Originally scheduled alongside writers Jeph Loeb and Jesse Alexander, "Heroes" creator Tim Kring appeared at Screenwriter's Expo last Saturday alone. Side-stepping the recent changes of creative personnel that saw Loeb and Alexander fired from the beleaguered NBC series, Kring and moderator Jason Davis focused on his own origins as a writer and the process of building "Heroes."
Kring says he became a writer "by default." Originally a photographer, he attended the University of Southern California as a graduate student in the Cinema Department. While there, he chose to direct a film, as doing so was the pinnacle of the program and something of a privilege. "If you wanted to really make the most of film school, you had to try to direct one of the big student films," he said. Following that student film, Kring took many meetings with executives and agents expecting him to have an idea to pitch. This surprised him, as he expected the executives to have their own director-less projects. "I was laboring under the false impression that I was going to be able to get out and direct with this student film that I'd done. It was really about having a script."
Knowing that he would need a script to get any work, Kring crewed on other productions while he waited for the right idea to strike him. During that period, he had an opportunity to join the American Society of Cinematographers. "I looked at that opportunity as a fork in the road," he said. Kring felt joining the union would make filmmaking more of a "punch-the-clock" job and wrote a teen comedy instead.
The comedy sold and eventually landed Kring a spot on "Knight Rider." He says the show was run by ex-cops by the time of its fourth season and the only story he pitched that they had not yet done themselves was "the car gets possessed by voodoo." It was the last pitch he had for the show. They commissioned Kring to write the script, and he was paid the standard fee at the time: $18,000. "Short of robbing a bank or dealing drugs, how am I going to make this sort of money [in a single week?]" he joked.
Kring spent the next eleven years as a freelance writer. He wrote some features, such as "Teen Wolf Too," but was mainly known as an A-List TV movie writer. "It was time when those two worlds didn't cross very much," he said. He also had a reoccurring role as a re-write man at Disney. "At the time, there were three networks and all three did two nights a week of movies. Each of the networks did fifty or sixty movies a year. Between all the networks, this was giant cottage industry."
Kring only became a producer of television series when the market for TV movies dried up in the mid '90s. "What happened was HBO came along and TV movies migrated [to cable]," he explained. Kring became part of the staff David Kelly's CBS hospital drama "Chicago Hope" in 1995 as a producer. Also, with producer Howard Gordon, he created the short lived ABC series, "Strange World." Kring would go on to create the popular NBC series "Crossing Jordan" starring Jill Hennessy.
Illustrating how television works, Kring says "Crossing Jordan" was originally meant to star a female sheriff character. This changed after a network executive visited the UK. "One of the executives had been in London and had seen a British series called 'Silent Witness' on television. He came back and said, 'I saw this show. It's got a female medical examiner. How about we take that character and turn [your show] into that?'" After this meeting, the head of the studio told Kring changing the character would get the show on the air. Consequentially, the lead character became a medical examiner.
Similarly, "Heroes" began as a network request. Lacking an ensemble, serialized drama on its schedule, Kring approached NBC to create a series in a vein similar to "Lost." Kring says the rise of the serialized drama in recent years is reflective of a major shift in revenues away from re-broadcast to home video sales. "[This] made serialized storytelling a viable financial model." Three years on, Kring joked, "What was I thinking?"
"Heroes" has forced Kring to become a student of the serialized form. He calls the format an "absolute bear of a thing." All of his previous work featured stand-alone episodes. A serial, Kring said, "eats stories much faster than you plan." Plot points need to be addressed and new material needs to be added at a much quicker pace than a procedural drama. "The serialized story is so Writers Room-intensive and requires an 'all hands on deck' quality to it; you're often just carrying the water for the next storyline." As a producer, it also means Kring cannot commission a writer to tackle a story several episodes ahead of the Writers Room. To combat the fatigue these challenges represent, Kring devised the "volume" idea. As devised, but only to truly be realized this season, each volume of "Heroes" acts as a semi-autonomous unit of story within a whole season.
Kring says the origin aspect of superheroes intrigues him the most and "Heroes" was originally meant to operate more like an anthology with new characters regularly appearing and confronting new-found powers. The realities of production interfered with this plan. "The networks fall in love with certain characters, the audience falls in love with certain characters, the press falls in love with certain characters, they don't want to see those characters go," he explained. Between contracts, availability, and studio notes, the set of lead "Heroes" characters became firmly planted.
Ultimately, Kring enjoys the varying tone a large cast offers the show. "An hour of television should have the vibe as a day of your life," he said. "Heroes" can more readily offer levels of humor, pathos, and suspense in a single hour because of the various character sets.
Kring spoke about the effect the Writers Strike had on the show last year. Season Two was originally meant to be comprised of three volumes. The eleven-episode long "Generations" was meant to be followed by two volumes six and seven episodes long, respectively. The original Volume Three, "Exodus," would've seen the heroes dealing with an outbreak of the plague teased at during "Generations."
With the strike looming, Kring and his staff knew it was unlikely they would be back to work to complete the season. They even bet on it. "We knew the strike would not be over before Christmas," he explained. "Before [writing halted], we wrote down when we thought the strike would end and all eleven of us were within forty-eights of when it [actually] ended."
Their solution: prevent the plague from being unleashed, altering a single shot in episode eleven and undoing their six-episode plan. Knowing production would not resume for that season, Kring believes it is for the best. "The idea of coming back with the virus story nine months later just seemed like insanity," he said.
This also means the character of Caitlin, Peter Petrelli's love interest in the second season, will be lost in a dead timeline. Kring thinks too much time has gone by to return to the character. "There's a few people out there who might be asking what happened to her, but for the majority of people, it would feel like a hard left turn," Kring remarked. If Season Two had been completed as planned, Caitlin's fate would have been revealed in the fifteenth episode of the year. Now she is a "casualty of an act of God."
The strike also eliminated plans for "Heroes: Origins," a six-episode anthology series meant to run much closer to Kring's original premise for the show. Though intended to be a separate production with its own writing staff, offices, and production personnel, Kring says the main show is "work enough."
The upcoming twelve-part volume, "Fugitives," will see the characters returning to civilian lives and hiding their powers. Kring says the show will take a hiatus from time travel stories. Asked about time travel as a story device, Kring said "avoid it at all cost." Subsequently asked which power he would like to possess, he said, "Time travel."