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‘MacGyver’ Creator Lee Zlotoff On Women In Engineering And Finding a New Female Hero

'MacGyver' Creator Lee Zlotoff On Women In Engineering And Finding a New Female Hero

Earlier this year, “MacGyver” creator Lee Zlotoff
challenged aspiring screenwriters to “out-MacGyver” his legendary hero
with a female engineer at the helm of their stories. “The Next MacGyver” competition, as it would be called, didn’t ask for a female reboot of the 1985
action-adventure series, but for fresh pitches across a variety of genres to
target a middle and high school demographic, and received nearly 2,000 entries
in response.

READ MORE: Sorry, Ladies: Study on Women in Film and Television Confirms The Worst

Zlotoff has partnered with the The Paley Center for Media,
USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering and The National Academy of Engineering to
narrow the massive amount of submissions down to 12 and, following an event of
pitches and proposals on July 28, to a mere five (concept art for some of these projects is featured in this post). These winners will receive a $5,000
prize and two mentors: An experienced Hollywood producer and a distinguished
engineer, and will hopefully see their ideas brought to life.

Indiewire sat down with Zlotoff to talk more about the
project, and his hopes that the MacGyver legacy can help influence a new
generation of female engineers. 

Can you tell me your
inspiration behind the project?

Sure. Adam Smith, who’s the Communications Director – maybe
he has a fancier title than that, I’m not sure – at the USC Viterbi School of
Engineering, they did an interview of me for their publication. The Engineering
School puts out a magazine and he said, “Listen, I have this idea about
doing this script competition to create role models for women engineers.”

I said, “Wow, that sounds interesting, what
are you going to call it?” He said, “Oh, you know, can you come up
with a TV hero who’s a woman and an engineer?” I said, “Yeah, that’s
not going to fly, Adam. Nobody’s going to know what you’re
talking about.” I said, “Suppose we call it ‘The Next
MacGyver?'” He went, “Could we do that?” I said, “Well, as
a matter of fact, yeah. I have the rights to this character, so we can do

Even though the character we’re looking to create is not
going to be called MacGyver, it was a way of, like MacGyver, creating a
character that would inspire people into engineering, which is one of the
things “MacGyver” did, and I guess continues to do. But certainly we saw with “CSI,”
there was maybe 50 applicants a year for forensic science until “CSI”
came out. Suddenly, the number of young women who were interested in going into
forensic science literally skyrocketed. 

So we decided to call the competition “The Next
MacGyver,” just so people would have kind of a good idea of what we were
looking for.

That’s awesome. How
long has the project been in the works?

I’d say just about a
year. In February we had a press conference and we launched the competition
and there was a website and all that other stuff, and we were overwhelmed by the amount of press we got, which was exciting to say the least and a little
unexpected. Although, the MacGyver name certainly has the
ability to get people’s attention, because it’s just one of those global names

And then, even more to our surprise, we got something like
2,000 submissions. So that meant 2,000 people sat down and said, “I’m
going to write my idea for a TV show that I think will inspire – you know,
create a female engineer-type hero character that I think will inspire young
people to want to do this.” 

That’s great. Were
you at all surprised at the amount of submissions that you received?

Well, you never know with these kinds of things. I mean, it
was a global competition, but you just never know whether you’re going to
strike a nerve or hit that chord. So, we thought okay, if we get 500, if we get
750, if we get 1,000 that would be great. By the time we closed the deadline, I
think we were pushing 2,000 entries, so we were very surprised.

I mean it was a pleasant surprise because then, of course, it
created the other problem that we have to find people to read all these
entries. But we anticipated this to a certain extent, and we had basically two
groups – every entry was read at least twice by different people. We had a
whole group of engineers who were going to read the entries and rank them, and
then we had a whole group in the entertainment business who were going to read
the entries and rank them.

Then we took the top-ranked ones from both
groups and we started to internally go, “Okay, the top 12.” It was really,
pretty obvious because it turns out, the engineers and the entertainment people
really were very much in alignment about which ones they thought would be both
most compelling to watch and really embody the goals of the competition, which
is to create this engineer-type character. 

And they were all over – I mean, some were comedies, some
were period pieces, some were science fiction. We got a really broad spectrum.
So there’s a lot of imagination out there, and that was fun and exciting to

How deeply were you
personally involved in selecting those 12? Did you look at all of them?

What happened was, by the time all those cumulative scores
were calculated, there were about 50, 55 that were all within a point of each
other. Then yes, the USC contingent, and the National Academy Engineering
contingent and myself went through those top 55 and then we ranked what we
thought were going to be the top 12. Then, we sat down digitally, because we’re
in different locations.

I would say three-quarters of us agreed on most of them.
Then we debated which of the other ones would fit in. Sometimes, there were two
that were very similar, and so we go, “Okay, this one isn’t immediately in
the top 12 but it’s going in an interesting new direction.” Instead of
having two very similar shows, let’s pick the best one of those and then let’s
put one in there that we think is different. So, yes I was involved in helping
to determine, of those top 55, which would be the top 12. 

What distinguished a
finalist from all the scripts to pass on?

That’s a really interesting question, and I would say that
it really came down to the criteria that we presented to all of the readers,
which is: Does it really, on a week to week basis, reflect a character who is
doing engineering-type things? Whether that’s computer engineering, or
mechanical engineering, or chemical engineering, whatever it is but, does the
show – is engineering in the DNA of the show, so to speak, as opposed to just
being, well, she’s an engineer but what she does is beat the hell out of people. [laughs]

And then, obviously the others were, okay, how fresh and
original does this seem in the landscape of television shows, or is it just
another version of something that’s been out there many times? And then, how
appealing do we think it was going to be to the target audience?

So, a) it would have to hit a general audience, but b)
“CSI” is a very powerful popular show, generally, but clearly it
motivated a lot of young men and women to explore the possibility of going into
the forensic sciences. So, it had to work for general audiences, but it also
had to ideally create the model we were looking for, that would be

Did we think it was going to appeal to the audience, did it
strike us as being intriguing and fresh and original enough that a television
network or channel would respond to it and did it really meet the goal of, like
MacGyver… You knew, every week, MacGyver was going to do something. He was going to take a paper clip, and a piece of duct tape
and a piece of chewing gum, and a rubber band and he was going to make the door
unlock, or stop the nuclear weapon, or whatever it was. But you knew every
week, MacGyver was going to do something, so does this show suggest that every
week we’re going to see the character have to come up with some kind of
interesting solution, and use those skill sets?

How did you go about
finding your judges and your mentors?

We started reaching out to companies that we thought would
respond positively to the goals and the thrust of the whole competition, and who
were willing to put themselves out and say, “Yes, I’ll get involved and
I’ll be willing to help somebody and I understand that maybe there will be an
idea here that’s worth pursuing.”

So, we started – like you do with anything in Hollywood –
you find someone who responds positively, then you go to everybody else and
say, “Hey, look who agreed to be in our contest!” [laughs] And then
they’ll go, “Well I guess if they’re doing it, I guess I could do it.”
And so, we were really very fortunate.

Roberto Orci came on really early and obviously he’s a huge
force in television, and then Ridley Scott’s company agreed to come on and then
Morgan Freeman’s company agreed to come on. Then, [“CSI” creator] Anthony Zuiker stepped up
right away, in fact maybe he was the first one who said, “I’ll do
this,” because he was really excited by the competition. Then, I think
America Ferrera stepped up because she went, “Listen, this is all about
empowering women and that’s what I want to do in the entertainment

And then, obviously, we wanted, as with the readers – the
first round of submissions, we wanted to have a bunch of engineering people in
the judging panel as well, and certainly some of those we wanted to be women,
so they would be receptive and sensitive to like, “I get it. I get what
we’re trying to do here,” and as women engineers, they know what an uphill
battle it has been in that field. So that was how we did it.

That’s a great
reception. Because The Next MacGyver is going to focus on a female engineer, how important do you think is it that a woman
be responsible for penning that script?

I will tell you that in every stage of the judging, none of
the readers were aware of the sex or the age or the circumstances of any of the
participants. So, even when we were deciding the top 12, though that
information was available, we did not look at that information. That is to say,
we didn’t say, “Oh, well this one should go in because the author’s a
woman.” We didn’t think that was an appropriate way to
do it. We went, “What are the 12 best ideas?”

It’s the human spirit that can communicate, and if the best
story about a woman engineer is written by a man, so be it. We’re interested in
a great idea, not in what looks politically effective. Because at the end of
the day, the politics of it don’t matter.

Who creates the show doesn’t matter. If the show’s effective
and if it inspires young women – look at how many women went into forensic
science. Anthony Zuiker created the show. Why? Because there were a lot of
attractive, smart women characters who were out there catching bad guys with
forensic science. Did it matter that it was created by a man? I don’t think it
mattered one bit.

Have there been any
recent TV examples of women in engineering that resemble what you’re looking

I don’t know – you know, I don’t know that there really are.
I mean, sort of – “Scorpion,” there’s a woman in the group, I
believe, an Asian woman who’s kind of like the mechanical genius of the group.
But, off the top of my head, I don’t know that I can really point to a recent
show, I mean, clearly there have been a lot of much more women driven shows.

You have “Madam Secretary,” you have – I mean,
this is going back a little bit, but “Alias.” Clearly there are more
strong women leads emerging in television, but for the most part they’re still
cops or lawyers or doctors. “Scandal,” maybe is a nice exception, but
she’s a spin doctor, right? [laughs]

So, to point to a show that has a kind of real female
engineer, I mean, “Bones,” maybe? But, she’s not an engineer, she’s
also sort of an anthropologist, forensic scientist. Well, that’s been wildly
successful, but I don’t know what the numbers of young women going into
anthropology and again, it just reinforces the forensic science model.

Because these shows
are going to be targeting a middle-to-high school audience, what do you think
the MacGyver legacy will mean to them?

Well, that’s a really interesting question, and here’s what I
can tell you. “MacGyver” has entered the lexicon as both a noun and a verb, and
when I walk into high schools and I speak at colleges and high schools and
corporations all over the world, even the kids in high school who have never
seen an episode of “MacGyver” know what MacGyver means. They know
what it represents, because they know the word.

It shows up in almost any television series I watch these
days, it’s hard not to see a reference to “MacGyver.” Some character
goes, “Well we’ll just MacGyver it.” And everybody knows what that
means, like Jell-O, or Kleenex, or Scotch Tape.

Right, it’s a brand.

So, the high-schoolers, those that have not seen the show,
they still know what it means, even if they don’t have a direct or immediate
connection to having seen an episode of the show. And, I’m in the process of
bringing the MacGyver character back on a whole new slew of platforms in part
to re-introduce the character to a new generation.

And that’s part of this. I mean, this is being done through
The MacGyver Foundation – The Next MacGyver competition is being done through
The MacGyver Foundation. We’ve done a mobile app game, there’s a movie in the
works, there’s a musical in the works, there’s a live-action interactive
experience in the works. So, for all of these reasons, I think that will become
more and more familiar to the younger generation. But they all seem to know who
he is anyway.

Will you, at least in
some way, be involved with all five of the winning projects?

Well, I’m not mentoring someone specifically. We found five
other mentors to do it and, I don’t really know the answer to that question.

If, in the process of the mentors working with the five
finalists, if I can be of any help in the process, then I will be. And if they
don’t need me, that’s fine too. My commitment to the competition is to say,
“What can we do to get this ball across the goal line? What can we do to
get a show on the air?” And I will do whatever I can to further that. And
if the mentors want my help, or involvement, then it is readily available to
them. If they go, “Lee, we got this, we’re on it, leave it to us,”
that’s fine by me, too.

READ MORE: The Best Films About Women in 2014

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