Interview: Jeff Cooperman and Mike Mezaros Talk James Cameron’s Story of Science FictionApril 30, 2018
Recently we had a chance to talk with Jeff Cooperman, showrunner and co-executive producer and Mike Mezaros, co-executive producer, about their involvement in the new mini-series AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction and what sci-fi means to them on a personal level.
So how did you both get to the positions you are in now? I can’t imagine when you were growing up as kids you thought yeah, I’m going to be a showrunner or executive producer.
Jeff: I did, actually.(Laughs) I took a sequiturs root to get here, via news and then news satire at The Colbert Report. I’ve been here for the past couple of years working on various projects for places like Matt GEO, MSNBC, and A&E.
Mike: My story is very similar I think, I came out of the womb knowing that I would work in film and television. I also took a sequiturs root through a bunch of other things but I’ve been working in production now for about twenty years and I’ve been working on shows for Left Right for the last twelve years.
How did this project get started? Was it always going to be a mini-series of did the concept evolve over time?
Mike: Yeah, I mean honestly, the basic idea and concept came to us from AMC, it often doesn’t work that way and I believe it happened because they saw the opportunity to work with James Cameron. Obviously, James Cameron has done Years of Living Dangerously, another large-scale multi-episode short run documentary series which was very successful, so the opportunity to do something similar to that with him, on a subject that he’s extremely passionate about, which is science fiction and the origins of it, the meaning behind it, was an easy decision.. If he was on this call he could monologue how important science fiction is to him personally and to the world in general for twenty minutes easily.
Why did the two of you get involved in this project? Was it all about science fiction or was it something more than that?
Jeff: I think both of us have a real passion for the subject. I’m not going to speak for Mike but I grew up watching Star Trek and imagining myself in that particular future. All I wanted as a kid was a communicator and sure enough, the future and science fiction came closer together than ever before. The works of William Gibson or Phillip K. Dick were extremely important to me as well so the opportunity to dive into science fiction or the amount of time it’s taken to get this huge production onto the air, it was a blessing and a gift. Also, it was fantastic not to have to focus on the day to day headlines of what’s happening in America, especially in Washington, D.C.
Mike: I’ll just add that I had a very similar experience. As a kid, science fiction was really not at all mainstream, it was definitely a weird corner with Star Wars being the big obvious exception but kids like me, they grew up reading these sci-fi books by Clarke and Asimov. Also, literally every night, when I was way too young to be staying up until midnight, I was watching Star Trek on the local syndicated stations and then at 1 am watching The Twilight Zone reruns also, so literally a decade of that, imprinted on my brain, the love of this genre. What’s different about it now and why we can do a show like this is it’s hugely mainstream. Science fiction is no longer the weird cousin of literature, it is now mainstream pop culture that everybody, to some extent or another, is involved with.
Jeff: Let me expand on that a tiny bit because Mike is absolutely right. Growing up, when you would walk into a bookstore, science fiction was always in the back somewhere, on a dusty shelf, wedged between Westerns and Fantasy and it really had no respect. As Mike has said, it is now center stage of our culture and I think that movement is really interesting and was one we were very interested in tracing the roots of in a series. It’s not just about the primacy of science fiction in our culture today but where it came from and we wanted to trace that DNA of it back to the source, and make people understand that the core of these movies and TV shows that are so popular, they were the B movies of the fifties and before that, the pulp magazine and before that, they were the literary giants, the Jules Verne’s, the H.G. Wells of the world. Everyone is standing on the shoulders of the next generation to get us to where we are today and I think we don’t even think of it as science fiction, it’s simply our culture. I think if you asked random people on the street if they are science fiction fans they may or may not agree, but if you ask them if they love Star Trek or Star Wars or The Matrix they would say of course they do. I think it’s one of those unspoken transitions and we wanted to highlight the different stages of that.
Did you have a specific plan in terms of how this series was going to be laid out or did that change as things moved forward?
Mike: Honestly Jeff, we spent the better part of a year figuring that out, going back and forth with James Cameron and his team, as well as the network, trying to that figure out. If we’re only going to do six hours, you could have six hours on just Star Wars if you wanted to, so how can you slice and dice this and talk about it in a way that’s interesting, has the right pace because believe me, what James Cameron wants to do is not just scratch the surface but he wants to go deep. When
we talk about one movie he wants to talk about it not just as a film or part of pop culture, he wants to know what its influences were, where it came from, what was the pulp magazine story from 1947 about it that no one remembers but him anymore that actually laid out the framework for that, so it took quite a bit of time. I worked on it for about six to eight months and then Jeff and our team of great producers also came on and we hashed it out again for several months. The nice thing about it, as Jeff alluded to it early, is that’s a luxury in television, where normally you work at a much faster pace than this, we had our moments in terms of pace but for the most part we were able to take out time, sit down and figure out how to present this material. The way we did it, each episode covers a big topic or big theme in the genre and then looks at that theme through the lens of specific works, big blockbusters or other stories that you may not know, I think it’s was very successful.
There is so much material involved in this genre, and after watching everyone and everything involved in the first episode, I’m wondering how you eventually decided on what to keep and what didn’t make the cut?
Jeff: It was a very difficult process at times because as you said, there is just so much material. As Mike just said as well, you think about six hours and that seems like a lot of time but when you get right down to it, you realize there is just no way you can include all the things you want to. We were very clear though, and I want to point this out, that we were not making the Wikipedia of video entries on science fiction, it was very much James Cameron’s story of science fiction, not the history of science fiction. It has a particular point of view and has made some choices that I’m sure will thrill many viewers and raise questions with others. I think we’re following Ray Bradbury’s famous quote about the role of science fiction, that it’s not here to predict the future, it’s here to prevent it.
Mike: We have had the luxury of looking at this series as a six-hour unit and I’m not sure how many episodes the press has screened but I know the audience at home will be watching these, one per week. With that luxury, we can say well, we can talk about 2001: A Space Odessey in this episode in a certain context and we can come back to it four hours later and talk about it in another context, maybe spend more time with it, so I think fans should give it a chance and if they liked the first episode we hope they watch the entire series and see that while we certainly couldn’t cover everything in depth given we only had six hours, I think we did a pretty good job of touching most of the major bases.
Good science fiction does a great job of combining a story with present-day reality. Was that a major focus in this series as well?
Mike: We think science fiction absolutely ties back in with actual reality. Often we’re talking about different universes or different planets or future times that are completely fictional but for the most part, science fiction is speaking about our situation here on Earth in the now, as opposed to the when, when you are talking about science fiction from the past. I think that is the key to good storytelling in any genre and one of the ways it specifically ties into the human condition, we’ve been talking about this since the very first days of developing this show, is that science fiction tries to answer big philosophical questions, other genres sometimes do but not in the way science fiction does. Are we alone in the universe? Is technology going to overtake humanity? What happens when we die? What makes us afraid? What does it mean to be human? These are questions that science fiction, time and time again, hits on and that maybe doesn’t happen so often in other forms of popular entertainment. We always try to tie back our themes and episodes to these big ideas that specifically apply to the human condition.
Jeff: I’m sure Jeff, you’ve seen it, you’ve picked it up when you were watching the first couple of episodes, that it’s not just a recitation of works related to a particular theme but the why of that, what they add to those questions, how they post them and answer them for us about some of these large questions. What does it mean for us when our machines start to think? What can we learn about us from aliens? What is in outer space? What might we encounter when we’re out there? Why are we so attracted to monsters? Science fiction is really our headlights, a way to see a bit down the road to where humanity is heading and maybe we can swerve in time, or at least see what a multi-car crash would look like.
After doing this project, with so much information thrown at you, and being science fiction fans yourselves, where do you think this genre could be headed next?
Jeff: Part of the beautiful thing about science fiction is that there are just simply no limits. We’ve talked to filmmakers, academics, writers, actors and they’ll all tell you the same thing, that the limit on science fiction is one’s own imagination or one’s willingness to ask questions. What is interesting is to see the incredible diversity of the fields as it moves into the present and the future, again, what used to be an enclave of hobbyists and particularly niche fans has become such a part of our culture and the culture is taking it in some interesting places.
I want to thank Jeff and Mike for taking the time to talk with us
AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction begins Monday, April 30th at 10 pm on AMC