667 Dark Avenue interviews Joe Tracz (the answers) Jan 18, 2019 10:47:21 GMT -5 Liam R. Findlay, Sherry Ann, and 9 more like this
Post by Tragedy on Jan 18, 2019 10:47:21 GMT -5
THE ANNOTATED INTERVIEW
The Brumous Backstage
1) What was the general attitude of the show's team to Brett Helquist's illustrations? Were there any discussion about bringing him on? / 2) Was it ever an idea to use The Gothic Archies' music? Were there any discussion about bringing Stephin Merritt on?
I know Bo Welch looked at Brett’s art for inspiration; you can see the influence in things like the shapes of our windows. And as fans have noted, Cynthia Summers’ costumes for the Baudelaires in “The Penultimate Peril: Part Two” are an homage to what they wore in the books. But if Brett ever had any formal involvement, I’m not aware of it. The same goes for Stephin Merritt, despite me giving out copies of the Tragic Treasury to everyone in the Season One writers’ room.
3) In Season 2, the song numbers are woven into the narrative and are as much part of the script as anything else. What exactly was you (and other writers') working relationship with Jim Dooley?
When we sat down to write Season Two in Daniel’s dining room, we were excited to experiment more with form and tone, and the musical numbers were a part of that. First the writers would collectively come up with an idea for a song:
WRITER 1: What if Vice Principal Nero and Coach Genghis sang a song about their friendship at the pep rally?
WRITER 2: Yes! And the more they sing, the more they realize they hate each other!
DANIEL HANDLER: Oh, like when Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur sang “Bosom Buddies” from Mame?*
[Our writers’ assistant, Aziza Aba Butain, pulls up the clip and the writers spend an hour on YouTube diligently researching Bea Arthur.]
Then Daniel would go off and write witty, hilarious lyrics, and show them to us, and we would all attempt to sing them with melodies we made up on the spot. Gosh, I miss that group of people. Later, his lyrics would be set to music by Nick Urata, whose Romani punk band DeVotchka may be of interest to fans of the Snicket aesthetic.
4) Why was "Cliffhanger" cut? How much of it was completed?
The feeling was that it deflated the tension. Season One ends on a contemplative note, with the Baudelaires waiting on the bench, so it lent itself to a contemplative song. Season Two ends on an action sequence, and pausing the action for a song made the danger seem less dangerous. So “Cliffhanger” never made it to the music composition stage. But I was excited to include the lyrics in TIHOSO, and I keep hoping some fan will set it to music at last.
5) Did you ever get to see Handler’s plans for the later films? What you learned about the various different drafts that were written for the sequel in the years following the film's release?
I’m told there were various sequel drafts (Various Film Drafts?) over the years**, and Daniel shared one of them with the writers at the start of Season Two. In addition to adapting “Austere Academy” and “Ersatz Elevator” (with a comically brief stop at Lucky Smells), it featured a subplot about VFD trying to get an important book to the Baudelaires. That was the genesis of our Season Two Incomplete History of Secret Organizations arc – only in the film sequel, the book was a coded copy of The Luckiest Kids in the World, which, like The Littlest Elf, provided frequent ironic counterpoint. Also of note is that the film picked up where the first one left off, with the Very Fast Delivery mailman turning a corner, pulling off her disguise, and meeting a pregnant agent…
The Chagrining Changes
1) Was Miranda ever introduced or was that cut? Are her and Friday Calibans in the show?
The first rough cut of The End was about twelve minutes longer, and most of the stuff we cut involved the colonists – including the line where Miranda introduced herself. Despite strong performances from our guest cast, we found it was hard to ask the audience to suddenly invest in so many one-off characters, and the decision was made in the edit to focus the episode’s first half more tightly on the Baudelaires, Olaf, and Ish.As for the Caliban connection: one consequence of Olivia’s expanded role in S2 was that her last name now carried a lot more weight, so hearing it again felt like a huge important story point, instead of a fun subtle clue. We ultimately decided that the connection was more distracting than intriguing. So are they Calibans or not? It depends on how you look at it.
2) Mr. Poe is obviously far more of a major character in the series than he is in the books. Was it hard to put him into episodes he didn't appear in that much (like "The Miserable Mill"), and VFD-centered ones he wasn't in at all (like "The Slippery Slope")?
Shooting a television series with three minors as your leads means that you are limited in the number of hours per day they can work. So including scenes with the adult cast was often a practical necessity in order to make our days. And since he’s a series regular, those scenes often fell to Mr. Poe. But we were happy to do it; we all delighted in K. Todd Freeman’s deliciously frustrating performance, and the more annoyed our characters (and viewers) were to see him, the more sick joy we took in having him unexpectedly turn up. His scenes in “Slippery Slope” came out of the question, “Who is the worst person for Kit Snicket to be stuck with on a mountain?”
3) Was it always the intention to combine Captain Widdershins and Fiona into one character in “The Grim Grotto”? What was the reason behind this decision?
We originally broke the story (a phrase which here means “plotted it out beat by beat”) with Captain Widdershins. But his disappearance midway through the book posed a problem. Do we reveal where he went? After all, the show has a history of following VFD subplots away from the Baudelaires. Well, if we do, it had better be important, to justify why he abandoned his stepdaughter. But if it’s too important, then it overshadows the rest of the story. We banged our heads over this for a while, and then Daniel went to the board, removed the notecard that said “The Baudelaires meet Captain Widdershins”, and said, “What if…” We tried breaking the episode without him, just as an experiment, and everything instantly clicked: Fiona, the conflict between Klaus and Violet, and (most importantly, to me) the theme of young people making difficult choices on their own. I think of our third season as the season where the Baudelaires become teenagers – not necessarily age-wise, but because they’re suddenly caught between the innocence of childhood and the moral ambiguities of the adult world. They don’t have a guardian figure to tell them what’s right or wrong anymore. Neither does Fiona. And without Jacques Snicket, neither does Quigley. All these kids suddenly have to decide for themselves.
4) How much influence did Daniel Handler have on various characters' endings - particularly the Quagmires, Fernald and Fiona and Ishmael and the islanders?
I’ve been a defender of The End since the book came out; there’s something so shocking yet perfect in its refusal to give easy answers. But the thematic thrust of the show is a bit different. Instead of being about the known versus the unknown, our final few episodes are more about hiding from the world versus engaging in it. (That’s what we learn Lemony had been doing on the lam, and why the Baudelaires and their parents ultimately decide to leave the island.) And then there’s the difference between a TV show and a book. As a writer who frequently works in adaptation, I think a lot about Little Shop of Horrors. The stage version kills off its cast (and destroys the world!), and that works because it’s a piece of theatre; there’s an unreality built into the medium. Film, even in an absurd world like ours or Little Shop’s, is more literal, more real. The same ending feels different in a new medium; it accrues a different meaning. So playing coy with our characters’ fates no longer felt like the right ending, and when we broke The End in the writers’ room with Daniel, those glimpses of the Quagmires, the Widdershins, and the Troupe were always there.
5) How did you go about writing "The Penultimate Peril" without knowing who could and could not return? What were the original plans for Jacquelyn and Mrs. Poe in season 3? Was it always the plan to reveal Jacquelyn as the Duchess of Winnipeg, or was that just a (very clever) fix when you had to axe her role in Season 3?
Jacquelyn*** was one of those TV happy accidents. She emerged in response to a Netflix note, asking why the Baudelaires put their children in the care of Count Olaf; Daniel wrote the Yessica Haircut scene in response, and Jacquelyn was born. She was created for that episode only, but we loved her so much (especially after seeing Sara Canning’s glorious 30’s screwball dame performance) that we kept finding reasons to bring her back.
Still, in Season Two, I think we struggled a bit under the weight of so many VFD characters; their constant presence ended up diminishing the stakes, since with a surplus of capable adults hanging around, it was hard to believe the Baudelaires were truly in danger. After the Baudelaires went off on their own, we had less need for those helpful adult characters, so making Jacquelyn the Duchess felt like a noble exit that still honored how much she meant to fans. I did dearly miss her (and Sara), and during production on “The Penultimate Peril”, I was still trying to write her a cameo.**** But while we tried a few ideas (like her showing up at the burning hotel in full duchess regalia, handing out parachutes), they never felt right.
As for writing “Penultimate Peril”: we wrote the first draft as if we could get everyone back, even though we knew scheduling and budget would make that impossible. And when one actor was unavailable, we reshuffled and rearranged. As a result, we ended up with some bizarre yet entertaining pairings – like Esme and Nero, and Babs and Jerome. And while I would have loved to bring everyone who ever appeared on the show back for the trial, from Lou and Milt to the Murnau Cinema ticket-seller, their absence ultimately didn’t detract from the story, and at the end of the day, story matters most.
6) Were there any actors whose performances significantly differed from the way their characters were imagined in the writing process?
Mr. Poe, absolutely. When we wrote Season One, we hadn’t cast the show yet, and we all had Timothy Spall’s stuffy Brit in our heads. But K. Todd Freeman surprised us. He reasoned that, if ignorance is bliss, Mr. Poe would be the happiest man in the world, and his cheerful idiocy was so much more fun to watch (and to write for) than some stiff upper lip.
I also have to confess that I found Roger Bart’s take on Nero more tragic than I did on the page. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still a petty tyrant and a terrible person, but as an adult, I have more sympathy for a frustrated artist whose talent can’t measure up to his dreams.
And finally, I want to give a shout-out to Allison Williams, who had one of the hardest roles on the show: Kit had to be stylized to fit into our stylized world, but she also had to feel like a real person in a way that most of our guest stars don’t. Her death scene, when she says goodbye to her baby before handing her to Louis and Malina, was legitimately devastating to shoot; there were many tears on set that day, on and off camera.
7) If time, money and actor availability had been no object on the show, who would be on your dream cast?
We got my dream cast. My favorite performers have always been character actresses, so to work on a show with juicy roles for Catherine O’Hara, Beth Grant, Lucy Punch, Joan Cusack, Cleo King, and Mindy Sterling was simply divine.
8) How did the show come up with this solution of what was inside the sugar bowl, and what did Handler have to say about it? Was he ever consulted (and listened to) for any of the "lesser" mysteries? Alternatively, did he give any thoughts on your solutions?
Daniel talked a lot about the difference between books and television, and how a visual medium requires things to be much more explicit. So we always knew the show would have to solve some mysteries that went unsolved (or remained sub-textual) in the books. Some of those solutions were devised with Daniel while writing Seasons Two and Three; some were decided in early story meetings before Season One even started; and of course, others have been there in the books all along – they just require a little sleuthing. Out of respect for all involved, I’d like to refrain from identifying which are which. And ultimately, the show developed its own continuity. So even though we were working with Daniel, at a certain point it wasn’t helpful to always ask, “Well, what was the answer in the book?” Because even if he told us, that answer might no longer be relevant to the show.
9) Why was the title of the Baudelaire Parents' journal from "The End" changed, and how did "The Beatrice" boat end up on Briny Beach for Olaf to use?
Barry felt that calling it “A Series of Unfortunate Events” might confuse viewers into thinking that the book was not, in fact, a journal written by the Baudelaire parents and later Ishmael, but a tale of three orphans written by Lemony Snicket. There was much discussion and we actually shot both titles, but in the end, Barry was right.
As for how the Beatrice ended up on Briny Beach, “a series of unfortunate events” applies there too.
10) Why did everyone run around wanting the Sugar Bowl and its mycellium-immunizing contents, even though the Medusoid Mycellium was believed to have all been destroyed?
It does seem strange that so many adults would run around in pursuit of a meaningless object, but perhaps less so now that I am an adult myself.
The Woeful Writing
1) What was the hardest scene to write?
I know it’s controversial among fans, but I’m proud of the opera flashback. Combining so many disparate bits of backstory into one coherent flashback sequence wasn’t easy, so the fact that we managed to weave all those narrative threads together into something that made sense felt like a huge accomplishment. ***** I love Patrick and Morena’s performances (she was our first and only choice for the role), I loved getting to incorporate part of The Beatrice Letters (still my favorite Snicket book), and I love the sense of Casablanca tragedy that hangs over it all. I also love that, when Jacques’ taxi pulls up in the alley, we get the world’s least satisfying Firefly reunion.
2) What was one of the most difficult things you had to face while writing and/or editing?
I come from theatre, so I’m used to making discoveries in the rehearsal room and then having time to try them out. However, TV moves fast; it’s like rehearsal, tech, opening, and closing all in the same night. I learned a lot about production, much of it from Barry, who was incredibly generous about including me in every stage of the process. I also learned to value pre-production, because that was really the only chance we’d have to make big changes. Sometimes that led to exciting things: a large chunk of “The Reptile Room: Part Two” was rewritten the week before it started shooting, because when the set went up, we realized it was continuous (meaning, it was built like an actual house, with all the rooms really connecting) and our director wanted to take advantage of that, with a lot of Birdman-type tracking shots. However, the fast pace sometimes led things to slip through the cracks. Ask me over drinks about Vice Principal Nero’s last name.
3) What were some major or favorite concepts/scenes/lines of dialogue that ended up being cut from the show's scripts and the show itself that stand out to you, looking back?
Losing Charles from “The Penultimate Peril” was a heartbreaker. We were excited to reveal that Jerome was Charles’ new partner, and to finally show an explicit (and healthy) same sex relationship. And Netflix was incredibly supportive; when someone brought up Jerome’s previous marriage to Esme, one of our execs shut them down with, “Bisexuality exists.” Rhys was excited, Tony was excited, and even though they were both on other shows, our line producer managed to find two days when they could be in Vancouver at the same time. Then, just before the shoot, a typhoon struck Fiji, where Rhys’s show is filmed, and he couldn’t make it. The scene had to be rewritten on the fly, and Kerri Kenney was a hero to jump in on short notice (and is hilarious in the episode, by the way). But those curious about the original plan may find the attached scene to be of interest. It was written by Josh Conkel and myself, and it’s still canon in my heart.
4) What was your favorite change that was made due to the necessity of the medium and your least favorite?
I’m especially proud of the choices we made when adapting “The Miserable Mill”. Season One was my first TV job and I didn’t know if I’d even get to write a script; many staff writers don’t. And in fact, Tatiana Suarez-Pico, the other staff writer, and I were given “The Miserable Mill” in part because none of the senior writers wanted it.****** So we worked tirelessly to make those episodes great. We came up with the idea that the mill workers were also hypnotized, to tie together the lumbermill and optometrist plots. We were tasked with the Quagmire reveal and we wrote and rewrote it until we landed it. The fact that it was everyone’s least favorite book meant it was an opportunity to prove ourselves. And that script is the reason I got to continue on the show – so I can honestly claim that “The Miserable Mill” changed my life.
5) If time, money and actor availability had been no object on the third season, which storyline or scene would have been most different, and in what way?
Water is the hardest thing to do on a TV budget, and in our third season, every episode required water effects. Shooting with real water is expensive and time-consuming, and when you’re using child actors, time is something you can’t afford to waste. But CGI water is equally tricky: any VFX artist will tell you that having fake water interact with real actors is one of the hardest things to animate convincingly. That’s why, at the end of “The Slippery Slope”, our frozen waterfall had to stay frozen – and why Quigley is taken out by a tree branch instead of a raging stream.
The masked ball in S2 was the opposite; it was a scene that I expected to be impossible to film, and it wasn’t. We wrote it thinking there was no chance we would ever get all those guest stars back. To our surprise, they all said yes.
6) Now that you've seen people's reactions to and thoughts on the series, the writers' decisions, cuts and additions, and now that you've had your own time to reflect, is there anything big or small you might alter to be different if you could go back in time?
Ish’s new backstory came from a desire to push the religious allegory in The End. After ending up in paradise, the Baudelaires meet an old bearded man who claims to be the creator of all their miseries – the ultimate authority figure. Then they expose him as a con and a fraud. Of course, as book readers have pointed out, Ish’s claim does tangle the timeline. And while I personally don’t mind a tangled timeline (it’s practically a hallmark of the books), I do regret not leaving a bit more ambiguity in Ish’s confession. An earlier draft included a line where, after Violet says, “You started VFD?”, Ish deferred by explaining that VFD has always existed in one form or another. At the time I felt, “Well, if we’re going to commit to this, we should commit all the way.” But in retrospect, I think the ambiguity would have served us better. Is Ish is inflating his own importance? It would certainly be in character. Guy’s got a serious god complex.
7) Was “The Incomplete History of Secret Organizations” planned from the start of the series or later on? Did you have to collaborate with book designers so the text was consistent with imagery? Was Daniel Handler involved in the code in “The Incomplete History of Secret Organizations”? If so, how closely?
The opportunity to do a behind-the-scenes book came up during Season Three; I wrote it on set while we shot our final episodes. It ended up being a really special way to say goodbye to the whole experience, and interviewing the crew especially gave me an even greater appreciation for the hard work and passion that every single person put in. Daniel wasn’t involved with writing it, but I’d send him the pages to see and approve. Given the way our ending diverges from the ending of the books, those who are interested in things like canons should probably consider the coded couplet to be show-only.
The Frightening Future
1) Do you know if there's a chance of the soundtrack being released, or is there a person of particular influence who can be asked? / 2) Has there been any talk of releasing the show on any kind of home video format, be it DVD and or Blu-ray, and if not, how likely is that as a prospect given the relative radio silence we've heard from Netflix so far? Any chance of Netflix adding bonus material (especially commentaries)?
Netflix’s model depends on being the exclusive home of their original content, so they don’t have much incentive to release their shows on DVD, unless it’s a co-production with another studio (like “House of Cards”) or a mega-hit that would be equivalent to printing money (like “Stranger Things”). So sadly, a DVD is unlikely. A soundtrack – or at least streaming music – seems more plausible, and while I don’t have any special knowledge of how to make something like that happen, I do know Netflix is very attuned to social media, so if enough people ask, perhaps they will listen.
Also, when I was on the Unfortunate Associates podcast, they mentioned the idea of getting the writing team to record a live commentary track sometime, and I am absolutely down for making that happen.
3) It’s probably way too soon to ask, but do you think there are chances of getting and adaptation of “All the wrong questions”?
I would personally love that. In a lot of ways, I think ATWQ is an even richer series than ASOUE; it’s stranger and deeper and ATWQ’s metaphor of childhood as a film noir mystery pairs beautifully with ASOUE’s metaphor of adulthood as a secret organization. However, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Our series came together at a very singular moment in the history of television – it couldn’t have existed before Netflix, and I doubt we’ll see a show as big and weird again. Still, I’m hopeful that this isn’t the end of my collaborations with Lemony Snicket. Since the show ended, Daniel and I have had conversations about working together on a very different project set in Mr. Snicket’s world. So I continue to hope for the best – even if hope, like an interesting piece of mail, is frequently lost.
Finally, this isn’t an answer to a question, but I want to say thank you to the people on this board for your fierce devotion over the years. While I’ve never been a registered member, I have to confess that I’m a longtime visitor, dropping in regularly for re-reads and ATWQ theorizing and (I couldn’t resist) to find out what you all think of the show. I know that so many of you have dreamed of seeing these books adapted, and I hope that our adaptation brought you joy, or at least much spirited debate. I know that many of you are writers yourselves, and I hope that our work helped fuel and inspire you. I had fun hiding Easter eggs that I knew only you would get, and as the show ended, I was honored to play a role in paying tribute to Linda, whose compassionate presence truly represented the best qualities of a volunteer. Thank you all for joining me on this journey. And for (wow) reading this far.
The world is quiet here.
* This became an actual song, “One of Us is a Genius”, that was written for, then cut from, “Austere Academy.”
**I was on the 667 Dark forums back when someone posted a few script excerpts they claimed were from Daniel’s original screenplay, and I remember the debate about whether or not they were real. Imagine my surprise when, on my first day on the job, we were given Daniel’s “Bad Beginning” script and I saw the James Brown quote – which I immediately recognized! I have to admit that it was personally satisfying to have that mystery solved at last.
***Regarding the spelling of Jacquelyn’s name: the rule of TV is that, if a lot of people have a name, it’s safe to use, but if only one person has it, then they could sue for defamation, so you have to change it. After our legal department informed us that there is exactly one living human with the name Jacqueline Scieszka, we scrambled to change the spelling to Jacquelyn in any on-screen text. We were not always successful.
****Our guest actors were never contracted beyond their original episodes. (That would be impossible, given how busy they are.) So we found it was prudent to have some extra J.S. characters around. If Joan Cusack hadn’t been able to return for S3, you could have expected to see Jacquelyn Scieszka suddenly show up as a legal secretary to run the trial.
*****There’s a gorgeous fan comic that everyone should read called “Fragmentary Plots” (http://fragmentary-plots.tumblr.com/) that also imagines a VFD backstory. While their take is obviously very different than ours, I’m a huge fan, and the shot of Beatrice performing in her dragonfly wings was scripted as a loving homage to a fellow Snicket devotee.
******Tatiana’s script for “The Miserable Mill: Part Two” contains, to my mind, both the funniest and most heartbreaking moments in Season One: Mrs. Poe finally telling Mr. Poe to get it together, and Violet telling Klaus (sniff), “We’re on our own.”