Having Star Trek: Voyager, Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls and Heroes on his resume, Bryan Fuller‘s work certainly does not dwell in the mundane. He has written for grim reapers, nagging inanimate objects and those with supernatural powers. But his own inspiration comes from characters that can show the rest of us non-magical people to see the power we have to affect change in the world.
With Heroes set to return on April 23rd on NBC, the first of five new episodes, Bryan talks to PopGurls about writing for the show and gives a few hints of what’s to come.
I loved Wonderfalls. I think I watched all my DVDs all in one shot. I miss that show so much.
I had so much fun doing that show. It was all these right elements that came together – working with Todd [Holland], the cast. Caroline [Dhavernas, who played Jaye Tyler] is just unparalleled in my book, as actresses go, in terms of professionalism and skill. The whole cast was fantastic, and I was very happy to get Lee Pace [who played Aaron Tyler] to play the lead in the ABC Pilot [Pushing Daisies]. And he’s fantastic in the show.
Speaking of Pushing Daisies, I hear you’ve got gold monkeys in it. You had a brass monkey in Wonderfalls — what’s with all the monkeys?
I just think that monkeys are really cute (laughs). It’s not more complicated than that – I suppose I could get philosophical and say that if you’re doing a show about death, death is the best way to explore life, and that we began life as monkeys but that’s really not it. I just think they’re really cute.
You said that you learned a lot from working with Tim Minear. Is there anything specific that you came across that you brought to Heroes?
Oh, absolutely. One of the things that we did later in the season on Wonderfalls is a lot of gang-banging, where everybody had their hands on the script. Usually, on a writing staff, you gang-bang a script as a last resort — and they always turn out pretty good. Everybody has a hand in it, so everybody has a motivation to do their best and they’re invested in each episode. On Wonderfalls, in the last half of the season when we were getting behind with the scripts, it was like ‘all hands on deck.’ It really was a fantastic writing experience because everybody gets to participate in every individual script and there’s no [competition], ‘well, this is my script and it has to be better than the other scripts.’ Because every script is everybody’s script.
I wouldn’t say it was my idea to bring it to Heroes – several people had the same idea, in terms of gang-banging all the scripts and breaking the stories out in terms of characters and assigning different writers different characters and compiling them with the writer of record to do the polish and all the notes. Heroes really lent itself to that style of writing, and the quality of writers on was such that we all could roll up our sleeves and get into every script. Everybody was invested in every episode, and everybody sort of had ownership of every episode. I’m not saying it came from Wonderfalls – it’s not an original idea – but I felt very comfortable because we had done it with success on Wonderfalls.
How did you split up the characters on Heroes?
Initially, [Adam] Armus and [Nora Kay] Foster were doing Hiro’s stories. I did a lot of the Claire stuff in the first half of the season. Jeph Loeb and Natalie Chaidez did a lot of the Niki/Jessica stories. When we broke up the characters – we broke them up initially, and then the writer of record would do their pass and smooth everything out and make it feel like it was one cohesive script as opposed to six different scripts cobbled together
Who have you enjoyed writing for the most?
I love, love, love, loved writing for Claire. That was a lot of fun – I think Hayden Panettiere is such a fantastic actress. I loved writing for HRG, Jack Coleman. I had so much fun doing Episode 17 [“Company Man”].
I’ve been a fan of Greg Grunberg’s since Felicity. When we met at Destination: LA, I noticed just how much people tend to gravitate towards him.
He’s such a sweet guy. He always has a smile and he has a great energy to him that he makes everybody feel like his friend. Greg Grunberg always keeps things light and doesn’t take anything too seriously. Very grateful for having work and that sort of gratitude is very infectious.
On Heroes, there’s a nice pacing in which you don’t seem to feel the need to cram EVERY character into an episode. How do you balance that against making sure each characters’ story moves along?
A lot of that goes to the world that Tim Kring created when he wrote the show. Everybody in the pilot had something to do. [But] we knew as we were sitting down initially talking about the series, that we were going to have episodes that focused on fewer characters at a time just in terms of [production]. Because in a lot of television production, you want to stay on the same sets and get certain page count on certain sets because it makes it easier and cheaper to produce. When you have a cast of the size of the Heroes cast, it was difficult to be on that many sets and we found that we kept on assimilating the stages that were around our stages.
Some of the big emphasis on telling stories with fewer characters was also that you just get more traction in a story when you are able to spend more time with it. That’s one of the things that’s so wonderful about Heroes, and actually makes it such a pleasure to write for, is that when we have so many characters having different stories in one single episode, you kind of have to boil down those stories to their bare-bones essentials and hit those essential moments in the scenes. It actually makes it a lot easier to write because you’re not worrying about [the pacing of:] This is Act One, this is Act Two, this is Act Three. If you’re writing four scenes that are two pages each for each character, it breaks down pretty elegantly and makes it a lot easier to write because you’re not worrying about the subtext and spreading events out. Like how many steps you have to take before you can make the next plot move when you can use other character’s stories to break up the time and build tension in other stories. One of the best ways to create tension in editing is to cut away to something else. That was organic to the way stories are told on Heroes and it’s one of the reasons the stories are so heightened and tense – we keep cutting away from them.
Have you wanted to put in a nuance but you had to take it out because it didn’t fit?
Oh yes, there’s lots of things that we just shaved out to allow time for the more emotional stories. There’s instances where if we’re in a very intense scene, I’ve had to cut out several comedic or lighter bits that I wrote to give the scene some levity. Then you realize that when you are telling stories in such a limited page count, that some of that stuff has to go out the window because it’s not really about the story – it’s just an aside with the character that gets you some relief from the tension that they’re right in the middle of. And maybe they should just stay in that tension because we’re going to be cutting away to somebody else in a minute or two.
What is your favorite part of Heroes concept?
The ability for all of these characters to realize that they have a greater role in the universe. About destiny and fate – those are things I love writing about. I loved writing about them in Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls. And Pushing Daisies definitely has a lot of that.
People looking at who they are and what they are and what they’re doing in their lives and challenging themselves to say or want more. Because life is precious and limited so they want to get the most out of it. That’s what’s so great about what Tim created because all these people were sort of regular, everyday people who discovered that they are extraordinary.
That very basic metaphor is wonderful for all of us, whether we have superpowers or not, to wake up and realize that we’re special and we’re extraordinary and we do have power in the world to affect change. I think that’s the most inspiring.
That idea really has come across in your own writing, and to come across a new show that reflects that mentality must have felt serendipitous.
It’s wonderful because I get this, I understand this. I wasn’t looking to staff on a show but my agent sent me a script and I thought, ‘oh my god, this is going to be HUGE!’ and I really wanted to be a part of it.
Each character is very iconic – the cheerleader, the cop, the stripper mom, the politician. Everybody has this basic, relatable characterization and that is enhanced by how they react given their particular situation — like the realization that they can do something that nobody else around them can do, and what are they going to do with it.
So you were prepared for the runaway hit that Heroes became?
Oh yeah. There was no doubt in my mind. It was funny because Tim was so cute at the beginning of the season, like ‘I don’t know if people are going to like it…’ I said, ‘Calm down. It’s going to be fantastic. It’s going to be huge.’ Because all of the elements were there – there’s something for everybody. It’s hopeful. It’s a very inspiring show on so many levels that I couldn’t imagine it hitting its mark.
So – I have this personal theory that Peter Petrelli’s powers are contained in his floppy lock of hair. What will he do now that Sylar cut it off!
(laughs) You know, it was kind of funny because in the beginning of the season, Milo Ventimiglia [who plays Peter] was like “cut my hair, cut my hair, cut my hair, it’s driving me crazy! Can I shave my head and have a scar? Help me out!” And then of course, when we get to the episode where we shore off some of his bangs then he’s like “well, now it’s getting to a length that I can do something with it – so let’s not cut off too much of my bangs…” so only a few locks get lopped off and it really won’t change his look.
So, we shouldn’t be worried about his hair. How about Mrs. Petrelli – will we learn more about her?
Oh yeah! We will learn lots about Mama Petrelli. Her arc gets a lot bigger in the last half of the season. So we’ll be seeing more of her and what she has to do with everything so the revelations are going to keep coming.
I loved that reveal in Episode 18, “Parasite.” Did you have that in mind from the very beginning?
No. Every time someone comes to the show, any one idea can change the course, slightly alter the course of the storytelling in some small way. A lot of stuff evolved with the writing staff bandied about ideas and also looking at the cast and saying “oh my god, Cristine Rose is so fantastic, let’s give her more to do – something with a lot weight that has impact on the world.” And so we thought it would be kind of fun that the person the Haitian was working for was actually Claire’s grandma. Now you’re going to be asking what are her motivations in that regard and we build on that moment. Keep an eye on Angela Petrelli.
Now, there was some drama as to if Claire’s friend Zach was going to be gay.
That big debacle!
Yes! That debacle! Was that really a path that you were going to take?
It absolutely was a path that we were going to take. In the first meetings when we were sitting down and talking about the show, one of the things about the show that Tim said that he wanted all these characters to represent different people in the world and we had an Asian guy and an Indian guy and… a whole bunch of white people. He just wanted it to be a united Benetton cast. I said that’s fantastic, but if we have this many people, then we need to have a gay character. If you want to represent the world, that’s certainly a demographic that we need to hit. [Tim completely agreed and] was thinking Claire’s best friend might be a good person – and I couldn’t agree more. So we were definitely going down a route of making [Zach] the gay character and having him have a big role in her life and sort of teaching her to come out about her ability and embrace herself and actually using the coming out metaphor and the gay metaphor in that instance as a fun piece of storytelling.
There was an unfortunate miscommunication and when the script arrived that had the line in it, ‘I would take you to homecoming but you have to know that I don’t like girls that way.’ The actor [Thomas Dekker]’s, manager threatened to pull him from the show because he was up for the John Carter role in The Sarah Connor Chronicles and she didn’t want him playing a gay character because it might affect FOX’s interest in hiring him. It got really ugly.
Considering Heroes is a show about people embracing what’s special about themselves, it would have been great for gay teens see themselves reflected on TV by Zach.
It’s unfortunate and really – we only took one line out of the script. In really, in all of our minds, the character was still gay but we couldn’t say it explicitly.
I was very upset by it – I was not happy about it at all. There were times I had to avoid talking about it because we didn’t want to have a negative reflection on the show. The show’s been such a positive experience for so many people, we didn’t want to get hung up on the fact that one actor’s management felt that it was a career killer for him to play a homosexual which, as a gay man, I found incredibly insulting.
We had episodes planned for him to be in, and she pulled him from the show altogether. So that’s why he sort of disappeared.
That’s really too bad. I liked how Claire had a confidant before she met the rest of the specials
Yeah, he’s a great actor and the character was a lot of fun to write, it was just unfortunate.
On a happier note, what is the Heroes writing staff like?
With Jeph Loeb, Jesse Alexander, Michael Green, Aron Coleite, Joe Pokaski, [Adam] Armus and [Nora Kay] Foster and Natalie Chaidez, Tim Kring pulled together this great group of people that is a perfect example of a writing staff.
When I start to think about [being a] part of a writing staff, [I want to] work on a show with people who are my peers and are capable of having all these intellectual conversations about absurd things and inspiring each other. It really was that situation in the break rooms. It was one of the most satisfying writing experiences I’ve ever had working in that writing room with those writers.
Each writer inspired every other writer in some way and challenged them, got them to produce more than they would have done by themselves. It’s one of the reasons that I think the show is so good – it’s a crackerjack writing staff and everybody is pulling their weight. I gotta tip my hat to Jesse Alexander and Jeph Loeb and Aron Coleite and Joe Pokaski because those four guys have really spearheaded this whole marketing of Heroes on the internet, through the comic books and ancillary avenues that you wouldn’t expect a first year show to be marketed. They really ran with that stuff and really reached out to the internet community and made the show very accessible and viable and I’ve learned a lot from them and how they were looking at the internet as a marketing tool in so many different ways.
The 9th Wonders – that’s all those guys working together to build all those projects so well. While we were all writing and breaking stories, they were too – they were also doing all these things to promote the show and get the show out there and really create an awareness.
How involved are the writers on the 360 element?
The 360 element is primarily Jesse, Aaron and Joe and Jeph – those four guys really spearheaded [it] and really made it their own. It’s definitely unique. They took that charge and ran with it and Tim was like – go with god. Get us out there, and they did. And it was fantastic to see. And like ‘oh my god! When do you guys have time to do this?’
What’s the biggest spoiler that you had to keep your mouth shut?
One that’s already aired – god, there was so many. Probably that Hiro’s was involved somehow with the previous generation of special people. We’re going to be seeing a little more of that in the upcoming episodes.
My favorite episode of the season is Episode 20 – “String Theory” [which airs April 30th]. It takes place five years in the future and so many things happen in that and it’s very much “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” Are you a Star Trek fan?
I primarily watched The Next Generation.
Then you know “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” Tasha Yar died in the first season, and they did an episode in the third season where they met some sort of anomaly that shifted the time-space continuum. She was still alive [there] and it was very interesting.
It was a big fan favorite because it was one of those really high-concept shows that shook up the Star Trek universe and made you ask all sorts of questions. I think Episode 20 of Heroes will do the exact same thing with Heroes fans because it shows you a future that is very bleak, and it shows you where all these characters [will be] in their lives in the next five years if things keep going the way they’re going. It really sets up the stakes of what they could lose if the bomb goes off in New York at the end of the season. And then we go back – it’s like the “Six Months Ago” episode.
Oh god, it’s so good. SO good!
The rest of the season, I’m really proud of all of the episodes. There’s only two or three where I feel like we didn’t quite do our jobs there. But what’s so great about the show is that while there’s one story that doesn’t work in one episode, there are four or five others that are working. So there’s no episode where everything sucks.
What was the hardest episode to write?
Probably the finale. And I was off working on my ABC pilot, so I missed the writing of the last three episodes. I didn’t write a single word of any of them – I was involved in some of the breaking for them but everything else was written by the staff. So I can say honestly and objectively that they’re fantastic. It’s fantastic television.
Anything to keep in mind as we approach the finale?
If you look back at the whole season and the stories that are told starting from those first moments in the pilot and how each moment built on the previous moment and kept going that by the time you get to the finale, so much has happened and so much story and plot and character revelations have taken place that it’s hard to kind of stop and pick out the biggest revelations. I can’t wait for people to see Episode 20 because there are so many great revelations and so many horrible, horrible things happen to our characters – it’s wonderful.
It’s so cool to be a part of that show.
Will Heroes be a hard thing to leave, if Pushing Daisies gets picked up?
It was great to be developing a pilot while I was working with those writers because I got to work with them and sound ideas off of them and get their ideas and get their feedback. So, in a way, I was able to write my pilot in a writing staff environment. I think it made it better.
It’s a win-win situation for me. If Pushing Daisies goes, then I get to do my show and come up with all sorts of things that are unique to that universe. If it doesn’t go, then I win because I get to go back to Heroes and continue working there with those people who have been big inspirations.