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JMS vs. TNT

Crusade was a series that was doomed from almost the beginning. It was canceled after 13 episodes were made ... before any of them aired! The reason why is highly debated, but the general consensus is that there were creative differences between JMS and TNT. For more information about JMS' take on the demise of this series, read his USENET post.

This is a very lengthy and enlightening post from JMS about his daily struggle working with TNT in the making of Crusade. I like to read it from time to time to remind myself why Crusade never made it.

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Date: 10.27.1999
Subject: ATTN JMS: *sigh* a quick Question
JMS at B5 said:

The only MAJOR changes were in "War Zone" and the other episodes, discluding the last five, were only minor changes. Correct? They weren't something like what they did in "War Zone"; they didn't change the plot/whichever that was in WAR ZONE. Right?

This is a greyer question than appears at first blush.

You need to understand that the notes-giving process was ongoing, that every day was a fight, and every day there were pressures from WB and others to accede to those requests and notes. We were told repeatedly, "Look, give 'em the show they want for the first year, then you can make it your way in the second season."

I've always had a policy that if a note makes sense, whoEVER it comes from -- a network, a grip, a carpenter, whoever -- then I'll listen to it. So I tried, where possible, to listen for any notes that made sense in the whirlwind of ka-ka that came our way. Some who were not there said that I was acting unreasonably, and that only the one script WarZone was really affected, that the other scripts were already written and thus not affected. But nothing could be further from the truth. They were all whittled at in big or small ways.

If a note didn't make sense...then the answer had to be No.

The "big no" meeting was specifically about a small percentage of the scripts...and only one meeting out of many. They kept at us *constantly*.

As Michelangelo said, "Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle." Sometimes the notes nibbled at big issues, sometimes at small ones, but there are profound effects either way. Sometimes doing something as small as changing the rhythm of a scene can destroy it. Take a particularly memorable piece of classical music (I won't even name it to illustrate the point further) that begins "dah-dah-dah-DAAAH."

Now change it to "dah-dah-dah-BLAAAT." It's only one note difference. You can say it' s just a teensy change. But your gut says it ain't right, something there doesn't work.

Just for the hell of it...I'm going to reprint now one of my memos to TNT, omitting the name of the person involved. This is emblematic of some of the exchanges. (This memo was widely distributed to TNT, WB and Babylonian folks involved in the creative stuff, so it's by no means private.)

Message follows.

**********************************

To:
From: Joe Straczynski
Date: December 8, 1998
Re: Latest Notes on Cuts and Scripts

Dear

We've had a chance to review the latest batch of comments, and have some thoughts on how some of them can be done. Others, as will be examined below, are more problematic.

Prior to that, though, a general thought: when the notes process began in earnest subsequent to 105, we voiced the concern that we seemed to be getting conflicting reactions...on the one hand we received requests for action, on the other hand we got requests for more dialogue about what the stories mean to the characters, scenes that allow them to express their feelings to one another. Prior to then, with the possible exception of a few scenes in 101, we had been primarily an action-based series.

We said at this time that we needed clarification: did TNT want more action, or more dialogue scenes/exposition? Since then, the script notes have been primarily oriented toward creating more dialogue scenes, more background on the characters, their feelings toward one another and the situations they're in, and the emotional consequences. Essentially, expository scenes of one sort or another. We have complied with those notes as much as we possibly could.

So you can understand my concern when, having done as TNT asked, we get notes on the cuts that essentially pillory us for having a slower pace. The pace is in large measure the result of adding in those expository scenes. If TNT asks for new scenes or to expand scenes in which characters talk about their feelings, it's going to perforce slow down the action aspect.

I feel it's unfair to take us to task for doing what we were told to do.

The Senator scene in 108 is particularly emblematic of this. That scene was originally much shorter. TNT asked for more information about how this was affecting people back home, how they felt about it. We did that, and now are being told that the scene is too long. It wasn't too long when we started with it. It only became too long after we added in all the things that TNT asked us for.

It is both confusing and demoralizing for all of us involved in the production of Crusade to receive contradictory notes. As I mentioned in our previous meetings, there has to be consistency; if the goal post keeps getting moved around the field, we have no idea what to move toward.

To be honest, the pacing that the current notes seem to be asking for is most embodied by episodes 101-105, the kind of show we were making prior to the hiatus and notes process.

Anyway, that's a general reaction that I think we need to address at some point in the future. Meanwhile, on to the specific notes.

NOTES ON PRODUCER'S CUTS

(jms note to reader: a producer's cut is made after the episode has been filmed and we edit the thing.)

THE WELL OF FOREVER

"The opening seems slow. Is there a way to open with the scene in which Galen convinces the crew to go to the Well of Forever? This scene will catch the attention of the audience."

There are only two scenes in the opening: a walk-and-talk scene with Matheson and Gideon, in which we learn that Matheson is going to get tested to ensure that he has not been improperly scanning people telepathically, and the convince-the-crew scene. The most we could do structurally would be to flop the two scenes in sequence.

Both are dialogue scenes. The first one keeps us in motion, and sets up that Gideon is en route to a meeting; the second scene is that meeting. We cannot edit out that part because it comes at a point where the camera is moving and we're well into the scene. It seems to us best to start in on movement, to pull the audience in, and end on the conference scene, because that sets up the mystery: no one has ever come back. To have that moment, and then the walk-and-talk, would eliminate the dramatic end of the teaser, which we're hoping to use to make the audience want to come back after the commercial break.

So on careful reflection, this one can't really be done without actually working against the overall pacing and structure of the episode.

WAR ZONE

'The pacing of this episode, as well as 106 and 107, is consistently slow."

While there may be some validity to this as far as 106 is concerned, about which more later, I find "slow pacing" a very difficult concept to apply to this episode.

WAR ZONE contains 25 interior shots, 52 exterior shots, and a total of 115 scenes over 43 pages, averaging 3 scenes or major shots per page, which is something of a record for a script on this or just about any other show. It has stunts, fights, hand-to-hand combat, air-to-air combat, air-to-ground combat, sneaking, shooting, and buckets of other action. It is, frankly, the most ambitious and fastest-paced episode we've ever produced, rivaled only by 103, which is in your hands now, and which is anything but slow.

I believe that, as with 103, the pacing will become more evident once the CGI and other effects are in.

"The fight scene in the opening...is choppy and unrealistic." We did the best we could there with what we had in the dailies, which were also sent to TNT. It was a small set, and we really only have the two scenes with which to play.

However:

* I agree that there are some places where a couple of transitional shots (such as the downshot, and the crew running out the door coming into the stairwell scene) are a bit awkward, given the coverage we had. We jumped into the scene a bit faster because we wanted to speed up the pacing, get into the confrontation with Gideon quickly, rather than wait for them to start at the top of the stairs and come all the way down.

* We can try to further expand the fight by lengthening the first piece, but only by double-cutting some of the footage we have from B-camera and grabbing bits of side-action, but this will add more cuts and that may also make it more "choppy."

* If you want additional fight stuff for that scene, it would have to be shot as new material, and there will be costs involved in doing that.

"...the scenes which include the senator's speeches need to be cut back." As noted previously, this scene was expanded to meet TNT's earlier notes. Virtually all of the information presented here is necessary for the audience to understand what the show is about: the plague, the blockade, why Gideon was chosen, and what the mission is.

* However: there is a small piece or two that can be lifted, about 5-15 seconds worth, which may help to pick up the pacing. It would, however, mean eliminating some of the material asked for in earlier notes. So if TNT is okay with that, we can trim up the scene and add those seconds to the fight scene in the teaser.

If "unrealistic" could be better defined for us, that would be very helpful, because that one has us kind of stumped.

* One other thing we can do in future episodes that will help the pacing is to work more closely with the directors, who tend to loved their long panning shots to open up a scene, rather than just jumping into it. (We sometimes get stuck with those long pans because coverage tends to start later into the scene, leaving us unable to cut into the scene any later.)

"Gideon doesn't seem to have an understanding or a rapport with his ship."

So that I can better understand the note, at what point does Gideon indicate that he doesn't understand his ship?

As for "a rapport with his ship," in this episode he is assigned to the Excalibur for the first time. He's only been there for a few hours; it seems unrealistic to expect to build a rapport with a place in just a few hours.

"There are also logic problems. How does he know where the conference room is on the Excalibur without some investigating?"

In the first Excalibur scene, Matheson escorts Gideon to the bridge. Gideon can see the conference room from his chair. Since it is in his clear line of sight, I'm not sure how much further investigation is required in order to find it.

"Introduce Trace by name earlier."

* We don't have any footage of this, but we can add an ADR line using his name.

Regarding the Chambers scene...here we must agree to disagree. Her letter to her sister seems very emotional to everyone here and at WB. Further, it's not a crying scene because that scene is about encouraging her sister about their intention to find a cure. She has to be strong for her sister, not fall apart. This had to be done as a recorded letter to her sister because we couldn't afford another actor at that point.

Also, that scene was sent through in script, and everyone was fine with it at the time.

Regarding 106 and 107...as we noted in our conversation prior to their publication in script form, having done massive action shows in 101-105, we needed to have a couple of smaller, quieter shows in order to balance out the costs involved. So yes, they are slower episodes, as I noted at the time they would be. You can't produce every episode at a screaming pace and expect to stay on budget. Some are loud, some are quiet; the key is just to do more louds than quiets.

SCRIPT NOTES

(jms note to readers: this refers to scripts that were then in the preproduction stage)

APPEARANCES AND OTHER DECEITS

"Can we have one of our primary characters become inhabited by the being instead of either Rice or Janey?"

This is not possible; in order to provide the solution to the problem, we need Chambers, Eilerson and Matheson outside, and free. I chose those individuals specifically because they're the ones who together work out the solution. If you take any of them out of the equation, you don't have the people necessary to resolve this. So they can't become inhabited.

If we choose another character from our roster of regulars, that means a substantial rewrite and increased cast costs...and we have further problems because we only have access to a limited number of episodes per cast member, and we're trying to spread them out for maximum effect. So this one we can't really do.

"It might be fun to play up the comedy with (the fashion consultant)...have him get the crew into more trouble, not out of it."

That would be kind of the cliché way to go, in my view; to have him even inadvertently help the process is a nice surprise. Also, to create a thread where we have to set up a third problem in the script (the changes being asked for by Earth being one, the infestation being the second) and pay it off requires more room than we have in 43 pages, and is an unnecessary beat.

"Can we heighten the crew's annoyance with the changes being made on the ship?" The changes are not actually made until the end of the episode, which makes this rather problematic. We can add material in which they voice their concerns about what might be done, but this will again add expository dialogue that will slow down the pacing of the episode, and that seems to contradict what we are being asked for elsewhere.

* Re: "decoding of 'the air is human,'"...I'll look at that and see if we can extend the discovery of what he's trying to communicate to make it clearer about how they get there. Be advised, again, that this will add time and exposition and slow the pace.

RULING FROM THE TOMB

Regarding the recap of the request to edit down the Jehanne dialogue on page 13, expressed at the time because it seemed too "far out"...as noted later in the script, we are using the actual dialogue of Joan of Arc in the script. So if we are to retain our historical accuracy, we can't really change that material.

"Henderson's murder at the end of the teaser needs to have more physical action...have it become more of a hand-to-hand struggle."

We have already had to pull back on some of the stunt work in that episode due to budget limitations, and adding one more here is not within the limits of what we can do. Also, the suddenness of the attack is what we're looking for, dramatically, rather than a prolonged struggle with someone we've never met.

* However, I've spoken with John Copeland about this (he's directing this episode), and he will do what he can to maximize the action of that scene without having to add stunts or other costly elements.

I hope that this will be of assistance in clarifying the situation. We will certainly try and do what we can in the areas where we indicated we have some room to work, but as always, the degree to which we can make modifications is dictated to us by the budget, and we have an obligation to both WB and TNT to stay within those limits.

Sincerely,

Joe Straczynski

********************************

Back again.

Hardly the picture of someone who is being hostile, I'd say. But it does show that the notes process was ongoing. Every script meant defending against the addition of exposition and dumb scenes (such as a scene in which Matheson shows Gideon where the conference room is, which is 10 feet from his chair, because somebody at TNT thought it would be confusing to the audience otherwise to figure out how he could know it's there.)

Meaning, you'd be pretty damn proud of those episodes [The Path of Sorrows, Patterns of the Soul, Rules of the Game, ect.] that were only slightly changed?

I'm proud of pretty much all of them, because of what they required. If someone hands you a palm frond, a blender, and a car battery, and says, "Make me a radio out of this," and you actually DO it, you're proud of the result. It ain't as pretty as it could be, but given the conditions under which you were laboring, it ain't bad.

Some succeed more than others; but all would have been better *without* the kind of interference we received, the day to day battles, the war of attrition, the confusing and contradictory notes, and so on.

That's why 101-105 are overall the best episodes, because they were troubled the least by outside forces.

jms

(all message content (c) 2001 by synthetic worlds, ltd.,
permission to reprint specifically denied to SFX Magazine
and don't send me story ideas)
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