|The cast of “Eli Stone”|
If you have been enchanted by Marc Guggenheim’s mainstream comic work on such titles as "Amazing Spider-Man," "Blade," "Wolverine" and "The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive") (all of which we discussed in the first half of this interview), then chances are you will probably be just as enchanted by “Eli Stone,” a new ABC television dramedy co-created by Guggenheim along with Greg Berlanti, the writer behind, among other things, “Everwood” and “Brothers and Sisters.” The series is set in a law firm where a thirty-something attorney named Eil Stone suffers from an inoperable brain aneurysm that causes him to experience realistic hallucinations or visions that compel him to do out-of-the-ordinary things. These visions have seen numerous, puzzling appearances by pop singer George Michael, and each “Eli stone” episode named after one of his songs.
But that’s not all! Guggenheim also has a new comic series out from Oni Press called “Resurrection,” which tells the story of a planet earth invaded by aliens and what happens after the inhabitants of earth successfully fight off the alien aggressors. How does one get back to a life of normalcy after that? The big question of the series is, of course, what happens next. For more on "Resurrection, check out CBR’s interview with Guggenheim or read the entire first issue for free right here on CBR.
Why George Michael?
Gosh, there are several reasons. We were looking for someone who was instantly recognizable but not over-exposed. We wanted someone who was big during Eli’s teenage years, which were the ’80s. I started to make a list of people who fit those characteristics, and it was a pretty small list. You are either talking about people who pop up from time to time today and are still familiar, or people who aren’t quite as recognizable anymore. So in many ways George was the perfect choice. He’s an ’80s icon, but has instant name recognition today without being overexposed.
We wrote the script with George in mind, thinking he’ll probably never do it and we’d have to rewrite it for someone who will. We started exploring other options and then realized there wasn’t anyone who could have done it as well as George. We got lucky, because one of George’s agents helped up persuade him, and it was a very key break for us.
How did you sell the concept to ABC? The premise of “Eli Stone” isn’t exactly something that can be summed up in one sentence.
We knew that, and that’s why we decided not to pitch it and write it on spec instead. Then we handed it to ABC and asked if they wanted to buy it, and fortunately they said yes.
Let’s start talking about the cast.
Typically you got the pilot pick-up in December, but we got ours in August, so we had a good six months to cast, which is at least four to five months more than you usually get to find the perfect cast.
We had casting offices all over the world and auditioned over 1,000 actors in order to find the absolute right people for the right roles, and that is such a luxury in television. It was much more similar to casting a big movie.
One of the big breakouts of the cast is Natasha Henstridge, who most people associate with “Species.”
It’s funny because she came in for a meeting and I realized she was so much more warm and sweet than all of her previous roles would suggest. Even her role in “Commander-In-Chief” was this harsh persona. But that’s not who she is at all. Of all of our cast, I think she is the one whose previous work has not reflected her personality, so it’s really nice to re-introduce her to the world as the Natasha we know.
The other big breakout appears to be Julie Gonzalo.
She is fantastic and a total revelation. As we started talking about the series, Greg (Berlanti, co-creator and executive producer) and I decided we wanted to introduce a character in the second episode who would act as a Greek chorus for Eli. We wanted a kinder, gentler lawyer than Eli who could call him on his shit, essentially. Julie came in and auditioned, and was a total revelation.
It’s very rare for me to see an actor audition and realize an actor is exactly who I pictured in my head as I was writing, and Julie was Maggie. It is so much fun to watch her evolve as an actor over the course of the season.
She is going to be huge because of the show because she has a quality about her. She’s likable and wonderful.
We seem to have gotten into just listing the cast, so let’s continue with Victor Garber.
I have this theory about casting that you should cast the best actor for the role, but have a comfortable mix between new faces and familiar faces. If you have too much of one and not the other, it won’t work. Audiences want to discover people, but at the same time they want to tune in for the people they know. It’s a delicate balance, and in Victor, we got the perfect actor for the role and also someone who is Victor Garber, someone who is incredibly recognizable and incredibly talented.
What’s nice about casting Victor is that you get someone with musical theater credentials as well. We knew part of the show would be about singing and dancing, and it’s so great to be able to watch him do that stuff-he’s so immensely talented in everything it is kind of annoying. [laughs]
Does every episode have to be a musical?
No. One thing I’ve read online that fascinates me is that people write that the show will quickly become formulaic. I want to say, “Well, how do you know?” And since I write the show I know it doesn’t fall into any patterns. One of the expectations of people is that it will be just like the pilot, and one of the things I’m most proud of about the show is that we have a very different type of episode every week, because there is a huge emotional and dramatic range for the series. There will be more musical numbers, but there will also be other huge crazy visions that don’t involve singing or dancing.
One of the goals was to keep everyone on their toes so that you don’t know and will be surprised every week, just like Eli, who doesn’t know what crazy thing will happen to him.
How did you find Jonny Lee Miller?
It was phenomenally perfect casting. Let’s call a spade a spade; this show would not work without the perfect Eli Stone. We looked at hundreds of guys, and our casting director, Liz Dean, told us to look at Jonny Lee Miller. His reel showed us that he was very talented, so we set up a meeting, and the moment I walked into the office and shook his hand, I knew we had found our Eli. His whole energy and way of being and qualities as a person were perfect for the role. It was our good fortune that he liked the script and wanted to do the show.
He’s one of those super-talented actors who knows precisely how far to push it. And he gives you different performances in each take that you can play around with in the editing room, so you can have a lot of different choices.
We are very lucky.
Shall we move on to Loretta Devine?
She’s another one of our recognizable icons. In addition to being talented, she is very sweet and nice and a good team player, which is key because we have very long and ambitious shooting schedules. Loretta brings such a great sense of humor to the show, and is a phenomenal voice and performer. I mean this also in the literal sense, because she is a great singer. In episode five she has a musical number backed by a gospel choir that is really one of our best. She also has a moment singing with Victor Garber and George Michael coming up that will blow the speakers on your sound system.
She is Patty, and brings so much to the role. The trickiest thing about the show is that it would have been easy to cast the sitcom version of the characters, but Loretta brings an authenticity to the character of Patty that would not be possible with another actress.
Let’s not forget about James Saito.
We took a trip out to New York for a couple of days to audition, and we were having a tough time finding our Dr. Chen, a character who, in the pilot, has this persona, a stereotypical Asian acupuncturist, and a true self who is more laid back and bohemian. There were some actors who played the stereotypical half of the role very well, and other actors who played the laid-back surfer type very well, but we were having trouble finding an actor who could put them together.
And then James walked in and blew us away. It was a real relief because we were starting to worry we’d never find the perfect Dr. Chen. And again, we got another Broadway actor, even though we have yet to see him sing and dance, but that is always a possibility.
Are you a big fan of Broadway and musicals in general?
I am. I grew up in New York so I would go to Broadway shows, and it’s one of the things I really miss since I’m in L.A.
The show has definitely earned quite a bit of critical acclaim. Did you see that coming?
|Johnny Lee Miller|
I always knew critics would like the show. It’s different and it’s a quality show, and even if it is not your cup of tea you know it is very well acted and very well produced. It is entertainment, but it is not just fluff.
It certainly is getting a lot of comparisons to “Ally McBeal,” sometimes unfairly.
I read some professional and amateur reviews and am puzzled by the people who are just writing it off as the male version of “Ally McBeal.” Even Newsweek! However, anyone who makes that comparison either never watched “Ally” or never watched our show because they are two completely different animals. Ally didn’t have visions, she had fantasies that were meant to act as commentary on her life. Eli has visions that are very realistic and not as cartoony as Ally’s. They aren’t commentaries, they are clues to prophecies that Eli has to figure out each week.
I’m not saying that “Ally” wasn’t an inspiration, but the truth of the matter is that all of David E. Kelley’s shows served as an inspiration for ours, simply because Greg and I were inspired by great legal TV dramas. In fact, in this week’s episode we kind of tip our cap to one of the greatest, “L.A. Law,” when Eli asks a character from that show to represent him in his disbarment hearing.
How have ratings been?
They have been really good. We had an 80% retention out of “Lost” our first week, and in our second week we beat “Lipstick Jungle” and were first in our key demographic of 18-49. We were in the top 15 overall for the week and in top ten for the demo in a week where the top three shows were the Superbowl, the post Superbowl show and the post Superbowl episode of “House.” You are talking about a very competitive week, and we are very thrilled. We’re also one of the Top 10 most-DVR’d shows, which proves to me that even though we’re not really a 10 PM show, people are still going out of their way to find us. I’m hoping our success continues, and I am optimistic.
The reason I asked was that I saw the list of ABC’s early renewals and noticed that “Eli Stone” was not on it.
Here’s the thing about the list. “Men in Trees” wasn’t on the list because it has 11 episodes banked, so they don’t need to order more episodes. Similarly, with “Eli,” they don’t need to order more. But with the other shows, they are done and have used up all their episodes, so they needed additional orders. It’s not a reflection of anything other than the number episodes aired and the number of episodes banked.
They aren’t going to make a decision to pick up “Eli” after only a few weeks, and I wouldn’t expect them to.
What’s coming up in the show?
Well, this week, Eli faces disbarment and has to get Jordan (Victor Garber’s character) to represent him. The following week, Eli does battle with a fire-breathing dragon. We’ve got stories about medical malpractice, online dating, earthquakes, gay chimps, prisoners rights, organ transplants and sex education. George Michael will appear in three more episodes, including one where he plays himself and hires Eli to handle a legal case for him.
One of the fun aspects of the show is people learning about Eli’s aneurysm. Unlike every other show this year, we got to produce our entire order. We have all 13 written and produced, so we have an arc with a true beginning, middle and end. It starts, and Eli has a real journey that introduces a mythology that leads to a real ending. There are a lot more discoveries that he can even realize.
|“Resurrection” #1 on sale now|
Alright, let’s talk a little "Resurrection." Why did you go with Oni Press?
I guess in a lot of ways, they chose me. I was meeting with Eric Gitter, who produces movies based on Oni properties, and we were talking about various ideas in my notebook and he thought that Oni would be interested in it. That was advantageous because I thought Oni would be the perfect place for “Resurrection” because it fits in very nicely with the kind of books they publish.
So Marc, what does happen next?
Ah, well, you’ll have to read the series. But to tease you a bit, the aliens have left Earth after a decade-long occupation, so there’s an understandable power vacuum that is left behind. And if there’s one thing that human history teaches us, it’s that humans don’t deal well with power vacuums. We’ll also hint at what life during the occupation was like and explore the mystery of why the aliens left and what we might have done to drive them off.
Let’s talk about the creation of the characters. Are they based somewhat on invasion movie archetypes?
Not really. Initially, the series was conceived of as an anthology, so I just had this whole large group of characters I’d come up with. It was the first time I’d just invented characters without regard for the story or plot. Then when it came time to plot out the series, I just cherry-picked those characters that I thought might work best for the story I was plotting.
How long has this book taken to come to fruition, and how long have you been living with the concept?
I came up with the concept a long, long time ago. Before I broke in professionally as a writer, comic book writer or otherwise. So it’s been a while. However, I wanted to wait until I was ready to write it and had the right place to do it.
How long do you see yourself writing “Resurrection?”
Right now, it feels as if I could write the book for years and years and barely scratch the surface in terms of characters and situations. One of the things that excites me about “Resurrection” is that the possibilities are limitless. We can tell almost any kind of story with almost any kind of character. The world post-alien invasion is just our backdrop.
How did you get together with artist David Dumeer?
That was all the doing of James Lucas Jones, Oni’s Editor-in-Chief. I described the kind of look I wanted the book to have and he rounded up five or so different artists who “auditioned” by drawing the first five pages of issue #1, but James was very upfront in saying that Dave was probably the closest in terms of what I had described and he was absolutely right. It was a remarkable bit of “casting” on James’ part. I asked for a very specific kind of artist and James went out and found him for me in Dave.
|“Resurrection” #2 on sale now|
What has he brought to the book, both conceptually and artistically?
Many things. First and foremost, I’d say he’s brought a boundless enthusiasm for the project. He ain’t doing this for the money, I can tell you. He really does it for the love of the game and it shows in every line he puts down. He has tremendous passion. In the months leading up to our launch, he put in countless hours, unpaid, doing character designs, ship designs, alien designs, etc. He was remarkably inventive. And all that work pays dividends in the actual series. “Resurrection” has its own unique look and it’s all thanks to Dave. He’s a remarkable talent.
Lightning round time!
Love the lightning round.
Imagine you are writing a yearlong weekly series with three other writers, who would they be?
Mark Millar, Ed Brubaker and Geoff Johns.
If you could only write one comic or character for the rest of your career, what would it be?
Right now I’m feeling like I could write Spider-Man forever.
Who would draw?
What is your biggest strength as a writer?
The area I want to improve the most is breaking stories, because there is so much more focus and effort.
Now discuss this story in CBR’s TV/film forum.
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