Media Orchard Interviews Bryce Zabel, CNN Correspondent Turned Hollywood Screenwriter
Written by: Scott Baradell
For these dreamers, we offer this interview with Bryce Zabel, a former CNN correspondent who is now a successful screenwriter. His most recent project, co-written with his wife Jackie, is an upcoming miniseries on avian flu titled “Pandemic.”
Among his accomplishments, Bryce served as head of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences from 2001 to 2004, and had the difficult responsibility of cancelling the Emmys — not once but twice.
Bryce is also an avid blogger, writing the entertaining For What It’s Worth and two other blogs. Here’s our talk with Bryce:
MO: So, what do you think about the New York Times hiring an agent to sell stories for film and television?
Bryce: I’m not sure if it’s a good idea for the New York Times to have an agent although, in this day and age, I wouldn’t be surprised if my plumber or gardener has an agent. Still, I’d think an entertainment lawyer would be sufficient in most cases.
Last year, by the way, I optioned the coverage that Portland’s Willamette Week did exploding a 30-year sex scandal involving Oregon’ s most popular politician, Neil Goldschmidt. Nine months after I optioned the coverage, journalist Nigel Jaquiss went on to win the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism for his work.
I guess it would have been okay if the Willamette Week had an agent but, on the other hand, agents probably could have screwed things up by asking too much and killed the project. As it was, I sold a script, “Fall From Grace,” based on those rights to USA Network. It is, without question, the most shocking script I’ve ever written — it’s the true story of a man who, at the height of his political popularity, was having sex with his 13-year-old neighbor. Imagine getting agents involved too early in that process. It was a tough enough project to navigate as it was.
This had, sadly, an all-too-familiar Hollywood ending. Everybody at USA Network loved this project, but while I was finishing the 2nd draft it seems that changes to the evolving marketplace for TV movies led to a company-wide decision to get out of the TV movie business. I’m still trying to keep this important story alive as an indie feature but it’s a tough transition.
MO: How did your time as a journalist inform your writing for film and television?
Bryce: I loved the daily deadline pressure of TV news. The five years I worked as an on-air reporter/anchor in Oregon and Arizona taught me lessons I still profit from every single day. Moving to CNN here in Los Angeles really upped the stakes. I was covering space shuttles, presidential campaigns, serial murders, you name it. Honestly, I miss the fast-break of journalism, and I may even go back to it in some way some day.
There is no better preparation for screenwriting, by the way. It teaches you that “writer’s block” is something that you simply cannot afford the luxury of having. It makes you write visually and not cerebrally. And it allows you to meet literally thousands of people, many who are fascinating or important or simply having either the best or the worst days of their lives. Invaluable life tool, really.
MO: Was “E.N.G.” your big break? How did that opportunity unfold?
Bryce: “E.N.G.” was the first television series I created, coming directly out of my experience in TV news. It stands for “Electronic News Gathering.” When we were first developing it, people kept trying to talk us out of using the three letter acronymn, saying that nobody would understand it. At one point, it almost got called “Sea-Tac 7” which would have been incredibly pedestrian and forgettable. Besides, I’m sure they probably told the people behind “C.S.I.” that a three letter acronym would never work either. As William Goldman pointed out, in Hollywood nobody knows anything … until they know something.
This series came about because, instead of writing a spec episode of an existing TV series as people were advising me, I decided instead to write a spec pilot about something I knew. I guess the truth and reality that was written into the DNA of that script came through because it led to getting an agent, a development deal, and a series.
E.N.G. was made by Alliance Entertainment, a Canadian TV company, for CTV in Canada. They made something like 108 episodes. Since then I’ve produced three American TV series in Canada — one in Toronto and two in Vancouver. This has led to the rampant misconception that I’m a Canadian, but I’m actually a native Oregonian. But Canada’s still a great place, eh?
MO: What prompted you to transition to screenwriting? Was it a difficult adjustment?
Bryce: My wife, Jackie Zabel, suggested I give screenwriting a try. At the time, I’d never even seen a screenplay. We got our hands on one and I thought, “not a lot of adjectives or adverbs, I could probably do this.” That’s what prompted me to get into screenwriting. I stayed in because people kept paying me to do it. I figured I would stop when they stopped. So far, so good.
MO: You were CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences during a difficult time — after 9/11.
Bryce: I was elected as chairman/CEO of the TV Academy just one month before 9/11 hit. This is the organization, by the way, that puts on the Emmys. Well, in 2001, the Emmys were scheduled for September 16th.
So we cancelled them. What else could we do? Five days after 9/11 nobody was going to be in a self-congratulatory mood to celebrate on red carpets with little gold statues when thousands had died so tragically. We re-scheduled for October 7. Incredibly, that’s the day the bombing campaign in Afghanistan began. We were forced to cancel again. I went out that morning before some 200 TV cameras with Les Moonves of CBS and we talked to the media about all this. I got a call from a friend who said, “Dude, you’ve been on TV more this weekend than the president.” It was an amazing media carpet ride — appearances on everything from “Politically Incorrect” to “The Today Show.”
Anyway, we tried again on November 4 and actually did the show. We were up against the seventh game of an exciting World Series but who cared.
The TV Academy was a fantastic experience in so many important ways. It gave me the chance to be a part of history in setting the tone for those 2001 Emmys. It also gave me the chance to meet all the movers and shakers in the industry, from powerbrokers to stars, and to go places I wouldn’t otherwise have gone, and to be the executive on three separate Emmy shows, including appearing on the broadcast. I also helped the Academy negotiate a 250 percent increase in the Emmy license fee.
I made a lot of wonderful friends and contacts and learned so much from all of them, things that will enrich the rest of my career and life. But, after two years of what was an unpaid volunteer job, I decided it was time to move on. So I went back to civilian life.
MO: You’ve created several television series; can you describe the process? Has it gotten easier or harder over the years?
Bryce: Creating a TV show has never been easy. I actually have been there for the launch of enough series that I think I have a pretty fair handle on what needs to be done and when and all that, but it’s the actual working your way through the sales process that’s so difficult.
It’s not something that most people have a realistic chance of success with, unless they already have experience working on a TV series. You need to be vetted, if you will, and for the greatest degree of success, you need to be coming off some hot credits. Many, many hoops to jump through. That’s the first.
Then you have to have an excellent idea and that is not as easy as people may think it is sitting at home on the couch watching TV and thinking, “I could do that.” It’s not as simple as it looks. I could go on for hours on that topic, so let’s just move on from the idea to the process of selling it.
The first part of the sale, then, is to get a production company to pick your idea to take to a network. These days it helps if that production company is already owned by a network, or has a development deal with a network. Then the network has to buy your idea and order it to script out of literally hundreds and hundreds of pitches from very talented people that they will hear in a given year.
If you write the script and do a good job, you are still in a large group hoping the network will order yours produced. Maybe they’ll do twenty of them, more or less. When those films come in, the network may have room for four or five. If you get on the air, you may not last long enough for even the episodes you produced to get aired.
If you’re getting the idea it’s a long-shot, it is. I have a friend with a deal at Touchstone who was a writer or a producer on six scripts last year that sold to networks. Three of them were actually filmed. None of them got on the air. He’s starting all over again this season.
To answer your question specifically, yes, it’s gotten even harder over the years. The networks more and more want to go with the tried and true so, for example, don’t try to sell a police procedural to CBS because Jerry Bruckheimer has a lock on that.
MO: You wrote a film that opened No. 1 at the box office, “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.” How cool was that? (Sorry, we’re falling into Chris Farley mode now…)
Bryce: “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” was written with my brilliant on-again, off-again writing partner, Brent Friedman. At the time, we’d created a TV series for NBC,
“Dark Skies,” about an alien invasion in the 1960s. We really didn’t have time to write this movie, but we felt we just couldn’t turn it down either, so we stayed late and came in on weekends for a while and got it done. Looking at the calendar, we knew we had to take the assignment because they already had a production commitment and we knew the film would turn into a produced credit. And, I have to say, this credit has meant the most to my two boys over the years. On the other hand, it probably received some of the worst reviews I have ever received for anything I’ve ever written but, like you say, it was also No. 1 at the box office for a weekend and the residual checks have been steady, so go figure.
MO: What career achievement are you proudest of? Is there a particular project you’d rather forget?
Bryce: I am most proud of “Dark Skies” because it was the most original and outrageous creative enterprise I’ve ever undertaken. To think that it made it through all those hoops I described and that an American network put 20 hours of it in prime-time, and that a studio gave us nearly $40-million to produce it, it still blows my mind. It’s such a subversive project — our log line was “History is a lie” — and it posited a world where Roswell was real, that JFK was whacked for wanting to tell the truth about UFOs in his second term, and that the alien visitation had an impact on Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the space program, rock-and-roll and the counter-culture, well, that’s pretty crazy. Then we stocked it with characters like John Lennon, Robert Kennedy, Carl Sagan, Howard Hughes, Dorothy Kilgallen, Jack Ruby and Timothy Leary. Plus, I got to work with the very talented actor Eric Close who I’ve remained friends with to this day. It was great!
I should also say that I had a terrific time working on the first season of “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” for ABC … “M.A.N.T.I.S.” for Fox about the first African-American superhero on TV … and “The Crow: Stairway to Heaven” for Polygram syndication. I’ve had some great experiences to be sure, as a writer, producer and, given the fact that I played a cameo as a Catholic priest in “Lois & Clark”, even as an actor.
Projects to forget? Probably several but the way I work I forget them and move on. So, I can’t remember any.
MO: I see you wrote for “Dallas” back in the day — after Pam Ewing’s season-long dream sequence. What was that like?
Bryce: “Dallas.” You sure you want to go there? Okay.
I co-wrote one episode back in the final year of the series. I remember making a passionate story suggestion to the executive producer and how he gave me an exasperated look and said, “When they tell you to order chicken salad, order chicken salad.” I think that translates to, “Shut the f— up and do what I tell you.” I have so many great memories from the world of TV, but “Dallas” doesn’t stand out as anything at all.
Even as a freelancer, my experience on, say, “L.A. Law,” completely dwarfs “Dallas.” On that show, I co-wrote a couple of epsiodes with David E. Kelley that were nominated by the Writers Guild of America and the Mystery Writers of America that dealt with two parents who murdered their baby, blamed it on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and got away with it. As a comic runner, we threw in a storyline about Brackman visiting a sex surrogate because every time he came close to intimacy with a woman he tended to get flatulant and pass out. That may have been one of the first audible network farts in a prime-time drama.
Back to “Dallas.” Writing that script took up a single month in my life, long ago. It’s posted on IMDb (Internet Movie Database) but if it wasn’t, I’d never even think of it for a second. On the other hand, I like to be positive so … okay … it was cool because I got to write it with my wife, and we put in a classic scene where J.R. confesses his hopes and fears to his father at his grave site. I usually don’t like characters talking to tombstones, but this episode seemed to call for it, as I recall.
MO: Where did the idea for “Pandemic” come from? You co-wrote that with your wife; tell us about working as a team. (Cathy and I do the same here.)
Bryce: I had written two previous miniseries — “The Poseidon Adventure” (NBC) and “Blackbeard” (Hallmark) — for the people Jackie and I wrote “Pandemic” for. I think they had international financing all lined up based on the word alone, and then they came to us and asked if we could come up with a miniseries to support it. We came up with a story about a surfer who dies from influenza while on a plane from Australia to Los Angeles, and how his illness escalates until eventually the entire LA area has to be put under military quarantine. It’s big, over-the-top and entertaining, a bit of an homage to disaster films like “Earthquake,” you know? Two quick pieces of advice: always wash your hands and buy a box of surgical masks. Just FYI …
Jackie and I work together as a writing team on-and-off, depending on the project and what else is going on in our lives. The first thing we ever wrote together was a romantic comedy, “Labor of Love,” that has been optioned by two studios — Universal and Warner Brothers — and has come SO CLOSE to getting made several times that we feel that it’s just a matter of time.
Currently, Jackie along with her good friend Morgan Most is the co-author of a book that will be out in stores by the end of 2006, “The Hollywood Cookbook,” where celebrities and charities all cook it up for a number of good causes.
And I can’t speak for how you and Cathy work together but our process is super-secret and highly classified!
MO: You seem incredibly accomplished to have three blogs up and running. What gives?
Bryce: I think I’ll take that as a compliment. Or do you mean, how can a guy who actually seems to have real work in his life find the time to write on three blogs? This is a question that I ask myself.
The deal is that just about a year ago I started a blog to teach myself some of these technical skills, and to be able to say that, yes, I’ve blogged, so I have net-cred, that kind of thing. What I found out is that pretty much all my career — from starting in TV news to now as a screenwriter — people have been giving me notes on what I write. It’s liberating to write what you want in the way you want. Of course, readers still give me notes but the difference is that I don’t have to do them unless I want to.
The way to actually write three blogs, for me, is that only one, For What It’s Worth, qualifies as the “flagship.” It’s the main deal, and the other two are what I’d call “feeder” blogs where everything that’s on them ends up on FWIW eventually anyway, but they’re tailored more to a specific readership.
MO: Tell us a little about each of your blogs and why you started them.
Bryce: For What It’s Worth is sub-titled, “Dispatches from the Culture War,” which seemed to have a little attitude in it, but still be a big tent to park just about any idea. What I’ve tried to do with 50 percent of my blog entries is to make them durable rather than expendable. Namely, I write about cultural events that have personal stories or reactions in them that might have a shelf life beyond the week. I’ve found that many, many of my hits are from people stumbling across a particular post, primarily on Google. A lot of people get exposed to one idea, then come back as regular readers. I’ve also facilitated the concept of reading beyond the post-of-the-day by adding a single page that directs traffic to particular blog posts.
I’m getting a lot of positive reaction to this. I think of this blog as a proto-type of a column I might write for a newspaper or web-site, and I’m using it to test out the voice that I may eventually want to write in.
I’ve created a separate blog to handle my take on film reviews, known as Movie Smackdown! The concept here is to review a film currently out in the theaters against a film with some key similarity that’s out on DVD or TV or whatever, then declare a winner. One reader said he really liked this because it adds a little drama to the idea of the movie review. I’m actively toying with the idea of taking this concept to the next stage, video reviews for TV or cell-phone or Internet downloads, and the blog is a way to test the concept first. It seems to be passing. Again, whatever gets on this blog, also goes to For What It’s Worth. So far this year, I’ve reviewed over thirty movies.
Then there’s Instant History which was created to honor my history teacher father who passed away a few years ago. I’ve always collected Time and Newsweek magazines and find them very interesting to read as a “rough draft” of history before the spinners and interpreters get started. So each post has a classic cover and excerpts from the magazine itself. The hope is that this will become a resource for students. I try to relate events in the news so, for example, on the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, last year, we ran the cover and issue that dealt with his murder. It’s a very popular post, right up there with JFK. People like to think back in a “Where Were You?” kind of way.
I think my idea was to blog for maybe two years, take stock of what it has accomplished, or not, and either re-commit or abandon the idea. I’m one year in now.
When I started For What It’s Worth, it got, I think, about three hits a day. The craziest thing that happened in the past year is that I posted a treatment J. Michael Straczynski and I had written about re-booting the Star Trek franchise and it got nearly 10,000 hits in a single day! These days, the average is about 300 daily visitors. That’s still nothing in the world of blogs, I know, but I want those 300 people to know that extensive research has revealed that FWIW readers are the most intelligent, sophisticated and demographically sought after readers in the entire blogosphere. Okay, I made that up, but that’s how I want all my visitors to feel. So, way to go, people!
MO: OK, this is the real reason we wanted to interview you, Bryce: Have you actually met “Pandemic” star Tiffani Thiessen? Does she like 41-year-old married men whose wives are reading this interview?
Bryce: What I have to say about Tiffani Thiessen is as classified as my writing process. All I can tell you is that she plays a brilliant CDC doctor who saves thousands of lives. So whatever impure thoughts you’re having need to stop right now!
MO: Anything else you want to add?
Bryce: Hmmm … okay, yes … at the end of the day (we LOVE to say that here in Hollywood) nobody is ever going to die thinking, “If only I’d blogged a little more.” So after people have read this interview and checked out my blog, they should go play with their kids or their pets or take a walk or something. Push away from the desk. I mean it …