Wild Wild West: The Interview
By Bruce Bethke
©1999 All Rights Reserved
This article appears on BRUCE BETHKEY’s website and is reprinted here with his permission, for which the IAMTW is grateful.
In January of 1999, the editor of a now-defunct e-zine interviewed me at length about my novelization of the WILD WILD WEST movie. Since people continue to ask about the subject, I’ve decided to post the transcript of the interview. Personally, I consider this to be an outstanding example of a man who, having fallen face-first into a pile of pig manure, is now trying to explain that he wanted to do so and that pig manure is very good for the complexion.
Q: What is your writing background?
A: You can put me in the “award-winning, critically acclaimed, commercially marginal” pigeonhole. I’ve been publishing professionally for about 18 years, but mostly I’ve been doing short stories, so I’ve remained fairly obscure. Some of my stories are considered to be “important,” by people who feel qualified to judge such things, and you can look them up in literary encyclopedia if you feel so inclined.
At the moment I’m generally considered to be a funny, techno, sci-fi kinda guy, owing to the success of my 1995 novel, HEADCRASH, which won some awards and is in print in something like eight or ten languages. But the truth is, I’ve written and sold in pretty much every contemporary genre except Dreary Lesbian Empowerment Fantasy — which has been really good for the old artistic ego, but pure Hell on the checking account.
Q: How were you chosen to write the novelization of the WILD WILD WEST movie?
A: By a chain of causality that could never be duplicated. WILD WILD WEST is a Warner Brothers movie, so the book rights were kicked over to Time Warner’s mass-market books division, where they ended up on the desk of Aspect editor-in-chief Betsy Mitchell. Betsy is both a friend and a fellow fan of the original series, so she called me up and asked if I was interested in working with her on the project, and after looking at the script, I decided I was.
Q: How is a novelization written? That is, did you use the movie script as a blueprint?
A: Well, yes, it starts with the script, of course. But you must realize that a full-length movie script has, at best, about one-third of the content of a full-length novel. (If this sounds odd to you, think of the last novel you liked that got made into a movie, and consider how much of the book *didn’t* make it into the movie.)
After that, you need to understand that the script is not Holy Writ. It’s merely the starting point from which a collective of actors, directors, cinematographers, and editors begins moving towards the finished product. As the movie develops through casting, budgeting, pre-production, principal photography, effects, etc., etc., the script gets chopped to tiny bits and rearranged again and again, with the result being that the thing that ends up on the screen at your local cineplex may bear almost no resemblance to the original “final” script.
Q: How long did it take you to write the novelization?
A: Geez, that’s kind of hard to define. I wrote most of the book in one month of nonstop manic pounding on the keyboard, but before that I put in at least three months doing background research and writing rough drafts of key scenes, and in a sense I’m *still* writing it, as the movie continues to evolve in post-production, and scenes and chapters come back for rewrite. I’m very hopeful that the last rewrite was the definitive one.
Q: Did you have any meetings with the movie’s producer, director, or writers? Did you visit the set while the movie was being shot?
A: No, and no. And honestly, while meeting Jon Peters and Barry Sonnenfeld might have been good for my ego, and I certainly could have used a week or two in New Mexico (I live in Minnesota and as I write this, it’s *eight* degrees outside), the truth is, such a junket would not have made a material contribution to the book. What I needed to write *this* book was a current script, some photos and sketches of key sets and props, and the private phone number of an assistant producer who could explain everything that wasn’t clear from the script and the pictures. These things Peters Entertainment supplied in sufficient quality and kind, and thus I was able to write a successful book.
Q: In what ways will your novelization differ from the movie, and in what ways will it be the same?
A: Same story; different way of telling it.
The cool thing about a movie is that you can use action and excitement to bound gracefully over gaping holes in the plot and yawning chasms in logic and sense — in short, to slip right past things that, if you were to read them in print, would make you stop short and say, “What the *Hell*?”
Conversely, the cool thing about printed fiction is that you can get deeply into your characters’ hearts and minds, detach from real time, and explore what they’re thinking and feeling — in short, to explore the interior life that, if you were to see it on screen, would make you yawn and start wishing for a remote with a fast-forward button.
Given that movies and books are almost diametrically opposed narrative forms, then, it’s hard to point out specific similarities and differences. I guess the big point is that the movie concentrates on action, action, ACTION!, while in the book, I get to spend a lot more time exploring West and Gordon’s personalities and relationship. For example, there were some really *nice* scenes in the script that explained West and Gordon’s histories and went a long way towards developing their characters, but these ran slow on screen and got cut from the movie. (I managed to keep a few of ’em in the book, though.) On the other hand, I can think of one really BIG action scene in the movie that gets short shrift in the book, because — while there are explosions galore and scads of stunt men flying off springboards and all that — in the context of the book, the scene doesn’t develop the characters, or the plot, or otherwise tell the readers anything they don’t already know by this point.
Q: Without breaching your confidentiality agreement, what can you tell us about the plot and characters?
A: Precious little, I’m afraid. The story is set in 1869, at the beginning of West and Gordon’s working relationship, and it involves Dr. Loveless and a fiendish plot to overthrow the government. But beyond that — you would not *believe* how restrictive the language of that contract is.
Q: Have you read the WILD WILD WEST paperbacks written by Robert Vaughn and published last year (1998) and if so, what is your opinion of them?
A: Yes, and No Comment. Not because I’m a snob, but because there are legal issues I am forbidden to comment upon.
Q: Were you a fan of the TV show during its original run or rerun?
A: I hate to admit that I’m that old, but yes, I was a devoted fan during its original run.
Q: Did you watch any of the old shows in preparation for writing this novelization?
A: No. I’ve caught the show off and on in reruns over the years, but did not make a special effort to re-watch the show before writing this book. Instead, I watched INDEPENDENCE DAY, MEN IN BLACK (Will Smith’s James West is a cross between Capt. Steven Hiller and Agent J…), BLAZING SADDLES (…with just a dash of Cleavon Little…), SILVERADO, A FISH CALLED WANDA (…bet you were thinking of Kevin Kline in the context of IN AND OUT, weren’t you?), and I did a bit of Internet research on Kenneth Branagh and Selma Hayek, who, I must admit, looks absolutely *delicious* in a camisole. But as for referencing the old series, well, there wasn’t much point in it.
Q: How well would you say that the story of this film fits in with the original series, in terms of such factors as characterization and level of fantasy/believability?
A: I would say that this movie has the same relationship to the old TV series as the Addams Family movie had to that series.
Q: Loyal fans of the TV show have voiced concern that the movie will be unfaithful to the spirit of the TV show. How would you respond?
A: [long, awkward silence]
Well, as I recall — and feel free to correct me on this — the original show had *two* distinct spirits. In the early B&W episodes, it was a fairly straight-faced western action/adventure/spy series: James Bond with a Stetson and a Derringer, if you will. But about the same time as the series went to color, it also began to decay into a campy self-parody: James Bond as played by Roger Moore, to continue the analogy. So my first impulse is to answer your question with another question: *which* spirit?
But that’s a parry, not an answer. The truth is, I think loyal fans of a series can’t help but be disappointed by any movie. This is a *reinterpretation* of the characters and situations they know and love, not a seamless continuation. It’s Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond as compared to Sean Connery’s — no, wait, that’s stretched the analogy past its tensile limit. Make that, it’s Michael Keaton’s Batman as compared to Adam West’s.
Look, at the risk of shattering some cherished illusions, Hollywood studios do not make films from old TV series for the sake of the loyal fans. If they did that, we’d be talking about —
CHANNEL 4 (CBS), 8:00PM: “The Wild, Wild West Rides Again” (1998)
ROBERT CONRAD dons the boots and Stetson one more time as super-cool 19th Century secret agent JAMES WEST comes out of retirement to team up with the son of his old partner, OCTAVIUS GORDON (CHRIS O’DONNELL) as they race against time to keep the beautiful but treacherous daughter of his old nemesis, LUCRETIA LOVELESS (TORI SPELLING) from kidnapping President THEODORE ROOSEVELT (BRIAN DENNEHY) and blowing up the PANAMA CANAL! (SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY!)
— but as you may have noticed, that’s not the movie we’re talking about. Instead, we’re talking about a Will Smith summer action/comedy vehicle that’s aimed at *his* twenty million or so fans, and I think fans of the original series would be well advised to let go of their preconceptions and view it in that light.
Q: Will Smith will star as James West in the movie. The idea of an African-American Secret Service agent just a few years after the end of the Civil War stretches historical accuracy and credibility. Does your novelization address this?
A: To be honest, my initial reaction was that this was one of the goofiest bits of casting I’d ever heard of, second only to the time John Travolta signed to play Jim Morrison in “No One Here Gets Out Alive” (a film which, thankfully, never got past the planning stage). Then I thought about it, and started to do some research…
You know, considering the history of the Negro Cavalry regiments, and of Lafayette Baker’s Union Secret Service, the concept of a black cavalry captain turned secret agent does *not* strain credibility. Who better than an ignored and under-estimated “invisible man” to work as a covert op? So that’s an idea I did address and work with, though not as much as I would have liked.
On the other hand, if you’re going to start dinging WILD WILD WEST for anachronisms and events that warp credulity beyond recognition, then the race of the actor playing James West is the very least of your problems.
Q: What aspects of the characters of James West and Artemus Gordon most intrigued you from a novelist’s point of view?
A: The synergy. You’ve got two polar opposites here: the two-fisted archetypal Western man of action and the guy who’s both a 19th Century “Q” and an ex-actor who’s a bit of a toff. They’re thrown together against their wills and bring two completely different methods to the case, and yet they have to learn to respect and depend on each other to survive and save the day. It’s a great buddy story, about two partners who are still, deep down, both best friends and greatest rivals.
Q: What were the most difficult characteristics to deal with?
A: Actually, the character I had the most trouble with was Loveless. To me, Michael Dunn will always be the definitive Loveless, and I remember him as having a certain cat-like *playful* aspect to his sadism. Kenneth Branagh’s Loveless is just plain evil, through and through, as well as vicious and homicidal. It’s hard to bring out Jim and Arte’s smartalecky fun side when they’re fighting a mass-murderer who’s marking his trail with corpses.
Q: What genre best fits your book: western, sci-fi, fantasy, or something else?
A: It’s a western with sci-fi overtones, although it’s not as much of a western as I was hoping for initially.
Q: You seem to be pretty Internet savvy. Have you visited any of the WILD WILD WEST web sites?
A: I did during my initial research phase. After it became apparent that this movie was a complete reinvention, though, I focused all my attention on the story as Sonnenfeld and company were telling it.
Q: The movie is set for a July 4, 1999 release. When will your novelization be in the bookstores?
A: Assuming Time Warner follows its usual practices, the book should be in the stores about two weeks before the movie opens and gone from the shelves by the second week of August. Movie tie-ins have very short shelf lives.