Crashdown interview with Melinda Metz and Laura Burns
The following interview was done by FanForum’s own Kdberg.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Melinda Metz and Laura Burns, staff writers for Roswell this season. They discussed how they began working together on the “Roswell High” book series and their experiences writing for the show so far. I’d just like to thank Melinda and Laura for taking the time to do this interview for Crashdown and wish them the best of luck in Season 3!– KDberg
Q: Most of the fans are familiar with Melinda’s work and have read the Roswell High books, but are not necessarily familiar with Laura’s experience. Can you tell me what else you have done or what we can read of your work?
Laura: It’s hard for people to see my work because all my book publishing work was behind the scenes, as an editor. When Melinda and I met, we were both editors at a book production company, which works the way a movie or a TV production company would work here–you come up with the ideas, you do the plotting, you hire the writers, and you have a deal with the publishing house, as opposed to with the network. The publishing house would pay for the printing of the books, the distribution and advertising, that kind of thing. As an editor at that type of company, you have a lot more creative input than you would at a large publishing house, where editors tend to buy finished manuscripts rather than coming up with the ideas themselves.
Melinda: We used to write outlines and proposals together at that job.
Q: So, you were basically working as a team even then?
Melinda: Well, unofficially… (laughs)
Laura: It was funny, we were assigned to work on a series called “Fear Street” together, which was an R.L. Stine series. He’s the guy who wrote “Goosebumps”. We started working together, and we realized right away that we were on the same creative wavelength. And after that no one could get us to work separately! We were plotting books, and it’s so much easier to work at a plot if you’re doing it with somebody else than if you’re sitting alone in a room.
Melinda: We were working on the spin-offs of “Fear Street” and R.L. Stine wasn’t writing those, so we were doing plotting and hiring the authors and trying to set the tone for the new series. And there were a lot of other series running, too, so we were working together a ton.
Laura: Basically we wound up working together conceptually. It got to the point where it was so much easier to do our jobs together that we sort of stuck together even when we weren’t officially assigned to. After I left the company where we met, I was developing the “Roswell High” series for Pocket Books. Melinda, at that time, was making the jump to full-time writer. So I was able to bring her on after I had developed the characters, the story arcs and the tone of the series.
Melinda: Yeah, Laura had already come up with the characters of Max and Liz, Michael and Maria, Alex and Isabel and Valenti and the arc for the first six books.
Laura: It was perfect because I could hire Melinda and we could keep working together, which was great and, I think, just good timing. It was perfect for both of us.
Melinda: Then together we fleshed out the individual plots for the books–although Laura had all the initial stuff. But we got to do what we used to do, which is sit around and brainstorm and figure out stuff together, which is fun.
Q: How did make the transition from writing books to writing for television?
Melinda: We were always interested in TV, just because we always thought of it as…
Laura: Well, it was kind of the same thing we were doing, because the books were serialized. We worked on many different series of books. We realized that this was easily translatable to television. I mean, you’ve got continuing characters and you need to know that this storyline will take the characters over six books, but this other storyline will end in only three books, and those characters will start a story here, but end it in the next book…it’s the same kind of process as plotting for a television series. Just think “episodes” instead of “books.”
Q: Was the transition to television an easy one then?
Laura: Well, yes and no.
Melinda: We thought about it for years before we actually managed to do anything.
Laura: We talked about doing it. For years we kept saying, “We should write that spec script”.
Melinda: We both had it on our calendar…
Laura & Melinda Together: “Start Buffy spec script!”
Melinda: And then Maggie Murphy (who is at Regency, one of the producers of Roswell), who had liked the manuscript of the first book, called up and asked, “Do you have any other ideas?” So, instead of writing our Buffy spec script, we came up with ideas for her. We ended up writing two pilots together for Regency and 20th Century Fox.
Q: Were any of them produced?
Melinda: Neither of the pilots was actually made.
Laura: No, alas…but we wrote them and we got paid. It’s better than writing a spec script!
Melinda: The best part was that we got to know people and we got to go through the process of getting comments and doing rewrites and letting people see how we work.
Laura: Also, I think that we got to see that we were right, that we sort of did know what we were doing. That our book-plotting skills did apply to television as well. If you know how to plot a story, you know how to plot a story and we were able to do that.
Melinda: What we’re really excited about learning on Roswell is all the production part. The kind of considerations you have to think about when your script is actually going to be made…
Laura: Things like production costs and, you know, how many locations you need and how many actors you can have on screen at the same time without it being confusing.
Q: What was the process you went through for the writing job on Roswell?
Laura: Well, we wanted to be on a writing staff. We heard that our pilot wasn’t going to be produced in January or early February. The next step after that is when staffing season starts. From the experience we had writing the pilots, we knew that we wanted to get into the TV-writing field. And the way to get into it is to be on staff, because we don’t have much television experience beyond developing the pilots.
Melinda: Right, we have the plotting and character part, but not the…
Laura: “How you make a TV show” part.
Melinda: We really wanted to be on staff so we could be like sponges and soak it all in.
Laura: So we came out to LA and we stayed for about a month and a half-interviewing with lots of different network executives and studio executives.
Melinda: And at that time, Roswell’s future was up in the air, so we weren’t really thinking about trying to get a staff position on this show. We met with Jason Katims, just kind of casually, because we had that Roswell connection.
Laura: We had never met him face to face–we had only talked to him on the phone. He was briefly thinking about being our supervisor on a pilot we had written and then he ended up being too busy. But we had talked to him and we obviously think that he is brilliant and love him, so we wanted to get together just to say hi.
Melinda: When Roswell was picked up by UPN, we were thrilled.
Laura: And when Jason offered us staff jobs, we were even more thrilled! It’s weird because, in one way, we have a lot of history with Roswell. But in another way, we’re just big fans of the show. The books are very different, and it’s been years since we worked on them. So working on the show is like working in an alternate universe.
Q: Are you able to separate what you wrote in the books from the show? Or is it strange to see the show and the characters go in such a different direction?
Laura: No, we’ve always watched the show mostly as fans. We never expected it to be the same as the books.
Melinda: Maybe the first couple of episodes in the first season, I had some twinges. It would feel like-wait, that doesn’t seem like the characters to me! But now, the show is so much its own thing and it has its own back story and the characters are just themselves-some are more like the books, some less like the books. I love some of the ways characters changed in the TV show-like Valenti. I mean, he was such the evil bad guy in the books.
Q: Right, they’ve turned Valenti and Kyle into such good guys; in the books, they were the enemy.
Laura: We love that! Even in the Pilot, Kyle was more likable than the book Kyle and Valenti had more of a back story with his father.
Melinda: I love the back story! Also, since the books are a young adult series, Valenti wasn’t as important, because he was an adult. He was a plot device. He was like the parents – they don’t have their own back story, and neither does he. He doesn’t have a father.
Laura: It’s never a comparison for us between the books and the show. The world of the books is very different. Also, it’s just younger – I mean, they were books for kids.
Melinda: Plus, we knew the book series was going to end with number ten, so the characters got their happy ending. To me, the stories of those characters just felt all wrapped up.
Q: So, are you expecting a renewed excitement about the show?
Laura: Well, there definitely is excitement on our part [the writers]. And UPN is clearly very excited. There’s a certain freedom, I think, that comes from having a new network. We can really move the characters in new directions.
Melinda: Jason’s been talking about this first episode almost as a new pilot. Not necessarily as a new beginning or a huge change, but as a way to reintroduce the characters, so it will be really big and special.
Q: Do you think the other writers look at you as having some sort of insight into the show/characters or is it all fresh and new?
Laura: I think that as writers, they are sort of interested in our experience, that there is this whole other avenue in which you can be a writer – you can be a book writer. But since we are the newcomers to the show, we’re more interested in learning from them and hearing about their insights!
Melinda: We’re definitely learning from them.
Q: So writing the books and writing for the show are completely separate?
Melinda: Well, I think even if we wanted to take things from the books and kind of put them in, the back stories and characters are so different that it wouldn’t work.
Laura: It wouldn’t work, so it’s not something that we would ever want to do.
Melinda: They just don’t match up. Maybe if the books and the show were closer…I mean, Jason did even say at one point, if there’s a storyline or something from the books, feel free to talk about it, but there’s not.
Q: What’s the writing process? Is it a collaborative effort or do specific writing teams write specific scripts?
Laura: We can tell you with our vast three months of experience….
Melinda: What we’ve learned so far…
Laura: When we started, Jason and Ron [Moore] had a lot of ideas – plot ideas and character ideas, directions that they wanted to go in this season.
Melinda: I think at the end of last season, the writers brainstormed about where they would like to go if the show continued.
Laura: So they began work this season with that vision in mind. The whole staff spent two or three weeks together hammering out the first few episodes, breaking the stories. Then whoever was writing that episode would go off to write while the rest of us went on to break the next story.
Melinda: Yeah, it gets to the point of almost being like a scene-by-scene sort of outline before the writer goes away. But sometimes there’s a sequence where we say something vague, like “and then they do this Mission Impossible kind of thing…”
Laura: “…and you can figure that out when you’re writing it!”
Melinda: And that’s the hard part for the person writing it. It’s easy when you’re sitting there plotting it – “and then there’ll be this cool chase scene”–but then the writer for that script has to figure out what that would actually be.
Laura: So yes, it has been very collaborative, within Jason’s overall vision for the show.
Q: Is the story arc somewhat solidified for the season?
Laura: I think it’s more like the character arcs are solidified. Each character is on a very specific journey this season.
Q: I’ve also heard that the episodes will be more independent, with fewer multi-episode story arcs this year?
Laura: That’s what we’re trying to do. I think it gets hard for viewers when you have very science-fiction, mythology-heavy episodes. It’s hard to keep track of what’s going on–if you miss one episode, you’re sort of at sea when you turn it on again. And we don’t want our fans to be put off by that-we want you to be able to enjoy any episode of Roswell without needing to have seen the previous episodes.
Melinda: Right. Like you might enjoy it more and get more out of it if you have seen the other episodes and know the characters, but you don’t have to. Especially with the new network, I think there’s a desire to make sure that new people coming to the show won’t feel overwhelmed by back story.
Laura: Plus, plotting stand-alone episodes keeps the overall stories from getting unwieldy. I think what Jason wants to do is to keep the show grounded in the emotions of the characters, as opposed to all the stuff going around them. What is the emotional core of the story?
Melinda: Right – he always seems comes back to that. I think that’s where it starts for him – what’s the “human” element – or the thing that the viewer can look at and think “Yeah, I’ve felt that way.”
Laura: Which I totally agree with, as a fan of the show. It’s what I’ve always loved about it. You know, Isabel not being able to tell her mother that she’s an alien, or Liz having to lie to her oldest friend about what she’s involved with. What’s always worked for me is the really hard core emotional stuff.
Melinda: I always like the heart tugging – like in the Future Max episode.
Q: Your background is writing for kids and teens. Is there more freedom writing for an older audience?
Melinda: I think it gives you a lot more directions to go. I mean, with the books, I was always aware that 10 or 11 year olds could be reading them, so maybe I wouldn’t go for a pregnancy storyline because that’s not their concern right then. But on the show we can deal with more mature subjects. And also, teenagers do have sex – it’s not like that’s unrealistic for the show.
Laura: Books are more conservative than television in general. Children’s books especially. You have to be able to have it on the shelves at Walmart. As a writer, I think it’s fun to go in the more adult direction.
Melinda: And it leaves lots of different storylines that we wouldn’t have been able to consider in the books.
Laura: But also this year, what’s been fun is that the characters are realizing how young they still are, in a lot of ways. In the first two seasons, the characters were very independent and they went all over the place and did all sorts of stuff. And this season, reality will come crashing down on their heads – that they’re still teenagers and they still have parents and their parents are not going to fall for it forever.
Melinda: Yeah, this year the parents have finally woken up.
Laura: Although we’re able to expand the characters in all these adult ways, once again it’s the emotional truth of their situation that’s the interesting part. What do you do when you’re 17 or 18 and you think that you’re a grown-up, you’re the master of your own destiny …
Melinda: …but you still live at home…
Laura: …and you love your parents and you need your parents…
Melinda: …and you still care if something you do makes your mom cry. And that’s one of the emotional realizations–that Mom…
Laura: …that Mom’s a person too.
Melinda: Not that the show will be totally about the parents!
Laura: No, it’s not. But the characters are really coming of age this season. And part of coming of age is dealing with your parents, figuring out how much control you want them to have, how much control you yourself want to have, and how you’ll work it out with each other. At that age, you start changing your relationship with your parents, which opens up a lot more storylines for our gang. It’s almost a more adult way for them to deal with things-they can’t just sneak off and do whatever they want. They have to deal with the consequences.
Melinda: And I think one of the things about the Granolith having gone off is that now they’re here for the long haul. They aren’t living life thinking “any day now I could be leaving the planet.” There’s a different sense of… not responsibility, but the choices that they’re making suddenly become much more important.
Laura: So we’re involving the parents more, which you might think would lead to “younger” storylines, but for us, it’s actually going the other way.
Melinda: It’s certainly opening up more interesting storylines because they are in that kind of teetering “Am I a kid today or am I an adult today?” state. Because they kind of want both still, I think.
Q: What are your favorite Roswell episodes?
Melinda: I definitely loved the Future Max one. It was such a great Max and Liz story.
Laura: You know, it was a great Max and Liz one, but it was also such the great science fiction idea to me. I thought it was the perfect marriage between the sci-fi and the relationship areas of the show.
Melinda: I don’t want to be a total suck up and only say the episodes Jason wrote, but I also loved the Christmas one. Isabel was so funny in that. It also had a great blend of emotions.
Laura: I really loved the finale of season two. Actually, I liked the whole series of episodes dealing with Alex’s death.
Melinda: I thought it was a really good, involving sequence – you wanted to see how it unraveled. I was really surprised at what actually had happened. That last episode was cool with all those little flashes of Alex. I also liked “285 South” and “River Dog” from the first season. Michael and Maria were fun in those episodes – that whole “You don’t watch The View” part.
Q: If possible, I’d like to find out a bit of information about what can expect to see this season. Can you tell me what’s in store for Max and Liz?
Laura: Max and Liz have always been the star-crossed lovers. I think that they still are, and they have always been, in love. This season, they are together, but there are different obstacles.
Melinda: This time it’s not emotional obstacles between the two of them as much the actual Romeo and Juliet family obstacles.
Laura: I think that people will be happy with it.
Q: What about Michael and Maria?
Laura: Michael is going in a very different direction in that he’s realizing that his life is now on Earth, that he’s going to be here forever. He’s lived his life expecting his future to be on another planet, but now he’s starting to put down roots a little bit. And how Maria deals with that is…
Melinda: Yeah, I think instead of “will we or won’t we be together” – it’s more like how.
Laura: Right. How does being here affect him and how does it affect Maria? How does his putting down roots change their relationship?
Melinda: They’ll have some couple issues.
Q: How about Isabel?
Melinda: We get to meet a new guy in the first episode, Isabel’s new guy, Jesse. They have a pretty intense relationship.
Laura: It’s nice to see Isabel have an actual relationship. I mean, poor Isabel – the boys get to have their girlfriends, but poor Isabel is just unlucky in love – she’s not allowed to ever be happy.
Melinda: And now they’ve all agreed not to let anyone new into their secret, not to tell anyone else that they’re aliens. So she’s going to have to keep that from Jesse even though she loves him.
Q: What about the idea of Destiny? Max and Tess? Michael and Isabel?
Melinda: Michael and Isabel never really seemed to…
Laura: …care. You know, Michael’s got his stuff going on and Isabel’s got this new man in her life, so at least for now, she’s with Jesse.
Melinda: In upcoming episodes, the way their past life still affects their present will be addressed, especially for Isabel…their past lives have not been fully explored.
Q: And Tess?
Laura: Well, Tess took off in the Granolith and for now, she’s gone. But she’s pregnant with Max’s child. Max knows he’s got a son out there and he needs to find his son. So, even though she’s physically gone, she’s certainly still there in spirit.
Melinda: She’s the mother of his child.
Q: Can we look forward to any ensemble episodes this year?
Laura: Well, each of the characters have their own path to be on, but they will always check back in with each other. All of them know that, “if I take one step, it affects all of you,” so that kind of ensemble feeling will always be there. They really are sort of a unit.
Melinda: There will be episodes that are weighted more toward one character just because when you have so many of them….I mean, if you really want to get into how Isabel is feeling about her new relationship or something, you would focus more on her. But again, how she feels about this new guy affects everyone and everyone certainly has their opinion, so even if she doesn’t want to deal with them, they’re still there and she still has to.
Q: Will you be able to work on other projects while writing for Roswell?
Melinda: I just finished the last book in my “Fingerprints” series. Other than that, it’s so new to us that we just want to take a step back from other things and learn what we can here. We always have our non-Roswell ideas, and eventually we’ll work our way back to them, but I think for now we just want to learn.
Laura: It’s a full time job and it’s also the thing that we’ve wanted for as long as we’ve known each other. We’ve been working toward getting into TV writing for 2 years.
Melinda: Besides the two pilots we wrote, we were also writing different spec scripts to have samples. And a lot of our time has been focused on getting here and getting a staff job, so now we’re focused on making the most of this by really pumping everyone for info.
Laura: But I will say, we’ve been working for 2 years, and it completely paid off-being on staff is even better than we thought it would be!
Melinda: We definitely have moments of “This is our job? People are paying us for this?”
Laura: It’s so much fun to be with other writers, to be plotting in a room with a bunch of extremely smart and creative people.
Melinda: Especially because they are all so funny and nice. You get to hang out with great peoplel.
Laura: They’re all amazing. We get to hang out and talk about a TV show that we love and that’s our job!
Melinda: That’s true. I love the collaboration. I like writing books, but I don’t like the solitary part of that – it makes me crazy. I like going to work and having other people around.
Laura: And that’s the best part of it-we get to be writers, but we also get to have an office environment and to have other writers around who are an extra eye and an objective opinion.