Felicity falls into ... "The Twilight Zone"

Director Lamont Johnson tells how Rod Serling's TV fantasy milestone was reborn for the WB's teen viewers.

Published January 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Lamont Johnson, 77, has been directing for over half a century. He has just completed his weirdest assignment -- and pulled it off in dazzling fashion. He spent much of November and December struggling to turn an episode of the WB network's young-adult identity drama "Felicity" into a replica of a classic segment of "The Twilight Zone." What he wound up with (for the hour airing Sunday at 8 p.m.) is not merely a replica, but a remarkably engaging hybrid that transforms the youthful self-absorption of our times into something both eerie and hilarious.

"Felicity" is all about the emotional uncertainty of contemporary teens and young adults. "The Twilight Zone," which originally ran from 1959 to 1964, was about paranoia and uncertainty of every kind. It was done in a bold, slashing style: an antidote to the bland official culture of an era when anxious Americans found security in conformity. Thanks to Johnson and "Felicity" creator J.J. Abrams, the shotgun marriage of these shows is a double-barreled blast.

Given the way TV de-emphasizes directors (and movies emphasize them), Johnson is probably best-known to general audiences for acclaimed big-screen productions like "The Last American Hero" and "Cattle Annie and Little Britches." Within broadcast circles he's long been known as the master of network dramaturgy. He has used his own experience as an actor and director in radio, movies and theater to exact great performances and supply an acute visual sense for series like "Have Gun Will Travel" and "The Twilight Zone," miniseries like "The Kennedys of Massachusetts" and "Wallenberg: A Hero's Story" and, especially, breakthrough small-screen films like "Off the Minnesota Strip" -- the juiciest pre-"Sopranos" work of writer David Chase.

Johnson's latest voyage into the unknown started eight months ago, at a salute to the 40th anniversary of "The Twilight Zone" at the Museum of Television & Radio in Los Angeles. As Johnson told me last week when I phoned him at his home in Monterey, Calif., he was surprised by the swarms that gathered to pay homage to Rod Serling's creation. Johnson thought they'd be in "the walkers and wheelchairs set," but most were baby boomers or younger. "I know that avid fan clubs are not to be believed," Johnson says. "I know that younger people can get an almost necrophiliac pleasure from all this. But we had to turn away a hundred or more."

One bright-eyed face in the crowd belonged to the co-creator of "Felicity," J.J. Abrams. "As my agent told me the next day, a guy named J.J. Abrams had asked him at the function how I would react to an offer to do episodic television. My agent told him that he'd see -- I had done 'episodic' back in 1959. Abrams had an idea to throw the 'Felicity' group, who are going through all the teen angst that is the currency of the show, into the Twilight Zone." Johnson says he initially thought the notion was "insane," adding, "First of all, I didn't know the show; it's not the kind of subject matter I would normally seek out." But he agreed to sit down with the tapes, and what he discovered was that "it's done awfully well -- the kids can act, and it's beautifully written."

He went down to Los Angeles to meet Abrams, whom he describes as "this bouncing Buster Brown boy of 33 who looks 10 years younger and is an incredible manager and supervisor and seer." Abrams won Johnson over with his energy and concept. "J.J. said that all his characters were in such terrible turmoil about their love lives, they'd become such a pain in the ass, that he was going to dump them into a lime-pit and shake them up, so they wouldn't know where they were."

Johnson decided to take the plunge. First he did a quick study of "The Twilight Zone." Unlike Abrams, a true fanatic, Johnson had rarely seen any episodes since he directed eight of them close to 40 years ago. "I was trying to figure out how we did what we did, what was the basic style. I had my daughter look at a couple of them and asked her what distinguished the acting, and she used the word 'stilted.' At any rate, it was more theatrical. The actors know they have to make obvious points and don't have the irony or the throwaway quality of today's actors. It was quite a fun thing to do, working with J.J., and young actors who couldn't be over 23, to bring that style of acting back. I showed the cast some episodes, including 'Five Characters in Search of an Exit' [a 1961 episode directed by Johnson that Abrams used as the basis for this segment of 'Felicity']. They felt 'Twilight Zone' acting was overacting -- and to a degree it is overacting. A modulated overacting."

Luckily, the "Felicity" cast was game to try it -- including Keri Russell, the star, whom Johnson considers an "unbelievable" talent. Johnson, a formidable yarn-spinner, convinced the actors that the "Twilight Zone" style worked on a level of parable and myth that satisfies a vast hunger in the audience. "At the museum tribute," he says, "there were 45 minutes of selections from the series, and it was apparent that people were eating them up with a spoon. I looked around and the faces were rapt. And there were some fabulous episodes of that show, with all their theatrical lighting and acting and payoffs. Do you remember the one where Burgess Meredith plays this older guy who wants only to escape the hurly-burly and read for the rest of his life? And it's the end of the world and he's got this library all to himself -- except he steps on his glasses and can't see?"

(Actually, I do remember: The climax is a bespectacled bookworm's primal scene. In fact, a screenwriter friend of mind just showed it to his son, who was beguiled by it -- and terrified.)

In an interview the WB sent to TV reviewers, Johnson neatly summarized his view of the show's appeal: "It is an old-fashioned tale-telling kind of form. It's relatively uncomplicated by subplot -- a relatively clean line -- with an extremely intriguing hook."

Johnson told me that the show's poverty-row tactics only underscored its strengths. "Obviously, it was in black and white, with a cut-to-the-bone starkness in its look, and no real dressing of the sets. There was none of the incredible dicor that is done now to bring about a sense of fleshing out and make the environment of a show something people recognize. The look was barren, but formalized. Some of the most exciting episodes -- like the one with Jack Klugman as a pool player -- were shot in sets that were clearly sets, where you could see flats [i.e., backdrops] that didn't quite join. As a director, you were reduced to what you could get by with, and that's what I love about working in the theater.

"When you don't have money, you can do remarkable things," Johnson continued. "You get by with suggestions, curious symbolic arrangements of props. In a lot of these ['Twilight Zone'] episodes, you rarely see actors go through a door, because there was very little in the way of walled scenery. Yet somehow that releases you to focus in more and more on the actors and the text. You don't have to lumber through anything such as the tremendous productions they have onstage today, with huge elevators working winding staircases on monster productions like 'Sunset Boulevard,' which I now find so tiresome they just beat the shit out of me."

At first, Abrams and Johnson tried collaborating with a veteran "Twilight Zone" writer who "had fascinating germs of ideas that were in no way related to 'Felicity,'" Johnson said. "In no way could you get value from taking these actors and putting them into these situations. We spent about a month or six weeks before the 10 days I had to prep the show talking about why it wasn't working. But 'Five Characters in Search of an Exit' was always J.J.'s favorite episode, and when we were brainstorming we realized we could work backward from that." The nub of J.J.'s inspiration was that "the collision of emotions on the part of the characters right now renders them incapable of living life and sends them into an artificial zone of some sort. When that came to him, J.J jumped up and down said, 'I'm going to do this' and started to write it -- while producing the rest of the show."

The scintillating result is richer and more amusing than many an original "Twilight Zone." It's actually a combination of two kinds of "Twilight Zone" episodes: the ones about bizarre medical treatments and the ones about alternate realities. The part of the episode that could be called "The Clinic" begins in a "Felicity"-like manner, with our college-sophomore heroine drifting though her chores as a counter girl while she mulls over her feelings for the feisty jock Ben (Scott Speedman) and the gentle teaching assistant Noel (Scott Foley). This time, though, one of her customers reads her thoughts and hands her a card with the phone number and address of "The Clinic" -- which promises to repair broken hearts. ("For the incurable romantic, the Clinic is the cure.") The ensuing psychological mayhem involves a marvelously pasty-looking doctor (Dennis Lipscomb), a wonderfully woebegone zombie (Gregory Cooke), crystal hearts and hideous scars and mysterious secret dosages of medical and emotional anesthesia.

The look and feel of the premises are immediately ticklish and unsettling. The episode is shot in black and white (with strokes of expressionist lighting), the costumes have a clean-cut '50s profile, and every spot from the coffeehouse to the library is re-jiggered to match the Bauhaus-from-hunger functionality of "The Twilight Zone" (and of educational and industrial films). A man reading a paper wears a fedora; when the radio plays it isn't contemporary pop, but the Platters' "Only You." In this time-out-of-joint atmosphere, you don't know what demon children will emerge from the actors' pregnant pauses. The normal "sensitive" style of relationship shows like "Felicity" can drive you crazy with banal self-consciousness. This episode replaces preciousness with ominousness.

"If it works," said Johnson, "it should make you feel like you do during great old horror shows -- that you can shudder and laugh at the same time." Part of the reason it does work is that Johnson isn't obsessed with holding his players to a single style. "We wanted to do a retro image and deliberately disorient the audience, without losing sight of the fact that this was still the 'Felicity' bunch," he said. "For instance, in the script, when Felicity first got the card and had the Clinic explained to her, she said 'Wow.' That 'Wow' seemed so contemporary we cut it. But we didn't want it to be totally regimented."

It's fun to see the younger players run up against seasoned character actors like Lynn Wanlass, who never lets her mask of correct behavior slip. "As the lady who comes and gives the card to Felicity, she is perfectly coiffed and hatted for the late '50s," said Johnson. "Her whole attitude is of that time, of that period. And Dennis Lipscomb, as the doctor, has the right kind of officiousness and funniness and malignancy."

By the time Felicity sees through the Clinic and realizes how many others have visited it, Johnson and Abrams' invasion-of-the-heart-snatchers scenario has provided a droll justification for the series' focus on Felicity's amorous ups and downs. But the episode doesn't stop there. In a prolonged coda, five series regulars find themselves in a bare room with no way to get out -- until they form a human ladder. As Johnson told me, "This is a step-by-step, line-by-line remake of 'Five Characters in Search of an Exit.' What's amazing is that I was able to duplicate everything about it. We built a section of wall that we braced and placed over rockers and put at a 45-degree angle, so that the actors could rest most of their weight on their heels and butts and still look like they were standing on each other's shoulders. They had a great time, tumbling over each other like they were in a funhouse." (For regular "Felicity" fans, the climax also answers an ongoing question about Felicity's witchy roommate Meghan.)

Watching several Johnson-directed segments of "The Twilight Zone," I was struck by the ancillary social messages that Serling had snuck into his mini-dramas. For example, "The Shelter" (1961), a heavy-handed attack on mob psychology in the nuclear age, suddenly comes to life when a Semitic-looking character named Marty Weiss is attacked for being an outsider.

"Rod was very liberal," Johnson recalled; "liberal, in the old sense, is the word I would use, though he was far left for those days, and in his big works was accused of grandstanding for the left and being a bleeding heart." Johnson himself had been blacklisted, briefly, for joining the Communist Party "when I was a kid at UCLA. I found it fatuous, tedious, deadly, but I still ended up far more leftist than rightist. When I did 'The Shelter,' like everyone else I was wondering whether I should buckle under and build a bomb shelter in my backyard, even though I bridled at that Eisenhower-era refrain, 'The Commies are coming, the Commies are coming.'"

Johnson's fondness for the series rests mostly on the opportunities it gave him to collaborate with giants of the theater. In a 1963 episode called "Passage on 'The Lady Anne,'" (the passage is to the afterlife), he got to handle a raft of "remarkable old British actors," including Wilfrid Hyde-White, Cecil Kellaway and Gladys Cooper. "It was great to watch them go to the sidelines and gather up together and read letters from London that were full of salacious gossip," Johnson remembered. "You could almost see the drool gathering as they savored the malicious wit; the old world of the theater came back to life for them as we were doing this fable."

His favorite episodes are a couple from 1962. "Kick the Can" (which Steven Spielberg remade in "Twilight Zone -- The Movie") is the story of old folks at a rest home who discover that, as Serling's narration puts it, "Childhood, maturity and old age are curiously intertwined." For Johnson, energizing the aging cast was a sublime challenge, because they were "free, and rigid from what they had learned over the years. You could reach them in an instant with something interesting and exciting." The performances he got from them have kept Johnson's sentiment-fueled piece fresh -- unlike the Spielberg version. "I admire Steven in a lot of ways, " said Johnson, "and I got to know him at Universal; we had offices next to each other when he was directing 'Duel' [the 1971 TV movie that was Spielberg's first major accomplishment]. He had fallen in love with 'Kick the Can' and saw it as a great subject to expand upon with more time and a bigger budget. But as deft and resourceful and imaginative as Spielberg is -- when you have everything you need, certain things go to sleep in your creativity and imagination."

Johnson got to know another screen giant on the episode called "Nothing in the Dark," which starred his beloved Gladys Cooper, "this precious relic of the theater, with this witty, vicious kind of temperament and bite," playing a tenement-bound woman petrified of the approach of "Mr. Death." As a wounded young policeman -- who turns out to be the kindest of Grim Reapers -- Johnson cast a "terrific-looking kid" named Robert Redford.

"It was not a huge achievement for him as an actor, but he was perfect for the part," said Johnson. "He was naive and passionate; he wanted a job and he had never acted in filmed TV before. I had him read with Miss Cooper and she had a good time staring at him. At the end, I said, 'Thank you, Robert, I'll let you know.' As he went out the door, Gladys said, 'Oh darling, get him for me.' This lovely relationship grew up between them. He was in awe of this great old lady and she thought he was an adorable guy. So it brought out not just a motherly but an old-lady sexual reawakening and made something of a real love affair happen on the screen. With little more than a half-day of rehearsal, that's the fabulous stuff you could do on 'The Twilight Zone' -- the wonders you could work with the actors."

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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