ULTRAMAN GETS A REWRITE! John Douglas on Scripting Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero!

Photo © John Douglas.

Santa Clarita resident John Douglas has worked in the entertainment industry in various capacities, but it was on the American-produced Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero (1993) where he arguably made his greatest contribution. Although his most obvious credit was penning two of the show’s episodes (“A Quartet of Creatures” and ”The DaDa Effect”), this interview reveals for the first time the actual degree to which Mr. Douglas was involved in the series.

Mr. Douglas has also lent his talents to such feature films as The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Guyver (1991), Return of the Living Dead III (1993), Ticks (1993), and Scanner Cop II (1995). Mr. Douglas has also worked on some of the most popular reality television series of recent years, namely Big Brother and Hell’s Kitchen. These days, Mr. Douglas and his wife run their own veterinary clinic. When he’s not busy helping animals, Mr. Douglas collects movie soundtracks, ‘80s arcade cabinet games, and movie posters. In August 2018, Mr. Douglas answered Brett Homenick’s questions about his multiple contributions to Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero.

Brett Homenick: How did you get started as a writer?

John Douglas: Ultraman was really my first professional writing job. I truly lucked into the job by being in the right place at the right time.

I originally came on board as a production assistant and runner during the earliest days of the production. “Pre-pre-pre-production” might be accurate. It was supposed to be maybe three weeks of assisting the setting up of the office and moving things about.

At the time, other than the established Tsuburaya people, the only people working on the show were Julie Avola, King Wilder, and Vic Garcia. Vic had given me one of my first jobs in the industry at another company the year before and knew I was between jobs, so he brought me in to introduce me to Julie and King. Everything clicked, and I got the job.

As things got set up, I was asked if I wanted to stay on, and the three-week job ultimately turned into a several-year job.

When I wasn’t working, I was trying my hand at screenwriting. I had just teamed up with another writer, and we were working on a pair of spec scripts-slash-writing samples set in the Star Trek: The Next Generation universe.

I felt they turned out really well and was hoping to get feedback from friends in the industry, so one of the first people I asked was my friend and boss, Vic.

I guess he thought I was vying for a writing assignment, but it never even occurred to me that they’d even consider someone who was unproven.

He liked them and asked if he could share them with Julie and King, to which I hesitantly agreed. By this time, we were buried in production, and despite the fact that we were all friends, I didn’t want to ask them to take the time away to read my scripts.

Thankfully, Vic pushed, and they read the scripts. I was also lucky that King was a big sci-fi nerd and a Trek fan, so I think I got bonus points for that.

Initially, the offer was for one of the episodes only (Red King), but I guess between the fact that they liked it and that I wrote it so quickly, they then asked if I wanted to take a stab at a second episode (“The DaDa Effect”). Naturally, I was beyond ecstatic to do them both.

BH: What did you do to familiarize yourself with the character?

JD: I was lucky because we had the original shows in the office that I could watch, plus I was around to see how the characters and overall arc was being put together. I also knew how Tsuburaya and the Japanese did things, so I could factor that into the scripts so as to be as reverential as possible.

Another bit of insider trivia: King and Julie (and I) were huge fans of the movie Aliens. We watched it religiously over the course of putting together Ultraman. It definitely inspired us in many ways, especially when it came to the characters. Rob Roy (Fitzgerald) was our Bill Paxton/Hudson, and we wanted Harrison (Page) to always have a cigar to chomp on. We wanted the WINR team to have this dynamic like the colonial marines in Aliens where they joke and taunt one another, but at the same time, admired and respected one another as teammates. Obviously, we were making a show for kids, so we had to really soften our team so they didn’t come off as foul-mouthed, hardened soldiers, but I think we definitely got some of that in there.

BH: Did Tsuburaya Productions have any requests or restrictions for you?

JD: For me as a writer, no, not really. I was pretty familiar with the monsters and knew that there was no need to mess with a proven formula. Behind the scenes, though, that was an entirely different story, and I routinely got to see the battle play out. It was a small budget, and Julie had to fight for every dollar, so I tried to keep that in mind when writing.

To get things done, we had to call on every favor we had. I wrote the character Schecter with Jeffrey Combs in mind because I was a huge fan and got to know him working on Bride of Re-Animator and a couple other projects. Having come from Empire Pictures, Julie and King were also big fans of his.

So when it came time to pitch it to him, I took off my screenwriter hat and put on my production assistant runner hat and personally drove over a copy of the script to his house. Jeffrey was there and invited me in, and we spent an hour catching up and talking. Eventually, he opened the envelope to see the script and immediately saw my name listed as the writer on the cover page. He didn’t even read beyond that. He just stood up, hugged me, and said, “Done.”

When I said, “But you haven’t even read it yet,” he replied, “You wrote this and thought of me for a part? Done.”

I didn’t want to scare him off, but I added, “It’s super low-budget…,” to which he said, “That’s my agent’s problem, not mine. I’m in.”

I love that guy.

BH: How long did it take you to write the episodes?

JD: If memory serves, I think each one was done in about a week to ten days. We were rushed for time, and there were other bits that I wanted to add and make some changes, but there wasn’t much time for that since I was also doing production stuff during the day as well.

BH: Did you have any ideas that were rejected by Tsuburaya Productions, or that you yourself decided to change?

JD: No, not really. They were fairly hands-off about stuff like that. Both scripts had a scene that got cut for time that I really wish I could have made fit, but every writer will tell you that.

In Red King, there was supposed to be a subplot where Barbara, tired of his indifference and ignorance of the creatures, gives Schecter a book on them to study. He naturally complains and ridicules the idea, but when no one is looking, he becomes more knowledgeable and caring. The scene where he says that the Kings were like swans that paired for life was what this led to and would have given him more of a character arc. As it was, our editor Nina Gilberti cried when cutting the scene and told me that had we included more of Schecter’s conversion, she wouldn’t have been able to get through the scene. But even without it, Jeffrey just nailed the pathos in that scene.

Did I mention that I love that guy?

I’m the DaDa episode, I wanted a coda scene at the end where it was revealed that the remains of the super computer system that DaDa had taken over was being sold off to a company that cleaned up and repurposed the machinery by distributing the computers to schools. The final shot would have been a fleet of trucks filled with these computers all leaving in different directions to schools all over the U.S.

I always thought of that episode as a bit of a horror movie and knew that every fun scary movie needed to have a “It’s over … or is it?” kind of moment. I just imagined kids watching the episode and being left with the thought that their computer could be harboring a monster that would consume them entirely.

And remember: This was years before the invention of social media, which is the real DaDa.

BH: What approach did you take to the material? How did you write Ultraman and the human characters?

JD: Ultraman and the WINR team were fairly easy to write for, especially on my second script. By this point, we really got to know the actors, and that influenced things in a big way.

Harrison was an actor’s actor and took the trade very seriously. That found its way into the character.

Rob Roy was constantly joking around, and it was nearly impossible to tell where the character ended and he began. All you had to do was kind of give him an idea of what needed to happen in the scene, and he knew what to do.

Kane (Kosugi) was so polite and nice and despite being the star of the show, never once let it go to his head. His father (Sho Kosugi) is a living legend and such a huge personality, but he never tried to compete with that. I think that is reflected in his character and how he looks at the (literally) huge shoes he is stepping into and, at the same time, not lose sight of who he is and how he is to the people around him. Let me put it this way, whenever I would arrive on set and would be carrying things in, Kane would jump out of his chair with his star and name on it and rush over to help me carry things in. Yeah, he’s that kind of guy. He was only a few years younger than me at the time, but I wanted to adopt him and raise him as my own son.

Sandra (Guibord) was so nice and charming. You could tell that because she was so beautiful her entire life, that she got treated a certain way. So she would put so much effort into being more than just a pretty face. She was driven to always be able to pronounce all the technobabble we threw at her so we made sure to come up with the most complex words we could think of for her scenes. She knew what we were up to and still made sure to study the hell out of her scenes to get them right. On one occasion, she asked me about a word in the script, and I just shrugged my shoulders and told her, “I have no idea. I just made it up.” I think she swatted me with the script for that one.

And Robyn (Bliley). Oh, my dear sweet Robyn. I (and every other guy on set) had a crush on Robyn. She was so beautiful and so nice, and when she smiled or laughed at your jokes, you would just melt. She had that thing that people who have met President Clinton said about him: When she spoke to you, you felt like you were the center of attention, and no one else even existed in the room. I really wanted to write something with her being a spy or a con artist because she could get you to hand over state secrets or your life savings without an effort. If anything, I felt that we really didn’t develop her character enough over the course of the series. She was such a big fan of Sandra’s work on the show that her character also took on a bit of the younger sister role.

BH: How much did you write for the monsters, especially their battles with Ultraman? Did you have any input, or was that entirely left up to the special effects crew?

JD: Interestingly, I fought with myself about the fight scenes when writing the scripts. On Red King, I left it intentionally vague and would just write, “They fight,” and let the stunt guys and the director figure out what they wanted to do when we were on set.

That episode was filming when I was finishing up DaDa, and I realized that a lot of the cool moves that King and the stuntmen came up with were getting used up in the early episodes, and I was concerned that they might run out of ideas by the time my second episode was filmed. So I put in a lot more detail about the moves and actions in that script. I’m glad I did because the fights turned out great. We shot a lot more moves to the DaDa fight and used a lot more laser and energy attacks that would have been very cool to have included, but we were running seriously low on budget and couldn’t afford to finish the effects for those scenes. Which was unfortunate but goes with the territory.

In retrospect, the one thing I wish I would have studied up on and included in my scripts were all the different cross beam laser combinations that they had created for Ultraman over the years. I was too new to the character to know at the time how important that was to the Ultraman legend. Sorry, guys. My bad.

BH: What challenges did you face during the process of writing?

JD: Massive insecurity about my ability to write a professional script. I pretty much lived at the Major Havoc production offices the entire production, and Julie and King became like family to me. I knew they were taking a huge risk on me, especially since it could have easily come across as looking like favoritism. So, more than anything, I was most concerned about not letting them down. At the same time, I had a number of responsibilities during the day that I had to make sure were being handled. But that really was it. Julie and King were very supportive and, hopefully, I didn’t let them down.

BH: What was your working relationship with director King Wilder and producer Julie Avola like?

JD: They were the absolute best, and I don’t mean that the way that everyone in Hollywood heaps praise on one another. I had the greatest time working on that show, and they have become some of the best friends I have ever had. Julie really doted on me like I was her metaphorical little brother, from everything like putting up with the fact that I was a complete night owl and tended to not be the first one there in the morning but would stay until the wee hours getting things done, to taking care of me when I cracked a wisdom tooth and wouldn’t go to the dentist to get it taken care of.

A funny side note: When I first was told about the job by Vic Garcia, he told me that I would have to meet with Julie and King, but for some reason I heard it as “Julian King.” I was a little confused when I met with two people and wondered which one was Julian. It later became the name of a character in one of the scripts that I wrote for the show.

BH: What about the Japanese side? What do you remember about working with them?

JD: They were all really nice, the few that I actually met when they came to the States. Most all of them spoke very little English, but we somehow managed to find a way to communicate. I seem to recall that we had a small step-down storage room in the production offices that they took over. It was barely big enough to be a workspace for one person, but there were like three of them that worked out of that space.

BH: Did you visit the set during filming? If so, what stands out for you?

JD: Whatever time I had away from the production offices, I spent on the sets, either on location or at the stages in Santa Clarita. The budget was so tight, and we wanted as much to end up on screen that when we were filming on the stages, rather than hire a night security guard, either our production manager Bob Kaye (mostly) or myself would stay at the stages in an improvised apartment we had built there. It really was funny thinking back on it now, but we were all so committed to the project and one another that, at the time, we didn’t think it was odd at all.

There was so many great memories that stand out. From being able to film in the cave that served as the Batcave exterior in the old Adam West TV series, meeting a lot of the guest stars who would be there for what really were cameo appearances, to helping to shoot second unit footage, the constant pranks and practical jokes that we played on each other, the truly amazing sets that Aaron Osborne made for us that I got to play on when they weren’t being filmed, getting to hang out with Joe Viskocil, our pyro guy, who had an unending supply of great insider stories about the monumental movies that he had worked on, being allowed to fire the flamethrower from True Liesand pack and film Joe’s signature zero gravity explosions, to getting arrested one night on the way home from location and having to spend time trying to get out of that mess which made me miss the filming of part of the Red King episode. (That’s a very long story for another time.)

It truly was an amazing time.

BH: What was your favorite memory about working on the show?

JD: There is no way I could pick just one. Every day was an adventure. I got to do so much, beyond the screenwriting. I got to learn how to drive like in the movies by our stunt team, I got to wear giant monster suits to pose for our opening credits, I got to cameo (my voice, anyway) in one of the episodes as a scared camper, I was able to work in the names of tons of my friends and relatives as characters in my scripts, shot my own mini movie on home video cameras using the sets on days that the show was not filming, had late night screening parties when we were too tired to drive home. I even signed my first autograph and got fan mail that I couldn’t read. (It was in Japanese.)

BH: Is there anything else you’d like to share about the project that we didn’t have a chance to cover earlier?

JD: I’m sure things will come back to me later that I am forgetting.  Like I said before, I have never worked on a production quite like Ultraman. It felt more like summer camp with friends, except that it lasted longer than one summer. I really wish that we all could have went on to do more projects together. Work doesn’t get much more fun than that.

BH: What did you think of the final product?

JD: I loved it. I know that it wasn’t received very well, and I can see now how it could be seen that way. But I am fiercely proud of how it turned out. The audience only gets to see what ends up on the screen, but to have been a part of it and experience all that went in to it, I think it was very enjoyable. We had no budget, so many requirements put upon us by Tsuburaya, and people that were actively trying to sabotage our production to serve their own ends. You also have to remember that right in the midst of shooting the show, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers show came out and became a monstrous hit. Suddenly, we were expected to deliver a show like that, despite the fact that we had already filmed over half the show. But I am still a big fan of the show and love that I got to play a part in getting it on the air.

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