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May 29, 2000
Fred Barzyk explores what dreams are made of


By Paul Witcover


Fred Barzyk, co-director/co-producer of the 1979 PBS dramatic adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, is an artist dedicated to pushing the envelope and exploring the limits of the possible. His enthusiasm for the potential of television is limitless and infectious. Recently he sat down with Science Fiction Weekly at the Channel 13 studios in New York City--housed in a building of vast and impersonal proportions where Dr. Haber, the megalomaniac oneirologist of Lathe, would have felt right at home--to discuss the rebroadcast and video release of the film, after being unavailable for more than 20 years.
How did The Lathe of Heaven come about?
Barzyk: Back in 1968, I was doing a show for WGBH TV in Boston, and it was there that I met David Loxton, co-director of Lathe. David and I ultimately had a long-term creative relationship that lasted for over 20 years until he passed away unfortunately in the early '90s. David and I had always wanted to do drama; that was our big kick. We wound up doing a number of them for public television. The first in the science fiction genre was a Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. film called Between Time and Timbuktu, which took all of his stuff and sort of mishmashed it together. Kurt worked with us on it. Lathe was the second and the biggest effort by David and me to create a whole programming stream of what he called speculative fiction, because in some of the more conservative ends of public television "sci-fi" was not a good term to use! So Lathe was supposed to kick off the series and help to raise the funds to do more. Unfortunately, only one other got to be done, a film with Raul Julia called Overdrawn at the Memory Bank.
Isn't 20 years a long time for a creative collaboration?

Barzyk: David and I had a unique working relationship. We were co-producers, co-directors. If you really cut it down, I would run the set, and David would run behind-the-scenes. But when it came to content and the actual physical structure of the set, we had equal input. The reason that was important, especially on Lathe, is that we had a very limited budget, and we were moving into science fiction ... and let's face it, some of Ursula's ideas were pretty big. I mean, how the hell do we possibly even begin to portray the attack of aliens or the wiping out of billions of people with the plague? What it came down to was, we had to find metaphors. We had to find things that didn't cost that much money and still led to maybe the same kind of emotional impact.
You mean special effects?

Barzyk: Partly. David was running the WNET Lab and I was running the WGBH New Television Workshop at the time. Both of us were interested in new art forms--especially video art. We were kind of like drawbridges that were let down to let artists into the castle. And you can see bits and pieces of that all through Lathe. As a matter of fact, the attack of the aliens was done by Ed Emshwiller, who for years had been an SF illustrator but had been working as a video artist in David's shop. So all of this kind of came together from our interest in drama and our interest in working with abstract and unusual ways of using video.
Your approach to special effects in Lathe is very impressionistic. Nowadays many filmmakers are more literal-minded. How do you feel about advances in special effects and their impact on movie audiences?

Barzyk: As a moviegoer, I would say first of all that I love the "ooh-ahhs." I love to see the latest special effect and go, "Wow, isn't that great!" I have no objections as long as it adds to the emotional underpinning of the characters. Or, and The Mummy is a perfect example of this, when the special effects are used with a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek attitude, as a way of saying how absurd special effects are getting. I think that can be terrific fun.

Our special effects in Lathe were not done the way they were because that was necessarily the direction we wanted to go. It was the direction we had to go. We didn't have enough money to be able to do these things, so we were constantly trying to figure out ways in which we could shoot something in half a day and imply vast amounts of impressions to the audience. For example, when everyone gets wiped out by the plague, we came up with the idea of putting people around a table and just constantly circling the table and making them distorted and growing older to imply all those people being killed. That was partly because we couldn't think of any other way to do it within the constraints of our budget. But we were also influenced by video artists. There was one artist who had taken fishwire and wrapped his face, for example, and so I used a variation of that in this scene. We grabbed from the art director the dust and the smoke and the cobwebs, and in effect we wound up using some of David's English heritage with the candelabras and the rest, which kind of went back to Great Expectations.
With so much of the movie taking place in the dreams of George Orr, did that free you to use a sort of metaphorical language?

Barzyk: It was the only way! I wish I could say it was all part of an artistic plan, but we had no other alternative. You had to just simply say, "What can we do?" The last scene of the movie uses lasers, for example. I think we were one of the first ones to do that, by the way. But it was pure luck. We were running out of cash by then. We'd already had to make everybody turn gray, for instance. That cost a fortune. So we happened to run into these two guys developing lasers just outside of Dallas, and they said, well, come on over. As long as you don't look directly into the laser, we can send the beams out there; maybe that would be an interesting effect. So we gambled. We went out there, we looked at it, we brought the two actors, Kevin Conway and Bruce Davison, with us. They had a smoke machine, and they squirted with a plant mister so there were little floating specks in the air while Kevin and Bruce ad-libbed. It wound up looking great ... and it cost nothing.
Is it true that Lathe is the most requested film in the PBS archives?

Barzyk: I personally receive on the average--and people have to find me, first of all--I probably get 15, 20 inquiries about Lathe of Heaven every year. The most interesting one was a year and a half, two years ago. It was the office of Jason Alexander, George on Seinfeld, who called up and said, you know, George remembers this; he would really love to see it. I say George, but of course I mean Jason! And he went to school at Boston University, so I suspect that he saw it when WGBH first ran it. Officially I couldn't give him a tape, but somehow he got one. And word was that he and Tom Hanks, who had also been a fan, sat down to watch it. Now that's second-hand information. I know definitely about Jason Alexander. But the point is, if you saw Lathe between the ages of 12 and 20, chances are it somehow stuck in your mind. At least that's the case for a lot of people, who then went on to talk about it to other people who never did get a chance to see it. And it just snowballed over the years into a kind of cult thing.
Why hasn't it been released on video before now?

Barzyk: Well, there's a piece of Beatles music at the end, and we couldn't get the rights to it. I mean, it's impossible to get the rights. In the end, they [had] to go in and redo a sound-alike for that song. That's the one thing that's been changed from the original in this new release.
So the movie was in limbo for 20 years because of a Beatles song?

Barzyk: That's my understanding.
What does Lathe have to say to audiences seeing it for the first time today?

Barzyk: I'm proud of this film. I think it stands up very well, and I'll tell you why. David and I had a very strong commitment to the writer. We put the writer first, and not the director ... or the special effects. We saw ourselves as midwives to other people's ideas. I mean, that's how the TV Lab and the WGBH New Television Workshop came into existence. We were there to help artists realize their vision with equipment they couldn't lay their hands on otherwise. David and I had already worked with a number of authors by the time we did Lathe. Charles Johnson, who later won the National Book Award for Middle Passage, did a drama with us, for example. He was there with us the whole time. We did the same thing with Kurt Vonnegut in Between Time and Timbuktu. Kurt was with us for the whole thing. As a matter of fact, on the last day of shooting, he came in with a whole new scene that he'd stayed up all night writing, in which the main character fights it out with Hitler. We didn't even have a Hitler at that particular moment; we had to go out and find a costume and a Hitler to fill it! The same thing happened with Ursula Le Guin. David Loxton went out and spent time with her, convinced her that he was going to be respectful to the work. She was a consultant throughout the whole thing. The first gentleman who wrote a draft, Roger Swaybill, came back with something that was very good but also very expensive. So David's secretary at that particular moment, or a few years before that, had been Diane English, who went on to do "Murphy Brown," and we brought her in as a writer. David and I and Diane sat in this apartment for four weeks trying to craft this thing to fit the budget that we had. And Ursula was constantly involved. I think she even saw some rough cuts along the way. We were trying to be true to the complexity of what was in her novel. That's why the movie had to be two hours.
If you take a movie, especially a science fiction movie, from the late '70s, put it in a closet for 20 years, and then bring it back out, chances are it's going to seem pretty dated, if not downright ridiculous. Were you surprised at how well Lathe holds up?
Barzyk: There was a conscious decision on our part to try to make George's world as tacky as we possibly could at the beginning. It was not a futuristic world; it was recognizably our world, with just some touches of the future. Of course it cost a lot less that way! Fortunately, Dallas and Ft. Worth had built up a couple of impressive buildings which we could get the use of for a song, and we were able to use them to give the impression that we had created whole new worlds. The biggest find was the Tandy Center in Ft. Worth, which we used as Dr. Haber's Palace of Dreams. I went back recently, and it had all changed. We got in at just the right time.
I never would have guessed it was shot in Texas.

Barzyk: Oh yes. The reality of the frontier was never very far away from us even though it looked like it was 21st century! At the end of the movie, there's a scene where the earth cracks and all this fire goes shooting up. That was done in a plaza in Ft. Worth. We brought in this special effects guy. He had to lay it out, and set the fire, and all that kind of stuff, and of course it had to be at night. Just before we're ready to shoot, the cops come over. "Yew might wanta git outta here; there's a guy walkin' down the street with a shotgun blowin' out all the windows." So everybody gets up, packs up their stuff, leaves. A half hour later the cops call us back. "We got 'im. You can come back now." So we go back down there and proceed to set off this huge explosion!
Even though Lathe is science fiction--it makes use of advanced technology, deals with dream research, aliens and so on--isn't it also a kind of fairy tale?

Barzyk: I'd put it in a slightly different way. What happened was that once we had the structure laid out, and we knew that we had this story, this graphic display that we could use in Dallas and Ft. Worth, what I really needed was to give some kind of scope--large, dramatic scope--to the overall thrust of the drama. And the wisest decision that David Loxton made was to bring in Michael Small to do the original score. You have to remember that Public Television had a very special deal with the music world. We could use anybody's music. We didn't have to pay rights. So lots of times we'd go back to music libraries or, as a matter of fact, in one show I even used music from Jaws; I mean, in a drama for public television! But we made a decision to spend a lot of money on the original score. And when I heard Michael Small's music, I knew that what I had to do was to create something that was more grand opera than it was realistic drama. That the environment, the visualization of this thing, had to be larger than just the events that were taking place. At the beginning it had to be as close as the eye could get, the environment kind of crunching in on you. And then it would just get bigger and bigger and bigger until you were looking at a huge vista. And the reason that would be useful was because as the film became more abstract or more impressionistic or more mind-boggling in terms of the ideas that Ursula was exploring, it became more like a fairy tale, just as you say. It became more fantasy. But without Michael Small's music, it wouldn't have added up.
If you had the opportunity to remake this movie today, how would you make it differently?

Barzyk: High definition TV.
Would it still be the same movie, though, in terms of how it's told and the sensibility?

Barzyk: This movie is my child. I wouldn't change my child too much. But I would have loved to have seen the depth and the sharpness and crispness of what I could have gotten with high definition television. And if I had an opportunity, you know, I would have probably gone into experimenting with 3-D in the last sequence. I would have tried to push the system as far as I possibly could.
Twenty years ago, on TV especially, people either made fun of science fiction or took it way too seriously. How did you avoid those pitfalls?

Barzyk: Again, it comes back to our respect for what Ursula had written. It's in her work. I mean, the underlying reason that this thing still holds up, as you say, taken out of a box 20 years later--the reason that it has legs--is that Ursula's work has legs.