Life on Mars' Scott Rosenberg
By Jason Davis
The BBC's drama about a 2008 cop who awakens after a car accident to find himself in 1973 finds itself reimagined on ABC, and executive producer Scott Rosenberg tells CS Weekly about the challenges he and his colleagues faced in traversing time and the Atlantic Ocean.
Premiering October 9, Life on Mars tells the story of Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara), a New York cop who's hit by a car in 2008 and awakens in 1973, where he finds himself working for the bigoted Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel) in an era of intolerance, the Vietnam War, and flared trousers. Executive producer Scott Rosenberg, a veteran of feature films like Gone in 60 Seconds who adapted the series with his cohorts Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, discusses his second foray into television and the difficulties in adapting a British TV series for an American audience.
How did you get involved with Life on Mars?
We had a show last year on ABC called October Road. It was my first foray into television, 'cause I'm a movie guy, and I had an amazing experience. Then, when it got canceled, I was very angry and vowed I would never work for ABC again. Then, they came to us and made us an offer we couldn't refuse. I'd never seen it, but I remember reading about the BBC version and thinking A) it was the coolest title in the world, and B) what a great idea -- I was so annoyed I hadn't thought of it. I said the only way I'll do it is if you let me set it and shoot it in New York, 'cause originally they wanted it set in LA. I don't even know what 1973 LA means. I have a place in New York, and I just wanted to get back here. They said yes. You have to let us recast the whole thing. Absolutely. We wanted to know that we were going to have a good time slot. They said, "How do you feel about Thursdays at 10 after Grey's Anatomy?" So, it just kept getting better and better. You can't pass up 13 guaranteed on the air post-Grey's Anatomy. You just can't do it, otherwise you can't even look your agents in the face.
What were the problems you saw with the British series, the things you would need to address in adapting it for an American audience?
Well, right off the bat, it took place in Manchester. Manchester's very small. We put it in Manhattan. They had a lot a serendipitous moments -- he kept bumping into the same people over and over again on the street. Obviously, it's very different when you do it in New York, where it's large. The one thing we did like was that they basically patrol a precinct. Quite frankly, we were trying to create a little village, because it is 1973, and you want to get that feeling that it was a lot of hippies, gangsters, and black militants. We're trying to create a world of the 125th precinct, so that was how we addressed that part of it.
Did you have any interaction with original series creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, and Ashley Pharoah?
We got to know the creators. They came and visited us here in New York, and I remember bringing it up to them. They didn't employ the fact that it was 1973 a lot. Every now and again, he would see T-Rex at a nightclub or something, or he would make references, but I don't think they did it to its maximum. They didn't need to, quite frankly. The episode that we're shooting today was not based on the BBC ones. The title is "My Maharishi is Bigger than Your Maharishi." It's about the death of a returned Vietnam vet, and everybody thinks it's this group of hippies who are known to beat up Vietnam vets. It turns into something much more scandalous and crazy, but, again, we're truly using the era as a backdrop. The thing that's so fascinating about it is -- and I think this will really resonate with viewers, even if it's on a subconscious level -- 2008 is 1973. We're in an unpopular war with an unpopular president. There's an energy crisis. The blacks, the youths, the gays, and the women are becoming politicized. There's a lot going on that is not dissimilar from what was happening then. Watergate was '73. It was the year that we pulled the last troops out of Vietnam. It was sort of the year the '60s became the '70s, in a lot of ways.
That's what Matthew Graham said when CS Weekly interviewed him about the original series.
Did he really? That's so funny. By the way, that was my favorite moment. We said to them, "Why 1973?" This was before I really started to analyze it. If I were doing this show -- because I'm not as clever as they are -- he'd wake up in 1968, in San Francisco, and you'd do that show. Why '73? And they said, "Honestly, Scott, that's the year the Bowie song came out. We just loved the title." And I said, "Touché." Absolutely perfect answer.
Aside for the obvious transatlantic details, what further modifications have you made to the format?
The minute we took the job, it occurred to me that he's surrounded by cops. So, he moved into this apartment and we added the character of the hippie girl who lives across the hall from him named Wendy (Tanya Fischer). She is 100-percent inspired by Goldie Hawn in a movie called Butterflies Are Free. It's a beautiful comedic performance, and I wanted that because it allows them an entrée into other worlds. It doesn't all have to be the underbelly of New York City. She takes him out of the police station to parties. Because she's so ethereal, he can run some of his theories by her and she would never think he was crazy.
Did you get any feedback from the British creators on Wendy?
We turned in the first draft and the studio loved it, the network loved it, and everybody loved it. But when we got the call from those guys to say how much they loved it and how we thought of things they wish they'd thought of, that was all the validation that we needed. They're very happy. They're very supportive. One of them said, "Why didn't we think of the hippie across the hall?" That's what you want to hear.
How do you plan to tackle the ambiguity of Sam's journey to 1973?
[The British original] committed, early on, to saying the dude's in a coma. Every single episode was about the dude in a coma. In [our] episode two, he writes on the blackboard 13 possibilities of what could be going on with him and below the 13 is a big question mark. Annie says, "What does that mean?" And he says, "That's the one I haven't figured out yet, the one that scares me the most." So, in every episode we're constantly playing with that. There's the episode where maybe he's died and gone to heaven. There's the episode where maybe the whole thing is a mind experiment. There's the episode where it's The Truman Show. If everyone knows that he's in a coma… if everyone knows the end of the story first, then we're dead and no one cares. No one wants to watch a show where you know it's all a dream.
The one thing that was important was that I didn't want to get into that situation. You've heard of that other show -- I will not name -- who only last year figured out where they were going. They had to do a lot of explaining about polar bears and things like that. So, we had to figure it out right now. We don't tell anybody. In fact, only me and two other people know. One of my co-executive producers doesn't know yet. We haven't told him. It was me, one of my partners, and one of our writers. The network doesn't know. The studio doesn't know. I can explain every single thing that we're doing because I know the endgame. It's one of those endings that 50 percent of the people will think is genius and the other 50 percent will find out where I live and burn down my house. At least it gives us a horizon line.
Is there any fear the network or studio might not like your solution?
If the show's a smash hit and we say this is where we're going, they'll say, "Okay, fine." If the show isn't a smash hit, we're never going to get there anyway, so who cares?
Are you adapting original UK episodes?
Yeah, absolutely. Some we're doing straight -- let's just do that episode. With most, we're cannibalizing the best bits or using it as an A story and injecting a B and C of our own. Some are wholly original.
They've been really good because it's a 10 o'clock show. They were very difficult with us on October Road. The TV sponsors were told October Road was about shiny, happy people in a small town. So there it was very difficult to be truly off color. This, they sort of know it is 1973 and it is a gritty cop show, but as far as the racist and homophobic stuff, they've been pretty lenient with us. You get to forgive him, because he's a man of his time.
We got this enormous gift from God in casting Ray Carlings. All these great actors were coming in for what, in our original script, was seven lines. We got a call and our casting director said, "What do you guys think about Michael Imperioli for Ray?" I said, "Does he think he's doing the Jamie Foxx movie?" So, when he came aboard, the part of Ray became richer then it was in the BBC version. He's really the angry racist guy. Michael is really bringing the nastiness to it. We never want to sell out; we never want to beige this thing, but at the same time, we have to keep in mind that it's ABC.
Do you look for writers old enough to remember 1973 when you're staffing a show like this?
I don't think you're allowed to hire writers in Hollywood that are old enough to remember 1973. No. We have tech advisors and researchers up the wazoo, but the truth of the matter is I hired writers who could tell good stories. The 1973 of it all has to inform everything, but, again, if you watch the BBC version, you could remove the 1973 and all you'd have to know was that he was a man out of his time.
Today, we're doing this big festival in the park scene and I got here and there were 150 extras all dressed in their hippie regalia and I see there are four Hari Krishnas. My God! We need to do the episode where Hari Krishnas are being murdered, because it's so specific to 1973. Someone is murdering Hari Krishnas and maybe we find out Gene Hunt's estranged son is a Hari Krishna. Who knows if we'll do it, but I give you that as an example of the kind of the stuff only we can do. I don't even know if there still are Hari Krishnas. I haven't seen one in a long time at an airport. But I remember, when I was nine in 1973, being so scared whenever we saw Hari Krishnas. They scared the shit out of me. I guess I'm the one who remembers 1973… although I don't really.
Jason Davis has been the DVD Manager for CS Weekly, a contributing editor for Creative Screenwriting Magazine, and has written for Cinescape.com, MSN.com, and created the TV series Studio 13, which ran on Lorne Michaels' Burly TV network. He lives in the small space left over by his ever-expanding library of books, movies, and music.
A free magazine on screenwriting delivered to you weekly via e-mail. Each issue of CS Weekly features screenwriting news of the day, an original feature article (topics rotate on a weekly basis), and the DVD of the Week review.
Subscribe and read archived content here