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Love You to Death
The Unofficial Companion to The Vampire Diaries, Season 4
By Crissy Calhoun, Heather Vee
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2013 Crissy Calhoun and Heather Vee
All rights reserved.
Every Episode Is Huge
The Making of The Vampire Diaries
While every 42-minute episode of The Vampire Diaries may seem to be an effortless whiplash of cliffhangers and epic moments viewers have come to expect, what plays out with such breathtaking speed and tension onscreen takes weeks and months of careful crafting from a huge number of people. We asked writer and co-executive producer Caroline Dries, season four writer and coproducer Jose Molina, producer and director Pascal Verschooris, cinematographer Dave Perkal, editor Tyler Cook, composer Michael Suby, and show co-creator and executive producer Julie Plec to walk us through the process of creating an episode of TVD, from the initial breaking of story to the airing of the completed episode. What follows here is a unique peek at the nuts and bolts of the show's creation and an introduction to the passionate people behind the curtain.
What is your background and how did you come to work on The Vampire Diaries?
Tyler Cook(Editor) Like most people who go into filmmaking, I got into it to be a director. I wanted to be the next Spielberg or George Lucas, and then in film school, when I learned about foreign cinema, I wanted to be the next Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard. But when I started making my own movies in film school, I realized that I was only ever directing so I could get into the editing room and play around with the footage. I just loved tinkering with the movie and I saw the whole process of editing as this very big and exciting puzzle.
After making that realization, I started taking a lot of editing-based internships. I worked on a couple of low-budget independent movies as an intern and then as an assistant editor. I worked really hard and met a lot of great people that way. And the movies I worked on did really well. They played at Sundance and all the major festivals around the country and won a lot of awards along the way. When I graduated college, I called up one of the editors that I had worked for just to tell him I would be moving out to L.A. and wanted to grab coffee, and he offered me a job over the phone. I was extremely lucky in that regard. So I moved out and started working on that feature and from that job I was able to get into the [Motion Picture] Editors Guild, and then I transitioned into television, working on 90210, followed by Eastbound and Down for a short time, and finally ended up at The Vampire Diaries.
Dave Perkal(Director of Photography) I went to school for [cinematography] — undergrad at San Diego State University Film and Television and then graduate at American Film Institute for cinematography. Then after I finished school I started working in entry-level positions in the industry and worked my way up. I was a film loader, 2nd assistant camera, 1st AC, operator, and gaffer.
Pascal Verschooris(Producer and Director) I started in radio. One day, a production team walked into Radio Monte Carlo, where I was working, and used our studio for a Coca-Cola commercial. I was mesmerized. I can't really explain what it was: the buzz, the pace, the people. It all seemed so different. I moved to Paris a little later and eventually got a job for a TV show called The Hitchhiker. This took me to Vancouver, Canada, for a French-Canadian coproduction called Bordertown. The series was about a small town [straddling] the U.S./Canada border; the heroes, a Mountie and a U.S. Marshall. That was great fun.
I eventually moved my way to production manager, but in 2002 I was forced to decide between TV and feature film. In Vancouver, these are very different worlds. I like watching big movies, but I also always feel you can tell the story better in TV. You get to know the characters, you can expand on the stories, their background. So I chose TV and instead of doing a huge feature, I picked a Showtime series, Dead Like Me. This was the real beginning of producing for me.
Michael Suby(Composer) I was in a band when I was 19, and one of the guys I lived next to, I used to teach him how to play guitar. We became good friends. He was at USC film school, and he ended up writing and directing The Butterfly Effect. He essentially asked me to do his first independent movie, to which I said no, because I didn't know what I was doing. So he forced me to do it, which was great, [because] I went to music school, moved out here, and he had just sold the movie and that was my first project.
And it filtered down from there, because they did Kyle XY several years later and Julie Plec was hired on. I think at that point she was head of television at BenderSpink, and she was brought on just as a coproducer originally. Then those guys left the show and Julie took over Kyle XY, and then she left that show and went to Warner Bros. with Vampire Diaries and Kevin [Williamson]. So she brought me over, and that's how I got on the show.
Jose Molina(Writer and Coproducer) The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Jose, should write for TV.
That, and I was lucky enough to win the 1993 TV Academy Screenwriting internship, during which I met some great mentors like Michael Piller, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, and René Echevarria [all writers and producers on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine]. I would literally not be where I am if not for those gentlemen. I was a little late to the [TVD] party, but had been watching pretty religiously since season two. I was most impressed by how quickly and fearlessly the show burned through story. I loved the idea of writing at that breakneck pace — having major plot points every couple of episodes where more timid shows would hoard those ideas until the end of the season. I think TVD raised the bar for a lot of other TV shows in terms of pacing.
Caroline Dries(Writer and Co-Executive Producer) I was a fan of the pilot script during staffing season — believe it or not, it was the character of Aunt Jenna that really jumped off the page and made me think, dang, this show feels weirdly clever. But, as much as I loved it, I had already committed to working on another show, Melrose Place, so I just watched the first part of TVD season one as a fan. Then Melrose ended, and one afternoon I was home being unemployed, watching DVDs from my new Dawson's Creek box set, when my agent called and asked if I wanted to meet with Kevin Williamson. I was like, "Uh, the guy who created Joey Potter? What do you think?" So I interviewed, got the job, came on for the episode "Let the Right One In" [1.17], and have been here ever since.
Tyler Cook(Editor) I came on toward the end of season one ("Let the Right One In") as an assistant editor and I was only supposed to fill in until the end of the season. I even had another job already lined up, but I loved the tone and feel of the show and the story that Julie and Kevin were telling so much that I really wanted to be involved in helping bring the show to life in any way I could. So I quit my other job and came back to Vampire Diaries full time. From there I slowly worked my way up from being an assistant, which is more of a technical/administrative job directly under the editor, who makes sure that he/she has everything they need.
What is your job on the show?
Caroline Dries(Writer and Co-Executive Producer) I started as a writer/producer, but I didn't do much producing because the show was managed so tightly by Kevin and Julie. As the seasons continued, and as Kevin and Julie got to know me more, and trust my instincts more, I took on more responsibility by producing my own episodes. I also got a chance to write more and spend more time with Kevin and Julie, because they liked my writing and mentored me. Now, going into season five, I'm co-running the show with Julie.
Pascal Verschooris(Producer and Director) My job is to serve the vision of the showrunner and protect the financial interests of the financier, which, in this case, is the studio [Warner Bros.]. I get a script every week and a half, and I have to figure out ways to make it for the right money, but I also have to make sure that the vision is protected so that the show looks good. For instance, sometimes directors and writers make demands that can be very costly or not doable in the allowed schedule, so I try to find solutions, alternatives, or — at times — ask for some cuts. (Writers don't like cutting.) Because I have a bit of an artistic heart, I always get torn between art and money so I always try to make things work, otherwise I get heartbroken.
Dave Perkal(Director of Photography) The cinematographer's job is to visually tell the story through lighting, lensing, and camera movement. The idea is to support story and character without being self-indulgent or conspicuous, while also incorporating the director's and showrunner's vision for the episode. On The Vampire Diaries, this is a huge job because there are so many different looks to the show with flashbacks, the vampire world versus the Mystic Falls world, and the immense amount of special and visual effects. I have to coordinate with all the show's departments like wardrobe, makeup and hair, stunts, production design, the art department, VFX and SFX [visual and special effects], postproduction, and locations.
Tyler Cook(Editor) My job on the show has grown quite considerably since I started in season one. I started as an assistant editor and was promoted to editor during season three. The best way I can describe the role of an editor is that of a sculptor. On a given episode an average of 30 hours of film is shot (sometimes as much as 50) and the editor has to shape that raw footage into a 42-minute show.
I think the big misconception about editing is that all we have to do is cut out the bad pieces or that we just push buttons on a computer, which is the furthest thing from the truth. Editors have to be storytellers in the same way writers and directors are storytellers. We take the script that the writers wrote and the film the director shot and we are tasked to create the most compelling hour of television out of those two components.
Michael Suby(Composer) Pretty simple: I write all the background instrumental music — which is not very simple on this show. It's a lot of music, a lot of music. A lot of complex characters; huge emotional arcs on the show, and they're more than on most television shows because the nature of the vampire [means] everything is magnified. So the love is intense love, the sadness is overwhelming, and whatever emotion these guys are feeling it's magnified by a tremendous amount. My job is to help navigate all the emotional arcs, and help make the action exciting and scary. So I write music day and night.
Tyler Cook(Editor) The role of the editor has also considerably expanded over the years. It used to be that the editor was just required to cut the picture. But now, we have to deliver something that could air, so that means we are now responsible for adding all of the music, whether that be score or songs, as well as doing the sound design and even some rudimentary VFX.
Mapping the Season
Caroline Dries(Writer and Co-Executive Producer) We meet for five weeks after each season ends and before the next season actually starts to map out the [coming] season. So, while my other writer friends are on hiatus and Instagramming pictures of their daytime cocktails, I'm eating ice from my Starbucks coffee in our windowless writers' room. As much as I huff and puff about it, it's incredibly helpful. Our seasons are long — season four was 23 episodes. That's an insane amount of story to brainstorm. We break down the season into four chapters to a) make things sane and manageable and b) give us mini-arcs within the overall spine of the season. In theory, these mini-arcs build on each other and push us to the end with a bang.
Jose Molina(Writer and Coproducer) The senior writers gathered to start discussing season four while season three was wrapping up. We spent weeks brainstorming the broad strokes of the year — a luxury I've never even heard of other shows having — and cracked the spine of the whole year in that short a time. [The entire season] was all planned out before we gathered the entire staff in June. Unheard of.
Pascal Verschooris(Producer and Director) The writers meet at the end of the previous season and discuss the direction to go for the next season. They hopefully take a short break and gather again very early on for the new season. I get an idea of what [that narrative direction] will be. It does evolve, so I also have to use my instincts as to whether to invest in sets, locations, etc.
Dave Perkal(Director of Photography) I [have] meetings about where the show's story would go for the entire season. These are just beats about the trajectory of the season's arcs but it gives you a sense about what will happen over the course of the year. I use this information to assemble a team and we make adjustments to make the production more efficient while maintaining the Vampire Diaries look.
From the Writers' Room to the Screen
Caroline Dries(Writer and Co-Executive Producer) Picture a group of the best-looking people you know, sounding like the most charming people you know. And then think of the opposite. You've got a writers' room. So there's the writers' room, and then there's the actual process of writing — they're two totally separate things. In the room, usually Julie or I will be in charge of discussion and coaxing ideas from the genius staff. Then together we'll all organize the ideas and then shape them into a story. There's a lot of banging heads against walls and crossing out ideas, and feeling lost, but we ultimately get it to a good spot. That takes about a week.
Jose Molina(Writer and Coproducer) The biggest novelty for me [coming to TVD after writing for other series] was how monstrously collaborative the writing had to be, simply because every story affects every other story. There's no such thing as a standalone TVD episode; writing any series is a team effort, but this one required that the entire staff have a certain level of telepathy with each other.
Caroline Dries(Writer and Co-Executive Producer) Then we go off to write the script alone. Here we're free to get lost in the characters and be writers who get to arrange words in clever ways. That takes about a week. Then we all read it and realize it's all wrong and take what nuggets we like from the story, and build on it, and reshape things, and de-complicate it and rewrite everything. That takes about three or four days. It's a hellish process (unless you compare it to a real-person job, in which case, it's a dream) because sometimes you feel like you're living with an episode forever. But it's actually very rewarding once the script is delivered to the studio and network because you know it's pretty much the best it can be.
Jose Molina(Writer and Coproducer) There are three basic stages to writing/producing a TVD episode: breaking down the story from a concept to a six-act structure, outlining/scripting that idea, and supervising set to make sure everyone is on the same page about the story. Each stage is pretty time-consuming, so we all tend to be far more involved in our own episodes than in everyone else's. That said, we all pitch in as much as we can, and it's not rare for non-credited writers to write scenes in someone else's script or have a huge influence on their stories. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Love You to Death by Crissy Calhoun, Heather Vee. Copyright © 2013 Crissy Calhoun and Heather Vee. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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