Bookpleasures.com is honored to welcome as our guest Robert (Bob) L. McCullough who along with his wife Suzanne Herrera McCullough has just published Where Hollywood Hides.
Bob is best known as the creative force behind CBS’ Falcon Crest, and Jerry Bruckheimer’s Soldier of Fortune. He has written scripts for Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman, BJ & The Bear, Sheriff Lobo, Battlestar Gallactica, The Class of ‘65” and Quincy.
Over a prolific career of longform writing on The Revenge of The Hulk, Dark Mansions and Murder in Paradise, his adaptations from book to screen include Barbara Taylor Bradford’s The Women In His Life, Jackie Collins’ Hollywood Wives, and Arthur Hailey’s International Airport.
Bob has also created, written and produced a number of successful TV pilots, including Tagteam (starring Jesse Ventura), and Time Out for Dad (starring NFL Hall of Fame’s Dick Butkus).
Frequently working overseas, Bob wrote and produced High Tide (starring Rick Springfield) in New Zealand, produced Aaron Spelling’s Robin’s Hoods in Canada, and produced The New Zorro in Madrid, Spain.
In addition to Supervising Producer duties on Falcon Crest, Bob wrote and produced Ohara, starring Pat Morita of Karate Kid fame, and Star Trek: The Next Generation for Gene Roddenberry.
Bob’s other writing credits include NBC’s Jag, Baywatch, Baywatch Nights, Pacific Blue, and Murder She Wrote. He has worked closely with Hollywood legends like Jane Wyman, Lana Turner, Cliff Robertson, Anthony Hopkins, Angie Dickinson, Candice Bergin, Rod Steiger, Aaron Spelling, and countless others.
He has been honored by the Writers Guild of America for Outstanding Writing and Producing on the “101 Best Written TV Series” of all time.
Bob holds degrees from U.S.C., the University of Texas, The American Film Institute, and Southwestern University of Law, and is a member of The Writers Guild of America and Directors Guild of America.
He is currently “on the air” co-hosting with his wife Suzanne Herrera McCullough their weekly iTunes podcast Where Hollywood Hides (www.WhereHollywoodHides.com), focused upon celebrities, show business news, and the classic years of TV, movies, and music.
Norm: Good day Bob and thanks for participating in our interview.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
Bob: The very first story
was “Johnny Jet and His Racecar.” Age seven, in pencil in a steno
pad. I was apparently already bored reading what others had put
between book covers. Then there were numerous short stories written
as an undergrad, as that seemed like a nice format for storytelling
at the time…until I realized that people frequently starved to
death writing short stories.
Once I figured out that the best money-per-word written was in film or television, I got busy writing spec scripts, the first of which was an episode for the original Mission: Impossible CBS-TV series. It was, of course, dreadfully over-written, but the producer of the show at that time, Bruce Lansbury (a fabulous guy; the brother of Angela Lansbury) was kind enough to give me his written notes in response to my submission. That was the first time I was ever treated as a “real” writer…and Bruce’s generosity inspired me to work seriously on my craft and to never be satisfied with first drafts.
Norm: What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer and what is the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
Bob: My biggest mistake as a writer was to ever think that what I wrote was so good that it couldn’t be improved upon with even more work. In the world of television, he who believes there is no room for improvement of his own material is: a) a fool, and b) not going to be in the business very long. That’s why the license plate on one of my cars reads “REWROTE”. (The other reads “SCRIPTS”.)
My second biggest mistake was “waiting to become a writer” by fiddling around with other silly career options. I’d like to have about ten years back so that I could have really made the commitment much, much earlier (I was pre-dent in college, for pity’s sake!).
The worst advice I occasionally hear given to aspiring writers is to “write what you know”. If we all followed that advice, our world view remains sadly narrow. To me, writing is almost like acting. It involves a lot of imagination and use of “sense memory”, not unlike the technique used by method actors. So, while most everything I write or have written is pure make-believe, I put myself into the heads and hearts of the people I’m writing about (and if you’re not writing about people, what are you writing about? Electric shavers?) and simply pretend I’m them. So if I only ever wrote “what I know”…I can’t even contemplate how dull that might be. The cure for that, of course, is to get to know a lot of stuff about places, things, and, most importantly, people. Soak it all in so that it can all be regurgitated via the make-believe of creating characters, situations, and dramatic elements.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share? As a follow up, what advice would you give someone that wishes to break into screenwriting?
Bob: If, when you’re done reading this, you rush off and write something, then you’re a writer (and maybe I’ve given you a little juice to go do it). But if you fish around looking for more stuff to read “about writing” instead of actually writing, then perhaps you’re really a teacher or…a dentist…which are terrific careers that require your singular focus.
Now, if you do write something today—doesn’t matter what, really, just the act of forcing yourself to sit down and open the spigot means you’ve got the discipline to stop doing anything else for a period of time—then you’re a writer. Are you good enough? Only the words on the page will tell that tale. But self-doubt and second-guessing will kill the creative instinct as surely as the opinions of others who don’t have the cajones to sit down and do what you’ve done. Whatever you do, please don’t become one of those who, having just finished a piece of writing, walks around town begging people to “give me your opinion” of their writing. Trust me on this: opinions are worth the price you’re paying for them. All that really matters is what those in a position to pay you for your efforts think about your work.
Bottom line, I suppose: if you sit around “wondering” about your voice and vision, you’ll paralyze yourself. Be reckless; just write it and get it in front of someone with a checkbook.
For those aspiring to screen or television writing: be very good about story and character. Read a ton of good scripts. Start with (and read it at least annually) Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid by William Goldman. Then read Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. Then watch as many movies that tell compelling stories as your eyeballs can handle, starting with The Quiet Man, On the Waterfront, Marty, The Graduate, Bonnie & Clyde…and then check out the AFI’s list of the Best 100 Movies. Then watch a dozen classic and modern television series of real story quality. Don’t overlook Playhouse 90 and other shows of that era. (Learn to love black-and-white film and TV!) Once you’ve seen all of those, you’ll have a working cultural vocabulary, and you’ll know something about story, character, plot…and you’ll be chomping at the bit to write your own.
Norm: You certainly have been involved in some block buster pilots and movies. Where did you get your information or ideas for your scripts and which one is your favorite?
Bob: Many of the series concepts came from a serious collaborative effort among certain network executives, studio development teams, and senior producers. Aaron Spelling, for example, could throw out a dozen amazing show ideas in a single casual conversation. He simply had a firm grip on the cultural milieu of his time and knew what the audience responded to. He was simply masterful at acquiring powerful literary properties and guiding their development as popular television fare. He simply handed me copies of Hollywood Wives, Airport, and Dark Mansions and said “go make a good show.”
The same was true of
Falcon Crest, which was a failed pilot at CBS. I was invited by
Lorimar TV execs and the network to “make it better,” which,
after considerable research into the art and business of winemaking,
I think we did in fairly short order (after my wife Suzanne—coming
from a large family—provided me with plenty of story and character
beats that ultimately became the core of the series).
My tenure on that show was creatively wonderful and fulfilling, but I think my best “working” experience may have been on The New Zorro for Executive Producers Gary Goodman and Barry Rosen. Those two guys were terrific at casting actors and at recruiting writers and directors…and then leaving us all alone to do our jobs. It was 88 episodes of pure creative freedom that remains, upon reflection, the very best any television writer could ever hope for.
Norm: What do you think makes a good story?
Bob: Well-defined characters with strong points of view…and the need to change either themselves or others. That creates both internal and external conflict, and without some serious levels of conflict, you only have “events” which do not amount to a story at all.
Norm: What are the most important characteristics of a screenwriter?
Bob: The ability to build an interesting story through amazing characters is fundamental. Secondly, the writer needs to be more than just a “writer”. There is considerable salesmanship, marketing, and schmoozing behind the sale of any screenplay. And once the sale is made and the check is cashed, one needs to write another one a.s.a.p. That accomplishes two things: it gets your ego out of the way and it gives you something else to sell!
Norm: Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
Bob: Of course. Without the audience, without readers, we’re all just whistling in the wind. I’m constantly impressed by the depth of understanding readers and viewers bring to any piece of work; they frequently enjoy subtle levels within the text that the writer felt only he/she understood when the work was being created. For example, I often worked hard to slip little things into characterizations or dialogue that I was certain would go over the heads of anyone reading my stuff or seeing my shows. Usually, that was the case. But then years later, I’ve had people come up to me and quote verbatim lines of dialogue to me from long-forgotten scenes that they personally appreciated. That both amazes me and reminds me of the impact any creator has upon the cultural landscape.
Norm: As mentioned in my introduction and as you indicate in your bio, you have been best known as the creative force behind Falcon Crest and Soldier of Fortune. What do you mean by the creative force?
Bob: In both those examples, I was handed a pilot that had been produced and shot at considerable (millions of dollars) expense and was a rather dismal failure. There were often casting problems or production problems, but there were always some glaring problems with the characters, the conflicts, and the plot lines. After analyzing those issues and considering changes that might help, I presented my solutions in the form of major overhauls of the written materials. When those were approved and we went into production, I was given huge amounts of creative control over the show as one who had the “vision” that worked. This is not to say that there wasn’t a highly skilled writing team working with me, but since I’d solved the initial challenges, I was given supervisorial control of nearly everything that went up on the screen. Was it fun? OMG, there’s nothing better!
Norm: What helps you focus when you write? Do you find it easy reading back your own work?
Bob: It takes me about ten minutes to get into “the zone,” when the rest of the world simply fades off into the grey periphery. I can sit for six hours straight and enjoy the process without even hearing the dog barking (which he’s doing right now). If I don’t have people asking me a bunch of random questions (like “why is the dog barking?”), I can be pretty selfish by simply tuning everything else out to put words down on the page.
Reading back my own work is often very depressing. The mistakes, missed opportunities, and overall stupidity of the work surfaces quickly if I’m really being ruthlessly honest (which is essential, I believe). Again, it’s not about “writing” but about rewriting.
Norm: Could you tell our audience a little about your iTunes podcast Where Hollywood Hides? (Incidentally, I love to listen to it while exercising every morning at my local YMCA).
Bob: It’s great to hear that you’re a listener! Remarkably, we have thousands of weekly listeners from more than 70 countries (I guess they all speak English in Eastern Europe). The podcast really evolved over many years of people asking Suzanne and I the same question: How did you ever get into show business? We simply got tired of hearing ourselves at every dinner party telling the same story, and the podcast was a way to tell it all, once and for all, for anyone to hear. Once we did the first several episodes, we discovered the fun of talking to others about their careers. At this point, we’ve interviewed Academy Award winners, major celebrities, and many of the behind-the-scenes folks responsible for some of the most iconic movies and television shows of all time. As we head toward our 50th episode, we’re looking forward to another year packed with industry leaders and major celebrities. It’s truly great fun!
Norm: What motivated you and your wife Suzanne to write your book Where Hollywood Hides? What purpose do you believe your book serves and what matters to you about the book? Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Bob: Santa Barbara has had a long historical connection to Hollywood, pre-dating even Charlie Chaplin. Whenever Suzanne and I would travel, we enjoyed taking some memento of Santa Barbara to share with others, and we discovered that there was no book dealing with the Hollywood-Santa Barbara connection. We were also quite aware than ever since we’d moved up here from L.A. back in the 1980s, there had been a major migration of contemporary film, TV, and music folks to Santa Barbara. Many of those folks were major celebrities, directors, writers, and musicians looking for some respite from “the Hollywood scene” and all that it implies.
We wrote the book to fulfill the need for a quality “Santa Barbara souvenir” that details the area’s long and historical connection to Hollywood, pre-dating even Charlie Chaplin. As a full-color hardcover edition, it’s a real keepsake that celebrates the professional careers of those who celebrities have found the area the perfect place to “hide” without being hassled by paparazzi or being overwhelmed by adoring fans.
One of the most amazing things we learned in putting the book together is the insatiable international thirst for this sort of thing. Not only does the book sell very well in local area bookstores, but we have ongoing sales on our website at http://wherehollywoodhides.com as well as at Amazon. It’s really been a thrill to see the book shipping all over the world.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?
Bob: Well, the aforementioned WEBSITE is the best way to find the podcast series, as well as the book…both of which convey our personal and professional histories. The underlying message of it all is simple: both Suzanne and I had zero family or personal connections to the business, but somehow worked our way in and built very rewarding and exciting careers…which means that anyone can do it if they give it all they’ve got!
Norm: After your phenomenal successes in your various careers what, if anything, remains "undone" for you? What is the one thing you haven't done, that you are still "itching" to accomplish?"
Bob: There is always writing to be done, as Suzanne is working on a second celebrity-centric book and I’m working on a compelling biography about a true modern war hero. Of course, we’re always looking forward to the next exciting podcast interview, and are eager to share those stories with the growing international audience.
In terms of something we’ve yet to do, we’re currently developing an Elvis-inspired TV series that may have a theatrical music future as well. We’ve got a video presentation out in the marketplace right now and look forward to producing another hit with it!
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Thanks for inviting us to share with your readers…it’s always great fun!