July 11, 2009 - 21 years of Santa Barbara : le site Francais
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2009 - 36 years of Santa Barbara

Jill Farren Phelps : «Santa Barbara was a once in a lifetime experience.»

 By Nicolas, exclusively for Santa Barbara : le site Francais, August 2020

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On August 05 2020, Jill Farren Phelps agreed to take on her time to answer exclusively the questions of Santa Barbara : le site Francais. The producer talks about her debuts in Santa Barbara, her work on the show, and the production process of a daytime soap-opera.

How did you start your career as a producer ? It seems you first started in Santa Barbara on a totally another function ?

Prior to joining Santa Barbara, I'd been working in soaps as a production assistant on Guiding Light and then as a music director on General Hospital for years. I was hired as a music director on Santa Barbara and during that time, I got to know the network execs supervising the show. Santa Barbara had a rocky start production wise - (starting a soap from the beginning is murder) - and my prior experience in soaps and theater, etc. interested the producers and the network. I knew how a soap was run, and I had ideas about how Santa Barbara could run more smoothly. Three months into the show, they asked me if I'd like to produce, and of course I said yes. So glad I did.

In 1987 you became Santa Barbara's executive producer. What was your daily work on the show ?

The executive producer on a soap is a huge job, especially on a young show. The job basically is to supervise every department from writing to casting to budget to art direction, etc. I've always been a big believer in hiring very smart and talented people, and I was very lucky in that regard. The headwriter on a soap is really the partner of the executive producer. That team can be critical to the success of a show. Many of the creative decisions are made by the writers in conjunction with the producer.

My day was spent talking story with the writers, reading material, watching rehearsals and shooting from the control room - talking to actors, directors, designers, music directors, network and studio. My job was to oversee all the talented people with whom I was so fortunate to work. There was a lot of trouble shooting when things went wrong or when an actor was stuck on something. It's a collaboration at its best - my daily job was to make sure everything was running smoothly.

Santa Barbara was known for having a lot of comedy, adventure, and above all storylines which go on very much faster than in the other daytime soap-operas. Was it something you decided or something specifically asked by the network ?

The creators of the show. Jerome and Bridget Dobson created Santa Barbara with a spirit of whimsy as well as romance and family. That was the tone of Santa Barbara at its inception. But the comedy and the irreverence was the result of a group of very funny, mostly young and irreverent people who found themselves working together on this brand new show. We were fearless because we could be. We had great writing and acting and production - we were all on the same page and the show just grew into a different kind of animal. It was the most extraordinary experience for all of us. We worked very hard, and remarkably we laughed a lot.

I was very influenced by the primetime giants in that era. Those shows moved fast and broke rules (St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law). They didn't start every scene with music and end every scene the same way. I believed that daytime could emulate that kind of fearless storytelling, so that had a lot to do with what ultimately became the style of the show.

How are built storylines ? I mean, how do you decide which one of the main characters will get a new storyline, which one of the secondary characters it will involve, what new characters will have to be created ? Also, on the other hand, how do you decide to get rid of a character ?

Storylines are essentially built by the writing team in concert with network and producer. Story is almost a living thing which starts in the heads of the writers (I did participate in pitching story if I had a good idea), and grows from there. Decisions about which characters will participate is an essential part of the creation of story - and as the story grows if new characters are needed or determined to be a good extension of the story we're telling, they would be added.

The same principle exists in letting characters go. Sometimes the exit of a character is part of the original story. Sometimes, things don't work out with an actor for one reason or another and the decision is made to let someone go (producers, writers and network participate in those decisions).

How is decided the creation of a new character: his personality, his storylines, the choice of the actor to perform him ?

Sometimes, a specific actor becomes available and is so exciting to the showrunners, a character is created for that actor. Bunny played by the incomparable Joe Marinelli was such a character. Usually, the need for a new character is part of ongoing story. At that point, we give details of the role to the casting director who sends out a "breakdown" of what we're looking for, and casting begins the process of auditioning many many actors, choosing their favorites. Then the headwriter and I would look at those favorites and choose the one we want. If the choice is between a few actors, we would do screen tests and send the results to the network for their opinion.

Santa Barbara knew many recasts, even in its main cast. I think of C.C., Mason, Kelly, Gina... When an actor wants to leave, how is made the decision to recast the character or to simply make the character disappear ?

Some characters are irreplaceable. (Tony Geary on General Hospital is a good example of a character you would never replace.) That happens when the actor is so identified with a role that the audience wouldn't accept a recast. I have learned over the years though that if the story is really strong and the audience needs to know what is going to happen and you pick the right moment to do the recast, you can get away with it. The recast of Mason from Lane Davies to Terry Lester was as seamless a recast as possible. We punched Lane Davies in the face and knocked him down at the tag of the show and Terry Lester got up the next day. The story was compelling enough to take the audience through that big bump in the road.

Santa Barbara was the smallest cast on any of the soaps I've worked on. Losing one of the core characters was a huge loss to the show, but because the show was about the Capwells, it was important to get those characters right which we finally did with Jed Allan, and it was necessary to recast some of the others (Robin Wright who left to be a movie star), so that the family could remain intact.

What was your best remembrance from the show, on a relational and on a professional level ?

I have so many wonderful memories of the show. I couldn't begin to name them all. I was very partial to Cruz and Eden and worked with A and Marcy to show the world the incredible chemistry I felt they had. That was a very successful coupling, and to this day A Martinez is my dearest friend. I met people on that show that have stayed in my life are among my most important relationships today. The first time Santa Barbara won the Emmy, there was a 17 second celebration amongst all of us before anyone even started to get on the stage. We were a family, and we celebrated like a family and loved each other like family.
Anything Justin Deas did is gratefully imprinted in my memory. They were all just great.

You say you kept many wonderful memories of the show. What storylines and/or characters you are the most proud of ? And on the contrary do you have regrets about a storyline that didn't work as you planned, or that you didn't manage to put on screen ?

I loved the love stories. Cruz and Eden were a magical couple, their coupling was like lightning in a bottle. What was fun about A and Marcy was that their love story wasn't planned. Their extraordinary talent and the chemistry between them was breathtaking, and the writers created Cruz and Eden's love story because the actors were so electric. C.C. and Sophia, Kelly (Robin Wright) and anyone - it was so much fun to watch such gifted artists turn fiction into fantasy. Keith and Gina and Mason and Julia were some of the best actors I ever worked with.

One of the many things I loved were the quirky characters that were on the journey with us. Joe Marinelli's brilliant portrayal of Bunny was a sight to behold and a beloved character. I think we all loved Abe Vigoda who played "the world's oldest living hit man". We planted him in a tree outside a window planning to take out someone (I can't remember the character). He was there for a week's worth of shows, and every once in a while we'd hear the rustling and the cracking of the branch of the tree he was hiding in. It was very funny and very Santa Barbara. Of course he was discovered at the end of the story arc as the branch broke and the oldest living hit man hit the dirt.

The Emmys were fun. We were a young show and the cast and crew and directors and all the designers were often nominated. I've always said to every show I've produced that's gotten a lot of Emmy nominations, that the day of the nominations is the best day. It's a true time of celebration. Winning was fun too, but it was a different kind of excitement. Having stolen this from a shot I saw on a Steven Bochco show where characters were talking around the water cooler and as they exited, they revealed an Emmy sitting atop the water bottle. From that time on, if an actor won an Emmy we would hide the Emmy in the actor's set. If the show won, we'd hide the Emmy in every set. They were meant to be hidden, but the audience was smart and they'd look for them. Justin Deas hung underwear on his Emmy. I don't think we aired that, but it was hysterical.

You left Santa Barbara in 1990 after several years of success for the show and several Daytime Emmy awards to reward your work. What were the reasons of your departure ?

Not unusual when the network executives change on a show, they like to bring their own producers to their shows, which is what happened on Santa Barbara.

Did you continue to watch the show after that ? If yes, what did you think of its evolutions until its end ?

I did not watch the show after I left. I rarely watch the shows I've done after I leave. It's like watching your baby being raised by another family.

After Santa Barbara, you worked as executive producer on many other soap-operas such as Guiding Light, Another World, One Life to Live, General Hospital, The Young and the Restless… How would you compare your work on Santa Barbara and on these shows ? What evolutions did you see in the soap-opera medium during all these years ?

Nothing is like your first show. I learned so much on that show and developed as a producer with each new one I did. I made some mistakes and had some great successes. I feel that soaps were a victim of trying to reinvent the wheel. Daytime drama is about great writing, making the audience laugh and cry and have to watch the next day. It doesn't matter how old the characters are, or how young; whether they're black or white or funny looking - if the stories were solid and the production was good, people watched.
The effort of the networks attempting to bring young viewers to their shows often backfired. For many years I fought the network on making the summers about kids on fake beaches because sets and near naked people do not bring in young people. And the kids didn't come and the soaps lost their loyal audiences.
Also, with each show I did (this was not true of Santa Barbara) the money began to go. We ended up not being able to do a decent show because we didn't have enough money. Once upon a time, daytime kept primetime in business because it made so much money. No longer. It's a new world.

What would you like to say to all the Santa Barbara fans all over the world who didn't forget the show ?

Santa Barbara was a once in a lifetime experience. The people who worked on that show loved it just as much as the people who watched it. It was unlike anything else I've ever done - and the magic of all those magnificent characters and stories lives on in our memories. Thank you so much for your loyalty and for watching and helping to make that magic sing.


Once again all my thanks to Jill Farren Phelps for her availability and her kindness.