Every actor and every crew member we met at Guiding Light was important, but there were clearly highlights to the trip. Here were a few of the “big hitters” – the people who I thought had the most to say and the most impact on the show’s future.
Jill Lorie Hurst: Our lunch with Jill and producer Alexandra Johnson-Gamsey was definitely a highlight of the visit. There weren’t a lot of spoilers, but quite frankly, I didn’t care. I was more interested in the long view. And I feel that Hurst is the show’s most promising asset to regain some strength in story, which has been the show’s biggest deficit for some time now.
We asked for clarification about the new head writing team. It was originally explained to us as two teams of two, but Hurst’s explanation was a bit different. I asked for scripts of shows that had already aired, and they’re clearly all co-headwriters in the credits. But it seemed to be that Jill is, in some ways, the primary creative shepherd for the writing team.
I was encouraged by a lot of what she had to say at our lunch. Clearly, Grant Aleksander (Phillip) was as well; her stewardship of story has been mentioned as one of the reasons Grant decided to return. (Grant told us he and Jill had been talking for several months before an official deal was struck.)
Jill said she’s an old-school P&G girl – a Midwesterner from Detroit who loved Edge of Night, Secret Storm and Where The Heart Is as well as GL and As The World Turns. We talked about some of our favorite stories and storylines. During our lunch, the subject of the iconic pairing of Roger and Holly came up. (A few days before – December 6th – represented ten years since Zaslow’s untimely death.)
Jill made a statement that truly made me hopeful. “Roger has grandchildren – including twin grandsons. And R.J. And those characters will have something to say for themselves.” Of course, I had to pipe up and mention another Thorpe grandchild I want to see onscreen: Peter Reardon. But in any case, I walked away more hopeful than I’d been in years about where the stories might go.
We also asked about what many of us saw as the biggest minus of the show right now – that it had been eaten almost whole by a character (Grady) that was a murderer. Both she and publicist Alan Locher assured us that “people will face consequences” in the next few months. (I asked for an already-taped script from the show as a souvenir. Surprisingly, the script suggests that Grady is a non-contract character – which may well explain the frequency of his appearances.)
Kim Zimmer: It was impossible to not be starstruck by Kim Zimmer. She walked into the green room where all of us were sitting, and so much of her work flashed before my eyes as she laughed and talked sports with Roger Newcomb. (I told Kim that if she was job hunting, she could always get a job as a color commentator for a sports channel. To which someone said, “It would certainly be colorful!”) When she suggested she’d met me before, I could barely pipe up enough to burble out a “no”.
The character of Reva – and Kim Zimmer, the actress – are so intertwined with the show. There’s been so much written about Reva and Kim over the years that it’s almost impossible to see where Reva ends and Kim begins. (And Kim’s ever-quotable interviews have had something to do with that.)
As much as I’ve always loved the entire show, Reva’s been such a huge part of that – always (ha ha). From the fountain scene to Reva’s suicide attempt, from the Florida Keys to her reunion with Jonathan – and a million points in between. Kim filled up a room with her energy, and she’s just as balls-to-the-wall as her alter ego. She was, as Roger says, “an interviewer’s dream and a publicist’s nightmare.”
She was generally supportive of the recent changes to the show, although she clearly missed the old proscenium model, and had some specific complaints. I asked her if not having to worry as much about blocking with a smaller set was any benefit, and she said it was sometimes more challenging to work in smaller space. (She then cracked us up by showing a sideways, slithering walk she had to do in a scene to get from mark A to mark B.)
Most of her concerns were about sound, and some of them frustrated her a great deal (at one point, she jokingly pantomined biting her finger to express her frustration). But to me, none of it came from personal ego, or a need for attention, or any get-out-of-my-light-bitch! moments.
I wrote about this several months ago after a great Soap Opera Digest interview with her, and nothing I saw in person changed my mind: Kim really seems to care about the show and is a fan of the show, and her high expectations and ideas stem from that love. (In fact, EVERYONE we talked to went above and beyond the call of duty in what we’d expect. I got that sense from Kim and from every actor in the troupe. Tina Sloan told us about how she was an advocate for the hair and makeup team to get them submitted for the Daytime Emmys.)
Grant Aleksander: I felt like we were intruding on Grant’s afternoon when we had lunch with him and the “Spaulding family.” It was, after all, the first time he’d seen many of his friends and co-workers for some time. But Grant was incredibly friendly to all of us.
At the time of his departure, there was a maelstrom of controversy in the press that suggested backstage tension, conflicts with fellow actors and acrimony. But everyone we talked to was SO excited about Grant’s return.
Grant has always maintained that his departure was simply a matter of it being time for a change (for him AND for the show) and he was equally sanguine about his return. In fact, aside from some general conversations with Jill Lorie Hurst about the overall story, he doesn’t know the specifics – and prefers it that way.
He’s been busy between GL stints. As many GL fans know, Grant is passionate about animal welfare. He’s done PSAs for PETA, and both he and his wife, Sherry Ramsey, have worked on behalf of animal humane societies. (As an animal lover, I could totally relate. The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago torments me every time I walk by – I want to open the window and rescue all of the cats and dogs immediately. There’s a reason my friends say Year of The Dog reminded them of me!)
He talked about looking forward to the scenes with Michael O’Leary (Rick). We all discussed that important friendship for a few minutes. I brought up a scene that the two played during the Pam Long days that….well, it involved Rick giving Phillip a teddy bear stuffed animal (a lamb named Reginald), and the subtext of the scene gave it, shall we say, a Luke/Noah tinge. Grant laughed and recalled that O’Leary wasn’t very thrilled about that scene – but that Reginald is still around, and might just resurface!
We did get a few glimmers of news from the writers and publicists. The most promising: If their comments are accurate, we’re NOT going to see a return to mustache-twirling, super-evil Phillip. This is a relief, since it’s been my contention that the character of Craig on ATWT was ruined by the same move. We’ll see a Phillip that is as complex and complicated as he was before – both heroic as well as flawed. Great news for us, and undoubtedly for Grant.
I made a joke a few weeks back about Grant’s return and his career path. After all, P&G/Telenext’s two executive producers (Ellen Wheeler and Christopher Goutman) both have histories on their shows as actors, then directors. I asked Grant if “executive producer” is something he’d want to do. His answer? No – or more specifically, not right now and not at this stage of his life.
Ellen Wheeler: Like Zimmer, it was surreal beyond words to be in the presence of Ellen Wheeler. Wheeler earned her crown in daytime royalty over the years, with her initial appearance as Marley and Vicky on Another World. (I can still recall when Marley first appeared and everyone believed she was Donna and Peter’s sister, not Donna’s daughter.) Then came the taboo-breaking appearance as Cindy on All My Children.
We saw her direct several scenes, and then had an opportunity for a chance to sit down and chat with her for about 30 minutes or so. Wheeler is a blur of energy on set – she was incredibly focused and running faster than her cast and crew.
Obviously, as executive producer, the buck stops at Wheeler. The show has gone through some of its biggest, most substantial changes under her watch. The change in production model was championed in the press as solely an artistic change, while many viewers and bloggers suspected it was solely a financial move. The truth? Well, the changes were made with both concerns in mind.
Wheeler talked at length about how the standard proscenium, three-camera filming style was a static way of filming (after all, it began at CBS with I Love Lucy in 1951) and how she wanted to use a new approach. “Movement” was the term we kept hearing from everyone – rather than the static backgrounds audiences were accustomed to (and sometimes bored by), Wheeler approached set design from a director’s point of view – wanting every set and every location to be a place where flexibility and agility were the rule, and where she could shoot a scene from any of the four walls.
Frustrated fans have made their concerns known on the Internet; I’ve had mixed reactions to the show since Wheeler began and especially since the new production model was implemented. I think the jury is still out on the show and on the new model from a creative viewpoint.
But one thing I can tell you for sure: I don’t think Ellen gets the credit she deserves for her ideas and the work she’s done.
Many fans believe that Wheeler doesn’t care, or that she wants to destroy the show, or that she’s unaware of what’s happening in the industry or what people say about the show. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, I was most impressed with her positive outlook and her can-do nature.
Make no mistake, Ellen Wheeler isn’t to be confused with Cindy Chandler or Marley Love. Wheeler is no Pollyanna. She’s incredibly focused and aware, and I have no doubt that she doesn’t play games. (I wouldn’t want to be the barista that gets her coffee order wrong, you know?)
But she’s worked incredibly hard to keep the show afloat. When John Conboy was executive producer, he enhanced the sets and made the show look beautiful, but he almost broke the bank doing it. It’s been a challenge for Wheeler to follow in those footsteps, and she had to make a number of challenging decisions, including that bloodbath in 2005 where so many actors were taken off-contract (many whom, I might add, are still working with the show).
It’s been a lot of changes for us, and some of those have been hard to take. But it’s all been an attempt to keep the show going. For example, the old model meant only a few sets could be up in the studio at any time, and huge amounts of budget were spent storing the other sets off-site. Wheeler says she wanted to “see that money spent in a way that could be seen on-screen.”
Having just lost my own job, Ellen’s words hit home when she said that she was astonished at how many shows have been canceled just in the last thirty days. (Including a few really wonderful shows, like Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone.) On Wednesday night, after our visit had concluded, NBC announced it was essentially making five hours of scripted programming disappear and programming Jay Leno in its place (a move Jeff Zucker had talked about a year ago).
My bullshit detector wanted to be cynical, but it was impossible to watch Ellen get emotional and not feel, at a deep and genuine level, the effort that she’s put into the show. She’s well aware the end could come any minute for the show, and she’s working hard to extend the life of the show for as long as it can go. Thus the difficult but necessary choices to get the most bang for the buck she could – more permanent sets, less storage, and more financially sound ways of doing things.
Those choices have had to be made across the board at every show in production, not just soaps. NBC Universal is making $500 million in cuts, and ABC shows were asked to cut 2 percent across the board. Those cuts do trickle down, to be sure. I was treated to the car service the shows use during my visit, and one of the drivers volunteered that there had been many changes to how the P&G/Telenext shows used their services. P&G/Telenext had to cut back on the use of those services, and it was a huge account for them – driving actors to ATWT in Brooklyn was one of their biggest accounts. That’s changed, as it has for all corporations and businesses everywhere (like the one that laid me off).
One of the best things Ellen Wheeler has done, in my opinion, is what she’s done to institute team-building measures. The “Find Your Light” campaign was one. Yes, there was the whole “the Emmy is coming to your house” business, and it certainly didn’t hurt in the PR department. But that tour brought cast and crew together in a way that facilitated the togetherness that a show so close to the edge (or the end) needs to have in order to function and grow.
The new production model also supports team-building efforts. Now, like any workplace, I’m sure that there are conflicts or annoyances. (Damn that co-worker who slurps his coffee so loudly!) I didn’t have a big helping of Peapack Kool-aid, and no one was joining hands and singing “Kumbaya.” (Though I wish that we had asked Ellen, who was recording an album many years ago, to lead us in a verse!)
But what WAS happening there was a sense that cast and crew weren’t segregated, that everyone had to work as a team in order to get from A to Z in a given workday. And according to Wheeler, it’s made the acting troupe and the crew a stronger company as a result.
It’s been said elsewhere but bears repeating here: Ellen was asked if the soap press had an obligation to cover the show more. Ellen’s words were telling. I repeat them verbatim here:
“I don’t think they have a responsibility. I think it would be wise if they loved them more. I’m not saying that loving means going, ‘Oh everything is wonderful.’ But we are all together going through this difficulty. This is a really difficult time to be in television. I’m just proud of every single day we’re still on the air.”
“If I make it one more week, or three more months, or one more year, I consider that a huge win. So do I think they need to be fair? No. I just think we all need to be so proud of each other. Nothing bad that happens to any other show helps me. It only helps me if we’re all growing together. There’s so little left for any of us that we just need to be supporting each other.”
And that was the line that killed me: “I think it would be wise if they loved them more.” That summarized why I started to write about these shows – because I didn’t see anyone in the mainstream press, and precious few voices in the soap press, that wrote about the shows as if they knew and loved the genre. We were all very emotional after this discussion. I told Ellen I couldn’t even begin to talk about what the show has meant to me, because I’d start to cry.
Whether you do or don’t like the changes at GL, or the things that have happened since Wheeler joined the show nearly 5 years ago, I do believe that some of the press coverage has been markedly unfair. It’s hard to put into context a comment like GL being “the most ruined show in the history of daytime”. EVERY show is going through these changes to some degree. Guiding Light went through them FIRST and in a very PUBLIC way. Wheeler’s efforts to keep the show on the air are to be commended.