Starlogging With David McDonnell: What Fresh New Interview Hell Is This?
By David McDonnell - June 03, 2013
Over the years, for Starlog and other outlets, I’ve edited several thousand interviews and conducted about 200 myself. I might have done more of the latter, but it wasn’t logical. Early on, I learned that in the time it took me to finish a piece of my own, I could edit three or four interviews by others. So, professionally, I could do more if, personally, I did less.
Now, I must confess that we went a bit overboard on prepping our Starlog contributors. My Managing Editor(s) and I prepared extra questions (10-20 of ’em each) for at least half the interviews assigned to writers so as to augment their own queries. (Obviously, if a newcomer or a veteran was trying to sell us a chat that had already happened, we skipped the editorial-originated questions shtick.) We also frequently provided photocopies of past interviews (if this was a chance to talk to someone again) or relevant articles (as when several writers might be covering the same film or TV show almost simultaneously).
Was all that massive preparation really necessary? Probably not. I went in for the overkill because I didn’t want our freelancers to inadvertently miss something in an interview (one failed to ask Jason Robards about A Boy & His Dog or to mention it in the story—and we editors didn’t catch the omission) or to ask an oft-profiled subject (like John Carpenter, Hugh Jackman, Terry Gilliam or Ray Bradbury) the same specific questions Starlog had already asked him before. Let some other media outlet do that instead.
Now, when I did interviews about, say, Monsters, Inc. at Pixar Animation Studios or on set in Australia for The Matrix, I did find myself having to ask what I call "stupid questions." These are the inquiries which seem cliched and simplistic (like "How did you get this gig?" or "Where did the idea come from?"), but kind of have to be asked because that particular quote is needed for the story.
Interviews are set up mostly through publicists, sometimes agents, managers or spouses—or just with the interviewee directly. We’ve even had celebrity pals get into the act: Actress Caroline Munro arranged Steve Swires’ talk with her former co-star Peter Cushing. Paul Picerni of TV’s The Untouchables team connected Tom Weaver with his friend, sci-fi flick veteran Mike (Mannix) Connors. And John de Lancie personally put me together—for a brief chat I hadn’t even expected to do—with his Alien Voices compadre Leonard Nimoy.
Just because Starlog (or any other outlet) wants to interview somebody, that doesn’t mean they have to agree. On the Star Trek Classic front, I was not pleased at being turned down by Vic Tayback ("A Piece of the Action"), Madlyn Rhue ("Space Seed") and great character actor James Gregory ("Dagger of the Mind"). At least, Gregory was apologetic and had a good, albeit sad, excuse (a stroke had robbed him of his Trek and Manchurian Candidate memories).
Long tired of Star Wars attention, Sir Alec Guinness said no repeatedly over 15-odd years (and his agent just couldn’t understand why we would even ask). Why? Because well, some folks—like James Arness on being The Thing, Leslie Nielsen and Roy Thinnes—had also been negative initially but later changed their minds and were terrific Starlog subjects.
Others said no for curious reasons (feeling "over-interviewed," saving precious anecdotes for a projected autobiography, preferring to not focus on the past). Strangest was the once-blacklisted 1950s SF scribe who agreed to talk and then promptly reneged because Starlog had published an interview with a hated fellow filmmaker who had, almost uniquely, been blacklisted, served jail time for refusing to testify and only afterwards had actually "named names." One Trek guy, miffed because he thought a bylined colleague claimed more credit than merited in a Starlog piece for a yarn the first guy actually ghost rewrote, refused to talk because "we should have known." I’m not sure how, but no matter.
Some conversations become nightmares because the celebrity doesn’t have anything to say, has a hard time saying it and doesn’t really like (or want) to be interviewed anyhow. Case in point: Bill Warren’s 1990 rendezvous with Teri Garr, then starring in the SF comedy Mom & Dad Save the World (our window of interview opportunity). As I instructed Warren, we also really wanted quotes about her roles in "Assignment: Earth" (the Classic Trek episode/unsold series pilot which co-starred Robert Lansing as alien agent Gary Seven), Young Frankenstein and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Apparently, Garr feared (correctly) that Starlog wanted to talk Trek and had to be persuaded to chat so as to promote her new flick. Warren sat down with her on the balcony of her publicist’s office for an in-person session and from there, things went sour. "I have nothing to say about it," Garr declared of "Assignment: Earth" in Starlog #173. "I did that years ago and I mostly deny I ever did it." Turns out she was glad the Gary Seven show didn’t go to series. "Thank God," Garr told Warren. "Otherwise, all I would get would be Star Trek questions for the rest of my natural life—and probably my unnatural life. You ever see those people who are Star Trek fans? The same people who go to swap meets."
Well, there’s a quote that’s bound to not win friends and influence people—and that was my very thought as I initially edited Warren’s manuscript more than two decades ago (he had warned me the Garr conversation was akin to a bad date). I was flabbergasted that an actress I liked so much was so, well, amazingly hostile and negative about almost everything. This is why the Garr piece is one interview in a 30-year career that’s etched forever into my memory. Parts of it, verbatim.
Warren changed tack and tried to steer Garr to somewhat safer harbors, her classic science fiction films Close Encounters and Young Frankenstein. "I don’t regard them as science fiction," Garr said. "I just consider them good movies." Oops! Did she just insult the rest of our readership?
What can you do? Just move on—to the next interview.
David McDonnell, "the maitre’d of the science fiction universe," has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly "Media Report" news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.
Copyright 2013 David McDonnell
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