Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Q&A: Bones Creator Hart Hanson

I spoke to Hart Hanson in mid-December for the Blogcritics article “Challenging the Crime Genre: An Interview with Bones Creator Hart Hanson.” But for even more with the veteran TV writer, here's the transcript of our chat, with additional discussion of the show, the writer's life, and our mutual Canadianness.

You're Canadian, aren't you? From whereabouts?

HH: Yes, I'm from the West Coast, Vancouver Island.

Oh, are you? I'm in Vancouver.

HH: You are? And are you Canadian?

I am, I grew up in Alberta.

HH: Oh, whereabouts?


HH: I've got a couple of writers on the show from Edmonton.

Really? That's ... unusual. [Odds seem slim. Edmonton's a city of less than a million people, and not what I think of as a hotbed of Hollywood writers.]

HH: I met them because they did a show up in Canada called The Associates, and then when they came down here I supervised a pilot of theirs, and remembered them when I had to staff up on Bones.

There's a lot of Canadian content on Bones, then.

HH: There you go, yeah.

I know you were a writer on Judging Amy and Joan of Arcadia, but what was your first job in TV?

HH: My first job in TV was up in Canada, The Beachcombers. The longest-lasting show in the Western Hemisphere.

[Laughs – though it could very well be true.] Yes, I remember it fondly.

HH: I did a bunch of Canadian stuff. I did some Road to Avonlea, North of 60, then I created Traders and then came down here.

Did you start as a writer?

HH: Yes, a TV writer right off the top.

When did you make the move to L.A.?

HH: I think it was the third season of Traders, I was thinking I wasn't going to be doing any more of those. It was a show set in an investment bank, and coming up with new stories set in an investment bank was just really tough. So I was really ready for a change when an ICM agent – now my agent, Matt Solo - came and asked me if I'd be interested in running American shows in Canada. At the time - this was the late '90s, '98 or '99 - an American show would get a great tax credit if they had a Canadian running the show. So he asked me if I'd be interested in doing that. And I realized I wasn't interested in that, although I might be interested in coming down to L.A. to see if I could make it down here, if I could cut it. He said, “Well, you know, if you come down to L.A., there's no advantage to anyone hiring you. You'll just be another of the millions of people in L.A. looking for a break.” And I said, “Well, I'll give that a shot.”

You were up for a challenge, obviously.

HH: I was up for a challenge. I was just short of 40 and I said to my wife, “Maybe we have one more adventure left in us.” I came down here and got hired on a show called Cupid, starring Jeremy Piven. He's become a huge, huge star on Entourage.

Where did the concept for Bones come from?

HH: It was late in the pitching season about a year ago. Another project I was working on kind of fell apart – it just wasn't going to work. I have an overall development deal with 20th Century Fox and they said, “Would you go talk to Barry Josephson about a property he owns, which is a documentary about Kathy Reichs, who is a real forensic anthropologist who writes books.” I said, “Oh, I have no interest in doing a forensics show.” They said, “Oh no, we know, we think your take on a forensics show is what we're looking for, so go talk to Barry.” Barry has produced a whole bunch of big movies (Hide and Seek, Like Mike), so I was anxious to meet him anyway, and we had a real meeting of the minds on how this show, how Bones, might unfold, so I signed on and I wrote the pilot, and here we are.

How involved is Kathy Reichs?

HH:Kathy is on and off involved. She has a very, very busy life of her own. She's a working forensic anthropologist both in Montreal and down in North Carolina, and she's written six or seven of these novels featuring Temperance Brennan, the protagonist. She was very involved at the beginning, and intermittently we have her come in for 10 days or two weeks to sit with the writers. She reads every script and gives us comments on them, and she's a pretty good resource for the writers. When they're coming up with ideas, they call and ask, “Is this possible? Would this ever happen?” So she's fairly involved. She has a producer's credit on the show and she earns it.

Brennan's work covers such a unique niche. How do you come up with these kinds of cases week after week?

HH: We found that you can take almost any murder and figure out how the body degrades to the point where a forensic anthropologist is the only person who is going to be able to give you any clues, and we go from there. So instead of finding a fresh body, we usually find one that's anywhere between a week and 10,000 years old, and it applies to her. The whole field of forensic anthropology is really technically advancing to the point where we can do almost anything that the CSI people can do, just with a different set of tools. We're not short of stories.

Do you look at stories in the news?

HH: We definitely look at what's going on, but we're not a “ripped from the headlines” show. Although the pilot was thinly based on Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson. And we've had a couple of other shows where the jump off point was a real case, and then it rapidly turns into a Bones and so I think it's barely recognizable.

How would you say Bones differs from the other crime procedurals that are out there?

HH: It's certainly less procedural. It's as though you took Moonlighting or The X-Files. It's very heavily weighted toward the two characters played by Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz – Bones and Booth. And it's funnier and a lot more character oriented than those shows are, a lot more personal stories.

Were you involved in the casting process?

HH:Oh yeah. I had final say on casting, except of course the network and the studio have to both sign off. I got my first choice for everybody – it was amazing and wonderful.

What do you think Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz bring to their roles?

HH: Well David was actually cast first. We'd been looking for Temperance Brennan for a long time, and had seen many, many actresses and not finding the lead to our show, the show we had in mind, when the head of the studio, Dana Walden, said “Would you consider David Boreanaz?” I said “I'd hire him today. I'd hire him right now.” It's not so much that I was huge fan of Buffy and Angel, but I definitely watched them, because I think that Joss Whedon is one of the great showrunners in TV, in fact he's just a brilliant man, so I would watch how his shows unfolded. As a result, I saw David over many years just grow and grow and grow as an actor, and I thought he was a great leading man, an old fashioned kind of guy, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, mixed with a little Cary Grant. So we just jumped at him.

Emily was a longer search. We knew we needed someone who was smart, beautiful, and funny - all three of those things, like the legs of a stool. We kept finding actors who were two of those three things. You know, they'd be smart and beautiful but not funny, or funny and smart but not beautiful, or ... well, you know the math. And then she walked in and she just was the character. She is smart and beautiful and funny and she's slightly different. She's just left of centre as an actress. It was just ideal. She has a magnificent vocal quality. We were really excited when we saw her. And then the two of them together, when they tested together, you just knew they had that thing you can't count on, that little bit of chemistry.

That's really played up on the show, too.

HH: Oh yeah, we're playing to it as much as possible because when the two of them are onscreen, you're just more interested.

Brennan and Booth both have slightly mysterious, slightly tragic pasts. How does that affect their characters?

HH: We like to think it totally informs both their characters. He's a guy in search of redemption – he was a sniper. We don't know how many people he's killed. It's alluded to a couple of times through the series that he's done things he regrets as a man, as a human being, and this is his way of paying off his penance, is his way of looking at it. He has to do a lot of good to make up for what he sees as the evil he's done in the world. And Bones lost her parents at a very crucial age. When she was 15, they simply disappeared. No bodies were ever found, only the car was found. It destroyed her family - she went into the foster system - and so her incredible drive and curiosity to find out what happened to people and not to let anyone die anonymously comes from that. And of course one of these days we will bring her into contact with what happened to her parents.

So that's part of the plan, to reveal what happened?

HH: Oh yeah, you gotta go there.

The cases are pretty gruesome but there's a lot of levity to the show, too. How would you describe the sense of humour?

HH: Almost any writer who's hung around with cops or coroners or firefighters or EMTs knows that they have extremely black senses of humour – it's their coping mechanism for getting through it. They're very funny people, and they're very funny about things that generally you can't be funny about. So we're trying to do our network television version of that kind of humour. We're definitely not way over to where those people are – they can laugh at anything. We have to be a little more sensitive. But we really like that sense of black humour they have as a coping mechanism. Also, the characters as I designed them are very intelligent – much more intelligent than I am – and we get a lot of fun out of that degree of intelligence and their dysfunctional approach to the normal world.

The show tries to humanize its victims even though they're a pile of bones – how do you manage to do that?

HH: Originally, we had this holographic thing we called the Angelator - because it was designed by one of the characters, Angela Montenegro, played by Michaela Conlin. We thought that would be our version of doing flashbacks. We thought we'd be able to see them and connect with them, but it didn't work. It's still very technological. It's a cold thing. It's very good for describing what happened to people, but not showing who they are. So what we've realized is that there's two ways to humanize our victims. One is through the people they've left behind. You try to connect with the survivors. And the second it to use people's home videos, snippets of film and pictures and all this stuff. If you think what would be left behind if you simply vanished off the earth now, it would be people's memories of you and video and pictures, so we use that as much as possible and that works quite well for us.

The timeslot change in January – is it Wednesdays at 9 now?

HH: First we're on Wednesdays at 9, and then we drop down to Wednesdays at 8.

So it's before American Idol?

HH: Initially it's going to be after American Idol, and I think they're hoping that will introduce a whole new audience to us, and then after four episodes, we're going to go back to Wednesdays at 8, so we'll be on before American Idol.

What do you think of the timeslot change?

HH: We're pretty happy with the timeslot change. Tuesdays at 8, we were on before House, and the only place we could get any promotion was on Animation Domination on Sunday nights, where there was a large audience. There was no use promoting us on House because House was on an hour after we were. So now, we get the benefit of promotions on House and American Idol, and the benefit of following American Idol. I think a whole bunch of eyeballs are going to realize we exist and we hope they'll check us out and stick with us. So we're pretty happy with that timeslot change - it's much better than where we were.

It was originally promoted as sort of a thematic package with House, wasn't it?

HH: I love House, I think House is one of the reasons we're on the air, but to simply stay their lead in I don't think would give us the exposure we need to get into double digits in ratings. So we're pretty happy with the change. And I think House is pretty happy, too, because one of the other things that was floated was us taking the House slot immediately following Tuesday night American Idol, and using them to start another night. I think they should be hugely relieved that they're staying where they are, because they dominated that hour and it's nice for them to stay there.

What's a typical day at the office like for you?

HH: It's a long day in a first season. I generally get in here around 7:30 after a bunch of phone calls. I try to do my writing between 7:30 and 10, and then after that it's largely a producing job. It's up to the set, or casting, looking at cuts, giving notes on cuts, editing, all the usual stuff of producing a show – prepping the coming show while dealing with the show that's being shot now, and also getting scripts out for the next episode. And then that sort of settles down around 7 in the evening, and I usually get some more writing done between 7 and 9, or on bad days, 7 and midnight. It's a long day, but it's a first season and it will settle down.

How many writers are on your staff?

HH: We have seven writers right now.

How do you work with them? Do they do drafts and then pass them through you?

HH: Yes, I tend to do a last pass on each script just because the voice of the characters is fairly specific and unique. And because I can. They come up with the story ideas and they do all the research. They have to go extremely quickly from idea through to draft, so they're moving fast - they're really writing fast. Generally they only get one or two drafts, because we're so close in production.

Some shows use a whole room, meaning they get all the writers together to brainstorm ideas or plot out an episode. I don't tend to work that way. Steve Nathan, who's another writing executive producer on the show, and I will meet with the writer of an episode and perhaps another writer to listen to the premise, beat out the story beats, and then off they go to do their writing.

Do you ever get used to the uncertainty of TV? You've been picked up for a full season, but not knowing if you have another season, and you were on Joan of Arcadia ...

HH: I was on Joan of Arcadia only for the first 13 episodes. I was loaned out. It was very kind of my studio, 20th Century Fox, to loan me to Sony to do the first 13 of Joan because the creator, Barbara Hall, is a friend of mine. When she asked me to come and help her get the show up and running, I leapt at the chance. It was really nice. They say studios have no hearts, but it was very kind of the studio to let me go do that, because it was fun. But they only let me stay there for the 13 episodes, and then I came and wrote this pilot.

The uncertainty of TV? I guess I'm used to it now. It's such a crapshoot. You never know what's going to hit – no one does. You never know if you're going to stay on the air. I had a long run on Judging Amy, for me, of four years, and I was three years on my own show in Canada, but those are long, long runs. I tend to get a little bit antsy after a couple of years anyway. The constant change is not the worst thing in the world.

What can we expect from the second half of the season on Bones?

HH: We're going to answer a few of the questions we set up in the first half. I think we have caught our stride in the tone of the show, so I think our plots are a little better, our mysteries are a little tighter and more compelling than they were in the first half. Since the most important thing in this show is the characters, we'll keep on peeling them back and I hope have people as invested in their personal lives as in their professional lives.