July 19 marked the first DAYS episode of new Head Writer Ron Carlivati. The Emmy-winning scribe, who previously helmed ONE LIFE TO LIVE and GENERAL HOSPITAL, talks to Digest exclusively about his big plans for Salem — and its future.
Soap Opera Digest: When you were approached about the job, what were your initial thoughts?
Ron Carlivati: Well, obviously I was excited at the prospect of jumping back into soaps after having had a little bit of a break, but it was pretty daunting because DAYS OF OUR LIVES was a show I didn’t grow up on. I watched GENERAL HOSPITAL in 1978 when I was 10 years old. And then shortly after that, ALL MY CHILDREN and ONE LIFE TO LIVE, so writing for those shows was easy in the sense that, I know what Monica was doing in 1978, and I knew what Viki was doing. So with DAYS, it was the first show where I had to dig in and learn about it and learn the history. Of course, I feel like as a soap fan, even if it’s a show you don’t watch, you know a little bit about it just by osmosis. You know who John and Marlena and Patch and Kayla and Bo and Hope and Stefano are, but there’s over 50 years of history there and to really learn the relationships, that was the sort of scary part.
Digest: Where did you even start?
Carlivati: Well, it was an interesting process. I would watch two people in a scene and say, “Okay, now how are they related to each other?” And then that instantly became very complicated because of, “Okay, Hope and Julie. I get that. That’s her stepmother.” Then the next day I’m like, “Wait a minute. Did she just say that was her sister?” So now I have to look it up and I’m like, “Okay, she’s her stepmother and her sister.” Soap opera histories are complicated and incestuous, but I felt like DAYS was like that to the nth degree. So to go back to your original question, I started off by just watching the show and then when there was something I didn’t understand, I would go to the Internet and start reading. I also have some great material that DAYS sent me. But what happens is, you’re looking at one thing and you go down an Internet rabbit hole, and next thing, I’m reading about how Stefano took Marlena through a magic armoire into another dimension. So I was a little lost for a while, and then all of a sudden, there’s just this moment where it clicks, and you’re like, “Oh, okay. It all falls together, I see the whole canvas, I see how everybody’s related, I have a sense of the history,” and then you’re off and running.
Digest: What was it like to come into a show that you weren’t that familiar with and plot story for months to come?
Carlivati: Because it’s a continuing saga, you’re not coming in and starting the show from episode one. I basically came in with my pitch of three big stories that I wanted to do, and how I was going to wrap up or spin off from the ones that were already taking place.
Digest: What can you say about those?
Carlivati: I’ll give a few examples. As you know, DAYS is six months ahead of the writing, so I was privy to what was going to be happening for the next several months. Chad and Abigail were front and center in the quadrangle with Gabi and Dario. Coming in from the outside, I felt that they were doing a really good job with that. But as you learn the history and talk to people at the show, you realize that the couple that has the real history is Chad and Abigail. So one of the stories I focused in on right away was how are we going to move Chad and Abigail back together. I think the writers had done a really good job of setting up this villainous character of Deimos. When I came in, he had already been murdered, so I took that as another point of inspiration. It had wrapped up fairly fast with an interesting killer that made sense, but I proposed a different killer that prolonged the story, that pulled more people in and impacted the love stories on the canvas a little more. And then another one was Anjelica, who had recently been introduced to the canvas when I was hired, so that hadn’t been written too far down the road yet. That was another one where I was able to take that in a new direction. That is a really fun story which has some larger than life elements and has some humor, and some classic soap opera conventions about it. You’ll see from my very first episode what I mean by that.
Digest: How would you describe Salem under your vision?
Carlivati: Well look, I’ve been told many times, “Oh, DAYS would be a perfect fit for you and your style of writing.” That said, it wasn’t that I came in with a plan of, “I’m going to go back to those older days of DAYS and make it crazy and over-the-top.” But what is good about it is the audience has experienced and embraced those types of stories, and they will go with those types of stories, so it just gave me a comfort zone. So there will be an element of that. There will be focus on the vets because I love writing for vets. Having grown up on soaps, I often gravitated to the characters that had been on for a long time, so what’s great about DAYS is, there’s a deep bench of characters like that with Steve and Kayla and Hope and John and Marlena and the DiMeras and Stefano, who sadly has passed away, but you still have Andre and that family, and you have Victor Kiriakis. Lucas is getting big story and I am looking forward to it. You have an embarrassment of riches. That said, it’s multigenerational. I like to write a balanced show that gives everybody a chance. Yes, you have some A-players that tend to get a lot of air time, but in general, I like to write for everybody. I did try to bring some humor back to the show. You can’t get too carried away with that kind of stuff, but I think that viewers tune in to laugh just as much as they tune in to cry. There is a lot of focus on the love stories, and then as we move deeper into the fall, I wanted to do a story that adds some weight to it, that challenges you a little bit. So it’s going to have a little bit of everything and we have some exciting returns, some of which we know about, some of which we don’t.
Digest: We know about Alison Sweeney (Sami), Eileen Davidson (Ashley, Y&R) and Chandler Massey. What can you say about those?
Carlivati: Chandler Massey’s coming back, and I think the assumption is that that means that’s Will, but in a world of evil twins and doppelgängers and look-alikes, you never know. I’m an outsider, so I’ll stand corrected if I’m wrong, but it seemed like the death of Will Horton was not a popular decision and was viewed as a mistake. I wanted to take a look at that and see if there was any way to repair some of that damage. So,without saying too much about where it’s going, that’s obviously a major reason why Alison Sweeney is coming back. I was thrilled to be able to write for her. I see how much she’s done outside of soaps, so it never seemed to me like that was even a viable possibility that we could get Sami back on the show. But I pitched the story and we got in touch with Alison and she and I spoke, and lucky me, she agreed! So she comes in in the fall and she taped for several weeks, and we worked the hell out of the poor girl so that we could have her in a lot of shows. She will have a major impact on story. I’m super-excited about it. I feel the same way about Eileen Davidson coming back. Again, it’s someone that I could not imagine I would be able to write for, but I went ahead anyway and suggested a story where one or more of Eileen’s characters could have a significant impact. In a similar way, I was able to speak to Eileen and pitch to her what she would be doing and, thanks to CBS and NBC and Sony and all those powers-that-be, we were able to make this work.
Digest: Will you be introducing new characters?
Carlivati: I came in with a goal at the beginning not to bring in anybody new, to write for the people that I had, so you’ll see at the outset and for several months that there’s some familiar faces returning, but nobody new. In fact, I’m writing a story that kicks off around the new year and does involve a new character, and it’s the first I’ve created here, and I’ve been writing the soap for five months.
Digest: How does it work with Creative Consultants Ryan [Quan] and Sheri [Anderson Thomas]?
Carlivati: They are obviously my go-to people. Ryan knows the show amazingly well. He understands the mechanics of the show: “We can only use this many sets today.” “We can only use this many characters today.” He’s a really great writer, a team player and a great, great guy. Sheri is a great resource for me because she wrote the show many years ago, and she has a great handle on a lot of the iconic characters and had a hand in creating their love stories. So, for Steve and Kayla, and John and Marlena, all of those people, I turn to her expertise, and she’s somebody to keep me in line as far as romance goes. We have an amazing editor, Fran [Myers], and she reads all the scripts and wherever she feels we can inject more romance, she points it out. One other thing I’ll say about writing for a show that I didn’t know was you really have to count a lot on your team, because I came into a situation where most of the people have been there for a long time, and they know this show better than anybody. I had to really lean on them to tell me if I was going down the wrong path or having two characters sleep together who are brother and sister. The team is really amazing. I’ve been really, really lucky.
Digest: This is a show that has been getting one-year pickups from NBC. Did you feel pressure coming in to really solidify it for the future?
Carlivati: Yeah, definitely. When I got hired in January, the show was not picked up yet officially, and they were still in their talks. It really could have been a six-week job. I basically would have been like, “Okay, I guess I just wrote the ending of DAYS OF OUR LIVES.” So, of course, I was crossing my fingers that that wasn’t going to happen because I wanted the job for more than six weeks. So we did get that pickup, but there is that feeling of pressure, especially now. We just wrote Christmas and New Year’s, and that stuff will be airing next January going into February sweeps, which is right around when that decision gets made. I want this show to be really good because I want them to say, “Of course we’re picking it up!”
Digest: Fans of GH tweeted to the fans of DAYS that they are going to love what you’re going to do. I don’t know if you’re even aware of that, but how does that make you feel?
Carlivati: That makes me feel really good. Even though ONE LIFE was sort of my baby, GENERAL HOSPITAL was the show that I watched first, so I had a special love for that show from the beginning. To come in the door and be able to write for Anna Devane, and bring back people that I love like Heather Webber and Robert Scorpio and Holly Sutton and Helena Cassadine and Lucy Coe, that was an unbelievable thrill. I got to bring back the Nurses’ Ball. Those are experiences I’ll never forget. I mean, there were some rocky times at GENERAL HOSPITAL, I will not lie, but on the whole, it was a wonderful experience. I’m deeply blessed that I was able to write for it. It’s gratifying to know that there were a lot of fans that really enjoyed what I did there. Speaking of how my DAYS job could have been a six-week job; I was told in so many words that [GH] was a six-month job. It seemed that GENERAL HOSPITAL was going the way of [OLTL and AMC], so I didn’t come in with a goal of, “I’m going to save GENERAL HOSPITAL.” I came in with, “Okay, I’m just going to write the GENERAL HOSPITAL that I know, and that’s all I can do.” The audience responded, and the ratings went up, and I think that was a factor in why the show did not go off the air in six months. I’m thrilled to see that that show’s doing well. All the writers there are friends of mine,
and I’m excited to see any soap stay on the air. I would love anybody who enjoyed what I did at ONE LIFE or GENERAL HOSPITAL to come check out DAYS OF OUR LIVES if they don’t already.
Digest: Do you feel a sense of freedom writing DAYS because you don’t have the history with it?
Carlivati: Yeah! I think that that has definitely been good that I did not come in with preconceived notions about the characters at all. I think having to learn about these people has given me a new energy and it’s been really fun. It’s strange how familiar it already feels in a few short months. The very first scene of my first episode is with John and Marlena. I wanted to start the first show with somebody iconic, a legacy character. I have John walking back into town and looking around the Horton Town Square like, “Wow, it’s good to be home.” And it was like that was me walking into Salem: “Okay, I’m looking around, I think I’m going to like it here.”
Digest: Finally, let’s say there are fans who have tuned out. What is your message to them? Why should they tune back in?
Carlivati: Tune in now! Don’t wait until my first show! A lot happens. There are big payoffs for the stories that have been set up, and there’s a lot of exciting stuff that I’m bringing into it. I try to make sure something with entertainment value happens every day, so I think if people tune in, they will have a good time.