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SS Wilson Interview

May 22nd, 2008

1. What kind of writer would you classify yourself as?

I’m a fantasy/sci-fi/action/adventure writer. My partner and I have strayed into family comedy with some success (Heart and Souls and a script for a remake of The Long Long Trailer which everybody loves but nobody will make), but mostly we do action adventure.

2. When did you realize you had the gift to become a writer?

I kind of fell into it. I set out to be an animator. I was making a decent living doing stop-motion animation (also called puppet animation) for short educational films that used to be sold to schools and libraries (before DVDs and the internet). The companies I worked for asked me to write the animation sequences, and later I got hired to write the entire scripts. That led to everything else.

3. Outside of MASK, what are some of the more notable works that you have done?

Short Circuit, Short Circuit 2, Batteries Not Included, Tremors, Tremors 2, Tremors: The Series, Heart and Souls, Land Before Time (uncredited), The Wild Wild West. Currently (2008) working on remake of Smokey and the Bandit, remake of Short Circuit, new Tremors-style monster movie, a book, and other stuff.

4. Did you get profiles of the major characters to use as a guideline?

Yes. I worked closely with story editor Terrence McDonnell who hired me to write the episodes I did. The show was complicated! He had to give us charts so we could keep track of which character went with which vehicle and what each vehicle changed into and what power each mask had. Funny thing about the show was, because everything was based on real toys that the toy company was making, we weren’t allowed to just make a vehicle up. Even though it was a fantasy cartoon, we had to wait until a given toy was designed and ready for production before we could use it in a script.

5. Did you come up with the safety tip at the end of the episodes you wrote yourself?

It’s a long time ago, but I don’t remember having to do that. My guess is it was something the show’s full-time staff added later.

6. How difficult was it to make a script for a 22 minute show?

What was scary was the sheer number of shows being done. 65 episodes was almost unheard of. It meant you didn’t have a lot of time to get ideas and then write them. In my case, the process was: I’d come up with a basic idea and try it out on Terrence. If he liked it, I’d write a short version (just a few pages). If he liked that, he’d give me any changes he wanted and send me off to write the script. So I’d hammer out a first draft. But he had to have that with enough time left to make changes before the deadline. It was his job to make sure every script fit the overall requirements of the show. He’d give me the needed changes, then I’d race to get the final draft in by the deadline. The deadlines were quite serious. Once a show was put into the schedule, you HAD to get it in. The script had to be at the DIC office by a certain time on a certain day so that it could be sent off to Asia (wherever the heck the animation was done) so the animators could get to work on it with enough time to complete it by the airdate.

7. How much freedom was given to you in writing the episodes?

There were a lot of rules. Rules about what kind of violence you could or could not do. Rules about safety (it was a show for kids, after all). Rules about how the characters talked, i.e., you had to pay attention to each character’s personality and try to make that consistent with other shows in the series. Also, Terrence loved puns and was always pushing to add puns to any given episode. Where you had the most freedom was in the “structure,” that is, in the basic story. They were really interested in stories that were fun and different. That’s why they liked things like my story about metal-eating bugs, or the one I did where the villains in Venice turn the water in the canals hard.

8. What was it like to watch the episodes you wrote for on television?

I was young, so it was exciting as heck. I’d try to video tape them so I could freeze-frame the credits. My memory is all the writers’ names appeared together on one screen – is that right? Okay, occasionally it was disappointing, too, because the shows were really low budget and the animation wasn’t the greatest. And sometimes they had to cut things out to make the show fit the time slot, so you’d go, “What happened to my great funny line of dialogue?” But that’s the way it is for most writers in movies and TV.

9. Was working on MASK a boost for your career?

Well, not exactly. It probably could have been, but as it happened, while I was still working on MASK, my partner and I sold our spec script, Short Circuit, about a robot who comes to life. That became (for a few weeks) big Hollywood news because the script immediately went into production with big director John Badham. So suddenly everybody in the feature movie world wanted to meet us. Even Steven Spielberg. We didn’t get back into TV writing until we did Tremors: The Series, some 20 years later.

10. Did any still existing friendship take its being/originate from your work on MASK?

No, I knew Terrence McDonnell before he started doing MASK, and didn’t really get to know anybody else on the show. We writers work mostly in our little hovels.

11. Suppose DIC was planning to make a third season of MASK episodes and asked you to cooperate again. Would you say yes?

Well, I’d be interested. But I’m pretty busy these days so it might be hard to fit into my schedule.

12. Did you expect MASK to still have a fan base after twenty years?

NO! It amazes me. In those days, TV shows were made, got shown, and then pretty much went off the air forever. Who knew that VHS, DVDs and the internet would come along and allow people to keep watching and enjoying something in which I had a small part? I totally love it.

13. What did you like about the cartoon?

I liked the quirky stories. I felt they were a little different from a lot of stuff that was being done, though I suppose every writer feels that way about his/her own stuff. I also liked the vehicles changing into different forms. And it was funny that everybody had ordinary jobs that they’d just walk away from when their special watches went off. That was something we were supposed to work into almost every show.

14. Did you have a favorite character, mask or vehicle?

I have to admit I don’t remember most of them. There were so many! Somewhere in my stuff I have the toy of the motor cycle that turns into something, but I’d need a fan to tell me which one it is now!

15. Is there any information that you feel we should know that wasn’t asked?

I’ll give you a bit of trivia. The first time I walked into Terrence’s office, there was a huge hand-made poster behind his desk that said, “NO VOLCANOES.” It meant he had had a zillion writers pitch him a zillion stories about the MASK team somehow getting mixed up with an erupting volcano — and he never wanted to hear another one.

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