THE MIXED-UP WORLD OF MAX HEADROOM CREATORS
Who made Max Headroom? Three people say they were mainly responsible for creating everybody’sfavorite television talking head, as well as many of the other characters and situations seen in ABC’s “Max Headroom” series. But these three--George Stone, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton--aren’t even listed in the show’s credits. Has Max left them behind on his road to fame and fortune?
Like Orwell’s Big Brother, Max Headroom seems to be everywhere--in his own ABC prime-time show, two books, a rock video . . . even on authorized beach towels. And right now Coke’s hoping the head-and-shoulders humanoid can take a sarcastic bite out of a competitor Max calls “the P-word.”
The ultimate talking head, Max is also well on his way to becoming--just m-m-m-m-maybe--the ultimate TV star of the ‘80s. His six-week spring trial run on ABC is wrapping up tonight at 10 p.m. on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42. And even though the ratings haven’t been to the max, the network may give Mr. Headroom the nod for fall.
Amid Max’s current glory, however, three people say their contributions to his success have been nearly forgotten. George Stone, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton claim they invented Max, even though they’re not listed in the ABC credits. The three Britishers have been out of the Max Headroom story for a while, but they were there at the beginning.
In late 1981, a new London television station, Channel Four, was looking for novel programs. One of Channel Four’s “commissioning editors,” Andy Park, asked a friend at Chrysalis Visual Programming to come up with a concept for a music-video show. But instead of an MTV-like veejay, Park wanted something unusual to bridge the gap between video clips.
Park’s friend at Chrysalis was Peter Wagg, who had produced some rock videos for his company. Wagg, who’d employed advertising copywriter Stone on various projects before, asked him for a few ideas for this video linking device. Wagg also admired the clever TV commercials and music videos made by Morton and Jankel at their animation-oriented Cucumber Studios, and brought the couple in on the project.
Stone came up with the idea for a character named Max Headroom, and Morton and Jankel fleshed it out a bit. Park wanted to know more about this character, and became so fascinated with the background story created by Stone, Morton and Jankel that he then insisted Chrysalis make a “Max” film for Channel Four, in addition to the series. It took Chrysalis some time to come up with the financing (gained, finally, when HBO bought in for the right to show the film and series on its Cinemax cable outlet in the United States) and for Morton and Jankel to work out the details of the film, which they’d been assigned to direct.
Finally, in late ’83 through early ’84, the film and series were made--and shown on Channel Four and Cinemax (in ’85). Now Max is a star! Wagg is still with him. But what happened to Stone, Morton and Jankel?
Morton and Jankel have been in Los Angeles lately, developing and casting a new film that has absolutely nothing to do with “Max Headroom.” Though the directors did not want to divulge the picture’s title or plot, they did say the plot was about jealousy.
Andy Park, reached at his current office with BBC in Glasgow, thought that might be apt. There was jealousy of Morton’s and Jankel’s talents on the side of Chrysalis people, he believes. Also: “Some jealousy on Rocky and Annabel’s part, I think, over the success that Chrysalis has had. They must wish from time to time that they’re in it instead of out of it. . . .
“That first film and series were so special. So everybody had ideas of where to go from there. Rocky and Annabel wanted to propose some very adventurous things. Peter Wagg wanted to maximize the sales potential of what he had. There were different sets of ambitions. Rocky and Annabel became very frustrated.
“I have sympathy for them. In a way, Max’s success has worked against them. I don’t think any of us had a conception that it would rise as high as it has gone.”
Morton and Jankel say, yes indeed, they did have different plans for Max. However, those plans ran completely counter to the way Max is used in the ABC show (“he’s sort of become a Boy Scout, hasn’t he?” offers Jankel) and to the master-of-conceit’s commercialization.
She and Morton had wanted to direct a second “Max Headroom” film, one for theaters. In the movie, Max would have increased both his control over communications and the megalomaniac aspects of his programmed personality. Max’s alter ego, TV journalist Edison Carter, would be forced to do something about him.
But other people had other plans for Max--like a big splash on U.S. TV.
As for directing the ABC series, Jankel said, “Just remaking our own work would have been too bizarre a thing to do.”
The premiere episode of the ABC show, she pointed out, was a remake of her and Morton’s original, hourlong film--the first sight of Max the world ever got (on Channel Four and Cinemax; it later was also released as a Karl-Lorimar videocassette). Watching Max’s ABC debut, she said, was “like sitting in a parallel universe.”
Though the ABC version was shot by Lorimar in the United States with new, American actors in all but three parts, it indeed did follow the same basic storyline of the original British film, and that film’s look . Critics praised the ABC debut’s “Blade Runner"-like style, but none of them seemed to realize that Morton and Jankel had created that style, very closely copied in the ABC film.
Morton and Jankel said that besides working with Stone on creating the Max character and storyline, they also primarily figured out what Max would look like-- and how to make him look that way. At first, they investigated whether Max really could be programmed by computer. Realizing that this was too difficult, they used their animation background to create the Max image--"by taking out certain frames, distorting the image, lighting it the way one would light an animation image, shooting it over a blue screen and superimposing a background,” Jankel said. “It became a sort of huge club sandwich of effects, and people thought it really was computer-generated!”
And, of course, the series depended heavily on actor Matt Frewer, who--in a four-hour makeup job--displayed a knack for sly, funny ad-libs as Max. “He was excellent at that,” said Jankel.
But concerning Max’s basic invention, “It was the three of us who worked together to do it all,” Morton declared, meaning himself, Jankel and Stone. “If (Peter Wagg) feels that he was in the creative process at the beginning, I’d like for somebody to ask him, ‘Which bits did he come up with?’ ”
From reading recent articles about the “Max Headroom” phenomenon, it’s easy to get the impression that Wagg came up with a lot. Of the post-ABC-premiere press accounts seen by this reporter, only one--a cover piece in Newsweek--even mentioned the names of Stone, Morton and Jankel, and even there only once. Newsweek did not explain that Morton and Jankel had directed the original film, and a photo of Wagg was captioned: “Man behind the talking head.”
Another cover article appeared in Music Connection, with the title “Headroom Goes Hollywood: Peter Wagg Has Created a Computer-Generated Monster.” The article consisted almost entirely of verbatim quotes from Wagg about Max. Bud Scoppa, the magazine’s senior editor, conducted the interview. He told The Times that as far as he remembered, Wagg never mentioned Stone, Jankel or Morton or discussed their contributions. “I thought it was a little strange,” said Scoppa. “I asked him about how the film got that ‘Blade Runner’ look, and he started talking about the film’s editor .”
Lorimar’s press material describes Wagg as “co-creator of ‘Max’ character,” without mentioning who the other “co-creators” were.
On the original film, Wagg is listed as producer. But the screenplay is by Steve Roberts and it is credited as being “based on an original idea by George Stone, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel.” Morton and Jankel are listed as directors. On the original music-video series, the credit reads “created by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel.”
Contacted at Lorimar Telepictures, which has been licensed by Chrysalis to make the “Max Headroom” series for ABC, Wagg--whose title on this show is executive producer--was asked who came up with the idea for the Max Headroom character.
“Well,” he said, “a lot of people have an awful lot of ideas about that. Today it’s very hard to say, with all the people involved. It was very much a kind of community thing.”
When the credits on the original film were read to him, Wagg agreed that “George was the initiator of the story line for the original film in conjunction with Rocky and Annabel, who directed it.”
So were they primarily responsible for the character and story? “We were the four at the beginning who started it off,” Wagg responded. “And the whole thing just sort of developed and mushroomed, with everybody getting involved.”
Asked why Stone, Jankel and Morton weren’t involved with “Max Headroom” anymore, and why they weren’t mentioned in the ABC credits, Wagg refused further comment, referring the reporter to Terry Connolly, Chrysalis Group managing director. Connolly did not return any of three phone messages left with his office in London.
“You say I have no credit whatsoever?”
George Stone is asking about the ABC show. He lives in London--over a hardware store, he says--and hasn’t seen the program. “But if it involves fearless news hound Edison Carter, his controller Theora Jones, boy scientist Bryce, body banks and Network 23, then it is my and our--meaning Rocky and Annabel-- our creation,” Stone told The Times during a transatlantic conversation.
Stone said that while others have benefited from the Max phenomenon, he hasn’t. “My life style here is literally one room with bare floorboards.” The writer said he was so depressed after being taken off the Max project that “I thought ‘to hell with film and television.’ I couldn’t touch a typewriter for some time.”
Now Stone is writing again, but he hasn’t been able to sell his story treatments. “I don’t even get to first base, because you say you did a show and people say, ‘OK, what did you have to do with (“Max”)? You’re name isn’t up there (as screenwriter).’. . . Everybody looks at credits. They really matter over here, and I’m sure they matter over there.”
“I mean, (bleep) it--I invented Max.”
Morton and Jankel agree. They said that Stone came up with the name and basic idea for the character. The couple--romantic as well as creative partners (Jankel is expecting a baby in October)--then worked out a “broad outline,” according to Jankel, that involved a “conspiracy” situation in which “this TV presenter had to escape” and bumped his head on something saying “MAX HEADROOM, 2.3 METERS” (a “maximum headroom” warning), “knocking him unconscious. And the TV (network) was so desperate for ratings that they had to reconstitute him. So we then conceived the idea that the live person would be re-created as a computer-generated personality.”
But then, they said, Stone suggested that the character who gets his head banged up be “a roving reporter.” Morton: “And then George came up with Theora, who controls (the reporter) through the television, and then he invented the blipvert because we needed a ‘MacGuffin’ in the film. Then the whole thing exploded from there.”
Morton, Jankel and Stone said that they came up with almost all of the major characters and settings seen in the ABC show and, of course, in the original “Max” film. But before the latter was made, Stone was taken off the project.
Steve Roberts, who has sole screenplay credit on that film and is story editor for the ABC show, gave this version of what happened: He was told by Wagg, Morton and Jankel that the Stone script “had a lot of ideas in it but was entirely unusable. I read the script and agreed with them. . . . What it was was a piece full of rather bright ideas. However, it was Rocky and Annabel who said they needed something else altogether.”
Asked about this, Jankel and Morton said that Stone’s script was “shootable” but that “George probably had too many ideas in there.” They confirmed that they agreed to Roberts’ involvement and worked closely with him. According to them, Roberts’ chief contribution was dialogue. They stated, however, that all of the central characters and elements were created by Stone.
Roberts, on the other hand, said that isn’t entirely so. He did have one objection to the claim that Stone had invented all the major characters in the British film. At one point during the final-script stage, British occult writer Colin Wilson was brought in as an adviser--and Wilson’s son, Roberts asserts, came up with the idea of making Bryce a teen-ager rather than “a potty old professor.” Morton and Jankel believed this detail to be correct. Stone, though, insisted that he conceived Bryce as “a kid.”
“To tell the truth,” Roberts said, “George came up with some smashing ideas. But in terms of the origins of this stuff, I mean. . . . The story of Hamlet came from an old Norseman, and the last time I saw it at Stratford I didn’t see his credit anywhere.”
While many of the questions about Max’s past remain to be resolved, ABC is a lot more concerned with what the talking head’s future will be. ABC Entertainment Vice President Ted Harbert told The Times that “Max Headroom” is “the type of show we would like to have on our schedule in the fall,” but that results of the entire spring tryout “will have to be analyzed before a decision is made.” (Meanwhile, Max will also show up in another HBO/Cinemax series).
Morton and Jankel likened Max to a child who’s grown up and left home. And how do they feel about their popular, troublesome offspring?
“Well,” said Morton, “we’re sort of pleased . . . “
” . . . that he’s done so well for himself,” said Jankel, finishing his sentence. They both laughed.
“But we still worry about him,” added Morton. “And we especially worry about the company he keeps.”