Michael Cassutt: The Max Headroom Interview

Michael Cassutt is a writer and producer of a number of television series, including THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1985), THE OUTER LIMITS (1990), and EERIE, INDIANA (1991). But he can also take credit for his work on MAX HEADROOM (1987), and during this 25th anniversary celebration, I am thrilled that he agreed to an interview on what is now regarded as “the first cyberpunk television series.”

GK: Thanks for subjecting yourself to this interview- this is very exciting for me, as I was in college, majoring in Radio/Television/Film when MAX HEADROOM debuted, so you can imagine how it resonated with me. And that affection has only grown over the years.

So, to begin, how did you become involved in the MAX HEADROOM TV series?

MC: I got hired on MAX because of Phil DeGuere, who was my boss on TWILIGHT ZONE. A vastly experienced network showrunner, Phil had been teamed with Peter Wagg (who was the point man for all things MAX from Chrysalis) to develop, then run the ABC series. Phil had screened the UK MAX movie, “Twenty Minutes into the Future,” for several of us on TZ. Then Jim Crocker, George R R Martin, Martin Pasko & Becky Parr and I were assigned to write episodes. Based on my episode, "Security Systems," I got hired as the story editor in January 1987.

GK: What were your initial thoughts about the series?

MC: My initial thought: this has no business being on American network television. (I was right about that, especially for 1987). But I was incredibly excited about it... a satirical show about the world of the future in which television viewing was the primary activity? I was BORN for MAX.

GK: What was your favorite episode? Your favorite memory about the series?

MC: My favorite is "Neurostim," originally a pitch, outline and draft by Art Sellers that I worked on a lot. My favorite memory of the series is the wonderful attention it got -- cover of NEWSWEEK etc. And also just the way it looked and sounded on the air, and the effect that had on viewers.

GK: Describe how you found out that the series had been cancelled – how did you feel about the news?

MC: Frankly, I was relieved. I had been working too hard for too long to be looking forward at that point. We were only about one script ahead of production when you should really have at least four scripts ready to go. So I knew trouble was looming: someone was going to get fired or the show was going to get canceled.

GK: How would you like to have seen the series conclude its TV run?

MC: I never gave a moment's thought to the end of MAX. I would have loved to see it run for five years, a hundred episodes. Maybe Max himself would have become ruler of Earth.

GK: That would have made an awesome tele-election-style episode! If the series had made it to a full second season, what direction do you think it would have taken?

MC: We would have just explored the characters of Max, Theora, Bryce at al more thoroughly -- and Max himself, of course. And shown you more of the world 20 Minutes into the Future.

GK: Could MAX HEADROOM be rebooted today? Should it? Why or why not? If yes, would you like to be a part of it?

MC: It could, and who knows? I don't think it should. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA aside, re-boots are usually awful. I'd like to believe I'd resist the temptation to return to MAX, if someone did re-launch it. It should really have a new team.

GK: It has been 25 years since we first got this vision of life “20 minutes into the future.” What lessons have we learned? How is this future the same as that portrayed in the series, and how is it different?

MC: If you replace "television channel" from MAX with "internet", you can see a lot of similarities.... frightening ones in terms of human behavior, especially when it comes to the nature of popular entertainment and its effects on society. To go back to question 6, if Max came back now.... he'd be a Kardashian, wouldn't he?

GK: Max as a Kardashian. The very thought makes me shudder – but you are most likely right! What surprised you most about what the series got right? What surprised you the most about what it missed?

MC: In addition to the development of the internet, the growth and evolution of media, especially television... the expanding gap between rich and poor, all of that was in MAX and is evident in today's world.
What we missed - I can't say. Given the nature of the series, there were giant freaking swaths of human activity we never looked at or presented. We don't discuss space flight, for example. If we missed anything, it was the shrinking size and massively improved capability of personal data devices.

GK: iPads and smartphones would certainly have opened up new possibilities. What do you wish people would remember about MAX HEADROOM that they don’t now and, conversely, what do you wish they would forget?

MC: They should remember that it was prescient, smart, amusing and stylish. They should forget that some of the story-telling was slow and confused.

GK: Have you ever been invited to conventions based on your stint on MH? Have you ever been invited to speak on the series at a convention? If so, will you give us a little background?

MC: I did one MAX-related speaking event in Boston circa 1988, and later that year was invited back to my alma mater, the University of Arizona, to speak at an event where MAX was prominent. Other than that, I recall no MAX-centric events.... of course, I've attended two dozen conventions and spoken at schools, etc., and MAX has frequently come up... but those are the only two direct invites I remember.

GK: I find it very sad that Max isn’t as fondly remembered at conventions nowadays. But speaking of today, what are some of your current projects?

MC: My current project is a trilogy of SF novels written in collaboration with David S. Goyer, he being the screenwriter for BLADE, DARK CITY, BATMAN BEGINS, the upcoming MAN OF STEEL (new Superman), etc. Book one was HEAVEN'S SHADOW, published in July 2011... Book 2 is HEAVEN'S WAR, out last July... #3 is HEAVEN'S FALL, coming this August. All are from Ace. HS is in paperback now, HW will be this summer. And all three have been sold to Warner as potential feature films; David has written a script for HS and the studio is sending it out to potential directors. You can find out more about it at the HEAVEN’S SHADOW Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/heavensshadownovel

GK: Thanks for interview! As for me, I really wish that MAX would be remembered with as much respect (thereabouts) as STAR TREK or FIREFLY, mainly due to its standing as the first cyberpunk TV series.



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