Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Day Matthew Ashford Talked Me Out of Wanting to Work in Daytime Television...

Once upon a time I wanted to work for Days of our Lives. Not daytime television but specifically that show. I thought about writing for it, but mostly I wanted to direct. There was a theater element to their four-camera set-up that intrigued me, as a kid who really only had access to theater. I student directed what I could in high school, running home as fast as possible to watch that day's VHS-taped episode of DOOL to study the stories and the angles and the inflections. I went to as many fan events as I could to meet the actors, both in the tri-state area and flying out west to go to them, including taking the NBC studio tour to visit the set. And when it came my turn to write and direct original projects in my high school video production class, as well as the Summer Discovery course, I came up with original soap opera scenes. What led me to the show originally was a lineage-- my mother watched the show with her mother when she was recently in the hospital and then came home hooked, asking me to tape it for her while she was at work, so then I'd end up sitting and watching, too, in the evenings. But it was a combination of factors that clicked to make me stick with it.


My senior year at USC was full of electives, and my favorite one, hands down, was a course dedicated to looking at various fandoms. Up until that point, the majority of my personal experience still came from the fandom of Days of our Lives, and I eagerly decided to do a documentary for my thesis project in the class. I was always the kind who would prefer to do something creative to writing a paper (in high school I was happy to write a 100+ page original screenplay for my English thesis, instead of a typical, straightforward 20-page research paper), and we had just screened Trekkies anyway. I was fascinated by how much of what an audience gets out of Trekkies completely depends on what they project onto the people while watching. If they don't understand fandoms or think sci-fi (or anything fictional, really) is a waste of time, they think these people are nuts. If they understand such passion, they look upon them fondly, as peers, even if they aren't Star Trek fans personally. I wanted to explore that, but I also wanted to see it from the other side and talk to the people behind the show about what it meant to have such dedicated fans.


I was in my senior year at USC in 2005, a time when soap operas were on the cusp of changing because new technology was emerging rapidly and the way television was consumed in general was changing. I was kind of oblivious to how all of the changes were affecting production and publicity, though, because I was still a student, only interning, not too worried about having to change my own habits just yet. I consider myself a fan of most new technology but absolutely a late adopter. I want to make sure something will stick around before I jump on a bandwagon (not to mention drop hundreds of dollars to upgrade equipment or transfer titles-- anyone remember the MiniDisc fiasco of the late '90s?). There was something of a beautiful simplicity, at least to me, in the way soap operas operated, drawing on nostalgia and old-fashioned ways. Of course, if you're on the business side of things, the quaint nature of nostalgia is actually death because you can blink and get cast aside as archaic or otherwise unnecessary.

I traveled all over Los Angeles for my documentary on Days of our Lives fan culture, including hitting a local mall for an appearance by of the shows' stars, a park to interview a fan on neutral territory, even a couple of apartments-- of fans and stars alike. But by far the greatest, and most educational, interview came from driving through the NBC studio gates to interview Matthew Ashford, who had recently returned to the show as Jack Deveraux. 

Ashford was in the middle of shooting scenes from "the island" when I arrived, so a helpful PA led me to the kitchen area to wait for the bell to ring, signifying the end of his scene so he could greet me and bring me to his dressing room. It took no time at all, and I was able to watch what they were shooting on the monitors while I set up my camera and looked over my list of interview bullet-points. He came to get me immediately as they wrapped him, his shoulders dusted with white ash and dirt to age his blue button-down and distinguish it as an item that had seen hard times while his character was stranded. He didn't change out of it for the interview, which we both felt added to the texture of the shot, and he graciously answered everything I asked with thoughtful, scholarly commentary. He was clearly a pro at these types of softball interviews, and as I was dismantling the camera, he sat with me to talk a bit more openly and off-the-record (in hindsight, I wish I had still been rolling because that video would be priceless to add to this memory now).

Ashford asked me point-blank why I wanted to be involved in daytime. He was one of the rare actors from the current cast who had been on the show years earlier but had not been on when I obsessively studied the show and attended all of those fan events. We had only met once, a few months earlier, at the final fan event I had attended and at which I obtained a bunch of contact information for people to feature in this documentary. Then he and I had interacted briefly enough so I could take a photo with him, but when I pitched him the interview, I didn't remind him of that brief moment, nor did I expect him to remember me. So our interview was really the first time we had "met" and shared a real interaction.

He listened attentively while I gave him the shortened spiel of how I felt a connection to the style and was inspired by the message of family driven into the stories. The duplicity of so many of the characters fascinated me, I explained, and I wanted to be able to explore flawed people who over time would have situations and relationships dictate their ever-changing behavior, but that even when they were outright villains, there would always be people hoping to see the best in them, to forgive, and to give them another chance. It was a commentary on human nature in a grown-up fairytale kind of way. I talked a bit about how structurally I used Days of our Lives scripts to learn proper formatting when writing my own original screenplays and how the intricacies of reaction shots reminded that a performance can be more powerful without words at times, too.

Ashford seemed satisfied with my answer, but he didn't hesitate in responding when I was done speaking. I had just locked my camera case and steadied it upright against the doorframe. He shifted comfortably in his chair, looked me dead in the eye, and said: "Don't go into daytime." 

To say I was shocked would have been an understatement. Ashford was nothing if not extremely nice throughout our interview, but I was not naive enough to think that he wasn't holding back some of the more outrageous stories he had simply because he didn't want to make anyone look bad. I was a girl with a camera and a microphone and an agenda. Maybe, had I actually kept the camera rolling, he never would have been as candid as he proceeded to be with me. And for that, I'm glad I turned it off and tucked it safely away. Because what he said was something I needed to hear.

"The business is changing..." Ashford pointed out, talking about the ever-increasing pace at which those producing a five-day-a-week show were required to work. 

He noted that there were no breaks, no time to rehearse, more and more pages to produce a day, all with the same beats and notes repeated. It was a business, churning out quantity, and the quality continued to suffer. It was a routine, and a way to exercise a muscle, but it was not a way to get better.

"...and daytime is a dying medium."

He was right, of course. Creativity aside, even the business of daytime was changing as ratings for the number one shows plummeted and networks started canceling even the longest-running programs. Yes, today soaps are getting resurrected online, but it's not the same. He saw the start to the sad trend, and he was warning me, a representative of the new generation, to not devote my time, energy, and most productive years of my life to something that could cast me out, that ultimately came with more risk than reward. 

Or maybe he was testing me, to see if I was really up for the grueling schedule and uphill climb that only looks glamorous if you have no idea how hard you will have to work. I always knew how hard these people worked, and I thought I wanted to be a part of it anyway-- mostly because I was chasing that sense of family that the characters had and that select groups of the actors seemed to have carved out, as well. Maybe I should have taken his words as a challenge to prove that you could infuse new excitement, new energy, new ideas over time. But I didn't. Instead, I took them to heart. Suddenly, standing in his tiny, non-windowed, kind of institutionalized dressing room, things looked differently. I felt like I was chasing the past, and what I really needed to be doing was taking a flying leap into not only my future, but the future of the industry, as well.

Of course, diving into the entertainment business at all meant devoting my time, energy, and most productive years of my life to something that could cast me out, that ultimately came with more risk than reward. But that's a larger version of that same lesson-- and one I had to learn for myself.


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