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REFLECTIONS #229: Bryan Fuller, Part 1

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
REFLECTIONS #229: Bryan Fuller, Part 1
Bryan Fuller’s “Pushing Daisies”

Since his days on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” Bryan Fuller has become one of the biggest icons of geekdom that you probably don’t know that much about. The writer-producer created the television shows “Dead Like Me” and “Wonderfalls,” and worked on the first season of “Heroes,” including the best episode of the series so far: “Company Man.”

Fuller’s creation, “Pushing Daisies” is one of the only major hits of the ’07 television season both critically and commercially. The story focuses on Ned, a pie maker who’s able to bring dead things back to life by touching them, including his childhood sweetheart –whom he can’t touch a second time without killing her, making for a decidedly awkward courtship. The ABC series has racked up three Golden Globe award nominations, a People’s Choice Award nomination, and two Writer’s Guild nominations.

“Pushing Daisies” is the kind of show during which you just find yourself unable to stop smiling, but also a show with emotional resonance that hits you like a ton of bricks at the most unexpected moments. In this first of a two-part interview, Bryan Fuller talks about the development of “Pushing Daisies” and drops an Easter Egg or two about his desire to return to the “Dead Like Me” universe.


Robert Taylor: Let’s begin at the beginning of this journey and talk about how the daisies came to be pushed in the first place, if you don’t mind my first question being a merciless pun. You had a great co-executive position on “Heroes,” which was a huge hit for NBC. What made you want to leave it for another gamble on another network?

Bryan Fuller: When I took the “Heroes” job, I had made a deal to make a pilot for Warner Bros. at the same time. So everyone knew that if the show that I was developing succeeded, then I would leave “Heroes.”

RT: Tell us about the show’s development.

BF: It came about as an idea I had concurrently with “Dead Like Me,” and at first I attempted to develop it separately, and then I decided to fold it into the “Dead Like Me” world. When I left “Dead Like Me” halfway through the first season to go do “Wonderfalls,” I put the idea in my back pocket.

There were lots of ideas that I had for the “Dead Like Me” universe that never came to fruition. A lot of fun ideas, and I’d love to revisit that universe, because there are so many fertile sorts of stories that can be told there, not just necessarily with the George character, but with the whole universe of Grim Reaper mythology that I created for the show. There are a lot of things to explore within it, kind of like how “Star Trek” also had “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” and “Next Generation.” There is definitely a lot more to explore with the “Dead Like Me” franchise.

RT: Well, now that the franchise has moved on to movies, don’t you want to come back and join the old crew and cast and make the movies?

BF: Absolutely. But they never talked to me about the movie. They did it and I love the cast and I hope it does well. But I would absolutely return to “Dead Like Me.”

“Pushing Daisies” just started to take on a life of its own, and when I was at “Heroes,” I was talking to the writing staff as I was developing the show. Everyone was very supportive of me and the “Pushing Daisies” concept, so I felt like I was in a win-win situation.

I went in and pitched the idea of the guy who can bring dead people back to life and deciding to revive the girl that he loved as a child. It was the kind of “Ladyhawk” romance that would be conducive to a great fairy tale. And that’s what we set out to do; we wanted to tell a fun fairy tale series

So much on television has become easy in terms of relationships. People jump into the sack so easily, and it felt like a nice challenge and a breath of fresh air to tell a story that was a little more complicated. They couldn’t consummate the relationship and had to get to know each other outside the realm of sexuality and physicality. It felt new, as opposed to having a story where they slept together in the first episode and would have to deal with the ramifications of that. In this story, they can never sleep together, so it’s about telling stories about characters who aren’t self-obsessed assholes. [laughs]

RT: It’s one of the longest-running rules of television that you never get the guy and the girl in a relationship until you know the series will end, because otherwise no one will care about the tension anymore and the series will take a nosedive in ratings. Do you find it difficult to keep the relationship and the romance fresh for the characters?

BF: There are so many complications to real relationships. They go up and they go down, just like rollercoasters. Sometimes you are riding high and fast and sometimes not. But they are wildly inconsistent and wildly adventurous. I don’t think it’s a matter of traveling a flat road. it’s a matter of enjoying your ups and downs.

RT: Obviously “Pushing Daisies” is one of if not the quirkiest show on television, but your last two encounters with thinking outside the box, specifically “Wonderfalls” at Fox, didn’t go well. .After filming a scene between two women lovers, Fox stopped supporting the show, placed it in a deadly timeslot and let it die. How terrified were you that ABC would pull the same card?

BF: I wasn’t terrified because there is always that reality, and I was prepared for it. I wanted to tell the story in the best possible way I could, and “Pushing Daisies” gets the support that is amazing, and if not I still have to make the best possible show that I can. So it was never a matter of worrying whether they would support the show or not, it was the fact that there is so much to do when producing a television show that it was a secondary concern. Whether they support you or don’t support you, they have still ordered a certain number of episodes and you have to give it to them.

“Wonderfalls” was heartbreaking because there was support initially and it all went away. No one stuck their necks out for the show and said that it was something worth standing up for.

There is a different air at ABC. There are executives there that are really willing to stick their necks out for shows, and that’s why there is so much passion and investment. Going to the WGA strike, the horrible thing is that I have really good friends over at ABC, and they have been supportive of the show!

That’s not to say that they haven’t given notes. They’ve given many difficult and challenging notes, but notes that I think made the show better and stronger. It is after all collaboration. I was talking to a friend who said that one of the possible benefits of the Writers’ Strike is that you don’t have to take notes from studios. I can’t see that. Studios are investing millions of dollars in your work, they should have a say in what is coming out of it. I recognize that I need to hear a different opinion and make a course correction from time to time. We don’t always make the best thoughts, and need to hear that differing opinion so we can come up with a solution that will make the show better.

RT: “Pushing Daisies” was heavily promoted. I haven’t seen that much promotion put into any one show on ABC in years! Leading into the premier, you couldn’t go ten minutes before being hit with another teaser for it.

BF: ABC did very well by us, and I’m very grateful and hope that I am in business with ABC for a very long time.

RT: Let’s talk Executive Producer Barry Sonnenfeld.

BF: After we finished the show, Barry came up to me and said, either I am the perfect writer for him or he is the perfect director for me, but we make a great team. Having been a fan of his work, it put such a click in my heel. He got involved because he was developing a project with Bruce Cohen, and they were my producing partners on the television show, and I got a call one day that said, “Would you be interested in having Barry Sonnenfeld direct this?” And I said, “Oh God, would he do it?”

He read the script and he loved it. It was a very simple, clean process.

RT: The world he created for the show is absolutely beautiful.

BF: He brought everything to life in such a wonderful release.

RT: Do you want to talk about “Amelie’s” influence on the show?

BF: It’s pretty clear that “Amelie” influences are rampant throughout the series. As writers and creative folks, we are constantly being influenced by everything we see. We take it in, digest it and do our own version of it. That’s what happened with “Amelie.” It’s one of my favorite movies and touched me in such a way because it is whimsical and yet has so much heart at the same time, which is really a difficult thing to pull off. It got under my skin, and it felt like the right tone to tell my story and the perfect template for me to pour my own pudding into.

RT: If you are going to keep that pie metaphor going. [laughs]

Let’s talk about the cast. It really felt as if you wrote the character of Olive specifically for Kristen Chenoweth.

BF: The role of Olive was very small in the pilot, only a couple of scenes. Barry suggested Kristen for the role, but said the role had to be much bigger in series, which was no problem. She definitely was going to play a bigger role as the series went along. So really, it was written for her, in a manner of speaking.

RT: Was it your idea to have her sing on the show?

BF: It was one of those things where we have such fantastic voice talent on the show that there was always talk of doing a musical episode. The network loved the idea, but wanted us to do it in the back nine [episodes of the season[ because we didn’t want to alienate the audience.

Then I realized we didn’t have to have a musical episode; we could just have musical interludes from time to time when they were warranted emotionally. I loved taking the characters on that journey into an even more heightened reality when their hearts were so full that the only thing that could come out is a song.

So we just did it. There was no grand intention or agenda behind it.

RT: But you don’t really like musicals, do you?

BF: I have come into a greater appreciation for musicals than I previously had. Having seen a few in the last couple of years, I have grown to really appreciate it.

I loved “Sweeney Todd.” It knocked my socks off.

RT: I remember you didn’t want to see “Dreamgirls.”

BF: No, I didn’t want to. I saw it and I liked it and it’s a fantastic movie. But it’s not a movie I need to see multiple times. I’ll watch “Star Wars” or the “Harry Potter” movies every time they are on, and I appreciated “Dreamgirls” as an audience member, but it wasn’t where my bread and butter is. “Sweeney Todd” was perfect for me.

RT: But back to “Pushing Daisies.” I had never seen Anna Friel anywhere before this show.

BF: That was such a coup for us. She is a huge star in England and wanted to make her mark in America. I had seen her in a few things, and she always struck me as a very good actress. We knew she had the chops.

When she came in for a meeting she was so cute and funny and you just wanted to put her in your pocket. It was great luck that we got her because she brings such reality to a character that could be so one-dimensional in a more comedic actress’ hands. But she gives the character such dimension and weight that you buy her character’s predicament.

RT: Let’s talk about Lee Pace. If he didn’t ground the series, it might go off and become too fanciful, but he pulls it off every episode.

BF: He’s our center. I met Lee on “Wonderfalls” and I adore him as a human being and adore his sense of comic timing. I frequently compare him to Cary Grant because he is a really handsome man who is not afraid to look like a fool. The dialogue on the show is very dense and there are paragraphs you need to rattle off, and he pulls it off. The style of the show and the style of the dialogue can feel written in the wrong mouth, and his is the perfect mouth for the dialogue.

Like I said, he’s our Cary Grant. Thank God his manager went around his agent’s back because they didn’t want him to do television.

RT: Speaking of amazing talent, there is also Chi McBride.

BF: We auditioned so many people for the role of Emerson, and there was no one who was really getting it. When they suggest Chi, I thought that he usually played such heavy roles, and then I remembered “The Frighteners,” and he was hysterical in it.

He came in and was Emerson. He’s told me several times that this role is very close to him as a person. I’ve come to have such appreciation for him as a friend and as someone who is so savvy to the entertainment industry. He has such a long career ahead of him beyond just acting, and I’m excited to see where he goes. He’s just a good human being, and I’m grateful to call him a friend.

RT: Perhaps he can direct an upcoming episode?

BF: What I love about team Daisies is that everybody is so supportive, and it’s such a collaboration that I would love to see the cast starting to direct.

RT: Let’s talk about the rest of the writing team. It must have been heck to find a group of people who shared your vision and voice for the show.

BF: It really is a very collaborative process. What I love about this writing staff is that everybody is so willing to color outside the lines. In every episode I can see everyone’s contribution, not just one. In every episode I can draw a diagram of everyone’s participation.

No one person can do television. It’s too much work. And I’m just grateful for the team that I have.

RT: How long-term are your plans for the show? Can you see yourself doing it for years and years?

BF: I think the show will go as long as the show can go. I have a very clear idea for the first three seasons of arcs. Hopefully some time in Season Two, knock wood, or Season Three, knock wood, I’ll know where Four or Five are going.

I love this cast so much, I can’t see the show go on without my involvement. It’s been such a fantastic experience.

Next Week In Part 2 of our interview, Bryan talks frankly about the impact of the Writers’ Strike and how it has affected him personally and professionally. Also learn about ABC’s take on “Pushing Daisies'” ratings, what would (and hopefully still might) happen in the remainder of the first season. Oh, and get the lowdown on Bryan’s thoughts on “Heroes'” second season.

Now discuss this story in CBR’s TV/Film forum.

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