Ed Naha (Part 1)
I spoke with Ed Naha by phone at the time that The Adventures of Sinbad was just starting on British TV, in May 1997. This interview was published in a different form in SFX.
Jump straight to Part 2 of this very long interview
Where and how did the Sinbad TV series originate?
"Actually, I wanted to do Sinbad as soon as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids came out. I'd fallen in love with Sinbad when I was eleven. I hadn't seen any of the movies at that point, but I used to read Famous Monsters of Filmland and they had an article on Ray Harryhausen and they ran stills. I was too little when the first movie came out, but eventually I caught up with it. After Honey, I Shrunk the Kids came out, I just figured everyone would understand what I wanted to do - and no-one did.
"So we fast-forward to about a year and a half ago. I was up at All American Television, talking to a Vice-President up there; just a, 'Hello. How are you? I won't kill you,' meeting. And we were talking about fantasy action series. He said, 'Would you be interested in something along the lines of Sinbad?' So I said, 'If you can wait a day, I can get you sixty pages.' So I went home, found my movie treatment, added characters, and basically within a week, All American bought the series. Then about a week later Atlantis Films joined in. Then we sold it here in the States to Tribune Syndication and we were up and running.
"The thing that's so funny is that we had the commitment for a show on the basis of an outline. We had no script, we had no cast. So the first season was really... It's a little bit of a different take on the traditional Sinbad film, in that our Sinbad is younger, and we emphasise not only the character of Sinbad, but the people aboard his ship. He has a small crew that really form sort of a seafaring family. Only one of the crew members is actually a blood relation - his older brother Dubar is there."
If the original treatment was a movie, have you used the ideas from that, or just the characters?
"Actually the idea for the original film became our first two-hour episode, which is sometimes shown as a two-hour and sometimes shown as two one-hour episodes. But basically, yes, I just played with it and we wound up doing a movie. It was like: wow!"
As executive producer, creator and writer of some episodes, how much control have you got over how the series progresses?
"It's pretty much between myself and David Gerber, who is the President of All American Television. David has been around television for ever. He has more awards in his closet than I have shirts in mine. And the nice thing about it is, David and I share a passion for old movies, so we can talk in shorthand. Whenever we're thinking of modifying, changing direction, or whatever, rather than us go at it in terms of little yuppy-puppy Hollywood buzzwords, he'll say something along the lines of, 'Akim Tamaroff!' And I'll go, 'Yes, or perhaps Turhan Bey!' And I'll know exactly what he's talking about, and he'll know what I'm talking about. And between the two of us, it's a very nice situation. It's a nice give and take."
Akim Tamaroff rings a bell, but Turhan Bey I know. He was in a Mummy movie.
"Akim Tamaroff was also a villain. He was one of those villains in bad toupees. He was in Touch of Evil, the Orson Welles, Venice California film. The longest crane shot in the world is the opening shot! So that's one thing. And we're also trying to do something that harkens back to the swashbuckling films of yesteryear. Now, for me, I grew up watching Jason and the Argonauts and Mysterious Island and the Sinbad films. For David, it's the things that I later saw on television: Thief of Baghdad, Captain Blood, The Crimson Pirate. We're trying to be as evocative as possible and still be contemporary."
The two things that make this the right time for the series are the accessibility of special effects, and the vogue for mythical adventure that was sparked off by Hercules and Xena. How much has each of these contributed to making Sinbad a success?
"Honestly, I don't know. Certainly Hercules paved the way for us, Xena, and Robin Hood, which is over here now on the Turner Network. That proved that there was an audience. And thank God for CGI! Because, having grown up watching the stop-motion movies and just drooling over them, but also being knowledgeable of what it takes, I realised that you can't use stop-motion on a weekly series. We were very fortunate in finding an effects house in Toronto that's headed by a fellow who loves all those old movies. So he's got it from the get-go.
"It's a lark. It's been very hard work: seven days a week, 16-17 hours a day. But at the end of the day, when you see the show, it's like we're doing a Saturday matinee every week. And our take is a little different from Xena and Hercules, in that we do emphasise the magical aspects of our time period. Whereas Hercules is the son of a god, and Xena has some whammies at her disposal. Sinbad, in terms of magic and super-powers, is just a sailor, he's just a guy. And he has no magical abilities, no super-strength. It's all his brain and his athletic prowess. He's a clever guy. And in terms of the magical aspects of it, we have a character, Nhaim, who's a sorcerer's apprentice. But since she's a sorceress in training, she's not exactly up to speed on some of the spells that she casts. So it makes for some nice give and take.
"The camaraderie with the crew has really proven to be a plus with our viewers here. Dubar, Sinbad's older brother, he's the older brother that, had I had an older brother, I wish it was him. He's sort of the gentle giant, Nhaim is the sorceress. We have a sort of a Leonardo da Vinci type, an absent-minded inventor, aboard, who invents things but never writes stuff down. So his inventions are lost until someone reinvents them hundreds of years later. He comes up with the hang-glider, he discovers dynamite, sort of a laser beam. But whenever anyone asks him, 'Aren't you going to write this down?' he just points to his head: 'Nah, it's all up here.' Probably the most fun is that he actually invents the jacuzzi. Not only does he invent it, but it actually plays a pivotal role. We just sit there at the end of the day, just going, 'I can't believe we've got a jacuzzi! I can't believe that it plays a part in the story.' Then we have a knife-throwing dwarf whose tongue has been cut out, for reasons that we don't know, initially. We're actually starting the second season here now, and we'll be addressing that in the second season. And the crew is rounded out by Dermot, who is Nhaim's familiar, who is a hawk."
This is the one that's listed in the press notes as being played by 'a hawk'.
"But he's gone Hollywood now, so he's hyphenating his name!"
Do you use a real bird or animatronic?
"Real bird. We're very fortunate in that Jaclyn who plays Nhaim just loves animals. She and the hawk just hit it off wonderfully."
That's good, because if you work with birds of prey and they don't get on with you, you've got problems.
"The word 'eyepatch' comes to mind! It's really been nice, because Zen Gessler who plays Sinbad, this is his biggest role to date. The nice thing about the show, from my perspective now at the end of the first season, is that these people were basically dropped into a situation cold. We didn't have that much time. We were casting two weeks before production. And the nice thing about the show is that everyone did pull together as a crew. Zen, as the captain of the ship, is wonderful for me. He actually fell into that role off-camera as well. So the camaraderie is just lovely."
How were the leads cast?
"We had open casting for Sinbad, and we had about 25 people in the end reading sides. I figured I wrote audition sides such that if anyone could get through the sides, they could get through the series. We got down to around ten people. Basically, Zen didn't tell us very much about himself. We just felt that he embodied Sinbad and later we found out he's an expert swordsman. His mom is an actress as well, which he didn't let on, and his mom made a film when Zen was about six years old, where Zen finds a magic sword of a conquistador. We couldn't believe it - this guy was born to play Sinbad. Then later on, we arranged for him to meet Douglas Fairbanks Jr, who played Sinbad in the '40s, and the two of them just sat there for two hours and just talked about swashbuckling! It was really interesting."
Have you thought of asking Fairbanks to do a cameo in the series?
"He's a tad frail."
I'm not thinking of getting him to do a sword fight!
"But it's a really tough life. We were the first series to be shot in Cape Town of this magnitude. We were also the first series to work the kind of hours in that area, so it's really tough. So I really would've liked to, but it just would have been too difficult. I don't want to put anyone in a situation where they could get sick."
Why did you choose South Africa for filming?
"It was really interesting. This is a very bizarre production because half of us are down in South Africa, one company's in Los Angeles and the other company's in Toronto. Between the two countries, with our time schedule in terms of getting the show done by 'x' date, we couldn't use either America or Canada. So then it was: could we find a tropical location? Well, yes we could, and there are a lot of them, but since every episode is a separate voyage, we needed a place that really had a varied selection of locations. So Cape Town is perfect because you have beaches, forests, deserts, mountains - there's a variety of looks. It just seemed like a beautiful place, the people were great. We knew it would be a challenge: we had to build our own soundstage. So we took over an old warehouse and made our own soundstage, built our own boat. Then basically used a combination of local actors and actresses, our cast and Canadian guest stars."
I understand that the shooting stage is linked to Toronto and LA by an ISDN line. Is that vital?
"Yes it is, especially because we are doing a lot of green screen. We use more computer generated imagery than any other show on television, with the possible exception of space shows where you're looking at spaceships and so on. But in terms of actual creature features... We've completed one episode, that hasn't aired yet, where we have Sinbad and his crew attacked by 200 skeletons. Having that link helps because you can use motion capture, and that makes it easier for the guys at Calibre, our effects house. We've used every kind of effect you can imagine. We have herds of CGI monsters. The first season we have sea serpents; we have an avalanche of rocks that reconfigures into a rock giant; we have harpies. We have this one thing that's like a floating eyeball with tentacles."
"It looks like something after twelve gin and tonics. You wake up in the morning: 'Ah, jeez!' And we have sorcerers, you know. One thing that we can do in year two is using a combination of CGI stuff and real animals, so you will have a giant spider or a giant lizard. We have a cyclops - and a giant goat! This is the way the show is. They're confronted by a giant ram, and the ram's about 60 feet tall. Sinbad is worried that they're going to be crushed. And Faruz the scientist points out: 'We really don't have much to worry about because they're herbivores.' Sinbad's worrying about the hoof, and the scientist is basically saying, 'Well, you know, they're vegetarian. So they're not going to eat us'."
Which is more important to the series: the special effects or the scripts?
"The scripts, no contest. I lived in a movie theatre when I was young. When I was eleven I was probably a lot harsher a critic than I am now. So one of the things that bothered me about a lot of the fantasy films of the '60s and the '70s - and today - is that the accent is almost totally on special effects and the plot is almost an afterthought. When I was a kid, I loved Jason and the Argonauts. I thought that was a smart movie. And I loved The Three Worlds of Gulliver and I loved Mysterious Island, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. It was just 'Huh?' - the plot was minimalistic to the point where your popcorn really looked interesting. So one of the things that we tried to do was have a story that would hold up whether we had a CGI effect or a guy in a bunny suit. As long as the plot holds up and you really love the characters, then we're home and free."
Do you know if Ray Harryhausen has seen the series?
"You know, I don't. Someone asked us once if we were ripping off Ray. I'm not uncomfortable with that question, because obviously he is the king. But it's more that I grew up watching Ray Harryhausen and George Pal and Willis O'Brien; and in the B-movies Bert Gordon. It's almost like me personally saying thank you: thank you for my childhood and thank you for giving me a sense of magic and wonder that I still have. Maybe now in a little way I can turn around and pass them on to someone else. When you look back and you think of Willis O'Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth, George Pal: these guys had no money, no time, and they produced movies that influenced so many people. I'm sounding like a preacher."
I'm hoping to see Ray later this year.
"Tell him I said hi. I haven't seen him since... I used to work for a magazine in the States called Starlog and we did a couple of things on Ray while I was there."
You were founding editor?
"Not of Starlog. I was the founding editor of Fangoria. I was one of the editors and half the staff of Starlog. I had twelve different names. Which is great training, by the way. You know how it is with deadlines. I was working on three magazines for the same publishing company: Fangoria, Future Life and Starlog. You would come in in the morning and you would be writing a science article on space stations for one of the magazines. Then somebody would come in and say, 'We need three pages on Lou Ferrigno. By three o'clock.' Oh fine! But that was a lot of fun."
What were Starlog and Fango like to work on in the really early days?
"It was hysterical. I used to be an A&R man at Columbia Records. And I totally burnt out after Born to Run, because - boy! - that was like pulling teeth, getting that out. So I answered an ad in the New York Times and went up to meet Kerry O'Quinn who was one of the publishers. It was such a tiny, tiny place! The editor-in-chief's office at that time was a reconverted storage closet! His desk was positioned longways so he wouldn't have to climb over it to get to his chair. So when I started working there, they moved to bigger offices, but they were still smallish. It would have two people in an office with their desks facing each other, so it looked like a Ferrante and Teicher piano set-up. There was only us, really, and Cinefantastique. But we had a schedule; I believe we were published ten times a year. Then we started Fangoria as a one-shot; then we had poster magazines. Then we had Future Life which was sort of a pre-Omni Omni magazine. It was like a Marx Brothers movie with ferns. You had people like Boris Vallejo doing artwork. He had no money! And everyone felt sorry for him."
Continue to Part 2 of this very long interview, where Ed Naha discusses Wizards of the Lost Kingdom, Troll, Omega Doom, his career as a novelist and the unmade TV movie of To Serve Man