Starfall: An Interview with Executive Producer John Ellis

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Amazing Stories Magazine: Welcome to Amazing Stories Mr. John Ellis!  You’re listed as the Creator & Executive Producer of a new television series that was first announced on Kickstarter and is titled Starfall.  I note from IMDB that you have some previous production credits, notably for a documentary about long-distance running;  that you write film scripts;  have had a few short stories and novellas published, one of which appeared in Bob Bello’s Sci-Fi Almanac magazine and that you live in Arizona.

Is it true what they say?  It’s hot, but it’s a ‘dry’ heat?

John Ellis: Actually, I’m in Reno, Nevada. But yeah, it’s a dry heat. In the winter it’s also a dry cold!

ASM: What are some notable conventions that you’ve been to that we might be familiar with?

JE: I only recently returned to the con circuit after about a 20-year hiatus (life happened!). I’ve been to Worldcon in Reno, Norwescon, Radcon and a couple of Westercons. I’m currently scheduled to appear at Radcon 6C (Feb 2015) for the Starfall premier and Norwescon 38 (April 2015)

ASM: Do you believe there’s a difference between traditional, fan-run conventions and the likes of the mega gate shows like SDCC?  Which kind of convention do you prefer?

JE: There’s definitely a difference. Fan cons tend to be more intimate than corp cons, but the megas offer a lot more to the general public. If you’re already a committed fan, fan cons are for you. If you’re more a mainstream fan, the corp con is a great experience. Both types have their place and I enjoy both; however, being a face-to-face, shake-your-hand kind of guy, I prefer fan cons.

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On set during the production of Starfall

ASM: Do you consider yourself a “fan” of the SF genre?

JE: Absolutely. Since I was about 14.

ASM: What were your first science fictional influences?

JE: The original Star Trek. Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings books. Anything from Heinlein or Asimov, TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons. Not all “science fiction” I know, but there’s so much crossover in theme and universal experience, that I consider them very similar.

ASM: What is it about the genre that appeals to you as a story-telling medium?

JE: As above, the universality of themes. It allows me to explore the human experience in ways that have been lost since the Industrial Revolution (fantasy), or in ways that we can (and love to) imagine (science-fiction).

The Crew
The Crew (Starship crew, that is)

ASM: Who would you say your SF literary influences are, and why?

JE: Tolkien, certainly, because of the world-building. Asimov and Bova for their realism. Julian May for characterization. John Ridley for complexity with clarity. Brandon Sanderson for overall storytelling, without embellishment. Stephen Donaldson for lots of embellishment. These are just the ones off the top of my head.

ASM: Various pieces of biographical information on the web state that you author film scripts, and we can find several novellas by you on Amazon.  Now you’ve chosen to helm a rather unusual creature:  a crowd-sourced online television show.

First – why have you decided to go the non-traditional route of crowd-funding, as opposed to working with the various networks and studios?

JE: That’s a simple one: creative control. The traditional outlets require a creator to give up most if not all of his creative control. I’ve personally experienced the result of that, where the story I wrote is “great, we love it!” Then it gets changed beyond recognition. Don’t get me wrong; I am fully aware that film/TV are collaborative media. I love that about the process—directors, designers, many people have great ideas and we incorporate a lot of them into the work. But at the end of the day, the decisions about what to keep or not are mine. Not some corporate executive who’s not a fan, not a viewer, not a storyteller.

A script conference
A script conference

ASM: Second – science fiction on television has been a mixed bag ever since an announcer first proclaimed  “Caaaaaptaaaain Videoooooooooooo! (and his video rangers!)” in 1949.  (We’re proud of the fact that one of the very first regularly aired dramatic presentations on television was a science fiction property;  we’re not so proud of the way it was handled.  It’s poor writing and down-right miserable special effects took a major toll on the treatment of science fiction on the idiot box,  labelled from the beginning  as “kiddie fare”,- not to be taken seriously, not to command decent budgets, frequently written by the director’s 16th cousin 12 times removed because they needed a job.  Still to this day we see the miserable effects of this legacy on both the treatment and reception of SF-on-TV.

What is it about your Starfall that you think will allow it to transcend that legacy and elevate it above the rest?

JE: I think science fiction in general has transcended that legacy. In this age of tech innovation (sometimes literally by the hour), people are more attuned to and accepting of sci-fi, in all its forms. The other side of that legacy—which is true of any medium—is good storytelling. Any book or show will fail because the story, the characters, don’t click with the audience. Sometimes that badness is a failure to effectively merge the interesting aspects of sci-fi; sometimes it’s just horrible writing. Starfall is first a story about people—real, flawed people doing the best (or worst) they can under sometimes awful pressures. The more we can connect the audience to the characters and their lives, the more successful Starfall will be.

ASM: In the video on Kickstarter, you mention that it is time to get back to a good ol’ space opera television show – the kind of thing you loved reading when growing up.

Can you explain what, in your mind, a “space opera” is?  (Background:  it used to be entirely pejorative, referencing horse operas and later soap operas.  Using it was meant to signal that the work in question was anything but science fiction – nothing but formulaic pulp with SFnal trappings.  Today it has come to be a broadly based term for science fiction on a grand scale – works like Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep;  I’ve also seen works like David Brin’s Uplift series retconned as “space opera”).  Based on your passion, we’re certainly not talking the likes of StarLost here.  But what are we talking about?  Space Opera in terms of galactic span?  Technologies?  The general span of the background?

JE: A space opera, in my mind, is simply a story set against the backdrop of a huge galaxy. There’s a freedom—as a writer—in knowing you have the vastness of space in which to cook your stories. It frees my imagination, allowing me come up with almost any scenario I want. I know this is contrary to most definitions of space opera (both good and bad), and I’m okay with that. When I was at Renovation in 2011, I eavesdropped on many conversations where fans were bemoaning the lack of a good space opera. From this I gleaned two important facts: sci-fi fans first want a good story, and, second, love to imagined space in all its wonder. That coincides with my passions as well: nothing is better than a good story, except a good story set in space.

A scene being filmed on the bridge
A scene being filmed on the bridge

ASM: The general theme of SF-in-space on television has basically been to throw a group of people (humans and otherwise) onto a ship and “see what happens”:  Star Trek – people on a ship; Starlost – people on a ship; Red Dawn – people on a ship; Battlestar Galactica (both versions) people on ships; Farscape; people on a ship; Space: 1999 – people on a ship (the Moon is the ship); Stargate: Universe – people trapped on a ship; even Fireball XL5 – puppets on a ship.  This ‘trick’ works to move the characters from locale to locale and serves to introduce new conflicts from episode to episode;  is Starfall going to break that mold?

JE: First of all, most of the conflicts in Starfall come from within—conflicts within characters or between characters. Second, while the spacecraft, the frigate Ardri Jennet, is the center of much of the action, it’s not THE center. For most of the crew, they may call it home for a time, but it will never replace home. In fact, a couple of the characters directly deal with this conflict between being a Jenny (slang for the crew members) and wherever they come from. Don’t get me wrong—there’s still plenty of action in the show, but we’ll come to know the characters so well that the external conflicts will deepen, become so rich with subtext, that the action will take on layers and colors unimagined.

How has Starfall’s reception been so far?

JE: Utterly fantastic and supportive, “can’t wait to see the finished product.”

ASM: Are you planning on bringing in others to write scripts?

JE: Oh yeah. Starfall is designed as a close-ended story. Mostly serial, but somewhat episodic, with an overall arc that will encompass 104 hour-long episodes, then end with a world-shattering climax. Given all this, there’s no way I could do it all alone—nor am I arrogant enough to think I’m the only one who could contribute great stories.

Working set
Working set

ASM: You’re in post production:  when can we expect to see some trailers?

JE: There should be a short clip on the Kickstarter page before Thanksgiving, and some behind-the-scenes stuff on YouTube soon. Each of these will give glimpses into the final cut of the webisode.

 ASM: Do you have any secret inside info you can share with our audience?

JE: This is the toughest question, because there is so much “inside info” I could share. Picking out one thing is nearly impossible! Okay, let’s go with a bit of trivia: Pilot Tommy Patel (played by Gabeen Khan) has a guilty pleasure, a retro (in Starfall time) magazine he likes to read, even when he’s on duty at his console. It is an actual popular graphic novel, and it can be seen in one of the photos I sent along with this article. Let’s see if anyone can find it!

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Starfall is currently in post-production.  If you’d like to support Starfall (or continue to support it), they are currently running a new Kickstarter campaign to help fund post-production.  The website supporting the project, with images and information about the cast and crew, can be found here.

Starfall’s first webisode is scheduled to premiere at Radcon 6C in Pasco, Washington on February 14, 2015

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