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Jeffrey BellJeffrey Bell - "Day Break" Tv Series - Creativescreenwriting.com Interview
Tuesday 28 November 2006, by Webmaster
Facing the Day : Day Break’s Jeffrey Bell
TV veteran Jeffrey Bell discusses his new showrunning gig on ABC’s Day Break and how his experiences on The X-Files, Angel, and Alias prepared him to tackle the same day over and over and over again.
Seven years after meeting executive story editor Jeffrey Bell in the offices of The X-Files, CS Weekly contributor Jason Davis renewed his acquaintance with the showrunner of ABC’s highly promoted Day Break, where LA cop Brett Hopper (Taye Diggs) finds himself reliving the same day over and over while trying to escape being framed, to discuss his partnership with series creator Paul Zbyszewski, how to turn a pilot into a series, and his fondness for Mexican wrestling...no really.
How did you become involved with Day Break?
Matt Gross (Joe Somebody) and Paul Zbyszewski (After the Sunset) had the project up. Paul wrote and created the pilot. I was over at Alias and the people at Touchstone said, "We have a project you might be really great for." They had a really great script and they were looking for someone to help them turn it into a series. Our friend, Mr. Bowman [X-Files director Rob Bowman] had come onboard just a day or two before that. All four of us really hit it off and had a similar vision of what the series could be.
The series is a day. We wanted to explore how different that day could look. How can you structure it so each day is different? The first thing [Hopper] has to come to terms with is the fact that his day is repeating. That’s not something he even tries to articulate in the pilot episode, which I really laud Paul for. If that were happening to you or me, there’s no way we’d buy it. So, Hopper doesn’t. In the second episode, we want to demonstrate some of the rules — like he can die — which is different than Groundhog Day where he’s immortal, or invincible, or whatever it is when you can drive a car off a cliff and wake up back in your bed [laughs]. We really wanted to show that there is danger in Hopper doing these things. He gets shot in the second episode and nearly dies. He doesn’t know what’s going to free him from the day. He doesn’t know, "I have to solve this conspiracy" or "I have to push this button" or "I have to answer this question." He doesn’t know the answer. All he knows is that people are trying to kill him and his girlfriend and he needs to keep himself and her alive.
You inherited the mantle of showrunner on Angel when David Simkins left the series, how has your experience running Day Break from day one been different from that baptism of fire?
It’s very different. The thing going into Angel was, "Don’t break it." It was really everything it needed to be. It was just giving [executive producer] Joss Whedon the show he wanted week to week. Here, we had to illustrate quickly how different each episode could be. Most shows try to find a template like CSI or Law & Order. "There’s a body — let’s solve the crime." If our second episode felt remotely like the first one, I believe people would have said, "Oh this is boring — I get it — there’s no reason for there to be a second episode."
We have intentionally avoided a formula in that respect. There are episodes that follow two days. There are episodes that follow 15 days. We wanted to demonstrate, out of the box, "This is very different." In the same way that you wake up and, more or less, do the same thing everyday, there’s a world in which you could convince yourself, "I’m living the same day over and over. I get up. I come here to the office." We write stories. We do things. Based on little decisions, the day changes, but by and large, it’s the same day. We wanted to demonstrate that if you got on a plane or went downtown, your day would be very different. I think we’ve done that — rather violently.
The way Paul conceived it, there’s a real noir element to our show that we love. We’re all fans of noir and the way people talk — the whole kind of conspiracy, corruption, scandal, betrayal quality of the show really lends itself to that. Everybody has really risen to the challenge.
With such a unique premise, what did you look for in prospective writers?
We read a zillion people like every other show does and went after people. It’s always a challenge on a first- year show, because you don’t have the comfort of saying we’ve been here four years or longer. It’s safer to take an existing hit show than to come to a newbie like us. Several people had other opportunities and walked away to play with us, and for that we’re very grateful.
What’s your process for breaking an episode?
Ready to go to hell? [laughs] We’ve tried to create something that’s not just an action show the way 24 is, because they do that fantastically and we don’t need another one of those. We’ve tried to tell a story and make room for emotional scenes, especially when we have someone like Taye Diggs in the lead.
Breaking an episode, you have to figure out what the day one, the day two, the day three, or the day four of it is. The fun of the show is — here’s day one, but this didn’t work out so well, so how’s he going to handle day two? Frequently, you need to understand what you need for day two and go back. It’s a very fluid process where we’ll build a day. We’ll know certain things that we want. We knew that in the fifth episode, Hopper was going to take Chad, Adam Baldwin’s character, hostage in the police station. We knew that was going to happen, so what do we need to get there?
One of the hardest things is to teach the audience how we tell stories — it’s a very dense story that people need to pay attention to. I think everyone on the staff would say these are the hardest stories we’ve ever had to break because of the combination of the repeating day. Just when you think, "We can do this!" you go, "No, we can’t, because remember in episode three - - we already know that that guy is here. Why wouldn’t he be there? Can we affect the day so that he’s not there anymore?"
So, it’s as much an exercise in problem solving for the writers as it is for Hopper?
Hopper’s got it easy.
Each title is a "what if?" When it really works, that "what if?" works on three or four different levels. "What If They Run?" is the second one — the thing we felt we needed to demonstrate clearly was he can’t run away from this. The only way to demonstrate that is to try to run away from it. A lot of them will use a pronoun "he" or "she" and hopefully, by the end of the episode, you realize that "he" or "she" wasn’t necessarily Hopper.
The conceit of the show clearly provides Hopper with a lot of emotional baggage and some not insubstantial problem-solving opportunities. Do you plan to reveal the mechanism behind his predicament, and will that be a recurring arc throughout the series? Or are they just the rules by which your stories are told?
It’s something that he’s going to explore and ask about, but the fact that he’s a fugitive and on the run doesn’t give him a lot of opportunity for that. There are times when we talk about it and he thinks he might have an answer or not, but for us, right now to answer that question concretely, kind of kills season two. We do discuss it. Could it be this? Could it be that? Is it metaphysical? Is it scientific? Is it medical? He ends up going to get an MRI just to make sure nothing’s wrong with his brain. It’s really interesting to go down to the set and listen to the crew say, "We think it’s this," and realize how deeply vested these people are in the story. I think to tell them any one answer now would be a letdown. It’s like when you find out how a magic trick works. Usually, it’s a very simple thing. It’s the artistry of the presentation that makes it beautiful rather than the gimmick that you use to create the illusion.
This series clearly follows a similar suspense-filled path as your other work. How has your experience on X-Files, Angel, and Alias prepared you for working on this series?
From X-Files, you [learn to] always aim for excellence. [Creator] Chris Carter would say, "If you don’t try to make the most awesome, amazing X- Files show possible, you don’t have a shot at making it good." From Angel, it’s all about the emotions, stupid. Joss just hammered into all of us that ultimately, if you had to choose between logic and emotion, then go with emotion. You want to build as logical a show as possible, but if there’s no emotion, people won’t care. That was a profound influence on me, and I’ve forced that on people I’ve been involved with since then. On Alias, anything’s possible. JJ just had this amazing ability to go "And then, this will happen!" And you’re like, "Oh, my God! That’s so cool!" A willingness to go for the "holy shit" is what I took from Alias.
The show’s premiering during the coveted Lost timeslot in the middle of November sweeps. As I understand it, the plan is to run 13 episodes there before Lost resumes next year. How does this strategy impact the creation of the show?
I think it’s a really good fit. The challenge for us is, they’re putting the first two episodes together, then our next week is the busiest travel day of the year — we’re on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. We want people to be watching our show. Then we’re two days after Christmas. We’re two days after New Year’s, and so I want people to be able to watch the show because we’re really proud of it. I think the slot’s a really good time slot. If Lost fans would give it a shot, they’ll enjoy it. It’ll be something for them to play with while their first love is away. Right now, I believe ABC is very excited about the series. They’ve seen the first five episodes and read scripts through 11. I feel they’re happy with what they’re giving us.
What’s been your favorite experience as a writer?
Oh, I can’t say that. I have had the blessed good fortune to work on, now, four shows that I love dearly, and I was able to bring whatever peculiarities I bring as a writer to those shows.
Like Mexican wrestling? [A reference to a notion originally pitched to The X-Files that eventually found a home in a memorable installment of Angel entitled "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco".]
Like snake handlers and Mexican wrestling, yes.
Will we be seeing any Mexican wrestlers in Day Break?
We’ve joked about it. If you watch the pilot, you’ll see we run down Olivera Street past a man trying on a luchador mask.
I was just joking.
[Laughs] You’ll see it — right there in the pilot. What’s fun about Day Break is it’s got insane action. It’s got very deep emotion. It’s got really funny scenes that feel totally earned. That makes me very happy.