Everyone in the industry thought veteran soap scribe Leah Laiman had lost her marbles when she gladly took over as head writer of NBC's scrappy serial Another World last summer. To say the job is cursed is a classic understatement; no fewer than 10 individuals have held the position since 1992, and rumors of cancellation have been circulating for almost a decade.
Laiman didn't sit back and take the critical lumps being lobbed her way, quickly throwing herself into her work and creating one of the most talked-about (and damn confusing!) stories in recent soap history: Lumina. We're not sure what it all means, but it's certainly interesting, and the show appears to be on the right track. Rather than being labled the final nail in AW's coffin, Laiman might be remembered as the crowbar that opened the coffin to let the show breathe again. Jonathan Reiner
Did you have any particular concerns when taking this job? Another World has been on its last legs for years!
No, I didn't even think about that. I don't worry about the future in that way. I'm happy doing what I'm doing when I'm doing it. Also, I just love being "off," so I'm one of those people who is never unhappy when I'm fired. The downside is you're fired; the upside is you have all this time to enjoy the rest of your life!
Seriously, everything just came together at the right time. I have to say quite truthfully that when I took the job at Another World, I was not absolutely certain about how I'd feel about it. I knew I really wanted to sink my teeth into something. I was at the point where I really wanted to take on something that I could have a vision for. I started the work, and I started getting into it, and now, I have to say, I have not had this much fun since my peak years on Days of Our Lives, and you know how long ago that was.
It was a decade ago.
Exactly! My daughter is 11, and we left Los Angeles when she was a baby. I'm having such a wonderful time and I love this show, love what I'm doing, and I love the way it's coming out. It's this wonderful symbiotic relationship with the producer, and my co-head writer (Jean Passanante), whom I adore. She is probably the smartest writer I've ever worked with. The circumstances of this job are just fantastic.
Where did the idea for Lumina come from?
It evolved. It's something bigger than life.
When you signed on, was anything about Lumina already in place?
There wasn't any concept of it. All the stories that were being done were of the earthly variety, and good emotional stuff the kind of gritty, salt-of-the-earth, day-to-day kind of stories. There was nothing there, and we were kind of desperate. We were fighting for ratings and fighting for breath. The writers and actors were very discouraged, and I think that they had just gone through a really hard time. And I was given the mandate to come up with something bigger than life. I didn't really know what to do, and I just sat down and thought about various things and came up with the start of a story.
Actually, I came up with lots of stories, and all of them had a Lumina involvement, but it kept evolving, as I'm sure the audience is aware. It changed somewhat at the beginning, but what was always there was that there was something inexplicable going on and that there was something magical happening. Whether we were going to explain the magic somehow or make the magic even more outrageous, I just always wanted to do a story on two levels, and I think that's exactly where we are now.
If you want to be skeptical, logical and reasonable, you can say, well, obviously, this man Jordan Stark has learned to use hypnosis and can make you think whatever he wants you to think because he hypnotizes you and it changes him from your point of view.
How do you explain the magic key?
You can still find a way. For example, I just went to Canyon Ranch in Arizona, where someone did something on me called "healing touch." It's a kind of massage therapy that uses heat from people's hands. I don't believe in that stuff, but here is somebody who is standing over me with their hands an inch away from me, and it was very hot! It was very strange! When they moved their hands away, the air was cold. If you could make your hand that hot, maybe you can make a key glow.
Was that experience the inspiration for this story?
No, not at all. The story works on two levels do you want to believe it or don't you want to believe it? To me, it was very intriguing to have that little bit of mystery, yet at the same time we did a lot of research for this story. We read about the work of Mesmer, which is where we get the word "mesmerize" from. I also was doing simple reading, not at all scientific, about Einsteinian theory vs. Newtonian theory.
Well, that's what soap opera is based on, right?
(Laughs) Yes, of course. The whole idea is that the mind is so powerful... you have no idea what it could do. We only use 10 percent of it. So, if you could measure your brain waves and you can measure things that are happening in your brain, and learn how to use your brain better, who knows what you could do? Einstein said that matter is mutable... that matter exists and changes shape and form. Who's to say that if you knew how, you could not make matter change just with your brain?
So we started the story, but didn't have it yet, and the idea of the baby disappearing in the elevator was right off the top of my head. The producers said, "We got to do something really big," so I said, "Well, what about the baby disappearing? Lila gives birth in an elevator and then the elevator goes up and the baby's gone!" I started writing the Lumina story and I came up with two pages of who Jordan Stark is and what he was looking for. It was very romantic and that became the blueprint for the story that we have. I'm having a really happy time, and obviously it must be showing in the work because everyone on the show is so enthusiastic now. The actors are enthusiastic and the writers are excited, and no one is more enthusiastic than [executive producer] Chris Goutman. We are having so much fun, I think, and it's affecting the quality of the writing.
Definitely, and you can see a change from six months ago and nine months ago. It's interesting that you say it's fun, because coming in you basically had to overhaul the show. You were left with stories that were either stalled, ended or going in circles. Besides Lumina, what were some of your first priorities?
In thinking about it, I realized it was about getting people back on track and then using the Lumina story as an umbrella. Cass and Lila immediately interested me, and then I thought, "There is something interesting going on there, but where is the romance in the story? What are we doing here?" So I worked very hard at positioning them as the romantic couple that we were going to be interested in. You can only do one thing at a time, and I decided that for one, I can't do it all! I can't overhaul the show. I decided that I'd just focus on one thing at a time.
One of the first things that I wanted to do was put in place a growing couple not like Vicky and Jake, whom everybody loves already. I wanted to root for a couple, and there wasn't one there, except for Cass and Lila and they only had a sparring thing. I thought, "OK, I'll focus on that. I've got to make them a 'root-for' couple," and I think we've succeeded.
I think so, too, because they appeal to all ages.
My 11-year-old loves them.
My mother has been a fan since the Alice/Steve/Rachel days, and of course has nothing better to do with her time than to call me every day and give her opinions. She has a hard time reconciling what's happened with Marley. I love it and I think it makes total sense when you look at everything Marley has been through, but I think a lot of viewers crave stability. Marley used to be smart, stable, sensitive and a little wimpy. What happened?
I know, I know. All I can say is what you said. When I came aboard, that's who she was, and I had to deal with it. I had to make it seem logical within the context I was given. I can't make Vicky bad again; the audience will be very upset, and rightly so, because she has changed. To duplicate Vicky with Marley also didn't make sense. We had the good sister [Marley] back on the show she was there and she had a contract. As a writer, I couldn't say, "I'm sorry, but she doesn't look like her twin anymore, and she's suddenly four inches taller." I had to deal with what I had.
People who want the old Marley are not going to be happy no matter what, so let's have fun with it. Let's make her riveting. Maybe it'll make you angry, but you will watch her. It's not as if we don't pay attention to what the fans say we do and we do care. We're not stupid we know that she's different than what she was before, and we could've always made a story with a Marley who was just as nice and good as she was before, but it wasn't what we needed at the time.
Also, how exciting is it to have two good sisters? Some of the expository stuff Marley had while hauling Vicky around town was just heartbreaking.
I'm glad you said that. We tried to root the story in some emotional history so it didn't come out of the blue. Horrible things happened to her, and if anyone wanted to be angry and bitter about something, she certainly had the right. We hope that came across.
How about getting some romance in place for the older women?
Have you sen Sergei yet? Oh, my goodness, is this boy luscious! We want to get some good-looking men and a sense of humor back on the show, and it's a great story for Linda Dano [Felicia], whom I adore. She's a wonderful actor, and a great person. I look at the guy that we cast, Jonathan Sharp, and I think to myself, "Linda, you just got a reward for being such a fabulous team player all these years. Here is your chocolate truffle go to town!"
You said that you pay attention to what the fans are saying. Well, I don't think a day goes by when Procter & Gamble does not get letters asking for Charles Keating [ex-Carl] to return.
That's a situation that happened awhile before I got here, and nobody has asked me, at this point, to write a story bringing him back. I don't anticipate it happening soon. I truthfully do not know the circumstances of his leaving, or whether he's even interested in coming back.
How long will viewers have to wait to find out exactly what Lumina is all about and why Jordan Stark is in town?
I honestly can't tell you, because I'm [writing] so far ahead and I don't even know what you're seeing now. At the beginning it was all mystery and we were giving no hints or clues. I think for some of the audience it may have been a little annoying. I have to say that at the beginning, we weren't entirely sure ourselves. The audience started to respond once they were able to figure things out.
Some fans enjoy the fact that the story directly involves the Corys.
Well, Chris Goutman is very conscious of what the audience is looking for. I'm hoping we're giving them what they want. We're trying to do more lighthearted things that are fun for the viewers to watch. Soap operas should be fun to watch otherwise, what would be the point?