James L. Conway has seen it all in Hollywood. He’s worked for over 30 years as either a director, executive producer or writer on numerous TV series’. A few are Supernatural, Charmed and Star Trek Next Generation. He has now taken his vast knowledge of Hollywood and crafted a novel called, Dead and Not So Buried. Join me now in learning a little more from Jim.
Abby: When did you start writing for TV?
Jim: I started writing for television in 1982 on a show called Matt Houston. Before that I was working for a company called Sunn Classic. We had done the Grizzly Adams TV show. I was head of production for the company. I was also directing and writing different things. I wrote a few of the movies we had done. Just pure TV writing was when I left Sunn Classic and moved to LA and went to work for Aaron Spelling. It started with Matt Houston. I had a career for about 20 years when I was writing and producing TV shows. I did Matt Houston for 3 years and a show called Hollywood Beat and Paradise. Paradise was a Western that was on CBS for 3 years in 1988 through ’91. Lee Horsley stared in this story about a gunfighter whose sister died and left him 4 children to raise in the old west. We really enjoyed doing that show.
Abby: You did some amazing shows.
Jim: Yeah. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to work in a lot of genres. After that I did Bodies of Evidence which was a detective show. We did 16 episodes of that. It had a lot of similarities to CSI because a lot of it depended on forensic science. The funny thing about that show is it starred George Clooney. It was one of the many shows that George had been in before he really broke out on ER. He was a wonderful guy. I think one of the reasons he is a big star today is Les Moonves who is the head of CBS. Les believed in George when David Jacobs and I wrote the pilot for Bodies of Evidence. Les said we are going to George Clooney in this because he believed George would be a star. Our show went down and then Les put him on Sisters for a little arc. Then he put him in to ER and George broke out. I love George. He is a terrific guy and a wonderful actor. He deserves all of the things that are wonderfully happening to him.
Abby: Who is your favorite actor or actress to work with?
Jim: I loved working with George. I liked working with Lee Horsley. I did 3 series with him. More recently I loved Alyssa Milano in Charmed. We had a great time together. She is a wonderful actress. I did Charmed for 8 years and that was a lot of fun. I have done a lot of Science Fiction. I moved from writing TV shows to more producing and directing. I did Charmed and I did all of the different Star Trek shows. I did Star Trek Next Generation and Voyager: Deep Space 9. I directed the pilot for Enterprise and did Enterprise. Scott Bakula was wonderful to work with. I have worked with a lot of terrific actors. The thing about actors is they’re fun. I am a little bit star struck like a lot of people. They are very charismatic for the most part. That comes through the screen and so they are fun to be around.
Abby: Do you have a favorite actor or actress?
Jim: No. There are a lot of people I would like to work with if I got lucky enough. Another one I loved working with was on Smallville. I did 4 episodes of that. Tom Welling was wonderful to work with.
Abby: Have you retired from directing to pursue a writing career?
Jim: No. I just did a show called Cult which will be a midseason replacement on the CW. It is really a cool show. It is a spooky show about a cult with a very charismatic leader. In the real world of the TV show people start emulating what’s happening on the TV show. So it’s a show within a show. It is very spooky and a lot of fun. I direct now less than I did before because I have been concentrating more on the book writing. If the right project comes along I will go ahead and direct it.
Abby: What does the executive producer do?
Jim: In television the real boss is the writer. That is the executive producer. The head writer in television is the boss. In a typical season of 22 episodes you will have 8 or 10 different directors. The director comes in, he preps, shoots and goes away and does another show. Then a different director comes in. The director’s job is to deliver the vision of the executive producer. The executive director has final say on casting, final say on the hiring of the different people along with the network, of course. Like I say it is the writer who is in control of television. Unlike motion pictures where it’s the director who’s in control. Now the first thing a director generally does when he gets hired is fire the writer and brings in his own person because he wants the script molded to his vision. He doesn’t want to fight the original writer who wants to keep it to their vision. That is the complete opposite way of a television show. In TV the executive is the ultimate boss. He oversees all of the writing, the editing, he gets the final cut. That is the job to have if you can have a job in television.
Abby: Has it changed at all from the 1980’s?
Jim: When I started in the early ’80s a writing staff consisted of about 5 people. Then you give away a lot of freelance scripts. Now a writing staff is around 10 people and they are forced by the union to give out 1 script every 13 episodes to a freelancer but there are no real freelance writers any more. You really have to be on a show, on a staff to make a living and that is a big change.
Abby: Is it just in the movies where everybody tries to be a producer on the show and get added in or is that also in television?
Jim: In television too there are a lot of producer credits. Sometimes they give the producer credit instead of more money. When I started there was one executive producer, only one. Then there were supervising producers and consulting producers but there was only one executive producer. If you look at TV shows now executive producer credit is given not only to the executive producer who is the writer creator but actors are often getting the credit. Managers often get the credit. So it has lost its meaning. You have to know that you are talking to the correct executive producer. There is really only one that has got the ultimate vision and is the head writer. All the others have to really defer to him ultimately. Also what has changed in television is many shows are star driven. They are called cast contingent. You write a TV pilot and the network likes it and they say but we will only put it on the air if we get so and so of an actor. So it goes out and it suddenly because the show won’t exist unless this actor says yes that actor has as much or more power than the guy who created the show.
Abby: That’s amazing.
Jim: Well TV is very much star driven in some circumstances. Tom Selleck for example: I’m sure he is what made Blue Bloods get picked up because they needed a big star like that to make it go. And at the same time TV audiences love to discover new stars. A show like Lost, with the exception of Matthew Fox, no one else was a star then. They were all beautifully cast and it was wonderfully written. America watched the show and fell in love with them. Certain shows really did it well. Lost did it. CSI did it. The TV audiences love to decide what is going to be a hit. When CSI came out it was really just stuck at the last minute behind a remake of The Fugitive. It was the last pickup at CBS. In fact it was developed between Disney and CBS and when CBS picked up the pilot Disney said, “You know what? We don’t think it’s going to work so we don’t want to be part of the pilot.” So CBS ended up finding another partner for it. Well it goes on the air The Fugitive has no ratings at all. CSI explodes in the first week and becomes a hit that is still on because the audience decided they really want the show to be successful. They loved the show. It wasn’t what the studio expected. It wasn’t what the network expected. It wasn’t what the critics expected.
Abby: I watched that for a long time.
Jim: Yes. A lot of people did. It’s fun. It’s a good mystery show.
Abby: Because several of your TV shows were of the SciFi genre do you go to SciFi conventions?
Jim: I haven’t gone to the SciFi conventions. I have been thinking about doing it actually to help sell my book because I think it would be fun to go do that. There was a thing called Monsterpalooza here in LA which I went to. That was a lot of fun. All of these different people were dressed up like there favorite horror characters. They were in slasher makeup and bleeding and things like that. There were thousands of people. There were all of these different tables set up with people selling things. Everything from autographed pictures to kits to make your own makeup sets. There is a whole business of actors who travel to all of these different conventions. They will sit there and have their picture taken with you or sign pictures or DVD’s. I know all the Star Trek casts do those different shows. And the guys from Supernatural will occasionally go and do those shows. It is quite advantageous for the actors. They make a lot of money.
Abby: Jim, there is no denying that you know Hollywood. I think that is why your book Dead and Not So Buried is so well told. Your story is based in Hollywood and deals with someone stealing the remains of a Hollywood starlet. Was that based on actual events?
Jim: No. First of all one of the reasons I wanted to write a book is that I’ve always loved books. I read voraciously and I really wanted to be a novelist from the time I was a kid. The one thing you can do when you write a novel is you can write it just the way you want to have it and control it. The thing about television is there are a lot of people who put stuff into your script. You write your script and the executive producer will have some input. The network has some input. The stars have some input. The studio has some input. If you want a pure vision writing a novel is it. You are in total control of everything that happens in the settings, the plot, everything. So to me that was thrilling to do. Then I picked the genre that I love which is thrillers and mysteries and the background that I knew about which is Hollywood. I started with the idea. The idea was originally that somebody steals the remains of Marilyn Monroe. I ended up changing to a fictional person because I thought that it was unseemly to talk about stealing Marilyn Monroe when she actually still is there. It works wonderfully fictionally. From that idea I developed who my detective would be and then without giving anything away it is basically about a failed Hollywood actor who is getting even with all of the people that in his mind have done him wrong.
Abby: Was that based on anyone you knew?
Jim: No. But it is based on the fact of life that happens to a lot of actors. Many actors are hugely successful in high school and college because they are the big man on campus. They are very talented, good looking, and very charming. They breeze through high school and college staring in all of the plays and all of the attention. Then they come to Hollywood and they go to the first casting session and they walk into a room and they are suddenly looking at room filled with guys that look and sound just like them. Suddenly they are not the big man on campus. They are just another good looking hunk in town. There are a lot of talented people out there. If you are not more talented than the other guys you are not going to get the work. That is what happens to this guy. He is sort of mistreated along the way so he has a few legitimate gripes.
Abby: I love the idea of your antagonist trying to get even with Hollywood. Will there be a follow up novel for your P.I. Gideon Kincaid?
Jim: Yes. I am writing the sequel now for him and he will get into even more trouble. It’s called Scream Queen. It’s actually going to have a lot to do with one these horror conventions where one of the stars of a show, very much like Charmed actually, about 3 witches is being threatened. The big climax of the book actually happens at a convention.
Abby: I want to read that one. When is that to be released?
Jim: I am hoping for next spring, the spring of 2013.
Abby: Yeah! I am looking forward to it.
Abby: Where can people find out more you and Dead and Not So Buried?
Jim: Go to my website http://www.Jameslconway.com and it has a lot about me and my background and all sorts of cool stuff about Dead and Not So Buried. And it’s got links there where you can go to buy it.
Abby: Jim thank you so much for talking with me today.
Jim: Abby thank you so much.