I would be interested in your vision and experience —as a (co)-writer, (co)-creator, (co)-producer — about the differences in the creative process of different types of series.
Especially, I wonder how it differs when you create and develop a series completely original (such as The X-Files, other Ten-Thirteen productions, Ransom…), or based on a book/other media with characters and plots already existing (The Man in The High Castle, Night Stalker…), or based on real/historical characters and situations (Medici, Leonardo).
What are the biggest challenges for these three situations? What are your preferences? What are the convergences or the divergences? And everything you would want to share with us.
What an interesting question, Isabelle. You are right to suspect there are big differences in my creative approach to each of these challenges, so forgive me for the length of my reply.
When I am working on a series someone else created, such as the Ten Thirteen series The X-Files, Millennium and Harsh Realm for Fox or the Cinemax/Sky series Strike Back, I read (and watch) the pilot episode very carefully. (In the case of The X-Files and Strike Back, I watched the first season of each series.)
First, I am reading and watching to find what I personally respond to in what was created. No one is going to love what I write if I don’t love it first. If the pilot episode is terrific – and I thought all of the Ten Thirteen pilots were – it’s easy to fall in love with the characters and the world. If not, then I may have to look harder or – more challenging, but just as important – find a way I can take what’s been established and move it in a direction that I truly love and am excited to write.
That was the situation when I came aboard Strike Back. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the first season, but it had to change because the lead actor was leaving and two new heroes had to be invented. I had to think hard about who the new characters of Scott and Stonebridge really were, and why I loved them and the story world I was creating for them.
Beyond finding my love for what I’m writing, the second thing I’m doing when I come aboard an existing show is trying to gain as deep an understanding as I can of who and what the characters and the show really are. When I present my own ideas for the characters and storylines, I don’t want them to contradict what’s already been created. They need to honor and respect what’s been created and then, hopefully, go beyond it. That’s what all series creators hope their writing staff will do – surprise them, and bring ideas to the series that are consistent with what’s been created, but that they never would have thought of. You have to be working with both your heart and your head and give it everything you’ve got, or you don’t even have a chance of making something worthwhile.
Adaptations such as The Man in the High Castle and Night Stalker present very different challenges. In both cases, I was trying to remake the source material in ways that I thought would not only make for a great show, but answer the implicit question, Why? If you are going to remake a series or adapt a book, then there had better be some vital creative reason for it. In both cases, I asked myself, Why make this series – and why now?
My work on Night Stalker was complicated by two factors. The first was that while I loved the two television movies starring Darren McGavin, I never thought the original series worked. (Nor did Darren McGavin, for that matter.) I worked hard to come up with an updated version of the show that I loved and thought improved upon the first, only to have that version rejected by the network. They wanted something closer to The X-Files. Much as I love The X-Files, that was the last thing I wanted to do after having worked on the series for eight seasons. And I knew that a knockoff of The X-Files was bound to pale in comparison. In the end, I was forced to come up with a compromise that was bound to frustrate both Night Stalker fans and network executives looking for the next X-Files. Nonetheless, I am hugely proud of the work we all did on Night Stalker and think the series holds up remarkably well. (If you get a chance, check out Tom Schnauz’s The Five People You Meet in Hell or Vince Gilligan’s What’s the Frequency, Kolchak?)
In the case of The Man in the High Castle, I was dealing with a beloved book that had defied adaptation for many years. When I accepted the job and re-read the novel, the reason was obvious to me – as brilliant and unsettling as it was, the book did not contain a narrative that could sustain a television series. I wanted to honor Philip K. Dick, but I knew that there was no way I could make a series that was strictly faithful to his book. So I began by identifying what I considered to be the novel’s central questions, which were how to maintain one’s humanity in an inhuman world, and what is the nature of reality itself. I then began adjusting, reordering and enlarging the book’s plot so that it had drama and a narrative that could sustain a television series. That led to the creation of antagonists who didn’t exist in the novel, and two of the series’ greatest characters, Joel de la Fuente’s Inspector Kido and Rufus Sewell’s John Smith. When the series was released, I was enormously relieved to see that many people not only thought I had been true to the novel but, in some ways, actually improved upon it.
When you are telling a story based on historical characters such as the Medici family or Leonardo da Vinci, you discover that history doesn’t speak in one voice. There are as many ways to look at history as there are historians, so once again you need to ask yourself, Why? Why am I telling this story and what is it I want to say? In the case of Medici, my co-creator Nicholas Meyer and I were struck by the idea that the Medici sometimes did bad things in order to achieve good. That became our central theme, and helped us decide which aspects of their saga we would include in our narrative. Yet another challenge was trying to dramatize the lives of the female characters, whose stories are usually not nearly so well recorded. Because so little is written, we were often left trying to connect the dots of what’s known to imagine who they might have been. For that reason, I am particularly proud of the characters of Contessina and Clarice.
The easiest – and hardest – challenge is when you’re left to create your own series, whether it’s The Lone Gunmen, Hunted, Ransom or The Indian Detective. But even then, the canvas is hardly blank. The comedy-dramas The Lone Gunmen and The Indian Detective had as their starting points three beloved characters from The X-Files and a hugely popular comedian, respectively. Hunted began with a vast amount of research into the world of private security firms, while Ransom had the career of real-life kidnap and hostage negotiator Laurent Combalbert as its starting point. In each instance, I was trying to create something that I not only loved, but that no one had ever seen before. I wanted to say something new, that would both entertain audiences and make them think. I was looking for lead characters who were perfectly suited and uniquely placed to explore the story worlds I wanted to create.
Writing is never easy, and nor should it be. After years of experience, I have learned to not be afraid of challenges, but to embrace them. Each challenge is an invitation to think deeply and imagine something that’s never been imagined before. It’s a gift, and at the very center of what makes me grateful to be a writer.