THE BRAINS BEHIND BRAIN 17! Michael Part on Americanizing a Japanese Cult Classic!

For Michael Part, it’s just another day at the office. Photo © Michael Part.

In the early 1980s, some Japanese TV tokusatsu from the ‘70s found its way to America in an unexpected way. Toei’s Message from Space: Galactic Wars (1978-79) spinoff TV series, as well as Daitetsujin 17 (1977), were edited and dubbed into feature-length movie versions  by 3B Productions for American consumption. These shortened versions were released as Swords of the Space Ark (1981) and Brain 17 (1982), respectively. Brain 17, in particular, has earned a bit of a cult reputation in the U.S. for its over-the-top comedic dubbing. 
Wisconsin native Michael Part had a big hand in bringing both Japanese programs to American audiences. Mr. Part wrote and edited Swords of the Space Ark while he was completely in charge of Brain 17, serving as the director and scriptwriter. Additionally, in 1978, he worked on the American dub of Spectreman (1971-72). Mr. Part has since gone on to bigger and better things, and his best known credit to date is his screenplay for Disney’s A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (1995), which co-stars Kate Winslet and Daniel Craig in roles early in their careers. In September 2018, Mr. Part remembered his work on these cult classics with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: Please tell us a bit of your background before you began working in entertainment.
Michael Part: I’ve been writing professionally since I was 18. When I attended Los Angeles Valley College, I was a journalism major and wrote for the school paper. I was recruited by a number of music papers out at the time, including The Happening, and I wrote concert reviews for that paper. I wrote a short story for another paper, but I can’t remember the name.
I was not only a writer, but I was also quite technical. In fact, in 1967, I had a summer job working for Wyle Test Labs in El Segundo. My father, who was an aerospace exec back then, got me the job, and I was testing components for the Apollo 11 project, including pressure vessels my father’s company made as a vendor for Northrop-Grumman. We failed the welds on those, and that delayed the Moon project for a year. Eventually, they corrected the issues, and the rest was history. The mission was a success.
I eventually transferred to UCLA as an English major and graduated from there in 1972. In the early ’70s, I also reviewed books for The Los Angeles Free Press. Out on the streets, I got a job in a motion picture laboratory as a printer, since I had an aptitude for running the machines. This was the lab that previously had helped produce the Dan O’Bannon movie Dark Star, and I met him and other show business types and got the bug.
In the ’70s, working in a lab, I applied for a job as an assistant to a producer at Paramount and got the job as associate producer on a sitcom called Busting Loose. It was there I learned a lot about post-production (at the time). In recording the music for the show, I was introduced to a 16-track recorder. When my contract ran out there, I applied for a job at Gomillion Sound. At this time, video editing was just beginning to be a part of shows, at least for television. At that time, Gomillion delivered TV movies, etc., the same way they delivered features: with a negative and a DME (dialogue music effects). In my meeting with Ted Gomillion, the owner, I mentioned to him that TV shows didn’t have to deliver negatives, just 2” masters (at the time). He said the problem was the audio. I said, “Not if you use a multi-track recorder and laydown the DME there then lay the mix track back to the 2.”
I knew about the 16-track, but by then the newest kid on the block was the 24-track. So Ted hired me and said, “You’re the head of my video department,” and he bought two 24-tracks and hired Joe Zapala who had come over when we started doing all the Zoetrope movies for (Francis Ford) Coppola. Joe and I became the guys who produced the final soundtracks for TV, and we wound up saving productions a lot of money. I learned how to edit video on a convergence system and to record ADR and foley on a Q-Lok, which was an automated computerized thingy, too. I taught Bob Deschaine how to work that machine, and he never was out of a job until he recently retired. We are still friends.
Anyway, we devised the video workflow that is still being used today (with much more sophisticated devices). While I was doing the dailies for I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can for David Rabe (he shot a video assist camera along with his 35mm film cam so he could see what he had), I also started cutting down all the old Crown International R-rated movies like The Van for TV by cutting out the naughty parts for the head of their editorial, George Bowers.
I think I did about five movies, and that got the attention of Bunker Jenkins, who had filmed a hidden camera show with porn stars. His cameraman was the guy who did Candid Camera. I worked with Bunker editing the offline of that (on the convergence), and that got the attention of Orson Welles, who had an idea for a talk show he wanted to do in both film and video. I didn’t edit Orson’s show, but he used the same suite I had built for the other projects, and Stan Sheff edited that. We worked with Orson for about nine months.
Then Bunker came to me and asked me if I could adapt Japanese films. I was quite familiar with them because I was a fan of (Akira) Kurosawa as well as some anime. I had recently worked with Stan and Mel Welles on (Spectreman), which Mel directed and Stan edited. Mel taught me how to direct voice while working on that show. So when Bunker came to me with Message from Space, I cut the show down from 38 episodes, something like that, to a three-act structure that told one through story. Bunker was going to direct and act in it, and I started meeting voice actors.
We made that into Swords of the Space Ark, which I “wrote” and named. Raiders of the Lost Ark was just coming out, so we capitalized on that. After that show sold to Showtime or was released on video and did well, he asked me if I wanted to write and direct some children’s classic cartoons from Japan. I said yes and did Little Women and Huck Finn. Then he said, “I have this other show. It’s totally weird. I don’t get it. It’s about a giant robot. There are like 40-something episodes. Can you turn it into an 80- or 90-minute movie for cassette?”
He gave me something called Fighting General Daimos, which was a giant robot cartoon. I had the episodes and direct Japanese translated scripts, which barely made any sense, but I knew what they were getting at. So I watched all the episodes and wrote a script called Starbirds. And cut the show to my script from the episodes. I hired all the actors, like Richard Rossner, Marla Frumkin, Paul Ross, and Mona Marshall, and we made Starbirds. That was released on cassette, and Showtime bought it, so Bunker came to me with a never-ending supply of robot cartoons, including UFO Dai Apolon, which I made into Shadow World, and I re-cut Voltus 5.
Then Bunker said, “I have this TV series. It’s live-action. It’s called Iron Robot 17.” It was actually a very wild show, very silly, but at the same time pictorially amazing. So I cut that 48-episode series into a 90-minute movie that called “Revenge of the Defenders” because at that time we knew the next Star Wars movie was going to come out, and it was entitled “Revenge of the Jedi.” They eventually changed it to Return of the Jedi. I hired Paul Ross, Dick Rossner, Marla, and Mona again, and I think Jan Rabson also did some voices. I did some voices, too, to fill in the little stuff. Phil Proctor may have done a voice as well.
Our plan was to make a serious film, but as I wrote it, it just seemed too silly to be serious, so we started throwing in a lot of humor, and we had a lot of fun with it. Besides the line you mentioned (“Suddenly, one year later…”), which was actually scripted, “Suddenly, a year passed” (or something like that), I remember there was a shot of this device that was labeled MRSS, and it was a gauge that started beeping. The actor’s line wasn’t in the show, so I (came up with the line), “The MRSS is beeping!” because we didn’t know what the equipment was. That steered the rest of the show to some pretty fun improvisational moments because none of us could take the rest of the movie seriously.
Honestly, we figured once we delivered it, we would never hear of this show again. And I went on to do a lot of other stuff, eventually writing TV and movies, and I’d totally forgotten about it until I had done a search for “Michael Part” on eBay to see if they had any stuff on the Disney movie I had written, A Kid in King Arthur’s Court, and Brain 17 popped up. I started buying every copy I could find. It was packaged in a huge lurid box, and I still have a couple copies. I’ve been meaning to transfer it from VHS to DVD so I can watch it again.

The board and studio where Swords of the Space Ark and Brain 17 were made. Asao Yamanaka from NHK stands next to Michael Part. Photo © Michael Part.

BH: How did you start working in the film and television industry?
MP: I was printing movies in a small lab on Western in Hollywood, and I met a lot of filmmakers like Bob Greenberg and Andy Romanoff. (I was the gaffer on the Pink Floyd Dole banana commercial, for instance.) That led to Gomillion, Paramount, and back to Gomillion and giant robot cartoons and afterwards a career writing movies and TV. I wrote Disney’s A Kid in King Arthur’s Court and its sequel, A Kid in Aladdin’s Palace, as well as a TV series called Supercarrier and a movie at Fox with Steve de Souza called K-9000.
BH: How did you get hired to work on Spectreman?
MP: I had just come aboard as the head of the new video department at Gomillion. Stan Sheff and I have been friends since the ’60s, and he actually introduced me to Gomillion and the various producers who came and went there, including Bob Williams whose edit suite I also managed there. This was where Orson Welles did his show in 1979. So Stan made a deal with Ted Gomillion to do the Spectreman shows there, and I was in charge of the studio. As a result, I was present for a lot of dubbing, and Mel taught me.
Stan and I had worked with Mel before when we made him one of the actors of demo video we were doing for a movie we were trying to make called Shock Island. The demo might be on YouTube. Anyway, he played the Dr. Moreau-esque mad scientist in our movie.
BH: What else do you remember about working with Stan (Sheff) and Mel Welles?
MP: Yes, and I’m still good friends with Stan; we’ve known each other for years and years, at least since the late ’60s. I met him when he was making a black-and-white movie called Sinister Flesh. I’ve talked with Stan at least once a week ever since. Like I mentioned, when we were doing our Shock Island promo, we got Mel Welles, Gerrit Graham, Howard Hesseman, and Kristine DeBell to act in it. After this, Mel approached Stan and brought Spectreman to Gomillion where, by that time, I was in charge of all video stuff. I believe we transformed 16mm prints to video in order to dub them using the QLok.
The only actor I remember is Linda Gary because when I started doing my own dubbing I was trying to get her for the shows, but she turned me down because she was too booked up.
BH: What were those dubbing sessions like for Spectreman?
MP: As in all dubbing sessions, we had a lot of fun, and we didn’t take ourselves too seriously.
BH: How long did you work on the show?
MP: I was at Gomillion from 1978-1983. I can’t remember how long Spectreman was there, but like I said, Stan and I were partners in lots of stuff, so it is possible we ran out of space, (and) he moved the show elsewhere after a number of episodes. I don’t remember; it was so long ago.
BH: Do you remember what roles you may have played?
MP: I didn’t do any voices in Spectreman if that is what you mean. My role at Gomillion was supervision the video department, which included music and effects on lots of TV shows, after-school specials, etc. I do remember working on an HBO special on the Peking Circus way back when, and Joanne Woodward was the narrator. That was a blast. Also, I worked on Conan the Barbarian and 200 other films during my stay there.

Home video cover art for Brain 17. Photo © Family Home Entertainment.

One thing that happened was Bob Williams purchased Sunwest Recording Studios, and we moved over there to do the Japanese stuff like Shadow World and Waves, a Japanese soap opera I adapted and directed for NHK. Besides the usual cast from the previous shows, I brought in John Mayer, Gregg Berger, Wendy Cutler, and Lewis Arquette to do voices.
BH: Do you remember how you became involved in adapting Swords of the Space Ark for English-speaking audiences?
MP: Yes, Bunker Jenkins had the show, but he wasn’t a writer. So I adapted it. It was a pretty rough beginning.
BH: What did you think of the Japanese version of the Message from Space TV series you were adapting?
MP: Well, I didn’t study it very closely, but I did find it mind-blowing that there were these three-masted schooners, sailing through space. Also, I was into samurai movies, and this was definitely a science fiction samurai show!
BH: You are credited as associate produce and supervising editor for Swords of the Space Ark. Please describe what you did on it, and what your duties specifically entailed.
MP: Basically, I wrote it, so Bunker gave me associate producer and that editor title.
BH: Regarding editing, how much of the original series did you watch, and how would you decide what to keep in?
MP: I watched every episode of the series and then chose the episodes that I knew would tell a 90-minute story. It was pretty much by instinct, but the mathematical formula was to take the first two episodes, some episodes from the middle, and the last episodes to conclude the story, then chop them down and cut them together so they made sense, then conform the dialogue.
BH: How long did the whole process last?
MP: I think it probably took a couple months.
BH: What kind of distribution was there for Swords of the Space Ark?
MP: It was produced by 3B Productions, which were these three wealthy men – Bunker, Bob, and I think another Bob. They released it through Family Home Entertainment, if I remember correctly.
BH: What led to the making of Brain 17?
MP: After we’d done a number of giant robot cartoons like Daimos and Voltus 5, this live-action show was thrust upon me!
BH: Is there a particular reason you directed Brain 17 but not Swords of the Space Ark?
MP: Yes, Bunker directed Space Ark because that was the first one. He didn’t do a great job. One thing I didn’t mention is that in between these shows, NHK TV hired us to adapt their live-action movies into English, and Bunker shot the first one to me. It was called Mariko. It was about the Japanese wife of a diplomat in America who was interned in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. I adapted it and directed it for NHK, and it won some awards, and for a while I was a famous director in Japan. I did a ton of movies for them. So Bunker said, “You’re directing the rest of our cartoons.”
BH: Did you deal directly with Toei Studios in Japan?
MP: Bunker and 3B dealt directly with Toei in Japan at that time. They supplied the episodes and the direct translation scripts.
BH: What was your opinion of the original Daitetsujin 17 TV series on which your version was based?
MP: Honestly, I loved that series. I thought it was nuts, but it had heart and a certain logic to it. Plus, I loved working on the Japanese films, and Iron Robot 17 was a nice break from the serious soap-opera films that NHK was sending my way.
BH: Was Brain 17 always intended to be comedic?
MP: Ahem. Yes.

Marla Frumkin (Finn), who played some of the females in Brain 17, and Michael Part recording voices. Photo © Michael Part.

BH: Who did you cast as voice actors?
MP: The boy was Richard Rossner. Paul Ross did most of the other voices. Marla Frumkin (Marla Finn). I think Bunker probably did some voices. Me. I’d have to watch the show again. I guess it’s on YouTube now. But there weren’t that many other actors.
BH: Among the fans who’ve seen it, Brain 17 is remembered for its bits of random humor, such as the line, “Suddenly, one year later…” Please tell us about what you remember about writing these kind of lines for the movie.
MP: That line I wrote into the script. That set a tone, among others. Also, Dick Rossner and Paul Ross are comedic writers, as well. So as I mentioned, it got silly, and we couldn’t resist. Plus, if you come up with a funny line, never cut it!

The dubbing script for “Revenge of the Defenders,” which eventually became Brain 17. Photo © Michael Part.

BH: On Brain 17, did you do any of the editing?
MP: I edited the entire movie on a Convergence system (3/4”), then onlined it American Video Factory in Venice, California.
BH: How did you decide what to cut and what to include in the finished product?
MP: It wasn’t very scientific. The series had a story arc, so I found the big moments and chose those episodes. In Japan, that turned out to be some episodes up front to set up the story, some episodes in the middle to advance the story, and some episodes at the end to pay off the story.
BH: From start to finish, do you remember how long it took to complete making Brain 17?
MP: I probably wrote it in a couple weeks, cut it in a few weeks, and we recorded it in a week, then mixed it in a few days.
BH: How was distribution handled at the time?
MP: I don’t think there was any distribution. I don’t remember doing anything with it. I seem to remember a guy in New Jersey calling me once asking me if I had a copy. I think he was going to distribute it.
BH: What would you say were the major differences between making Swords of the Space Ark and Brain 17?
MP: Swords of the Space Ark was mostly controlled by Bunker. I didn’t get a 100% say in it, and with Brain 17, it was all mine. (Please don’t hate me!)

Editing the script for Brain 17 was a careful and delicate process. Photo © Michael Part.

BH: Would you happen to know if Toei had any reaction to either Swords of the Space Ark or Brain 17?
MP: I would hope they would be pleased, considering 36 years later, we’re still talking about it!
BH: Is there anything else you’d like to share from either movie that we haven’t already covered?
MP: Yes. I can add that after all this, I was hired by Haim Saban who had a small shop on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. He had two large series that were Macross, and he wanted to marry them together with a cohesive story into a 60-episode series. They had someone who had done a preliminary bible, and I took it and fixed it some. So Haim greenlit it. Bob Barron, who had played Abe Lincoln in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, was the director.
Shuki Levy was going to do the music, and Haim produced it. I wrote the first four episodes and then quit because Barron kept making a good script lousy just to fit lip flaps. It wasn’t in me to compromise that. The lip sync for me did not take precedent over script. Anyway, I eventually saw a couple episodes. I wrote that under a pen name: Max Pynchon.
Later, I also did the pilot for a series based on Mazinger Z – we called it Tranzor Z. I wrote the first couple episodes, but Bunker decided he should direct that, and he hired some girls to write. I didn’t like what they were doing, so I quit. I did cast that, though, and brought in my old friend Paul Ross, as well as a good buddy, who went on to much greater fame, Gregg Berger.

Handwritten lines for Brain 17. Photo © Michael Part.

BH: What are your personal opinions of both movies today?
MP: I love them both, but I also tend to be a lot harder on them than I should. They were fun to make. I made lifelong friends from them. Like I said, after 36 years, we’re still talking about them!
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