[01/31/08 - 08:25 AM]
Interview: "Eli Stone" Co-Creator Marc Guggenheim
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

Welcome once again to our second season of "On the Futon With...," a semi-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: "Eli Stone" Co-Creator Marc Guggenheim

Brian Ford Sullivan: Let's start with the question on everyone's minds - why George Michael?

Marc Guggenheim: [Laughs.] Oh God. You know, let me explain, I'll answer the question by explaining what life was like without George Michael. Because we wrote the show with George Michael in mind. And we wrote it basically like, we picked George because of a lot of different reasons I'll get to - but we picked him sort of knowing that he probably wouldn't do it... wouldn't do it in a million years. So we wrote George Michael, we got word back from his agents saying that he wasn't interested. So then we went about the part of trying to find a replacement. And through the process of finding a replacement, we learned - or rather, really saw - it was impossible to replace him. Because no one had the right mix of '80s icon, but not overexposed today... fun, the right song, the right name, there were like all these elicit elements that worked perfectly with George. [There were] like five elements, another artist would satisfy maybe three out of the five. George was just perfect from day one. And I don't think we realized how perfect he was until we tried to replace him. Luckily, a different agent of his learned about the script and said, "You know, I think this is something that George would like to do." And he went to George - and George is a big television fan, a total TV-ofile. Even when he's in England he downloads everything off of iTunes and watches a lot of American television. And he really responded to it - as a show, as something he wanted to do - so we really got lucky because I think I did four of five drafts for different artists and they were never as good as the original one we had for George.

BFS: And he comes back beyond the pilot?

MG: Yup. We bring him [back] in episodes seven, nine and 13. And in episode nine actually he appears, not as a vision, but actually as his flesh and blood self, and wants Eli to represent him in a legal case.

BFS: The show itself seems like it came from a personal place of crisis - did you go through something yourself where it made you want to re-evaluate your life?

MG: That's a really good question. I did, I mean... Eli is a mix of Greg's [Berlanti] and my life experiences and personalities. People who know Greg and me well, when they read the script, they were like, "Wow, this is really a combination of you two." And one of the elements that my life experience brought to the table was - I was 29 years old, I was practicing in a big corporate law firm, the same way Eli does, and I decided I didn't want to do it anymore. And I wouldn't say it was a moment of crisis but it was definitely a moment of huge, life altering decision. [It] was sort of turning your back on all these things that make you a very good living and give you a lot of legitimacy and you go through three hard years of law school, you spend a whole bunch of years practicing law and, you know, it's weird to in my case turn your back on it or in Eli's case risk all of it to do something else. Yeah, that's a very insightful question - that was definitely a big piece of my own experience.

BFS: And then the faith aspect - was that intentional from the beginning or did it grow out of the early discussions with Greg?

MG: You know, Greg and I, one of the initial things we did is we actually went out to his house in Palm Springs and spent the whole weekend talking about our own beliefs. And I was raised Jewish, he was raising Catholic - but we have very similar views about spirituality. And I think one of the things that's happened in this country in the last seven years is religion and spirituality have become sort of confused, religion has almost co-opted spirituality where unless you are a believer - or even a particular kind of believer - you don't have a claim on God, you don't have a claim on spirituality. I think that was certainly how Greg and I were feeling - we felt like in the last seven years we were isolated from the public discourse of religion and spirituality. Because both Greg and I, we both actually believe in the things that are in the pilot - God is justice, fairness and love and you don't have to adhere to a rigid religious doctrine in order to be considered legitimately religious. There's a lot of different paths towards that sort of spirituality. I personally think that even an atheist is spiritual because we all struggle with our place in the universe. We all ask is there something in the universe that's larger than ourselves. And even if you're an atheist and your answer is no, there isn't - you still ask the question. It's all part of the human condition and I think that question is a spiritual question and regardless how you choose to resolve it, you are a spiritual person. One of the things the show tries to do is sort of make spirituality and religion accessible to everybody and not just certain people of a religious background.

BFS: Is that why you offer two answers to Eli's condition - the medical and the spiritual? Was that on purpose?

MG: It was very purposeful because we felt like again, to appeal to all the different people we wanted to appeal to, there needed to be or rather we had to provide scientific explanation as well as a divine explanation. And one of the things that sort of inspired that was - there's a lot of books that sort of take events in the Old Testament and interpret them through science. Like the burning bush - you know, in that region, there was a kind of brush that was very dry and susceptible to being flammable. And it was also in the same area of like a volcano and a fissure that could have opened up in the earth and lit the bush on fire. [In] creationism vs. evolution - there should be two explanations for things. And sometimes by the way those two things can co-exist. I always say when people ask me - is it an aneurism or is he prophet? - why can't it be both? And those questions are what drive the first season of the show. Eli is asking that question. The audience is asking that question also. That question wouldn't be asked if there hadn't been an aneurism.

BFS: And as far as Eli's journey - can you give us an overview of how you see the show working for week to week? How will the personal stories balance out between taking on the latest evil corporation?

MG: There are always going to be personal stories regardless of which case Eli takes. He's always taking the case of an underdog but it's not always an against evil corporation [as it is in the pilot]. In fact, in episode five he represents an evil corporation. So it's not formulaic in that regard. There are all sorts of different types of cases that he tries - for example, in episode three he has, it's a custody case. In episode four, it's at its heart, a divorce case. So there are different kinds of underdogs that Eli will fight for and sometimes he'll be surprised. Like he presents a huge Donald Trump kind of figure in episode eight. But the reason he does that, the reason he's trying to kick all these people out of a neighborhood, out of their homes - actually has a divine explanation behind it. So we actually came up with a lot of different ways for Eli to be a prophet or sort of do God's work as it were without him always representing monolithic corporation A, monolithic corporation B.

BFS: What about the backstory of Eli's dad potentially having the same condition? It's still Tom Cavanagh right? Will you explore that more?

MG: It's still Tom Cavanagh. We return to him several times over the course of the first season. And that whole background makes up the mythology of the show. That's what I think a lot of people will find as a nice surprise - that there is a mythology to the show, there's a deep backstory that we visit over the course of the first season. And Tom Cavanagh's character plays very large role in it. And Tom Cavanagh by the way is just amazing - apart from being just the nicest guy ever, he is just, his performance is just a revelation. Because he's playing someone who's losing his mind. And we get to sort of see the path Eli could go down, the type of person Eli could become if his visions continue to plague him. And it's just fun to watch Tom interpret that kind of experience.

BFS: In terms of developing the show, did you find it challenging to sell a show about spirituality in today's marketplace?

MG: Well, the great thing about "Eli" is that we didn't pitch it, we just wrote it on spec. So we didn't have to sort of do a sales job that we might otherwise have to do. We let the script sell itself. That being said, when we gave it to the network they really responded to it. They weren't put off by the spiritual nature of the show, in fact I think they sort of recognized what we did, which is there's been this trend in this country for the past seven years and there's kind of a counter movement going on now. Back in May, I was looking up all the top-selling books on the New York Times Best-Seller charts and there were all these books on spirituality and religion, regardless of whether they were non-fiction or fiction. You also have the huge popularity of "The Secret." There's something happening right now in the zeitgeist that everyone is sort of asking the spiritual questions again. And I think the network and the studio sort of recognized that - that we were part of a larger discussion so it wasn't a difficult sell at all.

BFS: What are your expectations going forward? Are you on the phone at 5:00 a.m. on Friday [after the premiere] getting the Nielsens?

MG: I'll definitely be doing that. It's going to be somewhat painful. I have to say though, I've been relatively Zen because at the end of the day, I would rather have a small audience of really dedicated viewers that really got the show and loved the show than a top 10 smash where no one is really engaging with the show. I know in my bones - you can never predict ratings, it's a waste of time to try - but the one thing I do know in my bones is that there are going to be people who love this show as much as I do. It helps that I have the peace of mind of market research... [Laughs.]... and we've had the pilot for almost a year now so we've gotten the opinions of a lot of people. To me the only question is - do people tune in? If they tune in they're going to stay, they're going to love it. And I can't control who tunes in but if they do tune in, they'll see what I've been hearing for a year and a half now - which is that it's a very special show.

BFS: Did you learn anything from watching your wife ["Reaper" co-creator Tara Butters] and her experience from launching "Reaper?"

MG: Well I definitely learned you can't predict anything. And I definitely take away the fact that there's a real difference these days between your ratings points in broadcast and your number of DVRs and downloads. On her show, "Reaper," I want to say like 30% more people in addition to broadcast watch their show on DVR and on the internet. So when I do call at 5:00 in the morning on Friday and I get the number, whatever it is, I hope I'll have the presence of mind to just remind myself that that's just half the number or just a piece of the number. There's going to be a large group of people out there who are going to watch the show but haven't seen it yet. In fact as a 10:00 show, it's probably going to be an even greater number because 10:00 shows in general are the ones that are the most DVRed. So I'm trying to remain Zen.

BFS: And what about your own DVR choices? What's on your list?

MG: In no particular order - "Lost," "Battlestar Galactica," "Rescue Me," "Nip/Tuck," "30 Rock," "Brothers & Sisters" obviously, "Dirty Sexy Money," equally obviously. I'm trying to think because we've been in the strike and there hasn't been much new programming.

BFS: You can say you like "American Gladiators," it's okay. [Laughs.]

MG: [Laughs.] I really don't like "American Gladiators." Oh God I hate "American Gladiators." I really respond to one-hour dramas and within that I really respond to serialized one-hour dramas. For me, it's all about a quality show. I don't have any sort of guilty pleasures on my DVR... it's funny, before the age of DVR I could just go through my week of Monday night I watch this, Tuesday night I watch this - now it's I watch whatever I want to watch whenever I want to watch it, which is pretty much the way everyone watches television nowadays.

BFS: And lastly, I hate gimmicky questions like this but, who would Eli represent - the WGA or the AMPTP?

MG: [Laughs.] He would represent the Writers Guild. He would probably come up with some novel legal argument to make sure the writers got what was fair... I'm not going to say, everything I'm thinking of can only get me in trouble. [Laughs.]

BFS: That's more of a season two question.

MG: [Laughs.] Exactly! Honestly, one of the things about "Eli" is that we don't just take issues, we don't just take on big corporations or whatever. There's a lot of storylines that we talk about in the writers room that I've seen work on other law shows. What makes "Eli" different is that whenever we take on those issues, we only take on the issues where we can find a hook emotionally, or a hook in through character. For example, like episode three deals with a soldier fighting in Iraq but that issue takes second place to that fact that it takes place in the middle of a custody battle. So I wish the show was as easy to write as scanning the newspaper and seeing what hot-button issue of the day is but there's no guarantee you can hook in emotionally. And quite frankly I wouldn't put the Writers Guild situation into season two because while I think it's fascinating and it certainly activates me and everything - at the end of the day, it's a business sort of situation. It's not that emotional, there's not a lot of character that can be driven through that storyline. And that is what I think differentiates "Eli" from most other law shows. We are always trying to tell stories about people regardless whether or not those people are dealing with issues of immigration or Iraq or animal rights or homosexuality or any of the issues that we delve into during the first year. It's always channeled through character.

  [january 2008]  


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