Interview: ‘Riverdale’ Writer and Co-Producer, Ted Sullivan

Riverdale writer and co-producer Ted Sullivan was kind enough to take some time to chat with me about all things about our favorite teen drama! Read below for some season five teases, what the writers room looks like in a COVID world, and what-besides the Core Four-is keeping him occupied in this time of quarantine.

How are you today, Ted?

TS: You know, that’s always a loaded question these days. You get up,  read The New York Times and go, “Oh, twenty million unemployed. This is going to go to 2021, 2022, I’m living alone in quarantine.” You know, it’s strange, it’s a strange time to be sure.

For sure. This year has been something.

TS: Yeah, I mean, definitely for the record books.

Think back to January. What was it? The second? We were like, “Oh, world war three. That’s fine.”

Yeah! I, I remember I was flying up to produce episode 19 and we had two people taken off the plane by officers in hazmat outfits and I even posted a picture on Twitter, like, “Oh, well that’s weird.”  And then I was thinking, well, that’s the closest I’m going to get to any of the Covid stuff. And then lo and behold, I was living in a dream world to not think of reality. And you see how now this is going to affect the entire planet. So…

Extremely different. I know they’re experimenting with opening up productions in Australia, but all of it’s going to be completely different. It’s no touching, no kissing, nothing we’re used to seeing on TV.

TS: Yeah. I know. My friend Michelle Yeoh is starring in one the new Marvel movies that was supposed to start shooting months ago in Australia, and so she’s been in a holding pattern, but that movie is a Kung Fu movie. So, she was like, “I don’t know what’s supposed to happen.” How do you do a Kung Fu movie without stunts and action? I don’t know how you do Riverdale without kissing and fighting.

Exactly. It’s a teen drama and that’s what we’re all tuning in to see: these relationships and mysteries. The fact that there’s all these social distancing restrictions in place, I can’t see it happening anytime in the near future.

TS: Well, there’s also elements of… just one of the things that really annoys me about the planet, people put a greater emphasis on the actors than the crew.

Yes.

TS: Just talking about everyone just idolizes the actors, but the crew is out there. They’re standing in the rain. They’re working far longer hours than any actor. I’ve been on shows — not this one (Riverdale) but I’ve been on shows where actors will say, “Oh, you wouldn’t believe the hours I’ve actually had to be here.” I would have to pull them to the side and tell them, “You have to stop saying that. You work one or two days a week, you have a trailer, you have a cart that brings you to set, these people come here two hours, three hours before you do, leave two or three hours after you do, and they make in one week what you make in a day. So, you can’t talk about how hard your days are.”

The only actor I worked with who I would never say that to, was Doug Jones on Star Trek, that guy, you know, lives in his prosthetic makeup. He was the creature in Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth and all that. That guy worked harder than anyone I’ve ever met in my life and never complained. We’re lucky that our cast is not like that on Riverdale, but I’ve been on shows where I just roll my eyes at those types of actors that just complain out their ass.

It’s good that your current cast has a tighter grasp on the reality of the situation then.

TS: Someone like Cole has been acting since before his frontal lobes were fully formed. You know, Cole understands better than virtually anyone I’ve ever worked with before the role the crew plays. The only person that I would say matches Cole that I’ve worked with is Brenda Song, who also was on the show with him on Disney (Suite Life Of Zach and Cody). I’ve seen him save a shot where, “Oh, no the camera missed its mark!” But, then they adjusted, saved the shot, and I’ll be like, “Holy crap!”

They just subconsciously knew where the camera was and were able to adjust and we’re able to just keep moving. And someone like Cami and KJ, they’re incredible. Like the crew is standing in the rain and we’re shooting on location, and Cami will go around, holding an umbrella, sing songs to them. KJ will do push-ups to make people laugh. I means, that’s the type of stuff that you look for in a crew and cast and go “Oh, thank God they get it!”

That’s so sweet!

TS: No, honestly, they’re really special from that level and I’m super proud. Like, I told KJ one day when we were talking, that, “I’m super proud of you. You’re number one of the call sheet, number one sets the tone.” It reminds me of Melissa from Supergirl. Melissa just does the same thing when I was there. No one works harder than Melissa. She was in every scene, especially season one and it was brutal on her. And she had to do stunts and change costumes and we were shooting out of order.

So, sometimes she would say to me like, “Which episode is this we’re shooting?”

“Well, this scene is for episode four. And then later we’re shooting another one for episode six.”. She would say, “Do they know I’m Supergirl?” She never complained. KJ’s the same way. Number one on the call sheet, sets that tone for the stat. So, we’re really lucky that way the crew loves the cast.

Good. Because you hear some horror stories sometimes.

TS: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve never been on a show where it’s like this many young people in it. You hear horror stories about young people with time, money, and power. You know what, I’m sorry, go on, you have questions, we’re just babbling right now. Sorry!

It’s okay! So we can go ahead and turn to the questions that I sent you. The one I am most curious about is how Riverdale is known to be over the top and kind of campy. And in the list I gave you, I gave you some examples. So, I am really curious to know what is the craziest thing that’s ever been pitched that didn’t make it to screen?

TS: You know, I’m going to tell you this story and this will be my answer, but it might frustrate you. I don’t know if I actually can give you a specific answer. And why is because the rocket that was in episode three has been a pitch in the room for a couple of seasons and then it finally came into episode three of season four. So, some of the things that we talked about in the room that are crazy, may pop up later. So, I wouldn’t want to spoil that. Because I think it was day three that I was in the room and I stopped the room and said, “Okay. I just need to ask a legitimate question. When we say that Edgar is going to get in a rocket in order to fly away. Is that a joke pitch? Is that a metaphor? Is that a real pitch?” And everyone’s like, “No, no, that’s real. We’ve been talking about that for a couple of seasons.”

I said, okay, I just want to make sure that’s what we’re doing. So I wouldn’t want to say something that seems outlandish that we discarded because it might pop up later. And that’s actually what I love most about the show. Like, as soon as people told me “No, that’s a real pitch” I leaned back to my chair and I just started laughing. I said, this is great. That means we can do whatever we want. It’s fun!

I understood that we’re not living in the real world on this show. We’re living in the Riverdale world where things can happen. Roberto says, “Get on the bus, Ted!” And I was like, “I’m on the bus. I’m there with Betty, we’re driving to that group camp, let’s go!” Cause that’s fun. And it’s outrageous and it’s memorable and it has this sense of humor and it’s cheeky. The show goes backwards and forward through heavy drama, over the top, fun, great colors, musical numbers, dance numbers, all that stuff. It’s a blank canvas that you’re looking at and just say like, “Great, we can do whatever we want as long as we adhere to the spirit of the show.”

So, I don’t know what I could say that wouldn’t be potentially a spoiler down the road because things come up and get discarded and then are brought back in. And that’s just the nature of this crazy show.

And that’s one of the things I really like about it. Riverdale knows exactly what it is and knows who their audience is. And it’s not afraid to take those risks. Things that probably wouldn’t work on other shows work perfectly in this environment.

TS: Yeah. We’re, we’re not a Shonda Rhimes show. We’re not as Vince Gilligan show. Roberto, he loves things that make you sit up. He’d like things that make you laugh. He likes things that make you cry. His tastes are as eclectic and diverse, as intelligent and as fun as you could imagine. I mean, this is a man who not only is a tremendous playwright in his own right, but it’s a man who can enjoy independent films like Piranha and the dark underbelly it shows you about youth and violence and authority. And then he can also equally enjoy Batman 66 with Adam West. I mean, I’ve never been in a room with a show runner with tastes that are as diverse as his, that he loved them both equally in their own way, because he can compartmentalize what he likes about each one of them.

And frankly, I think it’s one of those things that made us friends all the way back to the Supergirl days, which is where we met, because my tastes are the same way. I watched Throne of Blood by Kurosawa the night before I watched Robocop, and the night before that I watched Wizard of Oz. So, like I’m all over the place and I love them all equally for different reasons. And I think that’s what makes the show work. It’s a real window into the brilliant, strange, weird mind of Roberto. And I think there’s a reason why people link this show so much to a kind of teen version of Twin Peaks because it’s as specific to Roberto as Twin Peaks is to David Lynch. And that’s what’s so great about it.

I love that little love letter. That was great. We did touch base on the state of the world right now and you had to shut down production and there’s not really a clear answer of when you’ll be able to resume that. We were told that the end of season four will be wrapped up in the beginning of season five. So, is that going to be all three episodes? Is it going to be condensed down to one?

TS: Oh no, it’ll be all three episodes. I mean, on one level it’s frustrating that we ended on nineteen. On another level, it’s kind of great. And the reason for that is because nineteen was always considered to be the moment when the heroes look themselves in the mirror. It’s the darkness before the dawn. And this story about the videotapes, which has been a slow burn all season, truly comes kicking into high gear, which is why we end in that incredibly creepy, “Is that a real murder?” moment, that I have to say, Madchen (Amick) directed the hell out of. In the script it was I think just two lines. And she spent a long time on figuring out how they’re going to come up to Mr. Honey, tied up to the chair, how Mr. Honey was going to be pulling at the ropes.

And that you see for the first time, real fear in what we call “the victim”, but maybe it’s not in quotes this time around. How she shot the head tilt a dozen different ways, some with their head tilted in different directions, some where they tilt away from each other, some when they all went the same way. And it was so fun to watch her find the right, eerie choice and to give Roberto choices in the edit, which is great, which you really look for as a producer. And you could really feel the tutelage of David Lynch coming through in the way that Madchen approached that scene.

But we already wrote all the episodes that will make up the beginning of season five. There’s so much story that has to unfold and so much emotional fallout that comes from the mystery being revealed. And not only the mystery being revealed, but the repercussions of the mystery, which frankly is one of the things that I love so much about the show. Most shows would have the mystery be solved, say in the last, you know, 20 minutes of the season. But Roberto, his instinct is to show the repercussions of the mystery being solved. So, usually the mystery being solved is the penultimate beat of the season and then we see what is the emotional fallout. It’s not just about the mystery, it’s about how the mystery affects the people, the characters, on the show.

That’s true. I’ve been doing a re-watch with my family, season one the penultimate episode was the reveal of Jason’s Blossom’s murder and all that fun stuff. And the next episode was the consequences, which I think was a good choice. I did like that.

TS: I think it’s also the sign of a writer who understands storytelling and understands that it’s not about the twist, it’s about the emotional fallout. And I think if you’re writing: this happened, this happened, this happened, that’s how you end up with a lot of Hollywood garbage, which is just like, “Okay, well that was the twist, but now I never need to watch that again because I’m not emotionally involved.” Whereas if you’re watching a show where it’s not about the twist, it’s about what the twist does to the characters, well now you’re emotionally involved and then it’s about the human experience. And that’s the other thing about the show that I really enjoy is that as over the top, as fun, and as wild as this show can be, at its core, it’s a show about friends. People can identify themselves in certain characters, and can  identify with the emotional resonance of some of these heightened situations. And it’s not much different than people who can identify with what Spiderman is going through, even though they don’t have super powers or what Luke and Leia are going through, even though they don’t live in a galaxy far, far away.

Yes. That’s exactly what makes them timeless and memorable. So, we mentioned that Madchen was the one to direct 4×19. Are there any cast members looking to direct in the upcoming seasons?

TS: You know, I wouldn’t know that, that that’s wholly on Roberto. You know, that’s the discretion of a show runner. In full candor. I would be a little surprised if there was. In a post Covid or in a current Covid world, every minute is going to count when we do start shooting. I will say Madchen is the exception to the rule. We had more days where we were ahead of schedule with Madchen than any other first time director I’ve ever worked with. But my guess is because of how difficult, production is going to be just with new guidelines and regulations and that sort of thing, I would suspect that they’re going to rely on directors who have come in and and know the ropes. But the short answer is I don’t know.

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About the Author

Heather Mason joined the TV Source Magazine team in December 2017 with plans to cover The CW's 100.