FLASHBACK: 'Days of our Lives' Head Writer James E. Reilly Talks John Aniston, John and Marlena, and Jensen Ackles.
Michael Logan: When I was watching your show one day, I suddenly realized I was looking at a scene with four villains in it. I thought, "Holy s---, this is amazing!" Then I started adding 'em up and was astounded at how many villains you had on the canvas -- a third of your characters are bad or riding the fence. Some shows have trouble coming up with one good villain.
James E. Reilly:I don't know why, because villains move the story. They're an absolute necessity. Years ago, when I wrote for Guiding Light, we did a focus group where the viewers were asked, "When do you watch the show?" And they said, "We watch when we're ironing or doing chores; we leave it on around the house." Then they were asked, "Is there any time you actually look up from your work? What makes you pay attention?" And they all said, "When we hear Roger's voice." The villain is the catalyst. When he or she comes on, the audience just knows something will happen. When you hear the voice of Vivian -- who hasn't been totally evil, she's now more of a hench-person -- you know it's not going to be a fast-forward scene. It's going to be odd or quirky. You pay attention. You get caught up in the mystery. Who is Franco working for? Everyone thinks it's Kate but they don't really know. When the audience sees Kristen walking into John and Marlena's wedding, they know something's going to happen. I love villains.
Michael Logan: That being the case, why didn't you write for John Aniston? Victor used to be the bad boy of Days -- he was in everybody's business. Granted, that was before you got there, but still -- why didn't you make him a rip-snorting villain again?
James E. Reilly: When I came back, Victor had already become the good guy and Stefano was the villain who affected everybody's lives. I looked at what we had -- which was Roman I and Roman II and Marlena -- and as a viewer I had to ask: Why wasn't there more of an impact on these people's lives when Roman I came back and Marlena found out she was sleeping with the wrong man? I mean, all they played was Marlena sort of looking at John when Roman came back and saying, "Oops." That was it? Hello? We're all going to make believe that Marlena, who had been sleeping with John for so many years and raised children with him, would just turn off her feelings? Yet that's the way it was written. It made no sense. Obviously, John and Marlena -- being basically very decent people -- had to put their lives and feelings on hold because they weren't going to destroy the family and hurt Roman and stuff. It wasn't their fault but it was Stefano's fault.
I had to do surgery. It was the first story I had to address but to do that, I had to bring back Stefano because he was so crucial to it, and in doing that I could not have Victor and Stefano butting heads. I couldn't have two villains the same age. They'd be like Villain One and Villain Two. And the momentum of the baby story with Aniston and Debbie Adair got killed because Debbie wanted to have her own child and was out at various times when she was going through the in-vitro fertilization process.
As a result, other stories started taking hold: Bo-Billy-Hope and Sami-Austin-Carrie and Jack-Jennifer-Laura and John-Marlena-Kristen-Tony. These stories were exploding like popcorn; there was no room for anything else. That's when the network started talking about a spin-off, because there was so much story that Days was overflowing. I could have transplanted one or two of those stories to another soap and given Aniston more to do on Days, but all that fell through. It wasn't like I was trying to sabotage him. The room was not there. If we played Victor, you wouldn't see Susan. I love Victor and John, but I could not fit them in.
Michael Logan: But why take it to the extreme of giving Victor a stroke -- which reduced him to very few appearances and a handful of voice-over lines for months and months? Why not just take him off the canvas altogether rather than disable him?
James E. Reilly: Because I never like seeing anyone lose a paycheck. And I was always hoping that something would break and I could reawaken him. That's why he was kept in limbo for so long. Because there is a story for Victor with Kate and Vivian but there was never the time. Victor didn't have a family anymore; he wasn't really connected with other people. The stuff I gave him with Vivian, Ivan and Kate was richer than the stuff he used to have when he'd just come to a meeting of the Alamain Board and sit there with Mickey and Maggie. I'm sorry the way it had to end for John.
Michael Logan: Does this mean your replacement, Sally Sussman-Morina, won't use him either?
James E. Reilly: In making the decision about John, they asked Sally if he was important in her story plans and she said no, she had no story for him -- and that was the death knell.
Michael Logan: Explain this new plan in which you will remain as consultant. I can't think of a case like this before. And why would a new head writer want the former one hanging around? Has anybody else done this?
James E. Reilly: No. Eileen Davidson and I both broke ground this year.
Michael Logan: How do you envision this working?
James E. Reilly: I have to leave Days Nov. 1 and start writing the bible for the new show, so I'm now in the process of passing the baton to Sally. She and I have discussed the current storylines. I've said, "If I had remained with the show, this is how I'd have done them." She will do her own stories but she will be able to talk to me about them. She'll do a long-term. I'll give her notes and basically help as much as I can, as she needs the help. On a weekly basis, she will do a thrust and I will read it, and we'll discuss what she's doing. Hopefully it will make the show even stronger because she'll be coming on with new ideas -- yet there will still be the same [associate] writing team which knows how I pace story. Hopefully the show will stay No. 1. I'm sure of it. I almost hate leaving because there is so much I'd love to see the characters do. It's like leaving high school. Or leaving a small town where you really had a great time. I wish there had been a spin-off.
Michael Logan: The outrageousness you brought to the genre has proven incredibly successful -- it's hard to imagine a new head writer coming in and not feeling the pressure to continue in that vein.
James E. Reilly: There will always be something fresh and new to give the audience. But Days will still have the same dynamics because Sally loves what we're [currently] doing. She'll just add her own mark to it. No one is indispensable. Things will always change.
Michael Logan: Whose idea was this, anyway -- theirs or yours?
James E. Reilly: It was their idea. The show wanted it. I gather that when NBC signed me, [Days exec producer] Ken Corday was not happy about it. [NBC president Don] Ohlmeyer promised him that as much as possible would be done to keep Days a Reilly kind of show after I left. So Ken said, "Well, we want him for a consultant." And the network did the deal.
Michael Logan: On one hand, I can see you wanting to hang in because you're so attached to Days. But on the other hand, why would you want to split your focus? You have a new baby that needs your undivided attention.
James E. Reilly: As soon as my bible is written, there's less day-to-day work for me. It becomes time for fine-tuning. There's a lot of waiting around for decisions to be made. I mean, they don't have to give me a decision about the show for two years. I should have lots of time to work with Days.
Michael Logan: Two years from when?
James E. Reilly: It works this way: I have from Nov. 1 of '97 through Feb. 1 of '98 to write the bible. They have two weeks to read it. They give me notes. I give them the finished bible March 1, no more revisions. Then there's a period where they can ask me for outlines. Then, on April 1, I go under salary -- as opposed to the money I'm making for developing the bible -- and they have a year and a half from that point to decide whether or not they want to do my show. So they have me until November of '99.
Michael Logan: : I've seen it in print a few places that January of '99 is the likely air date.
James E. Reilly: I don't know [if that's true] because, see, I'm not allowed to talk to the network about the new show.
Michael Logan: What?
James E. Reilly:Ken did not want me talking about the new show until I finished working for him, and we really have honored that. So I have not talked to them and therefore I do not know what they're thinking.
Michael Logan: How weird. You mean, you're having to read about this yourself?
James E. Reilly: That's why I love reading the soap magazines -- to find out what I'm doing. [NBC daytime president] Susan Lee has said in interviews that the show could air in the fall of '98. I'm going, "Hello?"
Michael Logan: But it would be possible?
James E. Reilly:Yeah, I guess. But there's been a lot of focus-group research about the best time to start a soap -- people change channels in January; they channel-graze then, sampling new stuff, more than at any other time of the year. And I think NBC was very happy with the initial response to Sunset Beach [which debuted in January 1997]. They got a good tune-in, a good sampling. So when I heard they were happy about that, I then imagined that the earliest would be January of '99.
Michael Logan: You have no guarantee it'll even get on the air, right?
James E. Reilly:The new show may go or may not go. Who knows what Sunset Beach will do to the reception [a new soap would get from] the affiliates? I have no clue. Who knows what affect [the recent departure of NBC Enterprises president] John Agoglia will have? When you have changes in the corporate structure, you don't know who's for what and against what. And who knows what effect the ratings of Port Charles will have? There was a focus group done on Sunset Beach in which some viewers said they did not want to give another hour to a new show. They felt guilty doing it. The show's future can also depend on how much money the network can make on it overseas. They have until November of '99 to decide what they're doing.
Michael Logan: Do you have a title?
James E. Reilly:Nope. I'm sure that whatever title I come up with will change. I mean, you wouldn't believe the meetings you have to have just to determine what you're going to name a new character.
Michael Logan: Speaking of new characters, I'm glad you didn't bring one in for Carrie. It works so much better to have her fall in love with Mike. But what took so long to give Roark Critchlow a story?
James E. Reilly:That was always the plan. When I brought back Mike a few years ago, I said to the network and production, "Now, I need someone for the hospital but he's going to be back-burner for a very long time. I want it to be Mike Horton." They all said, "Oh, yeah, we love it, we love it!" I said, "Now, we're going to take an oath around the table that we don't want a story for Mike until I'm ready." Two or three weeks later, both the network and production are going, "Where's Mike's story? How come he doesn't have a girlfriend?" I said, "Remember your oath."
Michael Logan: I still don't understand the delay.
James E. Reilly:I needed to take time to establish Mike so that he was not viewed as someone trying to break up Austin and Carrie. Now the audience is saying, "We love Mike and Carrie together. Austin's too dumb; all the men on the show are too dumb. You've made them dumb, dumb, dumb." But it has taken time to build up Mike as the good guy. Meanwhile, major things are happening with Sami-Carrie-Austin-Kate. And there will be a wedding in August.
Michael Logan: Do complaints from the fans and the press bother you on any level?
James E. Reilly:No, they honestly don't. As long as the person is honest and informed and says, "Look, this is the way I feel..." then that's OK. I hate it when they complain that we did something wrong when, in fact, we did it right but they just didn't see that particular episode. And little things get me. Soap Opera Digest printed a letter that said, "It's so distasteful of Days of Our Lives to show Susan and Kristen breast-feeding when my show airs at noon when I'm having lunch." And this was written by a woman. I can't win or lose! Here I am trying to say there's nothing wrong with breast-feeding, it's politically correct, it's natural, women should be able to do what they want to do. And I'm catching hell. That's the only thing that really makes me angry.
Michael Logan: What about Days' ongoing Emmy snub? Doesn't that bug you?
James E. Reilly:I called up [All My Children head writer] Lorraine Broderick the Sunday before the Emmys and congratulated her on winning because I knew we weren't going to get the writing Emmy. It didn't bother me. The fact is, we are doing stuff that's different. We're not doing [a] classic old soap. If people don't agree with it, fine. There's one writer on our show who has criticized it a lot but we have a great relationship. That sort of thing doesn't bother me.
Michael Logan: You've finally got Eric coming back. Is he going to be evil, too?
James E. Reilly:No! But there will be something deeper with Eric than what appears on the surface.
Michael Logan: He's got some explaining to do.
James E. Reilly:We have a scene where Sami says something about what a great guy Eric is, and Lucas says, "Uh, excuse me, but he wasn't home for your mother being possessed by the devil, or you being hit by a car, or you giving birth or getting married, or for his father's death, or for Christmas for four or five years." And she snaps at him: "Don't you ever talk against my twin -- only I can!" Eric is a kid who came from a troubled family, and we're going to play that in the character. His mother was kidnapped for X number of years. His father was exchanged with someone else. Sami acted out in one way, and Eric will act out in his own way. He's not going to come back as a blank slate. Once again, Eric's story -- like Mike's -- will take time. We'll wait until the audience starts crying to have him involved with something.
Michael Logan: This has been the longest casting search I can remember. It's my understanding you were going to wait until you had the right actor before you wrote Eric back into the script. That's a wiser way to work than, say, the way they do things at The Young and the Restless. Over there, Bill Bell has the new Phyllis in next Tuesday's script and the pressure is on to cast the part no matter what.
James E. Reilly: We all needed to be certain we had someone we wanted, and finally when we got him, we said, "OK, let's write him in."
Michael Logan: You cast a relative newcomer, Jensen Ackles. What in particular did you like about him?
James E. Reilly: He's a good actor and he looked a bit like Alison Sweeney. There's a vulnerability. He looked good, and you could see him fitting well into future story. He's the kind of actor who makes you say, "Hey, story can go here" -- and that's what counts. Believe me, if we had been short on story, Eric would have been back two years ago. You can always bring back a Brady.
Michael Logan: Do you feel the pressure to top yourself with the new show?
James E. Reilly:I hope NBC isn't looking for something over the top because, at this point, I don't know what it would be. How can I top Days? But I'm sure it's expected. After fighting me over the idea of devil possession, Ken would come up and say, "OK, Jim, what's your devil-possession story for '97?"
Michael Logan: Is there anything you won't do?
James E. Reilly:I'd put seltzer in my pants if I thought it would give someone a moment of escape. And that's what the audience wants. Life is not that easy. Though the stock market is up, people are working harder than ever, and when they come home they want to watch something that makes them laugh or scream, "I don't believe it!" They want -- they need -- something to jump up and down about.
Michael Logan: Well, you've finally worn me down. I'm loving Days these days.
James E. Reilly:As long as people watch a show and have fun, there should be room for it. There should be room for 11 or 12 different types of soaps. They should be like neighborhood restaurants. Ya feel like Chinese, go there. Ya feel like deli, go there. We should all be different. In fact, if they would let soap writers write, I don't think they'd be copying each other, they'd each tell their own stories in their own ways. And the business would be healthier for it.