Monday, September 8, 2014

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

"Ragged Isle" episode twenty, "Original of the Species," is up at The Entertainment Experiment web site. If you haven't already, go watch it now. After you've seen it, read on for a behind-the-scenes writer's commentary, which will (of course) include spoilers for this episode and previous episodes.

I've written about our process before. I'm talking about the five original writers:  Barry Dodd, Karen Dodd, Rick Dalton, Jacob Lear, and myself. We had this giant piece of cardboard and these little index cards on which we wrote character descriptions and plot points, clustering them on the cardboard to form loose episode capsules. The first ten clusters, representing the first season, were thickly settled, as a large part of our energy and focus was getting the first season (which we'd be shooting that summer) really nailed down and into good shape. We knew the climax of the whole series, thanks to a brilliant offhand comment from Jake Lear early in the proceedings.  But the clusters of cards between the first season and the climax were a little... thinner.

For example, for the previous episode, we wrote that the "dissident" (which is how we referred to the character who fell in love with Emma Dobson and was exiled to an underwater cage) meets the CDC character (who would be played by me), realizes I'm his son, and tells me so. This is what it said on the card, more or less:  "Dissident meets CDC agent. Tells him he's his son."

When it came time to write that scene, I thought to myself:  Wait, what? Why would the CDC agent believe this guy? Is there anything written on the back of this card? No? Damn it!

After some thought, I hit upon the idea that unbeknownst to the CDC agent, he has the ability to breathe underwater. I wrote the scene that eventually ended up in episode nineteen, in which the "dissident" gives my character a bit of baptism, proving definitively that he's... well, not like other people. Brilliant!, I thought to myself, and happily shared the scene with the rest of the writing team.

To my dismay, Karen pushed back against it. "I think that the CDC agent would have discovered this ability before now," she wrote. Rats! Wait, would he have? Why would he have? We went back and forth on this for quite a while, never quite fully agreeing, until finally, I wrote the monologue my character delivers in this episode, the one about his little brother drowning -- definitively serving up a reason why Dr. Hoffman has never discovered this amazing ability.

Boy, am I glad Karen pushed back, because this is my favorite scene in the whole series (or one of my favorites, anyway). But, boy, was I terrified to actually have to perform it. First of all, I'd be sitting next to Michael Dix Thomas, who's basically great acting personified. Secondly, the tone of monologue is extremely tricky: sad, awed, and capping off with a laugh line about Aquaman that has to be delivered absolutely straight. I'll leave it to others to decide whether or not I pulled it off, but I've been waiting two years to share it with you. I'm so happy it's finally here.

As for the rest of the episode, it has one of the creepiest endings of any episode of "Ragged Isle." I've mentioned this before, but the basement scenes were shot in my basement, which is just inherently creepy anyway, and the sight of a gagged and bagged Paul thrashing around on the chair just gives me chills -- even when I saw it happening on set and I knew Ian was just fine. Yikes.

And oh yeah: I kill a guy in this episode. No sound effects have been added to that slam against the wall. That was really me thumping against the wall. The tricky part was to stay hidden behind actor Denis Fontaine as he advanced towards Vicki until he falls away to reveal me holding the knife. We did a bunch of takes, always starting with me slamming against the wall of the building and then me crouching down behind Denis to stay out of the camera's sight. (When I dropped the knife, I was trying to do it like Michael Corleone drops the gun in The Godfather.)

Also, I throw up again. Dr. Hoffman sure has a weak stomach.  But now we know why he doesn't like boats. Or the water.

This episode also features a quiet scene between Madame Clelia and Louis. This was a very late addition to the script, when we realized we needed a final beat between these two whose friendship has been a part of the tapestry of the show since the beginning (and something that was very much discovered on set, based on the chemistry between the actors). It was a pleasure working with Kathryn Coccyx and Adam Cogswell, both of whom brought so much to their characters. (I'm not saying we've necessarily seen the last of both of them, just that this scene puts a nice bow on their relationship.)

The idea from very early on was that there would be simultaneous investigations happening on the island -- people taking a cold, hard, logical approach (Agent Thorne Homeland Security), people looking for a more supernatural explanation (Sheriff Dalton and Dr. Hoffman), and people digging into the island's history (Paul and Vicki). As we begin to wrap up the series, those supposedly parallel investigations are beginning to intersect more and more. It was fun to bring those separate elements together outside the Ragged Isle Star offices (to be continued next episode).

We're really in the home stretch now, and for me, these final three episodes are the most exciting ones we've done. I can't wait to share the rest with you.

P.S. Those underwater shots are stunning, aren't they? Barry and Derek and David's images are so beautiful. Haunting event.

P.P.S. I keep thinking of other things I want to praise about this episode. How about Kip Weeks and Krystal Kenville acting underwater? Acting. Friggin'. Underwater. Holy cow, these guys are unbelievable.


  1. I still take a gasp of air at the exact time as the song says it in the underwater scene. I lo e aquaman and his stellar KO!

  2. You're amazing, Krystal. The underwater scenes are breathtaking. Literally.