Update (5/26/2010) - Klemmer leaves "Chuck" for "Undercovers"
Happiness was thrilled to get a chance recently to quiz Chapel Hill native Phil Klemmer, Jr. on his NBC hit show CHUCK. Klemmer is a supervising producer on CHUCK, and was also a writer for The CW's brilliant-but-cancelled VERONICA MARS. Here's the unabridged version of our Q&A:
Q. What exactly is the path from Chapel Hill to Hollywood?
A. I actually moved from CH when I was in Kindergarten and grew up in Virginia. My parents moved back to NC once I was out of the house, so I was deprived of many years there. I went to college in Northern California and moved down to L.A. with the notion of getting a job in Hollywood because that's what my roommate (who wrote IRON MAN last year... sorry, it's L.A and I'm obliged to name drop) was planning on doing. He took a job as a production assistant on TITANTIC and I took the internship job at Propaganda Films that was offered to him because I was too lazy to find an internship of my own.
I spent time as a "reader" (an entry-level Hollywood person who reads screenplays for a production company and writes critiques that allow the company's creative executives to speak to literary agents (who represent screenwriters) and explain why they don't want to buy something (or one out of a thousand times, they do). It's a good chance to read a lot of material (mostly bad), but it also turns you into a machine whose job it is to tear apart the dreams of screenwriters so that some executive can pass on the project to their agent without revealing the fact that they didn't read the screenplay. I’m sure I’ve got some bad karma coming my way from some young reader who will be entrusted to read my next feature script.
Q. What does a Supervising Producer do? Do you still get to do a lot of writing?
A. It's really just a fancy title for writer. There are about a dozen or so titles that all mean writer, and each designate a degree of seniority (and the position your credit gets in the opening titles). I wrote three episodes this season and two last. The rest of the time I spend in the room (the writers room which is the creative heart of the one-hour TV show) where I break episodes with the other writers (there are eight of us). We more or less alternate whose turn it is to actually write the episodes, taking with us the responsibility of producer in following our episodes through all stages of production (casting, scouting locations, collaborating with directors, hanging out on set, and finally sitting in on the edit and post-production).
Q. When you write for CHUCK, do you share writing duties or do you get to pretty much write the whole episode by yourself?
A. I’ve split writing one of my episodes, but other than that I’ve been able to write them on my own. It’s a luxury that doesn’t exist on every show. For instance, on half-hour comedy it’s usual for episodes to be written in the room, which I don’t think I could survive. The mix of social time in the room and solo time writing my own episodes provides a nice mix-and-match work atmosphere. Whenever I’m feeling stir crazy from having spent a week or two on an episode I get to dive back into the room (and vice versa). It’s a bit of a sociological experiment to lock eight people up in a room together for 10 hours a day, but when it works, as it does on CHUCK, it’s not so bad. Of course you hear horror stories….
Q. I see you went to Stanford, and so did Chuck and Bryce Larkin. Is that a coincidence, or did you have some influence on the backstories of these characters?
A. The pilot was written before I came onboard so the Stanford thing was already determined. Maybe my bio helped me get the job… I doubt it.
Q. I can't let you go without talking about VERONICA MARS, which was one of my favorite shows, and I think one of the best TV shows ever. So of course, it was cancelled. I thought the writing was brilliant and I loved the pop culture references. Here's the question: As a writer for that show from the beginning, what was that like -- knowing you were working on this very high quality show, but then still getting cancelled? Are you bitter about it? (I am).
A. I don’t think that we knew we were working on a high quality TV show for quite a while. You’re really in a bubble, especially in the beginning when you’re breaking stories, but they’re not yet being shot, and then when they are being shot, and then no one is watching except studio and network executives because your show hasn’t aired, and then it does premiere on the UPN network (which no one has heard of), and no one watches the show. But then all of a sudden we started getting this fantastic press.
And then we started to connect with a very devoted audience (through various fan websites). Somewhere in the middle of the first season it became clear that the network couldn’t cancel us because we had become a critical darling, but at the same time it was tough for them to justify keeping us around because our numbers were so dismal. I’m not bitter about VM getting cancelled.
I do think that it could still be on the air today (and the numbers we were then doing aren’t so bad compared to “post strike” ratings. UPN/CW didn’t have to keep us around as long as they did and the amount of creative latitude we (primarily creator Rob Thomas) got with the show are what allowed it to be great (I’m so glad you think it was great). I’m still very good friends with all my VM alums and I think we all look back on those three seasons as being very charmed (not to be confused with CHARMED, the UPN sexy witches series).
Q. VERONICA MARS was sort of a 'hybrid procedural-serial' -- it was better if you watched every single episode in order, but if you just saw one or two here or there, it still worked. VM had small mysteries each week, but there was also a big ongoing mystery that stretched out over the whole season. There's a little of that format in CHUCK, also. Is that something you brought to the show or did the CHUCK creators already have that format laid out?
A. Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak, the CHUCK creators, already had the formula figured out. I remember when I interviewed for the job that I couldn’t believe that they wanted to continue Chuck’s life in the Buy More (where he works a humiliating job fixing computers for a living). In a typical CHUCK episode this is called our B-story plotline, as opposed to our central A-story that is spy related. Now I find that the Buy More stories are what I have the most fun writing.
Q. Do you feel like you have a lot more support from NBC than you did with The CW on VERONICA MARS? In terms of more promotion and more money? I think I remember reading that in the last season of VM, certain characters (like Wallace) couldn't be in every episode because they couldn't afford to pay them.
A. When you’re locked in a room with eight other writers you’re obliged to complain about how your network doesn’t know how to promote your show. We’re all armchair marketing executives. That, and picking the lunch menu are what keeps the conversation rolling when we don’t feel like breaking story.
Q. What was the experience of the Writer's Strike like for you? And do you think the actors will strike?
A. It was surreal. I didn’t quite know what was happening, so I just carried a sign and marched back and forth across the Warner Brothers Gate #7 for 100 days. I knew that the new media issue (what we writers are to be paid in residuals for work that airs on the Internet) would be very important in a way that the DVD residual had been decades before (when we missed our chance to participate in profits). TV writers have very short careers (not to mention very tumultuous ones) and the income we receive from our work as it lives on in the world long after we’ve been cancelled or fired is essential (Buy the CHUCK season two DVD this summer). I’m not sure if the actors will strike. But I never thought I would participate in labor protest when I was a classical studies major, that’s for sure.
Q. I keep hearing people blame the writers strike for a lot of good shows which have failed, like PUSHING DAISIES. Do you think that's a fair claim?
A. Perhaps it sped up a trend, but the trend was already happening. TV audiences have been fragmenting for decades. Cable and the Internet have pulled audiences eyeballs in a thousand different directions. Then again, great stuff is happening on cable (MADMEN, for instance) and on the Internet (like this short film my friends and I made over the strike).
Q. Do you miss anything about Chapel Hill? Do you ever get back to Chapel Hill?
A. I do miss Chapel Hill. I wish I could live there again someday.
Q. Does your family send you ideas for things to sneak into scripts?
A. My dad (a Nephrologist at UNC hospital) has been pitching the character of a heroic kidney specialist for years. I’m looking into Harrison Ford’s availability.