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David Gerrold Interview - Part 2

Posted: 7/28/2004
By David Lambert

In the 2nd part of our 3-part interview, David talks about his clash with the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, his influences from Harlan Ellison & Theodore Sturgeon, and the adoption of his son Sean.


Let's change gears, if you don't mind. I want to come back around to a couple of things that we talked about already. One is this: earlier in the interview, as you talked about how you got pulled in to The Land of the Lost, you were working with NBC I think it was on Tarzan.

David GerroldYeah, Filmation actually.

Filmation, I'm sorry. But I don't recall from that era...

I don't know if it ever got produced. I would have loved to have worked on the Tarzan theme. I actually sat down and read the first Tarzan book, looking for some good ways to adapt it. I was going to be honest to the original Tarzan, not what everybody turned it into, but what was originally there. Y'know, go back to 1910 – I think that's when it was published – and Tarzan has a bit of a racist attitude, it needed a little work. But if you go to the pure simplicity of the tale, there was some really good storytelling. So I took that, and I rearranged two scenes, to make the motivation work, and wrote what I felt was a very strong script for that.

And Filmation sent it over to the Burroughs estate, which was in Tarzana, which was almost walking distance from the studio. And Lou Scheimer said, "You've got a meeting over at the Burroughs estate, and you're going to meet with the son of Edgar Rice Burroughs." And I said, "Oh, what an honor!" And I go in, and I sit down, and he starts bawling me out! "Who the hell are you to rewrite the greatest writer in the English language?" And I said, "Excuse me, Charles Dickens?" Well, that's what I was thinking, but I wasn't going to say that out loud. But he's bawling me out, so I said, "Excuse me, I'm a trained expert in television scripting. I went in there to be truthful to the original book, and stay true to the incidents in it, and I worked very hard to do a better job on this than anybody's ever done, to bring more respect to the original material than anybody's ever done, and all I did was re-arrange the order of two scenes, so that they would be a little bit more dramatically exciting towards the motivation."

I don't even remember what the details were; I think it was when Tarzan's mother Kala gets killed. But that was what I did, and that was why I did it. Because I'm an expert on television, and I know how things are going to play. And he kept on bawling me out. And I felt that the whole thing was very rude, and you don't treat somebody like that. Apparently he thought that I worked for him, and I didn't. I worked for Lou Scheimer at Filmation, and if Lou had said, "We want you to make Tarzan a ballet dancer in New York," I would have said either, "I can do that" or "Better find somebody else who knows more about ballet." You know, if I'm accepting Lou Scheimer's paycheck, then I'm gonna do what Lou Scheimer asks. And I felt that there was a certain hypocrisy in the guy, though I certainly recognized his right to protect his property, his inheritance. But considering all the other lousy Tarzan movies that had been made, over the years.

Tarzan the Ape Man?

Yeah, that one with Bo Derek. Considering all the other ones that had been made, how dare he ball ME out, for trying to stay true to the book?

Actually, the Bo Derek one didn't come along until the '80s, though.

Yeah, and that is even more to my point. It's like, well, see, apparently he thinks that Filmation, because they're not paying him a lot of money, that he has the right to be rude to me. So I was very, very unhappy with my treatment over there, and I went back to Lou Scheimer and I told him how unhappy I was. He said, "Don't worry about it." And I said, "Well, I do worry about it, because I want to make the Burroughs family happy." And he said "Don't worry about it, you'll never have to meet with him again." And I said, "That's right." That was one of the considerations of why I went off to The Land of the Lost. You know, as much as I love animation, in those days – even today, to some extent – animation is very limited. In those days animation was practically Clutch Cargo. You know what I'm talking about? Clutch Cargo was an early cartoon where the only things that moved were the lips. And I really wanted to work in live action again. So with the opportunity to do Land of the Lost, which was still Saturday morning, but it was live action, and I felt I could do a different level of storytelling. And I really didn't want to be under the thumb of the Burroughs family.

So you moved on. While I've been listening to you, I've looked up Tarzan: The Lord of the Jungle, which Filmation produced/debuted in 1976.

Yeah, that was the show. So it took that long. They probably brought in somebody else to do it. Lou was a little bit pissed at me. I was not under contract, but he was pissed at me that I went off to work for the Kroffts. Well, you know, Lou...you can blame the Burroughs family.

I wonder if they (the Burroughs family) were any happier with the version that did end up airing?

I honestly couldn't care less. When you treat everybody rudely, you're stuck with whoever's willing to put up with your rudeness. By me, the real success of a show is "How much Kleenex do I need?". Does it make me laugh? Does it make me cry? Does it make me angry? Does it have an emotional impact? Are you getting your emotional roller coaster ride? And if you're not, then they took your "money" under false pretenses; they wasted your time.

Understood.

I'll tell you, and this is a hard-won philosophy on my part, and I've said it in several speeches now: I don't write this for you. I write this for me. I let you pay for the privilege of looking over my shoulder. And Land of the Lost, my first goal; Star Trek, my first goal; anything I've written, my first goal is to make ME happy. So that when I've finished writing it, I feel that I've written a story that I would like to read, or that I would like to see on television. So that's my feeling about all of this: that I'm the toughest critic I know, and that it's my job to make me happy. And I'm a tough guy to please. So if I make me happy, then I know I got the job done.

From what I know about you, I think I know where you got that attitude, and that philosophy, and I'm going to come back around to that. I started to ask before, that you had mentioned Harlan Ellison, and I was going ask for more information about your relationship with him. I believe he mentored you in some fashion?

Harlan was always something of a role model, but not just for me. For a whole generation of young writers, because he was so dynamic, and he was always challenging everybody to be the very best they could. He was always complaining that science fiction was staying stuck in the ghetto. That science fiction writers weren't playing big enough. And he was right. And Harlan was taking on these challenges. Yeah, he was rocking the boat, and pissing people off, and so on and so forth. You know what? He was right to do so. Because nobody ever wrote a great story by being complacent. And when Harlan would stand up and do the speeches of challenge at conventions, and he would talk about the complacency of editors, and when he would talk about that stuff, you would rush out of the room screaming, "A Typewriter! A Typewriter! My kingdom for a typewriter!" Simply because you wanted to rise to the challenge that he had laid out.

And so more than once Harlan would be fuel for the engine, a chance to regenerate the battery, the opportunity to find ourselves. Why we were writing. The whole reason for doing this. That wasn’t just because we were trying to put words on paper and get a paycheck. We're also the research and development division of the human species. And if we forget that, then we're just the guy on the corner with the begging bowl, saying "put some coins in my bowl and I'll entertain you for a few minutes". Well, that's fine if all you want is to be the guy with the begging bowl. But Harlan believed that we had a much more noble goal; that our job was to pull peoples' vision up higher than just "what's on TV tonight?" Our job is not to look to the horizon, but to look beyond it, to the stars. Even today, if you hear Harlan speak, what's up with this guy is that he goes back and forth between his enthusiasm for great storytelling, and his absolute annoyance at people playing small. "I want prime rib, and you people are settling for trash-burgers." And I used to get annoyed at that speech, because sometimes you just want to drive through McDonald's and get a Big Mac. But that's okay...if that's your choice. But I think his point is that so many people are settling for that level, because they don't know that they have a choice. And it's our job to present a choice.

I just had this conversation earlier today, with a guy who works on a nuclear submarine, a Naval officer. And we were both complaining about the falling standards of education. My high school was teaching courses, now college-level courses. Today, kids can get through college without ever having any of the classes that I had in high school. And get a degree! We've dumbed ourselves down. I find it annoying. We're not teaching people to think. This is why Harlan is inspiring. Most people see him as the angry ranter. But I don't. I see him as the guy who is dissatisfied with second-best. "We paid for a first-class ticket, we're entitled to first-class treatment." And he's right! We ARE entitled to a higher quality of service everywhere. Too many people are going through life, going through the motions, and not producing results.

So this has been your guiding philosophy as you've written ever since?

Ah, well, Harlan was one of my role models. Heinlein was another one. You see, I consider myself something of a synthesis: I'll steal from the very best. So stole a little from Harlan, and a little from Heinlein, and a lot from Bugs Bunny. Because after you've finished learning everything you can from them... Heinlein, by-the-way, who I admire enormously - there's no question, but I've been re-reading some of his work, and he always manages to stack the deck a little bit in favor of his heroes. Well, how heroic do you have to be? My attitude is to stack the deck against the hero, and let's see what happens.

After you've gone through Harlan and Heinlein, Bugs Bunny is the best place to end up. Because Bugs Bunny never took anything so seriously. Even if you get to the cartoon where he dies, "What's Opera Doc?", he doesn't even take his own death seriously. "What do you expect from an opera...a happy ending?" [Note: that's coming to DVD in November, on "The Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2 – D. Lambert]

But getting back to personal philosophy, Theodore Sturgeon was a third major influence. Again, he would show up at conventions and do this great guru act. He was the best guru of all. You would walk out of a Sturgeon speech feeling enlightened. And he was inspiring; he'd talk about asking the next question. And he would do the same speech over and over, but it was great, you loved it every time. He would do the "I Won't Have It!" speech. And these were great. And Ted and I were great buddies: we'd go out to dinner, we'd talk on the phone all the time, and I loved him dearly, even when he was at his most annoying. But there were days, and even his own daughter said to me one time, that you just wanted to sink your fingers into his throat for doing the damn guru act. Sometimes you didn't want him to be Mr. Magic, to be just Ted. But he discovered that he could be the guru, and so he was the guru all the time. But you know what? What I loved about Ted was the wisdom that he could put forward. So what I took from Ted, what I took from Harlan, what I took from Robert A. Heinlein was approaches to life.

Now one of the things that Ted did for me, as long as you're looking for seminal influences, is he dragged me off to the "est Training" in 1981. And I mean literally dragged; because I was not gonna go. And Ted said, "David, you and I have been friends for a long time, and if I said to you that this was something that I felt you should investigate, would you trust me enough to investigate this?" And I said, "Ted, if it were anybody else on the entire planet, I would not do it. But because it's you, I will take the chance and I will go along, and I will go to this seminar."

Okay; before you tell us about the seminar, a quick explanation. Please explain "est", for the benefit of our readers who won't know what this is.

"est Training" was created by this guy named Werner Erhard, and it was this 4-day seminar, two weekends in a row. Where you would have about 300 people in a room, and a trainer would run the whole course through a set of exercises that were designed to produce moments of enlightenment. And they still do variations of the course now; there's the Landmark Forum, and I think there are a couple of other courses like that. But the est Training was the first course of that nature. And it was very controversial; a lot of people feel it was discredited, or this or that. But most of the people who went through the course said they got their results, that it was a very significant and effective thing. My experience is that it was the best writing course I've ever taken.

And you used it as the basis of a large section of one of your War Against the Chtorr books...

I used it as the jumping-off point for a thing called "The Mode Training" in A Rage For Revenge, where I suggested that people have different operating modes. And that if you're in the right operating mode for a situation, you'll behave appropriate, but if you're in the wrong operating mode, then your behavior is inappropriate, and you're not going to produce results. And I've actually been asked by people who are doing seminar training if they can adapt parts of that. [Note: in "A Rage For Revenge", the Author's Introduction by Mr. Gerrold clearly states: "There is no such thing as The Mode Training. It is a fictitious course. It does not exist...It is not for sale. It is not for rent. It is not for lease. The course is not available under any circumstances. I have no intention of authorizing such a course. It is a fiction and I intend for it to remain so." – D. Lambert]

Okay, good. So, go back to your story about Ted Sturgeon.

So he dragged me off and said, "You want to do this course." So, based on Ted's recommendation, based solely on the fact that I trusted Ted enormously, and Ted knew what I was up to, what I wanted, because I wanted to be a better writer. And I was asking all the time, picking his brains, "Well, how do you do this? How do you do that? How do you do this thing?" And so he knew what I wanted, why I was the writer I was. He knew that if you gave me a piece of paper with an "X" drawn on it, and a shovel, I would dig a mineshaft. That's the way I was. So I went off, I did the est Training. To me it was a great writing course: it was about getting the bullshit out of your language. That was how I experienced it. And when you got the bullshit out of your language, you were more precise, more accurate in your communications with other people.

And the story I like to tell is that, after I finished the training, I went through a manuscript that I'd been fighting with, and went through with a black marking pen, crossing off everything that was bullshit. And reduced a 300-page manuscript down to 60 pages of absolute brilliance. Because when you take out all the explanations, excuses, reasons, rationalizations, justifications, and all the bullshit that we do instead of just saying what's so, what's left is what's so. Which is all we're really interested in. And so, I felt that was a seminal influence on my writing. And you can see there's a marked difference in my writing after that. So almost everything that was published after, let's say, 1982 or '83, will start to show that. In particular, if you look at A Matter For Men [Note: First book in the "War Against the Chtorr" series – D. Lambert], which was published in 1984, I would say that is a major one. Although the first half of that was written in the 70's, the last half of it was written after the training.

And was the part that you had written before hand...?

Did I have to re-write it? No. Chapter 4 of that book – I think it's chapter 4 – is where Whitlaw does the whole long dissertation on personal responsibility, "freedom is responsibility", and it's practically out of the first four hours of the training. It's in there. I'm re-reading my manuscript, asking, "Is there anything I need to fix here?," and I start laughing out loud. "I knew all this. I already knew all of this!"

(Laughing) So you had to go take a training course to...

(Laughing) Yeah, it had to take someone else to remind me that I already knew all of this.

Isn't that life, though?

In fact, they say that in the training. "We're not going to tell you anything that you don't already know. You're going to sit here saying, 'Yeah, I already knew that, I already knew that'." But there's a difference between knowing it and experiencing it...a difference between knowing it and living it. Most of us think we know stuff. We pretend we do, but we don't live it. I listen to people on-line talk about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, but what they want to do is censor others. They can do the speech, but they don't understand how to live it.

A very wise philosophy, and I've seen a lot of it myself. And I'm quite possibly one of the people you're speaking of, without even realizing it. Sometimes I often wonder if I'm living up to some of the advice that I give on-line. "Do as I say, not as I do!"

Yeah, one of the courses I did just before I adopted my little boy...you know, I needed to be in a place where I understood why I was adopting; taking this big step. I'm not doing this for me. Well, yeah, I was doing it for me, but that I also wanted to be a good dad for my kid. Because it's not about how happy he's gonna make me: I have to be a good dad for this little boy. And so I went off to this thing called the Advanced Course, which I can't even describe because it falls into jargon, but they say it's about designing the future and then stepping into it. To me, that's opening the door to tomorrow and stepping through. "A large part of the course is simply defining the change you make in your life. You notice how it sounds like jargon? That's why it sounds alien to you. Because you don't take a stand, and when we talk about taking a stand it sounds alien to you." Oh, okay.

Anyway, so I sat through the course and I start struggling with this. It's basically "Finish this sentence: Who I am is ________ ". Well, after three days of struggling with the sentence, what I came up with: "Who I am is the possibility that children everywhere will have loving and nurturing and committed caregivers". And a large part of the process is struggling with the thing for two or three days. So I finished the course, and I think, well, I just paid, well, however much it was – I don't remember – to come up with one sentence, "Who I am is the possibility that children everywhere will have loving and committed caregivers, loving and committed parents". And I thought, "I don't get it," and I literally walk out of the seminar room, and I had gone up to San Francisco and done it up there, because I was visiting friends. And I walk out onto the streets of San Francisco and I look around, and it's like I'm in an alien city, because all of a sudden I'm thinking, "Now, if I had a kid with me, where would we go? Oh, there, we'd go to the park." And I'm looking, and "Oh, a kid, MY kid would like that." And all of a sudden I realize, everything I'm looking at, everything I'm thinking about, everything I'm doing, is about "How is this going to work for my son?" And I realize, "Gee, this course actually works".

So it was only two weeks later that I actually met my son. And I had a whole different way of reacting and dealing with him than most of the adoptive parents had when they met kids. Because I could see the other adoptive parents meeting other kids in the home, and I could see the resignation or the fear or whatever in their faces, and I could just feel the difference with me. I'm walking in there thinking, "Boy, this is going to be a great adventure, I get to meet the kids, and we're just going to party out and have some fun and play together and you know." And Sean walks in the room. "Hello." I say, "Hey, how are you?" He just goes, "Hello." But within five minutes we were playing air hockey. And I wasn’t worried about having to prove anything to him, or looking and him and wondering if he was going to live up to my standards. I was just looking at him as a kid. You know, this kid I was playing this game with. And I realized that my attitude about who I am and what I'm up to had shifted because I was now conscious of the stand I had taken in my life. And I mean, that's what all these different courses are really all about: having you be conscious of the stand you've taken in your life. What do you stand for? What's your personal philosophy? Not "what are you up to, what do you want?" But "who are you?" Who are you really? And who you are is what you're committed to, what you're willing to work for.

So I consider Ted Sturgeon to be a remarkable influence on me, because he made me accessible to this kind of being willing to take coaching. Most of us don't want to take coaching. Most of us think we can solve it ourselves. "I don't need someone to tell me how to do it, I can handle this myself." Well, you know what? That's why Olympic athletes have coaches. If you want to succeed at something, you have to have a coach.

So Ted influenced your life by being a coach, by opening you up to the teaching of these other coaches.

Ted opened me up to being willing to take coaching. Some of us get so full of ourselves that we DON'T. TAKE. COACHING. Now, the only thing that I insist is that my coaches be qualified. I don't take coaching from people who haven't proven their credentials and who I haven't contracted with for coaching. But other than that, you know, Ted opened me up to the possibility of listening to other people.

So that was one series of great influences on your life, and then you adopted Sean. And this was in the early 90's, about '92?

Yeah.

And he was another influence on your writing.

Well, I knew going in to the adoption that having a kid in my life was going shift my writing enormously.

And you wrote a book about that, The Martian Child, which is actually in production as a film by New Line.

Well, let me talk about that. I knew that having a kid in my life would not only affect my day-to-day life, but it would affect what I think about, and it was going to affect my writing. Even before I adopted him, I said to myself, "Gee, I wonder what kind of a story I'm going to get out of this." I had no story in mind; I wasn't planning to write a story.

You didn't adopt him just to write a book.

No! I didn't. In fact, a couple of people said to me, "You gonna write a story about it?" I said, "I actually have no plans to do so." I literally had no plans to write a story about the adoption. I have a friend who once said – and I love it, it's a joke – where he once said, "Well, I was thinking about changing my sex, but I just don't have time to write a book." You know? You get the joke there?

Yes.

So, that was my attitude. I told this joke, and I said, "Yeah, I want to adopt a kid, but I don't really feel like writing a book about it." The irony of this statement does not escape me, by the way! So, but we were once riding home from a party. We go to this party in Arizona. And I overhear this story – it's in The Martian Child story – And I overhear this woman talking about a little girl who believes she's a Martian. Oh my God, what a great idea for a story! You know, you hear it, and you don't think "what a great idea for a story," you're already itching to get to the typewriter and start typing! And I'm thinking, "God, where do you go with that? What a great starting place! Where do you go with that?" And so, I couldn't get it out of my head! So the next day, Sean and I are driving back to California, and as we're driving along I ask, "Are you a Martian?" He said, "No." (Laughs) And I was momentarily really pissed off. I said, "Damn it!"

You wanted him to be the Martian.

I wanted him to say "Yes".

You wanted the story.

I wanted the story. Well, you know what? We got home, and I sat down and started typing anyway, only in the story he said "Yes." Almost everything else in the story is true, 'cause I used what we already had going. But I wrote it, and I showed it to about six different editors, all of whom knew me too well. And they said, "But I don't see this as a story. This is just you, writing about you and your kid. I don't see what I can do with it." And they all handed it back. So I vaguely knew, we were at a World Science Fiction Convention, and I vaguely knew – not very well – Kristine Katherine Rusch, who'd been editing The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. And I said to her, "Look, I have this story, I want you to read it, and if it doesn't work for you, that's fine, but I think this is the only place where it could possibly fit is your magazine." And she bought it, two weeks later. And she said, "I want you to take a look at this paragraph at the end, and this paragraph in the middle," and so I made both of those adjustments for her. And there was no problem; it took a little time on the weekend to do that.

And she published it, and almost immediately we started getting the most astonishing fan mail. Now mind you, I had very few high hopes for this story after being rejected by six or seven editors. But we started getting fan mail like, "I've been reading this magazine for forty years, and this is the best story you've ever published," "Buy everything this man writes," "Brilliant!" and so on and so on. This connected to something I sort-of felt, that that story was either going to be a great big embarrassment, or an enormous success. No middle ground. But to me, what the story was about was about how much I love my kid. And I think that a lot of people connected to that. With their own kids. With their own parents.

And so the so the story went on to win the Nebula, and the Hugo, and the Locus Readership Poll, which is science fiction's triple-crown. I got back to L.A., and I started getting inquiries. Henson wanted to buy it. You know, the Muppet people. And I say, "Great! How much will you pay for me to write the script?" "Oh, we don't want YOU to write the script; you're too close to your own story." And I said, "Well, then it's not for sale to you." And then Bonneville was trying to get into film production, and they actually hired me to write a script. But Bonneville was funded by Mormons, and they were unhappy with the fact that...they just didn't know how to deal with it, okay? So I said, well the guy could be divorced. "Oh, no. He can't be divorced." And so, they were unhappy with the script. And they shut down their whole movie producing eventually. And I think that was very much because they did not understand movie making more than anything else. And that was okay in that I got my script back. And then we got a call from Kirschner [David Kirschner, producer – D. Lambert], who makes a very, very lucrative deal. New Line has announced that John Cusack is going to star in the picture. Nick Cassavetes [The Notebook] is supposed to direct. This isn’t totally set, because there's still paperwork flying around that hasn't been signed. At this point, I really can't say much about the details, because there aren't any details to report. A lot of it still hasn't been decided. They've announced that it's supposed to start shooting in October, but there are still some things that are up in the air.

And Sean's right at 20 years old now, right?

Yeah, Sean just turned 20 last week.

Well, a belated Happy Birthday to him! How does he feel about all of this?

His attitude is, "Is there money involved?"

(Laughing) Typical 20-year old!

Hey, his attitude is absolutely right. He says, "You know, as long as we're getting paid..." And that's my attitude, too. As long as we're getting paid.

Fair enough.


Part 3 is available now.
Our interview concludes as David discusses his television history, what REALLY happened to his participation on Star Trek: TNG, and we take a look at a library of DVDs that cover one TV writer's career.

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