Guiding Light Blog: Part Three: Lunch With Jill Lori Hurst
(Matt Purvis/ Soaps.com)
On that first morning in New York, myself and the other bloggers were introduced to Co-Head Writer Jill Lori Hurst and Producer Alexandra Johnson-Gamsey before setting out for the morning drive to New Jersey. The first thing we did when we arrived in Peapack was go out to eat, which I was very happy about since room service didn’t deliver my breakfast that morning and I was working on a serious caffeine deficit. We drove into the parking lot of the Gladstone Tavern and piled out of the SUVs we’d been traveling in. The tavern could easily be recognized as the exterior used for the set of Company. With some careful framing, and covering over a few of the local signs, it could quickly double for the famous fictional restaurant. Inside, however, it was nothing like the place Buzz inhabits, but rather a cozy country restaurant with an extensive and eclectic menu. Sitting down at a long table, we discussed how the writing teams work, how the writing has changed and where things may be going in the future.
How the Writing Teams Work.
Guiding Light has a unique production style for its writers, as well as everyone else. Although, the show has had Co-Head Writers in the past, it has never shared the duties between four people. These four experience writers share the workload with five scriptwriters. One Head Writer comes up with an outline for a week of episodes. This is sent to the other Head Writers who send back comments and make changes. They have a week to turn this into a working draft and then send it to Executive Producer Ellen Wheeler, the network and the production staff. Everyone gives feedback, notes and points out logistical and budgetary considerations. Each Wednesday and Thursday, the Head Writers gather together to go over the five episode block of episodes they are working on. They assimilate all of the criticisms and changes which have to be made or reviewed. Once that is done, the week is broken into five episodes, each amounting to an eighteen page breakdown. These are taken by the scriptwriters and turned into forty page scripts which Jill Lori Hurst then edits for continuity and to ensure that the character’s voices are properly retained. The final product is turned over to the Associate Producers who then review it for continuity and make sure that scheduling will work smoothly with it.
Sound complicated? It is. Lori Hurst says it’s basically a ‘relay race’ between the production department and the writers. Normally, shows are taped four or five weeks before airing, but written well in advance of that. The broad storylines for the show are written together by the Head Writers on a calendar worked out by the Executive Producer. At this time, the broad scope of the show has already been written out to span until next fall. Of course, as far in advance as things are planned, there is always room to make changes. Sometimes you set up a relationship between two characters that you hope will work well, but when the actors actually show up and get down to work, you can quickly realize that you’ve made a mistake and have to re-tool things.
The New Model.
Aside from the new model for the writers, there is also the overall production changes for the show and these have had substantial impact on the way the show is written. “We, as writers, are certainly learning to write for this particular taping style. It’s wonderful, but there are some old things that don’t necessarily work,” Hurst explained. Both she and Producer Johnson-Gamsey spoke of how freeing it was to use the new shooting method, particularly when it comes to outdoor sets. They breathed a sigh of relief when they would no longer have to set everything on the old Main Street set, a necessity which had become ‘the bane of our existence’. With the show’s new, more realistic, filming style, flashbacks and dream sequences have become rare. Lengthy scenes taking place on one set are also a thing of the past. Instead, jumping from one location to another is more common. Dialog is also shorter and more succinct and there is more room for the sort of things that Hurst likes best: Small slice of life scenes or scenes of two people sitting on a park bench talking. Fans of the more theatrical style of the past shouldn’t lose all hope though. “It’s not that there won’t ever be a theatrical exchange, but we do try to keep everything simpler… There’s still a time and place for that,” Hurst said.
Alexandra Johnson-Gamsey went on to say that even she found the show’s initial transition to be too short and choppy, but explained that they were forced to make all of the changes under public scrutiny, experimenting on a daily basis. In Daytime, there is no luxury to take the time to go on hiatus and figure things out. That’s one of the things that makes it so challenging and potentially dangerous. At this point though, they think they’ve found a happy medium between the extremes at the beginning of the transition and what the show used to be like. So far, the network seems to agree and most of their notes to the show are plot based, rather than stylistic.
The threat of cancellation has become a major issue in Daytime in the past few years, a threat which seems to have become even more pronounced over the last several months with ratings declining across the board. Most of the shows in Daytime are, right now, in the same position Guiding Light was in only five years ago and the prospects for their futures look very similar. Although a few shows have been singled out by the soap and mainstream press for signs of the decline, most specifically Guiding Light and Days of Our Lives, all of the shows have seen a relative level of decline in viewership. That hasn't stopped GL in particular has often been targeted for its substantially different look, much of which is due to their budget, not to a lack of hard work. At this point, Johnson-Gamsey says, "We're used to being the ugly stepchildren."
But even if the pressures of decline are especially potent at this time, they are far from new. "I've been on the show for eighteen years and I would say for the last ten of them we've had that pressure," Johnson-Gamsey offered. For her part, Hurst has also becomes used to the pressure. "I'm a lot more zen now," she commented with a smile. With all of these worries, however, the writing staff maintains the same worries they would have otherwise, namely, to make the audience happy. Being a mid-westerner, a life-long fan, and within the target range of the show's demographic, Hurst thinks she's in a good position to gauge what they want to see. And while she does her best to be 'accountable' to them, she hopes they're able to take the occasional 'left turn' with her and the characters, just like people do in real life.
What's Coming Up.
Hurst and Gamsey have both been working at Guiding Light for years. Jill began as an assistant and has worked her way up, working alongside fellow Co-Head Writer David Kreizman for most of that time. She's been widely credited with managing to bring Grant Aleksander back to the series as Phillip Spaulding. Although details about what Phillip's return will involve and mean for characters was scant, we were offered a few hints here and there about what's coming up (he'll be back on February 6). Everyone has ideas about what to do with Phillip and it still isn't entirely clear which version of the character will win out. She also admitted that, while she loves and understands the character, she finds him extremely intimidating to write for.
Although Head Writers don't have final say on casting, she's done her best to push for her picks, citing Marcy Rylan (Lizzie Spaulding) and Bonnie Dennison (Daisy Lemay) as performers she fought for. Hurst talked about how great an addition she thinks that Jeff Branson (Shayne Lewis) is making to the show. At the studio, everyone calls him 'the guy with the voice' and she promises that he won't be the angry Shayne we see now forever, but he will be the first genuinely adult version of the character and that means he can be full of surprises. Other hints she offered were that the men may become less like the 'purse carriers' Kurt McKinney (Matt Reardon) once said they were. Aside from stronger men, she promised, "More stories about hope, about reunions, about people coming back to where they belong."