Chilling Out is where TrunkSpace talks all things horror and genre with those who work on the projects that give us the thrills and chills to keep coming back for more. This time out we’re chatting with Daniel Truly, a television writer and producer who has filled his resume with impressive runs on successful series like “Law & Order: SVU” and “Blue Bloods,” but as a horror/science fiction lover at heart, he revels in the opportunity to work on projects that make his 12-year-old self smile… like when he served as writer and supervising producer on “Blade: The Series.”
TrunkSpace: You’ve been working regularly in television for a number of years now and have had your hand in quite a few massive hits. In your experience, what’s the key to finding an audience in this sort of scattered, short-attention-span age? Is there a magic formula?
Truly: I think there are two answers to this. One, personally, I feel like the idea for a show has to be singular enough and easily identified enough just to be able to get it through the noise of our current super-fragmented culture. The second version is, studios and networks need something… they need a clear idea, but they need something they can hang the marketing of it all on. That’s why so many things get rebooted, simply because people want… they just rebooted “One Day at a Time” on Netflix. And, for some reason, “One Day at a Time,” the old Bonnie Franklin show, has persisted in cultural memory in a way that you instantly know what that show is as opposed to a show called “Blended,” where you don’t know if it’s a show about a blended family or a guy that’s selling blenders on infomercials. So, when I’m writing, you always want to try and boil the idea down. How can you tell it to yourself over and over in a way that you instantly know what the show is, and in addition to that, you kind of need something that… on every network, before they choose shows, they run these shows by the marketing departments so that marketing can come up with a strategy about how to break through the amount of culture clutter and teach an audience what your show is.
TrunkSpace: So, as you’re looking at new projects for yourself, if you find something that is really unique and interesting, do you also have to look at what is the familiar theme or concept? Do you have to think like the marketing department? You hear all the time about studios wanting unique ideas, but at the same time, mostly you see regurgitated ideas getting made these days.
Truly: Well, part of that is caused by an odd thing that the networks do. People in network development, and this is the job and I don’t envy them because it’s difficult, but in development they get hundreds of pitches every pitch season and they read hundreds of scripts, so they’re very kind of… not jaded, but they have seen a lot. It takes a lot to catch their attention. So, they will make a pilot that is very, very interesting, like a couple of years ago… I think it was on CBS or NBC… there was a show called “Hostages” where the president’s family is taken hostage and it was a riveting pilot and a riveting idea. The network goes, “We know how to sell this show!” So, they develop it, they shoot the pilot, they give it notes, and when it gets picked up for series it has been passed to the current team, so the development people then go back to developing new shows and executives in current have to make that show into a… let’s just say a 10 year hit. They then discover, I believe… and the audience discovers… is that how do you keep a show at that level of tension? How do you keep the president’s family kidnapped for 10 seasons? Obviously you can’t, but how do you keep delivering stuff on that idea, and that’s where the disconnect is. The things that get bought are the big, shiny, unique objects and if you want a show… I was lucky enough to be on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” for three seasons and I just finished four seasons on “Blue Bloods.” “SVU” is, I think, in it’s 18th season and “Blue Bloods” is in its 7th.
TrunkSpace: And those are both procedurals, which seems better suited for a prolonged series with staying power.
Truly: One hour… kind of close-ended shows… work well in perpetuity because you don’t really need to know what happened the week before and you come in and there’s a case. What makes a big, long, hit show is not necessarily what makes an exciting pilot. Every year you see a lot of exciting pilots and then you ask yourself, “What is episode 3?” Or, “What is SEASON 3 of this?” So, I tend to do procedurals. I tend not to do super, intricate serialized shows, just because I can’t keep up with that stuff. I try to keep in mind what I’m good at.
TrunkSpace: And it seems like networks sort of own the procedural space as cable continues to focus its attention elsewhere.
Truly: Yes. When I was out pitching pilots this past fall, what I kept hearing was that the networks were finally deciding that they weren’t going to really try with what cable does. They wanted billion dollar, SVU-like shows that they could syndicate and have dynasties with. Because, for a long time, especially when cable really ramped up over the last 15 years, all of the development executives… that’s where the excitement was. A show like “SVU” or “NCIS” are not critically-loved shows. The critically-loved shows are “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos.” Every development executive and every writer… you want to be involved with exciting stuff, so for the longest time, the networks tried to do what cable does and yet they were limited because they can’t do sex and violence. They can’t do language. They can’t really get as gritty as cable can get. And also, from a corporate level, the corporate overlords are asking for very, very successful, long-running shows. I mean, Les Moonves who runs CBS and Viacom and all the rest of it… he has very publicly said that he doesn’t care about Emmys. He wants very successful shows that please the shareholders of those companies. A lot of people are like, “Well that’s horseshit!” But you know what, that’s nothing to sneeze at! That is as difficult as making a very kind of creatively exciting cable show.
TrunkSpace: What was it that hooked you to look at Hollywood as a career?
Truly: When I was 12 I saw “Jaws” and it changed my entire existence. That movie blew my mind and I said, “I’m going to go to Hollywood and do whatever that was.” I really didn’t even know what job that was going to be.
TrunkSpace: You just knew that you wanted to be a part of it.
Truly: I wanted to be a part of that thing because it was just incredibly exciting that this could be something that… it’s like you want to go on that roller coaster again. And then you find out, you come out to the business and you find out that most of the rides are like “It’s a Small World After All,” and it’s boring. (Laughter) But, every once in awhile you’ll find that roller coaster and you get to be a part of something. And to this day… I mean, there is a friend of mine who does an internet radio show and I just happened to be there when the writer of “Jaws,” Carl Gottlieb was on. And the production designer Joe Alves was on! And this was the greatest moment of my professional life. And, the second greatest was, when I was a kid I saw a TV movie with Richard Thomas from “The Waltons” who was playing a guy in a snowbound house and he was tormenting somebody. And all I remember is that the end of the movie… this was probably on ABC… they stabbed him in the back with a pair of scissors and he ran out into the snow and he couldn’t get the scissors out of his back and I thought that was really, really chilling. So, on an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” I had Eric McCormack playing a girl’s dad and I had the daughter stab a pair of scissors into Eric McCormack’s neck. The character was instantly in shock and pulled the scissors back out and this big jet of blood goes across the squad room and I remember sitting on the set, and there’s the special effects guy and they have the tubes and they’re ready to squirt the blood, and I was like, “Okay, this was all because when I was a little kid I saw that.” But, that was very, very exciting.
TrunkSpace: And what could bring it full circle is, someone saw that episode of “SVU,” found it equally as chilling, and one day may write it into something they’re working on a decade or two down the road.
Truly: (Laughter) You know, I like to pay forward the idea that scissors are far more dangerous than we think they are.
TrunkSpace: That’s why we’re taught to walk with them while holding them upside down!
Truly: Exactly. You know, I should do a scene where a kid runs with them the other way, the scissors go right through his eye socket, pushing the eyeball out the back of his head. See, that’s… I have done a lot of genre and I have done a lot of crime shows and stuff, but at heart, I’m kind of a monster kid. In film and TV it was “Planet of the Apes,” and “Jaws,” and “The Road Warrior.” And even in music it was Alice Cooper and KISS. When I revert to my inner 12-year-old, that’s kind of where it really lives for me.
TrunkSpace: When you look at the current television landscape, one that has embraced shows based on popular comic book properties, do you think “Blade: The Series” was ahead of its time in terms of mass audience conception for a show like that?
Truly: I think so. And I also think that the infrastructure of fans being able to talk to other fans about these things… look, I loved doing “Blade: The Series.” It was everything that I wanted to do. It was genre. It was blood. There were girls. We shot international versions so we did cursing and nudity. I’ve known David Goyer for 30 years. Geoff Johns, who now runs DC, was the number two on the show. So, it was this neat little perfect storm of a lot of fun stuff. And, we almost got a second season, but you know… it surprises me that they have not tried to reboot “Blade” as a series because it’s perfect. I like to think that we were a little bit ahead of our time. I wished that we had gotten a second season, but that’s the way it goes.
TrunkSpace: If the series was released today in the form that it was originally created in, do you think it would find an audience? Or, do you think that things have progressed so much in terms of what people are willing to consume on television that it is already dated?
Truly: Well, it probably has in terms of… just the amount of visual effects you can do on a TV show now. We did wire work. We did some CG. But, we were always kind of bumping up against the technical limitations and certainly the money limitations. But, it airs on the Chiller network every once in awhile, and I mean… I would hope that people would find it. Just because, you know… I always know that if I’m having fun on a show, then I think it translates. When I’m not having fun on a show is when I know it’s a dog because if I can’t find something to be excited about then…