WILLIAM F. WU



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A Detour into The Twilight Zone

Twilight Zone Logo

By WILLIAM F. WU
Copyright 2001 by William F. Wu

"Raise the pteradactyl and kill the baby --"

The order went out across Stage 9 of CBS/MTM Studios, where the new Twilight Zone show was filming their adaptation of my short story, "Wong's Lost and Found Emporium." Director Paul Lynch and the Twilight Zone crew were bringing to life the script by Alan Brennert, who was also Executive Story Consultant on the show. I spent all four days of filming on the set.

This was my first professional experience with television (aside from appearing on the Whizzo the Clown Show at age four in Kansas City, MO) and I came to it with the many horror stories I had heard from colleagues echoing in my mind. Writers in Hollywood see their scripts put on film with directors and producers in charge; one common side effect is resentment of the process by the screenwriters, whose say in the process is customarily weak. (That last fact led to the old joke about the starlet who was so dumb that she slept with the writer....) Since I had not even written the script, I was even further out on the fringe. However, the Twilight Zone -- appropriately enough -- was different.

Alan was respectful of the story and considerate of me from the beginning. When he started the adaptation, he called me several times to ask questions -- for instance, I had not given the first name of my lead character in the story, or the name of the female lead. He also told me that he felt the story would work better in chronological order on television. In the short story, I had had the option of narration, and had used it to provide the exposition in the story after the action had started. I agreed that chronological order would be much clearer to a television audience.

Of course, Alan could make all the changes he wanted. My say was limited to his willingness to discuss the matter. However, I felt that I was part of the adaptation because he shared it with me and explained why certain changes were desirable.

I have studied film and I watch a lot of television, so I understood that going from print to film involves a change in artistic principles. As a result, I agreed when Alan said the mystical effects in the story were not visual enough. He added several striking ones of his own, and asked me for suggestions. I passed on one that was used which came from science fiction writer Alison Tellure. She suggested the disembodied head in a jar ... that is still alive.

#

"Oh, my god, it's real!" -- Carol Bruce.

Set Decorator Robert Zilliox and Property Master Jim Zemansky did a fine job on the emporium itself. The script calls for shelves and shelves of lost things -- all manner of things, mystical and mundane and mendacious. They found them in the warehouses of CBS and the prop houses of Hollywood: plastic skeletons and real ones, rubber heads, old toasters, leather luggage tags, a wooden Indian, old medical files, a giant fake snake to hang from the ceiling, a plastic pteradactyl, an entire stuffed horse to hang upside-down from the ceiling, a real bison head ... and thousands of other objects.

How good was the result?

I watched the dailies every day and found the emporium -- the place where lost things go -- appropriately dark and shadowed and jumbled. Maybe it could have used more dust and cobwebs. I felt it worked, but that isn't the best proof. Paul Lynch and Alan Brennert felt it worked, which is no mean feat, but that isn't the best proof, either.

Late Monday afternoon, which was the first day, I got tired of standing hour after hour and sat down where I was -- in a dirty, darkened aisle between shelves holding an array of green, blue, red, and yellow glass jars on one side and human calf and foot bones on the other. A battered pink stuffed elephant and a teddy bear with dark glasses cast strange shadows from the lights and finally -- finally! -- I figured out the rest of another story in the emporium series, that I had been stuck on for over a year.

Twilight Zone photo

That was the best proof to me that the emporium had come to life.

#

"Are you the Wu? I'm the Tochi."

The lead role of David Wong is played by Brian Tochi, a Japanese American actor whom I first saw on Space Academy some years ago. A young veteran of five CBS series, Brian was more recently seen in "Revenge of the Nerds," in which he played the Japanese nerd.

The first scene I saw filmed took place in a porno shop where David Wong goes in search of the mystic door to the lost and found emporium. For the first time, I was able to see the repetition of takes required not only by mistakes, but also by changes in pacing, acting nuances the director wants, and of course by the necessity of changing camera angles. When the crew began preparing a scene that would have only Anna Marie Poon, who plays the female lead, Melinda Su, Brian came over and introduced himself with a big smile. My name was on the cover of the script.

When we had a little more time, I was pleased to find Brian sufficiently interested in the character to ask me about my conception of David Wong.

"How old is Wong? I pictured him about thirty-four."

"No, I think I had him at around twenty-four."

"Funny thing about that." Brian grinned at Anna Marie, but declined to tell me his age when I asked.

I went on to explain that my point was that David Wong should seem much too young to be as cynical as he is. This is the special burden that drives him to seek out the lost and found emporium.

Brian did an especially good job with the kind of cynicism Wong has, edged with sarcasm and a bitter sense of humor. Anna Marie, who is much prettier and more stylish than the Melinda in the original story, had a different kind of challenge. Melinda has also come to the emporium in search of a character trait she has lost and she undergoes a personality transformation as a result of mystic influence. The two personalities are quite different, and Anna Marie plays them and the transformation itself with a delightful facility.

Alan kept my original dialogue whenever it was possible. The final climactic scene is almost all from the story. His own dialogue is also keenly on target and in character. The first time I heard my own lines spoken aloud came during the filming of a scene in which Carol Bruce, playing Mrs. Whitford, explains at some length to Wong that she used to be a sculptor and had some success, but then "fell away from it." Carol is now best known as the strong-willed Mrs. Carlson, owner of the radio station in WKRP in Cincinnati, but the part of Mrs. Whitford requires another kind of character. Carol gave such a strong performance of vulnerability and desperate regret that she received a spontaneous round of applause on the set.

Another role was played by Stacy Keach, Sr., the father of "Mike Hammer." He, too, had a dual role, first playing a sensitive, puzzled father who has lost the respect of his grown children -- and also the grotesque monster that he sees in a mirror as their image of him. The latter was given an elaborately artful boost by makeup man Jack Wilson.

#

"How bad did they butcher it?"

They didn't.

Hollywood has a bad reputation, generally, for its adaptations of published works. One reason is that, as I said earlier, different media require different handling and some purists don't recognize this. Novelizations of original screenplays are rarely high artistic achievements, either. Another reason is that bestsellers are sometimes made into feature films even when the intrinsic qualities of some novels are just not right for film. Yet some adaptations become excellent film or television, because the necessary changes are made for the shift in medium.

Even so, people have been asking me for several months how I feel about the adaptation of "Wong's ..." with either a grin of knowing cynicism or else wide-eyed trepidation at the tirade they expect from me. I always explain, as patiently as I can, that I like what I've seen. It seems to surprise everyone.

As of this writing, I have seen the script, the filming, the dailies, and a rough cut. From the beginning, I have felt that the heart and spirit of my story have been retained. My eye is untrained at seeing dailies, but the rough cut has demonstrated a lively pace and a strong continuity. The polish on the final cut should make it a gem.

I observed the adaptation process from the scripting and the filming through the dailies and the rough cut to the final polished gem. From the beginning, I have felt that the heart and spirit of my original story were ret ained. In the final edit, the pace is lively, the special effects are sharp, and the music provides just the right atmosphere, with a subtle Asian strain at appropriate moments. Most importantly to me, Brian Tochi's strongest scene was the critical one in which David Wong explains to Melinda why he has lost his compassion. The episode came together as a whole, which is rare in a process as complex as film.

#

"We ain't The Dukes of Hazzard, folks."

I heard Harlan Ellison make this statement with deserved pride at the Twilight Zone premier party in Beverly Hills, to one of the many groups assembled around one of the many tv sets, all of which were tuned to the first episode of the show. His authority was enhanced by a costume of the white rabbit from Alice In Wonderland, as no one mistook him for anyone else.

Alan's adaptation of Harlan's story "Shatterday" had just ended to spontaneous applause. "We," of course, referred to the staff headed by Executive Producer Philip DeGuere: James Crocker, Producer; Alan Brennert, Executive Story Consultant; Harlan Ellison, Creative Consultant; Rockne O'Bannon, Story Editor. Since they do not have a regular cast to worry about, who on other shows are stars around whom the show revolves, they can judge story quality without limitations imposed by ongoing characters and story lines. Actors are cast for their suitability to each role as it comes up.

The Twilight Zone has also done something that no one has mentioned, by adapting "Wong's ..." so faithfully. In a straightforward manner, without any egotistical fanfare, it has placed into a regular primetime show a story about born-and-bred Chinese Americans dealing with each other over a specifically ethnic issue and doing it honestly, without selling out to the broad commercial audience. Further, the story is presented just as one more thread of humanity, one more tale in the ongoing fabric of humanity, neither greater nor lesser than most. Perhaps this seems like a simple accomplishment, but the truth is that for television, it's a major event.

#

"DOO DOO du du, DOO DOO du du...."

The Twilight Zone has one advantage that no other show has ever had. The original version has been rerun so consistently through the years that it has become an American cultural icon. Children born almost twenty years after the original show started know episodes virtually by heart. The familiar theme, hummed or sung in conversation, conveys an opinion of strangeness that can be expressed in no other way. Now, unlike other perennial reruns, the Twilight Zone has reappeared in a fresh incarnation all its own, with creators who grew up with the original. No new show can have people working on it from the executive producer all the way down to the extras who understand the show's unusual principles so thoroughly.

During the course of filming, the crew, which is headed by highly-respected Director of Photography Bradford May, frequently made their own little Twilight Zone jokes as they went about their business, complete with the falsetto theme when it was appropriate. Even the drudgery of everyday work is spiced up a little, and the quality of network television enhanced a lot, in ... the Twilight Zone.

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Last Modified: January 23, 2005
Modified by: LJL


Copyright William F. Wu 1999, 2000-8. All Rights Reserved.