By David Weddle
Over the course of my 31-years as a professional writer — first as a journalist and book author, and then as a writer-producer for television — I have learned there is an ebb and flow to a career. There are the peak experiences — the projects so full of promise and challenges they demand everything you can bring to them.
But the peak experiences are few. And between them come the long slow stretches or river, the projects that demand the skills of your craft, but little more. They pay the mortgage and provide professional satisfaction, but you know you are just marking time, hoping another project will come along that will demand more. You can’t control when and if these opportunities will present themselves, but you can control how you respond to them.
In my television career, Battlestar Galactica proved to be a peak experience. From 2004 to 2008, my every waking thought and most of my dreams revolved around the show. I could not wait to get to work every day, and frequently slept in my office. It was a rapturous ride that delivered all the joys I dreamed of experiencing when I was a starry-eyed film student.
After finishing my last day on the Battlestar set, my driver took me to the Vancouver airport so I could return to L.A. I cried from the moment I entered the car till the moment I stepped onto the airport’s white zone with my luggage. I wept because I feared nothing like it would ever come my way again. In the years that followed I worked on four different TV shows — all of them run by smart and creative executive producers who were a pleasure to collaborate with. During these years, my partner Bradley Thompson and I managed to write and produce half-dozen first-rate television episodes, as well as a number of real stinkers.
I was damn proud of the good episodes, and of the series I worked on. But they weren’t Battlestar. Not even close. I knew I was marking time again. Waiting for another peak experience. Would I be lucky enough to get one? The odds were stacked high against it. So I tried to convince myself that I should be grateful that I had even one Battlestar in my life.
Sometime during these years (2008 to 2013), I can’t remember exactly when, I rented a DVD of a foreign movie called Pan’s Labyrinth, written and directed by a Mexican filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro. I had seen a photo spread about the movie in a cinema magazine that featured production stills of bizarre monsters worthy of Salvatore Dali. I love foreign films. The works of Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Eisenstein, Pabst, and Herzog are among my favorites. But I must confess every time I sit down to watch one, a lazy, infantile voice in my head plants a seed of dread. I don’t want to read subtitles! – it whines. What if it’s just a succession of long esoteric scenes that lead nowhere? Let’s watch a western instead!
But a more mature part of my mind, the inner parent, forces the inner child to sit still and watch. Often the movie turns out to be just what I feared: a sterile and pretentious exercise in aesthetics. But just as often it turns out to be something glorious, like La Strada, Rashomon, or The Thief.
And so it was with Pan’s Labyrinth. From the very first frame I was swept away by the extraordinary imagery, the story’s passion and heartache and romantic assertion that one human quality – imagination – enables us to rise above the squalid horror of the material world. Ken Kesey – author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion – insisted that all great works of art share one essential quality. They force you to confront the brutal reality of life, yet leave you feeling uplifted, ennobled, and even hopeful about the human condition. Del Toro’s masterpiece achieved this by dramatizing how an adolescent girl’s burgeoning fantasy life enabled her to transcend a monstrous existence in Franco’s fascist Spain in the late 1930’s.
By the end of the movie, my pulse hammered and my synapses sparked. It had been decades since I had been so profoundly moved by a film. In the weeks and months and years that followed I sang the praises of Pan’s Labyrinth with the fervor of an evangelist. But I never dared dream I would one day get to work with the brilliant individual who wrote and directed it.
That all changed in January of 2013 when I was on the telephone with my agent, Theresa Kang. I told Theresa that the creative experience on our current show was flattening out. I cannot stand it when a television show becomes a mere job to me. A paycheck. When I feel myself just showing up and going through the motions, I begin to detest myself as well as the job. That hadn’t happened yet on my current series, but I knew if my partner and I worked on it for another season, it would. So I told Theresa we wanted to move on. “No, problem,” she replied. “There are a number of new shows you guys would be right for. Guillermo del Toro is doing a series for FX…”
“GUILLERMO DEL TORO?” I screamed so loud I’m sure Theresa had to take the phone away from her ear. She never got to mention the other new programs because I yelled: “GET US ON THAT SHOW!”
“I’m on it,” Theresa said calmly.
That afternoon she emailed us the transcripts of the The Strain trilogy, three best selling novels that the new series would be based on. Written by del Toro and Chuck Hogan, the books told a long and twisted tale about a vampire invasion of modern Manhattan. These were not beautiful fashionista vampires with relationship issues; they were hideous, blood sucking, Nosferatu monsters. There were many moments of pulp horror, but as with every del Toro project, the monsters served as a metaphor. In this case, a metaphor for fascism – a disease of the mind that waits in the shadows of every democratic society until conditions permit it to bloom.
A week after our conversation, Theresa Kang booked us meeting with Carlton Cuse, the executive producer of Lost, who would run The Strain after Guillermo directed the pilot. A week after our meeting, Cuse made an offer, and Brad and I snapped it up.
A month later we walked into a conference room to shake hands with Guillermo del Toro. The walls of the room were lined with fully rendered paintings of every major character in the show, and of all the sets. Del Toro’s prosthetics team, which follows him from project to project, had already begun to work on the faces of the vampires, and the hideous “stingers” that shoot out of their mouths to drink the blood of their victims.
The level of preparation was extraordinary, unprecedented in my 20-year television career. As Guillermo walked us through each painting, explaining the nuances of the characters and set designs, I began to tremble. A voice inside my head whispered: What the hell are you doing here, Weddle? I obviously didn’t belong on this all star staff of writers, which included Carlton Cuse, Chuck Hogan – who wrote the novels with Del Toro, and such contemporary crime novels as Prince of Thieves and The Standoff – Regina Corrado – who has written for Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy – and Gennifer Hutchison, who wrote for Breaking Bad.
But I wasn’t about to inform Carlton Cuse that he had made a dreadful mistake by hiring me. Instead, I resorted to a survival tactic that has sustained me throughout my professional career. I worked my ass off. I wrote beat outlines of all three Strain novels that summarized every scene. This not only produced valuable reference documents, it also seared the books into my brain so I knew them backwards and forwards and could recite the details of any given scene in our story sessions. I pored over books on the Nazi perpetrators of the holocaust to bring added dimensions to one of the prime villains of the piece – Thomas Eichhorst, a Nazi who strikes a deal with a master vampire to attain immortality. I studied blood-sucking parasites that have biological similarities to our vampires, and combed through the Centers for Disease Control websites to learn how our government would react to a massive epidemic. And I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote our teleplays, always striving to bring more dimension and texture to the scenes. For the first time since Battlestar, my every waking thought and most of my dreams revolved around the show.
A year later, I’m still at it, working on the second season of The Strain. I’ve been promoted to Executive Producer, not because I am an incandescent talent touched by genius. In truth, I am a writer of only average talent and intelligence. But I am smart enough to know one thing: Peak experiences are few and far between. If fate deals you another, you better be prepared to give it everything you’ve got: all your passion, your pain, your joy, every childhood memory and trauma, every book you’ve read, movie you’ve watched, or painting you’ve gazed upon. If you can do that, you’ll scale heights that many only fantasize about, and realize another truth: this may be worst business in the world… but can also be the best.