June 6, 2008

Army Wives Creator Katherine Fugate Answers Questions in Advance of Sunday's Season Premiere

The second season of Army Wives kicks off this Sunday night at 10pm. The show picks up with everyone struggling to get through the aftermath of the Hump bar bombing Suffice it to say, no one is the same. For those of you who have never seen it, this show is about the women (and one man) whose spouses are in the Army. Some are deployed overseas, some work on the local base, but all are married to the army. It's a show about relationships, endurance, loneliness, longing, and a lot of fear.

It also features a high ranking African American woman, (Wendy Davis as Lt. Colonel Joan Burton) who has worked so hard to rise to an incredibly important position, but is also struggling with her marriage. As this season begins she also has to decide how to deal with her unplanned pregnancy.

In a poignant moment during the season premiere, Kim Delaney (as Claudia Joy the mother hen and wife of the base commander) is taking her daughter Amanda (played by Kim Allen) to college and is asked by Amanda if she regretted having to leave law school when she became unexpectedly pregnant while in law school. She shockingly says yes. You never hear that on TV. Honesty.

The show was the highest rated new series on Lifetime, and even the presidential candidates are getting behind the show with both Barack Obama and John McCain taping messages in support of military families to air in advance of the show.

Katherine Fugate created the show based on the book Under the Saber: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives by Tanya Biank. She serves as one of the executive producers and her other writing credits include Xena: Warrior Princess and the feature The Prince & Me (the first one, with Julia Stiles not the cheesy second one.) Fugate answered some questions in advance of the season premiere.

Women & Hollywood How did you come to create Army Wives?

Katherine Fugate: The Mark Gordon Company sent me the non-fiction book on which the series is based. I assumed the book was meant to be adapted into a feature film as I had spent the majority of my career writing movies. The major thrust of the book was a journalist's investigation into a series of true crime murders at Fort Bragg, but I fell in love with the military world itself. I was moved by the wives' camaraderie, their love of their soldiers and their service and sacrifice to our country.
I was also swept away by the grand tradition and imagery of military life, the enclosed community, the hierarchical infrastructure - and of course, the gossip and sex. It had everything! So I met with Deb Spera, the president of the MGC, and pitched a feature film adaptation of the book, beginning and ending with a murder. About 10 minutes into my pitch, Deb stopped me. I figured she'd heard enough and was showing me the door. When she asked why my pitch sounded so much like a movie, when the project was for television, I explained all I received was the book with an empty buck slip with her name on it. No other explanation was given, so I just assumed... After a hilarious beat of mutual confusion, we got on the same page and took the television series to ABC, then Lifetime. It's been a great honor and challenge and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to shine a light on this heroic world.
W&H: You covered some pretty intense issues last season. What issues will you be covering this season?
KF: The military exists in a world that deals with life-and-death issues on a daily basis. That creates a heightened sense of reality. When you watch the news at night - that downed helicopter or Humvee hit by an IED could hold your husband. The last phone call you shared with your spouse could literally be your last. Everything you do gets magnified. You are so awake - so achingly aware of every moment, every opportunity. It makes for a dramatic backdrop that affords great storytelling. We'll be exploring issues of sacrifice, death, camaraderie and life-or-death decisions. Our show is about the personal relationships themselves. This is a life of such great impermanence. Every two or three years you pack up and move, making new relationships in a city you didn't choose. This allows us to bring new faces onto Fort Marshall all the time.
One issue the real Army wives continually bring up is the reintegration process when the soldiers return home. How they've changed after being on the battlefield. Often the soldier expects to come home to everything exactly the same way it was when they left, even if they've been gone for two years. But life has moved on. The wives have changed. So have their children. You can't just pick up as you left with so much life experience that you didn't share together. So now, in some ways, you are forced to fall in love all over again, with your partner, your children and the country you left.
W&H: Most people really don't have a real understanding of "army wives." What do you want people to know about the show and the real army wives that they might not get from the general press and marketing info?
KF: The Army wives serve too, as much as the soldiers. Their sacrifices benefit us all. They've been in the shadows too long and when you fully understand all they give up for our country, you can't help but be moved. They become single mothers for months, even years at a time. They combat prejudice, loneliness, the fear their partner could be killed at any moment. Yet, they find the beauty in life to a greater degree than most. They understand the immediacy of love. But most of all, they have a support system we don't see in civilian life. They show up for each other, they get each other's backs. It's a world we could all learn from. At the core, our show is about love. And the sacrifices you make for love: of your country, your friends, your family, your husband or wife. That's what Army Wives is about - and you get a real sense of pride knowing that.
W&H: Is it different writing for a show where you know that the primary audience is women?
KF: I personally don't set out thinking I am writing for an audience of women, men, dogs or aliens. I actually write for the subject itself - to illuminate who I am writing, not who I am writing for. I seek out the flawed beauty, the imperfections that make us all human beings.

Take the lessons learned and throw them out there. Embolden some souls. We tell stories to laugh, cry - but ultimately to learn from each other. For me, it's not that you stumble and fall - but how you get up that matters. Who you become is the story. I am also a true lover of melodrama - of writing directly at the heart of the matter. Not sidestepping the drama, but excavating it. Unearthing it until it gets messy and honest - but very real. I suppose that would appeal more to women, than men. But who knows? It's my understanding Army Wives has a great cross-over appeal. I even know men who watch the shows when their wives refuse to!
W&H: You have written both films and TV. What is the difference for you as a writer?
KF: They are vastly different experiences. I didn't realize how much until I started the process on Army Wives. As someone once wisely said, "you don't know how much you don't know." Yet, at the same time, writing is writing and requires the same sort of inner depth and exploration, messy regurgitation of the soul, regardless of the medium. Even this interview requires me to be in an open place and speak from the heart. That's the only way I know how to approach writing - no matter what the genre or format. But the work requirements are completely different. TV is far more immediate and requires you to wear many different hats.
It's far more an office job with long hours, water coolers and your hand attached to a cell phone. It easily becomes a 24/7, 7 days a week job, too, so if you need your teeth cleaned, do it now. Because once the season starts, you'll be lucky to read a fortune cookie.
Features are far more solitary. Scripts can take years to write, rewrite and produce. You're often alone, in your own world. There is less interaction and far more introspection. You get many drafts and opportunities to explore that draft. With feature writing, you get more time for nuance, to digest, to walk away and pick up a script a week or a month later and look at it with fresh eyes. A TV episode has to air on a specific date or you have an hour of black screen, so you're sprinting from day one until the end of the season.
In TV, during season 1 of Army Wives, there were times when I had 24 to 48 hours to write a script from scratch that had to be production ready. The stress factor is completely different.
W&H: Since this is a show that focuses on women, are there more women in the writers room and does this show give more opportunities to women writers?
KF: We are always looking to tell the best stories that we can for these characters. So that means hiring the very best writers that we can. We do very much encourage female writers to submit material during staffing season. Our show is very female-centric, from the studio and network executives, to the producers, and of course, our cast. But ultimately for hiring writers - what matters is having good material and a passion for the subject matter.
W&H: While women are more prevalent as TV writers than in film the numbers are still no where near acceptable. What advice could you give someone who want to make a career writing for TV?

KF: My best advice would be: Do your homework. Make relationships. Understand how it all works. Develop an elephant thick skin. Accept this is a business. Be a professional. No one cares about your feelings. Now you have the armor - the sword and breastplate to go into battle. Then remember you're an artist. Your passion and your sensitivity are what make you a good writer. Don't lose it. Don't become hard and bitter. Put your heart and soul on the page. There will always be someone who doesn't get you, doesn't like what you do. Expect that. Accept that - and move on. There will be others who will recognize your voice, what you are trying to do with your work. Be open to them. They will take your material even farther. They will help you reach your goals - this is a collaborative medium, after all. You can't do it alone. You can't act, direct, produce, light the scene, dress the set and stock craft service with multi-colored cheese plates.

Lastly, don't just like what you write. Love what you write. If you truly think you're the one meant to write this story, then write it. Believe in it. Stay in your light. The first step is the word. The story. That's your part in this. Own it and the rest will come to you.
Show premieres Sunday, June 8 at 10pm on Lifetime.
Army Wives' brings home a female perspective to war (USA Today)