Doing a conference call Q&A with Bones showrunner Stephen Nathan, solo, still feels a bit odd. Once again, we were talking to him without the show’s creator, Hart Hanson – and Nathan’s riffing partner – present (Hanson, of course, is working away on FOX’s Backstrom – a series he also created).
Other than that, it was business as usual as Nathan talked about FOX’s most durable and dependable series – and the show’s milestone 200th episode.
Hi. Thank you so much for talking to us again. It’s great to talk to you.
Stephen Nathan: Hi, how are you?
Stephen: Good. Good, and very excited for Thursday.
The episode was really awesome, I loved it. I know you talked before about how you wanted to do something different in tone and style and everything for the fans for the 200th episode. But I’m curious, how did you come up with the idea of what you did do with the film thing? Also, how did you choose what character would play what kind of roles in it?
Stephen: Well, I think coming up conceptionally with this, we wanted to go back to something that was classic because after ten years, we’re moving into the classic category; not many shows last for 200 episodes. I think there have only been 24 dramas in the history of television from what I’ve been told. We wanted to do a classic examination of the show and of the romantic nature of the show. This style, this time, really sets it apart and allows us to highlight that aspect of our series in a way no other time really could.
We also got a chance to reintroduce Booth and Brennan, see the initial attraction and the blossoming of their romance, again, in new circumstances. In terms of which character played which parts, Booth and Brennan, essentially, are the same people—
Stephen: —in different specific roles, but Booth is still this honorable man who had been through the war and who was trying to right wrongs. Brennan is somebody who is stubbornly holding onto a set of beliefs that no one can shake from her, and she will be proven right in the end in this circumstance.
The other characters, we just had a great time with them. We just tried to put them in similar roles, power structure wise, if there is such a thing, and also to see which roles would allow them to have simply the most fun. What’s going to be the most fun for all of these characters, some of whom we can only see for a line or two, others we see for a scene, but what was just going to be the most enjoyable situation to put them in and that’s what we did. This was really a labor of love, and we wanted the audience to share the fun that we were all having doing it.
Right. And putting Pelant in there was funny, too.
Stephen: Yes. What? He’s there?
To follow up a little bit on the previous question, I was wondering if you could speak a bit to any films, in particular, that inspired you for the Albert Hitchcock theme of this episode?
Stephen: Well, personally, I’ve always loved Hitchcock so this was just a dream to do this style. What was the question again?
I was wondering if there were any specific films that really inspired you—
Stephen: Well, the specific films, we reference them mostly visually in this.
Stephen: It was To Catch a Thief; North by Northwest; bits of Notorious were in here; The Man Who Knew Too Much. We just really called the library of all these great Hitchcock films, and also of the time to just drop those little things in. What we didn’t want to do, and hopefully we avoided was, not to do an episode that was just a wink and a nod to those things and also where the episode had to rely on costumes and props and cars. What we tried to do was do another great Bones mystery, a mystery and a story that existed and was sustained on its own merits, and it was cloaked in this style and I think we did that.
David did a remarkable job directing this, and really carried forth this vision that the story was the most important thing. We wanted the audience to go, who did it; what are they doing now; oh my, God, that’s an interesting twist rather than, oh, there’s another car and oh, look at their clothes now. I think David really directed this walking that fine line perfectly. That’s the reason, I think, that this worked so well.
I was wondering, I noticed that the characters were drinking a lot as people did back then. Was there any idea that you might have smoking or was that something the network said no or you just decided not to do it?
Stephen: You know what? The network doesn’t like smoking, and certain things have changed since 1954. In 1954, there were ads about the benefits of smoking where you saw doctors telling you that it was good to smoke. I think we wanted to get away from that. I mean, it would’ve been nice to have somebody smoking, but it really wasn’t that necessary. I think that time was really more about, at least for us, knocking back some nice, dry martinis rather than trying to contract lung cancer.
You praised David Boreanaz, and it was just excellent, but I wondered if you wanted to just maybe take a minute to praise the wardrobe and set and music and prop department. I just thought it was great. Do you have anything to say about that?
Stephen: I can honestly say this was, by far, the most difficult episode Bones has ever done; it was a massive, massive undertaking. We’ve had earthquakes in the subway system of Washington and tornadoes and shot up the house and nothing, nothing compared with this episode. In the middle of the season, to do an episode this enormous, this complex, this exacting, requiring this much care and detail, it’s really just incomprehensible that it got done at all.
Every department on Bones—this episode shows how brilliant this entire crew is, and cast, the cast and crew. The art department, Valdar Wilt, who’s the production designer; Megan, his art director; everybody; it was spot on; wardrobe, Robin, every single person; props going all the way down to Greg Collier, who’s our DP, who got the color just right, who lit this in a different way and then going into color timing; the people behind the scenes who do the sound mix; Sean Callery, our brilliant, brilliant, brilliant composer, who found a way to be true to the music of the time and yet still have the style that is our show.
It’s just a remarkable achievement from every single department because I think if you look at this, if you didn’t start in the beginning you could be looking at this thinking, oh, I’ve never seen this movie before. What is this movie? It is so precise and exacting, all the detail work that went into this episode. I have nothing but the highest praise, admiration and respect and really, awe for the crew and how they pulled this off.
Yes. I guess, as a follow-up then, the opening scene combined with the credits, it was just so unique and I loved it. It seemed like Fox—I thought they seemed kind of generous in allowing you to do it that way, the opening and then the credits. Can you maybe speak to the conversations with the network and how that was approved and how that came to be?
Stephen: Well, the truth is, the network and studio were just fantastic; they were supportive. They were onboard for the whole thing; they loved the concept and were as happy to be a part of this as we were. The opening—I had always seen this as really just trying to do a film from 1954, and part of that was developing a new font, which was styled off of the font that was used in the credit sequence in To Catch a Thief, and also to do the actors’, producers’ and all of the crew’s credits in the way that those credit sequences were done in old films. We actually had to get the studio and network to sign off on, and all of the actors and producers, writers, crew who were in the opening credits. Everybody had to sign off on these new credits because people didn’t have individual cards. People were sharing cards; there were only two that we were not allowed to share and that was because of WGA and DGA rules that those had to be separate. I think they might have had to be separate forever.
We really wanted the look and feel of this to be the same look and feel that—we wanted it to be accurate, and we were given that latitude and support from the studio and network. There was never a moment where we got any pushback from them about style or the substance of what we were doing. They were wonderful.
Can you talk a little bit about how—I guess was it different writing this episode from a normal Bones episode? Did you work with David at all because even the way that the actors spoke the lines was very like a throwback to the Hitchcock movies; it was almost affected. I guess, how did you go about writing it?
Stephen: Well, we wrote it like those films. I know those films quite well, and the style. You know what? It’s like music; it’s hearing a song, writing a song today and writing a song that was written in the ‘40s or ‘50s.
There’s a different music to it, there’s a different music to the dialogue, to the rhythms, to the types of words, the cadence, everything, and we just did our best to capture that. David and I talked for quite a while, although David got it right away that this couldn’t be a Saturday Night Live sketch of a Hitchcock movie, or any film from 1954, because that would become tedious in about two minutes. David understood that this had to be done with the same sense of truth that’s required to do any Bones episode. Really, just tried to write it so the rhythms were there, the dialogue was there, the slang was appropriate and then the actors just got it; Emily’s rhythms, the every so slight turn of her accent; Tamara’s switch in the middle of the episode. Everybody just found the same reality, and it just worked great.
Yes, it was really fantastic. Can you talk a little bit about how—I don’t know if you can, of how the actors approached their roles, because they were similar, but obviously different and this was a very different episode. How much fun did they have?
Stephen: Oh, they all had just a fabulous time. They’re actors, they got to be in the same show, play different characters with different clothes; it was just so much fun for everybody. Everyone either knew it in their—I hate to say it, knew it in their bones, or had done research and just relished playing this new style.
I think they all realized it was still in its essence, in its very, very nature, it was Bones. What we were celebrating after 200 episodes was Bones itself and the 200th still had, at its core, what Hart created, what makes this show so enduring, which is its essence.
I feel like every season you guys do either an undercover or it’s a one-up episode where, when David Booth was in a coma and we went back in time; all those crazy ideas. For this episode, because after ten seasons of playing the same role can get tiresome, do you feel like doing these episodes keep them fresh and refresh into playing the characters that they’re playing?
Stephen: You know what? I don’t know if we have any ulterior motive or anything like that. I think one of the things that is Bones, which is the essence of the show, is that it’s difficult to pin it down; our style changes. This year we did the human trafficking episode next to episodes that were very funny and very lighthearted. We can send Booth to jail and destroy the house and then we can do an episode about vegetables singing in a children’s show.
I think switching it up and, in a way, keeping the audience a little bit off balance has always been a signature of the show. When I say off balance I just mean that you never quite know what world you’re stepping into. You know for a fact somebody’s going to be dead, you know that we’re going to find out who did it in some, hopefully, new and unique way, but the worlds we go into; where we’re coming from; where our characters are coming from in terms of their personal lives is always going to be, if we’re doing our job correctly, a bit of a surprise.
I think those other episodes, whether we do the one where we see the entire show from the viewpoint of the skull, of a dead person or whether it’s the 200th episode where it’s 1954, or we do dreams or Stewie is in an episode; I think these are all part of this odd little Bones world that just keeps going on and on and on and on. We don’t really sit down and say, oh, let’s do a really weird one now because we need to; we just go, hey, we got an idea for a weird one, let’s do it. We just do it.
As follow-up, you guys are very, picking up on what you said, unpredictable and every episode you just never know what’s going to happen. For example, the killing off Sweets was a huge shocker, I know, for many fans. I want to know, moving forward, what we can expect for the rest of the season, and if you have any word of a possible continuation to an 11th season yet, if you guys have even come close to discussing that or where you stand on that.
Stephen: Well, we certainly have been talking about an 11th season. We’re ready to do whatever the network tells us to do. This is all up to the network. Network and studio have to get together and decide whether there will be an 11th season.
All indications are that there probably will be, but you never know until you know for a fact. We’re just going to keep moving forward. Hart and I have talked about this before; if we have to end it we’ll end it, but it doesn’t seem as if it’s ready to end.
Just really quick; how does that feel, though, to be one of those rare shows that makes it to ten seasons and still be going and still be going strong with such a huge fan base?
Stephen: Well, it’s remarkable, it’s one in a million; it just doesn’t happen. I’ve been doing this for a long, long, long, long time and I’ve never ever, ever come close to ten years. A 10th season, in the beginning, was an inconceivable thought.
We certainly, when we started, in the first 13, didn’t even know if we could have enough stories where we could be solving murders using bones, and here we are 200 episodes later still doing it and still finding new things. I don’t even know how that happens, but the show has a lot of life in it. It’s not boring for us to do. We don’t come into work and go, oh God, what now? We really come in going, hey, we could do this or this or this or this. We’re still excited about doing the show, which is remarkable in and of itself.
I was wondering if there’s been any decision made yet about whether you’re going to write in Emily’s pregnancy in the show.
Stephen: We’re still talking about that, but it’s very difficult to hide a pregnancy. We could have her behind desks and drawers and things like that, but I think people know, and the show is as much about their relationship as it is about solving crimes. This is what happens to people in relationships, married people who have children; they sometimes have more children. It’s served us very well before, and I think it will be an interesting new wrinkle in the show going forward.
I know there will be people who will violently disagree; oh no, I didn’t like when the baby before and everything [sic], but there are people who always disagree and then others who agree. It’s a lot like life; there are many, many different twists and turns in people’s lives and some people watching those from the outside like some and dislike others, and the ones that are disliked by them are loved by others and vice versa. We just have to keep going forward in a way that seems truthful to us and hopefully enticing and enjoyable for the audience; that’s our job. As much as we listen to the fans, we can’t be ruled by the fans; we can only love the fans.
(Ed: In the two days since this interview, the decision came down to write Emily Deschanel’s pregnancy into the show.)
This is another writing question. How is the show different to write and produce in its 10th season versus its first? How do you keep it fresh because you’ve never really had to recycle any story lines, and it’s been a long, long time?
Stephen: Well, I don’t know. I don’t have any idea. We just keep finding worlds that we haven’t explored before. We just have a remarkable group of writers led by John Collier, who continually come up with new and unique stories and worlds and science. The one thing we have going for us is that, in the past ten years, science has really done a lot of good, new stuff and we get to take advantage of all of that.
The forensic world is changing and allowing us to look at our crimes in a different way, and if we’re open to the relationships as living, breathing things, the relationships take us in new places that we haven’t seen before and just keep having a life of their own. It’s staying open and not trying to keep this show in a box, and I think that’s why often times you don’t really know what the heck you’re going to see on the show; you don’t know whether you’re going to be laughing or whether you’re going to need a box of Kleenex. As long as we can keep that going, I think the show has a tremendous amount of life still left in it.
I agree. I would like to see it go on forever, but I don’t think my opinion counts.
Stephen: Oh, of course it does.
Thank you so much.
Photos by Patrick McElhenney/Courtesy of FOX