Lee David Zlotoff Talks MacGyver



MacGyver returns! A movie for the big screen is in statu nascendi. About the atypical TV-hero who draws his Swiss Army Knife instead of his gun, and who beats the bad guys with duct tape and a lot of ingenuity. Also next year the first in a series of graphic novels will be released, with new adventures of the action hero from the Eighties.

Actually, MacGyver has never been completely gone. Although the show was cancelled in 1992, the ingenious ex-secret agent is still very much alive, in re-runs of the series in a number of countries all over the planet. On the Internet, special MacGyver sites welcome new members every week, and YouTube is crammed with MacGyver clips. MacGyver has become a cult hero.

His creator, Lee David Zlotoff, says: “Most popular characters have their moment and then just disappear. But Mac just never seemed to go away.” Zlotoff lives and works high up in the Malibu Mountains, in the middle of nature, in a sturdy MacGyver house, with lots of wood and a spectacular view. It doesn’t bother him that people keep reminding him of his creation. “The series still strikes a cord. Scientists, engineers and designers admire MacGyver’s resourcefulness. Making little bombs out of artificial fertilizer and olive oil; preventing a bazooka attack with a pair of shoelaces, a wrench and a paperclip. What’s not to like about that?”

This ingenious tinkering was an essential part in the series. It led to a new word: to MacGyver. And the things you put together are called MacGyverisms. All MacGyverisms in the series were based on a real process, but the makers of the show always left an element out to prevent fans from blowing up their own kitchen. On Discovery Channel a series of MacGyverisms was tested in a show called Mythbusters, most of the time with positive results. MacGyver references pop up regularly in all kinds of tv series, and in the cartoon series ‘The Simpsons’ Marge’s sisters Patty and Selma are madly in love with MacGyver.

What effect does that have on the creator of MacGyver?
Zlotoff: “I really had no idea the show would grow to be such a global phenomenon. My main worry at the time was just to fulfill my obligation by creating an entertaining character that could carry an action/adventure show. I had written for Hill Street Blues, Remington Steel and some other series when my agent called one day. He said: listen, they need a writer for this project by Paramount, it’s already been sold, so you just have to go in and write the script. The concept of the show, called Hour Glass, was that one hour of television time was one hour of real time. Kind of what 24 did. But that was a serial of connected episodes. In Hour Glass every hour would stand alone—which I realized was going to be a problem….So I told them: I hate to tell you this, guys, but I don’t think that will work. If you take away the ability of film to cut space and time you’re really limited to staying in one location; so you’ve got the bank vault show, the mine shaft show, the submarine show, etc. But not many viewers are going to want to sit in a mine shaft for the next 45 minutes. Well, they sort of got a little miffed with me and said ‘Alright, then come up with something that will work.’ But the network didn’t really spark to any of the new ideas I presented to them. And I told my agent: hey, I was just supposed to come write this thing and now I could be coming up with ideas for who knows how long. And his answer was: well, you are the one who told them it wouldn’t work, remember?”

Finally, in a state of desperation, Zlotoff called on some of his writing friends for help. “I told them we were not leaving the room until I had a kick ass idea that ABC and Paramount would accept. So like MacGyver I was trapped, and had to find a way out.”
Zlotoff already had one element he knew he would use: the Swiss army knife. “My father always carried a SAK, and gave me one when I was ten or eleven. He said to me it was the best tool I could ever have.”

Then we came up with MacGyver’s aversion to guns. “If we took the gun away, then he would have to use whatever was around to beat the bad guys or whatever. That was the breakthrough, that is the essence of MacGyver. And his name, well.. I wanted him to be a real man, so I pretty much liked Guy. Not interesting enough, my friends said. Now I don’t know if you already had McDonald’s at the time, but over here anything that was wildly popular got ‘Mac’ in front of it. Mac-this and Mac-that. So I suggested we call our hero MacGuy. But everyone thought it really needed to have three syllables… and we finally got MacGyver and agreed that was the one.”

No first name?
Zlotoff: “I think I called him Sean but in a later episode someone gave him the name of Angus. But everybody just called him Mac.” And, at last, ABC, Paramount and the producers liked MacGyver and the concept. Zlotoff: “I wrote the pilot in record time. And the rest is history.”

The history continues, now that MacGyver will become a movie. Zlotoff will be producing it with Raffaella De Laurentiis. Zlotoff: “There’s a crazy story behind all that. So, thanks to all the amazing work of the writers, producers and Richard Dean Anderson, the series ran for seven seasons—like 150 episodes or something—before ABC decided to cancel the show. Then, after the show had stopped, I read in the trades they were making two MacGyver movies for TV. So I called and asked the Writers Guild whether if, as the creator of the show, I might not be entitled to something. And they took a few days to research the contract and finally told me: you’re not entitled to something, you’re entitled to everything. Say what? Apparently, the company had a certain number of years to buy me out of the so-called ‘separated rights’. But because the series ran so long they just never got around to doing it and so the buy-out period had already lapsed. You could’ve knocked me over with a feather.

So the Writers Guild called Paramount and told them they didn’t actually have the sequel rights to make the TV movies. And they said, what do you mean?– we already made them! So the company said ‘they’re not sequels, they’re just additional episodes.” But the Guild disagreed, saying the series was cancelled, so these couldn’t be more episodes but were sequels that they didn’t have the right to make. And we were all set to go to arbitration, which is kind of like court, to try and settle the dispute. But Paramount called my agent the day before and asked what it would take for them to buy the TV sequel rights, so that we could avoid arbitration. Because whenever you go into that situation, you could win, but you could lose, and if they lost, they would have spent a lot of money to make something that they couldn’t broadcast. And even I didn’t want to put them in that situation. So we made a deal, and they paid me a respectable chunk of dough and I sold them the TV sequel rights. But, as part of that deal, it was now clear that I retained all the other rights, the feature film rights, the publication rights, etc. because I knew at some point the movie rights were likely to be valuable and I was just waiting for the right time. And I’m hoping that time is now. A number of successful TV-series have been made for the big screen like Charlie’s Angels, The Adams Family and others. And so now New Line Cinema is aiming to do a big-budget MacGyver feature, which is incredibly exciting. But nothing is guaranteed in this business, so we’re just knocking on wood and keeping our fingers crossed that it all works out.

And before then I’d done some projects with a top movie producer that I knew and trusted, Rafaella De Laurentiis, who is the daughter of the late and famous Dino De Laurentiis so I partnered with them. So now I have partners who I know will stay true to the vision of who and what MacGyver is and will help me protect the essence of his character.’

Is it true you had a bit of a run in with the people who made the MacGruber movie?
Zlotoff: “yeah , well I considered taking legal action against them because I thought they were sort of infringing on the rights unfairly, and because the company that was doing MacGruber was one of companies we talked to about doing the MacGyver movie. But the parody laws here are pretty broad and, after consulting with lawyers who know the law better than I do, the decision was that it would probably be a very tough case to win. So we decided to just sit tight and see what happened with it. As it was, the MacGruber movie proved to be a dismal failure and didn’t really amount to anything. I read an early draft of their script but I haven’t seen the movie, and when people ask me why I think it didn’t work, well, a: I think people knew it wasn’t really MacGyver and b: I got the sense from the script that the character was kind of nasty and foul-mouthed and offensive and I think that just turned people off. I guess what works as a three minute skit doesn’t necessarily translate into a two hour movie. I don’t think it has done us any damage and then again, if anything, it made people say: I wanna see the real MacGyver done the way it should be. So now it’s really a non-issue.”

Another thing: is he familiar with the phenomenon of fan fiction?
Zlotoff: ‘You mean where fans write their own stories? Yeah I’ve heard of it, I have not read it , but clearly things like Star Trek and MacGyver and others which have proven to be iconic shows have developed such a following that there are people who want to keep the story going. And keep their heroes alive, which is pretty cool.

There is a lot of it on the Internet, like Virtual seasons of MacGyver, an eighth and a ninth season.
Zlotoff: “Oh really? I cant say I’ve read any fan fiction , I know that it’s out there, but part of the danger with me reading that stuff is, I’m also developing MacGyver stuff, and should any of my stories resemble something that’s out there… I don’t want them to be able to say, oh, you read my story and stole it. So unfortunately it’s kind of in my interest not to look at that stuff. But I’m really curious about it so I may go read some of it one of these days anyway.

So he’s never seen the only MacGyver book that ever got released “MacGyver on Ice”?
Zlotoff: “Never heard of it. But you know, there are a lot of MacGyver things out there, and I don’t make it my life’s work to track them all down. If something comes to my attention. I say okay, who are these people and what makes them think they should be doing this? I need to look into some of this, but I’m not paranoid about it.”

Can you tell us something about the story?
Zlotoff: “ Well, anything can change, but the current story we’re working on is how MacGyver came to be MacGyver. What we call a creation story, but contemporary. It’s as if there has never been such a character. What you might call rebooting the character. Kind of like they did with Spiderman and Batman.”

Do you already know who will play MacGyver?
Zlotoff: “No. But I’m hoping he will be in his early to mid twenties, and there are only a few stars of that age. Then again, I don’t know that we really need a star because the title is kind of the star. When people are going to see the movie it will mostly be because it’s MacGyver and not the actor I imagine. Toby MacGuire had a lot of success with Spiderman, but I’m not sure people went to the movie because of Toby MacGuire– they went to see Spiderman.”

The fans all say Richard Dean Anderson is the one and only MacGyver.
Zlotoff: “Yeah, I get that—and respect it. But if we’re really trying to reboot the character I think it can still be somebody new. And we’re hoping RDA will agree to have at least a cameo in the film, because that would be great. But it all remains to be seen. It’s a glacial process to get the movie to the screen. I just recently got the latest version of the script. And hopefully we will be in production next year.”

Will the new MacGyver, like the old one, travel around the world a lot?
Zlotoff: “I am all for that. Because, like Mac, movies are really a global thing now and if we only set the story in America, I’m not sure we’d be doing justice to either the original character or the new realities of entertainment.

But other than the demands of show business, are there other reasons to give MacGyver a comeback?
Zlotoff: “Absolutely. I am convinced that, given the current pressures on national and global resources—like food, water, energy, etc.—certainly this country, if not the world– needs a hero like MacGyver now. America’s image in the world has suffered badly in the last decade or so. And I think MacGyver represents a lot of those values that we’ve lost. Apart from all his skills, Mac had a certain humility, humor and even morality. And was sort of the embodiment of that, with his resourcefulness and his can-do spirit that wasn’t arrogant or aggressive, which you can’t say about a lot of today’s cultural heroes. And obviously Richard Dean Anderson who played MacGyver, with his laid back charm added a lot to the character.”

I have read somewhere: MacGyver is what America should be. Jack Bauer is what America has become.
Zlotoff: “Exactly! MacGyver wasn’t cynical, and he wasn’t ruthless. He didn’t torture his adversaries to get information. Some media company did a poll about which fictional character people would prefer to have with them in a crisis or a natural disaster, and the overwhelming majority—like twenty percent more than the rest– said MacGyver, before names like Indiana Jones, Jack Bauer, James Bond, etc. I found that very illustrative.”

Can MacGyver, in this era of advanced electronics, still accomplish much with a paperclip and a Swiss army knife?
Zlotoff: “There will be plenty of MacGyverisms in the movie. Do you know those key pads on cars, where you have to punch in a code to open it? Somebody has figured out that if you slice open a tennis ball and blow some cigarette smoke into it and then squeeze it the right way, you can trigger the electronic lock to open. The new MacGyver must be just as familiar with the electronics of today as he was with the stuff at the time of the original show.”

Have you ever tried to create another classic character like MacGyver?
Zlotoff: “Well, you really can’t plan something like that. To be quite honest, I can only claim a modest part in the whole MacGyver story. It’s like when your child goes into the world and is wildly successful. You obviously played a crucial role and can be proud of that, but it’s not really your achievement. It is mainly the achievement of the immensely talented people who spent their years and lives making MacGyver what he is today. Not to mention the literally billions of fans who embraced the character and have made him their own.”

Written by Traveller. Unknown Publication. August, 2011


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