George Clayton Johnson makes his living by daydreaming, as he has put it. And those dreams have led him to some amazing places. You may know about him already or, perhaps, you’ve heard of his work. The story that he co-wrote with Jack Golden Russell was the basis for the 1960 and 2001 films, “Oceans Eleven.” He wrote the first aired episode of “Star Trek.” With William F. Nolan, he co-wrote the novel that was the basis for the cult classic film, “Logan’s Run.” Along with other remarkable television writing and countless science fiction stories, Mr. Johnson wrote some of the most poignant and beloved episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” including “Kick The Can,” which was remade in the movie version.
Mr. Johnson’s life is the stuff of legend. He was born in a barn, in 1929, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and not exactly set on a path for the success he has achieved. But with a strong force of will, George Clayton Johnson gave his life shape and purpose. Leaving behind a troubled upbringing, he set out at the age of fifteen to make his living as best he could. He started out as a shoeshine boy. Later, in the army, he mastered the job of draftsman and was involved with charting the intricate underground wiring systems related to the Panama Canal. By the late ’50s, he had set his mind on being a writer and this led to his story about an outrageous Las Vegas casino bank heist. This became his calling card and led to his joining a group of elite science fiction writers in Southern California. From there, he met Rod Serling who just happened to be preparing for a new show that would chart a new course for television, “The Twilight Zone.”
Where to begin with such a talent? One big point of interest: the remake of “Logan’s Run.”
“Logan’s Run” is one of the hottest properties today in Hollywood. What will the remake be like? Will this end up being another lost opportunity to get it right? For those who have read the original novel, they are aware that it ranks up with the best of dystopian fiction. The colossal big budget 1976 movie version of “Logan’s Run” pales in comparison with the novel simply because it picks and chooses bits from the novel and then finishes up with a spectacle designed to do what the movie studio thinks the market wants. Much like “The Thinker” computer in charge of a controlled society in “Logan’s Run,” the movie studio always thinks it knows what’s best. But that’s only true until it is proven wrong. Lackluster ticket sales can provide part of the answer. Not all worthy films are popular. However, a big budget movie, like 1976’s “Logan’s Run,” was specifically designed to be popular. It had a budget that, for its time, was huge, a staggering 9 million dollars. For a frame of reference, the budge for 1977’s “Star Wars” was 11 million dollars. Then consider the results: the box office for 1976’s “Logan’s Run” was 25 million dollars while the box office for 1977’s “Star Wars” was 460 million dollars in the U.S. alone.
Now consider the popularity of dystopian fiction today. You can’t find a hotter market, right? There’s not only the phenomenal success of “Hunger Games” but there’s any number of young adult series touted as the next “Hunger Games.” Given that the original novel of “Logan’s Run” is, at its core, a marvelous work in this exciting genre, you might think that a remake of the movie would align with the novel this time around. But it sure looks like it’s impossible to get anyone deep in the movie business to read anything. Why read a novel when you’ve already got the movie to use as your template? One of the striking differences in the novel is that citizens in the controlled society must die at age 21 instead of the movie’s version at age 30. The main, perhaps only, reason for age 30 in the movie was that casting for under 30 is much more convenient than casting for under 21. That went for everyone in the movie, from all the extras all the way up to the stars, Michael York and Jenny Agutter. But, if you don’t worry about such things, you would have quite a different dynamic, something far more interesting like “Lord of the Flies.” Actors recently considered for Michael York’s role have been Matt Damon and Ryan Gosling, not exactly under 21 types.
What about the original novel, “Logan’s Run”? It was written by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson and first published by Dial Press in 1967. It was collaboration in the fine tradition of co-writing that was part of the famous Southern California Writers Group, a group that included Nolan, Johnson, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. It was from this group of writers that we enjoy some of our best science fiction, including some of the best writing in the landmark television series, “The Twilight Zone.”
What does George Clayton Johnson have to say about the plans for a remake of “Logan’s Run”? Plenty. First of all, he is not alone in thinking that there’s much to like about the 1976 movie except for the story. “My heart sank when I saw it because our story (with William F. Nolan) wasn’t there.” As Johnson concludes, MGM had made up its mind to focus on an action adventure and not the original novel. He also suspects that a story about a society ruled only by youth, no one over the age of 21, may have been too subversive for MGM. The only adult in the novel is a charismatic character known as, Ballard. In the movie, the oldest character is a befuddled old man without a rebellious bone in his body.
One of the new producers for the remake called William F. Nolan asking about a proposed screenplay that had been written by Johnson and Nolan. That screenplay had remained true to the novel. Once the producer got a copy, that was the last contact Johnson and Nolan have had with the new movie. “You would think,” says Johnson, “that of all the people in the world that they could work with, why not Bill and me?”
But here comes the best part. “When I studied our original novel,” explains Johnson, “I found that it lacked a third act. There was no final resolution. Instead, we had dashed off a one sentence conclusion. We had rushed the ending. My sequel, ‘Jessica’s Run,’ picks up right where the novel left off.”
“Bill and I did an odd thing. We took one baseball and made two baseballs out of it. Why couldn’t we both have ‘Logan’s Run’? You do what you want with it, give him a baby, whatever, and I do with it what I want. Bill wanted to continue where the movie left off and wrote ‘Logan’s World’ and ‘Logan’s Search,’ and a bunch of other titles. I wanted to continue from where the novel left off which led to ‘Jessica’s Run.’”
“Mine was a deliberate continuation of the novel and, by contract, I had to show that to MGM, which had changed over to Warner Brothers. Dan Fury was head of business affairs at Warner Brothers and he was upset to learn about my story. Fury had been paying serious money to William from a hold back arrangement to shutter any sequels. They thought they had their sequels tied up. But they still had to deal with me.”
“On two separate occasions, Warner Brothers has refused to discuss my sequel. So, I am in the process of seeing my sequel turned into a movie. In my story, you have a huge computer that comes to believe it is Crazy Horse since it is housed in Crazy Horse mountain. The president of the United States is 16 years old and everyone’s happy with that. Those sort of things are part of the world of my story.”
For a man such as George Clayton Johnson, there’s an intense love for words, written and spoken. He is someone who enjoys connecting with people. For this interview, we set off on a course, plotted by certain points, and left room for whatever else may strike a fancy. The audio file below is the first part of our interview and begins with recollections of Cafe Frankenstein, the infamous hangout of bohemians that Johnson ran in the late ’50s. We then shift gears to “Logan’s Run.”
This is an interview by Henry Chamberlain of George Clayton Johnson, recorded November 21, 2012. Illustrations by Henry Chamberlain. All rights reserved.
“A Penny For Your Thoughts,” GCJ’s first teleplay on “The Twilight Zone,” February 3, 1961.
“The Man Trap,” GCJ’s first teleplay for “Star Trek,” and the first episode aired, September 8, 1966.
“Logan’s Run,” the shaggy ’70s cult classic, based on the novel co-written by GCJ. Released June 23, 1976.
Click below for the audio interview:
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