FF: It's possible to see a trend, pick up on it and come out with something at the same time. I was wondering where Battlestar Galactica got its start?
LARSON: It all began with a notion I had about creating sort of a science fiction Wagon Train. The idea of people looking for a home was a key element because that gave us the excuse to explore other planets. The idea was hard to sell at the time because Star Trek only lasted three years on the network. But then more recently the show enjoyed a whole new resurgence. I remember I was in Hawaii at one point and there was this incredible commotion in the center of town. The place was so packed I couldn't get across the street. I didn't know what the heck was going on, and then I saw Gene Roddenberry. I said "Oh well, he must have Leonard Nimoy with him and the rest of the Star Trek crew." Then I found out... no... it was just him. Gene Roddenberry was packing them with only a piece of film and a lecture. I said to myself. "Hmm, this is obviously the time to start talking projects again.
FF: How did you become interested in science fiction?
LARSON: I had always been fascinated by more than just "mainstream" science fiction. I'm really interested in the whole concept of how life began on this planet, and I certainly believe there are an incredible number of civilizations out there. I tend to view life on a very pragmatic level. I'm not into space creatures and things. I'm more interested in people. Maybe some of that has a quasi-religious foundation to it. The scriptures tell us that "In my Father's house there are many mansions." To me, this refers to other worlds, to things that exist beyond this life. So the plot of Galactica pertains not to some kind of conflict between a couple of people of in this other star system, but rather with the kinds of things that might have happened to a mother race out in the universe. This mother race might even have led to the populating of Earth.
FF: In what time period is Battlestar Galactica set?
LARSON: The story could take place tomorrow, or a thousand years from now. The characters could be people like us, or the people before us. Maybe the ones who built the pyramids. By doing this, we want to suggest that there are certain similarities between our people and some of the ancient cultures. These refugees are looking for a planet called Earth because an earlier culture founded that planet. That doesn't mean it's the culture that's here now. Think in terms of the archeological discoveries off Bimini -- those giant stones and highways. How the heck did they build those things? Those rocks were just too large for those people to transfport. The reason I like Von Däniken so much is that he doesn't say, "This is what happened," but, "This might have happened." That's what makes science fiction truly fascinating.
FF: Aren't you afraid viewers might have a negative reaction to the cultural similarities because they may find them too "earthbound" for science fiction?
LARSON: One of our first screenings drew some unfavorable comments. While the overall picture tested well, there were some elements that people had a negative reaction to because they were similar to things in our culture -- whether it was a pyramid, or the names of some of the planets. But, as I said, we didn't do this by acccident. In fact, we later tacked on a whole new beginning that made it quite clear that the similarities between our people and some of the ancient cultures were deliberate.
FF: When Star Trek became more palatable to a larger part of the audience in the third season, it lost some of its original followers. By aiming for a mass audience, won't you run into the same problem?
LARSON: In going for a large audience you always run the risk of losing what would be the hard-core devoted audience. It's one of the difficulties of commercial television.
FF: If you were going to compare Galactica to Star Trek or Space: 1999, would you say it's an adventure in the realm of those or would you say in addition...
LARSON: In addition, it's better.
FF: I'm not talking about quality now, just in terms of plot description.
LARSON: It's generations beyond them, I think. And I'm not trying to demean them. I would say this: I think Space: 1999 is a little cold.
FF: In Space: 1999 every week our Earth colony drifts endlessly through space and they're trying to go God knows where. The show was really a colossal turkey, except for the special effects, props, costumes, sets and purely visual elements.
LARSON: It had a very cold quality. I'd like to to think that, on a people level, we'll have a lot more warmth, passion, and interest to the average guy who really isn't interested in asteroids and technical jargon. It is a frontier piece that tells the story of people, which, incidently, may have a lot of residual value to a lot of the science fiction fans.
FF: Through his work on Silent Running and Star Wars, John Dykstra has had a great influence on what many people perceive as "outer space." Did Dykstra come immediately to mind as the perfect man for the job?
LARSON: Dykstra was the only person I talked to about the job. He did a heck of a good job on Silent Running. But special effects have reached the point where they can't go back to some other kind of special effects. They've all gone into this new area. I'm also responsible for a show called Buck Rogers and the stuff's done differently, but it's all of a similar quality.
FF: Were you involved in the design of the ships?
LARSON: Yes. I had certain perconceived notions about what I wanted certain ships to look like. I asked John Dykstra to help bring a staff together, and one of the people that he recommended was Ralph McQuarrie who had done brilliant work for CBS during the NASA launches, and of course, had done great work on Star Wars.
FF: How were the various ships designed?
LARSON: The ships were designed the way anything is designed: hit or miss. A guy comes in with something, and if you don't like it you go to someone else. I rejected the first concept of the big ship Galactica, because I thought it was totally wrong. Luckily, it finally evolved into the right one.
FF: Did you have final approval of the constumes?
LARSON: Because the initial show concept was mine, everyone would defer final judgmnent to me. Once in a while the costumes weren't right and I'd hae to say, "I don't really like that. It's too visceral." If it looked corny at all, I didn't want it. There's only one creature in the whole show that our staff didn't come through on in terms of make-up. That was the Ovion, one of the insect creatures. The model they used was just too squat, not lithe and slim like the drawing. But it was just one of those things. The hour was late, and someone said, "Let's go ahead and get started, we can always cut it down." Well, that's not always true and now the Ovion doesn't play a very important role in the show any more. You run the risk of alienating a huge chunk of the audience when you come up with a bad creature. Creatures are difficult. That's why I don't think the show should dwell on them. For example, the Imperious Leader never worked for me. Carlo Rimabldi did it and it cost us something like $25,000 or maybe $50,000 to create this "imperious leader" look. I hated it, and it's not in the picture.
FF: Do you plan on having a certain number of special effects per segment on each show?
LARSON: No. Remember, we're doing something quite different than anyone else has ever done. I hope we succeed becaus I think it's going to be a wonderful opportunity for people to see some of the best science fiction, or "future drama" that anyone's ever seen. We're building our own shop, and not jobbing out a few primitive special effects like Star Trek and some of the others had to do in the beginning. Right now we have both the plant that was originally ILM, now called Apogee, and Future General, which did Close Encounters. One is on Buck Rogers and the other is on Galactica. They'll soon be housed under one roof, down here very close to the studio. It should be the most advanced special effects studio in he world. It's going to be terrific! We've made a large commitment to make this thing work.
FF: I talked with John Dykstra about modularizing Galactica's special effects.
LARSON: Until we have the new facilities constructed, we'll have to us a lot material over.
FF: But the way it's being done sounds very interesting. It sounds like a computer print out. You can select. "Give me one high angle shot of a ship coming down here, and a sun from the galaxy such-and-such, and one low angle shot of a ship coming up here." You can combine a number of different shots.
LARSON: That's because of the blue screen process. All the ships are shot against a neutral background which is called Chromakey, in the live camera process. Most of our shots are multiple passes. You've got two or three fighters in them. You've got the trailing fire coming out of the tail. And we have somethiing that was never done before in special effects and that's contrails. Actual contrails, which is a major problem, since you're shooting like sixteenth speed, or eight speed. Yow do you get them to sit there, since they dissipate all over the screen. Well, anyway, we have all those things in all separate passes, and we can recombine those elements many ways.
FF: Will one specific character be featured in each episode like Wagon Train, or will it consist of ensemble work in the Star Trek vein?
LARSON: There are nine regular characters. On Wagon Train you had important guest stars who would show up within the train. We have the opportunity as well because there are many ships in this fleet. Each week we can be meeting new people as part of this group of survivors. At the same time, we've got some very attractive young regulars who will be going off to various places ahead of the ship. They'l get involved in some incredible swashbuckling adventures. You don't have these opportunities in most forms of TV today, because they're locked into certain slots, like the police, detective and lawyer shows. I've been in television for ten years now and I get tired of the same old forms. We can take our characters and throw them into the most incredible situations. Here we can go off and do an old-fashioned pirate picture because space pirating is on eof the traditional themes. it's contemporary, but it works with that little twist of the future. And our stories won't be so disorienting that people will say, "That's baloney."
FF: Did you originaly intend to have Battlestar Galactica released theatrically?
LARSON: We didn't set out to make a motion picture at all. Had we intended to we would have designed shots that would have fit better on the larger screen. We didn't dub our picture for the big screen, even though we have a Canadian release. Right now the whole thing is kind of torn apart. We've got to go back and build it up for television. It's also being dubbed in Sensurround for Europe. That really is a kick. It's devastating!
FF: What is your budget for each show?
LARSON: The budget will vary from show to show. Some shows will probably be quite simple in terms of special effects, others won't. There were a lot of figures thrown around at the beginning, like a million dolars an hour. now it's more like three-quarters of a million per hour. We're not going to change costumes on our principals, so the more shows the lower the cost for the entire series.
FF: Battlestar Galactica is not only the first episode, but it's the first movie of the entire 1978/1979 season. You're certainly carrying a lot of weight.
LARSON: If we don't make a go of it, we'll take the whole network down with us. It's difficult. We're following Star Trek, a very successful show in the eyes of the kids. There are people out there who love it. I mean really love it. May be they'll say "Well, this is just not as good as Star Trek." If they're really pure dyed-in-the-wool science fiction fans maybe we aren't going to do enough in that area to please them. Sure, a lot hangs on this. But we're trying not to make the same mistakes that were made before. Listen, in the end it all comes down to this... just how perceptive are we being?