[EDITOR'S NOTE: Robert Taylor's REFLECTIONS was meant to be published Tuesday afternoon, in its new regular "timeslot." Due to the unexpected news of "The Dark Knight" star Heath Ledger's death, Robert's new edition was delayed until today. Beginning next week, CBR readers can expect to see a new REFLECTIONS every Tuesday.]
Last week I spoke with "Pushing Daisies'" creator and showrunner Bryan Fuller about the creation of the show about a man with the gift for bringing dead people back to life, but sometimes with extreme consequences, both on a comical and emotional level.
This week, we finish up talking about "Daisies" and move on to the new season of "Heroes," which has undergone a sudden critical and audience slamming. Fuller served as a co-executive producer on the first season that gave us Sylar and Tim Sale's artwork on network television before leaving to create "Pushing Daisies."
Finally, and most importantly, Fuller gives us his personal viewpoint on the ongoing WGA (that's Writer's Guild of America) strike, now in its thirteenth week. Scripted television has grinded to a complete halt, film production has slowed and there is no end in sight. It's costing hundreds of people working in Hollywood their jobs, and Fuller has found himself walking that picket line along with all his brothers-and-sisters-in-writing.
Please note that this interview took place before the DGA struck a deal with the AMPTP and before the WGA and the AMPTP returned to negotiations.
Robert Taylor: Let's talk about the "Pushing Daisies" ratings so far. I know that you guys opened with huge numbers.
Bryan Fuller: The ratings are solid. We definitely did better in the 9 o'clock hour than we did at 8. It really helps to have a lead-in. And when we had an episode that aired later, our ratings spiked. I don't think a lot of people start watching TV until 8:30.
We aren't a super hit. But our numbers are good enough for us to stay on the air for the time being, and that is good enough for me.
RT: Since the season is pretty much over, whether we like it or not, can you give us some mysterious clues about what would have happened in the remainder of the season/what might happen in Season Two?
BF: I don't know if the season is over just yet. There is a slim chance we could be back to work producing episodes if all goes well with the DGA negotiations. But as far as our stories go, we are definitely going to be seeing more of the story of Chuck's childhood and things she wasn't aware of and relationships she wasn't aware of that will continue to complicate their lives. We are going to see a lot more of the aunts as their world and the world of the Pie Hole start to overlap.
We are going to be seeing more of Emerson's pop up book fascination, and we'll revisit the pop-up book world.
We'll be seeing more of Paul Reubens and Molly Shannon and how they're going to complicate things for our principles.
There will be different sides of Ned revealed, and we'll see him getting more passionate, and perhaps even wrestling an alligator.
I'd love to do our version of "Death Race 2000" with Olive and an illegal horserace.
We are going to meet Lily and Vivian's rivals from back in the day and toy with whether or not they will discover Chuck is alive.
There is so much fun for all the characters, and it's something about the fact that each of the cast is such a strong muse that they generate ideas by breathing life into their characters. Speaking of muses, I love James Dooley and his score for the show. Sometimes I'll just listen to the score and start thinking of directions for the characters to go in.
RT: Pushing Daisies" does not have an elaborate opening credits sequence, whereas your other shows "Wonderfalls" and "Dead Like Me" had very memorable ones. What was behind the decision to have such an abbreviated title?
BF: We did do a thirty-second title sequence involving Digby popping out of a grave and running through a field of daisies and credits. We did a market test on the credit sequence and the feedback we received said it looked like a Clariton commercial. So we scrapped that and went with a much more abbreviated title sequence. Goddamn Clariton, anyhow.
RT: We've spoken previously about the role of religion in "Wonderfalls," and since "Pushing Daisies" is obviously preoccupied with death. What are your thoughts about God and death and religion in the show?
BF: There is no specific religious agenda. I guess you could pull religiosity into it with good ol' Lazarus and the resurrection stuff. You could argue that Chuck is a Jesus character because she was brought back to life, or you could argue that Ned is a Jesus character because he can bring things back from the dead. I think there's a little Jesus in all the characters if you get right down to it. Maybe not all the characters, but Jesus is certainly ubiquitous.
"Wonderfalls" had more to do with philosophy and religion and our roles in the world because Jaye was being called into action by a higher power. It was more religiously skewed than "Pushing Daisies."
Do you see a religious motive in "Daisies?"
RT: Not at all, which is why I was curious if I was stupid and missing something huge.
What is your favorite episode so far?
BF: I love all my children. Maybe not all of them, but I have a few that I love.
RT: Everyone always lists a few when I ask them to choose favorites, and I'm putting an end to it! You must pick one!
BF: Can I pick a favorite moment?
BF: I would say when Ned told Chuck that he killed her father and we did that big dramatic "Moulin Rouge" pullout. That was beautiful and cinematic.
I also love all the homage to Hitchcock. "The Birds" moment with Molly Shannon was something I had been dying to do, and the minute the show got picked up I went to "Saturday Night Live" to see her host and talked to her. She said that her pilot didn't go and she'd love to do something on "Pushing Daisies" and we talked about the character, and I knew that I wanted to get Molly Shannon in a fur coat and a blonde wig on a boat getting attacked by birds, but I just didn't know how. Also, the Emerson dream sequence we stole from "Vertigo." That made me very happy. Those things give me a lot of joy.
BF: Yes, I thought it was fantastic!
It makes me want to direct.
BF: I would absolutely do it on the show.
RT: Every episode throws in everything but the kitchen sink, although that cliché is terrible because a sink is visible in the Pie Hole kitchen in every episode, but anyway, I'm curious as to the budget of the show, simply because so much is on screen in any given episode.
BF: Our budget is much healthier than where we started. We started out with, not a low budget, but a low budget for a network show, and there were many struggles and arguments with the studio in terms of how much they wanted to spend and how much the network likes to be spent, and there was great disparity between the two.
After there was much blood on the floor we finally got our budget up. Now we can afford to deliver the show we promised the network.
It wasn't easy and it took several years off of my life in order to negotiate the budget, but we got it up from where it was. It certainly isn't as big as "Lost" or "Heroes" by comparison. Those shows have over a million dollars more per episode than we ever will.
The network made it a condition on picking up the show for a full season that the budget will be increased.
RT: At least you won't have to do two recap shows in the first season like you did with "Dead Like Me."
BF: No kidding. That was bullshit. [laughs]
RT: I want to talk a little bit about "Heroes," even though you no longer work on it. How do you feel about the first season overall, since you wrote the best episode of the season, "Company Man," and all.
BF: The thing with "Heroes" is that it is such a group effort and every person on that staff works very hard on every episode. As far as any individual credit, I can't take it, but I can take credit for being part of the team.
RT: What most surprised you about the show while you were there?
BF: How much heart we were able to wring out of a high concept. A lot of non-genre folks look at comic books as ideas and plot, and we fused that with heart and character, and at the end of every episode we kept digging further and looking for reality and heart in this very heightened, unreal world. People automatically assumed we wouldn't have it, but we did.
RT: Have you been following it this season?
BF: I didn't miss an episode.
RT: What have you thought about the quality of the season?
BF: I still love it.
RT: The producers got a lot of flack this season for the pacing and development, despite the fact the first half of Season One was all slow-build before huge payoffs, but viewers rebelled this time.
BF: It felt like it was a slightly more intellectual story than before. It felt like, along with an intellectual story, it was also trying to cover a new audience that may not have been aware of the show in the first season. The trick there is to do it in a way that does not alienate the fanbase, and it's a tricky balance and some of the audience was mad at the redundancies.
As an audience member myself for the second season, and not being part of the show, I was satisfied. Obviously, there were some things that I felt frustration by as well, but never to the extent where I was not engaged with what was happening with the characters.
RT: Let's talk about the lack of resolution to the WGA strike and the Producers refusing to come back to the table.
BF: It's very frustrating. We've been picketing and trying to find answers to the situation to get a quick resolution and we feel a bit stonewalled by the AMPTP. It feels like studio and network executives have forgotten that they worked very closely with writers at one time, and they deserve a little more than we are currently getting. We don't need to take all of the profits, but some indication of our participation in the profit would be nice.
There's not a lot of leadership that is being demonstrated with network and studio presidents. It's unfortunate. It's become impersonal.
Thousands of people are being laid off from Warner Bros., who we work with on a daily basis on the production of "Pushing Daisies." Everyone is forgetting that this is collaboration, and everything has broken down and is becoming adversarial unnecessarily because it is now a lawyer's battle. They are forgetting the personal face.
RT: Have you ever been on a picket line before this?
BF: Oh, hell no.
RT: How does it feel?
BF: I'm not wild about the picketing. I wish there was a better way to show the personal effect of a strike, but right now there isn't one that has been uniformly accepted by the Guild membership.
Sometimes you're out there feeling a great deal of solidarity with your fellow writers and sometimes it's a little humiliating. I was there the day everyone was picketing "Desperate Housewives." There was some bad behavior on behalf of the writers. Poor Eva Longoria, who was doing her job and couldn't strike because she had a non-strike clause in her agreement, was trying to be very supportive of us. And unfortunately, we did not respond in kind.Folks were chanting at her. She bought lunch for all the strikers and they were yelling, "Blood pizza!" It was embarrassing.
It's so emotional and so complicated now. It's a really odd, sad time for Hollywood. I think the Guild is making points with the cancellation of the Golden Globes, which was unfortunate. [Golden Globes sponsors] the Hollywood Foreign Press does a lot for the community and film preservation, and it's sad that they got caught in the middle. If only some leadership was demonstrated by the heads of the studios and networks instead of having them treat it like an ugly divorce where nobody wants to give in or compromise.
RT: It has to suck doubly for you, finally having a hit show and having to picket it.
BF: Oh, yeah. It certainly sucks for me, but quantifying how much it sucks for me pales in comparison to how much it sucks for a lot of people who-I was going to say don't have a part in the fight, but they do, because if the WGA wins this and makes strides, that will affect other unions and their health benefits, and they will share in the victory.
It's hard to explain that to a crewperson who is looking at possibly losing their home. How can I tell someone to hang in there when they can't pay their bills because they no longer have a job? I'm at a place now where I understand the importance of the strike, and how it is a good fight, and a fight for some important things that will have broad-reaching benefits for the entire community. That's not to say I haven't had doubts and questions. But there are some very militant factions of the WGA membership who shout down anyone who has doubts and questions, as opposed to helping them answer those questions and assuage those doubts. Which strikes me as a little creepy.
RT: What do you think about the deals with smaller studios like United Artists, where screenwriters can go back to work?
BF: I see the importance of demonstrating that the WGA can make a deal and negotiate, but it does muddy the waters a bit.
The truth of the matter is we've been willing to sit down from the get-go and in fact have never left the table. The AMPTP are not willing to sit down until certain things are taken off the table.
As a non-union savvy person, I'm confused about things like reality TV being put on the table. Reality TV is not writing. Reality TV is human manipulation, and not what we do on scripted television. I mentioned that to the WGA leadership, and they told me they had to have something there to take off, because the AMPTP has things on the table like removing all writing credit from publicity materials. So both sides have something to eliminate so it feels like progress. But wouldn't it be nice if all the things we don't really care about were taken off the table from the get-go so we could restart the negotiations clean? Unfortunately, that's not the way these negotiations work. People who know much more about this sort of thing say there have to be things to give away. One of the things the WGA has been frustrated with is that they have taken things off the table, and the AMPTP has not responded in kind. So a few "unnecessaries" went back on the table that were originally taken off.
The AMPTP were counting on us to give in and make a bad deal. That is one of the things that happened in December, when everybody got really excited because we thought a deal was going to come to fruition, and then the AMPTP pulled some funny math that hid rollbacks and the WGA didn't bite. We didn't react as the AMPTP was promised by their lawyer that we would react – which was give up and make a bad deal.
Compromise is seen as a weakness on both sides, and we've had no movement. It's a bunch of people crossing their arms and waiting. We are at the table. They are refusing to join us.
RT: And now it's cost them over a billion dollars.
BF: Yeah. Congratulations, we are all losing.