Saturday, May 29, 2010

Interview: Sandy Bruckner

"I saw my first episode of Babylon 5 and liked it," Sandy Bruckner says, "despite the fact that it was ‘Infection.' " From there, she begun digging into the wilderness that was the early-generation internet and discovered, in short order, that a convention was to be held in nearby Norfolk, Virginia. Almost on an impulse, she decided to make it her very first con. The year was 1995.

Michael O’Hare, who portrayed B5’s original leading man, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, was the guest of honor. She was so enamored of him, she signed up for his acting class, joined his fan club, and began attending his conventions, from Boston to New Orleans to Los Angeles. Along the way, she came across an early B5 newsletter run by Michael Zmuda, a "hard-copy-only version and a wonderful resource about the show." She offered to contribute articles based on her convention experiences; Zmuda agreed.

When series creator and showrunner Joe Michael Straczynski and his executive producer partner, Douglas Netter, were looking to take their newly developed Official Babylon 5 Fan Club in a different direction a short while later, he turned to Sandy and Zmuda, who had already been to the studio once or twice to watch filming and interact with the cast and crew, to head the new publication. The year was 1997.

1999, of course, a date of infamy in Babylonian fandom, saw the end of the B5 spin-off, Crusade, before it had even started – and the Official Fan Club along with it. Sandy, however, finding it hard to say goodbye, founded The Zocalo Today, a gathering of sci-fi news and notes. It has been in continuous operation ever since.

Given Sandy’s wealth of involvement with Babylonian Productions, from Straczynski – affectionately known as JMS by his hordes of online followers – on down, there was one question among all others that I, a fellow diehard, had to know: what was O’Hare, who portrayed a character so wooden and emotionally flat that he had to be phased out of Straczynski’s original ten-year storyline after only one year, like? "He was great," Sandy says. "Intelligent, funny. He was very much unlike Sinclair in that regard."

That's an understatement, and the launching point of our conversation.

How much of Sinclair’s portrayal do you think is the result of Straczynski's writing and O'Hare's personality? How much of it do you feel was intentional?

I think most of what you see on-screen was intentional – the way Joe wrote it and intended it to be played. You have to remember Sinclair is a very troubled individual, even before he began to put [the] pieces [of his life] together. He had to be constantly thinking about why he was chosen to command Babylon 5 ahead of much more qualified people. He was spared during the Earth-Minbari War but never had a clue as to why. The weight of command was pretty colossal, given the varied population and host of characters he had to deal with; at times, you get the feeling that he couldn't go to the john without the communicator buzzing about some emergency. It takes a few episodes for you to really see that Sinclair does have a personality. You get a peek during "Parliament of Dreams," when he runs into Catherine Sakai. You see his dry sense of humor during "By Any Means Necessary." Michael always said that he played the role exactly as JMS wanted it, saying each word as written. There was no ad-libing – no one felt they could do better than what was written on the page.

The first time I met Michael was in an elevator at a convention – the first for both of us. It was in Norfolk, Virginia, and he brought his mom and dad with him. His brother was in the Navy, and so there was a great connection with the setting – ships in the harbor, etc. Michael gave an acting class that was marvelous, and he sang on-stage. He had a pretty good voice and told me that he used to sing in the Harvard Glee Club. Michael loved to laugh, and his laugh was infectious. I thought Michael was a very classy guy. He never talked badly of anyone on the set and always had a good word to say about JMS – even though he had already been cut from the series before his first convention appearance.

Knowing that he would not be on the series was very traumatic for some of his fans; by the time the first season was coming to an end, you had gotten to see a bit more of Sinclair, and the mystery surrounding him grew as the story broadened.

Based upon your interactions with Straczynski, how much of his personality do you think bled over into Sinclair – and into Sheridan and Lochley?

I wish I had gotten to know JMS better. To tell you the truth, he scared me to death! I was afraid I was going to do something wrong. I was working on the website and there were always issues, so our meetings were not always pleasant. The Fan Club was always in the red, so there were big issues to be dealt with all the time.

From what I do remember of JMS, he had a very dry sense of humor. He had a strong sense of integrity and honor. All of these were definitely characteristics of Sinclair, as well as Sheridan and many of the main characters of Babylon 5. JMS was also a good listener and very observant; he would watch the cast in their unguarded moments and incorporate things he saw into their characters. There are a number of postings that talk about this. I think this made the portrayal of the characters easier for the people because they were showing very normal reactions.

I was always amazed by JMS. As a professed atheist, he wrote some of the most amazing spiritual material for G'Kar and others, but especially G'Kar.

You know, Robert McKee, amongst many, many other writers, hold that one's most deeply held beliefs are only fully and truly exposed in one's writing – explaining, I suppose, Joe and his atheism.

There's another huge trend I've noticed in his writing. Babylon 5 was about a group of characters having to turn their backs against their government, breaking away to form an independent movement. Crusade would've been about a group of characters, on the run, having to clear their good names from a government that had framed them. Legend of the Rangers would've followed a group of characters that had to weed out corruption from the upper echelons of their military/civilian handlers, possibly going on the lamb to do so.

What do you make of this?

I'm not sure that I ever thought about it in any way. Perhaps the ability to differ with the establishment is a sign of a true democracy. There are always things that the government does that we don't agree with, and perhaps JMS uses those differences in his writing as an expression of that freedom. If there were no controversy, it would be less interesting, as well. Some sort of social tension makes for an interesting storyline that continues over time, whether it is through political strife or something else.

JMS had a great way of developing characters that we cared about, each having their own views and traits, religions and beliefs. That is what made us like G'Kar, Londo, Delenn, and the others. We were curious about our differences and our similarities. The beauty in the writings from G'Kar through JMS touched our hearts and perhaps made us see things in many different ways.

How did your involvement with Joe and the Fan Club come to an end? Was it at the same time that Crusade got its plug yanked?

The Fan Club was only created around 1997, so it was fairly late in the game. The show was constantly looking at cancellation and the Fan Club got off to a shaky start. While it had a number of people join, getting publications out proved a larger task than anticipated. That's when Mike Zmuda and I were brought on. Mike, because of his background in his own B5 newsletter, The Centaurian Sentinel, took on the task of publishing the newsletter. I helped with doing interviews and writing articles. I took on some of the chores with the website – dealing with the chat room and posting information about the show and the Club. They hired a firm to pull the Zocalo together for the merchandise sold exclusively by the Fan Club. There were t-shirts, sweatshirts, polos, pins, baseball hats, magazines, etc. I don't think the Club ever saw any profit; the money went out faster than it came in. JMS wanted to have merchandise everyone would want to own and all that took money – licenses, production, etc.

The online community associated with Babylon 5 was dedicated, opinionated, and, unfortunately, contributed to the downfall of the Fan Club.

When B5 moved to TNT, I worked with the web staff there, putting out notices about the show, doing web chats, posting reviews of magazine articles, books, etc. The TNT web guys were great. They loved the show, but it was cancelled before it even began.

The Fan Club became a financial liability to JMS and Doug Netter. It was taking more time than they had to give, so it ended. About the time the Fan Club ended, I started up The Zocalo Today as an online newsletter. The website and newsletter have been running since September 1999. I had had an email newsletter before, The Zocalo, that I managed with two other people. We ended that newsletter pretty much when the Fan Club started. I can't remember when it actually ended, but I started it in 1994 and it ran for a number of years.

What are your thoughts on Crusade, both as a series in-and-of-itself and as a follow-up chapter to B5?

I think Crusade could have been as popular as Babylon 5 had it had the chance. It was sort of DOA from the start. I liked the premise and the subplots – the whole Galen story, his interaction with the techno-mages and Dureena. And there is the thing about the Apocalypse Box and Eilerson and Interplanetary Expeditions. There are just so many story possibilities.

You were on set for the filming of The Legend of the Rangers. What was that like, and how did that come about?

Going to Vancouver was another instance of right place, right time. There was going to be a fan event in Vancouver and JMS had agreed to bring a clip of the new movie to share. The SciFi [now SyFy] Channel asked me if I would go to cover the event and report on it for them. What could I say? I worked with the WB publicity folks and went up a couple of days before the actual convention at a local university. I flew up to Vancouver, rented a car, and wandered about to find the studio. It was not far outside of town, and actually in an area where other TV series, like Stargate, were being filmed. Legend of the Rangers took over space from another SciFi show that had been cancelled. It was somewhat like the [Babylon 5] studio set-up in Sherman Oaks, but far smaller than you would think needed to shoot a movie.

I had a great time in Vancouver. I got to interview all the cast members, JMS, Doug Netter, and Andreas Katsulas. Doug Netter was absolutely wonderful. I hadn't talked to him since my second trip to the studio, and he was really hopeful that the movie would launch a new series. I loved the interview with Andreas. I had the feeling he was more nervous than me! He was delightful, though.

The mini-convention was wonderful. It was on the campus of Frazier University and the auditorium was full. The fans in Vancouver were really hyped by the video JMS showed and the cast members stayed to sign autographs and talk with us. They were all excited about the project and couldn't wait for the movie to air.

There seems to be a fair bit of divisiveness within the B5 fan community over The Lost Tales. What do you make of both that and the DVD itself?

I think that The Lost Tales was okay – not anything great because there was so little action involved. It was more like a play, and the lack of financial resources devoted to the project was probably the cause; post-production is fairly expensive. I think many fans loved The Lost Tales because it was Babylon 5 and they had waited so long for something more. It filled a gap, but, for many, it didn't have the depth of story that we had become so accustomed to with JMS's writing.

Do you have any last comments or final thoughts on the whole journey? Speak now or forever hold your peace.

I often wish that I had been more observant, known more about how TV series were made, and listened better to everyone I met while associated with Babylon 5. Jeffrey Willerth was my closest associate during my Fan Club days, and Mike Zmuda and I worked with JMS and the various Fan Club heads during our tenure. I can't tell you how many times I screwed up, perhaps trying too hard to impress people. I learned a lot through my visits to the studio and the wonderful professionals associated with the show. I was always fascinated by the prop cage and spent a lot of time there with Bear Burge. I missed meeting Edward Woodward by one week – he was to guest-star the week after I visited the set, but it was [still] great to see "Well of Forever" filmed. How do I wish Crusade had been given a chance!

I got to know a number of the cast members – Michael O'Hare, Jeffrey Willerth, Pat Tallman, Peter Woodward, David Brooks, Jason Carter, Stephen Austin. During our last trip to California for Babylon 5, we actually got to be extras in the last episode filmed, "Objects at Rest." John Copeland was directing and it was a real blast. I remember going to wardrobe and getting my outfit and getting dressed and waiting on the set for our cue to greet Sheridan and Delenn as they left the station. Jeffrey Willerth was behind me as a waste disposal engineer in a marvelous blue jumpsuit. I forget what Mike Zmuda had on, but we would wait and wait and wait through the many takes until everything was just right. The poor guys in Pak'ma'ra masks were dying because it was really hot on the set that day. Periodically, people would come out and give them something to drink, and when they took off their masks, they were beet red underneath. I remember John Copeland looking at me and asking where my glasses had gone. I'd taken them off, thinking there were no glasses in 22-whatever. He told me to put them back on so I wouldn't run into anything!

When I received copies of the blooper reels to take out to conventions, I was on top of the world. I was going to a number of conventions anyway, but now I got invited to conventions in Berlin, Australia, and a number of cities around the US. It was an absolutely awesome experience meeting all the Babylon 5 fans. It was also a bit scary – they knew every word, every character, every scene of the show.

I am still in touch with many of the people I met during my time with Babylon 5. Through my website, ISN News: The Zocalo Today, I help Pat Tallman with her Penny Lane charity at Christmas time, and I've participated in a couple of the B5 podcasts with Jeffrey Willerth. Bill Mumy sends a note when he has a special gig that he wants folks to know about.

I truly appreciate the chance I was given by JMS and others to expand my horizons and experience a totally different world. If I could do it all over again now, hopefully I would not goof up as much – and perhaps I could keep my mouth closed a bit more as I gazed at the wonder of TV production. Considering the state of technology at the time, they were doing some totally awesome things with very limited resources.

I look back on the experience with very fond memories. Babylon 5 will always be very special to me because of the people I've met and experiences I've had. It was unlike anything I've ever done before.

This piece is part of Marc N. Kleinhenz's The Babylon Project series of articles, which comprises essays, reviews, and interviews. The other items can be found here:

The Passing of the Techno-mages and the expansion of previous narratives
November 2009
Blue Buddha

The Lost Tales and the undermining of worldbuilding
December 2009
Blue Buddha

The Shadow Within, The Passing of the Techno-mages, and the role of technology in love
January 2010

The history of Babylon, from Babylon 5 and Babylon Prime to Crusade
February 2010

Patricia Tallman, Lyta Alexander, and the path to extremism
June 2010

Matthew Gideon and the apocalypse
July 2010

Maggie Egan, ISN Jane, and the craftsmanship of delivery
August 2010

Jeanne Cavelos and the perfection of storytelling
November 2010

History and metatheater in the world of Babylon
December 2010

Joe Michael Straczynski and the dark side of Babylon 5
January 2010

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