Written by Tara de Bach
The multi-talented and prolific John Wirth has seen a thing or two as a successful veteran of the TV biz. Beginning as a writer on the '80s hit Remington Steele, Wirth's illustrious career has grown to include producing stints on The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Picket Fences, Nash Bridges, The District, and Love Monkey. Wirth's showrunning knowledge is so expansive that in 2004, he headed a Writers Guild, West committee in the publication of Writing for Episodic TV: From Freelance to Showrunner, a 55-page guidebook that imparts invaluable wisdom about the television industry to freelancers, staff writers, and exec producers alike.
Thus, it wasn't surprising when the hyphenate was handed the not-so-small task of transforming (along with creator Josh Friedman) the Terminator films into a living, breathing TV show that works in 2008. Translating a successful feature franchise into an episodic series is always a dicey task, but Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which just completed its nine-episode run, has generated an enormous fan following on the Internet and is one of the top downloaded shows on Amazon and iTunes. The creators were recently feted at both Comic-Con and WonderCon by TV Guide's West Coast Bureau Chief Craig Tomashoff, and the series has been hailed as one of television's few critical successes during the writers strike.
Wirth recently sat down with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site to give us a glimpse into the show and his own Hollywood odyssey -- past, present, and future.
One of the most interesting facets of the Terminator franchise is its mythology. How did you feel about taking that on with The Sarah Connor Chronicles?
Years ago my sister-in-law gave me a book called Myths To Live By, by Joseph Campbell [the mythology professor, writer, and orator best known for his work in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion]. I subsequently learned that George Lucas had been influenced by Campbell as well. You can really pull that Campbell thread through much of his work, especially the Star Wars films. I find Campbell's writing intriguing. His exploration of mythology, the hero's journey, it's all relevant to me and applicable to what we do on the show.
Photo: © 2007 Fox Broadcasting Co
Lena Headey and Thomas Dekker in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
My friends like to accuse me of being an atheist or a nonbeliever, but “agnostic” would be a more accurate description. I prescribe to Campbell's idea that mythology can be defined as other people's religion, and religion can be defined as misinterpreted mythology. Religion as other people's mythology, I like that.
In the show's storyline, you have to keep track of the past, present, future and how the interaction constantly affects the outcome. How difficult is that?
In our show, our characters can change the future by what they do today. And they live in a world where multiple futures exist concurrently. For example, if you and I live in the future, and we met in the future, and you go back into the past to have a cup of coffee with the younger version of me, it would change the future. The two of us, now in the present living forward would not arrive at the same place you jumped back in time from to have that cup of coffee with me. Right? Because, first of all, you would be your future age today, and of course you bring with you knowledge of the future.
And those are just two of the many considerations we have to deal with in what we call the “time travel paradox.” And yes, it is very easy to screw yourself into hell trying to figure it out. These are the mind games we play in the writers' room. Anything that happens in the present can change the future. That's kind of freeing on a dramatic level, and it makes our show unpredictable. You don't know (we don't, anyway) what's going to happen next. And I admit, in the television landscape, that can be a double-edged sword because much of the time, a successful series is based on a fairly predictable structure. Episodes unfold in a similar fashion, and it works for them. On this show, we don't have that luxury, or should I say, we haven't allowed ourselves to embrace it.
How were you able to combine the films' storylines with the television construct?
You have to have rules. I love the Warren Beatty version of Heaven Can Wait, and I'll tell you why -- it has a clearly defined set of rules. Early in the film, Joe Pendleton is in the bathroom looking at himself in the mirror and talking to Mr. Jordan, and he says something to the effect, “So, when I look in the mirror, I see me, but when everyone else looks at me, they see Farnsworth?” Mr. Jordan responds, “That's right, Joe.” It's simple, it's clear, they laid out the rules for the audience and stuck with them throughout the film. With The Sarah Connor Chronicles we are trying to do the same thing. The films abided by a set of rules, a mythology, set out by James Cameron, and we try to abide by them as much as possible. But as the show progresses, and we grow the characters, we're adding to the mythology.
You have a great female lead, which is atypical for a lot of television, and her whole being is organic to the story. Where is Sarah going? How do you “grow her?”
Well, we've been talking about ways to open her up this next season. She began as a fairly inscrutable and hard-to-crack woman in the beginning episodes. But as her character grew, and as we progressed through the first season, she gave just enough away, a sliver, to keep you intrigued. I think Lena's done a beautiful job portraying her. It's a challenge to keep her on that female action track, and also to open her up. Sometimes when she's doing her action thing it seems inappropriate to stop down so she can do her mother thing. It's a fine line we walk as writers, and Lena walks.
As a showrunner, what do you look for when you're hiring a writer?
A script that gets me excited. There are a lot of scripts in the marketplace, no shortage of scripts out there, and when I receive one, my intention is to read it from page one to the end. Because, you know, it's not easy to write a script, even a bad one, and I've been one of those guys in the pile on the floor in somebody's office, and I will be again. I see a lot of competent scripts, unfortunately it's not enough to have written just a competent script. There has to be something in the script that makes the reader sit up, an emotional impact, surprises, left turns, language, something you remember, that carries you through to that last page. It's that intangible thing, you know? That thing you find in every one of David Milch's scripts, the thing that sets him apart from the rest of us mortals. So whether it takes me 10 scripts or 110 scripts, I keep reading until I find it.