It's All In The Script

Written by Bob Cochrane on . Posted in Guides

Keifer Sutherland    In Britain we like our television scriptwriters to be lovably eccentric - think the anarchic Paul Abbott, the flamboyant Russell T Davies or the wonderfully indiscreet Andrew Davies.

In the US, TV dramatists are a more serious breed altogether.

 

"It felt like it had to be some sort of thriller, like the original The Day of the Jackal with Edward Fox and Clint Eastwood's In the Line of Fire, movies that had a real tension and an end point that everything converged on - the assassination attempt."

  

Bob Cochran, co-creator of the cult thriller 24, could be a character in his own slick drama: one of the senators routinely threatened with assassination until federal agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, saves the day.

A larger-than-life figure with a mane of silver hair, Cochran is on a tour of duty in the UK, where he has been invited by the MediaXchange to talk to British drama writers and producers about how to create and sustain successful long-running series. He should know. The fifth season of 24 has just concluded on Fox in the US and is still showing on Sky One in Britain, while work is already under way on series six.

"I think we just hit upon a happy combination of elements. There was nothing on air like it," Cochran explains. "The fact it was different helped and the fact we were about to create a consistent atmosphere of tension and keep that edge-of-your-seat feeling up over time.

"Kiefer Sutherland was huge, because he inhabited the character of Jack Bauer, made him real and fascinating to watch and embodied all the tensions and the contradictions, the edginess of the show."

Downloads of 24 have just been made available on MySpace.com - which like Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp - and in the UK, Sky is showing each episode of the drama with five different start times to accommodate the World Cup.

Despite being an executive producer on the show, Cochran is blissfully unaware of these technological advances. He is a scriptwriter of the old school whose sole concern is whether or not a story works on screen.

"Kiefer Sutherland was huge, because he inhabited the character of Jack Bauer, made him real and fascinating to watch."

Cochran's early years were spent on the move. His father was in the navy, and the family did not settle - Monterey, California, until Cochran was 12. After attending Stanford Law School, he briefly practised law in San Diego, before studying for an MBA at Harvard and working for the consulting firm McKinsey. But while he was pursuing careers in business and the law, he harboured a secret desire to write for television. After finishing several scripts, he finally submitted one that caught the attention of the team at LA Law.

It is an unconventional route into writing for television, but Cochran believes any experience can feed the imagination of a scriptwriter. "The material all writers work with is human nature. If you're observant and watch the way people think and act and react and you're honest about your own feelings, I think you have enough material to be a writer, no matter what your background," he says.

From freelancing on LA Law, he secured a job on the final season of prime-time soap opera Falcon Crest, a companion show to Dallas, where he met Joel Surnow. Stints on Sons and Daughters and cop show The Commish followed, before Cochran and Surnow teamed up again on La Femme Nikita.

The television series based on the film of the same name gave the pair an appetite for the thriller, which resurfaced when Surnow contacted Cochran with an idea for a new show.

Cochrane was writing historical mini-series, a personal passion, when he took Surnow's call. "He had this notion for 24, just the framework. He said, '24 hours, 24 episodes, each episode is one hour of the day.' I said, 'What's the genre, who are the characters, what are the stories? He said, 'I don't know.'"

When they sat down together to put flesh on these bones, they addressed the question of what situation would keep the hero awake for 24 hours.

FULL ARTICLE IS HERE

 

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