What: A major accident on the Long Island Railroad upends the lives of two very disparate families in ways too incredible to believe.
Who: Keith and Julie Brewer live a rather privileged life in Cove Neck, Long Island with their two kids, fantasy geek George, age 12, and socially committed daughter Lauren, 17. Late for the train and flustered, Keith accidentally leaves his wallet, including metro card, in the car as he dashes to the platform. It would have been much better for him to have missed the train, for within minutes of boarding it crashes and folds into itself like an accordion. Weeks later, after a month in a coma, Keith awakes in a Manhattan hospital to the sight of a very worried Julie. Edgy, tense, almost hyper, he is, of course, perplexed as to his environment and the people around him; all explained, by the doctor, as the effects of the depressed skull fracture he suffered. But it’s not just a personality shift; when asked where he lives and his name, he responds far upstate New York and Harry Tanner. Asked what landed him in the hospital, he replies that he’s a bounty hunter and was shot by a meth dealer he was trying to bring in. He has no difficulty in recounting the circumstances of his life as a bounty hunter and unrepentant womanizer but is totally clueless about his so-called family in Cove Neck. Reluctantly he agrees to leave the hospital with Julie. Arriving at their luxurious home with its rolling lawn, Keith/Harry is dumbstruck.
Julie points to snap shots stuck to the fridge with magnets.
Close on one that features Keith, at the beach, grinning as he lies on a towel.
Harry is momentarily speechless, taken aback by his resemblance to Keith. Julie clocks this and point to another photo.
Julie: This one do anything for you?
Close on the photo: It’s Keith and Julie on their wedding day. They’re both 17 years old.
Harry: Hoo-boy! That’s a shotgun wedding if I ever saw one.
Julie: Is that what you think it was?
Harry: People only get married this young if they’ve made a big mistake.
Right on cue, Lauren rounds the corner.
To Harry’s dismay, Lauren runs up to him, gives him a big hug.
Harry: (sotto, to Julie) You shoulda warned me. I hate kids.
During the extended hug, Harry allows a lecherous thought to pass through his mind.
Harry: You eighteen, darlin’?
Lauren backs away.
Julie: Your father’s having some problems with his memory.
But George, the boy who lives within a fantasy world of “what ifs” is perplexed.
George: (to Harry) You look different.
Harry: You have no idea, kid.
George walks up to Harry, extends an imaginary sword. (note: a George/Keith routine)
George: By the legend of Gray Skull!!
Harry just looks at him like he’s nuts. George gives his mother a worried look as Harry opens the fridge and pulls out a Heineken.
Harry: (grimacing) Got any Milwaukee’s Best?
Trying to trigger Keith/Harry’s memory, Julie replays a tape of the train crash.
Lauren cries quietly. Pan across the couch. Next to her sits Harry, who looks like he’d rather continuously jab a rusty needle in his eye. On the other side of him is Julie, who starts crying, too.
Harry: (to George) Save me, kid. I can’t take much more.
George: Do you remember the date you got shot?
Harry: October sixth.
George: Same date as the train crash.
But as adamant as he is about what brought him to the hospital, despite the absence of bullet-wound scar, Harry freezes when he recognizes a picture of the conductor on the screen.
Somewhere in Prattsville, a small town in the Catskill mountains of upstate New York, in a dumpy trailer, Keith awakens, dizzy, nauseous and with an IV stuck in his arm. Opening his eyes, he spies a beautiful young woman who is not his wife. Groggy and in excruciating pain, he tries to understand how he got there.
Keith: How’d I get here?
Marie: Those sons-of-bitches kicked you out of the hospital.
Marie: You were in a coma, the bills were adding up. Since you’re uninsured, that made you an ideal candidate for home care.
Trying to explain to the amorous Marie that he’s married (to someone else), that his real home is in Cove Neck Village, and that he was in the commuter train wreck a month ago is not convincing enough when Marie produces “his” driver’s license “proving” him to be Harry Tanner
Keith: Okay. I can see how there was a mix up.
Marie: There’s no mix up.
Keith’s surprised when Marie pulls his shirt up, revealing a scar on his side.
Marie: You were shot. See?
Keith: Just help me get home. When I get home, I can clear all this up.
But for Keith and Harry their trips home are complicated by shape-shifting latitudes and longitudes. Their previous homes are no longer where they had been – locations are seemingly the same and phone numbers still exist – just not with the previous residents known to both men. No matter how hard each man tries to return to the life each had known prior to October 8, they are doomed to fail and must adjust to the new lives set before them – whether revenge seeking drug addicts, in the case of Keith, or family life and protection of the children, in the case of Harry. George, however, may have stumbled upon a clue in one the graphic novel he was reading on the day of the crash – The Boy Who Would be King.
Lauren: (pulling out the sofa bed) Can you take a break from being a dweeb long enough to help me out, please?
George: I might have something here.
Lauren: There’s no way Mom’s gonna let Dad sleep in the bed with her after that little stunt… (note: Harry had stolen the family van to try to return to his trailer in upstate)
George: In this story – there’s twelve volumes but the part I’m talking about is at the end of volume two – The two main characters start out as the same man.
Lauren: George, Dad has brain damage and he ran away from home. The answer to our problems isn’t in there.
George holds up the graphic novel.
George: -- On his tenth birthday, he has to decide if he wants to join the army. He does, but there’s this other version of the story where he doesn’t. The one who enlists dies in battle and the one who doesn’t becomes king. But they’re both real. See?
Lauren: That sounds horrible. And don’t even talk about things like that or Mom’s head will explode.
But George may not be far off. What both Keith and Harry have already discovered is that their respective careers bear an uncanny resemblance under the surface. Harry is a bounty hunter using the environmental clues available to him to trace criminals; Keith is a forensic accountant looking for embezzlers by following the money trail clues available to him. Both will try to use their “new” professions to try to return to their old ones.
No Meaner Place: Bearing a striking resemblance to “Two Dicks” by Phoef Sutton in the use of “doppelgangers,” Lovinger has effectively mined the “what if” scenario as laid out by early fantasy/adventure video games where choices made by the player decided the fates of the characters. As in George’s book, choose one door and the character is eventually showered with riches, choose a different door and the character is dropped into a pit filled with dragons; at which point it was up to the player to enhance or extricate depending on the door chosen. Sort of reminds you of Monty Hall’s “Let’s Make a Deal” and the prospect of what is behind Door 1, Door 2 or Door 3. The Freudian implications of the fates of Keith/Harry are probably no coincidence – although by rights she should have called this “Ego and Id Trip.” Keith isn’t all good and Harry isn’t all bad, but in the end, only one will win out because they both can’t. Like split personalities, each man may only be complete by joining some characteristics and jettisoning others. The universe was upended when the train crashed and it is up to our intrepid heroes, as selfish as their respective motives may be, to set things right. The journey will be interesting. It is possible that network executives were concerned that there weren’t enough stories (the magical 100), but then it’s also possible that they didn’t see that only part of the story would be about trying to restore things to their rightful places and that the rest of the story would be about the changes to the melded Keith/Harry, who, like a werewolf, would have reversions to old jobs, traits, situations – a typical scenario in horror and fantasy films – the need but inability to suppress certain characteristics. Come on guys (and gals) – THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX. There are intriguing stories with interesting subtexts just waiting for a greenlight, and what a fabulous role for a great actor.
Life Lessons for Writers: "Where id is, there shall ego be." – Sigmund Freud. Nothing is more universal.
Neely: Where did this come from?
Joanna: My husband, who’s a producer, actually pitched an idea for a movie to me. It was about a man who wakes up from a coma and is desperate to get back to the life he dreamed about before awakening.
Neely: That is a very intriguing riff on a couple of films I love – “Random Harvest” with Greer Garson and Ronald Coleman; and “I Love You Again” with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Both involve men who live one life only to discover that their “real” lives (in both cases, pre and post amnesia) are very different.
Joanna: I definitely thought there was something there. Comas and head injuries are very interesting topics. I began researching neurological conditions and read Oliver Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – it’s awesome. But I didn’t think having a show about a character who was delusional or brain damaged would sustain itself because the character would never be right. I wanted to figure out a way for my character to be right and everyone else be wrong. One night I had insomnia so I started watching Charlie Rose and he was interviewing Brian Greene who had written a book on String Theory entitled The Elegant Universe.
Neely: If String Theory didn’t put you to sleep, then you were really having a problem.
Joanna: You’d think so, but it was just fascinating and Greene has a way of making the concepts accessible for non-scientists. At around that same time, my father-in-law suggested that we watch a “Nova” episode about Hugh Everett. Everett had developed what he called the “Many- Worlds Theory” in the 1950s. And that’s when I knew I had a way in. The “Many-Worlds” theory says that everything that is possible happens. Say you’re making a decision – you can go right or you can go left. In “Many-Worlds” both things happen, but in separate universes; and they continue on from that point forward. According to Everett there are trillions of versions of me (or you or anyone) out there. Like “I’m a suburban housewife who got knocked up in college” or maybe “I’m in jail.” It was fun to think about and that was the basis for the show. One of my fantasies if I was actually able to get the show produced was that I would use the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime” as my theme song. It had the perfect lyrics:
“You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house. You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife. You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”
Neely: Written from pitch or on spec?
Joanna: I pitched it to practically everyone around town, but when that didn’t get traction, I wrote it as a spec.
Neely: As you may have noticed, I am especially intrigued by the Freudian implications. Do you have a background in Psychology?
Joanna: The show is actually about duality. The “Many Worlds” theory was just a way in. I took a lot of psychology in college, but didn’t major in it. I’m just fascinated by humans – the weirder the better. All my favorite books, movies and plays are about regular people. I love John Updike, Flannery O’Conner, Edward Albee, Carson McCullers. I love stories not about super heroes, but about regular weirdoes. In movies I love the work of the Coen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch; I especially love “The Apartment” by Billy Wilder.
Neely: I can see you’re a real fan of the anti-hero as invented, or at least perfected, on screen by Wilder. But going back to “Ego Trip,” I implied earlier, there may have been some concern about the “100” stories. How did you see this going and how were you going to keep it going?
Joanna: I thought that the procedural elements in the show would keep it going – Keith would nab a criminal in Upstate New York in every episode and Harry would nab a white collar criminal on Long Island. The B stories would be the family drama about the way these people relate to the people in each other’s lives.
Neely: I still see a problem since, to a certain extent, the procedural elements seem tacked on for appeasement value and you end up with the same dilemma faced by “Life on Mars.” In the case of “Life on Mars” one had to ask whether this would eventually play out as a retro “Starsky and Hutch” with a wink wink to the present day, or were they going to bring Sam (and possibly even Hunt) back to the present day from the 70s and how would that be accomplished and where would they go from there? Of course the British dealt with that by making it a very limited series (15 episodes, I think) but American television relies on those 100 episodes. Making this a two-pronged “crime of the week” diminishes the strength of the characters and their psychological dilemma, but then without the “crimes of the week” it would be difficult or impossible to come up with the 100 stories.
As hinted by George and menacingly threatened by the maroon van that keeps tracking Keith (presumed to be Harry), but primarily from the psychological standpoint, both men cannot co-exist, “Many-Worlds” not withstanding. How were you planning to handle that or is there a deeper psychiatric construct at play here?
Joanna: There would be mythology episodes where Keith and Harry discover what happened to them. By the end of the first season I saw them having a way to communicate with one another and maybe even having the opportunity to switch back. But we don’t even know if they want to switch anymore because things have gotten a lot more complicated. Over the course of the season Keith grows balls and Harry begins to soften.
Neely: What was the reaction to the script?
Joanna: I’ve been pitching it to everyone over a long period of time. I think it sort of freaked some people out. The reaction I got a few times was “You’re blowing my mind.” I was also told that it was too similar to “Life on Mars” and “My Own Worst Enemy.” Mainly, though, the reaction was positive.
Neely: Well, since those didn’t work out, it may mean that they’re still looking for a way in. Did you get any constructive notes along the way?
Joanna: There were a couple of production companies attached along the way and they helped me a great deal with the structure of the story. The challenge was to keep this complicated story as straightforward as possible and they helped me with that by coming up with the idea of going back and forth between Harry and Keith between acts. This also helped me develop Keith who was originally a minor character because I had set Harry as the protagonist. They also helped me make the bounty hunter story feel organic rather than tacked on.
Neely: Going back to background. Tell me a bit about when the writing bug hit and what brought you out here.
Joanna: I majored in radio, television and film at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. I moved out here with the unfocused idea of being a producer. I quickly discovered I had very little aptitude and fell backwards into a copywriting job at an ad agency. It was fun but not a life career – doing 15 second spots for radio. But I got to write and it was thrilling. I loved TV so I decided to try it. I worked as a writer’s assistant and took every support position in production that I could until found my feet as a script coordinator. It’s how I paid my rent and still do. I studied the shows I liked and tried to emulate them. I wrote many many specs. It was a pilot spec that got me my agent and a short development deal at Sony.
Neely: You had a staff writing job on “Cold Case” a couple of years back but no credited writing jobs since then.
Joanna: “Cold Case” was a fantastic experience but two things interfered – the Writers’ Strike of 2007 and the fact that they felt my writing was a bad match for the show, and I didn’t disagree. I’m much stronger on character than on plot and that’s the reverse of what’s necessary on a procedural. It’s really hard out there now to get people to read your work and there are even fewer jobs than before the strike. I’m still very determined.
Neely: What do you see as your strengths as a writer? Weaknesses?
Joanna: I’d like to think that my greatest strength is creating characters that look and sound real. I try to take severely messed up characters and make them likeable or at least understandable. As far as weaknesses, well, structure has been an effort, but I’m getting better. Procedurals or plot-heavy stories are definitely not my strength.
Neely: Clearly this is more of a cable show than broadcast network, but it would also make a terrific thriller feature with a few minor changes – upping the stakes, for instance. The humor, the drama, the vengeance and redemption are all there, as well as the wrap-up with inherent personality changes. You could have two simultaneous mysteries intertwined involving both the tracking of a big time embezzler with lots at stake and the meth gang out for revenge. Or how about a video game – you can disguise the Freudian subtext in lots of violence.
Joanna: Well this is clearly cable. It was originally thought out as a feature so I could see reworking it that way. Video games? I don’t know too much (anything) about violent video games. I’m more of a “Guitar Hero” kind of girl.
Neely: In so many ways this is a video game because of all the interactive choices; you wouldn’t have to restrict yourself to the character universes of Keith and Harry, because if this is “Many-Worlds” (a great video title, by the way) then each of the characters would have alternates. It’s actually possible to make more money from video games than from television.
Joanna: I had no idea. I didn’t play video games growing up but I do remember those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.
Neely: Ideally, who would you like to work for, and if it’s not the same answer, what shows would you like to work on?
Joanna: Well besides getting my own show produced, I’d love to work for a female Showrunner someday like Marti Noxon, Jill Soloway, Shonda Rhimes, or Jenna Bans – they’re all great writers. As for some of my favorite shows on the air now, I love “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Big Love,” and “Damages.”
Neely: Your writing is fun, full of character and presents lots of questions, which is a very good thing. Please let me know how things go.