Back to Frank Black speaks to Matthew R. Perry!

Emmy and Edgar award winner Michael R. Perry is one individual I had been very enthusiastic about speaking to since the time this campaign began. Involved in no fewer than forty-five episodes of the franchise, Michael wrote such celebrated entries as “Thirteen Years Later,” “Omerta,” and “Collateral Damage” and created arguably one of the finest episodes of the entire canon. Fan favourite “The Mikado” has continually polled within the top three episodes of the show for over a decade and has been imitated but never bettered in a slew of formats since the episode aired. Michael took time from his very busy schedule to speak to Back to Frank Black and no one was more delighted than I. I am, and will remain, very much an admirer of his work.

Particular kudos has to be given to Michael for his response to our request for an interview. His words, thoughts and insights make this one of the most enjoyable and fact-filled interviews we have conducted. I am indebted to his warmth, honesty and generosity of spirit.

So, thirteen years later, enjoy the words of one of Millennium’s true luminaries, Michael R. Perry.

BACKTOFRANKBLACK: Could you tell us a little about how Millennium came to be on your
curriculum vitae?

MICHAEL R PERRY: In 1996/1997 I was working on the first season of The Practice as well as NYPD Blue (simultaneously — which you’re not really supposed to do). We Practice writers were housed in a construction trailer across from Chris Carter’s bungalow on the Fox lot. In this rickety trailer were Ed Redlich, Frank Renzulli (who went on to write for The Sopranos), Steve Gaghan (who later wrote the movie Traffic), David Shore (created House MD) and me. David Kelley himself had beautiful offices in a permanent building nearby, but visited us every day. Working two shows (and writing a movie at the same time) entailed a lot of late nights; I met Chris a couple of times when the lot was nearly deserted. I thought: nice guy, hard worker, two record-breaking shows.

David Kelley is so talented and energetic at rewriting that your work is often unrecognizable by the time it reaches the screen. You make a great salary, you work on a beloved, high-profile network show, and you disappear. Not my cup of tea. All the writers except Ed Redlich left The Practice after the first season. I asked my agency to send writing samples to Chris, with hopes of being considered for either of his two shows. I think a crime novel called The Stranger Returns landed me the interview on Millennium, and they hired me in the summer of 1997.

BTFB: And how would you rate your work on it in terms of personal satisfaction in comparison to other work you have done since?

MRP: It’s impossible to compare working on Millennium to working on any other show because it was such an astonishing learning experience. Chris Carter makes a point of ensuring that new writers learn how to produce their own scripts. You learn rewriting, casting, working with the various departments like Props, Costumes, Locations, Production Design and so on; work closely with the director; later, you sit in the editing room with the editors and face the consequences of your decisions, after they’ve been irrevocably committed to film, and there’s no one to blame for the problems except yourself — and it’s up to you to fix them.

Later, perhaps the most fun part, you go over to Mark Snow’s house and he plays all the music cues and solicits feedback. It changed the way I write, the way I think about television production. That can only happen to you once.

BTFB: You produced twenty-two episodes of Millennium, were executive story producer on twenty-three episodes and wrote five of them. Did you have a particular preference regarding your role on the franchise? Did any give you a greater degree of enjoyment?

MRP: Writing is the engine that pulls all the other titles along behind it. Without the writing, there is no story editing, there is no producing. The titles don’t really correspond to any particular set of duties. My influence on the Morgan-Wong written episodes (when I was “story editor”) was zero, other than the episode I wrote.

BTFB: Millennium fans have often debated the changing face of Millennium over the course of the three seasons, friendly divisions do exist between those that prefer the direction of the first or second season, what is your take on this unique aspect of the franchise?

MRP: I didn’t work on the first season — I was a viewer, only, but loved it so much that I pressed to join the team. Glen and Jim took the second season and ran with it, it was very much their baby, they had a vision, they had the authority to pursue that vision, and they pursued it aggressively. The only script of mine produced that year was a bit of a throwback to season one.

BTFB: “The Mikado” remains a real high point of Millennium, especially in terms of audience appreciation, and a whole slew of similar concepts of been explored in genre movies over the last decade or so. What inspired you to write that particular episode and have you also observed the many formats in which the theme has been explored since?

MRP: In the Pleistocene era of the internet, a young woman decided she would be on camera 24/7, and thus was born Jennicam, the first webcam exhibitionist. I heard about her site and instantly wondered, if Jenni were killed, and no one knew precisely where she was or who she was, who would investigate the crime? The situation raised all kinds of knotty issues about when a spectator becomes an accomplice, the distancing aspects of mediated communication, the difficulty of law to keep pace with technology, and so on. Plus, it was just a straight-up creepy idea. This is so long ago that I repeatedly had to explain to people working on the episode that the internet was not synonymous with America Online. Seriously. We’re talking, a long, long time ago, when most people connected via dial-up lines and modems. It’s been oft-imitated, but the imitators never understand what is interesting about the subject matter.

When a new Mikado knock-off airs or is released, usually some friend or other will spot it and email me the TV guide listing. I never watch them, and I haven’t seen last year’s movie knock-off. I wrote “The Mikado” twelve years ago. If I were doing a similar story in 2009 it’d be radically different, taking into account all the things that have happened since.

BTFB: A fellow season three writer once proclaimed the difficulty in writing for that particular season, she felt that there was too much emphasis on what not to write, with little guidance on what direction writers should take. Would you concur with that view of things or was your experience very different?

MRP: It wasn’t that unusual. On most shows some amount of uncertainty exists as to what direction to take; that’s why they need writers. I prefer a slightly chaotic atmosphere because you can have a real influence on the strategic decisions, and more variety in storytelling. It’s harder work, though, than being on a more rigid format like a typical procedural where a body shows up in the teaser and a perp is arrested in the final scene.

BTFB: “…Thirteen Years Later” remains a particularly memorable, and offbeat, inclusion to the franchise. Was the involvement of Kiss always a goal when the episode was being devised or is there any truth in the assumption that 20th Century Fox had a hand in shaping that aspect of the episode?

MRP: Fox television said: put Kiss in an episode of Millennium. Then, they said: make it the Halloween episode. This was non-negotiable; I know, because Ken Horton valiantly tried to get them to relent during several loud phone calls. How we got Kiss into Millennium was entirely our own business. At the time I was working on a more typical episode, basically, Frank visits a town where an old case is being made into a movie and sees telltale signs of the crime recurring. Chip and Ken came in to tell me how the episode I was part-way through outlining had to change: mine was the only script that could be ready in time for a Halloween air date. Very quickly, it had to be gutted and rebuilt to accommodate the Kabuki-faced kings of stadium rock.

And, oh, by the way, they had to perform a song. And each of them needed a speaking role, out of make-up. And, the kicker: only two were real actors. It was like one of those games where you pull thirty random words out of a hat and make a poem. The words I pulled were: Halloween, Frank Black, a movie being made of an old murder case, and lots and lots of Kiss.

Everyone around the office groused that there’s no room for Kiss in the Millennium diegesis. In their complaints, I found a creative approach: Frank Black would encounter a film that was an intentional distortion of a real case, and he could be as appalled at the distortions in tone, style, etc. that were in the movie-in-the-episode as my officemates were at the very idea of a Kiss/Halloween episode. A wee bit of deconstruction goes a long way: here was an opportunity to put the usual complaints about our show into the mouths of characters and have Frank Black respond, and defend his honor and world view.

The episode would contain its own critique. Jacques Derrida might have a field day, if he ever “watched.” I am a connoisseur of 1970s and 1980s horror movies and decided to pack the episode with references to favorites such as Halloween, Motel Hell, The Hitcher, and so on. Many details of life on B-movie sets came from my wife’s firsthand experiences; for example, it was she who told me that, whenever a nude scene was about to be filmed, producers would “coincidentally” show up on the set to see how things were going. Tacky, funny, and true.

After the outline was published, while I was writing the script, Kay Reindl and/or Erin Maher (I can’t remember which — Hi, Kay! Hi, Erin!) contributed a favorite detail: have Frank Black watch all these horror movies for the first time, but use his profiling talents to intuit the end of the movie after seeing only one or two scenes. Impossible? Of course. But it’s exactly the kind of boast the insane man who thinks he has become Frank Black would make. It’s a great bit and Lance ran with it. After the first read of this script, Lance had a couple questions — who wouldn’t? — but once he bought into the conceptual break with the other episodes he was brilliant and brought many special nuances to his performance.

As I wrote, the piece took on an unexpected vitality of its own. The point of the poetry game — thirty words out of a hat — is to reach strange, dark corners of the unconscious mind that might never otherwise surface. Similarly, “Thirteen Years Later” may have begun as an obligatory assignment, but turned into a surprisingly personal and strange exploration of why I love horror movies, the pleasures and pain of low-budget filmmaking, as well as a civil answer to the people who didn’t really “get” our show and wished it were more like Murder She Wrote.

Tom Wright did a phenomenal job with the most physically demanding episode ever, including many, many stunts and a musical number, while still making the schedule. Many Millennium fans will still hate “Thirteen Years Later” thirteen years later. That’s their privilege.

BTFB: In retrospect, how do you recall your time as part of the Millennium crew?

MRP: It was a great couple of years of hard work and creative challenges.

BTFB: Are there any individuals, or events, that you have particularly fond memories of?

MRP: Yes, Chip Johannessen.

BTFB: I know you have recently been involved in Persons Unknown. Could you tell us a little about that and what fans of your work can keep their eyes open for with regards to your continuing career?

MRP: Persons Unknown is a 13-episode series (so far) concerning the kidnapping of seven people, from seven different places, who never met or knew each other before, and find themselves trapped in a bland yet sinister small town from which they cannot escape. We worked as hard to create memorable, distinctive, unlike-any-other-show stories as we did on Millennium. I cannot reveal too much without breaching confidentiality agreements, but you can get an idea from the trailer, here:

BTFB: Our thanks to you for taking the time to talk to us!

MRP: It’s a great honor! It’s a pleasure to visit your terrific web site, help with your campaign, and read the thoughtful and insightful commentaries and critiques that you have gathered.