Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur
jducoeur

JMS Speaks

Tonight's outing was to the annual Julius Schwartz Lecture at MIT; this year's speaker was Joseph Michael Straczynski, AKA JMS, creator of Babylon 5. He turns out to be totally different from Neil Gaiman (last year's speaker), but equally interesting and fun. He's a fine and funny storyteller, who filled almost three hours with tales and anecdotes. (He's also in better shape than I expected -- I don't know whether he's lost weight, or if the camera does add as much weight as they say, but he was far more hale and hearty than I'm used to him looking in video interviews.)

His lecture topic was "Getting in touch with your inner failure". Perhaps more accurately, it was to pursue that which you need to do, and seek out the scariest bits *most* aggressively. Anything interesting comes with a significant chance of failure, so the only way to succeed greatly is to risk great failure. Unsurprisingly, Babylon 5 was used as the prime example of this: since Joe wasn't sure that he would get more than one opportunity, he took many risks with the series; by and large, they paid off well.

The middle section was an Inside the Actor's Studio style interview by henryjenkins, who created and hosts the lecture series. Frankly, there was some impedance mismatch here: Henry was heavily focused on questions of artistic analysis (as is his particular passion), and it was pretty clear that JMS just doesn't think along the same lines. The result was that JMS was repeatedly gobsmacked by the questions (literally -- he turns out to have a real talent for mugging for the camera, and uses that as a way to stall for time), but managed to use them as launching points for a bunch more stories.

On the news front, he has quite explicitly moved into a new phase of his career. He described that career as a three-stage rocket. First came ten years of straight journalism. Second was the twenty years of television writing that we mostly know him for. Now, he's found sudden success in movies. For those who don't pay attention outside the genre, JMS' script "Changeling" got picked up by Ron Howard, and wound up starring Angelina Jolie, directed by Clint Eastwood, and received quite a bit of Oscar buzz. So JMS suddenly has a lot of street cred in Hollywood.

Anyway, he mentioned three specific projects in the works (assuming I heard and remember these right):
  • Ninja Assassin -- a silly name, but produced by the Wachowski Brothers, so it's likely to be big budget and big SFX. Joe apparently got the call from them to rewrite the script, on less than a week's notice; I'm very curious what came out the other side.

  • An adaptation of World War Z, produced by Brad Pitt's company. (Joe says that his agent tried to keep him from doing it, because it would blow his new reputation, but he's *way* too fond of zombie movies to pass up the opportunity.)

  • And perhaps most intriguingly, an adaptation of Lensman, with Ron Howard again.
He also alluded to several other projects he couldn't talk about, including a couple of dramas, and a possible new TV series that would hopefully involve the return of Christopher Franke for the music. So he's keeping busy.

On the downside (for me, at least) it was pretty clear that he has mostly made his peace with the passing of Babylon 5: he felt that trying to do Lost Tales on the cheap was simply a disservice to the legacy of the series, and he wasn't going to do that again. He's still open to doing some more B5, but only if there is enough money to do it well; I'm skeptical that that's going to happen. (He was also frank that, in retrospect, he considers Crusade to have been a mistake, and that he feels he should have let things end after the main five-year run.)

The second half of the evening was Q&A, which was the usual mixed bag, with some fairly interesting and insightful questions, some excuses for JMS to tell more stories, and a few too many "I really do have a question, but first let me talk about myself" instances. (One fellow was particularly terrible towards the end: a little geeky, a little creepy, so many aimless questions that he had to write them all down, and almost had to have the microphone ripped out of his hand to let the next person through.) JMS wound up displaying his dislike of BS, and the sharpness of his wit -- while he's not as nasty as Harlan Ellison can get, he doesn't have Gaiman's gentle tolerance of every question. (He and londo actually wound up in a bit of back-and-forth badinage over the course of the last part of the session.)

Anyway, an excellent evening out, confirming the Julius Schwartz series as worth keeping an eye out for. Having started with Gaiman and JMS, they've got a lot to live up to next time around...
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