At a time when six-day schedules and 14-hour days are often the norm, writer/director/producer J. Michael Straczynski understands that it is the love of the project that motivates a loyal crew, and not the threat of discipline or termination. Straczynski’s work has spanned journalism, comic books, and graphic novels. His most recent accomplishment is achieving the status of A-List Hollywood writer, with the 2006 sale of his screenplay The Changeling to Ron Howard. Now studios waiting in line as he completes additional features based on King David for Universal Studios and the novel World War Z for Paramount. He is currently revisiting a project he is best known for, as the creator of the hit science fiction series Babylon 5—which is produced by Warner Bros. and aired on TNT.Babylon 5 has a five-year story arc that has maintained a steady fan base years after the last show aired in 1998. To satisfy the fans, Straczynski is creating two episodes based on the show called “Lost Tales”—a direct-to-DVD greenscreen project due out in the summer of 2007. Shot in Vancouver with live actors and an almost entirely CG set, Straczynski is using his unique methods of management on the “Lost Tales” postproduction crew. “Having worked on a number of network shows in the past, one thing that struck me was how not to do things,” Straczynski commented. He feels many shows are run inefficiently because they are organized on a tiered basis, encouraging separation between the above and below the line, the talent and the office staff, causing a breakdown in communication and a fear of creative input. “What I wanted to do was integrate discussions so that even the guy who was pushing the broom could walk up to the executive producer and offer an idea.” Straczynski also insisted that cast and crew lunches be taken at the same tables on a first-come, first-served basis, under one common roof. He made it known that anyone could contribute a suggestion, believing anyone should be able to take a moment of criticism. “Obviously there is a hierarchy. There is one showrunner, but it’s more corralling kittens than hitting people over the head with a hammer.” Most crews are used to being micromanaged, and at first they were unsure how to react. But Straczynski assured them if they heard nothing, they were doing things correctly. On Babylon 5, a normal day was 12 hours, with only 18 days of serious overtime in 110 episodes. Straczynski managed this in part because he only shoots a scene a few times, and once he sees what he had in mind, he moves on. He never had to force-call in an actor, and came in under budget every year. As the crew bonded into friendships, Straczynski provided group plan vacation resources so half of the crew could take time off together. For the first two years of the show, Straczynski shot nonunion below the line, paying roughly the same as union fees, with the same health benefits and dental packages. But in the early part of the third year, the IA showed up to unionize. Straczynski got the call at lunch that a work stoppage was in effect. Though the crew wanted to work, they couldn’t afford the risk of future problems with the union, and when Straczynski arrived the crew was out in the street playing Frisbee, refusing to carry signs. He stopped the driver before crossing the line, got out and said “We are going to work this out. There are no hard feelings at all.” Up until that time, there was no union contract in Hollywood to shoot a dramatic series for $1 million or less. A production could be nonunion, or could cost substantially more. The studio’s general philosophy was not to negotiate a deal with below-the-line unions, but instead to move the productions elsewhere. Warner Bros. was prepared for the standard procedure of dealing with such a situation: to refuse negotiations, shut down the show and move it to Vancouver. They were not particularly pleased with this new twist.Straczynski and the other producers sat down with the IA at their headquarters. They brought with them the books—the budget from every episode, the overall pattern budget, the series budget, and every person’s salary, including their own. These are things the IA had never seen before, because this information is usually kept very close to the vest. “They were goggle-eyed when they saw this. We opened the books and said, ‘let’s work this out.’”The unions were astonished to find the crew was already paid what they were prepared to ask for. “We went through every single salary, every category, line by line, to make a deal,” Straczynski said. After about four days of negotiations, they were about $30,000 short of making a deal. Though that is pittance in a usual production budget, it is a fair amount when a show runs on only $800,000 per episode. To close the deal, Straczynski contributed one script fee, director John Flynn contributed one directing fee, and they walked out with a deal that did not have one dollar of impact on the show. This created, for the first time, a contract to shoot a union show in town for under a million dollars an episode. It was called “The Babylon Contract”—a name that stuck for several years. Straczynski didn’t stop there. When the Northridge earthquake hit, he rewrote scripts to accommodate sets they already had so the carpenters could help make repairs on the cast and crew’s most damaged houses. When the fires hit, he had trucks standing by with crewmembers ready to go in case someone had to be evacuated. “You look after your own, above the line and below the line. The reality is if you treat your below the line properly, you will save money on overtime, problems, grievances, on a whole host of things that can be the devil of production and raise the cost,” explains Straczynski. “To me, this is not graciousness or kindness; it is simple common sense. It’s a shame other people don’t get this.”Since the current Lost Tales shoot was only 10 days long, he didn’t have the time to recreate the overall system, but he has maintained his philosophy. In his typical humor, in the first few days of shooting, he began issuing memos from the production office under a different name. One was a draft memo that was released “accidentally” before editing. The raw memo said: “The ‘fat head’ [which was then crossed out and replaced with ‘the producer’] who made the stupid error of saying that hockey is not actually a sport was overheard to say that he can throw a playing card further than anyone else north of the 49th parallel.” It went on to initiate a duel, stating the producer would pay $100 for each person who could throw a playing card further than he. If no one could do it, he would contribute a flat $500. In the end, Straczynski was down $600, but it broke the barrier. His intention was to lose, but he didn’t have to. He was whipped by Andrew Karr, the VFX supervisor from Atmosphere where the “Lost Tales” effects are being created. Working remotely with the FX team at Atmosphere, he continues to encourage creative freedom. If the files they send him are more or less what he had in mind, he lets them have their vision. Alec McClymont, “Lost Tales”’ 3D lead artist, confirms this. “A lot of productions might hire their own concept artist to handle this, then just give us drawings to match. But with this project, we’ve been doing the design work in-house and on the fly. Having that level of creative input into the show has really made it a lot of fun.” Straczynski was the first producer to go online and talk about the making of a show, and is often asked by producers why he works this way. “I think it’s because I don’t come out of showbiz. I come off the street—a blue-collar, working-class family, so I understand it, and I understand what it’s like being a working-class person. I have a
great deal of respect for that.” When asked what makes him the proudest about his methods, he replied, “When you walked on the set or the offices, the number-one thing you heard was laughter.” It seems his crew is inclined to agree.
Written by Renee Dunlop