Before The CW had become the network for science fiction, fantasy, and geek shows, there was The WB. Before merging with UPN to form The CW in 2006, The WB had given audiences Charmed, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Angel. One of the shows that developed for The WB but never made it to air was David Hayter’s Lost in Oz. As one of the writers for the movies X-Men, X-Men 2, and The Watchmen, Hayter has made a name for himself developing science fiction and fantasy films. Upon learning that he once developed a pilot for a show inspired by The Wizard of Oz, I was able to interview Hayter about this project and what he learned from it.
To learn more about David Hayter, check him out on twitter @DavidBHayter.
Nicholas Yanes: I last interviewed you about the film Devil’s Mile. Since then, how have things been?
David Hayter: Pretty great. I directed a film called Wolves, with Jason Momoa and Lucas Till, I just appeared in a horror film called Buckout Road with Danny Glover, I’ve done a bunch of videogame voice work, I got cast as King Shark on The Flash, I’m writing a very big film for Universal, and I am setting up two TV shows with John Carpenter and John Singleton each attached to direct. So, it’s a very busy time, but I feel like my career is in a very cool place. I get to do all the things I like, (like work) with very little of the things I don’t. (Like starving.)
Yanes: I know you directed and wrote a movie called Wolves. How much fun did you have working on that project?
Hayter: More than any human being should be allowed. Wolves had such a great crew, and such an amazing cast, and it was an absolute dream to make. I got to work with creature design, action sequences, explosions and incredible actors. I only wish that anyone had seen the film.
Yanes: And now to the main part of the interview. When I learned about your show Lost in Oz, I immediately wanted to learn more. Prior to developing the show, what was your experience with the Wizard of Oz narrative? Did you enjoy the movies or the books as a child?
Hayter: I had seen the original film of course, many times over my lifetime, and I was as blown away by it as anyone else. Even today, it stands out as a major achievement in scope, story and special effects. The tornado effect for example, still stands up today, and I think they did it with a twisted up nylon stocking. Its impact on world culture is still felt in all areas of story-telling. In fact, my favorite “film-school’ revelation is to tell people that John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is my favorite “Wizard Of Oz” remake ever. (Snake is Dorothy, Cabbie is the Cowardly Lion, etc…) I was aware of the other books, but I had not yet read them. And I did not see Walter Murch’s Return to Oz, until I started developing the pilot. But it’s a pretty cool piece in its own right, very creative and disturbing.
Yanes: In regards to Lost in Oz, what was the inspiration for the show and setting it about a hundred years after Dorothy Gale first visited it?
Hayter: Well, we were in another millennia from the original film, and the book itself was about a hundred years old, so it made sense to me. I also wanted the audience, and the network, to understand that we were in a new era. That the unalloyed “sweetness” of the original story would be darkened by time and progress, that there were new problems to solve. I love the tone of the original film, but I wasn’t sure how well it would play in our more cynical world. Plus, I thought that if some of that sweetness and light had been pulled out of this beloved world, it would motivate the audience to want to see it put right again.
Yanes: Though you only got one episode, what was the long term story arc that you wanted to tell?
Hayter: There were going to be many different storylines, as Alex travelled across the varied landscapes of Oz, putting things right. And of course, Alex’s personal journey – Can she find the hero within herself, without succumbing to darkness? The citizens of Oz have mythologized Dorothy to the point of god-hood by the time Alex arrives, and that’s a very heavy mantle to put on an architect’s assistant from Kansas. She’s just a person, but an overriding theme of Oz is about putting people on pedestals, expecting from them more than they can possibly deliver. And that can lead to some pretty dark places.
Yanes: An aspect of this story that I thought was interesting was that Alexandra Wilder – the main character of the story – would become the new Wicked Witch of the West if she killed the current Wicked Witch. What were you trying to tell with this plot element?
Hayter: That our lives can go either way. I am believer in heroism, of standing up for the greater good. I am also a believer in the use of violence to protect the ones you love. In an insane world, your choices, even the positive ones, can have negative effects. When we are given new power, and we’re facing evil, unrelenting obstacles, we’re all in danger of becoming the Wicked Witch. I think that was the point of Wicked – which I just saw recently, I did not want to see it before I made the pilot.
Yanes: Since the Lost in Oz pilot was filmed, there have been several films based on Wizard of Oz and several TV shows have had stories inspired by Oz; such as Supernatural and Once Upon a Time. As a matter of fact, there have been several live action adaptations and reimaginings of classic fantasy stories. How does it feel to be way ahead of everyone else? Moreover, why do you think these stories continue to inspire people to want to modernize them?
Hayter: Honestly? It can be enormously frustrating to be way out ahead of everyone else. For years, I analyzed trends and predicted where the culture was going to go, with a pretty fair degree of accuracy. Unfortunately, if you are even five years ahead of your time (In this case, I was ten,) then you are still struggling to convince studios and networks in the present that this is what the audience is going to want to see. So now, I try to predict where they will be in two years, rather than a decade. Lost in Oz was supposed to be an enormous investment for the erstwhile WB Network – We had 280 visual effects in the pilot alone – And then reality TV got hot, and everyone wanted the next big, cheapest show, and they killed Lost in Oz at the very last minute. Literally — I had already bought a Hugo Boss suit for the upfront announcements in New York, two days later.
As for why people love these stories? Fantasy is our inner reality. We all dream of strange lands, adventure, facing unusual, powerful and scary obstacles and discovering new ways to find our strength and prevail. Because that’s how life feels to us as young people, entering the world. It’s big, it’s weird, constantly evolving and scary – and we all just want to be the heroes in our own stories. Authors like L. Frank Baum tell us how to find our inner strength in our darkest, most confusing times.
Yanes: The issue of ownership in the TV world is a legal nightmare. Would it be possible to resurrect this idea for another network or has the time for Lost in Oz come to an end?
Hayter: It’s possible, and I have spoken recently to a Warner’s producer about it. But it’s a different world now, and I think the whole thing was of its time. I’d rather focus on something new. But if the chance to revisit it came, I’d certainly consider it. We shot the whole thing around the Gold Coast of Australia, and it was an absolutely spectacular time.
Yanes: Overall, what did you learn from this experience about TV production? Any advice you could offer to people who want to get into the TV industry?
Hayter: I think my biggest advice would be, “Try not to have 280 viz effects in your first pilot.” It’s well and good to swing for the fences, and you should. But TV is (still) not the movies. Challenge yourself to write stories that are motivated by your characters first, and your world-creation second. And keep it simple and compelling. The primary difference between TV and film is this – In film production, you have a studio, that oversees and frets about everything you do. In TV, you have both a studio and a network, and very often they have conflicting ideas for the way a show needs to go. And everyone is fighting for the primary influence over you. As a creator, you have to me smart, quick on your feet, and above all, flexible.
Yanes: Finally, what are some projects you are currently working that people should be on the lookout for?
Hayter: As I mentioned above, I have a few Writing/Producing projects I’m working on, but they are top secret. I’ll just say this – If you see my name attached to John Carpenter’s on something… Be prepared to freak out like a Scarecrow on fire.
Remember, to learn more about David Hayter, check him out on twitter @DavidBHayter.