13 Lost, 24 and Dream On common denominator: Writer David Fury! PODCAST INTERVIEW

Today’s Guest: David Fury, writer, producer, “24,” “Lost,” “Dream On,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Tyrant,” “Fringe”

Television screenwriter, producer David Fury

Television screenwriter, producer David Fury

Pop quiz: name the man who’s been a writer and/or producer for the following TV shows: “The Jackie Thomas Show,” “House of Buggin’,” “Dream On,” “Pinky and the Brain,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Lost,” “24.”

Give up?

It’s David Fury, and he joins us today via phone from Hollywood.

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BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: David, welcome to Mr. Media.

DAVID FURY: Thanks very much, Bob. I want to answer that question. I know, I know who that is.

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ANDELMAN: And we will send you a prize, I promise.

FURY: Oh, thank you.

ANDELMAN: David, does Barack Obama’s presidential campaign send a commission on every dollar it collects to the producers of “24”?

FURY: No, not that I know of. How did Barack Obama come into this?

ANDELMAN: Well, I look at Barack Obama, and it seems like he’s had a very smooth sail in these first months of his presidential campaign, and it seems to me, and maybe I’m alone, that a lot of it has to do with “24” making it very comfortable for America to have an African-American president, twice even.

FURY: Interesting. Interesting premise. Well, I’d like to think that we’ve, as a country we’ve become more comfortable with the idea of bringing in presidential candidates from different walks of life, whether they be black or women or Asian or anything. If “24” has anything to do with it? All the better. I’d love to think that we’ve, to some extent we’ve matured enough that people are open to the idea.

ANDELMAN: It’s interesting. I mean, there hasn’t really been a situation in years past where an African-American would play the President and it wouldn’t be like a big deal, but now it’s like….

FURY: Well, there was Deep Impact I remember which had Morgan Freeman as President. My God, I would have voted for him right there if Morgan Freeman had run, such an excellent presidential candidate. Or James Earl Jones years ago in a movie called The Man.

ANDELMAN: I remember that.

FURY: I remember that, as well, so I don’t think we’re the first, certainly, to do it, but perhaps….

ANDELMAN: No, but it’s very matter of fact in “24.” I think in those previous settings, it was more, you know, “What?”

FURY: Well, certainly in The Man, it was very much evident that this was a racial issue and was telling a racial story. Morgan Freeman was handled matter-of-factly, and certainly David Palmer has been on the show. You may be right, you may have something to that.

ANDELMAN: Well, I do think you guys should get a commission. I think you should look into that.

FURY: All right.

ANDELMAN: I hear a lot that Republicans tend to love “24” because of its kind of take-no-shit approach to terrorism, and I wondered if the creative staff has a noticeable political bent.

FURY: Well, certainly a couple members of our staff lean very heavily toward the right, as there are a couple members that lean very heavily toward the left. We have a wide diversity of different political viewpoints. I don’t think Republicans, just simply Republicans love the show. I have heard that people as diverse as Barbra Streisand is apparently a big fan of the show.

ANDELMAN: I didn’t mean to suggest that only Republicans, by no means, but…

FURY: Everybody likes to filter their viewing of “24” through their own viewpoint, and we try to give a very diverse viewpoint on the show. Republicans will certainly embrace some of the more right wing aspects of “24,” the take-no-prisoners approach to terrorism, and there are others who recognize that that doesn’t work all the time. What you really have is somebody like Jack Bauer, who is serving the greater good but who has no particular political bent. I mean, David Palmer, I think, was always presented as, I think, a Democratic president, and Jack’s loyalty was to him for the most part for the first few years. Our executive producer/co-creator, Joel Surnow, is very vocal about his conservative Republican leanings, and he has a lot of friends of his who do enjoy the show and do think it supports their agenda. Although many of them criticized the show earlier this year, when we did the story line about Wayne Palmer’s sister who was voicing sort of the liberal bent, and her boyfriend, who was incarcerated along with other Muslim prisoners, we suspected to be involved with terrorism and then weren’t, I know Joel got a lot of criticism that, “What, is the show starting to lean toward the left? There are good Muslims that were over-reacting?” We’re trying to say that there’s no easy answers, basically, and some people look for answers in the show, and some people recognize that that’s just not going to come.

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ANDELMAN: You don’t have to answer this, but where are you in your own political leanings?

FURY: I’m very moderate. I’m a registered Democrat. I suppose I’m conservative fiscally, and socially I’m much more moderate, so I am either a very liberal Republican or very conservative Democrat, I’m not quite sure.

ANDELMAN: Would it be a wrong guess that, politically, those writers’ room sessions could be pretty interesting conversations?

FURY: Oh, you have no idea! The debates that go on and on on a daily basis regarding whatever is going on in the current administration. There’s people, Evan Katz, another executive producer on the show, who definitely leans more toward the left, and he gets into a lot of debates with Joel and Manny Coto, another one of our co-executive producers who is a staunch Republican. And then you have somebody like Bob Cochran, the other co-creator, who is a Republican but much more moderate than other people. And then Howard Gordon, our show-runner, whose wife is very heavily involved with liberal causes — and Howard himself is a registered Democrat — supports Democratic causes. The conversation does lean toward political debates.

ANDELMAN: Did the conversation a few months ago about torture on the show come back to the writers’ room?

FURY: Oh, most definitely. We discussed it. Even when it came on and before it became an issue, before it was made into a news issue, the discussion whether torture works, about whether it should ever be used, and the moral ramifications. We discussed that at great length. Once it became more of an issue, I found myself defending our approach to it on a podcast and wound up on CNN News as the “writers of ‘24’ speak up on this controversy.” My contention was simply that we’re not trying to present a documentary or a realistic approach to fighting terrorism, we’re producing an evening of entertainment, and liberties have to be taken. The whole structure of the show, the ticking time clock and Jack Bauer fighting it the entire season, that’s something that just doesn’t happen in real life. There is no ticking clock, so there’s never any need to torture someone to get information out of them so quickly. You have to create scenarios where that would have to be, and at that point, you’re speaking in hyperbole.

ANDELMAN: I find the recovery from some of the torture sometimes to be entertaining. I keep thinking back to poor Morris getting that drill through his shoulder, but there he is back at work a few hours later (laughs).

FURY: Well, he’s a strong man, that Morris. Again, it’s the real challenge of the show, and certainly we’ve taken a lot more liberties later than earlier in the earlier years of the show where people do have to bounce back so that we can bring them back into the story. It’s very difficult if someone is tortured. Generally speaking, they’d be hospitalized, and you wouldn’t see them for several days, but of course, in a 24-hour period, you have to find ways to re-integrate them, and sometimes it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to get those people back. Poor Milo was shot, and there he is with a sling, still back at work. We just have to chalk it up to, “Well, we’re understaffed, and we need you, and this is an emergency situation, and normally, we’d let you rest, but you can’t now.”

ANDELMAN: Well, and how often does Jack get hit in the head with a heavy metal object….

FURY: Oh, well, sure. My God, Jack never died and was revived and picked up a gun and went after the bad guys again.

ANDELMAN: Well, now, it’s funny you mentioned that, because I wanted to ask you the thing that has always driven me crazy, and I mean in a good way as a viewer, is that the CTU staff seems to have the worst institutional security in America. I mean, there’s spies, there’s moles, there’s data taps, and God forbid you’re a high-threat suspect and you get brought back to CTU for questioning, because you or somebody is going to die, right?

FURY: Yeah, that’s usually the case. The justification that’s been given to me when I bring these things up is that CTU is really an intelligence-gathering organization, and organizations like that aren’t really heavily fortified security-wise. I mean, certainly we do an excessive amount of it, but the idea that CTU cannot be breached because it’s such a top government agency is probably over-stating it, since what they mostly do, they are a branch office of an anti-terrorist intelligence-gathering organization. They do have a task force, but if we need their systems to be tapped for a story, we’ll do it. If we need someone to get into CTU to stage a gas attack, that’s going to be a lot more interesting than saying, “Well, it’s impossible to get into CTU, no one would ever be able to do that.” We have to make allowances like that for dramatic purposes. Well, it does make CTU look a little, well, inept, you know, and again, it’s the alternative is, well, if we show them being absolutely impenetrable, we’re going to be running out of story very quickly.

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ANDELMAN: Well, and along that line, I think my favorite moment, and I think you may have written this episode, was a few weeks ago, Bauer and Doyle are driving Fayed back to CTU in a truck, and you just know they’re never going to make it there, because nobody ever makes it from point A to point B….

FURY: Nobody gets where they’re going, especially if you see them in the car on their way.

ANDELMAN: Well, yeah, exactly, and it was very funny, because it’s like the writers knew what viewers expected, and yet in this case, they turned those expectations upside down quite literally.

FURY: I knew that we had to when I was working on the story. I knew that really to make this thing work is to play off — and I approach this as a fan myself, say, “What is my expectation?” My expectation is that Fayed is going to be rescued by his men, then to turn that and to find out he’s not rescued by his men but it was staged, those are the ways that we try to hopefully keep acknowledging the story but also trying to keep everyone smart. It made CTU seem smart in trying this tactic. It made Fayed smart that he didn’t lead them right back to the bomb and to his men by winning the general’s okay. And then the general gives his distress code to Fayed, letting him know that this is all a trap. It was great fun to write, and I was very conscious when we were coming up with the story of trying to keep everybody smart, keep expectations there but find ways to twist them.

ANDELMAN: It seemed like that was one of those moments where your background as a stand-up comedian may have come in handy, because I laughed at that. It just cracked me up.

FURY: Well, I’m glad you got a laugh out of it. I rarely miss the opportunity to inject any kind of humor into the show, so I’ll take it where I can get it, quite frankly. But I see what you mean. It is the way I approached the story when I started writing “Hours” for “Buffy,” is finding the turns, finding the turns in the story, going with the expectations, and that’s where good comedy comes from, too. I mean, the sketches I used to write when I had sketch shows would have that same sort of thing, playing off expectations, buying the turn, and keeping the audience engaged.

ANDELMAN: Speaking of that, and the sketch show that I’m thinking of that you worked on was “House of Buggin’” with John Leguizamo, did you ever think you’d see him in a drama like “ER”?

FURY: Oh, yeah. John’s an incredibly versatile actor. Well, he had already done several dramas. He did Casualties of War with Michael Fox, he’s done some thrillers. I knew him as an improvisational actor in New York playing with a company, as did my wife. I think “First Amendment” was the name of the company off-Broadway, improv company, so I certainly knew he could do comedy, but drama, he’s a very talented guy, and there’s pretty much nothing John can’t do.

ANDELMAN: I was very surprised. I thought he carried off “ER” very well, and it was quite a surprise.

FURY: I didn’t see his run in “ER,” but I had no doubt he was strong. He’s best when, and quite frankly, as funny as he is, when it’s comedy, he loves to inject more of himself and re-write his lines, futz with the dialogue. I think probably when he does dramas, he’s far more studied, he’s far more tapping into his real talents as an actor.

ANDELMAN: As a co-executive producer and a writer, you were part of two different teams that won back to back Emmy Awards for Best Drama, “Lost” in 2005 and “24” in 2006. How on earth does that happen?

FURY: Well, I’d love to tell you that it was very calculated on my part, and I’m afraid I can’t. Other people have mentioned it, and I have questioned whether or not anyone else has won back to back Emmys on two separate shows. I don’t know how that happened except to say that I’d like to think that my influence on “Lost” for the first season was felt. I certainly enjoyed my time there. I loved writing the show, and when I regrettably moved to “24,” I tried to do the same. I tried to help make the show as great as it was, but it’s really about the people I’m surrounded with. I mean, I’ve been very fortunate to be surrounded by very brilliant writers, and really, you’re only as good as the people around you, I think. If my contribution somehow helped tip the scale, I’m very happy about that, but it couldn’t be done without the rest of the staff.

ANDELMAN: How does a creative person’s career change after one Emmy, let alone two Emmys?

FURY: Creatively, there’s no change whatsoever. You are exactly… and that’s the funny thing, particularly with “24.” Right after we won the Emmy, it was right back to work the next day, and you’d never know we just came off a great banner year. We were in the middle of trying to write the next season, and it doesn’t do anything but decorate your family room or living room, wherever you put your statue. Creatively, you’re still the same person, you’re still the same writer trying to do the same things you did before. Frankly, I was never more creatively satisfied than when I was writing for “Buffy” and for “Angel” and working for Joss Whedon — and there’s somebody who has long deserved an Emmy for what he brought to television. But it doesn’t really change you.

ANDELMAN: Are the creative processes that you experienced at “Lost” that first season and then at “24” the last two, are there similarities, are there differences?

FURY: There’s huge differences, at least as far as I’m concerned. What I tried to do when I was in “Lost” was, again, many of the things I learned doing “Buffy” and “Angel,” which is try to encapsulate a single story within a serialized show to try to really have a beginning, middle, and end and really say something and let there be a little poetry to the story. That’s something on “24” you can’t really do. “24” is, as I have described it many times before, it’s a run-away train. It is just this almost stream of consciousness writing, where there’s nothing really to arc out, there’s no beginning, middle, and end to an episode. There are events that happen, there are some emotional things that happen, but it doesn’t feel like a whole. There’s no episode that I can really take pride in saying, “That was my episode, that was my story that I wanted to tell.” As proud as I am of what’s episode 17 of year six, the episode you referenced, it’s not quite the same as being able to look at my John Locke episode from “Lost,” “Walkabout,” and feel great pride in that episode. It’s really much more of a factory here. We’re producing a product, and I’m just part of the machinery that produces the product. On “Lost,” there was pride of ownership as there was on “Buffy” and “Angel.” There was, I owned this episode, I feel like this is mine, this is my sensibility, this is my voice. “24” really can’t put across my voice. It has its own voice, and you have to kind of fold into it.

ANDELMAN: You sound a little like someone who might be a little aching to do something else.

FURY: I’m always aching. I am really proud of “24,” and when I took the job, I knew it would be a challenge for me. It would be something where I’d have to adjust my way of thinking, particularly as you pointed out, I came from comedy, and there is no graver, more dire drama on network television, in my estimation, than “24.” Everybody is at a heightened state of emergency, and there is no room for any kind of banter, let’s say, or any kind of real, just slow, quirky kind of things that I enjoy doing. So consequently, yeah, it’s been a frustration on the show that I can’t use my voice, I can’t use the things that I think I have honed over the years and I think that I’ve become good at. But everyone here is great, they treat me great, I have no reason to want to move on except I do miss writing the comedy. I miss writing the quieter scenes, the more fun scenes, and I miss writing the episodes that stand alone, that work on their own merits and are not just part of a larger picture.

ANDELMAN: I guess I have to ask, for a guy who has a very strong voice in his writing as has been proven in the past, how long do you see yourself writing for “24”?

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FURY: Well, I signed on for a three-year contract. We are just starting to work on season seven now. We are starting to talk about season seven as we are finishing up season six. I know that they have talked to me about coming on for two more years, but at this point, I have said, “I will fulfill my contract, I will do my third year.” If I decide at that point that there’s nothing else to pull me away, that I don’t have anything that’s pressing, I might continue, but I have a feeling season seven will be my last season with “24.”

ANDELMAN: I want to go back, because you mentioned the “Walkabout” episode of “Lost,” which, of course, established that Locke was in a wheelchair before the plane crash, and I was kind of curious about other key moments that you have been responsible for on other shows. You have mentioned “Buffy” and “Angel” a few times. I wanted to give you a chance on that. Can you point to something on “Buffy” and something on “Angel” where there was definitely a David Fury touch?

FURY: Ha. The David Fury touch.

ANDELMAN: Yeah.

FURY: I wish I could pinpoint the David Fury touch. There are things where I got to affect the mythology of the show. My first solo script for “Buffy,” was an episode called “Helpless,” in which Giles loses his job as watcher to Buffy. In my original story, he regained the job via the episode, but Joss loved the idea so much, as did David Greenwalt, his co-executive producer at the time, that Giles has lost the job permanently. That was kind of mind-blowing for me at the time. I was freelancing for “Buffy,” and I kind of went wow, I just lost Giles’ job for him. That’s pretty amazing. I think with the first script that I wrote with my wife, who was my writing partner at the time, Elin Hampton, we wrote an episode for “Buffy” was called “Go Fish.” I think that certainly was a nice introduction to one-hours for me, because it played on a lot of the things that I love, which is old universal horror movies, like Creature from the Black Lagoon, and being able to incorporate a lot of humor into that and writing a funny horror show, which also had a point of view, which at that point had to do with jock politics, it played off, again, the sketches that I wrote, the sketches I used to write doing comedy were all very pointed allegories for something. I had Frosty the Snowman meeting with his agent who was going to drop him because he’s melting, and Frosty refuses to admit he’s melting, the perfect allegory for someone’s career who is not what he used to be and refuses to admit that. And it’s very much what “Buffy” was. I don’t know how much of my influence was that or how much I just clicked in with Joss’ sensibility, but certainly “Buffy” and “Angel” allowed me to play a lot on metaphors and allegory, and hopefully, my voice came through on those episodes.

ANDELMAN: Do you have a good Joss Whedon story that has not been told?

FURY: Good Joss Whedon story. That has not been told? That’s the other question. Gosh, I don’t know. No, no, I don’t think so. I wish I did. Joss has just an extraordinary love of what he does, extraordinary love of writing and such affection for his characters. Most shows, this show, certainly, and I found it in “Lost,” and I’ve talked to other people on other shows, everyone’s sort of doing their job, and they are putting out their product, but the affection for their characters wanes at some point, and they just feel they are doing the job, they don’t really care. Joss never lost the love of any of his characters, and it was remarkable, because seven years into “Buffy” or five years into “Angel,” he loved those characters. He couldn’t bear to let them go, and so he’s continuing Buffy on in comic book form right now. It’s not much of a story, I know, it’s not really a Joss story, but it’s just something, again, I really admired. It does sort of inspire me to want to find those projects where I can continue to love these characters, not become tired of them after a few years, and still think there are stories to tell about them.

ANDELMAN: As a writer, now, what do you like to read? What’s made an impact on you over the years or recently as a reader?

FURY: You mean reading anything? Novels….

ANDELMAN: Anything at all.

FURY: Well, you know, I find myself reading, I do have kids, and I find myself reading to them a lot, so I end up finding a lot of books that they can appreciate, as well. I mean, the Harry Potter books are very big in my household. For my personal enjoyment, I read things like World War Z, which is a zombie book, a book about zombies. I guess I’m reading a lot of genre things right now, which I didn’t used to do. I used to be a lot more varied. I was always a fan of genre, but I guess now that I’m not really writing a genre show, I miss it, so I wind up reading a lot of that.

ANDELMAN: Let me come back to genre a little bit. “Lost” is apparently pushing toward a conclusion at some point in the next two years.

FURY: Yeah.

ANDELMAN: There has been a lot of talk about that lately. Where does “24” go from here? You’re going to be with it for another year. We know it’s signed on through a ninth season, I think. Can it, should it break in some ways with what’s become a rather rigid format?

FURY: Well, they’ve certainly talked about it over the years. They keep threatening to break the mold on the show, and it’s been difficult for them. When I say them, I say the people who have been here from the beginning. There’s always a lot of talk about really shaking things up, and ultimately it winds up back to be the same thing. Next year, I’m an executive producer on the show, so I’ll have more of a voice, as will Manny Coto. We’ve talked quite a bit about it, that our involvement is going to be more substantial next year in terms of helping to make the show different, not to retool it but to kind of make a concerted effort not to be rehashing some of the old tropes of ‘24.” It’s gotten no official pick-up through year nine. As far as I know, it’s got no official pick-up for next year, either, although I imagine that will come, and I am thinking it is going to be for two years.

You ask where it’s going to go. Well, there’s a difference between, a big difference between this show and “Lost” in that every season has a finale, has an end point, and the next season picks up off of anywhere from one to two years later. And I think what works about that is you can completely reinvent the show every year. There’s no reason you can’t and have a whole group of new characters, a whole new situation. “Lost” is a show that is playing almost real time itself. Every season, I think, takes place over roughly a 40-day period. I think the big difference with this show is that we can do anything we want to next year, whether Jack is going to be back in the same capacity, whether he’s going to be doing the same thing, I will certainly be very vocal about trying to find new avenues and new stories to tell with Jack Bauer that we haven’t told. It’s been tricky. We have put him through the wringer. We’ve cost him his family. His wife, his daughter is estranged from him. There are just so many things you can do with somebody like that. We’ve given him a love of his life, Audrey, who’s now, you know, about whether or not he’s going to lose her, these are all these…

There are just so many stories that we don’t want to keep repeating, and I can’t really tell you that we have it licked yet, but again, we are just starting to talk about it now. I think “24” can really go on. Its premise and its concept, can, just for the sake of argument can go on without Jack Bauer. It’s its own animal. It might be something else. I’m not saying we’re going to do it without Jack Bauer. I’d hate to do it without Jack Bauer, but as long as we retain the 24-hour concept, there’s not very much we can’t do.

ANDELMAN: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the show started with that twenty-four-hour clock, and it was quite stunning and revolutionary at the time, but then it wound up almost painting you guys into a corner.

FURY: Well, it’s definitely very challenging. It’s extremely difficult not to have time lapses, it’s very hard to get Jack from point A to point B. There are some people who thought this season, season six, was going to take place in China, have Jack start out in a Chinese prison. But people don’t realize, well, he’ll never get back to the States because it will take 12 hours to fly back to the United States! Are we going to do twelve episodes on a plane? People don’t realize that, they don’t really see the concept. It’s definitely frustrating. We’ve tried to do ideas where the show doesn’t take place in Los Angeles, but again, it’s tricky. CTU is in Los Angeles, you want to keep Jack in close proximity to CTU.

These are the kinds of decisions we are going to have to make to try and break the mold and find new ways to tell a story. But certainly, yeah, the concept for all it’s conceit — which I still think is brilliant — and I started watching the show in the first season and said, “How are they going to do this? And how will they keep this going?” And it’s sort of an exercise to watch it and then to be caught up in it, going, this is working. Oh my God, this is actually working. A lot of people have passed on this show, who said, you can’t do a show that takes place over a 24-hour period. It’s crazy. You know, people are going to be going to the bathroom, people need to eat, people need to sleep, who’s staying up? But it works. I mean, it works, and it’s heightened reality that we are presenting, and it sort of makes sense.

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Bob Andelman is the host and producer of Mr. Media® Interviews. He is also the author or co-author of 15 books, including The Wawa Way with Howard Stoeckel, Building Atlanta with Herman J. Russell, Fans Not Customers with Vernon W. Hill, founder of Commerce Bank and Metro Bank UK, Mind Over Business with Ken Baum, The Consulate with Thomas R. Stutler, The Profiler with Pat Brown, Built From Scratch with the founders of The Home Depot, The Profit Zone with Adrian Slywotzky, Mean Business with Albert J. Dunlap, and Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. Click here to see Bob Andelman's Amazon Central author page. He is a member in good standing of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (member page).