Way back before she found respectable work as a Hollywood scriptwriter, Gail Gilchriest worked for a newspaper.
Specifically: The UT journalism grad – a proud native of Silsbee, Texas – spent five years at the now-shuttered Houston Post, as a feature writer and, under the pseudonym Charlene, a laugh-out-loud funny columnist for the paper’s Sunday magazine.
After new owners opted to ax the column, Gilchriest moved on to writing books (The Cowgirl Companion and Bubbas & Beaus), and from there graduated to screenwriting. After the usual hard-scrabble stretch of seeking work in L.A., she earned her first big-screen credit with her sterling adaptation of Willie Morris’ My Dog Skip, which was filmed with Frankie Muniz, Kevin Bacon and Diane Lane in 2000.
(The title may seem familiar even if you never saw the flick, because, for more than a decade, a humongous poster for it has hung from the ceiling of the lobby at the Edwards Marq*E Cinema.)
Gilchriest knows the answers to all of these questions – after all, she helped write much of Season One, and she’s already at work on Season Two.
Flash-forward 12 years, and we find Gilchriest gainfully employed as a staff writer – excuse me, as an executive story editor – for Dallas, the TNT cable network’s ambitious reboot of the phenomenally popular prime-time soap opera.
The series has proven to be enormously successful – reportedly, it’s the No. 1 new show on ad-supported cable this year – and faithful viewers are eagerly awaiting the Season One finale, which is set to air Wednesday at 8 p.m. (after a day-long marathon of all nine previously aired Season One episodes).
Will Bobby Ewing (once again played by Patrick Duffy) survive his latest cerebral aneurism?
Will J.R. (yep, it’s the real Larry Hagman) regret signing Southfork back over to his brother?
Will Sue Ellen (the lovely and talented Linda Gray) have to give up her hopes of pulling an Ann Richards in the upcoming Texas gubernatorial election?
Who wound up splattering blood on those cute stuffed monkeys during Episode 9’s climactic tussle between Rebecca (Julie Gonzalo) – the semi-estranged and very pregnant wife of Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe), Bobby’s adopted son – and the creepy dude formerly known as her brother?
And will John Ross (Josh Henderson), J.R.’s son, finally be able to convince the strikingly beautiful but distressing gaunt Elena (Jordana Brewster of the Fast and Furious franchise) to, hey, sit down and have a decent meal for a change?
Gilchriest knows the answers to all of these questions – after all, she helped write much of Season One, and she’s already at work on Season Two, which starts filming in September – but she’s not revealing much. So when she called last week from Hollywood, we simply had to ask some other questions.
CultureMap: To begin with the most obvious question, were you a big Dallas fan back in the day?
Gail Gilchriest: You know, I watched it. I was a teenager when it was really at its height. So I was into it – but I don’t think I was a fanatic about it. I liked the original. And I’ve learned to like it even more since I went to work on the continuation. Because we had to – well, we didn’t have to, but it sort of behooved us to watch as many of the originals as we could.
And it’s much more fun to watch six in a row with a glass of wine or something like that, in a way that you couldn’t have back in the day.
CM: Of course, things were very different then. When you missed an episode of the original, unless you thought to set up your VCR ahead of time, you were out of luck. But now…
GC: Yeah, we’re finding that it’s really interesting now how people watch television. It’s sort of brought serialized TV back in a way, because you really can sit down and watch all of a season’s episodes over a weekend. I’ve had friends tell me, “Oh, I didn’t watch any of [the new Dallas] until last night, and I watched all of the first five episodes on TiVo.”
And they’ll ask questions. Which makes it hard, because then I have to think back to that point in the show. Because everybody’s watching it on their own, at their own pace, on their own schedule.
Every time J.R. shows a color other than scheming, it gives you goosebumps. It’s amazing. All the writers, we’ve really psychoanalyzed J.R. So that, by now, everybody in the room sort of loves him.
CM: When you were plotting out these first 10 episodes, you had to come up with a satisfying conclusion, just in case you didn’t get picked up for Season Two. At the same time, though, you had to leave things open for another season. And on top of all that, you had to be faithful to everything established in the original series. So I’d imagine that required as much planning as the Allies did for D-Day.
GC: Probably just a little bit more. [Executive producer] Cynthia Cidre, our leader, had a lot of Season One already plotted out, because she’d been living with it for more than a year by the time she hired writers for it. So she had a bunch of ideas.
But then it was more math in some ways than a lot of writers are usually comfortable with, in terms of really planning it out as clearly as we could so that it all held water and didn’t leak. A lot of times, we might come up with a really great storyline with super-cool moves for all of our characters. But then we’d realize, “Well, wait a minute, that leaks a little bit. It makes sense up to here, but then it doesn’t follow through all the way.”
For Season One, I would say it took us a month of, really, as sweaty a kind of work as writers ever do in a room to figure it out. For Season Two, we’re going to have 15 episodes. So we’re just now sort of finishing the master plan – which is the hardest part. It’s fun. In fact, it’s a blast – we surprise each other all the time. But it’s the hardest part of our job.
CM: I would imagine you occasionally have to deep-six some nifty ideas because, well, this person actually hated that person back in the day, or somebody already knew something about this or that. Or somebody died.
CG: Well, Cynthia was pretty great about that. Her idea was that this isn’t a re-imaging, or a reboot. This is a continuation. So we had to go back and school ourselves as much as possible in the lore and mythology of the original series. Every now and then, we’ll spin out a story idea – and then remember, “Oh, no, she died in Season Three,” that sort of thing. But that was more last year.
This year, we’re more familiar with who’s who, and what’s happened in the past, and have tried to remain pretty true to it. We don’t pretend that certain things in the original series didn’t happen if it doesn’t serve our story.
But, yeah, it’s sort of a mixed blessing. We’ve got all that great stuff to build on. But sometimes the tricky part is – well, we’ve got all that great stuff to build on.
CM: Did you also have to consider other backup plans? It’s been widely reported that Larry Hagman had a cancer scare before Season One started shooting. Did you come up with a Plan B, or a Plan C, in case he’d be unable to continue in the series, or another original cast member might have to bow out – or a new cast member might just not fit into the ensemble?
CG: Well, yes, we do have older cast members. And we were mindful from the very beginning not to have any one character have to carry the whole season on his or her back. I can’t say we were any more concerned about that with Larry than anybody else.
But we were sort of surprised. We thought, “We’re going to have to be really easy on Larry.” But it turns out we really didn’t have to be easy at all. He comes to work every day and he’s always like the last man standing. He just keeps going and going and giving amazing performances. We did have [Hagman’s condition] more in the back of our minds just as a human issue. But it never was an issue. And we never had to change any part of our master plan for the season.
See, out here, it’s an idea-based economy. Everybody on the street has an idea. It’s like, Houston is an oil-based economy. Los Angeles is an idea-based economy.
CM: A good thing, too, because J.R. can still spring surprises on us. Like in the last two episodes, where he reveals just how much Bobby and John Ross really mean to him.
GC: Every time J.R. shows a color other than scheming, it gives you goosebumps. It’s amazing. All the writers, we’ve really psychoanalyzed J.R. So that, by now, everybody in the room sort of loves him. And not loves him because we love to hate him. But loves him and sort of understands what made J.R. J.R.
There are moments when he shows he has a heart, and it’s really hard not to be moved – whether you’re in the audience, or in the writers’ room. You think, “Well, of course his loves his son. And of course he loves his brother.” Even the devil has a heart. Those scenes are really fun to write. And, of course, Larry just knocks it out of the park when we ask him to do it.
CM: Many screenwriters have told me that you really can’t tell how busy they’ve been just by looking at their credits on IMDB.com. That, in fact, you can make a comfortable living for yourself in Hollywood selling scripts for movies that never get made, or pilots that never go to series. And you can make money doing rewrites for which you’re never credited. Have you found that’s been true for you?
One of the things I really think about at work is that my sort of unspoken job is to see that our people are represented correctly. Seriously. I was like, “OK, you guys, if this is going to be about making fun of Texans, if it’s all going to be about big hair and Bible-beating, I’m going to be mad all the time.”
GC: That’s par for the course, and that’s pretty much how it’s been for me. I would get things produced every now and then. But more often than not, I would spend a month rewriting the girl character in a romantic comedy that would or wouldn’t get made – but with a very specific brief for what I was supposed to do. I would turn it in, and then never hear from them again.
I developed a lot of TV shows that I would get paid to write, that would go all the way up to pilot – and then wouldn’t go. It’s a good living, I have to say.
But being in a writers’ room is a lot like being in a newsroom, where everybody’s producing something together on the same schedule, and it’s like being part of a machine. Which is kind of a nice treat after working by myself in my nightgown in my home office for 15 years.
See, out here, it’s an idea-based economy. Everybody on the street has an idea. It’s like, Houston is an oil-based economy. Los Angeles is an idea-based economy. And I really like that. I started out working in features. Dallas is my first series. Before this, I’d developed some TV before this, but hadn’t gotten anything on the air. Dallas is my first TV staff job. And I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to find it. It’s really like finding your life-mate, it’s been so much fun.
CM: Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, it wasn’t uncommon for a prime-time network TV series to produce as many as 39 new episodes a season. With the new Dallas, you’ve had to do 10 episodes for Season One, and you’re planning 15 episodes for Season Two. All things considered, do you think you’ve got it relatively easy?
CG: [Laughs] So far. This is all very new. And we haven’t come anywhere close to jumping the shark or exhausting our good ideas – or just-good-enough ideas. I would imagine that when we’re 8 or 9 seasons in, it’ll be the same as having a 39-episode order. And then we’ll be exhausted, and it’ll be a lot harder to find cool moves for our characters. But so far it’s not like that at all. Really, I can’t even begin to imagine a 39-episode season. That would be kind of daunting. That would be like the marathon of TV writing.
Right now, we do get kind of tired if we get stuck on something, or if it’s something that seems like a good idea that we can’t make work. That gets frustrating. But it’s never like, “OK, we’ve got to fill another hour of TV next week.”
CM: Finally, since you’re a native Texan, are you viewed as a kinda-sorta natural resource by your fellow staff writers?
GC: One of the things I really think about at work is that my sort of unspoken job is to see that our people are represented correctly. Seriously. I was like, “OK, you guys, if this is going to be about making fun of Texans, if it’s all going to be about big hair and Bible-beating, I’m going to be mad all the time.” And they told me, “Oh, no, that’s why you’re here. We don’t want it to be a cartoon about Texas.”
Which means, a lot of times, I’m on Texas patrol. And sometimes when we have questions – like, we had a scene early on in Season One where there was a cow being born. It was calving season on Southfork. And we’re sitting there, talking about, “OK, how does that happen?” Because, believe me, I’m from Texas, but I don’t know anything about birthing cattle. But I have a friend who married a rancher, and they live in Central Texas – so I figured, OK, I’ll call her.
So I called up and spoke to her husband – and he walked us through the whole cattle ranching thing.