Supernatural returns tonight, and we had the opportunity a while back to connect with executive producer Robert Singer to discuss the philosophy behind the show’s story-telling, what to expect from season 3 of Supernatural, and how they are weathering the backlash over the addition of new characters.
Because of technical difficulties, this is a partial transcript.
I was really curious looking over your credits, you’re actually involved with a couple of my favorite horror films, Trilogy of Terror and Burnt Offering. How do you think the old horror genre stuff compares to what’s going on with Supernatural right now?
Well, I think the big difference is in the technology. Back then we didn’t have all these computer-generated graphics, and all the video effects that we can do now. So everything was live, and it was a different kind of challenge in you couldn’t quite do the same gags you can do now.
Other than that it’s pretty much the same, you try to tell a good story with characters that you’re invested in. And in the day it’s truly all about the script, but that’s the big difference. Burnt Offerings, everything was live, wasn’t any computer shot in there.
Do you think today’s horror fans are susceptible to the same gags that were used in the 70s?
Well I think, yeah. I mean the jump scares, the lonely person down the dimly lit corridor and something jumping out, that sends people out of their seats. You have to do that stuff well, and I think the audience responds to that. Then I think there’s lots of different kinds of, there’s a world of difference between Japanese horror and stuff that’s American-generated.
But I think to make them work, you have to create tension, the anticipation of what’s gonna come. And on television where we have a limited budget, a lot of it is what you don’t see. It’s the way people react to what happened onscreen, and to try to do it in a stylish way, that you still get the same scare effect.
But, you don’t have to. We don’t have the money to really create monsters or supernatural beings that you can really get a good look at. So we try to do a little smoke and mirrors, and we’ve been pretty successful, I think.
Does the network kind of reign you in, or set up barriers for how far you can go with this show?
Well, you have to deal with standards and practices on a weekly basis, but I would have to say they have by and large, they’ve been pretty good. Sometimes they’ve pulled us back, but we try to push the envelope as much as we can, and let them pull us back. We try not to self-censor ourselves too much. Basically they’ve been pretty good about it, I don’t think like we feel we’ve been compromised very much.
Does it surprise you that a show like Supernatural, with a very solid horror base and a definite ‘edge’ is doing so well on networks that do a lot of bubble gum like One Tree Hill, or Gossip Girl.
I can’t say I’m surprised. I think we have two really compelling leads and a really good concept. And things that this show tries to do, which is really have all our scary things based on some sort of real lore, real mythology. We kind of stick to that, and so when they’re doing research, this is all stuff that you Google it, you can find the same stuff the boys are finding.
I think that sort of working on that level of verisimilitude is helpful to us. And the show also has a lot of humor, which is really a nice counterpoint to the more gruesome stuff. I think we’re probably on the wrong network. But the audience we have is incredibly loyal, I mean, these are real diehard fans. It’s very gratifying, you feel like you’re making a show for people who really appreciate it.
Fans have pointed out that season 1 was more true to the mythology, and season 2 was more episodic, and now everyone is expecting a return to mythology, has there really been this shift back and forth, or is that all just the perception of the fans?
Maybe a little. I mean, we’ve always felt that the show would rise or fall on the standalone episodes. We did maybe five pure mythology episodes a year, and every time we do mythology episodes we like to, ’cause they are there to move the ball forward. We like to answer questions and have real, sort of advance the story in those episodes. But we really think that the standalones are our bread and butter.
We always pay a little, some lip service to the mythology in all the episodes, just to kind of keep it alive. But the standalones I really enjoy doing, and the big season enders are mythology-driven, and hopefully bring an audience back for the next year. I don’t know that the first year was more mythology-driven, I think that we had a better mythology in the first year.
That whole idea of looking for dad, I think had more of a drive to it than the psychic children of year two. And this year with Dean’s having made a deal with the devil, he has a year to live, and the Hell Gate opening. I think this is probably our strongest mythology. Maybe with people reacting to it, maybe the mythology story wasn’t quite as amped up as it might’ve been last year, but I think we’ve fixed that for this year.
Is the split between episodic episodes and the mythological-driven episodes going to be the same as it has been in previous seasons?
Yeah. I mean, the first episode is kind of heavy mythology, then we sort of leave it for a few… We probably have two hours at the end, an hour to begin with, and maybe three during the course of the year that are really sort of pure mythology. The rest are standalone.
With heavier ‘mythology’ reliant shows like Heroes, it seems the writers room really works together on every episode no matter who gets primary credit. Is there a similar arrangement for Supernatural?
No, not really. We don’t, I mean Heroes is much more serial than our show, so I think they probably need a more active writing room just to kind of map out that story from episode one to episode 22. We don’t quite have to service that monster, but we’ve done like, we’ll have a big room at the beginning of the year. Go for like a week to sit and talk about ideas, and then maybe one more in the middle of the year.
Then we sort of break off into really much smaller rooms where Eric is working with the writers, or I’ll be working with writers, and the current writers talk to each other. But the pure kind of room atmosphere, we kind of don’t. We’d rather have our writers off writing than sitting in a room talking, it’s just the way we do it.
When the new girls, Ruby and Bella, were initially announced there was a huge fan backlash. Does that cause you to second guess ensemble and story changes like that?
Right, well it’s kind of interesting. Actually you get a sense of your audience out there once something like that happens, which is really, it takes you back a little bit. What they react to before they’ve actually seen anything is not something that we can deal with too much. We can’t overreact, the audience is gonna like this, the audience is gonna like that. Just wait until they’ve sampled it, and see what they feel about it.
We are really excited about the two girls. I think an audience fears those guys are gonna have two women sitting in the back seat of the Chevy, or are they gonna be like on adventures with the guys. These characters aren’t that at all. I mean, through the first seven, eight episodes, they don’t even appear in the same episode together. They really serve two separate functions, and we’re really happy with the both of them.
So I’m hopeful that the audience is gonna go on the ride with us, and it really sort of helps us with our storytelling, ’cause it opens up the world a bit. I think the show becomes less claustrophobic, so hopefully the audience will agree. You want to listen to the audience, but remember, when I was doing Lois and Clark there was this clamor to get Lois and Clark married. And finally in year four we did that, and then they left us in droves. So they clamored for it and we did it, and they said, “OK, it’s over.” Off they went. So I always try to take it with a little grain of salt.
What seemed to ignite this was the way fans and reporters were interpreting spoiler info. Do you find it difficult to manage the flow of spoilers into the fan community?
No, not really. I mean I sort of get where that comes from, because people just assume this is about love interests, but it’s not. We took kind of great pains to make sure it’s not. We’re gonna tread lightly with these characters to see how best they play, what we ever want to plan, but we surely didn’t want to rush into anything, blow things. Because at the end of the day it’s a road show, and a steady love interest kind of puts you in one place.
And that’s not who we are, so I think when people see these characters they’re gonna say, “Oh, I get it.” It’s not about love interests, it’s not about a twosome becoming a foursome, it’s none of that. Hopefully, the audience will like what we’ve done. We’ve really worked hard to make these characters not what the audience out there fears they’ll be.
Supernatural seems like the type of project that would work well as a feature. Has there been any talk, or moves in that direction?
No feature film. That hasn’t risen its head, although we’d probably love to do that. We’re becoming sort of a brand in a slow way. We have a comic book out, it’s really going very well, and that’s sort of like a preamble to where the show picked up.
A lot of the Winchesters, and there’s a lot of mythology in that about the boys as kids, and all that sort of thing. We haven’t really gotten into Internet things, always been talking about that, but it’s so hard doing one of these shows. Just kind of getting the show out is hard enough. But we’d love to do a movie, that’d be great fun.
How big a change was switching networks?
Well, a lot of the people are the same people, and it hasn’t been problematic really for us. I mean, we have a new boss in Dawn Ostroff. I’m not sure that this is exactly her cup of tea, but they’ve been very supportive, and we’re really thankful for the third season pickup. We have really good plans for this year, we had a really good summer actually in reruns, so hopefully that’ll translate into a little more audience in the fall.
But it was the CW’s first year, and a lot of sort of a lot of scrambling around, trying to figure out what they were, what their brand was and what kind of network they wanted to be. Mostly we just kept our head to the grindstone, and just went ahead and made the show.
Fortunately for us, the current programming people had actually come over from the WB, so we knew them and that stayed the same. So it wasn’t too hard for us, although you can definitely see that they went through growing pains last year. But it’s like baseball teams, everybody’s got a chance to win at spring training, so we’ll see what happens.
Have any luminaries from the Horror genre every approached you guys about writing or directing an episode?
No, not really. There’s always some talk about trying to get some of these guys to do an episode. The fear with that is that they couldn’t quite get it done on our schedule. Wes Craven gave us a nice blurb, he likes the show, but it’s not something that we’ve really gone out. If Stephen King wants to write a script, we’re certainly open.
It seems like whenever genre shows become popular, the press calls it a new “Golden Age.” Do you think there is a viable connection between fantasy and horror and the general interest level in television?
Well I mean, I think it’s typical. Something succeeds, television tends to copy. We need a show like this, we need a show like that. Ultimately, I think the cream rises to the top. A show like Heroes is really well done, Tim Kring’s a terrific writer. It’s no surprise that that show is the success it is. We’ll see this year how the other ones in the genre do. When you’re sort of late to the game, it’s tough not to be derivative today.
You really got to have, I think, television’s about characters. So are your leads interesting, is the show well-mounted, is it good storytelling? Those things are timeless. You could say that about TV shows in the 50s as well, the 50s and the 60s which are the Golden Age. It runs in cycles, I think.
But those shows make money for the networks, and that’s expensive to produce, and it’s a really crowded landscape. So to get noticed is the hard part, but like I said, I think cream rises to the top. If shows are given a chance, they succeed. Personally, I think the shows that are on cable, by and large are more interesting than the network shows.
A lot of attempts to engage the genre over the last couple of years have really failed, but Supernatural is a survival. Do you guys count your blessings?
Yeah. They’re going to, I mean, look. Your chances of getting a second year of any television show is not great, failure is more common than success. You get into your third year like we are, we had to consider it fortunate and just assume you’re doing something right. But it’s really hard out there, with original programming on cable and all the special channels, to get a good number.
The difference between a success and failure now is so much, it’s such a tighter window, that you have to go through a small target that you have to reach. When I started this years ago, if you’re 14 share, you’re safe and considered to be really successful. If you’re an 11 share, then you got a good chance of getting canceled. That’s a small target, but that’s what television is now.
– Interview conducted by Jon Lachonis, BuddyTV Senior Writer
(Image courtesy of the CW)