April 28, 2009

The Anatomy of Success

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Tony Phelan wanted to be a professional actor. Unfortunately, one of his acting professors at Yale, where he was getting his undergraduate degree in theater and medieval history, told him, “You will never be an actor. You’re just not good enough.”
It is probably safe to say that at Cornell, a majority of the study body has probably felt as though they weren’t good enough. But how many students have actually had a professor say it to their faces — maybe I’ve just had nice professors — but I’m guessing not that many. It’s gotta hurt. Thankfully, all was not lost for Phelan. His professor suggested the possibility of directing, and then he landed the job as the co-executive producer, writer and director of the hit television show Grey’s Anatomy.
Actually, it didn’t happen that fast. It was in reality, a long, at times tiresome process of genuine attempts that led to failed plays; one play that he directed, which featured eight actors, was presented to a total of five audience members on opening night.
Many of these early plays he worked on with his wife, Joan. Phelan said of these trying times, “We had written a lot of bad plays and we had not only written them, we had produced them. Only our family and friends would come …but over time the plays began to get a little better.”
Phelan talked to Cornellians on April 26 in Robert Purcell Auditorium, at the invitation of his long-time friend, Near Eastern Studies professor Shawkat Toorawa. Of his current job writing for Grey’s, Phelan was very positive regarding everything from the type of work to everyone on the set, including the actors: “Our actors are fantastic. They come from a variety of backgrounds, they’ll ask us for things, to change words, or to sometimes change storylines … we’ve learned [to listen to them].” He mentioned that, in particular, “Sandra Oh and Patrick Dempsey are both very involved in what their characters are doing.” In response to a question from the audience, “Is Bailey as funny in person as she is on the show?” Phelan responded with a definitive, “Yes.” He said of the cast, “They’re all pretty goddamn charming people.”
One actress who he mentioned frequently was Chyler Leigh, who portrays the character Lexie Grey. Phelan explained that typically, actors will use a “spit bucket” to spit out any food their character eats. When they were shooting one episode, however, Leigh wanted to actually eat the peanut butter cups that her character was snacking on. Eventually, though, it became a difficult task. Phelan said that he told her that they would keep track of how many she ate, and then afterwards Phelan would eat just as many, except he would do it in about two minutes. The number of peanut butter cups came to a total of 12, which Phelan ate in record time. Right after he threw up, though, Chyler informed him that they had given him the “double stuff” peanut butter cups. He had actually eaten 24.
But it’s not all play on the set. Phelan explained, “You’re shooting typically between five and eight pages of the script every day. [It] moves very quickly.” For every extra day (they are technically supposed to shoot in eight days, but typically actually need about nine or ten days), production costs more money.
He said, “Every member of the staff, we are all involved in outlining every single episode of the show … scene by scene by scene.” They have to think ahead and consider what will happen to each individual character — “[We] always have to deal with the episodes that are coming before and the episodes that are coming later. He showed a clip from Episode 19 of this season, “Sweet Surrender.“ Referring to this episode, he said, “We needed to deal with [the fact] that Meredith and Derek were going to get married. We know that Owen is dealing with his PTSD … and Callie and Arizona are in the midst of their relationship … then platforming where George’s character is going to go throughout the episode.”
He explained that every episode has a theme, which is found in the title of the episode (which is always also a song title). For “Sweet Surrender”, the theme was surrendering, so the writers had to figure out how to tell a story about each of the characters surrendering in some way — Izzie needed to surrender to her illness, while “Meredith surrender[ed] to the idea that she actually [was] going to get married, that she [couldn’t] escape,” said Phelan.
Phelan also commented that he and the other writers use certain devices for specific purposes. For instance, “Surgeries are really effective at having characters figure out what emotional conflict they’re dealing with.”
A significant part of the writer’s job, Phelan also noted, is research, especially on a show like Grey’s in which it is important to be as accurate as possible with regard to the medical issues. They also have experts come in to “make sure actors look like they know what they’re doing” as doctors. As for the outlandish medical cases that often appear on Grey’s, Phelan said that as long as the experts say that a particular medical case could happen, even it is extremely unlikely, the show can still use it. Phelan noted, “We take a lot of pride in that we’re pretty honest with the medicine. Admittedly, we work on a silly show in Hollywood, but we do have some responsibility [to inform people about medicine].” Case in point: Referring to Izzie’s recent diagnosis of skin cancer, he advised, “Wear sunscreen. Skin cancer has increased I think five fold in this country.”