Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Meeting Ellen Wheeler, Part 1

With all the interesting events of the past two days, I almost feel bad singling out a favorite, but the blogger's conversation with executive producer Ellen Wheeler had to be the highlight. After wrapping up a long day in Peapack, most people would be tired, but Ellen Wheeler spoke to us at length in such a passionate way that you couldn’t help but be moved. I literally had to hold back tears more than once and so did she.

But before I get to that, let me tell you about some of the outdoor scenes we saw being taped. Thankfully the weather cooperated and it was warmer than expected (still a bit chilly) with clear skies. In one scene, Bill (Daniel Cosgrove) was in a wooded area looking for some mysterious person. For one take he had to run across a clearing and stop to look around. At one point Ellen Wheeler did the same run (the woman is tireless). Later, I gave him a hard time about her being a lot faster than he is. He couldn’t deny it. If you have ever met Cosgrove you will instantly know he’s quite a character. He had everyone laughing on set the entire time we were there.

In addition to watching live, we were able to views the scenes playing out on monitors which showed the perspective that each of the four handheld cameras were taping. What amazed me was the speed of the whole production. When I visited the As the World Turns studio in Brooklyn back in July I thought things moved quickly. But the Guiding Light model is even faster. The shot is set up and it is recorded in what seems like an instant. Wheeler was directing and always knew exactly what she wanted from each shot.

Wheeler next directed a scene with Marcy Rylan followed by a scene between Cosgrove and Jordan Clarke to wrap up the taping day in Peapack. At that point she sat down with us in a room in the showhouse that has been designated as a lunch room for the cast and crew.

From the moment she sat down, I was spellbound by Wheeler. Yes, I have been a fan of hers for almost a quarter of a century since her Emmy winning stints on Another World and All My Children. But unless I was sitting directly across from her for those 45 minutes, I never would have known how passionate she is about Guiding Light and the entire daytime soap genre.

On how she is liking the production model now Wheeler said, "From the inside, it's marvelous, because we're so happy. The old way of shooting soaps was very separated. The producers were in the control room, and the camera people were on the floor, the actors were on the set with the camera people separate. And now, we're just one big group all the time. There's no way for us to not be together. There's no way not to create every second of the show as a group."

When I was listening to her take on this, I thought about to the indie film I made, Manhattanites, on a shoestring budget and how much of a community we became during those two months. Wheeler feels this is what has happened with the new production model. The cast and crew are even more of a community now doing things like playing football on the lawn in front of the showhouse. I joked that we wanted to take them on - bloggers versus cast and crew. She told us the story of an audio man who had said being so close made him emotional during a particularly moving scene and stressed that "when you are fighting for your lives together, all you have is each other" and "we just have to appreciate every second of every day we have here while we have it."

She then added that when the show gets to her in its "most finished state," she tries to watch it again and look at it from the outside. She told us how she gets a sense if that episode is a success of not. [LISTEN HERE]

She went on to say that being in Peapack actually enhances the emotion of scenes and eliminates the needs for the actors to create many of the realities that you had to in the old three wall set model, which largely remained unchanged since the 1950s. Wheeler explains that production has always dictated story to some degree, especially in the past ten years with shrinking soap budgets. [LISTEN HERE]

She then told us about just how bad things were in terms of sets before the change in production models. [LISTEN HERE]

Things have drastically changed. I will post about the showhouse and Peapack in more detail later as well as the revamped CBS studio but Ellen explained how they've gone from eight sets to 80 and more with the new production model, including her office at CBS which doubles as a church. [LISTEN HERE]

I then asked her what her thought process was when she first took over at Guiding Light. She told us that she never thought at 18 her career would take her to that path, but executive producer she had to look at the budget and she was surprised at some of the things money was being spent on. [LISTEN HERE]

Everything that has happened since that initial budget scrub was out of necessity knowing that the budget was going to be cut to a certain number and being forced to figure out how to deal with that. It required being inventive at times and Wheeler has been forced to make these decisions quickly. Knowing that a certain budget had to be met in 2008, the new production model was the best option for producing the show for a certain amount of money and creating a new look at feel to move the show forward. The budget may have forced them to look at things differently, but Wheeler loves the creative freedom of the new model. But since there's no hiatus on soaps, Wheeler and Guiding Light were forced to learn on the job in a sense. Yes, there were months of training with the new cameras and sets were being designed and perfected, but when the full-blown change hit the air, there were some kinks to be worked out. Those have all been well-documented in various places and the cast and crew are well aware that everyone was learning on the fly on national television. But fans have seen an improvement as the year has gone on and I only expect it to get better. While listening to her talk, I began to wonder how a person with so much passion and so many ideas would do on a show with a larger budget or would have done on a show in the past. She spoke to us about the changing times and the future. [LISTEN HERE]

There is so much more with Ellen Wheeler that I will get to in a future post but wanted to give you a sampling now.

I closed our time with Wheeler with a question about the album she was supposedly recording back in 1984 that I blogged about on Tuesday. I thought it would be a lighter way to end what was a rather serious question and answer period about the state of the show. I loved seeing her reaction as I’m sure no one has mentioned that tidbit in a long, long time. She told us that she was recording some tracks with an ex-boyfriend named Tom (whose last name was not Eplin) and that halfway through he had to break it to her that singing may not be the best career path for her to take. I also mentioned her dancing background and she treated us to some tap-dancing before saying goodbye. As for singing she did invite me to hear her sing in the church choir, and you never know, I just might do that someday. Whether you like the changes that have happened with Guiding Light or not since Wheeler took over as executive producer or whether you are a fan of the new production model or not, no one can deny her passion for this industry.

While we couldn't get into specific numbers, I would bet Wheeler has a fraction of the budget that the other shows have. I am simply blown away by the fact that with all that pressure and the threat of cancellation hanging over her head, she maintains a positive attitude and continues to come up with new ideas to try and extend the show's run. I have always been a fan of her acting, but after seeing her in action, I am now a fan of her as a producer. I'm not sure there is another executive producer in daytime who could pull off what she does on the budget she has. I sincerely hope that Wheeler and Guiding Light are around for many more years to see where this goes. I think history will look on her run in a much kinder way that some of the critiques you may have seen this year. When I try to put things in perspective, knowing the folks who run SOAPnet don't even seem to want soaps on the channel, it's hard to find much fault with someone like Ellen Wheeler who obviously loves the genre with a passion that is so rare these days.

Continue reading... (Part 2 of 2)


  1. Beautiful post. You definitely convey her passion and energy.

    The audio clips are terrific, because it was like sitting at the table with you.'s my one sharper question: Is there any chance that you could also address the negatives? By this I mean (a) the continually shrinking ratings across the daypart, (b) the greater-than-average viewer loss (and key demographic loss) at GL, and (c) how they feel about the visceral negative fan reactions from those fans who (apparently) are unwilling to let go of "the way things were"?

    I love your positive take! I support it. For balance, I hope that the GL team can respond to the negative stuff that is out there (and maybe help neutralize it).

  2. Hi, I absolutely will address your concerns. Obviously everyone involved is very aware of the situation with the ratings, the budget, the reactions to the new production model when it rolled out and the state of the industry in general (soaps and all of television).

    There were so many things to take in over the past two days so it will require a number of posts to get all my thoughts out. But please feel free to add your comments and let me know if there are other specific questions I don't address along the way.

  3. My problem with GL are the stories are so bad always negative writing with trouble all the time. They can't write a wedding without making it a circus. They could just as easily write a story of love and happiness.

    Also the music and noise they uuse as background is so distracting. Most of us watch the show to hear the characters not some blasting music. Older people are leaving the show mainly because of this. They dress the women in high heals to walk the sidewalks,through fields and parks.If they are outside let them wear shoes normal people wear in those cases.

    We still need interesting stories which we are not getting. I know this sounds negative but the stories just are not interesting. We have too many evil people causing trouble all the town. There are no happy couples where they dob't have to compete without another person. Jeffrey, Reva and Josh. She doesn't need to spend more time with him than Jeffrey. Write stories which will keep people watching and ratings will get better.