Burns and Metz graduate from Roswell High to TV
Thanks to Jeni for sending in the link for this
By Patrick Lee
Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz—the editor and author who created the Roswell High series of youth novels—have passed through the looking glass by becoming staff writers on Roswell, the UPN television series based on the books. The writing partners already have one episode to their credit, “A Tale of Two Parties,” which aired Jan. 1. It’s the first TV writing job for each.
For Burns and Metz, making the jump from books to TV was like entering an alternate universe. Though the TV series has its roots in the popular books, the plot and characters have diverged widely. Moreover, TV writing is a collaborative process, unlike the often isolated endeavor of writing a book. The writers took a moment recently to sit with Science Fiction Weekly on the set of the series, which airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
It must be very strange to be writing for a show based on your books.
Burns: It is very strange. I think that it was never anything that we were expecting, I mean, on any level. Because we both were in book publishing for a while, and we had developed many different book series. It was the first series of books that Melinda wrote. I was her editor on them, so I hired her to write them. So that was new and different. But for us, it was kind of, every step of it was kind of exciting and would have been enough by itself.
Metz: I just got to the point where I just hoped the pilot would get made so I could see it. It was almost too much to hope for that I’d actually [end up writing for it] …
Burns: The concept of the books was really fun. And then I was happy to get Melinda to write them, because she’s great. ….
Metz: It was definitely my first book series. I think I’d written like a novelization of an episode of Goosebumps that was already based on a book. That was my introduction to writing. I’d been an editor for a bunch of years. …
Do you find that TV writing is very different from what you were doing before?
Burns: [For this] kind of editing, you do a lot of rewriting, a lot of actual plotting and writing of outlines and brainstorming. It’s just a very creative process. And we were doing series books, mostly for kids and teenagers. So for us, it was always, you’re plotting for characters that are going to continue from book to book, which we thought would be very translatable to television. … The TV rights sold, based on the first manuscript, and that was exciting, and then we heard that [executive producer] Jason Katims was going to be attached, and he’s a brilliant writer.
Metz: We love [Katims’] My So-Called Life.
Burns: And then we heard the pilot was getting made. So every step along the way, you just couldn’t believe—
Metz: That it was actually going that far.
The TV show and books are very different.
Burns: All through the whole development process, and then the first two seasons … the books and the television shows were very separate.
Metz: Different audience and different backstory.
Burns: Liz has a different last name. [Ortecho in the books, Parker in the TV show.]
Metz: A couple of them have different [names]. …
Burns: Some of them are the same.
Metz: Alex, whose last name was Mannis in the books and Whitman in the show.
Burns: The setup is very much the same.
Metz: And the couple matching.
Burns: And then, after that, it’s sort of that we started in the same places … and the show went in one direction, and the books went [in a] different [one].
Metz: They’re like alternate universes of each other.
Burns: Quite different. Very different.
Metz: Each change kind of creates ripples all the way through.
Burns: The characters are on different paths. The show has always been more adult. Just an older tone. The books were basically aimed at 10-year-olds. Ten and 11. So it had to be a much younger voice. And it was very much high school. And the show, the characters have just gone through so much, they’re sort of wise beyond their years now and much more mature than your average group of 17- and 18-year-olds, and the stories are much more adult. … Because it’s a different medium, you can tell different stories. And it’s just very different. But we love it just as much. We were all big fans of the show.
Did you always intend to wind up writing for television?
Burns: When we met each other, we were both editors.
Metz: We were editors at the same company.
Burns: And shortly thereafter, we started saying to each other, “You know, what we’re doing, we could just do it for TV instead of books, and that would be so much more fun.”
Metz: We wrote a proposal together before we knew anything of what we were doing. Or before Roswell and everything.
Burns: Right, we wrote a proposal for a TV series. We just always wanted to do that, because, as I said, it’s a similar skill set, when you’re plotting for an episode equals one book in a series. You just have to know what the end point is when you’re starting out a series. And we had been doing it for a long time.
Metz: We always talked about making the jump. But we were talking about moving out here even before we got this job, just to kind of break in.
Burns: We both … watch way too much TV [laughs]. Melinda more than I will see every movie that comes out. You know, we’re both entertainment buffs. It’s something we definitely always wanted to do. It’s very strange, because … what we did for Roswell High was very much focused on the books, and it was just developing a book series, which we had done a lot of before, and then the TV stuff, for us, always seemed kind of separate from it. We wrote two pilots for Regency and 20th [Century Television] before we got this job. And so we kind of were going in backwards. Usually, you start as staff writers.
Metz: [This is] the opposite way most people start.
Burns: Obviously, Roswell has helped us a lot.
Metz: Hugely. Maggie Murphy at Regency had read the first manuscript, and she was the one who hired us to write a pilot, just because she wanted to know if we had other ideas. She just called out of the blue. Even though we had it on our calendars: “Start writing spec script.” … We really did have it on the calendar for the same week. We were like, “We should start planning our spec script.” … So when Maggie called, we said, “OK, we’ll take that time we have scheduled, and we’ll work on our pilot instead” [two years ago].
Burns: We wrote them, and we’re told wonderful things, and they never got produced. The usual story.
Metz: We learned a lot. And we met a lot of people.
Burns: We met a lot of people. And we loved them very much. Everyone we worked with was really supportive and creative and great, and it was the first time we’d actually been writing in screenplay format with each other, so it was a great learning process. It was fun to develop.
How different is it to write a script versus writing a book?
Metz: We knew that we were kind of in sync.
Burns: We knew we could write together. It was more, “Wait a minute, we can’t describe what the characters are thinking. So we have to somehow [show it]. …”
Metz: We’d always have the thing where it’s like, “Wait, is this all for the scene?”
Burns: What they’re wearing, we don’t have to talk about.
Metz: [Or] what they’re thinking. That’s in their head. … It’s fun. I always like the learning curve.
Burns: And for us, too, because we’re writing together, it’s so much about the dialogue, we can talk back and forth to each other and see if it works.
Metz: Writing a novel or something together I’m sure would be much more challenging.
Was it difficult to jump universes, from the books to the series?
Burns: It had been a long time since the book series ended.
Metz: Yeah, I think that helped. I think if we had just finished working on book 10, and then like a few weeks later started here, it probably would have been a little gear-grinding. But I had done another series after Roswell High, and Laura had worked on all kinds of projects.
Burns: And also, we had been watching the show for two seasons. So we kind of … knew the voices of the characters on the show, versus the characters in the books. To us, they’re just different characters, really.
Tell us about your first script, about a New Year’s Eve.
Burns: As a staff [we] wanted to do a New Year’s show, because it’s airing on New Year’s Day, so clearly it had to be a New Year’s show. And I think everybody kind of automatically went the whole New Year’s Eve party thing. But then, we knew what kind of feel we wanted, just kind of a fun, fast-paced, bouncing around [feel]. …
Metz: Where we could see pretty much everybody and what they were doing.
Burns: So then we came up with the idea of … there’s a party, kind of a secret party. It’s like a treasure hunt, and you follow clues. Everybody knows where the first clue [is], and that leads you to the next clue, and the next clue that leads you to the party. And this is an annual thing, that’s like [a] legendary … rave, just the best party of all time, called Enigma. And what we thought is, that we’re going to put them on the road to this party, in various groupings, and follow their adventures as they try to find the party.
Metz: The two-party thing was always that Liz is stuck at the Crashdown party…
Burns: The old folks party. Because she works at the Crashdown. Poor Liz.
Metz: It was very collaborative. … We worked with the other writers outlining the story.
Burns: We break stories together in the writer’s room, sometimes scene by scene, literally every scene. It’s really fun. Sometimes you want to kill each other. But more often than not, it’s really fun. You’re sitting around with a bunch of people who are smart and creative and just talking about a TV show that you all love. So it’s really great.
Metz: That’s one of the things that I really like after writing books. I think I’ll always like writing books, and will always want to do it. But having that collaboration and being able to like … I just got tired of being in my apartment all by myself all day. … It’s the opposite, but it’s still stories. So I get to take that part, which I really love, and combine it with people, which I also love.