July 11, 2011 - 12 years of Santa Barbara : le site Francais
July 30,
2011 - 27 years of Santa Barbara

Patrick Mulcahey : «Santa Barbara was kind of nuts to work on.»

 By Nicolas, exclusively for Santa Barbara : le site Francais, June 2011

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On last June 18, Patrick Mulcahey agreed to take on his time to answer exclusively the questions of Santa Barbara : le site Francais. The writer talks about his debuts, his time on Santa Barbara from 1984 to 1991, his work relationships and his passion for his writer job.

The beginnings before Santa Barbara

How did you start your career as a writer ?

I think the best, maybe the only way to start a life as a writer is by writing without any thought of a career. Not thinking about success or how much money you'll make or anything but the writing itself, which some unstoppable genie in you drives you to do, never mind how "good" it is or how much other people may love it or hate it.

One of the gratingly and sometimes tragically bad things about television is that most of the people writing it didn't start being writers by writing, but rather by flunking out of law school or business school or washing out of acting or dancing or a dozen other things. I got my first rejection slip when I was five years old, as it happens, but I'm not saying every writer should pop out of the womb as a writer. Some writers who washed out at other things before becoming writers are very good. Still, if you never wrote anything for love, for no promise of a job, no money, no reason except that it had to be written and it chose you to write it, then you have missed out on one of the fundamentals.

I didn't start writing plays till I moved to New Orleans (for love) in my early twenties. I fell in with a group of actors just graduated from Lousiana State University who were looking to do plays together. Their director found out I wrote poems and fiction and said, "Great ! You'll write plays for us and we won't have to pay royalties." Which is what I did, since I didn't know enough to know I couldn't do it. And I am forever grateful to that director and those actors, because they taught me what I was supposed to be doing as a writer, and how to write for performance, and how to write silence and not just words. They taught me that spoken words are really just the spaces in the story that is telling itself.

It was the best possible training I could have had. Precious few writers in TV have had the opportunity to work with actors as I did, to dive in at rehearsals and change stuff that isn't working, to be pressed with questions about character motivation and find answers - to do some acting myself, even. We were a small company. When we got some notoriety and started doing big classic plays, I was pressed into service as, oh, the Player King in Hamlet, or the dumb, doomed boyfriend in Antigone. That's how I found out I wasn't an actor !  And learned to recognize and honor the gift in actors who have it.

It was also where I learned to really listen to actors. They aren't script doctors. They aren't supposed to be. But when a good actor is struggling and telling you something is wrong in the material, you the writer must believe him and find it and fix it. Doing that has led to some great breakthroughs for me.

Still, after a half-dozen or so years of the starving-artist thing, I was ready when the call came asking me, "How would you like to write for Search for Tomorrow ?" "Sure," I said, "What is it ?" I didn't have a television myself.

 

The time of Santa Barbara

How did you start in Santa Barbara ?

Thereby hangs a tale. After working with Douglas Marland on Guiding Light and then on Loving, which I hated (and where Agnes Nixon was like some psychotic schoolmarm on speed, making copious condescending red-pen "corrections" in the margins of scripts - "You used the same word on page 2 and on page 34 ! Too repetitive !") - after that, I decided I was done with writing for soaps. Douglas was the best. He'd taught me more about writing than any ten literature professors ever could have, plus I'd won an Emmy. I figured I'd never have another experience like that, so I decided go back to what I knew best : waiting on tables and writing plays at night and being a starving artist again.

I shook the dust of Connecticut from my feet and took off for San Francisco, where I knew one person who'd let me stay with him for a while. Well, he said he would, but then promptly tossed me out. You can really, really starve as an artist in San Francisco, everything costs so much and space is so tight. I'd thought I was going to find food-service work again, but wouldn't you know, there was a restaurant workers' strike on when I got there, and I couldn't bring myself to cross a picket line. So I was sitting in my little one-room studio in a terrible part of town with the door double-locked and bolted, counting what was left in my wallet, when the phone rang. The woman on the other end identified herself as Bridget Dobson. Did I want to write for the new show she and her husband had just created called Santa Barbara ? Once again I didn't have a television, and I'd never seen the show. But I knew its name.

Just before I moved west, I spent a very pleasant night in New York with a director friend in his apartment doing a reading of a new play I had written. It went really well, and he seemed excited about directing it in the city, but nobody was more excited than a quiet, pretty blond acting student of his who was present. She was very complimentary about the play, we hit it off, and when it came time to leave, I walked her to her subway stop. Turned out she was moving to Los Angeles the very next day, to take an acting job on a new soap opera called Santa Barbara. Thinking it must be a big break for her, I congratulated her, but explained I was done with soaps myself and moving to San Francisco to write plays.

As we talked, I thought I saw cars slowing as they passed us, but she didn't seem to notice - until finally one passing car rolled down a window and somebody yelled, "Die, Liza, you bitch !" and then roared off. That pretty blond actress, I found out, was Marcy Walker, then playing manipulative Liza on All My Children, and not terribly happy about being hated.

So the call came, and I thought about my new friend Marcy, and about Santa Barbara - at least I'd know one person - and I picked the rest of the cobwebs out of my wallet and said, "Sure, I'd be interested." Bridget was very warm and cordial but was never one to beat around the bush. What did I want to write ? Scripts, I said, one a week. And how much did I want to be paid ? I told her. All right, said Bridget, you can start next week. And I did.

In Santa Barbara, there is 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 deliberate since the beginning ?

We did have more comedy than any other show I've been on - I would say in great part because we had actors like Davies and Deas and Mattson who could pull it off - but otherwise I would have to disagree with your assessment. There were times when Santa Barbara dragged terribly, I thought, and when our stories were incomprehensible or just stupid. The kidnapping of Adriana still makes me shudder if I let myself think about it.

But I grant you, none of that happened when the Dobsons were at the helm. They always knew what they were doing. They knew how to pace a story and when they could pause it at a point of high tension and go a little nuts. Jerry was a genius at laying out tense suspenseful weeks, when we'd worked the story to a fever pitch. A lot of writers don't have that gift; they carefully get everything set up and revved up and then go to pieces in paying it off. There was one point when Jerry and Chuck Pratt and I were writing the outlines together, and the stories were very well told then, if I do say so myself. Jerry had to play referee some between Chuck and me, but mostly we complemented each other very well. Chuck was like an idea machine, he kept tossing up new possibilities like skeet, and I was like the marksman who would aim for the one that worked and bring it down to the ground again. That's a crude overstatement, of course, and I don't even know how to characterize Jerry's and Bridget's enormous creative contributions, since the show was permeated with their fine, funny, edgy sensibilities. They were great bosses, good people, loyal friends and good writers. I lost touch with them and miss them very much.

On which storylines did you intervene in Santa Barbara ?

All of them, I suppose. I was more obnoxious about some of them than others. Not with Bridget and Jerry. They always allowed me story input, though the story was theirs. But when they got strong-armed out, we had a series of wretched headwriters who couldn't make head or tail of our special little show. I don't know where I got the gumption to do this, but I was editing scripts at that time, and every week when the story notes came out I would call the writers and say, "Okay, here's what we're going to write instead." I should have been fired. We all should have been. Except that we were doing it very well because we knew and loved the show, so management kind of kept quiet and let us do it.

I want to acknowledge here and now that I was awful to one headwriter in particular, Anne Howard Bailey, and apologize for it. She was a nice person, a formidable person - she intimidated me mightily - and might even be a good writer for all I know, but I thought her take on our show was disastrously wrong and led a little insurrection about it. If I'm honest, I have to say I think it made for a better show. But it wasn't kind, it wasn't professional, it wasn't even very grown-up, and she didn't deserve it.

How is written a soap-opera on day-to-day ? What are the different stages of the creation of a storyline, its edition in episodes... ?

Each show's a little different, but basically, it's the literary equivalent of an assembly line. The fewer positions there are, the fewer chances to screw it up. The more writers there are, the more incoherent a show begins to get. This will come as no surprise to seasoned soap viewers.

As a writer, do you work in contact with the actors ? The executive producers ?

Many, maybe most producers I've worked with don't like for the writers to be in touch with the actors. We might tell them things ! Or the actors might offend us by saying our story is crap !

That wasn't the case on Santa Barbara, which was another way that show was special. All of us talked.  Actors, directors, designers, writers. Or anyway, I did, and nobody stopped me. It made a world of difference. Partly because, as I said, I had learned how to listen to actors, and they could tell, so they listened to me.

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

Major casting is almost always out of the writers' hands. Thereafter it becomes a pretty interesting chemical process between what the actor is doing and how the writers perceive it and how we learn to write him more consistently into the territory he occupies with most confidence and power.

Then once in a while you get an A Martinez, who can do anything, or a Justin Deas or a Marcy Walker or a Robin Wright or a Nancy Grahn or Louise Sorel or Robin Mattson - and then you can't stop thinking of new things you want to see them do.

Some character departures are clearly made explicit (death for Mary, Caroline, Elena, Hayley, Andrea, Nikki...; moving away for Brick, Victoria, Cain, Jake, T.J., Scott and Heather...) and for others, they disappear from the show without even a good-bye (Pearl, young Carmen, Wanda, Sandra, Bunny...). How is made this writing choice ?

That sort of thing can be attributable to a variety of reasons.

1) The producers really think the actor will accept the guarantee cut they're offering and sign the new contract eventually, so nobody wants to kill or send the character off.

2) The audience loves the character so much that if you kill him or her, or even suggest the character's leaving, the audience will hate you for a year.

3) Everybody's sick of the character and the executives couldn't decide how to get rid of him or her, so the edict comes down that no one must ever mention the character's name again. Seriously, I've seen that happen.

The one thing you can be sure of is that it's never accidental. If it seems stupid to the audience, the reasons for it being stupid are probably stupid too.

Does the personality of an actor intervene on the destiny of his character ?

I am not sure how to take "personality" here.

If the actor's an asshole, he can torpedo his own career without even trying. If he holds up production, doesn't learn his lines, locks himself in his dressing room etc. - we just don't have time for that. Canning him is an economic decision. But even if he's so nice that everybody loves him, he won't keep his job if the character's not needed. That's an economic decision too.

Or you may mean something different. Playing the character five days a week over the long haul, sure, who the actor himself is will peek through. And do we use that ? Of course we do.

What is the storyline (or character) you are the most proud of ? And perhaps the less proud of ?

I don't know that I'm entitled to feel personal pride in any of it. The show was truly a collaboration. I can say I feel a collective "Look what we did !" pride in Santa Barbara's high points : we had our doldrums, like any show, but our best was very, very good. Even when the Dobsons were gone, we had a fine producer in Jill Phelps, wonderful directors (I remember especially the wild and brilliant Michael Gliona), a cast who knocked themselves out for us every day. My sense is that A Martinez, just by virtue of who he is, set a standard of professionalism, patience and mutual respect that everyone tried to live up to (with, it must be said, varying results).

At the same time, Santa Barbara is where I made my reputation as a writer (to the extent I have one), so I do think I must've made substantive contributions to, for instance, the story of Cruz and Eden, and the story of Mason and Julia, to name two of my favorite pairings. I was a little wild myself. When I worked with him, Douglas (Marland) ruled the writing with an iron hand, and wonderfully so; but on Santa Barbara I was working with people who actually trusted me and gave me my head. All I had to do was say, "I have an idea," and they didn't even have to hear it, they'd let me run with it. It was a formative creative experience for me. I worked hard and loved what I did and made personal sacrifices I don't regret to continue doing it.

For some reason I can't name myself, I really want to stop here and say I loved writing for Roscoe Born. I resisted the Robert Barr story; it was shoved down our throats by Jackie Smith, the network exec, for whom I had no respect. But she was right about casting Roscoe.  A wonderful, mysterious actor who works from a very deep, even dark place. Anyone else we threw in with A and Marcy would've faded into insignificance.

I take that back :  Joe Bottoms, as the yuppie villain who married Eden, was never insignificant. I loved him and loved that arc of the story.

I can more readily point you to episodes I wrote that I'm proud of. For instance, when Bridget and Jerry finally came back to the show - I wasn't there anymore - Bridget called to ask me if I would write two special episodes for them, a Capwell dinner-party-from-hell to which Mason brought Pamela from the nuthouse as a surprise. I would do just about anything for Bridget and Jerry, then and now - and damn, did they produce the hell out of those shows ! The actors were magnificent. Gordon Thomson, who was Mason #3, and Jed Allan did scenes that give me chills to this day when I replay them in my head (and I do).

You worked also for the daytime soap-operas Texas, Guiding Light, General Hospital, and you're currently on The Bold and the Beautiful. What differences do you find in your work between these shows and Santa Barbara ?

Well, there are tremendous differences, of course. One of the most obvious is that The Bold and the Beautiful is only a half-hour long, which means you have no room to play around in. Still, Brad (Bell)'s method is a lot like Douglas (Marland)'s in some ways.

I think Guiding Light carries the day, at least during my two stints on it, for having the most consistent and sustained dramatic quality. My time on General Hospital working with my friends Bob and Michele and Elizabeth was great too, until things went south there...

You know, there's the quality of the show to consider, and then there's the quality of the working situation - the people you work with and for, how crazy or sane they are, how honest and trustworthy, how panic-driven or poised. The audience's experience of the show is not the writer's, to state the obvious. Santa Barbara and Guiding Light were kind of nuts to work on. High-adrenaline, high-wire situations.  The Bold and the Beautiful, thank God, is not.  Brad is like the world's best boss.

What did the Emmy awards nominations and the Emmy you won on 1989 for your work on Santa Barbara changed for you ?

They put me in a really good mood for a few weeks, and the Emmy impressed people who didn't know me in the airport when I brought it home.

You left Santa Barbara in 1991. What were the reasons of your departure ?

Jackie Smith brought in a new executive producer named John Conboy, who might've been a really nice guy - I didn't stick around long enough to find out - but he played like a caricature of The Dumb New Boss. The one who says, "I know how to fix what's wrong around here - let's remodel !" We had one meeting, he told me his plans, I said, "No, thank you, I'm done."

.

These 20 last years after Santa Barbara and now

Did you keep in touch with members of the cast or the crew after your departure ? Did you continue to watch the show after that ? If yes, what did you think of its evolutions ?

No, I didn't watch.  That's hard to do when you've written a show that somebody else has taken over. You're bound to think they're doing everything wrong, because it's not what you would have done. Nancy Grahn - we've stayed friends all these years - always insisted that the last producer, Paul Rauch, did a good job with the show, but I still couldn't watch. I stayed in touch with a lot of people for a five or six years - in show-biz years, that's a century - but only Bob Guza and Nancy Grahn really stayed in my life in a significant way. Remember, they were all in L.A. and I'm not.

With the recent announcement of the cancellation of All my Children and One Life to Live, after the premature end of Guiding Light and As the World Turns these last years, what are your feelings about the future of the daytime soap-operas media ?

That soaps really don't have a future. We needed to change or die, and the only changes we made were for the worse.

I don't know, Brad's still in there pitching anyway. I love that guy.

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

Yes. "Thank you for your patience, for your loyalty, for your generosity even on those days and months we didn't deserve it. Thank you for understanding what we were trying to do. Thank you for getting our jokes and loving what we loved and letting us break your hearts with what broke ours. Thank you for letting me feel that the network might hate what I wrote on any given week, but I had to write it anyway, because my first allegiance was to you."

Once again all my thanks to Patrick Mulcahey for his disponibility, his kindness and his frankness.