What: Detroit is undergoing a retrenchment crisis and Baker Motors will go under if drastic measures aren’t taken.
Who: A cancer is growing in the Detroit headquarters of the nearly insolvent Baker Motors, aspirant to big three status. When alcoholic reviled General Manager Ed Thornhill becomes road kill in an accident because of his abhorrence of seatbelts, the shambles of poor production, bad book keeping, cost overruns, labor unrest and general disharmony becomes undeniable and the Old Man, as the CEO is known, appoints an outsider, the Ivy League-educated, Robert McNamara look-alike, Dick Pratt, appointed over pretty boy, company-culture drenched Baker Motors lifer Jack Mileski. Jack, the best cheerleader Baker Motors could ever hope for is blindsided by the Old Man’s disloyalty and will stop at nothing to undermine and destroy Pratt. Pratt, an outsider in every manner of speaking, still clings to his intellectual life in Ann Arbor with his political activist wife and autistic son. Jack, on the other hand, revels in the trappings of success with his big house, beautiful, bored wife and angry teenage son. For trappings are what they are – symbols of success – to show off but not necessarily care for. His celebration with the family at the local country club on the evening before Thornhill’s funeral was, to say the least, premature. His solace is taken at the home of Cassie, the beautiful young African American Baker Motors cafeteria waitress. There is a familiarity between them that speaks of a long term secret relationship involving a “love child.” Ellen, Jack’s wife, bored out of her mind with Jack and her life in suburbia has her own extra-curricular activities with Cliff. There “solace” is carried out in low rent hourly motel rooms – delicious, illicit sex and nothing but.
Jack’s true love is cars – Baker Motors’ cars and especially his new baby, the Mariah; and it’s all personal because he has already promised the assembly line that they will continue with its production and that production will be nowhere but in Detroit. Dick Pratt, however, has other ideas and this is where a battle of Shakespearean proportions will play out between them because Dick Pratt is not a car person, he’s a money person and after going over the books, he realizes that the situation is worse than even he imagined. The sloppy bookkeeping reeks of fraud:
Pratt: You are the Vice President in charge of assembly. How much did it cost to assemble each Renata coupe?
Humphries: How much do you want it to cost?
Pratt: I think you misunderstood. I’m not talking about our goals for the future. I’m just asking what it’s cost in the past.
Humphries: And I’m saying to you. For the purposes of your accounting. You tell me how much you want it to have cost. And I’ll give you that number.
In order to right the company drastic measures will have to be taken and he may have to move operations out of Detroit, cut production, cut jobs, and certainly cut the Mariah. Knowing that his pet project is on the line, Jack informs Cliff, his close friend and chief stylist of Baker Motors, that he must find a way to cut design costs on the Mariah. Cliff, believing that the company’s fortunes rest with designing a car similar to the VW Bug, resists until:
Jack: You’ve been sleeping with Ellen for ten months.
Cliff: You’re crazy.
Jack: Don’t do that. Give me a little credit. That I know what’s been going on. You’re wondering, how long has he known? Since it began. Since you had the idea of it in a drunk daydream. I’ve let it go on as long as I have. Not for her sake. Or mine. But for yours.
Cliff: My sake?
Jack: I need you on top of your game. I know the women, they always help you with that. Remember the six months, years ago, when you got religion? When you didn’t drink? Didn’t screw? You turned in the worst work of your fucking career. (beat, then) You’ll never commit to any of them, buddy. I’d rather my wife be with you, than some guy who might actually try to take her away.
Jack walks over to Cliff.
Jack: The Mariah can save this company, Cliff.
Cliff, annihilated by this conversation, barely manages to speak.
Jack, looking for more angles, discovers that Dick’s departure from Ford was precipitated by mental issues and begins to look for ways to use this capital to his advantage beginning with undermining Dick’s fragile family. At Jack’s urging, the Old Man forces Dick to move his family from their home and friends in Ann Arbor to the tony, acquisitive suburbs of Detroit; he then torpedoes Dick’s plans to scrap the Mariah and move part of production to Arkansas. The only concession is that Dick will be allowed to consolidate production in Detroit, closing one plant and throwing hundreds out of work. Jack has won this battle but the war is far from over as his lieutenants, tiring of his autocratic leadership, slowly start to defect to Dick.
A resonance with today’s difficulties in the automotive industry? You betcha! Except this is 1966.
No Meaner Place: Is this Pulitzer Prize winning material? No, of course not. This is a great big juicy soap opera and what the world needs every so often is a great big juicy soap opera where everyone is sleeping with everyone else and tensions abound and villains wear black hats and the setting is something we all understand. Although clearly influenced by the “Mad Men” phenomenon, which may have been viewed as an impediment, there should still be room for a period piece that has clear resonance to today’s troubled times in Detroit (or at least what’s left of it).
American Motors, troubled in the 60s, did last into the 70s with a car that saved it from the grim reaper for a few years – the Gremlin, a joke punch line that predated the move to compact cars at GM, Ford and Chrysler. It would have been fun to follow the making of that car and the eventual dissolution of the company, again predating the troubles of today.
Where would this go? Who cares? The characters are fun, the setting is familiar and written in such a way as to limit production costs – hell, Michigan is looking to fund series and features that would come to Detroit and use the abandoned automotive facilities still standing. AH! To return to an era of conspicuous consumption, haves and have-nots, hypocrisy, financial mayhem, creative accounting, war protests, campus unrest, labor union strife, and a president with a funny name who has a clear domestic agenda and a very flawed foreign policy.
Life Lessons for Writers: Altogether now – NBC, a company living out its own soap opera.
Neely: I’ve actually been aware of your writing since 2003 when I read your spec pilot entitled “Gracie Mansion” when you were a staff writer on “West Wing.” I vaguely remember that one of the things you brought to the table was a background in politics. Is that correct?
Michael: Yes. It’s really a family background thing. I was steeped in politics at an early age. My maternal grandfather was president of a Teamsters’ Local in Philly; he was a dyed in the wool Democrat. My paternal grandfather got involved with left-wing politics in California; I guess you could say he was something of a Socialist. He went to Berkeley with the guys involved in the Manhattan Project; his degree was in engineering. His Socialist background kept him off the oil rigs he was trained to work on because he couldn’t get a security clearance so he ended up working at a meat packing plant as a renderer – it was as bad as it sounds. My mother dropped out of Penn to be a political reporter in the 60s at UPI. After she left UPI she became the deputy press secretary to Eugene McCarthy during his ’68 Presidential campaign. She met my dad at Berkeley when he was student body president from ’68-’69. Later he was the head of another student organization that got him on Nixon’s Enemies List. Dad went to Yale for law school and Mom went to Yale for Divinity School. They were there with both Clintons – they were supposedly on the Clintons’ first double date -- and I have this great picture of the four of them where you either go “Wow! Look at Bill Clinton’s hair!” or you go “Where on earth did your mom get those boots?” My parents divorced in 1981, and they shared custody; it was all very civilized and everyone got along. My mom married my stepdad, Bob Shrum, in 1987. Bob had a big career in politics, first as a speechwriter for George McGovern and Ted Kennedy and then later as John Kerry’s chief strategist.
I never really wanted to get involved in politics because I’d already seen behind the curtain; I wanted to work in film and TV and went to AFI toward that goal. But when I first tried to land a TV writing job in 2001, there was talk of a writers’ strike and all the jobs dried up. So I went back east to New York for a job as a speech writer for Mark Green who was running for mayor. It was a great job for a writer. I went from writing speeches about reforming trash collection, and then 9/11 happened, and suddenly I was writing a eulogy for the fire chaplain who was killed. I came back to LA after Mark lost the election to Bloomberg and I landed a staff writing job on “The West Wing.”
Neely: You’ve come a long way as a writer as far as I’m concerned. You’ve always leaned toward soap opera, first with “Gracie Mansion,” then with “Gonzo,” and now with “King of the Road.” With each pilot you’ve dug deeper and fleshed out your characters more so that now you’ve reached a point where there is depth in both the situation and the characters.
Michael: Well, you always hope that’s the arc your writing will take.
Neely: I remember that Margaret Nagle was somewhat taken aback when I referred to “The Eastmans” as a soap opera, but quite honestly any character-based series with a serial thru-line is, at the root of it, a soap opera. Any comments? Agree? Disagree?
Michael: Fundamentally, I guess I agree, although writers recoil from the term, because it brings to mind Linda Evans and Joan Collins in a cat fight. I prefer the phrase “character-oriented drama.” I always loved the work of Zwick/Herskovitz on “thirtysomething;” and Josh Brand and John Falsey’s shows “Northern Exposure” and “I’ll Fly Away.” “Homicide” was an ensemble show with serialized character arcs, so that was, in its own way, a soap opera, too. They made me want to write for TV. “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Shield,” even, to a certain extent “The Wire” all fit into that rubric.
There’s an art to writing a good “Law and Order.” Plot is hard and a good mystery plot is hardest. But I was a character writer who kept getting put on procedurals and it wasn’t a good fit. In character dramas, you’re less interested in the process of the job, and more in how the job affects the characters and how the other characters affect the characters. Luckily things have opened up a bit since 2003 when it seemed like everything was a procedural.
When my producing partner on “King of the Road,” Laverne McKinnon, and I took it out there, eventually selling it to Showtime, we embraced the term soap opera. We thought of it as a Trojan Horse – emphasize the salacious, sexy soap opera parts of the show to sell it, so that we could also explore themes that might at first glance seem more cerebral or intellectual. FX specializes in male-oriented soaps. The audience loves these shows as long as they are set in interesting surroundings. You know, legal shows and medical shows don’t work if there’s not a courtroom or an ER. There has to be a place for them to connect. I’ve always been drawn to ensembles.
Neely: Your rise has been steady since the “West Wing” with a heavy dose of legal – “Blind Justice” and “Shark” with a dose of whimsy in “Cupid.”
Michael: I feel as if there have been setbacks and strong years. But the biggest setbacks have led to even bigger opportunities. I wrote “Gracie Mansion” as a spec after losing my job on “West Wing” when Aaron Sorkin left the show and the new regime arrived. The first good thing that happened with that script is that it brought me new representation with Ann Blanchard and Lanny Noveck, then at William Morris. I’d been unemployed for a year and they sent the script to Steven Bochco who hired me on his new show “Blind Justice.”
I liked working on my next show, “In Justice.” There are writers who do well when they are motivated by the fear of disappointing the angry parent. I always did better wanting to please the good parent. Every writer has been in the position of needing help in the beginning and it wasn’t until “In Justice” that someone took that kind of interest in me – Jeff Melvoin (“Picket Fences,” “Northern Exposure,” “Alias”) who was running the room on the show. Also at about this time, Lanny knew I could use a big brother figure. He said, “There’s a client of mine I’d like you to meet.” “Is he running a show?” I asked. “Not right now. His name is Robert Nathan (“Law & Order,” “SVU,” “CI”).” He just thought we’d hit it off. Robert and I had lunch together – a lunch that went on for three hours; I felt I’d known him forever and realized I’d made a friend for life. Both Robert and Jeff were and are so generous with their time and spirit, and were patient with a young writer’s arrogance and entitlement – it made a huge impact. I like meeting other writers with experience. I’m always going to do better with a grownup than a 32 year old comic book guy.
My next job was on “Shark,” but like most of the other procedurals, this one didn’t play to my strengths. Losing my job on “Shark” opened up the door to development and I sold three pilots in two years. This led to my being considered for shows that were better fits. I loved working on “Cupid,” Rob Thomas’s series where I also got to work with Jill Gordon (“The Wonder Years”), Cindy Chupack (“Sex and the City”) and Diane Ruggiero (“Veronica Mars”). There is a quote by Tolstoy that reminds me of most writers’ rooms – “All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This was a happy writers’ room; no one on “Cupid” was Machiavellian; it was pretty douchebag-free.
Neely: You came close on your pilot called “Gonzo.” Where did you shop this one and what kinds of comments did you get?
Michael: This was a pilot I wrote on spec at the end of “In Justice.” It was a pilot about war correspondents in Central America in the early 80s that I did as a writing sample, but Ann and Lanny sent it to a couple of executives at two small production companies. One of the companies had a deal with Touchstone so an executive named Dan Pipski at Live Planet, the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck company, sent it over to what’s now called ABC Studios. But ABC Studios was developing a war correspondent pilot with Shonda Rhimes so they couldn’t do it. It then went to Adelstein-Parouse, who sold it to 20th Century Fox’s television studio. But 20th didn’t feel it could work on network television. Meanwhile, Scott Pennington, another exec then at Touchstone, saw that AMC was doing the “Mad Men” pilot and out of the blue just sent it to Christina Wayne, then at AMC in New York. She loved it and wanted to do it. At that same time, 20th released “Gonzo,” turning their deal for it into a blind script deal, allowing “Gonzo” to go to AMC. Unfortunately, a year later, there was a change in regime and the new execs didn’t respond to it. “Gonzo” originally arriving at ABC Studios changed my career. That Scott Pennington would like it enough to send it somewhere he thought it might fit, to an executive he’d never even met, still blows me away. As an interesting side note, a few years later I was at ABC Family to meet with an exec who was unavailable so they asked if I might be able to talk to someone in her place. That someone was Scott Pennington, and I finally got a chance to say thank you.
Neely: Why did this topic – Detroit and the automotive industry – resonate with you. It must have taken a lot of research.
Michael: Research is the fun part. I was a history major at Brown, and my honors thesis was about Congress going after rock ‘n roll in the 50s. My thesis advisor, Howard Chudacoff, one of the great urban historians, was a great influence. For me, the best part of development is reading books. With “King of the Road,” I was totally into baseball until I was 13, then and ever after it was rock ‘n roll -- I was never that guy with posters of cars on the wall. But a few years ago I was watching Errol Morris’ documentary “The Fog of War” about Robert McNamara, who before he was Secretary of Defense was one of the “whiz kids” that saved Ford Motors. Here was a guy who thought he could solve and explain everything with numbers. That was a character I wanted to delve into. I wanted to explore an America that used to make things and how when we lost that, we lost something essential. I wanted to explore how men work together and how they fight. And how the worst wars sometimes don’t have a single drop of blood shed. This was an “art vs. commerce” story – there were men who were first and foremost about the cars, and there were men who were instead, like McNamara, all about the company. We’d already seen so many shows and movies about the late 60s, all focusing on the counter culture. I wanted to go from blue collar to elite, go from Johnson to Nixon. It was a fantastic sandbox to play in.
I spent a year researching King of the Road, in part because I had two other pilots that were both still alive at AMC and ABC. Once the AMC one, “Gonzo,” died, Laverne McKinnon, who was working as the TV producer for director Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Donnie Brasco," "Harry Potter 4") and I pitched it to FX, HBO, and Showtime. FX liked it, but passed due to fear of “Mad Men” similarities; HBO passed; and Showtime bought it.
Showtime had a very high-class problem: all of their shows on the air were working for them. This meant they had little in the way of needs -- as evidenced by their not ordering to series any of the four pilots they had produced in 2009, including projects with prominent talent involved (a Peter Tolan pilot starring Matthew Perry, another project produced by Jenji Kohan, and a pilot directed by Tim Robbins). Out of thirty or so pilot scripts, they ended up only ordering one to be produced, a half-hour about cancer with Laura Linney attached, which was recently ordered to series. Gary Levine and Danielle Gelbar at Showtime were very supportive of our project and took a chance on it, but the concern that FX had proved to be the concern that Showtime had -- even though we felt there were real differences between this and “Mad Men,” it was still a show about men doing business in the 1960s.
It also probably lacked enough of what has become Showtime's brand in recent years -- a high concept with a jaw-dropping twist. "Weeds" is about a soccer mom... who becomes a drug dealer. "Dexter" is about a serial killer... who works for the Miami police department. "Californication" is about a sex addict... who loves his wife. Laverne and I tried to frame "King of the Road" in a similar way -- "it's a show about war... in the battlefield of American business," but in the end, it might have been a show better suited for HBO or FX.
Neely: Brands change and shows go off the air, so maybe there’s hope. You’re absolutely right about how interesting the history is and maybe someone will revisit. There was just so much to tap into. While I was trying to fill in some of the gaps I discovered the blood bath in the Fifties between Hudson, Nash, Packard and Studebaker and that George W. Romney, the former presidential candidate’s father, headed Nash Studebaker before becoming Governor of Michigan – yet another confluence of the two eras.
Michael: Well, in a way it was also a family influence that led me to this story. When I was a kid, my Grandfather Ray, the Teamster organizer, would drive me around the industrial part of Philly and show me all the boarded up warehouses and point to one of them and say “Dead;” then to another and say “dead; and so on, many many times. I remember going through Trenton, NJ and there was this big sign that said “Trenton Makes. America Takes.” That world doesn’t exist anymore. First there was the manufacturing in the Rust Belt; then it was moved to the so-called “right-to-work” South; and then everything was moved overseas. We no longer Make.
Neely: I noticed that you are now working on “Rubicon” for AMC.
Michael: “Rubicon” is the show that beat out “Gonzo” in the production derby. I’m working with some great writers on that show and am looking forward to seeing how it all turns out.
Neely: I noticed that Henry Bromell, who worked for many years on one of your favorites, “Homicide,” is the showrunner. Please say hello to him for me.