What: Richard Miles left for work on Sept. 11, 2001 and returned home exactly 8 years later to the day.
Who: Richard Miles is puzzled to see the name “Miles-Barnes” on the mailbox next to his driveway, but he’s even more surprised by the hysteria that greets him when he walks in the living room and sees his wife Cheryl, daughter Shannon, and son Michael. Richard, an accountant with the firm of Gorman & Shaw, housed on the eightieth floor of the World Trade Center, was presumed dead on September 11, 2001; none of the 23 employees on that floor survived the terrorist attack. Yet, despite it all, there stands Richard staring at his haggard wife, his unrecognizable daughter, and his now non-verbal son. Much has changed in his absence. Cheryl is remarried to a local firefighter, Tom Barnes; Shannon, now 17, tattooed and pierced, has become a self destructive promiscuous denizen of the night; and Michael, 13, rarely speaks and has only a tenuous hold on reality. Everyone has aged but Richard who, eerily, has no gray hair, no wrinkles and is wearing the same suit he wore the day he left the house 8 years ago.
Everyone is suspicious of Richard, not the least of who are the police, convinced somehow of nefarious motives on the part of Richard; but an interview with a psychiatrist seems to indicate that Richard has no ulterior motives. The psychiatrist believes that with time and therapy, Richard will be able to reveal what has happened to him; Richard, who should be rent with anxiety, has a coolly calming influence on the psychiatrist, helping him to unburden and become more at ease with his own surroundings and anxieties.
Dr. Stern: So what do you remember about two-thousand one?
Richard thinks, looks out the window.
His POV – A gas station, where the posted price for a gallon of economy unleaded is $4.05.
Richard: I remember that gas was a dollar seventy-one a gallon. (flashes a weak smile) That the Yankees were the defending World Series champs, having beaten the Mets in the Subway Series in two-thousand. Derek Jeter was the series MVP. Was looking forward to a repeat in two-thousand one.
Dr. Stern: Yanks lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in seven games.
Richard: Arizona? You kidding me?
Dr. Stern: Wouldn’t kid about a thing like that. What else?
Richard: (emotions rise as he looks into his memories) I remember that Shannon had joined the Girl Scouts. She was nervous about it for some reason. And that Michael was in kindergarten and having a difficult time with his multiplication tables. (shakes his head) He didn’t like math. And his dad was an accountant. (smile fades) And I remember Cheryl and I were having problems. More than usual. Had been for a while. Money was tight. She’d started drinking.
Dr. Stern: In some ways you’re lucky, you know – I mean you’re not, you’ve lost so much. But the pain from that day, eight years ago, was and remains so great. It affected so many. Still does. The world was changed. We were changed. All of us. And surely not for the better.
Dr. Stern seems to wilt a little with those words.
Richard now observes Dr. Stern. We notice a subtle shift in Richard’s expression: calm, compassion, and a certain control.
Richard: You counsel victims, relatives of victims. You’re a grief counselor. To this very day.
Dr. Stern: (how did he know that?) Yes, I am.
Richard: You’ve absorbed all their anguish, pain and anger. It’s there within you like a tumor. And you’ve never been able to let it go.
And with that, Richard comforts the doctor whose role was to comfort him.
Richard: …But I do know this. That you’ve been trying desperately to hold these people’s lives together. At the expense of your own. But you can’t. You can’t save everybody. Some things are just meant to fall apart. You do your best. Then you have to let go. (beat) So you can grieve. Because you never have.
In some other worldly way, Richard is able to absorb Dr. Stern’s pain and free him, much like he will do with others around him, lifting the weight holding them down – Cheryl, a local firefighter who lost his brother in Afghanistan, even Shannon who he rescues from an assault.
No Meaner Place: To some extent, Widenmann has created a Sci Fi/Spiritual hybrid. Unlike the character in “The Return of Martin Guerre” (or its American remake “Sommersby”), this is not a case of an imposter reclaiming a life he left long ago. Richard is the living breathing embodiment of what was lost – both the good and bad that he represented in his former life, and the possible redemption in the future – the good that he can do in his new life. Simplistically, I suppose, this is “Touched by an Angel Who Wasn’t an Angel then but Is Now.” Not a huge fan (well not even a small fan) of the spiritual genre, I am especially intrigued by the Sci Fi elements (and who knew I would be drawn to that genre!). It also seems to be a riff on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” because he must be a “pod” because the real body died 8 years ago. “Back” functions on several different levels, most involving the seeking, attaining or giving of redemption.
Widenmann’s strength is certainly in creating credible characters of great depth out of an incredible premise and allowing the audience to travel there with him. “Back” also has the makings of an interesting Greek Tragedy, complete with the neighborhood Greek chorus.
Various Neighbors in the crowd react to the sight of him with an unexpected air of contempt:
Neighbor #1: Is it really him?
Neighbor #2: Seeing is believing.
Neighbor #1: I thought he was dead.
Neighbor #3: Jesus, eight years…
Neighbor #4: To the day.
Neighbor #3: Where’s he been?
Neighbor #1: Musta been a scam. That’d be like Richard.
Neighbor #2: Yeah. Never liked that guy.
Neighbor #1: Who did?
Neighbor #2: Poor Cheryl.
Neighbor #3: God, it looks just like him.
Neighbor #4: Because it is him.
They’ve told us everything we need to know about who Richard was – no less, no more.
Life Lessons for Writers: “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” – Norman Cousins.
Neely: Why this story? Why that date?
Dean: I actually dreamt this whole thing. I dream a lot of stories but this one came to me over a couple of nights and it didn’t occur anytime near 9/11. I just couldn’t get it out of my head so I had to write it. I started at first to outline it, but after about a page and a half I realized that I just had to write it. Four days later I had a script. I put it down for a few days, which is what I always do in order to try to be objective and get some perspective on what I’ve written; I corrected some typos, but it really didn’t change until it went out.
I wasn’t sure what I had until others started reading it. My agents were blown away and people were moved by it in important ways. This was about faith but not about religion. I didn’t see it fitting into any kind of genre. It was about hope, healing and second chances. Maybe these were things that were resonating in my life at the time; they seemed to be to be the thematic backbone of the story.
Neely: Any literary or filmic influences on this idea?
Dean: Not really. I watch lots of movies, see a lot of TV and I read all the time. This was just one of those original things. I didn’t follow any rules. I listened to my imagination and I trusted it.
Neely: Written from pitch or on spec?
Dean: Well, as I mentioned before, I just wrote it; so, yes, it was written on spec. I write all the time. I started doing this later in life so I just write and write and write. I wrote 5 spec pilots during the strike.
Neely: I know that CBS picked up this pilot to production and then…
Dean: CBS was the first place I took it. I pitched it before showing them the script and they loved the pitch and bought it right away. I didn’t have the chance to take it any place else. My experience with them was great. I was involved in everything from casting to working with the director. Our director was Mark Pellington, a features guy, and he really got the material; he was a great partner.
We were going to film this in New York and Toronto and it even got weirder when we were out scouting locations and I saw some of the things that had been in my dreams. In the casting process, so many of the people who came in to read had had 9/11 stories of their own, which made me feel this was an important mission we were on. The finished pilot was just beautiful – beautiful and emotional. It was CBS’s highest testing pilot. The Friday before decisions were to be made, I was told to relax and not worry. Then Monday came and went and it wasn’t picked up. CBS picked up “NCIS-Los Angeles” and “Miami Trauma” and a couple of other standard procedurals/medical shows. All they would say about not picking us up was “things happen.”
Neely: What kind of notes did you get from the network? Any speculation on why it didn’t go? Any foreseen or unforeseen difficulties during the shoot?
Dean: The network notes were great; they really left me alone with my vision knowing that I didn’t want to go anywhere near “Touched by an Angel.” The studio producing the pilot was another story. There seemed to be a slight disconnect between the studio and the network and their notes often contradicted one another.
Almost all our unforeseen difficulties related to the weather. We were trying to make it look like a lovely warm Fall day and it was cold and stormy a lot of the time in Toronto and New York where we were filming.
Neely: What direction would you have taken this? As I mentioned earlier, I’m not big (or even little) on spiritual/religious shows, although I’m considered the religious fanatic in my family because I’m Agnostic (not much of a believer in anything other than hedging my bets). It would have been very easy to fall into that “Touched by an Angel” trap.
Dean: First and foremost, it had to be real. The trauma had to be honest – the emotions had to be raw. There were mythologies involved, as well as the coming to grips with Richard’s awakening to a new, radically altered post-9-11 world, and rebuilding relations with his family. It’s about people who have secrets and have guilt and the terrible things that prevent them from living their lives. Richard was going to heal and he was going to intersect with people who had lost people. These were going to be stories wrapped around powerful, relatable emotions.
While we were casting the part of Tom Barnes, Cheryl’s new husband, a firefighter, our New York casting director, Rosalie Joseph told me her 9/11 story. She lives in Manhattan, near Battery Park, and had been saved by someone who had pushed her onto a boat that morning; when she looked up, no one was there. After that experience she became a grief counselor, which she continues to be up to this day. When she read the script, she had a dream about the Dr. Stern scene and woke up crying; prior to that she had never cried or released her own anguish. That was a pretty validating thing for me.
The character of Richard will give to others what he himself is seeking. They will all deal with the trauma of the time.
Neely: I can usually figure out a way to repurpose material but I can only envision this as television. Can you think of a way that this could turn into a feature with a satisfactory resolution at the end of two hours? The only thing that comes to mind is the framework used by Rogers and Hammerstein in “Carousel” where the dead father, Billy Bigelow, comes back to make sure his daughter takes the right path, the one he didn’t follow, and then he can finally rest.
Dean: Absolutely. I just finished the draft of the feature a week ago. In my original dream I actually dreamt the last episode (it’s a very powerful ending). Richard makes a difference in the lives of those he loves and he finds peace. There are definitely parallels with “Carousel,” especially with Richard’s daughter. At the end of the day, he makes a difference.
Neely: I was interested to see that your television credits have all been on procedurals – something that I wouldn’t think was a very good fit for you. How did you adjust what I see to be a very character-oriented style to a show like “Bones” or “CSI Miami”?
Dean: Most of the shows on the air are procedurals and you need to get experience where you can. Anne Donahue took me on as her character guy on “CSI-Miami” and taught me how to produce, how to be a showrunner. The experience was invaluable.
Neely: It would appear that you lean toward the supernatural when you write. Who are your favorite writers in any genre and what influence have they had on your own writing?
Dean: Supernatural? Well I suppose to a degree. I like a lot of stuff, including Sci/Fi; I especially loved to read it as a kid. It’s certainly some place my mind likes to wander.
Writers? I love novelists. I read a book a week; I love reading. It’s how I turn off my day, by reading someone else’s story. For the most part, my favorite authors fall into the popular category of crime fiction; guys like James Lee Burke, Martin Cruz Smith, Ian Rankin, and Michael Connelly. All their characters have a wounded nobility. I think my favorite book of all time is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, but overall, James Lee Burke is my favorite author.
Neely: As I just mentioned, you’ve written other things within the Sci Fi genre, including a feature that has been in development for several years. Has there been any forward movement on the film?
Dean: That would be “Point Thunder” and it’s still being worked on. It’s actually been a casualty of both the writer’s strike and the tsunami in Thailand. Al Ruddy was on board to produce; he was going to do it after he finished “Million Dollar Baby.” We had $65 million in financing in place; an A-list actress on board; and an A-list director who was just finishing up a film in Hong Kong. I even went to Hong Kong to work with the director on the screenplay. But our financier was in Thailand and died in the tsunami – and so did our $65 million. Such are the fates in Hollywood. When the money disappeared, so did the actor and director. Momentum was lost and now there’s a different producer. Other paws have touched the script and I hear that it might be close – but who knows?
Neely: What’s it about?
Dean: “Point Thunder” is a Sci/Fi underwater adventure.
Neely: What brought you out to Los Angeles and started you on this path?
Dean: I came out “chasing the dream.” This is my fourth career. I started in technical sales and ran a technical sales company. Then I was a small business turn-around consultant; and then a partner in a successful advertising agency – all in Boston.
I was always creative – drawing, painting, writing stories. Practical reality just definitely got in the way. Any dreams I had about Hollywood seemed like interplanetary travel. I thought the ad agency would scratch my creative itch, but it didn’t. The itch wouldn’t go away. I then thought animation would be a way to package all my skills, so I created an animated TV show in my studio at night. I did some research and sent it off to the 10 agencies in LA that seemed to represent this medium and 8 of them responded right away. I spoke with all of them and I really liked two of them. I flew out and put myself up in Beverly Hills, all on my own dime, and met with the two agencies and basically said – whoever got me the most productive meetings then we’d do business together. One of the agencies got me 8 appointments, so I extended my stay. The meetings were great. I flew back and realized I couldn’t do this long distance. I exercised my buy/sell in the agency, told my fiancée we were moving, sold my 250 year old house (that I’d restored myself), stored my sports car and furniture, resigned from the country club and drove across the country and started over.
The animated series got optioned but didn’t go anywhere; and in short order I optioned four more animated series. But I wasn’t finding Saturday morning programming to be very satisfying so I quit. I had a feature idea and wrote it. Then I bought the “Hollywood Creative Directory” and started calling and writing letters to everyone; when I got to the “T’s”, Triumph Pictures optioned it. It didn’t ultimately get produced, but they hired me to do treatments and eventually to run development for them. I did that for about a year and a half during the day and then at night I wrote my own stuff.
I’d made enough contacts in the feature world to get some feature re-write work. I didn’t have an agent but I knew lots of producers. I still had lots of TV ideas and I was able to get a meeting at Regency Television where they told me I could have 20 minutes to pitch to them; two hours later they told me I was the real deal and they got me an agent. Not too long after that I landed a job on an NBC show called “Hawaii.”
Neely: And the fiancée?
Dean: I suppose you could say she was collateral damage. She never really adjusted and kept trying to get me to quit and go back to the life we had in Boston and the lovely house we shared on the seacoast of New Hampshire. Eventually she went back to her old life.
Neely: What do you see as your strengths as a writer? Weaknesses and what you need to do to improve them?
Dean: I think my biggest strength is my work ethic. I love to write, and because I have some real life experience behind me, I get up everyday and attack it. I work fast and have a prolific imagination. As to weaknesses, I’m less than tolerant of the eccentricities that are inherent in this business than I should be. I know you have to put up with it, so I’m trying. You know a lot of money and power is put into people’s hands to run a small company, and that’s what a TV show is – a small company. Many of the people running them have no management experience whatsoever and this can cause inefficiencies and unnecessary problems. I hope someday I get a chance to do it because I hope to do it somewhat differently and, I hope, a bit better.
Neely: I noticed that you weren’t staffed this past season. What are you looking for this staffing season?
Dean: I’m hoping to staff on a cable show so that I’ll also be able to develop my own stuff. This is something the broadcast networks won’t let you do. That’s my dream of dreams right now.
Neely: Are you in the process of developing any other pilots or anything you can tell us about? At what stage are they?
Dean: I’ve got a couple of other features I’m working on now; and I’m working on a couple of other TV ideas. I have a couple of script deals – one with Chernin Entertainment for Fox, and one with Berman/Braun for NBC. My agents are trying to get me to do some more traditional things. They want me to develop my own show. I have a number of real cool ideas for this season. Paradigm, my agents, have been great for me.
Neely: I’ll be interested in seeing what happens next for you.
My new article for Baseline Research just posted at http://www.blssresearch.com/research-wrap?detail/C7/more_stars_than_there_are_in_the_heavens