Thursday, January 18, 2007

Straight From The Hart (Part 1)...

Amidst the manic flurry (and even snow flurries!) of running the Fox TV series 'Bones', my old pal Hart Hanson delivers with some answers to my mostly silly questions. No real rhyme or reason to most of this, I just asked what popped into my head. Let the hijinks ensue...

Hart: First, I'll paint you a little picture of where and when I am answering your questions. It's Thursday morning, freezing cold for LA (around 50degrees F), it snowed yesterday in Malibu. I'm sitting in my office in "The Old Writer's Building" on the Fox lot. It looks sort of like a Bavarian/Tudor/Disney Chateau. It used to house Shirley Temple. F.Scott Fitzgerald had an office upstairs. My office is huge but decrepit. Rumor has it that it used to be the M*A*S*H writer's room. I think that's a lie. I have it on good authority that it was another office upstairs.

I will tell you that every day I drive on this lot and show my ID and they just wave me on, I am amazed and a little thrilled. I distinctly remember coming onto this lot as a visitor for interviews and looking at great envy at the people who simply drove on and looked bored facing another day of work.

An aside...that's Hart in a nutshell. As smart and talented and funny as he is, he is genuinely real and down to earth and all those nice mushy things. I remember he was down in L.A. taking meetings just prior to him getting hired on 'Cupid' at the same time I was down there working on 'Outer Limits'. We'd meet up when we could for a drink or movie, but there was one night we were starving and wandered down the Santa Monica pier and found ourselves in some small, empty Chinese restaurant. And as we sat there nibbling on dry ribs and staring over at the amusement park ferris wheel, he turns to me and like a little kid says: "What the hell are we doing? We're in L.A. man...this is crazy. I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I don't belong here and to get back to Canada. It's nuts." And I remember just nodding and agreeing because I felt kinda the same way. But he clearly did belong there. Tip of the hat.

Will: Okay, most important question first: best guitarist ever...Jimmy Page, Angus Young, or Steve Zai?

Hart: Will, you know the answer to this question. Jimmy Page rules. Do I still think he's the best ever? Let me put it this way: I still listen and I'm very, very old and now I love jazz. I saw at the British Hall of Fame that Jimmy stopped dying his hair jet black and let it go gray and I was pleased.

Will: I know that music has always been a big part of your life...what do you listen to when you write – any specific bands for specific stories?

Hart: One of the best things about having your own show is that you have last say on music. That's slightly different from your question. Let me say that I have a playlist called "Bones" of music that I use when I'm writing or rewriting scripts. I also have a "Writing" playlist -- lots of jazz, lots of new weird stuff. I like aural backup let's say.

Ages ago, me trying to explain something to Nick Campbell on 'Guitarman' set with Hart looking on, probably thinking: "...what is Dixon saying?"

Will: Way back when, I remember us working on 'Guitarman' and I kept wandering around the room or flipping on the TV to check hockey scores, but you never moved from the computer. And whenever I’d ask you to take a break, you’d say: ’Bum to chair...bum to chair...that’s the only way this stuff ever gets done.” I’ve used BTC as advice to other writers numerous times since, ever think about trademarking it? T-shirts?

Hart: Did I actually say "bum"? That is still my philosophy. I will put my ass in front of the computer and pull up the program. Generally, if I have the willpower to do that, I will get my work done. That applied more when I was writing specs. Now, deadlines are a great motivator. And you didn't really want "breaks" from writing; you smoked a lot. You were Jonesing, my friend.

Will: 'Traders'...generally considered a classic Canadian TV drama series. Who created it? I mean, I know you wrote the pilot or originating episode (and a bible?), but didn’t come out to Toronto from Vancouver run it when it started. David Shore did I believe?

Hart: Alyson Feltes and Seaton McLean came to me with the idea, which I thought was horrible. I did a ton of research on investment banking, etc., which made me think I might be a narcoleptic because I kept losing consciousness. I wrote the pilot and Global ordered, I think, 13 episodes. I got sick with a kidney ailment that stopped me from working for a few months and Seaton and Alyson approached David Shore to run the show in its first season. He did it brilliantly, then skedaddled to the States. I came in and ran it for 3 seasons. Who created Traders? I think the real answer is Seaton, Alyson, me, and Shore.

Will: 'Traders' was an Atlantis series and since we recently had a ‘Remembering Seaton’-fest at Uninflected, what’s your best/favourite Seaton story?

Hart: I didn't want to like Seaton. He had a goatee. His wife was going to star in the show. I was trained from youth that goatees made you a villain. Seaton turned out to be a really smart, amusing, fun guy. He had fabulous barbecues. Sonja was perfect. I think Seaton had a lot to do with me going to the States although he steadfastly encouraged me NOT to go. We had our ratings from "Traders" and they seemed dinky to me ... under a million viewers? And we'd won a bunch of Geminis and the disjunct was somehow depressing to me. I was sitting on Seaton's couch at Atlantis saying something along the lines of, "We need more viewers!" I think I was complaining about our timeslot, too, up against 'E.R.' at the top of its game. The great unspoken bugaboo of being an indigenous Canadian drama was that the networks always burned us off against whatever huge American competitor they were facing in the time slot. Seaton said, "That's the way it is. If you want to get a lot of Canadian viewers, you have to have access to those giant hits." I don't think me leaving was what Seaton had in mind but that conversation was definitely part of my decision process to go to LA.

Will: Do you follow/watch any shows now from up here in Canada?

Hart: Only what friends send me. I really see very little television regularly. I check in on series. I LOVE "The Wire" and watch it in chunks. I think "Friday Night Lights" is cool which is unfortunate because they just became our timeslot competitor. "Trailer Park Boys" was a huge favourite with my boys. I'm dying to see "Little Mosque". I saw the Trudeau flicks and enjoyed them. I'd like to see more.

Will: Who are your heroes or idols in the business (or not)? Have you met any of them? Or a mentor? Who gave you your start or big break (in Canada and then in LA)

Hart: I started on "Beachcombers", went to "Avonlea". "Traders" was my baptism by fire (thank you Seaton, Alyson ...). Then I went down to LA and Rob Thomas (creator of "Cupid" and "Veronica Mars") hired me for "Cupid". He was much younger than I ... and still is. I'm a big fan of his writing. I've met most of the famous writers now. The thing is, I like writers. TV writers are a very, very interesting bunch of people. It was GREAT to watch David Kelley's process. Working with Barbara Hall was great, great, great. It's a pool down here. It's a community.

Will: Your ‘Snoops’ story...I always tell it as you being the only guy who could quit a David Kelley show and get kudos for doing so (including from Kelley himself) I have it all wrong?

Hart: Who knows? It's a good cautionary tale. I read the pilot to "Snoops" and I didn't much care for it. However, it was written and produced by David Kelley. I jumped at the chance to work with David. He's amazing. At the time he was writing three network shows a week. I'm running a show now, I take a pass at all scripts, and I'm FAST. ("Fast" may be more important than "good" which is not good, if you get my drift.) I'm working at the top of my game. He was writing three excellent shows a week. He rewrote all the "Snoops" scripts as well, which is very demoralizing. I think if it had been "The Practice" or "Ally ..." I might have ridden it out, but I didn't care for "Snoops" and the honest to God truth is that I didn't feel I was bringing anything to the project. So I asked Kelley to release me from my contract. He's a great guy and he did so and I think he said nice things to 20th about me and I got the overall deal.

Will: You have and have had an overall deal with Fox for a number of years now. How did you get it and can you explain how such a deal works exactly? How much they ‘own’ you as it were (as in, what can or can’t you work on)?

Hart: An overall deal means that the studio owns all my television development. They buy you out of the market for two or three years with an option for a third or fourth. I wrote five pilots for 20th Century Fox, two of which were produced, one of which became the series "Bones". I also ran "Judging Amy" for them. They were very, very kind to loan me out to Sony for "Joan of Arcadia" for 13 episodes.

Will: Here you are pictured with the cast of Bones (and getting a smooch from David Boreanaz...the ladies are swooning) along with Barry Josephson (glasses/ballcap). Who is Barry and what is his relationship to you and the show? Do y'all get along?

Hart: Barry Josephson is an Executive Producer on 'Bones'. He has a production deal with the studio, 20th, with which I have an overall deal. He owned the rights to a documentary on Kathy Reichs which was the genesis of 'Bones'. The studio put me and him together and we made the pilot. His office is across the parking lot from mine. He is still involved in the show in the same way Bruckheimer is involved in HIS shows. Barry is producing movies and other tv shows as well. The studio owns the show and the network "rents" it for a production fee which is a large part of the budget. The studio makes profits on other platforms: ie, DVD. There are always different opinions and attitudes from the studio and the network. It's just part of the minefield the showrunner has to navigate.

Will: Talk a little bit about making that Toronto to L.A. transition when you're not 23. You went down not as a fresh young thing in a business where you're old at 30. And you were Canadian. How did you do it? Was it like starting all over again? Did your Canadian "mystery credits" mean anything at all? How did you make the leap?

Hart: I was old when I came down here. I was 38 and approaching 39 fast. My Canadian credits meant nothing. Luckily for me, Rob Thomas at "Cupid" liked a spec script I wrote for "Ally McBeal". The interview went great and I suspect he liked the idea of having someone on his staff who'd run a show but who didn't look like he intended to take his show away from him. It was a hard decision to leave Canada -- I was ensconced, working with people I really liked, we had a nice house in the Beaches part of Toronto (Toronto's not my favourite place to live, I'm from Vancouver Island, but it was literally the kindest place I've ever been. People really accepted me and my family.) But, when I asked Brigitte if she'd consider moving to LA to try to get work from scrap, she said, "I think we have at least one more adventure in us." The biggest worry was whether LA was a good place to raise kids. It's still our biggest worry and they are almost grown.

Will: Shifting gears, any favourite actors you can’t wait to give your dialogue to because they always take it to another level?

Hart: Tons! Right now, aside from my series regulars who I really, really like (I'm not blowing smoke ... they're good...), I LOVE writing for Stephen Fry. Ryan O'Neal is also a blast. Tyne Daly was a gift. Joe Mantegna was great. Mary Steenburgen. Back on Traders, I loved writing for Patrick McKenna.


McKenna was a treat. I did a 'Psi Factor' with him. Okay, that's enough for today. Thanks Hart, hope you enjoyed yourself...I know I did. And thanks to DMc for providing me a few of the more serious queries.

Straight From The Hart Part II to come in a day or two...stay tuned.

SONG&ARTIST? - "Spent my days with a woman unkind,
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine.
Made up my mind to make a new start,
Going To California with an aching in my heart.
Someone told me there's a girl out there
with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair.
Took my chances on a big jet plane,
never let them tell you that they're all the same.."


The Film Diva said...

Good interview, Dix. Do you have more? It would be great to hear his insight into hiring writers for the show, what the process is for his show (if he'll share it), and things like that for those of us out here on the hustle.

Pretty please?

BTW, your blog keeps getting better and better.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that was a great interview.

When you say "old at thirty" I cry. Don't say that anymore.

Lee said...

Nice one, Dix. Thanks for that.

Diane Kristine said...

Cool. Do you know what he's written for Stephen Fry?

Mef said...

Great stuff Will, really interesting.

Can't wait for part 2


EditThis said...

It's very true what Hart said. I feel especially fortunate to work with David Kelley and have learned more from him about the story telling process than any other person I've ever worked with. Additionally, Snoops sucked. We all knew it. Kudos to Hart for moving on.

bstockton said...

Going to California, Led Zep.


Brianne said...

Thanks for the link and comment - I also posted your comment on another post on the site for a better reference back to your posted interview.
Thanks again!

wcdixon said...

Stockton gets the tune...excellent.

CAROLINE said...

Really top-notch stuff, Dix. Waiting on part 2. Especially love the photo of you two from Guitarman days. A sweet, young and idealistic Dix. Too cute. BTW, please tell me you aren't still smoking like a fiend ;-)

Callaghan said...

Terrific interview Will. Looking forward to part deux.

Sounds like Traders was a real breeding ground for top-notch writers, considering a couple of them have two of the most popular shows on tv today.

CAROLINE said...

BTW, ever since I read this, you're in my head saying "Butt to Chair" whenever I start slacking. Damn you, Dix!