Reflections, Volume 3, Number 2
“But speaking as someone who has never been in a real war, it was the worst part of my life…” – Bryan Fuller
Hello, friends, and welcome again to “Reflections.” You are reading the second installment of my newest volume of the column. I had to take a few months off this summer to intern at Wizard magazine, but now I’m back and interviewing the industry’s finest on a weekly basis again. And CBR’s own executive producer Jonah Weiland has been blackmailed into kindly allowed the column a great relaunch, giving readers five opportunities to get to know the column (the first, an interview with Jeph Loeb, can be found here) and coming up later this week you’ll get interviews with the great Simone Bianchi, Mike Carey and Danny Bilson & Paul DeMeo.
On this hallowed Thursday we have Bryan Fuller in the hotseat. Who’s Bryan Fuller, you may ask? Well, aside from being a producer on the megahit fall series “Heroes,” Fuller has also worked on some of the best genre shows to ever hit the airways: “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” “Dead Like Me,” the television remake of “Carrie” and “Wonderfalls.” Oooh, I love me some “Wonderfalls.”
Oh, and he is also the executive producer on the pilot of the cartoon version of “The Amazing Screw-On Head,” an adaptation of the Mike Mignola masterpiece which recently premiered on Sci Fi Channel.
Fuller took time to sit down and talk about all those shows, what the Star Trek universe needs to be popular again, Brian De Palma and more.
Robert Taylor: Bryan, why did you want to become a writer?
Bryan Fuller: I went to film school for production, and there came a time when we all had to pitch a 20-minute short film, so that was the first time I actually sat down and wrote something with dialogue and I thought it was a lot of fun. I didn’t really take any classes on writing, I just enjoyed trying to mimic how people talk and what you would do if you were in a given situation. I never imagined I would be a writer.
Then one day I was watching “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and I thought I could do it. Something clicked, and I wrote a spec script and submitted it and wrote another one. I got invited in to pitch. I really didn’t want to be a television writer as much as I wanted to be a “Star Trek” writer. I had every action figure, so it was all about “Star Trek” for me.
I got very frustrated after years of working on the show and doing the same types of stories so I wrote, on spec, the “Dead Like Me” pilot.
RT: What do you think about the decline of the franchise and what about its place right now?
BF: I think the status right now is very encouraging, and I’m referring to the J.J. Abrams-helmed reinvention of the franchise, which it’s desperate for.
Basically what happened to the franchise was that it was in the hands of people who had done their thing with it and were continuing to do their thing with it and weren’t looking to expand. One of the promises of “Enterprise” was that it was going to be a whole new deal with different adventures and different characters. And then I saw the pilot and thought that they just changed the paradigm slightly enough that you could argue that it was different, but not under heavy scrutiny. The reason “Star Trek” was withering on the vine for so long was because it wasn’t getting enough nourishment, and J.J. Abrams is going to give it that burst of energy that it needs and it deserves.
The “Star Trek” universe is such a fertile place to tell stories. There were lots of new and innovative things going on during “Deep Space Nine” and that’s why it’s my favorite of the new series. It was much more character-based.
For me it goes original series, then “Deep Space Nine,” then “Next Generation,” and then “Voyager.” There are elements of “Voyager” that I loved, though. I think it hit its creative stride with Seven of Nine and the relationship with Janeway. I found it much more interesting than any other captain/crew relationship, including Kirk and Spock. Kirk and Spock have a great dynamic and I want to see them have adventures, but if you want to see me captivated and want me to continue watching as you pull back the layers of the onion then I think that Seven of Nine and Janeway’s relationship was much more complicated.
RT: I actually agree with that. More than Picard and Data even. I think, in some ways, it kept the series going much longer than it needed to, though.
BF: I completely agree. I loved Kirk and Spock. I love Picard and Data, even though they were just a variation on Kirk and Spock. And there was no iconic relationships on “Deep Space Nine” because all the characters were so strong, no two people really stood out.
If I was going to hang out with a captain from “Star Trek,” I would hang out with Janeway. She was the most fun. I loved the complexity of her character. I love that she went out there on her own and wasn’t always making the right decisions. Sometimes she was reacting emotionally and sometimes she was reacting strategically. She was much more flawed, and the show got criticism for that.
Oh, I’m sorry, I’m blah blah blahing about “Star Trek.” I could go on about it all day.
RT: It’s all right. I’m a fanboy, I understand. Back to you and “Dead Like Me.” It had a great pilot, great first half of the season then you left. What happened?
BF: It was an ongoing creative battle with the studio, specifically the president. We never saw eye to eye. They budgeted it as a talking-head show without any effects, which was a half million below what it should have been. Which made it impossible to produce and why there are two clip shows in the first season, which is unheard of because it was only 13 episodes. It goes right to the heart of the studio’s perception of what type of show they were producing. Simply put, they had champagne tastes for a beer budget and it couldn’t be done.
It was also my first show so I was fighting for everything. I didn’t pick or choose my battles, everything I believed in I fought for, including cast members I believed in, like that whole Rebecca Gayheart debacle.
Her leaving the show was because the studio executives had second thoughts because here is this woman who accidentally killed a child in her past and is now playing a Grim Reaper. They got uncomfortable with that and told me to let her go. She’s great on the show and everyone thinks she’s great on the show and everyone likes her as a person. I went to the mat for it and it got really ugly. It was only one of the battles that got really ugly.
Finally I got tired of fighting, and “Wonderfalls” got an order, so I left.
RT: Did you continue to follow the show and the characters after you left?
BF: I haven’t seen a single episode after I left.
RT: Well, it kind of went to hell. It ended on a strong episode, but it just went to hell in a hand basket.
BF: I talked to several cast members and they called me and told me “they are ruining it!” and I just had to tell them sorry. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t watch the show, it was too emotional for me. It was a really traumatic experience, I lost a lot of weight and my hair fell out and thank God it came back, but speaking as someone who has never been in a real war, it was the worst part of my life to deal with a studio and a network who had no love for each other and had two totally different takes on the show – with me getting caught in the middle. I wish I could go back and do it all over, but time is linear.
RT: What would have happened to the characters if you had stayed on the show and how long you would have stayed with the show?
BF: I would have stayed on with the show through its final days. I had very clear ideas on what should happen with the characters. When they were making choices, I would scratch my head. They missed the joke on a lot of things.
The biggest thing was making her father straight. He was going to be gay and around episode six or seven where she discovers he was gay and she learns to value her life even more because hers was a life that wasn’t meant to be because her father was gay and wasn’t wired to procreate. So the life that she lost is much more valuable to her. It affected her life and her story and made it mean that much more.
And then they threw it out the window even though there were major seeds planted in the episodes when I was there.
RT: Would George have ended up completing her mission and moving on to her maker in the last episode?
BF: I think she would have continued to do the things she was doing. I wanted to have a lot more fun with the genre. I wanted to be able to cut to 20 years in the future and have George looking like George and still carrying out her missions. As far as specifics go, she wasn’t going to meet her maker – but that wouldn’t stop her from trying.
I was going to bring Rebecca Gayheart’s character back at the beginning of season 2 and have her fall out of the sky and send her and George on this mission. Here’s a grim reaper who returns from the afterlife and has something to say about it, and the question would become how the characters could “storm the castle” and come back.
But those episodes were not meant to be.
RT: Before we get even more depressed, let’s talk “Carrie.”
BF: Ah yes…
RT: So it was a movie, but it was supposed to become a television series? What was up with that?
BF: Yes, well, that was another interesting negotiation between the network and the studio because the network wanted a movie-of-the-week and the studio needed more money so they said they wouldn’t let them do a movie-of-the-week but they would let them do a backdoor pilot. And I don’t think the network ever intended to do a series, they were just playing the studio. But we jumped through all the hoops and had all the elements in play for a series with Carrie on the road with Sue and what would happen in the wake of Prom Night.
There was this whole B-plot in the pilot with Jasmine Guy that all got cut out about her coming in and investigating a paranormal event in the small town that was supposed to set up the franchise of the series.
It was fun, and I did the outline for the next episode, and then it became very clear that NBC had no intention of making it a series and just wanted a movie, so MGM put the kibosh on the whole deal.
RT: But it did pretty well didn’t it? Wasn’t it in the top 20 the week it aired?
BF: I think it did okay. It definitely was a blast to do. I watched it recently with a friend of mine and it doesn’t quite hold up. Although, the actors are fantastic and parts of it are definitely fun.
RT: I think the last hour is really strong, but the first two-thirds are a bit lax.
BF: What it needed was 45 minutes cut.
RT: Exactly. I liked the idea of it not just being the high school, but the town as well, cheesy special effects and all.
BF: Basically the studio said no more money and the network needed more effects. The effects studio did some great work but some of it – not so much. We weren’t giving them the resources they needed to do them right, but we were insisting on having them. It bit us on the ass because it looked cheap.
But I had a ball.
RT: What about the stories that you had to change a lot of dialogue because it was too anti-religious?
BF: There was a very negative portrayal of religious people on the show. I have my own feelings on religion, and being raised Catholic, not a lot of them are good, so that fueled that. I went out to dinner with David Keith, who was in the show as the detective. He said he was a very religious man and asked if there was one scene where Carrie could say one thing about her belief in a higher power and Jesus Christ and not seem like a crazy person or a freak. I knew he was totally right and was totally valid, so I wrote some new scenes and they were some of my favorite scenes in the show.
RT: Did you have any communication with Stephen King whatsoever?
BF: There was no interaction. Though we did send him a prop dress.
RT: Were you a big fan of the original movie?
BF: I love the original movie! It’s so good!
RT: I loves me some Brian De Palma.
BF: Yes! All that split-screen deliciousness. It’s a fantastic movie, and I just bid on the Japanese movie poster on eBay.
RT: Are you looking forward to “The Black Dahlia” coming out, which is directed by De Palma?
BF: Very much so. It’s such a great Hollywood story. I’m very curious to see what he does with it because Brian De Palma is so hit-and-miss. “Blow Out” is his best movie. “Dressed To Kill” was very good at the time, but doesn’t hold up. And “Body Double,” at the time I loved it but I watched it recently and thought it was kind of a piece of shit. But “Blow Out” holds up very well.
RT: I love “Blow Out” as well. If it weren’t for the first five minute’s long extended shot for the sake of a long extended shot, it would be a masterpiece.
BF: I would argue that even inclusive of that, it is a masterpiece. It is Brian De Palma at his best.
RT: I’m one of the sole defenders of “Femme Fatale.”
BF: I liked a lot of “Femme Fatale,” but it was like there was a lot of cheese on that burger, but it was tasty.
RT: Now let’s talk “Wonderfalls.” Wasn’t it supposed to be this largely-hyped television series that would launch post “American Idol” and be the next big TV series and have all this backing before it just went plop?
BF: Yes, all those things are true. We were the golden boys and everything was fantastic and we were in episode 7 and a rough cut of episode 5, which had a very significant lesbian B-story was sent to a higher-ups office, and he said “no fucking way.” And the next day no one was talking to us and there was a time when we weren’t even going to air. We really knew when we went into the marketing meeting and first they were telling us how they were going to market it, and then they were telling us how they were not.
That’s when we decided that we needed to make it a miniseries because we wouldn’t have more than 13 episodes and we made those 13 episodes sing. We had a beginning, middle and end.
RT: Well, what was the lesbian storyline that got everyone worked up? Was it some risqué shower-scene that showed boobies or something?
BF: No, it was just two women relating to one another as a loving couple and we were forbidden to show them kissing in any way, shape or form even though other shows on Fox were having kisses between women that were more exploitative. Ours were more honest and real about two women in adult relationship.
RT: cough “Fastlane” cough
BF: Exactly. It was kind of unfortunate, but I really feel great about the experience because it was the show that I wanted to make and it was a very positive experience.
RT: When you hopped onboard “Wonderfalls,” you said you had to change it into a miniseries. Previous to that, how many seasons did you plan out and what was going to happen in those seasons?
BF: I wanted in season 2 there to be this big arc where Jayne realizes she might be like a Jesus character. It would end with her therapist publishing a book about her, giving her notoriety. And then season 3 would open with her being institutionalized.
RT: And what would have happened with her relationship with whatshisname?
BF: The bartender? Up and down and up and down and up and down.
RT: What did you think about the fan reaction once the DVD came out? I know every friend I’ve showed it to now absolutely loves it.
BF: It was wonderful.
RT: Okay, let’s move onto “Heroes.” How’d you get onboard with it?
BF: The show really isn’t a superhero show. It’s about regular people realizing they have superpowers and it’s about how they deal with it. What I was attracted to was the themes of destiny and fate and our individual roles in the universe. If you look at “Dead Like Me” or “Wonderfalls” you’ll see that the characters ask those same types of questions. I really related to that. Each and every character had a metaphor on their journey, like the indestructible teenager, the single mother who is spread too thin and needs two of her, the cop who can read people’s minds. There’s the big huge meta-questions and small questions like navigating the waters of being a cheerleader.
RT: How long are you planning on staying with the series, since right now you are only a consulting producer?
BF: Well, my title is consulting producer, but I’m actually working full-time on the show. There are a lot of times where it’s seven days a week and I’m only supposed to be here three days a week but I love the show and I love the writing staff. It’s been such a fantastic experience and the show seems like a juggernaut. It’s great to be part of a show that is being supported by a network.
The show is really “Magnolia” meets “X-Men.” I read the script and began to think where the stories could spin from there. The cheerleader character really hit home with me. Each of us takes a character and writes those stories, and then we combine that, so every writer works on every episode.
I just took to Claire and really liked her journey.
RT: What is a normal day like in the “Heroes” office?
BF: A normal day for me is sitting at my computer writing. We get into a rhythm of breaking the stories with different color marker on different cards for different characters, and then we all go off on our own to write our individual scenes and then we take those scenes, put them together, read the script, give the episode’s writer our notes and that is the process.
RT: What’s going on with “Amazing Screw-On Head?” Critics loved it, but then it didn’t do too well in the ratings. I heard a rumor you guys wanted it at Cartoon Network now.
BF: Mark Stern at the Sci Fi Channel was the lone champion of the show. Everyone else at Sci Fi didn’t get it. Now we are waiting very patiently for our pass from Sci Fi so we can take it to Adult Swim.
It was a very different experience than what I was used to doing with live action, and I would love to continue. We have three backup scripts. They are as bizarre and interesting as the pilot. We have Emperor Zombie working with Darwin on Galapagos Island determining that the ultimate evolution is zombification; we have Screw-On Head encouraging Indians to assimilate to the ways of the white man only to discover they’ve taken it too far – horrifically too far; those sorts of stories. It is a new way to do a twisted soap opera. Hopefully, the show will find a home on another network.
RT: So what television shows are you loving right now?
BF: Right now, for me, it’s all about “Project Runway.”
RT: You know, my friends are always trying to get me into that show, and I never quite can. Now “America’s Next Top Model” I can totally get into, though.
BF: Yeah, but I like a show that’s about creativity and skill and talent, instead of just who is prettiest. Do you watch “Lost?”
RT: I think I might just switch over to DVD boxed sets for the upcoming season.
BF: I’m very much looking forward to the new season of “Lost.” I do love that show. But they almost lost me – no pun intended – several times when nothing happened to forward the plot for many episodes in a row. So I’ll stop watching for a few weeks and then hear people say “Oh my God, did you see ‘Lost’!?” and then I’ll tune in again.
RT: I think a major reason why “Lost” won’t be able to sustain its popularity as long as a show like “The X-Files” did is because “X-Files” only had six or seven mythology episodes per year, whereas every episode of “Lost” is a mythology episode to one extent or another, and with so little happening to further the plot in certain episodes, how can people not become disinterested?
BF: I think the show definitely has to strike a balance between the episodic and the serial. But I still love it. Love it. I’ve already pre-ordered the action figures, including the hatch boxed set.
RT: That’s all I’ve got to shoot at you. Thanks so much Bryan!
Up next: Simone Bianchi!