ULTRAMAN OUT WEST! Terry Larsen on Scripting the Groundbreaking Tokusatsu Series ‘Ultraman: Towards the Future’!

Terry Larsen poses with actress Grace Parr, who played Kim Shaomin on Ultraman: Towards the Future. Photo © Terry Larsen.

Terry Larsen, a native of Sydney, Australia, wrote all 13 episodes of Tsuburaya Productions’ first English-language Ultra-series, Ultraman: Towards the Future (1992). Prior to his work on Ultraman, Mr. Larsen wrote “Tarflowers,” an hour-long TV episode for the Australian TV series Winners (1985), which was nominated for an Australian Writers’ Guild AWGIE Award, Original Children’s Television. He also co-wrote (with Nadia Wheatley) 12 episodes of the TV series Five Times Dizzy, which won an AWG AWGIE Award, Best Adaptation, Children’s Television Drama, in 1987. For the first time ever, Mr. Larsen discussed his experiences working on Ultraman: Towards the Future with Brett Homenick in this November 2021 interview.

Brett Homenick: Let’s start at the very beginning. Please talk about your where your born and where you grew up.

Terry Larsen: In the spring of 1949, I was born in Camperdown, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. My mother had walked to the hospital from St Peters, a nearby industrial suburb. I lived in St Peters until the end of primary school. School was a place for play — it was the most open space available.

I didn’t come from a writerly family. My mother was a factory worker, and my father was in the Navy.

Books weren’t big part in my growing up. Place was important. The inner city was the scene and focus of my first real writing. The suburb and the street children appeared in Tarflowers, [my 1971] book of poetry with photos by [John] Delacour.

I worked with Nadia Wheatley writing Five Times Dizzy, a [1986] children’s TV series in the street where I was born. Nadia’s office was a few doors from the hospital where I was born. The series was filmed in the area.

The suburb also became the location for major sections of the film Midnite Spares (1983). Canals and massive factories with a long history.

St Peters later featured in My Place by Nadia Wheatley, an award-winning book and TV series.  

BH: What were your interests or hobbies when you were young?

TL: Toys and comics, radio serials, then coin-in-the-slot TV. The local streets were safe. There was a movie house, the Sydenham Rex, and I was a regular at Saturday matinees.

My family moved from inner city to Sydney’s western suburbs with access to bush and a river. Canoeing, not writing or reading, but bushwalking, surfing, and skateboarding. And later a motor car culture. The local streets and the bush out west were an adventure.

School made me to notice writing. Tarzan of the Apes and [The] Day of the Triffids were books I remember from my teens. I was more interested in the Beatles and rock climbing. I was OK at basketball and loved it. I sang in Gilbert and Sullivan school musicals and got stage fright.

Exams, study, and anxiety about deadlines resulted in a teachers college scholarship, a B.A. with honors in Australian literature from [the] University of Sydney, [and a] Diploma of Education in English and drama from Sydney Teachers College.

At university, I read more, and I met writers who were among the best in Australia: David Campbell, Martin Johnston, Laurie Duggan, John Forbes, Frank Moorhouse, and they read my work.

At university, I worked in a factory, drove a delivery truck, worked in a silver mine as a geologist’s assistant, then a removalist and a carpet layer. I never forgot working underground. It was another education. I never forgot the people I worked with.

BH: How did you become a professional screenwriter?

TL: Good luck and the encouragement and generosity of others. I started writing in response to music and lyrics. Sometime around 18, I heard Shakespeare delivered well and realized there was a pleasure there. Writing is [a] place for shy showoffs, and I suppose I qualified.

I tried writing poetry and had some success. At university, I started performing. I entered a literary competition, came [in] third. I had a book of poetry published. A friend told me that his mother read it and cried. I thought that was an achievement.

After graduation, I taught high school. In 1975, I received a Young Writers Fellowship [grant] from the Australian Arts Council [a.k.a. the Australia Council for the Arts]. It allowed me to leave teaching, and, through the encouragement of other writers, turned a comic monologue into a film script — The FJ Holden (1977).

I did learn how to write in adverse conditions — a typist’s desk in a corridor — and to deliver at all hours. When the film finished, and the crew dispersed, I decided not to let the experience pass. I started writing for film. I paid six month’s rent in advance for my flat and kept writing on spec. Poetry and an ear for dialogue prepared me for scriptwriting.

I got script-development funding for a number of stories.

I’ll always be grateful to the development officers in the state and federal film commissions. Their support bought me the time that let me learn more through writing — the six drafts that would make a successful feature, or the three drafts for a TV series episode, or keeping the story fresh for the years in between drafts.

Some scripts took ten years to find a producer. Serendipity and part time work helped make ends meet while I found out what happens to make film after the script.

In 1978, I met Allan Johnston and Alan Morris, two of Australia’s most iconic copywriters, when I was working as a carpet layer, and they were beginning their partnership which became Mojo, Australia’s most recognized advertising agency. I worked as a location manager, production secretary, and standby props on early Mojo commercials.

Mo [Morris] and Jo [Johnston] later gave me office space, wrote radio ads for my first feature, then composed and recorded a theme song for “Tarflowers” – all for free, for friendship, and for love of their art. They never dented your enthusiasm but put a fire under it. It was great fun and compensated for the anxiety of writing and then selling your work. They were great professionals.

In between drafts, I did crew work in other advertising and feature productions — set building, standby props, location manager.

BH: What were some of your projects prior to Ultraman: Towards the Future?

TL: The Earthling (1980), starring William Holden. I was stand-by greensman. A long-haul shoot, multiple locations, [and] vehicle write-offs where too much rush led to accidents, and I learned where to stand on set.

In 1981 came feature number two — a breakfast meeting with two producers, John Fitzpatrick and Matt Carroll, in a city hotel. I was asked to develop a script about speedway driving and stolen cars. I worked on the script for 12 months. It became Midnite Spares (1983). It was here that I met Andrew Prowse and Gia Carides.

Over the next few years, other projects went into production: “Tarflowers” [and] Five Times Dizzy. [From] 1982 to ’84, I wrote 10 episodes for A Country Practice. A very popular long running TV series.

I joined the Australian Writers’ Guild as full member. Then it was back to script development, and the producers who came with it — Tom Jeffrey, Sue Milliken, Matt Carroll, and Don Catchlove. I learned to write with their help and support. Eighty percent of my work has never been produced — the lot of a screenwriter.

The other thing that helped me into the profession were my typists — my invisible partners and first readers — after my long-suffering life partner. I wrote before the beginning of word processing — the essential equipment was still the typewriter and its operator.

My typists carried half the weight of all my deadlines, found lost pages that had been sent by airplane, unscrambled cut-and-pasted pages that were put together at 3 a.m. Bryan Cranston playing Trumbo in the bath, cutting and pasting, is a fair representation of the craft and the work pressure.

Adriana, Helen, and Steve and Mrs. Jones — a retired woman in her 70s — all helped me get the job done.

I began work at my home office with Steve, a local man who had been an overseas cable typist, a lucky find in a remote part of the country. He farmed and typed. I wrote by hand and plotted on white boards and A3 pages and sent work from an airport 80 kilometers away. Faxes started to shorten the distance; in the mid-‘80s, computers helped some more. But I always needed a keyboard operator until around 1995.

BH: How did you get hired as a writer on Ultraman: Towards the Future (1992)?

TL: Andrew Prowse suggested me as the series writer for Ultraman. I met with Sue Wild and Kiyoshi Suzuki and Jimmy Ugawa in September 1989. Leading up to Ultraman, I had had 13 years of making mistakes and chasing solutions to storytelling for screen.

So I was as ready for Ultraman as I could have been when the call came. It was real; the production was under way. I was treated respectfully — it was assumed I could do the work, and it was more a case of could I be worked with. I passed the audition over two dinner meetings.

BH: Could you tell us more about these dinner auditions?

TL: I can’t remember the details of those meetings. I was nervous and on my best behavior. I had no pitch to deliver other than to reassure them that I took the job and the Ultraman concept seriously. I was also auditioning them. It had the potential to be a good job. I think we liked each other. And I began work — 13 episodes, one writer, and not a lot of lead time. I was expected to start delivering scene breakdowns in a month and scripts in two months. I worked on the project till mid-1990.

BH: At the time, did you have any familiarity with Ultraman as a character?

TL: I was not familiar with Ultraman, but I had little time to worry about the history. I was given a manual — a showcase of Ultraman history — and it confirmed its place in Japanese TV.

BH: What were your initial thoughts regarding the production?

TL: I’m in the thick of it — no time for doubts, get on with the job.

BH: Tsuburaya Productions, of course, had a big hand in shaping the series. How did you write the scripts with their involvement?

TL: I had little to do with head office. I was at the desk.

BH: How much freedom would you say that you had in terms of writing?

TL: Jimmy Ugawa and Sue Wild and Andrew read my drafts. As scripts reached shooting drafts, they were read by Larraine Quinnell. She read for duration, and her timing and my “delivery” matched. She understood my dialogue and pace.

There were no script meetings as such. I was the script department; my scene breakdowns received notes and amendments from the readers, and I took their advice. I had no objection to the revisions. For the most part, revisions were concerned with duration and location.

As the budget and time were consumed by SFX, there was a need to extend the duration of the live action. That required more plotting, more studio time, and more dialogue and character interaction. There was pressure, but not unusual.

The Sydney crew weren’t meeting their amount of screen time, and the Adelaide crew were taking up the slack through script amendments.

BH: How often would script changes be made, and how were they handled?

TL: A lot.

The Internet can show the various script formats required for production. Outlines, treatments, scene breakdowns, first drafts through to final drafts – all the formats are read by crews with different tasks – lighting, set dressing, makeup, or emotion.

The script is an instruction manual but still needs to read like a story.

The process is based around hours at the desk – writing, then reading and timing your work.

When I began on set in Adelaide, my working days were 18 hours, six days a week, divided between [the] studio and nights in my apartment office. Planning and writing scene outlines for structure, then a first draft for dialogue, then a second draft for duration and producibility. Producers would sign off on a final draft, then it went to get scheduled.

That’s the process. Early professional advice from a head writer on a TV series was: Always write your next day’s first scene/lines before leaving the office. Another writer/producer: “Five pages a day, no matter what. That gets it done.”

BH: What approach did you take to the main UMA members?

TL: As the series progressed, each of the characters were given the room to move dramatically.

BH: How about some of the supporting characters, such as the comic relief Ike?

TL: The support characters also evolved – some actors’ characters deserved return appearances. Ike and Brewer were two that I enjoyed. It was a case of adding characters/actors that the camera liked. Interior studio locations could be made more active with new characters.

BH: How much input, if any, did you have on the monsters and what they did?

TL: The monsters and the locations of the fight scenes were the real fixed elements to the scripts. They had been planned, and work began on them before the humans were cast.

The monsters were a given. The creatures were drawn and planned and built before the human characters. Episode 10 and the ability of Rugulo to change shape was something I added to the story, but the other monsters and their abilities were left to the SFX and live-action crew.

BH: During the scriptwriting phase, what was your working relationship with Andrew Prowse like?

TL: Andrew Prowse was enjoyable. I spent a lot of time with him in editing sessions. He was intelligent and funny. I was a writer; we were friends. I worked with him again in 1998 on a crime series, Wildside, [for] ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] TV.

BH: From the Japanese side, there was producer Kiyoshi Suzuki. What could you tell us about working with him?

TL: Kiyoshi Suzuki was also a pleasure. He carried the stress of the production with remarkable equanimity — cigarettes, whiskey, and the occasional break at the golf course with Jimmy Ugawa. He was a good man. Without a lot of English, he was a regular presence in the production office, singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

The stress hit around January. And then, in last week of shooting, we had a meeting regarding the script, and Suzuki questioned the need for a scene using wharfs and boats, and he cracked that the crew weren’t being paid to have a holiday at sea. The complaint was translated as, “The crew are playing with themselves,” [which was] translated by Jimmy at the speed of light.

The import of the complaint was that the crew were not doing their job. It had nothing to do with the scripted drama in which UMA needed some contact with the ocean. A wharf and a boat had been a given since the scene outlines were delivered.

It was his only outburst during time we spent together. I took umbrage and the high ground in defense of the crew and my work. I said I was leaving the set and would return in the morning – for an apology. I did return, and we closed the matter. You could not but like Suzuki — or Jimmy. We continued to have a good working relationship. 

Just another day at the production office. Top row: Jimmy Ugawa, Sue Wild, David Lightfoot (in the background), Kiyoshi Suzuki, Andrew Prowse (in the background), Philip Hearnshaw, Vanessa Brown, and Ruth De la Lande. Bottom row: Lisa “Blitz” Brennan, Catherine Griff, and Terry Larsen. Photo © Terry Larsen.

BH: While writing the scripts, with whom did you work the closest?

TL: I was the script department. The scripts were based on Japanese treatments, 10 to 15 pages. My drafts ran to 40 pages and were translated by Jimmy Ugawa and faxed to Tokyo for approval.

I wrote four weeks ahead of the live-action schedule, and by the end of the shoot I was writing a week ahead, which was tight.

Rewrites were a constant. I was never a problem for the producers, but there were times when I needed assistance and wasn’t heard.

By episode 6, I needed an editor, and I used a line of direction for Ultraman in a yet-to-be-distributed pink page to attract the attention of the Sue Wild, the line producer. The line was, “Ultraman unzips his fly.” I got an editor before the next deadline. I felt guilty for frightening Sue, but I was desperate.   

I learned every color of the rewrite spectrum from pink to green.

Barry Mitchell was my script editor. He co-wrote “The Biospherians,” episode 9. Continuity — script supervisor — was Larraine Quinnell. Both were invaluable.

I have always read sci-fi, and for additional research Barry directed me to a local sci-fi bookshop where I got my first manga – Barefoot Gen. I also found John Brunner’s book, The Sheep Look Up. Both were influential.

In terms of writing, Ultraman was a great opportunity. I became a script producer by necessity and by function, an above-the-line player in the production. I sat in on production meetings and dealt with all of the crew. I was on set regularly. Some cast members asked for backstories, and others asked for love interests. It was like working in a repertory company.

A major glitch occurred at the midpoint of shooting, and an episode needed to be written out of sequence and with a larger live-action component.

The cause of the change in pace on set and the need for an episode to be written out of sequence — I don’t know the details of what caused the slowdown, but it was evident that things were changed. There were more huddles of executives and accountants. Spending was slowed. These were observations I made from my desk in the production office.

Episode 10, “Tourists from Space,” was written to fill the gap and to keep the crew’s momentum while production decisions were being made elsewhere.

It is a change in tone, almost domestic, a pair of married aliens. The themes were jealousy, love, and good-natured humans seeing the world from the aliens’ point of view.

It was a change of pace that helped the crew catch their breath by having city locations and a more controllable budget.

BH: How long would it take to write a script?

TL: Two weeks, at a guess. The process was staggered because a scene breakdown would be submitted, and I’d wait for feedback and work on other episodes while that happened.

BH: How many drafts would there usually be?

TL: Two drafts, mostly adding dialogue. The structural work was done in the scene outlines, and they were subject to rewrites, as well.

BH: In total, how long did you work on the series?

TL: About 20 weeks.

BH: What was the biggest challenge about writing the scripts for Ultraman?

TL: Keeping fit and in front of the deadlines. I was saved from the perils of fast food by a Vietnamese restaurant near the studio, whose healthy meals sustained me in the early hours of the mornings.

BH: What was the best or most enjoyable thing about it?

TL: Being a writer in an interesting production with a good crew.

BH: Do you remember any ideas or suggestions that were rejected for any reason?

TL: Yes, but not the details. It was episode 9, and I hammered the idea of industrial pollution a bit too forcefully. The objection meant I couldn’t meet my deadline, and I had a spray at Sue Wild. The changes were minor. I was running on empty. I made it an issue, but it passed without comment.

BH: What are some of your memories of working with the crew?

TL: My first response to your email asking to talk about Ultraman was to look for the cast and crew list. Most of my memories are of the people who made it happen.  

Film work is like being in the merchant navy or a travelling circus – hard work and close for a time. Ultraman was a time- and money-driven crisis rather than personality clashes or accidents. Everyone rose to the challenge. It was a long shoot in close proximity.

Adelaide was like 16 weeks in “Hollywood” at 41 degrees [Celsius] in a desert and a city by the sea.

I began by thinking the series should be dedicated to Jimmy Ugawa – producer and interpreter, a World War II survivor, and a veteran filmmaker. Also to Michael Reid, stunt man and crew member, who died at one of the locations a year after the wrap.

My next recollection: It was a great crew at the top of their game with constantly changing conditions. Their commitment was never compromised.

The fond memories were interrupted as I googled more of the crew and found that Andrew Prowse had died in 2018, and David Lightfoot just months ago [in June 2021]. I didn’t think I’d be shocked and crying before I answered your email. But shocked and saddened I am.

From the outset, the production was under extreme pressure. Time and money eaten up by special effects overruns, pressure from head office.

Morale was critical, and a great first assistant director, Philip Hearnshaw, charmed and cajoled the crew and scheduled around disasters. Philip died bravely in 2012.

Andrew Prowse carried the creative pressure. He chain-smoked; he bought a leather jacket and played pinball after rushes were screened. He related to the crew like he enjoyed their company, and for the next 30 years he was never out of demand to captain crews as they winged their way through the chaos that can be filmmaking, and it was with Ultraman.

The location manager directed the traveling circus with the skill and good nature that saw David Lightfoot become a great producer. He was a delight to work [with], sliding me a scotch to quell my shaking hand, as I delivered rewrites on set at 4:00 in afternoon after an all-nighter and no sleep. He was the ultimate good shepherd and looked after the flock with panache – his nickname on set was Ultra. His production company became Ultrafilms.

The others who made the show possible were: Sue Wild, the line producer, Vanessa Brown, production manager, the universal go-to and go-between. The production office was running two sets and crews, and they pulled it off. A great example of an Australian crew – adept and good-natured.

Production designer Andrew Blaxland and his department made the live action work within an ever-shifting budget. Shopping in budget stores and building props on set.

Ken James, the art director, confronted me early one morning. In episode 12, he had read a line of description that included a “wet road.” It was there for atmosphere, to darken the scene. He was worried. A line like that could cost a fortune. I reassured him that a rain machine wasn’t needed, just some water. Everyone wanted to do their job properly. I needed to be careful with my descriptions.

I remember the assistant unit manager Charlie Kiroff sleeping under his truck rather than driving home. He was exhausted. Someone — David Lightfoot — had erected safety cones and flashing lights around him.

BH: Any memories of the actors, like Dore Kraus or Grace Parr?

TL: The actors all had different approaches.

Lloyd Morris played his character Charles as Arthur’s [Ralph Cotterill’s] unknown love child – he used it for unspoken motivation.

Ralph Cotterill was an English thespian and a method actor. Gia Carides — Greek/Australian, film savvy, fast. Both very good, very experienced. As they blocked a scene, Ralph Cotterill looked to Andrew; he wanted “motivation.” Gia Carides quipped, “Just do it, Ralph.”

In acting lore, it was reminiscent of Laurence Olivier’s direction to a needy thespian, who was asking how to portray an emotion. “By acting,” he said.

There was also a watch being kept from behind the camera for which of the actors would command the stage. It was fun to watch and a testament to the actors respecting their craft.

Grace Parr did ask me to develop a love interest for her character. I paired her with Ike, the secret service [agent].

All the talent worked hard. It was a good-natured shoot.

BH: I understand that the original concept of the show was to use puppets and animatronics, but this was changed to the more traditional suit-acting technique due to the difficulty in making it work. Do you recall anything about that?

TL: The SFX were difficult. Everyone was trying hard. A mix of techniques and a shrinking budget upped the anxiety. There were three production locations. I knew the Adelaide team at Anifex who did models and explosions, then sat in on some computer SFX sessions with Andrew at Bob Dog in Sydney. I saw the work everyone did. Bob Dog was the computer SFX company that went on to become part of Animal Logic – a world-leading animation and CGI company.

The results could have been better with more time, and that wasn’t possible.

BH: Would you know what Tsuburaya Productions’ reaction to the series was?

TL: There wasn’t much time for feedback, and I didn’t know what the reaction to the series was. It had no public release by the time I left the production.

BH: Overall, what did you think of the series?

TL: I liked it. Working as closely to the production allows you to judge the end product with the knowledge of what resources the crew had on the ground, on the day, and what the weather gave you. On re-viewing, I really liked watching the crew’s work; we pulled off a hard one.

What do I really think about the work? I can still see all the faults and shortcomings. I still like it. The stories and the ethos of Ultraman were well-meaning and hopeful.

The episodes and compilation movies have beginnings, middles, and ends. A series of narratives about people and creatures, moral tales of good vs. evil.

As scripts and writing, there’s meaning in the dialogue, as well as in the action, and I think that was also a success. As a writer, I think I did OK.

Ultraman saved the world long enough for the warning about the future to be delivered. I think Ultraman was fit for children to watch then and now.

BH: How would you describe your experience on Ultraman?

TL: “Full-on” — or terrific — and I survived it. It was as intense as any production I have been on – tempered by the good nature and professionalism of the crew. A good experience.

In film crew terms, I was given a slate – a stage in the filming where a department head buys the crew a night out. There was a writer’s slate. Not quite a “crossing the equator” ceremony, but almost as significant for shipmates.

It is one of the best times I had as a writer — I was on set. I was close to the action, and I was a part of the crew. I’d moved beyond a desk in a corridor where I’d first started in 1976, and it felt good. And then it was a wrap, and “the ship sailed on.”

The film Day for Night (1973) is a loving portrayal of the chaos and order that makes films – or did around the time of Ultraman: Towards the Future. That’s the process I was lucky to be involved in. It really is a case of “thanks for the memories.”

And a final thanks to Sue Wild and Kiyoshi Suzuki for the vote of confidence when they signed me on as writer.

In 1991, [my] Ultraman scripts received a nomination in the category of Best Children’s Adaptation for the Australian Writers’ Guild AWGIE Awards.

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