Prevue Magazine: Howard Chaykin, on Enchanting Emma
Prevue Magazine's 2001 Interview with Howard Chaykin
Set to debut on syndicated television this fall, Mutant X features a team of mutants with extraordinary powers. With a cast that includes John (Lois and Clark) Shea, Mutant X looks to be one of the more intriguing sci-fi offerings of the upcoming season. PREVUE recently spoke to Howard Chaykin, who is serving as the Head Writer on the new series. Chaykin comes to the show well-versed in comic book based material, with an impressive resume that includes working as both an artist and writer for Marvel Comics in the 1970s. In addition, he pioneered the graphic novel with Empire, and served as the Executive Script Consultant on both The Flash and Viper TV series.
PREVUE: When you joined the production team of Mutant X, what stage were things at?
CHAYKIN: I came in near the beginning. There was a general sensibility on what the show was going to be and I came in to make those general ideas specific.
PREVUE: Can you give us some insight into the concept behind Mutant X?
CHAYKIN: Our show reflects the classic action-hero concept. We are talking about a group of action heroes in their mid to late twenties, with the kind of problems one associates with that age group.
PREVUE: How is Mutant X related to the Marvel comic book?
CHAYKIN: What they did was cancel the book and we are using the title for the show. The characters in our show did not exist in any of the previous Marvel universe that has gone on before.
PREVUE: Why is that?
CHAYKIN: They wanted to create a brand new franchise.
PREVUE: Traditionally, it has been very difficult to bring comic book character to life on television. Is that a challenge for you?
CHAYKIN: That's one of the reasons we opted to develop a new franchise, rather than doing a show that was a dog being wagged by the tail of a comic book. We've gone the opposite direction. Instead, they are going to relaunch a book based on our show.
PREVUE: The Mutant X team does not dress in tights and capes.
CHAYKIN: One of the reasons we opted not to do costumed characters was it quite frankly looks goofy.
PREVUE: Is a costumed character a harder sell to a broad audience?
CHAYKIN: I think the most successful comic book character ever on TV was probably The Flash. However, in a mass-market sensibility, when you have a guy running around in a mask and cape, it becomes problematic.
PREVUE: Is Mutant X designed to feature one of the actors as the star or is it an ensemble cast?
CHAYKIN: It's completely an ensemble cast. We have six actors that the show revolves around. We have spotlight episodes that bring one character to the fore and we have an equal number of ensemble shows. Even the spotlight shows have all our actors there.
PREVUE: How are you feeling about the cast that has been assembled?
CHAYKIN: We are very lucky to have the people we've got. John Shea as Adam is an incredible linchpin for the show. He's also incredibly funny and very versatile. As an actor, he's got the entire color palette to cover every aspect of his character. The same can be said for Victor Webster, Forbes March, and all the actors. They are astonishing.
PREVUE: Does the Mutant X team face the same adversary every week or are there different adversaries that they battle?
CHAYKIN: Both. There are episodes where they battle the Genetic Security Agency, and there are episodes where that takes a backseat to more character oriented stories.
PREVUE: Did the fact that this was for television influence the type of characters you developed?
CHAYKIN: Absolutely. I wanted to come up with characters and powers that were visually doable and visually explainable in the context of a TV show. There were a couple that we came up with initially that when we took a look at them, we saw that they couldn't be done effectively in television. For example, shape-shifter characters sound really good on paper, but when you do a shape-shifter you have a major problem. I don't know if you remember The Human Target since it only lasted six episodes, but the problem with that show was the hero would take on the identity of someone else, so the lead actor would disappear from the show. The hero would actually be played by the guest cast. We didn't want to do a show that depended on the performance of the guest cast.
PREVUE: Can you take us through some of the characters?
CHAYKIN: Shalimar (Victoria Pratt) is kittenish, funny, there is nothing grim about this character. She's our primary ass-kicker. Brennan (Victor Webster) is a bit of a wise guy. He's a former hoodlum. He's charming, incredibly cool and unflappable. Jesse (Forbes March) is a poor little rich kid that came from a lot of money but not a lot of love. What he found with our group was the family he always wanted as a kid. He and Brennan are basically wise-asses, and the worst combination you can have because they are constantly one-upping each other.
PREVUE: Lauren Lee Smith plays Emma deLauro, a character that is a telepath. Does that present writing challenges if you have a character that knows what the adversary is thinking?
CHAYKIN: She's actually a telempath not a telepath. She can not read minds, but she can get a visual and emotional sense of how you feel. She also can manipulate and influence the way you feel.
PREVUE: Do the characters have vulnerabilities in the way that Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite?
CHAYKIN: We are not going the kryptonite route, but each has a vulnerability that is directly related to who they are. For example, Brennan has problems with water because there can be serious problems with electricity and water. Shalimar gets over-extension fatigue. And since Emma is not a telepath, she has limitation based on what she can or can not learn from people. Our characters are not superheroes. They get tired, ill, worn. They are not superheroes, they are humans with an additional gift.
PREVUE: Mason Eckhart (Tom McCamus) is your resident bad guy. Exactly who is he?
CHAYKIN: Yes, he's a bad guy, although he thinks he's a good guy. He is the head of the Genetic Security Agency and he considers Adam and Mutant X to be outlaws and criminals. He's devoted his entire life to bringing them to justice.
PREVUE: What is it about the Mutant X team that angers him?
CHAYKIN: Because he represents the status quo and our guys very much do not represent the status quo.
PREVUE: What can you tell us about his operation?
CHAYKIN: He has a second in command that changes on a weekly basis.
PREVUE: A weekly basis?
CHAYKIN: It's one of the conceits of the show. We wanted to imply that he lives in a constant state of disappointment. Sometimes you will see number two taken out of commission and sometimes it will just be implied.
PREVUE: Besides yourself, who is on the writing staff?
CHAYKIN: My staff includes Mark Lisson, who came off of Viper and M.A.N.T.I.S.; David Newman, who worked with me on Viper; and Elizabeth Keyishian, who wrote for Lonesome Dove: The Series.
PREVUE: Why do you think that most TV writers have not understood comic book storytelling?
CHAYKIN: A lot of people when they approach doing comics on TV--whether they want to or not--they bring a certain contempt for the material. It's very rare that you see someone approach comic book material with the right balance between affection --without going overboard into fan-boy territory--and a self-awareness in the material. I think there is something that is often missed in translation of comic books to screen and I think Mutant X has really captured it. It's that sense of the novelistic scale of comic books.
PREVUE: There seems to be a unique take on action and violence in comic books.
CHAYKIN: One of the things that always come up when you talk about this kind of material, is the difference between violence and action. I grew up on action comic books--Simon and Kirby--and that era had a sense of thrills, chills, and laughs. Comics became more violent in the '70s and '80s, but the fact of the matter is that it is less the relationship between action, violence and television, and more the function of television in the world.
PREVUE: What is the difference between producing this type of action material for television as compared to doing it for film?
CHAYKIN: If you know comic books, you also know comic strips, and comic strips and comic books may use the same tools, but they have very different functions and goals. Comic books are a product, while comic strips are a part of the larger whole. In the same vein, there is a difference between film and television. Television is a much more intimate medium than film. Television is really about relationships and family. It can be a literal family, as on a sitcom, or a figurative family as in a group of people working towards a common goal. Mutant X tries to create that sensibility. That said, on top of all that is a show that seriously kicks ass. The action sequences are some of the most amazing things you will have ever seen on television.
PREVUE: Are you able to deliver a big budget look on a TV budget?
CHAYKIN: It will blow you out of water, I guarantee it! At the same time, there is a depth of character that you have never seen before on a comic inspired television series, ever.
PREVUE: Does having a TV budget present a challenge?
CHAYKIN: Television is still a budgetary medium. You still have to come in and produce a show for certain number of dollars each week. The challenge has been bringing the action and character drama within the confines of an hour-long budget. You know, movies are a medium where if you have a problem you throw money at it. With television, you've got a dollar and you've got to get what you can with that dollar. It often means deciding what you want to end up with at the end of the day, and finding other ways around a problem than you originally started with.
PREVUE: How much of what you envisioned in creating the Mutant X universe is actually making it on to the screen?
CHAYKIN: We are really amazed as to how much we are putting down on the page is getting on the screen. I think the last show to approach the level we've achieved was The Flash, and I think we?ve gone beyond that in terms of having self-aware characters, depth, charm and reality.
PREVUE: Are your stories evolving as you get to know the actors?
CHAYKIN: Evolving isn't the word I would tend to use. Basically, even before we started production, we had ten scripts down on paper. One of the things that has happened is that the characters and their attitudes and voices have adjusted in every case after we heard the actors speaking the words.
PREVUE: What kinds of things have changed?
CHAYKIN: Actors have found genuine comedy in situations where we thought they could never find it, and we've found other actors that delivered darkness that we never expected. Right now we are shooting episode five, and we know a lot more about these characters and the actors that are playing them than we did when we started. Each of the actors has brought something to the table and deepened what we put on the page to a profound degree.
PREVUE: Does that change the type of stories you develop?
CHAYKIN: The stories remain the same, but the way the characters function within the stories becomes something new. Right now, I?m working on a script that opens up Adam's backstory with a woman that comes out of his past. It's going to allow us to learn about him.
PREVUE: Does Mutant X have a tightly defined story arc?
CHAYKIN: The difference, in my opinion, between network shows and syndication, is that you can not structure as tightly knit a story arc in a syndicated hour, as in a network hour. We have a general idea where we will be ending our first season and how we are going to get there. The days of a serial in a network show may be gone, but there is still more of continuity than in a syndicated show. A very general, broad-story arc is there, but it is not specific.
PREVUE: Where do you stand on making sci-fi shows issues oriented?
CHAYKIN: When it is appropriate, we will embrace it, but I haven?t got an axe to grind in that realm. Frankly, I'm trying to do a show that doesn't preach and that still has both intelligence and attitude. So much of the time that kind of stuff is coma inducing. This is not a bully pulpit. We are doing edgy action.
PREVUE: Speaking of action, how physical is the show?
CHAYKIN: We are doing a good deal of wirework. Our stunt coordinators are incredible and the inventiveness of the action will blow you away. We are also using every possible current television technique to give it a great look.
PREVUE: Any special challenges that the show has presented?
CHAYKIN: Consider it this way, action always looks cooler at night. If you only have six hours of darkness a night, you've got to maximize those dark moments. It's as simple as we shoot our show in Toronto, and in Toronto during the summer it stays broad daylight until 9:30 PM. So, you can?t do a lot of night shooting because there is a lot less night. You've got to find a way to be judicious, so you get scenes at night.
PREVUE: How far in the future is the show set?
CHAYKIN: The production team has found a great look and style that I call 'sometime late tomorrow morning.' I wouldn't so much define it as the future, but as our world in a couple of hours. We set out to create a very sleek, very contemporary show that resonates with an action-adventure and sci-fi feel.
PREVUE: Can you give us a hint as to the design of the sets?
CHAYKIN: Our heroes' lair, called Sanctuary, reflects an almost monastic, oriental quality. Our nemesis's headquarters, GGG lab, is grim dark and cool.
PREVUE: Lastly, do you feel that Tribune Entertainment is firmly behind the show?
CHAYKIN: They are very committed and they've already agreed to produce 44 episodes.
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