[10/23/06 - 02:58 PM]
Interview: "Brothers & Sisters" Executive Producer Ken Olin
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

Welcome once again to "On the Futon With...," a new (hopefully) weekly feature where I sit down and talk TV with some of my favorite people in the industry, all the while trying to give the impression I'm not some overgrown fanboy.

THIS WEEK'S GUEST: "Brothers & Sisters" executive producer Ken Olin.

Ken Olin, as you'll find out shortly, has an infectious enthusiasm about "Brothers & Sisters," which he executive produces and regularly directs. He's also quite fond of creator Robbie Baitz, fellow executive producer Greg Berlanti, his wife, his son, his previous work - from "thirtysomething" to "EZ Streets" - and life in general.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Ken at his Touchstone Television office, where we talked about the show, his career and TV in general:

Brian Ford Sullivan: So what do you make of all the scrutiny the show was under before it premiered?

Ken Olin: I don't know why. Maybe it's such a high profile cast, it's such a high profile production, it's high profile creators... all of that. I just wasn't quite sure why the preconception is that it was troubled as opposed to other shows where clearly they were shutting down for a week. You would know more than I would.

BFS: Well I think that it's just unfortunately nowadays that everybody seems to always latch on to the negative. Because I know "Six Degrees" shut down for a week and a couple others.

KO: I think "The Nine" had some issues. I think even "Ugly Betty," which is working very well, I think they shut down for a couple days. It's just... really hard. Especially now, it's so different. When I did "thirtysomthing," as much as the press was divided about what they thought, there was nowhere near the same kind of scrutiny out of the gate. There was substantially less competition. The audience was also not aware of the ratings. I mean, my sister calls from Boston and says, "Hey congratulations, I hear the adults 18-49 rating is terrific for the show." And none of that was around. So there's so much pressure out of the gate to be perceived as successful. And yeah, I think they look for... there's so much more material that needs to be generated because there's some many people now that are voracious for material to read and consume about television. I think I was surprised because, first of all it didn't seem like a controversial show. And there's so many good qualities. And obviously there has been some sort of appetite for an adult drama.

BFS: So how did you get involved in the show?

KO: It all began because Francie [Calfo, executive vice president, Development & Current, ABC Entertainment] had began talking to me, I guess during the fourth year of "Alias." And we all sort of thought that five years would probably be it. And we were talking about what we would could do in terms of development. And she comes from a large family and she said "I've always wanted to do a show about adult siblings." And I thought, that's kind of great because to me the thing that's really difficult to do in terms of an ensemble show... even if there's some sort of franchise like a hospital or a law practice, it's hard... The most difficult thing is I think creating an ensemble that has some kind of organic connection, emotionally, and it was like "wow, that's just a really good idea."

"thirtysomething" had that in terms of they were all really close friends. It wasn't a stretch. It wasn't a struggle to understand why they all interacting or what the emotional stakes were in terms of their relationships. And my father had a family business. I had always wanted to do something about that. There's not really much on television right now about business, where it's a series about just a business. It's not what kind of business it is, it's the fact that these people do business. Anyway, so that was Francie. And she's really championed the show. And that it's you know.. it seems there's some sort of reluctance... begrudgingly it's being acknowledged that the show is doing really well. It's sort of held on.

BFS: Well, I think that people forget that "Grey's Anatomy" wasn't an overnight success.

KO: Right well then second season, my God... [Laughs.] Also I don't think truly, I don't think that this show... I think that they knew they wanted to make certain strategic changes. They wanted to move "Grey's." They wanted a good companion piece to "Desperate Housewives." But they also wanted I think a real high-end, classy adult drama. I don't think that the expectation was that we had to do the same numbers that they were doing on "Grey's," I mean "Grey's Anatomy" is the most popular show on television. I think it was can we hold on to a substantial number. So let's have something that harkens back to a tradition of really serious quality adult dramas. As opposed to just, Francie Calfo said "let's zig while everyone else is zagging." And it's true when you look at the shows that came out, the high concept shows, the big premise shows. They're not working. That seems to have peaked. It's eroded a little bit. You know, there's no question that shows like "Lost," they're extraordinary. But there's so many of them now. We just sort of came on with this... it's just good. Certainly not flashy. And I think from the network's point of view that's what they wanted.

And it's also kind of nice because not unlike "thirtysomething," once you've done like your first six, seven episodes where you have to constantly sort of establish and reassert the dynamics and who the characters are and the tone of the show, with a show like this the thing that's exciting is really what Greg Berlanti brought to it. Once you start to open it up and you set up what the emotional context of the show is, then you can begin to explore more and more complex issues that can take place in that world. And we're just starting to get there. We've done these shows where we've constantly reset what the dynamics are, who the people are, what they meant to each other, what the nature of their interaction is. Now, this next episode that we're doing we're really going to begin to deal with one of the character's experiences in Afghanistan. But also most importantly what is the emotional impact on this family, what is that division in the family. And we can start taking some of that stuff on, take on some issues of betrayal or infidelity, you know, or financial deceit. I mean those kind of things where you start to say, "oh, this is getting really rich and substantive." I don't think there are that many shows, you know, that are on right now. I don't think there are any that have that realness, that that's the landscape of the show.

BFS: "Everwood" used to...

KO: "Everwood" did yeah. And this is just that much more, this is just that much bigger. There are so many people. You have the American family. And it's in L.A. It's a higher end sort of business and the look and it's not removed, it's not in a small town. So that's, I don't know... it seems like we're doing pretty good.

BFS: So how did you meet [creator] Robbie [Baitz]?

KO: I've known Robbie for a few years. He wrote a play a long time ago called "Substance of Fire" and I loved it. I had been talking to him off and on. Because that play writes about a family business, and it writes about money and how it's all intertwined with love.

BFS: Wasn't Ron Rifkin in the film version?

KO: Yeah, yeah. Actually I never saw the movie. But I just always thought there was nobody that wrote, that I knew of, that could write about money and its relationship to love and relationships the way that he did. Because he wrote about it in a way that was sexy and interesting... and dramatic. So we had talked... we're friends. So that when Francie and I started talking about it then he was the first person [I thought of]. And one of the things they consistently look for at ABC, to their credit, is voices that are not... that haven't been heard all the time. And Robbie, he wrote an episode of "Alias," he wrote an episode of "West Wing" but he's certainly, he's remained true to his own voice. I mean it's a pretty steep learning curve in terms of television. He holds onto himself. So it distinguishes the sound of the show.

BFS: I know a lot of people focus on the casting changes from the original pilot, but there were actually a few plot changes as well. Like I know Sarah and Joe's son was originally supposed to have Asberger's.

KO: Yeah, it's interesting. Part of the thing in this, like always in the course of development, is you just load it, load it, load it. And also for the network they had had so much success with having a lot of incident, lots and lots of incident. And the thing I think we realized when we finished the pilot was when you're doing a show that is about these relationships, and these relationships are so substantive because it's family, they go at their own pace. You can't impose on that a pace where incidents constantly occur because you're not sort of getting what you really want to be getting which is what is the nature of their relationship. How are they interacting, what are they feeling about each other? And if there's constantly a new thing that's happening, you can't I think really hold onto any of the people. People were having a hard time just grasping who all the characters were.

So one of the things we wanted to do, you know we had in the original pilot, the gay character also had an ex-wife and a kid but it was hard enough to figure out, first of all, who all the brothers were. Because obviously they have to look enough alike so it's believable. And when it's moving so fast it's confusing. And then you say, "well wait, the first time you say he's gay, but then somebody just said his ex-wife came in, so now which one is gay?" And you start to go, "you know, it's really true." There are enough complications in life that we can explore that at the start we don't need to so complicate a character's life as to just obfuscate who he is. Like if he's gay, then that's what his life is going to be. Let's figure out what the complications of his life is rather than imposing yet another twist upon our introduction to him.

And I think the same thing became true for Rachel's character, which is - do we really want to explore Asberger's Syndrome, which Robbie has a nephew who has Asberger's Syndrome - and it's really interesting and really complicated and incredibly challenging to ask a 10-year-old to do it in the first place, and on top of that, do we want to explore a family who has a child who is dealing with such a complicated illness or do we really want to talk about the nature of a marriage in trying to balance a marriage and a career and children. And at the end of the day, that's really what we wanted to explore. Because for us there were a lot of other things about her character that we wanted to investigate. We want to investigate the impact of being over professionalized on a marriage, the impact of trying to have two small children and also have a sexual relationship with your husband, and a romantic relationship with your husband. And also try to run this business that is in trouble.

And that's more important to us at the time than it was try to, first of all, just trying to make an audience understand what Asberger's was, which was really challenging, to ask, we had this wonderful actor, for him to try and play that part, you know basically the only thing they knew about was "Rain Man." And that's not really what it is. It was so, yet again, it was so complicated. And the complications weren't really about the complexities of life it was all this complication to just try and understand who all these people were. So those were the two significant changes. Because ultimately we really wanted this to be more about Rachel's character and her marriage than her relationship to an illness. Subsequently we've now introduced that one of her children is diabetic. But we didn't introduce that until you had already had a relationship to her and it was relatable, it was very relatable I think to a lot of women that you have a job, you have a marriage, you have little children, you try and make all those things work. To add a complication on top of that we thought it would be more effective than to throw it all into a pilot. And I think that's a storyline that we're really going to investigate. And it's a really complicated thing to deal with.

The other thing we did in the pilot that we really wanted to change was that initially the decision was made that Tom Skerrit's character would die at the end of the first act. And while it was a really dramatic act it colored the remainder of the pilot. Because we were stuck with... one of the things that was important to us was that this family uses humor to deflect some of the harder things that we deal with in our lives. We want to make sure that there's that energy, that there's a little bit of irreverence, that they tease each other, that this is a family that doesn't exist just in mourning. But if you do that after you've seen the father die then all the people that would see it would feel that the family was cavalier. But then if you go, okay, so what we should really do is deal with the impact of losing this man that was so central in all their lives, so then the remainder of the pilot is colored by a tone that is mournful.

And that's not what the series was gonna be. We were not going to do a series about death. Even though we have Rachel. [Laughs.] It's not like that's what we want to do. So it's we said, let's move the death to the end of the show as opposed to the end of the act and then for the first five acts of the show we could really get to know who these people are and what their lives are. You know, I had an acting teacher who said before you can play a character that's broken you have to know who they know when they were whole. And so, one of the things was to have a sense of who this family was when it was whole, or at least, have the illusion of being whole. Then you break it. Now that's what we've been able to do. It's broken but you know what they all are. We don't have to live in this... because the show is more about who all these people are not who all these people just simply in relationship to a parent that's died. It's interesting because almost every scene that was in the original pilot has been, well, we had to redo them because there are two different actors on the show, almost every one of them have been rendered in some way in the course of the first two or three shows. It wasn't that the content was wrong, it was just I think mostly was the structure. And we wanted to make some changes in terms of the casting.

BFS: So now that the pilot issues are in the past, what are you excited about going forward?

[It's at this point Greg Berlanti pops in to ask Ken a question. I resist the urge to turn into Chris Farley during his old "Chris Farley Show" bits on "SNL" - (i.e., "You know that scene where... that was awesome."]

KO: He's amazing. He's extraordinary. It's incredible. I was just talking to someone about how there's this whole new kind of artist, the showrunner. It's like as much as people talk about it, he defines something about what it is. It's this combination of having this extraordinary creative overview and tremendous managerial skills. It's fascinating. He's the one that really brought all of the things Robbie and I wanted to do and understanding how you create an arena in which not only can those things take place but then generate more and more and more possibilities. And that's the nature of a series. It's just been, he's just incredible. I've been so lucky because I've worked with these guys that are... you know, when I started working with J.J. [Abrams], J.J. was probably 34-35 years old... and Greg's 34, these guys that are such brilliant young writers and directors and artists, really it's just amazing.

Actually that's one of the things I'm really excited about. I'm excited to keep working with Greg. And I'm really excited because now I feel like we've created a foundation to explore some of the things that are more, not just substantive, more complicated and more emotional. And that was the thing we did on "thirtysomething." And that show, talking about suffering through growing pains. It wasn't recasting, the pilot stayed the pilot, but it took six or seven episodes really before we found what the consistent tone of the show needed to be. And then to start to tackle things like you know, a marriage falling apart, the death of a parent, a business that's falling through, ovarian cancer, all those things that you go, well those are the things that defined that show. And they were interspersed with a lot of other stuff but I feel like now we've created a platform that we can stand on and go "let's really explore what that is. Let's really explore drug addiction. Let's really explore romance at 60, what is that for a woman at 60? You know, to find a lover."

Those things are just fun or just having these little kids. We have these two incredible kids on the show. I think we're going to do this great thing with Calista's character. She's going to do something that isn't particularly ethical in her job and she does it because of her brother. She's afraid for her brother. So she does something she shouldn't do in the next one I'm directing which Greg's writing. If you can present a group of characters to an audience and they embrace those characters and you haven't created an arena or a world that restricts you, because of the form of the show or because of the concept of the show, it's incredible. Because you can just, that's the most incredible thing about television, because you can really investigate life. It's like, if you can get one of those shows. If you can get one working. And I think we do. And then you have these actors like we have, we're going to explore what it is in this family where there is such a mythology about this patriarch and his virility. We're going to explore what it is to be the son of a man like that and be sterile.

I mean those are the things where you go, "that's pretty cool." I mean, "wow, that's pretty emotional." And then to do, let's get into the stuff of this man took $15 million and he hid it kind of a secretly, and the secret's pretty destructive potentially to this family. All that stuff where you go "that's cool stuff" but then you watch Sally do a scene like, I just finished editing it, where Sally talks to Rachel about how she's in awe of her, how much she respects her. You watch the two of them and you go "oh my God!" You watch Calista and Sally in the pilot and they're just these phenomenal women. And then there's my wife [Patricia Wettig] in there like playing this femme fatale. And Ron, it's, if you can get to that place, it can sustain itself for a while. It's cool, you really get to explore things that are important to you. And I like doing these kinds of shows, I certainly haven't been doing it for the past five years, like just doing stuff about human behavior and I like working with these people. It's been kind of incredible.

BFS: So how did you get to this point? You've obviously acted before - and can I just be a fanboy for a moment and say "EZ Streets" is one of my all time favorite shows...

KO: Talk about a show that was really a special show.

BFS: It was before it's time.

KO: I guess. It probably was. I don't know, it was really tough. It was on CBS the very first year that Les Moonves took over and he so loved that show. He was really heartbroken. It was ahead of its time for that network, it was too much. It was a show that just, it couldn't work there then. And it was cool, Paul Haggis, at least he's had some success since then. [Laughs.]

BFS: So when did behind the camera become more appealing?

KO: I went to Ed and Marshall at the end of the first year [of "thirtysomething"]. Peter Horton had directed prior to it and he had come in and directed in the first year. And I said I'd really like to try that. So I started doing that, the second, third and fourth year I directed two episodes a year. So that was pretty much... I think I always knew that's what I wanted to do. I just didn't know how to get there. I knew one of the reasons I wanted to do a series - and be successful - was it would give me the opportunity and leverage to get some things to direct. And that's how I did it.

BFS: Is it more fulfilling than acting?

KO: It's more fulfilling to me. I never felt as comfortable or just fully engaged in the same way as an actor as I do as a director. It just suits me so much better. When I started directing, oh my God, if Ed and Marshall had come to me after my second day of directing and said do you want us to just take this over, I absolutely would have said yes. [Laughs.] I would have said I cannot do this. I'm so overwhelmed by this. Because you stand outside as an actor and you make suggestions and you think you're really smart and you have these ideas, and then somebody says to you "here's the script and you need to figure out, from the very first moment you walk on set, where you're going to put that camera." And it's just like oh my God. It's one thing to have clever ideas about adjustments that should be made, it's another thing to really generate the entire direction that everyone took from the very start of the day. It got better. [Laughs.]

I got better but wow, the first couple days were so brutal. But yes, I'm really, really happy when I'm directing. It's hard job but it's such a good job. And you feel, if you like it and you have the energy for it, it's just so rewarding. I mean I actually find it more rewarding when I watch these actors, any of this ensemble, and I can watch a scene where they do something that's so honest or so intimately observed or so funny, I find that much more rewarding than I found it if I ever had a good moment in a scene as an actor. I always felt like if I had a good moment, an honest moment as an actor I was lucky. Because it was going to be ephemeral and I feel like as a director, "God, I helped capture that, I helped get that, I recorded that." I just get such a pleasure out of that. I don't feel self-conscious or insecure in the same way. I never liked that, the self-consciousness and self-scrutiny that seemed to be a by product of acting for me.

BFS: So would you ever go back and act again?

KO: Sometimes when I get really really tired or I don't feel like I'm being appreciated by the network or the studio. [Laughs.] I think, "oh God, it would be so much easier." They have satellite in the trailers now. I could watching the baseball game! [Laughs.] But of course, that's not the reality. To me, it's like I'd just be able to relax a little. But then I'd have to really get in shape again. And then the problem is now I'm much more aware of what really great acting is like, I'm sure I'd just be miserable. [Laughs.] But this is more fulfilling. I get to do everything I've ever wanted to do.

BFS: And working with your wife, is that a unique experience?

KO: I'm so used to it. I'm used to directing her on "thirtysomething" and initially it took a little time for us to get used to that I was going to be her director and all that, what those dynamics were. But we're so comfortable now, having directed her the past 10, 15, 20 years now. I love working with her. I love working with her because I love being with her. And I love her acting. And we love being with each other. Now we're comfortable because we're just working together, there's no sort of positioning or whatever. It's nice for us to be together. I work so much now, I work so many hours that it's nice when I'm directing her because I get to be with her. We met acting together so I always think it's very sexy when she's acting. Like, I feel like I'm with a TV star.

BFS: So between all this do you have time to watch other TV shows, do you follow anything?

KO: I don't really. It's really weird, so many people I know and respect that are in television or film love television. I do I guess, but on the weekends I really, really like to watch sports. So if I'm watching TV... by the way the other thing is I spend so much time watching TV because I spend so much time in the editing room, so when I come home and Patti wants to go to a movie or something, it's the last thing I want to do. Like for recreation, I watch a lot of sports. I like football, baseball and basketball. And I almost don't watch anything else. You know, my son's [Cliff] working here. He's 23.

BFS: He's a staff writer right?

KO: He's a staffer on the show, just started this year. He was on "Alias" but yeah, he's a staff writer. I'm proud of him.

BFS: So I always ask people this, but if you had 30 seconds to convince someone to watch the show, what would you say?

KO: I would say it's to watch Sally Field and Rachel Griffiths and Calista Flockhart and Balthazar Getty and Dave Annable and Matthew Rhys and the rest, Patti Wettig, the rest of the cast do really really good material, watch these actors who are now given the opportunity to do what they do with the kind of writing that's been done on the show by people like Robbie Baitz and Greg Berlanti. And I think that's just so rewarding. It's all about what people's lives are about right now. And you have some of the most wonderful actors depicting those things. That's why I'd watch it. I'd give it a try. That's it. There's not any car chases. [Laughs.]

BFS: And lastly, what's it like to come and do this every day?

KO: This is like, this is our building, these two stages. It's huge. We have three sound stages. I didn't think I'd ever have all of this because of something that I was involved in creating. And it's been so great because we've filled it, between Robbie and Greg and myself, we've filled this building with people that we've worked with that we loved and trust and that we depend on. From top to bottom, like Sarah Caplan, who produced "Alias," is producing this, designers... Laura Goldsmith the costume designer... these are all people I've worked with for years. Greg's bringing in a whole group of people he's worked with. Robbie is working with writers he worked with. My whole post-production group our editors, two of the three editors are women that started as assistants for me on "Alias" and they're now editing. It's just this whole group of people and this influx of talent and new people, it's really... it's at least for the time being, it's ours. And for me, I had such a traditional upbringing, a traditional work ethic, I like working every day. I like having an office. Things like that... they're rare. I'm just really fortunate to have those kinds of things in this business.

NEXT WEEK'S GUEST: "My Name Is Earl" creator Greg Garcia.

  [october 2006]  


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