If you missed the first part of my report, it can be found here:
For the next panel, I attended “Saving People: Supernatural and Social Issues”. This panel was chaired by Nightsky. She shared her story about how finding Supernatural led to a second career that she never expected, writer. I know Nightsky has shared her story with others on this site before, but she also told it as part of this panel. The story stays fascinating every time I hear it!
Another panelist was Carly of SPN Survivors. Her group (provide tumblr link) supports those who are affected by suicide. She talked about how Jared’s “Always Keep Fighting” mission really started at Chicago Con in 2013, when he gave that message to a fan who was struggling with thoughts of suicide. She has always wanted to find that fan but hasn’t been able to, just to make sure she is still alright.
The third panelist was Galen Foresman, a professor at Assistant Professor of Philosophy at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. He wrote the book “Supernatural and Philosophy”. He was fascinated by all the SPN essays he received and how passionate the fans were about the show and various social issues presented. He did admit that he still struggles with how Supernatural has such an appeal. A lot of the conversation was fans trying to explain why this show appeals to them. I would repeat a lot of those, but basically those reactions are those we’ve been seeing on this site for the last 7 years. There are so many reasons, and they're all correct. That's why so many books are being written about it. (Here's my review on this book back in 2013 - http://www.thewinchesterfamilybusiness.com/article-archives/the-mystery-spot/18119-book-review-supernatural-and-philosophy-metaphysics-and-monsters-for-idjits).
Once the panel was done, it was time to go down to the basement for the marquee event, the Keynote address by "Supernatural" writer Robbie Thompson. But first, we got to witness first hand a random act of kindness by Random Acts. Needless to say, there was a lot of effort that had to go into the coordinating of this event. Jess, the graduate assistant of professor Paul Booth, the host of this event, put loads of time and energy into organizing everything and having it run like clockwork. She did so unpaid, and on a laptop that was barely functioning. A representative from Random Acts in front of the theater crowd honored her by presenting her with a new laptop. You know, watching these random acts in person is quite extraordinary. The amount of joy it brings is insurmountable. That’s how you save the world BTW, one person at a time.
Once we all dried our eyes, it was time for the main event. Paul Booth and Robbie sat down in a casual setting and played Q & A for the entire hour. Paul started with his informal list of questions, and then it was the audience’s turn.
How did he get started as a writer? From Star Wars, first movie he saw in the theater. He was fascinated with it all. He asked questions like who made that and how did they do that? He's been asking that question every day since. He wanted to learn about the process and fell in love with it. He loves visual storytelling. He went to University of Michigan to learn about film, but he dropped out. They didn't have a film production program. They wrote essays about it instead!
Robbie's best friend decided to make a film, so he became the script supervisor and film editor of his movie. He also applied to USC and got into the writing program there. He chose writing because it was affordable. It cost too much to make independent films. He called them "credit card films," aka people max out their credit cards to make them (so true, I know a few people that have done that!)
How does being Co-Executive Producer work? It's not what we think (something Sera Gamble also explained to me a while back in one of our interviews before she was showrunner). It's like a military rank system. You start as staff writer. "Your job is to shut the fuck up and listen." Story Editor happens in year two, but he's not really editing stories. Year three is Executive Story Editor, something he calls the dumbest title. "I don't edit anything." Then it goes to Producer, Co-Producer, and Co-Executive Producer. As for his current role on the show as Co-Executive Producer, "I don't get a say, I don't get a vote." Carver and Singer are the ones that make all the decisions.
He called any job you join a cult and you hope it's a good cult. He mentioned one he was particularly fond of, working on "Nash Bridges." His fondest memory of the show behind the scenes was one day on the set star Don Johnson was in a mood. He got mad, stormed off, and hit the elevator button. Nothing happened. He kept pushing the button wildly and got nothing. That's because it was the set elevator!
Robbie loves going up to Vancouver to watch the directing (he told us the night before that he pays for these trips with his own money). He loves watching John Badham work. He watches everyone and takes in everything that goes into making an episode. It helps him with scripts too. For example, he got to see first hand that dialogue isn't always needed. Jared and Jensen are so good with nonverbal acting. "We have writers on our set all the time. We have Jared and Jensen."
He feels a real collaboration with all the actors too. He cited an example with "Angel Heart" where he approached Misha about having to play two characters, Castiel and Jimmy. Considering he saw Jared there on the set playing three characters in one episode, he figured Misha could handle it. It wasn't a problem! He's so blown away but what these guys can do.
When pitching ideas for his script, has there been tension? He wanted to do more with Demon Dean. In the pitching process Jeremy (Carver) and Bob (Singer) come in and dictate what's happening. An actor coming in for example usually changes things. He was told by Bob Singer the 200th episode was a musical. He didn't want to do it at first, but then once the idea sank in he embraced the challenge.
When he went to write "Girl With the Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo," he was told that he needed to write a character that would "carry water for us" because Jared's wife was due to deliver during that time frame! Turned out, that happened the episode after. He talked about his inspiration behind Charlie. Felicia hadn't been cast when he wrote the character but his brother is in IT and he knew IT people were smart (hee, I are one of those!). He also had "The Insider" in mind when writing it. He was so impressed when Felicia came on board. Her chemistry with Jared and Jensen was so amazing and she was fantastic to write for. He loved the heart that went into the "I love you...I know" scene outside the MOL bunker in "Pac-Man Fever."
The name Sera Gamble came up a few times in his chat during the afternoon. We could tell Robbie had a real fondness for her and the way she did things. She was the one that hired in him season seven and his very first episode to write was "Slash Fiction." He had a lot of ideas for that episode and Sera embraced them all. She especially loved his "Nobody puts baby in a corner" line. "Because she's awesome."
One pitch he had was an episode where Sam and Dean were doing laundry and talking (aka the "fluff and fold" episode) then they would flashback to what happened after Dean was sent to Purgatory, or what went on with Sam "before he hit that fucking dog." Dean's story would be that he had his gun with him but he only had five bullets. The story would focus on how he used up all his bullets. Sam's story would have showed him looking for Dean until he hit the dog. They would never share their stories with one another, but we would get to see it. He challenged someone to write that in fan fiction. (I swear I'm doing that!)
Robbie also mentioned how he has huge respect for fan fiction writers and the works put out there. Legally, he can't read it, but he knows the work that goes into it. He's so impressed with the creativity in the fandom.
After this we went into a speed round. There was nothing really speedy about this round though, other than we got some really great answers.
Favorite character? The Impala
Favorite episode? All of them (although he said it was "Mystery Spot" in the bar the night before :) ).
What character will he bring back? Robbie paused and smiled. "Trick question!" He said Rufus. He wanted to see a Grumpy Old Men of Letters spinoff with Bobby and Rufus. They would go cross country opening old MOL bunkers.
Who does he want to guest star? William Shatner (that met with huge approval from everyone).
What are the cast like? All are wonderful human beings. Jared, Jensen, Misha, Mark, Felicia. They're gorgeous in person. It's like looking into the sun. "They're like two suns. Like in Star Wars looking out on the suns of Tatooine..." (He's so adorkable when his inner fan boy comes out).
Any pranks? No, but there's a common gag for the tech scout. The last day of prep someone orders someone an outrageously large meal. He was the recipient one time and got a meal with 8 chicken breasts and 7 lbs of broccoli. He tried to eat it all too, but naturally failed.
Where does he get ideas? Everyone has at least one story to tell. Once you tell that story, it's addictive. 80% of what they pitch is shit. Sometimes you write a line and you have no idea where it comes from. Ideas come from your own experiences.
What's new with Metatron? His story obviously isn't over. They love the character and love Curtis. He's a blast to work with. He loves that we love to hate him. He tells great stories.
Why did he kill Meg? "Because I'm a horrible person." Big grin! (I swear I got a similar answer from Kripke once in an interview. LOVE that answer.)
Then it was onto fan questions.
He was challenged to pick a character from Shakespeare that he would want on Supernatural. Hamlet. "This is the best Gen X character ever." Hamlet couldn't make a decision. "A slacker."
He was asked about "Wayward Daughters" (a spinoff idea that's growing popular among the fandom starring Jodi, Alex, Claire, and Donna). He loved the idea, but as far as he knows there are no plans. If they did go through with it, he would pick Bob Berens to write that since he first did Jodi and Alex together. He would love to see his perspective.
With that, the talk turned to Charlie, aka the elephant in the room. When he was writing 10.18 and breaking 10.20, he was told to change the family name to Styne because they're the Frankensteins. "What?" Robbie was a thrown by that but okay. "Oh, and Charlie dies." That really shocked him. "What???" As a writer he doesn't get a vote, but he's allowed to speak his mind. He made a passionate case not to do that. He didn't make the case with Bobby in season seven when Kripke broke the news, so he decided to do so this time. He eventually (after protesting through email) setup a meeting with Jeremy and Bob and passionately offered an alternate story to Charlie dying. Half way through Bob even stopped him and joked "Okay counselor..." Eventually though he got a "Thank you for your time" and they decided to go with her death anyway.
Best piece of advice he's gotten? He got advice from his buddy, write what you feel. He connects with characters, but they aren't his. It was really fun to write Cain. "I'm not the father of murder, but I know what it's like to want to kill my brother."
Someone mentioned Silk, his comic book. He loves writing Comics. He'd like to write more.
What does he think of the Supernatural fans? "This fan base is so unique. There's nothing like it." He thinks the fans are smarter than him and have great ideas. They also catch things he never thought they would catch. He's very impressed!
Does he go for different strategies when writing the episode because of what's said on Twitter? They're aware of what's being said but it's not part of the process. "I have to honor the story." There are some cases where fans think that tweeting will change things, but it really doesn't. For example, with Amelia, who he knows was not popular, they decided to end her story before the fan complaints. It was already written. Still, a few fans thought that "they were listening to them" when the decision was made. He wasn't asked to be on Twitter (none of the writers are) but he just does. It's amazing. "I'm an individual and I speak my mind once in a while." He likes that fans do the same.
Past season event that he wished he was part of? Soulless Sam. He would love to write Soulless Sam. Heck, he even said he would go home and start the fan fiction.
A fan came up and bowed at his feet. She was dressed as Gabriel and she was forever grateful at Robbie for bringing him back. Robbie said that Richard is an old friend (20 years) and he always watches Richard's old episodes. He never got to write for Richard when he was with "Jericho."
Robbie, Richard, and Rob at Comic Con 2012 (picture by Alice Jester)
What is it like to write for a show with such a passionate following? "My favorite tweet that I get 'Fuck you Robbie Thompson.'" He's never seen anything like this and he never will. "I hope to work on other shows. This one will never end." He thinks it's wild that a kid from Detroit got to be a part of this.
What if he could create any character? He would do Loki, bring back the Trickster, and have them fight.
After the keynote session, we took a break and Robbie started his next session, the writing workshop. According to Robbie, "writing is a fucking job." He recommended a few writing books. There is a Steven King writing book, he talks a lot about process. The other is "Save the Cat." It's terrible, but really simple instructions on how to write a screenplay. Or just read books. That helps.
He offered plenty of advice, so here are the soundbites in "fortune cookie wisdom" style. He was obviously a bit more verbose on some of these items, but the general points are there.
Figure out your process. Go on walks when writing. It clears your head.
Keep a notebook with you at all times and write down everything, especially when an idea hits. It doesn't matter what it is, write everything down. You never know where an idea can lead.
Find the time to do it (writing). You've got to finish it. It doesn't have to be perfect. It's a draft. "There's diamonds in that garbage." "Getting to the end is a fucking triumph." When you're finished, walk away, leave it alone for a while. Once he leaves and comes back after a while, "I'm not attached to it anymore."
Keep writing. There's nobody stopping you. "It's an addiction. I love it, I hate it."
There's no re-inventing the wheel. There's always structure. Tell the story. Structure helps whittle down the ideas. "It sets you free."
"What do my characters want?" is a question he always asks.
What's happening in television is exciting right now. They care about content. His issue with TV now? "There's too much fucking content and not enough time."
Rejection is a big part of writings. Embrace those rejection letters, embrace those failures. "I make a lot of mistakes." He prefers to be a cautionary tale.
Feedback is an important part of the process. He has a stable of writers who's opinion he trusts, but ultimately the final opinion is yours. You know when it's ready.
Say it in front of a mirror. Read it out loud. For screenplay writers, do a table read. Listen to the room.
When the story isn't working, it's called "dirty diaper phase." (I am so using that!)
After that, Robbie opened up his time for more fan questions. He went at least another half hour, well past the session time. Here's the info we got out of that discussion:
When working with showrunners, he looks to see do they have a vision and are they decisive? Will they let you go home (aka, have a life)? His job is to help two people (aka Jeremy and Bob) that have impossible jobs.
The "All Out of Love" scene in Slash Fiction almost got cut. The director Phil Sgriccia really wanted to do it, so did Jared and Jensen. He thought to himself what would the boys listen to secretly when the boys aren't around and "All Out of Love" was the result. He put in the script that Sam should have horrified looks while Dean sings, and he was so impressed that Jensen nailed every note and Jared had the funniest looks! The My Little Pony stuff with Dean cutting the pony and the noise it made weren't in the script. That was added touches of the sound crew, which is why he loves how everyone comes together when making an episode and putting their own touches on it. He wasn't sure if we noticed, but the ending scene where they had the severed Leviathan heads in the trunk, the My Little Pony was there too! He thought that was a great touch. There is apparently an extended version of that scene out on the Internet.
Speaking of songs, his favorite used in the show is "Eye of the Tiger."
What is the process for writing an episode? First, he needs to write an outline, around 8-10 pages. That takes about two days. Then he writes the script in 4 to 10 days. He needs to give the crew as much prep time as possible. They have only 8 days to shoot.
Sera Gamble had a rule when constructing a story. It had to be "googlable". It had to be grounded. That involved doing some research. Research is valuable, but it's a distraction too. There's so much out there to filter through. He loves adding to existing lore though.
The show is impossible to make. Writing has to be sensitive to schedules. That 23rd episode really puts a strain on them. They have a really great crew though and they get the job done.
Felicia was great. They had a really fun collaboration. They're friends.
Robbie's "dream season" is do 13 episodes and release them all at once like what you see on Netflix.
Robbie confessed that writing helps him with anxiety issues, which he has had his entire life.
I got to ask Robbie a question, and it was the same question I asked Robert Singer at Comic Con back in 2013. How do they maintain continuity with so many episodes, knowing that the fan base gets very vocal when it's not followed? He said that he goes back through old episode and tries very hard to maintain continuity. That's his process though, and he can't speak for the other writers. He knows though that sometimes he screws it up and he wants to hear from fans when that happens. He doesn't mind. He does run things by Andrew Dabb as well as show him drafts of his scripts for an opinion. He has a close working relationship with Dabb. But he's sensitive to it. (I think we have a good idea which writers aren't).
One more thing about Robbie Thompson before we move on, all throughout the session he made it very clear how blown away he is by the fans and all the great things that have come out of Supernatural as a result. He was wearing Jared's shirt "Always Keep Fighting" and he adores the extraordinary spirit he witnesses when interacting with fans. Oh sure, he gets a lot of hate comments too, but as he stated, that's just part of the phenomenon. As a writer he doesn't have to interact with fans, but he chooses too. He is as inspired by us as we are by him, and that's a common relationship we see with most everyone involved with Supernatural. As he said, he'll never see anything like this again.
The session broke up not long after that, and it was onto the book signings. Robbie signed books for a long line of fans along with Lynn and Kathy of Fangasm, talking with them the rest of the afternoon. I really admire this guy's energy, but he definitely found a lot of energy through interacting with the fans. It was truly a rush for him, and it was fantastic entertainment for us.
During the day, there was also a silent charity auction run by Random Acts. People donated all sorts of books and fandom items for auction, and they weren't all Supernatural. There were items there from other shows like "Star Trek" (all versions), "Doctor Who," "Sherlock," "The Vampire Diaries" and a bunch of other shows. I donated some SPN items that I've accumulated through the years and was very pleased to see they all sold and earned some great money for this awesome charity.
Even I got into a bidding war. At the last Comic Con in 2014, I was not able to secure the Supernatural bag. I have all the Supernatural bags from the previous years, but I thought that last year's was among the coolest I ever seen. It was Sam and Dean in a salt outline. Turns out, Mo Ryan did get that bag and it was hers up for auction! I eventually emerged the victor, swiping it away with a minute to spare. Not only is that bag now proudly united with the rest of my collection, but I have deep satisfaction in knowing that getting that item in the end benefitted Random Acts, a charity that has done nothing but incredible things, and it came from a friend.
At the end of the day, the auction items were distributed, I had a group hug with my amazing WFB crew, and it was time to call it a day. There was travel to Ohio the next day and a worn out from sightseeing family down in the lobby hungry and tired. I want to congratulate Paul Booth, Robbie Thompson, and everyone that was involved in putting together a very successful conference and memorable day. It's just another glaring example of how Supernatural is just way more than a TV show. It was truly a day to celebrate.
Read more about Robbie's Writing Seminar, panels and the DePaul Conference in Part 3 by Nightsky!