Bruce Neckels is an award winning television writer, actor, author and humanitarian. His first break as a writer came in 1989, when he was hired for NBC’s new daytime drama, GENERATIONS. Since then, he has scripted more than 700 episodes for YOUNG & THE RESTLESS, SANTA BARBARA, FAMILY PASSIONS, DAYS OF OUR LIVES earning two DAYTIME EMMY nominations and a third DAYTIME EMMY® nomination for SPYDER GAMES. In 2000, Bruce won the Writers Guild of America Award for Outstanding Script in a Daytime Serial for Days of Our Lives. Currently, Bruce is writing "A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE", a biographical account of his life in the 1960's.
I was thrilled to be able to have a sit down with Bruce to ask him a few questions about his work as a writer and boy, was I in for a treat!
WQ: How did you come about writing for daytime television?
BN: I was an actor for 20 years and during that time wrote treatments or spec scripts for whatever television show my wife, Wendy, was working on.
WQ: So she was in the business, too?
BN: Right, she started out as a PA on “General Hospital.” I met her at the wedding reception of Steve Carlson (Dr. Gary Lansing) and Gail Ramsey (Susan Moore Baldwin), on May 13, 1979. Gail was a friend of mine from San Francisco, and wanted me to meet Steve’s ex-girlfriend. But once I laid eyes on Wendy, there was really no one else I cared to look at that day.
WQ: How sweet. You’ve been with her ever since?
BN: Uh-huh… I asked her out that day. But then I thought it was over before it started. She called me the night before our date saying she could not make it. Wendy co-wrote a song with Rick Anderson (Dr. Jeff Webber) as a tribute John Beradino (Dr. Steve Hardy). The two of them were performing it for his birthday. A song called “Please Dr. Hardy.” But then she asked me out for the following night, which I thought was pretty classy. We went out and have been together ever since!
WQ: Okay, so back to how you started writing soaps.
BN: Actually, it was ten years later, in 1989, Wendy got a job as an AD on a brand new soap for NBC called “GENERATIONS.” Our dear, late friend, Rudy Vejar, was the co-executive Producer on the show. A year earlier, I had written a sit-com pilot for Rudy. Well, his wife, Polly, really liked my writing and called me one night to ask if I’d ever want to write for a soap opera. She’d heard from a “Generations” Assistant Head Writer, Elizabeth Harrower, that Head Writer and creator of the show, Sally Sussman, was looking for a male writer, “unjaded” by years of writing soaps. She wanted to take someone new and mold him to her style of writing. Long story real short, I met with Elizabeth, she liked my writing and gave my script samples to Sally, who told me years later, that she never even bother to read them. About three months after the show began airing, Sally asked me to write a spec script. I did, and was immediately hired. Sally asked me to spend two weeks in story meetings before I got my first assignment, so I could see how stories were developed from outlines, and how the process worked. Well, after my second week in story meetings and not being afraid to offer up my own ideas, Sally asked me to attend every meeting. I couldn’t have gotten a better education in college for a hundred grand than what I got in those meetings for free. It was great.
WQ: Most fans don't know how the process works, can you explain it in easy terms for us? Do you write story-outlines first or just day to day dialogue based on guidelines?
BN: It all starts with the head-writer developing a “bible” - Story projections for all the characters and depending upon the head writer’s vision, imagination and energy, those projections could run anywhere from one to five years down the line. Each week, the head-writer meets in conference with the outline, or “breakdown” writers. There are usually five outline writers – Monday through Friday. They plan each week’s shows, day by day – one outline writer for each episode. While the outline writers are doing that, five dialogue writers are scripting five shows from the previous week. Dialogue writers then then send their scripts to the editor, who makes sure that all the shows track from day to day, make his or her own dialogue changes and whatever new changes come in from production. So, as you can see, it’s a real assembly-line process.
WQ: What are the challenges of writing in daytime?
BN: Time. With soaps airing every day, outline writers have a week or less to turn their outlines back in to the head writer for approval or changes; the dialogue writers have less than a week to turn in 80-90 pages of dialogue. Second, there’s so much repetition of information, you have to try and make it as fresh as possible. Third, each scene has to build and lead into the next scene. Each show has to have a strong tag to lead into the next day. So, a great Friday “hold” has to leave the audience hanging on the brink of expectation for Monday. And finally, as a dialogue writer and actor, I want to make sure the actor’s dialogue flows with smooth, common sense transitions. I always read my dialogue out loud so I can hear how it sounds. If there are tongue twisters, or difficult words strung together – no matter how clever I might think it is, or how much I might like it, I throw it out and start over. Contract actors with 2-4 shows per week guarantees, have volumes of material to memorize with little time to prepare. I want to make it as easy for them as I can.
WQ: What about those actors who come in for a one or two day job?
BN: Been there, done that. They have their own set of problems: Rarely do they know the show. Oftentimes, getting their lines the night before; coming onto a set where they don’t know anyone; little attention is paid to them. They don’t get second takes. If they give a half-ass intelligent line reading, then a “moving on” call is made by the floor AD, whether the actor likes it or not. So I understand their problems, fears, paranoia's, and I try to make it easy for them, too.
WQ: Does an executive producer have much say so in dictating storyline or the demise of a character?
BN: I guess that depends on the show. If the Executive Producer is also the creator or owner of the show, they’ll want to be much more hands on… especially in the demise of a character. However, it’s been proven time after time in soaps, that killing off a character doesn't mean the character will stay dead. So the Executive Producer will definitely weigh in on the resurrection.
WQ: Well, you would certainly know that. Didn't you help write the “Salem Serial Killer” storyline on DOOL?
BN: Right, when we killed off 90% of our contract players, then found them alive on an island that was a parallel Salem. The island was called “Melas,” Salem spelled backwards. Nobody had a clue where the storyline was going, I'm convinced of that. And to this day, I don't think the murdered characters were supposed to come back. There were just too many farewell cakes showing up at the studio during lunch for about five months.
WQ: How far ahead do you write in daytime?
BN: Again, that depends on the show. On “Days of Our Lives,” for example, if I got my outline on January 10, my script would be due in on January 17. It would then tape about 12 days later, then air three weeks after that. So about a month and a half. Other shows might have less than three weeks, depending on how fast the head writer works.
WQ: What was your favorite storyline you wrote for?
BN: I've written too many shows to give you a definitive answer. You’d think that Sami’s execution on “Days of Our Lives” would get the nod because it won us WGA award for “Best Script in a Daytime Serial.” But the most fun I’ve ever had writing for a show to this day was “Generations,” created and head-written by Sally Sussman Morina. Biggest daytime blunder in the history of NBC, canceling that show after less than two years…. But then I digress.
WQ: OOOhhh… Sounds like that could be a whole interview by itself.
BN: Don’t get me started! But back to my favorite storylines, most from “Generations: The “Aunt Mary” story, in which actress Mina Kolb was a killer. Her choice of weapons was a handgun and a trifle laced with poison. Hilarious! My other favorite storyline was when we brought in Richard Roundtree for a “Running On Empty” theme. He played a doctor who went underground because he was falsely accused of blowing up a pharmaceutical company. The love/hate relationship between Sam and Rob (Kelly Rutherford and George DelHoyo) was very rich.
WQ: Do the actors improv on scripts or is that a myth we heard about?
BN: Once in a while, I’m sure some try; but rarely, for obvious reasons. Directors must have pretty exact cue lines in order to cut from one character to another. Second, it’s unfair to the other actor/actors in the scene with them, because the dialogue needs to make sense and connect. They’ve all had a quick blocking of the scene before the cameras roll, and to suddenly do something totally off the wall, is not only a waste of time, it’s selfish. Now then, do actors paraphrase their lines? All the time. There’s just too much to memorize to hit every line perfectly. And sometimes actors will read dialogue that they don’t feel fits their character’s voice – and will ask the director or producer if they can make an adjustment, which is perfectly fine, as long as they don’t get too crazy. They can’t change direction of where the storyline is going.
WQ: Is there a difference writing for daytime vs primetime?
BN: Money! Nighttime writers get paid a lot more money per episode than daytime. But it evens out more often than not. If a nighttime writer only gets three episodes for the year on a sitcom or hour series, after paying his agent, manager, and taxes, may find himself still living on the middle to lower class income levels. A daytime writer, who writes 52 episodes in one year, will come out better.
But the other differences are the short time soap writers have to get a script out; daytime writers can see the final result of their work on the air show that they recognize, compared to say, a sitcom writer who turns in his script, and by the time it airs, he’s lucky if he hears two of his original lines. It’s a whole different genre. But I will tell you this: Daytime is NOT a “training ground” for nighttime. I once helped a nighttime Movie-of-the-Week writer get a job writing daytime, because she just wasn’t getting enough scripts to write to make a living. She got the job, then quit four months later because the pressure was so intense and the money so little.
WQ: What are your feelings on the current writers' strike and how it will affect daytime?
BN:Any time you strike, it’s bad. Writers never recoup the losses they’ve given up, even if the deal is satisfactory. But we don’t do it just for ourselves. Hell, as of this moment, I’m not going to get any royalties off the Internet, I-POD, or cell phones, unless they start airing episodes of soaps I’ve written -- or if I can get my own projects launched. Maybe I will as an actor from some of the movies and TV shows I’ve been in.
But we’re striking for the future of new WGA members who will follow. What’s so frustrating is that a deal will be struck as soon as the AMPTP feels it’s time. Don’t forget, every minute we’re on strike, all over the world DVD sales and internet downloads are going ca-ching, ca-ching. Producers are raking in billions while paying writers nothing for internet and pennies from a 20 year old contract, with barely any overhead costs. In addition, they’re laying off thousands of workers who they don’t have to pay, and again nothing going out for production costs. The WGA got screwed in 1988 when the AMPTP convinced them they didn’t know where video-tape cassettes were going and had costs of packaging, making tapes, and marketing. Well, we now see where it went, don’t we? Tapes turned into DVD’s, which netted billions and billions for the production companies and studios. And now they’re trying that same tactic again: “We don’t know where this new technology is going,” they cry. Gimme a break. The only thing they don’t know is when millions in profits are going to turn into billions in profits.
Even all that is beside the point. It’s about fairness, integrity, and ethics. You don’t squash the people who got you there. And if they indeed feel like they’re drifting out into unchartered waters, then take the writers along. After all, we’re the ones who gave them those luxury lines they are cruising on. And if their profits fall short of expectations, then the writers will make even less by about 90%. Writers will never make more than the producers. Never! And yet they point their fingers in our direction and tell everyone whose suffering from this horrible economic fallout: “Don’t look at us. They’re the ones to blame - those unreasonable people carrying the picket signs!”
WQ: Okay, now the second part of the question. How will it affect daytime?
BN: Daytime actors are under an AFTRA contract, so they have to work. But if no one was writing the shows, soaps would shut down. The problem is, daytime is filled with scabs and financial core writers who will keep that machine running. And it’s a shame. Daytime could make such an incredible difference to the strike if they’d shut down completely. But as I said earlier, scripts run anywhere from three to six weeks ahead, so you’ll just now start to see how it affects the quality of writing.
On a larger scale, let’s look the show I wrote for six and half years, “Days of Our Lives.” They’re dead last in the ratings – worst in their 40 year history. And their contract with NBC ends in 2009. If this strike goes on for three more months, what’s to stop NBC from just pulling the plug on the show now? Pay everybody off, throw in a talk show or re-runs, and no more sands through the hourglass. I truly hope that doesn’t happen. I have a lot of friends who work on DOOL.
WQ: Why do you think daytime TV has suffered so badly in the ratings? Do you see any fixes coming?
BN: It’s suffered in the ratings for many reasons. When they started up 30, 40, 50 years ago, they were viewed by millions of stay-at-home moms. Kids came home from school and watched with them. Then along came video-tape recorders, so now audiences didn’t have to stick to their regular scheduled shows because they could watch them later. That in itself lowered the credibility of the Nielson ratings. And look how many millions of women in the last 20 – 30 years have joined the work force? Another major reason soaps have declined -- how many millions of today’s viewers were not even born when there were just three networks – ABC, CBS, NBC? Your only choices during daytime from 11-3:00 were soap operas. That was it. But Television over the last fifteen years has given audiences hundreds of different channels from which to select programming – and 24 hours a day! And now we can TiVo all our favorite shows and watch them whenever we choose.
WQ: Thank you, Mr. Neckels for giving us a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes of a soap. We appreciate your insights into what writers go through.
BN: Did you say, “Behind the scenes?” Now… there’s your real soap opera!
For more information on Mr. Neckels, please log on to his Official Site at www.BruceNeckels.com
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