was about something. It was about discrimination. It was about intolerance. It was about not looking down on someone just because they were different. So it was a great joy.

The piece I am the proudest of overall has to be V. Because that, of all of my work, came the most clearly, simply from my own little pea brain (laughs). And I think there’s a timeless quality about V, which is why doing V: The Movie now makes sense. Because it’s not a story that goes away. It’s a story that has its foundations all the way back in Spartacus, and the revolt of the slaves. It’s about an oppressed people living under a totalitarian regime, and how that power affects people. How some people will suck up to that power, like the Vichy French did during WW2. And other people will try and keep their heads down and think “I won’t bother them, they won’t bother me”. And ultimately it becomes about the heroes who say “No. This power is being abused and we have to fight back against it”. And that’s what the essence of V was. That’s what V: The Movie will be. I do not intend to re-imagine V in doing the movie. I’m not going to try and reinvent the wheel. It’s very important to me that I’m conscious of what made V so successful to begin with and that was the timeless nature of the basic story, and the essential, iconic characters that I created. But there’s another really important reason I wanted to make the film. For all the enormous popularity that my original mini-series of V had, and the enormous critical acclaim it got all over the world, the one person who was disappointed with it was me. Because it wasn’t able at that time in the 1980’s to make V look the way I wanted it to look. The way that I saw it in my head, because I didn’t have the time, I didn’t have the budget, and importantly I didn’t have the tools in those years to be able to achieve the kind of visual impact I truly wanted it to have. Now of course, I can, and that’s what makes the prospect of doing V: The Movie so practically exciting. And when we get the movie made, and if it proves to be as successful as we think it will be, and then we will follow up with V: The Second Generation as a sequel movie or perhaps more than one movie. It’s something we’re all very excited about.                

For more information on Kenny and his career in film and television, please visit his personal website at: http://www.kennethjohnson.us/