If there’s a Hollywood creative job that Doug Wood hasn’t done, it’s because that job hasn’t been invented yet. He was born in Chicago, where he acted in productions at The Next Theatre Company, The Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater, The Forum Theatre and The Second City, among others. He formed a comedy duo with Cheryl Rhoads, entitled The Fine Line, playing comedy clubs and theatres in Chicago and later L.A., including The Improv and The Comedy Store. Wood has worked as the creative executive for the Annie Award-winning films The Iron Giant and Cats Don’t Dance. He also served as the creative executive for the Emmy Award-winning TV series Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs. Wood has created two successful animated television series: Little Einsteins for Disney and Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies for National Geographic (for which he also authored the children’s book, “When Mama Mirabelle Comes Home). In addition to his work for Disney, he has written television shows for children at Nickelodeon, PBS, Discovery Kids, the BBC, Fremantle Media and more. At the Motion Picture and Television Fund he volunteers his services instructing senior citizens on the craft of Improvisation. In 2011, Wood directed, produced (with Jennifer Clymer), and wrote (with Maureen Kelly) a live-action short, Hi, Lillian, which stars veteran actor, Pat Crawford Brown, an improv student of Wood’s at the MPTV Fund. The film has won the Audience Award for Best Short at three film festivals: Dances With Films 15, Prescott Film Festival, 2012 and the 12th Annual Valley Film Festival. Wood also won an award for Best Emerging Filmmaker at the Prescott Film Festival. Hi, Lillian is an Official Selection at the AWEsome Film Festival in San Jose, CA, the Reel Recovery Festivals in L.A., NY and American Independent Film Festival and the Legacy Film Festival in San Francisco.
You started out in the theatre, with all of its high highs and low lows – auditioning, finding the heart and soul of a character, receiving audience approval. Eventually you turned toward stage comedy; why did you make that transition and do you think comedy was always a driving force?
“It wasn’t an intentional choice—it just happened, as is the case with many careers in this strange industry. I was acting in serious plays in Chicago– I had done a show with Steppenwolf, then got my Equity card when I was cast in the Midwest premiere of The Shadow Box. When that show closed I formed a comedy duo called The Fine LIne with a woman I had met during my two-year improv program at Second City under the great Josephine Forsberg.
It was something to keep me busy until I got cast in another play. But after performing in comedy clubs, we started getting gigs in fancier nightclubs and within a few months I was able to quit my job at a bookstore and actually make a living as an actor. I wound up doing The Fine Line for seven years.
But I should mention that The Fine Line was not stand-up, it was sketch comedy—short vignettes on male-female relationships. So we treated each sketch as a mini-play and had the awesome opportunity to explore different characters and different themes. As The Fine Line moved from nightclubs into Equity theatres and television, the sketches were able to tackle more substantive subject matter, so in a way, I never strayed too far from my theatrical roots.
I’ve never been able to see a clear break between comedy and drama. To this day, in all my writing, I aspire to find the humor in serious material and explore darker themes in the funny stuff. And the choices I make are generally based on trying to keep things as real as possible, even the kids cartoon shows I write. My favorite films (by Robert Altman, Nicole Holofcener, Alexander Payne, to name a few) shift effortlessly between comedy and drama because those directors acknowledge that life itself is a dramedy.
And my favorite TV series (Taxi, Enlightened, The Comeback, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Larry Sanders Show, Friday Night Lights, The Sopranos to name a few) are all tonally mixed and character-driven. As a kid The Dick Van Dyke Show was my favorite series because it was so much more real than other shows. I usually find really broad material grating and unsatisfying.”
Improv is an innate skill that can be developed and mastered, but can it be learned? It seems like it requires a particular kind of freedom and/or daring that may not be natural to some people.
“I don’t think one can learn to be a good actor or a good writer if one doesn’t already have natural-born talent in those areas, although, studying can certainly improve one’s skills. But I genuinely believe that anyone can learn to be a good improviser. It’s so much simpler than most people expect—it’s all about turning off the critical left-brain and being instinctive—acting from the gut instead of the mind. I believe this because I’ve seen it over and over again with my own eyes.
For the past nine years I’ve been a volunteer at the Motion Picture and Television Fund (“the Old Actors Home”) where I teach improv to the senior citizen residents once a week. The class includes both professional actors and non-actors and after a while I can’t see any division between the two. It’s really satisfying to see my students learn to be “in the moment” and become playful children again. When that happens, the words just fly out of their mouths and they give no thought at all as to what their next line of dialogue will be. I should add that nothing is off-limits and more often than not the seniors take the material into R-rated territory.”
As an improv performer and teacher, do you find yourself giving a running mental commentary to most encounters in your daily life? And is this a potential source for what you may transform into written material at some point?
“I don’t do this intentionally, but I did learn early on the importance of observing, so yes, I quietly soak everything in and am a huge people-watcher. Sooner or later some of it is bound to wind up in my work.
Careers in Hollywood aren’t planned so much as they emerge over time – and you have become one of the prominent creators and executives in the world of children’s entertainment. Have all your roads naturally led you to this place, or did you make a wild left turn at some point?
“Lots of wild left turns. I can honestly say I never even remotely intended to become either a studio executive or a writer/creator of family entertainment. Opportunities present themselves and you sort of go with the flow.
I feel fortunate to work in an industry that allows one to jump from one thing to the next– alternating writing, directing, producing, developing, acting and consulting. Experience in one discipline often informs the others so the shifts aren’t at all counterproductive.
What do you look for in a property that tells you kids will enjoy it? Whether it’s one of your own creations or a product you are being asked to shepherd, are there key elements that are personal must-haves for you to be interested?
“Humor and relatable characters are the most important ingredients for me, and there has to be genuine emotion in the storylines otherwise the shows just aren’t about anything.
Unfortunately, the current trend in preschool programming is for curriculum-driven shows that can be didactic and condescending. Executives are uncomfortable with conflict and emotion, which, of course, is what writers are always drawn to.
The note we get most often is that the characters have to be completely likable and “aspirational,” so displaying insecurity, anger, sadness or fear is pretty much off-limits. Not only does this make for bland and humorless entertainment, it also doesn’t provide kids with the tools they need to exist in the real world. It also explains why many parents no longer want to watch TV with their kids. Sadly, smart and witty shows like Sesame Street and the Peanuts specials are a thing of the past.”
As an executive, did you think like a writer? And as a writer, do you think like an executive?
“The most fun part of my job as an executive was working hand-in-hand with writers and artists. Nothing makes me happier than being surrounded by talented people. I love working collaboratively with writers in a room, beating out a story with note cards on the wall. Most executives, however, don’t have creative backgrounds so they’re often baffled by the creative process.
I remember being horrified the first time I was asked to compile a writers list for a project on which we hadn’t yet received the original writer’s first draft script—in other words, it was just assumed the first writer would be replaced and totally rewritten even before anyone had even read one page of the script. And this turned out to be a common practice, not an anomaly.
So, in answer to your question—yes, I did think like a writer while I was an executive but that trait often put me at odds with other executives which is why I ultimately decided to return to my writing.
As a writer, I try not to think like an executive until I at least get a first draft down on paper. Trying to please people while creating isn’t a good idea. But thinking like an executive is useful when I’m consulting on someone else’s screenplay because they usually want to know how to write something that will actually sell.”
You have found success as a hyphenate writer-producer-director on a live action short. Has it whetted your appetite to continue on that path?
“Yes. When I made my first short film, Hi, Lillian (which I co-wrote with Maureen Kelly), I did it mostly as a learning experience. I was a little embarrassed by some of the technical flaws so when it began to win awards for Best Short at film festivals, I was pleasantly surprised and strongly encouraged to make another film. Mostly because I was eager to apply what I had just learned (and to avoid a lot of the mistakes I had made.)
I raised money via Indiegogo so my second film, Entanglement, (which is almost complete at the time of this writing) is far superior in terms of production quality, and a little more ambitious in terms of story. Making it was an incredibly satisfying experience, mostly because of the level of talent involved including the actors, producers and crew. I still have a lot to learn as a director so I’m hoping I’ll have the opportunity to do another film, although I don’t think I’m capable of forcing myself to go back to all my friends and family who donated money and ask for more.
The most satisfying aspect of directing an indie film for me (and I suspect a lot of filmmakers), is that it’s a rare opportunity to have some control over your own material, to be able to say what you want to say. I recently had lunch with a former writer who had enjoyed some success in the industry. When I asked her why she gave up writing for television she said, “the n-word: notes.””