I am beyond excited about an epic (in the truest sense of the word) show coming to UCLA’s Royce Hall Saturday, November 2nd. The Intergalactic Nemesis “Book One: Target Earth” is a live-action graphic novel, drawing from a wealth of influences, from sci-fi films to comic book adventures to radio serials of the pre-television era. Already awesome, right!? But wait, it gets better; no need to book a babysitter, bring the kids! This is definitely a show the whole family will enjoy. For those of you who have not immediately scrolled to the bottom of this article to find out how to get tickets, I hope you will enjoy the interview below with the creative genius behind The Intergalactic Nemesis, Jason Neulander. And, bonus! Below that you will find some insight and words of wisdom from members of the cast and crew. Let’s geek out!
Molly Coe: Your work is a culmination of a wide array of popular fiction – action heroes, adventure, sci-fi. What are you most influenced by? What inspires you? (I know, cliché question, but I have to ask!)
Jason Neulander: The biggest influences on The Intergalactic Nemesis are probably the fact that I was 7 when Star Wars came out in theatres and 12 when Raiders came out. But since I was a kid, I’ve always loved pulpy sci-fi storytelling, from the movies of Ray Harryhausen to the writing of people like Azimov and Bradbury. As an adult, I’ve become a huge fan of golden-age Hollywood movies. For example, the way Preston Sturges was able to veer back-and-forth between comedy a pathos, particularly in Sullivan’s Travels. We modeled our dialogue on the tone in His Girl Friday. And, of course, sci-fi movies of the 80s. There’s a lot of that in there.
MC: Your main characters, Molly (great name!), Timmy and Ben – will you describe them for me? Any parallels to well-known characters (wink, wink)?
JN: In our little fictional universe, Molly Sloan is the first woman to win the Pulitzer prize for reporting. Timmy Mendez is her intrepid assistant. Ben Wilcott is a mysterious librarian from Flagstaff, Arizona, with more than his share of secrets. Molly is probably most closely modeled on Hildy, the character played by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Timmy is a total Jimmy Olson character. The idea of Ben as a heroic librarian was first inspired by the unlikely idea of a heroic archeologist, but as the project has evolved, he’s really become the character closest to my own heart–a hero by circumstance who has to defeat evil against all possible odds.
MC: Growing up, you must have been a comic book fan – who was your favorite hero and why?
JN: Ironically, I wasn’t really a comic-book fan. Nor was I a radio play fan. I read comic-books for sure (favorites were Richie Rich and the artwork of the Green Lantern), but I was never a collector. I don’t think I even heard my first radio play, other than War of the Worlds, which was pretty anomalous, until after we had recorded the original version of Intergalactic. But I was a huge reader of prose fiction when I was a kid. My favorites were the 14 L. Frank Baum Oz books, Watership Down, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and, when I first started reading, the books of Ruth Chew. So I was deep into fantasy. Still am!
MC: How did this idea for a live graphic novel (awesome!) come about?
JN: Intergalactic got its start as a radio play and I directed and produced when I was running a not-for-profit theater company in Austin, TX called Salvage Vanguard Theater. We did it as something of a lark, performed and recorded serially at a coffeehouse downtown. But the project really started to take off and several years after its original creation, I was invited to bring the radio play into the 2,400-seat Dell Hall at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in town. I felt the venue was way too big for the intimate experience of watching the performance of a radio play and was inclined to turn the opportunity down, when, in a flash, I had a vision of comic-book artwork projected on a screen the size of the proscenium. Luckily for me, my friend Tim Doyle was available to do the artwork. It took 15 months to revise the script and create all those comic-book panels and pages, but we premiered it in September 2010 to an audience of 2,200 people and have not looked back since!
MC: Wow! How many hours, days, years have you spent putting this show together?
JN: I’m a little embarrassed to say it, but Intergalactic has been around off-and-on since 1996. We recorded the original radio play on cassette-tape four-track that summer. Then I did a bunch of other projects and we came back to the project in 2000 when we were able to create a digital recording. The next summer, we premiered a sequel, which ultimately became the basis for what is now “Robot Planet Rising”(Book Two). Then I took a few years off and in 2005, we did a third part. In 2007, I went back to the original and with my friend Chad Nichols, completely rewrote the radio play. In 2009, we were invited to bring that version into the Long Center. That’s the point at which I started to work on the project full-time. I left the company I had founded (they’re still going strong) and put all my energy into The Intergalactic Nemesis. We started touring in 2011 with “Book One: Target Earth” and as of now, we’ve been booked into more than 80 venues around the world, including a two-week run at the New Victory on Broadway, a sold-out week at the Kennedy Center, and a very prestigious performing arts festival called Spoleto Festival USA. Conan O’Brien had us on his show, NPR did a feature story on us, and we’ve been featured in a ton of online media including spill.com and Ain’t It Cool News. Last year, we premiered “Robot Planet Rising” in Live-Action Graphic Novel form. And in September 2014, we’ll premiere the final installment, “Twin Infinity”.
MC: When I think of graphic novels, I can’t help but think of some of the more violent and dark offerings of late. But your work is more similar to the family-friendly adventures of a different era. In a society that loves to shock and scandalize, what made you choose to buck the trend?
JN: That’s a great question! Because of the fact that Intergalactic got its start before there was such a thing as a podcast, the only way to get broad listenership was to get it broadcast on the radio. So that forced us to keep everything clean. But we discovered, a bit by accident, that because it was clean, it was something parents were comfortable introducing their kids to. When I came up with the idea of adding comic-book imagery, I had kids of my own and was reaching middle-age, which for me has meant tapping into my own inner kid. So the project has very much become about creating an experience for the kid in everyone, which means steering away from sex, violence, sarcasm, and irony.
MC: Music plays a major part in your performance. Would you consider yourself a musician?
JN: I play piano, but I’m definitely not a “musician”. Graham Reynolds, our composer–he’s a musician. Kenny Redding, Jr., our pianist, now that guy’s amazing!
MC: As writer, director and producer, you certainly wear a lot of hats! Did you always know this was what you wanted to do?
JN: No. I got my start when I was a kid as an actor. I became interested in directing because of some bad experiences with directors as an actor and discovered I had something of a knack for it. When I was in college I came up with a few projects that couldn’t get done unless I did them myself, so I kind of backed into producing, but discovered that I was pretty good at that as well. So I started a theater company, Salvage Vanguard Theater, that was all about producing new plays. After years of working with other writers, I discovered that I had something of a knack for storytelling myself, and it was with the radio version of Intergalactic that I dipped my toes into writing. So, really, what I do now is mostly a weird accident!
MC: Now my favorite question! Anything you hoped I would ask, but didn’t? Please share!
JN: The single most rewarding thing for me about The Intergalactic Nemesis is seeing all these people in all these towns I had never been to go nuts for the show. When I was in Austin at Salvage, we felt lucky if 35 people showed up to a single performance. With The Intergalactic Nemesis, we’ve had audiences by the hundreds and sometimes thousands, from Hawaii, across the continental US and Canada, all the way to Scotland. And it only seems to be growing. The best part is seeing folks at the show who aren’t comic-book fans get totally wrapped up in it. Maybe the best compliment I’ve gotten was from a guy who said that ever since Star Wars came out when he was a kid he had been looking for an experience that gave him the same sense of wonder and, for him, The Intergalactic Nemesis was that experience. Given that those are my roots, too, how friggin’ cool is that???
Pretty friggin’ cool! You know what else is friggin’ cool? That Brock England, Danu Uribe, Jessie Douglas, and Chris Gibson, all essential elements of this production, were also willing participants in my interview extravaganza! See their responses below.
MC: If you could describe the show in one phrase, what would it be?
Danu Uribe (plays Molly Sloan): A spectacular space opera!
Chris Gibson (plays Ben Wilcott): An old-fashioned over-the-top adventure melodrama.
MC: Now if you could describe Jason Neulander in one phrase, what would it be?
DU: The Cerebretron.
Jessie Douglas (Tour Manager): A lovable, kooky, mad genius!
MC: What can an audience member expect to see/hear/experience?
CG: The show is a literal feast for the senses, albeit an “analog” one. In a world of easy, fast digital stimuli – our show goes back to the basics: Hand-drawn and colored artwork. Live music played in your presence. Sound effects created before your eyes with unexpected objects. Effortless transformation as voice actors bounce from one absurd character to another. Sound engineering that keeps the whole production from collapsing into cacophony. We do it live and with our whole hearts every show.
Brock England (plays Timmy Mendez): The first three rows should be wearing raincoats. Voice actors spit a lot.
MC: What do you do to get into character? How do you get ready for a rehearsal/performance?
BE: I smear mayo on the soles of my feet and see how far I can slide across the stage. After that, I tend to speak some complicated things to get my voice and throat used to moving around. I have a background in Shakespeare, so I’ll find a quiet spot in the theater, go through a few monologues at various volumes, then sing something ridiculous at full voice.
MC: Anything else you would like to add?
DU: I like looking out into the audience and seeing kids snuggling up to their parents–and knowing we got to be a catalyst for that closeness
CG: This show is so different from anything else out there. Come with an open mind not only with what you are about to see, but also how you’ll choose to see it. Change your focus from time to time – pay attention to all the work happening in front of you – you will be surprised with the details you find! And be willing to be an active participant in the production. What’s a hero with no-one cheering for her? Why waste all that energy being a villain if no one will boo or hiss? A bad joke is just that until you add the satisfying groans of the audience – then it becomes something else, something more valuable – a welcomed and often unexpected release.
JD: This experience has been unlike any other in my life. I am so lucky to be surrounded by great people and doing such amazing work! None of this would be possible without Jason!
The show is playing at Royce Hall on Saturday, November 2nd and Sunday, November 3rd. Please visit the UCLA website for tickets and show times:
The Intergalactic Nemesis is a three part series, with Books One and Two on tour now. Please visit the website for additional tour dates and locations:
This sounds like it might be one of the most entertaining and creatively stimulating offerings of the fall/winter season. Your interview captured the passion, joy and thoughtfulness of each of these artists for this piece. Thanks for the heads up on this event.