Hard Knocks Hollywood: J. Michael Straczynski

The “Changeling” writer on his rough start: “I had one shot at this. And I knew if I didn’t do it, it was gonna be dead forever.”

J. Michael Straczynski has 10 different feature projects in various stages of development, all of them launched in the two years since he sold his first spec feature, “Changeling,” to Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment. Before that Joe, as he is called, worked in television, for which he created the long-running cult hit “Babylon 5.” He talks with Eric Estrin about trying to sell what people aren’t buying and about gritting your teeth until it hurts.


“Babylon 5” took five years, because at that time, no American space-based science-fiction series had gone more than two seasons in 25 years, so the odds were completely against us.


For five years it went from network to studio to studio to production company, and it was just no, no and by the way, no — we’ve tried this before, it’s not gonna work. “Star Trek” owns the playing field. It took five years to find two guys — one at Warner Brothers and one at Chris-Craft stations, at that time, who got it and said, Look, we’re gonna be creating this new network called PTEN, why don’t you come and present it to the group?


I went to the meeting and, like 30 different shows were being created in front of these studio executives over a period of like a week — and I had one shot at this. And I knew if I didn’t do it, it was gonna be dead forever. I was waiting to go on, and I was grinding my teeth so hard I literally shattered a molar straight down into the root. When I breathed, I saw colors I never saw before.


They said to me you have to go home; you can’t pitch in this condition. And I said, If I come back after they’ve heard all 30 pitches, forget it. So I got a big old tumbler of ice water and held it there to numb the tooth with tears coming down my face.


So I went out there to give the presentation — and I had rubber-tongue. I was numb from the ice; I could barely talk. But somehow they got it, and we got the series out of it.


But even after “Babylon 5,” when I wrote “Changeling,” all the studios that we went to didn’t know who the hell I was. I went from meeting to meeting to meeting, and with very, very few exceptions, no one knew whether I was 20 years old or 50 years old; no one knew if it was my first script or 10,000th script. The encouraging thing to writers is … they didn’t care. It really came down to the words on the page.


Of course, when Ron Howard bought it, and then when Clint Eastwood came on board, it’s like someone taps you on the head with a magic wand, and you go from invisible to visible. Suddenly, you know, there wasn’t any problem getting read by anybody in town.