I spoke with Sons & Daughters writer, actor, and director Fred Goss on Monday for the Blogcritics article Good Show, Bad News. I requested the interview before finding out that ABC had pulled the show from the schedule with one episode still unaired, but the not-similarly-ignorant Goss readily agreed to talk about the show, the creative process, and his hope for Sons & Daughters' future.
I was sad to hear ABC doesn't have the last episode scheduled. Any word on when it might air?
FG: I think what they're wanting to do is to figure out a time to rerun the episodes in the early summer, and then they'll probably tag it on there as sort of a bonus episode. I know they can't put it on within the next couple of weeks because their schedule's already locked down. That was the deal. We were pre-empted by The Ten Commandments, they're scheduling a Hope and Faith and Less Than Perfect the week after that, then I think there's a Barbara Walters thing. So where do you put this single episode that's been detached from the rest by a month?
Have they given you any indication that it might get a second season?
FG: No. If we're going just by numbers, then it wouldn't. Since the network really likes it a lot and they understand that they put us in kind of a death spot ….
What they really needed to do was to put us with something that gave us a big lead-in number. You know how Crumbs went on after Dancing with the Stars? Dancing with the Stars got 18 million viewers and the first episode of Crumbs lost 5 million but retained 13 million, so they had a base to work with, you know? We never really had that.
When do you find out? Is that May?
FG: Yeah, by mid-May.
In one episode, Carrie comments that "families are invasive - get used to it," which seems to be a running theme. Do you think the show makes the case for that being a mixed blessing?
FG: No, no, it's a good thing. People are always saying "oh, this crazy dysfunctional family." You know, I don't think they're that dysfunctional. Unless my family was totally different from everybody else's. But everyone's got their issues. Yeah, we're ramped up a little more because we're a comedy, but the show is about trying to find humour in the mundane or the sad. Mainly the mundane. You know, a guy going through problems with his teenage son is meaningless to anyone except the dad and the teenage son, because everyone's got their own problems and it's not interesting enough to steal your focus. So that's what we try to do in the show, is to show that struggle that goes on between people that most of the time you don't see in a comedy.
When you're writing an episode, are you looking for a comedic premise first, or are you really going for the family drama as the backbone?
FG: We tell the story first. There's no jokes in the script. There's no dialogue in the script. What we'll do is we'll write the basic story first so everything makes sense and we know what the drive is. Then we go through and we start to analyse, well, what can you possibly do to get comedy out of this. Sometimes, you just throw up your hands and say there's really no way to get comedy out of that particular moment. But it's OK, because you can surround it with this moment and this moment and this moment. And then we'll do another pass where we go through and say let's work in a couple of good physical bits.
Like in "Film Festival," Carrie and Henry talking about the film festival, and walking and talking. Originally Jeff pulling up in the car wasn't there, but there was no way to get any real comedy out of their conversation, so we thought we'd make the comedy happen behind them, by having his car break down.
That's what we'll do. We'll go though and figure it out. Like me walking in and having Aunt Rae have a Hitler mustache. The discovery wasn't that big before, but we realized that it would ramp it up if I walked past her and did a double take. We try to figure out where can we put physicality in the show. Otherwise it becomes very talking heads, because it's improvised. It's hard to have cameras follow when they don't know who's going to talk and how long it's going to take.
It's not typical in other ways, too – it's been pegged as a comedy, but there's as much drama to it. Do you get the sense that audiences don't quite know what to make of half hour shows that aren't purely sitcoms? Or that networks don't know how to market them?
FG: I've been getting really good feedback on discussion boards that people seem to be really into that element of it. The last show that ABC had that did that was actually the last half hour they won an Emmy with - The Wonder Years - and that was a dramedy too. That was a really interesting show.
Did you think of that when you were creating this one?
FG: No, we didn't really.... We had created something called The Weekend for NBC, my partner Nick (Holly) and I. ABC had seen it first but we sold it to NBC. So two months into making the pilot for NBC, ABC called us back – Steve McPherson – and said, you know, I can't stop thinking about this show. He said, I get why you had to sell it to NBC, because of your affiliation with Lorne (Michaels of SNL, a producer of Sons & Daughters), but he said could you make something similar for me, only make it like a Parenthood thing, with an extended family. I said an extended family is good for me, but can we show the modern state of the extended family, with a lot of divorces and half-brothers. He was into that, so that's how the show came about.
It really has been a collaboration with ABC from the start. It's not like we came in trying to push an agenda on them. They asked us to do it. That's why they've been so great. People don't believe me when I say how great they've been. They just think I'm kissing their butt. But they really have because they wanted to try something new. They never thought this would change the face of television, it's just a different way to make a show, in this format.
What appealed to you about the format?
FG: My whole background is in improvisation. All of my scripted acting has been done by preparing for it improvisationally. I've done improv comedy since I was 19. I'd always been looking for a way to make improv work within a structured format like TV, but it always seems to become gimmicky, like Whose Line is it Anyway, or indulgent, like Reno 911!. Not to say it's an indulgent show, but you know that it's improvised. It's obvious that they're improvised.
That always kind of bugged me, so I wanted to do a show where we used improvisation more like an Altman approach, where we use improvisation as our creative process but we don't necessarily need you to know that it's improvised.
And that was the plan, originally. We weren't going to lean on that at all, but then ABC started to focus group it and test it and found that audiences responded well to the idea that it was improvised. But honestly, I think you could put the show out there and not tell anyone it's improvised and no one would care. I don't know that the improv either helps or hurts it. Nothing seemed to help it as far as the numbers went.
It seemed like almost a parental warning at the beginning, saying "the dialogue in Sons & Daughters has been improvised."
FG: Yeah, that I don't like. That was the network responding to testing and it either looks like an apology or bragging or something. I can't quite figure out how I feel when I see it, but it's totally unnecessary.
What does a script look like? You said there's no dialogue at all. Is there just the outline of the scenes then?
FG: They're usually about 11 or 12 pages long, and it's all descriptions. Scene by scene, it will give a very thorough description of what the actors are supposed to achieve within the scene, so the actors have these really strong bullet points they have to hit in order to propel the story forward for editing purposes. We make sure they do that. How they go about it and the words they use to do it are up to them, for the most part. We'll get halfway through shooting and we'll let the actors do their thing at first and then if we're not quite there yet, we'll start to mold it from behind the camera and say "why don't you try saying this" or literally "I need you to say this" because that's going to be the line that takes us to the next scene. So instead of just being this raw improv from the actors its more like we're all writing it on the fly, both in front of the camera and behind it.
How many writers do you have?
FG: We have six writers, and Nick and I made eight, to start out with. And then we'll only have Nick and me on the set and maybe two other writers, and we'll try to get somebody who's good with story and somebody who's good with jokes. I'd like to say that Lexi (Jourden) came up with "I made a number two but they haven't found it yet" on her own, but it was actually one of our joke writers. Colleen – Dee (Wallace) – had gone into this thing about "Well, she did her number one but she didn't do her number two" and we trigger off of that. As she was saying that, someone was trying to formulate what could happen here to add a joke, so we gave that line to Lexi and she delivered it beautifully.
It seems like that process would require a certain amount of trust in your actors, as the guy with your name up there as creator and writer. Had you worked with these actors before, or what was the audition process like?
FG: I'd worked with Jerry Lambert. He and I worked together at the ACME Comedy Theatre in LA. And I had worked with Alison Quinn briefly on Significant Others, which was a Bravo show that ran two seasons that was also improvised.
I had met Gillian Vigman, who plays Liz, a couple of times, trying to put her into projects, and it hadn't happened yet, but she came in for my wife and she was great. She actually is half Jewish. Some people don't believe she's Jewish, but she is. Her mom is British and converted to Judaism because she married a Jewish man. Usually if the mom's not Jewish they don't necessarily consider themselves Jewish, but since her mom converted, she's Jewish anyway.
Dee Wallace I did not know, and I did not know Max Gail.
I wasn't even supposed to be in the show. What we did for the casting process was I would be sitting off camera and we would improvise. We'd choose two characters and I would normally play Cameron because he was more my comedic voice. So I would play Cameron with my mom, or Cameron with my dad, and I would be off camera improvising.
We'd do 20 minutes and then we'd take that 20 minute tape and cut it down to the best 2 minutes. Which is kind of what we do on the show – we shoot for an hour to get 2 minutes. So we would take the discs in to the network and they would watch it, and Steve and the VPs and everyone were listening to me off camera playing Cameron and they just got accustomed to hearing my perspective.
When we got around to auditioning Camerons, they had a hard time warming up to anybody else, and they said we think you should do this. I said I can't, I'm in the NBC pilot. I'm under contract. So he did with me exactly what CBS is doing with Gillian Vigman right now, which is to take me in second position, and kind of bank on the fact that the other project won't get picked up. Which isn't as big of a risk of Gillian to do that - it might cost CBS a bit of money if we get picked up - but for Steve MacPherson to do it for our pilot was kind of dicey because he was basically gambling the budget of the pilot on the idea that the NBC show wouldn't get picked up. So it was flattering, but also really scary because I'd kind of settled into the concept of producing and directing the project and being able to oversee how it looked, and then when all of a sudden you're in a lot of the scenes, you're directing blind and it's a little weird. But it's not anything I hadn't done before on a smaller level, so I just jumped in.
Sounds like it would be a crazy workload though.
FG: What you have to do is get a team around you that you really trust. We've got a great DP. We've got three camera guys that are terrific. You know, we shoot with three cameras all the time, all handheld all the time, because it's really impossible to shoot with one camera because you have to get everybody talking all at the same time. You can't just turn around after 20 minutes of talking and say "OK, whatever all that stuff you said was, can you say it again?" It never comes out as good. Nobody ever remembers, anyway.
You've directed a lot of the episodes, and you're involved in editing, too aren't you?
How is the process of putting together an episode different than it would be with a scripted show?
FG: Well we get between 12 and 14 hours of footage to build a 22-minute show, so it's a little bit closer to a reality show, except ours is very well scripted, so we know what we need in order to tell the story. But there is a lot of footage there, so it becomes like a puzzle where the pieces change depending on who's putting them together, because there's no one way to put an episode together. There are multiple ways to do it. There's a lot of bad ways and there's a few good ways.
And you hope to find the good ways.
FG: Yes. So we had three editors, and I'm also an editor, so I'd sit down at night and assemble certain scenes, or I'd tell them what I wanted them to do. So it's a two-week process where it slowly starts to come together the way you picture it in your head. Then you give it to the network and they give their notes, and you toss it back and forth a couple of times until everyone's happy.
Do you have a longer production process than a scripted show?
FG: We did this year. We would never have this scenario again, because we were picked up and we went into production last summer, and then we kept getting backed up. We didn't go up in November, we didn't go up in January, we went up in March. So we had an enormous amount of time to labour over the cuts. We had nine months to do 13 episodes. Normally we would shoot for four days, turn it in and edit in two weeks, so we'd have three weeks per episode.
Your character is pretty much the hub of the show, but how do you think Cameron sees his role in the family?
FG: That's how Cameron sees it. It's like when he teed off on Henry, when he was cutting the hedges after he'd been fired. Maybe the rest of the family doesn't see him that way, but that's how he sees himself, as the anchor. I think that's true, I don't think other people see him as the anchor, I think he sees himself as the anchor. He will remain the anchor, but we're also going to try to merge into more of an ensemble style where the other characters' storylines get developed more.
Is there a philosophy that we're doomed to repeat our families' mistakes? There are some patterns to the characters, with young mothers, absent fathers, questionable choices in men.
FG: My partner Nick and I, our background has a lot of teen pregnancies, there's a lot of divorce in my family, a lot of repeating the same bad behaviour without learning. Tons of stuff in the show is taken from personal experience. The whole thing with Aunt Rae was loosely based on a moment with my grandmother when I brought my wife and kids back. My wife and kids are Jewish, and I'm not. And the divorce - my dad's been divorced five times, my mom's been divorced five times. I'm an extreme case, but you need that kind of cartoon extremity to translate into a TV show, I think.
Does your family call you on putting them in your show?
FG: A little bit [laughs]. I don't think I ever put them in a bad light. And the bottom line is that the people on the show love and care about each other. They might argue and lose patience but they're in close proximity because they want to be.
Are there plans for a DVD yet?
FG: Oh, absolutely. NBC Universal is the studio so they're going to be handling that. They're very excited. I think it will come out, I'd guess probably sometime this summer. There will be a lot of special features on it. There's so many great things we couldn’t put in because of network standards. Even things that aren't dirty, but alternate takes that were just as good as what we used, but you have to choose one.
What can viewers do to show ABC their support for the show?
FG: They can write the ABC audience relations address:
Sons & Daughters
ABC Audience Relations
500 S. Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521-4551