This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 150: Screenwriter Craig Van Sickle Talks About His Writing Career In Television.
Ashley: Welcome to episode #150 of the “Selling Your Screenplay Podcast.” I’m Ashley Scott Meyers Screenwriter and blogger over at – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today, I’m interviewing Craig Van Sickle, he is a television Writer/Producer. And one of his many creations was the hit TV show “The Pretender” which ran in the late ‘90’s. He’s got a ton of great stories, and advice who are looking to break into TV. So, stay tuned for that.
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So, now, let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing Craig Van Sickle, here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Craig to the “Selling Your Screenplay Podcast” I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Craig: Ashley, glad to be here, thank you, for having me.
Ashley: So, to start out, maybe you can take us back to your early days as say a writer? And maybe even before that, college, moving out, what made you want to become a writer. And kinda how did you actually put that into action once you knew you wanted to be a writer? What did you actually do to facilitate that?
Craig: Okay, yeah, what’s great is, everybody who’s listening, and everybody out here has a long story how they got to where they are, mine is my own. But, I was fortunate because I was a junior and in college. And I knew I wanted to be a screenwriter.
One of the major things that actually facilitated that. I grew-up in Chicago, I went to school at Indiana State University, in Bloomington Indiana. So, I was no where near Hollywood. And didn’t have any family background in Hollywood. So, it’s kinda like, this would be a big jump for me if I was going to do this? But I kinda figured it out in the first year in college. Because that summer I had entered what I called, “Danny Arnold copywrites. Now, Danny Arnold, created “Barney Miller.” Now this is probably a show of maybe your listeners don’t remember? It was a hit sit-com back in the ‘70’s, and early ‘80’s. And so, Danny put on this nation-wide comedy writing, basically scholarship contest. So, I thought, I had never heard of anything like that. And I thought, this would be a good place, or good way to gauge? Am I fooling myself, with my ability? Or do I writing, really have something going on for Hollywood. So, that summer I came home, did my
9-5 job every day, and came home, and I wrote a M.A.S.H. script. A M.A.S.H. spec. script. And toodled over it, everyday, every night. And then finally got it done, and got it in. And then at the end of that summer, I got a letter from the spec. script scholarship. Saying I was basically, one of the finalists in the nation. I thought, wow, even though I don’t win, this is a sign to me that there’s, that I got something to offer, I’m on the right track. You know, because that’s one thing, one of the questions you have? You write in a vacuum and you don’t really know, especially at that young age. Do I have any talent? Do I have actually have the ability to make it in Hollywood? One of the hardest industries to break through, and so on. And that was really, that was a big “Yes” to me. And now, of course contests and festivals are just everywhere. And I think now, chosen correctly, a writer can get a lot of positive feedback. And a lot of positive direction of ability through them.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. And was this, spec. script literally, the first TV script you had ever written?
Craig: It was. Was it the first thing, I don’t know? I did a lot of short stories. I started writing in Junior High, I knew even then that I wanted to be a writer. I was a big “Twilight Zone” fan. So, I’d write these pen name, little short stories, with twist endings. And sometimes they’d have really, interesting, sometimes they would. But, there was, where I sort of cut my teeth. And then when I got to college. I met former professor at the time, he was a former script writer. And he kinda said, “Well, if this is your area of expertise, then you’re really in for, why don’t we do some independent studies. I was actually earning credit to learn how to write scripts. So, he was fully encouraging me to get into this Danny Arnold thing. So, that’s how a wrote a M.A.S.H. script. And then when I got back to school, I started writing just spec. scripts for short shows that I love. Which you know, was yours still holds true. If you want to break into TV? Which is what I know more about. Take a show that you love, a show that you know the characters backwards and forwards. You know their inner voices, you know the structure of their stories. And just write a spec. script. Now, you’re not going to sell it to them, that show, very unlikely that you will. But, it will stand as a sample that you can get an agent with. That you can maybe get in the door of another show, a similar show? So, I highly recommend that. So, I started doing that in college. There was a show called, “Lou Grant” Which was a spin off from the
“Mary Tyler Moore Show.” From the characters of that show, it was an hour-long show. The first time they had ever spun a sit-com into an hour-long show. I wrote one of those, I did “Barney Miller” I did several hour-long shows. And, I continued to do that, actually after I moved out to Hollywood. Then, after I graduated, I said, “I’m going!” So, my best friend and I moved out here.
And shortly thereafter, my new writing partner and I started writing spec. scripts. Because, you know, friends would sit around with poker. Complaining how bad the shows are on TV. And one day, we kind of looked at each other and said, “Well, why don’t we do something about it?” You know, it’s a lot, it’s very easy for all of us to sit and criticize and judge. But the only way you’re going to make us a writer anywhere is to write. And write, and writing and keep writing, and keep re-writing. But I was a big believer in that. So, we started writing spec. scripts. One of which was a show called, “Remmington Steele.” I think a friend of a friend, he was the Executive Producer of “Murder She Wrote.” Which at the time was phenomenal show on television. They said, how a guy was telling me, telling the audience that there was no young mystery writers out there. So, I said, hey, let’s start writing mysteries. So, we watched “Remmington Steele” and wrote part of the show. And we sent it to him. One day we were sitting in my apartment, the following day, the phone rang. It was Ian Fisher, who created “Murder She Wrote” on the show. And he said, “So, yeah, I read your script. When did they produce it?” And I said, “They didn’t produce it, it was a spec. script.” And he said, “Great job, I want you to come in and pitch the show next week.” So, that was kind of the first, really big break, to go in and pitch. And try our hand at breaking into TV. Later, we found out it was a woman’s conference. And there was no way we could have been at this conference. We told them we were there, just to say that. And so, he kinda caught us in our little white lie. You know, don’t hesitate to embellish the truth a little. If it gets you in the door, it’s what works, so.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. Back us up a little to your “Love Boat” episode. Because wasn’t your “Love Boat” episode before that?
Craig: Yeah, yeah it was. Thank you for keeping my time line straight, yeah. “The Love Boat” was the first thing we sold. And that was another friend of a friend. We were using some offices down in Hollywood. The company that produced “Casey Casum’s America’s Top 10” that was my partner. And one of the guys working there. He said, “Yeah, one of my good friends is story editor on “The Love Boat” Which was in it’s 9th or 10th set season. One of it’s last seasons. It was one of the top 10 shows, year in, year out. And he said, they really, desperately need new material. So, this was like a third Thursday or Friday, I will never forget. It was
Super Bowl Weekend. I’m sure it was about 1985. And Steve, my partner and I at the time, said, “Let’s go for it!” So, we went into the office, Saturday, Sunday, almost 24 hours straight, and we wrote this “Love Boat” episode that we had. Sent it to our buddy on Monday. And he said, “Okay, I’ll give it to my friend on “Love Boat.” And they read it Monday night, and Tuesday we got a call. And said, we’re buying your script. And of course we just about fell off our chairs. Because we simply didn’t think we could A. Happen that fast. And B. And happen like that, this was our dream, it was our first sale. I said to myself, “Hey, I could go to the deli, and get me one of those nice deli sandwiches that I can afford it, maybe a six-pack of beer? My needs were very simple back then. But, a, that’s how it can happen. There is some, who you know. There is seeing an opportunity and seizing upon it too is a big thing. A lot of times I’m kind of a believer in kismet, and sometimes you hear things. You don’t really act on them. And later, you wish you had. So, for people listening, there are, just keep your eyes and ears open. Because you never know where that opportunity will come from.
Ashley: I just want to clarify two things? You mentioned your using this office. And I just want to be clear, that’s like, your day job. You’re doing like administrative work at this office.
And so, you just decide, either that they are nice enough to say, “Yes, sure, they’ll let you use it on the weekend.” Because I know a lot of the people there listening to this. They had day jobs too. So,
Craig: Yeah, it’s actually the office my partner worked at. I didn’t work there, I had another job. And they were just, I was always hanging out. When I got off work, I went over and hung out. And we counted it as just the two, twenty somethings? We were just amusing to them. But they had been in business for a long time. And I think they picked-up on our ambition, and our drive. And so, they were very cool, with. Yeah, you know, he had a key to the office. And he said, if you guys want to use the office on the weekends, that’s great, do it. And so, that was very. That was the scatter brained brothers, they Casey Casum Top 40 Countdown.
Ashley: I’m curious, so you’re basically living in Hollywood, trying to meet a young guy. Trying to meet as many people. You’re getting these sort of leads, like someone who knows someone, who knows someone? You guys, you strike while the iron’s hot. You hear about this episode of “Love Boat.” Were there any other instances where you guys went into the office, wrote a spec. script, over the weekend, send it out on Monday. And then never heard anything? Because I think it’s always important to just get a sense of the scope of what you were doing? Because it always makes it sound like, you did one thing, it worked, and then you were off to the races.
Craig: No, that’s a very good point. I don’t want to sound like it’s just like automatic. We put in a lot, a lot, a lot of hours into writing spec. scripts that never went anywhere. Going to tapings, and trying to go to meetings. And we had probably two or three agents before we found the one we were working with for so long. So, it’s, there’s a lot of work, until due diligence, writing and re-writing that goes into it. But, I’m going to contradict that. And tell another story, which was my partner Steve Mitchell. He worked as a Runner, on some kind of Steve Martin Spectrum at the time. He was a delivery guy, he would deliver scripts to the Producer’s house and what not. And one home was Mr. Lancekey. Who, produced, “The Police Academy” series, for Warner Brothers. Which at the time, back in ’81 or ’82. Was the number one box office movies. In Hollywood. So he, was a hot producer. And Steve knocked on his door one day, and he said, “Yeah, I delivered some scripts to you, Steve Martin Special, he told me one day that if I ever had a feature that you would hear my pitch.” And Steve later, told me, I never really asked him. He said, Paul’s a very organized guy. And yeah, come into my office in a week, you can pitch me your movie. So, we did, my friend, we went in and pitched the movie and he didn’t really get it? And we had a spec. script. He said, “But, I’ll read the spec. script.” And we never heard anything, that was months went by. Anyway, the first “Police” movie came out, the first or the second one I think. And the review in “Variety” I don’t even remember who the reviewer was? He sited two jokes in the movie. And both of those jokes, Paul had taken from our spec. script. And so, we were just kinda like, your first instinct is, you stole our jokes and didn’t pay for them. But, our second instinct was, how can we turn this into our advantage, right? So, we called Paul up and he was very nice. And he said, “Yeah,” he said, I can see that now, I may have gotten those jokes out of the spec. script. He said, “What can I do for you guys, to help however I can.” And we said, well, we would love to do a project with you. And he said, “Okay, let me think about it.” And a couple of weeks probably, months later. He said, “You know, I really want to do a Police Academy on the ski slopes.
Would you guys be interested in working on something together on it?” “Absolutely!” This is this comedy movie producer, we’re a bunch of nobodies, of course we would! So, we came in and pitched this idea called, “Ski-Patrol.” And he said, “I like your take, we’ll develop it. And back then, they did more pitches, than they did develop more pitches, than they do now. But, gets it. He was such a powerful guy there at Warner Brothers. He called us, like the next day and said, “Oh, yeah, they’re going to, we’re going to put the deal in motion. And agents are going to call, and let’s develop this movie. Well, to go to your point. There was 4 and a half, I think, 5 years later, before that movie ever got made. And so that was about ’85 and the movie got made in ’89. And it wasn’t a Warner Brothers movie. It became a low-budget thing. And it turned out okay, it wasn’t great. There’s a lot of famous people that are in it now, that like to brag. Ski-Patrol – Paul Fegg, of course is now a big director, he was in the movie, a Martin Mull, and George Lopez. They all loved the dash. You can see how bad it was. So, I’ll tell stories of it. And then that was kind of another one of those right place, right time, seized on the opportunity. Now, what was funny, was that after that experience. Paul said, “You know, you guys kinda seem like you want to do features. But, you also want to do TV? My recommendation being, pick one.” And we were at kind of a crossroads, I had the same feeling. Steve and I had apartments. Let’s go to TV, because waiting five years to get your movie made is, as many writers I’m sure, out there know. It’s pretty hard to do, from one day to the next. It’s not going to happen, it’s going to happen. And that can kind of take its toll. So, we decided to focus on television. But,
Ashley: Yeah, yeah, okay. So, now let’s go back up to the “Murder She Wrote” story. And you get in there to pitch to him. One, of your take on “Murder She Wrote” maybe talk a little about that a little bit.
Craig: Okay. We walked into “Murder She Wrote” again at the time it was the number one show on TV. We were nervous as hell, because we’ve never pitched before. We’ve never, this is like a great opportunity. And I want to add, because I think your point is well taken. It was an opportunity we got through our writing. The writing is good enough to get us into that door. It wasn’t just like, we lucked into it. But the writing, and that script that we got, the “Remington Steele” script, a lot of hours on that thing. And so, I recommend to everyone out there, just keep writing, keep re-writing. You’ll get that script to the point where it’s going to open some doors. So we entered into “Murder She Wrote.” And we had no idea how to pitch a show. And we said, “Okay, the first step of the first episode just is Jessica’s on a circus, and the clown dies.” And it was kinda like, awfully great huh? And they were just like, what are these guys talking about? And so, low-and-behold, we wound up flat on our faces, and we bombed out. We didn’t know what we were doing? And so, we started another, it was another year, of learning our craft, with 7 more spec. scripts. We did, we went to a lot of taping. There was a lot of PA work. It was getting some more facets of what we were doing. Did a lot of reading on how to pitch. And we discovered, you know, they key thing with pitching? Is you have to give them enough information that they can hook into. That they can see that, okay, these guys know what they’re doing. They tell a story, they can understand characters. And on “Murder She Wrote” there was only one main character that was good, Angela Lansbury’s character. The rest were all guest stars. You have to demonstrate the world, and those characters are interesting enough to sustain a closed mystery.
So, about a year later. We felt like we done our homework, with Paul, Peter Fisher Bell. And we said, we dared, we dare you to give us another chance. We think we can come in and knock it out of the park. And we just tried to set-up. Okay, come on in you punks can come on in, it’s okay. And so we went in and pitched to them, three ideas, fully developed, It wasn’t like we pitched every beat. But they could see Act 1, Act 2 & Act 3. This stays exact four act structure. They could see the main characters of the show. And we still, put 2 or 3 ideas in that pitch. And again, that was doing our homework. Doing hard work. Knowing what we didn’t know the year before. And Peter bucked two ideas. And from that, he put us on staff of this spin-off show the very next year. As his historia.
Ashley: Okay, now. At what point did an agent or a manager come into play? Were you able to get an agent, after selling the “Love Boat” either after the “Love Boat” or after the “Love Boat” script. Like, you just said, you just called this guy Peter up, he’s running, “Murder She Wrote.” Was that a call, you got, or physically made? Or did you have to have an agent call him?
Craig: No, that was a call he made to us. Because we didn’t even give him the script through an agent. I think at the time, if I had an agent. We were about to leave them. They were going to dump us, I don’t remember? Because we weren’t getting anywhere. The spec. script began a little something we got to Peter, through a friend of a friend, of a friend, the word of mouth. It was somebody said they heard Peter at this conference. I think we just got the address and the office signed a release form. Because they won’t read anything if there was no release form. And we sent it in with our script. I mean, it was great, he read it, and you know, we were shocked I think? He read it when he did. And then picked up the phone and called. And called us for real.
Ashley: Yeah. But then he, a year later when you got, when he called, was that he called you physically. That was when you and Stephen physically met, or, your agent made that call?
Craig: Oh, we made that call. We had an agent, I think that we got an agent offer for “The Love Boat” script. But, the more sure thing was kind of already in progress. And we kinda felt like, you know, let’s just challenge him ourselves, writer to writer. Because Peter was very much a writer kinda guy. To challenge him, kind of personally. We felt that was a better approach, I think, in that instance than having an agent call. So, that’s what we did.
Ashley: Okay, okay. So, now you on a show as a Story Editor. Maybe just talk us through some of the highlights. And bring us up through the “Pretender.” I know you and I had a great talk about the show, with Stephen J. Canal, Cobra, maybe we could talk a little bit about that? And how that was developed, and I thought that was entertaining, and educational.
Craig: Sure. Yes, so we got on a TV spin-off show, it was with Jerry Orbach last the season. But, we learned a tremendous amount. And Peter’s, his staff and his producers. They were all older guys. They were probably in their late 40’s. Which saw us at that point, as older. Because we were in our 20’s. And so, we learned a hell of a lot. Sawyer, Robert Swanson, all those guys were just, they really, took us under their wing. They invited us to dailies. We started to learn about more than just beyond the writing. Just a blip sense of the world of producing television as well. So, we did that show.
And then from there we ended up going on a show called, “Alien Nation.” Which was one of the first shows that the FOX network ever did. We were talking about Tom Newnan, I don’t think Tom was there yet? But this was the same, this came on the same year as the “Simpsons.” And it was based on a movie, “Alien Nation.” And so, we went to work there by Tim Johnson, he was the show runner. And, unfortunately, that show, only went a year or two. Which that was a series, that was gone for a long time. But, it didn’t quite fit the FOX mold, I think? But, so we learned a little bit more. They had offices off the studio lot. They did all the editing, casting, everything in this kind of warehouse downtown off of Figaroa someplace? I’m not even sure where it is now? So, again, it was another year, kinda seeing what goes into a TV show, beyond just the script. We got to write a lot of scripts, we got to re-write a lot of scripts, story editors pretty much. And again, it got canceled. After that, our agent got us a development deal, again, which are more-rare now, than they were back then, with
Warner Brothers. And one of their first shows that they put us on was called, “The Flash.” Well, “The Flash is on CW right now, this was the original “Flash.” Based on the comic DC. At that time they were just starting to open up the books to DC, and the properties. Where on that show, it only lasted a year. And I think I mentioned, when we talked earlier. It was kinda funny, after that, we kinda found ourselves, we were constantly being pigeon-holed. Like after,
“Murder She Wrote” we were mystery guys. Then after “Alien Nation” we were sci-fi guys. Then after, “The Flash” we were comic book guys. And Steve and I always knew, to do so much more. We really, wanted to do more. We wanted to stay versatile. The show, keep it fresh, do different things. So, after our deal with Warner Brothers, was up. We got hired at
Stephen J. Canal Productions. He was such a great mentor, a great man, and he was so generous with his talent and he really, we used to kid, “Canal College.” Show Runner, producer, college. And the first year we were there, we were producers on a show with Carl Weathers, his first show in syndication. Stephen J. Canal, was a master at that. The show that he sold, was in syndication. And it wasn’t on the networks. We thought, great, we’d love to do that, do that show for a year, it went off. And then, one day we were sitting in our office, literally. Canal knocked on the door, and the door opens, and then Stephen J. Canal. The face you’ve seen 1000 times, pulls a page out of a typewriter, that guy obviously was for us. And he said, “Hey, I was thinking about it?” Me and Georgia worked on the show, he said,
“Would you guys want to create a show with me?” And that’s like, you know, that’s like God saying, hey, would you like to be my friend? A, yeah, we’d like to do it! He said, “Great, come into my office tomorrow. We’ll kick around some ideas.” So, the door closes and I think Stephen and I end up dancing around the office, so excited to finally get the idea. To finally get the chance to create and be show creators. Our goal all along, would to be staff writers. We said, we want to get our own show, and that was always our goal. And that may not be everybody’s goal, and that’s fine. But it was one we never lost, or lost sight of. So, we ended up creating the show, a syndicated show with Canal, we shot in Vancouver. It was very low-budget. I mean, we did 22 episodes, for $600,000.00 an episode. And we had all the money up front. And Canal said to us, after day one. This is budget, you can’t go over budget, there’s no more money guys. So, he over saw us but, he really threw us into the deep-end. And said, “Sink or swim, go for it, I’m here if you need my help. But, just do it.” So, we did. And started writing scripts, planning the show. You know, like every first season, of every show, it’s, there’s a lot of difficult potholes, chocked full of, is the director the right one? Are your scripts any good? When you’re learning as you go. The first episode we shot, we brought it into the editing room, and it was a disaster. And Canal, said, “Look, Stephen, I think we can fix this.”
But, he said, “Meet me in the editing room, tomorrow or whatever?” We go in, and Canal, in the next 20 minutes turned this really lousy episode. Into, he reached, he retold the story, he re-wrote the story in the editing room. It had nothing to do with the script, that we shot. He said, “Move this scene, or this scene, use this take on this factor, move this up front. And we got this, you know, hell version of how to edit and write a show from the editing room, write a show. And it was probably the most valuable lesson we ever learned, as show runners. And ever since, we’ve always posted things with the script, is not the final draft, editing room wise. And that’s where you can really show you’ve got a good show great, just by judicious editing and what not. And I, and Canal, Canal taught us all these things. Taught us like pass, what things to look for? And it was just, Canal college, and we shortly thereafter graduated from Canal college.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. I mean, and maybe you can elaborate on that? Maybe tips on casting, what are some of those tips?
Craig: You kind of have to have an eye for, and eye on, what is the commercial choice here? Especially in syndication. A show that is not going to have the best benefit of network promotion. But, maybe a show that only gets advertised in TV guide. Or now a days it would be online ads or something? So, you know, it’s hard to get eyes on your product. So, when you’re in casting, try to cast somebody who is maybe a known actor/actress. But not if they are going to compromise the ability to do a good show. So, you have to, there were times when it’s like, oh man, this guy is reading for us? It’s like an icon from my childhood. It’s like, I’m in awe of what he’s doing. But ultimately, you’ve got to stand back and think, is he really the right choice for this characters? You’d do great to sell the show and all that. But, he may not be the right person. So, we might have to look, and keep looking, and we might find the right person who isn’t quite as famous. But, is a better actor. And that was one of the things that he taught us. You can’t just put all your eggs in one star. That casting, you got to have that actor/actresses, that can deliver the goods, and elevate your material. Otherwise it’s just going to be fluster, you know.
Ashley: So, let’s talk about “Pretender” a little bit. Maybe you can kind of talk about how you ended up getting that show on the air? Maybe just take us back to the very beginning, where did that idea come from? And how did you develop it?
Craig: Sure, be glad to. We actually shot a pilot wrote and shot a pilot for FOX that didn’t end up going in. It was kind of a family drama. That was, we shot in Florida, it had every wild animal you could think of, we had: Lions, giraffes, we had kids. We broke every major rule, we had kids, and animals. You never work with kids and animals. It was directed by Rob Bowman, who of course did, “Castle” for ten years and won every piece. Anyway, it didn’t get picked-up by FOX because they had just bought the NFL Package. So, our pilot didn’t fit in. So, Stephen and I found ourselves, back renting an office. We rented a small little cubbie on Rolling Stone Hill, it’s still there. We were kind of just at the point where we said, you know, we need to write exactly what we want to write. The tendency is to write and lead the marketplace. And I can tell you right now, that is a dangerous trap, that will never pay off fully. And I know, I remember those shows that always come on the air. And there’s a lot of tentative stuff. And there are writers that are benefitting from that. But, in terms of really, being true to your own voice, and what you want to do? You got to write something.
Even if it’s like, is that really a very commercial idea? And know, be true to your voice, write what you think is best. Because that’s what you’re going to write best.
So, the pretender? We had always had this notion, or we came up with the notion of? Great fantasy fulfillment, what would be like really cool fantasy fulfillment? And the thing we came up with, was? Well, most people on the planet, wish they could be somebody else. Or they wish they could be something different every week. And we thought, well, that’s kind of interesting, never seen that on TV? Where the main character is literally something different every week. So, that was the first kind of nugget. Then we started adding, we weren’t, we added some depth and layers into that. And two things came about – 1. Was, we both read an article, I think it was, “Rolling Stone?” Some, more obscure magazine. About something the CIA was doing called, “The Genius Project.” And the “Genius Project” was literally the CIA would recruit children from up and down the Eastern Seaboard. And they would bring them into the CIA. To come to school and play games. And in the morning they would, you know, they would do trigonometry, and algebra. And these were kids, from age 5 to age 10, but they were brilliant kids. So, in the morning they would do their classes, trigonometry, algebra, and English. And then in the afternoon they would play games, fantasy games, like, global thermo-nuclear-war, or cloaked invasion, or stealth warfare, that kind of thing. And what they would do is? Literally pick the brains of these genius kids. Whom you know, at that age, their brains are unfiltered with adult stuff, and they would get these ideas. Like a kid would say, imagine a plane, a jet that nobody can see. And from that came stealth technology. Yeah, radar can’t pick this. So, they did this program, so we thought, that is absolutely, fascinating. The idea of a character who is a genius kid, who basically was, in our case, kidnapped, by a random corporation. The center was a, our bad guys. Kidnapped by the center, we don’t hinge on broadening, who is this genius. To simulate different scenarios or corporate clients or whatever? So they were getting rich off of Jerod who was there to offer his brilliance. That was the second element. Third element, that kind of solidified, what do you do with a guy who can do something different every week. And this was all during the OJ Simpson trial. And you know, I’m sure most people were familiar with the amount of evidence against him and all this stuff. And there was a preponderance of feeling in Los Angeles it was at the time of. Oh, a guy can get away with murder, he can get the best lawyers and get off, you know, from going to jail. And so, we thought, what if there was a guy, we’re already reading newspapers, turn the page. What if there was a guy who didn’t turn the page. Who said, okay, the story about this guy who, Hollywood children are this day and age are wearing clown masks to scare people. That’s like, wrong behavior, what if your hero said, I’m going to go after this person and they are going to pay. In our case we called it emotional justice. I’m going to put them in the same situation that they put their victims. So now, we have our elements, right? Somebody different every week, different profession. He was a kid genius raised in this nefarious center. And he was out to help the world out by right the wrongs that adults have done. And that was it, that was the show. So, in our series he escapes the center, and in the first one, he was a surgeon. And he just walks into an emergency room, and saves this little kid’s life. And what we find out is, he’s in this hospital because there was a bad doctor who operated drunk on this kid, and it paralyzed the kid. So, the emotional justice was, what we put together. The last scene of the show. Jarod, he orchestrates, that this guy who was drunk, on the operating table, the guy who let him operate drunk is now on the operating table. And the doctor comes in who is drunk. And he’s going to operate on this guy. And at the time it doesn’t sound very genius. But, at the time.
Ashley: At the time, it actually does sound very edgy even to this day. I think that does sound pretty dark and edgy.
Craig: Yeah, it is pretty dark and edgy, especially for it’s time. But, and actually one of the scripts, Jerod does get the administrator on the table. In comes the drunk doctor. He says to the administrator, he says, you know, I’d operate myself, but I’m not really, a doctor, and he walks out of the operating room. And the next thing you see is the drunk doctor staggering towards the table putting the gloves on about to operate on open heart surgery on his boss. And we don’t know if Jerod stops it, or does anything? Typically, it the hero would never let that operation happen. But, we want the audience to think that, yeah, he did, Jerod let it go. But the network kinda got a little queasy about that. And kinda made us put an ending on it that said, okay, he really didn’t let the operation go through. He freaked out, he freaked out the guy, the administrator, and gave him emotional justice. He made him feel what that little boy must have felt. So, that was the justice of it. And we wrote it spec. and that was, that’s the important part. We said, we can pitch this idea. We actually pitched it once, to an Executive. Who was a very, who worked for FOX at the time. And he passed on “Pretender” So, we said, you know, instead of pitching it, let’s just write it. We write it the way we want to do it, or we did. In fact, we didn’t get paid for it. And, when we finished it. Our agent, the next day when we finished it, sent it out to the four networks. FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC, and I think it was, finally four years later, we got called, and NBC wanted to buy it. Stevie McPherson, who went on to run NBC, and David Nevens, who’s now, I think, at Imagine? They loved the “Pretender” scripts. So they bought it, and then we started developing it with them a little bit. But, they wanted to know all the angles, all the investments, all the secrets. Well, if we tell you all the secrets, then there’s no reason to watch. You don’t have to buy our script, we’ll just take it back and sell it to somebody else.
No, no, no, no, no, no, it’s okay, if you think that’s the way to go? And so, we shot the pilot, and we ended up testing higher than anything we have ever tested. Even Bonanza from before, the highest tested pilot, tested higher than that, tested higher than the ER pilot. It was that one little field. We ran that narrow band. We had our testing framed. With the numbers ticked off higher than any of the others. So, structurally we’ve done something right.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, and I want to ask this question? A lot to the writers that come on. And you just kinda touched on something. You have this dark ending. You guys as artists and creators have this dark ending that is maybe not quite what the network can swallow. Just in general,
I mean, we don’t have to talk about that one specifically. But, in general, how do you deal with notes from the higher-ups, from really, anybody? But I guess it’s really, from the higher-ups? Because they actually have some power over you. How do you deal with notes that you really, don’t agree with? And what is your strategy for that, to get through those? I know, I’ve had a big problem with this, as a screenwriter, to the point where, it takes the fun out of the project. When you have this thing that you love, and they go and change it, and mandate changes. It takes the fun out of it. It’s just no longer something that’s even remotely fun in that cases. How do you handle that, kind of confrontation?
Craig: Having done it a long time, I’ve gotten notes from every end of the spectrum. From the network dumb-ass, who doesn’t have a clue about what they’re doing. To, the person I have great respect and admiration for creatively.
They can both be network executives, or studio executives, or what not. So we, I think you could ask any executive that we ever worked for, would say, you know, that Steve, and Mitchell, they’re really good listeners. They are willing to work with our pros, they’re willing. Because we never want to work and be combative creative writers. Because we want to give the idea a shot. So, the note was only used as good as the person giving it. It was kind of the way we saw. But even if there was somebody we really didn’t respect, we were respectful, in dealing with their note. We would say, in a voice, eh, I think that might throw us off on a bit of a tangent. But, you know what? Let us take a look at it? And we will see if it’s something that works or doesn’t? And in many cases we would ignore the note. And then when the next round of notes came. If that person, or if they can’t say, “Oh, what happened to that note I gave you??” We would just explain why we thought it didn’t work. And most times they would be accepting of that explanation. Now, the notes, and fortunately, you know, we’ve been blessed, to work with some really good people. And most of the notes we’ve gotten. Have been, no, I would say, 50% of the notes we’ve gotten out, have been good ones, that’s a pretty high percentage. Most writers think they are all dumb notes and there are a lot of dumb notes out there. But, you know, I think, maybe we’re a little bit more forgiving. Or got a little bit more ability to pay, give something a chance, if we were on the fence about. So, believe me, executives really want to know that they are being heard. But, I think every writer out there should look, and listen. If you don’t agree with it, there’s no reason to be combative or disrespectful. To say, let me take a look at it, let me see if it’s something that fits. Don’t be afraid to voice you doubts. But, there really is no reason to be a jerk about your notes. I mean, it just is, I don’t know of any project that’s gotten better through animosity. So, just be cool, it’s going to be okay. You’re going to pull the script back into the garage, you’re going to tear it apart, look at it. And either it works or it doesn’t? And if it doesn’t, just worry why it didn’t. It’s as simple as that. You don’t have to be full of anxiety or animosity.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, you mentioned that you wrote this original pilot script on spec. And I am curious, what all that entails? You have the, whatever, I guess? It’s going to be a 45 or 50 page pilot script. Did you then write a show bible to go with it? Do you also write two other episodes, like when you’re going into I mean that original thing when you were, your agent had, what was that originally? What is that, is it just the pilot script, is there a show bible, is there a couple of other episodes?
Craig: I think at the time? I think, no, all we had was the script. Our agent at the time sent the script to the format works, and that’s all they had to go by. After that, after the studio was committed and said, “The script, take it off the marketplace.” Then we had several months of, probably more than two months, of talking about the script, what are you going to do in the future episodes, what are your future seasons? But now, now it’s really, changed. I’m not positive that a buyer, unless there was like, just a really few mains behind the script. I’m not sure a buyer these days is such a buy-off of a script itself? There’s just too much paranoia and fear in this business, you know, all that stuff. Now, they may love the script, and say, “We’re really intrigued by this. Can you come in and discuss the show with us? And that means, where the writer has to be prepared to say, okay, here’s a couple sample, just general episodes for the first season, offer kind of season 1 up. This place, maybe season 2 are arced here’s what the final is going to look like. And I have an idea about season 2, season 3 if you can, 4, just a notion of where 4 season could go in a real general sense.
Be prepared to talk about more in depth about where you want to take each character. For example, one of our, female lead – Saundra, in the script, she’s written frankly pretty-black and white, pretty cut and dry, there’s not a whole lot of depth there. And that was one of the things. We love her voice, and she’s kinda sassy. But where you see going with this? And so, we had this whole thing, knew where we were to go with her. And to humanize her, and deepen her character. So, you should have that in mind. To, where you’re going to go with it, characters, story lines. And the protagonist is episodic. And since he was somebody different each time? And literally we could just open the phone book and say, oh, he’s a fireman, policeman, FBI Agent, we had that sort of thing going for him. Of course on that idea, at this day and age, most of these shows, are episodic, are being episodic, they’re a whole season arc. So, they are a whole series of great in depth. In that case, like I said, you got to be prepared to discover, so here’s where the whole first season might go, second season, and so on. So they get a sense of, hey, there’s a series here. Because now they really, want to know the parts. That there is a full-on, long run series. And the big thing now is? Some of these orders are 8 episodes or 13 max. It’s much easier to do that, without thinking. And so, you should be prepared to do that.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. One of the things in my writers groups. Someone put up, and I’d be curious to hear just your take on this? Someone put up a script, that was structurally similar in that, there was like two or three main characters. But then every week there was like a new cast of other characters. And one of the notes the writers group got was? We weren’t sure how this would work? And I started to think about ya. You just mentioned, “Love Boat” was precisely that. You had your stable of re-occurring characters. But, every week there was new people. There was, “Murder She Wrote” was like that, “The Pretender” is that something that is not as prevalent now? Or is it just a coincidence? I couldn’t think of any modern shows, like in the last 5 years, or something, to have that structure. Where it’s one guy with a sort of guest cast every week. Or two or even three guys.
Craig: I can’t really, think either. And we had a new, what would make the pretender work was? We were going to have to build our villains. And that’s sort of a full story into something that was 50% or more of the show. And frankly the Lord that we created on that side of the show. Became what really, fed the online fandom. They wanted to know more on Mrs. Parker. What happened to her mother? And so, we actively developed that side of the show. Also for financial reasons, because Jerod’s a different guy every week, we had no standing sets. He’s also a guy who’s on the run. So, who’s he going to talk to? How are you going to tell that story when he’s just a guy alone. And those were some of the challenges. That we knew we were going to have to have some standing sets to go to. And that became the sentence. So, some of it was practical, you know, when you create a show like that. You have to think long term. From the reader being a studio, or network saying, god, I love the idea of, I love your pilot idea, of the astronaut stranded on Mars. But, what else are you going to do? I mean, who’s he going to talk to? How can we shoot that in a financially responsible way, etc… etc… You got to ask yourself those questions when you structure your series, and your script. They are vital questions? And especially more so now, with money being tight, and the economy. You kinda have to think of it all those avenues.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, I wanted to dig into a couple of just nuts and bolts things. And I think, “The Pretender” is a real good sort of an example, maybe a template.
How did you find writers? Like, now you’re now the show runner, for the show. And just talk, I love, I always like to hear real specifics. Like how did you get those writers and how did you decide, which writers you hired, to come on and write that show and the ones you didn’t necessarily?
Craig: When you write a spec. script, from a writer friend, to be staffed. You know, Steve and I always like to say, when “The Pretender” started, just the pilot script, was a certain song was playing in our head. We knew the tune, and we knew the notes and all that. And so when we would read somebody’s spec. script? We would look for, since our case, here was a show that never really, fit a category, it wasn’t a cop show, it wasn’t a dark, the show never really, fit a category. We had to listen to that sort of like music in our, in somebody sent us script. So, for me it was always like oh, that writer really, surprised me with what they did in the 3rd act, or 4th act of the show script. I really, it really, blew me away. And certainly, a surprise, let’s have them then discuss and see what kind of thoughts they have? And so, that’s how we initially put our first staff together, for the film is right. Which I think is five or six writers. They each possessed something kind of just lyrical in their script, that was unique, to what we were trying to do on it. Now, if I had a top show? By a doctor show, or a cop show? I’d probably look for that really solid gritty, dramatic story telling from a spec. script, cop, doctor, lawyer show. We were looking for something different. And then as it turns out, in the writer’s room. We were, I think in the first five writers we hired, I think three, two I think only 2 made the cut after 6 epsidodes of how we structured the deal. Those were the ones who will keep surprising us literally. It’s the writer that sits on his or her hands, that doesn’t say much. You’re not going to get anywhere there. You got to be bold, you got to go into that writer’s room. You can’t be afraid to be slammed down by what’s perceived as a stupid idea. Our youngest writer on “The Pretender.” And we joke about this with him today, Jaun Charlos Codo, who wound up running XD Show. I can’t remember the name of it, I’m sorry. But anyway, he was the young buck in the room. And we’d throw out a hundred ideas, and he would throw out a hundred more. And then we’d think, what was that idea, you said about a half hour ago? With the chimpanzee? Exit Run? Yeah, I said, something about a Chimpanzee with eczema. That might be the answer we’re looking for. So, I tell writers all the time. Never be afraid to throw out your ideas. Because that’s the only way you’re going to get your, you belong in this writers room. I don’t know if that’s what you’re looking for?
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. I think it’s interesting to hear, that really it starts with the script. If you were literally, as the show runner, reading scripts. It doesn’t sound like their resume was all that important like, how important, oh well, this writer wrote, this, this, and that. What about those samples submitted.
Craig: Yeah, it really was lower-level people. Because, you know, they’re going to learn on the job. And we’re going to get at that point enough experience when we were confident, that we can teach them. Our staff went looking for, and it’s not a democracy. And if you’re going to go to work for whom ever. Let’s just say, Dick Wolf, over at “Law and Order” You’re going to do this show because it’s his show. So, we were confident that we could teach our staff, that song that’s in our head. Because that’s what we need to be. It doesn’t mean that you’re, that we’re not going to use your ideas? We used a lot of our writings. It is in fact, in seasons progressed, we, there are big storylines to zigs and zags based on great ideas our staff.
We’re still a music in our heads. That sort of had to fit our templet. So, their resume, really, didn’t matter. The one resume that did matter? Was about two episodes, no one episode, right after the pilot actually. We met a guy named Tony Clausen, who was on “Quantum Leap” and his resume, because we needed help. We were falling behind. And the network didn’t see, and they said we could hire somebody. And went, and on his resume in front of us, had served a similar kinda feel to it. And I don’t think we ever read a script of Tommy’s, and we hired him and interviewed him at the time. And Tommy was a brilliant writer. And he ended up writing some of our deepest, greatest episodes we ever had. It just goes to show you, it can happen at any moment, what it was.
Ashley: So, let’s.
Craig: So, write that spec. script, that you just believe in your heart, and soul in. It’ll work for ya.
Ashley: And so, let’s reverse that question now. If you are a young writer, coming up. How do you go about sort of getting in the head of the show runner, of the creator of that show. How can you write in their voice and make that story sound like something that was written by the creator?
Craig: Well, you can’t really, customize at all. Only like if there’s been a series on for a few episodes. Or let’s say you were actually able to see the pilot episode before it hit the air. If you were able to write a spec. script. of something else that’s kinda has a feel for that show. That would be one way. But, it all happens pretty quickly now. Actually with the proliferation of the internet. You know, pilot scripts are out there, even before they are shot. So, I know my agents get the pilot scripts to their clients early on so they can see what’s been bought? So, they can get the voice in their ahead of shows in case they’re on the air. So now, there’s more of that. So, my advice would be, if you have an agent? Try to get a hold of as many scripts as being shot for pilots as you can. Or, the ones that have full series orders. Get them as early as you can, read them, dissect them, try to figure out what that common link is, each episode if there is multiple episodes. Just do your homework, I mean, I am a big believer, there is no substitute for hard work. It’s one of the few things, that writers can control. There is so many things out of your control. How hard you work, how diligent you are, how much homework you do. You can control the vibe, do you homework. Early on in our career we like to tell the story how we. I don’t want to use the word, “Broken into the offices of a famous comedy show” to get a sample of their script. So we could see what their writing sample was. But the door was unlocked and it was late and nobody was there. So, we helped ourselves. So, by doing that we got their template, and we wrote a spec. script. And put their script in exactly their form. So, if they are reading it, they’re thinking? Wow, these guys really know what we do. And it was all a part of getting. Now we don’t have to break into offices. Because we can get it offline. Just do your homework. And do as much research as you can, on who created the show, what they’re going for? Interviews now, where they’re talking about their show before it even hits the air, just do diligence. And try and get in their heads that way as best you can.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, another question I have? And this is kind of a pretty broad general question? I heard an interview once between it was Robert Rodriguez, interview
Quentin Tarantino and they were talking about “Pulp Fiction.” Pulp Fiction” was already finished, but it hadn’t been released. And the executives were watching the movie, sort of a screening before it was released. And they were sitting there watching this, thinking, I don’t think this is going to work? And there was still doubt. Even if Quentin Tarantino’s mind, whether it was going to work? And I’m curious, looking back at your own career. I’m sure like from your standpoint. You put the same heart and soul into the “Pretender” as you did into
“The Flash” or “Cobra.” But was there any differences, like, were there some warning signs? Or can you look back on “The Pretender” and say, yeah, looking back I understand where, why this one worked. Or even, as you were going through it, did you just have a good feeling that this one was going to get a good run. Verses some of the other shows, was there anything different? Or did it just seem kind of random?
Craig: No, there was nothing random. I don’t say this about, I’ve written a lot of pilots. I’ve written a lot of scripts. And both Steve and I had the same exact feeling we were writing
“The Pretender.” There was just something in my mind, my gut, my soul, my heart, whatever a writer wants to call it. That place where you just know, that what you’re doing is good and different. I just knew, that this script was going to sell. I don’t know how? I just, it felt different, unique, it just felt different, it felt fresh, and it felt like everything we were doing with it scene, for scene, for scene, was the right move. And as writers as we always have done, we have doubts about, maybe it’s not as good as it should be? Maybe I’m going to wrong way? We just have this gut feel that what we were writing was going to get sold. Was going to run on the air for years, and be a success, I don’t know how? But, I will tell you this. What happened, we shot the pilot, and the director, while he did a lot of good things. He changed our concept quite a bit. And we knew, we knew when we saw the rough draft. The NBC walked out of the rough-cut. And we knew it was not the way he edited it, and changes were made, we’re going to kill the show. So, we said to the network, let us take in the editing room for two days and put it back to the way we think it should be. And that’s the cut that tested bigger than ER. So, in that case, we were able to see this baby of ours, sort of done wrong. And we had the benefit of fixing it, to having it done right. And that’s a luxury that you don’t usually get. Another project we did, “Tin Man.” Which was a mini-series for Sci-Fi Channel. We were re-inventing, and re-imagining the
“Wizard of Oz.” We were fraught with like, we were either going to get crucified for this. Or people are going to embrace it. And it turned out, it was very successful show. And you got a little of both. But, to Sci-Fi’s credit, they said, “Just cut your minds loose, let your imagination’s loose, do whatever you want. And then from there, you got, we got some really wild stuff, first drafts. And they said, “Well, this works, this doesn’t, we could see it too. So, a lot of it is trial and error. But, it’s given yourselves a chance to write it a little bit bigger than it should be, crazier, you can always pull it back. And, that’s what re-writing and reconfiguring is all about.
Ashley: But, you definitely don’t think you ever have this feeling, this gut feeling that this was going to work. You never have that about a project that didn’t work? I’ve never had it that strongly. Although, I just finished the pilot that I had the same feeling about. So, time will tell if I end up selling that or not? But I still have a really good depth feel about that one too. But, we’ll see? It was really strong of, “The Pretender.” Precise and Tin Man too. Tin Man was a thing, Tim and I went into and pitched Mark Cern at Sci-Fi, he hated our pitch, for this other idea.
He said, “Guys, there must be some pet project you always wanted to do? And we said, “Yeah, we want to do a mini-series about a cop in our house. And he lit-up and before we ever got back to our office, he was calling our agents. He wanted to do a mini-series deal. And he just loved it. And so, that was an idea that we came up with. We sort of had the same feeling with,
“Wizard of Oz.” It’s so simple, but its so different, and so out there. And that ended up being very successful for us too. Listen to your instincts, because that’s where you have to write from.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, I always just like to wrap up the interview by asking people, how people can learn more about you follow along. If you have a Twitter account, or Facebook account, or website, blog, anything you feel comfortable sharing. You can just say that now, and I’ll will gather this stuff up and put it in the show notes. So, people can just click over to it. Any of those types of things you use.
Craig: Sure, I have a website I use, www.thepretenderlives.com, it covers a lot of our career. But mostly focuses on and reaches a global audience. We’ve always had a very global audience. www.thepretenderlives.com, I’m @CraigVanSickle1 on Twitter, and probably the best Email to reach me is, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashley: You’re very brave giving out an Email.
Craig: Yeah, I know, but that’s okay.
Ashley: Okay, perfect, perfect. Is the pretender available anywhere online? Like is it streaming on any service?
Craig: Yeah, it’s on several other ways, it’s on DVD, yeah, it’s streaming now. You know it seems the whole it went pretty-well. On occasion, I’ll check on it. Those episodes where, what were we thinking? That was such a bad episode. But, there’s still a lot that hold up. So, yeah, given, give it a look kinda one of the first of it’s type of show. I hope you enjoy it. It was a thrill doing it.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah, perfect, perfect. Well Craig, thank you very much, it’s been a great interview. I know nothing about TV writing. And I get a lot of people Emailing me, saying, hey, maybe you could interview some TV writers? This has been fantastic, I know a lot of people are going to get a lot of great information out of this.
Craig: Great, good luck everybody, keep writing, we’ll break through it.
Ashley: I just want to mention two things I’m doing at “Selling Your Screenplay.” To help screenwriters find producers who are looking for new material. First, I’ve created a monthly newsletter that will be sent directly to producers. Every member of SYS Select can submit one log-line per newsletter, per month. I went and Emailed my large database of producers. And asked them if they would like to receive this monthly newsletter of pitches? So far, I have well over 350 producers who have signed-up to receive it. These are producers who are hungry for material and are ready to read scripts from new writers. So, if you want to participate in this pitch newsletter? Get your script into the hands of lots of producers. Sign-up at – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/select, that’s www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/select.
And secondly, I have partnered with one of the premiere paid screenwriting leads services. So, I can syndicate their leads to SYS Select members. These, there are lots of great paid leads coming in each week from our partner. Recently, I’ve been getting 10-12 high quality paid leads per week. These are producers or production companies, actively looking to buy material. Or are looking to hire a screenwriter for a specific project. If you sign-up for SYS Select, You’ll get these leads Emailed directly to you several times per week. These leads run the gambit from production companies looking for a specific type of spec. script. To producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas. Producers are looking for shorts, features, TV, and web series pilots. So, it’s a huge a ray of different projects that these producers are looking for. And these leads are exclusive to our partner and SYS Select members. Again, to sign-up, just go to – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/select.
Anyway, that is the show, thank you for listening.