Lifetime’s The Lizzie Borden Chronicles comes to an end tonight, and I think I might miss it most of all. This fun and campy limited series, a continuation of the Lifetime movie, Lizzie Borden Took An Ax, gave us a fictionalized account of what Lizzie Borden’s life was like once she was acquitted of the murder of her parents. That life, which interwined real and unreal (really unreal!) characters, was a bloody romp. That couldn’t have happened without Christina Ricci and Clea Duvall, who played Lizzie and Emma Borden, respectively. Nor could it have happened without the writers Greg Small, Rich Blaney, Barbara Nance, Jason Grote, and David Simkins.
I had interviewed Rich and Greg previously, and then got the bonus chance of interviewing David Simkins, veteran TV writer and producer of such shows as Charmed, Roswell, Warehouse 13, Dark Angel, Grimm, and so much more.
GoD: You were not originally on when they were gonna do 6?
Simkins: No I was not. The story was… Lifetime was doing the TV movie and the ratings were really good for them. And they made this kind of snap decision, well I’m saying snap decision, but who knows, they may have thought about it long and hard. In the past they wanted to do a 6 hour limited series, but they were a little unclear as to how they were gonna make those 6 hours happen in a timely manner. Rich and Greg were coming from the TV movie world. They did not have a lot of experience in TV show length – how the schedule worked. So I got the call through Lifetime, who contacted my manager, who talked to me and said, “Here’s the deal. They need this really fast.” Fast as a concept anyway. I remember watching the Elizabeth Montgomery version of Lizzie Borden on TV back when it aired. I was fascinated by it. So I got on the phone with the Sony producers, the producers from the TV movie division, and talked about about how to translate this machinery, sort of movie-making machinery, into a tv scheduled format. I’m talking about in terms of pitching the stories, getting them outlined, and having them approved or disapproved. Then when the approval comes in, you go to script, there’s notes, and it gets put through an assembly line process along the way, because you’re dealing with continuing storylines, and actors, and characters from week to week. It was something that they were not that familiar with, and Rich and Greg as well. We looked at it tactically – how to hold back on delivering stuff.
GoD: Right. Lengthy character development.
Simkins: Exactly. They may have told you that when we had 6 episodes, we had killed off several characters.
GoD: Well they (Blaney & Small) didn’t tell me who, but they did say it’s kinda finale-ish. Like the end is at 6, and then it’s like a sequel.
Simkins: I can’t remember which ones we killed….
GoD: Well, maybe you shouldn’t tell me cause I don’t wanna tell anybody.
Simkins: We had a lot of fun when we wrote. It was me, Rich, Greg, Barbara Nance, and Jason Grote, a script supervisor, actually, a writer we had in the room taking notes. Did they tell you we worked in the upstairs room of an Italian restaurant?
GoD: No, they didn’t.
Simkins: It was very funny. We needed office space really fast. This thing was on a super tight schedule, and my manager happened to know the guy who runs a restaurant across the street from his office. There was a room upstairs above the restaurant, and we were there every day, would go down for lunch, and then go back up again. It was a lot of fun. What else can I tell you that they haven’t already told you?
Simkins: Christina had coming into it very definite ideas on how she wanted to play it. As writers we started off giving her a bit of a suffragette kinda prototype, late 19th century feminist attitude. Pushing for this sort of, “Let’s make her taking these forced actions because of the way society’s been treating her.” And Christina was like, “No.” She just wanted to have fun.
GoD: No but that comes out though, the feminist. I mean, not super suffragette, but it does come out feminist, like saving the prostitute, and being in charge of the business. I mean, it does come out. I wanna say Evil Dead-ish, but I don’t watch that that much, my husband does, maybe more like From Dusk Til Dawn – so bloody and fun. And you can’t take it seriously.
Simkins: Yeah. And it was so hard up there. They were shooting in Halifax and there’s a section of town… I did not make it up to the shoot at Halifax, from what I understand there was a section of town, sorta stuck in the 1890s. It was like an attraction.
GoD: Like Colonial Williamsburg or something?
Simkins: Right. But it’s not very big. So every time they sorta turned the camera around, to point and shoot, they were being very careful not to get Ray’s TV repair shop across the street. It was very, very limiting. They did great work in terms of hiding that stuff.
GoD: (laughs) Oh yeah. I totally didn’t see it.
Simkins: The last 2 episodes were shot in the dead of winter. It was brutal there. Brutally really hard. They made it work. They pulled it all out. I’m really impressed with how the show looks in terms of wardrobe and set dec (-oration). I think it looks fantastic.
GoD: It does. it looks very authentic. Not that I’m an expert of that time. You know one thing I didn’t say to them, but you made me think of it… You know how now there’s American Horror Story and that show with Matthew McConaughey that I can’t think of the name of because I’m getting old, you know where it’s like limited series, and you change the actors. But what Lifetime seems to be doing, I don’t see a lot of taking a miniseries and then turning it into a series. Maybe Lifetime can start owning that part. They’re doing the Marilyn Monroe thing. Not that you can really change that… you know, maybe you can continue the stories of one of the characters or something like that.
Simkins: Yeah. That’s kind of Lifetime’s bread and butter. Ripped from the headlines, and take stories that the audience has a certain familiarity with, and then exploit upon that and then tell further stories. That was one of the issues with this. Do we shoot really closely to what Lizzie Borden actually did? After the trial, there wasn’t a whole lot. So we had to invent pretty much everything, rooting it in certain realities, characters, and historical people.
GoD: Right, and then totally messing with their history. You know, it’s working. I have no idea with ratings – what the ratings are now, what the ratings were then. What I do know is, that you said there was a quick turnaround, and it definitely had to be because didn’t it air… not this past January, but January 2014, and then ordered before the year was out?
Simkins: Yeah. And Christina was pregnant at the time, very close to giving birth. We had a hard date that we had to meet, for when she could start shooting. And that date came up very quick. I’m gonna get this wrong, but we only had a few months between getting the order, and delivering the scripts because they were in pre-production. We were writing up episode 3 or 4 I think. And we started finishing scripts and throwing them over our shoulders to Halifax as fast as we could. But once the writer’s room landed on the characters and what Lizzie wanted to do… and all Lizzie realy wanted to do was live a peaceful life, and she just keeps stepping in it. People keep stepping into her way and causing trouble. But once we landed on the simple fact that what she wants, to be there with her sister, and then all these other people come in with their different agendas, there’s naturally gonna be collisions. The stories end up, you know, as people say, “They wrote themselves.” They didn’t, but as long as we stuck with the characters and focused on what they wanted, which was opposed to what she wanted, the conflicts of narrative collision did kind of present themselves, in a kind of obvious way.
GoD: She came with a lot of prewritten possibilities. So tell me, what are you working on now?
Simkins: I’m working on a pilot for ABC Family, a young adult fiction novel, a supernatural, kinda science fiction. So I’m working on that very quickly.
GoD: Are you allowed to tell me the name?
Simkins: You know, probably not, because they havent announced it yet.
God: I’m always looking for pilots to review.
Simkins: I appreciate how much you appreciate the show.
GoD: Well, I only review shows I like, so I try pilots to see if, “Hey, maybe everyone will like it!” A&E is very good about giving screeners to people. It just so happened I was doing Vikings, and everytime I logged on, Christina Ricci’s face popped up on it. So I was like, “What’s this? Let me take a look at this.” So I got some clips, and I wrote up a little article about it to see if anyone wanted to watch it with me. And then I started watching it. And it helps that it’s not 23 episodes, because I really end up spending all my time watching television now, so I was like, “It’s 8. I can do 8.” And if it’s good…
Simkins: That kind of TV story I like a whole lot more, and I’ve been writing for TV for a while. Those 22, 23 episodes for a writer and for an actor, it’s brutal. And now that American television is becoming more like the A&E model, it’s a way to tell it now which is much more attainable, and much more satisfying. You don’t feel like you’re treading water so much.
GoD: Yeah. And things are happening over and over again. One of my favorite, favorite shows is Supernatural, and when I write my reviews now, I’m like, “I know they can totally hire me as a writer.” Because it’s great, and the two guys really make the show, but I know it so well. The stories are great, which is why it’s a lot of the same stories, but it’s almost like… it’s funny.
Simkins: It happens though. On Charmed, you found there was a pattern to the story. There’s a way in and a way out and somewhere in the middle of the story, this happens, and you go, “Oh we told that story already.” And you go, “Oh yeah.”
GoD: But if it works… You know I’m not in TV world, but it seems to me that if a show lasts at least 4 seasons, it’s successful, but once it lasts 10, 11, it’s iconic.
The series (hopefully just season) finale of The Lizzie Borden Chronicles airs Sunday, May 24th at 10pm ET on Lifetime.
The Lizzie Borden Chronicles: Lizzie’s Body Count, Episode 6 “The Fugitive Kind” written by David Simkins
Things are starting to get darker, bloodier, and deadlier for Lizzie and Emma in this web exclusive from “Fugitive Kind.” Video