Behind the Scenes of
The Ray Bradbury Theater
Tom Cotter, series producer, reveals all...
Tom Cotter is a British television producer and director. He began his career as a teacher of English, and became an education officer for a British TV company. He then spent fourteen years on staff with the BBC, before becoming a freelance director in 1983.
Following a stint directing a thriller series called Floodtide, he was asked to produce and direct Granada TV's four episodes of Ray Bradbury Theater. After Granada dropped the series, he decided to stick with it, producing episodes for Atlantis in New Zealand and Canada. He remained with the series until the end.
After RBT, he continued to work extensively in British television. His other credits include some of the highest-rated UK drama series, such as The Bill, Ballykissangal, Frank Stubbs Promotes, Heartbeat and, most recently, M.I.T: Murder Investigation Team.
In September 1989, Mr Cotter kindly agreed to answer some questions about RBT for a magazine article I was preparing. The article was never finished (let alone published); the following material is published here for the first time.
Were you familiar with Bradbury's work - and TV/film adaptations of his work - before working on the series?
I had read quite a few Bradbury stories and knew the film Fahrenheit 451. I do not think familiarity matters as a requirement to make films from stories always brings completely new attitudes into play.
Which stories were you most impressed with?
I had enjoyed the Martian stories, but I particularly remembered the non-Martian “A Sound of Thunder “ and “October Game”.
Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling once said that Bradbury was difficult to dramatise, particularly the dialogue. How you found this to be true?
I am not aware of any great difficulty with “believable dialogue” in the films we made in the UK last year or in New Zealand this year. Artistes are quick to tell you when they cannot say something, and I have not experienced this problem with them. They react to the mood of a Bradbury which, even when the setting is at its homeliest, is never reality.
Does Ray's involvement extend to aspects of production, or is it confinded largely to the script?
Ray likes to be kept in the picture on casting and occasionally makes a strong suggestion for someone he would like in a part. He was very keen on Harold Gould in the leading role in “To the Chicago Abyss” this year and we managed to cast it that way. Mostly, however, on casting we are doing what we think is what the stories require and informing Ray of our choices.
When the first cut has been completed it is sent to Ray for his approval. At this stage Ray regularly comes in with some comments on likes and dislikes and we have a duty to address any problems he has with our telling of the story.
Has he been writing scripts with a specific production base or location in mind, or is the location chosen after the script is completed?
Ray does not write with specific locations in mind. We changed and developed “The Coffin” radically from his first draft, with his approval, of course, to make it suitable for a “Gothic” English stately home setting. We changed some of the dialogue in “There was an Old Woman” to suit an English old lady. There were very few changes in “The Small Assassin” necessitated by the location being in England, and “Punishment Without Crime” was in neutral futuristic territory.
Bearing in mind Bradbury's reluctance to fly, and given the international nature of the series, what do you do if a moment or a scene proves unworkable on the set?
We are in constant communication with Ray by ‘phone and fax, and that can often be a more effective way of communication than if Ray were actually on the set.
If we find that something is not working in the playing of a scene we adapt at the time and Ray sees what we have done in the first cut. We hope that it is part of our professionalism to develop screenplays that satisfy Ray and work as films. A lot of time was spent this last year in debate between me and Ray over a structure for “The Haunting of the New”. I think it turned out to be one of our best films, but the time for ironing out problems had to be, and should be in all film making, in the period of pre-production, not on the set.
The production credits for the series are very involved, with several companies and individuals listed. Who chooses the stories, which script to film in which country? And how is casting handled?
I can only speak for last year and this year. I work with Seaton Mclean at Atlantis and with Ray on short lists of stories. We then have to see if the major takers for the series, ie USA Network, have objections to any stories, ie they do not think they will be popular for the kind of audience they know they have.
The co-producing countries have changed between the two years. Last year I chose the ones I wanted to do in the UK, the French likewise. This year we had to work out what stories positively suited New Zealand or Canada and which ones were possible anywhere. Here is what we decided:
“The Lake”. Adapt for New Zealand location. Story set in New Zealand. “The Dwarf” Shoot in New Zealand but cast it and design it for USA setiing.
“The Wind”. Adapt for New Zealand location. Story set in New Zealand. “A Miracle of Rare Device”. Desert location found in New Zealand and casting determined so that story is set in USA.
“The Pedestrian”. Shoot in New Zealand, but cast and design for USA setting. “A Sound of Thunder”. All studio, shot in New Zealand. Setting neutral “The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone.” Shot in New Zealand to look like Eastern seaboard USA. Cast accordingly.
“The Haunting of the New”. Shot in South Island, New Zealand, to look like Irish or English, or Scottish country house. Cast accordingly.
“To the Chicago Abyss”. Should have North American look. Shoot in Canada. “Boys Raise Giant Mushrooms”. The same.
“Hail and Farewell”. The same
“The Veldt”. All studio, but it was felt the family should be American. Therefore shot in Canada.
USA Network require that the lead in each story should be a “name” known to their audience.
How do production costs compare in the various countries used for shooting RBT?
The cost of film production in New Zealand is considerably less than that in either the UK or Canada. This does not affect production values, it is just a fact of economic life. Most British half hour drama is now on video [rather than film] so comparisons cannot be made.
Which episodes are you most proud of, or disappointed by?
Comparisons are difficult, and I would prefer to remain positive here, naming some episodes which have been very good, in my view, for a variety of reasons. “Punishment Without Crime”: tremendous production values. “The Coffin”: A radical redevelopment of the original idea which worked. “The Emissary”: Lovely middle America feel, and quite creepy. “Haunting of the New”: Great production values, and a successful film after a very long and involved screenplay process.