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'Supernatural' writer John Shiban

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'Supernatural' writer John Shiban
Scary just got sexy.

So runs the tagline for ITV2's Supernatural, a sci-fi drama about two young and handsome brothers travelling around the US hunting and exterminating a variety of ghosts, spirits and demons.

But slogans aside, don't underestimate this series - its knack for telling classic horror tales with quirky twists, coupled with an ongoing mythology that ties directly into the brothers' family tree, harks back to the golden days of its cult predecessor The X Files.

Last week DS spoke to one of the show's principal writers John Shiban - who counts The X Files amongst his credits - about the secret to Supernatural's success and what's in store in the new season.

The second season has just started in the UK. Could you start by reminding us where we're at as the season starts?
"We left off last year in season one with quite a big cliffhanger, with the Winchester brothers being reunited with Dad and facing off with the yellow-eyed demon, who's the one who killed Mum and sent them on this whole journey. They face off with him, and then actually, he has the last move... they think he got away from them, but he actually sends a lot of his demons in a truck - or a possessed man in a truck - to take them out. It looks like he did, we just don't know, we don't know who survived this. So that's where we're going to start off. They're in some deep shit there!"

We're actually a couple episodes in now - was it always the plan to kill John off in ep 1?
"It was. From very early in the [first] season. Obviously, when you start a new TV show, when you start a new franchise, you don't always know how it's going to work and what things you're going to want to keep. From early on we realised that John is a very important character and he will - and I can tell you this - he will be back in season two, even though he's dead. At least, in a weird supernatural capacity. So we're not done with him as a character, but we realised very early on that it kind of split the show in season one, and that the boys were looking for Dad, and they were looking for a monster of the week, whatever that is, whatever case crosses their path. It became difficult, because it was like - 'what is Dad doing? Is he doing more interesting things than the boys are doing, or what?'

"So we came to the conclusion about mid-season, where we already had a plan for confrontation with the demon for the end, and then Eric [Kripke, creator] came to the decision that Dad's gotta lose that fight. In between then and the time of dying, he makes a bargain with the demon, and that's going to play out. The fact he made the bargain is going to play out all the way to the end of season two. That's what we're working on now, the last few episodes."

Season two in general, how would you describe that for the UK viewers? Are there more mythology episodes, or are we going back to the single story episodes?
"I think season two has a very nice balance of what we call mythology and what we call the standalone. We learn a lot in season one and I would say there's never an episode where you can completely ignore what's happened, there's too much going on in their lives that they can't pretend like they are different people, or that what happened last week with Sam or whatever doesn't apply to this week, even though we have a monster.

"You'll see in episode two, 'Everybody Loves A Clown', it has one of my all time favourite monsters in it - a killer clown. You gotta love that! There's a big chunk of that that's gotta do with the mythology, you can't just ignore it. Having said that, I think we've found the right balance. We'll go with episodes that are very standalone, very scary... we have the ghost of a serial killer, we have scary dolls, we have a lot of hauntings and what not. Then we'll do an episode about the children like Sam and we'll go off into standalones for a few more episodes.

"Then we'll come back and there'll be more about what happened to Sam and his reaction to that, and the secret - whatever Dad whispered to Dean becomes very important through the first half of the season. One lesson we learn was that some of these things need to be resolved, like killing Dad. The question of what Dad said to Dean when he whispered on his deathbed gets resolved about mid-season, we reveal that and deal with it. Then we move onto the new problems. So, I think we hit our stride in year two."

As you said, you're working on the end of season two right now. How important is it to you to take into account the fact it could also be a series finale?
"We had the same quandary in season one, because in the US it's on the CW, which is a brand new network, never existed. We were faced with - 'Do you leave it with a cliffhanger, do you leave it hanging and play it as if you're coming back?' We opted to go with what we thought was the best for the series and the best storytelling, and went for a cliffhanger which seemed right. There's less of a cliffhanger in season two, although there are some big revelations at the end, so a lot... there are a lot of questions answered. We just played it as if we were coming back, because I think that dramatically that's the best way to do it."

How confident are you that you'll get a third season?
"You know, I'm fairly confident to be honest, I feel like the fans keep coming back and we're retaining in the US a nice number of viewers after Smallville, and one of the important things for the network is that we keep a certain percentage of that audience after Smallville. We're doing that, and the fanbase is growing and it's doing very well overseas. I'm fairly confident. You never know. I've been on a lot of shows and you really can't know. Operate as if you are and keep your fingers crossed. I'm feeling good about it now, because these episodes at the end are coming in and they're so exciting. I'm hoping that the executives will say 'wow, we've got to keep this going'."

You say you have Smallville as a lead-in, but even still, you've got a pretty difficult timeslot. Is that frustrating?
"Errr, it is. It is. Everybody takes it into consideration - we're up against Grey's Anatomy, the number one drama, and CSI...it's really hard. Like I said, everybody, the execs and the powers that be realise that and they cut us some slack and realise that we're not going to compete against those powerhouses. It's still frustrating. I know there are a lot of people who watch Grey's Anatomy who are either TiVoing us, so it's on there, they're watching us later - and until recently that hasn't counted much in the Neilsen ratings. I think a lot of people aren't even trying us, they're hitting those two big choices one after the other. I don't think that's fair, because I think the show's terrific, and people, if they try it, are going to get sucked in. It's tough. I don't know what else to say."

I suppose that must be a factor when you're trying to fuel a mythology, because you still need to make it accessible to new viewers.
"True, true. That's the battle in every story meeting. We go in the writer's room to break a story, and we're always having that debate. To be loyal to the fans, you can't pretend like they know everything about Sam and Dean, they're not involved in the Winchesters, but by the same token your hope is that somebody heard about it from a friend and has tuned in for the first time. So you're always resetting things to be clear for the new audience. It's a struggle, though, because there's a lot of things going on, there's a lot for people to catch up on, but I think we do a pretty good job of it. I think if people do pick it up mid-season, it won't take them long to catch up on it. Nine times out of ten they're going to land on a non-mythology, just a good old horror movie episode and hopefully love it."

What would you say the target audience of the show is?
"We do very well in the 18-34 males and females, we skew a little younger than a lot of shows. We have a very big female audience, which we love, so it's not just the fanboys watching. I think that 18-25 is probably where most of our big hardcore fans are, so we try to keep them happy."

And you've got two male leads to do just that - but is there ever any temptation to add a regular female to the cast or to flesh out the core?
"Honestly, there's always talk from the networks, studios etc, to flesh out the core. In season two you'll see we expand, but I think we're very true to who the boys are and what their situation is, so they're going to run into the roadhouse, which is introduced in episode two. It's called Harvelle's Roadhouse, it's in the middle of America, and they learn that it's a bar that's frequented by hunters like them. We've met hunters in season one that knew Dad, or were a friend of Dad, out there in the world fighting the forces of evil. Now we're going to meet a few more - and some of them are going to play out through the season, and there's a young woman named Jo, her mother named Ellen, we'll meet a hunter named Goran who's a great character.

"Of course, there's Bobby from last year, so we expand the world but if anyone's worried that the show's going to change, it's not - it's still two brothers on the road. It's very hard for them to maintain a relationship, and that's kind of the idea, the difficulty of that. We play on that through the season, and actually late in the season Sam does get a little romantically iinvolved with a woman in an episode. But they always move on! They're the future, they're the Lone Rangers, they don't stay in one town very long. That's the nature of the show and we try to be true to that. We are expanding the show and adding characters to it, adding relationships, friendships, etc."

Can you tell us a bit about your involvement with the show and what a typical day involves for you?
"We have a small staff and I'm mostly involved with the writing side of things, the way we divide up the work. Eric Kripke is the executive producer/creator. He's the co-show runner with Bob Singer, Singer takes care of most of the production side of everything, but he's also involved with all the stories. My day will usually be either writing whatever current episode I'm writing for a few hours in the morning, with the other writers. We usually meet in smaller groups, no grand room, so I'll meet with a writer to break their story. We have certain hoops we have to jump through for the studio network - so we have to come up with a concept, work on that as a group, kick in ideas. Once we get that honed down, we have to do an outline, more outlines, etc. It's a lot of story break and just really leading on the scripts till they're in really good shape. It's a lot to do. As I'm sure you know, in television every eight days they need a new script, once we start production. It becomes - to maintain the level of quality we're doing, it's a lot of hard work, a lot of sitting in a room and fighting about vampires and what not. That's pretty much my life on Supernatural!"

When you're writing, how much attention do you pay to the fan reaction, and how much do you check on the internet to see what people are saying?
"You know, I'll be honest, Eric does more of that than I do. I used to do that a lot when I was on the X Files for years, and I'll check in periodically. I find that certain sites I'll go to to check out their reviews, or see what the fan reaction was. It's tricky, because we do and we have made some decisions based on a broad sampling where we'll sit in the room and go 'hey, did you check out this site?' 'Yeah, they hated this character', 'well maybe we shouldn't bring that person back'. But everybody has an opinion, and we have an opinion too, and you have to try to balance that. I know plenty of writers who have become sucked into the fan base and it can be dangerous because it's not always the consensus. There are voices that are louder than others, and they're not necessarily what everybody thinks. You can get confused, I think, so I try to look at the good reviews and just ignore the bad ones, put it that way."

The slogan to market the show over here is 'scary just got sexy'. Do you think that's an accurate way of marketing the show?
"Really? Scary just got sexy, that's right, I heard that. Actually, I do. It's kind of a broad tagline, and obviously refers to our two boys - there's no doubt about that being sexy! The swagger of the show - it's got rock and roll, I think that differentiates it from other scary shows that are more serious and dour and we're very conscious with all the drama and SturmundDrang that's in there, we still like to have a bit of a popcorn movie in there, we still think it's important to have fun. That's where you get Dean and his humourous asides and witty rejoinders. That's all sexy, that's pretty good."

How far in advance do you plan? Do you have the third season mapped out already?
"In the very beginning, we mapped out, we put signposts up for about five years in our head. We kind of knew that at the end of season one, this is where we'd like to be, end of season two, etc. We're kind of sticking to it, but we were careful - this is a lesson I learned on the X Files. We're careful to have a broad idea of where we wanted to end up. Not necessarily sitting down and making decisions at the crossroads you're going to hit and the direction you're going to go in. I've found in my career that new things are going to come into the mix, you're going to find things you never anticipate, characters are going to appear that you'll fall in love with and say 'wow, that really fits well into the mythology in a way I never expected'. We're always open to it. So yeah, I would say we have a very broad idea of where we're headed, but we wanna stay in that dream with the boys. We know there are going to be things they're going to encounter that we can't anticipate."

Supernatural airs Sundays at 9pm on ITV2.

And check out the new edition of Tube Talk later this week for more from John - including what's to come later this season!




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