Thursday, December 11, 2008

Meeting Ellen Wheeler, Part 2

In Part 1 of Tuesday's sit down with Ellen Wheeler, she talked about how necessity has forced Guiding Light to change and how that has lead to new creative freedoms and challenges in economic times that are tough for everyone, including the entire television industry.

"If you go look at the pictures of shooting television from 1952 when we started on television, and then look at the pictures of us shooting television three years ago, they're almost identical," Wheeler pointed out. "It's the same crew, it's the same cameras, it's the same basic set up. By the time people were walking around with their television on their iPods, we were still shooting it the same way. That's not a good idea."

She realizes that while trying to find the perfect solution there will be hits and misses. "It doesn't mean we'll hit the right thing, we knew that when we changed. We knew we might make tons of mistakes along the way. But we weren't scared of that. We knew we had fans that would say 'okay, they're going to make mistakes along the way.' The show has made a lot in 70 years."

On finding the emotional truth in a scene, Wheeler said, "I knew you guys say it to us all the time in the blogs, cause I do read them. It is all about story. Somebody ask me the other day in a meeting, 'then why don't you just always write good stories,' and I was like, 'well, don't think we sit around the table like - what will we have our three bad stories be.' It's not like we're ever trying to write sucky stories. The nature of writing anywhere from 20 to 50 stories a year means that some of them are going to be sucky. I'm not trying to apologize, I'm just saying that is our reality. We wish they would all be brilliant, and we wish that every time we put a couple together, it just lit up. It doesn't."

She compared running the show to be a parent and talked about how everyone working at Guiding Light is keenly aware of the issues and mistakes. [LISTEN HERE]

When asked if she's flattered that other soaps are doing more and more location shooting now, Wheeler replied, "I would be lying if I said no. It's just apparent that we need to. And we can. It used to be really expensive and that's why soaps didn't do it, but it's not expensive anymore."

The equipment has made it much less expensive and shoots can be done with smaller crews. "When Jonathan went and rescued Tammy from the church, we took the smallest group of people we had ever taken on a location and it was about 45 and two trucks. Now I can shoot with a crew of about seven and no trucks. That's a massive difference for us. Just a few years ago, putting the together a truck of the lighting equipment we needed kept us from doing it. We get to make a lot of choices we didn't get to make before." [LISTEN HERE]

Wheeler went on to say, "I think it's much better. Do I like it all? Do I think it's all perfect? No, but I didn't think it was all perfect before. It was never all perfect." She goes on to talk about how we have a tendency to look back on the past and romanticize some of those times in our minds. [LISTEN HERE]

We then began talking about the sound quality. One of the biggest complaints when the new production model rolled out was that it was difficult to hear some of the actors. Wheeler explained that she prefers to use a boom operator versus the actors wearing a lavalier microphone because the audio editors can edit out background noise, airplanes, etc during sound cocorrectionhen the boom microphone is used. If an actor is wearing a mic on their lapel and their clothes are rustling, you can not edit that out later. Both do get used though at times depending on the situation and how much time it will take for correction, mixing and the entire editing process. For example, Daniel Cosgrove (Bill) was wearing a mic during his outdoor scenes that day.

Wheeler told us, "Like so many things that dictate our day, or why we choose certain things, is truly the logistics of the day." The logistics in Peapack and the CBS studios is critical in the new production model and I will cover that more in a future blog.

Wheeler believes the audio has drastically improved and can rival some prime time shows now. [LISTEN HERE]

I made the comparison to Friday Night Lights and Wheeler agreed what the show is trying to do is very similar to that feeling. I began to wonder how the cast and crew of FNL would do if they were producing 260 episodes a year with the same budget that Wheeler has for Guiding Light. Wheeler knows that with so many shows to produce a year "it will never be perfect."

"We will have moments of perfection, then we'll have moments that are really bad. And then we'll have a lot of moments in the middle. And we just try to make ourselves lean on a lot more moments on the upside than the downside."

On whether she feels the soap press has a responsibility to advocate for or pay attention to all the shows equally, Wheeler felt the entire soap community needs to be more supportive. Hating each other doesn't help anyone. [LISTEN HERE]

Wheeler went on to say, "I think it's a very difficult time. We talk about it actively at work. Every day I just have to appreciate if I have one more day with these people. That has to be the joy of my life, and that has to be the way I look at it. I can't worry about what's happening at Y&R or what's in none of the rest of it, except that we have one more day. We made it today. CBS did not pick up the phone and tell me we're not the air in six months. Today was a good day."

Near the end of the talk with Wheeler, she was asked about how she handles the pressures of the job. I'll end this piece with an audio clip of her explaining in her own words how she is able to stay positive. It's sometimes easy to forget when you're writing about soap operas on message boards or blogs that there are real people behind the scenes going to work, sometimes in the rain and cold in the case of Guiding Light, putting their hearts and souls into making these shows. That has never been more evident to me after seeing Ellen Wheeler up close and personal in Peapack, New Jersey on Tuesday. [LISTEN HERE]


  1. though ive never watched GL, this is fascinating!

    thank you for sharing your adventure!

  2. I commend you on writing what I feel is an objective, not gossip piece on this entire two day experience. As someone who has talked to many of the people you have mentioned, I am glad to see someone taking a realiztic look at what had to be done to save GL. I think you have also given Ellen a fair shake, which does not always happen in the press and on the various boards. I beleive she does care about GL, but she isn't perfect, and no one is.

  3. What a remarkable set of posts. This is definitely insightful. I'm please at the level of attention and detail you are able to share. This is what many soap fans want.

    I am taking away one thing, though, that may be GL's "weakness".

    I am reminded that Y&R has, by many accounts, reached a certain creative height in the latter half of 2009. This is attributed, by many, to a cohesive but stratified leadership team:

    - Paul Rauch handles production, and he does so with all of his experience and energy
    - Maria Arena Bell oversees, with a tight fist, the creative direction of her show. She is responsible for story. She is also the custodian of history and character. (We'll forgive her for accidentally reversing Victor's second vasectomy)
    - Hogan Sheffer oversees plot. He knows how to generate terrific story...loaded on "oooooh" moments.

    With this template, Ellen is Paul Rauch for GL. She is, from a production standpoint, slowly bringing this show more and more successfully into the new production model. While I personally have quibbles (for example, the porches with peeling paint simply don't fit well with the characters who reside in those homes, in my opinion), I think the show often looks good and will look better.

    But Ellen doesn't have a "Maria/Hogan" analogue. She has that 4-HW team, but as Sara Bibel has described it, they are a distributed mix of breakdown writers...I don't see anyone as the "creative czar".

    If Ellen could be paired with someone equally creative...someone who can spin good story, with a keen grasp of character and history...someone who loves the show as it was...but who also embraces innovation. I'm basically thinking of a Sri Rao for GL.

    That union, if it could be done, really could creatively rescue the show.

    Most of what Ellen talks about in this interview is production. That makes sense. The most she can muster about story is that it is sometimes "sucky", and she's vaguely apologetic...but basically she justifies it based on budget and the relentless pressure of producing 260 shows/year. I think what she needs is someone who REFUSES to accept sucky stories. Someone who takes as much pride and pleasure in spinning the tales as she does in producing the show.

    Thanks again to P&G/Telenext, you, and your fellow bloggers for these awesome insights.