A candid conversation with America’s best-selling author about the
small-brained giants in Hollywood, the end of feminism, the joy of fart jokes and how he predicts all those trends
If you had met Michael Crichton three decades ago, you could easily have imagined a traditional future for him. A stellar student at the Harvard Medical School and armed with an impressive intellect, Crichton seemed headed for a life as a researcher or hospital administrator, the type of overachiever who would make his mark in science or public health. You never would have predicted the intense young med student would give up medicine and emerge as a dominant talent in fields of popular culture--a man who simultaneously topped all three key indicators of current American thought: the best-seller list, the box office tallies and the Nielsen ratings.
What's even more unlikely is that Crichton has done so not by pandering to mass tastes but by catering to uncounted multitudes who don't mind stretching their minds while being entertained.
Consider what Crichton has accomplished in publishing. Instead of writing cheesy, sex-filled potboilers that fill the best-seller racks, Crichton invented a genre aimed at smart readers. He elevated the basic thriller by setting it against a backdrop of important current issues--the Japanese juggernaut in "Rising Sun," sexual harassment in "Disclosure"--and creating books that were as informative as they were fun to read.
He's been no ordinary success in Hollywood, either. Some of the movies based on his books and screenplays, such as "Jurassic Park" and "Twister," have been tremendous box office successes. And the one TV show he created--"ER"—is arguably the smartest hour on TV ever to top the ratings.
Bouncing among books, movies and TV has worked well for Crichton. More than 100 million of his books have been printed, and his movies have grossed more than a billion dollars. In its 1998 survey of the wealthiest entertainers, "Forbes" put Crichton at number seven and mused that "he could probably sell the concepts in his head for a few hundred million dollars."
Part of Crichton's success stems from his knack for predicting trends and events and for honing in on hot issues with uncanny timing. "If you ever find in a publisher's catalog the announcement of an impending Crichton novel called 'Armageddon,' gather your loved ones and head for the hills," advised one journalist.
Crichton is best known for his "Jurassic Park," a work he began in 1984 and didn't complete until 1990. The book, about the re-creation of dinosaurs from DNA culled from mosquitoes preserved in amber, popularized the cloning controversy. After it was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg, it became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, earning $ 912 million.
Then came the sequel, "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," which Spielberg also made into a movie. Crichton's most recent novel, 1996's "Airframe," is in part an indictment of airline deregulation and the resulting deterioration of maintenance and safety. In it, Crichton takes on the media--a subplot has journalists who cover a plane accident being less concerned about the veracity of their reporting than they are about the tidiness of their stories.
Crichton's eagerness to tackle controversial issues makes headlines, but it also generates criticism. "Jurassic Park" earned the ire of academics who claimed it was antiscience. Literary critics chide Crichton for his simplistic or two-dimensional characters, who get short shrift in favor of complicated plots and detailed situations.
Critics have been kinder to some of Crichton's other works, including his masterful study of Jasper Johns and a collection of autobiographical essays, "Travels." In the latter, Crichton describes his thrill-seek- ing past--he used to scuba dive, climb mountains (including a memorable hike up Mount Kilimanjaro) and swim with sharks. He was born in October 1942 in Chicago, half a mile from the hospital now used as the setting for "ER." He was the oldest of four children, and his relationship with his father, an executive editor at "Advertising Age," was often tense. As he writes in "Travels," "My father and I had not had an easy time together. We had never been the classic boy and his dad. As far as I was concerned, he was a first-rate son of a bitch."
When Crichton was in third grade, he wrote a nine-page play for a puppet show, which his father dismissed as the most cliche-ridden piece he had ever read. Undaunted, Crichton went on to publish his first article at the age of 14 on "The New York Times."
Crichton attended Roslyn High School in New York, where he was a Latin scholar, a student journalist and, already 6'7", a basketball star. He still holds several records there.
He went to Harvard, where he planned to become a writer, but he says the English department was more interested in producing professors than cultivating writers. He switched to anthropology and took premed courses.
After graduating, Crichton spent a year lecturing in anthropology at Cambridge University before enrolling at Harvard Medical School. Until then he had been supported by his family, but he paid his way through medical school by writing thrillers under the pseudonyms Jeffery Hudson and John Lange. (The first was a pun on his height--which was now 6'9"; Hudson was a dwarf courtier in the service of Charles I.) "A Case of Need" by Jeffery Hudson won the 1968 Edgar award and was the first time Crichton addressed real-life events with what was to become his signature timeliness. The book is about abortion.
In 1969 Crichton published "The Andromeda Strain" under his own name while still in med school. He was paid $ 250,000 for the film rights. When he visited the movie set on the Universal Studios lot, a young director working there gave Crichton a tour: He was Steven Spielberg.
Two more thrillers followed in 1972 and 1973: The novel "The Terminal Man," in which an experimental surgical procedure goes awry, and the movie "Westworld," a science fiction story about a theme park of the future where tourists enact their fantasies. Crichton also later wrote and directed "The Great Train Robbery," which starred Sean Connery, who became a good friend.
Crichton has been married four times and has a ten-year-old daughter. In 1988 he married his current wife, Anne-Marie Martin, an actor and screenwriter who was his collaborator on the screenplay for "Twister." Crichton confesses that two of his previous wives made him see a psychotherapist, and he remains committed to therapy. It hasn't cured his workaholism, however; when Crichton is working, his wife has said, "It's like living with a body and Michael is somewhere else."
His work habits have paid off--Crichton is probably the highest-paid writer in America. A "Time" magazine cover story in 1995 touted him as "The Hit Man With the Golden Touch." He reportedly earned $ 10 million for the film rights to "Airframe" alone.
Despite his hectic schedule, Crichton found time to meet with Assistant Managing Editor John Rezek and Contributing Editor David Sheff for a rare interview. Here's their report:
"Crichton was concentrating on one of several current projects when we
arrived at his Santa Monica office. (He has homes in Los Angeles, New York and
Hawaii.) He was in postproduction for 'The 13th Warrior'--a movie due out this
year that's based on his book 'Eaters of the Dead'--and he was getting ready to
launch his own Web site, www.crichton-official.com.
"Though Crichton is famously tall, no one is quite prepared for just how
tall he is. He greeted us looking freshly tanned from Hawaii, dressed in black
trousers and a polo shirt, and led us through a labyrinth of small hallways that
had the effect of making him seem even taller. You get the sense he seldom
permits himself the luxury of straightening up.
"We talked in a bare office and, once settled in a desk chair, Crichton
adopted an impressive physical concentration: He didn't fidget, he rarely moved
though his face was always animated and expressive. He has a steady no-nonsense
gaze and was once described as being 'affably diffident.' There were often long
silences between our questions and his answers. Far from attempting to evade the
questions, he was seeking the most difficult of responses: those that are
simple, and responsible and honest."
PLAYBOY: Your books often seem eerily prescient. How does it feel when they
turn out to anticipate real-life events or trends?
CRICHTON: It depends. People said Airframe was prescient when a United
Airlines flight dropped 1000 feet over the Pacific. But there are a certain
number of turbulence-related injuries every year, and that book was based on a
couple of real incidents. The lesson: Wear your seat belt. When Twister came out
in May of whatever year it was, all these tornadoes hit. Everyone said, "Isn't
it amazing? He predicted it!" No, it's May--there are always hundreds of
tornadoes. It's tornado season. On the other hand, certain things have surprised
me. When I was working on The Great Train Robbery, I went into Victorian
England, then an eccentric and obscure period to write about. At the time the
book was published, the period had a revival. When I was writing Rising Sun, the
Berlin Wall was coming down. Everyone was look- ing west; no one was looking
east. People would ask what I was working on and I'd say, "Japan," and they'd
ask, "Japan?" as if I had said "Sanskrit." But when the book came out it
coincided with George Bush's trip to Japan and enormous interest in
U.S.-Japanese relations because of the trade imbalance. I was as surprised as
PLAYBOY: How do you decide which political or social problems to tackle?
CRICHTON: Certain issues just stay with me while others work themselves out.
In the past, certain stories were fueled by my outrage, but then I would lose
the outrage and wouldn't have the motor to do that project anymore. I'd outgrown
it. Sometimes events bypass it. And sometimes somebody else does a project that
makes the issues go away. Or at least I think, Well, that's been done, at least
for now. I've been interested in doing something about political correctness,
for instance. It gives me the creeps. But my sense is it's started to give a lot
of people the creeps. I don't think I'll have to write about it. It will defeat
itself because of its basic anti-American quality.
PLAYBOY: In Disclosure, you took on sex- ual harassment. Some people feel
it's a central issue in the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal. Do you agree?
CRICHTON: Lewinsky certainly shows one thing I tried to address in
Disclosure: the power of the victim. Feminists still don't acknowledge that the
person who is sexually harassed has an enormous amount of power. Monica Lewinsky
has shown she has quite a bit of power, hasn't she? Whether she ultimately
brings down a president or not, this woman has proved that the so-called victim
can be very powerful.
PLAYBOY: Feminists would disagree.
CRICHTON: The Clinton scandal has put the final nail in the coffin of
feminism, which has been in drastic decline for several years. People aren't
stupid. They see the inconsistency and hypocrisy: Brock Adams? Out! Robert
Packwood? Out! Teddy Kennedy? In! Bill Clinton? In! It's what I have always
thought: If you like me, I can do whatever I want. If you don't, you're going to
trash me for trivialities. That's the way guys always thought it was, and
feminists said, "No, it's not, there's a set of rules that apply to everyone."
Guess what? It's not true.
PLAYBOY: It sounds as if you'd be delighted at the fall of feminism.
CRICHTON: In the same way there are fashion victims in terms of clothing,
there are fashion victims in terms of ideas, and there are still victims of
feminism. A lot of children are victims of an era when women declared their
independence from men, saying they no longer needed them: "A woman without a man
is like a fish without a bicycle." Women could do it by themselves. Well, the
idea dovetailed rather nicely for a lot of young men who didn't want to be
needed in the first place. They didn't want to be committed to a family just
because they got a girl pregnant, for instance, so it was convenient when women
were saying men weren't needed. The idea that men didn't want responsibility
wasn't new, but suddenly women were saying, "Yeah, we don't need you!" and men
were responding, "Great, goodbye," and they were on to the next conquest. But
the kids who were left behind were victims of that fashion. There are many
children raised without fathers and they have suffered.
PLAYBOY: Should women return home and take care of the kids?
CRICHTON: I'm not saying we should go back to the Fifties--as if we could.
All I'm saying is that it's frivolous to pretend kids don't need to be raised.
PLAYBOY: Feminists attacked Disclosure, saying you trivialized sexual
harassment by making the aggressor a woman and the victim a man, which is
unlikely to be the case in real life.
CRICHTON: I didn't know that it's a writer's obligation to do a typical
story. The word is "novel." My reason for inverting this story was that
inversion allows you to see the issue freshly. What inspired the book was the
polarization occurring in this country. I'm always interested in what's not
being talked about, and at the time everyone seemed to agree that the aggressor
had all the power. I know things aren't so simple and aren't so clear. It's sex.
And what's ever clear about sex?
PLAYBOY: Is the country less concerned with sexual harassment than it was
when you wrote Disclosure?
CRICHTON: There will be a new wave because of Clinton. I expect that we'll
see formal legislative changes and changes in social standards. But much of the
hysteria has calmed down. I think it's because people see how absurd some of
this is. I maintain that a lot of this play between people is human nature. You
cannot keep people from telling dirty jokes, for example. It's just how we are.
Fart jokes, ejaculation jokes--we're animals and we think they're funny. People
are realizing that it's ridiculous to try to change the stuff that is in our
genes. Men and women are different. People are starting to understand that all
those gender-free toys and raising kids in a nonviolent, neutral way are a lot
of baloney. When my daughter was three, she went to a birthday party held in an
indoor gym. The parents drew a line down the middle of the room and divided
the kids up and had what was, in effect, a snowball fight with Styrofoam balls.
It provided the most persuasive evidence of gender difference I've seen. All the
boys were throwing the balls, trying to kill each other, while the girls were
running around and picking the balls up and putting them in baskets--cleaning
up. These all were children of doctors and lawyers, all educated and aware and
up-to-the-minute. You can try to change things, but parents find out that if you
take away a boy's plastic gun, he'll use a stick. If you take away the stick,
he'll use his finger.
PLAYBOY: Are you concerned about Clinton's affair and his apparent lies?
CRICHTON: Everybody has a sex life, a private life. But the time for Clinton
to have handled it was back in January, when it came out. To let it go as long
as he did is inexplicable. The statement he made when he finally admitted it was
also inexplicable. An apology is not the time for an attack if the goal is to
put the mess behind you. You say, "When I said I never had sex with that woman I
wasn't telling the truth. When I let my wife go on NBC and say it was a
right-wing conspiracy, that wasn't correct, either. I allowed her to make a fool
of herself." You go right down the list. "When I had my advisors go out to
defend me, it was wrong." That's how you end it. The guy can't do it. But what's
most disturbing is the consistent pattern of incompetence in the day-to-day
management of the office of the president of the U.S. Appointments don't get
made, schedules aren't kept to, staff is either not getting good advice or not
being held in line. The country doesn't look well run to me.
PLAYBOY: You knew Rising Sun and Disclosure would get you into trouble. Do
you enjoy controversy?
CRICHTON: I knew that they were risky. I couldn't have written them earlier
in my career. I couldn't afford to take the risk then. But the truth is that I
never know what the response will be. I was surprised by the response to Rising
Sun. I didn't expect to be called a racist.
PLAYBOY: You were accused of perpetuating the stereotype that Japanese
people are devious and inscrutable.
CRICHTON: Yet I thought it was an economic book about the behavior of two
nations; race wasn't relevant. I expected criticism, but about the economics. I
expected to hear, "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about." Part of the
controversy was simply that I addressed the issue. In the U.S. it was agreed
there would be no criticism of Japan no matter what. That a popular novel made
criticisms was seen as shocking, partly because there hadn't been anything like
that for 40 years. My response was, "Wait a minute! In the world I come from,
disagreement is a good thing. The American way is, 'Battle it out in the
marketplace of ideas.'"
PLAYBOY: Were you disappointed by the reaction?
CRICHTON: At the deepest level, I trust the readers. They're perfectly able
to understand what I'm talking about. I have less respect for the media. The
first thing I read about the book was in Publishers Weekly, which said I had
"reawakened the fears of the yellow peril." I thought, What? It said something
about Fu Manchu, who, of course, was Chinese.
PLAYBOY: How did the attacks affect you?
CRICHTON: They were quite alarming and made me hesitant to do Disclosure. I
thought, If there's anything that can bring me more flak than U.S.-Japanese
relations, it's gender relations.
PLAYBOY: And you weren't disappointed, presumably.
CRICHTON: Definitely not. One thing I noticed when Disclosure came out was
the tendency among certain types of guys to trash the book. I figured out
exactly what they were doing. I thought, You're going to trash me because you
want to get laid tonight. Many male reviewers attacked me, thinking their
girlfriends were going to read their reviews. But I was talking about something
that many people responded to. I was talking about the power of the victim and
the vulnerability of the boss. I was trying to talk about the other side of the
equation. I'm always trying to talk about the things that aren't being
PLAYBOY: How happy are you with the movie versions of Disclosure and Ris-
CRICHTON: What I hope for is a good movie on its own terms--one that's
interesting and exciting and works as a movie. Whether or not it's faithful to
what I wrote is irrelevant--impossible. There is an inherent difference in the
forms. If you take a screenplay, which is 120 pages on average, and convert it
into prose, it would be about 40 pages. What happens in reverse is that a
400-page novel is condensed to a 40-page story. The overwhelming majority of
what's in the book is gone. The only hope is that distillation, or abridgement,
retains the essence of the book.
PLAYBOY: Has that happened with yours?
CRICHTON: I've had more luck than most people. I've often been pleased with
the movies. Not always, but often.
PLAYBOY: Some critics claim you write your novels with eventual movies too
much in mind.
CRICHTON: I've been accused of that all my life. I was accused of writing
books with movies in mind even before any of my books were made into movies. But
I see pictures in my head and I describe them; my way of writing is cinematic.
It's just the way I work. Robert Louis Stevenson is phenomenally cinematic, and
there weren't any movies at the time he was writing. If he wrote Treasure Island
today, people would say, "He's writing with a movie in mind." The Lost World, in
particular, was written with a movie in mind. That's why I wrote it.
PLAYBOY: You once described people in Hollywood as "fabulously stupid," and
the entertainment industry as "a business of idiots." Care to name names?
CRICHTON: One of the stupidest people is the one who made that comment. The
truth is, this is frequently a frustrating business. When I made that remark, I
was thinking of a couple of people I had run up against. As I think of those
people, I will stand by that comment. They are idiots beyond belief. They're
famous to some degree, but I'm here to tell you they are truly idiots in the
Moliere sense: self-deluded, pompous nincompoops. The movie business in general
is what you would expect in a high-visibility, high-paying, high-stakes
industry. It tends to attract people who are smart, savvy, aggressive and
ambitious. And while there are incredibly stupid people, there are brilliant
ones, too, including the people I've worked with in recent years. I would
happily work again with Steven Spielberg and Barry Levinson.
PLAYBOY: What do you see as the most striking change in how Hollywood does
CRICHTON: The change that everyone used to talk about was the arrival of
television and the migration out of movies of certain kinds of stories that went
to TV. That's true, but by far the more powerful change has been the rise of VHS
and now DVD. These are now the primary market, theatrical release is not. And so
everything to do with theatrical release is actually intended to position
yourself for the real market, which used to be the aftermarket. That's where
most of the money comes from. Nobody knows what percentage, but at least 75
The industry is trying to make products that will have international appeal
because of foreign support. Movies are no longer locally oriented, they're not
locked to a particular time and place. They tend to be action-oriented because
that's an international vocabulary in a sense. They tend to be big and splashy
and full of special effects because that's easily and telegraphically
marketable. And they tend to be sequels and remakes. In the last ten years,
something like a quarter or a fifth of all movies are sequels and remakes,
because the product is so expensive that anything that gives you an edge on
penetration is worth it.
PLAYBOY: Your real introduction to Hollywood came in the early Seventies,
right after you sold The Andromeda Strain to Universal Pictures. Is it true you
were given a tour of Universal Studios by Steven Spielberg?
CRICHTON: Yes. He was charming then as now. I was fascinated by him. He had
already embarked on a course of directing at a time when I was deciding whether
I would be interested in doing so. He had a quality that he still has: a naive
enthusiasm, a simple excitement. He is in no way naive or simple--he's an
extremely sophisticated guy and very, very subtle--but a kind of youthful
excitement often bubbles up out of him. It's contagious and attractive. It's
hard not to be drawn to it.
PLAYBOY: Spielberg says that you have the richest imagination of anybody he
knows. Is there anything an imagination-challenged person can do to enhance his
CRICHTON: I'm always thinking about how to use things. Even in the middle of
a fight with your loved one, when she makes some terrible, lashing remark that
cuts you to the quick, some part of me is going, Not bad, you know, I can use
that one. That sort of constant, partial detachment means you are almost never
fully absorbed in anything--some part of you is always watching, always
noticing, always thinking, How can I use this? Does this fit with anything I'm
PLAYBOY: The movies you made with Spielberg, Jurassic Park and The Lost
World, were based on successful but controversial books. You were accused of
being antiscience. What do you say to that?
CRICHTON: I've always been called anti- whatever. Antifeminist, anti-Japan,
antiscience. There's a long list. The science thing was said to me directly.
People said that by expressing concerns about the negative impact of science and
technology, I was fueling people's fears and diminishing the ability of science
to progress. But that's baloney. If it were true that Jurassic Park is
antiscience and impeding progress and people's interest in science, why are so
many natural history museums in the U.S. now running shows called Jurassic Park
or The Real Jurassic Park? They perceive that the effect of these stories is to
arouse tremendous interest and enthusiasm--more than scientists are generally
Besides, we live in a society that in many respects is a gigantic cheerlead-
er for science and technology. None of these advances have been as good as they
originally claimed to be. I'm old enough to remember a world without television.
And I remember all the claims for television--about how it was going to produce
universal education and there was going to be so much exposure to the world.
Some of those claims have come true, but the overwhelming majority of the claims
were just baloney. It's difficult now to make the claim that television is an
educational medium. It's an advertising medium.
PLAYBOY: In Jurassic Park, you looked at the potential hazards of DNA
research. What's your view of cloning?
CRICHTON: I think we're a long way from cloning people. But I am worried
about scientific advances without consideration of their consequences. The
history of medicine in my lifetime is one of technological advances that
outstrip our ethical systems. We've never caught up. When I was in medical
school--30-odd years ago--people were struggling to deal with
mechanical-respiration systems. They were keeping alive people who a few years
earlier would have died of natural causes. Suddenly people weren't going to die
of natural causes. They were either going to get on these machines and never get
off or--or what? Were we going to turn the machines off? We had the machines
well before we started the debate. Doctors were speaking quietly among
themselves with a kind of resentment toward these machines. On the one hand, if
somebody had a temporary disability, the machines could help get them over the
hump. For accident victims--some of whom were very young--who could be saved if
they pulled through the initial crisis, the technology saved lives. You could
get them over the hump and then they would recover, and that was terrific. But
on the other hand, there was a category of people who were on their way out but
could be kept alive. Before the machine, "pulling the plug" actually meant
opening the window too wide one night, and the patient would get pneumonia and
die. That wasn't going to happen now. We were being forced by technology to make
decisions about the right to die--whether it's a legal or religious issue--and
many related matters. Some of them contradict longstanding ideas in an ethically
protected world; we weren't being forced to make hard decisions, because those
decisions were being made for us--in this case, by the pneumococcus.
This is just one example of an ethical issue raised by technology. Cloning
is another. If you're knowledgeable about biotechnology, it's possible to think
of some terrifying scenarios. I don't even like to discuss them. I know people
doing biotechnology research who have decided not to pursue avenues of research
because they think they're too danger- ous. But we go forward without sorting
out the issues. I don't believe that everything new is necessarily better. We go
forward with the technology while the ethical issues are still up in the air,
whether it's the genetic variability of crop streams, which is a resource in
times of plant plagues, to the assumption that we all have to be connected all
the time. The technology is here so you must use it. Do you? Do you have to have
your cell phone and your e-mail address and your Internet hookup? I was just on
holiday in Scotland without e-mail. I had to notify people that I wouldn't be
checking my e-mail, because there's an as- sumption that if I send you an
e-mail, you'll get it. Well, I won't get it. I'm not plugged in, guys. Some
people are horrified: "You've gone offline?" People feel so enslaved by
technology that they will stop having sex to answer the tele- phone. What could
be so important? Who's calling, and who cares? PLAYBOY: Did your interest in
medical issues such as the right to die inspire you to create ER?
CRICHTON: Sure it did.
And I wanted to do a different kind of doctor show. When I was in school,
everybody watched Dr. Kildare. Then came Marcus Welby. There was a conventional
wisdom about how doctor shows were done, and I wanted to change that. Part of it
was the style. Television had fallen into an artificially slow pace for
financial reasons. If people talked slower, if you had long shots of somebody
parking a car and then walking up to a house, it was less expensive; fewer
script pages was cheaper. Television audiences slipped into this languor, this
assumption that whatever they saw was going to be slower than their daily life.
I wanted ER to go at a regular or faster speed than real life. We also broke
other TV conventions, such as ending scenes on the thoughtful look of a person
walking away, or whatever. Instead, we just cut. It was very effective. But
another essential difference is that ER tells real stories. The most memo- rable
episodes are based on real stories, and that was intended. The other thing is
the level of quality in the show. Executive producer John Wells has been the
person on the firing line since the early years of the show, and he has been
phenomenally good at maintaining a level of quality that's breathtaking.
PLAYBOY: How involved are you?
CRICHTON: Not at all anymore. I was very involved in the first couple of
years when they needed me. I talked to John about what I wanted to happen on the
show generally, rather than episode by episode. But TV is demanding and
time-consuming. It was taking too much time. The most painful moment for me was
at the end of the second year. Every June they lay out the major story arcs for
the coming year. I tried to go to as many of those sessions as I could. When I
went that year, I felt like the writers were looking at me, going, "Who are you?
What are you doing here?" I was hurt and offended and my ideas didn't really fit
the group's anymore. But at some point I thought, They're right. It's their show
now. They're the ones doing it minute to minute. They're in charge. My child has
grown up and gone away. So I said, "God bless you" and I left.
PLAYBOY: Why did you want to become a doctor?
CRICHTON: When I was in college, I wanted to be a writer. But then I read
that only 200 writers in America support themselves writing. I thought, That's
an awfully small group. I didn't want to be a part-time writer with a day
job--that didn't interest me. I either had to be one of those 200 people or
forget it. So I decided to become a doctor. I was attract-ed to medicine partly
because I thought I would be doing useful work, helping people--I would never
have to wonder if the work was worthwhile. But many working physicians are not
convinced at all. They have all kinds of doubts, which troubled me. I also found
that I was at odds with the thrust of the profession at that time, which was
highly scientific medicine: the physician as technician and the patient as a
biological machine that was broken. I didn't find it appealing to work in that
kind of setting.
PLAYBOY: Is that when you went back to writing?
CRICHTON: I had been writing to pay my way through medical school. I wrote
paperback thrillers on vacations and weekends at a furious pace because the
bills were due. I wrote under pseudonyms. In retrospect, it was wonderful
training. Most of the problems beginning writers have dealing with their egos,
deciding if what they're writing is good enough for them, didn't affect me at
all. No one knew I was doing it. It wasn't under my own name. It was purely to
make money to pay for my education. I wasn't trying to be innovative. I was
trying to do something that would sell and not require rewrites or discussions,
because I didn't have time. I mean I just had to write it, it had to be bought
and published and I had to get the money and go back to my classes.
PLAYBOY: One pseudonym you used was Jeffery Hudson, the name of a dwarf
courtier to Charles I. Were you being ironic about your size?
CRICHTON: I was. I thought it was funny. It seemed like an entertaining
PLAYBOY: How much has being tall affected your life?
CRICHTON: It's kind of startling to people and provokes comments. They used
to say, "How's the weather up there?" or "Do you play basketball?" and "Gosh,
you're tall!" They don't say it now. First of all, my height is no longer
remarkable in a world with Magic Johnson and all those guys. And in addition,
I'm somewhat recognized. People see me in an airport and you can tell that their
brain is clicking: Wait a minute, who is that big guy? White guy, plays
basketball, no, he's too old, hmmm, I know him from somewhere. Oh, yeah, he's
the writer. But my height was a factor when I was younger. I was very tall
very young. I was almost this height when I was 13, and so that was all mixed up
with what was a diffi- cult age anyway. Talk about an awkward time. I was really
PLAYBOY: Your father was a journalist. Did you want to grow up to be a
writer like your dad?
CRICHTON: The fact that my father was a writer made being a writer seem
normal, though I certainly didn't have a particular sense of following in his
footsteps. The truth is, the origin of lifework is mysterious to me. I think
it's in part accidental. But I'm also interested in the idea that there's a kind
of destiny for the soul. In some ways it does seem like I'm genetically a
writer, though I don't know how strongly to hold that view. I don't really
believe most psychological explanations for why people are the way they are or
why things turn out as they do.
I think there's a lot more randomness in life. I disbelieve almost all
Freudian ideas and most psychological theses. So all I can tell you is, yes, my
father was a journalist, and, yes, it turned out I'm a writer, too.
PLAYBOY: You don't like Freud and yet you've spent time in therapy. Do you
care to explain?
CRICHTON: There are a lot of therapies besides Freudian therapies. There has
long been skepticism about Freudian concepts; I've never done therapy that was
much influenced by Freud. Freudian thought now isn't much more than an academic
function. It sits alongside Marxist thought, which resides only in the academy
and no longer exists in the real world. I've been through many kinds of
therapeutic interaction--partly because it's an interest of mine, partly because
I've needed help. I think of it now as a useful resource. The therapist I have
now tends to talk to me about things in an interesting way: "Do you really think
you can finish the book in that period of time? Aren't you once again
overestimating your capabilities?" For me, it's helpful to have a therapist who
knows you a little and who can look at your behavior and make you stop and
think. I also believe there are certain kinds of personal transformations or
transitions you cannot make by yourself. It's like trying to bite your own
teeth. You just can't see certain things about yourself without another person
as a mirror. Some people say, "I have introspective capabilities and can see
what's going on, and I don't need any help to change," but I think they are
PLAYBOY: How has therapy changed you?
CRICHTON: The swell, open, wonderfully easygoing person I am now is a
product of therapy [laughs]. I have changed in many ways. When I was young, I
was emotionally cautious and constrained. I was pretty happy in an Ivy League
environment where emotional signals were things like the kind of tie you wore. A
guy who wore a yellow shirt was feeling daring. That was about as much emotional
expression as I could tolerate. When I arrived in Hollywood, people were
screaming and throwing things and shrieking. It was an eye-opener. We sure
didn't do that where I came from in Boston. I realized it was going to be good
for me to be here because I'd have to learn to yell and scream, too. I did, and
therapy helped me do that. But the biggest change may have been getting over the
idea that whatever interpersonal problems I had were another person's fault. For
years, I thought such a swell person as I am wouldn't have any problems. If I
was having problems, it was her fault. A lot of people feel that way. It's tough
to recognize that you're contributing to your own difficulties, sometimes even
causing them. What a shock. It was a shock to me.
PLAYBOY: What about the trend toward quick pharmaceutical fixes such as
Prozac and Viagra?
CRICHTON: I think they are good for certain behavioral stuff. For some
problems there is an underlying chemical problem. You can't treat diabetes with
psychotherapy. A lot of depression is that way. The proliferation of
increasingly subtle substances that work on the brain will put talk therapy in
its place. We'll get better at knowing what can be treated by medication and
by what requires talk therapy.
PLAYBOY: But Viagra is being used by men and women as a recreational drug,
not only by men who experience sexual dysfunction.
CRICHTON: It's not possible to have a drug that won't be abused by some
portion of the population. Antibiotics are abused. Food is abused. It's
inevitable. Part of the problem with things like this is how much they're
chattered about. We have a real chattering class now. Along with the explosion
of lawyers, there's been an explosion of pundits. We ought to prune them. We
could do with about ten percent of what we have. Each new change in society is
instantly greeted by 10 billion opinions. I remember the immortal words of my
first therapist, who used to nod quietly and say, "Time will tell." Time will
PLAYBOY: Along with therapy, you have said that becoming a parent changed
you, that you no longer take the risks you took when you were younger. What
risks were you talking about?
CRICHTON: I behaved ridiculously when I was younger. I was living in
Hollywood at a time when a variety of substances were available and I was
certainly part of that world. I was very willing to take risks. In retrospect,
deep-sea diving to 250 feet on compressed air is not daring, it's stupid. I look
back on some of those incidents and think it's a miracle I survived. It's the
luck of the draw. I had a passion for Porsches and I used to drive them really
fast. I had a new Porsche and was driving on Mulholland Drive, a twisty road. I
had locked something in my glove compartment, so I took the key out of the
ignition and unlocked the glove compartment to get it. I didn't realize that on
the new car, when you take the key out of the ignition, you lock the steering
wheel. Fortunately, the wheels were pointing to the upward side of the cliff and
I simply drove into the wall. If they had been pointing the other way, I would
have gone right over. Just stupid. You play those things back in your mind.
PLAYBOY: Do you miss the extremes?
CRICHTON: I don't feel the need to test myself in that way. I feel
responsible. It's very important that I be around for my kid. Kids who don't
have parents are at a disadvantage. I have an obligation to be there and I take
it seriously. Being a parent teaches you other things, too. Kids make you alive
in a certain way that adults tend not to, and they bring in a phenomenal amount
of chaos, which is beneficial once you get used to it. To me, being a parent is
that weird balance of indulgence and discipline. It's also true that there are
some unique factors about being an older parent. I am of the age where I could
be my daughter's grandfather, and there are certain grandfatherly things about
me that are part of our relationship. I'm no longer completely wound up in my
career, trying to make it, for instance. I have done all that. If I had wanted
to take time off when she was younger, I could have. And I did. I'm not
struggling for financial resources in the same way that I might have been when I
PLAYBOY: Have you thought about what you will tell your daughter about boys
when she comes of age?
CRICHTON: I watched a lot of my friends with their daughters. The kid would
be in a stroller, gurgling, and the father would be saying, "Those goddamn boys.
I know what those guys are going to want to do to her!" My reaction is to
actually feel sorry for the guys. Look out for this one. She's going to cut a
wide swath. There will be a trail of bleeding hearts behind her.
PLAYBOY: What lessons have you learned about marriage?
CRICHTON: I really don't consider myself a master in this area. I'm lucky to
have the relationship that I have. I am also aware that relationships are
breaking up around me all the time. It would be foolish for me to think that
mine is less at risk than anybody else's. We live in a world of change, whether
we like it or not. I have learned that marriage is really good for me. It is
hard, but it's good for me. I've also learned that both people need to have a
commitment; the minute one person doesn't want to be there, it gets difficult.
You should want to spend a lot of your leisure time together, sharing the same
interests. You may not see the person all week, but when Saturday rolls around,
if she wants to go shopping and you want to go hiking, you may have a problem.
There are also important basics: Are you substantially in agreement on child
rearing? How do you approach religion? How important is education? Do you share
those things that are often so deep that they're not even conscious? If not,
PLAYBOY: You contend that everyone has a range of skills, and we hear, for
example, you're an excellent cook. Are you the best cook in your house?
CRICHTON: In the early stages, what I most enjoyed was that I was able to do
it at all. Also, I spend a lot of time in my head, and you can kind of float off
into a purely fantasy existence. So I found it really beneficial to go to the
supermarket and go, "Oh, my God, look what they're charging me for lettuce. Can
you believe that? And it looks terrible, too--where are they getting this
lettuce?" It was regular life.
PLAYBOY: You've said you're a workaholic. Do you enjoy working nonstop?
CRICHTON: Actually, I'm happiest with a lot of time off. It's not like I
can't handle it. Years ago I would do a project every three years. Now the
market is such that they want a novel every year. Since Jurassic, I've done a
novel 18 months or so, which is the best I can do. But I do much better with
periods of time off. I don't like how it is now--this back-to-back frenzy.
PLAYBOY: Do you get your best ideas when you're working or when you're
CRICHTON: Definitely when I'm off. In fact, I'm concerned now that I don't
have enough fallow time. I'm happier and my mind works in a different way when I
don't have to do anything, when I can boogieboard in Hawaii or go hiking or just
sit for weeks on end. When I work, I work compulsively. I always have. When I'm
writing, I write seven days a week. I'll take a break only when my family
rebels. "We haven't seen you for ten days. We need a day." The periods when I'm
writing or making a movie are intense. I have no time to read and explore and
let ideas drift in and out of my thoughts. I miss it and I'm very happy doing it
for long periods of time.
PLAYBOY: What's your workday like?
CRICHTON: There is no normal day. My preferred time to work is in the
morning. I find that being kind of sleepy is beneficial. It has always been true
that my energy and my alertness peak in the morning.
PLAYBOY: You wrote Twister with your wife. Would you collaborate again?
CRICHTON: Yes--we talk about doing it again, but there is a danger. One
needs the freedom to argue with a collaborator--to have strong disagreements.
That can be difficult if you're going to see the person at dinner.
PLAYBOY: You were sued for infringing on someone else's copyright with
Twister. You won the lawsuit, but was it a difficult experience for you?
CRICHTON: It was one of the most interesting and awful experiences I've ever
had. I was talking to my wife about it afterward and we agreed that it was
engaging, tense, dramatic and demanding. I'm sure it would have been a lot less
interesting if we had lost, but as we looked back, we were just amazed by it. It
was interesting to watch a court case like that go forward, far different from
TV and the movies. It was like a verbal tennis match: If you hit this stroke,
what will be hit back? We handily won the suit, but the media stuck with a theme
it created at the beginning even when the theme no longer applied. They
originally presented it as a David and Goliath story: The big guns, Crichton
and Spielberg, have stolen from some poor little guy. At a certain point in the
trial--not very far in--one of the local columnists asked, "What kind of a story
is this if it's David versus Goliath and Goliath is going to win and deserves
to?" It was a completely meritless case, but the media had this David and
Goliath angle to deal with. They were disappointed that that angle had been
taken away. It turned out that the plaintiff was a local fellow who was simply
wrong and his attorneys were wrong. But no one wanted the angle to change, so
the case continued to be reported as a David and Goliath story. Reporters wrote,
"The big guys got away with it."
PLAYBOY: Are there other downsides to your level of success?
CRICHTON: Well, everything has a downside. But the significant question is,
would you want to magically go back to a time when it wasn't there? No.
What-ever the downsides are, they are not sufficient to make you regret what has
PLAYBOY: It has been written that you are the most highly remunerated writ-
CRICHTON: I'm almost certain that that's not true.
PLAYBOY: How do you spend your money? Has wealth changed you?
CRICHTON: It has given me the freedom to choose the kinds of projects I want
to work on. It's also given me the freedom to be unpopular. For example, I was
aware I could get blasted for writing Rising Sun. But if I got blasted, if I
were murdered, it would be OK because the previous book was Jurassic Park and it
had done well. There is a freedom that comes from the successes, and I feel
obliged to exercise it. Similarly, if you have worldly success, part of your ob-
ligation is to spread it around. It's interesting to see where you can have an
impact. I'm certainly not a person of enormous resources, but I'm trying to find
the things that I think are important that aren't getting funded and maybe won't
get funded because they're not on other people's agendas. I'm very interested in
PLAYBOY: Do you have a prescription for improving public education in the
CRICHTON: I'm a product of public education. I went to public schools until
college, and I was very much an advocate of that system. But a few years ago, I
went back to my high school. It's still a good high school. But on reflection, I
realize that I actually attended a private school. My parents moved to a
community where the taxes were higher because that's where the good schools
were. We moved there to attend the schools. My parents paid additional money for
me to go to those schools, and they felt they had a voice in them. If there was
a bad teacher, that teacher was gone. There was no way the damn union was going
to keep that from happening. It was a true community-based school. That's gone
for the most part, but that's what is needed. It's human nature for parents to
want a strong say in the education of their children. They should feel strongly
about it. There are very good private schools, including those that are pub- lic
schools in certain communities, and there are terrible schools about which
people have no choice. I support vouchers for that reason. Competition makes
schools better. The single largest obligation I have as a parent is to educate
my child. That's the biggest thing I can do.
PLAYBOY: You still hold some high school basketball records: most rebounds
in a game, highest rebound average per game, highest shooting percentage in a
season. Are those important to you?
CRICHTON: One of the good things about sports--why kids ought to play sports
and why we all like sports--is that sports aren't political or open to
interpretation. You either perform or you don't. You win the match or you don't.
It's not open to spin.
PLAYBOY: While your books and movies certainly are. Have you become immune
to criticism by now?
CRICHTON: Pretty much. At least I don't read the critics. If I get praise,
it doesn't make me feel very good. If I get criticism, I feel terrible. I just
sink like a rock. These days the reviews don't tend to be about the work. They
often seem to be about me. About me as a person. So I don't read them, though it
takes a certain discipline not to read them.
PLAYBOY: Are you aware of the criticisms, however? A common criticism of
your writing is that it's formulaic.
CRICHTON: It was always formula; I'm interested in formulas. From my
earliest writing, I was interested in taking well-defined genres and doing
something else with them--retaining the quality of the genre, whether a
detective story, science fiction story, disaster story. That aspect of working
within a defined framework has always been a challenge to me. Has it become more
formula? I don't know. I do sometimes wish that I could publish a book under a
pseudonym just to see how much of the reaction is to the text and how much of
the reaction is to me as a known entity.
PLAYBOY: Another criticism is that your characters are much less developed
than your stories.
CRICHTON: I hope that will change. When I was younger, I was interested in
situ-ations in which individual personality didn't matter. Once an oil spill
starts, I don't think it matters who the president of Exxon is, whether he's a
good or bad guy. The truth is, he can't do anything about it. I was interested
in the oil spill itself. Like in Andromeda Strain, the only thing to do about a
disaster is never to have it happen. Once it happens, almost everything you do
is going to make it worse. In such stories, the personalities of the people
don't matter. They tend to be stories about individuals who are powerless, who
are caught up in the system in some way. They're kind of pessimistic, which is
how I was for a long time. I don't necessarily want to do those stories anymore.
First of all, I've done a lot of them. Second, I've become more interested in
stories that seem to offer alternatives of action, depending on what kind of a
person you're dealing with. They tend to be much smaller stories.
A lot of what I've done in the past has been misunderstood--at least from my
standpoint. When I was writing Jurassic Park, I was in a tremendous panic. I
thought, It's one thing to try to do a persuasive story about a satellite that
comes down--we know there are satellites and one could theoretically come down.
But in the case of Jurassic Park, I was going to try to convince readers and
then viewers that dinosaurs reappear in the contemporary world. I was panicked
that people would start to read it and go, "Forget it! No way!" All of my focus
was there. Then I write the thing and everybody buys it without discussion. They
buy that science brought back dinosaurs. And then they say, "Yeah, but the
characters are no good." What do you mean the characters aren't good? This is a
story in which dinosaurs are in the real world! Now you want believable
characters? To complain about characters meant that they already bought the
PLAYBOY: Who are your favorite writers?
CRICHTON: When you're in this business there's a point after which you no
longer read for pleasure. I don't read books or go to movies freely anymore. On
one hand, there's some competitive sense. On the other, there's a professional
interest in the technique or technical specifics, how an effect was achieved.
It's just not possible for me to read a book or watch a movie without those
PLAYBOY: Travels was a completely different style of writing--personal, even
confessional. Do you plan to do more of that type?
CRICHTON: Yeah, because it was a great experience. It's a little more
difficult now. In the past, if I wrote about relationships, they were
relationships that were over. If I write about them now, they're going to be
current relationships. I have to think: What is my wife going to think about
this particular story? How is my daughter going to feel? Kids in her school are
going to read this. Am I invading her privacy? Or can I even be responsive to
those concerns? Isn't it my job to say the hell with it and just write what
happened? It's a problem I have.
PLAYBOY: What's your answer?
CRICHTON: The answer is I don't know.
PLAYBOY: In Travels, you visit alternative healers. Have you had any more
CRICHTON: No. When I'm finished with a particular problem, I'm finished with
it for a while. Beyond the sense of completion, there's a kind of exhaustion,
even revulsion. It's why it's tough to talk about novels after I've completed
them; I've moved on.
PLAYBOY: You once said that you feel like killing yourself after you
complete a film. Now that you're in postproduction for your most recent movie,
The 13th Warrior, are you feeling suicidal?
CRICHTON: No, though I can feel that way after a project. While you're
working on a movie there's something wonder- ful about it that's not yet
defined. There are all these fantastic possibilities. When you see it all
together, it's just a movie. Whether it's a good movie, a bad movie or a medium
movie, it's just a movie. In the end, people will sit for a couple of hours,
watch it and go home. I sit and work and write and direct and edit and agonize,
but in the end it is what it is: just a movie, just a book. #