Part I - Climbing the ladder as a writer's assistant
We continue our conversation with writer Robert Levine. After CBS picked up Jericho, executive producer Carol Barbee hired Robert – her former assistant – as a staff writer on the serialized drama. Jericho was set in a small town of Kansas following a nuclear attack on 23 major cities in the U.S. Cut off from power and communications, the town’s folk spend much of the first season trying to fend for themselves and figure out a new way of life. As luck would have it, Rob’s first episode, “Crossroads”, deals with a significant turning point in that ongoing storyline.
I was wondering, when you got assigned episode nine during Jericho’s first season, how much of that particular story exists before it reaches you? I assume there’s some sort of master plan for the season, and how much do you know before you get to episode nine and how much do you have to bring to it?
It depends on which episode, where it falls in the order. Obviously the later it falls in the order probably the less specifics you have [ahead of time] in terms of what happened immediately before. Carol’s attitude – which I think was the smart way to go about it – was this is a serialized show, this is a show with a huge mysterious element. It’s very hard to write a show like that, especially under the gun, if you don’t know where you’re going. And a lot of those mysteries and those answers were not fully worked out by the authors of the pilot.
“We’ll figure it out when we get there,” sort of?
Yeah, which in the era of Lost, I think is not necessarily perceived as a problem but it certainly presents problems once you get into the actual writing of the show. Now, I don’t watch Heroes, but my understanding is that show’s become very muddled and schizophrenic and overwhelmed with characters – and I have to believe it’s because they didn’t know where they were going, and in a need to put a show on the air every week they just crammed in more and more mythology and more and more mystery and none it ever really resolved.
As a viewer of Heroes I would absolutely agree with that.
Lost is this amazing thing because they’ve managed to turn that frustration into just part of watching that show. The experience of the show is not knowing, but I think on Jericho we were wary of that. Carol was smart. She came in and the very first question she asked when the room was together was “How is the first season going to end? What do we want the end of that first season to be? Let’s aim for that.”
The idea became that by the end of the first season we would know more about what was happening outside of Jericho. [The premise of the show was] essentially the government is gone [following nuclear attacks on 23 major cities in the U.S. The town of Jericho has] no food, no power, no police.
It’s a frontier town in modern times, more or less.
And there are other towns they come into conflict with, and your episode landed smack in the middle of that set-up there.
It’s interesting you say that because that was the milestone we eventually created for the end of the season. We said that at the end of the season, Jericho will be under attack from a neighboring town. And we will end the season on the note of “Here comes the opposing town. They are superior in numbers, superior in firepower. Will our people survive?” And that’s what it ended up being. [As we started working it out] we didn’t know who those people would end up being, we didn’t know exactly why.
But you knew you had to build that in over the course of the season. “We’ve got to introduce this other town, we’ve got to populate the politics of this somehow, it’s got to lead to this conflict…”
Right, and then from there we started working out where will individual characters be by the end of the season. Jake (Skeet Ulrich) and his father, obviously we talked a lot about where they’d be in relation to each other. They started out the series very estranged. By the end of the show they have become very close. I think we realized very early on too that they were occupying a lot of the same space in the show in terms of who would be the leader and so that brought us to the idea – it was pretty late in the show but it became something we wrote to – that Jake’s father would die.
And then Hawkins (Lennie James), who’s the mysterious---
Coolest character ever.
I think we knew by the end of the show that whatever his secret was, it would be revealed to his wife and to his family and possibly to certain people in the town and that he would become a member of the town and that he would be joining us in that fight in whatever capacity.
Essentially what you do is you start to work back from there. So you have a milestone for the end of the season and then you create a milestone for half of the season.
Like structuring a screenplay only you’re doing it over 22 hours rather than 2 hours.
Right. Exactly. I think in terms of my episode, the milestones we knew would exist were in episode 8, our characters would make their first trip outside of town and that it would be to save Johnston’s (Gerald McRaney) life, Jake’s father, the mayor of Jericho. He would become sick and need medicine and the only place that could provide this medicine would be two towns over. The town ended up being called Rogue River, the episode was called “Rogue River.” It was the episode immediately before mine.
We had come up with these great villains called Ravenwood. They were private military contractors. The idea was that our guys would go into this town that was essentially a ghost town and they’d confront these guys who were outlaws, running all over the state pillaging with abandon and hoarding supplies. They would find our characters, we’d confront them, we would get away but they would catch a whiff of us and follow us back.
So the first big question of my show, episode 9, was “Do they come back to Jericho in my episode? Does Ravenwood follow us back?” And it became obvious early on that we needed that.
You couldn’t put it on hold for three weeks, or until sweeps or whatever.
Some of us [wanted to.] Some thought they should be the sharks in the water. That they should be out there and they should be a threat for later. We didn’t want to – pardon the expression – “blow our wad” with these great villains. It was a decision made by the higher ups that this was a great cliffhanger to end [episode] 8 on – the leader of the contractors played by D.B. Sweeney finds the driver’s license of one of our guys so he has our address and they’re headed our way.
So the story congealed around that. They’re armed, they’re lethal, we already know that they will kill everyone in the town and not blink an eye at it so what do we do? And how do you make an hour of television out of that? Obviously they’re not going to come in and overrun the town, so what’s the story?
“How do you stop them at that point and make it dramatic and don’t make it cheap?”
Yeah. Somehow it came to – and it sounds silly, but “do we blow up a bridge? Do we create this fake bottleneck that we end up defending?” That becomes the question. “This is how we stop them. Is it worth it? Is it not?”
And it’s a great way to get several of the characters in conflict with each other. They’re arguing over the merits of doing that and the impact on the town. And a lot of personal dynamics into people’s antagonism towards each other as to who takes what side. It seemed like a really great way to get that conflict going so it’s about more than just the standoff with these bad guys.
Yeah, it’s funny you say that. You’re touching on what we ultimately learned was… if there was any formula to Jericho – and it was a show that resisted that – but I think we realized that the best kind of Jericho story is: something comes down Main Street – whether it’s evil military contractors, or marines in a tank, or radiation, or news of the plague, or winter or whatever, something comes down Main Street and it ripples through the town. That’s how you make an episode of Jericho. The opening is about this thing arriving, and the dramatic question becomes: “what do we do about it?”
In this case it became these contractors showing up and saying “We’ll be back in two hours and if you don’t open your doors to us, we’re gonna kill everybody.” [The other thread I had was from] a story we had in the pilot about this woman named Emily (Ashley Scott) whose husband had been on a plane and in the pilot she was driving to the airport to meet him and she gets into a lot of trouble, but he never shows up. So there’s a question for her of is he alive or isn’t he? In episode four, she realizes that the plane landed safely so there’s potential that he’s out there and then the idea was that in my episode it would be her wedding day and we would tell a story about what do you [when the day that would change your life arrives] and he’s not here? And even if he were here, none of it would be the same. It was an interesting story. It was never a story that we actually did again, I think.
I was gonna ask about that because I noticed your episode was the one episode to have this fantasy “what might have been” version, and I noticed that the experiment wasn’t repeated again. So what that your inspiration or was that something that came out of the room? Or was it just “This kind of story isn’t our show?
It was a little bit of all of those. It was all of that. For better or worse we had to deal with it. Her husband’s out there… so it was just about how do you tell an interesting story with that concept? And that’s just where we arrived it. It was a weirdly introspective story that I don’t thing we ever tried to recreate. I think it came off okay, but it was an episode about somebody sitting in a bar feeling sorry for themselves for most of the episode.
I think you gave a lot of great material for the girls there. I think specifically Sprague Grayden [as Heather] got a lot of great material to play off of Ashley Scott in that bit. And I think that’s the first time they got any extended time together on the show so you got to write the girl bonding.
Is there a difference in writing female characters interacting with each other as opposed to male characters?
I don’t know that I acknowledge any difference. The challenge with that story was – you always have A stories and B stories and sometimes one has very little to do with the other. I think you’re always trying to link them somehow thematically if you can. You always want it to feel cohesive and it was especially a problem in this episode because there’s this hugely dramatic thing happening just outside of town – guns and shooting and these guys are going to come in and kill us all, and we’re gonna blow up a bridge.
And the internal politics of the town are coming to a boil and you’ve got these father and son conflicts… and then you’re cutting to these two people in a bar, as you said.
Yeah, and even at the earliest stage the network was saying “It’s weird that [the women] aren’t aware of what’s happening.” And they were right. But if these two women are e too aware then we’re not going to be telling this story – they’ll be picking up a gun and fighting. So it was a challenge to insulate them.
It works as a pressure valve in a way, because you’ve got some other scenes come to a boil on the tension and you kind of need to step away from it – both to make us relax and make us go “Wait! Get back to that! What happens next?” I think it works, but I very much noticed that the fantasies didn’t get repeated in later episodes.
You see that a lot in a show that’s that serialized. You see a show trying things and not necessarily repeating them. I like it for the most part. I just remember the challenge of trying to break it and write it in time. We were still under a lot of pressure from the network and studio at that time as far as defining what the show is and what they wanted to see.
That’s also around the time it feels like the show shifts a little bit to being a bit more action-oriented. Is that something that was in the master plan, or is it something that as you get into that episode you realize it works so you follow that for a while?
We were a show that a lot of people didn’t know early on what it was. There was confusion on the network end and I think Carol, Jon Steinberg, and the other producers… they did an admirable job of trying to say to the studio and the network “We know what the show is – let us make it.” That’s a hard battle to fight. We’d fight it every second on every decision. For that show, [the network was saying] “We want action. We want soap. We want teen stories… We want five different shows.”
Does that environment make it difficult to develop the characters? Because there are some characters who might thrive more under one conception of the series but when the show shifts, they might not fit so well, it seems.
Early on they’d say things like “We think the three main characters are Hawkins, Jake, and Dale (Erik Knudsen).” And it’s like “Oh. Okay.” So you try to write to them, but you write to Dale and it’s like “What is Dale’s story that is unique and interesting?” And it ended up that there were a lot of scenes early on of teenagers partying – stuff that as you get deeper and deeper into the show stands out as not fitting. You’re seeing the process [of the show searching for identity] playing itself out on the show.
But that’s normal for any first season show. I’ve got to ask about Heather because she sort of disappears for most of the rest of the season after episode 13 before resurfacing in the finale. She was one of my favorite characters so I really felt that absence. Was that part of the design to make her so likable and then take her away so we missed her, or a case where the character didn’t fit where the stories were going?
It was a lot of things. It was certainly not a reflection of anyone’s lack of interest in the character or the actress because we all loved Sprague and we thought she popped. She had great chemistry with Jake. I think everyone acknowledged that. The problem was that you have a pilot episode in which you’re saying that Jake is in love with Emily, has always been in love with Emily, and you’re telling that story. That locks you into that story, you have to tell it. Carol’s feeling and also what she was being told by the network was that [Emily] is Jake’s love interest. That’s the story you work with. Sometimes a show’s able to breathe organically and you follow stuff that works better and sometimes you’re held to stuff.
In that case I think it was primarily about “Well, [Heather] will not be a love interest for Jake. Emily is the love interest.” And then there was a weird thing because they [Emily and Heather] were both teachers and they filled similar roles. But I think Heather [going off to the other town at the end of episode 13] created that character. What she saw, what she learned and then what she comes back as, I think, solidified the character and made her unique. She’s someone who has a little more edge to her. We’ve seen her be smart, savvier and less of just another teacher in town, just an appendage. She becomes essential. It just took her going off and almost dying. I think we were all happy with where she ended up and in season two she really had a much more integral role.
I like that, and I noticed she was just a guest star in season two. Is that one of those things you have to do just to balance the budget?
In season two a lot of those decisions were about budget. We were given seven episodes. It was basically about CBS trying to figure out if this massive [fan] response that they’d seen from the show being canceled was reflective of anything they could get to reflect in the ratings so they were willing to let us have seven episodes to prove it or not.
Part III - Writing Season Two of Jericho
Part IV - Writing the Jericho comic book and getting an agent
Part V - Writing for Human Target