SMALLVILLE: A REMINISSANCE
The fact that SMALLVILLE is ending next week has me thinking. So, I thought I’d write about how it began for me. I know… I hope you'll forgive me if I reminisce about the past .
For SMALLVILLE, as with any project that achieves greatness – whether it be in the world of television, film, the arts, sports, and probably even politics and finance – A lot of people and elements have to come together just right. When this happens it can feel that there are outside forces drawing things together at just the right time and to just the right place. And this was definitely the case with this series.
With this show, there was already an amazing pilot and the series was already up and running by the time I got there in 2001. Peter Roth, the president of Warner Brothers Television, is an incredibly passionate man. He had been really wanting to do a “Young Superman” series. Peter Roth’s passion was really the fuel that drove SMALLVILLE to its heights – especially in the early years. Most of you know the history of this - how Peter had brought in Mike Tollin and Brian Robbins to develop a young Bruce Wayne show and when that fell apart the idea evolved to make it young Superman. So they brought in a number of writers to pitch concepts. Al Gough and Miles Millar had been one of several – but they were the ones with a brilliant and original take on the material. They’re concept has been documented as “No flights/No tights” – a version which insisted on developing Clark Kent before he had glasses and the suit.
But, for me, their most exceptional idea was that Kal-El’s spaceship came to Earth hidden in the kryptonite meteor shower, which was the destroyed remnants of Krypton. Besides the authentic teen emotion, the concept that the kryptonite rocks could mutate people into super-powered freaks based on their psychology, was what made the series work. I know a lot of fans complained about the “freak of the week” aspect to the early seasons – but any TV show needs a motor to run on – and this was SMALLVILLE’s
David Nutter, who directed the awesome pilot, also had a major hand in the series. Maybe most importantly, as Miles and Al explained to me – he pursued Tom Welling very aggressively. Tom, apparently, had concerns about playing Superman. And Mr. Nutter, as I’m told, really convinced him to do the part.
So – now to me – It was August of 2001. I had just gotten back from Australia, where I had directed a movie for The Disney Channel, entitled A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT. This movie starred a very young Mischa Barton and had been a very wonderful experience for me. I had loved Australia and had loved the movie, which was very spiritual and special to me. BUT, I was burned out on travelling and was really looking forward to being home with my young family the following year.
In fact - I was very happy with the year I had booked. I had, kind of reached a nice zenith from the point of view of being an episodic television director. I was scheduled to direct episodes in every genre and on every network. I was going to direct JAG for CBS, NYPD BLUE for ABC and MALCOM IN THE MIDDLE for FOX. I was going to direct PROVIDENCE for NBC and my agent was suggesting that I direct this new series SMALLVILLE for the WB. I had no idea what SMALLVILLE was, but I knew it shot in Vancouver, Canada. Every other show I was doing was in Los Angeles, where I live. But my agent compelled me it was a great series and I should at least look at the pilot.
When I popped the VHS tape in my deck at home, (this was back in the VHS days) I had no idea at all of what the show was. I didn’t even know the topic. I’m kind of like that -- pretty out of it. I’m sure all of Hollywood knew exactly what SMALLVILLE was – it was being really hyped up within the industry. But I had been in Australia for months and had no idea.
So I’m watching – and the show begins with some guy named Lionel and a kid named Lex riding around in a helicopter. It means nothing to me – but I recognize John Glover. I love his work. He lived in my neighborhood and I’d seen him from time to time in the supermarket and I’d been trying to work up the guts to approach him and tell him how amazing he was in 52-PICKUP, but I hadn’t done so yet. (If any of you have never seen 52-PICKUP, do so – Glover is the most evil bad guy ever – he outbeats Darth Vader – and he has one of the most intense, horrifying scenes ever in it)
Then there are some scenes of a couple riding around in a pickup truck. A little girl named Lana, and so on. But still I’m not getting the bigger context. (And, remember, I’m a big comic book fan.)
Then - this meteor shower starts, and the town starts blowing up - which is big and cool, and I like it. Then this goofy red-haired kid ends up in the cornfield, there’s this rush of wind and he’s knocked back and John Glover runs over and there’s this big crane up and John Glover’s yelling “Lex, Lex!!!” and the red-haired kid is now bald. And THEN it FINALLY hits me! “Holy sh*t,” I say out loud to myself, “this is Superman!”
So now I want to do it.
A week or so later I meet with Miles and Al and a big friendly guy named Joe Davola, who is a producer who works with Tollin/Robbins, and I interview to direct an episode. I knew Miles and Al and had worked with them a couple of times before. Joe is super enthusiastic. The interview goes well and they want me to commit to direct two episodes. (They were booking all the directors for two.) I let my agent know, I love the show, I definitely want to do it - but I’m not going to Vancouver twice. If they want me – tell them I’ll only do one episode. So that play works out for me - and they book me for one. It’s still more than a month away, and I’ve got a couple of other things to do first - so I kind of forget all about it.
A few weeks later it’s time to go – I get a script delivered on my doorstep the night before I leave and I read it on the plane. (This may sound weird to people – but in TV it’s common that you really don’t even know what the topic of the episode your doing will be until your already started) So, I’m on the plane reading the script and the script is crazy. It’s about this football coach – who, whenever he gets angry, lights things on fire. And there is A LOT of fire. He gets mad at the team and fire shoots out of water sprinklers, numerous people burn up, a car explodes almost killing the principle and the part I really remember is when Chloe is investigating the coach her office lights on fire and then she runs out into the hall and the script says something like “A living breathing column of fire chases her down the hall, roiling up the walls and up over the ceiling.” OK - I know from experience that fire is not easy. And I’m thinking – “This is the biggest freaking TV script I’ve ever read in my life.”
The funny thing is when I get to the production offices and meet the line producer he says, “Finally, we have a script we can actually produce.”
Anyway – to make a long story short - the series was kind of in chaos back in those early days. It's pretty common for first year shows to take some time to get on their feet - but SMALLVILLE's aspirations were just SO big - there were so many stunts - so much action - so many sets and so many complex sequences - that, at first, no one had a firm handle on how to actually get the show shot in the time and budget alotted.
As they say, though, in crisis is opportunity - and this was certainly the case for me. Now Miles and Al, Peter Roth, Joe Davola, Tollin Robbins, etc. all had a very clear idea of what they wanted the show to be, and the pilot provided the tonal template - but, let's face it, the pilot was friggin' gigantic. The trick was how do do it EVERY week. For some reason, as soon as I arrived, I felt oddly calm. I really felt I understood the tone of the show. I felt like I knew how it should look and how to shoot it efficiently. I felt comfortable with Miles and Al. I was thrilled by how actively the studio and network were supporting the show. And I felt like I knew how to make the show week-to-week and that I could teach others how to do so. I saw there was a need and I began to desire to fill it.
For whatever reason my mental attitude shifted from not wanting to go to Vancouver to REALLY wanting to get on this show. A key moment for me was one night in my hotel room there was a knock on my door and a p.a. handed me a VHS of episode 2, METAMORPHOSIS. I have no idea why he gave that to me. I had nothing to do with episode 2. But, I also had nothing else to do that night so I popped it in and watched it. There were scenes still missing, temp music no visual effects - it wasn’t complete – but I knew it was GREAT. Of course the pilot was great, but they had spent a lot of time and money on that. When I saw that the series was going to be great this weird feeling came over me – I started to think that maybe I could and should could get on the show full time. (And this is what I mean by forces coming together that seem beyond the norm.)
I called my wife in Los Angeles, and I said “Honey I have this crazy idea. The good news is I think I can get on this show full time as a producer/director. I think if I do, it will change my career forever. The bad news it means that we’ll all have to move to Canada.” There was a long pause and she said, “Well… How much do you like the show?" Then I gushed - “I F*ing love it. It’s great! I REALLY want to do this.” And then my wife – and I really love her for this said… “Sh*t. Then it’s going to be a hit. Whenever you really love something it’s always a hit.”
Now I don’t mean any of this to be self-serving and I’m not sure if my beautiful wife is right about my instincts… But she DID say it and she was right.
Anyway – I started to develop a fiendish plan to lobby to stay to get on the show full time – I started dropping hints with Al and Miles about how much I loved it on the show – and I did the same with Joe Davola and Lisa Lewis the Warner Brother’s production executive.
(Sidebar – Lisa Lewis is an unsung, un-credited behind-the-scenes secret weapon of the show. She was there from day one of the pilot through the last episode. Her job, ostensibly, is to keep the show on track financially for Warner Brothers, but she does SO much more than that. She loves SMALLVILLE as much as anyone and fought for it over and over again. MANY times, when all hope was lost - she'd come up with a plan to pull out the scene, the episode, and sometimes the whole series... I’m sure she never gets nearly the credit she deserves for the show’s lasting success.)
Eventually the fiendish plan worked... And sometimes I'd regret it.... That first year on SMALLVILLE was soooo hard that it almost killed me. (I distinctly remember driving home one Saturday morning at about 8AM after having worked 24 straight hours – and calculating how long it was until my next teleconference meeting and I realized – “Oh my god – I’m going to get SIX WHOLE HOURS OF SLEEP!!!!” I was pumping my fist with joy because I’d been going on 2 or 3 hours of sleep for weeks at that time.
Those were crazy days – we were all killing ourselves. And no one more so than Tom Welling – He was young but he was working fourteen to sixteen hours a day. Remember, back then he was in almost every scene – And to get the workload done we added a second unit (A BIG second unit) that would shoot two or three days a week. A lot of times Tom would shoot a full twelve hour day with the main unit and then drive to the second unit to work for another four or five hours.
It was nuts. But it was good. I think we all knew we were working on something very special.
Thankfully Warner Brothers let us ride through those crazy days - they increased the budget a little and we started writing scripts that were a bit more manageable. Also, bit by bit, we began to put together the right crew. The goal was to staff SMALLVILLE with people who were not only talented, but were upbeat positive and desirous of doing great work. Most of the people on the show today have been there since the end of season one/beginning of season two - although many have moved up through the ranks of their department as the years went by. About halfway through the first season (around episode 13 or 14) we were running much more smoothly. In Season two the production aspects of SMALLVILLE became a well-oiled machine and, while the show never became exactly "easy" to produce - a strong system of how we made it and what it looked and felt like came into being.
This was all helped by the fact that SMALLVILLE was an immediate hit. There was a glowing New York Times article that gave us credibility and we had a fan base for Superman that came and never left. Even in our Season-One punch drunk and exhausted state this was heady and exciting stuff. And season 2 was even bigger - the ratings were never higher than in Season 2 - when, on several occasions, we had more than nine million viewers.
I'm glad I was there from (near) the beginning - and very proud that I was asked to come back for the end.
Until next week....
I thought I’d post a few pictures - these were from KENT which was being directed by Jeannot Szwarc during the time I was prepping to shoot the finale’. Jeannot is an old friend of mine. I worked side by side with him on many episodes of JAG before SMALLVILLE. I tried to convince him to come up to Vancouver in season one – “It’s a great show – it’s a great crew and you’ll love it in Vancouver” I said. But Jeannot is a very busy man and it took me until season three and PERRY to get him up. As I predicted Jeannot fell in love with the show and the crew and he ended up directing episodes in every season since then. The crew loved him (The crew on HEROES loved him too – he’s a favorite wherever he goes because he’s so damn sweet and charming and French!)
He’s also a very emotional man (he’s French after all) – and he was making a big deal about the fact that KENT would be his last time on SMALLVILLE. So the crew decided to bake him a cake and send him off with a mariachi band. It was very sweet. The Vancouver mariachi band was a little dubious though. Two members were definitely white Canadian guys – One of them may have been Latino but I think, more likely, was Greek. They sang a credible version of “La Cucaracha” and “Guantanamera,” though, and then Jeannot cried and hugged everybody.
I was glad I was there for it.
Anyway – goodbye for now loyal fans – and after next week goodbye forever to SMALLVILLE.
Until then ---