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Life Sentence

Deep Focus

Cardillo & Keith

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In our ongoing column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith, creators of the new CW series “Life Sentence.” Starring Lucy Hale, the dramedy tells the story of a young woman who, after living as if she were dying, has to navigate the extreme choices she made upon learning that her terminal cancer has been cured. We recently sat down with the pair to discuss juggling new humans with a new show, why they surrounded themselves with people more talented than themselves, and the reason their partnership works.

TrunkSpace: The series premiere of “Life Sentence” just went down. What emotions were you juggling with as you headed into the final stretch?
Cardillo/Keith: Exhaustion. Joy. Accomplishment. Pride. Fear. Did we mention exhaustion? It’s been a long road to get to the premiere of “Life Sentence”… we had this idea over two years ago and started pitching the show 18 months ago. We then wrote and produced the pilot and the first season all while having and raising newborns (who were born a week apart).
Keith: My daughter was born the day we turned in the studio draft of the pilot. And she took her first steps the day we turned in the studio draft of the finale.
Cardillo: My son followed her up by timing his milestones with the networks drafts. So it’s been a pretty hectic time in our lives, raising a new show and new humans!
Cardillo/Keith: In terms of the fear, it isn’t fear that the show is or isn’t good. That’s subjective. (We’d argue it’s good.) But no matter what you do, some people will think it’s great and others won’t. The fear is mostly… will the show find an audience that really connects with it? We both put our hearts and souls into this show, which required us to spend a lot of time away from our families. So, our hope is that our hard work comes across on screen and that these characters and their stories speak to people as strongly as they do to us. But at this point, that’s out of our hands. And there’s something terrifying and exhilarating about that.

Thankfully, we were blessed with an amazing lead, Lucy Hale, and a wonderful mentor and partner in Bill Lawrence (and immensely supportive spouses who supported us doing this in the first year of our children’s lives)… so… what we’re saying is, it seems like we were given all the tools to succeed and our hope is really just that we didn’t screw it up!

TrunkSpace: As writing/producing partners, you have worked on other series together, including your own creations. Does this one feel different? Does the buzz that’s been building for “Life Sentence” give you a different perspective at this stage in the process?
Cardillo/Keith: It definitely does. Between having someone like Lucy attached and a producer like Bill on board, there are certainly higher hopes for this show at the studio and network level than on our other projects. And it’s nice to have a certain amount of excitement from fans who are eager to see what we’ve all been working on these last 18 months. But, at the end of the day, buzz or not, you’ve got to find an idea you’re passionate about, try your best to surround yourself with people who are more talented than you, and put everything you have into bringing that idea to life. That process never changes, and that’s where the real reward is.

TrunkSpace: Tone is everything when it comes to establishing a series, but it feels like that’s even more important when your main character is battling terminal cancer. How long did you two work on getting the tone down, and how much did your cast have a hand in it becoming a reality?
Cardillo/Keith: There was a lot of discussion about tone on this show. Especially considering that we first conceived of it (and pitched it to the networks) as a ½ hour single-camera comedy. But the more we (and Bill Lawrence and our producer Liza Katzer) talked about it, the more depth we saw in the idea and in exploring not just how this diagnosis affected our lead, but also her entire family. And so, we decided to make some tweaks and try our hand pitching it to CW as an hour dramedy. Once they got on board, the idea continued to evolve. Our first draft had much more of a comedic bent to it than the final pilot (and series) ended up having. As Bill likes to say, if you’d asked us before we started shooting the pilot how many times we thought Lucy Hale was going to cry on screen, we’d have said, “Maybe once,” but our director (Lee Toland Krieger) would have said, “Oh, like a thousand.” In the end, we collaborated and landed at a more reasonable number (somewhere around 10). And that sort of collaboration and evolution continued throughout the first season of the show and helped the show find, we think, a nice balance of humor and heart. That sort of collaboration is one the reasons we both love working in television… and, of course, the actors had a major hand in shaping the tone as well. All the good intentions and well-written lines in the world don’t matter if your cast can’t pull that tone off. What was fun on this show was, we didn’t always know going in what the perfect tone of a given scene would be. So, we’d try a version played for drama, a version played more comedically (thankfully we have a cast that can do both), and then you get to go into the editing room and really shape the scene…

TrunkSpace: From the time that you first put pen to paper on the concept to where you are now, what are you most proud of when it comes to “Life Sentence?”
Cardillo/Keith: Finishing it! Every show starts the season with a big empty white board and there’s nothing that makes our stomach hurt worse. Except maybe taking a multi-vitamin without food (which is seriously gross). Also, as we mentioned, this show was constantly evolving and where this season ends isn’t necessarily where we would have said it ended when we pitched the show. But, we’re really excited about the direction it ended up going in. We feel like it will be a satisfying journey for our audience and Stella, and hopefully, everyone will find some tears and laughter along the way.

TrunkSpace: CW is a network that is known for letting shows find their legs and grow. As creators, is that a comforting thought knowing that your creation will have as good a chance as any at having an audience discover it and hopefully, become emotionally invested?
Cardillo/Keith: Absolutely! Nailed it. This question was easy.

Photo By: Storm Santos

TrunkSpace: You’re both actors in addition to being writers. Does that skill set give you a different perspective on developing characters and scenes? Do you test things out among the two of you to see if the performance side of things will pay off?
Cardillo/Keith: We do. Before we were getting paid to write, we turned Erin’s dining room into our office. We’d write and act things out (often loudly and enthusiastically) to test how scenes would play, much to the chagrin of Erin’s neighbors. Especially when we were working on the pilot of the “Significant Mother” digital series, which was a super raunchy sex comedy. It involved us acting out scenes where one of us was mad at the other for sleeping with our mom, and we had a surprising amount of candid conversations about dildos. Erin’s neighbors definitely gave her weird looks in the stairwell.

TrunkSpace: Was writing always in the cards or was it a part of your careers that came after the fact? Did working as an actor serve as the catalyst for where you both are today?
Cardillo/Keith: Acting was definitely the way both of us got our foot in the door. And it definitely informs our writing process. We pay a lot of attention to the flow and rhythm of dialogue because we know first hand how much easier an actor’s job is when the dialogue falls out of their mouth naturally. In terms of writing, that’s always been in the cards. We’ve both always been interested in telling stories… it’s why we became actors in the first place. And, at the end of the day, whether you’re writing, acting, directing, producing, or editing etc., if you’re working in film, television, or theatre, your job is to tell stories. And, eventually, both of us started to feel like there were stories we wanted to tell that were outside the scope of the characters we could play as actors. So we started writing. Initially on our own, trading feature scripts and giving each other notes. Until we realized that the stories we wanted to tell overlapped and it made sense to tell those stories together.

TrunkSpace: What is it that you have found in each other creatively that makes the partnership work?
Cardillo/Keith: I’m (Rich) really good at getting up early (like 4 a.m.) to crank out drafts and my brain dies by about 3 p.m. Whereas I (Erin) really am happy working away into the wee hours of the night. So it allows us, as a team, to basically work 24/7 if we have to. And it still allows each of us individual time to rest and the ability to work at the times where their creativity is at its peak. We also make each other laugh a lot, which is really important. Especially when you’re about to start shooting an episode in 10 days and you don’t have a script yet… not that we have ever had that happen to us multiple times on multiple episodes of multiple shows that we’ve worked on.

TrunkSpace: You spent time working on “Fuller House” for Netflix in 2016. What did you guys take from that experience that you have carried with you in your careers and to where you are today with a show like “Life Sentence?”
Cardillo/Keith: On “Significant Mother,” we didn’t really have a full writers room because of time and budget constraints, which meant we had never really been in a full writers room with a staff sitting around a table breaking stories. So when that show came and went and our subsequent pilot at CW, “The I Do Crew,” didn’t go, we both thought it was really important that we staff on someone else’s show. So, if we were fortunate enough to get another show, we’d know first hand what it was like to be someone on staff. And we hoped that that perspective would help us learn how to collaborate with our staff in a way that not only made them the most productive, but engaged, creatively fulfilled, and invested in the show. Because at the end of the day, it may say “Created by Erin Cardillo & Richard Keith” but that’s just the beginning. It takes hundreds of people to bring a show to life and keep it alive. And the more you can make everybody feel like this is their show, like they see a little piece of themselves, and that they see their hard work in it, the better the show will be.

Hale in “Life Sentence”

TrunkSpace: Erin, you spent almost 100 episodes playing Esme Vanderheausen on the soap opera “Passions” from 2005 to 2008. Soaps can be such a breakneck environment where you’re sprinting through more pages a day than ever seems conceivable. Did working in that atmosphere sort of prepare you for anything?
Cardillo: It certainly had a boot camp element to it, but the biggest gift of that show was how creative I got to be during that time. Both with the character of Esme (who was an absolute loon) and because the writers let me improv a lot, which was so much fun. But also, because I only worked two to three days a week and we’d shoot my part of an episode out in three to four hours, which meant I actually ended up with a lot of free time on my hands. I wrote my first feature and developed my first TV project during that time. I never would have been able to do that if I’d been going from job to job as an actor and also working a side job to support myself, as a lot of actors have to. It was truly a gift in every sense of the word.

TrunkSpace: Richard, what have you learned in your career as an actor that you try to be mindful of now as an executive producer? Do you think you approach certain aspects of the job differently because of your own experiences in front of the camera?
Keith: Definitely. For me, it’s important to remember to really listen to your cast when they have thoughts or concerns on something that’s happening with their character in any given script. It’s every actor’s job to be an expert on their own character. To protect them. To fight for them. To service them. So, as a writer, you have to be humble and realize that while that character may have started in your mind, it now lives in their body, and while you have dozens of characters to focus on, they only have one which makes them an expert in a way you’ll never be.

TrunkSpace: If someone came to you with a time machine and offered you a chance to glimpse at what your careers will look like 10 years from now, would you take the futuristic peek?
Cardillo/Keith: Tempting, but no. Some of the best things in life happen unexpectedly. Sure, you may have a plan, but if you have an open heart and an open mind and are willing to let go of what you think should happen, we’ve found that things can turn out better than expected. And sometimes worse. But you learn from failure, and if you try to avoid it, you also rob yourself of the chance to grow as an artist and a person. Not to mention the fact that if you know what’s going to happen at the end of Act Five, you could forget to enjoy the ride of getting there.

Life Sentence” airs Wednesdays on The CW.

Featured image by: Storm Santos

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Wingman Wednesday

Elise Gatien

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Photo By: Michael Mazur

When a fun, entertaining show has a difficult time finding an audience, it can be depressing for viewers who are anticipating the continuation of the series for many seasons to come. An underrated episodic gem also limits the widespread appreciation of an actor or actress who left a mark on the series by delivering a memorable performance worthy of a pop culture gold star.

For all of us here at TrunkSpace, “Ghost Wars” is currently that show in need of more eyeballs and Canadian-born Elise Gatien is the actress worthy of more praise. As Maggie Rennie in the dramatic Syfy series, Gatien captures an emotionally-tortured character in such a beautiful and powerful way, adding her own individual layer to the already-multilayered horror fest.

We recently sat down with Gatien to discuss how she almost didn’t accept the role of Maggie, why she considered walking away from acting altogether, and what advice from the set of her first project helped her to realize her calling in life.

TrunkSpace: The end product of a series or film tends to be what’s memorable for a viewer, but for those who work on them, the experience probably ends up being more profound. What was your experience on “Ghost Wars” like?
Gatien: “Ghost Wars” was really fun. I was at kind of a strange point in my career. I lost my dad a while ago and was just kind of at a crossroads in my life. I almost didn’t take the show, but I ended up taking it. It was the first time in a long time that I had a character that I felt challenged me. I felt like everyone on set challenged me, and it kind of reminded me why I’m an actor, and why I love it so much. It was exactly what I needed at that point in my life. It was an amazing experience. It changed my life for the better, for sure.

TrunkSpace: Was that crossroads one that had you looking at the possibly of walking away from acting as a career?
Gatien: Yeah. I think I was just looking at family, and friends, and just trying to put what was important in my life into perspective. A few of the roles that I had most recently done with acting were on shows that I wasn’t really passionate about, and didn’t feel like they challenged me. I was kind of falling out of love with acting. “Ghost Wars” has been a really nice stepping stone. All of the roles that I’ve had since then are all things that I’m extremely proud of, and shows the kind of characters that I wanted to play. I just feel like it was definitely a crossroads for me. It took me in the direction that I wanted.

TrunkSpace: It sounds like in a lot of ways, “Ghost Wars” was sort of a catalyst for you rediscovering that spark?
Gatien: Yeah, for sure. Every actor, every writer, the creator, Simon Barry, all the directors… everyone was just passionate about what they were doing, and had a vision. It was really a collaborative effort to tell this story. It was refreshing to have a group of people that passionate, and not just throwing something together to make a buck. Everyone was doing it because they were passionate about it, and they wanted to make something cool and interesting. They wanted to tell the story to the best of their ability. That’s why I want to be an actor.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned how Maggie was the first character who you felt has challenged you as an actor for some time. What excited you most about her when you first discovered her on the page?
Gatien: She kind of seems like this tough, sarcastic, nothing-really-bothers-her kind of girl, but she’s also in this heartbreaking, fragile position, where, I don’t know if I’m really supposed to say this but this episode has come on in the States, so I guess I’m allowed to say it, but my character, Maggie, is a ghost. She is trying so desperately to connect. The only person that she can get through to is Roman. That’s her only friend. To be in a relationship as a young, 20-something girl, and you can’t touch this person, and this person has the whole world, but they’re your only contact, it’s such a fragile position to be in. To bring that vulnerability, and that delicateness to her, but also still have this strong, tough side, that Maggie has been through a lot… for me, it was finding that balance. It was a challenge, but it was fun to be able to bring out her strong side, and her vulnerable side.

TrunkSpace: Is there something particularly rewarding about getting the chance to spend an extended period of time with a single character as opposed to something like a film where you know exactly what your character’s beginning, middle, and end is?
Gatien: Yeah, it is, because so often as an actor, you get attached to these characters that you get to play, and there’s so many different places that you want to take them and then it’s just over. It’s a couple of weeks, and then it’s over, and you feel like… I don’t know, that you might have a revelation a couple of weeks later like, “I feel like this should have been brought into my character.” It’s like making soup, you just keep adding more, and more, and more ingredients, and it just gets better, and better.

We shot “Ghost Wars” out of order. There were a couple of later episodes that we shot earlier on. To look at what was happening in those episodes, and then be able to bring that into the previous episodes that we shot afterwards, that was kind of fun because so often, you get a script a week before you’re going to start shooting it. We had a few more scripts so we were able to bring more to those earlier scripts, I think.

Gatien with Avan Jogia in “Ghost Wars”

TrunkSpace: When you’re shooting out of order like that, does it force you to look at early choices that you might make for the character and realize that, continuity-wise, some things have not been set up in the story yet?
Gatien: There’s pros and cons to shooting out of order, I think. I think sometimes it can be a little bit overwhelming, because you’re looking at this bigger picture, where usually, you’re kind of taking it day by day. But the pro is, like I was saying, you know where you’re going to end up. With that knowledge, it’s kind of cool to find different ways to get there. You make choices that you might not have been able to make, if you hadn’t had that information.

TrunkSpace: “Ghost Wars” is a show that we all feel here at TrunkSpace is vastly underrated. Not only is there so much content available for viewers now, but there’s so much great content. Do you feel like there’s a downside to this Golden Age of Television in that, it is more difficult for great shows to be found?
Gatien: Yeah, I think there’s so many great things out there, that a lot of great shows kind of get lost in the mix. It’s heartbreaking to see that happen. But it’s also so exciting that there is all of that great material out there. Sometimes things might not get found in their first, second, or third episodes, but it might by the end of the first season, or the second season, and all of the sudden, people start catching on… people start talking about it and they do get found. But there are some shows that, unfortunately, I feel don’t get the praise that they deserve until afterwards. Like “Freaks and Greeks.” One season? Come on!

Photo By: Alan Chan

Hopefully we’ll get a second season, and by the second season, more and more people will be talking about it. I’m excited for when it hits Netflix. I think that will be really huge. I think there are a lot of people nowadays that don’t have television, and they just watch Netflix. I think Netflix is such a great platform. People are always on there, looking for the next thing, so I think we’ll find our following.

TrunkSpace: We read that you first began performing as a four-year-old. When did you decide to take that passion and make a career out of it?
Gatien: I was a dancer when I was young. I wasn’t an actor. I didn’t get into acting until, I think I was around 16. It kind of happened accidentally. I started out just doing commercials and used to be deathly shy. I couldn’t even look someone in the eye when I was having a conversation. My agent kind of kept pushing me to go to some acting classes, and maybe start going for some TV and film. So I went to an acting class and I did a scene from “Girl, Interrupted.” I’ll never forget it. There was just this addicting feeling that I got, and I haven’t looked back since. I was like, “Send me to more! Send me to more! Send me to more!”

From the second I did that, I didn’t necessarily think that I could make a career out of it, but I knew that that’s what I wanted to make a career out of. I knew that that was going to make me happy. I did a film called “The Obsession.” It was terrible and cheesy, but it was my first role. Daphne Zuniga, she said to me on set, she was like, “Acting is a tough business. If there’s anything that you can think of that will make you happy, do that. But if there isn’t, then be an actor.”

I’ve sat so many times and have been like, “Okay, what logically could I do with my life, because this is kind of crazy?” There’s just nothing that gets me excited like acting. It is something where I’m excited to go to work, and I’m happy when I’m there. Yeah, there are exhausting days, and hard days – every day isn’t puppies and cupcakes – but I love it. It’s really satisfying to me and I feel good at the end of the day.

Ghost Wars” airs Thursdays on Syfy.

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