Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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

"Ragged Isle" episode fourteen, "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," is up.  Check it out, and when you've seen it, read on for a behind-the-scenes writer's commentary.

Have you seen it? Don't read any further if you haven't seen it, because, seriously, I'm going to be spoiling the episode like crazy in just a couple more sentences. Are we cool? Cool.

Again, I'm pleased with how well a U2 song title fits with the themes of the episode, which features several characters trying to make tentative connections with the people around them.  Vicki finally lets her brother in on her secret investigation.  Paul seeks help from Colleen.  The reviled Agent Thorne lets her guard down around Deputy Dan.  And Gertie shares a vulnerable moment with her doctor.  No one in this episode wants to move forward on their own.  They all need a little help.

When I wrote the scene of Vicki examining the newspaper articles on her wall, I was aware that this (or something very much like it) is something that people have seen before, in movies about obsessive conspiracy theorists, movies about obsessive serial killers, movies about obsessive stalkers, and movies about plain old run-of-the-mill obsessives. I wanted to do something a little different, and not have the scene be about ratcheting up the paranoia, but rather a warm brother-sister moment in which Vicki and Erik share a memory and a confidence. Michael Dix Thomas and Meghan Benton do some nice subtle work here, I think. Also, we slipped into this scene a reference to Steve Silverman's hilarious web series, "Pretty." Did you catch it? If not, you should probably start watching "Pretty."  Just sayin'.

It was also important to me that the articles on the wall be as authentic as possible, even if the audience only sees them for a few fleeting moments. I got kind of obsessive about this myself, composing all of the articles, trying to match the prose style, typeface, and newsprint consistency to the era from which each one was supposedly written. (It was also necessary to map out in my own mind certain aspects of the island's history going back about 150 years.)

If you'd like a closer look at these articles, I've set up an interactive "conspiracy wall" that you can peruse to your heart's content. Check it out, and let's hear some of your theories in the comments section.

One of the many things that delights me about season one of "Ragged Isle" is that we were able to seed the crowd scenes with ringers -- terrific actors who populated the background and nothing more, but who would get cool scenes spotlighting their talents in seasons two and three. Christine Louise Marshall, who plays island librarian Colleen Drake, was one of these secret weapons. She appears in five episodes of season one, but only speaks one single line all season. Now here she is in season two, delivering the goods in a great scene with Ian Carlsen as Paul.  Check out that cocked eyebrow.  That's gold!

I'll tell you something else about the scene with Ian and Christine: We shot that in Harpswell, and we must have done about twenty takes. Wide shots, two-shots, close-ups, over-the-shoulders, medium shots, and on and on. The idea was that Barry would edit the scene together in a traditional way, cutting back and forth between different shots. But the scene you see in the final cut is a single take. Ian and Christine were just so fantastic in that one take, it would have been artistic malpractice to cut away.  After calling "Cut" on that take, Barry turned to me with a huge grin on his face and said, "I think we just got everything we needed right there."  He was right.  I love this scene.

Okay, now we come to the scene between Agent Thorne and Deputy Dan. This is a pretty important scene for Agent Thorne's character, who up until this point has been a real hardass. Kathryn Perry has been playing the hell out of the character, and even my mom (who's a real tough cookie herself) is terrified of her. Meanwhile, the gals at Indie Intertube have been screaming for her blood, because she's been such a... well, pretty mean anyway... to everyone we know and love on the island.

But nothing is simple on Ragged Isle, and there aren't always clear-cut heroes and villains (not yet, anyway), so it was crucial that we get a scene in which we see the softer side of Agent Thorne. True, even the softer side has a sarcastic streak ("What is this, Sesame Street?"), but we see here that Agent Thorne is human after all, and capable of moments of warmth and friendship. I know I keep saying this over and over again on the blog, but the actors really deliver in this scene too.  Kudos to Kathryn and Erik!

Another ringer we brought in in season one was Suzanne Rankin, who plays Gertie Kendrick, a best-selling author dying of cancer.  She  didn't have a single line last season, but she showed up at the town meeting in episode four, and at a secret meeting in the woods (also in episode four) surreptitiously photographed by Vicki.  Ms. Rankin  was unbelievably gracious and generous when we shot those scenes in season one. She had read the entire season, and she told us repeatedly how much she loved the script. She didn't get to read the second season, but I promised her then that she would have some nice moments to play. The scene in this episode between her and Cathy Counts (as Dr. Gail Monroe) was one of the moments I promised her. We shot this on the very last day of principal photography on "Ragged Isle," so it was already a pretty emotional day. And then she delivered the seagull speech, and I was just blown away.  That scene could come across as a little corny or overwritten (which would be my fault), but she completely sells it, I think.  What a talented, classy lady.

The final scene, on Paul's boat, was also shot in Harpswell, on a very, very long shooting day (the same day, in fact, as the Paul-Colleen scene). This was one of the last daylight scenes of the shoot (we had some night scenes to shoot after this), and the light here is absolutely gorgeous. The problem with light like this is that it's incredibly fleeting, so we really had to hustle. We got two takes of the last exchange between Vicki and Paul ("Do you really think you can trust her?" "No."), the sun getting lower and lower every second, before it was too dark to proceed. Luckily, Ian and Meghan nailed it.

A show like "Ragged Isle" is, by necessity, paced in such a way that each episode ends on a moment of suspense or tension or general cliffhangeriness.

My favorite episode ending is probably episode seven, when Sheriff Dalton and Deputy Dan are driving Louis back to the sheriff's office, but then the sheriff pulls over to the side of the road when Louis is less than forthcoming about something. Louis finally admits that he had been motivated by something Madame Clelia told him, and Deputy Dan and the sheriff look at each other in surprise, because they have, by sheer coincidence, pulled over directly in front of of Madame Clelia's place. Just as they're realizing that, Clelia herself knocks on the passenger window and says, "Good, you're finally here. You better come in," and turns back into the darkness. The sheriff and deputy stare after her.  Cut to black, and Robber & Thief's "Brothers" kicks in on the soundtrack. The whole moment I've just described takes only a couple of seconds, but I think it's just tremendous.

I love the ending of this episode too, cutting to black on Paul's simple answer of "No," and "Unlucky Friend" by the Portland-based band Plains playing on the soundtrack.  Nice.

Speaking of the soundtrack, musician Richard DeCosta, who recorded a version of "Flight of the Bumblebee" for Louis's magic act in the talent show episode of season one, has joined "Ragged Isle" in a major way this season, scoring the individual episodes.  His work has helped take us to the next level, elevating the quality and increasing the emotional impact of each installment. We're lucky to have him aboard.

I was recently talking to "Ragged Isle" director Barry Dodd about this season, and he recalled the days more than a year ago, before we'd shot any of this season, when I'd talk to him excitedly about what I was writing -- the new characters, the raised stakes, the crazier situations, the increase in seagull monologues.  He'd always nod with cautious enthusiasm at my excited proclamations, mostly because Barry's always been more interested in the quieter, "in between" moments.  The pauses between lines of dialogue, the word-free interludes between scenes, the beautiful (sometimes lonely, sometimes ominous) shots of Maine's outdoors.  Don't get me wrong.  I love those things too, and as Barry says, they complement the gaudier mayhem I had in mind.

If you want to know what I mean by "gaudier mayhem," just you wait.  In the meantime, I'm having a great time enjoying the scenery.


  1. Agreed with Rick, love your posts Greg. Seagulls. Sesame Street. Suspense. Ragged Isle.

  2. Thanks, guys. They're fun to write, and they help me to remember the things that went into these episodes.

  3. loved the shout out - THANKS GUYS!!

    1. We loved slipping that shout-out in there. A sly little nod to those in the know.

    2. You are most welcome Steve! We love the Pretty cast and crew on Ragged Isle!! Greg, tremendous blog as always. I can't have possibly used the word gaudier though. I think in this one instance, you may have slightly stretched the truth a teeny tiny bit :)

  4. Love reading your blog...and love "cliffhangeriness" - both the word and the act thereof!

  5. the article interactive wall is amazing. greg, you continue to out-do yourself.

  6. Thanks, Amie. That was a lot of fun (and difficult) to put together. Mostly fun, though.

    Also, thanks dacranson. Did you know your screen name sounds like a character out of an old Shadow radio show or Nero Wolfe novel? D.A. Cranson promised swift justice for whoever poisoned the commissioner!