AngelSteven S. DeKnight - CityOfAngel.com Interview
By Tara DiLullo
Tuesday 1 April 2003, by Webmaster
Inside Out An Exclusive Interview with Writer Steven S. DeKnight
The Beast rising from the depths of hell, Cordelia sleeping with Angel’s son and the return of Angelus! It’s bedlam in the city this season on Angel and the man plotting much of the insanity is writer Steven S. DeKnight. After two seasons and five episodes scripting on sister-show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon offered DeKnight the opportunity to jump ship and become a staff writer for Angel’s fourth season. A fan favorite since his debut with Buffy’s episode Blood Ties, DeKnight has brought his signature penchant for exploring the dark and controversial to his tenure at Angel. He has written or collaborated on six stories this season including the pivotal episodes, Deep Down, Apocalypse Nowish and his directorial debut, Inside Out. CityofAngel.com had a chance to talk to the infamous "Pantless" DeKnight as he was putting the finishing touches on Inside Out. We got to the bottom of that nickname, the path that eventually led him to Joss Whedon’s universe and some reflections on his directorial debut.
EXTRA HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Everyone comes from somewhere and Steven S. DeKnight started life in the wilds of Southern New Jersey. "I grew up in a really tiny town in South Jersey called Millville about an hour from Atlantic City. Factory town, very small - it didn’t even have it’s own movie theater so I’d have to bike a half an hour to the next town when I was little to catch a flick. My parents were both working class, factory workers. We weren’t poor per se but it was definitely a living from paycheck-to-paycheck childhood." When asked if writing was his ambition from an early age, Steve laughs and answers with an emphatic, "Hell, no!" Acting was actually Steve’s early passion. "I always loved TV and the movies and I did a lot of acting in high school." Post graduation, Steve was intent on pursuing a career in performing. "I decided to strike out to the West Coast - as far away from New Jersey as I could possibly get. I went to school in Santa Cruz, CA. I picked it because one, it had a film program and two - it had the nicest brochure I’d ever seen," he laughs. "Rolling hills, sheep, the ocean - it was gorgeous. I went there for four years and never actually did anything on the film side. I was a theater major: acting and playwriting."
Steve’s first head shot!
The acting dream lost much of its luster mid way through Steve’s collegiate career. "I had intended to be an actor and then about half way through all the plays I was doing, I just realized I wasn’t 6’2" and 190. I thought I could be a better writer so I started writing plays." Successful in his new endeavor, Steve graduated and went to UCLA to pursue his M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing. While honing his craft, Steve had another important epiphany about his career direction. "I realized that as much as I loved play writing, there were people better suited to the craft than I was. I was still more movie oriented and I didn’t want to starve to death as a play write. That was a huge issue. I am passionate about my craft but I’m also a very hungry person and I like to eat," he chuckles. "I stuck around for an extra year to go through [UCLA’s] screenwriting program. I was mentored by two fantastic people: Richard Walter and Lou Hunter, just a couple of great guys who really taught me how to write a screenplay." He adds, "Then I graduated and promptly couldn’t get arrested for more years than I would care to admit."
As is common for those pursuing the arts in Hollywood, Steve suffered through those proverbial "lean years." Steve explains, "I ended up taking a job as an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher at a little Japanese school in the Valley. I didn’t know a word of Japanese and I thought, ’I’ll be here 6 months, maybe a year at most.’" Steve sighs, "Six and a half years later, I was still there. So, I just went to work everyday and at night churned out feature spec screenplays. The screenplays didn’t do me a damn bit of good but I got a job on MTV’s Undressed - my extra humble beginnings." MTV’s Undressed is one of the more "distinct" shows airing on the music cable network. The premise: a quasi soap opera about young, attractive people who think about, talk about and have a lot of sex. Just how did Steve land on that particular show’s staff, you ask? "I had a friend who worked on the pilot. "If I had to write, ’She strips down to her bra and panties’ one more time, I was going to go nuts!" He called me and told me he was working on this ’horrible, Roland Joffe sex, MTV half hour thing.’ He said, ’I don’t think there is a chance in hell MTV is ever going to pick up this piece of crap but if it goes, I can get your stuff to Roland’s people.’ So six months later, he calls up and says ’I don’t know how this happened but they picked it up. Send me over some of your stuff.’ At that time, I had only done one TV spec and I blush to confess it was a Deep Space Nine script. Let me tell you, nobody, including Deep Space Nine wanted to read it. There wasn’t a big call to read a Deep Space Nine," he snickers. "But I sent it over and in a bizarre coincidence, the guy who read it at Joffe’s company was a huge Deep Space Nine fan. He loved it and I met with the head writers and got the job." Thus, began what Steve describes as "a whirlwind year and a half."
Reflecting on the experience even Steve seems non-plussed. "We did 150 half-hours. It was an insane process. It really taught me how to write fast under pressure. In that job, you were always writing." Watching an episode of MTV’s Undressed, the word "quality" isn’t exactly the first thing to come to mind. So, was it hard for Steve to work on a show he admits he didn’t like so much? Steve confides, "After the first season, it became a lot easier because I lost all artistic sense or anything resembling caring about what I was doing. There are only so many ways you can have people strip down to their underwear. Honest to God, towards the end if I had to write, ’She strips down to her bra and panties’ one more goddamn time, I was going to go nuts! It was killing my soul."
Steve’s salvation wouldn’t come until about a year and a half into the gig. "During one of the brief breaks between the seasons of Undressed, I decided what I needed was a new agent. I had a wonderful agent but it was an actor’s agency." He explains, "She was the only literary agent there and she didn’t know many people in television. I figured I needed to parlay this MTV thing into something fast before I was teaching English to the Japanese again," he adds. "So, I decided to write another TV spec. I was ping-ponging between an NYPD Blue or a Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I loved Buffy and it was a whole lot closer to my voice so I did one of those [scripts]. Unfortunately, I finished it during staffing season where all the writers [in Los Angeles] are trying to get jobs so no agency really wanted to talk to me during that period because they were busy with their own clients. I thought, ’What the hell! I’ll send it to my current agent, maybe she has a cousin who works in TV somewhere.’ So, I’m not kidding, she knows three people in TV and one of them was George Snyder who ran Mutant Enemy at the time. She sent it to George, he read it, really liked it and they called me."
WELCOME TO THE WHEDON-VERSE!
Steve could finally see a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel but sadly it was only as bright as a 20-watt bulb. "I went in for a meeting and they told me, ’Buffy isn’t looking for anybody. Angel is all staffed up but we are launching an animated show [of Buffy] and we thought you might want to work on that?’ He explains, "Animated money is not great but I thought if I did a year on that maybe they would give me a freelance Buffy or Angel. First, they told me, ’Joss has to read [my script] and he pretty much doesn’t like any of the Buffy specs, so we’ll give you a call.’ I sat around for a month and finally I got a call from Joss saying he really loved the script, ’Come in, let’s talk.’ So I went in and we shot the shit for like half an hour talking about movies, comic books and superheroes. At the end he said, ’Look I know you’re interviewing for the animated show but do you want to do a freelance Buffy?’" Steve laughs as he recalls his enthusiastic answer of, "Hell, Yes!" It was season five on Buffy and he scribed episode thirteen, Blood Ties. It dealt with the pivotal moment when Buffy’s sister, Dawn [Michelle Tractenburg] finds out she is The Key. Humbly Steve adds, "It went pretty well. Joss offered me a full-time job and here I am."
Switching gears from Undressed to Buffy offered a challenging transition but all in the right direction according to Steve. "Working on Undressed was such a group thing. There were so many people giving you notes: the head writer, Roland Joffe, MTV, everybody was giving conflicting notes so it was a mess." Buffy was different for Steve because, "Joss has a very clear idea of what he wants and basically you get notes from Joss and Marti [Noxon, co-executive producer of Buffy] if Joss is busy. I wasn’t dealing with the network," he adds. "Joss dealt with the network and pretty much, they would ask him to do something and he would say, "No", which is the way it should be. It was fantastic. There is nothing better as a writer than getting notes, story ideas and direction from somebody that you respect and think is better than you are so you can really learn how to do things. Working here has been the best experience and the people here are just fantastic." The rapport amongst the Mutant Enemy writers is something of an industry legend at this point and Steve just adds to the love fest. "There is very little ego here. It really is all about the story and the writers especially are very intent on having a good time. We want to hang out and laugh all day and enjoy each other’s company. It’s very rare to find a show where there’s not an asshole among them. Joss once said, ’You can be the best writer in the world but if you don’t get along with my family, I don’t want you on my show.’ I totally agree."
Sarah’s least favorite scene ever from the episode, Dead Things
While he only wrote for two seasons on Buffy, Steve was responsible for some of the more controversial moments in the history of the show especially with the episodes, Seeing Red and Dead Things. Steve laughs as he comments, "I don’t know if you read the Entertainment Weekly article recently?" In the edition, Sarah Michelle Gellar officially announced season seven would be her last on the series. "Sarah was good enough to point out her least favorite moment was in one of my scripts [Dead Things]. I feel very honored." Seriously, he adds, "I totally understand why that part made her uncomfortable [in which Buffy and Spike share a sexual encounter at The Bronze nightclub]. I wish that I could say it was my idea but it’s something Joss had in the back of his head for a year. It just so happened that it happened in my episode."
But despite Sarah’s reservations, Dead Things rates as the one for which Steve is most proud and his personal favorite of any episode he’s written for either series. But he’s quick to share his reasons why it’s dear to him. "Hats off to the amazing [director] Jim Contner for that episode. I thought he did an amazing job. And Lisa Lazick, the editor on that did just phenomenal work. Sometimes, you have an episode where everybody "shows up." The actors are spot on. The direction is great, the editing, the music, etc...That was just one of those episodes where everything just came together. It had humor at the beginning and then it had that great twist where [the nerds] accidentally killed Katrina and then it got dark, dark, dark, dark. We really wanted to highlight how unhappy Buffy was with herself and really show why she was mistreating Spike because she hated herself."
But Steve really drew fire for his episode Seeing Red in which Willow’s lover Tara [Amber Benson] was killed by a stray bullet. Lesbian fans in particular, who adored the couple, were incensed by that episode and made it known to everyone at Mutant Enemy, including Steve. "I really didn’t help my case on that one, mouthing off [on the subject] on a radio program [The Succubus Club]." He adds, "A major mistake, which I have apologized many times for and I still feel bad over it. It was the wrong thing to do and I was just nervous." But that kind of fan passion for the show and characters has become a hallmark of Whedon’s shows. It then begs the question whether that kind of intensity helps or hinders a writer trying to please fans to a certain extent. "It’s definitely a little bit of both. We do listen to the fans. We don’t always do what the fans would like but we are aware of their feelings and that will become very evident on Angel later on this season. We are still in our hearts just people who happen to work in a television show. If somebody calls your kid ugly, you know it will hurt but you have to take it with a grain of salt."
TAKEN BY AN ANGEL
At the end of Buffy’s sixth season, change was in the wind at Mutant Enemy and for Steve in particular. While he never got a chance to crossover and write an Angel episode that season, he remained a big fan. "In the office building, Buffy is upstairs and Angel is downstairs. After each Angel, I would always pop downstairs and tell David Greenwalt what I thought - which was usually, ’I loved it! It was a great show.’ David, Tim Minear and I were always talking about me doing an episode for them but my schedule never matched up. But everybody knew I loved the show and was interested in doing a script." The development of Joss’ Firefly series initiated the changes that brought Steve to Angel. "Joss was looking for someone to run Firefly and Tim Minear was the obvious choice. So, Joss came to me and said, ’I’d really like to have Tim run the show but if I take Tim away from Angel, Greenwalt would probably quit in protest.’ To fill a little bit of that gap, and not to replace Tim, because quite frankly nobody can, Joss asked me if I would be willing to come down to Angel. It was a promotion and a little more money but he could have offered me the exact same thing and I would have said, ’Yeah!’"
"Joss, you will bring me over to Angel"
His move was only one change among many this season at Angel that made for a challenging year all around. "It was really hard with the executive shuffle in the first three months. We usually work two or three months before we start filming and that was rough. David Simpkins [Tim Minear’s original replacement as Angel showrunner] was a great guy and I really, really enjoyed working with him. But it’s hard to bring somebody in from the outside and throw them into running a Joss show because things are done a bit differently and the [character] voices are so specific. I think the creative sensibilities just didn’t gel. So, we had David Greenwalt for a couple of weeks [who left Angel to executive produce a new series for ABC, Miracles], David Simpkins for a few months then we had nobody. Then we had Jeff Bell step in to run things." He adds, "It was rocky but I don’t think it affected the stories. Behind the scenes it just took more energy to create the stories."
And if all that wasn’t enough to deal with, Steve reported back to work in July of 2002, ready to slowly transition into his new position. That is until he was assigned writing the series premiere, Deep Down. "David Greenwalt was supposed to do that episode and then he had a disagreement with Fox and went to Miracles. I was on vacation in Hawaii and found out David had quit and I thought, ’Oh Jesus! This isn’t what I signed on for!’ But I bumped into David in the hallway a couple of days later and he asked, "You want to write episode one?" and I said, ’Okay!’" Well, so much for easy transitions. "They did throw me into the deep end. I was hoping to hang around for three or four episodes before I stepped up. The first episode was a little rocky. I had to do a major re-write on that one but after that I got the hang of it. Apocalypse Nowish was much smoother."
It’s now three-quarters into season four and Steve has been responsible for all or part of a whopping six episodes. A conspiracy to kill the newbie? "Apparently, yes," Steve laughs. He isn’t expecting to be assigned anymore scripts before the finale. "At the moment, ’No’ but you never know. On the [writer’s] board, someone asked on episode twelve [Calvary], which was written by me, Jeff Bell and Mere Smith, ’What, it took three people to write this?’ He wearily laughs and adds, "If you ever see more than one writer on an episode, unless it’s a writing team like Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, it purely means we didn’t have enough time for one person to do it. We basically had a Saturday and Sunday to write that script." Due to those time constraints this season, collaborating on scripts has been common which can be hard to accomplish if writing styles are disparate. "In that case, we were all really surprised how well it all fit together. It took very little work to smooth out the transitions from one writer to the next." He adds, "Sometimes, it doesn’t quite match up. Usually, from a writer’s standpoint, it’s a lot easier to write an act and a half than to write all four acts because it is a pretty grueling schedule. We seldom have more than five days to write an entire script. You have to write more than ten pages a day and it gets pretty draining." Steve continue, "One of the easiest and most pleasurable experiences I had this year was co-writing episode ten [Awakening] with David Fury. It was about two and a half days of work and I got to work with Fury, which is always a pleasure."
All hell breaks loose in Steve’s Apocalypse Nowish!
The dynamic of writing for a Joss show is unique in that Joss is clearly the captain of the story ship. Everything from seasonal arcs, character motivation to minute details all stem from Joss’ big frontal lobe. With such a strong vision, it’s a wonder the individual writers have any flexibility in adding their own personal stamp to the scripting process. Steve explains, "You get quite a lot of flexibility especially on Angel. We have even more flexibility because Joss, despite loving the show, has priorities elsewhere. He gives us the broad general idea or sometimes we pitch him the general idea and then he’ll approve the final product in stages." He adds, "We do most of the stuff ourselves. The stories are made in the breaking process, where everyone has a voice, but it’s whoever’s episode that is at the time who really takes the lead on it. Often times we’ll break a story and, more often than we’d like, there will be parts where we’ll just put "WP" on the board, which means "writer’s problem." So, you go off and figure that out. Within any show, you want to stay within the voice of the characters but the voices on Buffy and Angel are both so cool that’s not a problem."
Intense fan reaction has followed Steve to his new home as well. Season four on Angel has been out of the ordinary in that the episodes have been less about individual stories, rather they have all been building one huge arc that is just starting to pay off now for audiences. Due to the slow process in revealing details, fans have been beside themselves all season heatedly questioning the actions of several key characters this season. Steve explains, "One of the biggest things this year, has been the reaction to Apocalypse Nowish, (and that is the title of the episode rather than Rain of Fire regardless of what The WB says. They just couldn’t promote it with that title due to legal issues.) But everybody loved the show, basically giving it five stars then taking three away because of the very end. [People asked] "Why would Cordy do that?" [sleep with Angel’s son] Well, based on episode twelve, I think we have started to see why she is doing that. And there is a bigger reason for it that will become apparent as well. But it’s stuff like that which can really agitate you. [The fans] have to remember it’s a long story arc."
Since the huge arc approach is really a new for Angel, the writing staff has been happy with the experiment. "I will confess occasionally, we do slow the story down where perhaps we shouldn’t or it takes a little too long to get to the point. I don’t think that’s been the case this season on Angel but it was an issue last season on Buffy. We were trying something new and it didn’t 100% work but kudos to Joss for trying something different. This year on Angel has been flying. We’ve just done this huge arc and it’s pretty much been nothing but the arc. There’s been no room for anything else." And the story developments coming out each week have been more and more surprising. In particular, Steve loves the "evil Cordelia" twist. "I believe it was kind of a combination of our wonderful new writers who had this idea for a villain, which hasn’t been entirely revealed yet and Joss saying, "Oh! Let’s make it Cordelia! How cool would it be to make her evil?" We were so excited by making Cordelia the bad guy." He also enthuses, "We were all thrilled as well when Joss said, "Let’s get Eliza [Dushku] to come in and be Faith."
With Steve writing up a storm and adjusting to his new position, which would be more than enough work for most, it’s not for Steve. Episode seventeen entitled, Inside Out [airing on April 2] is his directorial debut. "Those mad fools actually let me get behind the camera!" he exclaims and laughs. Explaining his motivation to direct, he says, "I think if you are a writer, at some point, you spend so much time in the editing rooms complaining, ’Where’s this shot?’ and ’Why didn’t they get this?’ that you want to give it a shot. It was something I’ve always been interested in but unfortunately, I had never directed anything, not even a student film. So nobody was more surprised than I when they said, "Yes" to my request to direct an episode." Preparation was key and the producers helped by giving Steve a chance to practice. "They gave me one day of Second Unit to film some full scenes to make sure I wasn’t a complete idiot. The scenes were in episode 14. Then three weeks later, they threw me behind the camera to do the full on job."
Steve & his "Fine, fine lady," Mere Smith
Considering the enormous undertaking of directing a full episode in eight days with only one day of shooting under his belt, it must have been terrifying to some extent. "Absolutely! Luckily, we have just a fantastic crew. We have the best crew spearheaded by producer Kelly Manners who really could not have been nicer to me. He guided me through the process, helping me and chewing on my ass when it needed to be chewed on," he laughs. "It was an exhausting process. I don’t know how professional TV directors do it job after job because it is just non-stop." When asked about the particular challenges, Steve takes a second to muse and then laughs saying, "I learned from the moment you step foot on the set you are two hours behind schedule, regardless." He adds, "Most of the stuff I learned was purely technical involving numbers of setups and how to get multiple shots in one set-up with one camera. It’s like a runaway train - things are happening so fast and yet so slow." As difficult as it may have been, Steve is immediately enthusiastic when asked if he would do it again. "I can’t wait to do it again! I think I can do much better next time, not to say there is anything wrong with it but I just learned a lot. I could do it better with less effort next time." He excitedly adds, "It was just a wonderful process."
Of course, Steve does have a life outside of the show even though that line is a little more blurry now considering his "fine, fine lady" is fellow Angel writer, Mere Smith. "Mere Smith and I have been dating for about a year. I had grave reservations about dating anyone that worked in the same office building and this was when I was on Buffy at the end of the season." Steve continues, "We had been dating for about three weeks and we were keeping it "hush, hush" just in case it didn’t work out. Then Joss popped into my office and asked, ’How would you like to work on Angel?’ I’m thinking ’Uh, that could put a crimp in my relationship.’" Asked if it’s tough working together as competitive writers, Steve answers sagely, "We’re both very passionate about ideas and stories and sure we don’t hold back. When we are in the room breaking a story, if you walked in you would never guess we were dating." With the end of the season looming, the couple hopes to relax and view a backlog of movies. "I’m a huge movie fan. I’ve got my big TV and my surround sound so I love to throw in a DVD. I have a pile to catch up with." He admits to another pastime as well, "Sad to say, I’m reverting to my fourteen-year-old self - the X-Box has sucked me in." Favorite titles include the Buffy X-box game. "I think they did a great job on the Buffy game! I enjoyed that game and I was surprised because I thought it was just going to be kinda crappy. It has a great story and great game play." He also recommends SSX Tricky and Halo.
The conversation then turned to how he got his infamous nickname, "Pantsless" Steve DeKnight. He laughs loud when asked about the origin. "When I used to hang out with the fans [on The Bronze Beta Website], I joked once about my hula boxers. And then it became a whole thing about not wearing pants and this game of "Guess What Boxers I’m Wearing Today?" Friday was often the day Steve logged onto The Bronze - hence the boxers game degenerated into "Pantless Fridays with Steve." Steve laments, "One of the sad things about this year is that I haven’t had time to be on the posting board talking to fans because down on Angel, we basically have four writers compared to Buffy’s eight." But he hopes to be back by the end of the season, so fear not Bronzers and start laying bets on the boxers now.
As the Angel season prepares to come to a production close by mid-April, the outstanding question hot on the lips of both fans and staff is whether The WB will renew the series for a fifth season. As of press time, The WB expressed they would make their official decision in May. "Nobody knows anything basically," Steve says sighing. "We alway talk about how we’re not sure if we are insulted about being moved around so much or if it’s a compliment. [The WB] seems to move us around and throw us against huge shows. We were convinced being up against Alias [on Sunday nights] would crush us and then we got the same numbers. So, we pretty much feel that anywhere you move us, we’ll get the same numbers. We always joke, ’We’re number 101 with a bullet!’ he laughs. "Our ratings are never going to be stellar but it’s a solid show. We all feel the show really deserves at least one more season. We’ve got some really cool stuff planned."
"Anywhere [the WB] move us, we’ll get the same numbers. We always joke, ’We’re number 101 with a bullet!’" Internet rumors as well as comments made by Joss and staff to the media seem to suggest some major changes indeed could be coming if a season five happens. Which begs the question, "Why?" especially considering that almost universally, fans and critics alike think Angel has really come into its own creatively in the last two seasons. Steve agrees but adds, "We would love to have more space to do some more stand-alone episodes to mix it up. We would love to do some funnier episodes, some scarier episodes and some action oriented episodes. Basically, I think the real feeling is that in the Joss-universe, we have had the biggest story arc ever. I think definitely shaking it up means we’re not planning on doing exactly the same thing next year. It’s almost been a little bit of 24 on Angel this year because it’s all the same arc. I think the entire season pretty much happens over two or three weeks. Next season, I think we’d like to open it up and if The WB blesses us with one more there will be some major shifts and major surprises."
"I wore a pair of boxers just like these when I was writing Dead Things. Slip them on and feel the love!" signed: Steven DeKnight
If Angel doesn’t return, Steve is already working on his future and thinking about what he wants to do. "I can’t imagine not directing again, another reason I hope the show comes back so I get a chance to do it a couple more times. I ultimately want to head towards developing my own show down the line or a couple of them following Joss’ example." He laughs adding, "I think I’ll keep it at two though, I know my limitations." As for TV writing jobs, "I would definitely stick with one hour dramas. There are some great shows I would love to work for: Alias, 24. There are some great pilots out there especially a fantastic pilot by a brilliant writer named Brian Fuller called Made in the Mist. It’s the coolest thing ever!" He has almost completed writing on a screenplay for Disney updating Robin Hood with Maid Marian as the heroine. "Good experience, loved working on the script but Good Christ! What was I thinking about writing a feature when I’m working on a television show where I was going to be directing? There were a lot of late nights of getting home at 9 or 10 o’clock at night and having to put in three or four hours on that script."
Regardless of what happens in May, Steve is just incredibly happy for his three years on the job with Joss Whedon as his boss. As with most of the Mutant Enemy team, Steve waxes enthusiastically about what lessons he will take with him when he leaves the Whedon creative team. He pauses in thought then readily brings forth his answer. "Early on when I did my first freelance with Joss and I was being a little too flashy, he said something and it’s always stuck in my mind. He said, "Emotion and clarity above all else", and that was such a great thing to learn. It’s something I keep reminding myself of everyday and someday when I have my own show, I’ll tell my writers the same thing. It’s great to have that cool turn of phrase or to be funny but emotion and clarity are the most important things." Wise words and concepts that Steve DeKnight has certainly made his own.