INT. Nina’s House – Master Bedroom
Nina goes to the closet, immediately starts pulling clothes off the reack and dumping them onto the floor.
Frankie: If you do this, it will never stop, okay? Sandoval will always use your family to get to you. You know that.
Nina: He has my son. I don’t have a choice.
She lifts the sledgehammer and winds up – Smashing the back wall of the closet. Once, twice. She drops to her knees, starts ripping back the plasterboard. Inside the wall, stacked between the studs – Bundles of shrink-wrapped hundred dollar bills. She yanks out a suitcase and starts throwing the money inside.
Frankie: Yes, you do. I’ve already talked to some people. A few phone calls and we can take care of this.
Nina: No. I can’t risk it.
Frankie: Nina – it’s too late to go back to how things were. You’ve been pretending that you’re just like all these other women up here – you’ve got a nanny and your kids go to private school and you… whatever, shop at Whole Foods. But you’re not like them. You were never like them. You’re in a dirty, dangerous, messed up business. You think you’re just the money person? Every murder, every payoff, every drug shipment is financed by what we do. You need to embrace that now. You need to be dangerous. Or you and your family are gonna get devoured by it.
Nina zips the suitcase and stands.
Nina: You’re right. A hundred percent right. But he killed my father. He’ll kill Alex too. I’m getting my son back.
And she’s gone, pulling the suitcase behind her.
INT. El Segundo House – Day
Alex is in front of the television, playing a videogame, happy as a clam. Vasquez keeps one eye on him, one eye out the window. He reaches inside his coat, feels the pistol in the shoulder holster underneath.
Nina’s car pulls up to the curb. She exits, goes to the trunk and hauls out the suitcase. Vasquez opens the door and lets Nina in.
Nina is wound tight. She sees Alex, keeps her emotions in check.
Nina: Hey baby.
Alex: (not looking up) Hey mom.
Vasquez: (re: suitcase) That for me?
Nina: I’m not staying while you count it.
Vasquez: It’s cool. I trust you.
Nina: Alex we gotta go.
Alex: Let me finish this game.
Nina: (sharp) Alex! Now.
Alex makes a face, sets down the controller and slouches toward the door.
Vasquez: So we’re all good. And maybe you understand who’s boss now.
She guides Alex out and to the car. Vasquez watches through the open door until they’ve pulled away. He grabs the suitcase and shuts the door.
He turns – and there is a Desert Eagle .50 cal pistol in his face. Frankie is on the other end of it.
Frankie: Me too.
BLAM! On the killing shot, we cut to:
EXT. Tijuana Street – Night
Music comes up as we see two men exit a club and climb in their sports car. We might recognize them from Sandoval’s birthday party. They start up the car. It EXPLODES.
EXT. Sandoval’s Beach House – Night
Sandoval and two of his lieutenants drink beer on the veranda. From over the wall, four masked men appear, all in black. Stealthing toward the men.
A girl appears from the house – she see the men, freezes. Before she can yell, one of them cuts her throat.
EXT. El Segundo House – Night
Frankie exits, pulling the suitcase behind him. He looks around. All is quiet. Heads to his car and drives away.
EXT. Sandoval’s Beach House – Night
One of Sandoval’s lieutenants turns and catches a glimpse of the masked gunmen. He shouts, pulls his weapon – and so does everyone – they all start shooting.
The lieutenants go down, dead, as does one of the gunmen. Sandoval is on the ground, wounded, crawling toward the stairs thtat lead to the beach.
Another gunman walks up to him.
Fires three times. Then kicks Sandoval’s dead body onto the sand.
Neely: You are such visual writers.
But previously we were discussing moral ambiguity. I confess that I stacked the deck against that argument by including these scenes.
I would, however, agree that philosophically it is that lifelong question of “Are you what you do?” There is an enormous struggle there; we know a good side of Nina, but because there is an evil side, it will always keep you guessing. In essence, that is what gives your character depth and allows for the enormous growth that would have occurred had the network put it on the air.
Neely: I’m also curious as to the kind of notes you got.
Tara: You know, I think there is a double standard between male and female characters. If anything, the notes we were getting were constantly pushing to make her likable. You’d have to tip so far to make her likeable because they weren’t comfortable with women being portrayed doing things we had Nina doing. I kind of feel that if it had been a male character we may not have had to push so hard to make sure she was likeable all the time.
Michele: Right. And yet on the other hand I also remember notes wanting us to make sure that she was smart; making sure that she was competent. There were scenes where we had written her as not quite knowing what she was doing, or seemed a little out of her element…
Tara: …we were trying to make it more of a learning curve.
Michele: Right. And I think the struggle was that they didn’t want to make her look stupid.
One of the notes that we got in the editing was a real bummer for me. You spoke about “The Godfather”-style final scene where she assassinates the leadership of the cartel; we had to cut it way down in the edit. Our director and a skeleton crew had gone down to Mexico City and shot this unbelievably cool sequence in a city square in the middle of Mexico City that was packed with people. Because you don’t have to have anything as tricky as shooting permits there (laughing), they literally just set up an actor walking through a crowd of regular people who didn’t know what was going on – there were hundreds of people – and she had a sniper shoot him from a church. They squibbed him and the guy dropped in the middle of this crowded square. It’s this phenomenal shot; it looks like a movie. The people around him were having real reactions – like it wasn’t about actors. It looked so beautiful and we had to cut it out.
Michele: The worry was that it was too confusing; that we didn’t know who this person was. Our argument was that you figured it out 5 seconds later that she’s killing everybody in the cartel. That was just a bummer of a note to get because it looked so awesome. But they were just worried that it was just too confusing.
Neely: Well… I guess that was just one of many problems.
Michele: A pilot is always a process.
Neely: It is. And again, both the schizophrenic aspects of Nina are reflected in the schizophrenic aspects of ABC, which is Disney-owned and which, at the end of the day, is not going to want to destroy the image of a mom.
Michele: At the end of that day, though, they let us go pretty far. You can’t ever get away from the premise of the pilot. But that may have ultimately been why they decided not to pick up the show, because they figured out “Oh, she’s a mom and she’s killing people and we can’t have that.” I don’t know. But up until the very end, they bought the premise. They bought into it.
Neely: I have to say, in any case, it was a brilliant premise. You even had a woman director, Bronwen Hughes. Not a whole lot of them in one hour – rather not a whole lot of them that are chosen to direct – there are actually quite a number of women directors out there. How was your collaboration and how was she chosen?
Michele: Our collaboration was great! How was she chosen? She had directed a couple of pilots for USA, right?
Tara: Yeah. “White Collar” and the new Sarah Shahi one that’s just out (“Fairly Legal”). So ABC really wanted to go a little bit different, which I appreciated. They didn’t want the standard TV pilot director. In the prep leading up the shoot, Bronwen was so specific, she’s such a visual thinker. We were location scouting up until two days before shooting. That created a little bit of conflict between us but then we got into shooting and we were 100% on the same page with shooting, with performance, with casting, and it ended up being a really delightful experience. She shot a beautiful pilot.
Neely: Where did you film this?
Michele: LA and then a little bit in Mexico.
Neely: I love your story about shooting in Mexico, even though it didn’t get into the pilot You said you had difficulties in location scouting?
Tara: Not so much difficulties as finding the perfect place that everybody was happy with.
Neely: So there was a little bit of conflict there in terms of what you wanted and what she wanted on location…
Michele: It wasn’t so much that we wanted different things; it was that Bronwen had a really specific idea of what she wanted and we weren’t finding it. Eventually it just became a negotiation in terms of what was going to work the best because we were running out of time. I wouldn’t say that it was really a difficulty. Finally when we were in production, I don’t think we had much screwing us up, did we Tara? We didn’t have a lot of weather problems…
Michele: When we shot the pilot…
Tara: ...we added a tiny little scene after we started editing the pilot. We realized that the opening sequence wasn’t quite working. So we were lucky enough to be able to be able to go do a day’s worth of shooting to add a little run up to the Lacey scene, which I think really worked.
Michele: It was a cool music video thing showing beautiful shots of Beverly Hills.
One thing that occurred to me after reading this, and knowing that it didn’t go, was how absolutely perfect this would be for a telenovela. The women characters in telenovelas are extraordinarily strong and very hot. Every network has an international division and even though this, as an American TV show, is dead, I honestly think you ought to re-pitch this as a telenovela. Reversion becomes more expensive with a produced pilot, but working with ABC in one of their international divisions it could become a win/win. There’s still something that can be done with this; I really think it plays as a telenovela.
Michele: That’s something I know less about, but you could be right.
Neely: I know you’ve moved on, and I know how important it is to move on; but talk to your agents, talk to somebody about selling this as a telenovela. The structure, as I understand it, has lots of characters, it’s female-centric and, to a certain extent, it’s something of a limited series from which other series evolve. It’s one of those things where you might have three years, period, to get this done and then to get it spun off into something else. It’s short-sighted to think that we’re the be all and the end all, when in reality the largest market in the Western world is Hispanic. Their format of the telenovela is extraordinarily successful and huge.
Michele: Right, right.
Neely: Switching gears, your credits have all been in one hour. They are incredibly diverse; ranging from dramedy with “Ed,” procedurals with “Law and Order, Special Victims Unit,” and fantasy/sci-fi with “Dollhouse.” They’re great credits but they also show that the top creators have wanted to work with you – Joss Whedon and Neal Baer, among others. AND you created “Reaper.” I loved “Reaper.” That shows that the two of you really do consort with the devil.
So what is it with you two and the devil?
Michele: I think Tara would say… Well there are a few things about the devil that we both love – especially stories about the nature of good and evil. I think they’re infinitely interesting and have infinite possibilities. I love having magic and supernatural elements to play with because I come from being a fan of fantasy and sci-fi. I like being able to open up the world that way. I like playing with icons. You have the iconic character of the devil and what I loved doing with him was turning him into this kind of Rat Pack sort of likable guy.
I remember a couple of people getting upset because we were doing a show where you liked the devil. And my answer to that was that of course you’re going to like the devil. The devil is not going to come at you with a pitch fork and horns breathing fire; the devil’s going to come at you as a great guy cause his whole goal is to tempt you and make you like him, especially if he’s going to be Ray Wise, the kind of awesome and cool guy you wanna hang out with. So that’s what I liked about the devil.
Neely: Well that actually answers the question, which was what inspired that show? And clearly it was the Rat Packy…
Michele: You know, it became that way when we cast Ray Wise. The devil was always funny and hip, but the Rat Pack element didn’t really come into it until Ray came in and influenced it. But the inspiration was an idea that Tara had years ago.
Tara: We had it when we were assistants…
Michele: … So it was eleven years ago, now.
Tara: We were very influenced by the show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Michele: Tara and I were both assistants at “The X-Files.” That’s where we met.
Tara: And then Michele had seen the movie “Shaun of the Dead” which really spoke to us, tonally.
Neely: (laughing) I loved that movie.
Tara: Those were inspirations that kind of helped us set the kind of world and the tone. We had just such a great time working on the show.
Neely: Well, ultimately, “Reaper” is about seduction.
Michele and Tara: Umhmm. Absolutely.
Neely: What are some highlights from the run of that series, which by the way, was too short?
Michele: It was the best job either of us had ever had. We got to hire and work with our friends.
Tara: We got to work with great people like Ken Marino. And for me, the development of the Ricky character and seeing how…
Michele: …He was Ben in the show, Rick Gonzalez…
Tara: …and that developed throughout the life of the series. He became one of my favorite characters.
Michele: And that was a really good example of how the actor can influence the character. I think Ray is one example; and then there was Rick Gonzalez who is just such an interesting guy and initially wasn’t a comedic actor. Comedy sort of freaked him out a little bit. Tyler Labine, who played Sock, would literally do anything for a laugh. He would embarrass himself; it didn’t matter. So he was always encouraging Rick – “Just do it! It’s funny.” Just seeing how his character evolved was a joy. And the other thing that we learned was when you’re on a show and you have a really great writing staff, you can start to see that sometimes other writers can write a specific character better than we could. Being open to that makes you a better writer. Having a writing staff that compliments you versus having a writing staff that is there for you to rewrite… we were really lucky because we had all of these writers from different genres and different backgrounds – comedy writers and drama writers – who all brought something different to the table. I feel like it just makes me a better writer.
Neely: Who was your writing staff on that show?
Michele: Because we had never had our own show before, we brought on Tom Spezialy, who was our first boss on a show called “Get Real,” to run it with us. We had Craig DeGregorio, Chris Dingess, Jeff Vlaming, Tom Schnauz, who’s now on “Breaking Bad,” James Egan…
Tara: Kevin Murphy and Kevin Etten …
Michele: …and Mike Daley and Yolanda Lawrence.
Neely: I didn’t realize that Yolanda was on your show. I adore her. She was an assistant on “Chicago Hope” when I was working my way up at David Kelley.
That’s quite a group. You know it’s interesting, but sometimes people hire their friends because they’re their friends and it can be a trap. Certainly you want to hire people you’re comfortable working with, but it sounds to me that you know an awesome group of really talented writers that you wanted to work with.
Tara: It was kind of half and half. We hired our friends and we became friends with the people we worked with. A month or so ago, we had a big “Reaper” writer reunion at one of our writer’s houses. We had dinner and hung out. I would work with any of those people again. It was just… you liked coming into the office and you liked sitting in a room with these people.
Neely: Sounds like one of the best jobs you’ll ever have.
Michele and Tara: Yes. Absolutely.
Michele: I hope we can replicate it some day.
Neely: I understand that you are now working on “Chaos” with Tom Spezialy. I know that it’s not continuing, but it was another of my favorite scripts from last year, although it seemed as if that script had been around longer than a year.
Michele: No that was from last development season.
Neely: Really? Because I thought Stephen Rea was set to star in it.
Tara and Michele: He did.
Tara: He was in the pilot and they recast him and reshot it.
Neely: Really?! So Kurtwood Smith replaced him? What was it they didn’t like?
Tara: It was before us. We only came on a couple of months ago. I don’t really know.
Michele: The “Chaos” pilot was shooting at the same time as the “Cutthroat” pilot, so we weren’t really involved in that pilot at all until a few months ago.
Tara: We’re friends with Tom (Spezialy) but I don’t know anything about Stephen Rea.
Neely: As I’ve already mentioned, you two have had quite the career so far and we briefly touched on this before, but where did you meet and how long have you guys been writing partners?
Michele: As I said, we met as assistants on “The X-Files.” Tara was working in Chris Carter’s office and I was working for Frank Spotnitz. We were friends. Tara left after about a year to go work for David Goyer when he was doing features and a TV show for NBC. I was working on an “X-Files” spec that Frank was very helpful with, but ultimately he explained that they already had something similar they were working on. Tara pointed out that it would make a really good “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” So, as an exercise, we wrote a “Buffy” spec and gave it to our bosses and they thought it was great and they sent it out to agents. We got a bunch of meetings off of it and everybody wanted to see another sample. This was in ’99 and we got signed; three weeks later we had our first jobs. We’ve worked ever since.
Neely: What was your first job?
Michele: A show called “Get Real” that was on Fox for one season…
Tara: …Ann Hathaway, Eric Christian Olsen and Jesse Eisenberg …
Michele: …they played siblings and weirdly, now they’re all working together again as voices on “Rio.” That’s where we met Tom Spezialy; that’s where we met Kevin Murphy. So that was a great gig to start out with.
Neely: What brought each of you out to Los Angeles?
Tara: I actually went to college at Loyola Marymount and kind of never left.
Michele: And I grew outside of Buffalo, NY and moved out here after graduating from school to be a writer.
Neely: Did you both know that you wanted to be writers?
Michele: I did. But Tara, you didn’t, did you?
Tara: No, I didn’t. I was working for a company that did “The X-Files” conventions and merchandising. That’s how I met the people at “The X-Files.” They then hired me to come over and do their licensing and merchandising.
Neely: It seems like it was something of a demotion. Was it a step back in order to make two steps forward? At what point did you discover that you wanted to write for TV?
Tara: I always wanted to be involved in television, so getting the opportunity to work on “The X-Files” was a really important step for me because I really wanted to see the different areas of production and how a show was run. It became very apparent in television that there weren’t that many non-writing producers; that in order to be involved creatively your best bet was to become a writer. And I was lucky enough that Michele was interested in writing and doing the “Buffy” spec with me because I didn’t want to do it by myself. I wanted it to be more of a team sport; it was a good collaboration.
Neely: Going from licensing to being a writer’s assistant is not forward motion.
Tara: Here’s the thing… I was an assistant doing their licensing and merchandising. It wasn’t a corporate position. Chris Carter had it in his deal that he could approve every piece of licensing and merchandising that had “The X-Files” on it. So he needed someone in his company who could understand his esthetic and help move product through the process. That’s what I was doing as an assistant.
Neely: So you were the one who became Chris’s assistant?
Tara: I was one of many (laughs)
Michele: Chris was fantastic to us. I learned a lot from Chris.
Neely: As I recall, he was known for being a very good teacher.
Tara, you said you went to Loyola Marymount, but are you an LA native?
Tara: No. I’m from San Diego.
Neely: So near and yet so far.
Michele, when you came out here, was it specifically to land a writing job?
Michele: Yep! Yes it was. I’d gone right from undergrad to graduate school at Syracuse University. You can go a year and a summer and get a Master’s Degree. They had taken 12 students out to LA to meet other Syracuse grads who were writers, directors and agents… Peter Guber and others. It demystified the whole thing because when you grow up in Buffalo you don’t know anything about Hollywood other than what you see on TV.
When I was 22, a girl I went to grad school with said “Let’s just move to California and be writers. It’ll be great!” And I think you have to be that age to be “Great! We’ll get a job! Whatever!” (Neely laughs) And so we moved out here. I was going to give myself 5 years to get a writing job and I did it in 4.
Neely: Was “The X-Files” your first job in LA?
Michele: No. I had lived out here for about two years by the time I got to “The X-Files.” When I first moved out here, I got a job as an assistant manager in a mall just because I needed money. Then I worked at MTV as an assistant; and after MTV I worked for a movie-of the-week producer. It was a time when people were still doing movies-of-the-week, and one of the people I worked for was a real mentor guy. He was a former literary agent and he was really trying to help me get to where I wanted to go. I was a big “X-Files” fan at the time and he happened to be friends with Frank Spotnitz. I had written an “X-Files” spec that was, in retrospect, terrible, but Frank gave me notes on it over the phone. Then they happened to be looking for a writer’s assistant and my boss at the production company helped me get another job. I got very lucky and got hired as the writer’s assistant and then subsequently moved over to Frank’s desk.
Neely: How about mentors in the business. Did anyone significantly help (or hinder) you in getting you to this point? Michele, you just mentioned someone.
Michele: My boss at this TV movie company, a guy named Paul Yamamoto, was a big mentor. Frank Spotnitz and Vince Gilligan helped Tara and me out immensely in giving us notes. They sent our specs out and helped us get an agent.
Tara: We’ve also been lucky enough to work with people like Tom Spezialy.
Michele: Chris Carter was really helpful in telling me how he wrote and why he would rewrite certain scenes, making a good scene amazing. Neal Baer, too. He taught us how to be producers when we were on “SVU.”
Neely: I’m always interested in what people are reading and watching. How about you guys… what are you reading?
Tara: I wish I read more.
Michele: I just bought Tina Fey’s new book…
Neely: …Bossy Pants.
Michele: We just saw her and Steve Martin at the Nokia theater on Tuesday night. They were hilarious.
Neely: Tara, are you reading anything even though you want more time?
Tara: I’m going on vacation soon, so if you have any suggestions, I’m happy to listen… I have two young kids. They don’t let me read. (general laughing)
Neely: But you read to them, don’t you?
Tara: Gosh… Tale of Despereaux by Kate diCamillo and How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell; those are some of the chapter books we’ve recently read.
Neely: Are there any literary influences that creep into your work?
Michele: I’m not sure if this creeps in my work, but I was always a huge Joyce Carol Oates fan.
Neely: Appropriate that I said creeps, because her work is so creepy, except… Oh, here’s something for you to read, Tara, read her new book A Widow’s Story: A Memoir. It’s a beautiful, lyrically sad but life-affirming book (very atypical of her fiction, which is brilliant but creepy).
Michele: Who’s the other author who wrote a similar book a few years ago?
Neely: Joan Didion about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The Year of Magical Thinking.
Michele: I love Joan Didion. Vince Gilligan, who’s also a screenwriter, was a huge literary influence on me; also Darin Morgan and Joss Whedon and Chris Carter… I learned a lot just reading their scripts.
Neely: Tara? Anything to add?
Tara: No. I’m not very literary. (everyone laughs) I love the kind of humor of Elmore Leonard and James Elroy. I like pulpy. I definitely think Elmore Leonard is huge; I think you can have situations with stakes and still have humor to them. And I just love the gritty crime novels of James Elroy.
Neely: Not quite as gritty, but for vacation I’d recommend that you read the granddaddy of them all, Graham Greene. I would take one of his early novels with you – maybe Brighton Rock or This Gun for Hire. I love him. He’s all character, atmosphere and gripping stories (all of which come out of character).
Neely: What are you watching now and what are some past favorites?
Tara: Past favorites? Definitely “The Sopranos,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The X-Files.” Currently, I love “Top Chef.” Scripted? “Walking Dead.”
Michele: I watched the whole run of “Children’s Hospital” which is a 15 minute live action show on Cartoon Network. It’s the Rob Corddry show; one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen ever! It’s hysterical; you can’t believe what they get away with.
Neely: (laughing) You can get away with an awful lot on the Cartoon Network.
Michele: It’s the Adult Swim hour but… oh my god… super super funny.
Tara: We both watch “Glee.”
Michele: I still like “Family Guy;” I watch that all the time. These days I tend to be watching more comedies than dramas. I’ve been told to start watching “The Killing” and also “Game of Thrones.”
Neely: I haven’t started watching “Game of Thrones” yet, but I have it on my TiVo. I just started watching “The Killing,” which, again, was another one of my favorite scripts from last year. Tonally, it’s brilliant. It fits in completely with AMC’s very dark point of view. They seem to be going so much darker than “Mad Men.” It’s a really good character piece.
Tara: I’m late to the game with “Breaking Bad,” as much as I love Vince Gilligan’s writing, but it came out at a time when my kids were… I was lucky if I had them to bed by 8:30.
Michele: I have a two year old as well, so it’s kind of hard… your time is so precious with small children that TV kind of gets smaller and smaller.
Neely: I think that’s definitely true, especially since you’re going to have a harder time carving it out because your sensibilities are so darkly adult. You don’t want your kids anywhere near the TV when you’re watching those shows; besides the fact that you’re too exhausted when you put them to bed.
Neely: Any new projects in the wings?
Michele: Nothing specific yet. We did a pilot for Fox this year – a very last minute procedural. They asked if we had a character procedural, so we wrote a quick pilot that was fun to write but ultimately they didn’t… They’re taking bigger swings like “Terra Nova” and things like that. But it was a fun pilot to write.
We’re kind of excited about the next chapter and doing some new projects, but nothing specific yet.
Neely: Your writing is so smart and stylish – a bit of Lillian Hellman leavened with Mary McCarthy, a bit of Dorothy Parker through the prism of Anita Loos, all leavened with a heavy dose of Elmore Leonard. They’re “heroines” in Christian Louboutins and all you. I can’t wait to read more. I really appreciate you taking the time.