|Home Interviews David Bennett Carren (conducted by David Thornton in November 2001)
||Introduction (from No Power on Earth):
David Bennett Carren, a native of Dallas and a graduate of the University of Texas, has been a professional screenwriter for 12 years. He has written over 70 TV shows, including an episode of the new Twilight Zone, and his work on the CBS daytime series Capitol has received a Writers' Guild nomination. He has also written for such series as Buck Rogers and Knight Rider and has written for and acted on the stage in Los Angeles. No Power on Earth is his first novel.
David Thornton: Did you want to be a writer when you were a kid? If so, what inspired you?
David Bennett Carren: I started writing when I was eight years old. Believe it or not, my first attempt was a novel about a guard in Bergen Belsen who works to save some of the Jewish prisoners. Thankfully this has not survived. God knows what inspired me. Growning up Jewish in Dallas in the 50's -- maybe I could relate to prisoners in Bergen Belsen.
DT: Did you play with the G.I.Joe toys when you were a kid?
DBC: I played with that old toy Springfield rifle they used to sell back then. Combat was my favorite show, and I loved war movies. I dreamt about war in class. Guess I was kinda nuts -- or normal?
DT: What was your college experience like at the University of Texas at Austin? And have you ever returned to the school and lectured?
DBC: I loved my days at UT, the only liveable part of my life in Texas. I've never been asked to come back and lecture, which upsets me greatly. I've offered to lecture the students there many times. On whether or not you should pet on the first date. Or where the best barbecue in town is. Never writing. Maybe that's why they've never asked me.
DT: According to the UT at Austin web site, you graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism in 1973. Did you work for a newspaper after college or did you jump immediately into the "Hollywood machine"?
DBC: I graduated a semester early at the end of 1973 and went right to work at the Big Spring Herald in Big Spring Texas. In the heart of the Panhandle. Remember the movie Countdown, that was set on the moon? They shot it near there. Deserts, mesas, prairie dogs and dust storms. I'll never forget the dust storms.
I worked there exactly four and a half months and was fired. Correctly. I was not good at journalism, at least the small town variety. So by the time I would have normally graduated with the rest of my class in May my journalism career had already ended. I saw a magazine advertisement about a USC class starting that summer. You got to go to Universal and meet the real folks that make the movies. So I took a bus to LA that June and I never came back. Thank God.
There is a longer version of this response I will no doubt print up in my memoirs some day.
DT: How did you become involved with the G.I.Joe series?
DBC: As I remember, and please bear with any mistakes I make here, it's been 18 years, Steve Gerber invited me in. Which was very kind of him. "Battle for the Train of Gold" was the first cartoon script I ever wrote, at least that was actually produced.
Scene from "The
Viper is Coming"
DT: What was your inspiration for "Battle for the Train of Gold," "The Viper is Coming," "The Great Alaskan Land Rush," "Raise the Flagg" and "Sink the Montana"?
DBC: On "Battle," Steve gave me a log line of two words, Fort Knox, and I built it up from there -- with a lot of help from Steve of course. "The Viper Is Coming" was Steve's idea, at least the central joke. It was my job to come up with the set pieces. "The Great Alaskan Land Rush" was pure invention on my part. I don't know where the idea came from, but it's always been my favorite.
Serge from "The Great
Alaskan Land Rush"
And Serge is my favorite character. "Raise the Flagg" was inspired by Goliath Awaits. And Sink the Bismark inspired "Sink the Montana."
Scene from "The Great
Alaskan Land Rush"
DT: During "Battle for the Train of Gold," "The Great Alaskan Land Rush" and "Sink the Montana," you included some historical elements in the stories. Do you enjoy studying history and try to slip some historical facts into your stories?
DBC: Yes, very much. And I tried to be as accurate as I could. I wanted the kids to come away with something besides just the explosions.
DT: Do you feel that the episodes you wrote for the G.I.Joe series were produced the same way you imagined them?
Scene from "Sink the Montana"
DBC: I think "Great Alaskan Land Rush" and "Sink the Montana" turned out pretty well.
DT: Considering "Raise the Flagg!" was a sequel to "Computer Complications," did you work with David Schwartz to create a follow-up story or did you write your story based on a copy of his script?
DBC: I was not aware of "Computer Complications." I came to Buzz Dixon with an idea about a sunken aircraft carrier -- "Raise the Ticonderoga." Buzz told me about the Flagg that was sunk in "Computer Complications" and we married them together. A smart move on Buzz's part. I never saw David's episode or his script.
DT: In the episode "Raise the Flagg!," there was a character called B.A. LaCarr, a crazy Cobra cook whose character design was based on storyboard artist Mike Vosburg. Since your outline mentioned that the cook's name was W.W. Ogilvie, did you make this name change or did story editor Buzz Dixon?
DBC: Buzz's idea.
DT: Did you ever include characters in your G.I.Joe episodes based on friends or family? If so, do recall any examples?
DBC: Not off hand. There is a character in a Buck Rogers I wrote, "Return of the Fighting Sixty Ninth." She has a metal hand, sells weapons for a living, and likes to torture her person slave, a young girl who happens to be a deaf mute. My mother insists this character is based on her. She should know.
DT: [ laughter ] Were your stories ever changed after you turned in your final draft? If the scripts were changed, were you always allowed to make the changes so the story would remain your tale?
DBC: The guys were great about revisions, as good as it gets. They either produced what I wrote or let me do the changes. All the black and white flashbacks in "Sink the Montana" were Buzz's work, and a terrific addition, but that's the most extensive change I can remember in any of my shows -- outside of cuts for time.
DT: Did Hasbro or Sunbow ever censor parts of your stories?
DBC: Not that I can remember.
DT: Were there any scenes cut from your G.I.Joe episodes that you felt should have not been removed?
DBC: In "Sink the Montana," there's a grand arrival scene of the battleship in the harbor that was storyboarded and I think animated, but it got cut for time. I missed that, but that's all I can remember.
DT: I recently found a page with two incomplete outlines that you wrote for the series, "Raise the Ticonderoga" and an untitled story that ends with Lady Jaye and Mainframe rescuing a little girl's father. Do you recall the plots for these outlines?
DBC: "Raise the Ticonderoga" became "Raise the Flagg."
DT: Do you remember any other outlines that didn't make their way to the script stage?
DBC: Not really. I'd have to dig out some very old files. If I don't remember them maybe they're not worth remembering. Buzz and Steve were pretty smart about what they bought from me.
DT: How many story ideas did you submit for outline approval? Do recall any of the plots?
DBC: Again, I can't remember. I do think that my batting average was pretty good, four out of ten or something like that.
DT: Did you ever tweak the G.I.Joe outlines turned down by Sunbow and resubmit them for other television series? If so, could you offer some examples?
DBC: Sorry, I can't remember. I think there was one story about Cobra selling the fountain of youth that I tried to peddle elsewhere, but I never got anywhere with it. Again, proof of Buzz and Stev's good taste and sense.
DT: Who was your favorite character from each of the G.I.Joe and Cobra teams?
DBC: Cobra Commander was always fun, and Hawk was a strong guy I just liked to write.
DT: Who was your least favorite character from each of the G.I.Joe and Cobra teams?
DBC: Memory fails me here.
DT: Did you ever have the opportunity to watch or participate in a voice recording session?
DBC: Wish I could have. It would have been fun.
DT: In comparison to the other TV series you have worked on, did Sunbow take care of its writers?
DBC: They treated us well, paid us well. The sorry thing is that Sunbow was paying very well at that time, better than anyone else in town. But to this day no one is paying better, eighteen years later.
DT: Were story editors Steve Gerber and Buzz Dixon easy to talk to while you working on a story?
DBC: Terrific. As good as it gets. And fun, too. And I'm not just saying that. I have nothing but good memories from this show.
DT: Did anything about the writing process for Sunbow's G.I.Joe series ever annoy you?
DT: Do you have any idea how many story pitches were submitted?
DBC: Not really. Must have been a bunch, they were doing dozens of episodes a year.
DT: Did you ever have a chance to meet the other writers, the voice actors, storyboard artists or other crew members?
DBC: Writers at parties and that's about it.
DT: Do you have any anecdotes while working on the series?
DBC: Have to think about that. Nothing comes to mind right now.
DT: Watchdog groups and critics thought the G.I.Joe series was nothing more than a 22-minute toy commercial. Were they right or do you believe the series was something more?
DBC: The show was fun and sometimes it was more than that. At least it had a strong moral center; the bad guys always lost. Kids could use that today more than ever.
DT: Do you have any other thoughts about the series that you would like to share?
DBC: For its time, the show was as good if not better than anything else like it on the air. More important, it was never boring.
DT: Did you collect any of the G.I.Joe toys, comics or videos? Do you still have them?
DBC: Not really. I don't even have some of the shows.
DT: Do you keep in touch with any of the staff members who worked on Sunbow's G.I.Joe series?
DBC: I talk to Buzz occasionally. I wonder what Steve is up to.
DT: If a new animated G.I.Joe series was launched, would you consider writing stories for the series or do you believe G.I.Joe is a show that could have only been successful during the 1980s?
DBC: I would love to work on the show again, but I don't see how it could be produced in today's political climate, even if Cobra joined our side and the bad guys were Usama Bin Laden's gang every week.
DT: You are often credited as David Bennett Carren. Did you include your middle name so you wouldn't be confused with another David Carren in Hollywood?
DBC: I'm not aware of any other David Carren out here. The name as spelled is pretty scarce. Mainly I put the Bennett in there because my Dad, God bless him, asked me to. He felt it was more writerly and respectful of the profession and I agreed with him.
DT: I've noticed that a large number of your stories for other TV series were co-written with J. Larry Carroll, however, you wrote the Sunbow-G.I.Joe stories on your own. Did you ever co-submit a story with Mr. Carroll? Did he ever submit his own story ideas?
DBC: J. Larry Carroll is my full time partner on TV. In fact, the beginning of our partnership was on the original G.I.Joe. I was busy with other things so he did a draft for me on the Viper script. From there we've written about 120 shows over the last 14 years or so. Cartoons, live action, pilots, even a CD Rom (The fifth Wing Commander.)
DT: During my research, I noticed that you wrote an issue for the comic book series Alien Worlds. How did this project come together and have you written any other comic book stories?
DBC: I met Bruce Jones and April Campbell at a comic con. They bought three stories from me for Tales of Terror and Alien Worlds. One of them, "If She Dies," eventually became my episode of the New Twilight Zone.
Loved writing comics. It's the best form of visual writing there is -- you're director, actor, art director and sound designer all at once.
DT: Are you a fan of comic books? If so, what titles, characters and/or creators do you enjoy?
DBC: I loved comic books as a kid, all the Marvel and DC super hero stuff. Haven't been following it much the last twenty years or so.
DT: Would you ever consider writing a G.I.Joe comic?
DT: Do you sell autographed copies of your G.I.Joe scripts to fans?
DBC: If any one wants an autograph I'd be glad to provide it for free.
DT: [You can reach Mr. Carren at ] According to the writing credits I found on other web sites, you didn't write any of the episodes for some of the other Sunbow TV series based on Hasbro's toys, such as The Transformers, Inhumanoids, Jem and Visionaries. Did the other series not interest you or were you too busy writing G.I.Joe stories?
DBC: Just never got any offers on those shows, or I was just too busy doing other stuff.
DT: After Sunbow's G.I.Joe series ended, you wrote four episodes for DIC's G.I.Joe show. Because the DIC budget was smaller than Sunbow's, did you ever find writing "Victory at Volcania: Parts One and Two" and "D-Day at Alcatraz: Parts One and Two" frustrating?
DBC: I loved "D-Day at Alcatraz" simply because of the Ghost. I felt the story sustained two parts, which is unusual. Most of the time, two partners have a stretched, padded feel. "Volcania" was like that.
DT: Compared to Sunbow, what was it like working with DIC?
DBC: I've worked at DIC many times over the years and hope to work there again.
From the Stargate SG-1
DT: I really enjoyed your Stargate episode "Hathor." Do you have any more episodes in the works?
DBC: Unfortunately our working relationship with the Stargate folks was not very satisfying.
DT: Since I was drowning in college classwork during 1996, I missed your work on Hasbro's toy-based series Vortech. Could you explain the premise of the show and talk a little about the characters? Also, how long was the series on the air?
DBC: Vortech came about because Hasbro had all these molds for toys from a show called MASK done years before. We came up with a concept centered on two brothers. Both scientists. One had given himself over to a bio-mechanical intelligence known as the Matrix (this is years before the movie.) The bad brother wanted to engult the entire world and all its people in this thing, and the good brother put together a team of heroes to stop him. Every episode was chock full of badly animated action and poorly voiced characters. We're still proud of it anyway. It ran in syndication for a year -- 13 shows.
DT: What projects are you currently working on?
DBC: I have an unpublished book that is on its way to being produced as a feature, believe it or not. Martha Coolidge is attached to direct and hopefully it will be shot early next year.
DT: Congratulations on the film deal! Is this the first time you've turned a completed and unpublished book into a movie or TV episode?
DBC: Outside of "If She Dies," the TZ [Twilight Zone]-based on my comic book story, this is the first time I've gotten this far with any of my books or stories, film-wise, published or unpublished. In fact, I published an SF paperback some years ago.
DT: What is your favorite book, movie and television series?
DBC: Geez. I just don't know how to answer that. There's just so much good stuff, past and present, and my tastes have changed over the years.
Cover for No Power on Earth
DT: Who do you include among your influences?
DBC: Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, James Thurber, Stan Lee, all the usual suspects.
DT: What is your favorite midnight snack?
DT: Which type of show do you prefer working on: live-action or animated TV series? Why?
DBC: Live action. The money and benefits are better, and even the lowest budgeted live show is usually better produced than the average cartoon series. You've got a better chance at seeing your stuff done like what you actually wrote in live action.
DT: What kind of movie or TV would you love to create?
DBC: A thriller, a good action piece with a strong set of characters. It can be legal, police procedural, SF, whatever. Just fun, fast, and involving.
DT: Any words of advice to the G.I.Joe fans on-line?
DBC: If you want to be a writer be willing to write anything. Nothing you write is a waste of time so long as you learn from it.
My sincerest thanks to the very friendly and talented Mr. Carren for taking the time to talk about himself and his experiences on Sunbow's G.I.Joe series.