Written by Dylan Callaghan
The TV biz is always tough, but in these tougher-than-tough times, Life on Mars showrunner André Nemec is the kind of boss any writer would dream of having in charge. Aside from possessing a great perspective about keeping the business side of things locked out of the writing process, he also believes passionately that a safe team environment is the only atmosphere in which a writer can truly work their best magic.
“If a writer is not comfortable pitching something that could be wildly stupid and 10,000 miles off base, then there’s trouble,” explains the NYU grad who, along with his partner Josh Appelbaum, has adapted this drama from a hit BBC show about a New York cop thrown back to the ‘70s after being hit by a car. Further, he feels that the vibe in the writers room trickles down from the top. “If the boss looks at someone cross-eyed or berates people, it starts to become an ugly, competitive environment where people no longer function as a team.”
Nemec spoke with the Writers Guild of America West Web site about the unique blend of supernatural mystery and police procedural that makes Mars tick, and how, through both critical accolades and ratings struggles, his sole focus remains one thing: telling great stories.
There are a number of unique things about this show from a writing standpoint, starting with the fact that it was adapted from a UK series. From a narrative standpoint, did that transposition to New York give you a lot of rich material to mine?
A thousand percent. It really did. It changed the entire nature of the storytelling. Not that we would have told an entirely different story at its core in Los Angeles [where the show was originally located for a U.S. version], but it adjusted the kind of actors we were getting to play those parts and the kind of dialogue we wanted to hear them say.
There’s something about the actors that we have, they’re really all New Yorkers in their own way -- Harvey [Keitel] and Michael [Imperioli] and Gretchen [Mol] and Jason [O’Mara], you know? They all live there and are from there. There’s a certain energy and attitude that they bring to the piece, not to mention what it’s like to film in New York, to be on some of those cobblestone streets in Queens and Brooklyn and the Naval Yard.
It’s like a character onto itself.
Photo: © 2009 ABC
Michael Imperioli, [l-r] Jonathan Murphy, Harvey Keitel, and Jason O'Mara in Life on Mars.
Yeah, and it really does adjust the energy.
How have you weaved the gritty real tone of this ‘70s police procedural with the supernatural fantasy element of Detective Sam Tyler’s unique predicament?
A lot of it comes from a character place, with Sam Tyler being a guy who’s really on a journey to get home, a journey to figure out why he’s in this predicament by way of those sort of science fiction moments -- we call them on the show the Life on Mars moments. Obviously, we want them to both lay into the story and come from the story.
Do you want to get weirder and weirder with the Life on Mars moments?
I don’t think we ever want to be weird for weird’s sake. A lot of times when we discuss these moments, in their weirdness, a lot of the talk is about what they mean and where we can go with a given idea. We don’t throw them out willy-nilly without thinking about them. And that can take a fair amount of time, to make sure that this moment that we’re going to play now needs to mean something in the long run. We always develop a plan for what something means and how it can pay off -- not necessarily when it will pay off -- but how it can pay off.
Nothing is more frustrating than to be a TV viewer and feel like you’re just being jerked around...
Yeah. Again I’m a fan of TV and serialized shows in that way. I’m a fan of getting little clues and being rewarded as a viewer for watching every episode... When things are arbitrary, it can be a little off-putting.
This show has gotten critical praise, but it’s struggled a bit to find its audience. Does that affect you as a writer/showrunner in any overt way or an even more subtle level?
I think both of those things are external to the writing process. I have said to the staff when reviews have been wonderful, those are nice things for us to all hear, but they are not places for us to find comfort or rest. Similarly, when numbers come in, they should not act as agents to take us down and make us feel like we’re not doing what we should be doing.
Just recently I said to the staff that what’s most important in this building is that all of us write shows we believe in, that we’re proud of, and that we want to see on TV. The reviews will be the reviews, the numbers will be the numbers, but at the end of the day, if we all feel good about the storytelling that we’re doing in here, we all get to go home feeling good and knowing that we have achieved success in our craft. That is the most important thing for the writers.
It’s a hard thing to remember, but it’s an important thing to remember. If we can always get back to the purity of the storytelling, and not let the business side of it influence it, then I think we’re in good shape as writers.