All in the Family Improvise on ABC's 'Sons & Daughters'
2/27/2006 7:10 PM PT
By BRIDGET BYRNE, FOR THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Dee Wallace was puzzled when she heard that Fred Goss, creator and star of "Sons & Daughters," was interested in her playing the role of his mother.
Why? Because despite all her years of experience -- including one of the screen's most famous moms -- the actress wasn't versed in improvisation, and that's what sets ABC's new show apart from prime-time's pack of other sitcoms about dysfunctional families.
But once she began improvising with Goss, it all came, well... rather naturally.
"I had the parameters of what I needed to do. I had who she was and who he was and how I felt about both of us ... and I realized it's all about being in the moment. It brings together all the best ways that I work anyway. It's freedom," says Wallace, who famously played the mother in "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," one of the most popular movies of all time.
Nick Holly, co-creator with Goss, says the actors are presented not with a traditional script, but with "a short story" that "occasionally includes a line or two of dialogue, but is normally just this novelization."
Adds Goss: "We wax poetical in the descriptions because the dialogue is not there, so it's important for everybody to get a real strong feel for what it is we are going for, scene by scene, so when they hit the set they understand the bullet points that they need to hit to propel the story forward."
But the cast works with a net. The writers are always there behind the camera to contribute ideas and shape key moments, especially when they need a specific line to cut into or out of an ad break, or to set up a vital plot point.
Typical of traditional sitcoms, multiple cameras are used on the series; the start-stop-reset routine of single-camera production would derail the show's improvisational flow.
But unlike a typical sitcom, the series is filmed without a live audience on various sets and locations.
And because of the meandering nature of improvisation, editing on the series is an especially extensive process, designed, Goss says, to remove the "ums and ahs" of actors just "riffing."
The creators cite filmmakers John Cassavetes and Robert Altman as inspiration for a concept that, while not pure improvisation, frees up the actors to draw instantly on their own interpretations.
"I think if people never knew it was an improvised show it wouldn't matter," says Goss, who also directed the pilot episode.
The half-hour series, from "Saturday Night Live" creator-producer Lorne Michaels, debuts March 7 at 9 p.m. EST with back-to-back half-hour episodes.
The pivotal character, Cameron (Goss), lives in a world of love and conflict. His extended family includes his current wife and kids, his child by his previous wife, his remarried mom, Colleen (Wallace), his great-aunt, his stepfather, a sister, a half-sister, a nephew, a niece, and his brother-in-law.
If that's a little more family tree than you can handle, not to worry. The opening episodes include subtitles denoting how the main characters are related.
The domestic tangle is actually based on Goss' and Holly's personal experience.
"Where I come from and where Nick comes from, there are a lot of divorces," says Goss. "People are giving it a second go-around on a bunch of different levels."
Wallace, who is best known for dramatic roles, was attracted to the show's edgy combination of heart and humor.
"I equate it with a really new take on 'All in the Family,' where you see our weaknesses, you see our prejudices, especially our fears, and through them, and through the hilarity of us trying to deal with them, you learn about yourself, hopefully," says Wallace. "And let's face it, the only normal family is a dysfunctional one on some level."
She easily relates to Colleen's "huge amount of energy, though I think I'm much more spiritual, much more giving." Yet there are aspects of the character that give her pause.
"We all draw from ourselves and I must say I was rather horrified that Colleen's biggest character description is she's incredibly passive-aggressive. I had to look that up and to my horror, I realized when I started doing the part and saying some of the things and manipulating my children on the show, that I actually identified in some of my personal life," she laughs.
She's not alone.
Goss, whose previous credits include Bravo's "Significant Others," is, like Cameron, married to a Jewish woman and is raising his kids Jewish. That's something which challenges the prejudices of some of Cameron's family members, just at it did Goss' late grandmother and stepfather.