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Friday, July 16, 2021

“Barbarella”: Mickey Fisher Recalls the Space Opera Television Series That Almost Took Flight [Phantom Limbs]

phantom limb /ˈfan(t)əm’lim/ n. an often painful sensation of the presence of a limb that has been amputated.

Welcome to Phantom Limbs, a recurring feature which will take a look at intended yet unproduced horror sequels and remakes – extensions to genre films we love, appendages to horror franchises that we adore – that were sadly lopped off before making it beyond the planning stages. Here, we will be chatting with the creators of these unmade extremities to gain their unique insight into these follow-ups that never were, with the discussions standing as hopefully illuminating but undoubtedly painful reminders of what might have been.

This week, we’ll be looking at Barbarella, an intended TV adaptation of the Jean-Claude Forest comic book which had previously been adapted by director Roger Vadim for the memorable 1968 Jane Fonda vehicle of the same name. A sexy sci-fi property charting the exploits of the titular space adventurer, Barbarella would have been adapted for television by Mickey Fisher, creator of science fiction series Extant and Reverie. Mr. Fisher joins us here to discuss his history with the project, detail the story it would have told, and speculate as to why it ultimately didn’t come to pass.

Nearly five decades after the release of Vadim’s original film, a big budget Barbarella remake was developed with Desperado / From Dusk Till Dawn filmmaker Robert Rodriguez at the helm. Penned by Casino Royale writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, this take on the property would have seen Rose McGowan stepping into Jane Fonda’s high-heeled boots just after her collaboration with Rodriguez on 2007’s Grindhouse. That film’s box office underperformance, coupled with the remake’s hefty proposed budget, saw to it that this incarnation of Barbarella would never make it before the cameras (for more on this particular unmade film, check out Joshua Hull’s recently released book Underexposed! The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made).

A few years later, Gaumont International Television and producer Martha De Laurentiis partnered with Amazon Studios to produce a Barbarella television series, again penned by Purvis and Wade. Drive’s Nicolas Winding Refn was set to direct and executive produce, but this iteration eventually fell apart as well. Amazon moved on, with Gaumont shopping Barbarella around to other streamers as they continued to develop the property as a potential TV show.

“I got an email from my representative at WME,” Mr. Fisher begins, charting his own history with Barbarella. “They mentioned that Barbarella had a director attached, that it has been set up somewhere, and that they were looking for people to come in and pitch their take on what they would want to do with the property. For me, it was one of those properties that I’d always known the name of, and I’d certainly seen the movie. When you’re at an impressionable age, if you run across that movie it gets seared into your memory.

The people who had the rights wanted to go back to those original graphic novels by Jean-Claude Forest, and to really mine those for stories in a way that was different than the iconic image of what the movie represents. The movie was very sort of loose, and campy, and fun. It was also very much a product of its time. So my first thought was, ‘Well, let me dig into these graphic novels and see if it connects to me.’ And it did. One of the things I really loved about it was that the character just had this openness, and this sort of free-spirited nature. That she was going from adventure to adventure, and that she was making these allies wherever she went while getting into these crazy adventures.

“But at the heart of it, there was just this great empathy. That, to me, seemed like an interesting dramatic core of a story – a woman who uses radical empathy to change the universe.”

‘Barbarella’ by Jean-Claude Forest

Once he had a take on the material, Fisher met with the producers to pitch them on his own version of this iconic character. “My first memory as a human being is Star Wars, going to see Star Wars in the movie theater. I have multiple Star Wars figures around my office right now within arm’s reach of me. But the thing is, I grew up and Star Wars didn’t. Star Wars still has to appeal from age 8 to 80. Even younger now, like with Baby Yoda. I mean, I think it probably appeals to like 2 to 80.

I thought that there was a great opportunity to do a kind of space opera, a big grand adventure, that was sexy and sophisticated and emotional, but still had all the sort of fun toys of the genre. So I went in and I pitched that stuff, and I had some ideas about her arc and where we could go, and sort of building a universe around her. One of the things about the graphic novels is that she goes to a lot of really interesting places, but you never get a sense of where her character is rooted, and what’s at stake for her beyond it. It meant doing a bit of heavy lifting of creating the Earth of the future and what this universe looks like, and the relationships between the planets and who exactly she works for. So I did a lot of that thought work, then we went into the pitch. Luckily, I got hired to develop it and write the series pilot.”

In crafting a brand new take on this character, one wonders if there had been any sort of mandate for Fisher to follow in terms of including any pre-existing mythology from the comics or film. “There was a lot of leeway to really build the world and create,” he reveals. “Part of the task for a television series is coming up with an engine that can drive the story. That means having the character having an overall goal, something that they want to accomplish. It’s going to drive them through this big adventure that they’re going on. The Barbarella graphic novels were very sort of episodic. There wasn’t a long running goal that she was sort of always in search of. So there was definitely some freedom to come up with that. For me, my personal mandate was to go back and just keep drawing from those graphic novels to inspire episodes and to inspire characters any time I could.

“As with a lot of adaptations, you could take this piece from this one issue, and you take this piece from this issue, and you combine those into their own story and build it that way. It has been around for a number of years, and I think a number of writers have taken a crack at it. And it’s a really tough one to crack, partly because I think what exists in everybody’s memory of the character is so identified with that movie. And then I think it’s also just a really tricky tone to nail right now. Over the years there’d been everybody from Robert Rodriguez to Nicholas Winding Refn to Purvis and Wade. There are all of these people who have been trying to crack it over the years.

“Then I had a chance to do it, and I went in against a number of other writers who all were coming in with their takes. So I think that it’s a tricky one. Even the graphic novels are such a product of their time. Jean-Claude Forest, he saw this character really as a celebration of that sort of free-spirited, free love, liberated woman of the 60s. Well, now we’re more than half a century beyond that, and we’re dealing with a whole other series of issues. So how do you take that and modernize it, without losing the thing that people expect and love about the character in the first place?

So what exactly was the story that Fisher had pitched? “With the pilot, one of the things that we really wanted to do was tell a story about the transformational power of empathy. That it can transform a person, it can transform a planet. Then, essentially through Barbarella, it’s going to transform the universe. Like, how do you save the universe using radical empathy? What does that look like?

“I came up with this basic sort of idea, that there was this engine that was going to send her off on this great adventure, a sort of multiplanetary odyssey to stop the bad guys and clear her name, that starts on Earth of the future. So part of imagining the series was, ‘What does the Earth of the future look like, hundreds of years from now?’

“Let’s say, in our century, we start to experience the catastrophic effects of climate change, and we’re fighting wars over water. We’re facing this big extinction-level event that a lot of scientists right now are predicting that we could be headed towards. We had gotten very near that point, almost to the verge of collapse. And at the last second, through human ingenuity, we managed to save ourselves. We created this device that could essentially reverse the effects of climate change and start to rebuild Earth.

“The effect of that was, that having been so close to the edge of oblivion, it would have united us in many ways. And that we would have started to prize things like moderation and restraint, because we know that giving into our impulses and our appetites almost led us to extinction. But we overcorrected, and went really far back in the other direction. We started instead weighing heavily toward things like moderation and restraint and self-discipline. That sort of thing. And that’s where most everybody is on Earth right now, except for small numbers on the fringe.

“Then [there’s] Barbarella, who is still very much driven by the id, driven by her impulses. That makes her a bit of an outsider. There’s always this thing about her that is a little on the outside looking in because of this, and it causes her problems with her job. Because of this, being driven by her emotions, being unable to harness them and make them work for herself, it keeps tripping her up.

Then there’s this thing that happens at the beginning of the pilot – her best friend is killed in this terrorist attack. After her friend is killed, it fuels this desire for Barbarella to get justice for her friend by taking down this terrorist group called Eclipse that has Earth in its sights. That’s what really sets her off on this multiplanetary adventure. By the end of the pilot, she comes face to face with this person that she thinks is the architect of this terrorist attack. Because of this problem she has, keeping her emotions in check and thinking clearly, her emotions get the best of her. This person gets away, and in turn frames Barbarella for the death of her crew.

“So at the end of the pilot, Barbarella was behind the eight ball, which is that now the people on Earth think that she went rogue, killed her crew and let this person escape. That maybe she’s working with this person. So now she has to set off on this adventure that is going to be the engine of the series, which is to stop this person from their next attack in order to save Earth and to clear her name.”

Jean-Claude Forest’s ‘Barbarella’

While this story sounds like it surely would have served the sci-fi/adventure aspect of the character, what about the playful sexuality of the comic book and film? Would that have featured in this adaptation? “So one of the effects of that overcorrection on Earth, of people moving towards self-restraint and modesty and all those kinds of things – it led to a lot of really great things. People began living much longer lives. We really did create kind of a utopia here, that led to people living to 150, 200 years old. Because we were living those much longer lifetimes, our intimate relationships became much more ephemeral.

“So like, you would be with somebody for 10 or 20 or 30 years, you might meet, conceive a child, raise a child to adulthood, and then you part ways and go find another partner. The sort of overall effect of that is that sex is really kind of divorced from emotion in that way. But for Barbarella, it still really is about this moment of connection and intimacy. It was sort of depriving ourselves of one of the great things about being human, our ability to come together physically, share this intimate moment and to make this spiritual connection through this physical act. So Barbara was still doing that, and that’s part of her thinking.

“The sort of tricky balance is that … I feel like in this modern interpretation, you wanted that to have some connection to the story. It can’t be exploitative, and you also want it to be something that is putting out a very sex positive message in this day and age. That was very important to us, to make a sex positive show. That’s also one of the underlying themes of what we were going for. ‘What does the future of human intimacy look like?’

“There’s a scene in the pilot that was a bit of a nod to a moment in the movie where Barbarella goes to this underground club where all of these other people who are out there just letting go, cutting loose and having fun. Just like this hedonistic kind of club. She hooks up with this really hot alien-looking guy, and we cut to them back in her apartment. They’re having sex, things are going really great, and then he starts to malfunction. You realize that he was an android, and that through this interaction with Barbarella he started to short circuit and just basically goes catatonic in her bed, which is a little bit of a nod to the Orgasmatron sequence in the movie. But we wanted to do it in a way that was very much about her, and letting her drive it and have some agency. ‘Hey, I’m gonna go out. I’m going to cut loose. I see this guy. I’m interested in him. I’m going to take him home and things are going great, we’re having fun, and oh shit! I broke him.’ That moment always played well in the pitch, and I think it was one of those scenes that just stuck from the beginning through to the pilot script.”

So would Barbarella have been a limited series, or ongoing? What was the plan for the amount of seasons it might have had? “I was definitely seeing at least three seasons, and to set up the stage for it to go longer if necessary. Because at every stage at every season, you can up the stakes for Barbarella personally, and put her behind the eight ball again. For instance, we’re going to see her having interactions with all these people, and we’re going to see her employment of radical empathy toward them.

“What was going to happen in the season finale, she was going to come face to face again with this terrorist that she’s been hunting, that she thinks is getting ready to pull off another attack on Earth. And then she does the unexpected thing – she stops to listen to what this person has to say. And what that person has to say changes everything that Barbarella has ever known and believed about Earth.

“So at the end of this, you’ve got this crossroads. ‘Do I stop this person from doing the thing that they’re going to do? And maybe in doing that, I’m going to let this other thing continue that might even be worse back on Earth. Do I side with this person? Do I help them? Well then, I’m going to become Public Enemy Number One, that everybody thinks I am back home anyway. Or is there a third path, which is – I’ve got to dig into the bottom of this mystery myself. I can’t do anything until I find the truth.’

“Season Two would be about that dilemma, and bringing her to the truth. Then I think at a certain point, what happens to her? I always pitched that the series was a journey to earn the subtitle of the movie, Queen of the Galaxy. Along the way, is she suspected of being Public Enemy Number One? Does she embrace that at a certain point? In realizing that she has been the agent of this sort of authority on Earth, out there in the universe doing their bidding, does she now realize ‘Oh, wait a second. Maybe I’ve been an accomplice in this thing that’s been going all along. How do I atone for that? How do I begin to set things right?’ And in doing that, really does make herself an enemy to the people back home. So how at the end of this does she bring everybody together and become that Queen of the Galaxy? That to me was the journey of the show, no matter how many seasons it took.”

All of this sounds like the show would have had a pretty massive scope! “Yeah, I have to imagine that it was going to be expensive no matter what. I don’t think there’s any version of Barbarella where she’s not planet-hopping and going on different adventures. I don’t think there’s a contained thriller version of Barbarella that would really be all that exciting. Basically, if you do that, then it’s just a whole different story, a whole different character under the banner of some unrelated IP. If you’re going to do the kind of story that people expect from the title, you’re going to want to have that big adventure.

“I mean, the movie was visionary in its design. It looks super cool. Yes, it’s very campy, but it also influenced a lot of things that came after it. I think we would want that for the series as well. So it was always going to cost quite a bit. And I think that what happens with a lot of these places, they’re developing so many different properties and there are things that are big and expensive. And it’s like, once one of them gains some momentum and some traction, it starts moving forward, then the others become a bigger risk. Something like Barbarella was going to have a smaller audience. It’s not going to have the same audience appeal of something like The Mandalorian, right? You can’t sit and watch this with your eight-year-old grandson or granddaughter. It was always going to be adults, which shrinks down your audience.

“So in some ways, I’m not sure, but I think the cost-to-benefit risk didn’t work out in their favor. But look, at the end of the day, I also have to accept the fact that I maybe just didn’t pull off a version that they really wanted to make. In the end, the bottom line is always the same, which is that I turned in a script that they were then not compelled to move forward with. So I have to take responsibility for that.”

Jane Fonda as Barbarella

Was that the reason ultimately given for this iteration not moving forward? “I mean, I think there were a lot of things in the conversation, which was just that there were some similar things in development, some big sci-fi properties that were also in development that were moving forward. And maybe there wasn’t room for it. I know all that stuff was part of the conversation. But again, me being sort of hopeful about it or delusional about it as a writer, you would hope that if you write the perfect script that it can overcome all that stuff. So again, I have to take personal responsibility and say, ‘Look. It might’ve just been that I didn’t do the job.’”

Was there any indication given at any point in the development as to what the visual style might have included? Specifically, any nods to the Roger Vadim film? “That to me is one of the most heartbreaking things about it, because it would have looked unlike anything else on any platform anywhere, because we really did want to take a lot of inspiration from that retro-futurism look. So it would have been something like combining our sort of futuristic technology, from our point of view of what we imagine it to be today, but putting it in the container of those sort of retro-futuristic touches. You know, the soaring arches, the sweeping curves, all those kinds of things. That sort of high fashion, very colorful with a lot of energy.

“To me, the score probably would have reflected that as well. Like how do you take a 60s sorta Nancy Sinatra vibe and bring it into the modern era? I think aesthetically, it would have been amazing, and I think it would have looked unlike anything on TV today.

“Our approach was to make it much more grounded, but we still wanted to have a lot of heart and humor. The way I always pitched it was something more like Firefly or Guardians of the Galaxy, but with a very sort of adult bent. As you can see from the alien robot malfunction scene, that’s the kind of humor we really wanted to do along the way, but taking it seriously, too.”

Jane Fonda’s take on the character is obviously pretty iconic. Were there any ideas bandied about as to who might have played Barbarella this time around? “I mean, there were definitely a few people. Part of the approach throughout the whole series would have been … we would have wanted to have a diverse galaxy. Even in the pilot, you could see various different lifeforms on Earth, side-by-side. One of the things I did was set the capital of Earth in Paris, back in France where Barbarella was born from Jean-Claude Forest’s imagination.

“So in that Paris of the future, we would see air quality index LEDs, screens that were in all kinds of different languages, including alien languages. Things like that. So that approach went with Barbarella, too. I think we were all really excited about the possibility that it could be somebody unexpected. And yes, because Jane Fonda is so iconic, I think there was a desire to not try to replicate. You know, to not go ‘Okay, who’s the Jane Fonda of right now? And how do we find that person?’

“But like, how do we find somebody that we can really kind of break ground and make this very modern with? So there were a few names that we batted around, but I think I wouldn’t be super comfortable saying [who].

“I think that the other thing is that the tone of that movie worked so much for its time. Again, there were so many things that it did so well, but that kind of humor and that style of campy fun … I don’t think that, over the course of eight hours, that audiences would go with that today.”

In wrapping up our conversation, Mr. Fisher discusses the future for this character and her chances of eventually having her own television series. “I think it definitely is going to be a hard sell. But I also think the character is so great, and there’s something so aspirational about her in terms of her free-spirited nature and her openness and empathy. But also her style and her confidence, all that kind of stuff. I mean, I was always dreaming about going into Comic-Con in a couple of years and seeing tons of young women dressed as Barbarella again. And I think that that’s still possible.

“And I think, all those writers that I talked about earlier – Purvis and Wade, and Nic Refn, and me – we’re all men. I was fortunate to win the job of adapting it, and the majority of my creative partners were women, but ultimately I think it would take on a whole new resonance if a woman takes the reins on the writing itself.

“I think this character definitely has a future. I think there’s a fanbase out there, and I think it’s just a matter of the right combination of writer and moment and person who believes in the property. I think she could come back in and make a big impact on the conversation.”

Very special thanks to Mickey Fisher for his time and insights.

‘Barbarella’ (1968)


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