Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Heartland Interview: Cassady Dixon

I interviewed writer Cassady Dixon about his television pilot script Heartland. I encourage you to read the excerpt, which is the teaser from the pilot, in order to gain additional insight and understand the references and characters in Cassady's answers.

Read the teaser from Heartland here!

Interview with Cassady Dixon

Q: Is the regional dialect familiar to you? How do you make the characters' dialogue sound authentic?

Cassady Dixon: I grew up in Oklahoma, where "Heartland" is set, so the dialect is very familiar to me. When I write the dialogue, I try to imagine my family or friends saying something in a certain way. If it feels right, I know I'm onto something.

Q: How did you come up with the story? What inspired you to write "Heartland"?

CD: I worked at a Mom and Pop burger joint in high school that was much like the one in the story. It was owned by two brothers, and most of the employees were family members. I had such a blast watching them go at it all the time, it has stuck with me ever since. Since the atmosphere of the place leaned to the conservative side, I thought a good intro. to this world would be to see how the father figure handled a situation in which his son got caught at school with drugs. This sets up a kind of culture clash that ingratiates you into this place and with these people.

Q:  Are the characters based on anyone you know in real life? Are they composites of various people?

CD: Going off the last question, all the characters here are more or less slightly altered interpretations of their actual real life counterparts. Friendliest people in the world, but they could get fairly loud and hawkish, but always good natured, funny and soulful. It sounds cliched, but they created enough of an impression on me that these characters mostly wrote themselves as the saying goes.

Q: Of the current shows on television, are there any that you feel are similar in tone to "Heartland"?

CD: "Friday Night Lights" for sure. It's got that Texas/Oklahoma vibe, same type of people and the same mix of humor and sincerity that I was striving for.

My big inspiration was actually "Roseanne," though. This show was a big influence on me. I thought that it presented a slice of Americana, working class people, etc. that had never been shown so honestly on network TV before. It really cut deep, emotionally, but it never lost its gallows humor either.

Q: If the script was filmed, how do you envision the "look" of the show?

CD: My heart is definitely aligned with the single-camera way of doing TV. Nothing against "Roseanne," but the multi-camera, laugh-track programs usually do not feel as real and intimate as shows like "The Office" or "Friday Night Lights." The later show specifically, being set in a similar type of environment in Texas, is a major blueprint in my mind for the look of "Heartland." Granted, that show is a drama, but its fly-on-the-wall perspective, coupled with its "Roseanne"-esque, middle-class art direction would be ideal for this story.

Q: What television shows do you enjoy? Are there any that you would love to write for?

CD: "Friday Night Lights" is a major achievement, but alas it is going off the air. It was the only drama I watched with consistency. The writing, acting, cinematography, music - everything really - was like no other. Other than that, "Parks and Recreation" is my favorite network program. Nothing comes close to its edginess and humor. Slightly off the beaten path, "Workaholics" is quickly becoming a favorite as well. It has the kind of freshness that "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" had at its inception. I'd be honored to write for any of those shows.

Q:  Do you feel that there is a lack of television shows that focus on the Midwest?

CD: I do. The problem is that the Midwest covers a lot of ground. The people on "Parks and Recreation" are a lot different than the ones in "Friday Night Lights" or "Heartland," for instance. Still, as far as a serious approach to story and character, Middle America doesn't get its due nearly enough, even on outlets like HBO or Showtime, unless it's something with a gimmick like "Hung" or "United States of Tara."

Q: What was your process for writing the teleplay?

CD: I mainly write features, and I was surprised at how much more I enjoyed writing television in one specific way. There are more rules. It is a much more rigid construct to write a teleplay. Conversely, I think those rules really free you up to experiment within a certain framework, as opposed to a screenplay where you are much more out on your own.

Essentially, I came up with the A story of the son getting suspended, followed by the B story of his uncle trying to steer him right with religion, which in turn draws the ire of Jimmy the father and main character. After that I mostly tried to insert nuggets about the other characters and the key locations within that story structure. And it really just flowed from there, always going back to the main story line when I started to feel like I was veering off track.

Thanks, Cassady!

Heartland excerpt

About the Writer:
Cassady Dixon is a working professional in the entertainment industry while keeping his free time booked with writing and making contacts. As an assistant to three entertainment executives, he has grown to have a solid grasp of the business side of the industry. This has enabled him to infuse his writing with not only his natural creative pulse, but also a healthy concentration on what is marketable. He contributes regularly to the ezines Cinespect and Big Vision Empty Wallet

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