The Odyssey odyssey, part 13

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 13, told by Paul VitolsThe upshot for Warren and me of our meeting with CBC’s head of programming Ivan Fecan was that we had to do more work on our would-be series, The Jellybean Odyssey, before he would give us the go-ahead to produce the pilot episode. I don’t remember exactly what that extra work was, but I believe it may have been at this time that scripts for the next two episodes were commissioned, and no doubt we had to beef up the other episode ideas further and flesh out the proto-series-bible. Scripts are cheap; the network wanted more security in the project before actually causing film to be shot.

As Phil Keatley, the executive heading up CBC Vancouver’s drama department, expressed it after one of our meetings there: “This show, if it goes ahead, is going to cost something upward of a quarter-million dollars an episode. They’re going to say yes slowly.”

So the result of the big meeting was disappointing in the sense that we didn’t get a green light for making the pilot, but it was good in the sense that the project was alive, and indeed Warren and I got a bit more work out of it and could look forward to some more script fees. There was hope that we could turn the work around quickly and get the pilot into production for the summer, when the good filming weather would be here.

But within a couple of weeks of the meeting, I fell sick. At first I thought it was simply a cold, but I acquired a high fever that I couldn’t control, and was diagnosed with pneumonia. I spent most of February 1990 lying on my sofa, reading, drawing the snow piled high on my back balcony, watching TV, and climbing slowly and weakly up to bed each night.

This was a setback. But I don’t know whether it was a decisive setback in the sense of (apparently) killing any sense of urgency in the network to develop our series. However, for that reason or some other, this is what appeared to happen. Warren and I came to understand more exactly what Hart Hanson, our story editor, had meant early on when he referred to “development hell”.

I’m trying to think of how I would define and characterize development hell. First of all, development hell is experienced primarily by writers, and secondarily by producers. The hellishness consists in doing seemingly endless revisions of existing material–long past the point when you’ve cashed your last check for writing it–and waiting long, long times for feedback from the network, all with no guarantee that the project will ever, in the end, actually be picked up. With no production date even tentatively in mind, the senior network executives, who are all earning six-figure salaries in any case, can let the project float along while they mainly attend to more pressing concerns.

Warren and I met here at my house to work. Often we would walk down the hill to have lunch at Fran’s Cafe–a cheap Japanese-Canadian diner near the foot of Lonsdale Avenue that we dubbed the Development Diner: where writers in development could afford to eat. Neither of us had a real job–at least I didn’t–although I did have two mortgages plus a personal loan to finance the purchase of my house three years earlier. Money started growing tight, and Warren and I were driven to borrowing money–that is, getting “advances” against future work–from our producer Michael in order to keep going. (He had a sideline of selling real estate.)

Spring passed. Summer. The long days and beautiful filming weather started to fade, still with no breath of confirmation from the CBC about whether they would be wanting our show or not. The writers tightened their belts and looked ahead to another winter.

One day in September 1990 I paid a visit to a psychic named Sarah Scott Simonson. She lived nearby in Lynnmour, so I rode the new (cheap) bike I had just bought down the long hill to her townhouse. Sarah was a very pleasant, ordinary-seeming middle-aged woman who just happened to have psychic abilities. Kimmie had consulted her during a psychic fair held on the PNE grounds, and was impressed with her. I thought, what the heck–I wonder about my future too.

In her little consulting-room I asked her about my TV show: would it get made?

“Yes,” she said, “it will get done, it will get shown. It will be successful. Someone’s going to come along who will help it get done. He’ll be shorter–a powerful person. Very direct. He’ll help you, but be careful of him. There’s ego there–and envy for what you’re doing. Just be careful.”

“All right,” I said. “I will.”

Elated by Sarah’s prediction, I rode energetically back up the long hill, again feeling that the wind of destiny was behind me, and that our TV show would finally find its audience.

To be continued…

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