Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 07/05/24

Back to the Future. As the co-founder of the successful public relations firm Hot Ice Media, Peter Berk knows something about reaching mass audiences. It’s a natural talent he inherited from his father, the late TV writer Howard Berk whose credits include episodes of such classic TV series as Mission: Impossible, The Rockford Files and Columbo to name just a few.
Before Howard’s death in 2016, he and Peter began working together on an original concept called TimeLock. The story would be set in the near future and involve a controversial criminal justice program called TimeLock which would utilize cellular acceleration technology to age those convicted of crimes to the chronological age they would be at the end of their terms. The drama would begin as 23-year-old Morgan Eberly is falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to be aged 40 years in the TimeLock capsule. When a riot breaks out midway through the process Morgan, now aged to be 43-years-old, escapes to begin his quest for justice.
After his father’s passing, Peter decided to release the saga as a book. TimeLock released in 2022 and was successful enough to spawn a sequel, last year’s TimeLock 2: The Kyoto Conspiracy. A third entry in the series due out later this year.
JWK: So, congratulations on the success of the series.

Peter Berk:
I consider it a success just because I was able to honor my dad’s memory. That was really the main point of all of it, not sales or money or anything. It’s having taken a screenplay that he and I wrote…and novelizing it and seeing it come to life. It felt like I was able to collaborate with him again even though he was gone. So, in that sense, it was a home run. As far as readership, it did well.

JWK: Tell me about the plot.

The original premise, which was my dad’s idea before we wrote the screenplay, was set somewhat in the future – not far, ten years maybe. Prisons are so overcrowded and crime is so rampant that in order to sort of scare potential criminals straight – ideally before they commit a crime – they develop a genetic acceleration technology that essentially ages a prisoner almost instantly the amount of years that he or she would normally serve in real time…So, the young man is arrested. He’s instantly aged 20 years. So, now he’s 43. He’s on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s wanted by the cops.  He teams up with the woman that arrested him, an FBI agent. They ultimately find the real killers and bring down the whole TimeLock genetic acceleration program.
The sequel picks up two years later. They’re now a couple. TimeLock in its original form was shut down but there’s a new kind of crazy president of the United States who thinks he can create a weaponized version of TimeLock.
JWK: So, you have a third book coming out. Is this like a trilogy – or do you see this as sort of an ongoing series?
PB: There are five books that are pretty much done. I’m almost finished with the fifth. Whether they’ll be another one after that, I don’t know…Time Lock 2 was (a story) I basically came up with on my own. The original was based on a screenplay. As you know, screenplays are only about 120 pages. Even when I novelized it, it ended up still at only 170 pages or so, much too short to submit to a publisher. So, I wrote a whole part two. Ironically, this particular publisher, IngramElliott, wanted short books. They ended up splitting them. So, the second one is not based on a screenplay.
JWK: Your father wrote for some of my all-time favorite TV shows, including Mission: Impossible, Columbo and The Rockford Files. Other hit shows he worked on included McMillan & Wife, The Fall Guy and Mike Hammer. Do these stories have a kind of classic TV pacing to them?

Most shows were a little slower then. The pacing is definitely faster now. I had somebody read a script I wrote. I thought it moved pretty quickly. He said, “No, you gotta speed it up. It reads like an eighties script.” Columbos were never fast, anyway. We had to definitely pick up the pace when we wrote the screenplay version – and the book even more so. But, yeah, you’re right. My father wrote a lot of great shows. I’m certainly nowhere near his league of writing but I learned a lot from him.

JWK: What was it like writing together? Did it deepen your relationship?

We were always incredibly close. I was an only child. I was very close to both my parents who (have) both passed away…Writing with him was just a joy. I learned a lot. He was always patient when I was younger and learning. He just let me absorb. Sometimes I would sit there and watch and listen. I chimed in with my contributions which were more on the humor side maybe of some of the storylines but, when it came to dialogue and descriptions, I really was never a match for him and still am not. But it was great. I saw how hard he worked – especially on Columbo and Mission: Impossible. You know those shows.
JWK: They were so smartly written. I think the writing on those shows was better than what you generally see on television now.

There is a lot of great TV on now…Poker Face is modeled after Columbo. I mean I think this is really a great era of TV. There have been a lot of not-so-great eras but (my father) was certainly involved in one of the top eras. Columbo was an amazing show but it’s very difficult to write. Everything has to time out perfectly.

JWK: How many episodes of Columbo did he write?

He wrote two. At least one of them, if not both, are always on most critics’ top (episodes) list. I think his most famous one was from Season 4. It was called By Dawn’s Early Light. It was the first one that Patrick McGoohan was in.
JWK: Was that the one about the military academy?
PB: Yes! He won an Emmy for that! He developed a lifelong friendship with Peter Falk – as my dad did.  Of course, he was the guest murderer in many of them and he directed several episodes. That one was one of the first where Columbo was not in his usual element. There wasn’t a mansion involved…(My father) ended up writing what became the last episode of the original run, called The Conspirators. That was with Clive Revill (as the killer). I thought that one was terrific too. It was one of the few…where Columbo kind of liked the killer. Maybe one with Donald Pleasence and a couple of others.

JWK: There was one with Johnny Cash too.

Yeah – and this was definitely one. If it wasn’t for the fact that Clive Revill was a murderer they were actually getting along great. It was a different take on the usual relationship. Then, having nothing to do with my dad’s friendship with Peter Falk, I ended up handling public relations for Peter for a couple of years when he did the newer Columbos.

JWK: And that was a coincidence?

Totally. I was working with a firm (that just happened to get the account).

JWK: That must have been interesting – working with Peter Falk after your father had written episodes of Columbo.

Yeah, that was a lot of fun. Peter was very Columbo-ish…I would call him and say “Don’t forget you have that USA Today interview today.” (He’d go) “Oh, is that today?!” He was much like that but what a lot of people don’t know is…he was hardly just an actor who showed up and read his lines. He was very involved with every script and every clue, right down to every scene and every sentence. Watching him on the set was always fascinating because this was his baby and he wanted to make sure that ever second worked.

JWK: Outside of your public relations work, was writing TimeLock with your father your first writing experience? Have you ever written a script or a book before?

I wrote a nonfiction book many years ago with the actor Dick Van Patten. You remember him from Eight is Enough. It was just a how-to book on how to get into show business if you’re a  young person.

JWK: In terms of fictional storytelling, was this your first attempt?

Yeah, I think this was the first one we wrote together. It was actually called QuickTime for years but we couldn’t use that name because Apple has a program called QuicktTime. So, we changed it to TimeLock – but, yeah, that was the first script I wrote with my dad. Then we wrote another one that was somewhat similar. That became the basis for what will be the next TimeLock novel. Then we wrote another one…that I was able to adapt into the fourth book…(The first TimeLock) was a well-received script but it was very expensive and they were only looking for reboots, sequels or comic book adaptations. Even today it’s the same situation.

JWK: That’s true. Almost everything is a reboot of something these days. What I find objectionable is that so many of these reboots don’t build on or honor the original material. A lot of times they sort of tear it down.

Yeah, exactly. Once in a while they’ll get it right like Maverick did a couple of years ago – but most of the time it just feels like a retread or just a money grab. Sometimes that works. Listen, I’m (doing sequels to TimeLock) so I don’t want to hypocritical and say that I’m against any sequels or reboots or anything because I’m doing it myself.

JWK: I would consider your books to be more of an ongoing series. So, would you like to see TimeLock become a TV series?

That’s really the main goal. This division of Ingram Elliott, the publisher, is called Snaps! because they’re looking for books that are short. You can read them on a cross-country plane ride and, most of all, they can be adapted into films or TV series. The fact that I already had a script for most of these books I think was something they found appealing.

JWK: From your experience, do you prefer the script writing or do you prefer the novel writing?
PB: I really love both. The thing I love about novels – in particular the ones that are in first person – is that’s when I get to throw in my corny jokes and observe things from the character’s point of view and just have some fun getting away from just pure descriptions or dialogue.

JWK: So, you like to put humor into your stories.

Yeah, because on the surface the story sounds dramatic and even a little depressing – and it’s not. I mean I want to make it that the character has a sense of humor. He makes fun of himself and the situation. It’s not a laugh riot. It’s not a comedy but I enjoy that process. The funny thing, John, was I was writing a book about a 23-year-old who becomes 43 in a matter of minutes because of the TimeLock process…Through most of the first book I have to write about how traumatic it is for this 23-year-old to be looking at himself in the mirror. You know, he’s slower, he’s got a double chin – and all I’m thinking is I would pay serious money to be 43 again.

JWK: I can relate.

So, I’m thinking “What is this guy complaining about?!” 43 – big deal! It was fun. I can be a little juvenile so to put myself in his place was fun.
I love writing scripts also. It’s the whole process…It really started with covid. I just sat around. I had lost a lot of P.R. clients – some of which were restaurants. Everybody was closing. I thought I’m gonna go crazy. I gotta do something. I suddenly thought “Why don’t I novelize TimeLock?”…and honor my dad at the same time. I just loved every minute of it. To find this great up-and-coming independent publisher that believed in it was amazing! It’s been a fun journey.

JWK: Do you have children.

I have two grown and married and three grandchildren.

JWK: Are any of them writers. Could this go on another generation?

I’m so glad you asked that. My youngest son ended up doing what I set out to do but wasn’t good enough to do – which is write music. That’s what I thought I’d do for a living all my life – especially music for film and TV. That’s what my son Daniel is doing.My oldest son Jordan by day is a computer programmer. I knew he was a talented musician also but I had no idea he was a writer. (Three) Father’s Days ago he said “I have a gift for you.” It was just a plain manila folder. Inside was like a 300 or 400 page novel that he had written. Nobody had any idea he had been working on this for two years. I thought “Wow! That’s super impressive!” Then I got nervous. What if I don’t really like it! I swear to you, this is not a proud dad saying this. It totally blew me away. The writing was much better than mine! No question!…Beautifully written!So, I sent it to the same publisher, IngramElliott. I said “Listen, don’t worry. I’m not gonna be sending you my grandchildren’s novels. They’re only three-years-old. I’ll wait a year – but I think this is really good!” They came back and said “This is really, really very good!”

JWK: What’s the title of that?

PB: The Timestream Verdict
. It’s kind of a time travel courtroom sort of thing. Very well written! He really deserves it.
JWK: Do you think you might collaborate with him at some point?

No. I’d be nervous. He’ll be outwriting me – like my dad did.

JWK: I’m sure you’re being modest. How about your other son who writes music? Would I know any of his work?

He’s written some stuff for Netflix. He wrote a score for an NFL documentary.

JWK: Oh, wow. You know what I kind of miss is the opening themes for the TV shows from your father’s era. Columbo didn’t really do that – but most shows would open with a theme song – like The Rockford Files or Mission: Impossible. You could identify the show through the theme. You don’t get that very much anymore.

Oh, some of them are four notes and you’re in the show. I agree with you. Some of those were not just great for the show but terrific songs! Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers.

JWK: The Rockford Files didn’t have words but the music was great.

I mean is there a much better theme of a TV show than Mission: Impossible? It’s amazing!

JWK: Exactly.

And some of them told the story of the showlike Gilligan’s Island. Nobody understood the premise so he wrote the lyrics for the song.
JWK: I remember Quantum Leap – which is kind of in the general genre of TimeLock and your son’s book – had great theme music but people watching the early episodes of the show did not get the premise. So, they added narration that explained it at the beginning of the show – and it worked. It was a great show too.

Getting back to TimeLock, is there a message or some sort of subtext that you’re conveying?

PB: In every story – this is hardly an original writing concept – you want your character to have some sort of arc from beginning to end, to evolve in some way. So, the main thing we wanted to (show) in the script – and in the book – is that as terrifying as the ordeal is that the character Morgan Eberly goes through…he actually grows from the experience. When we first meet him he’s 23. He’s a sweet kid. He super brainy but he’s not really rooted in anything. He hasn’t really found his way. He can’t sit still professionally or personally. By the end of the first book, he’s matured not just physically. He’s ready to settle down. He says in the book “I’m not sure I recognize or even like who I was before all this happened – as terrible as it was.” So, he’s much happier person even though he’s lost 20 years of his life. I’ll just say that second book teases the possibility that he might get those 20 years back. So, the real message I think is finding a way to turn adversity into something positive – which is not original but it works.

JWK: It’s certainly a timeless theme – so to speak.

John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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