Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Interview With Fred Goss Of Sons & Daughters

Fred Goss is the co-creator, producer, co-writer, and director of the new ABC comedy Sons & Daughters. The show is about the extended family of Cameron Walker (Goss) including his wife, children, parents, half-brothers, and half-sisters. Unlike most network comedies, Sons & Daughters features improvised dialogue and a more realistic feel.

Sterfish: How'd you get started in TV?

Fred Goss: Very, very, early on, the first thing I had to do with TV was being a production assistant for commercials. I then made my way up to production coordinator and I got into the prop department. I got into locations and I just kind of worked my way around the crew in my early 20's. Before that, I was an actor and my thought was that I wasn't really getting anywhere with it. So, I thought that if I got into production, I might be able to work my way in front of the camera...which really didn't work. That's not the way it works.

I did a lot of things in production which were beneficial, things which are really helping me now, actually. But I did eventually start acting and I acted in about 150 commercials. Then, I ended up having three kids so I stopped acting in my mid 30's. When I was 38, I did a little freebie film for a friend of mine that he called "Significant Others" and took it to Slamdance. He ended up selling that show to NBC and Bravo and we ran two seasons on Bravo.

It was an improvised show and I was also an editor on it because when I stopped acting, I took up editing and did it for five years. I also learned how to shoot camera and shot for ESPN and FOX, doing a lot of the sideline stuff and field segment stuff with athletes. Learning all those things really helped me.

When Significant Others was coming to an end, I went and got a literary agent, a guy named Nick Holly. I told him what my story was and he said, "You know, you'd be crazy not to try to put together a show. That's exactly what you wanna do because you could go out, shoot it, and edit it. You could have a whole lot of control over it because of all the things that you do."

I said, "Well, why don't you partner up with me?" He left the agency that he was at and came on as a co-creator with me of a show called The Weekend, a pilot. We shot a little presentation for it and we sold it to NBC. That's when I first partnered up with Nick, who is also my partner on Sons & Daughters.

Steve McPherson [President of ABC Primetime Entertainment] liked The Weekend but we ended up selling it to NBC. A couple of months later, he called us back and said "I really love what you guys did here, this improvised thing. It doesn't feel like it's improvised but it's got a real fresh feeling like it's a documentary." He just liked the feel of it. He liked the balance of comedy and heart and that it was more like a dramedy. He called us back and said "Can you do something in this format but applied to an extended family?" So, we made Sons & Daughters as a pilot and he picked it up.

SF: Now, you're doing Sons & Daughters on ABC.

FG: Yes.

SF: One thing I wanted to ask was since you did Significant Others and now Sons & Daughters as improvised shows, how different is it doing something improvised as opposed to something scripted?

FG: I'm surprised that more shows haven't already been doing this because there's really nothing new. People maybe try but you really can't do a show that's improvised dialogue unless you have a really strong script. I know that sounds strange but we write a script. We have a script that runs 10, 11 pages. The story is very well described. In each scene, the actor's intentions and the objectives and the goals they need to hit are very well explained. We have to follow it rigidly because we're improvising. Otherwise, it's just a free-for-all and then you just don't know what you're gonna end up with.

I mean, that's the way I feel about making an improvised show. It certainly isn't the way it has to be but that's my comfort zone. When we get on the set, the objectives are laid out very clearly for the actors and they know where they need to go. They know the bullet points that they need to hit in order to propel the story forward. We just don't literally put the words in their mouth. That way, since we're editing the scene anyway, it's really hard to call it improv.

They're coming up with their own dialogue and we're giving them lines and subjects just to try. We're basically all behind the camera and in front of the camera. We're all just kind of writing the scene on the fly. It's a very Robert Altman, kind of Cassavetes approach to it. People have been doing it for years but it's just that I think it makes people in TV a little insecure. They wanna know exactly what they're gonna get before they go in but a lot of times that backfires on you anyway because what you thought was gonna be funny isn't and that's all you got. You don't have any choices.

The beauty of what we're doing is that we get a lot of choices. If somebody says something funny and we love it, we don't make them do it six more times. We're like, "Well, we got that. Try something else. All right, now try something else." When we get into post-production, what we have is a puzzle where the pieces change depending on who puts it together. It's like a totally subjective thing. There's no one right way to edit the show. There are several right ways, several very good ways that different people would edit the same content. There's a lot more bad ways I think you wanna watch out for but it's a really fun process. It makes the actors seem more real and it makes the camera work more interesting.

We shoot with three cameras because we don't do coverage much. People are improvising and it's hard to turn around on someone and ask them to make up all that stuff they just made up. We move very fast because we're not turning around on things. We set things up to where we can get it all on one shot. The cameramen don't know who's going to talk next exactly so it looks like a documentary. In a way, that's kind of what's going on and it gives it this kind of "fly-on-the-wall" feel like you're spying on people's real lives.

SF: It's interesting that you said that it was three cameras because I've seen the commercials and it really looks like a single-camera show [A show where one camera is used at a time to film instead of three].

FG: We try to edit it that way. Our objective is to edit it in a way that if you didn't know it was improvised, you wouldn't guess that it was improvised. We want people who are gonna be like "Wow, this writing is interesting! How would anyone think to write this?" It's not joke-driven in a traditional sense in that you have three jokes per page. The humor comes out of your ability to attach yourself emotionally or on a relatability level to the characters. If you're committed to the person and you care about what's going on with them in the story, it's easier to laugh when they're in a situation that you recognize. We ratchet up the size of the elephant in the room and hopefully the viewer will be like "Oh my God, that's exactly like my mother!" and they find it funny for that reason and not because it's a joke and they're supposed to laugh.

We weren't experts in it when we started and we certainly were total amateurs with regards to doing one of these shows. My partner and I had made a few oneoffs like short subjects and pilots. We knew how to do it once but once you get into the assembly line, we were really...we're were feeling our way around to see what works best as far as knocking these things out one a week. We're real happy. It was really nice that ABC made us a midseason [replacement]. It gave us time to really concentrate on the 11 episodes that we made and cut our teeth on that. We got the education and now the machine's running really smoothly. Hopefully, they'll have us back.

SF: With ABC bringing you in midseason as opposed to in the fall, do you think that got rid of a lot of the pressure on the show to perform right away?

FG: Yeah. It was good for us in that way and it was good for ABC in that way because, honestly, the business people there, the people who sell ad time, were concerned because it doesn't fit any model. It's a show that's existed on cable. The same kind of thing has been done on cable in the last five years but if this format makes it on a network, I think that will be the first time that's happened. I mean, we didn't really wanna push it as unscripted but then in the promos, they've been saying "Unscripted...just like your family." So, they're using it as a sell point. I don't know whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe it doesn't matter at all but I think that when some people hear unscripted they kind of go "ehh." They're either interested or they're not.

SF: It seems like you're seeing a lot more nontraditional comedies with the popularity of both the British and American versions of The Office and other single-camera shows.

FG: Well, the success of [My Name Is] Earl and with The Office turning around this year and becoming as popular as it is, I hope that it bodes well for us in that it really is true that people are hungry for something a little bit different. It'll either work in our favor or it'll work against us. We're different and that's either good or bad but we're really proud of the show and we hope people will like it too. The stories about Nick and I's family experiences in middle-class middle America, the products of divorce, half-brothers and half-sisters... that's what the show is about. Hopefully, there's a relatability factor there and people will like it.

SF: One of the things they've been playing up in the commercials is Lorne Michaels' involvement in the show. How did he get involved with the show and how much involvement does he actually have?

FG: He's not involved creatively in the show. Nick and I have no background as producers and if we weren't aligned with a production company with a good track record, there's no way a network would've taken us seriously. We went to Broadway Video [Lorne Michaels' production company]. We didn't meet with Lorne initially. We met with JoAnn Alfano [President of Broadway Video Television] and Andrew Singer [Vice President of Broadway Video Television]. We pitched the show to them and they bought it.

Once we went to pilot, Lorne got a little bit more involved but he's always kept a very hands-off approach as far as the creative on it goes. If it wasn't something that he liked, I'm sure he would have gotten more involved. Improv isn't really his "bag." He told us straight out that he really prefers to have things written but he gets what we're doing here and he's been very supportive. And that's what he is...he's like our Godfather. He's given us a lot of really good advice businesswise and professionally and he gives notes on the shows. They're seldom ever creative or content notes. They're more like "Do you really want to go that blue on that particular topic because in my experience with SNL..." He imparts really good wisdom. He's got such a history in the business. Certainly he is somebody who changed the face of late night television exactly like they're pushing and that's why they're pushing the show so much with his name upfront. Can you blame them?

SF: Coming from doing Significant Others with Bravo, have you faced any challenges in doing network television? Have you had any challenges creatively with the network?

FG: No. I have to say that when this show airs, one thing that we can say is that they let us do it our way. Steve McPherson, who's experiencing success with his one-hours, his Grey's [Anatomy], Desperate Housewives and Lost, he...I think that when we came in, he said "Okay, well here's something out of the box that might work as a half-hour comedy." I think he just wanted to get one show in there that was his off-the-wall, alternative, hip pocket thing while he's pursuing the more mainstream stuff just to see if it would work. He really left us alone. He really let us do what we wanted to do and he's great. He's a real gutsy, courageous, ballsy network president, I gotta say.

A lot of times they're just "What do they want?" or "What does the public want?" or "How can we get our numbers up?" He wants to protect the art. I think that he sees it as if you protect the work and protect people's ideas of what they want instead of muddying them because you're trying to make it safe or more commercial, that the ad dollars will come. So far, he hasn't done too bad a job. He's having a pretty good run there.

SF: It's good to hear that you have a lot of network support.

FG: Yeah, we really do and the studio support at NBC Universal is equally great if not even greater. They have just been totally hands-off but totally supportive. It's the kind of experience where I've got writers who have been in the business for years come up to me and say "You have no idea how lucky you are." I think that it's just because it's a different animal and we don't really have a script where dialogue can be pre-scrutinized or that the network has to get involved on the post-production side. They do, they definitely do, but it hasn't been to the detriment of our vision of the show. They've only been helpful.

SF: Let me ask you real quick about some of the cast members. Can you give us some of the people who are in Sons & Daughters and what kind of work they've done before?

FG: Gillian Vigman plays my wife. She was on Mad TV for a season and is just a brilliant comedic actress. She's great at improv and she's also really smokin'. I pulled a Belushi and gave myself a much younger, hotter wife. But she's just hysterical. I can't say enough about her.

Alison Quinn, who plays my sister Sharon, is just so unique, so funny and I think she's just gonna really pop because she's out of left field. I think women are going to really attach themselves to her, I hope. I really have no idea how people are gonna respond but I love her.

I love Jerry Lambert, who is the Geico guy. That's how most people know him. We were walking down the red carpet and people were like "Hey! The Geico guy!" But he, he is just insane. I did five years at the ACME Comedy Theater on LaBrea and I met him there. He and I were in a couple of shows together and he's just one of the most outrageous, off-the-wall improvisers, kind of like on a Fred Willard-level. But he's terrific. He's my brother-in-law [on the show].

Greg Pitts, who you know from Office Space and a bunch of other stuff, he is just great. We started him off as the father of my little sister's child that they had out of wedlock and they're still not married. We saw him as this kind of rednecky, party dude who used to be a big man on campus and now he's just kind of a loser. We saw him as a regular but not in the forefront and he just brought so much to the table that we stepped up his role in the show considerably.

Desmond Harrington, who has done a lot of film work and was on L.A. Dragnet, plays Wiley Blake. He makes the triangle in that relationship between White [the character played by Greg Pitts] and Jenna [Cameron's half-sister played by Amanda Walsh] cause he's her assistant manager at the coffee shop. He's just an incredible actor.

Dee Wallace...incredible. Max Gail...I mean who doesn't love him? He's just got such a presence. Every time I see him on screen it just kinda warms me. Dee just plays the passive-aggressive mother so perfectly.

The kids are all fantastic. Trevor Einhorn, who plays my son Henry, he used to be on Frasier as Frasier's son Frederick. He's incredible. And the little ones, the little four-year-olds...people keep asking us "Wow. How can you do improv with kids?" It's like "Dude, they're the best ones!" Kids improvise by instinct. If you tell them just to go off, they'll just go off on a tear and start talking. You just use what you need and don't use the rest, you know. They're great. It makes a child actor a better actor when they're not actually saying a line.

SF: Sounds like a really strong cast.

FG: Yeah, they're really great. And to me when I watch it, it feels like a real family. I hope other people see it the same way. I'm real pleased. I'm pleased with all the episodes. I'm really pleased with the cast. The crew is great. It would just be really nice to do this more.

SF: Just overall, what do you think is gonna really set Sons & Daughters apart from the other shows dealing with families on TV?

FG: We are a...we're not a dramedy because that usually references a one-hour [show]. But I would say that we're a com-ma.

We really try to do this dance between heartfelt moments and then turning that upside down and also making it funny. In that sense, I think that's not something that anyone's done since's been a while. There's The Wonder Years, they've been there but...we're not a family show. We're definitely not a family show. We're a show about a family. The subject matter can be pretty raw and real. We try to, as far as Standards and Practices will allow us, make people talk as real as they do, including the kids as opposed to painting some kind of TV reality of how families are. That's what we're striving for and like I said, that is what makes us different and what makes us different will either help us because of the climate of what people are looking for or hurt us because of the climate of what people are looking for. We shall see.

SF: I hope it's more help than hurt.

FG: I hope so because we're not looking to replace anything or change the face of television. This is just something that we're into and hopefully, other people will be into it too.

Sons & Daughters premieres Tuesday March 7th at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT on ABC.

Check out the show's official website as well as Fred's blog Out On A Limb.

This interview has also been posted at Blog Critics at this link.

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