Discovering Paul Dini's "Tower Prep"

Tue, November 23rd, 2010 at 2:11pm PST | Updated: November 23rd, 2010 at 3:36pm

TV/Film
Kiel Phegley, News Editor
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Tonight, Cartoon Network's live action original series "Tower Prep" kicks into high gear with its sixth episode "Book Report." Spinning the story of teenager Ian Archer who's kidnapped and transferred to be a student at the inescapable title institution where students with special abilities are groomed for a purpose they don't understand, the series has been slowly but surely building a major set of mysteries in its Tuesday night 9:00 PM timeslot.

Teaming with a trio of fellow outcasts in the school where the best students go along with the status quo, Ian has already discovered the depths Tower Prep's deception goes from a series of hidden tunnels linking the rooms to the supernatural-seeming "gnomes" who patrol the grounds to capture escaping students. And as series creator Paul Dini – best known to comics fans for his work with the DC's Dark Knight Batman both on the page and on the small screen as well as a variety of creator-owned comics – told CBR, the answers to the series strangest headscratchers are on hand in the next few weeks of episodes.

To help dig into the origins of the series from how Dini's original pitch went to a fully fledged series under the guidance of show runner Glen Morgan and his brother Darin (both well known for their work on the sci-fi classic "The X-Files"), the creator gathered a number of "Tower Prep's" writing team including Jeff Eckerle ("Law & Order: SVU"), Riley Stearns ("My Own Worst Enemy") and Aury Wallington ("Sex And The City") for a CBR News roundtable. Below, the quartet of "Prep" scribes detail how they discovered what works in a teen mystery series, how the show opens up in a big way in the coming episodes, why writing for young people involves more than buzz word dialogue and more!

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Drew Van Acker's Ian Archer discoers "Tower Prep."
CBR News: To start with Paul as both creator of the show and the writer of the first handful of episodes, despite so much work on so many different kinds of TV shows from "Batman: The Animated Series" to "Lost," your work with "Tower Prep" was the first time you've made something soup to nuts and then handed the reins off to other writers to build the whole season on. How did that change your process, if at all?

Paul Dini: At first, I was thinking that this was such a crap shoot that I was just going to write what I want. We had discussed the pilot and the world of "Tower Prep." I had a general outline of where I wanted it to go as a story and what would happen if it ever went to series, but I had a feeling for whatever reason like "I'm the dark horse here. They're letting me write a pilot, and that's great." Because at first, it was just that they were letting me write a pilot. And then if it got picked up to be one of the pilot's they were producing, it was the next big bump. Once we actually shot the pilot last year in the summer, and then about a year ago this month, they called me up and said, "We loved the pilot so much we're going to take this to series." It all comes in different steps. It's like playing a video game and expecting to be knocked out on each level. I never dreamed we'd be going all the way through to series, so at the beginning I was just writing to please myself and make sure the pilot was the best it could be.

And when it got closer to the pick-up date, I started writing more. They had said, "We want to see how this would work as a series. We're not committing yet, but we like the pilot an awful lot." So there was a process where I really wasn't thinking anything beyond telling a cool one-shot story. I figured if that was as far as it goes, that's as far as it goes. At least it would be a good pilot script.

Once the series was finally greenlit, how did the full staff come together? Did you focus on who would be doing what, or did the Morgan brothers as show runners come in with a strong hand on taking the pilot to series?

Dini: It's yes to both. Glen and Darin had an awful lot to do in terms of setting the tone in the writing room. There was a short list of show runners we wanted, and Glen was the one I wanted the most and also the one who I think impressed Cartoon Network the most. I was thinking all the while we were shooting the pilot in British Columbia "This should have an 'X-Files' feel to it." I was very happy to be doing the pilot outside of [Hollywood] especially in that area because that's what I imagined the Tower Prep area to look like the most. Geographically, it was perfect. So when Glen's name came up, I was going, "Boy, if there's any chance to get him, I'm all for it."

Once he did come on board, he suggested Darin, and I was all for that. Riley was one of his suggestions also. Aury came because we wanted a female voice in the room as it was very important to represent that half of our cast in the room. I was very happy with the way the writing room gelled. It was a really good mix of talent and sensibilities and senses of humor which you really need in any writing situation.

For the staffers from the show, what was your first reaction to Paul's pilot script? Did it immediately spark you to say, "I have ideas for stories in this world?"

Jeff Eckerle: It's interesting. I have kind of a unique perspective. [My writing partner and wife Marilyn Osborn and I] came into that staff when they had already been up and running for quite a while. We came in at around the mid-point, right?

Riley Stearns: Something like episode 8.

Many secrets lie in the tunnels beneath Tower Prep.

Eckerle: What was neat about it was that we literally stopped one job on a Friday, spent the weekend getting prepped on "Tower Prep" as it were – we read every script and watched as many cuts as were available. Obviously for a first year show, getting into the nuts and bolts of how it'll work and getting it up and running is really crazy. It was interesting to us coming in at that juncture, getting a feel for where the thing was going and how it was going and then seeing it develop relatively quickly. To be able to come in from that perspective and get an overview thanks to the graciousness of these other people, we were able to walk into the room on that Monday morning and felt like we were sitting down with old friends, which in a couple of cases we were with Darin and Glen. But everybody else was so open and welcoming. Just like Paul says, the overall sense was that the way the room gelled and the way everyone contributed and felt open made it so we were able to come in and say, "I can verify that even when you felt like you were feeling things out in the first few episodes, there's an undertone that's already taking effect."

By that point, everyone was talking about "Where are we going to take this thing now? How is the mystery going to unfold?" I don't know how you guys feel about it, but after the first few episodes, things started focusing on the mystery of that place and who the characters are, how they got there and how they'd get out. Week-by-week, the mysteries unfold, and it's interesting to watch the discussion on the internet now where the audience is starting to tap into that. They're wondering, "What in the hell is going on? I think this is happening. I think that's happening."

What I really appreciated from the pilot on was that this show didn't talk down to the audience. It actually gave them credit for being smart, and the characters on the show don't talk like fools or like they're too hip for the room. They talk like real people, and the story is complex. We see that [younger] audience where the network was going, "Gee, will they get it?" And they GET IT.

Dini: I think I was asking a lot from the writer's room to take these ideas, which had been the pilot and some development notes I'd made on the show, and really make a series out of it. Even though with certain answers we've discussed a lot of the end game and what will happen in a year or two, there's a lot of stuff going on in my brain that seem very crystal clear to me, but once I start articulating them, they're incredibly vague. We were blessed with a staff that was able to hook onto things that I wasn't able to explain any clearer than I am right now and find the nugget of logic that made sense and use that to progress the story and characters forward. It is an ongoing evolution, and everybody contributes to it. They refine the ideas that seem vague and that are illusive to us. Those ideas are formed in the writer's room. That's the place we can discard old ideas and form new ones or take what's an ember of a thought and fan it to life. It is very gratifying to see the audience take hold of that and fall in step with the mysteries that were outlined to carry us through the rest of the year.

Eckerle: What's interesting too is that this is an audience used to complex storytelling. "Harry Potter" is a very densely-plotted story. It starts out rather simply and then gets very, very complex woven with its characters as it goes on. So they're ready for this.

Dini: Yeah. And it's something you don't see a lot of on television. One of the major gripes I have with television for a younger audience is that it either talks down to them by explaining too much, or it tries to appeal to what somebody else feels is "their level" which they take to mean a very surfacey hipsterism element to the dialogue, which doesn't strike me as right. The writing on "Tower Prep" seems to speak more toward a kid in a realistic way than in a way that a show will that's trying to be kid-like. I think if that's the tone they're going for in Young Adult novels, let's bring that tone to our series. I think real kids will talk in a very conversational way before they load a lot of slang into their dialogue.

Knowing all the issues that come with shows like this: it's a mystery show where you want to hold certain elements back for effect, AND it's a show for young people where you don't want to make it feel like it's written by old people trying to act young...as you broke the stories for the episodes, what were some of the rules and guideposts where you'd say, "On 'Tower Prep,' we're never going to do this" or "We're always going to do this"?

Dini: Boy, I don't think it was ever really that hard or fast.

Eckerle: I didn't notice that when we came on board. It was an open discussion where the best idea on the table flies, and you grab onto it. What I found coming in a little later in the game was how collaborative that room was. You can be in rooms that are tougher and full of politics and that crap, but none of that was here. This was a room full of people trying to come up with the best ideas they could and finding things that would excite them or us. If it excites us, we know it'll excite the audience. Like Paul said, what was interesting about it was that you discovered it along the way too.

Dini: I think that if anything comes out distinctive in the voice of the characters, it comes from the characters themselves. You always look to Ryan [Pinkston, who play Gabe] as "the funny one," and all of his dialogue will have a funnier edge to it. Or Ryan as Gabe will give it a funnier edge while he's delivering it. You can write towards that, but he brings a lot of that out in his performance. You know when an actor is doing certain things that feel organic, you want to write more towards that and not deal with a hard and fast list of catch phrases – Suki says this when she's in trouble or Ian says that before he goes into action. There are a lot of shows that write like that, and a lot of shows especially that are for kids – I've been on shows where they give you a list of catch phrases characters must say at least once an episode...

"Jinkies!"

Dini: Yes!!! [Laughter] And all those things just die. You can always tell when a character is spouting a catch phrase that a bunch of writers brainstormed because it never sounds organic. It never fits the mood of the moment. But we can count on Ian taking the lead in the situation, Suki being the more protective of the group, C.J. being a bit more guarded and a little more hesitant to voice something until she's figured it out for herself, and I think that's the kind of quality in the characters that we want to hit every time rather than deal with catch phrases or contemporary expressions to be hip.

Aury Wallington: I also think that when you try to go "Oh, I'm going to try to write like a 15 year old" is when things quickly sound dated or stilted. Slang that evolves naturally and our of things they just say in conversation makes for the most realistic dialogue and makes them sound true and alive. That's way better than reading "Teen People" and going, "Oh, all the kids are saying such and such."

Dini: Kids never talk like that. They talk in a very conversational way when discussing things. They talk about things that matter: friends and security and your stature in a group. We all wanted to hit on that, but not in a slangy, too contemporary kind of way.

Eckerle: Also, these are bright kids. They're smart kids, and it's cool to be smart.

Dini: And that, in turn, can lead to distinctive character beat. Among the other kids at Tower Prep, we have this character called Fenton, and he's very affected. He considers himself an aesthete and an intellectual, so his dialogue is peppered with little references to opera or art. That makes him a fun character – a little bit of a foolish character also, but he's got a warmer core to him. That's something we discovered as we went along: a sensitive core to him that comes out in later episodes, which is not to say he can't still be a jerk. Even a jerky kid has something underneath and different levels for kids to identify with.

There's a level of complexity to all these kids. Not all of these kids are always going to be seen as heroes, and not all of them are always going to be seen as villains. That's one of the things high school is about to me. Throughout that four years, your allegiances are switched and relationships change. We wanted that to be the same in "Tower Prep." To a degree, Tower Prep is a real high school. It's just that the elements are blown out of proportion and into caricature.

Well, Paul, you had spoken at Comic-Con about how your own prep school experience worked to inspire the show in general. For each of you guys, what kinds of school experiences did you bring into the show as you were writing episodes?

Elise Gatien's C.J. talks to the "Tower Prep" team in the Observatory.
Stearns: I probably contributed the least in that because I feel like my high school was extremely boring. [Laughter] But when what you're doing is really boring, you're off reading books and watching movies, and that's where I got excited. When I was the characters age, I was thinking of stories like this, and it's the kind of thing I wanted to be watching on television. I always bring up in talking about "Tower Prep" how I really miss shows like "Goosebumps" and "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" and "Eerie, Indiana." I'm only 24 years old, so those things are what I watched when I was younger, and I thought we could do something like that again: making a show that was kind of creepy. Kids like to be scared, and so I felt like the show spoke to the inner child in me, and it was really fun to work on that kind of an idea.

Wallington: I think that no matter what kind of high school you went to, it's universal that all teenagers – even the popular kids, even the loser kids, even the crazy kids – feel like an outsider at some point. Where as Paul went to prep school, I went to a tiny, rural public school, and even there it was like "I have dreams of Hollywood" which set me apart from the kids in the future farmer's club. But I'm sure that my experience, while it isn't comparable to the actual Tower Prep experience for Ian or any of the kids, had that "Do I fit in?" element. I think every kid has that whether they're home schooled or whether they go to a huge inner city school.

Eckerle: I think you're right. High school is like one of those transformative times where everyone has things glued into you that feel so important at the time. It's really something you feel like you can go back to really quickly. I think another interesting perspective is how Glen has kids that are in that age range, and he would come in and pull from the personal life experiences of his own kids even. What's interesting there is that their concerns are pretty much the concerns you had when you were a kid. It's very human and very complex, and it's about wanting to fit in and wondering "Who do I trust?" There's a lot of peer pressure that plays into it too, but I think it's interesting that even thought the world of "Tower Prep" is exceptional, these are real, relatable people who are not afraid of themselves but are trying to navigate the strangeness of high school.

Dini: Most of the kids who go to the school do not question the school. That's how all of them, at some point after they arrive, recognize "This is a scary place, and maybe the best that I can do is put on that tie and blazer and get in line with all those smiling kids who have accepted this and forget about the outside world until I'm told different." That's the assimilation. A lot of kids go through high school just like that: "There's safety in numbers, and at least if I'm a part of the herd, I won't get picked on. I don't want to be one of those kids on the fringes, because God knows what'll happen to them." And that's where our story is, with the kids on the fringes.

We've been talking about the broad ideas of making the show, but getting into the specifics, I know this show deals with mysteries and puzzles within the school. What were the elements each of you were most interested in playing with in terms of the sci-fi concepts in the show?

Eckerle: For me – and again, I was Johnny Come Lately – I loved the fact that this kid falls asleep, and when he wakes up he's a fish out of water. He has no idea how he got here. He has no idea who these people are and why some of them are acting like this is natural. It's watching that kid find his place in this and rediscover that fighter in himself. I know that that's not a specific mystery – a lot of that stuff we probably can't talk about because we want people to discover it for themselves – but what I loved was that discovery. I loved putting myself in his shoes or their shoes and trying to discover what the hell was going on.

Dini: Early on, we put together what we called the "what we know" board that the kids have in the observatory, and every time they discover something about the place, they put it up: what they think the gnomes look like or sketches of things they've found. It all goes on the board, and they review that from week to week. I think that's a key part for solving the mysteries for the characters, but I also think it's a place for the viewers coming in to see how that evidence mounts on the board. It allows viewers to know what's going on through their eyes. While we could give a lot of explanation for where they are or who the gnomes are or something like that, it's more fun to discover that as the kids are discovering that.

Stearns: I really liked the exploration of the school itself and finding out where hidden doors where and rooms that hadn't been opened for years. But also trying to figure out what the school itself was. It has so much history, and we get the tunnels in the second episode, which I think is an idea everyone had because it allowed us to riff on them from episode to episode. We got pretty far into it, and I think folks will be surprised by what's to come from that.

Eckerle: That's a great location too.

Stearns: Yeah! It's a mental hospital in Vancouver called Riverview that Glen pretty much puts in everything he works on because it can double for anything. That place is as scary as hell in one movie, and then the next project it can double as a college dorm room.

Dini: In episode 9, we answer a lot of questions specifically about the school and the origins of the school, but by the time we've done that, you've got so many more question. You come reeling away going, "What...WHAT?" [Laughter] That leads it to another level, and by that point the audience will be invested enough to want to find how far it all goes.

Wallington: And I think it's cool how it's not just the school that has mysteries. I've always been most interested in the relationships among the kids whether it's friendships or dating, and all of the kids have secrets that eventually come to light in various degrees. There come mysteries about the characters themselves: who they really are, what they're saying and what's true or not true. The school's mysteries are cool, but that the characters themselves are part of the mystery is great.

Dini: In the pilot, they're introducing themselves to each other, and Gabe goes, "Well, I was meeting my parole officer" and you're like "Wait...what? You were in jail?" There are things that are dispensed with very quickly that all rear up later.

Well, Ian is the character that we all see as the everyman character who we all see a bit of ourselves in as he discovers this. On the flipside, you have the female lead C.J. who literally can't remember her life before "Tower Prep." Did that make it harder to develop that character as the episodes went along?

Dini: You know, she can read everybody, but people have a hard time reading her. She plays everything close to the vest, and I remember early on Glen talked to each of the actors and said, "Answer this question as if you were the character: if you had one phone call to make, who would it be to?" When he asked Elise [Gatien], she said, "I wouldn't even know who to make that call to. I just hope somebody out there misses me."

Eckerle: It's been very interesting to see how so many of her mysteries aren't in the school, but they're buried inside of her. So she becomes a really interesting character in that respect. People who have secrets are very interesting characters to write.

Can you tell us about one episode each of you worked on that was particularly fun and what happens in it to move the story along?

Stearns: I will go on record that I am most excited for people to see Darin Morgan's two episodes. [Laughter] I am a huge fan of Darin – I think we all are – and having something written by Darin who has not had something produced since "Millennium"...God, people don't even know what they're in for. He was really, really a genius on this one.

Dini: Yeah, in his script for episode 9 every page was a Christmas present. [Laughter] It was like unwrapping something you found in your stocking and going, "Oh, this is great!" but then you turn the page and go, "Oh, this is even better!!"

Stearns: We knew his episode 9 was going to be about dreams, and I am the one person who was kind of concerned about how things can be weird and how dreams on film can never be portrayed well. "Inception" was still coming out then, and we had a lot of discussions about that. And he totally changed my mind and blew me away with it.

Eckerle: I think this speaks to the larger issue too that while all of those are absolute gems, the concept itself allows for this kind of playing. It allows you to stretch yourself in different areas. There's a core mystery, but because of the world that's created here, there are so many different ways to go. You can have departure episodes, where you come in and go, "I didn't expect that coming." At the same time, there has to be a nurturing environment from the top, which Glen and Paul created when they said, "Let's open this room and see what we can do." This environment let's you have the best of both worlds. It gives a great ongoing story to tell while also letting you go off and be creative.

Dini: And by the time we got to episode 10 or 11, we'd learned so much not just about our core characters but about our supporting characters like the Headmaster and Emily Wright or Ray or Cal Rice and Fenton – that was really something where the joy of the scripts coming in was not just the mysteries but the fact that we'd made some sideline characters into such engaging personalities. I love it when the nurse shows up! She's this great, creepy, icy character, and every time she shows up in a script, you go, "Ooohhhhh, the nurse is back!" Whisper evolves as a character. Coach evolves as a character. That's when we picked up the rhythm – as the characters become richer and you want to spend more time with them despite the fact that Ian is anxious to escape.

The world works really well as seen through the audiences eyes and through Ian's eyes. You discover this as he does. There are times where the other kids know things he doesn't know and will say, "This is how this works." The fun is his process of discovery, and I think we all wanted to say, "Let's not take it too fast too much. Let the audience discover it as Ian does."

Discover the many mysteries of "Tower Prep" Tuesday nights on Cartoon Network at 9:00 PM Eastern and Pacific.

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TAGS:  cartoon network, tower prep, paul dini

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