One of the few criticisms I hear about The Write Environment from time to time is, “Where are the interviews with women writers?” It’s not from lack of interest on my part.
Out of the roughly 9,000 members in the WGA, there are approximately 4,000 members employed as film and TV writers in a given year. Women make up about 25% of the membership and approximately 22% of them are working at any given time. I’d love to tell you I knew all of the women writers in the WGA, or at the very least, they know of me, but it just ain’t so. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know any… With that in mind this week I spoke with my friend, Katherine Fugate, one of the most talented and charming writers (man or woman) in the industry.
Katherine Fugate’s career in entertainment began on the production side, where she learned the ropes as a production assistant. Later, she worked at renowned entertainment talent agency ICM in the literary department. She also held studio positions at 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures. She was voted one of Variety's Women of Impact, 2008. Katherine created the hit television drama series “Army Wives” (ABC/Lifetime). Her other television credits include: “Xena: Warrior Princess,” and “Max Steel.” Her feature credits include: “An Ordinary Murder,” “Impermanence,” "Pompeii," “NFL Dad,” “Carolina,” “The Prince & Me,” “The Senator’s Wife,” and “Valentine’s Day.”
Jeffrey Berman: When adapting a book like Army Wives how do you capture the essence and spirit of the original material, the through-line and major sub-plots and cut everything else to fit the scripts limitations?
Katherine Fugate: When the manuscript to the book for Army Wives was first introduced to me, it was titled “Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives” and was written by journalist and Army wife, Tanya Biank, who has now become a good friend. It was a tough, well-written non-fiction account of an unfortunate series of murder-suicides that occurred at Fort Bragg, committed by soldiers who killed their wives shortly after their return from war.
In an attempt to explain the murders and hopefully prevent any more from happening, it also examined the military tradition, culture and lifestyle surrounding them, which became the basis for the fictional series I created. Because we were traveling down an entirely different direction than the non-fiction account, it made it a bit simpler to fashion the fictional setting into a universal tale of love, friendship and camaraderie in order to shine a light on the sacrifices that our military families make for our country.
I am, at present, writing an adaptation of Shakespeare, so that also requires a bit of muscle in that I have to update the master (and I, as a theatre major, take that honor very seriously), while staying true to the politics and heart he employed in a story written in the 1600s, which again can become universal, if adapted successfully. So I suppose the trick is how to relate the material at hand so that all those who see it will be able to identify with it, regardless if they are an Army wife or a Shakespearean character.
JB: Was there ever an issue on Army Wives where the men on staff were writing the women from a stereotypical male perspective or as props? And if so, how did you deal with it?
KF: It is a bit of a cliché to assume that men cannot write women and vice versa, so I try to keep an open mind to all writers, regardless of their gender. What is more important is how they specifically write to the tone and style of the show. Season 1 had a consistent voice which began with the pilot, where we employed a team with similar backgrounds and taste - like Ben Younger, a superb feature writer-director and Marshall Persinger, another fantastic independent film producer with true heart and grace. We were all on the same page when we started and we were able to form a family atmosphere with the cast and crew and that showed. I believe we succeeded in what we all hoped to accomplish in our first year and I am really proud of our success.
JB: Beyond adapting the book, what kind of research went into developing Army Wives and how important is research for any new writer working on a spec for a show like that?
KF: The cast, crew and writers all traveled to Fort Bragg and we all interviewed and met Army wives and families there. I also traveled alone with Tanya Biank to other Army posts and met her family and friends. The military has its own code of conduct, language and of course, all the acronyms to learn. It’s akin to writing about the film business, about politics, law, any setting where shorthand is used and you have your own infrastructure. There was a real learning curve in the military and I threw myself into it.
I am a rather focused, obsessive person by nature and I adore research because it‘s important for me to get it right and not to fake it. When I wrote The Senator’s Wife I had the honor of meeting politicians from Florida and briefly joining John Kerry’s run for the presidency in that state, which helped pepper the script with the insider dialogue and smaller moments I needed to give it authenticity. In writing NFL Dad for Warner Bros and director Chris Columbus, I spent a year with the owners of the New Orleans Saints, from being inside the draft room through one entire NFL season. I even flew to Pompeii, when I wrote that big epic for Paramount and director Jon Amiel. With Valentine’s Day, which starts shooting in July with Garry Marshall directing, I spent the day with Rita of Rita Flora, the flower shop/coffee bar where the script opens.
I personally am not comfortable winging it and feel there is nothing like being there to soak in a culture or see a new side of that life that would never be shown in a book or video of the subject. You never know what you will take home with you and it comes out in surprising ways in the writing, so I am just not comfortable doing it any other way.
As far as writing a spec for the show, I would think your best bet is to know the show itself. It’s amazing how many people don’t actually watch enough episodes to grasp the basic arcs of the characters. I wouldn’t think you’d need to do that much ancillary research, but devising an A storyline that deals with a military issue that can be resolved in that episode (as opposed to setting up a serialized dilemma), would be a smart move. That would show some insight and forethought in creating a great dramatic construct to explore and was one of the harder elements to come up with each week.
JB: Is it more challenging to write for a show with a relatively realistic portrayal of women like in Army Wives versus the strong comic book heroines found in Xena Princes Warrior? And is the process any different?
KF: Every show has its own challenges. I was blessed with Xena, because when I joined the team in the 6th season, the show was so established that I was able to be a bit left-of-center and stretch the boundaries a bit. Army Wives was about creating a brand new show that would move audiences to follow the stories of our characters, so they were entirely different set-ups. I do think with Xena you are given far more latitude - in that I wrote an alternate/parallel life episode with the sci-fi premise of “What if?” and you don’t get to stretch yourself that far on a realistic drama. But at the core, every show succeeds when you care about the characters and their emotional through-line. It’s a basic premise but at times gets forgotten in all the hoopla.
JB: As a writer is it necessary for you to relate in some way to each of the characters you write about?
KF: Absolutely - I leave a little bit of me behind in all my characters. We all are such complex, multifaceted people capable of so much more than we allow ourselves to experience. I truly believe, on a spiritual level, we are able to understand all experiences to some degree, even if we don’t actually live them. We all mess on each other’s lawns, we all share similar fears. We are all connected and we all long for connection. We all love and want to be loved. We all want meaning.
At the core, that’s the human condition, whether you’re an Elizabethan queen or a night janitor in a hospital, so we can all relate to that. Perhaps that is why storytelling is as old as time and we never get bored of watching a story unfold or examining a life well-lived - if only to have more tools to help us understand who we are, why we are here and what this crazy journey is really all about.