Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Conversation with Barbara Hall

Barbara Hall is a fellow graduate of James Madison University who has been working as a network television writer for more than twenty years, on high-profile dramas like “Northern Exposure,” “Chicago Hope,” “ER,” “Judging Amy,” and the current “Women’s Murder Club.” She’s perhaps best known as the creator of the CBS drama “Joan of Arcadia,” a very personal project about a teenage girl who speaks to God.

I recently learned that Hall had produced a pilot for the 2006-2007 season called “Demons,” and couldn’t help wondering if the new show was the writer’s attempt to dive into the dark waters that “Joan of Arcadia” seemed to be headed for at the end of season two. (The final episode introduced a new character named Ryan Hunter, intended to represent the challenge of Evil. Unfortunately, the show was not picked up for a third season.) I requested an interview with Barbara a little over a week ago, intending to talk mainly about “Demons.” With everything that’s going on this week in Hollywood, however, I couldn’t resist starting the conversation by asking about the Writer’s Strike, and her day on the picket line…

It sounds like it’s been more intense than anybody was expecting…

I knew that it wouldn’t be quiet. Everybody around me is like, “You’ll have all this time off.” Well, it’s not exactly like that. I lived through the other strike too [in 1988], but I didn’t really expect it to be this intense… and that’s really good. It’s good that it’s had that kind of turnout.

I can’t imagine being in the middle of all this and, when it ends, going back to business as usual…

When it ends, the idea is that it won’t be business as usual, one way or another. I think that it will be very odd to go back and try to figure out where we are and what the season is – where to pick up, where we left off. But it really changes things, one way or the other, in a big way. So we’ll see what it looks like when it’s all over.

One of the reasons I was interested in talking to you is that I just finished writing a book on T.S. Eliot, focusing on the way that his conversion to the Anglican Church affected his writing. Your conversion to Catholicism has obviously played a big part in your writing, so I’d like to examine that. I guess the starting point is: Why choose Catholicism? Why choose that religion over all other religions, including other forms of Christianity? How did you get to that point?

Well, I was raised Methodist, so I was sort of jump-started in the Christian religion in that way. And then I was out of church and not really practicing anything for a long, long time – actively not practicing. And then I had a couple of experiences in my life that made me want to go back to investigating religion, and I just studied every major world religion and, in the course of that, checked in with Catholicism. I went to Catholic Mass… and, I don’t know what to say except that it just completely spoke to me and that was it. There was this feeling of “this is where I was supposed to be.” And so I just made the leap.

I’ve always gravitated to ritual and mysticism, and those aspects of the Catholic religion were what really spoke to me… because it not only embraces but also celebrates the mystical relationship with the infinite. And also sort of incorporates mystery and all that kind of stuff. There’s a strict intellectual discipline to it too, so it’s not about not asking questions.

Do you think of your writing now in terms of a before and after, or is it more integrated than that?

It’s more integrated than that. That did give me a different perspective and a different point of view, but it’s much more integrated than that because it’s not as if I was writing soft porn before I went to church. I was always someone who was writing about social issues and humanitarian issues, so all it really did was sort of bring stuff into focus and clarify more specific aspects of the human experience that I wanted to write about.

That’s what I found to be true for T.S. Eliot. It’s very natural to look at his early work and see that it’s leading to that point – you really can read his early work in terms of the search…

The search is everything. That is what we’re doing, and if you pursue that, there’s some natural places that you end up. And I think that it’s not just through my interest in religion but my interest in physics, which has long been an interest of mine. If you sort of carry on down those roads of inquiry and take the Socratic approach to what’s going on, you land certain places and it really comes to such a point of focus. But it’s what you’re saying: it was always going this way. It wasn’t like I had a “falling off the horse” moment. Now, I know that I’m not supposed to ask the questions, but how did his [Eliot’s] work change? You know, in twenty five words or less…

In twenty five words or less? [laughs] You know, it took me four years just to…

I love it when people say what’s your book about. “My god, it’s three hundred pages. It’s all in there…”

I imagine it’s the same for you when people say, “Why did you sit down and start writing Joan of Arcadia. Where did that come from?” Is there a quick answer? What I did when I approached T.S. Eliot was basically to try to read and study the things that he read and studied, which covered a pretty wide variety of western religion, eastern religion, philosophy, obscure poetry, a lot of different texts on mysticism… One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was because, by the time “Joan of Arcadia” got to the last episode, she seemed to be at the beginning of her own mystical experience, the beginning of her “dark night of the soul.” It seemed that the show was really going to change in the third season and go to a much darker place. And then when I heard the title of your pilot “Demons,” it almost seemed like a confirmation that that was where you wanted to go as a writer. Was there a conscious plan about taking the series in that direction?

Well, yeah, I felt like we had two years of getting her acquainted with God, but of course what we’re really doing is acquainting the audience with a new concept of God that hopes to blow out of the water everybody’s preconceptions, and clear out all the concepts of wrong-thinking about God… that he has human emotions and reasons and the kind of logic we use. It’s like trying to do away with those ideas where we try to project our own selves onto God. And then trying to rearrange people’s thinking about what that entity might look like, and just rearrange the approach to it. So I felt like we’d put in two seasons of that. And once Joan has begun to understand him a bit, trust him a bit, and is cleared of her own prejudices a bit, then she’s ready to be introduced to the concept of Evil. Because that’s the big one.

I really felt that the third season would be the same kind of… trying to redefine or knock down some simplistic notions of Evil… that it would take at least a full season to do that. And we began with Wentworth Miller [the actor in the role of Ryan Hunter] as her adversary, and the main thing that you want to do with tearing down the preconceptions is make him a handsome guy and a great guy. So, yeah, the third season was going to be that journey and we didn’t get to do it.

Do you think it would have been splitting the audience at all, going to that very dark place third season? And, in some ways, was it easier to put some of that darkness into the pilot for “Demons” as opposed to continuing with the “Joan of Arcadia” characters?

In a way. I see what you’re saying. The truth is that we would have tried to do it in the “Joan of Arcadia” fashion. We weren’t going to try to heap it on. We were going to try to make it the same show, but just kind of darken it. But you never know if the audience is going to go with you anywhere. I think that some members of the audience had trouble with the ending of the first season, where one of the things that I always wanted to say was that people’s skepticism and doubt is so strong that you could talk to God for a year and then have one bad day and not believe in Him anymore. So that’s what I was trying to do with the season ender – just basically give her a crisis of faith. Because I always wanted her relationship to God to look like normal people’s relationship to God. And that’s what it looks like. Everybody has the day where they wake up or something happens and they go, “I don’t know if I’m still with this.” Every episode was introducing another step that I wasn’t really sure the audience was going to take with me. That was just the nature of that show.

So we weren’t headed toward one of Joan’s family members becoming possessed, or toward the kind of supernatural scenarios that take place in “Demons”?

No, when I say we were going to do Evil, I don’t mean that we were necessarily going to do the Devil. Even the Wentworth Miller character was kind of – we joked about him being the Devil, but he wasn’t the actual Devil. He was just a human being. All I wanted to do was to teach Joan what Evil can look like, because Evil is so tricky. And it’s often quite beautiful. So it’s dealing with human nature and human beings. What it can look like and how luxurious it is and how hard to pin down. That’s really all it was. It wasn’t going to take on a more supernatural nature than it already had.

Then when I took on “Demons,” that was just flat-out about the Devil. When I pitched that, I said okay here’s the ride: angels and demons. If you’re not one for angels and demons, we can’t do this. These aren’t metaphors. Nothing like that. We’re going to create a world where angels and demons are real, and then I’ll tell you what they are because I’ve done my research. So that was a much bigger leap. It was going to be going all the way into that world.

I was reading an interview with you in which you made a comparison between “Joan of Arcadia” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and you said that the difference is that in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” they’re playing the supernatural as metaphors and you’re not. And that’s also where you were going with “Demons”?

When you create a show, you have to understand what the truth of that world is. And I think you have to answer every question for yourself even if you don’t answer it for a while for the audience. You have to know. And one of the things about Joan that separated it from a lot of shows that cropped up then in that genre is… you know, “is it God or a brain tumor?” No! You can’t have that out. And I did not give anybody the out of “possibly it could be a metaphor.” No, we’re saying it’s God. And I just did the same thing with “Demons.” I just walked in and said, No, it’s not…“Could he be schizophrenic?” No, he’s NOT schizophrenic. With this show, regardless of what people might believe in their lives, we’re dealing with angels exist and demons exist, and now let me tell you what they are. Because not everybody knows. A lot of people think that angels are dead people. According to Catholicism, angels have never been human. They are inhuman spirits. So are demons. And I had to define that for people because I had to understand the rules of that world so that I could understand.

I can’t help thinking about how many supernatural shows there are on television right now. You’ve got things like “The Ghost Whisperer,” which I don’t think is as intellectually ambitious as “Demons.” Then you have a show like “Supernatural,” which doesn’t seem to have its own philosophy at all. It’s just pure entertainment. “Demons,” because it’s more complex, is a show I’d rather watch… So here’s the hard question, I guess: Why isn’t it on TV?

Because "Viva Laughlin" was on TV. [laughs] Listen, I don’t program. I have no idea why things get chosen. I’m sure there’s a reason. There’s often a plan. It’s never actually revealed to me. You know, why didn’t the female superhero show that I did the year before – same season as “Heroes” – why didn’t that get on? I don’t know. It could have been research. It could have been programming or counter programming needs. You never know why people make these decisions… but it was really terrific, I can go on record as saying. Nothing went wrong. It was completely the project we wanted to do and we managed to execute it really well.

Sorry, I don’t mean to rub salt in the wounds.

It’s not salt in the wound, it’s just honestly people ask me that and I don’t have the answer. If I had the answer, I would absolutely have no problem with just stating it. But I’m kind of cut out of the decision making process. I can only tell you rumors that I heard or speculate…Sometimes people will say, well, we made these wrong choices – we thought it would work and it didn’t work – but that just wasn’t the case with “Demons.” Everything worked, it was terrific and I still think it would make a great TV show.

I guess I was thinking of it more in terms of cultural changes. I read an interview in which you talked about CBS picking up “Joan of Arcadia,” at a time, right after 9/11, when “God was less controversial.” Is it harder now to make a show like “Demons” or even “Joan of Arcadia” than it was in 2002?

I would totally cite that if that were the case, but now is the best time ever to have something supernatural on. They picked up “Moonlight,” which is a vampire show. And everybody has something supernatural this season. I guess I could say there’s too much supernatural stuff, so everything’s stepping on each other. It could be… people have said this to me, but I feel like they’re just being nice to me… it’s like when a guy breaks up with you and your friends say you were too much for him, you were too good for him. I have friends saying, “It was too scary for TV.” And it might have been, but I can’t promise you that I think that’s true.

I’m a big fan of the horror genre, and there were bits and pieces of the pilot that really reminded me of classic literature in that vein – by authors like William Peter Blatty (“The Exorcist”), Dennis Wheatley (“The Devil Rides Out”), M.R. James (“Casting the Runes”), and Charles Williams (“All Hallow’s Eve”). I was curious if you’d read any of those authors for inspiration.

For research, I read non-fiction stuff. I necessarily decided to go into researching the Devil and demons as an agnostic. I don’t mean that I’m agnostic, but that I’m agnostic on the subject – I don’t know that much about it, it’s never been my focal point in my religious practice, so I’m going to go in as if I’ve never heard of this idea. And so I read about these people’s experiences, and the truth is, it is terrifying… because you have everything from people that you can kind of dismiss as not reliable, to incredibly smart, sane people talking about these experiences with demons and possession and so on. What I found amazing was – I hate to use the word mythology, because everyone thinks it means “not true,” when in fact it just means story structure…

“Mythology” in the Joseph Campbell sense…

Right. In the Joseph Campbell sense, the mythology of this world is air-tight. When I had to go into pitches, it was like someone had done my work for me, because I didn’t have to make them up – here’s how it happens, here’s how they [demons] behave, here’s what makes them come, here’s what makes them leave, here’s what they want… it was all there for me. It was really interesting and that part of it was really frightening, because I kept looking for the – you know, like when you hear UFO mythology, people are always going, “Why don’t they land in the middle of New York City? Why do they always set down in the middle of nowhere?” You have questions like that. But when I read this stuff, I got it all… it made complete sense, and I think that was what would have been so great about it as a TV show, and also what made it so scary.

These real practicing demonologists… it just tripped off their tongue. They just dealt with it with such a clear view of it, and went into the world of it. I mean, it was so logical – down to the fact that there’s a hierarchy of demons and they all have names, and they all have specific functions, like the saint. It was fascinating.

I worked on the Discovery series “A Haunting,” and for each individual episode, we would basically take the perspective of the people who went through the event. So if the person involved in that particular haunting is a Catholic priest, then basically that episode takes his perspective – it takes what he tells us as the worldview for that episode…

I’ve seen every episode of that show!

So you know it changes every episode. That’s one of the things I was really fascinated by: You’re constantly getting different perspectives. I’m always a little bit in awe of people who have come to some definite conclusions about what they believe…

Right. The most impressive ones on that show are the people who… you can see that their lives, their worldviews have changed because of what they went through. And it’s so hard to – I mean, experience is the only teacher, really. When I watched that show sometimes when I was researching “Demons,” I would just be shouting at the TV at some of those things: “That’s demons! That’s not a ghost! That’s demons!” And then when you put the Warrens on there quite often… A lot of my research came from their work.

Lorraine [Warren] was a sweetheart.

Yeah! That’s what makes her so great – she’s like this librarian, this really proper New England lady who goes around scaring demons.

If the writer’s strike weren’t going on right now, what themes would you be tackling right now in your writing? Would you still be trying to write stories that focus on the reality of Evil?

No. It’s not a place I’d want to stay. I admire people who stay and take it on, but… I was talking to someone, actually, on the picket line, who was a seminarian and one of the things they teach you there is exorcism, but one of the things they tell you when you go into it is “don’t get too focused on this.” Because the focus is distorting. And so, after “Demons,” I felt like oh God I could have done a couple of years of this… and I think I would have had to have been a little more careful, you know, to have to think about that everyday. As indeed you might have felt on “A Haunting.”

I just follow the natural threads of whatever I want to write. I pitched two projects before we struck and neither one of them were supernatural in any way. I just needed a year off from it. I needed a year of just dealing with human dynamics, because those are interesting too. Right now, I’m really interested in the complicated entanglement of human dynamics, particularly in families, so that’s what I’m writing about right now.

And how is the writer’s strike affecting everything going forward? You were a both a writer and a show runner on “Joan of Arcadia” – do you feel caught in the middle at all this week?

No, not at all. I’m a writer. I’m in the Writer’s Guild. I’m a huge supporter of the Guild. And even if I were running a show, one of the things that happened in this strike is all the show runners got together and decided not to work. Everybody is torn about “do you go in and do editing and casting or do you stop altogether?” The show runners got together because they did have a very specific dilemma and they all decided to not work. That’s where I would have been – I would have been with them if I happened to be running a show.

A while ago, I read an interview with you in the JMU alumni magazine, in which you said “As soon as I got to college I just felt like I was here to read big books and talk and have big messy conversations about them with others. I really missed that when I left college, and I got busy trying to re-create that around me.” Have you found that environment again in television, and how easy was it to find your niche in dramatic television?

Well, first of all, I write novels on the side, so I always have that. I’ve always followed the subjects I wanted to write and never… I don’t want to say this in a way that will sound lofty, but… My choice was always to just choose the work by the quality of work and what it was meaning to me, instead of trying to have some other motivation like money or status or anything like that. I just sought the work I wanted to do, and sometimes, you know, you take pay cuts and that kind of stuff. You just have to follow the work. It was just what I needed to do.

I got very lucky with finding great shows to work on for a long, long time – shows where it was a very thin line between what I was doing as a TV writer and what I was doing as a novel writer – using very similar muscles. I got to do shows like “Northern Exposure” and “I’ll Fly Away,” and that was like writing literature, in a lot of ways. So I did find that niche, that world with the people that I met and was lucky enough to work with… and then I just do it as part of my life. I have found people who are a little bit like me, who are literature-nerds (because that’s what I was in college), and who never let go of it. So I guess the short answer is yes, I’ve managed to find that world… even in Los Angeles.

I guess that’s the difference between people who write for a living and people who write in college and then go on to do something else: You can’t put it down. You just can’t stop.

Well, that’s like trying to put anything down. If you believe in callings or vocations, which I do, trying to put it down is heartbreaking. You really just try to find a way to do it without sort of dropping out. I found a way to marry or integrate my ideas as someone who loved literature and philosophy with a medium that I felt could use some of that. Fortunately, I happened to fall into the medium at a time where it was opening up to bigger ideas, and then sort of got out there and participated.

I think it’s really important to keep pursuing that stuff. I’ve got a daughter who’s about to go to college, and she’s now talking and trying to figure out what her niche is and what her interest is going to be, and I talk to her all the time about “whatever it is, you will gravitate toward it and maybe you just have to follow it,” and everything else will fall into place. Unless I’m just being incredibly na├»ve… but I just know that there’s no way to replace that thing that you loved and put down.

If she came to you and said, Mom, I want to write dramatic television, what would be your practical advice for her? I know that different people say different things: write spec scripts, try to get a job as a writer’s assistant, you need an agent to sell anything… What’s your advice?

I don’t tend to give practical advice. The honest answer is, This is not a practical business and I have no way of telling what the one, two, three steps of getting in are… mainly because it’s been so long since I broke in myself. And I look around and the landscape of it doesn’t seem to make any sense. But I wouldn’t give anyone practical advice anyway… I give writer’s seminars out here and I always say, “You have to be the best writer you can be. You have to work on it all the time. You have to do it every day, as if it were your job. And you have to try and write something better than what’s on TV – not something that’s just as good as what’s on TV. That’s the first thing you have to do.”

And then, you know, it’s kind of easy to find the answers to those other questions – networking, get a manager vs. get an agent. You can sort of talk to people in the industry about what’s current. It shifts a lot, it changes a lot – one year it’s everybody looking for original material. The next year, no one will read original material – they’re only looking for spec scripts. Right now, it’s heavily weighted on the original material side. And I’ve always been that person. I’ve always wanted to see original work, whether it was a movie or a play or a spec pilot or anything like that. So my advice is just to write the stuff you love writing, and just persevere.

And the other thing I would say is, you’ve got to look at the whole landscape of television. You can’t just focus on network TV. You have to look at cable. You have to look at every opportunity in the vast ocean of television, because one of these days it’s all going to be a pretty level playing field, I think. You have to think about the internet, you have to think about all these things – because that’s what we’re thinking and talking about right now. That’s what the strike is about. So try to be a little bit of a visionary and don’t look at just the old model. I don’t know how helpful that is, but the truth is that the business is already changing so fast, it’s hard to keep up with it. And after the strike, it’s going to be another game.

I think that’s actually very practical advice. And, for me personally, it’s good to hear because a couple years ago I got together with a buddy of mine and he said let’s get some friends together and buy some equipment and shoot a series. And we just this past summer shot the second season of it, and posted the first season on the internet. Then yesterday on NPR, I hear that Marshall Herskovitz has got a show going up on MySpace on Sunday. So it really does seem like the landscape is changing…

I think that’s the future. I’ve always felt – not always, but I’ve felt in the last several years that content direct to internet… it’s the wild west, certainly. Go out there and find a piece of land and sit on it. Who knows if it will be profitable? Who knows how it’s going to work, because there just aren’t any rules yet. But I really think when people realize there’s absolutely nothing stopping them from doing exactly what you did… and then getting it on the internet, and then the challenge of finding ways to bring eyes to your site. That’s a whole new market too – just trying to find ways to do this. It’s a new business that has opened up here where there are people who just do your website if you have a TV show. Say “Demons” had gotten on the air, I would have gone and hired a company to create all my internet content. Because I don’t have time to do it, and that’s not what I do anyway – that’s not my niche. So it’s just a brand new world that’s opening up and, in a lot of ways, that’s what the strike is about. You want to be represented in new media. You don’t want to have to start at square one and fight to get all those rights back. So the Guild wants to be a participant in that – people in the Guild – because one thing that’s really consistent about any new form of media is that what they always need is content. And what writers do is provide content.

Great. Well, I hope that the strike is successful soon so that we can watch your next show.

Thank you. The strike is going to get resolved one way or another, but I have to say that, to me, it’s already… I don’t know how it’s going to wind down, but it has been really great for the Guild and for writers in general to understand that they have this alliance, and that they can depend on it.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me.

Great talking to you.

Readers can keep tabs on Barbara Hall by visiting her blog, The Hall Monitor. You can also get the latest news on the WGA Strike by visiting The LA Times Online or the United Hollywood blog.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11/13/2007

    Thank you for permitting us to eaves-drop on such an interesting conversation not only about a back-stage world that most TV viewers don't often see, but also about Barbara Hall's own progress in faith and therefore in her work.