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2018 - 34 years of Santa Barbara

Michele Val Jean : «I miss the Dobsons all the time.»

 By Nicolas, exclusively for Santa Barbara : le site Francais, July 2018

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On last July 08, Michele Val Jean agreed to take on her time to answer exclusively the questions of Santa Barbara : le site Francais. The writer talks about her debuts, her time on Santa Barbara from 1991 to 1993, and the process of writing a daytime soap-opera.

How did you start your career as a writer, and on Santa Barbara ?

I was an assistant to a writer/producer in nighttime. We worked on Magnum P.I., In The Heat of the Night, and Jake and the Fatman. I figured out I wanted to write soaps so I asked my boss (when we were on Jake) if I could sit in on story meetings so I could see how an hour was plotted. Promised to sit quietly in the corner. But when they'd get stuck and I'd have an idea, I'd raise my hand. Eventually they invited me into the circle. I had an idea for an episode and to my astonishment, they bought it. It was well received and I wrote a second episode the following season, got myself an agent who got me an interview with Sally Sussman on Generations. She hired me on the spot and that's how my soap career got started. After Generations got cancelled, I got called to interview with Jerry Dobson and he hired me for Santa Barbara.

What profile would you make of the Dobsons ?

The Dobsons were wonderful. Just like the show - witty and sophisticated, but real and down to earth. I love them dearly and miss them all the time.

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 specifically asked by the producers or the network ?

By the time I got there the formula was already in place.

Can you tell the process of writing for a soap-opera like Santa Barbara ? How the main storylines are decided ? By whom ? What is the place of the executive producer and the producers in the writing work ?

The process depends on the show but on all of them, longterm story is decided by the head writer - sometimes with team input, sometimes not. When I first started on Santa Barbara under the Dobsons, I was writing scripts from home so I wasn't involved in story meetings. Then Bridget made me script editor and I started going. We'd meet on Monday/Tuesday - headwriters, outline writers and me as editor - and lay out the week from whatever long term document we were working from. Outlines were written and they would go to scriptor writers and that's how the show got written.
Executive producers are responsible for getting the vision to screen and the mechanics of managing a large company of people. Once the week was in outline, we'd go over whatever concerns Paul Rauch had production-wise and I'd incorporate those changes into the edited scripts.

You worked on Santa Barbara under at least three executive producers : the Dobsons, John Conboy and Paul Rauch. How did these changes influence your work as a writer ? What were the differences between all of them ?

I never worked with Conboy. Paul Rauch was there when I came in co-executing with the Dobsons. Once they left, he did it himself. There are a lot of differing opinions on Paul, but I must say - he was always only encouraging and supportive of me. He kept me on as editor, for which I'll always be grateful. And my writing style has been more influenced by learning from other writers.

When you arrived in 1991, to prepare the fans to Marcy Walker's departure, Eden started to suffer from split personality before leaving town. Do you remember how this storyline was initiated ? Did you fear it wouldn't work on-screen ?

I don't remember when/how it was initiated and I don't remember thinking it wouldn't work. Our actors could make anything work and Santa Barbara did quite a few outrageous things in its time !

In 1992, a new family was written : the Walkers. Jodie, Reese, B.J. and Sawyer quickly became in the center of most of the storylines. Fans regretted that the “historical” characters remained in the backstage or had less dramatical storylines to live. Is it a feeling you had then ?

Honestly, I was pretty new to the genre and my job was to realize the headwriter's vision. At that time it was Pam Long.

In the same idea, how a new writer can succeed in writing for characters existing for years in a soap-opera ? Is it easier to write for them as they already have a long life and background, or is it easier to write new characters you can build on your own ?

I find it easier to write for established characters because you know who they are. You hear their voices and know how they react. It's a little more difficult to start from scratch but a lot of satisfaction once those characters come fully alive.

On Santa Barbara, what is the storyline (or character) you are the most proud of ? And perhaps the less proud of ?

I was just proud to be a part of a show I had deeply loved and admired from the first day it hit the air. To be writing with such an amazing team.

So, you watched Santa Barbara since it first aired ? You were a fan of the show and succeeded in writing for it - what a great story ! In your memory, what were your favorite characters and storylines as a viewer and/or as a writer ?

As a viewer, I found Eden's rape to be very compelling and I was blown away to find out her rapist was her gynocologist. Also I was in awe of Patrick Mulcahey's writing of the two day Capwell dinner party (with Pamela in 1991).
As a writer you learn not to favor any of your children over the other and I was a newbie then. Just so happy to be there, I was good with whatever stories we were tellling at whatever point in time. I loved writing for Julia and Mason and Cruz/Eden/Kelly. And I guess I take a bittersweet pride in writing the last episode.

You were among the team who knew the very last episode of the show. When did you learn that Santa Barbara was definitively coming to an end ? What did you think of its evolutions until its end and what do you think may have saved it ?

I think we learned about the cancellation about six months before it left the air. It was heartbreaking. What could have saved it ? If I knew the answer to that, we'd still have twelve soaps on the air. More viewers, certainly. Better ratings.

You also worked for the daytime soap-operas Generations, Port Charles, General Hospital, and now you are on The Bold and the Beautiful. What differences do you find in your work between these shows and Santa Barbara ?

Well, I never wrote for Port Charles. I helped Lynn Latham out when she started there by editing scripts for about six weeks till she could find someone but that was it. I did write two episodes of General Hospital : Night Shift.
Every show has its own rhythm and style. You just adapt.

Is there something you'd like to say to the Santa Barbara fans all over the world who didn't forget the show ?

I'm so grateful to them for keeping us all alive in their hearts. For appreciating this wonderful world the Dobsons created and never wavering in their love and respect for it. With all the new ways to view television, it's my hope that loyalty will be rewarded someday and Santa Barbara will re-air somewhere. That would be fantastic.

 

Once again all my thanks to Michele Val Jean for her time and her love for Santa Barbara.