DVD Verdict interviews Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, creators of The Flash
Judge David Gutierrez
March 14th, 2006
Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo have collaborated for years. The pair went from writing B-movies for Charles Band to writing and producing their own films, television series, and video games. Recently, they've been announced as the writing team on DC Comics The Flash, an appropriate appointment given the team's history with the character through work on his television incarnation. Their other credits include the cult favorite Trancers, The Rocketeer, The Sentinel, Viper, and The Wrong Guys.
Originally debuting on CBS in 1991, The Flash ran for only one season and is now available on DVD. Bilson and De Meo recently sat down with DVD Verdict Judge David M. Gutiérrez to discuss their experiences on The Flash.
DG: The Flash came out of a proposed series you created called Unlimited Powers. What was that show about?
DB: I think it was the coolest thing we ever wrote. It was very inspired by The Watchmen and was very much of its time.
For world peace, all the superheroes had to surrender their powers. If they used their powers, they'd go to jail. The Flash never surrendered and was put into suspended animation. Our story started twenty years later when he was forty. He gets unfrozen and discovers a whole conspiracy surrounding the superheroes surrendering their powers. The gag was that the bad guys had all disappeared. Where had they gone? They were actually running the world. They were all in suits. All those guys were super-villains who had once been in jail. All the old heroes had sold out.
PD: The Flash was the only one who knew it.
DB: He gathered up some heroes. They lived on an old mothballed battleship in a harbor as underground fighters.
We killed Green Arrow in the pilot and his daughter became the new Green Arrow. There was also a character called Blok from the Legion of Super-Heroes, who was an old DC Comics character we'd reinvented.
PD: And Dr. Occult, another old DC Comics character.
DB: At the time, all the younger people at CBS were dying to make the pilot, but the senior management there didn't understand it. We learned that you can barely do one superhero for TV because of the costume, the effects, and the cost. It probably would have killed us to do four.
PD: It would have been insane to do four. What the studio liked out of our script was this one character—the Flash. So we said, "Great. We'll do that." We got it into our heads to do a combination of the original Flash and the current Flash.
DB: It was very influenced by the Batman movie [from 1989], which in turn was very influenced by the comics in the eighties that influenced us. We were trying to do the TV equivalent of the eighties comic version of The Flash. We mixed [the Silver Age and current Flash] and had a retro world going on.
In retrospect, I think the most important thing we did with the show was putting colored lights in the windows. That told the audience anything goes and not to have all the expectations of the real world. I wasn't conscious we did it; I just thought it looked cool. When I looked at it recently, I was blown away by it and thought, "That's why this works."
PD: We had a discussion about how it was going to look stylistically. We had all these ideas about using art-deco buildings and old cars. In the pilot, you'll see these older cars, men in hats, and women wearing fifties fashions. There are also computers, so it's obviously contemporary, too. We created a world in which the show could take place. Each episode is like a little movie with its own different style. We had awesome music from Shirley Walker, who composed and directed the orchestra from every episode.
DB: We had a thirty-five piece orchestra.
PD: You don't do that anymore. We had a great Danny Elfman theme—the last time Danny wrote a theme song for TV.
(Editor's Note: Mr. De Meo forgets about Desperate Housewives, for which Danny Elfman wrote a theme in 2004.)
What was important was the show was made and run by people who like comics, who have a real love for the mythology, and wanted to do it right.
DG: How did you decide to go with Barry Allen as opposed to the other Flashes, Wally West or Jay Garrick?
DB: The Silver Age Flash was the Flash from our childhood. Wally West felt like a redo, a reinvention. We were too young for the Golden Age Flash. He didn't resonate with us. We also felt Barry Allen had the biggest audience. It was purely an emotional choice.
PD: It was also so we'd be able to do the classic Flash transformation with the lightning bolt hitting the rack of chemicals. The cop influence also added stories. We took the Tina McGee character from the current Flash and put her in [the show]. We tried the Iris West character and realized story-wise it wasn't going to work out.
DG: The Flash was the most expensive television show at the time. What did it cost per episode?
PD:I think it may have been second only to Star Trek: The Next Generation. It certainly was up there in the top two or three.
DB: I remember a number like a million-four. I remember halfway through the season, [CBS] said, "no more overages." It was our first show, so we learned to save money for bigger episodes and save money on others. Remember, we were learning.
PD: At the same time we were doing The Flash pilot, we were doing The Rocketeer and The Human Target. We had to figure it all out for ourselves.
DB: It was brutal. We never worked on staff for any shows.
DB: We went from B-movies to pilot writing to executive producing. We had to make it up as we went along. I think that if I have one regret, it's that we didn't have a mentor on the staff to teach us how things are done. I needed somebody on the staff that could guide us and help us grow.
One thing about making it up as we went along and not knowing the rules probably allowed the show to be as inventive as it was. We were trying to make what we wanted to see.
PD: We [told CBS] we really understood the show, had a specific vision, and that we could do this. We then brought in Don Kurt as our other co-executive producer. He had a great deal of experience and a great eye.
One thing that killed Danny and me was [that] we rewrote every script. We always did the last rewrite. It took that to make us realize we can't do everything. Part of it was ignorance, part of it was love, and part of it was ego. We wanted to make sure every detail was right and looked the way we saw it.
DG: For doing as many episodes as you did, you had a very small writing staff.
DB: [It was] Gail Hickman, Howard Chaykin, and John Francis Moore, and us. Gail was the senior guy. He deserves a lot of credit.
PD: Gail brought a good sense of organization and getting the job done. He was also great with story and script structure.
DG: How did you decide to hire Howard Chaykin?
PD: We had read American Flagg!.
DB: We were fans. We were connected [to Howard] through Dave Stevens on The Rocketeer.
DG: What sort of network resistance did you meet with?
DB: They wanted the Flash to wear a sweatsuit with LEDs on his shoes. No costume. They were really against it. We were having a big disconnect. We had Dave Stevens, the artist behind the The Rocketeer, re-draw the Flash suit and make it a little cooler. We took it to the network and actually got it approved.
PD: We added the red boots. We knew we couldn't just put him in a leotard or spandex. You lose muscle definition and it doesn't look good.
DB: Not like it's drawn [in the comics]. We made it better for TV. We called Bob Short, who made the Batman suit, [to] make the Flash suit. At the time it was a lot of money, around $25,000 per suit. You just don't that stuff in TV, but we didn't know any better. We just wanted to make what we wanted to see.
PD: It was a rigorous suit to wear. Because it was latex, it would break down with sweat. We had about six suits built. The way the suit was composed was like vinyl. It had a flocking on it that was electrostatically charged. You could run a low current through it and this fuzz would bind to it. It was an odd material.
DB: [John Wesley Shipp] had to wear a stock-car driver water-cooling vest the whole time with this thing pumping in water to keep him from dying.
PD: We put John through hell with that suit. He had a hard time turning his head.
If you look at the pilot, if you notice the muscles coming off the neck were really huge and looked weird. After the pilot, we reduced them. John's a muscular guy, but all the muscle definition was in the suit. It worked with the Flash because it made him look formidable and an ass-kicking, Batman-type character. We just couldn't stick him up in broad daylight. We found by making it a dark maroon color, it helped.
DB: We couldn't [put] him out in the daytime because it would just look bad. From the beginning, we had him out at night. How are we going to hold up on television, keep the coolness of this, and keep it from being lame? In "Twin Streaks," I remember seeing shots of him out in the daylight on the back lot. Everything looked bad. The set looked bad, the suit looked bad. We cared about that sort of stuff a lot.
DG: Were you limited to how much of Barry Allen in the costume you could show?
PD: No. A lot of it came down to budget. Anytime he moved, it was a special effect. We had a pretty high special-effects budget for each episode, but we couldn't have him spend the entire episode in the suit. Nobody ever told us to use less of the Flash. Our big problem was they kept changing our time slot.
DB: You might notice that the first six episodes were less like the comic book [than] it got later on. You'll remember what I said about the track suit? That never really stopped. We couldn't do super-villains. It was all about what a worthy adversary was in the minds of the executives. "Sins of the Father" was an episode could have been an episode of Matlock or The Rockford Files or any other show. That's kind of what they wanted. I remember when I directed my first episode—"Child's Play," the weird, hippy drug one Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore wrote—we started to push the style. We could get a little nuttier with it.
DG: What about the Flash himself? How hard was he to cast?
DB: It was between John Wesley Shipp and Richard Burgi, who was on The Sentinel. They were both great actors. We have a very strange story about those two guys. Richard Burgi was our first choice for the Flash. John was our second choice, but the network picked John. When we did The Sentinel, John was our first choice. We were already prepping and the network changed its mind. Richard came in and auditioned and got the part. Very weird. We loved John so much as the Flash, we wanted to do another series with him. We had nothing but respect for Shipp. We thought he was a great Flash because of his jaw. He really got that Golden Age/Silver Age guy—that sort of heart-of-gold good guy who isn't so good he's dull.
PD: He really embodied the character, the humor, the action. Howard [Chaykin] described the character as a left-wing democrat who's tough on crime.
DB: It was all effort. There was no nonsense; he didn't balk about taking the job because a lot of guys wouldn't wear the suit.
PD: There was a lot of hesitation from actors that might have been interested that said, "I'm not getting in that suit."
DB: If Jack Coleman from Dynasty would have worn the suit, he would have been the Flash. He's who CBS wanted.
DG: What about Amanda Pays as Dr. Tina McGee?
DB: It was all about Max Headroom. We thought their audience was our audience. We thought she was right for the part. She was another person who we could easily work with.
PD: I think the onscreen relationship between Tina and the Flash was really great. What we wanted to build to was a real, true relationship between the two of them. We only had them actually kiss in one episode. We wanted that Moonlighting tension between the two characters and to keep it going as long as possible. Had the show gone two or three more seasons, we would have had stuff happen between them. You think of The Avengers, with these two people obviously attracted to each other, but you never what was going to happen or if anything was going to.
DB: It was pretty Silver Age, very chaste and good natured. We thought that the primary female relationship should be with Tina McGee. We weren't really thinking about doing a love triangle [with Iris West] at the time. It might have been good, but when we were that age, all we wanted to do was get that comic book up there.
PD: We had cool guest stars. We had Mark Hamill playing the Trickster. We had David Cassidy playing Mirror Master. Angela Bassett was on ["Beat the Clock"].
DG: How did you get Mark Hamill?
DB: Kismet. He called us. We were talking about doing the Trickster episode with Howard and Don. April Webster, our casting director, said she got a call from Mark saying if we ever want to do the Trickster, he wants play him. He fit right in with our club. He was a really fun actor to work with.
PD: He was the only Flash villain—of the four or five we used from the comic books—that had a costume. [CBS] fought a little on the costume, but we said, "The only reason he's got a costume is because he's completely out of his mind." With Captain Cold and the Mirror Master, we didn't want them in the same costumes they had in the comics. But for the Trickster, who's criminally insane and psychotic, it could work.
DG: Did you have anything planned for a second season had the show continued?
DB:We were getting reasonable licensing. If we had gone on, we had toys and a Gameboy game planned.
We had this Rogues Gallery two or three-parter with the Trickster, Mirror Master, and Captain Cold. We were looking forward to that.
DG: There was a passing mention of Gorilla Grodd? Was he planned for season two?
DB: We would have gotten to him in year three. We would've had more money and could have gotten Rick Baker and done the gorilla suit somehow. We could do it today digitally.
PD: I think we mentioned Gorilla Grodd as a gangster. We would drop bits like that in for the fans. It's like how we named Barry's brother Jay after Jay Garrick. We also mentioned the Infantino Hotel and Garrick Avenue.
DG: Favorite episodes?
PD: The pilot. "Flash Forward," the two "Trickster" episodes, and "Ghost in the Machine."
DB: "The Trickster," "Revenge of the Trickster," the pilot, "Captain Cold," "Ghost in the Machine," and " The Deadly Nightshade"—the comic book ones. The Ghost from "Ghost in the Machine" was our first real super-villain. We got to deal with Golden Age themes with the Nightshade character. He was also African-American which was awesome because we're dealing with eighties comics themes. That's my favorite stuff; that's where the show was most like the comic book. I directed both "Trickster" episodes. My father, Bruce Bilson, directed the two "Nightshade" shows. The first "Nightshade" was so much fun we did a second one. Those were the ones where we got Howard Chaykin's comic sensibility on-screen.
PD: I think the effort shows when you watch the show.
DB: I hope that anybody who picks up the DVD digs it.
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