The Book of Daniel's Susannah Thompson, Aidan Quinn and Alison Pill
I'm pretty sure I'm still dreaming. As far as I can tell, this dream started a year and a half ago, so it's actually still June 2004, it's 3:30 in the morning, and I "wake up" with the first scene vividly playing out in my head: His daughter's been arrested. This guy (I hadn't even come up with names yet) has to go pick up his teenage daughter at a police station, way down in Riverdale, in the middle of the night. What the heck was she doing in Riverdale?! He's worried to death. He's angry. He's scared. But more than anything... he's uncomfortable. He is a WASP, after all — they don't go to police stations. And certainly not in the middle of the night! By the time he gets her and his wife home, it's dawn; they have to get ready for church. As he sits alone in his car, he reaches for the biggest obstacle in his life right now — his Vicodin. Then... Smash Cut to: the Pulpit. He's a priest
! That's it. That's my way in. I finally found my way into a world that's been kicking around in my head for a couple of years now.
I stumble down the hall to my office and start to write. Daniel. Daniel Webster. A priest with a family... so he's got to be Episcopal. He's a WASP, so that goes without saying. And it's great visually. I can still have the pageantry of the High Episcopal Church. And I've always loved the world of the WASP. I'd better love it. My other half's family is the inspiration for all this. (Except there are no priests or drug-addicts in his family... that I know of.) We've been together almost 24 years — yeah, we'd wreck the sacred institution of marriage.
Michael's family. The most wonderful, loving, generous, inclusive Republicans I know. They love each other deeply, unconditionally, and — this is key — privately. What's attractive to me about the world of the A.R. Gurney WASP is what's not said. What's most fascinating is not what's on the table but what's in the closet... under the rug... up in the attic. "Let's not talk about that, dear. Eat your peas." But we can see it on everyone's faces, on everyone's lips, in everyone's eyes. And it's magnetic.
So I start writing — at 4 o'clock in the morning — and the whole thing just falls out of my keyboard. The characters start talking to me. Daniel, Judith, Grace... Peter, Adam, Victoria, Bishop Congreve, Roger, Lorraine. I can hear each of them individually. I think most writers will agree — that's when they know it's right. When it's effortless. When the story just pours out of your hands. When the struggle is not how to fill the page but how to keep it to just 50 pages.
I finish in a day and a half. (Yeah, right. Like renovating your house, it's never finished.) I show it to Michael:
"You've written really funny, interesting, wonderful Jews... (substitute Italians, Latinos, Blacks, Irishmen, etc., any ethnicity that has no trouble saying what's on their minds). Now go back, and remember this isn't your family — it's mine. They're WASPs. They don't talk like that."
I hate him. He's right. Rewrite. Writing is rewriting.
I spend the summer getting feedback from anyone who'll read it. Friends, agent, lawyer... Some notes I take, some I don't, and I keep rewriting. My agent wants to sell it. I just want to get an interview for a job! We start peddling it around town. HBO says it's not dark enough. Showtime doesn't like the subject matter. The hero isn't flawed enough for FX. And what network would touch this?!
Brian Hargrove (my sometime writing partner and closest friend) and I have a comedy script at NBC, so I give it to comedy maven Cheryl Dolins there, saying, "I can make it a half hour if you're interested." She reads it and wants to give it to [NBC president] Kevin Reilly ASAP. As is. Uh... OK.
Now it's the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2004. I get a call at home from Kevin Reilly. He has a few thoughts/notes — mostly parenting stuff — and, oh, he wants to buy it. Buy it? NBC? Okay, who is this really??? Yup, it's Kevin, and he's totally into it. This is the guy, after all, who put Nip/Tuck and The Shield on the air.
So I dive into the notes, then get it back to him. And wait. Christmas Eve 2004: He calls from Park City, Utah. The slopes. He wants to shoot the pilot. All I have to do is find the right guy to play Daniel. I'm fairly certain I'm still asleep and it's still June of 2004, but OK, we'll find a Daniel.
After a few pie-in-the-sky names, we find out that Aidan Quinn had seen the script and is interested. OK, now I'm sure I'm dreaming. Aidan Quinn??? He's, like, my dream Daniel — no pun intended. Now we're casting. Susanna Thompson is the first person who reads for Judith. She's brilliant. We see a bunch more, because it can't be the first person you see, can it? Yup, it can. Every nuance is there, and so much more.
Next thing, we're on the phone with Ellen Burstyn, talking to her about Bishop Congreve. She wants to know about the role, where it's going. I'm still catching up with the fact that Ellen Burstyn is interested in being in this!!!!
Garret Dillahunt as Jesus. He's... otherworldly. In a wonderful way. Spiritual, yet with a nice, loving sense of humor. We never wanted to poke fun at Jesus, or at religion, or at spirituality, and Garret walks the line beautifully. Gentle, firm, loving. You know instantly that Daniel and Jesus have been best friends all of Daniel's life.
Alison Pill as Grace. Is it really possible for a 19-year-old girl to bring as much power and presence to a role? She floors us. We gotta get her!
Ivan Shaw brings such a wonderful mischief to Adam. Sexy, funny, cocky... yet underneath, lots going on. Damn, he looks too old. Cut his hair, "young him up," do a screen test. Perfect. Perfect!
Christian Campbell. Everything I could possibly want in Peter. Sweet, loving, nurturing and needy at the same time. Something's broken inside Peter, but he won't say what it is. There's that WASP buzzing around again.
Dylan Baker as Roger. My hero since Happiness, I don't even need to hear him read. He is Roger. The gracious and grounded Fran Bennett as Lorraine. The absolutely insane and hilarious Cheryl White as Victoria. Casting is my favorite part (after writing). I love actors and watching them make words come alive. And bring their brilliance to moments without words. We need an elderly woman to play Jean Bartlett, a parishioner who's being taken off life support — someone who could have a real "moment" with Daniel. I called an old friend, Phyllis Diller, and asked for a favor. Would she be willing to play a death scene with no lines? Just her eyes? "Jack, darling, I've been practicing for this part for 87 years! Ah-ha!" And she was mesmerizing.
We have our cast. Jim Frawley spends 14 glorious days shooting a magnificent pilot in March of 2005 — Aidan and I both celebrate our birthdays during the shoot. Aidan and I? I really am still dreaming, but please don't wake me up.
The pilot comes together beautifully. Editing, music (the amazing Snuffy Walden!), mixing, etc., etc., etc. And now we wait. They like it. We're on the fall schedule. We're off. We're on. We're off. We're off. Damn. So close. Guess I'm waking up finally. But Kevin and NBC say not to worry. Just wait. Wait. Right.
July 14. My late father's birthday. We're picked up, and they want us to start shooting yesterday, basically. Get busy. Get into production. Meet with people, hire the production team — everyone from the pilot has moved on to other jobs. Hire a fantastic writing staff: John Tinker (St. Elsewhere, The Practice), David Simkins (The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.), Dava Savel (Ellen), Tracey Stern (Desperate Housewives) and wonderful others. We begin to break stories. Figure out this world. Expand it. Deepen it. Suddenly, there are 10 funny, really smart writers asking me questions: "When and why did Daniel's pill problem start?" "Did Judith always drink? Do they all drink?" "Why was Grace trying to raise money?" "Is Victoria having an affair with Jesse?" "What happened to Peter's twin brother, Jimmy?" And on, and on, and on, and I don't know! I didn't think we'd ever even shoot the pilot, much less write more of them! Remember, I'm still dreaming. So we dive into the abyss, the blank dry-erase board, and begin to fill it up with ideas, character traits, histories, futures, desires, obstacles and, most importantly, stories. 'Cause that's what we do: We tell stories.
So now, what follows on the next several Friday nights are the fruits of those struggles: our stories, told by wonderful writers, through brilliant actors, with the help of fantastic directors and assistant directors, producers, designers, cameramen, grips, gaffers, hair, makeup, wardrobe, set dressers, PAs, editors, postproduction, musicians, studio execs, network execs and the hundreds of other people it takes to make an hour of television. We really hope you have as much fun watching it as we had making it. And I'll see you next week. In my dreams.
NBC's The Book of Daniel premieres Jan. 6 at 9 pm/ET, with a double episode, before settling into its Fridays-at-10 time slot on Jan. 13.