EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Charlie Jade Headwriter Alex Epstein

By Richard

July 30, 2008 Television 21 Comments

Charlie Jade

(Editor’s Note: Richard rocks the house for landing this awesome interview with Alex Epstein. Thanks Richard and thanks Alex!)

It’s no mystery that I’m a huge Charlie Jade fan. I don’t write those insanely long and detailed recaps on a show relegated to the 2am time slot for fame and fortune, that’s for sure. What is a little surprising is how I came to know and love the show.

Like many others, I’m an aspiring screenwriter. In some ways it’s harder to break in today because there are more competitors for the few available slots; however, we have resources that weren’t available even five or ten years ago. There are dozens of accomplished writers blogging about their experiences as staff writers, writers’ assistants, and show runners. Some write from decades of experience and some give us play-by-play as they learn on the job. One of the longest-blogging writers out there is Alex Epstein, who keeps an ongoing conversation with fans, newbie writers, and others at Complications Ensue. I’ve been reading Alex’s blog for at least two years now and also own his book “Crafty TV Writing”. If you want to write for television, I highly recommend it.

Once I started reading Alex on craft, I realized this was a guy who not only could teach me a lot, but who had similar sensibilities to mine. Odds were high that stuff he did, I’d like. And having seen a decent-sized chunk of his work now, I can tell you my instinct was right. Alex frequently discusses Charlie Jade, even using it to demonstrate how to break and beat a story in “Crafty TV Writing”. I’ve got to tell you, when I read about Charlie hopping dimensions, I knew this was a show for me.

If you’ve been watching and following my recaps, you know that the first eight episodes took a while to get up to speed. There was an awful lot of world building going on, particularly in episodes three and four, and a lot of it felt like the writers were spinning their wheels just a little bit. Some conflicts between the show’s creator, Robert Wertheimer, and the writing staff led to a separation. Starting with episode nine, “Betrayal”, which will air next Tuesday morning at 2am on Sci Fi, a brand new writing staff took the reins, led by Alex.

Alex was nice enough to answer a few questions for us about the switchover and the show. There are a few spoilers in here for upcoming episodes; I’ll do my best to indicate them for those who want to remain pure.

Also, Alex is going to be doing a couple of the episode Podcasts coming up, so if any of you have any questions you’d like to ask in general or about specific episodes, you can contact Alex through his blog, or write them up in comments here and I’ll pass them along. If you want to check out the episode Podcasts, you can find those over at Charlie Jade Verse.

Pop Critics: So how did it happen that you got this job? Did you get a call from Robert Wertheimer one day and end up on a plane the next, or was there more to it?

Alex Epstein: I’d chatted with Bob maybe a year before Charlie Jade started shooting, but he was still developing the series conceptually. After that I was working on the comic drama I created, Naked Josh. I’d pretty much forgotten about CJ when I got a call from the late Robin Spry. He had optioned a fantasy series of mine, and I’d developed a robot series for him.

“How would you like to go to work in Cape Town for four months?” asked Robin.

“Sounds interesting, Robin. When?”

“How about Tuesday?”

“I can’t do Tuesday, Robin, I have a meeting. How about Wednesday?”

Apparently there had been a bit of a falling out between the writing staff on the one hand, and Bob Wertheimer and Diane Boehme on the other, and the staff had been sent on their merry way, or quit, or a bit of both. So we parachuted in during the production with no time to prep.

The show was in a bad situation – behind schedule, over budget, with the storyline wandering, and no real template. Ironically, that meant that we couldn’t screw it up. All we could do is help Bob bring the show back on track. If we succeeded, we’d be heroes. If we didn’t, it wouldn’t be our fault. I think I probably had more fun than anyone else on that show. Bob had to figure out how to juggle the budget and the financing. I just had to sit in a swell conference room above one of the best restaurants in Cape Town drinking coffee shakes with Denis and Sean, and talking science fiction stories.

PC: Did you put the team together back in Canada and fly it out as a group – I know Denis McGrath joined at the same time as you – or did you fill it out with local South African writers? How big was the writing team and what was its breakdown of Canadian to SA writers?

AE: The writing staff was Denis McGrath, Sean Carley and I. We had independently “auditioned” for Bob and Diane, our exec for CHUM, and given our “take” on the show. I met Sean on the plane; I met Denis the next day.

We were originally working with an assortment of South African free lancers, but we weren’t at all happy with the results. Still we had a co-production requirement that roughly half of the scripts had to be South African. So we auditioned some new freelancers and brought on the best of them. That was Dennis Venter.

PC: How did the composition of your team compare to the original team? More Canadians, or was it about the same?

AE: We replaced three Canadians.

The following question has spoilers about next week’s episode

PC: You and your writing team took over the show at episode #9, “Betrayal”, where a lot happens to move character and story forward:

  • Karl’s betrayal of Charlie
  • Meeting 01′s family and discovering he’s sane in Gamma
  • Learning that Alpha either doesn’t have the Greek myths or they are not widely known
  • Reena losing her first and only friend in Beta
  • Charlie going underground

How many of those beats were in place from the prior writing staff? Was there an existing outline, or did you guys come in with nothing but the notes and thoughts of Wertheimer?

AE: There was an existing script, but no one was happy with it. In fact originally the plan was we were going to start on episode 12. But episode 9 was so worrisome that we told Bob we wanted to rewrite it in the 24 hours we had before we needed to start prepping it, and that’s what we did. We broke a completely new outline in the morning, and then divided up the acts.

The previous writing team hadn’t left any document for how they intended to go forward. I have the impression they and Bob fundamentally disagreed about that, which had led to their hopping a plane back to Canada. It’s probably just as well. It was probably simpler and cleaner to just look at the episodes and try to figure out ab initio what the show was, and where it wanted to go. That meant bringing certain things into the foreground that had lapsed into background.

For example, an earlier episode (was it 3?) had shown that the Link was going to blow up our universe. We felt that had to be the center threat of the whole show. Yet episodes 6-8 had very little to do with that. We also felt Charlie had to take on Vexcor, and that meant he had to go underground. It was all a massive “retcon,” where we tried to make sense of what had gone before.

Then we had to explain to Bob what we were trying to do. It was his universe and his tone and his characters – which he had worked out with Bob Sawyer and Chris Roland and Diane Boehme and the original writing team. He was pretty pleased about most of what we came up with. We never did convince him about Reena’s “programmed personality” or the secret of the Men in Grey Suits.

PC: Following on that theme, was there much of a bible in place, or did you need to build one up yourself? I ask, because obviously some things changed significantly when your team came on, most notably the presence of the blue stones…

AE: People don’t really write bibles once production starts. The room is the bible.

There was a bible, but it was full of backstory that hadn’t manifested in the series – which meant we could take it or leave it – and not so full of plans for a way forward with the story. Too many details about the world, not enough story elements to play with. The story elements were really in the episodes.

PC: I remember reading elsewhere that you dropped the blue stones because you didn’t know what the original writers had intended with them. Have you found out since? Did they even know?

AE: I figured they were like the radioactive glass you find at atomic blast sites.

What we dropped was the “special water.” (That third pipe in the shower.) That just seemed precious. And it would have required a lot of plot mechanics for O1 and Charlie to get it. Simpler to say: you need water to go between the worlds. But you also have to have the ability to go between the worlds.

(Emphasis mine. Because, uh, watching on my computer I never noticed the third pipe before Alex mentioned it.)

PC: It’s pretty clear early in the run that 01′s behavior is closely tied to the verse he finds himself in. Your team obviously carried that forward, as well as showing some growth to his character even in Beta and Alpha. Why does no one else seem effected by the different verses? Did you know, or was Wertheimer keeping that close to the vest?

AE: I don’t think we meant that he was magically affected by the world he was in. Gamma’s just a much saner world; and much further from Brion, his father. I think he was saner because he was happy there.

PC: Did Reena’s arc play out the way it was always intended, or did you just make the best of a bad situation? Slowly rewatching the show now for the third time, I’m struck by the abuse the writers heaped on Reena from the beginning through episode eight, “Devotion”. Even then her brief peace is shattered when she has to kill her one friend in Beta. Did you and your team specifically try to make things easier on Patricia McKenzie, or was the timing coincidental?

Alex’s answer contains spoilers

AE: We were wondering where to go from “Raping Reena.” We wanted all that abuse to mean something – to give her something positive. So we decided that it was intended to create the “programmed personality.” That way she could go from being a victim to a death-dealing agent, while still keeping her conscience.

Bob never really liked the “programmed personality.” He felt strongly, for example, that Reena would never be able to destroy Alpha just to save her own world. We thought she would. (“I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.”) It’s Bob’s show, of course, and Reena is his character, so it’s his right to decide what she would and wouldn’t do!

PC: So, what makes Paula/Jasmine so special? Why were there never any doppelgangers? Or was her presence in both verses merely a dramatic conceit as an obstacle for Charlie?

AE: We didn’t see what connection there might be between Paula and Jasmine. I remember early on in the writing room, writing “Paula is Ross’s Monkey” on the whiteboard. In the first season of Friends, Ross has a monkey. It probably seemed like a good idea in the formulation of the show, but it turned out not to be necessary, or all that intriguing. Marie-Julie hadn’t been playing the two characters much differently. So we got rid of Paula.

There actually was another doppelganger. In episode 16, when Charlie learns how to see, and then walk, from world to world, he sees other Charlies. In one world, he’s a gangster. In another, he’s a happy family man. In the last one, he’s a fascist rebel who’s destroyed the Vexcor of his world at the price of massacring everyone Cape City. The finale had a huge dramatic confrontation between Charlie of Alpha and Charlie of Epsilon, all about sin and redemption and fate and pain.

You may have noticed that’s missing from episode 16. Acts 3 and 4 have no A plot. The story had a number of things going against it. The director hated having to shoot multiple Charlies. In fact he claimed it wasn’t possible to do on budget, notwithstanding that every science fiction show does the Two Kirks episode sooner or later. Second, I don’t think Jeff Pierce really dug the idea of playing multiple Charlies, many of them evil. But much more importantly, Bob was really trying to avoid Big Sci Fi. I think his vision of Charlie Jade was much more of a drama. It was about What Is It Like to Be Charlie. He wanted the show to be Sopranos, not Battlestar Galactica. Episode 16 was very far from that vision. We knew that early on, and had offered to chuck it and write a new completely new episode, but the decision was made to move forward in order to avoid hanging up the whole script pipeline. In our defense, we broke down episodes 12-16 in more or less our first week on the show. Episode 17 is the first episode we wrote where we were really able to deliver what I think Bob was hoping for. In every show you have some episodes that come out better than others. I’m really pleased with how 17 came out.

Of course, Bob was kind enough to let me put the fourth act of my ep. 16 script into the back of my book “Crafty TV Writing”, so if you want to check it out, you can read it there.

This question and answer contain mild spoilers

PC: About the Norns: should we conclude that 01 is Loki? I’m kidding, of course. Unless he is, in which case I’m being incredibly insightful.

  • More seriously, are they truly symbolic, or just a nod to mythology nerds and Walt Simonson fans?
  • Were there nine verses, of which we generally see just the three, and do the those map to Norse myth? Alpha to Nilfhelm, Beta to Midgard, Gamma to Asgard, perhaps? Or is such a literal reading a mistake?

AE: It started as a nod to mythology nerds like myself. I mean, there are three of them, right? And they hold the fate of the universe in their hands.

But they might have wound up attaining Norn-like powers in a second season. You throw things like that out there and then decide later whether to pick them up.

I do miss the scene we had where the Three are using a sort of Link scanner to tape record science fiction movies from other universes. You know, the stuff that didn’t get greenlit in their world. I would totally abuse the equipment to do that. It had no bearing on the story so we had to cut it. Oh well.

PC: Has Wertheimer ever mentioned to you any ideas about continuing the story in a different medium? Novels, comics, or an Internet-based series, perhaps? Would you be interested in trying your hand at one of those, or are you too busy right now?

AE: I’m developing my own pay cable series about a fallen angel in Montreal. And in my free time, I blog. And fight crime. Yep, I’m too busy.

Also, none of us is a novelist. (Okay, technically I have a novel about the childhood of Morgan le Fay in the works at Tradewinds — look for “The Circle Cast” in 2010). And none of us can afford to write comics.

I’m sure Bob will do another show that incorporates some of the themes of Charlie Jade. It’s more likely you’ll see avatars of 01 and Charlie in a new Bob series than you’ll see the originals in another medium.

PC: Anything you can tell us about your new series? Any likelihood of seeing it down here in the States? I hear SciFi has an opening Wednesday mornings at 2:30. Maybe they could make space for another Epstein Joint. Kidding again, obviously. They need that time slot for midget wrestling.

AE: God forbid.

I’m still developing the show for The Movie Network and Movie Central. We aren’t even looking for American or foreign partners yet. So I can’t tell you much about it yet. But you can follow my development efforts in my blog, Complications Ensue. I don’t talk about the story details because those are a secret. But I talk about the process whenever interesting things happen.

CJ was a fun show to write. I’m truly grateful to Bob and Diane and Robin Spry for bringing Denis and Sean and me on board. We had a blast. I hope you have even a tenth as much fun watching it.

R.A. Porter is an aspiring television writer who currently toils away in the software mines. He can be found at his personal blog and stalked on Twitter.

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