Guiding Light Blog: Part Two: A Talk With Ellen Wheeler
(Matt Purvis/ Soaps.com)
Welcome to the second part of my trip to visit the set of Guiding Light. (You can catch the first part here.) Throughout the first day in Peapack, where we visited the cast and crew on their location shoots, we had numerous people tell us what an adventure they’ve been having since the show embarked on its new production model. However mad it may seem, and as maddening as it has been for some, everyone involved finally had to make the choice to ‘jump off’ into the new way of doing things. This has meant both hectic work days and the opportunity to create something new and original which, arguably, comes close to the manic excitement that the early days of the show, when it was still on radio, must have felt like.
At the end of the day’s shooting in Peapack, the bus arrived to shuttle away much of the crew. As everyone quickly filed off and the grey sky began to darken, my fellow bloggers and I sat in the canteen around a table. Daniel Cosgrove (Bill) puttered in and out as he prepared to go and Executive Producer Ellen Wheeler sat down beside me, her face flush from the cool weather and antic pace of the afternoon.
With her hair pulled back tightly, a wisp dangling along the side of her face, her eyes suddenly lit up, a bolt of energy running through her again as she told us, with a disarming mix of giddiness and grace, that the new adventure, the ‘jump off’ that everyone had spoken of that day, was something which had surpassed her expectations. “Something we had hoped would happen, did happen,” she empathically declared with a sense of profound thankfulness. The new way of doing things had changed not only the look of the show, or the way that they can tell stories, but had transformed the entire creative process into something challenging, perhaps dangerous, and generally exhilarating.
Some of this may not be news to the ears of anyone who has been following the show’s attempted re-invention. I expected to hear the talk about budget once again and about all of the limitations it imposes, but I didn’t expect to hear someone lay out an entire artistic ideal that the budget is meant to support. Wheeler made the concerted argument that the show’s changes were not simply a question of budgetary necessity, a point which has often been hammered on by the soap and mainstream press. Instead, she made the argument, one which would be echoed by others on the show, that what was involved was also a very conscious and deliberate series of creative choices intended to revolutionize the genre and change the way that television is made. After all, Wheeler reminded us, the way people watch TV has certainly changed since Guiding Light first went on the air, a fact that one may forget if one observed the way it was shot until about a year ago.
Now that the half century old production techniques have vanished, much of what made the show, both visually and in its way of telling stories, is gone. This would seem to prove that story and style are intimately connected, almost to the point of being indiscernible. This also means that the way of creating stories is as new as the way they look, a fact which makes the show even more challenging to audiences and critics. She admitted that sometimes this means that the show’s plots are ‘sucky’. There have been many disappointments, but it’s not as though any of them have been intentional. No one sits around trying to come up with a few plots that will work and a bunch that won’t, she explained; you want them all to work, but sometimes things go wrong. The past year has seen moments that were perfect, moments that were middling and moments that were downright bad, but everyone tries to get as many perfect moments as possible.
Guiding Light's new way of doing things is as close as anything on Daytime has ever come to what Wheeler calls 'community collaborative art'. It's a way of producing material where every second of the show is connected to everyone who is involved. This is not only because of the monstrous workload which the cast and crew share, but because of the intimacy that the new methods demand. It is not simply that they work together, she explained — they are a family. They are also a sort of school, since no one has ever done things quite like this before, so there was nowhere to look to and no one to ask questions to but themselves. The closest thing to this way of working that I can think of was a Danish experimental film movement called 'Dogme 95', which employed many of the same techniques and aesthetic values, though not within the same mind-boggling schedule of producing 260 episodes per year.
To illustrate the new intimacy between all member of the cast and crew, she told the story of a crew member who was forced to realize that, given the fact that they were working practically face to face with the actors, they had to give themselves emotionally to the scenes as well, or risk throwing the actor off and damaging the scene. The involvement of everyone on every level became crucial. This intense family dynamic has become a crucial part of the way that the production functions. Every day is fraught with potential problems, particularly on location where the weather can play such a significant role. But what ultimately solidifies the group may be that they are fighting what Wheeler admits is an upward battle in an age when soaps in general are in an extraordinary danger of evaporating.
Compounded with this danger, there is also the danger of the creative process itself. Before embarking on the new model, they would use eight sets a week, four of which would have to be carried over into the next week. Now they have access to more than forty sets plus the outdoor locations. That means that the freedom to shoot has leaped from using eight settings to nearly eighty. This has also substantially changed the way in which scenes are written, something that Jill Lori Hurst will talk about more in a future article. All of these new methods have given them more freedom than they've ever had.
All soaps are extremely restricted by budget, even in their heyday they were relegated to creating what amounted to filmed stage plays because they couldn't afford to do anything else. Of course, that's what most people grew up with, got used to, expect and find pleasure in. There is an enormous nostalgia built into that which is one of the things that has solidified Daytime over the years. Wheeler and the others seemed quite conscious of this. She was, after all, one of the genres greatest stars in its boom period. Surprisingly, she addressed this problem with remarkable frankness. She told the story of her prom, explaining that it seems glamorous, exciting, romantic and profound in recollection, but in fact, she was with some guy she barely liked, almost kicked him in the head and the whole thing was really sort of boring.
As the interview ended, she gave me a hug. We were all slightly dazed by the intensity with which she made a case for the show, expressing her wish that the soap press, which has of late become markedly bitter and cynical, would love the shows more. Over the course of the interview, she had cried, laughed and even briefly danced, but imparted to all of us the sincere love she has for the show and everyone involved with it. I went away more impressed than I had been, but still with the sneaking suspicion that, regardless of what merit I might see in it, Guiding Light's artistic revolution is not exactly what the audience was either expecting or looking for.
Please check back for more from the trip to Peapack and New York, including chats with Kim Zimmer, Jill Lorie Hurst and a tour of the sets in New York City.