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Chats with Robbie Thompson

Hello!

I still haven't watched last week's episode. I'll do that sometime today, promise.

The REASON that I haven't watched it is because I was at Emerald City Comic-Con since Thursday, and I literally haven't had the two hours minimum uninterrupted down-time that I would need to watch and post about an episode.

Emerald City Comic-Con was really fun! I don't go there for the celebs, so I can't tell you anything about Jeremy Renner or Millie Bobby Brown or Tom Felton - but I can tell you that Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction remain awesome, that Johnnie Christmas is a great guy, that Ngozi Ukazu makes makes me smile by calling people "silly beans" much like I'd imagine Bitty would... and that there are tons of really creative people out there making super awesome things.

So, one guest at Emerald City Comic-Con this year was Robbie Thompson. I kept missing him on Thursday, but managed to find him on Friday. His booth wasn't that far from Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue's ... and he's just as great as I remember from when I got an apportunity to chat with him at VanCon in the summer between S8 and S9 (I think that's when it was anyway.) The first time I stopped by his table, I hadn't thought of any questions or anything - mainly because I was used to having to get things signed quickly and get out of the way, and also because I'm just not very good at coming up with questions on the spot or even being able to think of what to say to anyone. (For the most part, at ECCC, I follow my far more outgoing friend around and just listen while she talks to everyone.)

General Stuff

So, in that first visit, we just talked generally about the show and how much Robbie enjoyed working for it and how wonderful the crew and Jared and Jensen are - and how it's not like they fired him, it was his decision to leave, because he was getting too busy and something had to go, and he wanted to put his concentration into non-SPN things... which was a hard decision, but he thinks it was time, and although he misses it, he doesn't regret leaving.

Oh, also, I found out that his favourite episode he wrote was Pac-Man Fever (or at least, that's the one that's most special to him) because his parents also read him the Hobbit growing up, so Charlie's speech about how that decision made her who she is, and opened up her world to her, was basically Robbie's feelings and gratefulness towards his parents and The Hobbit. So, yeah, he's sentimental about that episode.

As we were leaving, he told me to stop by his table any time if I wanted to chat, so being me, I took that sincerely and the rest of the weekend, if I had some time to kill, I'd swing by his table and see if he was free to  chat - sometimes he wasn't, but I did manage to catch him two more times, those times with questions prepared.

DISCLAIMER: PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THIS IS ME REMEMBERING OUR CONVERSATIONS... THIS IS NOT VERBRATIM. Even if I put something in quotes, it's just what Robbie said to my best recollection - but I'm probably not using the same words that he used. So, if you want any point clarified, or you take huge offence to something, please don't blame Robbie, blame my shitty reporting skills and then ask him the question yourself. I didn't even write any of this down at the time, this is just me remembering 1-3 days later.

Timelines

Robbie was well aware that officially at any given moment SPN is "somewhere between 18-22 months in the furture" - him telling me that warmed the cookies of my heart, because he took it the step further to narrow it down to months! I always just say "two years" but he had it more exact with the months and that's just awesome. He said he'd often write it as the intro to his scripts "The year is 2018..." but on the other hand, characters saying the year never came up, and when it came down to it, it was production who continued their tradition of putting the current date on any props/texts/computers etc, and then they WOULDN'T be in the future.

Robbie said that from a fan point of view, it really does bug him that they messed up the timeline, because he's that kind of fan too - the one who likes the universes to follow a strict internal logic and time frame. From a writer's point of view though, he was kind of glad that it didn't officially matter, because it would have been a constraint on the writing, and he hates having constraints on his writing.

An example he gave was when someone added a really great line, but maybe it was a popculture reference that very much dated the episode as happening currently, rather than the future - but it's a great line... so, the decision comes down to do you want to leave it in because it's awesome? Or take it out just to preserve a timeline that doesn't REALLY matter?

He DID say that was mainly production though that put the times on things. He said that he got a bunch of tweets after one episode because Sam sent Dean a text and it was dated on Dean's birthday (I'm assuming this was LARP and the Real Girl) and a bunch of fans were asking him why Sam never wished Dean a happy birthday in the episode or why they didn't celebrate it at all. And Robbie was like "That wasn't me! That was production putting the date of when they filmed or when it aired or something like that") So, these kinds of things happen when you have a lot of chefs in the kitchen working on different aspects of the meal - someone might put a garnish on that the person who wrote the recipe might not have intended to go with the dish (analogy mine.)

The part of Timelining that really drives Robbie crazy when it comes to SPN was when they would find a hunt in a town across the country, and then in the next scene they were there. And Robbie would be like "what about all the time it took to drive there? Where is that mentioned? What happened in those days?" And that was one of his main drives for writing Baby - he wanted to show the journey, and write what he called a "sleepover" scene. (Awww, cute.) He even double-checked with Production to make sure they still had the Impala with the removable roof, because if they couldn't get that overhead sleeping shot, then Robbie felt the scene would be worthless.

Writing Assignments - How they Work

I asked Robbie about how episodes get assigned in the writer's room - because I notice that certain writers often write a lot of exposition - so, are they purposefully given the exposition episodes? Or is it just happenstance?

It's happenstance, Robbie told me. Writing assignments get handed out in a certain senority-based order on a skewed rotation. So, if Robbie's got episode 4, he knows he'll also have episode 17 or 18. There are 4 high myth points they have to hit in a season - the premiere, the mid-season finale, the "sweeps" episode, and the finale - and most of those high points are usually written by the show-runner or the most senior writers, and then they're assigned away from that according to seniority. (So, Ross-Leming.Buckner always getting the 2nd episode in the season or 3rd or 2nd to episode before a climax point is because they're the non-showrunning writers who have been there the longest).

When they give out episode assignments, there's no topics given or necessarly any "musts" - usually it's "pitch me three ideas" and then sometimes they'll have something like "we're building to this point, so include some set-up" or "we don't have Mark for this episode, so you can't use him." Or "Jensen is about to have a kid, so write Dean light in case it happens then." Or on another show, Robbie gave an example of HAVING to use actors, because they had already paid for them, so it was about pitching his idea and then figuring out where he could stick in these actors so that production got it's money's worth out of the contracts.

Robbie also talked about how sometimes you want to use actors, but you don't have access to them. Like their contracts are only for a maximum number of episodes, so you have to be sparing with which ones you use them in - or they've decided to do a play and are no longer available at all. Robbie explained that's why they had to "kill" Frank in S7. Robbie loved the character, but the actor was no longer available. They didn't show a body, both because they didn't have the actor, and also because Robbie was hopping they might be able to bring him back in the future. But, what that constraint did was allow Robbie to come up with Charlie, because they needed someone LIKE Frank who wasn't Frank. (This is also, I know, how Bobby Singer came into being, because they wanted to get Missouri back, but the actress was no longer available.) I think it's funny how in both cases the replacement character went on to being a Fandom favourite. (Depending on who you ask, anyway, I do know some people who don't like Charlie - and some people who would have preferred Missouri to Bobby back in the day.)

Anyway, I thought that was interesting, as I know a lot of fans complain about characters being killed off or episodes that don't have Castiel in them (for example)... but all that is down to contracts and availability, and not actually the showrunners or writers choice at all.

How far ahead do they write an episode?

Robbie says that Supernatural is the most efficient machine that he's ever worked on. He explained that the older a show is, the less budget they get from the network, so they have to be really strict about things. If you can use a location for two episodes back-to-back, it's best to know ahead of time so that you can film those scenes back to back too and not have to rent out the location twice. Or as we had already discussed, when you know you can only use an actor for a certain number of episodes, and they've got a busy schedule, you want to book them as soon as possible, because they might not be available last minute.

Usually, the writer's start writing the next season starting in May. He said that by now, early March, they'll already have finished or are just finishing writing the current season. By the time Baby got announced at SDCC in July, Robbie had already written it four months previously and had actually forgotten about it until they brought it up at the panel. "What? Oh yeah! Wow, that was four months ago." And then they were filming it by August. So, basically between writing an episode and filming it, it's four-five months.

We didn't talk about re-writes or amendments, but I'm guessing any rewrites based on production issues occur in the two week prep before they start filming. So it goes...

Pitch & Writing
4 months later - 2 week prep (probably final writing changes - my guess)
4.5 months later - filming begins (8 days).
4.5-5 months - Post-production begins - (I think Jules has done some interviews with the post-production team for what the timeline is there. I know that VFK often is working on the Finale right up until it airs.)
~8 months since pitching/writing the idea - episode airs.

Robbie says it's one of the reasons he finds it really funny when he would sometimes get tweets like "Thanks for listening to my complaint last week and fixing it for this week!" As though they wrote and filmed the episodes in the 7 days between when they aired rather than 4-8 months before.

And I think that's it!

Robbie is the nicest... and I told him I had wanted to buy Silk while I was there, but hadn't been able to find it yet, so he just GAVE me his last copy and signed it for me! So, yes, the absolute nicest.

Okay, now that's it. :)

Comments

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galwithglasses
Mar. 7th, 2017 01:28 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. The whole bit about the production timeline kind of puts how I've thought about the writing and its cohesion in a different light. It's cool to know about how they are assigned the episodes too. I'm glad you got to talk with him.
hells_half_acre
Mar. 7th, 2017 01:36 am (UTC)
Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I wish I could have chatted more with him, but I a)didn't want to monopolize him - there were a lot of Silk fans there too, and b)I had my own busy schedule!

And yeah, the writing stuff is interesting to think about.
caranfindel
Mar. 7th, 2017 02:43 am (UTC)
What a great write-up! Thanks for posting it.
hells_half_acre
Mar. 7th, 2017 03:02 am (UTC)
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed! :)
borgmama1of5
Mar. 7th, 2017 05:07 am (UTC)
Love the details about what goes on in the writers' room! It gives validity to my thoughts that sometimes the episodes aren't what they could be simply because writing for an evolving TV show is very different that writing a novel.

Don't suppose Robbie would contemplate coming back though? Miss him so much...
hells_half_acre
Mar. 7th, 2017 06:22 am (UTC)
Well, Jeremy left and came back, so never say never - but right now I don't think it's likely. Robbie is still focusing on the projects that he left SPN to work on. Unfortunately for us, of course! He knows that we miss him and would have him back in a heartbeat though, so that's something.

But yeah, ever evolving TV show and constraints on writing that the audience isn't aware of... so, yeah, there are many reasons why an episode might not be what it could be, and I think very few of those reasons have to do with writer decisions.

I think if you're trying to pick out writer issues, you have to look for consistent failures across episodes, rather than specific "decisions." Though, given how much Robbie argued against killing Charlie, I'm still chalking that disaster up to a poor writing decision backed up by nepotism and I'm never forgiving it. ;)
quickreaver
Mar. 7th, 2017 07:04 am (UTC)
Thank you SO MUCH for this! I love BTS tidbits, and it's lovely to know Robbie is, well, so lovely. :D
hells_half_acre
Mar. 7th, 2017 07:15 am (UTC)
You're welcome! I seriously could have talked to him all day. :)
amberdreams
Mar. 7th, 2017 08:27 am (UTC)
Oh what a really interesting conversation to have had! (Or set of conversations, I suppose....). That's a great insight into how things work on SPN from a writing perspective. I've often wondered how episodes are allocated and how the writing is done. This reinforces my wish that SPN didn't have such a large pool of writers and could find more cohesion in laying out the main arc for the season - though bringing in the character constraints puts a new spin on that.

Fascinating stuff!
hells_half_acre
Mar. 7th, 2017 10:02 pm (UTC)
Yes, there's a reason I kept looking for ten minutes here or there that I might spare to get back to Robbie's table and chat more. ;)

Glad you enjoyed it! :)
ash48
Mar. 7th, 2017 11:36 am (UTC)
Your post was recently linked to me (after a question I had about the writing process). Thanks so much for posting - it was fascinating. :)

(and hence the random friending. Your posts have been linked to me a couple of time *g*)
hells_half_acre
Mar. 7th, 2017 10:01 pm (UTC)
Random friendings are appreciated :)

Glad you enjoyed the post!
madebyme_x
Mar. 7th, 2017 11:44 am (UTC)
Wow this is a fascinating insight into the workings of the writing room and team. I don't think I've ever thought about the constraints that they have to work with (locations, actors, etc) so I found this so very useful, and it explains such a lot of what we've seen in past seasons (like Missouri and Frank, and poor Charlie).

Thank you for sharing (I hope you don't mind me stopping by, I saw a link to this post on my flist. Do you mind if I friend you? I love to get my hands on ep reactions and posts like these) Take care :)
hells_half_acre
Mar. 7th, 2017 10:01 pm (UTC)
I don't mind at all. :)

I'm glad you enjoyed it! It's really fascinating to hear what happens behind the scenes that the fans never really know about.
frozen_delight
Mar. 7th, 2017 11:50 am (UTC)
This is really interesting - thanks so much for writing it up and sharing! <3
hells_half_acre
Mar. 7th, 2017 10:00 pm (UTC)
No prob! Glad you enjoyed! :)
franztastisch
Mar. 7th, 2017 12:05 pm (UTC)
OMG Kelly Sue and Matt Fraction! I'd love to meet them again, they're such stellar people. :D
hells_half_acre
Mar. 7th, 2017 09:59 pm (UTC)
They're the best! Matt Fraction had Chip Zdarsky's Harvey Award there (Chip couldn't be at the ceremony himself, so still hasn't gotten his Harvey - it's instead been passed between another creator and Matt on it's way to him). And for a donation to charity, you could have your picture taken with the award. Then you could tweet Chip and taunt him, if you so chose. It was all pretty hilarious.

I went to the panel for their company too, and they have some great projects coming up. Including a TV pilot that Kelly Sue is trying to get off the ground.

Edited at 2017-03-08 02:41 am (UTC)
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supernutjapan
Mar. 7th, 2017 12:48 pm (UTC)
That is so interesting!! Thank you so much for sharing!
I will be reccing the post on Supernuthome if you don't mind?
hells_half_acre
Mar. 7th, 2017 09:57 pm (UTC)
I don't mind at all. :)
sandymg
Mar. 7th, 2017 02:06 pm (UTC)
Excellent insight. Especially reminding us about the gap between writing and airing. I know there are times I forget and think that fan comments make a quicker difference. But there is always a gap.
hells_half_acre
Mar. 7th, 2017 09:56 pm (UTC)
Yup, I didn't realize there was a 4-8 month gap! That's even more greater then I envisioned. :)
crimsonepitaph
Mar. 7th, 2017 07:32 pm (UTC)
Really interesting points! I enjoyed hearing how the writing stuff works, and Robbie not liking the timeline mess up? It feels so good to have an explanation, at least...

Thanks for sharing!

Ana
hells_half_acre
Mar. 7th, 2017 09:55 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! Glad you enjoyed!
bratfarrar
Mar. 7th, 2017 10:42 pm (UTC)
Oh wow--thanks so much for sharing this! I was just chatting with a friend about how we wished we could get a peek into the writing room, so this was perfect timing.
hells_half_acre
Mar. 8th, 2017 02:40 am (UTC)
Yay! I'm glad I was timely ;)
(Deleted comment)
hells_half_acre
Mar. 8th, 2017 02:41 am (UTC)
Yeah, I think that's a consensus among most fans. Alas, he seems to have his sights set on other career goals at the moment.

I'm glad you liked the post. :)
frelling_tralk
Mar. 9th, 2017 02:51 pm (UTC)
Very interesting post, thanks for sharing :)
hells_half_acre
Mar. 9th, 2017 05:28 pm (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed it! :)
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