The Odyssey odyssey, part 20

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey odyssey part 20, told by Paul VitolsIn part 19 I left off talking about the production in summer 1991 of the pilot episode of the series we were calling The Jellybean Odyssey. It was going well, but a nagging problem was coming to a head: the local CBC executive charged with supervising our show, David Pears, wanted a certain scene from the script removed.

In those early days, Warren and I, still ignorant of the filmmaking convention that has a script’s scenes numbered only when it is budgeted by the production department, had numbered the pilot’s scenes ourselves. The conflict was arising over the scene numbered 49: a scene in the climax of the show in which Jay, undergoing a medical crisis of elevated intracranial pressure that could quickly kill him, has a strange, intermediate-world experience. In the downworld of his coma-fantasy, he has just been dumped into a swimming-pool by the young thugs who have taken him captive. As the pool foams strangely and Jay remains submerged, he suddenly finds himself emerging from a different pool in a strange space–one in which his mother Val is standing nearby. In a calm, surreal exchange, she begs him to come home, and he calmly tells her that he cannot–he has to retrieve his dad’s telescope. With that, he plunges back into the water, to be pulled out of the swimming-pool back in the downworld, and saved from immediate death in the upworld.

Just about everyone liked scene 49. Warren and I, the writers, certainly liked it. Michael Chechik, the producer, liked it. Jorge Montesi, the director, liked it. The only one who didn’t like it was Pears–and he made it clear that it had to come out.

Michael, in his nice, accommodating way, kept trying different ways to cajole Pears into accepting scene 49, all to no avail. Pears warned him not to waste budget filming that scene, because it was not going to wind up in the finished show.

So, with the show in production and scenes actually being filmed, the argument was coming to a head.

One morning we were to have a supposedly decisive meeting on it right in the suite of CBC rooms being used as the production office for the show. Pears wanted to put the scene behind us once and for all.

Just before the meeting I decided to prepare a presentation. I went to the art department to beg a sheet of chart-paper and a felt marker, and drew a decision-table, using some of my business-analytical skills cultivated in my work at ICBC. I listed the positive and negative features of scene 49 in a kind of cost-benefit analysis of using the scene in the show. Armed with my chart, I went into the meeting, held in a tiny little office, and, pinning it to the wall, made my pitch for scene 49.

I took each of the reasons that Pears had given for why the scene should be cut and countered them with positive reasons why it should stay. Pears thought the scene would be confusing for the audience–they wouldn’t understand what was going on. And he thought, most of all, that it “blew the tension” of the whole series–that it short-circuited the goal of the series by having Jay come into contact with his mother. Now it would seem that they had a secret deal or understanding that they were both complicit in his being unconscious.

I argued that the tension was not “blown” at all; the “meeting” of boy and mother was happening in some unconscious, emotional realm in which they simply expressed their connection and love for each other; it was a spiritual scene, with a weird, symbolic setting to emphasize the fact. The kid audience would in no way be confused by it; they would understand immediately that this scene was happening in a special space relating to the life/death urgency of Jay’s situation. Scene 49 did not ruin our show–it made our show!

As I made my pitch, I noted that Pears enjoyed the presentation. He seemed to like the creativity of using an analytical chart to sell the scene, and liked being the audience of such a pitch. He smiled. But it was to no avail. Scene 49 blew the tension of the whole series, and would have to go.

Pears’s words to Michael: “Pay me now or pay me later–it’s not going in.”

We on the production side just couldn’t accept this. My fear was that in the press of production, scene 49 might become a “luxury” scene that, if we ran short of time or money, would not get filmed. But Jorge had made up his mind on it.

“I don’t care what they say,” he said. “I’m shooting that scene and I’m cutting it in.”

Just to be sure, I showed up to watch the filming of it. Scene 49 was scheduled with other scenes shot down at the abandoned Versatile Pacific shipyard a short walk from my house. When I went on the set, they’d constructed a special pool in a dilapidated, World War 1-era fabrication building. The effects people pumped the space full of mist, and Jorge shot a very powerful and poetic scene. He understood the scene perfectly and nailed it on film. They did two or three takes of Illya Woloshyn emerging from the still pool, each time with crew on hand to immediately fish him out, towel him dry, and blanket him warmly. The scene ended up with Val, played by Janet Hodgkinson, standing on an old staircase, repeating her last words to Jay before he went into the ravine and fell: “Watch out for weirdos.”

When I saw the scene on film I knew it was dynamite. To cut this scene out of the show would be an instance of the worst kind of network interference–a deliberate step toward making an extraordinary show mediocre. It was the climax of the climax–the heart of our show! Imagine wanting to cut it out!

As was customary, Jorge supervised the first edit of the show, and put in scene 49. Would the network really make us rip it out?

In the event, talk about cutting out scene 49 subsided. We, the filmmakers, didn’t bring it up, and neither, anymore, did the network. I suspect that what happened was that Angela Bruce and the executives in Toronto liked the scene, and overruled Pears. I was just thankful that we’d got it on film.

The film looked great over all: imaginative and filled with “edge”. Jorge had brought a nice, adult-network look to our kids’ show. The next problem was getting it edited into a workable story.

To be continued…


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creating characters, part 6: choosing a character arc

In the first 5 parts of this series we looked at the early stages of the process of creating a fictional character, which got us to combining a few archetypes to form the nucleus or chassis of the character. Now what do we do?

One thing to bear in mind is that no part of the story-creation process can be done altogether independently of the other parts. The story, a work of art, is a whole, and its various parts must all change and adapt together in order to realize the fulfillment of the whole work. If you change your plot, then you must also change one or more of your characters, even if only slightly. And if you change your theme or the controlling idea of the work, then that will imply big changes to plot and character–and everything else.

Similarly, when doing the initial creation and shaping of characters, it must be done with the aims of the whole work in mind. A character is not created in a vacuum, but right from the start has a mission to fulfill in the story; every character has a purpose, and needs to be designed in order to best fulfill that purpose.

An important point is whether a character is going to undergo change in the course of the story. Character change is always a key part of the theme of a story; it is through showing the change in a character that an author makes his strongest and most emphatic points, at least at the moral level of a story, which is the level most important to a story’s artistic success.

creating characters, part 6: Ebenezer Scrooge

“I don’t deserve to be this happy.”

Consider A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Ebenezer Scrooge, the dour, callous, solitary miser, undergoes one of the most profound and memorable changes of any character in literary history, turning into a generous, affectionate, and joyful man. It’s a mark of Dickens’s genius that he makes such a vast change believable. By having recourse to the supernatural–by having Scrooge visited by ghosts–he is also able to bring about the change in a single night: Christmas Eve. We see how Scrooge’s unhealed wounds from youth have turned him into the hard man he is, and we see how Scrooge’s late partner Jacob Marley and the three ghosts of Christmas administer the tough love that Scrooge needs in order to see the light–and not just see it but become it by changing his behavior and his life. The three ghosts skillfully work Scrooge’s character, adjusting it the way a chiropractor adjusts the alignment of your joints. They put him through the wringer and scare him to death.

A Christmas Carol is an example of positive character change. In general this is the pattern of comedy in the widest sense: stories that have happy endings. The opposite is tragedy: stories in which the main character changes for the worse. Here an example is Macbeth by Shakespeare: a Scottish noble, driven by ambition, murders his king in order to gain his crown, and he finds that in order to hold it he must double down and keep killing–and it doesn’t end well for him. A more recent one is the TV series Breaking Bad, which might also be called The Tragedy of Walter White.

A third pattern is one in which the main character does not himself change, but he brings about change in the characters around him. An example of this was the 1936 movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, which I watched last weekend. Deeds, played by Cooper, is a decent, sensible, and eccentric small-town man who is whisked off to New York when he inherits a large fortune from a distant uncle. There he becomes a laughing stock among the cynical socialites, but those who are closest to him, such as the reporter (Arthur) who inveigles her way into his life and his streetwise personal assistant, find themselves first touched and then changed by Deeds’ integrity. A more recent example is Beverly Hills Cop, the 1984 movie in which Eddie Murphy, an irreverent maverick cop from Detroit, transforms his straitlaced California colleagues into more relaxed versions of themselves. A still more recent example is the 1994 movie Forrest Gump.

In storytelling, character change is known technically as the character arc, and the 3 kinds of change stories outlined here are known as positive-change, negative-change, and flat arcs. While good stories can be created that do not feature any kind of character change, stories that do feature character change tend to be the best and the most powerful. Creating characters who change, therefore, is an advanced technique used by storytellers who want to develop the best possible stories.

So in the process of creating characters, you need to determine what kind of story you’re writing in terms of character change. If you’re writing a James Bond–style action story, there may be no character change; but if you want to write something more sophisticated, something that has significant moral meaning, then you should plan to show characters undergoing change in your story.

As for what kind of character arc to create, that depends on the view of the world that you want to present. The basic view underlying the positive-change arc is that virtue leads to happiness, with the specifics of which virtue and what kind of happiness being determined by the needs of your story and what you want to say. Broadly, this is the story plan of comedy: stories that have happy endings.

The negative-change arc, on the other hand, the arc of tragedy, shows how vice leads to misery or disaster. Just as comedies are inspirational tales, showing the audience how to live, tragedies are cautionary tales, showing the dangers of the dark side. Both are valuable, edifying, and emotionally satisfying for an audience if done well. Some writers, such as Shakespeare, are adept at both. Others prefer to stick to one form.

The flat-arc story lends itself to comedy, although there may be tragic stories in which a main character corrupts others around him without undergoing change himself (I can’t think of one offhand). In general I would say that if you reverse the polarity of these arcs, that is, show that virtue leads to misery or vice to happiness, then I would say you are writing a black comedy. I had not thought of this before, but I think this may be a good definition of black comedy: a story in which the consequences of moral actions are inverted. And if that’s your view of the world, then you should by all means write one.

This choice, of what kind of arc you intend to present, has big consequences for the way you choose and design your characters. Characters who change need a certain complexity, for some aspects of them change while others do not. You as a writer need to know what those are. And you need to design a situation that will bring about the desired change.

There’s lots to do. We’ll pick it up there next time.

In the meantime, take a look at my Creating Characters reading list (one of a growing collection). If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to catch up on parts 1 – 5 in this series.


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 19

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey odyssey part 19, told by Paul VitolsDespite some bumps and anxieties along the path of preparing to produce the pilot of our would-be adventure-fantasy series The Jellybean Odyssey, things progressed quite well and soon, sometime in summer 1991 (August, I think), filming actually began.

The director, Jorge Montesi, though temperamental and hotheaded, knew what he was doing and took pains to get the show looking and feeling a certain way. Indeed, it was because he cared so much about the product that he was sometimes difficult for people like me–that is, those who did not actually report to him, but had more of a “staff” relationship with him–to deal with. After all, if someone who reports to you disagrees with you, it’s easy to resolve: “do as I say–now.”

Jorge was proficient, effective, and creative. The crew was also very skilled and enthusiastic. Often we heard that people loved the show idea and the script, and they went out of their way to give it their all.

Warren and I were pleased and relieved that the tree-fort-in-the-ravine idea that we’d written would be filmed after all. Indeed, the locations manager had found a perfect ravine in a park in nearby Lynn Valley–exactly what we’d had in mind when we wrote the script. The park authorities allowed the crew to build a tree-fort in a tree there–as long as they didn’t use any nails, screws, or other fasteners that penetrated the bark of the trees! They ingeniously came up with a sophisticated tree-fort high above the ground, all made with non-penetrating bindings.

One sign that Jorge was serious about shooting the script as written was the fact that he actually used a crane-shot that Warren and I had written in (scriptwriting texts tell you not to put camera angles and such in scripts, on the grounds that that is “directing on paper”). But we felt this had a clear story purpose: a crane-shot going up the tree to the tree-fort, to show how high it was. Thus we hear the dialogue of the boys in the fort before we finally see them–after we, the audience, have “climbed” the tree to get there.

I think they could not get a real crane into the ravine, so the crew rigged a bosun’s chair on a pulley hanging from high up, and they pulled the cameraman, Trig Singer, up by a rope while he did a handheld shot on the way up. Scary–but he seemed completely calm. The boys had to be cued to get into motion at a certain point, moving along the homemade catwalks high above the ravine floor. It took a few takes. I was delighted that the crane-shot went in, and felt that it was a sign that our show was going to be special.

Another big item in the pilot was the fall itself. The show’s stunt coordinator was the veteran Vancouver stuntman Bill Ferguson. The fall would be done by his own son, who was about 11 years old himself. I watched Ferguson and his team prepare the stunt–they were there for hours while main-unit filming was being done elsewhere. Ferguson’s team prepared a large collapsible cushion beneath the tree-fort, I don’t remember the materials used now. I do remember that they prepared the stunt with great care. When time to film came, they had at least three cameras running on it. I was impressed by the courage of the young Ferguson, and by the concerned and close-knit teamwork of the stunt crew. It went well, and we spectators burst into applause.

Another exciting part of filming was the hospital scenes of the upworld, when the unconscious Jay is taken to emergency. For this, a real intensive care unit (ICU) was used at Eagle Ridge Hospital outside Vancouver. Sadly, this newly built hospital had never had enough funding to be able to actually operate its state-of-the-art ICU; it had only ever been used as a film set! So the location was real, and those were real nurses moonlighting as actors who whisk Jay into his bed for treatment.

As a writer, it’s very gratifying to be on the set when your script is being produced (at least, it usually is, in my experience). You’ve done your part already; you’ve suffered and sweated. Now others have to do their bit, and they stride around with colored copies of your script, all marked up with their own technical notes. The actors carry “sides”–miniaturized pages of script, each actor only with the pages containing his or her lines. I ate the snacks, chatted with Michael, who was also more or less an onlooker at this point, and generally enjoyed the status of being an “above-the-line” member of the production–that is, one of the main creative positions, as opposed to the technical and craft positions that constitute most of a film crew.

Filming was going very well. But there was a dark cloud on the horizon. There was a controversial scene in our script, which our local network executive David Pears had decided he didn’t want in the show.

But that’s for next time.

To be continued…


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Doomsday or Dawnsday?

I forget exactly why I bought the book The Population Puzzle: Overcrowding and Stress Among Animals and Men by A. H. “Lee” Drummond, Jr., in October 2009, but buy it and read it I did. It will have been part of the endless maze of texts I have been through in my research for The Age of Pisces, but as for what exactly triggered my interest in the science of population and its growth at that time, I can’t say.

…still not solved

What I can say is that more recently my interest was triggered again, this time by certain thoughts about the features of the Age of Pisces, the 2,200-year astrological age now drawing to a close. What are the dominant features of the current age–that is, the age that began about 2,000 years ago? A lot has happened in that time, but one of the most striking phenomena has been the growth of the human population.

According to Wikipedia, the global population in AD 1 was around 200 million, or roughly the current population of Pakistan or Brazil. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the world population in 2012 was about 7.06 billion–a 35-fold increase. If you look at a graph of world population growth over that period, you see a classic exponential or “hockey-stick” graph: the slope creeps upward imperceptibly for centuries, and then abruptly explodes. My eyes, looking at the little graph on the Wikipedia page, see that the point of explosion–technically when the slope of the curve goes past 1–is around AD 1800. At that time world population was still under 1 billion, but it has rocketed skyward since then.

This phenomenon is actually consistent with the symbol of Pisces: the fish. From ancient times fish were noted for their enormous numbers of eggs and their ability to reproduce rapidly. The seas were conceived as teeming with infinite numbers of them. So an exploding human population is fishlike, is Piscean.

What are the implications? What kind of world are we setting up for the transition to the next astrological age, the Age of Aquarius? I had started to type my highlights from The Population Puzzle; now I decided to finish that task, and indeed today I have finished it. What are my thoughts?

Even in this short (135 pages) book aimed at adolescents, Drummond paints a picture of a fascinating and mysterious science. No doubt much has been learned since the time when he was writing (1973), but even at that time there had been many eye-opening studies and experiments. We talk about our “personal space,” and personal space is a real thing, not just for humans but for all animals. All animals have instinctive behaviors that are triggered when they are approached across the threshold of their personal space–and this threshold is not only different for all species of animals, but can change within the same species depending on external conditions. One interesting example is that lion tamers at the circus are able to move lions around by manipulating their personal space.

Population and personal space are intimately linked, for when space is limited, as it always ultimately is, then the amount of space each individual can enjoy is also limited, and when numbers go up, critical thresholds can be crossed that trigger severe changes in individual and collective behavior. As animals become more crowded, the mass of their adrenal glands, which produce their stress hormones, increases, and the animals begin showing signs of stress, up to and including death by stress-induced “shock disease.”

Man, Homo sapiens, shares many of these traits with other animals, although not all of them. In the wild, most animal populations level off spontaneously, with the birth rate dropping and females becoming actually infertile as certain population densities are reached. Not so with humans, who show no signs of spontaneous reduction of birth rate due to increasing numbers.

One of the most shocking experiments described in the book was one conducted on mice by the American researcher John Calhoun. He placed four pairs of mice in an 81-square-foot enclosure that contained an abundance of everything that mice need to live. The mice quickly multiplied until there were 150 of them, and they were all happy and well adjusted. But with no natural checks on their population growth–disease, predators, food shortage–they kept on reproducing until there were 2,200 of them.

The population was no longer happy or well adjusted. Mice tend to form social groups of about 10 individuals. A pen this size allowed for 14 such groups–but no more. So 150 mice could live in normal social groups, but the remaining mice–2,000 of them–could not. This great majority of mice did not belong anywhere, and formed a massive lumpen proletariat.

Unable to leave the pen and unable to gain entrance to one of the social groups, the excess mice withdrew into a huddled mass in the middle of the pen. After repeated rejections by the “organized” mice, these outsiders sharply reduced their movements—apparently to avoid being noticed. They simply huddled together or rested motionless alone. Within the huddled mass, however, there were frequent violent outbursts among the rejected mice. Moreover, because these mice were so withdrawn, they did not flee when attacked. Trembling violently, they remained in place and suffered severe bite wounds.

The rejected mice learned to carry out only the simplest of behaviors, such as eating and drinking. They never learned to fight to achieve rank, or mate as normal mice do. Thus they were denied the activities of socially organized mice. They matured into passive blobs of living tissue, sleek and fat physically, but totally unable to take part in the normal activities of a mouse.

This is a sobering image, isn’t it? These are mice, not men, but how much comfort can we afford to draw from that fact? Had Calhoun created a model of our own future?

He himself was concerned about that. Indeed, observing the trend of human population growth, he estimated that we–humanity–were entering a 50-year DECIDE period: a period in which we collectively, as a species, would decide whether we are to die off, stagnate, or revive our species by bringing its numbers down harmoniously. Writing in about 1970, he saw the critical date as 2020: the date he labeled either DOOMSDAY or DAWNSDAY.

Typing these notes today, I can’t help but reflect that 2019 is about to arrive, with 2020 hard on its heels. Since 1968 the world population has doubled. The graph of growth, whose slope is now near vertical, cannot go to infinity; it must crash somehow, and soon. But how?

The astrological symbolism, by itself, cannot answer this. But it does include other interesting aspects, such as that Pisces rules the proletariat: those who have no special distinction beyond their head count. I venture to say that it rules the 2,000 mice in Calhoun’s pen who did not “belong,” even though they were in the vast majority. Is this a picture of our world–or the world to come–and what does it imply?

I have no answer. But I feel that this book has come back into my hands at this time for a reason. Somehow, in ways that I myself do not understand, my writing is about all this. And I wanted to share that with you.

Doomsday or Dawnsday?


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 18

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey odyssey part 18, told by Paul VitolsTelevision executives, for all their collective narcissism, arrogance, and power-lust, are actually hero-worshippers and groupies at heart.

Currently, here in Canada anyway, at least at the CBC, they worship a mythical hero called Show Runner. Show Runner is a writer-producer with the godlike power to make good TV drama happen, and above all to solve problems in the hurly-burly of producing episodes. Show Runner can write and fix scripts, and also respond to the needs of production. By applying supreme expertise both in writing and production, generating brilliant scripts while also barking orders at the production team, Show Runner squares the circle of Creativity vs. Business, saving network executives from the crippling anxiety of wondering what they’ll actually get after they’ve ordered episodes for a series. “How will we get out of this mess?” “Don’t worry–Show Runner will save us!”

The cult of Show Runner had not yet appeared in the early 1990s, when we were struggling to get our half-hour epic, The Jellybean Odyssey, produced. At that time, network hero-worship was more likely to be aimed at the cult of Director. Director was a hero who, like the later Show Runner, also made excellent TV episodes happen. He did this by applying his mysterious and unifying Vision to the script–a text which had already been perfected through network input. A Romantic figure, he led the TV production team through the alchemical process of transmuting the script into a Wonderful Episode.

For the pilot episode of The Jellybean Odyssey, the demigod Director chosen by the CBC was Jorge Montesi, a Chilean expatriate with a background in documentary filmmaking who had recently risen to semi-stardom directing episodes of serious TV drama for both American and Canadian networks. While the choice of director was notionally the province of the independent producer, Michael Chechik in our case, the CBC advocated strongly for Montesi, and made it clear that choosing someone else was going to be a tough sell. They liked Montesi, and wanted him to direct our pilot.

Michael, eager to please, said sure. In swept Jorge Montesi, who was indeed a Romantic figure, with his long dark hair, expensive leathers, and authentic Latin machismo. Bold, temperamental, and quick to confront, Jorge took hold of the production and set out to give it his stamp.

Personally, I liked the idea of a high-powered TV director making our origin episode. It expressed the seriousness of the network’s intention, for one thing. For another, I liked the idea that Jorge was not a “kid” director, but a maker of relatively hard-hitting adult crime drama for such flagship shows as Night Heat–a favorite of Warren’s and mine. That was all to the good.

But Jorge was a handful. He gave orders–he didn’t take them. To his great credit, he didn’t seek to make script changes. He liked the script and intended to film it. But that meant that he had to establish his presence stylistically–with the look of the show. I remember being part of the locations survey, a preliminary tour made of potential locations selected by the locations manager. One of the scenes we’d set in a lacrosse box. When we got to the lacrosse box chosen by the manager, Jorge was disgusted, and therefore angry.

“There’s nothing here to shoot!” he said. “It’s just a parking lot! It’s a crap location–get me somewhere else.”

This put him into a bad mood. He challenged many location choices in the script. He wanted to put Jay and his mother Val into a lovely heritage home (all these locations were in North Vancouver, close to where I live). Warren and I tried to protest that this wasn’t right–that the working-class widow would not have such fancy digs. Jay should have an ordinary house. But Jorge didn’t want to be shooting bland, featureless garbage.

The survey culminated at the old Versatile Pacific shipyard just down the hill from my house: a set of derelict industrial buildings dating back to World War 1, right on the waterfront.

“Why do they need a tree-fort?” said Jorge, who liked the postindustrial desolation of the site. “Why can’t they have their club in an old warehouse?”

“Jay’s a suburban kid,” I said, on the defensive and the unelected front-man for the original vision of our show, “not part of an inner-city street gang.”

“Why not?” he challenged me.

“Well,” I stammered, “that’s just the vision of the show. It would change everything to make him an urban street-kid. He’s not written that way. We’ve got the other episodes to consider. This is a series, after all.”

“Not yet it isn’t!” said Jorge, with a menacing look.

I was terrified that the show was going to be suddenly transformed into something entirely different, purely due to directorial whim. Later Michael would tell me that Jorge had been a political prisoner back in Chile.

“Yeah, he told me all this stuff,” said Michael, “that they’d tortured him–put electrodes on his testicles! I didn’t know what to say!”

“Wish we had a set of those,” I said.

But here at the locations survey, some other point of disagreement came up, and Jorge snapped. Maybe I’d suggested some way that something could be filmed, in order to get around some perceived problem. Jorge turned on me.

“Don’t tell me how to direct! I’m responsible for this show! My name’s going on this thing!”

He had his finger in my face. Michael and the locations manager looked on in embarrassed silence. I didn’t say anything–it would only have been a sarcastic remark, in any case. I’d created this show and had worked on it for two years; he was a hired gun who’d been on it a week.

I left and walked up the hill to my house. I crawled up to my bed, lay down, and wished I’d never heard of television.

To be continued…


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 17

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey odyssey part 17, told by Paul VitolsWith the approach of summer 1991, The Jellybean Odyssey, the half-hour pilot first written by Warren Easton and me two years earlier, ramped up for production. Under the terms of the Independent Production Agreement of the Writers Guild of Canada, when the actual filming begins, the writers are entitled to the balance of their total fee, which is calculated based on the budget for the film. For a relatively high-budge half-hour such as ours, this would ordinarily mean a payment of several thousand dollars, but Warren and I had had to tap the producer Michael Chechik for advances against this over the previous year or so, and therefore there was little or no extra fee for us. We had to keep other sources of income alive.

But now there was the excitement of preproduction, including the casting of the show. Michael engaged the CBC casting director Sid Kozak to cast the show, and Michael and Sid thought it would be a good idea for the writers to be present for the auditions of the major parts. Now this was what I called fun: I got to sit in the little office used as the audition-room with Michael and Sid, while nervous actors waited outside to come in and read lines from the script. A video camera was set up to record their performances.

The auditions took place over a period of days or maybe weeks. Soon I realized that Sid wanted me to explain the roles to the actors, so I had to come up with ways to describe the characters quickly so that the actors, who had never seen the script, could find a way to interpret their lines. Most of the auditions were by kid actors from the Vancouver area, although there were a couple of auditions sent in on videotape by Canadian actors living in the U.S.

For the first time, we got to hear our Jellybean dialogue spoken by actors. This was a thrill, but also a humbling learning experience, since dialogue and little jokes that had seemed brilliant to us, the writers, sometimes came out flat and lame from actors who didn’t really get what we were trying to say. The key with dialogue, as we learned over time, was to keep it simple and keep it short. Don’t count on anybody “getting” what you’re trying to do.

So many kids read for different parts, and they were all so different from each other. Their personalities brought vastly different qualities to the different characters. The part of Jay Ziegler, of course, was central. Which kid to choose? Should our Jay be tough and cocky? Wily and shrewd? Innocent and cute?

Warren and I reviewed a lot of auditions on tape with Michael and discussed them at length. Of course, it was not just our decision–the network had to approve all the main casting choices for continuing characters. But we should come up with who we thought was right, and be prepared to defend that to the network.

As I recall, the easiest pick among the three main kids was Tony Sampson as Keith and Flash. He came across as burly and a bit gruff, but also had a sensitive, expressive face and could bring nuance to a performance–he could act. It often wasn’t clear with kids whether they were really actors or just cute moppets and models. Tony was a good-looking kid, but not a cutie-pie, and he could deliver a performance and also take direction.

Jay was a tougher choice. From early on Illya Woloshyn was a leading contender, if only because he was so telegenic with his attractive appearance and liquid brown eyes. But to us he was firmly in the “innocent and cute moppet” category–and Warren and I weren’t sure that’s what we wanted in our adventuring hero. I believe Warren was especially skeptical that such a doe-eyed hug-muffin could carry our adventure show.

And yet the camera liked Illya very much, and his innocence and cuteness made him seem vulnerable and kind of tugged on the heart-strings: you’d want this poor lost kid to find his way home. But was he too nonassertive?

We hemmed and hawed. I think the network liked Illya, who was already a working actor and had some decent credits. Eventually, maybe after some call-backs, he was cast.

The part of Donna and Alpha, the lame girl who becomes Jay’s spunky and able-bodied female sidekick in the downworld, was another tough choice. Among the many girls who came in to read, Ashley Rogers (as she was then known) seemed among the least likely: young, small, and with Coke-bottle glasses. But she was relaxed and confident, and apparently had said, before coming in to the audition room, that she was going to get the part. She was a “real” little girl, and very natural on camera.

She was very different from girls like, say, Vicki Wauchope, a beautiful blonde who lived in California and who sent in an audition by videotape. Her mother, who had made the tape, had taken the trouble to shoot Vicki wearing a leg-brace and using crutches, to better simulate the character Donna. She represented the option of going for “star”-type casting for the role.

I remember talking over the auditions with Michael while we were on a CBC soundstage for some reason. Against all probability, we were inclining toward Ashley, up against a field of slightly older, prettier girls–she would be, as I put it, a “more creative choice”. We all liked her. I’m not sure whether the network had reservations about her, but anyway, she was the one we wanted to cast, and eventually the network accepted our slate of actors.

The Jellybean Odyssey pilot was now cast, and we had that strange feeling of reality that comes when the characters in a script, who so far exist only in one’s imagination, now suddenly have bodies and voices–without knowing it, we had been writing about these people; who knew? For better or for worse, this was going to be our team.

With the cast in place, our show was now almost ready to go before the camera. The next big hire: a director. Here the network had definite opinions. More on that later.

To be continued…


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 16

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey odyssey part 16, told by Paul VitolsA subtle but important turning-point arrived for our proto-series, The Jellybean Odyssey, when, in a story meeting held, as was now usual, in the glass-encased meeting-room at the new Omni-Films suite in Gastown, the CBC drama executive David Pears declared that Hart Hanson’s rewrite of our pilot script did not have the “Jellybean” feel.

This meant that Pears was acknowledging that there was a special, unique quality to the writing–maybe perhaps especially shown in the kid dialogue–that Warren Easton and I brought to the script that gave it its distinctive and unique style. Now Pears wanted to roll back to our last draft, and get Warren and me to do whatever further tinkering was required. I don’t recall now whether Hart was himself present at that meeting, but whether he was or wasn’t, this could only have been felt as a slap in the face to him. The story editor in a TV show represents “management” as far as the writers are concerned, and to be undermined or cut off at the knees by management is painful and abnormal. It’s a stab in the back–or maybe in the head, from above.

Of course, from the point of view of me and Warren, the creators, Pears was only stating the obvious. As the show’s creators, we knew it best and understood exactly how to create its special “flavor”. Hart, although he was one of the best TV writers in the country, had not in fact been engaged to rewrite our script because he was a better writer than we were, but because he was part of management’s own picked team and therefore would be more ready to take direction from the network. The show’s creators, who had suffered and starved for two years now in “development hell”, would not simply take orders from the network; we cared deeply about the show and would push back when we felt the executives were demanding things that would make the show weaker and less original. In simple terms, Warren and I were not on the network payroll (were hardly on any payroll), and did not see ourselves as “reporting to” the CBC or its executives.

Notionally we reported to Michael Chechik, the producer. But Michael was the first to admit that he was not bringing a personal creative vision to this series; that was our job. We thought of the ideas, and we wrote them. And right now, this show didn’t exist in any other form but writing. At this point, Warren and I were the show. Michael valued our vision of the show and also the way we wrote, and was not inclined to pass on whatever pressure he might be getting from Pears to make us change this or that. At most, if he was getting any such pressure, he would tell us about it candidly and ask us what we thought we should do about it. In his hesitant, questioning, but fast-talking way, he would work through how to respond to the latest network demand or request.

In any case, somewhere in here, probably spring 1991, the CBC took the big step of ordering the production of the pilot.

After pumping nickels and dimes into the writers to output scripts for two years, this was the moment of committing to bigger money. The pilot episode of The Jellybean Odyssey would eventually cost about $500,000 to produce. Even though, in the Canadian scheme of television production, the CBC’s share was only 1/3 of that, it was still significant money, and took everyone a large and hard-to-revoke step closer to producing a series.

Of course we were ecstatic. It had been three years since the production of “What’s Wrong with Neil?”. Now we were having another original show produced, entirely of our own creation, and, with a continuing series riding on the outcome, the stakes were much higher.

Now, after sitting in endless story and network meetings, and advancing small sums to keep the writers alive, Michael would get to put on his producer hat properly and make a show. It had to be done carefully, since many staffing decisions now, such as casting, would have consequences for the continuing series. He had to find a team that could make a show worthy of all the creativity and effort that had gone into its creation.

But summer 1991 was coming on, and Vancouver was a lovely place to shoot film. Once again we could enjoy the pleasure of visiting film sets close to home to watch busy people shoot the lines we had written. As far as I was concerned, we’d more than earned it.

To be continued…


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creating characters, part 5: combining archetypes

I’ve been sharing my discoveries about the art of character creation in storytelling. The idea here is to build characters from the inside out, to make vital, interesting characters from scratch instead of trying to create characters based purely on people we know. There’s nothing especially wrong with basing characters on people you know, but there are limitations to that approach:

  • the number of people you know personally is finite—especially if you’re an introverted writer!
  • the people you know may not make a good fit with the needs of your story

This second point is the more important, for, if your story is to achieve its maximum effect and its full potential, it needs to be populated with the right characters to make that happen. Yes, you can make tweaks to your family, friends, and coworkers to get them to fulfill the functions required by your story, but at the end of the day what we’re talking about is altering off-the-rack people instead of tailoring them specially from whole cloth. It’s much more powerful, as well as more useful and more satisfying, to invent vivid characters from scratch. That’s what we’re trying to do here.

In part 1 of this series we looked at how to assess your character needs in terms of the kind of story you want to tell. In parts 2–4 we looked at using different kinds of archetypes to serve as the nucleus for a character. For convenience I’m calling them:

  • story archetype
  • heroic archetype
  • psychological archetype

A proper major character will need to use all of these (minor characters are a different case—I’ll talk about them too in the future). So how to put them together?

Recently Kimmie and I watched the movie Gone with the Wind again: the 1939 production based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell, published in 1936. The heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, is a famous character; why don’t we take a look at how she might have been built from scratch using my method? (Spoiler alert: in what follows I will be talking about the plot of Gone with the Wind, including its ending; you may want to read or watch it before continuing on.)

I admit that I have a slight problem in trying to categorize this story. In my opinion, the author herself was not quite clear about what she wanted to say with it. The story certainly has an epic dimension: its events unfold as Georgia and the Old South are ruined by the American Civil War and reconstituted in its aftermath. Gone with the Wind is also famous as a romance, with a major triangle formed by Scarlett’s desire for the gentleman Ashley Wilkes, who is married to his cousin Melanie, and her status as the love object of another man, Rhett Butler, a swashbuckling rogue from Atlanta. But in my view the story is really a tragedy, since the pigheaded and purblind Scarlett never wakes up to her own true feelings of “love” (the word must be used in quotation marks for her) for Rhett until it is too late—or is it? The ending is left ambiguous, for Scarlett thinks she can get Rhett to love her again, and . . . she’s used to getting her way! However, Rhett is no pushover, and he seems truly fed up with her. So we don’t know. If you take the view that Scarlett will recapture Rhett’s love, then the story might be classed as what Christopher Booker would call a Rebirth plot: the tragic hero, or in this case heroine, emerges from his flawed approach to life to a new, more fulfilling approach (think Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol). Scarlett, by the end of the story, at least has figured out what she really wants, but she still doesn’t know what love is, so there are still big problems ahead. For me it’s a muddle.

“Ruthless, selfish, and envious–that’s how I like ’em.”

Because Scarlett remains basically unreconstructed (unlike Georgia) by the end, and she is made up mostly of negative traits, I will class her as a tragic heroine: she has flaws that get the better of her in the end. But in that role she’s a dynamic, larger-than-life character, and, starting from scratch, that’s what we’re trying to build. Since we haven’t created her yet, all we know at this stage is that we want a passionate, headstrong character who stubbornly clings to her negative traits.

We have thus already specified her story archetype: she will be the heroine of our story, but a negative or “dark” heroine, a tragic heroine. That is her role or function in the story.

Next let’s look for our character’s heroic archetype, taken from the list provided by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders in their Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines, as discussed in part 2 of this series. Two of these spring out: the Seductress and the Boss. The authors maintain that it is perfectly possible to combine archetypes in forming a character, as long as the archetypes are compatible and there are no more than two of them. In Scarlett’s case we appear to have a young Seductress in the early part of the story, but who, when we look more closely, actually bears traits of a young Boss, in the variant called the Princess. As the story wears on and Scarlett is buffeted by more  and more challenges, the Boss in her becomes ever more dominant. Just listen to the description of the Boss:

The Boss takes charge of her circumstances and makes things happen. She is strong, tough, and gets her way no matter what. She remains unconcerned when she ruffles feathers. Her goals and priorities are far more important than hurt feelings. She is outspoken, resourceful, and persuasive.

Winning is everything to the Boss. To achieve her ends, she can be calculating. She will shade the truth in order to gain her object, and she is not above manipulating circumstances to make things go her way. Whatever helps her get across the finish line is all in a good day’s work.

Yes, that’s our Scarlett all right.

The final archetypal component I call the psychological archetype, and this I draw from the list of archetypes provided by Caroline Myss in her book Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential, as discussed in part 3 of this series. Perusing this list, I find that the best fit is provided by Femme Fatale:

The female counterpart of Don Juan sometimes adds the twist of killing her conquests as an expression of her ability to dominate. As with Don Juan, the Femme Fatale represents refined skills at manipulating men without investing personal emotion. The Femme Fatale is both a sexual and a financial archetype and either comes from or is drawn to money and power. Seducing men with money and power and for the sake of personal control and survival is a classic part of this archetype, although the Femme Fatale is not looking for a home in the suburbs and the pleasures of family life.

Yes, there is a close link here with the heroic archetype of the Seductress. Sometimes that happens, probably especially with principal characters. But this still allows us to know our character better. Putting our three archetypes together, we can now say that Scarlett is a tragic heroine whose main motivational engine is that of the Boss, but that her behavior, her way of trying to reach her  goals, is often that of the Femme Fatale. She has the hard, calculating, businesslike attitude of the Boss, but she finds that the strongest tools in her arsenal are the seductive and manipulative wiles of the Femme Fatale. Thus Scarlett O’Hara, one of literature’s most memorable female characters.

Please note that we have not drawn the whole character here; we have only identified the archetypes on which this character will be based. In doing this I would say that we have formed the armature of the character; we have identified what type of a character she is to be. But in doing this much we have come a long way. Even though our character is not yet fully formed, she already has strong motivations and attitudes; she even has a certain past history, since the book Heroes & Heroines sketches in the childhood experience of each of the archetypes. Our proto-Scarlett is already set to be a dominating presence in a story, especially when contrasted with the insipid, wishy-washy impression that so many fictional characters make. She will overpower any other characters unless they are also established with similar care and firmness.

We have finished, for now, with using archetypes for creating a character. What comes next? In recent years some sophisticated tools have appeared that allow the writer to work directly with a character’s inner emotional nature, to give the character a richer inner life and to map out the character’s moral structure. Next time we will get started on that process. Join me!

In the meantime, take a look at my Creating Characters reading list (one of a growing collection). If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to catch up on parts 1 – 4 in this series.


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 15

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey odyssey part 15, told by Paul VitolsWith the arrival of 1991, Warren Easton and I were again tinkering with the pilot script for The Jellybean Odyssey, and with the other scripts we had written (I believe by that time we had also written the next two episodes, “No Fair”, in which our hero Jay is “tried” by a kid-tribunal in his new fantasy world for being “different”, and “Out of the Woods”, in which he becomes involved in a conflict between a Robin Hood-like band of “outlaw” kids and the quasi-police state of the distant and mysterious Brad).

Warren and I were eager to explore these overtly “political” scenarios of our kid-world, and deliberately turned toward issues of justice, power relationships, and civil administration, shown in the distorting (but clarifying) mirror of our fantasy-kid-land which we called the downworld. While I can’t be sure, I believe that this path satisfied CBC head of programming Ivan Fecan’s wish for a “relevant” show with a “sociological mission”. Our show definitely was not simply “a bunch of kids running around doing stuff”.

However, the new tinkering with the material was not bringing us much extra revenue; that had been tapped long since, along with some advances against future work for our show. With my two mortgages, I was heading deeper into debt and had to find a way to scare up more income. Kimmie was of course still working full-time at ICBC; I, the big-time TV creator, was bringing in next to nothing.

One place I turned was to the CBC itself. I found out that the new junior drama executive in Vancouver, Linda Coffey, was responsible for reading and responding to unsolicited submissions from would-be scriptwriters, and that she retained a few readers to go through the projects and write brief reports on them. Probably after one of our Jellybean Odyssey meetings, I asked Linda whether I could maybe be one of her readers.

Linda, recognizing my predicament, readily agreed, and in March 1991 I received my first sheaf of scripts from The Wall: a set of shelves at one end of her office, covered with submissions. From then on, each Friday I would drop off my reader’s reports (these documents are called “coverage” in L.A.), pick up a fresh set of scripts, and collect a check for $150 at CBC’s payroll counter.

(The scripts I read, by the way, were almost all shockingly bad–not even the least bit professional.)

Another effort I made to keep body and soul together was to approach a newly formed scriptwriting fund set up by the Canadian pay-TV channel called First Choice (the fund was called the Foundation to Underwrite New Drama, or “FUND”–cute, huh?). I’d heard a radio interview with someone who had attended a school for butlers in England, and was now the butler of a rich American family. This had intrigued me, so I looked into the school, and came up with an idea for a kid’s movie that I called My Dad the Butler, about a divorced dad who attends such a school and winds up as the butler to a female pop star. While the star visits Vancouver to record an album, the butler’s 13-year-old daughter tries to reunite with him–an impossibility in his new post, or so it seems…

I got Michael Chechik to write a letter saying that if this script got written, he’d be willing to produce it, then I sent the proposal to FUND. They responded with a go-ahead to write an outline on the idea. Yahoo! I had another project in development! This project would later go on to a story treatment, and would bring me about $8,000 or so in writing income, all told–a lifesaver. As I told Michael: “the CBC is going to be calling story meetings for our show, and I won’t be able to come because I’ll be delivering pizzas.”

Reading other people’s scripts and working on a butler story were keeping my head above water in 1991.

Another thing that happened that year was that the CBC, meaning the local drama-development exec David Pears, got our story editor Hart Hanson to write a draft of our pilot script. Thinking back, I can’t quite remember the exact reason why. Was it that Warren and I were “busy” working on other scripts or outlines for the show at the time? Or was it simply a “normal” step toward getting the show ready to shoot, by having its story editor rewrite the writers’ material?

For this is how TV series are done: some scripts may be written by writers on staff, in the story department, and some by freelance writers. In either case, the scripts are rewritten by the story editor–who is the head of the story department–so that they all have the same “voice” and conform to the requirements of the series, which the story editor is supposed to know better than the contributing writers. Scripts also change as shooting progresses, and the story editor normally makes those changes.

Hart was already our story editor through the development process, and had provided much valuable and friendly help, in effect teaching us important aspects of TV writing. As a writer he himself was excellent and fast. But Warren and I saw no need for anyone to be rewriting our pilot: it was already good–excellent in fact; even brilliant. We saw this as a step toward removing creative control of the series from the hands of the creators–and we didn’t like it.

But no one asked us what we thought about it. We may have created the show and written the scripts, but to Pears and the CBC we were newbies and amateurs, and would have to take a backseat to the “pros” as the show got closer to production.

No, we didn’t like it one bit.

To be continued…


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 14

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey odyssey part 14, told by Paul VitolsI think it was in about November 1990 that Phil Keatley left his position as head of CBC Vancouver’s drama department and was replaced by David Pears, an executive returning west from Toronto–a move that, in CBC terms and in Canadian corporate and government terms generally, could only be called a demotion. Pears (and I call him “Pears” because that’s what he called himself: when he called you on the phone, he’d identify himself by saying, “It’s Pears”) had been involved in the production of the then-flagship CBC drama Street Legal, often referred to by those of us in the Canadian TV biz as T.O. Law, since it was widely seen as an imitation of the highly successful Steve Bochko series L.A. Law in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Hart Hanson, the story editor for our developing Jellybean Odyssey show, had outgrown his junior post at CBC Drama in Vancouver, in demand elsewhere as a freelance TV writer, a story editor for TV series in production, and also as a professor of creative writing at UBC (whew!), and had left, to be replaced by Linda Coffey.

I don’t remember now whether it was our first meeting with “Pears and Coffey”, but I think it was: another summit-meeting to talk about the show, this time held, more formally, in the boardroom at CBC Vancouver. Again I (no doubt) packed my attache case and put on jacket and tie (although this time I no doubt also took transit to get there; who needs the stress?). Warren and Michael were there, of course, and possibly Hart, maybe even Phil Keatley. We took our places at the long conference table, sitting in chairs with absurdly high backs, furniture that felt like some kind of modernistic throwback to a medieval dining-hall.

We had all introduced ourselves. In fact I had met Pears years before, in the 1970s, when he had come to visit my father one day in West Van. I didn’t remember anything of his appearance, only an impression of someone who thought rather highly of himself and who regarded his issues and problems as very important. Now, in 1990, he came across as an older man, short, with a long gray ponytail and drooping mustache, and very casually dressed in things like jeans, huaraches, and untucked shirts left open to the chest. If smoking had still been permitted indoors, he would have chainsmoked his way through the day.

Pears ran the meeting. His style was folksy, soft-spoken, and, I thought, rather long-winded. He praised our show and its concept, talking about the “arcs” of the series (TV-writing speak for the overarching stories that continue beyond individual episodes) and comparing this with his own experience working on Street Legal, a show which, he claimed, had A, B, and even C arcs running through it–an example of subtlety and depth. (For the record: Warren and I did not think too much of Street Legal as a show; we really did see it as a “me too” imitation of L.A. Law.)

But, although the concept and the writing were on the whole very good, the CBC execs back in Toronto, having examined the material, had discovered that it had a Flaw. And this Flaw was what was holding back the show from being as good as it could be–and as good as it needed to be in order to get a production order. If we could find a way to address the Flaw, then we could very likely have a TV show that could indeed be produced and broadcast. Pears saw his first task with this project as being the correction of the Flaw.

I should’ve counted how many times Pears said the word Flaw; it would have made a great statistic as part of the lore of the show. It was quite a few times. At length Pears revealed what the Flaw was that had been discovered through the perspicacity of the CBC execs: the Flaw lay in the writing of the upworld.

The upworld, as I’ve mentioned, was the term we gave to the parts of the show set in the world of waking life–the world where Jay lay unconscious in his coma, watched over by his mother and his friends Donna and Keith. Warren and I had wanted this world to have as much impact, if possible, as the downworld of Jay’s fantasy-adventure. We wanted to be gritty and real with how comas actually happen–their real effects and symptoms, and the real methods of treating them, when done in the advanced and creative ways then being developed. We wanted the audience to have to work as hard to follow the upworld coma-therapy adventure as it would to follow the downworld adventure. We didn’t want a “cute” or soap-opera-type coma; we wanted to do real coma–scary coma–and dish that up to our kid audience. Why not? They’re only one skateboard-accident away from the same situation, after all.

It appeared now that this vision was not flying with the network–anyway, not with David Pears. The next push of rewriting would involve mainly our upworld stories.

After the meeting, Warren and I felt a bit depressed about Pears’s assault on our upworld, but agreed that it could have been worse–an assault on the downworld story. After all, when a new executive comes in, they have to make their mark somehow. It seemed the core of the show was being left intact. Pears’s enthusiasm for the show idea seemed genuine, and I believed that he saw it as a show that could and would get produced. So it would be worth the extra effort. He had not come to kill it.

Another thing: when I met Pears before the meeting, I immediately recognized him as the figure described to me by the psychic Sarah Scott Simonson: short, egotistical, powerful. We would have to watch out for him. Not that there was a lot we could do, besides say, “yes sir, yes sir, three bags full…”

To be continued…


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