Gaby Chiappe [Interview]

Photo by Lizzy Coombes

At times we tend to stumble upon some amazing interview opportunities that we just weren’t expecting. When we announced that we were looking to a bit of a celebration of women behind the scenes, a wonderful person was bestowed upon us as a possibility to be featured on the site. Not only because she is a perfect representation of women in the industry, but because she is an extremely talented individual with some great stuff coming up.

Gaby Chiappe is a screenwriter from our (new) side of the pond out here in the UK. She has written for the acclaimed series EastEnders, and so many more in the BBC world. But, what we are most excited about is her work on the upcoming film about a British film crew who attempts to boost morale during World War II by making a propaganda film after the Blitzkrieg called Their Finest. Chiappe was behind the screenplay adaptation of Lissa Evan’s wonderful novel, and from what we have seen thus far, it is going to be one of the finest films of 2017, for sure.

And, as we will mention below, this is a revolutionary type of film simply for how it is being made. It is written by, directed by, acting fronted by, and from a book written by….women! And to top it all of, they are all DIFFERENT women. And even more of the crew are women. It is an incredible showcase of the wonderful talent that is available in the world of film and television. Therefore, we are so proud to have Gaby featured in our Women of the Present showcase. So please enjoy some great words from the amazing writer, Gaby Chiappe!

When did you first realize that you wanted to write for a living? What were some of your earliest inspirations?

I loved stories as a child – however they were delivered – TV, film, books. … I read voraciously (and without much discrimination!), and I spent an awful lot of time making up stories in my own head – but what I really wanted at that age was to be an actor, because that seemed the most perfect way to disappear into a story. Then when I was older I thought I wanted to be a novelist – novels were what I knew, it didn’t occur to me that the films and TV I watched were also written. When – due to a lot of luck and some happy accidents – I discovered screen-writing, it made sense of everything I’d ever been interested in – a raveling together of all these separate threads I’d been pursuing.

I am actually a very recently transplanted American living in England, and am fairly new to some of the concepts of British television. So, in your obviously expert opinion, why do you believe the length of so many shows coming from BBC and the like are kept to only a few seasons, rather than milking it for all it’s worth as we would do in the states? Do you believe this works better for everyone?

I’m really not an expert! And I don’t know enough about how American shows work, but I think the resources available to develop those shows in the US is much greater than in the UK and that has an impact. We do have shows that return again and again and stay strong – but they tend not be on the scale of their US counterparts, maybe six or eight episodes a season as opposed to thirteen or more. From what I hear about writers’ rooms in the US, you have a large number of heavily-resourced writers working collaboratively with a show-runner to break stories over a large span of episodes. With the best will in the world, no one has the money over here to fund that kind of system. I don’t think it impacts on quality – both systems can produce great shows and poor shows, but it does mean that in the US you can produce more episodes, more quickly.

Can you tell us a bit about the upcoming film that you wrote and is set to be released this month  entitled Their Finest? What can the viewer expect to embrace and be thrilled by?

Their Finest is an adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half. It’s about the making of a morale-boosting film in the UK in the early part of the second world war – the film starts during the Blitz. It’s also about a young woman (Catrin) growing into herself – dealing with the daily grind and fear of life during wartime, but also unfurling to fill the space and opportunities this rapidly-changing world is giving her. Gemma Arterton gives an amazing performance as Catrin, she’s got this quiet core of strength and self-respect which blossoms through the course of the film into a new kind of confidence and a conviction of her own worth. Like Lissa’s novel, the film is funny and moving and surprising – it’s also beautifully acted and directed.

One of the characters in the film, (Buckley, a screen-writer), says that a film needs to be worth both the money and the time someone has given up to see it. What I hope is that people come away feeling exactly that – that it was more than worth it.

Their Finest is also a film that was a book written by a woman and then adapted by a woman, directed by a woman, and has a woman as the lead role. And all four are NOT the same person! That is incredible! In your personal opinion and as someone involved, what do you believe these facts added to your lovely story?

Btw – The editor and composer are also both women – as is one of the two producers.

I can honestly say, I never thought about it – it’s my first screenplay, I didn’t have anything to compare it to. It’s only when people tell me this film has an unusual number of women involved that I realise it’s not the norm. And because I have nothing to compare it to, I don’t know what the alternative would have been. All I know is that it was an incredibly happy working experience for me.

Their Finest Hour and A Half
Directed by Lone Sherfig

With a career spanning a solid couple of decades, how do you feel the role of women has changed in the world of British television writing? Are women finally getting the respect they deserve, or is there still a sort “Boy’s Club” feel going on?

It’s an interesting question…. I think there are probably still more male writers than female writers who are considered A-listers – but I would be interested to know how many writers who actually make a living are male and how many are female, and also whether there’s a difference in the kind of TV they’re commissioned to write.

Their Finest Hour and A Half
Directed by Lone Sherfig

And when you look back on your amazing career, what would you say you are most proud of?

Oh, there are quite a few things I’m proud of! To see my first screenplay made still feels extraordinary. I am also very proud of work I did on Shetland (BBC) The Level (ITV)….

And the first episode I ever wrote of Eastenders made me very happy…

But maybe just as important are the things I wasn’t proud of – there have only been a couple, but I know that I never, ever want to be watching something again and think ‘I could have done better’. It’s a really grim feeling.

What is next for you? Anything else we can look forward to in the near future?

I’m adapting Dark Matter by Michelle Paver for Amanda Posey and Finola Dwyer at Wildgaze films (Amanda is one of the Producers of Their Finest). It’s another fantastic novel but very different from Their Finest. It’s a ghost story set in the Arctic – three men alone in a cabin as the polar night begins. It’s beautifully written – moving and pared down, and very frightening.

Their Finest Hour and A Half
Directed by Lone Sherfig

What was the last thing that made you smile?

The fact that it stayed sunny all weekend – in Yorkshire, at least.

Check out the trailer for Their Finest, in theatres soon!

Rose Ganguzza [Interview]

So, last month was the official “Women’s History Month”. And we didn’t really chime in too much. In fact, we mostly talked about a video game. There were women involved with it though! Some damn fine ones too. And then we promptly did a week of white dude writers. And truthfully, we are not ashamed. But, we do want to take some time to focus on some of the amazing females working so damn hard in the entertainment world. Because for us, there is no “Women’s History Month”, because in our world, women are everywhere, and are always doing amazing things. Sadly, our world is not a real as we would hope it to be. So with that, we are continuing the celebration of women here in the month of April, where we are going to celebrate some amazing women working in all sorts of different aspect of the world of film, television, music, and more. And we have a damn fine one for you folks today!

In the world of independent cinema, Rose Ganguzza has been called “The Godmother of Young Filmmakers”. And this would a very accurate title, as she has helped kickstart the careers of some amazing filmmakers, simply by believing in them. And by knowing what makes a damn fine script, which will make a damn fine movie. She has worked with our new friend Sean Stone, so you know she has an eye for talent. She also produced the film adaptation of one of the most bizarre events to ever hit the world of literature, featuring a group of characters who had no idea how greatly they would impact the world of modern literature. I am talking of course about the film Kill Your Darlings. If you haven’t seen this film, first of all – shame! Second of all, you have to see it. Do yourself a favor, read the book And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, and then watch this insane story come to life in the Rose Ganguzza produced modern classic film. You will not be disappointed.

I truly believe that Rose is the perfect woman to kick off what we are calling “Women of the Present Month”. She is a real powerhouse in the world of film, and has earned the right to be so. And we are so happy to have her join the Trainwreck’d Society family, and thankful she was willing to share a few words with us. So with that, please enjoy some words with the amazing producer, Rose Ganguzza!

How did you find yourself in the business as a producer of some very amazing films? How did you start in the business? And was producing always a passion of yours?

I always liked storytelling and as an undergraduate I majored in English Literature. But by the time I got to Columbia, I was given a fellowship for international affairs, so my reality was diplomacy and my specialty was third world countries.

After I graduated I went to work for the Brazilian Government in trade promotion and soon realized that major multinational companies and banks working in Latin American were not able to repatriate their profits. What I came up with was a way to create debt equity swaps for American movies being filmed in Latin America. This also later led to me doing barter syndication in Latin America for Jim Henson.

What are elements of a project that really speak to you as a producer? I imagine marketability is a thing, but how do you know as a producer when you have found a project that you know you can get behind 100%?

I have a strong marketing background so before I take on a project I think of how it is going to be marketed and who is my audience. Of course, for me, the most important thing is the script and the story. If it is not on the page it is not on the screen.

The art of good storytelling is key. There is no point in the amount of work we have to do to make a film if the material is not of a high level.

I have to ask you about Kill Your Darlings, which was about a time in history that I was very familiar with, and was not let down when seeing it come to the big screen. What made you believe in this project enough to back it? Were you a Beat fan prior to working on the film?

I graduated from Columbia and was particularly drawn to this story as part of the history of my alma mater. The fact that the story had been hidden for so many decades because of the details of Lucien Carr’s case intrigued me.

I am also a student of the history of the 1940s and was drawn to wanting to recreate the period. I also liked telling the story of these young poets before they became famous, when they were just students, having to deal with all the challenges that young people face in every generation. There is a commonality in those challenges.

What are your thoughts on the current involvement of women in the world of filmmaking and film production? Does it seem that the barriers of the “Old Boy’s Club” are being let down at all? On the surface, it feels like we are seeing more women doing amazing things behind the camera, but it’s hard to believe that the gender gap is dissipating, as it has been so detrimental to great talents of the years. So, what are your thoughts on the matter? Are women finally getting the respect they deserve?

I think that women are rocking our industry. In every area of our world women are making their mark behind and in front of the camera. This shift allows us to tell more great women’s stories as well.

My feeling has always been that no matter what your gender you have to work really hard to get the things you want in life.

So, in my mind, it is determination and talent that gets you to the top.

Who are some of your favorite female filmmakers and writers working today that you feel should be receiving much more attention in this world than they currently are?

I am a huge fan of Reed Morano who started as a brilliant cinematographer and is now getting much deserved attention as a director. She is strong and enormously talented.

What would you consider your dream project that you haven’t yet brought to life? 

I have a script that I love called Mary Shelley’s Monster about the haunted summer of 1816 and the Romantic Poets. It is told with Frankenstein’s Monster being Mary’s dark passenger throughout her life, who survives way beyond her death. I love the aspect of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll of the early 1800s and that movement which was a precursor of the Beats and the Hippies etc and produced some of the greatest literature of all time. Just in that one summer, we got Frankenstein and Vampyre, the first Vampire novel.

What do you have coming up that you would like to tell our readers about?

I am producing this spring a film based on a script written by Julian Fellowes. It is about a 16 year old Louise Brooke coming to New York in 1922 from Wichita, Kansas with her chaperone. It is called The Chaperone.

In the fall, I am doing a film called Poms with Diane Keaton, about a cheerleading squad in a retirement community.

I am now filming the movie Fatima, about the 1917 Miracle which happened with the three children in Fatima, Portugal.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

I smile every day at the wonders of life.

Alan B. McElroy [Interview]


Our unofficial week of writer celebration is ending! Of course, it will always reappear since, as we have mentioned in the past, we LOVE writers. The storytellers are our favorite part of the world of entertainment. And today we have another damn fine storyteller. Alan B. McElroy is the creator of some of the finest work in the world of horror, action, and more. In fact, he is the man behind the creation of a series that we have written about several times on this site already. That would be the Wrong Turn franchise. We have had writers, directors, and actors alike from several different sections of this franchise. But, now we have the big boss man himself!

Alan also happens to have played a major part in the creation of one of my favorite comic book adaptations of all time with his work on the film and animated television series adaptations of Spawn. And of course, his credits just stack up on top of themselves until they create a tower of excellence that simply demands your respect. From films like the film adaptation of the video game Tekken, to the John Cena vehicle known as The Marine, this guy has done so much outstanding work it’s almost too much to talk about. But, dammit we will try!

So ladies and gentlemen, Alan B. McElroy!

You wrote the original story of a horror franchise that has made several appearance on this site over the last few years – the wonderful Wrong Turn. How did you come up with such a brilliantly scary story?

Hi Ron, great to meet you via email and thank you for your interview request. We writers are often left unrecognized in the the industry. You’d be surprised how many people say to me “Oh, I thought the actors just made up their own dialogue! You mean someone writes it all down for them?” Yikes!

Anyway, to your question. The idea for Wrong Turn came from a couple of sources. First, it’s basically Goldilocks and The Three Bears. The original idea was for a short film I’d planned to write and direct called Blur about a bank robber named Avon who, while escaping town with his loot, runs into car trouble and has to detour through nearby woods on foot. He comes upon a cabin that belongs to the three mountain men and hijinks ensue. Secondly, while driving to New York at night, my wife and I ran into a major traffic jam. When we asked a nearby trucker how long the jam might last, he said it could be eight to twelve hours. We decided to check the map and detour around the traffic jam – and suddenly we found ourselves on unfamiliar back roads at night in the middle of nowhere. We both thought, what if we have a flat tire? We could die out here and no one would know where we are or what happened to us. The last piece came together while driving with my wife and kids down to Disney World from Ohio. We drove through the West Virginia mountains and everything felt so remote and almost primordial. That’s when it all came together. I pitched the idea to a producer friend of mine and he said “You should add more characters so you have some kills, and call it something simple, like “Wrong Turn.” There you have it.

And what are your thoughts on what the franchise has become? Is there anything that you believe sets Wrong Turn apart from so many other franchises?

I have to admit that, beyond my own, I’ve only seen Wrong Turn 2. I’m not sure where the series has gone since, but I’m guessing there’s been a lot of death and cannibalism. I can only say that what may set it apart is our natural fear of becoming prey. The idea of being consumed by another living thing seems to terrify each of us on a primal level. Jaws remains popular because we fear being consumed by sharks. Jurassic Park remains popular because we fear being eaten by dinosaurs, even through dinosaurs no longer exist. As to Wrong Turn, we all have an innate fear of our fellow man because we can never fully know someone’s intent toward us. We fear that within those closest to us lurks a deeply hidden ugliness that seeks to “consume us” on some level. Cannibalism becomes a metaphor for ultimate betrayal by our fellow man.

One project you worked on that I know my readers would kill me if I didn’t ask about would definitely be Spawn, both the film and television series. How did you come to work with fellow legendary writer Todd McFarlane?

I got the job because I’d written a screenplay called Bat Out Of Hell about a guy who escapes from Hell and the devil sends three badass bounty hunters after him. The tone was on point for what New Line wanted for Spawn. I met with Todd and the director and pitched them my take for the script. As always, things are changed along the way, but I really enjoyed working with Todd and getting to go up to ILM and meet many of my SFX idols.

What was great about the HBO series was getting the chance to really write it in my own voice and drop in ideas that didn’t make it into the movie. Often when people come up to me and say they weren’t happy with the movie, I tell them to check out season one of Spawn the animated series.

Long time fans of the Spawn comics, films, etc. know what sets it apart from other stories. But, what about behind the scenes? What do you believe it is that makes Spawn and the fine folks like you behind this cult favorite so special?

I think at the time Spawn came out we didn’t have this type of anti-super hero. He’s a dark character back from Hell. He made a deal with darkness for love, but was betrayed. Now he skulks in the alleyways among the trash and the homeless. Spawn was everything that other superheroes were not. Also, he only had a finite amount of power, so everything he did came at a cost. That isn’t the case for other superheroes. In all aspects of Spawn’s existence he is paying a price. I think fans can relate to that. Daily we make choices and those choices have consequences. Spawn’s entire character is born out of his choice to be with Wanda…only to realize that the path back to love travels through a long, dark and deadly valley of redemption.

One of your earliest credits includes penning the script for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. What was it like jumping into such a well known franchise? Was it nerve racking at all? Where you previously a fan of these movies?

I am a huge fan of classic horror films and the early works of Stephen King. I am and remain a huge fan of John Carpenter. Seeing Halloween and Halloween II were great experiences for me. In college I had a picture from a magazine of Jamie Lee Curtis curled in the hospital room corner holding that .357 magnum outstretched in her fists. I loved that image. So when I got a chance to bring the Shape back I was ecstatic. The only issue at the time was that there was a writer’s strike on the horizon and I only had eleven days to write the script. It poured out of me and, except for some budget issues and creative choices by the director, what you see on screen was what I wrote. I think that’s why people like the movie to this day. Fans can feel my love for the material in the work.

When you look back on your illustrious career thus far, what would you say you are most proud of? 

My career has had its ups and downs. Screenwriting is a tough business and you have to have a thick skin. Most of my films have been rewritten by directors and other writers along the way leaving them painfully and woefully ill-conceived. They do the damage and I have to wear the scars. But that’s the business.

I’d have to say what I’m most proud of is that everyday I continue have a love of film and television. I believe that there are more stories to tell and great, wonderful, thrilling, terrifying, and life-affirming worlds to create. I have been blessed by God to have a very long and, knock on wood, successful career. But I don’t measure that success in box office receipts, but in the simple fact that I’ve been able to raise a family and keep a roof over their heads by telling stories, writing those stories down, seeing them turned into movies and television episodes. No 100 million dollar opening weekend can compare to that.

What is next for you? Any projects you would like to plug that we should be excited to see?

I have a number of projects brewing but nothing I can talk about just yet. I am always seeking new ways to scare and thrill people. Right now I’m trying to gain some much needed experience in television. I intend to create my own series and run my own show. To that end I am working on staff right now to learn the nuts and bolts of what it’s like being in a Writer’s Room, breaking stories, producing episodes, and watching show runners do their thing. I just worked on the final season of The Vampire Diaries which was awesome. Working with Julie Plec and the rest of the TVD staff was like being in a Master Class about series television.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

I laughed uproariously last night at episode 2 of Making History. I love all things time travel. On a more filmic level, I smiled through Logan. What a great character piece. And I smiled at the very end of Split. No spoilers, but anyone who has seen it knows what I’m talking about.

Steven L. Sears [Interview]

Oh man, do we have a doozy of an interview for you fine folks today. This might very well be the most thought out and insightful interview we have ever done. Surely it is at least the longest! And we could not be any happier about that.

Steven L. Sears is a man who has been captivating audiences for over 30 years. He has worked on some amazing television shows in his career, and has continued to dazzle and thoroughly entertain fans of so many different genres. I want to keep this introduction short, as there is A LOT of content for you fine folks to get through here. Let’s just say that Sears is amazing at what he does, and in this interview, he is going to pass along some knowledge to you that will definitely leave you inspired to do whatever the hell it is that you want to do in life. And if it doesn’t, well you have bigger problems I would say. Because Steven lays it all out on the digital table here, and we are so grateful for his presence here at Trainwreck’d Society.

So please enjoy some amazing words with the wonderful Steven L. Sears!

I have learned that you and I sort of grew up the same. As “military brats” that is, feeling like you are always on the move. And we are definitely not alone in this endeavor, I’ve met or heard of plenty of other brats who went on to careers as creative people. For you personally, do you believe that your pick up of a different type of world view might have let you into a life as a creative individual?

I have no idea if the percentage in entertainment is really any higher for military brats, but I’ve certainly been more aware of us. Perhaps that’s just confirmation bias; because I am one, I notice them while ignoring the thousands who aren’t. I can only answer as to how it affected me.

There is no doubt that my upbringing affected my world view and there’s a lot of truth to the fact that my creative side was enhanced as a result of it. For one thing, as a Brat, I moved to a different location every three years as my father was rotated to a new assignment. As a result, I’ve lived in Georgia, Germany, Florida, Kentucky and Washington in my 14 years as an active Brat. That’s a new neighborhood, a new school and new friends every three years.

I’ve had many civvies (that’s you non-Brats) ask me what it was like. They look at me sympathetically and say “It must have been rough, uprooting and moving around the country”.

No, it wasn’t rough. It was AWESOME! I lived all over! I traveled to fourteen nations and 48 states before I was thirteen! New experiences every three years! For a kid, this was an incredible life. Well, it was for this kid anyway.

Now, granted, there are some things that I can’t identify with that civvies take for granted. Nesting, for example. I have never felt the need to “settle down”. The idea of growing up with the same friends through grade school and high school is not a part of my world. And living in one house for your entire childhood? No, can’t see it.

Then again… have you ever been lulled to sleep at night by the rumble of distant mortar fire? I have. Have you ever set your watch by hearing a loudspeaker play Reveille in the morning at Taps at night? I have. Were you raised with such a respect for your Flag that when Retreat was played on base (retiring of the Colors), everyone, including children, would stop what they were doing, turn toward the flag or music, and pause in silence? We did. Do you understand the significance of watching a black sedan slowly drive down your neighborhood street during the height of the Vietnam war? I did.

And have you ever seen your mother swat a broom at a M-60 Patton tank that had accidentally jumped the curb onto your lawn? Yeah. Me.

I was also exposed to all sorts of people and societies and frequently moved from one area of social tolerance to another. Military bases have their own environment, where you don’t choose who you live next to. And it didn’t matter the color, religion or heritage of the person who lived next door, especially when the soldier of that family might be in a foxhole protecting your dad’s back. Contrast that to when my dad retired and we moved to a small Southern town where the school had been desegregated only a few years before.

But aside from all that, it’s how Brats react to it internally that counts more. For me, I had to find a way to fit in as quickly as possible. Mine was comedy. I was the “class clown”. If I could make them laugh, they would accept me. So entertaining became very easy for me at an early age. But, at the same time, creating a “mask” to separate me from the others also became a part of how I presented myself. Face it, not every aspect of who you are is going to be accepted in every environment by everyone. Your core doesn’t change, but you can control what parts the others can see. As a result, I became a very private person and a very gregarious person at the same time.

In a sense, I was always creating a “character” that I played. It’s not that I was pretending to be someone else, but it was, as I mentioned, controlling what others saw. I also developed what I refer to as an “audience eye” as a way to keep track of how I was perceived. This has come in very handy as I try to assess how an audience responds to my writing and characters. It’s a pain in the ass when I’m involved in debates because it also demands I see the other person’s point of view.

But that was my experience and a lot of that was determined by how I dealt with it all. Not every Brat moved into the creative realm and not every creative is a Brat.

How did you find yourself in the world of television? Were you always aspiring to be a writer, or did you have different plans at first? How did you manage to make television writer your mainstay in the world of entertainment?

Believe it or not, I’m going to try to give you the short answer.

(deep inhale)

I never planned to be a writer. Never. I didn’t even consider you could make a living at it; it wasn’t even on my radar.

When I was around thirteen or fourteen, I decided to audition for the State Play of Florida; Cross & Sword. My audition consisted of reciting the Gettysburg Address (thank you Boy Scouts!) and I got the role. From that point on, I was interested in acting and performance. I joined the school drama club, acted in all the plays, and did some regional work. As a result, when I entered college, my major was…. medicine. Acting was fun, I loved it, but I was looking toward my eventual career. My dad had retired and become an administrator of a hospital, so I was always around it and interested in medicine.

However, it is commonly accepted that a degree in Medicine is extremely difficult to do with a “C” in basic chemistry, which is what I got. So I was a bit lost at that point and went from Medicine to Liberal Arts (a degree which, I’m convinced, is like a way station for those who haven’t a clue what to do).

Enter Richard Dreyfuss. Yes, the actor. He had just won the Oscar for his performance in The Goodbye Girl. When that movie came out, a lot of my friends were telling me that he played me; the character was a lot like me. Well, maybe. But when he won that award, I remember thinking “It’s not like I’d have a chance. Only special people win the Oscar.” As soon as those words appeared in my mind, I realized he never would have gotten close to that award if he thought the way I just did.

That was the day I decided to switch my major to Theatre and become an Actor.

(did I mention this was the short version?)

So I got my degree in Theatre from Florida State University (Go ‘Noles!) and moved to Los Angeles. After meeting with several casting directors and hearing their thoughts about actors, I decided to start writing my own audition material. Just three page, three minute audition scenes. They became popular with other actors and, on advice from one of those casting directors, I decided to attempt writing a script, just for the fun of it.

The script I wrote sucked. It was horrible. But I LOVED writing it. I wanted to do more. So I started getting copies of TV scripts and began to study them. Again, with no thought of actually writing as a career, just because it was… well, fun.

Enter Burt Pearl. While working at a restaurant (how cliché) I met Burt Pearl, who became my close friend and co-conspirator. He was an extremely creative person and we decided to write a few scripts together.

Enter Riptide. A new series on NBC, produced by the Stephen J. Cannell company, which also produced Greatest American Hero, The A-Team, Hardcastle & McCormick and many other series. It was the elite production company of the time, still run in a very mom & pop manner by Steve. Burt and I liked the show so, as was our routine, I called over to see if they had a Writer’s Guide that we could look at. Again, I have to stress, this was just so we could have one. Not to get a job. The person I ended up talking to was a woman working in the production office. She said they didn’t have a Writer’s Guide, but she asked if I liked the new series. I told her I did and we proceeded to have a great conversation (most of it non-business). Toward the end of that conversation, she told me that the producers of Riptide were looking for freelance writers. She suggested that we have our agent send over a couple of samples of our work. “Who knows?” she said. I thanked her and that was the end of the call. She didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know who she was.

Burt and I didn’t actually have an agent, but we knew one who would talk to us. I called him, told him about the conversation, and suggested he send over some scripts.

(still the short version of this story, by the way)

About a month later, we got a call from Tom Blomquist, the Story Editor of Riptide. He wanted us to come in and meet him and the Executive Producer, Babs Greyhosky. Burt and I went in, wondering why they wanted to meet with us. We had never had a professional meeting about writing. We had a great time with them and they asked us for some of our ideas. We pitched five notions. They liked three and asked us to come back when we had those more fleshed out. We worked out two of them and came up with a completely new idea. We went back in, repitched the two and pitched the new one. They liked the new one and asked us to come back with a story outline. So we went off, wrote up an outline, and came back in to pitch it. We spent about an hour and a half where they ripped it apart and put it back together. Burt and I were having a ball. Tom and Babs were great to be around and we figured they must be on hiatus to take so much time to hang out with us (look up “naïve” in the dictionary… that photo is me). At the end of the meeting, Tom asked me who our agent was so he could notify Business Affairs.

That’s when it hit me. I asked Tom if we just got an assignment. He gave me a puzzled look and said “You got the assignment two weeks ago.”

We honestly had no idea what had just happened. We didn’t even know how much one episode of Network TV paid (we guessed it would be around $500…. Back then, it was around $15,000).

So, in a daze, Burt and I started to write the first draft. We finished it and turned it in on a Friday. On Monday, Tom called and left a message on my answering machine. He said that he liked the draft and had given our names to The A-Team and Hardcastle & McCormick producers because they were looking for freelance writers as well.

That was awesome enough. But the big call was on Wednesday, when Babs called and said she had given our script to Stephen J. Cannell to read. Steve, she said, only had ONE NOTE in the entire script. And, she continued, she was wondering if Burt and I wanted to work with them full time, on staff.

And, boom, my career began…

Again, keep in mind, I never planned this. The amount of time from when I wrote that horrible first script to the time I was standing in my Riptide office was about one year. My acting career moved to the background as I discovered that though I loved acting, I loved writing even more.

And to this day, with a 33 year long career and still going, the only books I have read on screenwriting is the one I wrote and the only classes I’ve attended on it were ones that I have taught (although I strongly advise EVERYone to read as much as possible and take advantage of classes and degrees in filmmaking).

That, in a large nutshell, is how it all started. Now, if you want the long version…

Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say something more about Burt, my partner. Burt was an incredible writer on his own. At the suggestion of the producers at Stephen J. Cannell, Burt and I separated our contract and worked as individuals. He went on to work on many shows including being an Executive Producer on Touched By An Angel. Unfortunately, Burt passed away in 2006. He was an incredible person and hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of him.

Can you remember hearing your very first lines of dialogue acted out on screen? Do you remember who might have said them, and how you felt in that moment?

Hmmm…. Interesting question. I can’t actually remember it. I mean, I certainly know what the first line was in that first script Burt and I wrote for Riptide but it wasn’t filmed in linear order so it would have been in the dailies of whichever scene we shot first. I might even have been on the set the first time. I can’t say I remember how it felt.

Now, related to this question, is what my feeling was when I saw my name on the credits for the first time on television. I was at home, by myself (go figure). I had already seen the Answer Print (the final print we send to the Network), so I already knew what it looked like, but this was the first time it was going to be seen by a national audience. I waited, staring at the screen. And… there it was! And it was gone! And I felt…. well, that was anti-climatic. I expected more, I don’t know, fireworks?

But the second time… yes, that was memorable. I was in a Circuit City electronics store. I had set my VCR to record the episode, but I wasn’t going to see it live. I was standing in a long line at the checkout, looking at the clock as it neared 8 pm. Then I realized… I was surrounded by TV sets. They were all over the place, on the walls, on the floor displays, this was an ELECTRONICS store. I asked the person behind me to hold my space and I went around and changed every TV set to channel four. I got back in line and as it hit 8pm, Riptide was on every TV set in the store. And… my name flashed on hundreds of screens, all around me.

THAT was pretty rewarding.

In your early days as a writer on such huge shows as The A-Team and Riptide. And over 30 years later, you are still at it! So, congrats! But, my question is about how much things have changed? What are maybe some of the more subtle differences in the world of television writing? And do you find it to be better? worse? 

TV has changed so much in the last thirty years. The technology has changed it, the social environment has changed so much, the very paradigm of story telling has changed.

This is a very complicated thing to address, so I can only skim the surface. Let’s break some of it down.

Back in the day (meaning when I started, in the 1980’s) there were only three networks plus PBS. CBS, NBC and ABC (FOX showed up a few years later). You could actually figure out how many episodes of television that were available for Writers and it wasn’t much. All of the series were financed by advertising dollars, meaning the networks had to sell commercial time to companies and the amount they charged was based on viewership. This was assessed, mostly, by Nielsen ratings. The budgets for producing the series were also based on this.

Next, was the secondary market. This was the “syndication” market. Basically it meant that every series would be sold individually to the local independent stations to be shown at their discretion. Mostly, this meant in the middle of the day when they did local programming. And it was always done as a secondary market, long after the original network run was over (TV series that were intended directly for the syndication market didn’t come until later).

Now with this, the local stations could also choose the order that they aired the episodes in syndication. That restricted us in writing the series because they could re-order it in such a manner that any broad series arcs wouldn’t make sense. So each episode had to be self sustaining and much more dependent on the plot specific to that episode. The character arcs were not broad, they evolved slowly and unintentionally as the series unfolded.

So two things have completely shaken up the formula since then.

One is that we have now expanded from advertiser driven financing to subscription financing. The Networks are still there and still use advertising dollars, but networks like HBO, SHOWTIME, AMAZON and the like have budgets that are based on subscribers. The Networks have to guess what the future income is based on projected advertising success. The subscription based networks know what their budgets are already; it’s based on known subscriber numbers.

Two is the technology of Entertainment, which has two parts.

(a) is the appearance of cable TV and the expansion in the number of networks. We now have so many networks out there, many of them specializing in a certain kind of product. Flip through your cable channels and see how many networks now have original content. And it’s getting larger.

(b) is the change in how series are presented. Listen, young’uns, there was a time when we had to rush five miles through six foot snow to be home when our favorite episode was on! If you missed it, well, you had to wait until Summer when the Networks would rerun the series. Even then, there was no guarantee they would rerun the one you missed! Nowadays you can record an entire series to watch at your convenience. Or you can buy the box set DVD to watch at your convenience. Or you can stream episodes at your convenience. Note the commonality? “At your convenience” means that you are no longer dependent on a schedule dictated by the Networks. You can watch your episodes anytime and anywhere. It also means that commercials and advertising-based revenue isn’t as important (notice that commercials have become more entertaining? It’s to prevent you from fast forwarding through them).

So how have those things changed the landscape of TV writing?

Well, in one case, you might notice that there would be more opportunities for Writers. With that many outlets, there has to be more work. Yes…. and no. What you are finding is that even though there are more slices in the financial pie, the pie itself hasn’t gotten appreciably larger. Rates have gone down relative to inflation and the residual system has taken a huge hit. And the freelance market has also taken a huge hit as many series write all their episodes in-house. Back when I started out, we would write in-house episodes, but freelance assignments to outside Writers. It’s a system I still believe in to this day as I think new blood is a necessary part of storytelling. But financially, it makes more sense to write it all in-house.

But for those Writers who do work, this is a golden era of storytelling. Because of the new syndication, you are no longer restricted by the order your episodes might be shown. Everything is “at your convenience”. The audience can now watch a series in correct order and most do. Binge watching is exactly this. So because of that, stories no longer have to be told in an episodic format, they can be told in a grand novelesque manner. 12 episodes of a series can be written as if it’s a 12 hour movie with huge character and plot arcs.

Did I mention that back in the day, we had 22 hours to fill? Now it’s a lot less. Another change, but I digress.

Another change has been the disappearance of the middle class of TV writers. People like to talk about the huge salaries that Hollywood people make, but that’s only looking at the tabloid headlines. Most of the people who work in the business make a modest living at it. There was a thriving middle class that made up most of the business, with the small percentage of Superstars at the top and those trying to break in at the bottom. That has been changing for a while. It has a lot to do with how the residual system has been destroyed and the longevity of careers in the business. Getting in as a writer is more difficult. But staying in is even harder. My fear is that we will get to a point that the only kind of Writers we have are either Superstars or hobbyists; those few who make millions and those who can’t make a sustainable living at it.

Moving into the early 90’s, you were a creative mastermind behind the highly underrated series, Swamp Thing! I remember feeling my little 8 year old heart break when I learned that there would be no more Swamp Thing. What was your experience like in adapting such a legendary story for the television? Any fond memories during the period of the show’s run?

Swamp Thing was such a wonderful show to work on. And for one of the most illogical of reasons; we had no money to shoot it.

As background, Swamp Thing was a DC Comics character introduced in “House of Secrets #92.” Created by Bernie Wrightson and Len Wein, it became very popular and spawned its own comic book series. In 1982, Wes Craven wrote and directed a movie about the character. There was also a sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing. In the early nineties, USA Network decided to run a TV series around Swampie.

I wasn’t involved in the first season of Swamp Thing. Twenty two episodes were aired, but apparently it wasn’t doing as well as it should, so the network agreed to bring it back if the budget could be cut in half. With the exception of Boris Malden (a true genius in production), all the producers were released from their contracts. They needed a new Writing/Producing staff so they called on Tom Blomquist (remember him from my breaking-in story?). He immediately hired me and another producer name Jeff Myrow. We were told there was very little money. My pay was the lowest I had accepted in years. But the order was going to be 50 guaranteed episodes and I was promised more responsibility and the opportunity to work with an old friend, Tom. So I took the job.

Now, when I say we didn’t have money, believe it. Our budget was so low that we could not afford any overtime of any sort. Most series would run over and just pay the extra. We could not afford that. Anything we didn’t get in the camera we just didn’t have. We’d have to figure it out in post-production. This was a half-hour single camera series that and we had only 36 total hours to shoot each episode; not one minute more. And to that, we had no money for optical effects or special effects that couldn’t be shot on the set. If it couldn’t be done through the lens, it wasn’t going to happen. And money for action sequences? Please.

Keep in mind this was a Super Hero series. Super powers were a part of it. Super strength was a part of it. Money, however, was not.

How did that affect us? It made us… FORCED us to be more creative. We couldn’t throw money at a problem to solve it. The first thing we did was admit we couldn’t rely on the flashy eye candy of special effects or super powers. We had to go deeper with the episodes, write character based stories. Swamp Thing morphed into being a voice of our own conscience. Yes, he had his adventures and we sill had a lot of suspense, but we concentrated more on depth of the character and his inner conflict, along with those around him. Anyone who remembers Swamp Thing in the comics will recognize that the character was originally set up that way. In fact, we were getting back to his roots (I accept all blame for puns in this section; it’s unavoidable).

Now this would have all been a complete waste of time if we didn’t have the crew and actors around us to make it happen. Fortunately we were blessed with an incredible crew (many of whom I worked with again on Xena) and talented actors who were a joy to work with. We worked hard on that series and everyone took pride in it. We were dedicated to making this work by pulling every low budget trick we could. 

We called in favors to get recognizable names to guest star on the series. Larry Manetti (from Magnum P.I.) was talked into some episodes. Philip Michael Thomas (Miami Vice) did an episode at my request. Heck, we even had the singer Debbie Boone in an episode (notable for her song “You Light Up My Life”). We resorted to old theatrical stagings and, at one point, a magic trick in order to create visual effects where they didn’t exist. We had the benefit of shooting on the lot of Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. We used every set we could in that park. If we shot during the day, we’d have people trying to keep the tourists quite while we shot. When we shot at night, it was eerie walking around the different exhibits and rides in the dark (I once got caught in the middle of the Earthquake ride because I was doing a location scout at midnight and the techs were running ride simulations at the same time).

And Dick Durock as Swamp Thing… I am still amazed at what he put into that character. He used to tell me “I’m just a lucky stuntman” (he had been a stuntman on many many series and movies), but he was Swamp Thing. He had played that character in every version of it and rarely ever complained. When he did, he would follow it up by a very self-effacing “But what do I know?” Dick knew a lot. And he invested more in that role than anyone should have been required to. Imagine working a full day in the summer, in Orlando, with that sun beating down on you, wearing forty pounds of foam rubber and prosthetics. When he would take off his boots at the end of the day, sweat water would pour out. And I never heard him complain about it. I wish I had the time to talk about everyone who worked on the show, seriously. Some have become life long friends.

As I mentioned, we had 50 episodes to shoot, three days each, two each week. That meant that the Script Monster had to be fed twice a week, but it takes at least a month and a half to prepare his meal (the script). So we got an immediate jump on writing scripts. Tom, Jeff and I wrote many of them, but we farmed many of them out to freelancers. When we started production, we had an amazing 25 scripts in final form, ready to be shot. By the time we got to the last episode, we were spending our entire weekends writing feverishly and sending pages directly to the set. That Script Monster will not be denied his regular meal.

Somehow we did it. And we were so close to our budget at the end, it would have been pocket change to make up the difference. I have too many fond memories of that series to relate here.

Later on in that decade you made you way into the world of Xena: Warrior Princess, which may be where some people may recognize your name the most, as this was a massively successful show that amassed a huge cult following that still seems to occur today. So how did you come to work on this show as a writer and consultant, to eventual producer?

Remember Babs Greyhosky? I mentioned her before, she was the showrunner of Riptide, the person who hired me for my first job. I got a call from her one day and she told me that she had just started working as a Supervising Producer on a new series. It was a spin off of the series Hercules, starring Kevin Sorbo and Michael Hurst, about an evil Warrior Princess who goes up against Hercules. Hercules defeats her and convinces her to reconsider her ways. Babs told me she wanted me to come in and meet the producers and that there was a character she thought I would really enjoy writing. The character was Salmoneous, played by Robert Trebor.

So I went in to meet Rob Tapert and RJ Stewart as well as Liz Friedman. They told me about the new series, Xena: Warrior Princess, and gave me a breakdown of the characters. Now, I had already seen Hercules on TV and knew a bit about it already. Hercules was half god, half man. He went up against mortal warlords and the gods of Olympus. So I asked a natural question: do they ever deal with demi-gods? They weren’t sure what I meant, so I pitched an idea completely off the cuff about the demi-god Morpheus. Rob really liked the idea, so when I came back in later to do an actual pitch, they wanted me to write that episode.

I wrote the first draft for it and, based on that, they asked me if I would come on board. They already had a full complement of producers, so they couldn’t offer me a producer’s position. Even though I had already produced two series at that point, I actually think they just were being cautious. In any event, they asked me if I would be a creative consultant on the series. I wasn’t working on a show at the moment, and I really liked the series concept, so I accepted.

A couple of month later, Babs left the series to pursue another project. I realized they now had a producing slot open, so I approached RJ and reminded him of my background. He agreed with me and took it to Rob, who agreed as well. Sam Raimi, Rob’s partner, also signed off and, boom, I was the new Supervising Producer.

Later on, I was moved up to Co-Executive Producer.

The series was, truly, a great experience. The number of talented people involved with that series, from the crewmembers working on the set to those of us in the producer’s office, to the actors and actresses and, even, the executives at the studio really made Xena work. I’ve referred to it as catching lightning in a bottle. Casting Lucy Lawless in the lead role and giving her a perfect match with Renee O’Connor cemented it. Not that we didn’t have our differences, we were very much a dysfunctional family at times. We had no idea we were making something that was going to impact pop culture, or that it was going to have huge critical, merchandising, and ratings success. We were just hoping we could do something we would be proud of and have a great time in the process. Oh, and hoping to get a second season. Somehow it all worked out and I ended up with a great experience and some wonderful friends along the way.

Many of those friends were originally fans of the series that I got to know over the years at the various fan conventions. I can tell you, I have never met a more committed, loving, charitable group of people in my life. Those fans have raised well over 23 million dollars for charities world wide in the name of “The Greater Good”. It’s a nod to the title of an episode I wrote and I’m humbled by the incredible giving nature of the Xenites.

And, of course, I always give a tip of the hat to our big brother, Hercules. Xena would not have happened if it weren’t for the success of Hercules to spin off from.

Can you tell us a bit about your book The Non-Use Friendly Guide For Aspiring TV Writers? I am very intrigued. What made you want to write this book?

The complete title is The Non-User-Friendly Guide for Aspiring TV Writers, Experience and Advice from the Trenches (not what you want to know but what you need to know). The truth is, that title was my little joke. My publisher decided he liked it, so it remained.

It wasn’t originally intended to be a book. Since I have had a fairly high internet presence, I would see many aspiring screenwriters asking questions online about the business. So I began to answer them. After a while, many of the questions were repeated by others, so instead of typing a new response every time, I started to keep a log of my answers. I would rewrite them to the new question to address specific details, but eventually I had a file of questions and answers.

Enter Kevin J. Anderson, the popular Science Fiction writer. Kevin and I had known each other for quite a while, we were friends, and we had been thinking of collaborating on a project. But since he knew absolutely nothing about Hollywood or the business he had a lot of questions, so I sent him my file and told him to take a look. He read it and suggested (strongly) that I publish it through his own company, Wordfire.

And I didn’t. At least, not at first. It took a few years of him reminding me of it before I finally agreed.

So the book is, as I mentioned, about the business. It is not to teach someone how to be creative and tell a story. Nor does it get bogged down in the details of format. Yes, I touch on those things, but only to facilitate the business aspect. The questions I address are things that range from getting an agent, branding yourself in the business, how to dress and act in meetings, how to prepare for pitching ideas and pilots, and a lot of the things that aren’t really addressed in many other books. And although I think I’m diplomatic in my answers, I don’t sugar coat it. It is also interspersed with little anecdotes about my life and career. Those stories are meant as optional diversions, but also to give you a sense of who I am and how I view things. I believe it’s necessary to understand the context of the advice before you can apply it to your situation (a couple of the stories you’ve read here are included).

Kevin will tell you that I am horrible at self-promotion. I really am, I don’t try to pressure people into buying the book, I don’t go out of my way to push it on others. So I will, as per my obligation to Wordfire, say that you can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and through the Wordfire website. Objectively, it really is a good look into the business if you are intending to make Television Writing a career.

When you look back on your illustrious career, what would you say you are most proud of?

Most people who know me know that I’m not really wired for the “list your favorite” type of question. I can’t really point to one thing, one series, one episode, one experience that I am most proud of.

I take pride in the fact that I’ve made people happy in some fashion. That I have the ability to make people feel, to laugh, to cry, and to look at things from a different perspective, that makes me happy. I am humbled when I get letters from people who tell me how their lives were changed by things that I wrote and/or produced.

But, excuse me for being a bit sappy at this moment, I am most proud of my parents. They were the ones who encouraged me and gave me the strength and confidence to pursue the things that made me happy.

What do you have coming up that our reader’s should look forward to? Anything to plug?

There’s a lot going on at the moment. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about most of the film and TV development because they are either still in the works or in the process of negotiations. I continue to develop series ideas and film scripts and make the rounds with the studios and networks. It’s never easy in the best of situations and past success is never a guarantee of future results. I’m great in a pitch meeting, ask around.

Kevin J. Anderson and I have a graphic novel called Stalag-X that we’re very excited about. It’s actually gone through a few tentative releases, but we just signed a deal with Vault Comics and it will be coming out mid to late 2017. We also signed with a company to bring Stalag-X to the screen, but I’m not at liberty to say which company. There will be an announcement in the trades soon.

I have new novel tentatively titled Vill’Annie which I wrote with Peter J. Wacks, another amazing author. It’s part one of a three volume story that creates a new world to play in. That novel in still in the editing stage, so I’m not sure when it’s coming out.

I’m excited about another novel called Harry O’Fell that I’ve been working on. I have already written the pilot script and screenplay, but I decided to go for the trifecta and get the novel done.

I am also featured in an upcoming documentary called Battlefield: Home – Breaking the Silence, written and directed by Anita Sugimura. This documentary deals specifically with the difficulties of military families and returning veterans during war. It’s wonderfully heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. Brats will understand.

I do make appearances now and then at Comic Cons, as well doing radio shows and interviews online. I’m a guest on Combat Radio on LA Talk Radio from time to time and I do guest speaking at universities and colleges around the country. I’m rebuilding my website, but it will eventually list my appearances.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

The problem with this question is, much like writing, I will constantly be editing it as things change. I prefer the mystery of the next thing that will make me smile. It keeps me moving forward with optimism.

Dean Batali [Interview]

As most of our regular readers here at Trainwreck’d Society may know, we absolutely adore writers. We are obsessed with storytellers of any fashion. The people who cycle creative thoughts through their brilliant minds and put them on display in whatever their chosen format may be are the cat’s striped pajamas in our world. And do we ever have an amazing one for you fine folks today!

Dean Batali is a writer who has been responsible for so much of the finest television you have enjoyed over the years, as a writer and producer of great accord. He has blessed fans over the years with his work on a wide range of television shows, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to That 70’s Show to the popular Canadian teen series What’s Up Warthogs! The variety of this brilliant man is undeniable. There really doesn’t seem to be a medium he can’t tackle.

So, we are honored that he would be willing to take some time out to talk with us here at TWS. And as an added bonus, I brought a dear friend of mine, and co-host of my favorite podcast Super Geeky Play Date, Bryan Bales on to ask some specific questions about a series that he has publicly adored, which would be Buffy. I admittedly was not as familiar with the series, but knew that Bales could come up with some intriguing Q’s for Mr. Batali’s A’s. And I believe he did a great job. So thank you Bryan!

And with that, please enjoy some great words from television writer and producer, a legend in his own right, Dean Batali!

How did you find yourself in your line of work as a hugely successful television writer and producer? Was it always something you were driven towards?

I became a television writer because I got fired by a theater company.

My wife and I were working in Seattle as performers (and I as a writer) for a touring company that mostly performed in schools and churches. This is after I had produced a few of my own plays — musical comedies — in the Pacific Northwest but we were working for the theater company full-time. And they fired me. Let’s call it “artistic differences.” Writing TV had always been in the back of my mind, and since I had been writing comedy that… well, none of the shows won a Tony, but the people who came to see them at least were laughing out loud. So I thought maybe I could use that skill and try to be a sit-com writer. So three weeks later my wife and I loaded our life into a U-Haul and moved to Los Angeles. We had $2000 in the bank and didn’t have any connections in Hollywood. But a few months later I got a job in the mailroom at CBS/MTM studios — where they had filmed St. Elsewhere and Mary Tyler Moore and Gilligan’s Island (I got to stand in the empty lagoon). At the time they were shooting Roseanne and thirtysomething and I put the name up on the door that said “Seinfeld” when that show started filming there. And that mailroom job led to other jobs as a production assistant and writer’s assistant an eventually I met writers who offered to read my work and they liked it and passed it on and started hiring me (and Rob DesHotel, my writing partner at the time).

I had always been a big fan of TV — more so than movies — so I was drawn towards that but hadn’t really dreamed of being a TV writer. I still would rather win a Tony for playwriting than and Emmy for writing for TV… although I’ll take one of those, too, if anyone’s offering. But I really like the long-term storytelling that is unique to TV. Something like NYPD Blue, which ran for 11 season, gets to trace the redemption of its main character as he struggles to become the person that he wants to be. And even sit-coms show the advancement of relationships in a way that I’ve always found really interesting.

What was your first paid television gig that you could remember? And what was it like to hear your words being spoken on screen?

First paid gig was for an animated show called Duckman, starring Jason Alexander, though the first time I heard my words on screen was actually for an episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete, which aired before the animated show. It’s kind of weird that I don’t remember that moment of hearing my words as being a big thing, and I think it’s because I am more affected by being in the room with an audience (as I was for the plays that I wrote) and hearing their laughter — the same way it was on That ’70s Show. It was fun to know that 15 million people or so were watching the show in their homes, but what mattered most was that the studio audience in that room was laughing at what we had written.

I did get a kick out of seeing my and Rob’s words in print, later, when Rolling Stone did an article about Pete and Pete and included a few of the things we had written (“Suck on soil, Lounge Act!”) and later when Entertainment Weekly did a similar list of phrases from Buffy (“Hello, salty goodness.”)

Can you tell us about how you got involved with Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

The show was staffing up in the summer of 1996. Rob and I had just come off of working on a sit-com (Hope and Gloria) which only ran for two seasons; we were staff writers for season two. Most of the new series had already hired writers in May and June and it wasn’t until July that we got the meeting for Buffy. Our agent had sent Joss our The Adventures of Pete and Pete script and Joss really liked it. (I continue to point out to people that Buffy and Pete and Pete have similar DNA in terms of their quirky dialog, and if you’re a fan of one you’ll probably be a fan of the other.) We were sent a video cassette (!) of the pilot presentation, which Joss had directed. It was about 20 minutes long but told a similar story to what eventually became “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” The cast was the same, though there was a different Willow. What I remember most is the opening scene (the same as in the series). The girl and guy sneaking into a place and the girl gets all scared but the guy assures her that they are alone and when she’s sure they are — she eats his face.

So we were hired after a meeting with Joss, who told us about the show — how it would be different from the movie — and that he wanted a mix of comedy and hour-long writers. And how he wanted to do high school as an allegory for the horror movie: that high school was the most terrifying place he ever was (and I agreed; mine was, too). We started work with the other writers a week or so later.

People need to remember that the idea of doing a TV series based on what many people consider a “failed” move was not a big deal at the time. It wasn’t a hot show in any way, and we didn’t think much of getting the meeting. It wasn’t until we were working on the show and saw what we were doing that we realized — this is something that’s very unique.

Can you describe what it was like sitting down with everyone and mapping out an episode? A season of a show like Buffy or many of the other shows you have worked on? What goes into that?

It varies from show to show. For something like Buffy (which had serialized elements, and That ’70s Show had a few, too) we’d spend a few days at the beginning of the season talking about the main things that were going to happen — Buffy is going to sleep with Angel; Oz is a werewolf; etc. — and mark off at what point those things would happen in the season. Then as other story ideas are pitched we decide where they best fit within the arc of the season.

Once the logline of an episode is decided the writers generally sit around and talk about how that episode could be shaped, and the different things that could happen in it. Then as the storyline starts to become more clear we — or, rather, the showrunner — decides how the story beats are going to happen. All of this can sometimes take a few hours, or it can take a few days. On Buffy, we weren’t in the writers’ room a lot. Joss had been on Roseanne and wasn’t a big fan of the writers’ room coming onto Buffy. We did do some work as an entire staff, but mostly it’d be whoever was writing the episode working with Joss and David Solomon, or going off and structuring an episode and then having Joss look it over and ask for changes. I remember Rob and I working on one episode and we had it worked out on a big white board and Joss came in and looked it over and said, “Make the third act break the first act break,” so that means re-doing everything.

I like to use the first few hours of story breaking to get things down in broad strokes — to see if the story idea has a beginning, middle, and end. Then once a skeleton of a story is set, we get into the individual story beats and try to come up with surprises and compelling act breaks. And a lot of time the first thing we come up with is an act break or a later story beat and then try to build the story to that. I describe it as “breaking the story from the inside out,” rather than thinking — this thing happens first, and then this, and then this. It’s “It’d be cool if ____ happened in the third act, so how do we set things up for that?” And then, of course, things change along the way. We’ll write an outline and change things, and second drafts can be quite different from firsts. You’ll see things that were missing, or story beats that don’t work, and then it becomes a little more like geometry — trying to fit a story into a structure that already exists.

How active was Sarah Michelle Gellar behind the scenes with Buffy’s character development?

I’m not sure how active she was in the early days, but keep in mind that I was not an upper-level writer at the time, so would not have been aware of conversations she might have been having with Joss and David Solomon. She did know the character and the character’s voice, though, and I remember being called down to the stage once to adjust a line she felt didn’t quite sound “Buffy.” So we gave her something else that worked better.

That ’70s Show was one of the most impressive sitcoms I have ever witnessed. Mainly because it was such a specific topic in some ways, yet it seemed to transcend from being a novelty show and turned into a real hilarious emotional rollercoaster at times. I have theories as to why it worked so well, but I am really interested to hear directly from you, a man that was there very early on in the series. What do you believe it was that made the show work so well?

I think people thought of it as a novelty show because of the title (which was not the original title; at one point it was going to be “Teenaged Wasteland” but people just kept referring to it as “That ’70s Show” which eventually stuck). But I think one of the reasons it worked so well is because it was hardly about anything. I know Seinfeld is known as “a show about nothing” but ours was simply about people hanging out. Very low stakes; not a lot going on. There were the relationship things, sure — Eric and Donna, Jackie and Kelso (and then Hyde, and then Fez) and the parent / teen stuff but — if you look at the individual stories that we did, very few of them have a lot of weight. They’re just kind of silly, which allows the show to exist as sort of “popcorn.” Easy to watch, you can start watching halfway through an episode, and you can watch it again and again because it zips along so quickly, with fast scenes and fantasy sequences.

On another level, though, the characters are simple and well defined — Kelso is dumb; Eric is nervous; Jackie is mean; Fez is innocent. So you can put all of those people in a room and they’re going to have something funny (and unique to them) to say. And since the cast was so good, we didn’t always need jokes. We could get laughs from one character telling the other to shut up, or screaming “Burn!’ or literally just hitting each other on the arm. Not proud of that writing, but… it’s funny.

But also — the ’70s are sort of an end of an era when people (in this case, teens) just “hung out” — as the theme song of the show reiterated. It was before cable TV, and before video games, and — whether they were smoking pot or not — kids just sort of hung out together, not doing much of anything. And this show was able to capture that.

And while That ’70s Show featured “teenagers”, it would a bit more far fetched to call it a “kid’s show” or a “teen show”, both of which you have also had a ton of experience with. So what is the experience like working on a show geared for a much younger audience? Does the process differ much from creating a primetime show geared for adults?

We never really thought about the show being geared toward a younger or older audience, but That ’70s Show was unique in that it featured (mostly) teens but viewers who were teens in the ’70s were in their forties while the show was airing, so it appealed to them, too.

We generally just did things that we thought were funny, so I guess we were appealing to ourselves first. But I have since run another (Canadian) show that WAS for teens — and another show (for DisneyJr) that’s for 2-5 year olds. But I didn’t think that narrowly for either show. I still wanted to do a show that first of all I liked, but also — if an adult happened to be watching the show they were going to pick up on things that the others would not.

(This is one of the reasons that I so enjoyed writing the episodes of Pete and Pete, by the way. That show was intended to appeal to such a large audience, even if its main target was kids.)

But the process doesn’t differ that much. We broke stories for a preschool show about talking puppies the same way we did for a show I worked on about a detective investigating murders. You’re always looking for energetic ways to move from scene to scene and ways to surprise the audience. It’s either a pie in the face or a knife in the back or stake through the heart. A lot of times I might pitch an idea that would work in a comedy and then “take the funny out” if the show is not a comedy. Or on one show I just worked on — which had some light supernatural elements to it — I said to my staff, “How would we tell this story on Buffy?” and then we took out the monsters and slaying and made it work for that show.

What is next for you kind Sir? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

The DisneyJr show, Puppy Dog Pals, started airing in March. If you’re 2-5 years old you’ll love it. If you’re older than that — well, there are still turns-of-phrases I put in there that are the kinds of things I used to write on Buffy or Pete and Pete. (I teach a writing class called “Differently Say It” and still like my characters to say things in different ways than we might normally speak). And I just finished showrunning the Hallmark Channel’s third season of Good Witch, which is just barely about a witch but sort of has a Gilmore Girls feel to it, and on that show — which is mostly about middle-aged romance — I still have the characters differently saying things (as much as the network let me) and has some teen things going on but no slaying, so don’t get your hopes up.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

I’m not much of a grinner, so I had to give this some thought. But the honest answer is “good writing.” I was watching a limited series on HBO — Big Little Lies — written by David Kelley, and I have always liked his writing (on LA Law and Picket Fences and Chicago Hope, among others). And there were specific lines of dialog that made me smile.

I really should have said “hugging my children” or “playing with my dog.” But neither of them wrote good dialog while we were doing that, so — nope.