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.

Help me create more by becoming one of my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to support my work without spending money, I have just the page for you.

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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…

Help me create more by becoming one of my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to support my work without spending money, I have just the page for you.

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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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creating characters, part 4: story archetypes

In part 3 I described how to start building a character by snapping together 2 different kinds of archetype:

I likened the heroic archetype to the chassis for a character, and the psychological archetype to a motor, to give the character a sense of drive and purpose. In part 3 I suggested that there is still more to do. By this I meant that the character must be created with the wider context of the story in mind. A character, unlike a real human being, is not an end in himself; he exists to serve the needs of the story in which he occurs. He needs his own integrity, and to that extent he is a whole, but in terms of the story as a work of art he is a part, and everything about him must serve the needs of that greater whole. Like an engine part, he needs to function well in his own right, but that functioning must serve the greater good of the overall performance of the engine.

creating characters part 4: story archetypes, by Paul VitolsTo that end, we need to consider our characters from another archetypal point of view: that of their story archetype. This amounts to asking what role the character is going to play in the story, or what story function the character will have. The most central and obvious role is that of the hero or protagonist: whom the story is about. And while this role is, in one sense, covered by the choice of heroic archetype mentioned above, in another sense it needs to be specified in a different way, looking from the higher vantage of considering the mission of the story as a whole. Our story needs a hero, but whether he will be a romantic hero, a tragic hero, a comic hero, a dashing “hero hero,” or maybe an antihero, depends on the kind of story we’re telling, and this will affect our choice of “heroic archetype.”

Different writers have broken down the different kinds of characters that appear in stories—that is, the different story roles or functions that they can perform—in different ways. The two that I find most inspiring and useful are presented in:

The first of these was written specifically as an aid to writers, the second is a scholarly (and massive) work aimed at the serious student of storytelling, but both, in my opinion, provide excellent help for the writer working at the early stages of character creation. Christopher Vogler, inspired by Joseph Campbell’s ideas about myth, presents storytelling as an account of the primordial journey of the hero, which goes through certain archetypal stages in what Campbell calls the “monomyth.” Christopher Booker, examining critics’ efforts through history to categorize the basic plot types, discovers that the deepest way to understand the story functions of characters is in terms of the psychological archetypes described by Carl Jung. In this view, stories are like maps that help us in our own journey toward wholeness, and their characters represent forces within our own psyches as we each make that perilous but fulfilling journey.

All right, so what does that mean for us as storytellers? It means that by using these methods of discovering or assigning the story functions of our characters, we get our story organized. For each character we get a sense of what he’s doing in the story, why he’s there; and this contributes mightily to a character’s sense of purpose and mission. And, contrariwise, if we can’t find a real purpose for a character, it may be a sign that he needs to be fired from that story, or, possibly, combined with another character who does have a definite function. Combining two characters can make for a richer single character: the, say, whiny little sister and the socially climbing girlfriend meld together into a single, whiny, socially climbing person, whether sister or girlfriend, and that person becomes a more rounded character in the process. (You could also meld positive traits, or combine positive and negative: a compassionate sister and a socially climbing girlfriend can become a compassionate, socially climbing girlfriend—a complex and potentially interesting person.)

Let’s look first at Christopher Vogler’s mythic archetypes. When he examined Joseph Campbell’s breakdown of the monomyth of the hero, he found 7 characters in that archetypal adventure:

  • Hero
  • Mentor
  • Threshold Guardian
  • Herald
  • Shapeshifter
  • Shadow
  • Trickster

He devotes a chapter to each one of these; I won’t try to describe them in detail here. Their names give you a sense of their functions, and they tend to appear at distinctive stages of the hero’s journey. It’s well worth reading Vogler’s book to learn more about this.

Now let’s look at Christopher Booker’s archetypal characters, based mainly on Jung’s psychological theory of the process he calls individuation, or the individual’s journey toward wholeness. In Booker’s view, all storytelling is ultimately about this journey. Psychic wholeness is represented by the archetype Jung calls the Self, which he also calls the “God-image in man.” The quest of the healthy ego is to realize and become one with this Self, which is equivalent to supreme spiritual realization. When the ego falls off that path and starts to focus on its own importance, then you have the phenomenon of selfishness and the vices that go with it. In Booker’s scheme, the characters in stories group themselves around these two poles, with “light” or good characters representing aspects of the Self and the journey toward it, and “dark” or bad characters representing the fixated ego. He sets them out thus:

Positive/centered on the Self:

  • Light Father/Good King/Wise Old Man
  • Light Mother/Good Queen/Wise Old Woman
  • Light Alter Ego/Friend/Companion
  • Light Other Half (girlfriend/boyfriend)
  • Child

Negative/centered on the ego:

  • Dark Father/Tyrant/Dark Magician
  • Dark Mother/Dark Queen/Witch
  • Dark Rival/Dark Alter Ego
  • Dark Other Half/Temptress

These lists, both Vogler’s and Booker’s, provide different schemas or grids to lay over a story. I think of a command I remember from earlier versions of Windows, for when icons on the desktop became scattered and messy: it was called “snap to grid,” and it caused all the icons to be moved instantly into an orderly arrangement of rows and columns. These lists of archetypes allow story characters to be snapped to a grid: the grid of the functions they serve in the story. Depending on the kind of story you want to tell, you might want to have a villain for a character. Well, this character might then partake of the qualities of the Shadow archetype in Vogler’s scheme and the Dark Rival in Booker’s scheme. This will tell you a lot about the kinds of qualities and story duties this character might have.

I’m referring to all of the archetypes on these lists collectively as story archetypes, and I think it might actually be best to start here, that is, to decide on the story archetype that a character will be based on before moving on to the other kinds of archetypes, what I’m called heroic and psychological archetypes.

You might think, Wow, that’s a lot of archetypes to be juggling; it sounds complicated. But I don’t see it that way. To me it’s like a process of triangulation: using these 3 or 4 different schemes allows you to start pinpointing your character. The character begins to emerge from the gray fog of uncreatedness to become somethingsomeone—specific and definite. You’re still just beginning the process, but you’re making a strong beginning. You can already feel sure that this character will carry weight in the story.

Creating characters is difficult. I have been working on the characters for The Age of Pisces for years now, and the work is not finished; I am still getting to know these people. And the tools to do the job have only gradually come into my hands. This is my effort to share what I have learned with you. May you—and all readers and viewers—benefit!

Next I think we’ll need to look in more detail at how to combine these archetypes. Stay tuned for that.

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, 2, and 3 in this series.

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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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The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene: the nice need not apply

The 48 Laws of PowerThe 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A comprehensive manual on how to gain worldly power. Not for the just, the kind, the ethical, or the fainthearted—but is that a surprise?

I acquired this book in December 2005. I was doing character research for my epic in progress, and wanted to know more about the thinking and actions of politically ambitious people. This looked promising, so I bought it (you’re welcome, Mr. Greene!). I started it, but was soon put off by its chilling tone. I characterized it as “a manual for psychopaths” when I referred to it in my review of another of Greene’s books, Mastery. Yes, I was intending to get inside the heads of those who seek power, but I found the point if view so depressing that I just couldn’t go on with it.

Now it’s 2018. Not long ago I read, with much interest and even excitement, The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith; this too is a book that most readers find depressing, but I found that I did not. No, in my case I found myself energized by exposure to truth: this is how things really work. The fundamental law of politics is to acquire power and keep it. It is not a game that is bound by rules. In the world of politics, we are all in what Thomas Hobbes would have called “the state of nature” with respect to each other: the war of every man against every other. It’s survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, to the victor go the spoils. Mesquita and Smith make a strong case that this is the real dynamic driving all political activity, not just at the state level but at every level where the leadership of a group is at stake. A leader takes power with the help of certain key supporters—supporters who expect to benefit from his rule and to help shape it. Once installed, his first and most pressing ongoing duty is to reward these backers. The more gravy he is able to ladle on them, the more loyalty he buys, and the stronger his grip on power.

When I finished that book I immediately wanted to know more: more about power, its psychology, its strategy, its tactics. Searching Amazon, I found that one of the most prominent results was The 48 Laws of Power. But wait a second—I already had a copy of that. Sweet! I searched my library, found it, and got reading.

My response was different than it was in 2005. People call Greene’s book and his advice amoral, but that might even be flattery, for injustice, deceit, and betrayal are the key implements in the power-seeker’s toolkit, and to me this means that we are setting out to be not just lacking in morality, bust positively seeking to be wicked. For while it’s true that the author sometimes speaks of one’s “opponents” or “adversaries,” his more usual vocabulary for the people in the power-seeker’s world is “victims,” “marks,” or “suckers.” You, the power-seeker, are the predator, and the people around you are the prey. Your object is to trick them, exploit them, and crush them. As you do this, you will conceal your chicanery and bad faith; you will take credit for others’ good work, and shift the blame for your own mistakes and crimes. You will seduce people and make them love you, then leave them in the lurch when the moment is right. All of your interactions with people will be instrumental: use those who can help you; ignore all others. Everything you do is a matter of calculation and cunning, with a single criterion governing every exchange: how will this help me get ahead?

There is no doubt that this is how we all behave some of the time, and how some of us behave all of the time. What is disturbing is to find a manual that speaks only to that dark side, that implicitly or sometimes explicitly puts the higher human feelings, the better part of our nature, down to mere weakness. The author gives the appearance that he genuinely thinks that this is the high path in life, that the pinnacle of human life is to hold power, that this is the only form that human happiness can take. The fact that the path there requires us to lie, cheat, and betray is simply the way things are; nay more: these things, as means to such a sweet and desirable end, are themselves a positive pleasure. I think of an interview I read years ago with the chess champion Bobby Fischer. He described how, for him, the sweetest part of the game was not simply victory; it was the moment when he realized that he had crushed his opponent’s ego. That was what got him off; that was what drove him. Fischer is held up as one of the examples in this book.

It’s a big book and Mr. Greene draws many examples from a wide variety of sources and times. Three of his favorite examples are Talleyrand, Bismarck, and Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, America’s most successful con man, at least in the early 20th century. Interestingly, he never draws on the lives of Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin, even though in some cases they would have made especially striking examples of the principles he is setting out. But a number of the examples he does use are also people who came to a bad end: prison, destitution, or dying at the hands of those they have cheated. Greene does not dwell on those things, tending to treat them as the consequences of failing to follow the laws of power fully and properly. His eye is on the prize ahead, not on the abyss that may lie beyond it.

There’s no denying that death awaits us all, whatever we’ve done and whatever sort of life we’ve lived. Why not enjoy the crystal meth of political power for the short time we have on Earth, if we have the desire for it and “the illness should attend it”? After all, there are plenty of people around us who are perfectly willing to use us and discard us when it’s convenient. Do we want to be the patsies and suckers? Do we want our faces to be mere stepping-stones in others’ climb to the top? Why should other people get all the glory and all the gravy? Shouldn’t we at least take a shot at being winners too?

One of the people that Greene mentions as an example for one of his laws of power is Abraham Lincoln. Under Law 25, “Re-Create Yourself,” Greene observes that Lincoln invented an effective public image for himself: that of the homespun, common country man. He was an Illinois lawyer who wore plain clothes, a rustic beard, and spoke in earthy epigrams. He was a president for the man in the street.

But is that all there was to Lincoln? An effective chaser after power? Even if he did not originate this famous earthy saying, he apparently quoted it with approval:

When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that’s my religion.

To whatever extent Lincoln may have believed these words, to that extent he was not a powerful man, at least by the calculus of The 48 Laws of Power. The book certainly would acknowledge the necessity of professing spiritual values, of covering the tracks of one’s machinations; and Machiavelli does the same in The Prince; but can we really just write Lincoln and other admired leaders off as hypocritical knaves? Is the existence of tender feelings, spiritual feelings, in our breast a sign that we are cannon fodder, mere prey animals to be used by those who understand the world better?

The great psychologist Carl Jung, in his book Two Essays in Analytical Psychology, says:

Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.

Personally, I think he’s right. To use, betray, and crush people are not loving actions. In the game of power, the person we love is ourselves. All others are thrown under the juggernaut of our own ego. This is the path to the “happiness” of power. Such, presumably, was the happiness of Joseph Stalin, hiding in his fortified palace from the vengeance of those many he had harmed, having physicians around him—the Jewish ones, anyway—tortured and killed on suspicion of conspiring to remove him from office.

No, love is the path to human happiness. I suspect that power is what we seek if we feel, for whatever reason, that the path of love is closed to us. Power is a consolation prize. It may even be revenge on a world where one has failed to find love. And if you actually enjoy hurting others, then you can experience pleasure in your climb to the top and pleasure in keeping yourself there. Until, that is, you yourself are pushed out—or die.

The world we live in is, in many respects, a jungle, and it operates by the law of the jungle—the laws of power. But the world we can see and touch is not all that is; such is the unanimous teaching of the spiritual traditions of the world, and such is the intuition in the hearts of many or most of us. We may not know how, but we suspect that we will all face a reckoning for our actions in this world. The 48 laws of power are the laws governing Vanity Fair, the dazzling worldly fair created by Beelzebub in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where human pleasures and lusts are catered to. If you want to be a player there, then the 48 laws will certainly help you.

I can’t subscribe to the basic outlook and premise of The 48 Laws of Power, but I read this book with much appreciation and enjoyment. Robert Greene comes across as a cold but thorough and effective adviser. He at least takes on the persona of a hard-boiled realist who does not whitewash anything. He’s speaking to the prince in the privacy of his inner office while they relax at the end of the day, having a scotch. No pretenses here, just plain talk. The book is well thought out and well researched. If this doesn’t sound too contradictory, it reads like a labor of love. The writer may be helping you to deceive and betray, but he’s doing it because he wants you to succeed.

And there’s plenty in here that I think even a good-hearted person can use with benefit, not only to smoke out the ploys and stratagems being used by others, but also to adopt aspects of the 48 laws that do not cause harm to others. There’s nothing wrong, for instance, with guarding against outshining your superiors, or adopting an unhurried approach to things, or forbearing from pressing an attack too far. These strategies are about being smart in the real world. Indeed, it might be interesting if someone created a “white hat” version of the 48 laws—power principles for loving people.

In the meantime, loving people can study this book with profit. Just don’t forget what really matters.

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The Odyssey odyssey, part 12

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 12, told by Paul VitolsThe 1990s arrived, and with them my 31st birthday.

Apparently Ivan Fecan, then CBC’s head of programming (now CEO of the CTV Television Network), had not read our package on his skiing trip after all, and got to it only when he returned to the office in the new year. Later in January he was planning to make a trip west to visit CBC’s “regional” offices, including Vancouver. Meanwhile, via Michael Chechik, our producer, we heard an early glimmering of Fecan’s response to our show: it lacked “allegory”.

A meeting was set up so that we on The Jellybean Odyssey team could get direct feedback from Fecan while he was visiting Vancouver. We were to convene at the CBC building on Hamilton Street at, I think, 10:00 a.m. on Monday 22 January. I put on a jacket and tie, packed the script, proto-series-bible, and episode ideas into my attache case, and joined the other commuters driving over town to work–a most unfamiliar experience to me, who had not had to commute to a workplace since I’d moved to North Vancouver in 1985.

The meeting was set not in a conference-room, but in a “green room”–a lounge used by performers before going on to a soundstage. There was fairly elaborate security to get inside the brutal concrete mass of the Crown Corporate building (bomb threats due to their programming, possibly). I made it to the room, along with Warren, Michael, Hart Hanson, and I believe Phil Keatley (still the head of drama development in Vancouver at the time–help me out Warren if you remember differently). In came Angela Bruce, CBC’s head of children’s programming, tall, English, with pearl-colored hair and a cane, with her boss Ivan Fecan, a relaxed man, just a few years older than Warren and me, who had acquired quasi-Wunderkind status for having worked in L.A. with Fred Silverman, a famous TV executive. We all shook hands, Fecan dropped onto one of the modernistic foam seats, and we got going.

“I like this project,” said Fecan, “it’s a very creative idea. But as I read the script, I found myself wondering, what’s the allegory here?”

There was a brief silence, but I’d prepared for this moment.

“We heard about that,” I said, “so I looked up allegory in the dictionary.”

“Don’t quote the dictionary at me!” said Fecan with a laugh.

“It talks about using symbolic figures to make general expressions about the human condition–”

“I call it allegory,” said Fecan, “but what I’m asking is, what does this show mean? What’s its relevance? What is its sociological mission?”

A much longer silence fell on the room. Sitting beside Michael, I could sense his mouth working a couple of times, but nothing coming out. I realized that if anyone was to rise to this challenge, it should be the show’s creators. I sensed that here was the crisis–the crunch. Again it was I who broke the silence. I had no idea what I was going to say.

“Our vision of the show,” I said, leaning forward and sculpting something, maybe our idea, with my hands, “is not so much sociological…as intensely psychological. Here we have a kid going into the depths of his mind, and finding a world of adventure there. He can see his relationships there in a new way: his friends, his family, his missing father–relationships that everyone has, but doesn’t have this chance to kind of explore this way…”

In fact, I’m not exactly sure what I said after that first sentence, but it was along those lines. My basic thrust was that the vision for the show was not “sociological”–outward, but “psychological”, inward, and that this “inward” is just as universal as the the “outward”. But more than that I just wanted to respond: to return the volley and stick up for the show as being meaningful and important.

With the ice thus broken, other people chimed in with their views–Angela, Hart–that the show did indeed have the characteristics that Fecan was looking for. I recall Hart sitting with a sheaf of papers on his lap, lifting through them theatrically, and saying sotto voce, “It’s there–it’s there already!”

At length, Fecan cut off the discussion.

“Well, it’s not there yet. I don’t want a show that’s just a bunch of kids running around doing stuff. I think we need to see another draft of this.”

With that he was up and heading for the door. In the doorway, he turned to look me in the eye, and said with a smile, “You look like a deer caught in the headlights.”

He turned and left with Angela.

At that moment I became sure we had a series.

To be continued…

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