Executive Producer, Ellen Wheeler of “Guiding Light”, has been in the hot seat for most of the last year and half, for the decisions she has made to revitalize and keep on the air daytime’s longest running soap.
With severe budgetary constraints and creating a new vision for the show, Ellen has been on the receiving end of negative feedback from the soap press, the industry and sometimes the fans.
As part of my special, “Inside Guiding Light” feature, I traveled to New York City and met up with other fellow soap journalists and bloggers to get an inside glimpse of how Ellen shoots the exteriors in Peapack, New Jersey, that make up the town of Springfield. After a day of shooting, we sat down with Ellen to ask her some pointed questions that myself and others, and many fans, wanted to know about the shows new look, direction, and it’s future.
Listening to Ellen speak, I came away with great respect for her. Not only is she a Daytime Emmy Award winning actress and producer, she is impassioned, honest and has a willingness to be open. I urge all of you to click on the accompanying audio to this sit-down with Ellen, to hear in her own words her take on the show. Below is the conversation with Ellen, direct from Peapack!
Listen to the audio:
How do you like where the show is now? Obviously, there was a learning curve the show had to go through.
Everyone had to learn tons of new skills. First off, no one does what we do. So we were learning as we did it together, but Eric one of the new audio guys said, “I knew I would have to be quiet, because I was right there in the room. I knew I could not really distract from the scenes, but what I did not know was that I had to be part of the scene emotionally.” So if the scene is sad, sometimes the audio guy might be standing this far and the size of the room is this far away from the actor. He said, “I have to be emotionally part of what this story is. If I am not a part of it, I will distract from it.” I had not even hoped that it would go that far in bringing us together. But what is wonderful about that part is community collective art is such an amazing thing to be part of . This brought us together, and we are now a family. We are here in this house. We are here all day long, and we are here with each other. We all eat together and work and play together. It has created a feeling of unity with us. We know we are the underdogs. We are aware of it, and there is not anyone in soap opera that is not aware of that. We are really a struggling industry, and we get that. We knew we were going to shake hands and jump out of the airplane, and we did not know what that would bring. What it has done is bring us closer together like nothing else could. You know when you are fighting for your lives together, you only have each other. So instead of us fighting with each other, it made us appreciate each other.
Because you are such an accomplished actor as well as a director, when you do the emotional scenes between two actors in the Peapack environment, whether it be exterior or interior, do you think it enhances the scenes, and how do you direct them?
I think it enhances the emotion. What’s lovely about being in Peapack, it almost allows for less direction for the actors. If the emotion is; you run to the end of the bridge and throw something in the water and your mother comes up behind you, etc, if you are in the studio you have to create every reality. Now the only part you have to create is that you are sad and angry with each other. In some ways you don’t have to play you are mother and daughter, because as actors you play with each other so that the relationship is real. You have been playing it for a long, long time, so that connection is already there. Now, it’s already cold outside, and so things are there. Outside, people talk either louder or quieter. They don’t talk in their studio voice, which is kind of like their theatre voice. For example, if we are outside or in a bowling alley we can be as quiet as it is outside. It feels that quiet and intimate. It has been an amazing thing to watch. For Daniel Cosgrove (Bill), what it said in the script today was, “That Bill was supposed to be climbing up rocks, which is a treacherous path.” And he literally was climbing up the side of rocks. It was a treacherous path. So he really did leap across the water. If he would have a misstep, he really would have slipped and fallen into the water. Yesterday, I really had people standing on the edge of a 7 foot building, so of course those scenes played very real to them. They are two people really standing on the edge of a seven story building. Look, I never make my actors go somewhere else I would not go myself. That’s a vast change, where we would say, “We are going to build a platform seven stories high in the studio, but we have to have 10 ft more.” The cast are very brave souls, who make it real.
Have you found that your stories dictate production or production dictates the story?
It is both. Our production has certainly dictated the kind of stories we can tell. But in the last ten years it has a lot of for all of us, as our amounts of money that we can spend on things have gone down. We want to make sure that stuff is going on the screen. You’ve seen on other soaps, where there are less and less sets, and they are using less new places. They can’t help it. So it does dictate the story to you. So before we went to this module, we could only
play eight sets per week in
five episodes. That was our
limit. That is the most
we could afford. Because, we would put six sets up; two were studio where we can play two sets, and in the other studio, (it’s very small by studio standards) it can hold 4 sets. So, we could afford to change two of those sets over per week. But when a new week came, you still had to carry four of those sets over into the new week as well. So if you know something important has to happen in someone’s house and you only have eight sets and you want to crack out a week, what do you do? You can only have sex in the “Company” booth so many times, or no one would want to eat there. (She laughs) I do think that dictates our story, and in the beginning of this, we were trying to figure out what the logistics would be of us shooting inside and outside. We grew what is eight sets a week to forty-five sets. That includes the studio, the office and the other locations around the building on a regular basis. Then in Peapack, we have another forty sets there. So we went from eight to forty in a month and a half, to eighty sets we can play in a week.
It seems you have had to do so many inventive and creative choices to stay on the air, as well as ways to promote and market the show specifically with the 70th anniversary “Find Your Light” promotion. How did you come about these decisions in your role as EP that would impact the show?
Necessity is the mother of invention. My first thought process when I took over, aside from just shear terror, that was my first one, I never set out to be a soap opera executive producer. At eighteen, that wasn’t my dream. As I became aware that it could happen, I astounded myself that it could even happen, and that my career has taken me to this place. I could be one of those horrible people who treated me so badly when
I was an actress…no, I
am joking. But seriously,
I was treated wonderful.
The first thing I thought was, I cannot believe our budgets were this out of control when there was not any money. When someone laid out things, I was like, “Wow! We spend a lot of money when things aren’t going on the screen anymore. Maybe when we had $30 million more than we had now, then it was OK, but it’s not OK now. We cannot be spending money on storing 250 sets in a warehouse, in case we might be using them one day, when we could be spending money on the screen. I don’t want to be putting that money in a warehouse, and in New York that space is very expensive. I want to be putting that money on the screen. My first thought was, we need to look at how we are spending our money. If we don’t have the money we are spending in the 80’s, then we can’t spend that money that way. Everything that happened after that was just out of necessity. If our budget is not there, how do we deal with that? We have to be inventive about that. We are going to have a 70th anniversary and no one is going to come to us like they did in the 70’s and 80’s and say, “Wow! You are turning 70, so what we want to do is a great big nighttime special on “GL”.” No one is going to say that to us. So, if we only have what is in our own resources, and our resources are 25 percent less than they were last year, what can we do? What can we come up with that say the things we want to say? Say, “thank you” to the fans and celebrate it in the right way. We could have saved money and thrown a party. We wanted to do something that reached out to our fans in some sort of real way. We pitched a bus tour where we would go to all 50 states once a week. We pitched dozen of those ideas, and we would eek the money out of our budget for it. This is all funded completely by “Guiding Light”, not Proctor and Gamble and not CBS. Its done out of all of us saying, “The times are changing.” We knew we had to change.
You changed the way “GL” looked completely and turned it on its ears.
Technology has changed and we had to adapt to that, and not to adapt to that was ridiculous to me. Sometimes, I get frustrated with that. We were still shooting, and if you look at the pictures of shooting television from 1952 when we started on TV and you look at pictures of us shooting television three years ago, it’s almost identical. It’s the same crew, same cameras, and the same basic set-up. 50 years later, you would think you may have thought through some changes and would think that since television watching has changed, and in a time when people were walking around with televisions, basically on their I Pods… something needed to happen. We were still shooting as we started. That’s not a good idea. We knew we would make some mistakes along the way, and over the years we have made several.
The sets could look great and the costumes could look great, but at the end of the day you have to have good emotional story that people are invested in. What about the storytelling on “GL”?
It’s all about story. Somebody asked me the other day in a meeting, “Then why don’t you write good stories?” Well, it’s not like we sit around all day thinking up bad stories. It’s not like we are trying to write sucky stories. It’s just the nature of writing. When you are trying to write 30 to 50 stories per year, it means that some are going to be sucky, and I am not trying to apologize. That is our reality. I wish they would all be brilliant, and that every time we put a couple together it lit up. It doesn’t. We fail, maybe, not unlike being a parent. You are going to fail as much as you succeed. You just hope that your child will make up for 50 % of the time you are a great mom, and 50% of the time you were a sucky mom. You hope that somehow your kid will survive through that, no matter what. I don’t think that is that different from here. We want to all be brilliant. There is not one person who does not pour over everything that they do. As much as you worry about it, they worry about it that much more, too. As many mistakes you find, they find one. I cannot tell you how many times I have had a line producer coming at my door going, “She would not say a line like this.” Well then, “Tell me what she would say?” We will never fix all of that, and then I say, “Well, maybe today she would, and maybe she would say it?” Whose to say what’s dictating and going on with a person at any given time. It all comes down to really great stories and their emotional truth, and all the rest is window dressing for any show. We just knew we had to change. If we were going to stay on the air, we are not going to be afraid of it. We are just going to go ahead and do it, and we did.
Now that you have gotten rid of the large cameras, monitors and typical soap shooting and gone to digital video shooting with hand held monitors, etc. How has that changed your shooting and costs?
In the scenes when Jonathan rescued Tammy from the church, we took the smallest group of people we could with us on location. It was about 45 and two trucks. Well, now I can shoot with a crew of 7 and no trucks. That is a massive difference for us. It was only a few years ago that it took us so much money to put together a crew to do something like that and it limited us. Now that’s not true for us. We get to make a lot of choices, and while I love going on exciting
locations, it’s not about that.
It’s about saying, “We can tell what stories we want because we are not limited by our locations.” I think it’s much better. Do I like it all and think it’s perfect? No, but I didn’t think it was perfect before.
There have been many complaints about the lack of consistency with the show’s sound especially in the exterior Peapack shoots. What about your choice for using audio booms instead of lavs (lavs are mics that are small devices clipped on actors)?
We do lav them. It depends on where we are. If it’s raining they get lav’d. Some of it is just the logistics of the day. If I have 5 to 8 people in a scene a day, I have to make them mix all those lavs while I am shooting live, and that is impossible for me to have to do because we go so fast. If I have to change lavs or the batteries go down, it’s tough. We tried that, and it creates more problems then we can deal with and get this much shooting done in a day. While we have to deal with exterior sounds, the clothes rustling on the lavs is difficult. We don’t go back and do another take very often. If there is an airplane overhead we can EQ out the airplane, but we can’t EQ out the clothes hitting the mic. So, it’s mostly a logistical thing. If you watch the show at the beginning of this module and watch it now, there is a vast, vast difference. I would put up our audio now against a lot of nighttime series. I think again, we will never be perfect. We do 260 shows a year. We will have moments of perfection and we will have moments that are really bad, and we will have a lot of moments in the middle. We just try to lean ourselves to a lot more moments on the upside then the downside.
Do you feel the soap press has a responsibility to cover all soap opera series equally?
I think it would be wise if soap press loved them. I love my children but that’s not to say, “Oh, everything is perfect.” We are all going through this difficult time together, as is our country. So whatever group we are to each other, whether it be one soap to another, the soap press or the fans, soap operas and television in general, I have lost count now how many show have been canceled in the last 30 days. This is a really difficult time to be in television. So I am never ashamed of anything we do right now. I am just proud of every single day we are still on the air. That is a gigantic accomplishment. If I make it one more week, three more months, one more year, I consider that a huge, huge win, and in this day and age, to still be on the air, means that we have succeeded. Do I think they need to be fair? No. I just think we need to be proud
of each other and loving to each other
and I know that love sounds like some
sort of big word.
In recent months we in the soap industry have seemingly all imploded on each other and been so detrimental, negative, and hating towards one another.
Hating each other is not helpful, and again that does not mean I don’t understand why they are making this choice. I discipline my children and I tell them to love each other, and I want them to be successful every single day. I think that is how we should feel about each other right now in the soap opera world. Nothing bad that happens to any other show helps me. It only helps me if we are all growing together. Any other success is my success too, and only helpful to me. If not growing, I need us all at least staying where we are. There is still so little for any of us, that we need to be supportive of each other. Every day I have to appreciate one more day I have with these people that have to be the joy of my life. I cannot worry what is going on at “Y&R”, because none of that matters. We made it today. CBS did not pick up the phone today and say we are not on the air in six months. Today was a good day.
You have such an amazingly stressful job. How do you deal with the pressures of the job and demands with the impending threats of cancellations? What do you do to cope with it all?
I have two things. I have the most amazing husband, who is a stay at home dad. That was not the plan. I was going to stay home and make bon bon’s and stay home with my kids. That was just not the cards we were dealt. So we had to look forward. While I spend 12-16 hours a day working, I don’t get stress from home. I only get support. We had a really hard end of last week with a lot of logistics and I was calling Lou, my production manager in the middle of the night. It had been a week where we had a Peapack day last Friday. So, Thursday night when I came home there were chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen on a paper plate in a Ziploc bag. I said to my husband, “Oh, you made cookies for the kids?” He said, “No, I made cookies for everyone at work, because it’s been a really hard week, and I have been able to tell it’s been a really hard week. I thought it would help if someone made them cookies.” First, I have that and secondly, while I work hard, the people I have here work just as hard for me. If I run up the hill and say we are going to jump off the end of the cliff, we hold hands and they jump off with me. They are amazing group of people. There are a lot of talented people in soap operas. There is not another group of people as negative as the press has been, who could have done what got accomplished here. I can’t say numbers, because I am not allowed, but if you knew the amount of money we had, compared to the amount of money we have now, it’s astounding! We should not be on the air. We completely reinvented the way television is made, not just soap operas, and no one is doing what we are doing. Yes, they are doing things like it, but at a 10th of the speed that we are doing it. This group of people did it in front of people and they did not say we are too afraid. We did not have anywhere to look. We were the pioneers crossing the plains all on our own, and we did it with an audience watching, and that was a huge thing to take on. You can’t be sad or depressed if you have that, but don’t think there aren’t days that I don’t throw my salad against the walls!