Interview: Eric Lewald (Story Editor of X-Men)
As promised, here's the second of three interviews I recently conducted regarding the 15th anniversary of the X-Men.
BFTP: What exactly was your role on the show and how did you become involved with it?
EL: My final credits for the show were: "Developed for Television By" and "Executive Story Editor." Translated to English, that meant that I was asked to come up with the
"Show Bible" (which lays out the series for business partners like Fox and Marvel, and which is used by the series screenwriters as a writer's guide) and then "showrun" the series. This meant that I was responsible to the Fox Network (through Sidney) and the production companies (Saban/Graz) and to the rights holder (Marvel) for all the written material. I, or the writers I chose and supervised, came up with all of the story ideas, developed those to full outlines, then expanded them to 22-minute scripts. At any stage along the way, my bosses could weigh in with concerns or ideas, but in the end, the writing was my responsibility. From Fox (Sidney and Broadcast Standards), this oversight was constant and detailed. Marvel's interest waxed and waned, though they were primarily looking for mistakes ("Not right for this character") rather than story micro-managing. Stan Lee, though not formally with Marvel at the time, had thoughtful notes on the first eight or nine scripts. Saban and Graz were only interested in our keeping the production within budget.
I owe the job to Sidney Iwanter, the executive at Fox. I had worked with him a few years earlier, then had just edited 20 "Beetlejuice" scripts for him for Fox. I believe he "sold" me to the Fox president, Margaret Loesch, who had been working for ten years to get X-Men on the air and who, as President of Fox Kids, was in overall charge of the project.
BFTP: Many of the storylines featured on the series were adapted directly from the comics. How familiar were you with the source material beforehand and how close were you required to follow it in your scripts?
EL: While we worked very hard to keep “the spirit of the books,” the majority of the 76 episodes were new for the series. We and Marvel also realized early on that 22-minute animated stories are a very different animal than comic books. Time the actual action in a book and you get about 3 minutes. Longer series of books (Phoenix, Dark Phoenix, etc.) leant themselves more to adaptation, but there we had to deal with the various secondary plots that weave in and out of the main story in a series of a dozen books. Some fit. Some didn’t (weren’t there leprechauns somewhere?). For example, if you were to compare the actual “Phoenix” books to the animation story, I’d wager that about 50% of the original was trimmed away to focus on the core story.
As far as knowing the books – I learned, quickly, on the job. When I read comics as a kid in the late 60s, I liked Marvel, but X-Men wasn’t a favorite book. I had huge help in this: Director/Producer Will Meugniot was a comics freak, as was Producer Larry Houston. Some of the writers (Bob Skir comes to mind) knew the books almost too well. I begged Marvel for every bit of research material and old books and ended up reading most of the 30 years’ worth. In the end, the key for the writers and for me was the same as in any series – know and care about the characters.
BFTP: How intimately involved was Marvel Comics in the writing process?
EL: Marvel was involved start to finish, heavily the first few months, then less and less as we went along. They learned to trust us, and we learned better and better how to make sure our stories fit their “universe.” Bob Harras was my contact from the start, and he was not only amazingly supportive, he knew every detail of X-Men history, so he always had answers to my questions. From about episode 40 onward a senior Marvel executive named Joe Calamari became more involved in overseeing the scripts, more form a story POV than character history. His instincts were tremendous. Marvel was going through some rough business times around then, so I was lucky to have such a smooth relationship with them.
BFTP: Was an entire series worth of episodes thought out and written before any of them were animated, or would you write a script, get it approved, and then send it off to be animated? For instance, the first season of the series started with the X-Men losing to the Sentinels at the Mutant Control Agency and ended full circle with them destroying Mastermold, the source of the Sentinel robots. How difficult would it have been to edit some scripts for episodes during the middle of the season if you had to go back to ensure that all loose ends and storylines were developed through the season and tied up before the end? (I assume the same would also apply for multi-part story arcs like the Phoenix Saga).
EL: Animation takes a long time – many months from a completed script to when an episode is ready to view. This can be frustrating. We have to write 13 or 26 or even 40 episodes of a series (depending on the order for the “season”) before we see how they work. In live-action TV, you can see a roughly completed episode 1 before you finish writing episode 2, so you can adjust. In animation, we have to trust what we hope will get produced. X-Men was done in chunks. The first season order was 13, standard for a network show. You noticed that the Sentinel story wrapped up at episode 13 (Mastermold), and that was because we weren’t at all sure there would be more than 13. In fact, given the previous weak track record of Marvel animated adaptations, there was great fear that X-Men would fail. You can’t blame the people who were risking the money for being nervous about producing 13 of something before they had a clue if people would like it. (We had great pressure during the initial writing to make it funnier and “younger,” but all of us on the creative side fought this.) Luckily, when the first season became a #1 hit, they immediately ordered 39 more. After that, it came in bits and pieces. Also, the fact that the first 13 “progressed” was a fight we had to make, since TV producers and networks like to have individual episodes that aren’t in any order (like “Law & Order) for easier re-selling or pre-empting. After the first 13, however, almost the only real connected progressions were in multi-part episodes.
BFTP: Was there any point in the series where you decided you would possibly expand the team roster? Episodes throughout its run with Colossus, Morph, and Nightcrawler, for instance, hinted that the option was always open.
EL: The idea of the core roster of characters was crucial to the series from the first day of pre-production. With dozens of mutants to choose from, we needed to decide early what the best mix was. Marvel was central to this discussion. There were some no-brainers, like Professor X, Scott and Jean, and Wolverine. But beyond that, any out of a couple dozen major mutants could have filled out the rest of the core. We had to keep the number of leads down to a manageable seven or eight. (If you think about favorite TV shows, when the cast gets to big, people get lost.) So who? Storm’s weather powers were great for TV. Rogue had an emotional draw for us (unable to touch), and her flight and strength helped in big fights. We needed a “kid”, and Marvel was higher on Jubilee than the alternatives. Gambit was a Marvel choice, perhaps for balance, perhaps because they had hopes for him.
Morph wasn’t considered a core character. We added him specifically to have a sympathetic best-friend-of-Wolverine’s to be killed in the opening. He only appeared in a couple of books. (I may have dug him up, I don’t remember). In fact, in the books, the character was named “Changeling.” We were forced to come up with a new name because there was a D.C. character with that name. Even though Marvel’s Changeling pre-dated D.C.’s, the nervous lawyers made us make the switch. Anyhow, Morph proved so popular, and it was a month-long struggle to be allowed to have him killed (and I believe Sidney may have helped make a deal with Broadcast Standards) that we were, to my complete surprise, asked to bring him back again after the first 13 episodes.
BFTP: Where there any mutants from the comics that you look back at now and wish you had written an episode about?
EL: To be honest, there was always a tension between adding characters as guests and spending time with the core ones we had to develop them more deeply. There were writers who knew and loved unused characters from the books and were anxious to give them new life on TV. (A good example is Len Wein, the actual co-creator of Wolverine in the books, who lobbied to get a Captain America story in, which had to be a flashback.) My motivations were always: who makes for the best story? If a guest could bring out something special in a core character – like Cyclops’ father, who abandoned him, showing up – I was excited to use him. But I was less interested in the guest’s powers than in his or her personal relationship to one of our leads.
BFTP: How were you able to take complex social issues such as prejudice, intolerance, isolation, racism, and religion and translate them into a format suitable for a Saturday morning program?
EL: I was the luckiest man on the planet. Sidney wanted me to tackle serious themes; the Standards executive (Avery Coburn) understood and let us push things; and the X-Men franchise, particularly the 70s books, was really about a bunch of adults having adult personal crises. As I mentioned before, we got serious pressure to “simplify” or “make it younger.” But the moment the first 13 episodes debuted to huge ratings, the complaints vanished. We were able to do the next 63 with little creative interference.
BFTP: The X-Men guest-starred on Spider-Man the Animated Series during its second season. Were there ever any plans to do the same on X-Men with Spider-Man or any other Marvel superhero?
EL: Those kind of crossovers are always fun. Because they were both Fox series, Sidney asked me to help showrunner John Semper supervise the two-part Spider-Man/X-Men crossover. But no, since there were hundreds of characters already in the X-Men universe, the temptation to grab from other books wasn’t very strong.
BFTP: Did you ever write any episodes that never made it past the preproduction stages?
EL: I was so busy trying to keep the whole project going in the right direction that there wasn’t much time to assign myself any scripts. Of course almost every revision made to the premises, outlines, and scripts was up to me, so I feel like there is lot of my writing in there. Often we would be lucky, and the notes from various partners were light, and the writer really nailed the script. But if there were problems – including the occasional page-one rewrite – that was on me. The one script I did write from start to finish was “A Deal with the Devil.” That happened because another script (which I had liked) was tossed out by Fox and Marvel. They never really “got” the original story, but I pushed to let the writer finish. So, since we had paid the writer for all his work, but now had no script, I had to come up with one for free by myself (no extra money in the budget). Finally, most of the writers were friends, so I always felt close to the writing. You’ll notice that there were a good 20 writing credits for the name “Edens” – Mark or Michael. Since these guys are writing-partner buddies from college, it was very much a family affair.
BFTP: Are you particularly proud of one specific episode?
EL: There are a few, though it’s hard to remember after over ten years. My wife Julia came up with the idea for “Beauty and the Beast,“ where Beast falls for a blind girl who regains her sight (a bit of a “City Lights” homage). I was fascinated by the fact that, though Beast was the strangest looking of all of the principal X-Men, he was the most at ease with and reconciled to his mutancy. What would it take for him to lose his composure and struggle with his fate? Caring for someone who has never seen him, but soon would, seemed a perfect set-up to explore his character. I was also pleased with “Storm Front,” where we set up Storm to feel alienated by her mutancy, then look to a charming man to take her away from it all – only to discover he was evil. And I liked “One Man’s Worth” because it hit the theme of a single person’s (Xavier’s) effect on the world around him. Of course Len Uhley’s story that introduced Nightcrawler will always be a favorite – the idea that we could explore characters’ religious faith on Saturday morning was wonderful.
BFTP: Multiple production delays with the animation overseas prevented some episodes from airing in their original production order, such as ‘Longshot’ and ‘No Mutant is and Island’, and often confused viewers as to where they should have been placed in the series. Is there an ‘official’ list of the episodes in their original, intended order?
EL: The list on the IMDB shows the 76 air dates, but you’re right, a couple were delayed. I have a list of the original production numbers (the order they were assigned), but really, the only order intended was numbers 1-13 -- with an ongoing parallel plot with Xavier (a minute a two an episode) in 14-26. After that, the only real intended ordering had to do with multi-part stories. Sidney and Fox originally planned on “ending” the series with a big bang (“Beyond Good and Evil – parts 1-4”). We even had planned to have characters leaving the team at the conclusion. But then they asked for eleven more episodes, so we “ended” things again with “Graduation Day.”
BFTP: The final episode in the series’ Graduation Day’ provided a nice way to culminate everything from the series and tie it all together. Was the idea for such a script always written in the back of your mind or was it put together knowing that the series was cancelled? Obviously, the style of animation indicates that it’s from the final season, but the actual script could have been written at any time.
EL: As indicated above, this story was crated specifically to say goodbye to the series. It had been ordered in weird chunks of episodes (13-39-13-6-5), but this time we were all sure it was the end.
BFTP: How was Beast decided to be the one who would be captured at the Mutant Control Agency? Obviously you didn’t want to choose someone like Wolverine since he would have missed most of the season.
EL: There were two principal reasons we chose Beast to be captured. The first, believe it or not, was that in preparing for the first season (1-13), we hadn’t included Beast as one of the core characters. So, since he was a “guest” or secondary character, we felt he could be off-screen a lot. (After writing the first 13, Beast so grew on us all that we asked that he be added to the core group, and everyone agreed.) The other reason came down to his character. Beast is so articulate that he works beautifully in a court scene. And he is so reasonable and likable, it’s hard for the prosecution to make him out to be a monster. (If Wolverine were on the stand, a reasonable judge might think it wise to lock him up.)
BFTP: The beauty of the X-Men series is that there are a ton of different characters and thus, it's easy for someone to identify with at least one of the mutants. Which mutant do you think is the most like you and why?
EL: It’s odd, but after 15 years I’d never thought about this. The writers and I had to imagine ourselves as each character so we could write them well (writing Wolverine after a big creative fight was easy). I am not generally an angry guy, and I can be a little bookish, so Beast comes to mind. But Professor X cared for and felt in charge of a disparate group of mutants at the same time that I was trying to coordinate a dozen different writers, many of them my friends, so Xavier may be a better choice.
BFTP: Despite premiering 15 years ago, X-Men is still the longest cartoon series based on characters from Marvel Comics. Why do you think it was so successful?
EL: The set-up and the characters. First, you have a classic heroic situation where your protagonists are dedicated, self-sacrificing, and painfully misunderstood and persecuted. Balancing and adding to this was the fact that they were such different people that they could drive each other crazy. A big problem in TV storytelling, especially in “kids” programming, is that everybody is too similar or gets along too well. (I’ve received notes like that from lesser programming executives: “Why do the characters have to argue about stuff?”) The X-Men characters have deep personal concerns that put them at odds with one another, yet they obviously care deeply about each other. We can thank Stan for the template, and Stan and a few dozen others for making it grow into something special.
BFTP: Do you have anything you would like to say to long-time fans of the show?
EL: Thanks for watching. We writers work pretty much in isolation. It’s always gratifying to discover that we have an audience. It helps make the effort worthwhile.
I'm currently piecing together complete scheduling archives of programming blocks. I am in need of info for: Fox Kids, CBS Kidshow, Toonami, One Saturday Morning, DIC Kids Network, Disney Afternoon, JETIX on ABC Family, JETIX on Toon Disney, SNICK, and Adult Swim. Please send me a PM if you can provide airdates for shows or have large video collections from these lineups.