Interview: 'Bullet In The Face' Creator Alan Spencer Talks Reinventing And Taking Risks
(Article and Interview by H.E. Coleman)
WTF? That’s what writer and showrunner Alan Spencer describes as the typical Twitter response from those who have viewed his insane cop comedy show "Bullet In The Face" (out now on DVD from Shout! Factory Home Entertainment) for the first time. I must admit I myself said the words out loud about ten minutes into the premiere episode – WTF am I watching and why aren’t there more shows like this?
The plot of "Bullet in the Face" centers around an insanely violent thug named Gunter Vogler who’s shot in the head and wakes up to discover that a desperate Police Commissioner has given him the face of the cop he’s just killed. Other characters that make up the show include the dead man’s emotionally fragile partner, two outrageous crime lords, and a love interest that breaks hearts as easily as she can break bodies. The show might sound like a deadly serious action series, but Spencer’s specialty is comedy (his fan-adored show "Sledge Hammer!" was a hit with both critics and audiences), and it’s his distinctly wicked sense of humor that gives the six-episode show its unique flavor.
As a fan of both "Sledge Hammer!" and "Bullet in the Face," I was delighted to have a chance to interview Alan one on one about the unpredictably hilarious series. Here’s...
"Bullet in the Face" has an original plotline, graphic violence, strong female characters, and jokes that are actually funny. My question is who the hell was brave enough to make this?
Alan Spencer: I think the reason was it originally didn’t start off as what you saw. I was approached by a network called IFC. I looked at this presentation that they put together and I threw everything out because what they showed me was a parody of "Miami Vice," and I wasn’t interested in doing that. I think the only element that I kept from it was the German cop. I reinvented the whole premise, I reinvented characters - I turned it into something more perverse. You can compare it to the movie "The Fly," that kind of development. I got in there with something weak and came out with something mutated. I made it more modern, a film noir as opposed to something from the ‘80’s. Some people compared it to graphic novels.
That’s what I thought too, with all the angles...
AS: That was intentional. It was a conscious choice of mine to take advantage of the liberties that weren’t available in the 80’s. They expected it to be an action comedy - I actually wanted it to be a violent action comedy, so that’s what I brought to the table. In all honesty I didn’t think it was going to get made, so I was very self-indulgent with it.
Hopefully more networks will take risks with original plots instead of all the copycat reality shows that we’re stuck with now...
AS: That would be great, but people are more comfortable doing things that have preceded them. People don’t want to break the mold. They want to hold onto their jobs. They don’t want to take risks. I have a theory that Hollywood is battling piracy right now by remaking everything – that’s why you see the same titles you have before, like "Robocop," "Total Recall..." I’ve been asked and offered very frequently to revise "Sledge Hammer!" with a different cast or in a different form, and I won’t do that. I’d rather do something original. Some people have called this show "Sledge Hammer! 2.0," and that’s fine by me. "Sledge Hammer" was a good bad guy and Gunter Volger is a bad bad guy.
Where did the idea for "Bullet in the Face" come from?
AS: Basically, I put on the screen what I would personally watch. I don’t know what that says about me, but I don’t want it to be predictable. The shows I actually watch and love are shows like Patrick McGoohan’s "The Prisoner." I wanted you to watch this and not know what was going to happen next. On a regular network they wouldn’t let me do this. Some people were laughing that the main character got shot in the face as many times as he did - I’m just trying to stay true to the title.
One character who loves shooting people is Martine. I’m a girl and even I fell in love with her!
AS: A lot of people were fascinated by that character. Women really got into that. The actress, Kate Kelton, who played her, was thrilled with all the things she got to do.
I was very fond of the tormented partner as well (Hagerman, played by Neil Napier). You have so many great characters - which one was your favorite to write?
AS: They’re all fun. Writing Volger and Tannhauser were the most fun, but I enjoyed them all. They’re all facets of me. The thing I enjoyed about Eddie (Izzard, who played evil crime lord Tannhauser) was that Eddie wanted to play a Bond villain. That was one of his goals, so he sort of got to do that in the guise of a comedy. He’s a dazzling performer and a wonderful person to work with. He’s a genuinely nice man. The word genius is overused in show business, but he totally qualifies for that. I don’t think there’s anything that Eddie can’t do. He’s pretty amazing and he’s a joy to be around. I liked writing for the Police Commissioner (Eva, played by Jessica Stein). I’d been a long-time fan of Jessica, so that was a fantasy, getting to work with her. To turn her into a dominatrix. It’s very cool to find an actress that you love and then you get to turn her into a harpie.
Eric Roberts was excellent in the series as well. His character, Racken, and Tannhauser had an ongoing rivalry but they never had any scenes together.
AS: He was great, yes. They did have one phone call in the show, but they were never together because of Tannhauser’s agoraphobia. Eric and Eddie did meet on the set though. That was a thrill, to see these two famous guys, who are very different people, being fans of each other and meeting for lunch.
You said in the commentary that there were no divas and everyone was a trooper on the set – true?
AS: The cast was a breeze. Max E. Williams, contrary to his character, is a very nice guy. Neil Napier, also very nice - everybody got along. They were delightful. It was a dream cast in that regard. That’s really rare.
To me it’s the sign of a great writer when even the smaller characters are so well developed. I want to give props to you for the transgender bodyguard. She was so funny on the page, and on the screen, played by actress Heidi Foss. She had my favorite line of the series, 'I no longer have a penis, and this morning I experienced my first camel toe.' I think I’m going to use that the next time I’m on a date and things aren’t going well...
AS: Thanks, I was desperate to get camel toe in there somewhere. You don’t hear camel toe referenced enough. Heidi was a talented comedian and she had a good voice, certainly, to do that.
I thought the way the series ended was perfect, but as soon as it was over I immediately missed the characters. If IFC and fans wanted more episodes would you be interested in making them?
AS: It was six episodes that I was contracted for. That’s the deal that we had. If the fans wanted more I would certainly be open to that, and I’m pleased that people have been telling me that they want to see more. I’m very grateful for the DVD release because the episodes were aired over two nights on IFC and were under promoted and swept under the rug and when that happens it’s like there’s no proof of existence. Bigfoot has more proof of existence than "Bullet in the Face." The Shout Factory release on DVD is not just a re-birth or a re-launch, it’s an actual launch because many people will be seeing it for the first time who haven’t even heard of it. Shout Factory is fully behind it. Their name is Shout. Shout Factory is basically a filter of quality because they put out things I would personally like. They put me in good company with cult favorites like "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and "Freaks and Geeks." Shout Factory is the kind of partner you want to deal with – I wish Shout Factory was a network.
Your show "Sledge Hammer!" made me want to be a cop, because I thought I’d get to shoot at things and beat up criminals. Do you think there’s a whole generation of cops out there talking to their guns because of you?
AS: Many, many, many cops love "Sledge Hammer!" I’ve gotten prizes from them. The proof was when "Sledge Hammer!" was on the air, I received a call from a city police department requesting to use constant training video clips from the show on what not to do...how not to break bad news, how not to respond in a crisis, so I thought that was really impressive.
You said in the commentary that the NRA gave you a free membership for creating that character. Did you ever use it?
AS: They did, but I declined.
Maybe if you had you could’ve forced the networks to churn out quality stuff. Then we wouldn’t be stuck with the Kardashians...
AS: Well, that would be a service to mankind.
Exactly. Do your duty!
AS: Well, they offered the membership to Sledge Hammer.
AS: I’ve started talks to do something in reality television, but I’d do it my way. There’s always a way to do something with quality within a genre.
You’ve managed to get not one, but two original series made. What advice do you have for other writers who are trying to do the same thing?
AS: My advice is...people are becoming empowered now to make things themselves. People without networks and without censors who want freedom put up things on YouTube and things like that and that seems to be the forum for creativity. The do-it-yourself option is probably the best way and then you run it up the flagpole and see who gives you a development deal. If you’re not doing that then just be prepared for a lot of rejection and a lot of tenacity. You have to hang in until you get the opportunity that gives you some recognition. Just remember, "Bullet in the Face" started as a typical 80’s action spoof and I turned it into something else. I didn’t want to do a spoof of something. I wanted to do something original.
The theme song is very catchy. I find myself singing it all the time. Did you have a hand in making that?
AS: I did work with them to develop it. It’s from a group called AMA. I always loved the melody of their song, and we rewrote the lyrics to fit the show. It’s really taken off. You can get it on iTunes, and YouTube and things like that. I recommend that everybody do that actually. It’s gotten universally good reviews.
Are you happy with the response you’ve gotten from "Bullet in the Face?"
AS: It’s very heartening because I basically shot an arrow in the air and where it lands I don’t know. I did this some time ago, and it was just something special that I thought everyone forgot about. Then all of a sudden it gets new life on DVD.
That’s where it’s going to find its audience. Great shows like "Firefly," "Action," "Freaks and Geeks," and a lot of other shows...networks don’t give them a chance and then they go to DVD and people rabidly love them.
AS: When the show aired it got good ratings, we got some attention. But on Twitter it exploded. Twitter didn’t exist back when I did "Sledge Hammer!" what I enjoyed was - people were typing “Bullet in the Face - #WTF”. I like that. I like taking chances. I find it very strange that people like innovative and human comedy but they won’t replicate it. There’s a level of political correctness and conservatism...people are very afraid, they don’t want to upset anyone, they don’t want to lose their jobs. Like I said I only had the six episodes so that’s why I kind of went for it. I was shocked to get a second season of "Sledge Hammer!" I mean I finished the first season with the destruction of the entire world and then I had to come back and write my way out of it. I always assume that anything I do can go either way. When Gene Rodenberry wrote "Star Trek" I think he put in the intro, 'our five year mission' originally, and when they made The Next Generation they just said it was “our ongoing mission”. When you’re dealing with anything new or unusual you have to assume it’s going to be limited.
I think that’s why so many British TV shows like "Spaced," "Father Ted," "The IT Crowd" are exceptional - they’re typically designed to last about three seasons...
AS: Yeah, I was given the advice to hold back on the sixth episode, hold back, hold back, but no, I put everything I could into it. I felt very satisfied by the end. I’d rather make six episodes that are good than five years of crap.
What are you going to do next, after this?
AS: I’m going to hang up the phone and have a beer.
Do you think IFC is going to ask you to do more of these six episode shows in the future?
AS: No. They were pretty clear that they had had enough. It messed with their brand and they were very nervous about it. They told me they wanted to do more traditional comedy - traditional meaning things involving stand-up comedians. I’m collaborating on something now, it’s an Irish show, it has a sense of humor, but it’s a drama basically. And like I said I’m in talks about doing an unscripted show. I don’t want to repeat myself and I try to do different things. It’s good to know that there are people out there who appreciate that, because when you put something different out there there’s always misunderstandings and a lack of support in the beginning. At least I got to do a cameo in the show where I catch a decapitated head and steal it. That doesn’t happen every day.
"BULLET IN THE FACE" IS NOW AVAILABLE ON DVD FROM SHOUT! FACTORY HOME ENTERTAINMENT.
As for the networks that are too afraid to take risks with original shows like "Bullet in the Face," I only have one thing to say – WTF? H.E. Coleman for Starpulse.com signing off!