Jeff Bell has written and produced some of the best science fiction and fantasy television programs of our time. He also happens to be a great friend to us here at The Exchange! Read on to hear what Jeff loves most about his job, what you need to make it in the business and why he loves working in television.
You have a fantastic track record for writing and producing some of the most successful science fiction/fantasy television series. What attracted you to this genre?
I’ve always preferred a story that trafficked in metaphor to realism. And to be honest, all the stories I love, ask the same questions: who am I, why am I here, where am I going, how do I find meaning, (and for a number of years in my youth, what does it mean when a girl says she just wants to be friends)? Science fiction and fantasy are amazing vehicles to explore the big questions — Blade Runner, The Matrix, Children of Men, The X-Files, Lost, Battlestar Gallactica all wrestle with existential questions in spectacularly entertaining ways. Buffy wasn’t about vampires, it was about high school being a hellmouth and anyone who survives it is a hero. Alias wasn’t a spy show, it was a family drama where a young woman learns her parents aren’t who or what she thought they were. Behind all the blood and sex and violence of Spartacus (granted there was a lot of blood and sex) were questions of identity and purpose and loyalty and freedom.
Would you like to try writing/producing a show that’s not in that genre?
This is a golden age of genre television — zombies, dragons, space ships, monsters, fairy tales, Vikings, detectives, secret agents, super heroes, cowboys, vampires, and aliens are all on one channel or another. I’d take any of those gigs over a straight-forward doctor, lawyer, cop, soap show every time.
What was your first real job in the entertainment industry, and how did you get it?
I was lucky. I wrote a feature script while I was in grad school at UCLA. It won a screenwriting competition, which got me an agent, and then Sydney Pollack’s company optioned it for me to direct. — The details of course, are more complicated: after two years we couldn’t get it financed, the option expired, and I was ramen-for-dinner-every-night-broke for a year and a half before getting my next job, rewriting a movie at Columbia Pictures.
Do all science fiction/fantasy shows need the services of a science consultant? If a show makes a mistake, do you ever hear from scientists or fans?
I think every science fiction/fantasy show would benefit from a science consultant. Sadly, not every show knows that they need a consultant, which is why there’s some crappy stuff out there. There are also shows that would love to have one, but don’t have the dough. My first job in tv was on The X-Files and they employed a full time researcher. He had a book-filled office in our building (by building, I mean double wide trailer). This was in the late 90s and the interweb was new and limited and he would call experts and trek to the library and dig through reference books and science journals, looking for justifications, explanations and inspirations for us. It was fantastic. Chris Carter and the producers were always trying to ground their stories in facts.
And YES, fans let you know if you’ve made a mistake or are wrong about anything. I’m pretty sure the internet’s primary purpose is to instantaneously disseminate these three words, “Worst episode ever!”
What is the biggest complaint or compliment you’ve ever gotten about something viewers saw on screen?
Compliments? Writers don’t remember compliments. — The biggest complaint I ever received was for an episode of The X-Files I wrote called Signs and Wonders. In my mind it was a story about not judging a book by a cover, that sometimes the person telling you what you want to hear is more dangerous than the person calling you names. To one person who wrote me a letter, it was a polemic against tolerance and I was the patron saint of hate-mongers. I guess the flip side of metaphors is that they mean something different to each of us.
What does it take for a story idea to become a successful television show?
Clearly, I haven’t figured that one out yet or I’d be typing this on a solid gold laptop.
What has been your favorite show to work on? Why was that show different?
My mom says you love all of your children the same amount, just in different ways. I was going to say it’s the same with tv shows, but I realize that’s a lie. Some are smart and interesting while others are stupid, ugly bastards you wish you could keep locked away in the basement. The X-Files was the show that got me interested in television. It was visually sophisticated, had smart characters and it told a type of story that I understood. It was also part of the cultural zeitgeist at the time. I’ve been fortunate to work on a number of terrific shows, but The X-Files remains special because it was my first.
Do you think the audience for science fiction series on television is expanding or contracting?
Expanding. If you told anyone in the business that a cable show about zombies would have a higher demo number than ANY network drama, you would have been laughed out of town.
What is the most important quality someone should have if he or she wants a career as a television producer?
The beauty of television is that you need a whole bunch of producers with a wide range of skill sets: writing, directing, selling, babysitting, persuading, pleading, calming, fact-checking, begging, laughing, editing, big picture-thinking, detailed-thinking, scheduling, dreaming. Notice that yelling, berating and screaming are not on my list. The producers I know, who work consistently: love what they do, bring their passion to each project and always strive for excellence. Chris Carter always said that if you don’t try and make it excellent, you don’t have a chance of it even being good.
What can you tell us about S.H.I.E.L.D.? Is the series aimed mostly at fans of Marvel Comics or is it seeking a broader audience?
I can tell you almost nothing because Marvel will release a pack of bee-spewing hounds at me if I spoil anything. I can affirm what’s been in the press — It’s set in the Marvel movie universe, Agent Phil Coulson is part of the team and it’s going to be funny, sad, strange, and beautiful.
Is there anything that we should have asked, but didn’t? Anything you would like to add?
A few years ago Jon Turtletaub invited me to an Exchange event that he was hosting. I was blown away to discover that some of the best and brightest minds in the sciences were willing to donate their time and talent to help make people like me look less stupid. I’ve been attending events for a while now and I’m never disappointed by the quality of thought or the generosity of spirit. The Exchange has also provided me with consultants on three pilots (including the new Marvel show) and they have helped make each of them smarter, richer and more accurate. Going back to an earlier question, another important quality for a television writer/producer is to know where their bread is buttered. Thanks to Rick Loverd, Amy Westermann and all the consultants.