On Wednesday, April 13, I interviewed Ron Carlivati, head writer of ABC’s long-running daytime drama, One Life to Live.
On Thursday, April 14, ABC announced that after 43 years, it was canceling the show, along with its lead-in, All My Children.
I’m not going to indulge myself with a full-length rant about how colossally misguided I think ABC’s decision is — I’m not a soap columnist, and I think this is their time to roar. Maybe later. For now, just let me say that if you’re truly unable to successfully leverage more than four decades of history with a show, along with one of the most dedicated and passionate fan bases in TV, then the failure lies with you — not with the daytime genre, not with the series, and not with the audience.
Serial programming has always been the most addictive form of entertainment, and shows that air five days a week are the most addictive of all. There are generations of viewers tied to these shows, and I think ABC’s decision to give up on all this is part of the broader bellwether for the “major” networks. But that’s another column, for another time. Here’s Ron Carlivati, engaging in what I think is a fascinating discussion about the nuts and bolts of writing for daytime. It’s clearly a dying art, and I think we’re all poorer for that.
As we were setting up this interview, we talked about your schedule, which includes two days of writers’ meetings in the beginning of the week. Let’s start by talking about that process.
On Mondays, we meet to discuss the breakdowns, or outlines, we put together the week before — we tend to generate five or six episodes’ worth of those in a week. They aren’t full scripts with dialogue, but they contain every scene, and notes on who’s in each one; they’re pretty detailed. We write about three months ahead, so we’re looking at July’s episodes now.
Our executive producer, Frank Valentini, and the network read those breakdowns over the weekend, and they return their notes on them. What they want beefed up, what’s missing, that kind of thing. So we meet and incorporate those notes, at which point the breakdowns are finalized and sent along to our scriptwriters. If there are five breakdowns and five writers, each one will spend the week writing the dialogue for those shows.
By Monday afternoon, we start laying out the outline for the next week. My job is to come in with what we call the thrust, which is a document that lays out where I want to go that week, coming off of what we just turned in. I have four breakdown writers, and we sit down with the thrust and map out Monday through Friday, starting by laying it out usually with the goal of getting to the cliffhanger we have in mind for Friday. I doesn’t always fall that way — we like to say “every day should be Friday” — but we have restrictions on sets, and how many characters we can use in an episode, that kind of thing. We’re lucky to have an amazing executive producer who gives us a lot of freedom in those areas, but we try and live within those parameters.
So we have to look at it in terms of which stories we know we need to keep, and which stories we can afford to drop on any given day. Maybe we can’t drop a story because it’s driving, or maybe we need to write in a character we haven’t seen for a few days, that kind of stuff. It really is like a puzzle you’re always putting together. We try and limit ourselves to six sets a day — some of which should repeat the following day — and a certain number of characters so we don’t overwhelm an episode with too many people.
It seems to me that it’s more like putting together five or six puzzles at once.
It really is. I’m sometimes envious of people writing for other genres on television: “You’re coming up with 13 of these! We have to write 250!” You want every individual episode to stand on its own and be really exciting, and yet we’re moving at a really fast pace.
I’ve talked to a few people involved with the show at this point, and everyone has gone out of their way to praise you and Frank. It seems like at the show level, you’re all part of a really tight-knit team. But at the network level, what kind of feedback do you get? These people aren’t as intimately involved with the series.
The people that I’m meeting with are. And their notes are very constructive, and because we do move at such a fast pace, they’re able to point out things we may have missed, or areas we can beef up. Some of the notes, especially from Frank, are production-related, like “We can’t use that set, so can we change this to work better?” — that kind of thing. Or he’ll come up with ideas for outside shots, things like that.
And when it comes to things like product placement — that comes from the network, right? I’m thinking of the scene where a couple of characters were talking about TurboTax.
Yeah, the network lets us know that, in that particular case, we needed to show a character using TurboTax in a scene. And they don’t want the product being portrayed in a negative light. We tried to integrate it a seamlessly as possible, and I wrote a line that went something like — because the Buchanan sisters, who were in the scene, were at each other’s throats at the time — “I hope you aren’t cheating on your taxes the way you cheated on your boyfriend.” [Laughs] They didn’t want us to say that. “You’re not going to use TurboTax to cheat on your taxes!” So it can be tricky, but I understand that it’s necessary.
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What’s the division of labor like on the writing team? Do you have writers who are more responsible for storyline, and some who handle dialogue, or is it less regimented?
Well, I have sort of two teams — the writers I work with on the breakdowns to lay out the show, and then dialogue writers who handle our scripts. They work from home. While we’re moving on to write the following week, they’re getting these breakdowns delivered to them, and their name is assigned to one of them. So they write the script, and then I have an editor who works on it to try and create one voice in terms of the vibe. It’s a really strong group, with brilliant writers on both sides.
I know that a certain amount of tension between the writers and the actors is sort of intrinsic to soaps, and there isn’t as much time to debate dialogue or storyline flow as there might have been in the ’80s, when, say, Gloria Monty took a more improv-friendly approach. To what extent are you aware of actors having issues with the scripts?
Well, let me start off by saying we have an amazing, incredibly talented cast, and they really take what we do and make it better — I’m always surprised and impressed when I watch the show. And in general, they pretty much do what’s in the script. We might have someone like Tuc Watkins, who will turn a line around or improvise. He sometimes puts his little spin on things, which I love, but generally, I’m always amazed how well the actors bring the scripts to life.
Sometimes, someone comes in with a concern about a beat or a line, and I’d say nine out of ten times, they’re right. We’re overseeing 30 contract actors at a fast pace, and we count on them to look after their own characters. Usually, if someone speaks up, it’s for a good reason, and if we have the time and inclination, we’ll make those adjustments.
Right, because in some cases, you’re dealing with actors who have played these characters for a really long time.
Yes. And I can’t think of an example right now, but there have been times when someone will come in like, “You want me to say what?” They’re going to hear about it from their fans if they do something out of character, and I understand that. But sometimes…I mean, right now I’m thinking about all the dastardly things we’ve had Clint Buchanan doing, and I was a little worried that Jerry verDorn, who plays the character, would come in and say “Wait a second. You want me to do this? Isn’t this too mean?” So I went to him and asked if it was okay, and he said, “Are you kidding? I love it.”
I remember hearing rumors that the network supposedly hated him and you were under orders to keep him off the air, but that’s obviously not the case.
Oh, those were totally untrue. Not at all. He’s a lovely guy, and he’s really sunk his teeth into this new incarnation of Clint. I mean, actually, we had him on the front burner when he was married to the character of Kim, but then Amanda Setton chose to leave the show, and I was worried because he didn’t have that much to do. But now that he’s taken this turn, he has his fingers in pretty much every storyline.
This arc looks like it must be a lot of fun for him as an actor, and it makes perfect sense in the context of the history of the show. Which leads me into my next question: You’re consistently praised for demonstrating a real grasp of, and affection for, your show’s past — and for utilizing it, as well as your veteran characters, to a greater extent than some of the other head writers in the genre. But along with that, you have to tackle the challenge of maintaining continuity with more than 40 years of stories.
It is really hard. I mean, I’ve watched the show for years and years, and I like to think I know a lot of the history in my mind. But I wasn’t watching every day, and there are things I don’t know, and the audience remembers a lot better than I do. We have great editors and continuity people who try and catch these things too. Sometimes, we make a conscious decision to deviate from the history — like when we decided to make Danielle Manning older than her brother Jack, even though he was born first. You know you’re going to catch flak from the audience for things like that.
But you winked back at the audience with that one, writing a joke about it into the show.
Right, when Jack met her and said “Somehow, I thought you’d be younger.” We know things like that take an adjustment for the audience — but they’ve grown up with stuff like this, too, and most of the time, they know there’s a reason. I wasn’t the head writer at the time, but I remember when we brought the character of Cole Thornhart on, and Starr, who ended up being his girlfriend, was five years old when Cole’s mother left the show pregnant. He should have been much younger, and off-screen, his mother announced she’d had a baby girl. [Laughter]
But we ended up getting a great love story out of it, and the audience, I think, is willing to overlook those things.
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I always wondered if the networks had the resources to commit to continuity experts, or if you ever got partway through a storyline and thought, “Oh, shit.”
There are definitely those moments. “Uh-oh, we have a major continuity problem.” Or I’ll see something on the air that I know is wrong, and it just breaks my heart — I know I’m going to go online and be ripped up and down for it. But we are human, and we can’t catch every little thing. It can never all work out perfectly, because babies turn into six-year-olds, and characters come back from the dead, and sometimes it’s a little tricky depending on what you saw on camera before.
I watched the show as a kid in the ’80s, and then fell away from it for about 20 years, so I’m not a continuity expert by any means, but it’s still clear that sometimes, you throw in a line that’s a nod to the fact that a character has been recast, or an obscure moment from the past. Like when you introduced the character of Tomas Delgado, long-lost brother of Tea, you made sure to include a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that she actually arrived on the show with a brother. I never would have known that, and it was just a quick little throwaway line, but it made it obvious that you guys were having fun.
Right. When we were bringing in Tomas, we had to take a look at Tea’s history, and we had to ask ourselves if we wanted to deal with that, or if it was overly complicated, so we threw in that reference to make sure the audience knew we were aware of it — even though we weren’t making that big a deal of it.
I read an interview once with James DePaiva, and he talked about how, toward the end of his tenure at One Life to Live, he was effectively being paid not to appear, because he had episode guarantees written into his contract that weren’t being fulfilled. Obviously, that’s the kind of thing you want to avoid, but what goes into deciding which characters are involved in a storyline? When you have to think about contract cycles, and episode guarantees, and then build a solid drama around all that, how does it work?
We do have to worry about those things, although Frank sort of spares me from a lot of that stuff, to give me the freedom to not focus on it so much. I remember years ago, we had a sheet that showed how many episodes each person was over or under. So it was like, “Okay, you have to use R.J. three times this week,” or the opposite — you know, don’t use that person. Now, they won’t come to us unless someone is woefully over or under their guarantee.
So let’s focus on one part of that puzzle, which is trying to build a character arc while knowing you’re dealing with contract cycles. To what extent does that limit you creatively? How far out do you allow yourself to think with a character?
It’s definitely something I have to keep in mind. You know, you don’t want to stifle your creativity, and you have to make plans for where you’re going, but those are just the facts of the situation. Although sometimes, it frees you up — you know someone wants to leave on a certain day, so you can create a big, dramatic exit for them. Ultimately, it’s another thing to juggle, because we do write so far ahead. Like, for instance, we just announced that Roger Howarth is returning to the show, but that was up in the air for awhile — you want to start laying things in for that story, but you don’t want to start making promises you can’t keep.
Yeah, you’ve obviously been dropping hints for awhile that this storyline could be coming. When you have to do that, and things are in flux behind the scenes, are you parallel writing a contingency plan?
Yeah, because otherwise, they wouldn’t really let me lay it in. But of course, the contingency is never as good as the Plan A. The Plan B is usually — well, it’s really hard. Because you don’t want to promise the audience something you can’t deliver, but then, you don’t want to miss the boat when you could have really developed something major. I’ve definitely gambled a couple of times. I wrote the story for Viki going off to be a waitress before Erika Slezak had signed a new contract, and if she hadn’t signed, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. But I want to be ready to run with it the day an actor signs the contract.
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One thing that fascinates me about soaps in this era of dwindling budgets is how they handle major events in their storylines. There’s clearly a financial calculus that goes into which characters can be involved, and which ones aren’t.
You mean like at a wedding or something?
Exactly, and that’s a great example, because you recently had a double wedding, and a number of characters who should have been there — at least in terms of their relationships with the characters at the altar — weren’t.
Yeah. I mean, look, everyone is connected to everyone, so we should probably have the entire cast at the wedding. And not only your contract cast, but recurring characters like Renee, or Kevin — family members who may not be on the canvas, but they’d definitely be invited to a wedding. And a funeral is even worse. You know, you can see someone missing a wedding, but not showing up when a person dies? [Laughter]
I think the audience is a little more forgiving if the actor in question isn’t available to us. I think where they get more upset is when they are available and they just aren’t part of things. Sometimes, it’s a matter of — I mean, for me, yes, it would cost a fortune. And what a lot of those people would be doing is sitting in a pew. Believe it or not, the actor wouldn’t be so thrilled, either, to sit there with no lines for four days while this event is going on. So we have to make these choices, because otherwise costs get completely out of control.
So, for instance, with the double wedding, we said Roxy got drunk the night before and didn’t end up making it, even though we’d love to have her. And a lot of viewers also wanted to know why Matthew wasn’t there — that was because we knew he was going to be revealed as Eddie Ford’s killer, and it would have complicated things to have him at the wedding with Clint, who we knew helped Matthew cover up the murder, so we made a conscious decision to hold that. The story wasn’t about that in that moment.
You want to have enough people that it feels like a big event — otherwise, you give short shrift to it. But it can get overwhelming, too, especially once these things get going, because they can last for four days, and then how do you exit people from it? Someone stands up and all these major revelations start coming out, and then…
One episode I remember is the Thanksgiving show from few years ago, where we had the unveiling of the new diner, which Charlie had rebuilt for Viki as a replica of the place where they met. In that show, I think maybe with one or two exceptions, we had the entire cast in the diner, and it was something that was really important to me — to show that people were having separate dinners, but that the whole community came together at the end. Frank made an exception for me, because he knew it would be powerful. It cost a lot of money, and it’s putting 30 or 40 people into one small set, but it was incredible to see them all, at the end of the show, in one place together.
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It seems like you try and do things like that on a semi-regular basis, whether it’s by writing “umbrella” storylines that end up involving a majority of the cast, or simply writing scenes that get around the one-to-one scene dynamic that’s become the norm on soaps.
It’s definitely a challenge. We always have a lot of storylines going at once, and often the challenge is that something major happens in one story that theoretically everyone in town would be talking about. So you have to figure out how to keep everything moving forward. Is there a way that Blair can not know someone got shot, so that she can move on with her story today?
One thing you do, and that I don’t think happens often enough, is threading characters between separate arcs. For instance, the recent episode where Rex brought his son to the hospital, and even though Bo was wrapped up in his own storyline, you made sure to have him stop what he was doing to pay a visit.
Yeah, because that friendship between Bo and Rex is something that the audience loves. We had this big revelation happen with Bo’s son Matthew, so we had to ask ourselves if we could still make that hospital scene happen. So we said that Matthew went to his room to lie down, which freed up Bo, because I really wanted to have that moment, especially since their friendship has been somewhat strained lately. It’s somewhat tricky to arrange things like that, but we really work hard to make them happen.
Working at the speed you do, does there ever come a time when the writers are out of ideas for storyline arcs and they just…punt?
Well, there is pressure. What do you mean exactly?
The example I’m thinking of isn’t from your show, but it’s one that I have to imagine came out of sheer desperation, and that’s the early ’90s General Hospital storyline that started with an alien crash-landing into someone’s garage.
More often than that, it’s like, “Oh, shoot, it’s Friday, and we need a big, splashy ending…uh…she shoots him!” [Laughter] It might be something you pull out of your hat because you need something exciting, and it wasn’t part of your original plan. And sometimes we have to dial those back. “This would be great, but let’s think things through a little bit.” I definitely get excited about an idea when we’re sitting around the room — I’ll be the one saying, “We’re doing this, we are doing this,” and I depend on the other writers to sort of pull me back and make me think. Sometimes you go ahead and do it and get something great out of it; sometimes, you fall on your face.
You definitely find yourself looking through newspapers and thinking, “Oh, we can do that story.” But you hopefully have a chance to think everything through before making any moves you’ll regret.
Soaps have developed a stable of sensational story types — the paternity switch, characters coming back from the dead, long-lost twins. Are there any storylines you feel like you’d never touch, because they’re too over-the-top or ridiculous? Like cloning a character, for instance.
[Laughs] Well, you said you watched the show in the ’80s, and I did too. I love the stuff they did in that vein, like sending characters back to the Old West, or sending Viki to Heaven.
Or the secret underground city.
I live for moments like, you know, Viki walking into an Old West saloon and seeing her exact double about to marry Clint. You know, and we did a time travel story a couple of years ago, where we sent Rex and Gigi to 1968, which I love.
Right, but a lot of those moments happen sort of outside the regular framework of the show — they happen, to a certain extent, without impacting other things on the canvas.
Yes, and that was part of a broader series of stories for the show’s 40th anniversary, where we were paying tribute to iconic moments from its history. The trick is always balance. Right now, we have a bullying story, which is grounded in something that’s very real — the people in our audience can relate to it. A few years ago, the character of Starr got pregnant at 16, which is something that people understand even if they haven’t been through it themselves. That’s what keeps the audience emotionally involved, and at the same time, there’s always an element that’s larger than life — for every story we do that’s real and relatable, I like to have something over the top, like what we’re doing right now with Jessica and her split personalities. Twins having a double wedding, babies getting switched — those tropes that keep people interested.
I mean, would I do a cloning story? I don’t know. But I do remember hearing about it and being interested. Being curious, wondering how they were doing it, and wanting to turn it on. To really say I’d never do a particular story, I’d have to be given a specific example — like, I don’t know if I’m doing a bestiality story. [Laughs]
I see what you’re saying. And I think one of the most fascinating things about soaps is that because you’re on five days a week, you have the ability to build so much context with your characters that you can ask people to suspend disbelief in those larger-than-life moments.
I always say that you could send Viki to Mars, as long as you write her like Viki. [Laughter] I mean, think of what this woman has been through. As long as you write her in character, you can have her do anything.
- Emmy-Winner Roger Howarth Returns to ABC Daytime’s “One Life To Live” (tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com)
- TV Junkie: ABC Cancellation of Soaps Will Hurt Other Production (laist.com)
- ABC Cancels ‘All My Children’ and ‘One Life to Live’ (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)