What: A freak temporary time warp has allowed Jake Connolly the chance to see what will happen to the Earth in little more than 3 months – the exact amount of time that Jake will have to alert people to the catastrophe that awaits them and try to prevent it.
Who: Jake Connolly, a UC Berkeley physicist, is on location at the CERN Anti-Proton laboratory, 300 feet below Geneva, Switzerland, where he and his fellow scientists are about to demonstrate their newest finding in antimatter on the antiproton decelerator. While on location, he takes pleasure in communicating with his wife Karen, son Scott and daughter Molly via webcam. It’s almost as though he’s there with them.
Back above ground, in Colorado, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) has spotted a tracker, an unaccounted aircraft off the East Coast. The sighting of this unresponsive aircraft has elevated the threat level to DEFCON 2 and then 1, resulting in the evacuation of the President and his family, and set off a chain reaction at all other air force bases. The unidentified object, invisible but for its appearance as a blip on a radar screen, appears to initiate a series of atmospheric anomalies – lightning flashes, high-pitched crackles and static across the sky – that result in massive electrical power losses.
Ext. Sky over Eastern Seaboard – Day
In the sky above, clouds roil and the air pulses with the deafening static. Lightning arcs over cities and towns. Killing all electrical systems. Power everywhere dies. Automobile engines stop – cars, trucks and busses coast into collisions. Men, women, children drop dead in their tracks. And as lifeless birds rain down on Armageddon…
Jake receives a frantic webcam communication from his family. Planes are dropping out of the sky, windows are shattering, and fireballs are exploding. He sees and hears their terror up to the moment that the screen goes black. Frantic, no longer able to communicate with his home, Jake brings up a satellite image of the West Coast, zooming down to Berkeley at street level and then to his house. Panning the neighborhood littered with dead bodies, he catches movement.
He pans the sat video over to where a young blonde woman stirs. Opens her eyes. Sea-green. And then a veil descends over the pupils, turns her irises deep black. She rises. Looks down at her lifeless male companion. And smiles.
The Young woman strides down the street, leaving a trail of falling blonde hair, molting from her head.
Now almost completely bald, her face wrinkles. Sags basset-hound-like. Skin peels from the top of her skull… dropping, sloughing, shedding, until it reveals – an alien creature.
While Jake is incredulously watching the screen, the anti-proton decelerator begins spiking, probably due to atmospheric conditions, the generators go into overdrive; Jake dives for the kill switch just as he’s blown sky high; he plummets to the ground as the generators explode and then “Jake vanishes in a brilliant ball of Light,” waking up in a green field in the Italian countryside on April 9, 100 days in the past. And so starts the adventure where Jake must try to convince the authorities (and even his incredulous family) of what will happen 100 days hence; authorities, some of whom may be the very aliens that will later emerge and some of whom are knowingly working with those aliens. Revealing his knowledge, Jake becomes a marked man – he’s either crazy or, worse, he knows too much and must be eliminated. Jake is forced to take refuge with a group of alien conspiracy theorists, some who may actually know what will happen and have uncovered an alien-human alliance. They, too, are being tracked by “the authorities.”
Serena: Did you read this? The professor’s phone transcript?
Harry: Same old same old. Abduction memories resurfacing in dreams, waking visions. (shrugs) Sometimes the mindwipes don’t take. Although, I must admit the time-travel, Armageddon fantasy was a novel touch. Sort of… Terminator meets The Nutty Professor.
Serena: But Connolly actually described one of the hybrids hatching. On earth.
Harry: We both know that’s impossible. The incubation period alone… well, it’s going to be another fifty years before we fully harmonize. By that time you and I’ll be long gone, and the hybrids will be someone else’s headache.
And off they go to mindwipe another of the alien conspiracy theorists; or in this case, worse…
No Meaner Place: Thorpe has written a gripping, fast paced thriller that relies as much on visual aspects as it does on dialog to tell the story. Working every angle of conspiracy theory and convincingly playing to the physics of time travel, the viewer is left gasping at the possibilities and even some probabilities. I am especially impressed with how he has tapped into the kind of paranoiac subtext done so well in the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Though written several years ago, he has written a counter culture heroine, Tamara, whose physical description and temperament almost entirely matches that of Lizbeth Salander, the anti-heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Like so much of the Sci-Fi genre, the women are strong and resourceful and the men are reluctantly heroic. The “what if’s” and the “could be’s” are deliciously explored.
Although the visuals lead one to believe that this might be an expensive series to produce, it’s inconceivable to me that someone didn’t see this as a possible successor to “Lost.” Mysterious circumstances, different groups of people, dark villains, anti-heroes, leaders, followers … HELLO? A little imagination here folks.
Life Lessons for Writers: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean THEY aren’t out to get you.
Neely: You’re in Canada!
James: I’m in Vancouver, Canada working on “Sanctuary” and I’ve been here since last February. July was our hiatus so I got to go home and have conjugal visits with my wife again for the month. Now I’m here again till the end of October.
Neely: That’s not a totally unworkable timeframe. But I thought that the writing staffs remained in LA on most of the American-Canadian shows.
James: Most of them do. But this show is what they call a “Canadian 10-out-of-10” meaning it’s all Canadian content. The actors, writers and crew are all Canadian, and it’s shot in Vancouver, which helps qualify it for federal and provincial tax credits. So, that’s why I’m here.
Neely: There are worse places to be.
James: You know there are a lot of worse places I could be… I could be in Starbucks writing a spec script.
Neely: One of my best friends lives in Vancouver and it’s a fabulous city.
James: I agree. It’s a lovely place. And as I tell my wife, at least we’re in the same time zone this time. She’s a movie producer and travels all over as well. We’re kind of used to it.
Neely: Well, let’s just start at the beginning and go from there. First of all, let me say how much I loved the script. So, James, what kind of research did you do for this pilot?
James: Quantum Physics has always been a kind of peculiar hobby of mine. I’ve done a lot of layman reading on the subject. I’m fascinated by Einstein’s discoveries. I also came across a lot of reports on the Philadelphia Experiment and realized how much the technology dovetailed. That led me into time travel research, which led me into conspiracy websites. The whole thing percolated for a few years and then it all finally came together.
Neely: Let’s go back a bit. What was the Philadelphia Experiment?
James: The Philadelphia Experiment took place in 1943. It was allegedly an experiment by the U.S. government using the top scientists of the day to see if they could make a ship invisible to radar. The plan was to create a massive electro-magnetic field around the ship that would block it from being picked up on radar. According to popular lore, when they attempted this, the ship actually vanished; it physically left our time and space and was catapulted into another dimension. When they halted the experiment, the ship returned but some of the crew members on the ship were dead, some were insane and some came back imbedded in the steel walls of the ship. It was as if the whole thing slipped through space and time and then came back.
James: I know. It was the U.S.S. Eldredge and this is what the “Philadelphia Experiment” movie was based on a few years ago. Actually 10 or 20 years ago by now.
Neely: It was more than 25 years ago but we didn’t notice because we slipped through time and space and have just come back.
James: (laughs) Exactly. So this “experiment” took place right around the time of Einstein’s research and shortly after the atom bomb was developed. There are a lot of threads you can connect if you like.
Neely: I loved the alien conspiracy in your script, but more than that, I loved the throw-away line in there about how much power it would take to reverse time. So, in some future far far far away – could this actually happen? In other words, according to the laws of physics, is it theoretically possible?
James: According to some laws of physics it definitely is. I think that everyone agrees that the universe is vibrationally based. In other words, a table is not really a table and a chair is not really a chair – they’re just a collection of atoms and molecules all vibrating at a similar frequency that our eyes perceive as this physical mass called a chair or a table. So therefore, we’re dealing with energy. And as we learned in physics back in grade school, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Therefore, if you like, the past, as energy, exists now, perhaps in some parallel dimension; even Einstein said that all time exists always. So if this reality that we call a reality is just a perception and we can manipulate our point of view or retune our receiver, it may actually be possible for us to peek into the past. Of course, the same can be said of the future, which opens up a whole other conversation. Let’s say you have an am radio set to 88.5 then you’re not going to simultaneously pick up an fm channel broadcasting at 94.7. But if we can somehow change the frequency tuning of ourselves, we should be able to move back and forth in time and space quite easily.
Neely: Wow. You really have worked on this. Did you take a lot of physics in college?
James: I failed math and science in high school and went right from high school into a technology college for television broadcasting. I was either going to become a criminal lawyer or work in television. I flipped a coin and decided that I’d rather be making money in two years than 10 and went into TV. It was Fanshaw College in London, Ontario. They had a course in TV broadcasting and we were literally down the hall from the welding department and the travel and tourism department and the radio broadcasting department. You went there for a couple of years and you learned how the machines worked and then you got a job at a TV or radio station and took off from there.
Neely: To whom was this pilot taken?
James: My agent took it to all the major networks and all the major studios and production companies.
Neely: What was the reaction?
James: It was very well received. Everyone said “what a great piece of writing” and “what a great story” and “loved the script but don’t think it’s right for us right now. It doesn’t meet our needs at present but please keep us in mind for your next project.” We also got some feedback at the time that it was a little similar to the “Sarah Connor Chronicles” that was coming out. Even though that wasn’t true. In development, as you well know, there’s a perception that if something is even remotely close it’s dangerous.
Neely: Yeah. And we know how well “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” did.
James: But the script did open a lot of doors and got me meetings with a lot of people. Across the board, it was received very very well.
Neely: I know that I rant and rave about this but this script would still be great today if people didn’t think of scripts as having a “use by” stamp. ABC has been desperate to find a successor to “Lost” and this would have been perfect – IT STILL IS!!
James: I know. I know. It just kills me.
Neely: Were you going to play the 100 days as 100 episodes?
James: Yes. That was absolutely the idea. Each episode would take place over the course of one complete day, for a total of 100 episodes, or 4 seasons. And then the story would wrap up.
Neely: (laughs) So you wouldn’t just have him end up in Switzerland and start all over again?
James: (laughs) Well we could always spin it off in a new direction for another 4 years. I certainly wouldn’t turn down the paycheck.
Neely: I loved the coincidence, and I know it has to have been one because you wrote this before the English translation came out, that your main conspiracy theorist, Tamara, is a physical dead ringer for Lizbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo in the Swedish film. Have you seen the film?
James: I’ve read all the books but I haven’t seen the movie yet.
Neely: Do see the movie. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t diminish the pleasure of seeing this film (and I’ve seen it twice). Not at all. I haven’t read the books but I think it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in the past few years. I’ve talked to people who have read the book and uniformly they all think the movie is outstanding. I have no idea why we’re going to do an American version that is going to water it down.
James: I know. We’re just going to kill it.
Neely: Do go see it. Lizbeth is just exactly how I think you imagined Tamara. And even more interesting is that the Jake/Tamara dynamic mirrors the Lizbeth/Michael dynamic.
Tell us some more about what Tamara’s ultimate role was going to be in “The Last 100 Days.”
James: I saw Tamara as being the ying to Jake’s yang. She has the streetwise know how that Jake lacks since he’s from the ivory tower of education. She has the physical skills that would come in handy getting him out of scrapes in the field. Jake would be the more thoughtful of the two; have the more analytical outlook. He would step back and assess the situation before taking action, whereas Tamara would just leap in, kick ass, and do what needed to be done. So I think the two of them together form an almost perfect storm, if you will. I also thought it interesting to have her be a lesbian and get rid of this thing they do with co-leads now – where there’s always sexual tension between them. Will they or won’t they go to bed together. Enough! I’m tired of that; let’s move beyond it. Let’s have her be a strong woman. It’s just great to have them be a team like that. I’m married to a strong woman so I know how terrific it is to be part of a team.
Neely: It’s an interesting take on that character especially since you don’t see enough strong gay characters on screen. And you’re right – everyone always expects the sexual tension between a man and a woman, so you’ve dispensed with that expectation in an original way.
James: I just knew what the first note from the network would be if I made her a heterosexual. “They’re obviously attracted to each other.” And of course all I would be able to think was “Oh my god. Not again! Didn’t “Moonlighting” kill that once and for all?”
Neely: You found a new way around the problem – a dynamic that’s been waiting to happen (and no, “Will and Grace” doesn’t count).
You’ve already commented on what I’m going to say next by indicating that your wife is a strong individual. As I’ve pointed out, countless times now, one of the strengths I find in the genre, at least as written for television in recent years, is the strength of the female characters. What’s your take on why this seems to be so prevalent in Sci-Fi, especially when most of the writers are men (we should discuss that at some later time)?
James: I don’t know, but I have a few suspicions. First of all I suspect that since it is Sci-Fi and it’s not the real world, for some reason that seems to give men, and women, license to write about women in a different, more empowered, more powerful way. Secondly, I think a lot of that may be an artifact from comic books or graphic novels where, again, women are definitely stronger, more powerful and kick ass kind of characters.
Neely: Why would that be? In the comic books I read as a kid they weren’t – but then I was reading “Archie” and “Little Lulu.”
James: I don’t know. I look back on movies like “Star Wars” with Princess Leia or “Alien,” of course, with Sigourney Weaver, and think that may have been the start. But no, before that there was “Wonder Woman” and female comic book heroes who were strong and could save the day. I guess I’m not really sure.
Neely: Me neither, but it happens – these strong female characters are there. Have you considered turning this into a novel? It has such a vibrant visual exposition and great central plot that it would seem to be a natural for the page. This kind of visual exposition is rarely seen on television, although I’m not sure why not – maybe because it’s viewed as expensive to produce. In any case I see this as a natural for the written world and besides that, it’s a marvelous way to get in the back door for a feature film – another viable form for this story.
James: It has occurred to me. I’ve thought about it quite a lot, but to tell you the truth, the problem is just time. It would take 6-8 months to write the novel – which would basically be a very long spec project – and I have not had that luxury of time in quite a few years. That’s all it boils down to. As far as it being an expensive television project, I don’t think so. The pilot would be more expensive than the episodes would be, but using the example of the show I’m working on now, “Sanctuary,” a large proportion of it is green screen. We do amazing things with little to no money. Coming up through the ranks of international co-production and working in hour long television for so long, I was brutally trained in the discipline of writing responsibly for production. In other words, don’t put a two page scene in one location. If you’re in a location and it’s lit or it’s built or you have to travel to it, then you put 7 or 8 pages in there and you make it the day’s work. And that’s how I’ve always worked. But once again, using the example of “Sanctuary” where so much is done on green screen, you can write scenes that take place in Victorian England; you can write scenes that take place in the middle of the Sahara Desert; or you can be on top of the Eiffel Tower for 2/8ths of a page. It’s not a problem. That really opened my eyes to what’s possible now with technology and with creative international funding. I think “The Last Hundred Days” is eminently producible.
Neely: With prospective pilots, a production executive can look at the page and price it out, but often without thinking about what the alternatives might be; they may be looking at it as a worst case scenario. Network and studio development executives, however, usually can’t do that and rely on what their production executives are telling them. How do you counter that mindset, because, remember, that’s always part of the mindset in the room, even if they aren’t saying it? I think you have to tackle that problem directly when you pitch the pilot.
James: That’s a good question and I think that writers are getting educated; it’s happening slowly. I think the challenge is to present it in the room along with the pitch using living, breathing examples like, for instance, “Sanctuary.”
Neely: I think you really have to make a preemptive strike because otherwise they’ll say “I love this” but they’re thinking “This is too expensive; forget it.”
Veering back to you… When looking up your credits, I noticed that they are exclusively in the Sci-Fi / Fantasy realm. Is this what you read as a kid? Was this always where you wanted to end up?
James: Well… no and no, strangely enough. As a kid I would read a lot, about a book a day for many many years. But it was a very strange selection. I would read The Hardy Boys one day and then read Plato the next . For some reason I went through this period where I was just a sponge. And in the mix was some Sci-Fi, a lot of Ray Bradbury. I was very attracted to his writing, his books on writing, and his process of writing. What really appealed to me in his writing, aside from the technology, was the humanity that came through. Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, yes they’re Sci-Fi stories but they really have a human element and address core human issues and emotions. The writing is just like poetry; it’s just amazing.
Neely: I can’t agree more. For years I had avoided Bradbury because I had him typed in the genre. I don’t remember why, maybe because my son recommended it, but I picked up Fahrenheit 451 and read it and it was transformative. It was one of the most poetic, prescient novels that I had ever read and instantly became a huge fan. That he could, in 1951, predict our current state of reality television is frightening (probably even more so to him). He wrote it in a basement at UCLA! His writing is lyrical and beautiful with marvelous, huge universal themes. He’s disguising something very important within his futuristic realm; his topics are so deep. Although much of this can be said of the best authors of the genre, Dick, Heinlein, L’Engle and so on, still the poetry of his prose is as good, and in many cases better than, the most revered Western novelists.
James: He gets away with these themes because its Sci-Fi. It’s kind of what Rod Serling did with “The Twilight Zone.” He addressed the major issues of the time – racism, prejudice, brutality – but it was all within the shell of a Sci-Fi or fantasy show.
Neely: What an excellent example. How did you get started? What was your first break?
James: As I mentioned, I went to TV/Broadcasting school for two years and then entered the world of broadcast television working in TV stations in Canada – running cable, moving cameras. I moved up to producing and directing local television; and then moved into advertising and promotion at television stations. At about that time we moved down to the States. I worked in Philadelphia and New York for CBS where I was director of on air marketing, advertising and promotion. I did very well and won 3 Emmys and a bunch of awards for my writing. I took the station up in the ratings and everything was great. But I was feeling a bit frustrated and I remember that one day my wife said, “Why don’t you try writing like you did in college? What about screenwriting?” And I said, “I don’t know anything about it. I wouldn’t know where to start.” And the very next day at the television station, one of the ladies from accounting dropped a brochure on my desk that was for a screenwriting course at the University of Pennsylvania. She said, “I don’t know why I thought you’d be interested in this, but I just thought I’d pass it along.” I took that as a sign, enrolled in the course, learned the format, trained myself and wrote 3 features; got a terrible agent out of Maryland; and …nothing happened.
Then I thought I would try the sitcom which had always been one of my favorite genres. I wrote a few sitcom specs and sent them out to the West Coast. One day, out of the blue, I got a call from Warner Brothers saying that I had won a place in the Warner Brothers sitcom workshop. I’ll never forget what the woman I spoke to from Warners said. “Who the hell are you? How did you do this? You’re in Philadelphia and yet this is actually something we could shoot tomorrow. How did you do this?” And I said that I studied the format, studied the show and did the best job I could. So she said, “Well you’re in Philadelphia, but if you want to be in the TV business you need to be out here because right now you’re no good to us.”
So my wife and I had a long discussion and decided we would take the risk. We rattled into town, not knowing a soul, not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. I started specking scripts when I arrived but nothing happened. I had to take some odd jobs to pay the bills. I was a messenger boy and I was one of Hugh Hefner’s personal assistants for a few months at the Playboy mansion to make some extra money. I would type his correspondence and schedule screenings, things like that. And all the while I was sending my scripts out and manning the phones myself and following up and generating whatever I could. One day I got a call from the “Highlander” TV show. They needed someone to come in and take over a story. So I did a script for them; then I did a second script for them; and then I did a third script for them. Finally they said, “To hell with this. We’ll just bring you on staff.” I started on staff at “Highlander” and I’ve been on a staff ever since.
Neely: It’s so impressive you won a place in the Warner Brothers workshop. Whatever happened to that? Did it go away when you weren’t there?
James: It would have, but they were so eager to keep me on board that they worked with me by correspondence, which is something they had never done before and have never done since. So I completed the workshop, which was a great experience, but I didn’t get staffed on a sitcom. So, I started specking hour long scripts as well. A specific “X-Files” spec I wrote seemed to go through the roof and get the best response ever, which is what landed me the “Highlander” gig, and is what initially put me in the Sci-Fi genre. Since “Highlander” was an international co-pro between Canada, France and the U.S., it also put me in this lovely syndicated world where I’ve been ever since.
Neely: Out of sequence, but are you still a Canadian citizen?
James: Canadian citizen and U.S. resident; so I have a green card.
Neely: That stands you in awfully good stead for co-productions. What about your wife… same thing?
James: Same thing. She’s a film producer now; she has two companies – Snowfall Films and Windchill Films. She does projects all over the world. She just finished shooting a film in New Orleans and has a project coming up in Prague and then one in New Brunswick. So, we’re a busy family.
Neely: Would she have produced something I might have seen?
James: Her most recognizable film was one called “Undertaking Betty.” It starred Naomi Watts, Christopher Walken, Alfred Molina and Brenda Blethyn. It’s a great romantic comedy about two competing funeral home directors in a small town in Wales. Alfred Molina is the local boy and Christopher Walken is the brash American who comes over and wants to remake the industry. Part of the plot is also that Brenda Blethyn wants to get away from her abusive husband, so she and Alfred Molina, who has always secretly been in love with her and she with him, agrees to fake her death so they can run away together. It’s a great comedy and won a BAFTA award in England; it’s a lot of fun.
Neely: I’ll have to get a copy. It sound great and I’m a huge Alfred Molina fan.
We already talked about when you learned that you wanted to be a writer – or at least when your wife pointed you in that direction. What about other literary influences besides Ray Bradbury?
James: I love Edgar Allen Poe, especially his poetry, which I think is not as well known and extremely underrated. H.P. Lovecraft has always been interesting to me; he did a lot of very dark fantasy writing at the turn of the last century. Ray Bradbury we talked about. There’s an author by the name of M.F.K. Fischer who wrote a series of books in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s about food, her travels, her relationship with food, and what it meant to her. I re-read The Art of Eating at least once every five years. It’s an amazing body of work. I also listen to a lot of old radio programs from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. There is a radio show called “Vic and Sade” which was a daily 15 minute soap opera kind of thing. It was all written by one man, Paul Reimer. And again, this harkens back to the reason I like Bradbury so much; the writing was so human and so subtly and gently humorous. It was a slice of every day life, but done so beautifully; it’s always inspiring to listen to those shows. Jorge Luis Borges, the Spanish writer, is quite amazing as well. Those would be the main influences.
Neely: You are one of the best read writers I’ve talked to. How about mentors?
James: It’s not that I sought out mentors, but I would say that the gentleman who showran “Highlander,” David Abramowitz, who gave me my first job and was my introduction to the industry, was that for me. He spoiled me for everyone ever since. He’s a warm, generous, brilliant man who is a natural storyteller. He ran that show and the writers’ room like it was a family. When you were in the writers’ room, there was no fear, no bullshit; it was all about the work and getting the work good and getting the work done; and then leaving the office and having a life. I realize now as I travel from show to show, how rare that first experience was.
Neely: What do you read in the spare time you probably don’t have?
James: (laughs) This is going to sound bizarre, but my favorite thing to do is… remember that libraries used to have reference sections? Well they still have reference sections but nobody knows about them anymore because of Google, but in the reference section there would be volumes of book reviews by year in digest form. And my favorite thing to do with whatever spare time I have is to take one of those volumes down, say the Book Review Digest from 1929 and flip through pages to see what was hot back then or what was underappreciated or what some New Yorker reviewer liked. I’ve found a lot of marvelous older fiction that way, as well as a lot of mystery authors who I had never heard of who are amazing. I also try to keep up my French. There are some French authors who are very interesting – one in particular, Fred Vargas who writes an amazing mystery series featuring a very very quirky French detective. I also read a lot of non-fiction. For some reason I’m really drawn to the World Wars. What I’m reading right now is a book called Odette about a woman who was French and became a housewife in Britain. During the second World War, she was enlisted as a spy and traveled back to France to go underground and join the Resistance and fight for her country. After six months she was captured and taken to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, the one that was specifically for women where over 100,000 women were killed. She survived that and then went back and resumed her “normal” life. It’s just an amazing story.
Neely: That’s fantastic. Now you said you keep up your French. Are you a fan of Simenon?
James: Oh my god, yes! That’s another good one. He’s an author where you open his book and you just sort of tumble into it naturally and the pages just keep turning. It’s not that it’s what I’d call a page-turner, but there’s just this ease and flow and gentleness; you just follow Inspector Maigret through his day. It’s astounding that someone could write like that and write as much as he did. He wrote thousands of novels, right?
Neely: Yes he did; 2,000 I think – and he wrote many of them in the United States where he lived for 10 years. And as much a fan of his Inspector Maigret novels as I am, his psychological fiction is some of the best that’s ever been written. If you haven’t read that part of his work, there’s a novel called The Venice TrainM. Hire and The Cat. The Cat was just about the last film made by both Simone Signoret and Jean Gabin. It’s a brilliant psychological novel about how hate binds you sometimes more than love. But my favorite of his that I’ve read is The Venice Train.
James: I’m writing them down.
Neely: I love that you read the Book Review Digests. Something I loved doing when I worked for Kelley was reading Publisher’s Weekly looking for books that were interesting but were probably going to fly under the radar for everyone else. If they seemed to have great potential plots, I would then read them for the character development. We didn’t have the money that Scott Rudin has and Rudin seemed only to be interested in best sellers, whether for good or ill (and I still don’t think Special Topics in Calamity Physics is going to translate to the big screen, or if it does, it’s not going to convey the magic that was on the page). I loved looking for those things that I thought would slip by. It’s a great idea to go back even further to find things that have escaped notice, and in some cases they’re now in the public domain.
James: Absolutely. I stumbled upon a tremendous find a couple of weeks ago from 1921, I believe. I found this book called Through the Shadows with O. Henry written by a guy named Al Jennings. Late in the 19th century, Al Jennings was an outlaw – a cowboy who robbed banks and stole cattle (note: before that he had been a lawyer). He went to prison in 1898 and his bunkmate was William Sydney Porter, who at that time had been working in a bank and had just been convicted of embezzlement. When Al Jennings was released from prison, he wrote a book about his time with Porter, watching Porter change and evolve and become a writer and really find his humanity again through that process. Of course we know that when Porter got out he became O. Henry. It’s an amazing book.
Neely: You should option that book. What about television – what do you watch?
James: BBC America is a great resource. I really enjoyed a little series called “The Sins” starring Pete Postlethwaite. Each episode focused on one of the 7 deadly sins, whether it was sloth or gluttony or whatever; it was amazing. I also loved the show that Kenneth Branaugh did – “Wallander,” the Scandinavian detective. And there’s a guy named Anthony Horowitz who single handedly wrote a series called “Foyle’s War.”
Neely: I’m acquainted with his work. I was never that fond of “Foyle’s War” (I should try again) but he wrote the very best episodes of the Robbie Coltrane British series called “Cracker.”
James: He’s an interesting guy – to be able to juggle working in film and television as well as being a best selling novelist. He does the Alex Rider series of books; Rider is like a young James Bond. They’re huge best sellers all over the world. I want whatever he’s taking!
In terms of American TV? Sitcoms we’ve loved are “Modern Family;” and “The Simpsons,” as always, just keeps chugging along and I just can’t give up addiction to it. In hour long I really like “The Good Wife.” I think it’s very strong, I love the characters, I love the writing. Genre-wise, I’ve been following “V” for obvious reasons and “Flashforward”…
Neely: …which you will no longer be following.
James: Yeah, yeah. But that’s really about it. I find I’m more attracted to the British style. Maybe it’s my Canadian heritage or maybe it’s the fact that they can really dig deeper with their characters. Not everyone needs to be a physically attractive person to be on a British television show. It’s just more interesting; it’s more real; it’s grittier. They can go places that American network television can’t go.
There’s some great stuff on cable. I loved the first season of “Damages;” I thought it was a breakthrough. And of course the first season of “Mad Men” was incredible. “Breaking Bad” is consistently fantastic as well. There’s a lot out there.
Neely: There is a lot out there. One series that I particularly like is “Justified.” Graham Yost did a fantastic job of transferring the Elmore Leonard short story, “Fire in the Hole,” to the screen and going from there. It’s said that Leonard is so pleased that he’s going to write another short story for them to use.
James: Great. I’ll TiVo it. I can actually TiVo it remotely from here.
Neely: I know you’re working on “Sanctuary” right now. What is it about?
James: “Sanctuary” is a show that deals with “abnormals” - creatures, some human some not, that have evolved differently than the rest of us. The leader of the Sanctuary team is a character named Helen Magnus. She and her team go out an try to protect the abnormals, or in some cases go out and take them down if they’re about to do dangerous things or get involved bad situations. Some weeks we’ll be dealing with vampires, other weeks we’ll be dealing with a giant praying mantis that wants to take over the city; and other weeks we’ll have personal stories with Helen and her team. It’s a great cross section. We are so blessed on this show because we have a fantastic cast – just amazing. Amanda Tapping plays Helen Magnus and she came from the “Stargate” team. She’s the kind of actress you could have read paragraphs of exposition and it would be fascinating to watch. Robin Dunne plays a character named Will Zimmerman, Ryan Robbins plays Henry Foss, and Agam Darshi plays Kate Freelander; they make up the Sanctuary team. We also have Christopher Heyerdahl who plays “Big Foot” the resident Sasquatch; he also doubles as Druitt, who back in Victorian England was actually Jack the Ripper.
Neely: Who created the show and what time frame is it set in?
James: The show was created by Damien Kindler, Martin Wood and Amanda Tapping. It’s set in present day in an unnamed city.
Neely: Any new pilots or projects in the works?
James: I have a couple of things in the works for television that I can’t really discuss at this point. A couple of my features are nearing production. One of those is a World War I drama based on a true story, and the other is a psychological thriller that deals with past life progression.
Neely: American or foreign co-productions?
James: The World War I will be a foreign co-pro, probably with some Eastern European country because we need a lot of original World War I materiel, like tanks and jeeps, and a lot of that can still be found in Eastern Europe. The psychological thriller will probably be a Canadian co-pro filming on the East Coast, maybe in Nova Scotia. And there’s another feature that’s a quirky murder mystery that takes place in a little fishing village on the east coast of Nova Scotia. A woman disappears and her husband is initially blamed for her murder. The town’s people are typical East Coast Canadians – there’s a lobster festival going on at the time and it’s madness and mayhem and a lot of fun too.
Neely: I can’t wait to see them and in the meantime, I’ll take a look at “Sanctuary.” I look forward to reading more of your work. I really appreciate you fitting me into your schedule because I know that you’re right smack in the middle of production. Thanks again.