DVD Verdict Interviews Richard Hatem, Co-Creator of Miracles
Appellate Judge Mac McEntire
April 13th, 2005
In Miracles, Paul (Skeet Ulrich, Scream) and Keel (Angus MacFadyen, Titus) investigate the supernatural through their organization, SQ. In doing so, they encounter phenomenon both uplifting and terrifying.
The series was short-lived, but now, with a new DVD coming out on April 19th, viewers can discover Miracles for themselves. Co-creator and producer Richard Hatem's enthusiasm for the series is obvious on the DVD extras, as well as when we spoke to him on April 9, 2005. Our thanks go out to Hatem for taking the time out of his busy schedule, and to Stacey Studebaker of Shout! Factory for arranging this interview.
DVD Verdict: How did Miracles come about?
Richard Hatem: It was based on a screenplay by Michael Petroni, a drama feature owned by Spyglass Entertainment. It had gone through a rocky development process. But they thought the concept of a person who investigates miracles could be turned a series, something like The X-Files. What I found intriguing was that instead of the main characters being a skeptic and a believer, it's about two believers who believe different things, and how belief systems can be challenged.
Verdict: Tell us a little bit about your background. Based on what you said in the DVD commentaries, it's clear you've done a lot of research about the supernatural phenomenon seen in the series.
Hatem: I've done research for this series for my entire life. I've always pursued my own interests in strange phenomenon, so when they bought the pilot and we needed 12 more stories it was easy to say "I've read about reincarnation," so that became an episode. Someone else said they'd read about time slips, so that became an episode. "The Letter" is based on something true. Our writer Chris Levinson said she had received letters written from someone who had died. Someone else brought up remote writing, and we said "that could be a way to get a letter from the dead." Every story idea started with, "I remember reading an article about that when I was 13." That was the fun of doing the show.
Verdict: How did David Greenwalt (Angel) get involved?
Hatem: We got lucky. I hadn't worked on TV before, so we were looking for a show-runner, someone who's an expert on producing a show on a tight schedule. At first we weren't sure we could get him, but when the dust settled, he was the one. He and I wrote the first two episodes together, and I could tell he "got" the show right away. I knew there wasn't going to be months and months of battling with him to get the show I wanted. Instead, we were off and writing.
Verdict: Paul and Keel are both searching. But what, exactly, are they searching for? Is it God, or to bring order out of chaos, or do you prefer to keep that ambiguous?
Hatem: Religion, as it stands, is a method of bringing meaning to our lives. That's what the hero of The Mothman Prophecies is doing, trying to figure out why strange things happen. Religion tries to explain it, but the problem is that if you explain something too much, it loses its power. The answers we get from religion can only get us so far before they start not making sense. With Keel, he looks at the phenomenon in his own terms. He tries to understand what is happening without assigning it to be either good or evil.
Verdict: Keel's story about hearing his mother's voice in a recording of bird calls is interesting. That's why I theorized his search was to make sense of a chaotic world.
Hatem: For him, that was the nail that brought down the kingdom. And that's how it happens. Life changes with something small. It's not that you're taken up into the UFO, but that you hear a voice say just one word. That's all it takes. Keel's story is based on a true story, by the way. That was the experience had by Friedrich Juergenson, who pioneered Electronic Voice Phenomenon in the 1950s.
Verdict: Watching several episodes in a row, I noticed a recurring theme. Almost every episode deals with relationships between parents and children in some way. Was this intentional from the start, or did it happen naturally as the series progressed?
Hatem: I was so interested in bringing heart to the stories. David wrote for The X-Files for a short time, and he found that frustrating because he couldn't bring emotion to it. On that series, the emotional aspect was very subtle. David writes from a very emotional place, and so do I. We had to see what effect the stories had on people. A haunted house story is not about the house, but who died to haunt it. What effect does it have on the people living there? What if they decide they like the ghost and want to keep it? Wouldn't that be an interesting place to go? Husbands and wives, kids and their parents, these are the emotional stories. No one breaks down crying when their boss drops dead.
Verdict: There's a ton of intriguing ideas and themes in the series, but on top of all that, it is really scary.
Hatem: I'm so glad you said that. When we're writing, we never know how scary something will be. I'm not writing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre here. There were times when the network was concerned the show was too mopey. When you do a show that has Amish people sitting around a table crying, the network is afraid people will change the channel to bikini models riding motorcycles. But if I saw that mopey show, I think I'd want to watch it.
Verdict: What is it like on the set when filming a scary scene? Is there suspense as it happens, or does that not come about until the episode is completed?
Hatem: I know every time there's a scary movie, there has to be some story from the set about something that happened, like "stuff mysteriously disappeared from my dressing room." But we did have one weird thing happen. During the episode "You Are My Sunshine," there's a scene where Paul is in the basement, and he finds blood on the wall. When he touches the blood, that's how the spirit in the house gets inside him. When they were filming this scene, Paul's flashlight kept going out. And it was always at the exact same point. So they got him a new flashlight, and that one went out, again at the same spot. If you watch that scene, you can see it go out, because we couldn't get a shot without it. It must have been the ghost of someone, somewhere.
Verdict: Any scary or creepy stuff you couldn't do, because of network restrictions?
Hatem: We had very little resistance. In terms of dead kids and blood, the network knew this would draw people in. Now, that's not the case with the show I'm doing right now. It's called The Inside for Fox, that I'm working on with Tim Minear. It's an FBI show, and there's one gruesome murder after another. Much more often, we're saying to each other, "There's no way we're going to get away with this."
Verdict: Favorite episode?
Hatem: The pilot. It was a great experience. I went to college with the director, Matt Reeves. It was completely coincidental that we ended up working together on this. Fifteen years earlier, we were in his garage making his student film. And now, every dream we had in film school had come true. I'm also fond of "Saint Debbie." What did you think of that one?
Verdict: Me? I found it interesting because it has a lot less supernatural and creepy stuff in it. Instead, it's more down to Earth, and character-based, which I liked.
Hatem: It was the unloved scrawny puppy episode. No one thought it would work. Everyone was all, "Keel's fallen in love with this woman in, like, two seconds???" I'm so glad we didn't wait until a second season to reveal more about Keel and get to know him better. But we always had a sense that there would be these 13 episodes and that was it. So we put everything we had into all 13. Our thinking was, "We've only got one shot at this, so let's go for it."
Verdict: On the DVDs, you mention not wanting to have any tension or drama. Instead, you say you prefer scenes that are mundane and ordinary. Why is this?
Hatem: As strange as Paul and Keel's world is, it's only interesting if it's happening to real people. We really pushed substance over style. Strange things were more believable when they happened in ordinary places. That's why we've got a ghost haunting a real estate office, and people hearing things in a gas station mini-mart. We were very careful in where to use our big stylish flourishes. We were making the world out of the world you and I occupy. You can see it in the way Paul and Keel dress. We did not sex these guys up. So many characters on TV are all sex. Our show is not a show about hair gel. You can see this, too, in the car they drive. Instead of some flashy car, they drive that weird-looking station wagon. One of directors called it the "SQ-mobile."
Verdict: I was very impressed with how consistently good the guest stars are throughout the series. What are your philosophies about casting?
Hatem: Our philosophy was that we didn't cast models. We wanted real people who look like real people. Ann Cusack is lovely, but she also looks like someone you'd see dropping off her kids at school.
Verdict: I just have to ask about the "Mother's Daughter" episode. If I had to pick a favorite episode, it'd be that one.
Hatem: God bless you for saying that.
Verdict: The performance by Maggie Grace (Lost) in that episode is exceptional.
Hatem: She is brilliant. She was the first person we saw for the part, and we knew it was hers when we saw her. She was only 19 when we filmed that. That's an age when most actors have only been in their high school plays. To get a performance like that out of someone that age? We got real lucky. She was amazing.
Verdict: I'm a Boston guy. What made you decide to set the series here?
Hatem: Early on, it was set in Washington, D.C., in the Georgetown area, but we admitted to ourselves that we were just doing The Exorcist. We wanted it to be set on the East Coast. They told us New York was too expensive, and you can't fake it. But Boston was perfect. I'm a Southern California native, and I've only been to Boston once. It's a great city. It's got everything -- great architecture, and a mix of young and old people. We sent a crew there to get some establishing shots, but that was it. I was hoping for free tickets so I could have another trip out there but it didn't happen.
Verdict: The characters travel all over the country, though. Where was Miracles filmed?
Hatem: It was all filmed in Southern California, which can be disguised to look like anywhere. It gives you everything you need. The city they visit in "The Bonescatterer" is the same one as "Saint Debbie." We filmed scenes from the two episodes back to back on the same street. If you look carefully, you might be able to see some of the same storefronts. It's a town north of LA called Piru.
Verdict: Never heard of it.
Hatem: No one has. Unless you're a location scout.
Verdict: In 2003, the series was cancelled after six weeks, with half the episodes unaired. How did you get from that to now, in 2005, with a new DVD from Shout! Factory?
Hatem: It was completely out of my hands. I wanted a DVD from the beginning, but the decision gets made by Buena Vista. I didn't have any influence on it. The ones who did have influence were the fans. They led a huge effort, first to get the show on another network, and then to get it on DVD. On the commentary for the final episode, I dedicate the entire box set to the fans who worked to get it. It's because of them that there's a DVD.
Verdict: How was it decided what bonus features the set would have?
Hatem: Shout! Factory came to me and asked if I'd like to participate, and I said "Yes, of course I will! I'll do six hours of commentaries for every episode." They just said, "We'll do what we can." But it turns out Shout! Factory are also fans, and they had the same reaction when Buena Vista asked them. They knew just what to do. We had a limited budget and limited time, but we did what we could. If it sells well, maybe there'll be a golden edition somewhere down the line.
Verdict: What's it like to record a commentary track?
Hatem: I'm working with [Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer] Jane Espenson on The Inside, and I asked her for some commentary advice. She said, "Don't wing it. Don't just sit down and start chatting." She told me to watch the episode the night before and take notes, and then to refer to them as much as I could while recording. That way, you've got all this information right there at your fingertips. That was the best advice in the world. I did each commentary with someone else, and they just watched the show while I was flipping through pages of notes. They must have thought I was crazy.
Verdict: Jane Espenson is one of my favorite writers, by the way.
Hatem: She's great.
Verdict: What is the writing process for you? Do you carefully outline everything first, or do you just follow your instincts, letting the story write itself?
Hatem: Writing for TV is pretty much universal. For Miracles, we would come up with the idea. What is the phenomenon, what effect does it have on real people, how is it emotional? We're all in a room tossing ideas around while having some food -- the writing staff on Miracles was not large -- and ideas would snowball. Stories broke very quickly. On a dry-erase board, we'd come up with acts one through four, and then assign it to a writer, usually the one who came up with the idea. The writer would then go write an outline. This is a very detailed document with the whole episode and some sample dialogue. It's about 20 pages long. Then the network reads it and makes comments on it, while the writer is already starting the first draft. At every step in the process, the network is involved, handing us notes on everything from the script to production to editing.
Verdict: It's amazing anything gets made at all.
Hatem: It can be frustrating; like one step forward, two steps back. But overall, we had an amicable relationship with the network. They wanted the show to be the best it could be, just like we did. On some shows, notes from the network say stuff like, "Show more cleavage." But we never got notes like those on Miracles.
Verdict: Who are some of your influences in terms of writers or filmmakers?
Hatem: Stephen King. For him, it's all about the suburbs, and bringing horror into the lives of the ordinary. Also Robert B. Parker, another Boston guy. He has a great gift for dialogue. I have tremendous respect for him. As far as television goes, I say Steven J. Cannell. When I was in high school, my favorite shows were stuff like The Rockford Files and The A-Team. Forget Spielberg -- Cannell is the master when it comes to funny adventure stuff. In high school, I was writing spec scripts for shows like The A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, and Riptide.
Verdict: You mention The Rockford Files quite a few times on the Miracles DVD. What is it about that series that appealed to you?
Hatem: It came on at just the right time. I was a skinny awkward kid, and I wanted to be cool like Rockford, and by extension James Garner. He would have scary guys beating him up and he'd be making jokes the whole time. That show was funny, scary, and emotional all at once. It influenced me in huge way.
Verdict: What can you tell us about The Inside?
Hatem: You know Tim Minear, who wrote for Angel and Firefly? It's his show. It's an FBI drama about a young female profiler who comes to the LA office. Basically, she used to be Elizabeth Smart. She disappeared for a year or so when she was younger, and there's still a lot of mystery about what happened to her. That experience changed her, and now she hunts down the monsters. It stars Rachel Nichols, Adam Baldwin from Firefly, Kate Finneran (who was in Wonderfalls, another Tim Minear show), Jay Harrington, and Peter Coyote, who is just the coolest guy in the entire world. We've done about seven episodes so far, and it's really cool and scary.
Verdict: When will it air?
Hatem: We don't know yet. Fox is very happy about it, and they want to give it the biggest launch possible. House is doing very well for them. It's their classy adult show, and they want to find the perfect place for us like they did for it. I think they see it as a show they can really be proud of.
Verdict: Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Hatem: I'd like to give another shout out to the fans. And if you didn't see Miracles when it aired, check it out. If you enjoyed The Sixth Sense or The Mothman Prophecies, or if you just like a good supernatural drama, give it a try. They just don't make TV like this anymore.
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