Written by Shira Gotshalk
Swimming against the current is old hat for David Eick. A self-professed “bad teenager” from Arizona, he didn’t make it into the bigger Southern California universities that would have put him in Hollywood’s backyard. Instead, he paid his dues at a small, private college about 80 miles and a universe away, majoring in political science and directing theater. After gaining success as a producer (Hercules, American Gothic, Battlestar Galatica), Eick switched course again, crossing over the DMZ, into writer’s territory.
He has always collaborated closely with writers, including John Schulian on Hercules and Shaun Cassidy on American Gothic. Then along came the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, [Developed by Ronald D. Moore] mini-series and first season. Frustrated by years of not working with his own material, and after a great deal of encouragement from friends and family, Eick decided to take the plunge. “I really give Ron Moore a lot of credit for helping to throw me into the deep end of the pool, as it were, because my first WGA formal writing assignment was the two-part finale of the first season of Battlestar Galactica,” said Eick. “I co-wrote the story with Ron and he wrote the teleplay. I was thrown into the deep end, but I had a swimming buddy.”
Now he’s back in the pool, this time without his floaties, helming Caprica, the new SyFy series set in the Battlestar Galactica universe, 58 years before the events of BSG. The new production examines the creation of the Cylon machines and their complicated relationship to the human race. In nearly every way, Caprica breaks from BSG: the culture is thriving and celebratory, the stage is terrestrial, and the narrative focus is on corporate, political, and familial drama.
Eick recently talked with the Writers Guild of America, West Web Site about writing with confidence, what it’s like to switch showrunners in the middle of a freshman season, and the freedom of science fiction.
I normally hear the opposite from writers. They start out as writers and they get frustrated with the Hollywood system – you were frustrated with not having your own story to tell.
Yeah, my agent, Paul Haas, at one point during a frustrated period with a pilot that was not being executed in the way I wanted, said, "Dude, you got to quit bitching about this. If you want to control it to that extent, then you just need to write it, because if you can't, you can't have it both ways." And he was right. There was a point, at which I was so controlling and exacting about what I wanted from material, that it wasn't really fair to me or to the writer for me to continue on this way. I had to get to a place where I just did it myself, and that actually has made me a better producer when I'm not writing, because I can empathize a great deal more with the process and [know] how to develop things in a more constructive way.
Photo: © 2010 Syfy
Alessandra Torresani in Caprica.
Battlestar Galactica was a pretty epic debut...
It was, and it was very challenging, but because of that, in the next season, I was comfortable writing an episode entirely myself. After breaking the story and working on it with the staff and then heading off to start my first teleplay, Ron said something along the lines of, “Write with confidence.” I didn't really know what he meant until I was staring at that blinking cursor.
There were two key phrases that reverberated in my head. One was Ron saying,” Write with confidence,” and the other was something John Schulian said to me when I asked him at one point, “How did you do that? How did you write that script so quickly?” And he said, "You know what, David? Sometimes, I just say to myself, ‘This is the best idea I can come up with today.’” Between those two talisman-like phrases, I was able to make it through.
I read that you said Caprica is less about futuristic technology and more about ideas and emotions and relationships. What is it about sci-fi that makes it such a conducive forum for character-driven drama?
It allows you to express controversial ideas in a way that's safe for the audience to consider and debate. If you do an episode of House or Grey's Anatomy or ER in which tough issues are being discussed, you either find yourself in very hot water, very quickly, with the network or with the audience because inevitably, there's the impression that the show creators or the writers have taken a position. That can tend to lead to either a lot of oppression in terms of what mainstream television shows are willing to tackle, or when they do tackle them, they have to be Very Special Episodes and all points of view need to be serviced and the final solution has to, in some way, reflect all points of view. There's this tremendous emphasis on sociopolitical balance.
Whereas in science fiction, you don’t have to do any of that, because if you're talking about a robot instead of a stem cell or if you're talking about aborting your fetus that may or may not be entirely human, or if you're talking about torturing something that may not be entirely human, you can just talk about it. Your protagonist can take whatever position serves the story or serves the character. And while certainly there may be an uproar in terms of people saying, "Well, clearly, this is just a metaphor for X,Y or Z," at the end of the day, there's a safety net underneath the audience. It's more for the audience to be able to take it in and accept the story and allow themselves to consider the point of view of the protagonist or the antagonist or the storyteller without the heightened political emotions that go along with those kinds of stories.
A lot of the characters in Battlestar and Caprica are less than sympathetic. What are some of the challenges or joys of writing gray-area characters?
Surprise. You're always upending audience expectations when your protagonist or your hero might do something nasty or when your villain might save someone's life when you least expect it. A real tonal model for what we were going for was Blade Runner, and that by the end of Blade Runner, you're shocked: One is that this malevolent villain is sort of a bloodthirsty creature, played by Rutger Hauer, saves Harrison Ford’s life because, in the end, to that villain, life was the most precious thing. Life trumps whatever personal animosity he might have or moral conviction to destroy this man. And then your second shock is that this man that you've been rooting for all along may, in fact, be one of the things that he was chasing and trying to destroy.
These are great examples of the audience suddenly finding themselves a bit uncertain of what side they should be rooting for and that sort of became a rallying cry from the very beginning of Battlestar – let’s place the audience in the position where they have to ask themselves if they're rooting for the right side. That kind of surprise and uncertainty is gripping and enveloping in a way that straight-up, white-half and black-half isn't obvious to me.
What is the atmosphere of the Caprica writer’s room?
Well, it's been challenging and certainly requiring a great deal of emotional dexterity on all the writers’ parts because we had a shift in the middle, where Jane Espenson [former Caprica showrunner] herself thought she had been spending too much time breaking story and not enough time behind the typewriter. And so, we brought in someone who is not a member of the Battlestar alumni, Kevin Murphy, which I thought was a good move for us for a number of reasons, just a fresh blood objectivity thing. Even though that change was done amicably and without any fallout and no one was a bad guy and all that, it's still an upheaval. It's still upsetting and confusing and people were concerned if there as going to be a wholesale replacement of the staff and what this new guy was going to be like. And we got really lucky in terms of personalities, because both Jane and Kevin are just really good, decent people, and they didn't allow any of that attendant extracurricular emotion to get in the way, and before we knew it, we were right back on track.
But you know, there are a few things harder than the first year in a television series. I just think emotions never run harder. You're never more exhausted. You get to a place where you just want to throw your hands up because the network is all over you about this or you're behind schedule on that. As someone once said, it's like building a railroad when you can hear the train coming.
Your writing credits so far have been sci-fi. What would be a fantasy project for you?
Well, the pilot I just wrote for NBC is completely non-genre and we're still waiting to hear if it's getting ordered or not. But it represents, in some ways, what I was chasing in Battlestar – Ron gets the credit for making Starbuck a girl, but I certainly delved into, “Well, what does that mean?” – the female in a traditionally male role. As the son of a single mom, I have always been fascinated by asking the question, “How different do the rules have to be for girls?” In the case of a pilot I wrote for NBC called Mercenary, an unapologetically hardboiled, damaged, and incredibly physically formidable and morally gray protagonist, who happened to be a woman without the customary pillows around it like, “but she loves ice cream at midnight and watches soap operas.”
When I say unapologetic, I mean in the way that Shield will present a character who is unapologetically ruthless. You can look at the Sopranos, and other examples of this movement in television, to embrace really morally complex protagonists who are guilty of some really dark shit, and yet you forgive them, and you want to watch them, and you want to relate to them. And yet, that's never truly been accomplished with a female protagonist. To me, the dream project would be to figure out a way to accomplish that.
Do you have any advice for other “bad kids” who want to be noticed as writers?
Only the clichés, because they're true. For the people who I came up with, and those who I see continuing to work, there was an almost psychotic work ethic, I mean sleeping at the office and being willing to take your work home with you. I see oftentimes a great deal of preservation of “me time” and a lot of young people taking the position that their ascension is inevitable. And maybe it is, I don't know. Maybe with the co-integration and the corporatization of this industry, you don't have sleep on the couch to be an executive in five years or a producer in 10 years. But if you have the attitude that, “Okay, I don't have a life. Period, I don't have life. This is my life. For the first 10 years of my existence here, any private recreational plan is crazy.” I just think they'll get it. Relentlessness is the one sure bet.