Neely: Last week, we were talking about this year’s pilot slate. I’m actually feeling quite optimistic about some of the choices that are out there. Certainly some of my favorites will not be picked up, but overall, I like what’s out there and am hoping for the best at this month’s upfront announcements. And I’m certainly hoping for the best with your new pilot, “Heavenly,” as well as some of those other one hour pilots, like “Good Christian Bitches” and “Missing” and “The Doctor,” just to mention a few.
Rich: It’s funny, but I find myself in the same position. So much of my career or the career of any writer/producer is in competition with other writer/producers. One show gets on the air because somebody else’s didn’t; shows get on the air and yours didn’t. Then when those shows get canceled there’s this level of inner satisfaction. “Screw you. Your show got canceled.” But, those feelings, which are very human and believe me everyone has them, miss the big picture which is that we all want network television to flourish and survive and succeed brilliantly. And really the most logical thing for all of us, whether our shows get on or not, is to hope that every network has two or three breakout hits every year because that’s what keeps the machine going. That’s what keeps us employed and gives us another chance at bat next year.
Neely: That’s absolutely true. The only thing that overwhelms that desire is the schadenfreude that everyone feels. I’m sure it’s very Freudian, but on the one hand you want everyone to succeed and on the other, what you really want is for yourself to succeed. So if somebody succeeds instead of you it’s bittersweet.
Rich: Guys like JJ Abrams, who I only peripherally know, is an interesting guy. From early on, before he was a household name, JJ’s logic was that anytime there’s a big Hollywood movie, like a big blockbuster release, whether it’s written by your worst enemy or your best friend, you should pray for that movie to be a hit because it’s those movies that feed every other movie. It’s those movies that get studios excited about taking chances. And that’s the mood you want to be entering when you walk into a room to pitch something. You don’t want to be walking into rooms where people have suffered tremendous failures for taking chances because those people have been burned and they’re going to be extra hesitant about getting excited about your crazy idea.
Really, it’s that kind of thinking that led to my earlier statement which was, that as much as it kills you when your friends and enemies are succeeding to a greater degree than you are, you really do want everyone to succeed. Now it’s easier to say that when you’re JJ and you’ve crossed the finish line (you’ve crossed it 15 years ago) and now you’re doing victory laps to the bank while the rest of us are still trying to make our mortgage payments. But still, still, the reality is that you want the business to be healthy because, again, that’s what’s going to open the door and allow people to listen to the next big idea with an open mind.
Neely: You’ve been on quite a roll these last couple of years with “The Gates,” this pilot, and your new pilot “Heavenly.” Is “The Gates” coming back next year?
Rich: No it is not.
Neely: I know it was a cult favorite.
Rich: It was. I think shows like that always find a core group of ardent fans. The success or failure of “The Gates” is the most common story in the world. Simply put, there was a number we needed to hit and we hit about 75% of that number. That was reality check strike one that told us early on that it would be a miracle if we came back. And the second strike was when Steve McPherson left the network because he was the top guy who, to whatever degree, had put his stamp on that show and had said “I like this. Let’s give it a shot.” Once he left, there was no one in a really strong position to defend the show even on a sentimental level. Paul Lee comes in, and this happens every time the new top guy comes in, and approaches the job, as well they should, by looking at the schedule, leaving the hits in place and reapproaching what’s not working and bringing in a fresh perspective. And that’s what he’s brought, clearly, with this new crop of pilots. And hopefully he’ll have some luck with that.
Neely: Even things on the bubble or that hit the numbers disappear when they are by your predecessor. It’s why some really great movies don’t get made for years because management changes. It’s reality.
Rich: Right. And you’re expected to bring your eye, your talent and your perspective, so why would you spend a lot of time nurturing something that is not something you brought in, unless, obviously, it’s a hit. You leave “Desperate Housewives” in place, you leave “Grey’s Anatomy” and everything else gets a hard look.
Neely: You just returned from filming your new pilot “Heavenly.” Where did that shoot?
Rich: In Vancouver.
Neely: Were you there the whole time?
Rich: Yes I was.
Neely: I read it and really enjoyed it. Why don’t you pitch it to me the way you pitched it to the CW.
Rich: The pitch to the CW… let me see if I can walk backwards through the development process to the initial concept. I can tell you that it was pitched with a certain degree of humor and the notion was that it was a show about an angel – well not an angel - he was an angel up until last Tuesday and then things changed. The truth be told, it’s not so much about an angel but is really about a guy who has never been human, ever, but who became a human about two days ago as an adult in his late 20s and is learning to be a human being after having observed them for thousands of years. Now he’s actually on the field playing the game and how different is that!?
I could segue from that and tell you some truths about the development process. Would you like that?
Rich: Okay. Let me preface it by saying, I love it and it’s been one of the best professional experiences of my life. I could not be happier that I am in this place with these people right now because you don’t always have a great experience; in fact usually you don’t. This was a great experience. That having been said, my producing partner, Ross Fineman, approached me last summer as “The Gates” was gearing down and he said, “Hey. I’ve been talking to Thom Sherman, who’s the SVP of drama development at the CW. We’ve done business with him before. He likes you, he likes me, he likes us; we should get in there and pitch him something. Now’s the time (it’s August).”
And I was exhausted. After “Boston’s Finest” and “The Gates” I kind of felt that what I really wanted to do was take 6 months off. But you can’t do that because you’re broke and the show’s gonna get canceled (Rich laughs) and you gotta get back out there. So it was like, “what shall we do?” And he said, “I talked to Thom and every network, every summer, they have a list of things they want to pursue.” A couple of years earlier, for example, ABC wanted to do an update of “Beauty and the Beast.” Well this year the CW was really interested in doing what they were calling a spiritual procedural.
Thom Sherman was at ABC when I did “Miracles” and we had worked together then. So my name, along with “spiritual procedural,” made a lot of sense (possibly in a way that my name alongside cop drama didn’t). (Neely laughs) In other words, he’d be very open to hearing my notions regarding a spiritual procedural. So Ross and I talked about what the hell a spiritual procedural might be and we started talking about angels because vampires and zombies seemed a little played out. We wanted to do something that was essentially positive. The CW already has their share of dark tinged shows – “Vampire Diaries” and “Supernatural” and even “Gossip Girl.” I had done that with “The Gates” and thought maybe there was another color in my palette to explore…
Sheesh. Put a quarter in and my mouth doesn’t stop.
Neely: Here’s another quarter; so continue.
Rich: Again, wanting to explore a different color – so let’s do something that is ultimately positive and life affirming. As we went along, we talked about the angel thing and the idea of an actual angel among us was something that turned me on.
Neely: Like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Rich: As we were talking about this I got really really emotionally connected to the idea of someone becoming a human being. I suddenly had this image of a guy who’s never eaten anything in his life. He’s never had food before and he’s never felt rain on his face. Wow! There’s something great about experiencing those things for the first time; it really heightens and puts them in perspective and one hopes would make the viewer value every day experiences as seen through the eyes of someone who’s never experienced them. And then of course when I was thinking about rain on your face, my very next thought was… oh! Then he gets a cold and then he’s got this horrible pain in his throat – like when you get a cold and you know it’s coming on. What if you’ve never had a cold before? How horrible would that feel? So it’s both the good and the bad.
This guy is going to experience everything for the first time. It was a charming idea to me and also felt tailor-made for the CW, which is a network that is programming toward people who are experiencing life for the first time – living away from home; falling in love; whatever those things are. And bit by bit it started to make sense. So then I thought, who do you team this person up with and we started thinking that it would have to be someone who’s kind of an opposite, someone who’s in the nitty gritty of life… a lawyer. But not someone who’s up in a tall building, like “The Good Wife;” someone like a street lawyer, someone who’d really down there with people who really need help – the neediest of the needy. Would that person be cynical? Would that person benefit from having an angel in their life, to reawaken in them a sense of life’s possibilities and a sense of hope?
From that it began to come together and we thought this could really be something fun and funny and ultimately life-affirming. You’d turn off the TV afterwards and think that the world isn’t a dried out husk and that you haven’t experienced everything there is to experience. Every day is a day to look at life as a new thing. And suddenly that felt like something I wanted to write and could write for a long time. And that was the genesis of the show.
Neely: It’s a very strong CW pilot. I loved that it was more “Michael” (the Travolta movie of a few years back where he played a very human, as in flawed, angel) than “Touched by an Angel.” The CW has a very strong slate of pilots this year…
Rich: …and a real diverse list. Again, we put together the best pilot we possibly could but are very aware that at the end of the day they’re going to look at this and ask whether they need this show on their shelf. They have everything from “Heavenly,” a very positive, almost romantic dramedy in tone; they’ve also got zombies and witches and cops. How badly do they want a cop show? That may be all the difference between whether we get on the air or “Cooper and Stone” gets on the air. We’re a legal procedural, besides being a spiritual procedural; how badly do they want a law show at the end of the day? All those things are going to come into play when they make their decisions.
Neely: That’s true. In referring to what I wrote about the CW pilots, one of them actually made me tear up (admittedly I’m a soft touch) but they did a good job. I liked 5 of the 6 entries.
Rich: Well that’s a tribute to Thom Sherman. First off, the CW is almost niche programming.
Neely: And quite successfully so.
Rich: They know who they’re playing to. They have a very clear idea each year of what it is they want to develop. A year ago, they made it very clear. Two years ago they opened their door and said “We’re looking for our version of “Alias;” and one year later they’re putting “Nikita” on the air. (note: this was a remake of an early USA cable network series that was a remake of “Point of No Return” which was the American remake of the French film “Nikita.”) That’s what they wanted and that’s what they went out and found. It’s not a matter of tossing things up in the air and seeing where they land, they’re very clear about what they want to develop each year.
Thom Sherman is a guy who’s very straightforward. His notes are “For the CW, here’s what your case of the week needs to be.” It’s not cynicism, it’s realism and he helps you get there. He says, “Let’s try this,” or “Why don’t you try that?” If you’ve got half a brain and listen to some of his advice, you’re going to have a really good chance of developing a project that they’re going to put on the air. The nice thing about getting something on the air at CW is that typically they’re not yanking you off the air after 3 episodes. You don’t have to deliver a giant number to get renewed for a second season. More than any other network, if you can just get on the air, you’ve got a real shot at staying on the air.
Neely: Well, a la “This is Your Life,” let’s go all the way back to the beginning. When did you know you wanted to write?
Rich: Early on I wanted to be an actor. When I say early on, I mean when I was 5 (Neely laughs). I wanted to be a stand-up comic and an actor. Then, writing came up I would say in junior high or high school… by the time I graduated high school I was writing television scripts. I was sending out query letters to agents. I was pursuing a career in TV writing seriously when I was 16, with every hope of selling something and quitting high school and getting on with my life.
Neely: In other words, you wanted to be Larry Gelbart.
Rich: No. I wanted to be Steven J. Cannell. When I was in junior high I was watching repeats of “The Rockford Files” in the afternoon. That show was hugely influential to me, just as a person. It made me feel, “Oh Wow! A guy who’s funny and calls himself a coward is actually a hero. I can get behind that! That’s me!” Of course it was James Garner, so what’s not to love?
Neely: Who wouldn’t want to be James Garner?
Well where did you go to school?
Rich: I went to Alhambra High School. I grew up in Monterey Park which is in East LA, so I went into Alhambra for high school which is right next door.
Neely: Did you go to college?
Rich: Yeah. I went to USC film school.
Neely: Did you go through the writing division? At that time did they have a writing division?
Rich: Yeah. The divisions at that time were filmic writing, critical studies and production. I was always more interested in writing but I felt like writing was something I could do on my own. At age 18 I felt that I already knew how to write but I needed to learn how to operate a camera. So I went to the film school and majored in production, never learned how to use a camera and also never learned how to write. (Both laugh) I made really good use of my parents’ money.
Neely: So how did you land that first job in entertainment?
Rich: As has often been said, it’s not what you know but who you know. You go to school and you meet a bunch of really cool people. I met my current wife there; I met certain friends who are still my best friends to this day, and I include among those people Matt Reeves who was my partner in film school. He and I made our movies together. That was one of those situations where they always tell you in science class (and you’re really stupid) – make sure you do your project with the class nerd. Find the smartest guy in class and be their partner and it will bring your grade up. Well that’s what I did with Matt.
We were already friends but in our first film production class, everyone else was bringing in these things that were out of focus and they looked like something went wrong at the Kodak factory. And Matt brought in these little perfectly crafted gems. It just demoralized everybody; everyone wanted to kill themselves. It was so clear that this guy had a ton of talent. So at that point it was just “Hey Matt. Why don’t you and I make a project together?” (Neely laughs) Plus we had a lot of fun and goofed around a lot.
Then a few years after college, he and I decided that we should sit down and write something. At that point he considered me the “writer.” With all the best intentions, we wrote a “Diehard” rip-off because we loved “Diehard” and thought it was a great movie. We thought we should write a movie in that vein and just put it on a different location – “let’s put it on a train.” To make a very long story short, that spec script ultimately became “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.” It was the sequel to Steven Seagal’s “Under Siege.”
Neely: Then I guess that launched you pretty well!
Rich: Well… you’d think. It was a great credit to have, but, unfortunately, I was half of a writing team and the other half was Matt Reeves. At the point when the movie came out, he was already off starting his own directorial project that he had co-written with somebody else. So everyone was looking at me going “Well you’ve got a movie in theaters right now but it’s co-written by this other guy whose career is taking off and you’re still working at Tony Roma’s. So I guess we all know who did the heavy lifting on this one.”
I was in a position of “Oh crap! Now I’ve got to prove myself again.” So I sat down and wrote a script on my own that was never produced called “Truth or Consequences.” There was a movie called “Truth or Consequences” but it wasn’t mine. Mine was a thriller that got me some attention and serendipitously got me an assignment. I wrote the very first “A Team” movie back in 1996. And I got to meet Steven Cannell, my hero. Now it never got made, obviously, and there were various drafts, none based on mine, that were in development for 14 years before the movie ultimately got made and came out last summer. But this was my job because it was my first assignment. The next script I wrote was another spec called “The Mothman Prophesies” and that got made. I got really really lucky.
Neely: Clearly you worked very hard for it. One of the reasons that a lot of people don’t succeed is because they write something, they get some attention and then they think that’s all they need to do.
Rich: This was something I really wanted to do and a lot of my own self esteem was based on being successful at this one thing, which I have to tell you is the only thing that I can even half way do. I’m not doing repairs around the house; I’m not lifting the hood of the car to change a part. I can’t do any of that but I can sort of do this. So I’m going to squeeze every last bit of juice out of this as I can before riding off into the sunset.
Neely: What kind of literature inspired you? Authors? Particular books? Genres?
Rich: Ohmygod! I’m staring at a wall of books. Well, obviously, Stephen King – huge. He taught me the most important rule of writing which is first you have to care about the people. Do whatever you have to do to make your characters recognizable, relatable and after that you can do whatever you want to them because we’re already on board. You can learn a lot from Stephen King.
Robert B. Parker, who wrote the Spencer detective novels. I’m a huge fan of his writing, his tone and pace and dialogue. Right now I love James Lee Burke who writes about Dave Robicheaux the Louisiana cop. This is some of the best literature you’ll read, much less genre fiction.
Early on I was into Anne Rice and Larry McMurtry. In the 80s and 90s I was reading everything they wrote. Thomas Berger. I could go on and on and on and on.
Neely: I ask everyone this question. What are you reading now?
Rich: I just finished reading a really great book that I love called The Imperfectionist” by Tom Rachman. I really loved that. I’ve been reading Joe Hill, who is actually Stephen King’s son; I just read Horns. Oh, and my son is forcing me to read the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels and I’m really enjoying that. So Spencer has turned me on to something. My son is named Spencer.
Neely: There you go. Inspired at all by Robert B. Parker?
Rich: Definitely! My youngest son is Dashiell…
Rich: …from Dashiell Hammett and also the name of the main character in “Heavenly.”
Neely: I did notice that. It’s tough to miss inasmuch that there really is only one Dashiell.
What would be your two favorite Stephen King books?
Rich: Misery is my favorite and then The Dead Zone. I really like the stories in Just After Sunset, but definitely Misery. If you’re a writer, that book is the map of your soul. And The Dead Zone is just beautifully done.
Neely: How about favorite TV and features – now and in the past?
Rich: Here’s the funny thing about me. If I was a better, bigger person, I’d be watching “Breaking Bad” and “Boardwalk Empire” and all of the “good shows.” But it gets a little difficult to watch those shows when that’s what you’re trying to do – you’re trying to put shows on the air and there are certain people who are succeeding wildly and it’s almost impossible not to bring your own petty emotions into it. So I almost have to wait for shows like that to end. I had to wait for “The Shield” to go off the air and be off the air for a year before I started even watching any episodes of it. So I just end up watching a lot of half hour comedy because I’m not in the half hour comedy world. My favorite shows are “Parks and Recreation,” “Community,” “The Office,” “Raising Hope” and “The Middle.” Shows like that. I think “The Middle” is drastically underrated.
Neely: I love “The Middle,” and one of the reasons is because the parents seem to be equals. Generally in sitcoms it’s the dad who’s an idiot; but in this one you either approach it as both of them are doing the best they can and they’re smart or they’re both idiots.
Neely: It’s equal opportunity. I really do enjoy that show. It captures Middle America better than I think Middle America has been caught in the recent past.
Rich: And I think it captures marriage and child raising in a brilliant way. I think it’s very well-observed. My wife and I watch that show and just… we laugh. We take such delight in hearing conversations we’ve had, almost verbatim, come out of the mouths of those parents. That’s when you know a show is firing on all cylinders. I can’t recommend that show highly enough.
Neely: In real life, when I was raising a child, I was so tired of always hearing “My 4th grader is on the fast track to Stanford.” You know what? The vast majority of kids are average and some are even below average like the kids in “Modern Family” and “The Middle.” They are suffering the indignities of grade school, middle school, and high school that real people suffer. What is particularly good is that they’re not just suffering them at the hands of mean girls or the in crowd; they’re suffering them because kids suffer those every day indignities. I just love the humor in that.
Rich: Yeah. Certainly people that I talk to about their kids, and they’re all in this business, pay an extraordinary amount of attention to minutiae. Everything is seen through the prism of “my children must be extraordinary.”
Neely: (laughing) Yes. Exactly.
Rich: And I think that that’s the projection of people in our business who have that expectation obviously, of themselves – that they must be extraordinary because that’s the only way you’re going to succeed. And what you forget is that there are a lot of people happy and surviving out in that world whose careers do not depend on being extraordinary – it depends somewhat on just being able to show up every day (Rich laughs) and being a half way decent human being. I don’t think that the people in the business are massively happy. They feel that their kids must be the best and the most creative and go to the best schools and the best universities because then they’ll be happy. And those parents are the most miserable human beings you’ve ever met…
Neely: (laughing) That’s so true!
Rich: …who’ve succeeded wildly. They’ve millions of dollars and tons of awards and tons of creative validation and they’re miserable. And yet something inside them says “My kids must have the exact same experience.” I’d like to have a child who’s not burdened with this obsession to become famous or to become loved by strangers, which is what drives people in this business; it’s certainly what drove me. It’s not the healthiest impulse in the world.
Neely: In reality, contentment can be worn as a badge of honor.
Rich: (laughing) There you go.
Neely: How about your TV in the past besides “The Rockford Files?” And what about movies?
Rich: Favorite TV in the past? Pretty much anything Stephen Cannell ever did. But then when you progress into the 90s, I remember loving “Party of Five.” I was really into “The X-Files” for a year or so. Look, you’re talking to a guy who’s going to tell you the greatest shows ever were the CBS Saturday night lineup in 1975 when you had “All in the Family,” “M.A.S.H.”, “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the “Carol Burnett Show.”
But for me, “Barney Miller” was the perfect TV show in my book.
Neely: I couldn’t agree with you more.
Rich: Movies? I loved “Harold and Maud;” loved “The King of Comedy;” loved “Diehard;” loved “Rollercoaster” starring George Segal. You’ll have to do a bit of digging to find out more information on that one, but I’m a huge fan.
Everyone says that a director can’t make a bad script good; but there are certain director who are just really good to watch and I think Edgar Wright would have to be one of my favorites because of the three movies he’s done, I really love all of them – “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” and “Scott Pilgrim.” I thought what he brought to those films really took them far and away above what they could have been. I also loved “Napoleon Dynamite,” but I’m going back a couple of years.
Neely: That’s fine. That’s fine. I have to admit I agree entirely. A good director can’t make bad material good, but a good director can make good material better. (And a bad director can ruin good material).
Rich: Yeah. And I think that’s what Winter is able to do. I hadn’t read Scott Pilgrim, I wasn’t part of that world, but I could not have been more impressed with how much that guy made me enjoy that movie.
Neely: I’ll have to see that one. I’ve seen the others. One year for Mother’s Day, my son said he’d take us out to the movies, any movie that I wanted to see and I chose “Hot Fuzz.” Because I had loved “Shaun of the Dead.”
Rich: It’s flat out fantastic. A movie that could have gone so wrong was just pitch perfect, especially that last 15 minutes. If you were on the fence, the last 15 minutes of “Hot Fuzz” would have pulled you over.
Neely: During the last 15 minutes of the film I was trying to recover from an asthma attack brought on by laughing so hard throughout the whole thing. All the greats of British cinema were hiding in seemingly mundane roles… it threw so much at you and resolved so brilliantly that you just had to gasp for air you were laughing so hard.
Rich: It was great. And “Shaun of the Dead” works every single time I watch it. I didn’t think you could make a funny zombie movie that was actually about something but they did.
Neely: That one was also positively brilliant.
Neely: Do you have any more new projects percolating?
Rich: I’ve got a spec pilot. And when I say I’ve been working on it, what I mean is that I’ve been writing a bunch of notes that have added up to nothing. It will probably be for cable. I’m really struggling to get to the heart of it and the fact of the matter is that if you have to struggle for more than a day or two… I know that sounds stupid… but if it’s not kind of coming to you right away, that’s probably your first alarm bell. But I’m nudging it around anyway waiting to see if it comes to life.
Neely: Thanks for taking the time out of post production and talking to me. I will definitely be on the look out and hope to see more and hear more from you.