If there were a dictionary entry for “storied career in science fiction literature and television,” a serious case could be made for writer David Gerrold as the definition. Gerrold’s first break came at age 23 when he was hired to write the classic Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles in 1967. Rather than fold under the expectations of early success, Gerrold continued to produce quality science fiction scripts and literature right up to the present day. His career now spans over four decades, 50-plus books, Hugo and Nebula awards, and numerous television credits including The Land of the Lost, Babylon 5, various incarnations of Star Trek, and many more.
Now Gerrold is working to adapt his best-selling Star Wolf books into a series of independently produced video episodes. What makes the series doubly exciting is its ambitions both as a storytelling vehicle and an emerging model for funding and distributing independent video productions. The Star Wolf is currently in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to generate the capital necessary for production. Once episodes are made they will be distributed using a variety of digital formats, but it all begins with what has become an increasingly formidable engine for creative entrepreneurship in the form of crowdfunding.
The Star Wolf project and its place in the current wave of crowdfunded ventures peaked our curiosity, so much so that we may have gone a little overboard asking questions. The results are a massive two part interview for which we are deeply appreciative. Thanks are in order for Mr. Gerrold’s time and generosity. Part one showcases The Star Wolf as a production and story concept, while part two considers where The Star Wolf fits in the growing domain of crowdfunded enterprises.
Dan—I was poking around for your biographical data on the internet and noticed that there’s not much out there about your life before Star Trek. Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like?
David—My parents moved from Chicago to Los Angeles when I was two years old. I didn’t get a choice in the matter. I had to come with.
They bought a house in Van Nuys and I grew up in a neighborhood so white-bread, June Cleaver lived next door and worried about her beaver. I hid out in the local library, working my way steadily through the science fiction section. Before I finished high school, I’d read just about everything. Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Sturgeon, Van Vogt, Leinster, Eric Frank Russell, Jack Vance, Zenna Henderson, Henry Kuttner, Damon Knight, John Wyndham, James Blish, and everyone else too.
My first real job was at Bob’s Big Boy on Van Nuys Blvd. (The Big Boy hamburger is still my favorite comfort food.) We had cruise night on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. All the car clubs came through. It was a preview of American Graffiti. I also got to hang out with a lot of beautiful waitresses. That gave me a real appreciation of how hard restaurant people work. And how often we take them for granted.
Eventually, I went to USC for a couple years of film school — where I learned story structure — and then finished up at CSUN as a Theatre Arts major. That’s where I started to learn characterization. Before I graduated, I’d already sold one script to television. Something about fuzzy little creatures that bred like crazy.
Dan—It was about twenty years after the fuzzy critters that you began publishing books in the Star Wolf series. Now here we are in 2013 talking about a crowdfunding campaign to launch The Star Wolf on video. How did we get here?
David—The very best write-up of the long history of The Star Wolf can be found here, but the short version is this. Dorothy Fontana and I schlepped this project to every network, every cable channel, every studio that would let us in the front door. I expanded my two-hour pilot to four episodes. Then cut them back to a feature. Then revised the first four episodes. Then revised the feature. I developed one of the longest and most detailed writer/director’s guides. We had costume designs made. Mike Okuda designed and built a model. Karl J. Martin created CGI starships. We created presentation books and short videos. We made the rounds of the studios and the networks and the cable channels over and over. We went back to some of those places more than once, every time there was a regime-change. Over the years, I kept writing and rewriting, updating, polishing, fixing, adjusting, adding, cutting. The scripts are in pretty good shape, certainly ready for a first table-read.
I’m tired of schlepping. I’m tired of pitching this thing to studio executives. Some of the people we’ve met have been very good people, but some have been — well, there’s no polite way to put it — illiterate. Science fiction is about people in conflict with ideas. It’s about exploring, discovering, questioning, challenging. It’s about living in the realm of the impossible and the extraordinary. But television as it exists today isn’t about entertainment or information or inspiration, it’s about selling stuff. It’s about keeping you comfortably unconscious while telling you that you smell bad.
My biggest complaint about television is that here’s a medium that can change the world. It can touch millions of people in a matter of minutes. Imagine how we could change the world if we could inspire a million people to be blood donors or foster parents or simply plant a tree. Instead, television doesn’t just appeal to the lowest common denominator, it seeks to lower the level of that denominator.
Sorry about that rant — but that’s the point. In that kind of context, there’s very little chance to tell stories that set out to disturb, let alone inspire. The only way to tell those stories is to get away from the corporate distribution channels and go directly to the audience — and ask the audience if this is a show they want to see, will they pledge some bucks to make it happen?
Dan—Was there previous interest in developing The Star Wolf through traditional channels?
David—We had one deal at Universal that got killed by a strike. Then we had some money invested in script development by the SyFy channel. They loved the scripts. One comment was, “We never get to see scripts this intelligent.” But the people who were enthused were replaced and because nobody in television wants to inherit someone else’s project, we got shelved. We had a meeting at NBC that went nowhere. We went to Fox and they made an enthusiastic offer, then withdrew it the next day. A couple days later, they announced their own “World War II in space” series. Hmmm. Stan Winston studios took us around for a few meetings — including Paramount. Huh? That’s when I began to wonder that either I was doing something wrong, or the system was not set up for science fiction.
Dan—What made you decide to tackle this project as a crowdfunded independent production?
David—The idea to crowdfund the project came from David C. Fein. He and I were discussing each others projects, and he showed a great interest in The Star Wolf. Shortly after the meeting he said that he realized that not only could the project be crowdfunded, but given very careful planning and budgeting it could be produced using modern techniques for at a third of the budget we’d usually need. David has been successful producing professional projects on shoestring budgets. This, in addition to the fact that he and I were “in sync” with the creative direction of the show, convinced me that he would be a great person to take this project into reality. His plan and methodology would allow us to avoid problematic “studio development” and keep creative control with us. I was excited and knew we could do it! So we agreed to partner on the production, and pursue the funding through Kickstarter.
The biggest challenge now is just getting the potential audience to know we’re here. There are millions of science fiction fans in the US and millions more worldwide. If we could get a buck each from one million fans, we could start pre-production on the pilot tomorrow. If we could get $6.50 from 100,000 people, we could start pre-production. That’s the whole idea behind crowdfunding. We’re asking the audience to support us and we’re eliminating the entire studio system and all the expenses connected to that kind of distribution. Eliminate a few expensive executives and put the money into actual production and you can do high-quality shows for a lot less money.
More important, by not accepting studio or network ownership, we retain creative control. We get to tell stories that disturb, challenge, and inspire, without all the rules and limits that only weaken the stories.
Dan—What are the biggest challenges you face tackling this as an independent production?
I resisted the independent route for a long time because a) it’s hard to raise the money, and b) only the studios had the resources necessary to do this show the way it needs to be done.
But James Cawley and his internet series of Star Trek: Phase II episodes have proven that it’s possible to do a high-quality production on a shoestring if you know how to manage shoestrings. Digital video lets you do things previously impossible. The CGI shots can be rendered on consumer level computers. The cost of the gear you need has become very affordable, so a top quality crew can still do a very good-looking show.
Dan—Working as an independent production means that you get to define your own format as far as episode length, fan interactivity with the story, multimedia platforms, and story structure are concerned. How do you see the maturing digital production and distribution environment changing the way you tell stories?
David—Hooboy! Now that’s a big question.
Ideally, we’re thinking of roughly 60-minute episodes. We’ll probably shoot a little more than we need, so we’ll have flexibility wherever that happens. Not having to cut a key scene or being able to take some extra time for story development is a bonus that you get when you’re not restricted to broadcast limits.
Structurally, I want to take as much time as necessary to tell each story. The original version of Das Boot was six hours long because there was so much story to tell. It was aired as a mini-series on German TV. I want to be able to tell stories that big. So we’ll have story arcs that run for two, three, or four episodes, possibly longer. Each episode will be a complete chapter, but viewed in sequence we’re going to tell some epic-scale adventures — but always through the eyes of our primary characters.
We have one story where we have to deliver some commandos to a planetary drop, only to discover the mission is not what we thought it was. We have a couple of love stories, of course. We have an evacuation story that’s just heartbreaking and it’s something you’ll never see anywhere else. There are stories by Robert Sheckley and Joanna Russ I want to adapt. Daniel Keys Moran has a story for us. We probably won’t do “Blood And Fire” because it’s already been done as a Star Trek: Phase II episode. I don’t think we can add anything to it to make it better than what we’ve already done. All of these fit into a grander story arc about the war with the Morthans, which is also not what you think. There are a lot of secrets and surprises.
The actual production will be a combination of practical sets and green screen. Our philosophy is that if you can tell it’s an effects shot, it isn’t good enough. You’re going to believe everything you see on screen. Toward that end, we’ve got some of the best guys in the business coming aboard. Denny Skotak, Daren R. Dochterman, Karl J. Martin, and more.
David—I expect that the stories will have much more texture and depth in a visual medium, and we’ll be able to flesh them out even more than in the books. We can show things so well they don’t have to be explained. We’ll have a visceral impact that you can’t get from a book. We’ll have graphic details — reaction shots are key, for instance. But we’ll also have all kinds of background information too: graffiti, posters, decorations, Easter eggs, everything. Our ship starts out new and gets progressively dirtier and damaged throughout the series, just like an actual ship would. And there’s one cameo character who could not have been put into the books at all because he’s a sight gag, not something you can do in print.
Dan—What are some of the specifics about The Star Wolf story that most excite you about bringing to life on screen?
David—Sitting in the Captain’s chair. Seeing the bridge come to life. Walking the actual corridors. Seeing people in costume. Holding the props. Living in this world. Being aboard this starship. Making it real. Sharing it. Watching it on the screen and seeing all the pieces fit together and dazzle an audience.
I want to meet Brik, the Morthan. I want to speak with HARLIE, the ship’s computer. I want to see the anguish and frustration on Korie’s face — and the cunning as he plans revenge. I want to see the love story of Tor and Jones. I want to meet Foxy Williger, the ship’s doctor. I want to see our ship zip off into hyperstate. I want to see Quillas and commandos and repair-bots crawling around the outer hull. And most of all, I want to believe it. Because when I believe it, the audience will too.
Dan—How far along are you in assembling the cast and production team?
David—I can’t mention any actors’ names until they commit. We have a couple of big name stars we’re talking to for key roles, and I’d love to be able to say, “Hey! Look who we’ve got!” But I can’t do that without specific permission.
Beyond that, we want most of our regular characters to be fresh faces, so the audience doesn’t say, “Oh, look — there’s the guy from blah blah.”
The way the stories are structured, this ship is a jinx. She kills or destroys her captains. So we will see one captain after another take command — those will be our big guest stars — while Korie remains frustrated that he isn’t getting promoted while holding the ship together.
Unless a miracle happens and the right actors fall into my lap, we aren’t going to start casting the series regulars until we’re funded and in pre-production.
Behind the scenes, the creative team includes myself, DC Fontana, David C. Fein, Denny Skotak, Daren R. Dochterman, Karl J. Martin, and a brilliant composer named Edwin Wendler. Steve Lee’s our Sound Effects Designer. He’s a great guy with a real passion for classic sound. We’re also in conversation with at least a dozen other people on our wish list — people we’ve worked with, so we know they’re both excellent and dependable, and fun to be around too. I think the most important person on that list is DC Fontana. She’s worked on more good shows than anyone else in television. She knows story, she knows production, she understands the terrain and how to avoid falling into a pitfall. She’s a great producer.
Dan—What have you learned so far from the crowdfunding experience? Any unexpected revelations, insights, or general wisdom to pass along to others interested in launching similar campaigns?
David—Ask me again on June 3rd. There’s a lot of work necessary to preparing the campaign, but a lot more is needed to keep it going. We’re still learning.
The Star Wolf Kickstarter campaign runs through June 2, 2013. To participate, go to www.thestarwolf.com for further details. No Kickstarter pledges are paid by supporters until the funding goals are met and the campaign reaches its deadline.
Dan would like to thank David Gerrold, David Fein, and Steve Lee for making this interview possible. Dan also thanks fellow Foe Scott Tate for his assistance in assembling this post. Be sure to check out part two of this interview!