Chatting with a Writer-Producer of ’90s TV

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Ester: Hello!

Jackie: Hi Ester!

Ester: Let’s begin with a short introduction. You’ve had quite a career history — can you summarize it for us?

Jackie: That’s always hard for me since it’s been pretty much all over the place. But the main thing is that I’ve been a working writer (and college/adult instructor) since my late 20s. I’ve taught everything from developmental writing (basic grammar, etc) to first year composition and screenwriting. And my writing career has included technical writing, medical writing and editing, film reviewing, and — the most fun part — being a writer-producer for network television for about a decade. That last bit got me into the Writers Guild.

Ester: Is this your IMDB page? It includes “Diagnosis: Murder” with Dick Van Dyke.

Jackie: That would be me! Working with Dick was kind of surreal — he kept asking me things on the set like “Is this funny?” and I’d nod like an idiot. I mean, who am I to tell Dick van Dyke something he came up with wasn’t funny? It was really a great couple of years.

Ester: I’ll bet! How did you get that job?

Jackie: A combination of preparation, luck, and connections. I had no intention of being a television writer, but I was helping a sitcom writer friend for a couple of years who badgered me into writing a sample script. He gave it to his agent. I ended up interviewing for the position of researcher on a series called “VR.5” created by John Sacret Young (after he did “China Beach”), and got the job.

“VR.5” was my first produced script. A couple of years full of the horrors of misogynistic producers on a couple of shows, and I was ready to give up the whole thing. Then my agent sent my sample script to Lee Goldberg & Bill Rabkin on “Diagnosis”; they called me in for an interview, and offered me the job. So I was back on the crazy train!

Ester: What was “VR.5” about? It sounds like a high-end hair product. 

Jackie: Ha! It was actually a science fiction series on Fox, pretty much ahead of its time. The main idea was that a young woman is able to take people into virtual reality with her and see what they’re thinking. Sydney Bloom, the character (no relation –ed), worked rather unhappily for a group called The Committee which wanted to find out all kinds of conspiracy theory and spy stuff, and Sydney went along with it because they knew something about her late father and sister. It’s pretty convoluted, and the series never quite found itself, but it had Lori Singer in it and, best of all, Anthony Stewart Head who later became Giles on “Buffy.”

Ester: Of course! This is all coming together now. Is it possible I saw ads for “VR.5” while watching “Bristol County Jr.,” that show about the smart-mouthed bounty hunter?

Jackie: Absolutely! They were on at the same time. By the way, it was “Brisco County.”

Ester: Yeah, that makes more sense. :) In my excitement, I forgot to run the name I thought I remembered through Google first so that I didn’t look like an idiot. Oh well! So that was your golden age of television, huh? What kind of research did you do for the show?

Jackie: This was 1994, and the internet was still called the World Wide Web, and my job was to do fact-checking with people in “the real world” about things like how air traffic controllers really did their jobs. So I spent some time on Compuserve (is that what that old discussion board used to be called?) chatting with interesting people. If the writers got something wrong, I told them. I also did a lot of research on how virtual reality was being used in medical settings and some other places, just to give the writers ideas for episodes.

Ester: Was that roughly what you had gone to LA hoping to do? What drew you to LA in the first place?

Jackie: I had no intention of being in The Biz! But a few things kind of did the synchronicity thing and that led me to LA. I was doing research for my PhD dissertation on women in action-adventure television, writers and producers as well as characters, and it seemed logical to go to LA so I could spend the time I needed to do that.

Ester: I would like to read that dissertation, please. Although it would require an update for “Buffy,” which is still one of my favorite shows and probably came out after you were done, and Joss Whedon in general.

Jackie: “Buffy” started after I started working in TV, but it certainly would have been in there. Unhappily, the dissertation never got finished — it was caught in a theory paradigm shift in cultural studies and I finally just gave up … after my Mac ate the file a few times. The file is probably on some long-deteriorated floppy somewhere. Ah well.

Ester: Floppy disks! Those were the best. So whimsical and unsafe-looking. But I’m sorry for your loss. Has academia treated you generally better than The Biz? Have you found it more fulfilling overall? I know you have gone on to teach.

Jackie: I go back and forth about which was better/worse. The ten years on a TV set was very Dickensian in that it was the best of times (working with the actors and crew) and worst of times (dealing with the egos), and although I ran screaming from LA because of the migraines, I do still miss that environment. On the other hand, academic life has been a long-term love-hate relationship: the dissertation experience was horrible, being an adjunct instructor is pretty thankless. But I love being in the classroom and working with students of all kinds, so I choose that atmosphere as better than the pressure cooker of TV production. Do I sound conflicted? You betcha!

Ester: That’s understandable. Did you have a better time in Hollywood as a producer than as a writer/researcher? What were the highlights of your time there, and then what was the final straw that made you quit?

Jackie: That last question is easy: “Martial Law.” It was sort of the series from hell; there are things I can’t really talk about, but suffice it to say I got caught in the middle of battling priorities and egos, and when I was asked to do it again on another show, I just couldn’t imagine another year of migraines, so I left town. That said, being a producer in TV is just the best job in The Biz — you’re a writer so it’s your stuff that’s being shot, and you’re also producing so that you get to tell people what to do. Not even the director on TV is more important than the show’s producer(s). Being on the set really was the highlight. And shooting that very first episode, which was on “VR.5,” was truly the best of all, probably because it was all so new to me. Great story from that experience, by the way, if you’d like to hear it.

Ester: Of course!

Jackie: Yay! I tell all my film students this one because I think it’s important. John Young was not only the show runner, he also wanted to direct my episode because he and I conceived it as a kind of Hitchcockian thriller. So he kept me with him for all the preproduction, location scouts, casting, meetings, etc., and on the set when we shot — he said it was my job to protect the integrity of the script since everybody else wanted him for production stuff. So I was really tuned into the whole thing.

But on our third day, we were in Union Station which had been dressed to look like Eastern Germany in 1990: hand-lettered signs, wooden luggage carts, etc. I got there early and saw the set before any actors or crew got there. And it occurred to me that none of these events or people had existed until a month earlier when I dreamed them up. I started to cry. John’s assistant caught me, and she told me I had to tell John about it. So, being the good little newbie, I had the chance to tell him later that day as he and I walked down to the train tracks. He stopped when I told how overwhelmed I’d been; I apologized profusely, said I wouldn’t let it get to me again. But he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t apologize. Those of us who are in this business need to be reminded once in a while of why we got into it in the first place.” So, of course, I started to cry again. It’s a feeling I never lost and always hope for my film students. Whew!

Ester: That is adorable, and I’m glad he was so nice to you. I feel like the story just as easily could have ended with him staring at you, his nostrils glistening with cocaine and blood, and saying, “Who are you again?”

Jackie: Ha! Actually, John and I got into a screaming fight that very night over a scene that wasn’t working. But it all ended up just fine. He was really terrific to me, taught me everything I know about production and most of what I know about screenwriting.

Ester: At what point did your daughter Ellen enter The Biz as a child actor?

Jackie: That’s actually the other part of why I ended up in LA. Ellen started acting with a wonderful woman in Austin, Texas, named DeeDee Clark, and got pretty much every kid role that came through town (Ellen was 8 at the time she started that). So when I said I needed to go to LA, she piped up and said she wanted to go to LA so she could keep acting. Again, synchronicity. And at that point, I became the world’s most inept stage mother … until I became a writer-producer.

Ester: I’m not sure there’s a good parent in the world, honestly, who would make a good stage mother. It seems to be a role that calls for a certain amount of brassiness and pushiness and just being exhausting. Like the only thing worse than trying to be an actor would be trying to help your child be one.

Jackie: I was, in fact, the exact opposite. I kept asking her if she was sure she wanted to do this, I’d forget to order more head shots or print out enough resumes, and I refused to go into auditions with her because I’d have to see those awful women who threw their children into the fires of hell. Ellen and her manager used to chew me out about it all the time. I was only a pushy stage mother once, but that was when another kid in the cast of a film she was doing was having an asthma attack, they were working past midnight against SAG and State Welfare rules, and the teacher was MIA … I got pissed. Visions of “Twilight Zone” in my head, although there were no helicopters or explosions. I shut the set down, took the kids home, and the producer apologized to me the next day. So it all worked out fine..

Ester: But that’s not being a stage mother, that’s being an actual mother! And good for you for doing it.

Jackie: Thank you! Ellen was sure I’d killed her career, but she apologized to me, too, and still remembers that as a shining mother-daughter moment. Children … :-)

Ester: Maybe we’ll do a Part II of this chat at some point that focuses more on what it was like to facilitate your daughter’s bourgeoning career as a child star. That must have been surreal. But for now I want to wind up with a question I think about a lot: in the pie chart of Luck, Talent, and Work, which slices do you think are bigger? Which is to say, which matters more in artsy careers and in getting ahead in general?

Jackie: Wow! Tough question. I’d say that without talent, you’re kind of sunk unless you simply want to take that passion for the art and keep it personal. But if you’re talking career, I’ve seen people with very little talent but who worked like crazy, got lucky, and were annoyingly successful. So, for me, work gets the biggest slice, followed by equal parts talent and luck. What was it someone said? You have to work hard enough, and believe enough in your talent to keep learning about it, so that when luck arrives, you’re ready for it.

Jackie Blain is a Writers Guild of America member who has written for and produced network television shows like Diagnosis Murder and Martial Law, has published creative nonfiction and film criticism, and now teaches composition and screenwriting, and does creativity consulting for (screen)writers.

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