With our DIY Week coming to a close, we thought we'd ask Lee David Zlotoff, creator of MacGyver and inspiration to clever makers and hackers everywhere, to share some of his thoughts on DIY, fix-all tools, widespread MacGyver-love and MacGruber.
Zlotoff grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, where he thrived in shop and pre-engineering classes. After landing in Hollywood, he picked up work as a writer on Hill Street Blues, a producer on Remington Steele, and, through a twist of fate and over-selling, creator and producer of MacGyver, the 1985-1992 action series whose secret agent refused to use a gun, preferred non-violent solutions, getting himself out of tricky situations using whatever he had on hand. Sure, some of the stuff at hand seemed a little too coincidental, but the solutions were vetted by scientists and engineers, even if not every step was shown to prevent eager fans from trying at home.
MacGyver became a pop-culture touchstone for anyone who's had to get by with just their wits and common household materials. Later on, Zlotoff wrote and produced The Spitfire Grill, which won an Audience Award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, and started the Custom Image Concepts production company with his son. Zlotoff has been in the news lately for having legal concerns about the upcoming MacGruber movie, having announced an official MacGyver movie nearly two years ago. Zlotoff addresses those concerns below.
Zlotoff also writes a regular series for MAKE magazine in which he challenges readers to live through, or escape, MacGyver-like situations with standard equipment. As you'll read below, his DIY ethic is both in his blood and a grounding force in his show business life.
Was the idea behind MacGyver something you came up with out of thin air, or were you inspired by stories you'd heard about secret agents and their kind of ingenious, make-do stunts?
Zlotoff: The answer is neither, actually (laughs). I'll try and abbreviate the real version. Henry Winkler and his production company sold a pilot idea to ABC, originally called "Hourglass", and I was hired to write the pilot. It was the sort of thing that sounds great in a room, but when you go out and try to build a story, not so easy. It was actually a lot like 24 ended up to be, with each episode taking up an hour of this day. But unlike 24, which is a serial with season-length plots, these had to be stand-alone episodes, with stand-alone stories that had to begin and end in an hour.
I pointed out to them that this was going to be inordinately restrictive. I could pull out maybe four, five episodes, but if the guy had to go travel somewhere in every episode, you know, we were kind of in trouble, logic-wise (laughs). They said, well, we're not going to un-sell it, so you have to come up with something else that works. That's where the process began, and the end result was MacGyver.
Lifehacker: In your own spare time, do you do DIY projects? Do you get mad when the DVD player breaks and re-wire it yourself?
Zlotoff: Yeah, I would say ... My dad was sort of the model for MacGyver. He was, by profession, a New York City junior high shop teacher. But he could fix anything, build anything, he was kind of an amateur architect ... plumbing, electrical, wood, metal. You name it, he could do it. I don't pretend to be quite that good, but that's kind of where I got it from. So, yeah, I build things, and I fix things, and I make things. I like working with my hands. Particularly, in the entertainment business, which is kind of a cerebral in terms of writing, or producing, or directing — it's kind of nice to be able to actually make something on your own.
What's a project that you've recently finished up?
Zlotoff: Well, I had to do a whole MacGyver thing. I had to fish some wires through a wall. I didn't have exactly the right kind of metal snake you need for that. I have different kinds of snakes and wires, but because there was insulation in there ... Finally, I said, I gotta figure this out, so I found a thin strip of wooden moulding, and I was able to get that through the way. Then I took a piece of old phone cord, taped it to the front of the piece of moulding. Then, I was able to grab the phone cord at the bottom, and pull it out, then I tied that off, pulled out the stick, then I just had the phone cord running through the wall. Then I was able to tie the wire to it, and (finally) run it back through the wall. So, on a day-to-day basis, dude. (Laughs).
Lifehacker: And you don't get that done by just going to lunch and calling in favours with the right people.
Zlotoff: Yeah. They've got unions, you know. If I pull out a saw (on the set), I get in trouble, or somebody else gets in trouble ... If you need a light moved, you tell somebody, and they tell somebody, and the light gets moved — you don't do it yourself. That's not the way it works.
Lifehacker: You oversee a series for MAKE magazine in which you challenge readers to escape from or survive MacGyver-esque situations, and you detail the equipment they have: a backpack with a canteen and sleeping bag, glove box supplies. How do you determine — is there a kind of crossword-style art to figuring out which objects, in certain combinations, make for interesting solutions?
Zlotoff: The trick with those, I rely on a circle of friends to both come up with them and judge them. But you want to come up with something that isn't completely far-fetched, that could really happen to someone some day, so that it might have some useful value some day ... It shouldn't be so difficult that there isn't any of solving it, so you want to have at least a vague idea of a solution. You give a number of elements of what you have there, some of which are red herrings, some of which you might really need.
But half the fun is what come up with, because sometimes they come up with things we'd never imagine, and we say, "That's a really good idea! We'd never think to do it that way." Recently we did one where you were lost in a cave (after following a family of bats), and had to figure out how to get out of the cave. They did very elaborate things, like lighting a little fire to see which way the air would go. But, actually, that turned out not to be a good way to go at it ... Air can flow a lot of places that a human body can't travel. In the end, the simple answer, the bats got you in, let the bats get you out.
Lifehacker: You and Richard Dean Anderson seem to have a sense of humour about MacGyver and its more reality-stretching aspects. What are some of the parodies or gags you've found humorous over the years?
Zlotoff: Well, The Simpsons jumped all over MacGyver, which, bless 'em (laughs). The two aunts were rabid MacGyver fans. I think they even did an episode where they kidnapped Richard Dean Anderson, and I think he actually did the voice in the episode, which was pretty fun. You know, until they decided they could turn around and make a movie out of it, I thought the MacGruber skits were hysterical.
Lifehacker: I've seen a few different versions of that issue in the news ... If you could explain why (a MacGruber movie) is an issue, and where it stands with the lawyers right now.
Zlotoff: Well, I believe they've made a MacGruber movie, and are planning to release it sometime in next couple months; there are trailers out there. When I discovered this project was in the works, we basically informed them we thought they were infringing on their copyright. They basically said, well, we don't think we are. Now it's kind of in the hands of the lawyers, and I've been advised, sort of, not to discuss this. But it's one thing to do a skit on Saturday Night Live, it's another thing to enter the exact same marketplace, with a feature-length movie, while we're in the process of trying to put together a real MacGyver movie.
There are a number of issues here, I'm not a lawyer, but ... I have a feeling that if I took a Saturday Night Live character, pick whichever one you want, and decided I was going to do a parody of that character and make a movie, I have a feeling Lorne Michaels, and NBC Universal, or whoever owns it, would be giving me a phone call and saying, "Hey, you're taking one of our characters." You know, is it parody or is it stealing? These are things the lawyers have to decide ...
Ed. note: Zlotoff's phone cut out on entering a tunnel, but the conversation picked up on the same topic:
Lifehacker: Is there an issue, even if in the back of your mind, that one could come off looking like a George Lucas type, trying to use an iron fist with a property that's so widely known and generalised?
Zlotoff: I don't want to be a dick about it, no. But one of the companies, Relativity, was interested in our MacGyver movie a year or two ago, but is now involved in doing the MacGruber movie. There have been lots of books, like What Would MacGyver Do?, where I haven't taken legal action ... I've never taken legal action, really. I do understand it's a concept in popular culture.
So your complaint is with the business move of (MacGruber) being produced as a full-length movie, not the tribute or parody of the MacGyver brand.
Zlotoff: Like I said, I loved the MacGruber skits. They even did a Pepsi commercial, with Richard Dean Anderson. It's that they're entering the same marketplace.
In any case, it's not the end-all be-all. Whatever happens is what happens. My issue is that it's one thing to do an Austin Powers, which is a send-up of the whole spy genre. It's another to do something like (MacGruber).
Where does the official MacGyver movie stand right now?
Zlotoff: We have a writer working on a script, and we're anxiously looking forward to seeing how it turns out.
Lifehacker: If you were in one of the situations like those you write up for Make magazine — a desperate, out by yourself situation — and you had to choose between having strong duct tape or a Swiss army knife, which would you choose?
Zlotoff: Oh, Swiss army knife, no question about it. I mean, duct tape obviously has its uses, but there's no substitute for a Swiss army knife.
I take that back, actually. In the Make writing, we say, "You either have a Swiss army knife or a Leatherman tool." I have to give Leatherman some credit, it's a really good tool to have in your pocket. If it's a toss-up between (the two), you can just do a whole lot more with a Swiss army knife than the roll of duct tape.