There comes a time when even big-budget movies aren't enough to accommodate all of a filmmaker's whims. That's why there's television.
"The actual making of a TV show is not an appealing thing to do, but it started with an idea that could only be done as a TV show," said Robert Zemeckis, one of five executive producers and the director of the premiere episode of the new CBS action comedy "Johnny Bago." "So then the question becomes, do you abandon the idea or do you do it? We thought the concept had merit, so we said we might as well give it a shot."
The "we" include some fairly major movie people. Zemeckis is the director of all the "Back to the Future" movies, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Death Becomes Her." Steve Starkey produced those films. Peter Seaman and Jeffrey Price wrote "Roger Rabbit" and "Doc Hollywood." And Frank Marshall has produced many of Zemeckis' and Steven Spielberg's biggest films and directed "Arachnophobia" and "Alive."
They took time out from making movies to produce eight episodes of a TV series about a guy who, while on the lam from the mob, the cops and his ex-wife/parole officer, tours the nooks and crannies of the United States in a Winnebago. The show premieres Friday at 10 p.m. and CBS will repeat each episode on Wednesdays at 11:30 p.m.
"It wouldn't be an interesting movie to have a guy in a Winnebago just going on one adventure," Zemeckis said. "The idea was to follow this guy and have him run into all these very different and colorful people and have a new adventure every week. And you can indulge any of your crazy ideas and fantasies in a TV series like this. I like to say that our stories are ripped from the headlines of the tabloid press. He can run into Elvis in the north woods or have a 'Lolita'-inspired adventure at the Four Corners in the Southwest. Literally anything that is in the public consciousness, we can write an episode about it."
Zemeckis, who is a recreational Winnebago adventurer, came up with the idea last year while on a birthday trip to Chicago with his four "Roger Rabbit" pals. Seaman and Price then wrote a script and the quintet tried to sell it to the networks. With real show-biz flair, they asked the heads of each of the four networks to meet them in front of their office buildings. Then they drove up in an actual Winnebago, slapped down a plate of spaghetti in front of executives and hit them with the pitch. CBS ordered eight episodes.
"It was kind of a crazy idea, a little loopy, but what really appealed to me was getting out on the road and going to places that people haven't seen before," said Marshall, who directed the "Lolita" episode and oversaw the post-production of all the others. "So much of television takes place inside these sound stages on movie lots in Los Angeles. When I watch TV, I want to be taken somewhere. And unfortunately it seems that every channel I turn to I'm cooped up in someone's living room."
Seaman and Price, the writers, said the show is an attempt to explore a weird and bent America that one might find in a Tim Burton movie. With a bunch of eccentric killers on his tail, Johnny Bago, a naive, ne'er-do-well from New York, rambles aimlessly through the tiny hamlets of the American West. Every time he opens the door of his Winnebago, he becomes involved in some wacky melodrama in which he plays the inadvertent hero.
"It's sort of like a hobby of ours to come up with these little melodramatic adventures and then nudge them off the cliff a little into comedy," said Seaman. "When you do a feature and they are spending $40 million, the movie has to be a certain way with a certain kind of story and casting and all that. In television, if you want to do a little parody and have some fun, you can. It's not that big a deal."
The big problem for movie veterans accustomed to $50-million budgets and space-age special-effects teams was making an action show on TV's tightwad terms.
Each episode cost about $1.2 million--a decent amount for an hour TV show with a relatively small and inexpensive cast. But while Marshall and Zemeckis are used to 75-day, even 100-day shoots for a two-hour movie, they had to complete their episodes in only eight days. They learned to cut corners. (Zemeckis had some experience doing that on HBO's "Tales From the Crypt.")
"In TV, characterization is everything," Seaman said. "The camera is in close on people so you just try to provide a good scene and say something funny. That passes for an exciting moment on television rather than seeing: It's morning in Paris, church bells are ringing, 1,000 pigeons suddenly take flight in the sky. You don't get that in television. You can't afford the pigeons."
Worst of all, Marshall said, they had to shoot in locations around Los Angeles to represent rural spots around the country. He had to fight to get his crew out to Lancaster for three days to shoot an episode that is set in the Arizona desert. A Mt. Rushmore episode was shot in the hills of Griffith Park.
Whether "Johnny Bago" travels beyond this summer depends entirely on the Nielsen families. Reportedly, the show did not play well for test audiences, and a short summer run is often the province of disappointing prospects that the network uses in lieu of more reruns. But a CBS spokeswoman said that if the show gets numbers, it has a good chance to live on; she pointed to such summer success stories as "Northern Exposure" and "Top Cops."
If "Johnny Bago" does score well, however, none of the five executive producers is likely to remain as involved as they were in the first batch. Zemeckis and Starkey are about to start shooting a new film with Tom Hanks in South Carolina, and Marshall flew last week to Morocco to begin scouting locations for his next feature, which stars Sean Connery.
"We would have to hire show runners to do it day to day, but I think all of us love this experience enough to devote some real attention to it," Starkey maintained. "There are key phases that you have to be involved in--story ideas, final script approval, checking on casting, reviewing the visual look and seeing a cut of the show and making suggestions. Those are all spotty activities that you can work into a life that isn't solely consumed by 'Johnny Bago.' Plus, deliberately, there are five of us. We all get paid less, but we have more bodies to divvy it all up."