Peter Lawrence Dialogue
What follows is an e-mail correspondence with Peter Lawrence, who offered new information on the show's history and answered other questions about the show. Many thanks!
- Who is Takashi?
Takashi is Takashi Masunaga. Among other shows he developed were MUPPET BABIES and PETER PAN AND THE PIRATES (which is where I met him). He's a very interesting and, perhaps, eccentric talent. Margaret Loesch (Fox Children's Network) once said of him that he seems to come from another plane of intelligence - but, she added, that may be because no one understands a word he says! His greatest talent is his art - his eye and his ability to draw. That and a truly original mind. He is not a nuts and bolts producer. Hence the Quest problems - which could have been solved by the studio, or by me had I taken a more brutal stance with my friend and colleague.
He's incomprehensible genius! A one-off talent and, like many such talents, frightening to the run-of-the-mill hacks in the business - people without the generosity of spirit, the personal security of the acuity to see what Takashi brings to any project, where he needs support and where he needs direction and/or control. It takes a big man to save someone from himself - particularly if you will personally benefit by NOT saving him.
- When did development begin?
I think I began to develop THE REAL ADVENTURES OF JONNY QUEST as '92 turned into '93. One sure way of confirming that would be contact Bob Eatman, who negotiated my contract.
- Did you have anything to do with the telefilms?
As to the INSECTOID movie, no, I had nothing to do with it - or any other movie. J. Larry Carroll wrote that with his then partner David Carren (I think). Larry's a good guy. I've worked on and off with him for years. Don't always see eye to eye but he's decent, honest and has had quite a successsful live action and TV career. I think, in fact, that Larry was up for the job I eventually took.
- Can you describe the history of the show's development? It's been stated that you were Dick Sebast's replacement.
Competely arse about face. Dick and I were hired together, by Buzz Potamkin, though I believe I was the first hire. We worked more or less alone for a long time, developing the show, and I cannot stress too strongly that Dick was just as much responsible as I for the original vision - a smart, hip Action/Adventure version with a very realistic dramatic base and strong mystical overtones. We wanted cool characters that were believable. Cool props - and Dick enthusiastically embraced the Airstream (with its holographic interior); the remanufactured/updated PBY Catalina amphibian; and the catamaran. His direction made them work - and it was an absolute given of the show that everything had to work convincingly. When Jonny flew a plane, he had to use the controls as they are supposed to be used. If the script called for a Land Rover, it had to be a Land Rover, inside and out. We wanted no cheating and no dramatic license in these areas. Dick was great here and it was just a damned shame that he didn't have the drawing touch - or couldn't produce that touch - to get the characters right. As I have said before, he and Takashi would have made a wonderful combination (though, in reality, they probably would not have agreed to work together).
Dick and I were hired together, by Buzz Potamkin, the then Executive Producer. I believe I was hired first but we began to work together - Dick as the producer/art director/director and I as the writer/producer. Dick is a good man and a talented director. His storyboards are wonderful. He may, perhaps, not have the inspirational abilities, the originality, of Takashi, but he has all the producing talents which Takashi does not. The studio let Dick go because he did not, in the time he was there, which I believe may have been six months, come up with the stylish character designs the new show needed. I was not part of that decision and I regretted it at the time. I felt Dick should have been kept on while others were brought in to develop the designs.
There were some bitter moments toward the end of the show. The studio had some particularly pusillanimous executives and a lot of time servers on the production staff. It would not have been that difficult to bail the show out of its production problems which were caused by Takashi's attempts to find new production methods and partners, and by my efforts to support him. I did make some bad mistakes of my own. Should have applied a lot more pressure on Takashi, who was and is my friend, rather than let him go his own sometimes arcane way. Ultimately, however, the studio told me he was to be fired, at which stage I told them to fire me, too. Another bad mistake and too Quixotic. Gunther told me she was going to fire Takashi and at that moment I told her I would resign if she did. That's what brought on my firing.
When Potamkin and Fred Siebert (spelling? - the CEO? of Hanna Barbera, a truly pathetic and self-adoring executive) fired Dick, Buzz asked me whom I thought we should bring on. I suggested Takashi, with whom Buzz had worked on PETER PAN (which was Buzz's show; he sold it to Fox Children's Network). Both Buzz and I knew Takashi's weaknesses. Buzz tried hard to keep the production on track, despite the practical problems we faced, but he resigned at a critical moment and the studio did not have the will, the talent or the commercial courage to figure out how to achieve the vision of QUEST which so excited us in the beginning. (To such an extent that at one of his feeble Troop Rallies, Siebert described Takashi and I as the most talented people he'd ever worked with, and the vision of the show as near genius! That didn't do us any favors with the Hanna-Barbera time-servers, who resented us - some of them quite bitterly. Though there were others - Mike Ryan might be one - who welcomed the fresh air. And, by the way, Bill Hanna wrote on the first script I wrote for Quest: 'the best animation script I've ever read.' Naturally, I've lost the script - and perhaps one shouln't put too much trust in that because poor Bill was already failing by then. Joe B., on the other hand, hated the fact that we'd updated, aged and 'hipped' Jonny and the show.)
I don't have much to say about the writers that were brought in. In general, many of the professional series animation writers aren't that talented or imaginative; and even when they are, they are forced, by the system, to become script machines. The fees are so low and the lead times so short that it doesn't pay to dig deep. I knew Glenn, somewhat, as a friend, or friend of friends. He's a funny guy. I guess his work on Quest speaks for itself. Not the kind of scripts I was looking for but, by then, I was on to other things.
There was one truly treacherous bastard in the mix, a writer to whom I gave a first chance years before, and whom I contracted on every show I ran. A guy with very good ideas - funny, eccentric and original. He was, however, technically, in my opinion, a horrible writer. Therefore, I edited him heavily. Rewrote whole sequences. I was happy to do this because I'm much more interested in originality than I am in technique (or which freaking software a writer uses ... ). I put the work in, too, because I believe that for any show to be successful it has to have a singlar vision - and that vision is generally that of the show-runner/editor. Think of Chris Carter and X-FILES. And, by the way, we wrote our X-File material long before than show aired. Zeitgeist, I believe.
This writer, however, I later discovered, bitterly resented my editing and, when I left, restored much of his original work. He continued to work on the show and made - I understand - a pompous ass of himself. Interestingly enough, I don't think he has ever written for any other shows and ended up as a continuity writer on one of the cable channels. Good luck to him. At least he's making a living out of writing, which is damned hard to do.
Going back to the studio and its lack of support - or vision - there was one exec. there who was fantastic: Stephanie Sperber (who, I believe, is now at Universal, in marketing). She worked in the PR department and really 'got' what we were trying to do. She saw HB management for what it was, was prepared to stand up to it - and for the show - and even diverted PR budget toward us. A very smart woman who has probably gone far. I never saw her again after I left.
There's also Lee Danncher. I've worked with Lee on and off for years. I've had my problems with her but she's about the most dedicated practical producer I've ever known and honest as the day. I'll think of some other names as I go along. They'll certainly give the lie to the crap that's been written about my/our version of the show.
Bob Eatman! He may be too discreet to day much but he knows where a lot of the skeletons are rotting ... He's a friend (just to declare my interest) and was my agent.
Harv Zimmel's another writer. Chris Hubell was also involved. And it may be worth talking to George Segal or Robert Patrick. Or perhaps they've forgotten.
We might also want to reflect - though this has nothing to do with the concept, development or creative processes - on the role of the craven Sherry Gunther, one of the least talented or worthwhile (in every sense of the word) production executives of all time. The interesting thing about people like Sherry is that they have the gift of work - and income - in their hands and therefore will never be opposed by working producers, artists or writers - no matter how spineless or idiotic their decisions. If she had confronted the production problems - particularly the failures of the French sub-contractors to deliver - and worked honestly with Takashi and me, we could have put the show on the track we needed. But that's another episode - bar this stinging aside: if anyone says a single positive word about Sherry, I'd want to know his or her familial or financial relationship with her.
Huh. Strange! I find myself passionate and angry about the failures of QUEST. I truly thought I had put it all behind me a long time ago. What a waste it was - and the perfect exemplar of how hard it is to rise above the mediocrity of the TV animation business. Which makes a show like THE SIMPSONS all the more miraculous - and a supernormal credit to its creators and producers.
- Did you keep up with the show after your departure?
I'll just say, here, that the moment I left QUEST I put it behind me. Had no interest in how the successive teams dealt with the show. I knew it would die the death and I had other interesting and demanding projects to work on.
- It's been alleged by an animator's e-mail in 1996 that you knew nothing of the original classic Quest series, and some have criticized you for wanting nothing to do with it in terms of making Real Adventures.
Would any halfway intelligent writer be stupid enough not to know the original inside out before he or she proposed a new show? [He is] clearly someone too dim, dishonest or lazy to investigate the truth for himself.
The old show - though in line with its times - if reproduced, would have been racist, insulting, patronizing, colonial and plain dull. Which, come to think of it, summarizes much of the 'new' show that followed 'ours.' Even if they hated ours, even if they wanted to tear down everything out of spite, jealousy, a genuine dislike or any other noble or spurious reason, surely to god they could have come up with something marginally original or imaginative?
Maybe the people who cling to the old Quest and its attitudes are the same people who have lost American the great affection in which it was held worldwide. Instead of seeming to be the big brother with an arm around less fortunates' shoulders - a big brother who, by the way, gave birth to the New Left and all the wonderful things which came out of that movement, in addition to great movies, superb and energetic literature and blues, jazz and rock 'n roll - is now seen as a moron with too much stomach, no brains and a couple of hired thugs to bully anyone who disagrees.
- Did you keep your writer's bible?
I don't keep great records. Of the four or five hundred episodes of various shows I've edited, run or written, I probably have half a dozen scripts and no show bibles. When it's passed, it's past. Probably a very bad mistake.
- A newspaper article states that you and Takashi attended conventions somewhere in the southern United States in late 1995.
That's probably the Amelia island retreat that Siebert organized to inspire loyalty and affection - admiration - in his employees. What a farce. Fun, though! Pity he didn't put those funds into production - and not necessarily QUEST's production. Corporate wanking. He was good at that.
We attended many meetings and conventions up and down the country - I far more than Takashi. Many of them required that I pitch to groups of possible investors - licensing and merchandising companies - and that's how the finance was pieced together. I did most of the creative pitching while the execrable Siebert did the business stuff. At first, he was very supportive but gradually he became - it seemed to me - resentful of our independence. Stephanie Sperber, if she remembers, will have a lot of detail about these sessions because she organized them. And pitched the show.
- What became of that live-action film?
The Donner project went nowhere. They sent an A-team writer to talk to us and he seemed completely out of his depth. Nice guy - can't remember his name - but clueless. Clearly, if one got the story and direction right, Jonny would make a great live action hero: perfect for a series of big movies. No reason why that should not be on the HARRY POTTER scale. Interesting to wonder what that direction might be.
- What was the genesis of QuestWorld?
When Takashi came on board, and with the encouragement of the merchandising and licensing people, who wanted more 'stuff,' we came up with the whole Virtual Reality world. Surd. A new (then) take on VR. A world which our characters could enter via technology (and Hadji via his own mental development). A world in which there was real jeopardy because, in addition to everything else, while you are in that VR world, your physical body is powerless and vulnerable in the real world. Much of this material has gone out of my head, but we could regenerate it with Takashi, who was the driver of these VR elements.
To clarify, VR wasn't originated in itself by the licensees. We - Takashi and I - were asked to expand the range of characters and the world of Quest. I was very much against a running villain, or series of villains, which seem to me to be such a cliché. The licensees, however, love those set characters and, in fairness, I can see why. Audiences, too, like them. So we caved in and, in searching for those additional characters and mileus, came up with VR.
- What was the inspiration for Hadji? Was he a paradigm of Eastern thought, or based on a friend in that hemisphere of the world?
Clearly you have some knowledge of my own background - brought up in Zambia. (Tongue in cheek, Buzz, Stephanie and others said that I had a lot in common with Jonny - and, actually, I really did identify with our vision of him.) Not just in Zambia but deep in the bush. I grew up with Africans. I was an African, albeit white. When I went to Europe and, later, the US, I was stunned at the casual racism, the unthinking stereotyping, the sheer ignorance of other cultures. So, when it came to Hadji I was determined to make him real. Or as real as he could be in the context. Michael Benyaer really 'got' what we wanted to do with this character and that made it easier to 'hear' Hadji's voice while writing. I wonder where Mike is now?
In fact, however pretentious it makes me seem, I wanted this authenticity in all the characters. That's why we went for some rather 'out there' casting - and that's why, of course, the succeeding producers undid everything and went safe. It's pretty sad, and quite indicative of the xenophobia of our culture and the play-safe of the industry.
I did have a great Pakistani friend at university, Tahir Attar. Educated in Europe at expensive private schools but retaining deep cultural roots. I believe, for example, that he entered an arranged marriage - quite happily. He was a perfect mix of East and West and I took a lot from him for Hadji. We did, of course, add an additonal dose of mysticism (for want of a better word), for dramatic reasons and in an attempt to keep the stories really open. (Minds, too, perhaps - but God forbid that we were proselytizing.) Yeah. Compare our Hadji with that moron in ... oh, god, what was that silly robot movie? it will come to me. Or most of the silly sing-song morons which Hollywood makes of Asian Indians.
- And where did the idea for the refreshing adaptation of Race come from?
Yes, the same questions and the same answers. I wanted a man of action, not thought - though perfectly capable of deep thought. A cowboy. It's not what you think that counts, it's what you do. And, for gods' sake, aren't we all sick of the 1-D stereotypes? Whoever said that someone out of the West could not be a philospher/warrior. It's a calumny - a revolting slander - that our current president dresses himself in that phony aww shucks Texan crap and so fools voters into thinking he's a Good Old Boy. The only things he has in common with his redneck buddies, or the redneck he seems to aspire to be, despite his family, his wealth and his education, are his stupidity and his cowardice; Race was anything but stupid or cowardly. He would be disgusted at the Chief Executives act and believe it's giving cowboys, everywhere - right or left - a terrible reputation. A good reason, in fact, to alter their accents ...
Refreshing is right. Race believed in Jonny. He trusted Jessie. He liked Hadji and respected him. He thought, as I do, that kids are much smarter and have more integrity than we give them credit for. They particularly have much more depth and interest than writers, producers and broadcasters -program buyers - give them credit for. (Of course, there are many exceptions to this general rule of on-staff mediocrity which I seem to be promoting here, but I didn't find more than a few of those exceptions at HB at that time. And most of them - plus a couple of really good production execs., Katherine Winder, for example - left while I was working on QUEST.)
One other thing - very important - Race's accent and mannerisms gave us something to write toward. Variety. Surprise. Dare I say it ... something approaching originality.
- The first writer's bible names Ezekiel Rage "Argus Grimm". Was he your creation?
I believe Ezekiel Rage was invented by Leopold while he was working under 'our' regime. My memory is that Buzz Potamkin wanted a series of more conventional stories and suggested I use Glenn to write them.
- What are your thoughts on the changes?
It's quite extraordinary, to me - astonishing and disgusting - that the moment Takashi and I left our successors changed Jessie from being a really strong, empowered (however one may hate that word) young woman to being a pink stereotype always in need of rescue; and reduced Hadji to a pathetic colonial remnant. This in America, the home/originator of the New Left, of feminism, of freedom from colonial imperatives! What a comment on the lazy, feeble-minded archaic and chauvinist attitudes of the writers and producers. How gutless. What are these writers thinking of that they can spew out colonial era Hadjis and pink rescue-me girls? No wonder Lance hated what we had done and went to such great pains to trash it. It's one thing to have a genuine disagreement with a creative direction. It's quite another to sneer and slander. Perhaps it jacked up his ego. I hope he made a boatload of money from his bile!
At some stage, we might want to discuss the fiasco of the QUEST music ... where another hack, Bodie Chandler, machinated with the managment to replace a genuinely original talent, Matt Cartsonis (see his website - and contact him for the scores he wrote. He'll certainly cooperate and the music for RETURN OF THE ANASAZI, EAST OF ZANZIBAR and ALIEN IN THE WHITE HOUSE, among other pieces, are wonderful. He'll also give you another - and honest - perspective on our QUEST.)