Just minutes before James Van Der Beek spoke with Vulture Wednesday afternoon, the viral video he stars in, Power/Rangers, had been taken off the internet. Haim Saban, the creator of the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers series, claimed copyright infringement and got both Vimeo and YouTube to take down the offending content. But anyone who caught the video, which had amassed over 12 million views in a couple of days, could tell you Power/Rangers was nothing like the original kid’s show. Producer Adi Shankar and director Joseph Kahn called it a “deboot” because it was a dystopic reimagining of what might have happened to the Power Rangers if you stopped to consider that the characters were actually child soldiers recruited to fight in an intergalactic war. In addition to starring as rogue Red Ranger Rocky, Van Der Beek also helped shape the script. Vulture spoke to the actor about how he got attached to the project, what’s so great about fandom on the internet, and having airport security discover a gay-porn version of Dawson’s Creek in his luggage.
I just saw that they took the video off YouTube.
Yeah. I apologize for pushing the interview back. I was just trying to figure out what was going on and talk to the producer [Adi Shankar] and get a little bit of the lowdown before I jumped on the phone with you.
Do you know what’s happening?
I know very little. I know it’s Saban. He’s the one behind it. That’s why it’s down. It feels like a battle for the soul of the internet, in a way.
It does, because then it’s like you could take down any fan fiction.
Exactly. This was made and produced by Adi Shankar, who is a huge fan of the Power Rangers. I met Adi at a very serious Hollywood party. There were a lot of ties and suits. And I saw this kid wearing face paint, looking like the Crow. We hit it off and became really good friends. I watched him do a couple of these bootleg shorts, and I got a sense of real bravery in how he goes about this business. He’s really unafraid of the unwritten rule book in Hollywood.
How did you get involved?
We’re at dinner, and I was asking him, “What are you up to next?” He said, “I want to do a hard-R version, like a Christopher Nolan Dark Knight version of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” I said, “That’s crazy, and is there a role for me?” He said, “Dude, if you want to be a part of it. Yeah.” He sent me the script. He introduced me to Joseph [Kahn, the director and scriptwriter]. Even sitting down with Joseph, I saw someone who had been through the Hollywood system, had taken notes, had dealt with studios, and really just wanted to do something that was completely his own. I wanted to join in on that journey. So that was really how it started. I don’t think anybody talked to my agents, including myself. I just told them that I was doing it.
That sounds preferable.
Yeah, what am I going to say? “Hey, guys, is this a good move, is it not?” It was just one of those things I put it in the Funny or Die category.
I saw that you helped write the script. How did that work?
I suggested some changes to my character — instead of making my character just an archvillain, I wanted him to have a point. I really wanted to explore this idea that Adi had pitched me on, that these are child soldiers. When two sides declare war, neither side is innocent. This is a big, bad war that’s going on. I went off and did a big rewrite on all of the dialogue, and instead of narration, I had the interrogation drive the story. I sent the changes to Joseph. He read it and sent me an email that said, “Great, let’s shoot this.” That was it. In no paid job would that ever be the case.
Now, I believe you aged out when Mighty Morphin Power Rangers started, right?
Yeah, I did, I kind of missed it. I was a Voltron guy. He-Man. That was me. Power Rangers I had missed out on just a little bit.
Did you re-watch some episodes to help you when you worked on the script?
What I did was take the tone of what Joseph wanted to do and all of the vignettes and just go from there. I honestly got most of the information from Wikipedia, just to get a sense of the backstory. But really what I saw was a fun way to ask some questions: What would be the reality of these kids if they really were recruited as kids to go fight in a war? And what if the war was with machines that knew everything? That’s not pure fantasy, really.
Why did you decide to call it a deboot?
That was honestly out of respect for the reboot they’re making at Lionsgate. From what I understand, they’re probably taking the spirit of the original franchise and rebooting it for the people who really enjoy that tone and those themes. We were more interested in making something so completely opposite to the source material that it was an original idea. Because, really, there’s no entity that could make a feature-length version of what we did, because it would be fiscally irresponsible to put that much money into something that violent and narrow and specific. But if you’re doing it for free and putting it on the internet, then you can do anything you want.
How was working with Katee Sackhoff?
I loved what Katee did. I left a big Katee Sackhoff fan. I love the earnestness that she brought to it, as somebody who really believed in the cause. The last true believer left. She embodied the soul of the original franchise, which was pretty moral. The Green Ranger came out and said that he thought it was too violent and it deviated.
Well, that’s kind of the point.
Yeah, I agree with him. Then Amy Jo Johnson, who played the Pink Ranger, came out and said, “Definitely not for kids, but satisfying.” She likened it to a kickass cover of a song.
I have a hypothetical for you: If you were to reimagine Dawson’s Creek as a gritty “deboot,” what would it look like?
It’s funny, you actually reminded me of something else that occurred to me. I remember when I was doing Rules of Attraction, and the hair and makeup department got me a copy of the Dawson’s Crack porn movie as a gag gift. It was on VHS, that’s how long ago that was, and I thought it was hilarious. I couldn’t wait to bring it back and show everybody in North Carolina and say, “We’ve made it! Look at us. They’ve made a porno out of us.” This was right after 9/11, and I get flagged by security, and somebody opened up the suitcase, and there’s a gay porno right on top. Not just any gay porno, but one based on the show that I was on. Which is kind of excellent.
So are you saying that Dawson would be a porn star?
Oh, God. No. But it’s not for me to make that call. If some fan out there is so inspired to make the opposite or make a parody, then it’s their right. That’s a good thing.
In a way, it’s more about fans loving a thing than it is about the thing itself.
Certainly in these bootleg shorts, and certainly in fan fiction. It allows the fans to be a part of it and reimagine it through their own lens.
Is there any other thing you would like to reimagine?
It’s going to be tough to reimagine a wider gap between the original source material and the finished product than this. How dark and cruel and gritty a thing can we make out of something so not that?