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DEPARTMENTS   SEPTEMBER 2009 – NO. 35


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Zombieology

by Michael Atkinson

By the dead fields of Babylon


Once upon a time, a TV pilot I wrote was shot and almost made into a series. It began years earlier as a novel, then it evolved into a feature script, and then I was persuaded, somehow, by my co-writer and his brother, who's a director, to turn it into a pilot script. But it began earlier than that — the original notion stemmed from my childhood spent in a too-small Long Island ranch with my father, who was a ruinous alcoholic and a vile jerk to boot. Grown up, I'd decided that there was something haunting, for me at least, in the prospect of a much-loathed brute of a father, having died, coming nonchalantly back to life, walking in the door, sitting in his favorite chair in front of the TV, and opening a beer. Grave dirt and bugs falling from his ears. My father wasn't abusive physically, but his story surrogate would be, to raise the stakes. I told my co-writer about this idea these many years ago, and he simply said, why doesn't everyone come back?

Thus, Babylon Fields entered into its larval stage (titled, it should be noted, after a Long Island town near where I grew up). As a pilot, in various drafts, we struck a deal with HBO, for whom development meant, on their part, vaguely wondering what the "franchise" was (meaning, I eventually learned, what is the easy go-to situation/location that will prop up the stories, as in, for other shows, police stations, hospitals, etc.), and vaguely trying to make it into a police procedural. (In the confining world of TV production, because the viewers' mindsets are self-confining, a successful series must be unchallenging, be set on familiar terrain, and have predictable episodic stories, so in syndication no one is required to have seen one episode before they see any another. Nothing very unusual is desired. "Americans only want to watch themselves," I've been told when suggesting, years later, a show that would take place in a Mexican bordertown.)

I didn't want to change Babylon Fields — which was structured around a set of suburban families during an unexplained wholesale global return of the dead, most of which were only a little worse for decay and wanted back into their lives, homes, jobs and marriages — into a procedural of any kind. Solving crimes or "cases" when the streets are flooding with wandering zombies? But you make compromises. A cop with a suicide wife was introduced, lamely. Then HBO decided not to shoot, and the pilot died for the first time.

But then it rose from its shallow plot. A perfectly lovely executive at CBS wanted to re-develop the script, and so we linked up, a year later, with the network and 20th Century Fox, to do just that. Meetings, phone calls, drafts — the cop would stay, but emphasis would be split between him and the family dramas. My favorite scene, in which two returned husbands (including my father's surrogate) who didn't like each other much when alive meet in the middle of the street and chat, was kept more or less intact, while my second favorite, set in a church with a flustered priest and an angry mob of believers, was whittled down to a toothpick. An integral character — the main family's seven-year-old daughter, dead for 15 years from leukemia, now back and wanting love — was saved for future episodes. Whole hunks of context and character were dropped to allow for proper network-TV act breaks.

I'm not complaining, because in both development rounds I was paid well. (I discovered that many writers in Hollywood support themselves this way, without ever getting anything on the air.) Then, suddenly, CBS said, yes, let's shoot it, yes, let's shoot it on Long Island, and yes, I would get a created-by credit that would, if the show was any kind of hit, net me residuals forever. The preproduction began, in winter in Long Island City, where The Sopranos was still being shot. I had an office. We watched videotaped auditions by the score. We watched professional actors with long careers fumble over my lines; sometimes, it became clear that the lines were the problem, but sometimes, surprisingly, not. We cast it: Amber Tamblyn was our post-teen slacker daughter, Ray Stevenson, fresh off HBO's Rome, was our guilt-ridden cop (a British accent coming and going despite the on-set presence of an ascot-wearing coach), Kathy Baker played the traumatized mom. Jamey Sheridan came in at the last moment to take command as my belligerent, beer-soaked undead father.

I got to play Jamey's hand, emerging from the soil from an underground tunnel, in an abandoned rail yard in Baldwin, New York. Ray tried to get me to appreciate rare single-malt scotch, the subtle this, the smokey that, but it still tasted like propane to me. Amber appreciated scotch without assistance. Her father Russ, she said, the only straight man on the set of West Side Story, wanted to play a zombie extra. He didn't.

I have only a few notes about the shoot itself, because I find filmmaking punishingly dull to watch, and I visited the set for as briefly as I could on any given day. The huge park tent filled with zombie-outfitted extras was an entertaining sight, but the squalid house they used as a set in Hempstead was just depressing. Jamey struggled with his cloudy contacts enough to suggest, no, implore us to allow the zombies' eyes to clear up over time. Amber can make her eyes tear up on cue, just as they used to say Margaret O'Brien could. The executive producer the studio sent to watch over us, one Christopher Black, turned out to be a sweetheart. We all spun huge and marvelous webs of projected fantasy about how the show could evolve, how it would say things about contemporary life, how we'd broach a stunning array of TV taboos via a vision of earthly life being a tense and mixed society of the living and returned dead.

It all went swimmingly, dire compromises aside, and we were assured that everyone compromises, and every pilot isn't quite as good as it could be or as good as later episodes, when the proper vibe is found, and that frankly, we had a snowball's chance on the eighth circle of getting "picked up" anyway. Which is what happened — we were passed over, and now the pilot exists as a floating singularity, more of the promise for what could've been than a work in its own right. A small consolation was found in the fact that almost every other show chosen that season to go into production over ours failed and failed hard; most didn't make it through a single season, and some never made it on the air at all. Many seemed idiotic and doomed from the start. Rumors abounded as to what had happened to our chances, but the reality remains that Babylon Fields was about zombies, walking, talking, joking, screwing zombies. Americans might like to watch themselves — and this was a show about us, if ever there was one — but network television might die altogether before learning how to accommodate such a crazy thing.

Other television projects of mine might see fruition, but Babylon Fields is, sadly, gone forever — 20th Century Fox owns it, lock, stock and barrel, not only for "all eternity" (according to the contract I signed), but also everywhere "within the known universe," meaning that if someone wanted to film a new version of Babylon Fields on Mars, the studio could and would sue them. That is, of course, unless they pay for turnaround, the full cost of the dumped pilot, somewhere in the neighborhood of seven million dollars. Outside of "the known universe," however — in, say, a parallel dimension where the Nazis won WWII — presumably remake rights are free and clear.

It was mine, but now it is not. This still rankles, like an itch under the skin you cannot scratch and relieve. The fact is, I sold it for a palmful of gold, what might be the simplest and most resonant pop culture narrative idea I'll ever have. Of course, other zombie-themed TV shows have been attempted in its wake, and several are gearing up as we speak. But they are, reportedly, either touched-by-a-zombie mush-bins, or straight-on George Romero rip-offs. I don't even particularly like zombie movies, not at least beyond Romero's first Night of the Living Dead (1969), which had the Pittsburgh chill of genuine phobia to it. For us the living dead idea was a metaphor factory, in full production. For everyone else, it seems, it's just a first-person-shooter XBox game. When I first thought of the problems arising from my father coming back from the dead, Reagan was still President and my father was very much alive, and sober. Today, he has since died and stayed dead, and zombies proliferate like January snowflakes.


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Articles in this Issue

Red Shirt, by Ellen Collett
The Anatomy Lesson, by Bill Hayes
The Fallen Sky, by Christopher Cokinos
This Won't Hurt a Bit, by K.C. Mason
Zombieology, by Michael Atkinson
Photography, by Maureen Ann Connolly
Communications, by Kyle Boelte
August 2009

AUTHOR BIO:

Michael Atkinson is the author of six books, most recently, Hemingway Deadlights (St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books), and a regular contributor to IFC.com, Sight & Sound, The Believer, Moving Image Source, Boston Phoenix, In These Times, TCM.com and The L Magazine. His blog appears at www.mike-atkinson.com. The pilot of Babylon Fields can be viewed here.



Where loss is found.

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