- Brian Jacques
Steve Roberts can, quite easily, be described as the heart and soul of the ‘Redwall’ television series. Not only has he written memorable episodes– Steve generally writes the first and last episodes of a season, making him the man responsible for “Cluny the Scourge” (pts. 1&2), “The Final Conflict”, “Slagar the Slaver”, “Return to Redwall”, “Captured!”, and “Rose of Noonvale”– but, Steve also serves as the Story Editor of the series.
As you’ll learn, the Story Editor plans out the entire series, dissecting the book and turning it into a workable 13-part season. In the process, Steve creates a “Series Bible”, outlining everything from characters, their relationships, the episodes, guidelines– you name it– which, in turn, proves to be an invaluable asset for the ‘Redwall Writing Team’. After the episodes are approved, they’re passed out to the ‘Redwall Writing Team’ (which includes Glenn Norman, Michelle Goodeve, and Steve’s son, Toby Roberts) for the scriptwriting phase. It then falls upon Steve’s shoulders to make sure everybody– from the producers to “the chappie himself” (Brian Jacques)– are happy with the writers’ scripts and to make sure everything is acceptable to networks. Then, and only then, does the series enter the animation phase.
Steve generously agreed to answer a few of my questions about how he does what he does and why certain changes were made. I can’t thank him enough for his time. So, prepare to learn even more about what goes into the making of the ‘Redwall’ television series.
Martin (The Long Patrol, RWTV): First off, thank you for giving me the honor and opportunity to interview you. To get things started, what shows or movies have you worked on prior to “Redwall”?
Steve Roberts (‘Redwall’ Story Editor and Writer): I started as a producer and director for the BBC in my early 20s. Worked on BBC 2 for years, then left to go freelance. I think I did about 400 shows and films while I was there. Worked in London. Directed and co-wrote the movie “Sir Henry At Rawlinson End” with Trevor Howard and Sheila Reid. Based on Vivian Stanshall’s ‘Rawlinson End’. His biography is just out, “Ginger Geezer”, and a chapter is given over to the film.
Then, wrote “Max Headroom”, came with it to USA and remained here since 1986. Numerous shows like “Hercules”, “Queen of Swords”, and much mixed with work for companies like Warner Bros., Team, Gullane, Nelvana – which is what led to Redwall.
Martin: What came first: the desire to be a Writer or a Story Editor?
Steve: Neither. I produced for years. I sort of fell into writing when I found lots of lousy scripts being offered me to direct. For clarification: writing and story editing aren’t strictly divided as careers – most Story Editors (whose job is to make a series creatively coherent) are writers with a lot of experience who are simply hired to run the writing team of a show. They rework what the show’s writers do to ensure it all fits and co-ordinates with the producer. Sometimes they ARE the producer. Each show is slightly different.
Martin: Who are/were some of your biggest influences?
Steve: My working colleagues. I was most influenced by my peers – a collection of wise, talented and generous people of all ages and sexes whose PASSION was television or film. Assistant film editors to executive producers day after day taught me how to turn what I thought into what I wanted to say – all screen images begin with words. They also taught me to honour what I did and understand the incredible power of media and that with that came a responsibility and duty to the audience. It’s all very well waving your arms about and declaiming that “I create for Me!”, but this is a medium, a device for communication not self aggrandisment. Sorry if that sounds a bit pompous, but I believe it is one of the elements currently missing and which is responsible for so much mindless drivel on television.
Martin: How was it you came to be involved with “Redwall”?
Steve: Through my previous work with Nelvana (several shows), I was asked to meet Brian Jacques in Los Angeles to see if we got along. We did. My job was then to break down the book (Redwall) into 13 parts to construct a serial form. This involves dismantling the text, page by page (literally), turning it into a huge ‘bible’ of notes, then rebuilding the narrative as faithfully as possible to the original book while in a modified format for television. Additionally, EACH character must be tracked and charted, EACH relationship and conflict plotted. Then, choices have to be made, mechanisms found to say the same things, but in a different format. Characters or incidents trimmed or abandoned for want of other priorities. Reweaving it all is always tricky because of the need to be both accurate to the story and engaging to the new television audience. This audience has different expectations from their ‘reading/viewing’ experience – narrative moves faster, characters can’t ‘think aloud’ at length. The inner feelings have to be made visible and external through actions…etc. You have to find ways to see a thought!
Martin: How much of the series is completed before you become involved?
Steve: None. The task begins with ‘the bible’. Once it is complete and approved by the author, the production company, the director, and others, only then does the series, as such, begin.
Martin: What sort of guidelines did you have to work under?
Steve: Only the self imposed ones listed above. Additionally, I was able to communicate with Brian Jacques to resolve issues when they arose. If I didn’t notice an error, Brian quickly would – and, as quickly, provide a solution.
Martin: Have you read any of the books?
Steve: Yes, of course! But, not all. Only the ones that had bearing on the book I was adapting. As the series progresses, I will have, finally, read the lot!
Martin: When you’re reading them, do you ever think, “I can’t wait to adapt this part!” or something to that effect?
Steve: Yes, very much so, especially on the ‘first read’. I covered my first copy with exclamation points – so much so it looked like it had measles! Brian writes very visually and consequently pictures the events in great detail. The problem is we all see them subjectively (therefore differently) which is why adaptation can never eventually satisfy everybody – I hope people go to the books after the series. By second read the fun begins as each page (essentially) has to be defined by its location, narrative, character arcs, tone. This takes several weeks. THAT is the time when specific passages scream out to be written!
Martin: Whose decision is it over which books will be adapted for the series? Your own? Brian’s? Nelvana Executives? Or a combination?
Steve: Brian and Nelvana.
Martin: Has there been any talk of ever doing a one-episode “special” adaptation for either of Brian’s storybooks (“The Great Redwall Feast” and “A Redwall Winter’s Tale”)? Winter’s Tale, specifically, seems perfectly suited for a holiday special.
Steve: Not that I am aware. But, it seems like a very good idea.
Martin: What’s a typical day of work like as a Writer for the show?
Steve: Everybody works differently. Some are dawn larks and others night owls. Writers work to their own tastes, the only requirement being to complete each draft by deadline. They start with a detailed Outline provided by the Script editor. This they discuss by phone/fax/email – it’s essentially a blueprint for ‘their’ show. Once discussed a writer has roughly 2 weeks to first draft, then notes, then a week to second, more notes, then a few days to final polish. So, a typical day is as typical as a typical writer – it doesn’t exist. And often a series writer can work on two scripts simultaneously as they start to overlap.. In my own case, I like to work from 6 a.m. to around 2 pm, then my brain implodes. In a crisis, I can rev it up again by 6pm and push into the night. But, I prefer to do something physical during the afternoon or I slump into slobdom.
Martin: How about as the Story Editor?
Steve: On this show I do both. A Story Editor’s day is a bit more rigid because the SE has to juggle incoming drafts, do notes or rework them, engage with Production Company and its various producers and directors, talk to The Author when appropriate and try not to get all mixed up as material comes in at a rush. We mostly used E-mail to send drafts back and forth. Very efficent when it works and total disaster when it fails.
Once writing begins in earnest, the pipe has to be kept full – meaning that when the animation begins, scripts have to keep on coming in to a schedule to optimize production. If a script doesn’t work, its narrative fails, a character misfires, it is inaccurate to the books, or simply cannot be animated for some technical reason, the Script Editor is responsible for rewriting it until it is universally accepted. That’s why the bible end of things is critical – the more accurate it is, the less problems show up later.
Martin: How detailed do you get in the Series Bible when outlining the 13 episodes, especially in the cases of the “original” episodes from the first season?
Steve: Very detailed, indeed – literally page by page as defined above. Then, each episode is recreated in an Outline – essentially a blow by blow account of what happens – a story blueprint. If ‘original’ episodes are needed for any reason, these have to be approved in special detail by Brian and Nelvana. The whole point here is to TRY to get it right, to make each TV episode a faithful representation of the story, BUT, be complete within itself in a way the book does not HAVE to be. In a way, a TV show is a chapter, but a chapter made up of several book chapters. Book chapters have their own logic and objective and that’s why re-forging them is tricky: the book is not made up of thirteen chapters- Redwall had 58 and NO, you can’t just divide by 13 and hope for the best! Won’t work. Try it – it’s an illuminating exercise.
Martin: A popular theory among the fans of the show is that the first four episodes adapted as much as they did due to the Teletoon preview in order to “test the waters”. To settle it once and for all, this was not the case, correct?
Steve: This was not the case. As far as I was concerned, the first four adapted to make the show work for an audience that had not read the books. “Engage” and “Inform” being the rules. You can’t put a TV show down and pick it up later. Especially in the first few shows it has to “grab” you, “launch” you and keep you interested.
Martin: Is it difficult determining how much of the book each episode will cover?
Steve: Yes, because of the need for a show to be satisfyingly self-contained, end with a cliff-hangar so audiences want to come back for more AND remain as faithful as possible to the original. This decision is probably the toughest – get those choices wrong and the whole series will not work.
Martin: Did you grow attached to any characters?
Steve: To be honest, all of them. You are forced into getting to know everybody intimately because you have to keep them all in balance. Always the principals have to be there and it is often sad to have to minimise or even lose some minor characters for production and narrative reasons. But, if I had to choose any to go and live with anybody for a while, I think I’d join the Guosim – as long as Basil would be there. That way I could get to hang out with Matthias, too. And Cornflower. And….oh everybody!
Martin: Is there a single moment or episode that you’re especially proud of? That turned out better than you’d hoped?
Steve: No. Each one received as much care, sweat, energy and affection as they produced joy, puzzlement, despair and frustration. Writing is hard work. It fights you at every turn. By the time you have finished doing the very best you can you love each moment and episode like you love children – the difficult, nice, naughty, outrageous, bad-tempered, easy or wonderful.
Martin: How about the reverse? Was there a scene/episode you thought looked outstanding on paper, but turned out to be just average in animated form?
Steve: Water is almost impossible to animate for technical reasons. Water scenes have to be rethought to minimise the water in them. (Waves and spray are incredibly complicated) Therefore, there are times when scenes based on water have to be conceived with little or no aquatic input – a pity since a good splosh is always fun!
Martin: Did budget limitations ever prompt the exclusion of certain characters or are the exclusions primarily story motivated with time-constraints in mind?
Steve: Everything in television is budget driven. That said you work within it. All significant decisions are then story motivated. “Will it work if…?” is the most asked question followed by, “What happens if we lose…?” You live and die (creatively) by the answers.
Martin: Was there ever a character or scene that you would have liked to include in the series, but were unable to?
Steve: Yes. But see all above. If anything or anybody is missing it is always because if it or they weren’t …something or somebody else would be.
Martin: Who decided to include Matthias’ history in the first episode? Was it an idea of Brian’s he let you adapt or did he allow you to craft the details yourself?
Steve: We all discussed what to do about introducing the series to an audience who had never read Redwall – and Brian led the thinking. Once we got the right idea I worked a few scenes up which he then reworked and we went on like that until he was satisfied. It is very important to remember this is Brian’s creation. He knows what works and what doesn’t for his story and characters. Consequently, co-operation is the keystone. It’s not always easy and neither should it be, but it is the core value in adaptation.
Martin: What precipitated the change from loose-adaptation (such as the first season) to near-perfect-adaptation (the later seasons)?
Steve: Evolution. In the beginning much has to be set up fast in order to simultaneously engage and inform the audience.
Martin: Which method [season1 loose-adaptation/season2 near-perfect-adaptation] did you find easier to plan out and write?
Steve: The second season. Much had been learned. The team was in sync. The response had been good. It was a sheer delight to go for the next book. That said, the PLEASURE was the same. The first is such a perfectly created tale in the original that adaptation, although difficult, was a terrifically satisfying endeavour. But, easier? – inevitably the second one.
Martin: What are your impressions of Redwall’s various dialects, such as molespeak, sparra, etc.?
Steve: I enjoy words like a musician enjoys cool riffs, so all the special language material was great fun. (As you know, Brian is a musician and a great lover of opera and I think that’s why all the dialects work – he gets it.)
Martin: When you got involved with Redwall, did you expect the series to be as successful as it has been, begetting two extra seasons, as well as a possible fourth?
Steve: Yes, absolutely. When I first read Redwall I was wildly enthusiastic and the more I mined its details the more I realised that it cried out for more books to be covered. So, I was delighted when we went ahead with more. I truly enjoy the stories even after spending months labouring on them. This is the best fun you can have!
Martin: What does it feel like to see something you’ve poured so much work into finally air on television?
Steve: Now, that’s a bit like asking what it feels like to win a gold medal. There is no direct answer that isn’t either trite or a cliche. So, forgive me if I don’t say it’s like awesome. The truth is that transmission-on-air isn’t the Final Moment. In many ways it’s already over. The work is its own kind of triumph because this isn’t a race and there is no winner – usefully neither is there a loser which is the kind of race I like. You just shouldn’t be in this business if triumph is your name on a screen. The real pay off is the work itself. Maybe the greatest writing pleasure is when you write “Fade Out” on the Final Polish and know that the work is good. The next is when you see what the animators, director, voices, etc, brought to it and how it looks. Making things is fun! The REAL joy is when you see the first cut and know it’s OK.
The only thing that matters then is will the audience like it.
Martin: While I haven’t, personally, had the opportunity to see the third season yet, some Canadian fans are perplexed by events in the finale. Specifically, Martin “thrusting his sword into the ground and swearing to never use it again”. Which, when taken at face value, would create problems for a possible “Mossflower” adaptation in which his sword is broken and reforged. Others have also wondered why Pallum, who was a male in the book, was made a female in the series. Then, there’s Rose’s death, which is different from the book’s version. Could you provide some insight as to why these aspects were altered?
Steve: [On] Sword thrusting: The actual script reads,
MARTIN: “Dear Rose. Forgive me. (Kneels) Upon my father’s sword, in your name I swear I will never kill with it again.”
It is likely that he was animated as sticking the sword into the ground as a dramatic emphasis. There was no implication that he abandoned the sword. Indeed, later he is seen on the stretcher “his sword by his side, the rose in his hand.”
I hope that de-perplexes matters!
[On] Pallum. A mystery. Although I recall some debate over this I can’t recall the conclusion. Maybe it was one of those character compression decisions we often face?
[On] Rose’s death. In the book, Badrang hurls her against the wall, her head smashes into it and ‘she falls like a broken doll’. It was felt that it was overtly violent and very difficult to animate without smashing her head and breaking her neck. And we had to know she was killed. The solution was that Badrang fall on top of her. No less conceptually unpleasant, but at least out of sight of the eyes of the audience. Somehow being squashed to death by a fat tyrant felt preferable to breaking her head on stone.
These are the subjective issues the team debates all the time. The solution isn’t always universally seen as perfect. But, overt violence is unacceptable on the small screen and these choices have to be made.
Martin: When is the earliest we could expect Season Four?
Steve: I don’t know. It is a decision for the producers based on audience reaction.
Martin: Do you have any advice for readers pursuing a career in your field?
Steve: Don’t write until you have enough life under you to have something to say. On the other hand, if you think you have something to say, write it anyway and to hell with people who give advice not to.
If by ‘field’ you mean Adaptation, then turn off the television and read. If you can’t read a book, you’ll never grasp what makes a story work. Then re-read and re-read til your eyes pop out. Then, re-write and re-write until your fingers ache.
On the other hand, everybody is a writer. The trick is to actually DO it. Then, if you’re any good at all you’ll know whether to keep going or just stop.
Martin: That just about does it. Thanks again for taking the time out of your schedule to answer my questions. Anything you want to say to the Redwallers out there before we go?
Steve: If you want to know what’s going on in the world – watch the mice.
I wish to once more convey my thanks to Mr. Roberts for taking the time to answer my questions. It was a real honor.