Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Episode Eleven... and behind-the-scenes writer's commentary

The "Ragged Isle" season two premiere, "A Sort of Homecoming," is up.  Check it out, and when you're done, come on back for a behind-the-scenes writer's commentary.

Are you done? OK, there will spoilers for the episode in the rest of the post, which (fair warning) promises to be quite long.  It's been awhile, and I have a lot to say.

I can't believe season two is finally here. It's been more than two years since Barry asked me to join this project, and more than a year since our season one finale aired. For the last few (okay, twelve) months, I've been fairly bursting with anticipation, and I can't tell you how thrilling it is to have fresh "Ragged" on my computer.

At our first writers meeting, way back in January 2010, there were five of us breaking ideas for the series. It was Barry Dodd, his wife Karen Dodd, Rick Dalton, Jacob Lear, and myself. Out of the group, I only really knew Barry, and was meeting Rick and Jake for the first time. Amazingly, we gelled very quickly, developing what Rick liked to call a "hive mind," building off each other's ideas to construct the strongest story possible.  We filled up notecards with character ideas and plot points and taped them to a giant piece of cardboard that had once been part of a refrigerator box.  (I believe that notecard-laden piece of cardboard still exists somewhere at Barry and Karen's house, but I think it's been pretty well torn up by their many, many cats.)

One of the first notions I brought to the table, even before that meeting, was for a CDC agent to come to Ragged Isle to investigate a mysterious illness, sealing off the entire island in the process. At that first meeting, Rick (who we already knew would be playing a sheriff) began raising objections about this hypothetical CDC agent's authority on the island, and I argued back with him about what this CDC agent would and wouldn't be able to do.  The sheriff's line, "Don't be stupid.  You can't seal off shit in a place where everyone has a boat," comes directly out of that argument, as does my line, "Nobody's getting off the island"

In the middle of our debate, Barry looked at me in wonder and said, "You've got to play this part."

I was pretty resistant to that idea. I'm no actor, and tend to panic in performance situations. Once, while reading a short story in front of an open mic audience, I literally began to go blind, blackness engulfing everything in front of me except for a tiny, word-sized pinpoint of sight on the page I was reading, zipping along as I read, highlighting one word at a time.  I remember feeling terrified that that pinpoint of sight would close up, and I wouldn't be able to see anything.  Yeah, that's some pretty bad stage fright.

Barry finally convinced me to take the role, but (for story reasons) we delayed my character's arrival to the start of the second season, which gave me a year to pysch myself up. During that year, I grew the beard, so my face would have something to hide behind when I was on camera. Okay, let's not talk about my acting anymore.

Before we shot a single frame of footage, we knew how the series was going to end. At one of our early writers meetings, Jake threw out an idea that stopped everybody cold. That's it, we said. That's our ending -- and we've been moving towards it ever since.

As we were finalizing the season one scripts, I was also plugging away on season two (which at that point was going to be our final season). By then, Barry and Karen were rightfully focusing all of their energy and attention on season one, which was about to start shooting, and any time I expressed enthusiasm about the next season, Barry would trepidatiously warn me that there would come a day when he might want to revamp some or all of the season-two episodes I was so excited about.

"I'm just happy we have more story to tell," I would assure him. "If that story ends up changing, so be it." (I'll let you in on a little secret: I loved writing "Ragged Isle" episodes, and it didn't really matter to me how many major or minor revisions any particular episode might require. And no matter how many different permutations an episode went through, the final permutation always seemed to me like the inevitable path, the story thread that was preordained.)

Sure enough, a month or so before we had to cast season two, I met with Barry and Karen, who wanted changes, big and small. They wanted the investigation into the lobster festival deaths to be bigger, with a federal presence and helicopters and government boats and lots of agents in black suits. They asked me if we could take the existing ten-episode season (which finished our story) and split it into two seasons of six episodes apiece.

"No, problem," I told them, with more confidence than I felt, and over the next two weeks, that's exactly what I did, weaving together what had already been written with new plot threads, new episodes, and new characters, including Homeland Security Agent Allison Thorne, awesomely played by Kathryn Perry.  Her character was an extremely late addition to the story, but now I can't imagine the show without her.

Which brings us to episode eleven -- you know, the episode this blog post is purportedly about?

I love the dialogue-free opening montage, which features so many familiar faces, as well as some new ones we will meet in this and later episodes.  I dig the tweak of our opening credits.  And the opening narration, written (as always) by Karen Dodd, once again deftly captures that Dark Shadows vibe.

But I'd like to start at the end of the episode and work our way back, scene by scene.  You may notice the credit, "Story by Barry Dodd, Karen Dodd, Rick Dalton, Jacob Lear, and Greg Tulonen," but another credit that reads, "Screenplay by Greg Tulonen."

This is accurate, but incomplete.

It's true that the five of us collectively broke the major story points and it's true that I wrote (and/or heavily revised) all of the season-two episodes, but the story doesn't end there.  Because it's also true that everyone took stabs at the scripts after the first drafts were written -- either through feedback or direct revision.  (And there were many, many drafts of some of the episodes.)  And Rick originated a couple of crackerjack episodes, which required major revisions and reshuffling after we decided to revamp (though I retained as much of Rick's dialogue as possible -- sometimes sprinkling it into other episodes). Later, actors came in with their own ideas, and lines were tweaked and adjusted on set.  (Rick's "Go arrest yourself" was an on-the-set improvisation.)  "Ragged Isle" was an amazingly, wonderfully collaborative project.

Okay, still working backwards:  That last shot:  Holy cow!  When I wrote the blockade into the script, I had no idea how we were going to shoot it, but I wanted to let the audience know that this was a whole new ballgame.  The boats and helicopters are post-production magic courtesy of scarily talented Portland filmmaker (and Ragged Isle camera operator) Derek Kimball,  and I think they effectively convey the second season's raised stakes.

OK, moving on (or back):  As much as I don't want to talk about my own acting, I'm happy to talk about Rick's:  I think Rick completely nails the scene, capturing the sheriff's exhaustion and emotional devastation.

Hey, that's Brent Askari (who was so great in the web series "Willard Beach") as grocery store owner Gus Hendersot. Brent was one of several ringers we planted in the background last season, knowing they'd be important later.  You can spot Brent at the lobster festival in episode ten, and it's terrific to have him aboard the series proper.  And poor Sebastian (the former "comic genius"), last seen flailing helplessly in his Lobster of Ceremonies costume during the Ragged Isle Lobster Festival tragedy (or shuffling slowly away from the camera in that creepy season two trailer).  Something is obviously up with him.

Regarding Dr. Hoffman and Sheriff Dalton's conversation in Dalton's kitchen (their first full scene together), the mysterious cases they reference in regard to Hoffman's "hobby" contain a few winks and shout-outs. The "Bismuth Beast" mentioned by the sheriff is a nod to my friend Corwin Ericson's hilarious novel, Swell, which takes place on the fictional Maine island of Bismuth. The "Willard Beach Incident" that my character mentions is a reference to the aforementioned Maine web series starring Brent Askari. And Loren Coleman, who Dr. Hoffman indicates is a rival in the field, is a real guy, probably the most preeminent cryptozoologist in the world, and proprietor of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. You should stop by and ask him about Bigfoot.

The opening scene on the dock was shot on Great Diamond Island in Casco Bay. We put out a call for people in black suits to show up at the ferry terminal in Portland, and we were lucky enough to get a whole bunch of folks we'd never met before, many of them fans of the show.  After we were done shooting that day, we explored the island, used a very kind gentelman's bathroom, and caught the ferry back to the mainland. The same ferry had been by the island earlier, while we were in the middle of shooting, and some of the tourists onboard were extremely curious about what we were up to. They asked us when we boarded, and after we told them, they revealed that they had been speculating all afternoon, and had decided that we were either:  a) scattering a friend's ashes or b) Mormons.

Which just goes to show, there's more than one reason for a bunch of people to get together and wear suits.

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