An Interview With Jack Olesker: The Writer Of Power Rangers
Power Rangers was a personal favourite Saturday morning show from the days of my youth; but the works of Jack Olesker have had a significant impact on practically everyone who had a childhood in the eighties and nineties.
From writing murder mysteries to The Care Bears his portfolio is rather diverse, becoming part of the paradigm shift in children's TV in the final decade of the 20th century. In a classic story of chasing 'The American Dream,' Olesker went on to become a key figure in the TV industry, and has recently launched a Kickstarter project to fund his latest creation: ZTV The Zombie Network.
With a taste for horror, a fascinating career epitomised by the boom in children's TV, and his feet placed firmly on the ground alongside his fanbase. We speak to Jack about his big breakout into the screenwriting business, the career spanning nearly 3 decades, and his plans with ZTV.
For those who don’t know you beyond being one of the writers of Power Rangers, tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the TV writing industry?
My first published novel, No Place Like Home, had the film rights purchased by horror film-producer William Castle (Rosemary's Baby) and MGM executive Sherry Lansing. I knew so little about anything back then that I sent the only copy to G.P. Putnam’s Sons in a shirt box. I’m not sure I would have sent it had I known they received 6,000 unsolicited manuscripts a month. It was plucked from the slush pile and published. Sherry would go on to become the longest serving CEO of a major motion picture studio (Paramount) responsible for such films as Fatal Attraction, The Accused and Titanic.
My novel would go on to become a bestseller. I pulled up stakes in Chicago, packed everything I owned into my tiny TR7 and drove to Los Angeles where I was convinced my ‘golden fingers’ would immediately procure me steady work as a screenwriter. Unfortunately I didn’t realize there were six thousand, eight hundred and nineteen other people arriving daily in Los Angeles that had the exact same dream. After two years working as an Associate Editor at Entrepreneur Magazine, I finally snagged a job with voice-over genius Mel Blanc’s son writing commercials for the Armed Forces Radio & Television Service.
Eventually I landed a position as a Story Editor at DIC Entertainment. The first series I worked on was Care Bears – and admittedly ZTV THE ZOMBIE NETWORK is one helluva long way from Care Bears. I went on to write, produce and direct over 1,200 episodes of television and eighteen movies, along the way publishing five more novels. Regrettably, when I created the original development work for POWER RANGERS, I did not own a percentage of the project. While it certainly opened a lot of doors for me, it was also a motivating factor in my stating my own production company – 24/7 Productions – and developing my own projects. ZTV THE ZOMBIE NETWORK is our present, top priority television series project.
What was/is your attraction to storytelling of this format?
Great question! My early background was as a novelist. I’d published four novels before I broke into television and motion pictures. But I’d always been a film buff. My novels tend to be very filmic and visual, so it was a natural step for me from writing novels to screenwriting. In fact, I sold the screen adaptation of my horror/romance novel Beyond Forever just before I began working in television. Also, film and television generally have a much larger audience than novels and I’m a writer that wants to have as large an audience as possible. So that was another reason I moved into screenwriting.
Paint me a ‘word picture’ of writing for children’s TV in the 80s and 90s. What was it like at the time? As a fan of the likes of the likes of ‘The Super Mario Bros. Super Show,’ ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’ back in my 90s days of youth, it seems like a ‘whole new world’ (pardon the terrible pun there) to think about the technicalities behind such screenwriting of Disney movies and Saturday Morning Kids shows. One that I’d love to know more about from your perspective.
Oh it was an amazing time! A lot of people have (correctly) said the 80s was the Golden Age of animation and I’d agree with them. I was fortunate to have three great mentors – Jean Chalopin, who taught me the creative side of television writing, Andy Heyward, DIC’s President and Haim Saban, CEO back then of SABAN Entertainment, who then owned (and still does own, since he recently bought it back from Disney) Power Rangers, that taught me the business side and helped me to forge my battle armor. Those three men were (and are) towering figures in children’s entertainment. They are also true gentlemen and I was blessed to study under them.
The 80s and 90s were heady years for animation and children’s entertainment. Jean Chalopin was a creative pioneer, and one of the first producers to actually hire writers to write cartoon scripts. Much of what animation is today owes a debt to Jean…as do I. He hired me, an unproven television writer, because I was a novelist and I think he liked the idea that I could tell a good story. Prior to that, it was mostly artists that would write a few lines of dialog here and there for an animated episode. But Jean wanted real stories and those who worked with him were turned loose to write those stories.
Of course toy companies also played a major role in children’s television back then and I was fortunate to work with Mattel and Kenner and American Greetings and Hasbro and Lego. I found, overall, that they allowed me a great deal of creative freedom. The writers were great people as well. You know, when you write for children there’s an inherent obligation to take into account that you are influencing young, impressionable minds. Almost every single writer I knew and worked with took that obligation very seriously. Those were wonderful days and I think we created some great and enduring television. I’m honored to have been a part of it.
Anyway, moving away from what I’ve always wanted to ask since I was a kid, tell us about ZTV. How has production been going?
It’s been so much fun. But the creation, marketing and broadcast of a television series is also an arduous undertaking. A few years ago I was the keynote speaker at The River Bend Film Festival. A couple hundred attendees were seated in a theater to view my work on the big screen – many of them no doubt film school students. After the screening I delivered a talk and then opened it up for a Q&A session. One young lady stood and suggested, “Mr. Olesker, after all the years and successes you’ve had, it must be easy to get a television series on the air.” I smiled a half-smile and answered, “Every time one begins the process of creating, marketing and hopefully broadcasting a television series it’s like standing in the foothills of the Matterhorn or K2 and looking up at a 13,000 foot-tall mountain. Granted over the years I’ve developed excellent climbing skills and can afford good climbing equipment. But it’s still a major campaign to assault that 13,000 foot mountain.”
With ZTV we’ve been fortunate to not only have a stunning and television series concept but to also enjoy a powerful strategic alliance with the highly skilled, multiple Emmy Award-winning production personnel at WNIT Public Television. And Wicked Jester Entertainment has provided us with a fabulous army of zombies and zombie make-up artists. Finally, it was a huge leap to sign worldwide zombie icon Sharon Ceccatti, who played the famed Head Nurse in George Romero’s epic Dawn of The Dead, for the lead role of VP and General Manager of ZTV, Medina Madrid. By the way, ZTV The Zombie Network takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which zombies are the dominant species and run their own television network, hence Sharon’s role as station General Manager.
The point we’re at now is that we have launched our Kickstarter site and we have a killer promo video there explaining the show. We also list some amazing rewards for donors. Once we’ve funded the pilot, I’ll write the series bible, pilot episode script and I’ll produce and direct the pilot. Then we take the entire presentation package to national broadcasters in an attempt – which I firmly believe will be successful at – to secure a pick-up for the production of thirteen episodes that will comprise Season One of ZTV The Zombie Network.
How did you come round to this idea? What were your inspirations for ZTV?
Yet another great question! I really have to give credit here to my son, Alex, who initially got me thinking about zombies (I’m anticipating someday he’ll demand a profit position in ZTV The Zombie Network). As a pre-teen -- and I’m reluctant to say that’s how young he was -- Alex literally forced me to watch Zombieland with him. Once I got past the rough language I just fell in love with the film. Woody Harrelson and Bill Murray were fabulous in it and I loved that there were occasional doses of humor. I began researching zombies and found it was no longer a cult or a genre but that it had crossed into the mainstream (In 2011 zombies generated $5 billion – with a ‘b’ – in worldwide revenues). I knew there was a lot of zombie content out there and that if we were going to be successful that we’d have to do something different. So I started thinking about a world in which the zombie wars were over and zombies ruled.
I started thinking about what that world would be like and that’s how ZTV The Zombie Network was born. As an aside to all those that believe zombies have peaked, bear in mind that on June 13, 2013 – if the Mayans were wrong and we’re still here – World War Z, starring Brad Pitt, will premiere. That film was budgeted at around $150 million dollars. Trust me, studios do not put a hundred and fifty million dollars into a genre-project unless they’ve done an awful lot of research, conducted exhaustive focus groups and are convinced a genre is not only still hot but is rising. World War Z will kick up the already popular world of zombies into a new level…and with ZTV The Zombie Network we’ll have exactly the right television series at exactly the right time.
How are you finding the experience of creating this show different from your screenwriting of the past?
My being not only the writer and creator of ZTV The Zombie Network, but also its producer and a director is very different from being just – and I don’t say ‘just’ as a diminutive term – its writer and creator. As a producer I’m basically the mayor of a small town, ensuring that it runs smoothly, efficiently and within budget. It means I’m responsible for shepherding fifty to a hundred people through the production. As a director I get the thrill of seeing my writing come to life. WNIT’s staff – and particularly VP Production Angel Hernandez – have been invaluable by giving us the station to shoot at as well as top quality post-production facilities. And Wicked Jester’s zombies and make-up artists did a stupendous job on the promo. Their learning curve was a joy to behold. ‘How do I find the experience of creating this show?’ Humbling, exhilarating and a joy beyond description…all at the same time.
As the successful funding will pay for a Pilot Episode to be shown to broadcasters, is there a ‘Plan-B,’ so to speak, if the show doesn’t get picked up? I feel it would make for a great web series, as it has shown strength on social media; but how would you proceed with this?
I’m stunned because we’re on exactly the same page. Your Plan-B is exactly our Plan-B. As you likely know, there have been a number of series that began as webisodes and then made the leap to primetime commercial television. Moreover, some web series are so lucrative as web series that they don’t need to become commercial television. ZTV The Zombie Network is a perfect fit for being a web series because its intended audience – i.e., young demographic – are so linked into the web.
If we do not receive a commercial television pick-up for the series, then we’ll immediately and aggressively proceed to the web, and we will definitely broadcast there. We’re fortunate to have social media, web aficionado Matt Cail on-board as Creative Consultant. Matt is one of the top web-savvy execs in the world and he will spearhead taking us to the web if we don’t get a commercial pick-up. But for my money I’m betting the commercial television acquisitions executives (Ya hear me Syfy, G4, Spike, NBC, CBS and NBC, ‘cause we’re comin’ loaded for bear!) won’t let me out of their offices after they hear my pitch and see the presentation package.
And finally, what advice would you give to people aspiring to become screenwriters?
About five year ago, when my Alex was eight years old, he sauntered into my home office one night after dinner and announced, “Daddy, I’ve decided when I grow up I wanna be a writer and a producer and a director just like you.” I looked him square in the eye and answered, “Honey, why don’t you consider a field that’s a little easier to break into, like astrophysics or thoracic surgery?” He kind of tilted is head in question, but I’m pretty sure he got the point. From then on he concentrated on being a paleontologist. To my dismay, the last few years he’s swinging back more and more toward the entertainment industry.
My advice to anyone that wants to be a screenwriter is that first you’d first better consider if you’ve got guts made out of steel. This business will rip your heart out. Unlike selling insurance or real estate or widgets, a screenwriter is selling their creations. When we get a turndown it is as if a part of us dies. Yet…yet…
No one could have dissuaded me from being a screenwriter. Someone once asked Orson Welles what it was like directing CITIZEN KANE. The Great Man thought a moment and then replied, “It was the biggest electric train set a boy ever had.” Screenwriting is a lot like that. You’re a creator and that’s a priceless thing.
Those that want to be screenwriters are fortunate far beyond most who want to work in other fields of endeavor because all they need to do to study is to turn on the television or go to the movie theater. It’s all there. Study, study, study. And not just The Hunder Games and Iron Man. Study Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and Bridge on The River Kwai too. Find out why a film or television series works and, more importantly, why it doesn’t work. Rent or buy the first season of Dallas – not the new incarnation, but the original. Warning: if you watch three episodes you’re hooked. Understand that it is characters like J.R. Ewing and Bobby and Sue Ellen that grab viewers.
Learn your craft. That’s very important. So many young people that want to write a screenplay just sit down and try do it. You first need to understand the elements of drama and the classic three-act structure and how to create compelling characters and a thousand other things before you’re ready to write. How much and for how long does a medical student study before they perform their first operation? There is a misconception that “we can all write”. No. We can all spell. We can’t all write.
So do the hard work and study before you write. Then find a mentor. That’s very, very important. Find someone – a teacher, a friend, a relative – that writes. Draw upon them. Those that have succeeded understand the importance of giving back.
Then, when you’re ready, write the very best script you can possibly write…and get in touch with me because, once you’ve signed a release, I’ll be happy to read it. See? You’ve already got an ‘in’ to the entertainment industry. Run with it…and good luck.