DVD Verdict interviews Howard Chaykin, writer of The Flash
Judge David Gutierrez
March 15th, 2006
Howard Chaykin is one of those influential people you never hear enough about. He made his name in comic books, most notably during the independent publishing revolution of the 1980s, with his politically savvy American Flagg!. He's best known for crisp, biting dialogue, well-developed characters, and "telling like it is."
Chaykin began his television career on The Flash with co-writer John Francis Moore. He has since worked on Viper, Earth: Final Conflict, and Mutant X. Chaykin recently returned to comics and is now penciling DC Comics' Hawkgirl series.
Last fall, Judge David M. Gutiérrez was fortunate enough to interview Chaykin about his work on The Flash.
David Gutiérrez: How did you initially become involved with The Flash?
Howard Chaykin: It's a very simple story. I was in New York City on a business meeting with DC Comics with John [Francis Moore], with whom I ended up being a team on the show. We got a call from our agent who said that [producers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo] wanted to meet with us. She assumed it was going to be about doing a freelance episode. It turned into a staff job. We were hired as a team, which means we were paid as a single entity. We met with them and were hired on the spot. It was a great job.
DG:: Were you part of the proposed Unlimited Powers television series that provided a springboard to The Flash?
HC:: No. That preceded us. That was a terrific script that never happened, unfortunately. It was a very smart idea.
DG:: That series included DC Comics characters Dr. Occult, a Flash, Green Arrow's daughter, and Blok from the Legion of Super-Heroes.
HC:: Danny and Paul had a nice arrangement with DC, CBS, and Warner Brothers in general. It worked quite nicely. It was a great concept.
DG:: Are you a fan of the Flash as a character?
HC:: When I was a little boy. My generation, we were all partisans of either Gil Kane or Carmine Infantino. In those days, Gil drew Green Lantern and the Atom, and Carmine drew the Flash. My loyalty to the two would wax and wane. I liked the Flash. I loved the old Rogues Gallery stuff. But as a character and as a professional? No, not especially. If push comes to shove, I'm actually a bigger fan of the Green Lantern, of the more fantastic aspects of that.
DG:: For those not familiar with your work, the black-and-white nature of the Flash character is very different than the typically shades-of-grey and morally ambiguous "Chaykin Male" character. Did you find him a different character to approach?
HC:: No. At the time, Danny and Paul were very involved in getting The Rocketeer up and running for Disney. John and I were brought on, I suspect, because we had a pretty solid understanding of what comics should be like -- not goofy, but not reverent, either. We had a great staff, a terrific production unit. The fact is my television career has been one of working as a man among men and a worker among workers on other people's material. One tends to subsume one's basic instincts. You do what you can with the material given to you. In my opinion, it's arrogance to go in and attempt to impose one's own judgment on other people's creations. On the other hand, you are there to bring something of what they hired you for in the first place. It's a balancing act.
DG:: What percent of what you wrote on The Flash made it on screen?
HC:: I would say 99.5 percent.
DG:: That's very rare in TV.
HC:: It was a spoiling process. As an example, our first script was for a show called "Watching the Detectives." Our first draft of that was the most expensive hour of television ever written. Of course, we'd never written television before. We were guys whose experience was in comics and feature films. By the time we got to our second draft, we brought that script down to a much more producible stage.
That was a phenomenal learning experience for John and me because we learned how to write for budget, as opposed to against budget, which means recognizing where money is best spent, and further, how to service the characters and world that exist on a weekly basis on the show. One of the things that frequently happens with people who don't write for episodic TV on a regular basis is a complete lack of understanding of the reality that much of the job consists of servicing your cast and making maximum use of your standing sets. We learned a great deal about doing all that from that first episode.
DG:: You had the unfortunate debut against The Simpsons and The Cosby Show on Thursday nights.
HC:: They kicked our ass. There was also a third factor. I believe there was no place on CBS to promote the show. In those days, CBS skewed much older. It was an early attempt to generate a younger audience. There was just no place to promote it. They tried to run it at the half-hour. They tried lots of different stuff, none of which worked. If the show had been on Fox or if the WB existed back then, we'd still be on the air.
DG:: Had you planned beyond Season One?
HC:: Bear in mind, we had a small writing staff. Danny and Paul were very busy. John and I wrote as a unit, and there was Gail Hickman. We were totally luckless with freelancers. We were pretty stuck doing the best we could with what we had in front of us. We were not into planning the future quite yet. We certainly thought we had enough material to do other seasons.
DG:: There were those rumors Gorilla Grodd would make an appearance.
HC:: We tried to figure out a way to make it work. One of the problems with the studio at the time was they didn't want to do costumed villains, so we had to find a way to recreate the Rogues Gallery villains in the context of the studio's perception of the real world. My understanding is Danny and Paul had to really struggle to get the studio to commit to doing the Flash character in costume himself.
DG:: More along the lines of Smallville? A costumeless superhero?
HC:: I heard someone talk about putting him in a track suit or something.
DG:: That's the Cathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman syndrome.
HC:: In those days you didn't have an Ain't It Cool News web site. The ascendancy of the authentic "comic book guy" in the context of movies, television, and mass media hadn't really happened yet. It's gotten way past that now. You now have an entire generation of screenwriters and TV writers steeped in comic books. You could not have had a subplot on a show like the O.C. as involved in comics as it is now. It was considered socially nonexistent.
DG:: Favorite episode?
HC:: I love my first one, "Watching the Detectives." Gus [Trikonis] did a great job directing that. The "Nightshade" episodes and the "Trickster" episodes, we had a great time with that stuff. Jason Bernard did a great job as Nightshade.
DG:: Did you originally script Nightshade to resemble DC's Sandman? Visually, they're strikingly similar.
HC:: No. The look that evolved is what the prop department could come up with.
DG:: The episode, "The Deadly Nightshade," had elements of The Shadow in it.
HC:: Right. Richard Burgi. Again, we tried all sorts of different stuff and we had a great relationship. Working for Danny and Paul was one of best experiences of my professional life. Those guys ran a comfortable, open-ended room. There was never any toxicity or fear.
DG:: What did you want to do on the series that you didn't get a chance to?
HC:: I would have loved to have gone deeper into the Rogues Gallery and gone costume and gone wilder -- and gone a little bit darker. The Rogues Gallery is one of the great things about The Flash.
DG:: What sort of changes on the show were you asked to make from the network?
HC:: Hard to say. We were very well supported. There were no real categorical changes of the sort you might imagine. No major scene changes. When they approved a story, they approved it and you ran with it. There was not a lot of interference along those lines. The studio and the network had a lot of respect for Bilson and De Meo's understanding of the material.
DG:: Were you involved with the new The Flash series proposed by Warner Brothers? It revolved around a teenager that could travel through time, I believe.
HC:: I was asked to pitch a concept by my agent. I said I wasn't interested. I was asked again. I came in and pitched an idea based on the parameters they were asking for. I liked the concept I developed. I'll probably end up using elements of that pitch in another form somewhere down the line. I felt that what they were looking to do with the character was specious.
DG:: Was it the time traveling?
HC:: Yes. It seemed very curious. When I was asked to participate, I hadn't been involved in a network series in a long time. I didn't have the cachet such a project would generate. There wasn't a chance in hell they were going to buy something from me along those lines, whether they liked the concept or not. They rather liked the idea that I pitched, but the whole concept was doomed by the predisposed idea of doing a time-travel show.
DG:: I know you're a huge crime fiction reader. What authors are you reading?
HC:: Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Stephen Hunter, Lee Child, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Thomas Perry, Don Winslow. Those are the great modern guys.
DG:: What are you listening to?
HC:: Today, it's RCA and Bluebird Vocal Groups from the 1930s to the 1950s. People like Three Cats and a Fiddle, the Four Clefs. I'm also listening to girl-band singers from the thirties to the fifties. Ruth Edding, Helen Morgan, Ethyl Waters, Connie Boswell and the Boswell Sisters.
DG:: Hoagy Carmichael?
HC:: I can only listen to Hoagy Carmichael when my wife's out of the house. I love his writing and his voice. He's one of the great American songwriters who is neither Jewish nor Italian.
I love The Band. I think they're the greatest white rock 'n' roll band ever. I was a big Procol Harum fan. I love the [Jefferson] Airplane -- not the Starship, but the Airplane. Quicksilver Messenger Service. This is the sixties. A lot of what Columbia was doing with Al Cooper and the Blood, Sweat, and Tears album. The Electric Flag. Blues-based stuff.
Lately, it's bop, swing, and girl singers with a big chunk of traditional country music and western swing.
DG:: What's in your DVD player?
HC:: The complete episodes of Eyes, a wonderful ABC series that tanked; it was created by John McNamara, who's one of my heroes. Gone with the Wind. House of Bamboo by Sam Fuller. Dark Blue World, a film about Polish expatriates in the RAF in the Second World War.
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