On a sign: “Reno, Biggest Little City in the World.” Then hotels and neon marquees: “Charo!” “Boz Scaggs,” “Hal Linden: A Salute to Broadway.” As night becomes day, we’re on a diner.
Int. Diner – Morning
We find a waitress, 30, pretty, cheerful in a crap job. She’s Julie, our girl, a hero in progress.
She brings a check to a rough looking Male Customer and thanks him like a Southwest Airlines flight attendant.
Julie: We realize that when it comes to your egg needs you have many diners to choose from. So, thank you for choosing us and enjoy your mint toothpick.
She puts down his check signed with “JULIE” and a happy face. As she heads to another table, the Customer puts the check in his pocket, walks past the cash register, and out the door.
Angle on: Julie, seeing this.
Ext. Diner Parking Lot – Continuous
Julie follows the Customer outside.
The Customer takes off running. Julie sighs, then pulls each foot up behind her to stretch her quads…
Angle on: The Customer grimly running, as Julie, like an antelope passes him, continuing out of frame. Suddenly, the Customer stops short, face to face with her.
Julie: Sir, if you’re training for the Olympics God bless you, everyone needs a dream. But if you’re running out on your bill… that’s just low.
Male Customer: I’m training for the Olympics.
Julie: Look, I’m raising a boy on a waitress’ salary. If you don’t pay your bill, the boss takes it out of my pocket. And that’s not fair.
Male Customer: Hey, life’s not fair.
Julie: You know, it really isn’t.
Suddenly Julie grabs him by the crotch. On his—
Male Customer: Huah!
Julie: (V.O.) I may have an anger problem with men. This started, oh, twelve years ago.
And Julie recounts her entire past history with men and her weakness for the mullet... as we skip ahead and continue with…
Julie is still clutching the Customer’s crotch. We see that she’s been relaying this story directly to him.
Julie: When my husband cheated on me, mom said, “Life’s not fair.” When other men disrespected me, again, it was “Life’s not fair.”
Still holding the Customer, Julie walks him back to the diner. He moves crab-like.
Julie: (V.O.) But when you said it, it seemed time to grab life by the nuts and shake back at it.
Julie: (V.O.) I had no idea grabbing this guy would be like rubbing a genie’s lamp.
Angle on: A Man (40) slick, with a fun sense of the absurd. He leans against a ’65 Lincoln Continental, watching them.
Julie: (V.O.) That’s the genie. Actually, he’s a Bail Bondsman named John Wilkes Booth. I’ll give you a moment to take that in.
(Neely editorial cut to)
Ext. The Diner Parking Lot – Moments Later
John handcuffs the Customer/Brett, while talking to Julie.
John: Brett here jumped bail three days ago.
He turns to Julie and pulls out a thick wad of cash.
John: So, here’s ten dollars to cover the check. And eight hundred more for finding my skip.
He hands her a fist full of money. She looks at it, stunned.
Julie: F (Bleep) me!
John: Sorry, I’m married. But I am thinking of hiring you.
John: You’re pretty… athletic… got a good grip, an obvious problem with men and I can turn that into money.
Julie: Whoa… You want me to be a bounty hunter?
John: (reading her name plate) Julie… my ace guy is way overworked. Now, you’ll need to get licensed, but trust me, you’ve already got a mean chase and grab. Eh, Brett?
Brett: She re-arranged my furniture.
John: A beautiful girl like you, that’s a secret weapon. Hell, honest guys’ll break the law to get handcuffed by a tight little—female professional like you. (then) Of course, if waitressing’s your passion…
Julie: They do give me free gum and pie. On the other hand…
Julie looks at her fist stuffed with money. Then, smiling at John, she slowly peels off her apron and ceremoniously drops it to the ground. Her inadvertent sexiness riles up Brett.
Brett: Yeah, baby! I’ll be runnin’ that movie inside my eyelids! John shakes hands with Julie.
John: Welcome to bounty hunting. Let’s buy you some mace and make it official.
As the three head off…
Julie: (V.O.) And just like that, I found my way to a new career through the crotch of a felon.
Cut to: Main Titles
And a star is born- not just Julie, but also Michael A. Ross who set up the entire premise for his girl bounty hunter series in a 7 page cold open.
Neely: Well that cold opening sequence (edited for length) was truly original. You set up your whole show in 7 pages. Where on earth did that come from?
Michael: This was totally inspired by one of the Coen Brothers’ first films, “Raising Arizona;” it was unique! I’d never seen a movie that had 10 minutes of non-stop action that set up the whole movie in a cold open and then went to credits. I tried to do a smaller version of that with “Julie Reno.” In the cold open you meet all the main characters; you see how a woman goes from being a waitress to a bounty hunter. I set the premise of the show by the end of the first 9 pages of the script (note: as mentioned above, it was within the first 7 pages!). So I would have to say that “Raising Arizona” was a film that really influenced me.
Neely: You’ve been writing for a living for quite a while. When did you first realize that you wanted to write, or even that you had write?
Michael: That would be, again, because of my wife. I was an actor and doing okay, but I was married to a hugely successful actress. I was doing theater and some guest star spots, but just holding on. One day she had a “come to Jesus” talk with me where she said, basically, that she was noticing me becoming bitter. What I sensed that she was actually saying was “and I don’t find that very attractive.” (laughs) So I was rooting around finding some way to take control of my career and I ended up going to the Groundlings just to do something different. I went to their writers’ lab and the first time that we performed sketches that we’d written ourselves, it was a huge, really fun, great day. That got me thinking in terms of becoming a writer.
I probably shouldn’t say this, and am not sure this should go in there, but I was once asked a similar question in a meeting I had at a network when I was first meeting their comedy development execs. They were nice, but basically when you’re talking about yourself and you have a tendency toward Tourette’s, which I do, it’s not a good formula…
Neely: Do you really?
Michael: Well, not in real life, but I know you’ll get it because you’re married to a neuro guy – it’s really more like Social Tourette’s. So, they asked me the question – “Did you always want to be a writer? Were you good at writing in high school?” And I said, “The only thing I was good at doing in high school was masturbating but I didn’t know if I could make a living at it.” They didn’t find it that funny at the time (note: Neely is having a hard time controlling herself). And then what was even worse was that I thought to myself “I think that’s kind of funny. I need to tell one of my writer friends, Victor Fresco; I’ll tell him about this afterwards and I know he’s going to find it funny.” Probably, while I was thinking that, they saw me with a smirk on my face and assumed I was thinking, “Hey, I’m really funny.” But I wasn’t. I was thinking about how I was going to relate this bizarre reaction to my friend; not about how grossly inappropriate this was.
Neely: Well this seems like the right time to segue into a completely unrelated question. Where did you go to school?
Michael: I grew up in Los Angeles until I was 13 and then I lived in Hong Kong and went to a British school for the equivalent of my high school years. Then I moved back when I was 18.
Neely: Did you go to college, or straight into dancing, which is what we’ll talk about…
Michael: I wish I had gone to college. I was accepted at USC and Northwestern. I’d saved up enough for what in those years would have been the first year of tuition. I had made money in Hong Kong dubbing Cantonese Kung Fu movies into English and doing a bunch of odd jobs that an ex-pat living in Hong Kong can do if they have no shame. So I made enough to go to college for one year… but I didn’t go. I didn’t have anyone pushing me; I wish I had, but it’s on me. I had stars in my eyes so instead I went to L.A. City College, in the theater department, for half a year and then flamed out. So instead of going to college, I got an apartment and my first car with the money I’d saved.
Neely: But Hong Kong! How did you end up in Hong Kong.
Michael: The schmatta business. My uncle was in the garment business. My parents were divorced, and my mom was in a rut; so he invited her to come out and try something new. I was 13, so I went with them.
Neely: Was she successful at it?
Michael: Yeah, yeah. She did very well. She loved it and I did too. It was great.
Neely: Did she stay?
Michael: She stayed up until Markie and I got married. Then she felt the need to move back – within a mile of us.
Neely: Just in case.
Michael: (chuckles) Whatever.
Neely: Well that’s another sitcom.
Michael: Yes. I tried to pitch that. Before I did “Julie Reno” at Fox, I pitched the story of a kid who moves to Hong Kong, lives with his mom, and dubs Kung Fu movies in the 70s. So it was a big ass wild pitch, that to their credit, they sat with for about a week and I think gave it serious consideration. It was a fun pitch because I showed a little excerpt of different voices I did from the Kung Fu movies, including “The Return of the Dragon” with Bruce Lee, where I dubbed a black guy. It was ridiculous, but I think it was a good enough pitch that they considered it. And the purpose it served was that when I came back a few months later and pitched “Julie Reno Bounty Hunter,” it seemed a bit more tame to them.
Neely: OMG, there’s still a story there! Even though you’ve gone on to do so many other things, there’s still so much juice there.
So where did the dancing come from?
Michael: I came to it pretty late. I had always been a singer and I was doing a show at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera and the girls came out dancing and were sooo sexy and the whole thing was just really appealing so I just started taking classes. And then before I could get taken seriously as an actor, I started getting some work as a dancer in TV specials and the like. So that was just part of how I got started.
Neely: But when did you drop the dancing? Or did the dancing drop you?
Michael: I would act and sing and dance in shows. So it was just one of the things I did; I wasn’t exclusively a dancer. After a while, it just no longer factored into my career as an actor. It was an interesting stage of my eventually faltering career, though. I had a good part in “Cats” when it played the Shubert.
Neely: You had a great part! You were the Rum Tum Tugger. I know exactly when that was because I have my playbill. We went to see the show. My son, very young at the time, got to sit in the front row in the second half. It was for my husband’s birthday. I remember it so well because it preceded his midlife crisis meltdown. As soon as we got home (we lived in San Diego at the time) he just got in his car and took off for Laughlin, Nevada (I mean, really, who chooses Laughlin, Nevada) to think things out. It lasted 24 hours, he came home refreshed and contrite, and it was never discussed again (except for now, when I’ve made it totally public). He never had another meltdown – that was it. Onwards and upwards (and we’ve been married a really long time).
Michael: Good for both of you.
Neely: Did you have any influences, either good or bad, when you were in school? Someone who encouraged you and thus motivated you? Or to the contrary, someone who discouraged you, and therefore motivated you?
Michael: Yeah… I had an art teacher who saw me trying my hand at drawing a girl sitting on a bench, and he said, “Ah yes. We’re specializing in drawing cripples, are we?” (said in an inadequate English accent). You know, he was British, a real prat. Just in case I didn’t know that I didn’t have talent in that area, but actually I already knew that. I did have a really good English teacher with whom I’ve remained friends, who really turned me on to Shakespeare and getting into understanding plays and the structure and the characters. She was such a great teacher. She delivered such a love to me of Shakespeare, in particular, that really took hold. I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to pass this on to my kids because I did what she did with me – I broke down the stories to their barest elements and showed how great the characters were, and the drama, the conflict. Anyway, she was really good.
Neely: My next question was about literary influences, but clearly Shakespeare is one of them.
Michael: This is the area where I start feeling like I’m such a rube because I’m not well-read. I know one of the questions you want to ask is about what I’m reading, but…
Neely: You’re not alone. I don’t know if you read the conversation with Dusty Kay, but he told me that he was famous in his family for not reading. He told me that the only thing he reads is “The Sporting News.” Probably an exaggeration, but not by much.
Michael: I do read a lot of sports. But my wife reminded me of this so I could have a good answer; I did read and loved The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I read occasionally but I can’t talk in any intelligent manner about novelists other than Stephen King and a few others.
Neely: What was your first job and how did you get it?
Michael: Writing wise?
Neely: Well… let’s talk about writing and …
Michael: …Well I had acted on a couple of episodes of “Designing Women” and was friends with Harry and Linda. My then writing partner and I (we wrote together for 9 years and split about 11 years ago, so I’ve been doing this for about 20)…
Neely: Is he still writing?
Michael: No, I don’t think so. He lived in Portland and had to commute, so he’s back in Portland. Anyway, we wrote a pilot together that we showed to Harry and Linda. They were very encouraging and helpful because we were just trying to ask how to do this. Then later they said we should come in to them if we had any ideas for the show. So we pitched them an idea that Linda really liked and she called up later that night – it was very exciting, too exciting – it was something like a Tuesday. She called up that Tuesday night and said, “We really like this thing. Do you suppose you guys could write a draft by the weekend? Because we want to put it into production on Monday.” They didn’t have the next show. Linda often wrote very close to deadline. So we had ignorance going for us and I think we also had a pretty solid story. That was our first job. We had to write our asses off in a very short period of time. By the next week the show was very rewritten by Linda, of course, but that was my first writing job.
Neely: Did you have any mentors along the way that helped push your career or steer you in a particular direction?
Michael: Harry and Linda of course. They weren’t mentors from the standpoint of writing, but they were mentors because they were so supportive. I think when you work a lot in half hour, you meet people who inadvertently become mentors. I’ve done a lot of shows with Victor Fresco. He’s such a wonderful writer and being in the room with him, breaking stories with him and writing with him all these years, I think he’s rubbed off on me in some ways. But I’m not sure I’ve ever had anyone who formally mentored me.
Neely: Would you consider “Evening Shade” basically the nadir of your…
Michael: You mean like my lowest point?
Neely: Yeah, your lowest point.
Michael: No. My best and worst experiences both happened when I was doing “Julie Reno, Bounty Hunter.” It was my first pilot; it was a big pilot. So it was very exciting to be executive producing my first pilot. My partner was Sandy Grushow, who used to be the chairman of Fox Television – someone I’m sure you know well – and it was fun and exciting working with him. We were able to get a great cast and that part of it all was the best. The worst point also happened in that one of the characters, the part of Julie’s mom who’s a former stripper and now does “healing” massage in the kitchen of her daughter’s home, was a part that my wife could have played really well. And she didn’t get a chance to get up to bat. I had wanted her to have a really good experience. I had written some episodes of “Hearts Afire,” a place where we had a common boss and was fun, but sometimes nerve wracking. But this was me; I wanted it to be a really good experience for her to come in and audition. I had set up a time when she could come in by herself. But before she even had a chance to come in, Annie Potts, who ended up playing the part, came in and she was great, wonderful. Everyone fell so quickly for her that she just immediately became that role and was cast. The studio approved her right away and then she read for the network and it all happened and I had to come home and tell my wife that I couldn’t even have her come in to read for it. It was a part she would have played wonderfully. It had already started in her head. She had read all the drafts but we never talked about it together. I never said I was writing this for her, because I wasn’t. But then it became clear to me that she could kill. So that was very difficult. I was married to an actress who was really hurt by the process. I didn’t have a lot of control. You try to control what you can but that part got away from me. At the time, it was hard for her to understand.
Neely: I get it.
So, what are you watching on television right now? How about a recent film or films that you thought were terrific?
Michael: I love “Breaking Bad.” Up until this year I would have said “Dexter.” I love “Friday Night Lights.” I watch a lot of hour shows. I also watch a lot of USA shows. I’m writing a 90 minute pilot for the USA network. Going in, I was already a fan of a lot of those shows, which I continue to watch anyway. And in half hour, I love “30 Rock.” I work in half hour, but mostly I watch the hour shows. I loved “The Practice.” I felt like I was one of the few people watching it early on and knew how great it was. I talked to some of the other writers about it.
Neely: There were some great writers who came through that show – Ed Redlich, Steven Gaghan, David Shore, and so many others who have created or are running other shows.
What about film? Any movies that you guys have seen that you really liked?
Michael: You mean, like in general, or lately…. Uh… I loved “The Hurt Locker.” I could hardly wait for the Coen Brothers new film. When their movies come out it’s always an event. I love their sense of humor. I just saw “True Grit” and thought it was fantastic.
Neely: I’m also always eager to see the Coen Brothers take on things, but I didn’t feel the same way as you did about “True Grit.” From the standpoint of brilliant acting, writing and directing, I really recommend “The King’s Speech.”
Michael: “The King’s Speech” was terrific.
Neely: So what do you have percolating for the future?
Michael: I’m happily employed at “Rules of Engagement” on CBS, Monday nights at 8:30, moving soon to Thursday nights behind “The Big Bang Theory.”
Neely: That should be a big boost for you guys!
Michael: We’re excited about the move. And I’m in the middle of the final stages of writing my pilot for the USA network that will be a procedural with comedy.
Neely: That fits their brand.
Michael: It’s been a wonderful place to go through the pilot process. Everyone at UCP (Universal) is very smart and very helpful.
Neely: How soon before they make a decision as to whether they’re going to film it?
Michael: Their next pickup cycle is around March or April. I’m nearing the end of the writing process. I don’t think they answer to a strict pick-up cycle…
Neely: …which they shouldn’t.
Michael: I agree. They’ve been really great about this project and their notes have always enhanced it. This is as far as I can go with what they want so I hope they’ll decide soon. We’ll see.
Neely: I hope you keep chipping away at a Reno scenario. It’s a locale tailor-made for television (and I’m not including “Reno 9/11”). And keep writing those strong women with a Dorothy Parker bent for the wrong men.
Michael: When you say that, I’m really flattered.
Neely: You’re incredible and I thank you for spending the time.