Ben: Go ring the church bell, Rachel!
Rachel: Ben, take William’s horse.
Ben grabs the lantern and they fly down the stairs.
EXT. The Sea – Night.
Close on the bow of the ship plowing full speed through the water. Close on the name plate as it passes: “Leviathan – Boston Mass”
The Beach – Continuous
Pull back to reveal Omar and Hector Grayfield standing on the beach below their house. There is a large rowboat on the shore.
The Main Road – Continuous
Ben holds the lantern as he gallops full speed on a bareback horse. He cuts over some dunes and spurs the horse up the beach.
EXT. The Church – Continuous
Rachel flies up the steps of the church and yanks on the doors, but they’re locked.
Beach – Continuous
Ben, in full gallop, sees Grayfield’s house looming in the distance. The last couple of lights go out. It’s now pitch black except for the lights of the ship out beyond the point, steaming closer and closer. Off his look –
EXT. The Church – Continuous
Rachel is in back of the building at another door but it’s locked too. She grabs a rock…
The Beach – Continuous
Ben stops, boulders block his path. He turns his horse up and across the field past Grayfield’s house, but halts when he sees…
Angle on the ship as it violently runs aground.
His horse rears as the ship heaves and lunges horribly just a hundred yards out to sea. Sounds of the hull ripping apart as steel is shredded by rocks.
He spurs his horse and flies up along the ridge of the little bluff. As he rides past, we see –
Grayfield Beach – Continuous
-- that he’s passing the beach where Omar and Hector are standing by the rowboat.
Hector Grayfield: Shouldn’t we launch, Pa?
Omar Grayfield: What’s your hurry, boy?
The Beach North of Grayfield’s – Continuous
Ben arrives, dismounts, smashes his lantern on a pile of drift wood, igniting a fire. He pulls off his coat and runs to the water’s edge, he is about to dive in when –
BOOM! The ship’s boiler explodes in a spectacular column of flame, lighting up the night. Though he is over a hundred yards away, Ben is blown to the ground as pieces of the ship begin to rain down into the sea.
Sound of the Church Bell ringing.
END OF ACT ONE.
But what is a tragedy for many, particularly those killed in the crash, is a boon for others.
The Beach – Dawn.
All are gathered, it’s gray and cold. The wind still tugs at people’s clothes, but the storm is blowing out. Women hold each other, some pray rosaries. Rachel comes and stands beside Ben.
Jeff Tivers opens a large, old ledger. Beside him, Dylan Smith (32) holds an ink well and acts as a human desk as Jeff dips his pen.
Jeff Tivers: All being lost, we commend their souls to the Almighty.
All Present: Amen.
Jeff Tivers: In the absence of survivors and in accordance with our rights as salvors, the vessel is hereby “Castaway” and all her contents salvageable. Agreed?
Omar Grayfield: Aye.
Some Others: Aye.
Ben is a little incredulous. This is happening fast.
Jeff Tivers: Opposed?
Omar stares at everyone. Ben notices Ashley’s silence.
Jeff writes in the ledger.
Jeff Tivers: The Boston ship owners, when discovered, will be notified of the loss of their steam ship—
Ben: “The Leviathan.”
Jeff Tivers: (writing) The Leviathan. All goods and contents and all monies thereby gotten, are divisible among the thirteen landed families of the island and a fourteenth share for the township.
Ben: What if Boston wants back what we salvage?
Jeff Tivers: Only if there are survivors, have the ship owners any legal claim. Isn’t that so, Mister Howland?
Ashley Howland: Legally, with all souls dead and no one to object, then the islanders may claim salvage, yes.
Hiram Prague: And the ship owners are liable for all expenses.
John Garbord: Including burial costs, you damned tick.
Ben: They’re going to want to know the circumstances of the wreck.
Omar Grayfield: (staring at Ben and Rachel) The light was out.
But there were survivors – two young girls rescued by Ben shortly after the meeting. Keeping them safe is secondary to keeping them sequestered and away from any inquiry about the wreck – for with survivors there is no bounty. As Omar Grayfield remarks to his accomplices, “As for the girls, make them happy, get them pregnant, worst case: we shoot them.”
No Meaner Place: Chris Kelley has written an extremely imaginative story with thin shards of light shining through the evil mist. Further, he has unwrapped the legal concept of “Finders Keepers” as it pertained to maritime law – the ownership of both the exterior structure of a wrecked ship and its contents, as the presumed owners of the contents of a ship were those who brought such bounty aboard. Although pirates hoisting the skull and crossbones no longer plied the seas of the northeastern coast, pirates still existed and it is these pirates that Kelley writes about. Like Hitchcock’s “Jamaica Inn,” loosely based on Daphne Du Maurier’s book of the same name, and “The Wrecker,” an episode of the classic “Maverick” television series based on Robert Louis Stephenson’s short story “The Merry Men,” “The Wreck of the Leviathan” explores the evil men do when no one seems to be watching and the extremes they will go to protect those ill gotten gains.
Life Lessons for Writers: Follow the money.
Conversation with the Writer:
This conversation is taking place in Chris’s Silver Lake Studio where he designs and makes custom furniture.
Neely: I love period pieces but I’m not sure my love is shared by all. How was your choice of era and setting greeted?
Chris: It was greeted optimistically by my agents and the people who read it. Then when we went out to sell it, we ran into the obvious difficulty which was that it was a period piece and period pieces are hard to sell. This was a couple of years ago. I think they’re wrong about period pieces. This is America and we have how many westerns? And they’re still making them. For all intents and purposes, “The Wreck of the Leviathan” is just a western. In retrospect I wasn’t thinking of it that way at the time, but this was the wild wild Northeast!
At the end of the day we almost sold it to AMC. They were very interested and then there was a management shakeup and the deal fell through. But it wasn’t because it was a period piece.
Neely: It just fell through.
Chris: It just fell through.
Neely: And AMC, by the way, is one of the most adventurous in terms of what they’re trying out.
Chris: I’ve been talking to Melissa Bernstein at Gran Via Productions. She produces “Breaking Bad” and she’s a big fan of “The Wreck of the Leviathan.” Melissa wants to do something with it and take it out somewhere else. She’s the kind of person I’d like to be working with on this.
Neely: What kind of research did you do for this story?
Chris: I didn’t really do any research at all.
Neely: Whole cloth? Were you aware of either the Robert Louis Stephenson short story or Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier?
Chris: I was only aware of the Hitchcock movie, but I can’t remember whether I had seen it before or after I wrote the script. I saw it on TV late one night and it didn’t really dawn on me that my piece was about land piracy. Obviously that’s an element of it, but when I started writing this pilot I wasn’t thinking shipwreck. Originally it was really about the feud and I was more interested in the burned down hotel storyline – the undertaker with the hotel who is feuding with Grayfield. But I came to a point where I thought there should be an exciting event and that’s when the shipwreck came to mind. The rest of it kind of played out. I didn’t sit down to write a pirate story.
Neely: Another of the reasons I was so intrigued is that an awful lot of these issues come up in the Robert Louis Stephenson short story “The Merry Men.” That story was the basis of an episode of the classic western series “Maverick” starring James Garner.
Chris: Is that so?
Neely: Yep. One of the things I loved about “Maverick” is that the writers would sometimes take a classic piece (of literature) and adapt it to their own needs (always crediting the original author). So they used this short story (adapted by Russell Hughes) in “The Wrecker.”
Just as an aside, they also did a brilliant adaptation of Sheridan’s “The Rivals.” (adapted by Marion Hargrove – who, prior to his television career was famous for having documented his life in the Army in See Here Private Hargrove).
There’s so much that can be done with classics in adaptation. “The Wrecker” brought out the issues of when one can claim the goods. The “Maverick” story established that once the insurance company declared a disaster, they would auction the contents at auction, sight unseen. The buyer would then have to travel to the location to salvage the goods.
Chris: The extent of my understanding of maritime law (I grew up around boats) is that if a ship is abandoned, if no one is left on board – no officers or crew, or anyone, I guess – whether just gone or dead, then the ship is “finders/keepers.” Whoever gets there first can take what they want. Of course there are all the legal battles and the shoot outs at sea over the contents, but that was my entire understanding and that’s how I wrote it. I had my attorney read it and he said, “Is that law real? Are you sure that that law is going to stick?” And I said, “Well, no. But that’s half the drama.” The islanders aren’t sure either; they’re going off into the unknown - “This is what we’re going to do and we think it’s going to work.” But by episode 5 or 10, I anticipate the heavies from Boston showing up and making trouble because the islanders have probably skirted the law.
Neely: What I liked very much when I looked up the Wikipedia reference to the law involved, is that this maritime law is the foundation, the very origin of the expression “finders keepers.” We’ve all used “finders keepers” since childhood but this is where it came from.
Chris: Yeah, and it makes sense to me.
There is an actual inspiration for my story. I grew up in Rhode Island and spent my summers on Block Island. It was this Victorian resort that died in the middle of the 20th century and became something of a ghost town. I was out there in the 70s exploring with my brother and his girlfriend and her brother who lived on the island (it was very exotic to me that people still lived on this island). We were walking out to an abandoned light house on the point and there was a cove there. My brother’s girlfriend asked if we had ever heard of the wreck of the Palatine. I said I hadn’t and she described it.
There was a ship that wrecked and the islanders wanted the goods. So they stole the goods and set the ship on fire and let all the passengers die. She said that on certain nights of the year, between Christmas and January around the full moon, about the time the ship was sunk, you can come out there and hear the cries of the people and sometimes see the flames through the fog. It’s an old island ghost story. I asked her if she had ever really seen it and she said yeah. I was thirteen at the time and that story has always stuck with me.
If you go to Block Island, there are old historic pictures on the walls of the bars and in one of them there’s a picture of the dunes at the north point showing these women who had stretched this fabric out, hundreds of yards of it, to dry. The skeins had been taken from a shipwreck (a different one). There’s also an old poem about the Palatine that had been written in the 1700s. Obviously there are a lot of crossed wires here, but that kind of story got me going and just stuck with me…
Neely: …at the age of thirteen.
Chris: At the age of thirteen. And then I wrote this at…
Neely: …a more advanced age.
Going back to something you had said just a few minutes earlier, but I loved the way you told a story of small town internecine warfare within a framework of piracy. It’s especially deepened knowing that originally started out as a story about the feuds between the two families, one of whom had a hotel and the other of whom is suspected of having burned it down. What inspired you on that original storyline?
Chris: In general, I try to write stories of human civilization in isolation. I’m always drawn to the idea of what happens when you take people and isolate them. I’ve always loved this idea of civility, of civilization; the fact that at some point in our history, many points actually, it was decided that we had to establish codes of civility. We had to be civilized. To be civilized is to essentially take care of or treat one another nicely – have manners. So we started developing manners. I think one aspect of having good manners and being nice to each other is that we’re afraid that “if I’m not nice to you, you won’t be nice to me.” So for me, there’s an opportunity here for tension – the tense relationship that holds civilization together…
Neely: …Ah, yes. The true meaning of the “Golden Rule”…
Chris: The old map makers when they came to new places like the New World or Africa, at the edge of wherever they had mapped, wherever they stopped drawing, they wrote “here there be monsters.” And I don’t think they necessarily meant that out there you’ll find dragons and beasts with claws. I think what they meant was that beyond “this line” it’s monstrous; there aren’t civilized white people who worship our god and know what we know or with whom you’ll be able to relate or trade. Out there, beyond that line, it’s monstrous. The monstrosity is the opposite of civility.
So the theme of this story on the island is that there’s no reason why I shouldn’t kill you if you have what I want. The only reason is that we are agreeing to some kind of civility. Referring this to a Marxian principle, the only reason a dollar buys a loaf of bread is because we all agree that we will pay a dollar for the bread until one day the guy with the bread says that he doesn’t want that “worthless piece of paper.” And then all of a sudden what happens if the dollar is no longer a dollar? What do we do? I think that the stock market, and I’m pontificating now, is all just like a religion. Everyone just agrees on what they see; everyone accepts the belief system that’s at work. One day it’s this and the next day it’s that. At a certain point in history we said that we couldn’t simply agree, but instead we needed laws; we needed to make strident laws that had consequences. And that’s when civility and civilization became this trenchant real thing.
Neely: Using an illustration from the script, the town meeting where they all agree how they’re going to divvy up the goods is a perfect example. Even within the town, where there are so many different factions and enemies, when it comes to the piracy, the spoils of war, they have a very set foundation, framework, of how everything will be divided up regardless of who’s on whose side.
Chris: That’s exactly right. It felt to me like an ancient kind of oral tradition on the island that they split things the way their fathers did it. There’s a line that I really like that I stumbled on as I was writing. It’s where Omar says that the splitting the profits of the ship makes accomplices of them all. In essence, he’s saying that we can all fight and hate each other and want to kill each other but this is another aspect of the glue, this kind of nuclear force that holds civilizations together. They all had something to lose then. If they had nothing to lose then they’d kill each other and take each other’s land and whatever they wanted, but if they have something to lose… So I created a microcosm on an island, a familiar setting to me, and I rapidly came to the place where I realized that this is a really great laboratory for all of my questions and all of my ideas about civility and civilization and human conduct.
Neely: Well, this is completely off topic, and it was my husband who brought this up, but…what’s with “Ben Howland”? Coincidence or deliberate?
Neely: Oh… you’re not a UCLA basketball fan.
Chris: No, I’m not. Someone else mentioned this to me. There’s a Ben Howland…
Neely: …he’s the coach of the UCLA basketball team.
Chris: Was he the coach two, three years ago?
Chris: That shows what I know.
Neely: Do you ever look at the sports pages? It could be subliminal.
Chris: No. I watch a little baseball, but I don’t watch basketball so I don’t think it’s subliminal. The name came because I like to go with these really archaic sounding American names (Neely note: UCLA’s Ben Howland is going to love that). There was a guy named John Howland who, I believe, sailed from Cape Cod to Providence back in the bad old days. Howland is a great old name and my friends all went to John Howland Elementary School which is no longer there. So the name John Howland was lost to history and I just thought it was a great name. You know… Howl Land. I like everything to mean a little something. And Ben is just a good solid heroic name.
Neely: What were we going to learn about the death of Rachel’s husband?
Chris: You want me to spoil it? (laughs)
Neely: This may still have life so it’s up to you.
Chris: Rachel murdered him.
Neely: Ooooh. Ben’s gonna really get screwed.
Chris: Ben is in for it. The husband was a drunkard and a very mean guy behind closed doors. Rachel is a survivor. She bumped him off, literally off the lighthouse. It’s a nineteenth century divorce.
Neely: A character point was that Ashley, the lawyer and Ben’s father, had arrived on the island looking to vacation, whereas everyone else had arrived in one sinister way or another – either shipwreck or chain gang, making it the Australia of New England. Surely there’s a sinister backstory to Ashley also.
Chris: I don’t know how sinister it is. He’s not malevolent. That line about “He came here for the weather.” He didn’t really come for a vacation. If you recall, he worked for Lincoln; he was a junior aide as a young man, and after Lincoln’s assassination he went on to live his life. He’s addicted to morphine...
Neely: Do we already know that?
Chris: We know it in the pilot. He does this syringe thing in one scene. He’s no longer addicted to morphine, he’s addicted to the brand new drug developed by the Bayer Company that was supposed to replace morphine, the highly addictive pain killer. It was a brand new wonder drug that was going to save all these morphine addicts and it was called heroin. It was the newest thing on the market in the late 1800s from the Bayer Aspirin Company.
So he moved to the island because he needed peace and quiet; he was suffering from a nervous breakdown. There’s a whole story with him and Ben’s mother; Ben also has a sister who is at one of the fancy girl schools. The mother is still alive; she had left Ashley but she will return. So Ashley came for the peace and quiet for his nerves and this is where he wound up. (laughs).
Neely: Clearly this series would have had a collision point, where everything either implodes or is resolved. Like Jamaica Inn where eventually the piracy is stopped because they were caught. The same kind of thing might happen here, although it could take a long time. You did, however, reference curses and possibly ghosts and I sensed that the wreck of the ship brought in a supernatural element. Were the people aboard already dead? What about the two girls?
Chris: No the ship was real; bound out of Boston for Philadelphia. It was a small steamer and the people were just people and they all died. The girls happened to survive by dint of their nightshirts inflating in the water.
This is a really common question. Who’s a ghost, who’s alive, who isn’t? I don’t necessarily go into those kinds of things with an answer in mind. I think, for instance, that the father of the girls, who shows up at the end, is a hallucination. These young girls are severely traumatized. So are they hallucinating? Is he a ghost? Or is he really, physically there on the island? I think for our purposes he is a hallucination at that moment.
But there’s something called Magical Realism that is used a lot in European cinema where the barrier between real and carnal and fantasy and supernatural is very very porous. I kind of go that way. In my world and my mind there are spirits among us; but I don’t see them necessarily. I believe that in drama there’s always an element or possibility for the supernatural. The Greeks had the chorus and Shakespeare had Hamlet’s father. Was Hamlet’s father real or was he a hallucination? Personally, in that case I think he was a real ghost and really showed up.
Neely: This kind of thing shows up a lot in Latin American literature; much more common even than in European cinema.
Chris: I really didn’t know what it was but someone said to me, “Oh. You write in that Magical Realism style.” And I said, “Oh. Okay.”
Anyway, there were a lot of Indians who were murdered or massacred on Block Island (it’s true about every square foot of America, I think). And I believe that you can’t kill that many people in that big a way in that small a place without them having something to say about it later on. I do believe there will be apparitions and manifestations and it would be up to the viewer to decide if they’re real.
Neely: In 70s parlance that would be called bad karma.
Chris: That’s right!
Neely: An element of the “occult” would certainly allow for the 100 episodes, but the more important problem in terms of a collision point is the spring thaw when other ships would begin to bring word from the outside world. For the present, you’ve closed them off from the world very nicely with the weather and the elements. But how were you going to handle that plot point?
Chris: There were a number of wheels that were set in motion and this is one of the things that I really like about that moment of history. It’s the dawn of a new era and it’s also still early in the Industrial Revolution. You’re right. This is the last of the shipwreck piracy that can take place. A couple of things are going to happen. New York is going to come to the island and build hotels and make this into a Victorian resort where the wealthy will come and summer and take the waters. This means that the people of the island had better get with it and shape up. They can’t act the way they always have. There’s pressure on them to become more civilized and join the rest of the world. It means money is coming; commerce is coming.
The intra-family warfare is going to increase. And as money, people and information come to the island, secrets get harder to keep. If you remember the two elderly ladies – the Blackstone sisters – it turns out that they’re pretty much broke and just barely hanging on to their Victorian ideals; they don’t have a lot of money left. They’re going to take their portion of the spoils, sell their land so that a harbor can be built, and invest in this new technology – the telephone. Everyone is going to think they’re crazy because you can’t have a telephone on an island – there’s no cable. Then a year later they run cable to the island from the mainland. And all of a sudden the sisters are rich again.
There was quite a bit of anxiety about the advent of the telephone and a lot of places did not want this new invention. People liked that the telegraph was this magic letter machine, but to many people the telephone, where you could actually hear a voice and speak and be heard by someone who is not physically present, was a very disturbing idea. There will be a war over bringing the telephone to the island.
There will also be a witch trial at the end of season one. There’s a lot that would get us to that point, but there’s going to be a trial.
Neely: Did you write this as a spec?
Neely: Who got it? Who did it get taken out to? All the networks? Cable?
Chris: As often happens in the TV world, at least as I understand it, it went in a very circuitous route. A friend handed it to her agent at UTA, who really loved it and said we should take it to HBO and if HBO doesn’t want it, we should take it to Showtime. And then the writers’ strike happened and he left UTA. A year passed and I threw my hopes down the well and went back to carpentry. Then a friend of mine named Bob White, who’s a fantastic features writer, read it on the recommendation of another friend who was working with me. Bob liked it and he gave it to his friend Mike Kelley, who had a show on the air called “Swingtown.”
Neely: We loved “Swingtown.”
Chris: Mike is a dynamite guy. As the story goes, Mike took it from Bob when he was in production on “Swingtown,” and said, “Look, Bob, I’ll read it, I just don’t know when. Don’t expect anything in a hurry. Tell this guy I’ll read it but if I get to it at all, it’ll be a month from now.” And that was the message I got. A day or two later Bob called me and said, “Mike Kelley just finished your script. He loved it and wants to take it to his agents at UTA.” That was the key that opened the door. It was a magical moment. Apparently, Mike looked at it and said, “’Wreck of the Leviathan?’ It doesn’t sound like a TV show.” He started at page one and when he got to page 15, he called Rob Kim and Dan Erlij at UTA and said that he had something they should look at. I just get goose bumps when I think about it. So then I met Mike. He’s just an awesome human being; just one of the most generous, decent guys in the whole world. I would say that even if he had never helped me at all. He’s just a cool dude.
I was sitting in my office here at the shop and the phone rang and it was UTA saying they wanted to sign me. With Mike attached, we took it out to HBO. HBO loved it but they had just signed to make a little period piece called “Boardwalk Empire,” created by Terence Winter to be directed by Martin Scorsese. They decided that they didn’t want to do two period pieces. So I got beat out. But if you’re going to be beat out by someone it might as well be those two guys. Then we went to Showtime and I forget why they passed, but it was a similar story – they had something already. And we went to AMC and they loved it and wanted to develop it into a two hour pilot; at the last minute that deal fell through. I was too new to it all to understand it but even Mike was surprised it didn’t go.
Neely: Was “Wreck of the Leviathan” the first script that you wrote?
Neely: Your first?!
Chris: It was my first TV script. I had the idea and I was talking to a friend of mine and mentioned that I had this idea but didn’t know if it might be a play. (I’m also a playwright.) I’d actually already done a play about a shipwreck that was loosely adapted from “The Tempest.” I’d even done a play called “The Wreck of the Leviathan” but I never produced it and it was not about a shipwreck at all. But then I had this idea and I didn’t know where it fit. I was talking to a friend who’s a novelist, a terrific writer, and he listened to me and said, “Don’t you want to write movies?” “No. I don’t want to write movies.” So he said, “What about a TV show.” And, yeah, it felt like an epic kind of TV show. So he said, “Write the TV show.” And I wondered, “Why the hell would I do that? I’m an unknown playwright and carpenter. I’m not going to write a TV show; nobody knows me. I’m not going to be able to sell a TV show. That would be a complete waste of time.” And he said, “Then waste your time. Write what you want to write. Don’t worry about what it does or where it goes. Write what you want to write.” And of course that’s true.
Neely: Who gave you that advice?
Chris: Bill Kenower. Bill is a novelist and also the editor of an online magazine, a website called “Author.” It’s kind of like what you do. He interviews authors, fiction writers. His advice was, if you want to write something, then sit down and write it and don’t ask why. (Author Magazine)
Neely: That’s the best advice anybody can give you.
Chris: Exactly right. I’m almost ashamed that I had to be told it because that’s what I’ve always done. I’ve never written anything for a particular reason. I got some notes from a good friend of mine, actually a couple of friends. I thought this script was silliest thing I’d ever seen; I mean I loved it but I didn’t think anyone would want it.
Neely: When it went out to various networks. Did you get any notes from them? Were any of them helpful? Were any of them really stupid?
Chris: No. No one ever said “change this” or “change that.” I think if we had gone into development…
Neely: Maybe. Yeah.
Chris: If someone had said, “let’s make this,” they probably would have said I’d have to cut out 20 pages and that they couldn’t afford the shipwreck. I don’t know. Having shot a pilot last year, “Quinn-tuplets” and seeing how tight money is and what you really can and cannot do on TV, I would be very surprised if this script got shot and made in its entirety.
Neely: Well, you cheat a lot. You don’t lose the wrecked ship even if you lose the shipwreck.
But you just said something that I was unaware of. You’re a playwright. When did you start writing?
Chris: At a certain point in my late 20s I started writing. I have these notebooks, stacks of them, and I would just write. I lived in a tiny apartment, a very monastic experience and I would just write in the afternoon – stream of consciousness – for no reason; never for anyone to ever see. I was going through this bout of insomnia and I was up in the middle of the night reading Kafka for about three months. I read the complete works of Kafka because that just really felt like… well I understood it. It made sense to me.
Neely: Did it ever occur to you that the reason you weren’t sleeping might have been because you were reading Kafka?
Chris: Noooo. That didn’t occur to me at all. I think the only thing that kept me from really going over the edge was reading Kafka. (Neely laughs) I found it really comforting. And I’ll tell you why… I don’t think I have the book here but… I have this great work of Kafka short stories with a foreword by John Irving who says that it’s important that every high school kid should know something about Kafka. Kafka would write these stories and he and his friends would get together on weekends and have a bottle of wine or Pernod, or whatever they drank, and they’d sit around his apartment and he’d read them his newest story. But he never got through them because he’d be laughing so hard. He’d be on the floor laughing and tears would be coming out of his eyes. So when I was reading Kafka in the middle of the night, it was funny; it was really amusing to me and it still is. It’s hilarious stuff.
I was just writing to keep my mind together and one day I just started writing dialogue.
Neely: At what point did you start writing plays? Have you had any produced locally?
Chris: I’ve had about 18 to 20 plays produced locally, most of them at the Theatre of Note and a couple of other places here and there. I had a couple done in Texas and evidently a couple were done in Chicago. In my late 20s I wrote a play called “Ransom Soul” which was my first play. I directed it – I direct all my stuff as well – not because I’m a megalomaniac but because I usually don’t know what the play is until I start working with actors. Maybe I am a megalomaniac. (Neely and Chris laugh). So I wrote that play and it got produced and actually got nominated for an award that year. I got beat out by a very good friend of mine who had a play up in that same period, Dennis Miles (who’s an awesome playwright). And then I would just keep writing these things. Largely I send them to Theatre of Note because they really love me and my work. Over the years they’ve produced a lot of my stuff. A couple of years ago I wrote a play called “The Wreck of the Unfathomable.” That won an “LA Weekly” award for writing. I think it was actually for best adaptation which is odd because it wasn’t, even if it seemed like “The Tempest.” I don’t really write full length plays, though.
Neely: So these are basically one or two act plays?
Chris: Sort of.
Neely: What’s the timing on them? No intermission?
Chris: It’s short form theater, so no intermission; or if there is an intermission they’re still not really one acts or a two acts. It’s more just a 70 or 75 minute dramatic movement. I write this form of language theater that doesn’t stop, it just keeps going.
Neely: Well theater is all language.
Chris: That’s what I say; that’s what it should be in the real world – in really good theater. It should be more about language. We say that we don’t sit down to write a story, we sit down to come to character, to discover character through language, not the story. It’s inside out writing and what I believe.
Neely: You should be able to adapt that very well to television. It’s all about coming up with an idea. Yes, TV is story oriented, you do have to go there; but the best television is where the story comes out of character, the character doesn’t come out of story.
Chris: That’s it exactly. That’s why I feel that I may (or may not) really work well in TV. I think I will, but my talents and abilities are applicable to a fairly small arena. I think what you’re talking about is the difference between plot and narrative. A lot of TV is pure plot and there’s nothing more agonizing in the world to me than to be stuck in the machinery of a plot – being dragged along knowing that you’re being moved through the story in a very mechanized way. I write from a place of narrative which is not what happens but what the experiences are as it’s happening.
Neely: If you look at the great television writers of all time going back to Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling at the beginning, and then to Steven Bochco, David Milch, David Kelley in the modern era, it’s all about character and it doesn’t matter if it’s police or legal or medical or supernatural, it’s all out of the character. How does the character react? What does the character say? What’s the character development and growth? Everything else follows.
Chris: That’s exactly my reference.
Neely: And it’s not dead.
Chris: I hope not. It’s not dead…
Neely: …It’s certainly alive on cable.
Chris: That’s right.
Neely: “Breaking Bad” is a terrific example of that.
Chris: It’s a brilliant show; it’s an amazing show.
Neely: It all comes from character. “Justified” is another outstanding example of a character-driven series. The plot only moves dependent on what the characters do.
Chris: That’s right. Everything originates with the character.
Neely: This is a great place to break so we can talk some more about character and how you got into this mad world in the second part of our conversation.
To Be Continued.