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View From The Brig(gs): EPISODE I

As a grizzled old geezer on a desert planet once jauntily greeted: “Well, hello there!”

So, here we are all bright and shiny in 2013, full of pep and industrious resolutions for the New Year. And you’ve accidentally clicked on this link.  Made your first big mistake there, di’n’t cha?

I was amused, flattered, and not a bit taken aback when the illustrious editors of “Forces Of Geek” asked me if I’d like to fire up iA Writer bi-weekly on my Macbook (maybe even more regularly, if you’re especially unlucky) and serve as a guest columnist reviewer on this site. “Well: can I plug the movie I’m working on at any given time?” I queried, seeing an angle. They assured me I could.  Well, alrighty. Here I am.

If you’re a regular to this site, you may have likely read my (ridiculously long, I realized afterwards) “Tops Of 2012” piece that FOG! asked all we columnists to submit, so hopefully you’ll have gleaned a little about what’s thrilled me this past year in terms of movies and other geekery. Having scratched your heads at why “Dark Knight Rises“; “Prometheus“; “John Carter“; “Skyfall“; and others don’t appear in my lists, you may also be wondering what makes me tick, and what the hell you’re letting yourself in for if you can be bothered clicking on me.

Yes, that cigar-chomping benevolent demon-guy

For those of you who don’t know, I’m what’s euphemistically termed “A Working Screenwriter”. Unlike those of you out there who’re industriously trying to crack what we call in more polite moments “The Business”, I’ve earned a fairly decent living for 20 years being paid by studios to churn out material…which then mostly gets shoved into the bowels of Development Hell and forgotten about, regularly fueling we authors with postal sniper-tower revenge fantasies. (For myself, I was co-credited with a Mexican bloke who came in after me, as a hired writer on a 2004 Sony-Columbia movie about a cigar-chomping benevolent demon-guy; although my first spec screenplay sale was to 20th Century Fox, and featured the words “Alien” and “Predator” in the title. Purveyors of “How To” screenwriting books would have you believe this latter effort was better than the two filmed efforts you may have once been forced to sit through. Whatever. It was a long time ago.)

We’ll natter about that glitzy, tawdry showbiz stuff some other time. Right now, it’s about the editorial.

When I was a kid, we had “Starlog” magazine, which came from across the ocean in a strange and distant land called The United States, where people talked funny and seemed to have television shows with lots of commercials in them. Now, for those of you who don’t remember an era wherein an individual didn’t press buttons to inform someone else the proud sweat of their imagination is “Lame…LOLZ!”, a magazine was a (supposedly) frequently published bunch of glossy pages, held together by metal staples and containing valuable information that fueled one’s imagination. Sometimes these magazines couldn’t stretch to “glossy”, and came on milk-smelling print stock with the consistency of Ukrainian toilet paper. It didn’t matter. They spawned from lands and cultures far away, and we in the Eastern tea-drinking regions treasured and re-read their fabulous contents over and over, marveling at such bizarre alien phrases as “Underoos“; “jujubes“; and “Jefferson Starship“.

By word of explanation, I’m British. (Being British, it’s almost second nature to want to apologize after revealing that, but I’m very happy strike that fiercely happy being British. You’ll hear a lot on this particular subject also at some point. Promise.) We had our homegrown comics and magazines back in the day (and I pledge a future Anglophile/Anglophobe ramble also in some future piece), but “Starlog” was especially meaningful to my life. As one certain week each month approached, thanks to crummy international print distribution I’d walk countless miles daily in a pre-programmed course amongst my local towns of Whiston; Prescot; Huyton; and Rainhill, in the forlorn hope a stray issue would somehow erroneously slip through into the metal racks of one of my local corner newsagents.

Prior to my epic monthly hikes, I’d discovered my first “Starlog” issue while on holiday with my parents in Wales, in the coastal town of Pwllheli (no, that’s not a typo), back in the summer of ’78: mere months after “Star Wars” was released. (We got “Star Wars” in Christmas ’77 in Britain, as opposed to you jammy souls in the U.S. who saw it earlier in May that year.)

It was Issue 14, with a cover photo of matte artist Peter (later Harrison) Ellenshaw and his Death Star tractor beam painting, which even now, I think, was an unusual choice of cover shot. In retrospect, it wasn’t an especially memorable issue. But, as I was fervently consumed by all things science fiction and special effects-oriented, and especially at that time anything remotely connected to “Star Wars”, I absorbed this (and all future issues) by osmosis. There were pieces on “Capricorn One“; “The Incredible Melting Man” (!), and a tantalizing mention of an upcoming something called “Galactica“. Most remarkably, to me (and something I don’t think “Starlog” had done before, or after), they printed a whole script the first of its kind I’d ever read on the printed page of “Saturday Night Live” writer Michael O’Donoghue‘s Star Trek parody sketch, “The Last Voyage Of The Starship Enterprise“. It was intriguing to me to see dialogue and stage directions in the form in which they were handed to actors.

As the months (and years) rolled by, and “Starlog” covered the glut of new movies and TV shows detonating in “Star Wars” wake, there were two columnists voices in the magazine that especially “spoke” to me regularly.

In reverse order, the second inspiration for me was David Gerrold‘s “State Of The Art” (The column would subsequently be renamed “Rumblings”, which always suggested a gastrointestinal disorder; later further rebranded as the more triumphal “Soarings”.) Gerrold had a wonderful breezy delivery, put across thoughtful viewpoints on science fiction as a whole without being as snarky as many of his contemporaries, and was also very, very funny. More notably for me, he was also the second professional writer I ever met in the flesh (on the rooftop patio of the Anaheim Hilton at the World Science Fiction Convention in 1984), the first being Douglas Adams in a chance encounter as he beat a hasty incognito exit out of Forbidden Planet bookstore on Denmark Street in London in 1983. (For trivia fans, Gerrold not only infamously created the Tribbles for “Star Trek”, but allegedly also coined the phrase “computer virus” in 1969.) As a newly-formed teenager and rabid “Star Wars” fan, it was a mark of my respect for Gerrold that I didn’t hate him overnight when he expressed his dissatisfaction with “The Empire Strikes Back“.

Gerrold on left, next to William Shatner on the set of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

But. The first and most important voice in “Starlog” to me, was the captain at its helm: Kerry O’Quinn.  O’Quinn was like your dad; Father Christmas; and a brace of pom-pom cheerleaders, all rolled into one. Under the masthead of “From The Bridge”, each month O’Quinn would avuncularly (and occasionally heart-tuggingly) use his platform to expound upon how Joe Schmo could rise up from whatever penny-ante boondock hovel they sprang from, and finagle their way under the radar into the glittering lights of Hollywood, and all things Sci-Fi. The column was, of course, aimed at the American Joe from Boise, Idaho, but for a kid from an anonymous British Northern town, this was heady dream-stuff indeed.

My Dad was a solidly blue-collar, work-for-a-living guy. Unlike the negative working class father images you see in Films and TV, scorning their sons’ loves for the fantastic, Briggs Senior actually loved fantasy material himself. He’d sit watching Gerry Anderson shows and Harryhausen movies with me; take my brother and myself to see “Star Wars” or whatever fantastic flick had opened at the nearby provincial fleapits; or dump giant slab of books written by guys named Herbert or Tolkien on me on any given day. But being the product of a town where countless generations had been born, lived, and died their whole lives without making nary a blip on the world, my dad was also a realist. And so, one day as a hormonal teenager, it blew my world when he gave me the “Son, this is all very well and good, but…” speech.

I was stung. And my recourse was to get a handful of O’Quinn’s best “From The Bridge” ammunition from the bedroom, bring them to my dad in his armchair, and yell impassionedly: “See! This is what you can do, if you try! This is what I’m going to do! I’m gonna do this, and nobody’s going to stop me!” And then I stormed out of the house (probably in a flood of less-than-manly tears, but we’ll gloss over that trifling detail.) When I came back, he handed me the magazines back with a simple “Well. Okay.”

Kerry O’Quinn

I was a pretty good student at school, and dutifully went off afterwards to the local walking-distance college with the eventual aim of trying to claw my way into one of Britain’s few film schools (which, back in the day, was nigh-near a grasping-at-straws impossibility, lemme tell you). But at nearly 18, the siren-call of London and the possibility of maybe getting a bottom-rung foothold in the movie biz proved too much of a lure.

When I’d made the fateful decision I wanted to drop out of college before gaining my qualifications, and consequently received the inevitable “come to my office” call from the college Principal for my parents and myself, I accompanied them with a sense of dread. The Principal, basically, tore me a new one and said that I’d never amount to anything if I didn’t finish the Academic year. My Dad was a big believer in Academia, so when the Principal invited him to throw his ten cents of brimstone into the mix, my chair developed black-hole properties and I spiraled for its Event Horizon. To my utter astonishment, though, my Dad proceeded to eviscerate the equally goggle-eyed Principal in turn. “My son has the ability to do anything. He won’t be restricted, and he’ll do whatever he sets out to do. I believe in him, and…” My forehead numbed like an icecream-freeze headache and I seemed to leave my body and watch the scene unfold with an extreme lens.

To this day, I have no idea where my Dad’s speech came from, but I’ve never forgotten it. (Or stopped trying to reach my goals outside the box.) I always wondered if those Kerry O’Quinn pieces helped make my Dad see a different perspective.

So, here we are. Decades have passed, and “Starlog” is gone and defunct; words once printed on Ukrainian toilet paper now delivered instead on sparkly pixels on your iPad Mini. And there’s not just one voice commenting monthly on your media intake: there are BILLIONS of them; an incessant babble, every second of the day. Unfortunately, nearly every single one of them is an armchair quarterback. Granted, there are the Twitterati celebs who do their capsule paragraphs, but the vast amount of the Internet is simply overwhelmingly negative and cynical. And I can’t take some high moral ground and take myself out of the equation on this, either. If you’re privy to my Facebook page, I’m savagely critical about today’s movies. But then, I’ve earned a living being in the Studio business for 20 years, so I’ve got my “Pass Go” card, whereas most of the little twerps out there loftily pontificating about some producer’s desperate crappy 200 million dollar tentpole plea for your bum on a movie theater seat, won’t ever come within a hairsbreadth of a development deal.

However, I’m not going to continue that trend here. In the spirit of Kerry O’Quinn and a bygone era, I’m going to break with tradition and say (mostly) NICE things, and because of Kerry I’m going to call it “From the Brig(gs)”. (My editor here wanted me to call it “Consume Mass Quantities”, but much as I do love “Coneheads”, I wasn’t going to go there. Plus which, I wanted the self-aggrandizement masthead.) If you’re in my “Forces Of Geek” column, it’s because this week…you’re awesome. You made the cut. You’re golden. If you’re a creator and you’re reading it, and you’re not…you didn’t run far enough with the baton. Try harder.

There’ll be a lot of Sacred Cows that will have to try harder, let me tell you.

Oh, by the way. Getting back to that “Allowed To Plug My Stuff Thing” we mentioned up-front. I’m making a movie with Gary Kurtz producing. Yes, the same Gary Kurtz who was Oscar nominated for producing “Star Wars”, and gave us the awesome “The Empire Strikes Back”. Our movie is called “Panzer 88”, and Richard Taylor and Weta Workshop are helping us make it. It’s written by myself and a couple of whizz-kid newcomers, Aaron Mason and James Cowan. And we’re casting, right now. I’m directing it. It’ll be fun.

See you next time…

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