Serling’s Swan Song
When the news broke recently that Rod Serling’s final unproduced screenplay, “Stops Along The Way,” would soon be filmed, I was elated. Big surprise, right?
It’s not just the fact that I’m such a Serling fan. It’s because the project is in the hands of writer/director J.J. Abrams. I’m a long-time fan of his work.
Not everybody was so pleased, though. Some of the replies I got on Twitter, and the comments I read on articles about the project, showed a lot of skepticism. For some reason, they don’t trust him with this important undertaking.
But I think Abrams deserves the benefit of the doubt. For one thing, he’s proven himself more than capable of producing compelling TV shows and movies. Even those who don’t care for “Lost” can’t deny that he has an impressive track record.
More importantly, though, he is an unabashed fan of The Twilight Zone. And I don’t just mean the lip service that nearly anyone in the entertainment industry would pay such a landmark series.
“Walking Distance” is maybe the show’s best episode. It’s about a businessman. He’s almost 40, he’s got a suit, and he hates his life. He’s miserable. The stress of work is just getting him down. And his car breaks down in the middle-of-nowhere countryside.
He goes to the gas station to get his car fixed, and he realizes that he grew up very close to where they are. It’s walking distance. So he says, “I’m just going to take a walk back to the town I grew up in.” He gets there and he soon realizes he’s walked back not just to where he grew up, but when he grew up. He’s back in the time when he was a kid.
And it’s just this beautiful story of a guy who, as an adult, wants to go back to his young self, and tell himself to be aware of what it is to be alive, to be young, and to enjoy that. And of course, you can never go back and tell yourself that.
It’s a beautiful demonstration of the burden of adulthood, told in The Twilight Zone, which everyone thinks is a scary show, but it’s actually a beautiful show. The Twilight Zone at its best is better than anything else I’ve ever seen on television.
It’s easy to see why Abrams name-dropped the episode in his movie “Super 8”, in which the military’s super-secret project is called “Operation Walking Distance.”
Still, anyone can be a big fan of TZ, right? Why trust him to do justice to Serling’s swan song based on that alone? To see why, I suggest checking out an episode of his TV series Felicity called “Help for the Lovelorn.”
Or at least see what Lamont Johnson, director of Zone episodes such as “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” said about his experience helming that episode, which was conceived by Abrams as homage to TZ. They even filmed it in black and white:
That was fun. I had a great time doing it. I was the hugest doubting Thomas you’d ever seen. J.J. Abrams sent my agent a couple of tapes, and I thought, “This is fairly charmingly done. I mean, it’s not a dumb thing.” So I told J.J. I would think about it and he said, “Come down, I’ll pay your way, I want to talk about it.”
So he brought me down, and I expected this middle-aged kind of guy who had always followed The Twilight Zone, and I walked into his office on his ticket and he was younger than my grandson, and it was fascinating. So he was very persuasive, very bright, excellent, and so we put that thing together, and I had a great time doing it. I was shocked that it could have worked, and it did.
They had a very special, very hip, very up-to-date, pretty sophisticated camera technique for Felicity — all long lenses, even masters, and so on. It had a particular look, a style to it. But what Michael Bonvillain, the cameraman, was crazy about was when he saw three or four of the Twilight Zone episodes. He kept pumping me about it, and I’ve never seen anyone so conscientious.
He wanted to drain my mind for what lenses we used, under what circumstances, and he went out and found a Mitchell camera of that period. And the difference in forty-some odd years — the weight, the heaviness of that camera. He made his camera operator and assistants learn how to use that cumbersome piece of machinery, because he felt that would have something to do with it — you know, the way we moved, the way the dollies worked.
And in a way, he’s right, but it was his conscientiousness about it that was just so charming. The whole crew was really taken over by the idea of recreating The Twilight Zone.
I have to admit, I feel good knowing that “Stops Along the Way” is in the hands of someone who would go to all that trouble. Time will tell, of course, but I have a feeling that it will be a worthy tribute to one of the 20th century’s most important writers.
Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress followers, just hit “follow” at the top of the page.
Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!