Discovering Paul Dini’s “Tower Prep”

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
Discovering Paul Dini’s “Tower Prep”

Tonight, Cartoon Network’s live action original series “Tower Prep” kicks into high gear with its sixth episode “Book Report.” Spinning the story of teenager Ian Archer who’s kidnapped and transferred to be a student at the inescapable title institution where students with special abilities are groomed for a purpose they don’t understand, the series has been slowly but surely building a major set of mysteries in its Tuesday night 9:00 PM timeslot.

Teaming with a trio of fellow outcasts in the school where the best students go along with the status quo, Ian has already discovered the depths Tower Prep’s deception goes from a series of hidden tunnels linking the rooms to the supernatural-seeming “gnomes” who patrol the grounds to capture escaping students. And as series creator Paul Dini – best known to comics fans for his work with the DC’s Dark Knight Batman both on the page and on the small screen as well as a variety of creator-owned comics - told CBR, the answers to the series strangest headscratchers are on hand in the next few weeks of episodes.

To help dig into the origins of the series from how Dini’s original pitch went to a fully fledged series under the guidance of show runner Glen Morgan and his brother Darin (both well known for their work on the sci-fi classic “The X-Files”), the creator gathered a number of “Tower Prep’s” writing team including Jeff Eckerle (“Law & Order: SVU”), Riley Stearns (“My Own Worst Enemy”) and Aury Wallington (“Sex And The City”) for a CBR News roundtable. Below, the quartet of “Prep” scribes detail how they discovered what works in a teen mystery series, how the show opens up in a big way in the coming episodes, why writing for young people involves more than buzz word dialogue and more!

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CBR News: To start with Paul as both creator of the show and the writer of the first handful of episodes, despite so much work on so many different kinds of TV shows from “Batman: The Animated Series” to “Lost,” your work with “Tower Prep” was the first time you’ve made something soup to nuts and then handed the reins off to other writers to build the whole season on. How did that change your process, if at all?

Paul Dini: At first, I was thinking that this was such a crap shoot that I was just going to write what I want. We had discussed the pilot and the world of “Tower Prep.” I had a general outline of where I wanted it to go as a story and what would happen if it ever went to series, but I had a feeling for whatever reason like “I’m the dark horse here. They’re letting me write a pilot, and that’s great.” Because at first, it was just that they were letting me write a pilot. And then if it got picked up to be one of the pilot’s they were producing, it was the next big bump. Once we actually shot the pilot last year in the summer, and then about a year ago this month, they called me up and said, “We loved the pilot so much we’re going to take this to series.” It all comes in different steps. It’s like playing a video game and expecting to be knocked out on each level. I never dreamed we’d be going all the way through to series, so at the beginning I was just writing to please myself and make sure the pilot was the best it could be.

And when it got closer to the pick-up date, I started writing more. They had said, “We want to see how this would work as a series. We’re not committing yet, but we like the pilot an awful lot.” So there was a process where I really wasn’t thinking anything beyond telling a cool one-shot story. I figured if that was as far as it goes, that’s as far as it goes. At least it would be a good pilot script.

Once the series was finally greenlit, how did the full staff come together? Did you focus on who would be doing what, or did the Morgan brothers as show runners come in with a strong hand on taking the pilot to series?

Dini: It’s yes to both. Glen and Darin had an awful lot to do in terms of setting the tone in the writing room. There was a short list of show runners we wanted, and Glen was the one I wanted the most and also the one who I think impressed Cartoon Network the most. I was thinking all the while we were shooting the pilot in British Columbia “This should have an ‘X-Files’ feel to it.” I was very happy to be doing the pilot outside of [Hollywood] especially in that area because that’s what I imagined the Tower Prep area to look like the most. Geographically, it was perfect. So when Glen’s name came up, I was going, “Boy, if there’s any chance to get him, I’m all for it.”

Once he did come on board, he suggested Darin, and I was all for that. Riley was one of his suggestions also. Aury came because we wanted a female voice in the room as it was very important to represent that half of our cast in the room. I was very happy with the way the writing room gelled. It was a really good mix of talent and sensibilities and senses of humor which you really need in any writing situation.

For the staffers from the show, what was your first reaction to Paul’s pilot script? Did it immediately spark you to say, “I have ideas for stories in this world?”

Jeff Eckerle: It’s interesting. I have kind of a unique perspective. [My writing partner and wife Marilyn Osborn and I] came into that staff when they had already been up and running for quite a while. We came in at around the mid-point, right?

Riley Stearns: Something like episode 8.

Stearns: I probably contributed the least in that because I feel like my high school was extremely boring. [Laughter] But when what you’re doing is really boring, you’re off reading books and watching movies, and that’s where I got excited. When I was the characters age, I was thinking of stories like this, and it’s the kind of thing I wanted to be watching on television. I always bring up in talking about “Tower Prep” how I really miss shows like “Goosebumps” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and “Eerie, Indiana.” I’m only 24 years old, so those things are what I watched when I was younger, and I thought we could do something like that again: making a show that was kind of creepy. Kids like to be scared, and so I felt like the show spoke to the inner child in me, and it was really fun to work on that kind of an idea.

Wallington: I think that no matter what kind of high school you went to, it’s universal that all teenagers – even the popular kids, even the loser kids, even the crazy kids - feel like an outsider at some point. Where as Paul went to prep school, I went to a tiny, rural public school, and even there it was like “I have dreams of Hollywood” which set me apart from the kids in the future farmer’s club. But I’m sure that my experience, while it isn’t comparable to the actual Tower Prep experience for Ian or any of the kids, had that “Do I fit in?” element. I think every kid has that whether they’re home schooled or whether they go to a huge inner city school.

Eckerle: I think you’re right. High school is like one of those transformative times where everyone has things glued into you that feel so important at the time. It’s really something you feel like you can go back to really quickly. I think another interesting perspective is how Glen has kids that are in that age range, and he would come in and pull from the personal life experiences of his own kids even. What’s interesting there is that their concerns are pretty much the concerns you had when you were a kid. It’s very human and very complex, and it’s about wanting to fit in and wondering “Who do I trust?” There’s a lot of peer pressure that plays into it too, but I think it’s interesting that even thought the world of “Tower Prep” is exceptional, these are real, relatable people who are not afraid of themselves but are trying to navigate the strangeness of high school.

Dini: Most of the kids who go to the school do not question the school. That’s how all of them, at some point after they arrive, recognize “This is a scary place, and maybe the best that I can do is put on that tie and blazer and get in line with all those smiling kids who have accepted this and forget about the outside world until I’m told different.” That’s the assimilation. A lot of kids go through high school just like that: “There’s safety in numbers, and at least if I’m a part of the herd, I won’t get picked on. I don’t want to be one of those kids on the fringes, because God knows what’ll happen to them.” And that’s where our story is, with the kids on the fringes.

We’ve been talking about the broad ideas of making the show, but getting into the specifics, I know this show deals with mysteries and puzzles within the school. What were the elements each of you were most interested in playing with in terms of the sci-fi concepts in the show?

Eckerle: For me – and again, I was Johnny Come Lately - I loved the fact that this kid falls asleep, and when he wakes up he’s a fish out of water. He has no idea how he got here. He has no idea who these people are and why some of them are acting like this is natural. It’s watching that kid find his place in this and rediscover that fighter in himself. I know that that’s not a specific mystery - a lot of that stuff we probably can’t talk about because we want people to discover it for themselves – but what I loved was that discovery. I loved putting myself in his shoes or their shoes and trying to discover what the hell was going on.

Dini: Early on, we put together what we called the “what we know” board that the kids have in the observatory, and every time they discover something about the place, they put it up: what they think the gnomes look like or sketches of things they’ve found. It all goes on the board, and they review that from week to week. I think that’s a key part for solving the mysteries for the characters, but I also think it’s a place for the viewers coming in to see how that evidence mounts on the board. It allows viewers to know what’s going on through their eyes. While we could give a lot of explanation for where they are or who the gnomes are or something like that, it’s more fun to discover that as the kids are discovering that.

Stearns: I really liked the exploration of the school itself and finding out where hidden doors where and rooms that hadn’t been opened for years. But also trying to figure out what the school itself was. It has so much history, and we get the tunnels in the second episode, which I think is an idea everyone had because it allowed us to riff on them from episode to episode. We got pretty far into it, and I think folks will be surprised by what’s to come from that.

Eckerle: That’s a great location too.

Stearns: Yeah! It’s a mental hospital in Vancouver called Riverview that Glen pretty much puts in everything he works on because it can double for anything. That place is as scary as hell in one movie, and then the next project it can double as a college dorm room.

Dini: In episode 9, we answer a lot of questions specifically about the school and the origins of the school, but by the time we’ve done that, you’ve got so many more question. You come reeling away going, “What…WHAT?” [Laughter] That leads it to another level, and by that point the audience will be invested enough to want to find how far it all goes.

Wallington: And I think it’s cool how it’s not just the school that has mysteries. I’ve always been most interested in the relationships among the kids whether it’s friendships or dating, and all of the kids have secrets that eventually come to light in various degrees. There come mysteries about the characters themselves: who they really are, what they’re saying and what’s true or not true. The school’s mysteries are cool, but that the characters themselves are part of the mystery is great.

Dini: In the pilot, they’re introducing themselves to each other, and Gabe goes, “Well, I was meeting my parole officer” and you’re like “Wait…what? You were in jail?” There are things that are dispensed with very quickly that all rear up later.

Well, Ian is the character that we all see as the everyman character who we all see a bit of ourselves in as he discovers this. On the flipside, you have the female lead C.J. who literally can’t remember her life before “Tower Prep.” Did that make it harder to develop that character as the episodes went along?

Dini: You know, she can read everybody, but people have a hard time reading her. She plays everything close to the vest, and I remember early on Glen talked to each of the actors and said, “Answer this question as if you were the character: if you had one phone call to make, who would it be to?” When he asked Elise [Gatien], she said, “I wouldn’t even know who to make that call to. I just hope somebody out there misses me.”

Eckerle: It’s been very interesting to see how so many of her mysteries aren’t in the school, but they’re buried inside of her. So she becomes a really interesting character in that respect. People who have secrets are very interesting characters to write.

Can you tell us about one episode each of you worked on that was particularly fun and what happens in it to move the story along?

Stearns: I will go on record that I am most excited for people to see Darin Morgan’s two episodes. [Laughter] I am a huge fan of Darin – I think we all are - and having something written by Darin who has not had something produced since “Millennium”…God, people don’t even know what they’re in for. He was really, really a genius on this one.

Dini: Yeah, in his script for episode 9 every page was a Christmas present. [Laughter] It was like unwrapping something you found in your stocking and going, “Oh, this is great!” but then you turn the page and go, “Oh, this is even better!!”

Stearns: We knew his episode 9 was going to be about dreams, and I am the one person who was kind of concerned about how things can be weird and how dreams on film can never be portrayed well. “Inception” was still coming out then, and we had a lot of discussions about that. And he totally changed my mind and blew me away with it.

Eckerle: I think this speaks to the larger issue too that while all of those are absolute gems, the concept itself allows for this kind of playing. It allows you to stretch yourself in different areas. There’s a core mystery, but because of the world that’s created here, there are so many different ways to go. You can have departure episodes, where you come in and go, “I didn’t expect that coming.” At the same time, there has to be a nurturing environment from the top, which Glen and Paul created when they said, “Let’s open this room and see what we can do.” This environment let’s you have the best of both worlds. It gives a great ongoing story to tell while also letting you go off and be creative.

Dini: And by the time we got to episode 10 or 11, we’d learned so much not just about our core characters but about our supporting characters like the Headmaster and Emily Wright or Ray or Cal Rice and Fenton - that was really something where the joy of the scripts coming in was not just the mysteries but the fact that we’d made some sideline characters into such engaging personalities. I love it when the nurse shows up! She’s this great, creepy, icy character, and every time she shows up in a script, you go, “Ooohhhhh, the nurse is back!” Whisper evolves as a character. Coach evolves as a character. That’s when we picked up the rhythm - as the characters become richer and you want to spend more time with them despite the fact that Ian is anxious to escape.

The world works really well as seen through the audiences eyes and through Ian’s eyes. You discover this as he does. There are times where the other kids know things he doesn’t know and will say, “This is how this works.” The fun is his process of discovery, and I think we all wanted to say, “Let’s not take it too fast too much. Let the audience discover it as Ian does.”

Discover the many mysteries of “Tower Prep” Tuesday nights on Cartoon Network at 9:00 PM Eastern and Pacific.