Executive Producer Ken Corday talks about some of the changes ahead.
Soap Opera Digest: The pandemic hit in March, but you had months of episodes in the can. How did you feel about that?
Ken Corday: Well, I don’t want to speak in clichés but like the three little pigs, we built our house out of brick and that was only because we had to. Financially, we couldn’t just produce five episodes a week and take weeks off. We had to produce eight a week for 39 weeks and take 13 off. We didn’t have the luxury of staying close to air; we had to be seven months ahead. So when we shut down March 15, we were golden until October 15. And then the Olympics were pre-empted so that backed us up two weeks and here we are, going back at it for shows that will air in October.
Digest: You didn’t have to rush to return. When did you start thinking about bringing the show back?
Corday: Late June, right about the time of the Emmy Awards. We started working with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control And Protection] and L.A. County Health about what the protocol would be, which is extremely rigorous. And now we’re ready to go. We have rapid testing, so we can test people and 15 minutes later, know whether they’re positive or negative, which is a lot better than three or four days of waiting. The studio is much more protected, we’re in a bubble, Plexiglas here and there, we have to be in surgical masks, they can’t be cloth masks, they have to be changed every four hours, we have to do spit tests, or now a nasal test, at least once a week for staff, daily for actors. It’s rigorous. And expensive.
Digest: You’ve had some high-profile cast changes during your downtime. What can you say about them?
Corday: We knew Greg Vaughan [Eric] was leaving. There was no stopping that from happening. As for Kristian [Alfonso, Hope], I asked if she would work with us and take a rest for four months and then we’d have a gangbuster story for her and she chose to leave the show, unfortunately. It was not my druthers, but it was hers, and that’s her right. Victoria Konefal [Ciara] has left … and will return … and will leave, so she’ll be coming and going. But we haven’t seen the last of her. Chandler Massey [Will] and Freddie Smith [Sonny] are leaving, but they also will be returning on and off. It’s not like they’re leaving, good-bye forever. It’s something we don’t like doing, closing the door permanently. Galen Gering is returning as Rafe. Alison Sweeney [Sami] is returning with much fanfare. Camila Banus [Gabi] and Marci Miller [Abigail] will both be back. Tamara Braun [Ava] is coming back and that’s important, not only for Steve and Kayla, but for her son, Tripp, and others to be determined. Mr. Carlivati [head writer] has a big story there. It’s exciting. I think she’s a marvelous actress. And this time, we’re not just going to be seeing ‘Evil Ava’. There will be more colors there, and she will be more sympathetic than what we’ve played before.
Digest: How do you feel about the fact that you’ll be so close to air?
Corday: Well, we’ll be a month in front of air. We’ll start with five shows a week, get our speed and pace up, and if that works well, we’ll go to six, and if that works well, we’ll go to seven and get further ahead of air because you never know when you’re going to have to shut down again. And we do not want to go to second-runs. It’s just too expensive. It’s too expensive for the network not to get first-run advertising dollars.
Digest: How are you feeling about the fact that production is resuming?
Corday: I’m very excited. Glad to be back at work and very grateful. Onward and upward.
Co-Executive Producer Albert Alarr reveals what his team has done to get things going.
Digest: What did the break do for you? Did you return to the show with a new perspective?
Albert Alarr: Yes! Whenever I watch the show, I’m usually busy with 1,000 other things, so I’m looking at it like, “We got that right,” “Oh, good, we got that story point,” “Oh, I have to work on her performance,” so my mind is racing with a lot of things that have to do with production. But things slowed down to the point where I was watching the show as a fan. So it was really interesting to be absorbed and to see myself getting excited about romance, rather than, “Gosh, I wish we had done the lighting better for that scene.” I would literally get excited when Ben and Ciara were on, and just be caught up in the story and the characters rather than the crazy enormousness of getting this show on the air.
Digest: What were your first steps in think- ing about a return to production?
Alarr: The first thing to do was get the writ- ers back to writing, get their heads back in the game, and start to think about, “How do we write love in the time of Covid? What does that mean in terms of the actual physical scenes and how people react and touch and breathe. Are they six feet apart and that’s that?” That was a big challenge for Ron [Carlivati] and for me, to get a set of rules of what’s going to play and still get the romance. Our medium is all about the tear and the kiss and the close-up. Without being able to have two people move in to the big, passionate, sweeping kiss or crying on a shoulder, it’s kind of dead, so I was really concerned about that. Now, things have evolved so it’s not as much of a concern because of testing and how we’re doing things. It looks like we’re going to be able to include some intimacy, so I’m grateful for that. So that was the first step. And the second was the physicalness of what are we going to do to make the studio, which is basically the size of two football fields, safe so the actors can go in there and perform and be intimate with each other and not get this horrible disease? So that is a huge undertaking and involves guilds, unions, Sony, the producing team. That’s been the biggest challenge and honestly, it’s nerve-wracking. I believe we’re doing a great job, but you don’t know until we actually get the ball rolling and somebody actually says action. Those are the big hurdles to get to, to get back to production.
Digest: What changes to the studio have you made?
Alarr: The biggest change is we’ve hired a team of Covid experts. There’s a medical professional there all the time while we’re in production and they are basically helping us set up departments so they run Covid-friendly. And people are going to be in masks, in some cases, like hair and makeup, they will really be in what I would almost call a full-on hazmat suit, face shields, the whole nine, and I think that’s going to be very challenging. The studio, of course, has never been cleaner. Everything is beautiful and sparkling right now.
Digest: Since you’re the last show to return, did you talk to producers at other shows about how they’re handling things?
Alarr: I’ve talked to some people at GH. I had a lovely talk with the line producer at B&B, just hearing about some of the hurdles they had to jump, the problems that they faced and the many successes.
Digest: How are you feeling about going back?
Alarr: I’m excited to get back to work. I’m nervous, I’m not going to lie. This Covid thing is kind of crazy, but I am excited to start making some drama. I’m excited to see John sweep Marlena into his arms … Xander take his shirt off … Honestly, I’ve missed all that. I’m a very hands-on producer with the actors and I love talking with them about beats and notes and story, having that chance to be creative with them. But I’m excited to get back in the business of making TV.
Head Writer Ron Carlivati previews what he has planned for the future.
Digest: What steps did you take when you started writing again?
Ron Carlivati: When they called up and said, “It’s time to start gearing up again,” what [Creative Consultant] Ryan Quan and I did was take a look at the episodes that were all written before we stopped production, because we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 or 40 scripts that were already done. So we needed to take some time before we started new episodes to make adjustments based on trying to social-distance people, maybe you don’t need this hug, maybe you don’t need this handshake, maybe you don’t need five people in this scene, maybe you only need three, and mostly those went pretty smoothly. We have our editor, Fran Newman, who jumped in and is making the scripts Covid-friendly and she’s working hand in hand with production. And once we did that, the other thing for me was that we were supposed to not air for two weeks because of the Olympics and then that didn’t happen, so right around Ciara and Ben’s wedding, there was the kaboom, and there was going to be a two-week break before you knew what happened. Once the Olympics didn’t happen, they pulled up all of those shows, so the result of that would be that our anniversary show would be a few weeks off, Thanksgiving would probably air on November 5th or something, Christmas would air at the beginning of December, and while we could have just said, “The audience will understand,” it didn’t sit well with me. I pitched that we insert some shows into October that would put everything back on track. We had to come up with a mini-storyline that didn’t feel too jarring for the audience, that fit in, and when it ended, all the holidays and dates were back in place. There is a sort of seven- or eight-day incident that happens in Salem that was not there originally. But I’m really happy with what we came up with; it doesn’t feel like filler to me. There’s some exciting stuff that happens, there are some people who pop up who are unexpected and it’s a fun little story that does have some real consequences for the show.
Digest: How will you deal with love scenes?
Carlivati: If a scene ended where Chad kisses Abigail that wasn’t so essential to the plot, just a nice little kiss between husband and wife, we can cut it, but there’s other scenes where someone is kissing for the first time or a couple is making love for the first time, or it’s something significant and it’s harder to say, “Well let’s just cut that,” and that’s something production is working on right now.
Digest: It seems there’s been a lot of buzz about cast turnover.
Carlivati: For the audience, they found out about a lot of these people all at the same time. Some of them left at different times for different reasons. Some of that got conflated into, “Oh, my God, everybody’s leaving. What’s going on at DAYS OF OUR LIVES?” But the reality is that when we stopped production last November, we didn’t have the pickup and we didn’t know when our show would come back. It was only fair to the cast to let them have their freedom, and we could not keep everyone on staff when there wasn’t a show being produced and we didn’t know that a new show would be produced. So during that time when we finally did get our pickup, some of our actors decided that they wanted to pursue something else, so we did lose some people that way and we also elected to cut a couple of people because of budget. So I knew some of those cast losses would be coming eventually and it would upset the audience but there wasn’t much I could do about that. It seems like a mass exodus but I’m still writing for 30 people, so from my POV, we’ve also added a bunch of people and some people who were reported leaving are actually already back, so our cast is full. I’m writing as many people as I ever did.
Digest: Let’s talk about some of your plans. Sami is coming back.
Carlivati: I have had the good fortune of being able to write the character of Sami for pretty much my entire run here, even though she had left the show long before I got there. Luckily for me, Alison [Sweeney] has always been open to a return, she’s very collaborative, she has, knock on wood, enjoyed the stories I have written for her during her return, so she’s open to come back when she’s available and I’m always thrilled because Sami shakes things up and I just think she brings such a nice energy to the show. And also she’s a lovely person and it’s just nice to have her on the set. We have an idea for Sami but it hasn’t been fully pitched and approved yet, but because it’s Sami, you know it’s going to be something good.
Digest: What will happen to Nicole without Eric?
Carlivati: We have definitely bonded her with Allie. Nicole does become this sort of surrogate mother to Allie despite Sami trying everything in her power for that not to happen. So she’s going to be involved in Allie’s story and there are a lot of elements of Allie’s story that we don’t know yet. The biggest one being, who’s the father of that baby? We’re focusing on Nicole’s friendships with other people. It is hard to delve into romance when she’s still happily married to Eric, but Arianne Zucker is such an asset and such a good actress that she will play heavily into story. But her heart remains with Eric. At least for the moment.
Digest: Where does Ciara’s exit leave Ben?
Carlivati: Obviously, Victoria’s [Konefal] decision to go was a blow for the show and for the writers and for the fans. This was a couple that I had a gut feeling would work but I did not know the enthusiasm I would see, at least online, for this couple and so we ran with that. So as writers, we were excited for the next step for Ben and Ciara, and now we had to rethink things a little bit with Ciara being out of the picture. Ben is obviously heartbroken, so we get into Ben’s internal life. Can he accept that she’s not here? Does he truly believe the circumstances of why she isn’t here? Similarly to what I described with Nicole, we want to build his friendships. He has this connection to Jake. He has a friendship that will sort of grow with Claire. They’re both missing Ciara so they have something in common, so that will pull him a bit into her story. We’ll play him a lot with Marlena. I love that relationship between him and Dr. Evans and how much he relies on her and how much she cares about him. So we’re just dealing with the fallout for Ben, really. But of course, it being a soap opera, he will be in story and there is this question mark about Ciara. Will she come back? Is Victoria open to coming back? So Ciara will be a part of his story, always.
Digest: Rafe and Gabi will both be back, as well.
Carlivati: There were some decisions that happened at the time that were uncertain about our renewal, and during that time it seemed like both Rafe and Gabi would be exiting the canvas. Now time has gone by and we actually are going to have both actors back. So what’s kind of great about that is that there was huge investment in Gabi and Stefan and thus, Gabi and Jake as his look-alike brother, and we didn’t get to delve too, too far into it but the audience has already seen that those sparks are there. And now we have the great fortune to have Camila [Banus] coming back so as we write Gabi back onto the canvas, they’re not just going to pick up where they left off because a lot of things have happened to Jake’s life in the meantime, so the audience will have to wait and see how that unfolds. And with Rafe, what’s interesting there is here he is a very solid presence of a hero on the show. A very needed thing when we have so many villains running around and often winning. Rafe’s exit was going to leave a big hole there. So Rafe comes back, obviously with a role in the police department, but life for Rafe will have changed in the meantime, too. By the time he comes back, Hope is not on the canvas so he’ll have to deal with that. There’s things that he doesn’t know, like what happened to Ciara while he was gone, so there’s a lot of information he’ll take in. We’re connecting him to other people, I don’t want to talk too much about it without giving story away, maybe reconnecting him with people he’s been involved with in the past. Pretty much, I’m talking on a friendship level right now but he’s an important, solid, grounding, presence on the canvas and people will be happy about his return.
Digest: How will it feel to be so close to air now?
Carlivati: It really doesn’t change that much for me. The only thing that has sometimes been strange is just getting in that head space of it’s June and I’m writing winter. But we don’t respond to real-life events, we’re not talking about who the President is, we don’t do that anyway, so wherever we are in time from the writing has generally not mattered that much. The difference is, it’s going to be on TV faster. What’s better for me is sometimes when I’m watching the show, I’m like, “I forgot this because we wrote it nine months ago,” and maybe seeing the turnaround and getting to see it air faster will be nicer for me.