Since the idea for Big Sky (now Harmony) was first hatched, our scripts have gone through more changes than Robin Williams’ genie in Aladdin. After writing or co-writing eleven episodes for the first season, I thought the hardest work was behind me. If I could insert a laugh track here, I would.
As any screenwriter or filmmaker knows, a script is a very fluid thing, influenced by many people on its way to the screen. As the old saying goes, “A poet needs a pen, a painter needs a brush, and a filmmaker needs an army.” Some of the soldiers for that army are anyone with a new perspective. In terms of writing, one’s fellow soldiers could be another writer, a friend at lunch, your mother, or just the magic of inspiration that can happen anytime and anywhere. (For me, it’s while I’m driving. There’s something about occupying my mind with mindless activity that frees up creative thinking and impulses.)
Everybody brings new ideas and opinions. I have written a few scripts for other projects completely alone when inspiration struck hard enough, but I have found that new eyes and minds can make for a good and lively script too, even up until the moment of filming. A crew member who has never written a script, or wanted to, may casually make a brilliant suggestion on the set that catches the ear of the writer or director, and that change will be made on the fly. (Usually with said writer or director taking full credit for it and never mentioning they overhead the crew member say it. I mean, let’s keep it real.)
Fortunately, though I’m not devoid of ego (ask my wife), I somehow dodged the ultra-macho rigidity that often plagues men. I have always believed that the project is more important than my feelings. If a scene or line I wrote doesn’t move the plot forward, no matter how much I love it, it has to go. A writer once called this process killing your darlings. Big egos don’t make for big hits; big hearts and open minds do. Countless dusty scripts that never saw the light of a projection booth are sitting on countless dusty shelves because, like Michelangelo giving Pope Julius II a tongue-lashing for questioning the biblical nudist colony he had just decorated the Sistine Chapel with, an arrogant screenwriter said, “Why do you bring fools to judge my work?” (Or something like that.)
New eyes bring new ideas. The first and most important set of eyes belong to Rick Balentine, who conceived the show and provided outlines for all of the episodes. His imagination is as fertile as a Tennessee valley. I’ll never forget those first few months of rollicking creativity. I had never experienced a more natural collaboration. Adding scenes and creating dialogue for Rick’s outlines wasn’t anything like work. It was pure, unadulterated fun and exhilarating creation.
Then came Alan Stands Alone Bryant, who wrote most of the native scenes for the show and was the first to suggest bringing the government into the attacks on Big Sky and its residents - something bigger and more powerful than the random, separate events most TV western plots contain. (BOOM!) The ideas are still flowing from Alan as naturally and exuberantly as the Trevi Fountain.
"The essence of art lies in what to leave in and what to leave out. In other words, what the audience needs to know and what should be revealed later
or omitted altogether so they can have the joy of figuring it out for themselves."
Then came the wildly creative Michele DeRose MacShane, who conceived and wrote the character of Miss Anna Rose, Harmony’s two-fisted schoolteacher. I can’t wait to see her bring Miss Rose to life as an actress as well as a writer.
Producer, author, screenwriter, and veteran soldier Steve Alexander and seasoned actor Joe Palubinsky (who will play rancher Jake McCutcheon) also created characters and/or wrote amazing scenes that ended up being used in the first season. Judy Rhodes helped with scripting and dialects when the scripts were first put together during those first few years. Roanne Fitzgibbon put together an old-time newspaper called the Big Sky Gazette (now the Harmony Gazette) that was great fun and helped in a dozen other ways. I also consider Roanne to be the nurturing mother of our team, the one who always reminds the work-a-holics among us to remember to eat and sleep well, and loving on our kids, as much as is possible over the internet. Every member of the team bounced ideas around, excited about the story. Some made it into the scripts and some didn’t, but all led to the wild variety of characters and epic tale that is Harmony.
Another, more recent pair of “new eyes” belong to Tom Deaver, fellow screenwriter and owner of DragonSlayer Entertainment (the company co-producing Harmony), who casually mentioned making our white senator a black reconstructionist senator, which added a whole new dimension to the story. (Again . . . BOOM!) Originally, the senator and general were both white and had attended West Point together. Both had committed atrocities in their military careers, and both could send the other to a firing squad for them. The senator had repented and was seeking redemption. The general was unrepentant and was seeking further destruction and vengeance. We thought that was volatile enough, but making the senator a black man who was once owned by the general, and whose parents were victimized by him on a brutal plantation owned by the general’s parents - that cranked up the volatility to full blast and turned our show, especially the pilot episode, into an emotional powder keg.
Tom also recommended blending the first two episodes into the pilot to increase the action. Changing the race of a character is not difficult. Actually, that part was fun, and the closest a mere mortal like me will ever get to god-like status. What was challenging was condensing 105 pages down to 60.
Faced with this daunting task, I initially thought about changing the font size from 12 to 1 and trying to convince everyone who reads it that the print is normal and their eyeglass prescription probably just needs to be updated. Once I decided I couldn’t pull that off, I got to work and ended up removing a lot of scenes that weren't essential to the plot, promising myself I would use them in later episodes. I then shortened descriptions, and even found shorter single words in dialogue and descriptions. I was able to scrunch that original 105 pages down to 66.
"Soon, the boards of Harmony’s sidewalks will creak beneath my feet,
the costumed actors will bring our words to life, and I will gaze at it all
in wonder at how far we’ve all come since Rick called me one day years
ago and asked, “Hey, how would you like to write a TV show?” "
I thought the pilot was great before, but now it is a scorcher. We may need to add a disclaimer at the beginning advising viewers to take their heart medicine before viewing.
The essence of art lies in what to leave in and what to leave out. In other words, what the audience needs to know and what should be revealed later or omitted altogether so they can have the joy of figuring it out for themselves. It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had as a writer, but I can now safely report that there’s no chaff left in this grain. I would say “I’m done” but I know there will be more surprises every step of the way, and from every new, great mind I and the other writers discuss the story or collaborate with.
Even Steven Spielberg said that none of his movies ever ended up the way he had first envisioned them. Films are a lot like life in that way. We can make our plans (and outlines) but we must always be open to collaboration, serendipity, and the magic both can bring.
The town of Harmony wasn’t built alone, and neither was our show. Since the original team was formed, other talented souls have gotten on the train to Harmony, though the destination and future were uncertain. One of them is the multi-talented Tanille Yow Ulm, who is absolutely smashing it as the show’s casting director with her amazing work ethic and loving, happy energy.
So many have provided us with moral support in the seven years or so since it was first conceived, it seems the town of Harmony already exists somewhere, already populated with good friends. I’m sure I speak for the whole Harmony team when I say that meeting the actors and crew on the set will be the greatest manifestation of a dream any of us have ever experienced. We have walked the streets hundreds of times in our minds, and now we will in reality. Soon, the boards of Harmony’s sidewalks will creak beneath my feet, the costumed actors will bring our words to life, and I will gaze at it all in wonder at how far we’ve all come since Rick called me one day years ago and asked, “Hey, how would you like to write a TV show?”
And hopefully, the success of our show and the obstacles we’ve overcome will inspire others to believe in the power of their own dreams, in the magic of manifestation, and the indomitable force of perseverance, no matter how many setbacks are experienced. After all, that’s what makes every movie or TV show episode worth watching. Why should our lives and goals be any different? Even in our show’s first season, the town of Harmony will rise, fall, and rise again. So should we.