Cathy Belben (writer)
wyk: You were talking about adjusting to writing for television. Do you find it difficult adjusting from just writing stories, where you can just use words, and now you have to think, to change your thinking process where it's, like, you have to rely on words and acting and camerawork and music?
Cathy: Yeah, I think it's difficult to...I'm so used to able to be expository and just explain a scene or explain what a character's thinking or doing or what something looks like, and now almost everything has to happen to what the characters say, and they can't say very much of it because our scenes are so short and tight that that's a big adjustment for me. I think also that there's a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on when we're not in the room talking about stories or we're not assigned to a script. Part of what I try to do behind the scenes is think up, just try to think about the story on my own without the other writers around and try to write almost like a journal, though that sounds kind of corny, but almost like journaling ideas about the story and where it could go and what I could pitch or what suggestions I could make about the story. And sometimes I get confused. There's good and bad things about six people working on one story.
wyk: Well, what would be, like, a good thing?
Cathy: I just think six brains are better than one. We've all come from such a variety of backgrounds, literally different places in the country. Everyone's just got a different life experience and set of skills and education to offer to the show. I just think we've all seen....And, you know, it's like a gigantic Venn diagram with a bunch of bubbles, and we've all seen many of the same TV shows and movies and read many of the same books and listened to a lot of the same music, but we all also have our own little variants that other people aren't experienced with. Nobody else on the show used to be married to a firefighter. Nobody else on the show used to be a librarian. I didn't go to [sweater-vest-wearing, BMW-driving voice] Yale. Everybody has a little something that they can offer that the other people can't that...I just think it makes the show that much richer.
wyk: And what would you say would be the hardest part of working with six other people? Five other people?
Cathy: Um, well...for me, hm. I don't...I think the hardest part is probably just, um...keeping track of the story from day to day, and following, trying to follow the ideas that other people are pitching at the table and trying to make sense out of everything. I mean, we'll have a—some of our episodes will have four storylines or five storylines that are—we'll have Duncan...we'll have something with Duncan, we'll have something with Keith, we'll have something with Veronica, we'll have some Logan, and, I don't know, we'll toss in a scene about Weevil or whatever. And I think when the story's being made, keeping track of all those different things has probably been the most difficult part.
wyk: You've mentioned you just watched the DVDs, but do you think you have a good grasp on the backstory?
Cathy: Oh, yeah. I've read all of the...I think I've read all of the scripts from last year several times. And I've watched all the shows several times. So, um, yeah. I think everybody has those moments where...certainly the writers that were here last year, they all have a much better grasp because they were in on the creation of the stories, but we all have days where we're like, [mumbling-under-our-breath-so-Rob-doesn't-hear voice], "We gotta go look that up." Especially if it's something like the name of a minor character or occasionally the age of a character. We want to make sure that somebody is or isn't eighteen.
wyk: Yeah, that's been bugging us.
[Editor's note: And when I say "that's been bugging us," what I really mean is, THAT'S BEEN DRIVING US FREAKIN' CRAZY!!!]
Cathy: Yeah, well, it happens. I think it's difficult to keep track of. There's a lot of detail. I've turned to the Mars Investigations site before...to look stuff up because I wasn't sure myself.
wyk: Wow, that's cool! Well, for us, anyway. Our readers probably wouldn't care.
P-C: What first-season episode do you wish you'd written? Since you could've been here for the first season.
Cathy: Oh, wow, look at the list here. Um...I don't know...so hard to say...probably anything that Diane wrote. Um, "Trip to the Dentist," "Echolls Family Christmas." I love the last episode, "Leave It to Beaver"; I thought it was fabulous. It was so fun, because at the end of the season last year, we....Once I decided to come down here, I got all my friends addicted to Veronica Mars, and so they'd come to work every day and just spend the morning hashing it out, telling me about it. [LoVe fangirl voice] "Oh my God! Logan and Veronica kissed!"
wyk: When exactly did you decide to come work on the show?
Cathy: In April, I think it was about mid-April that I made a decision, and then at the end of April, I flew down here to meet with Rob and kind of finalize my choice, and I asked for time off from my job, and I was down here by the end of May.
wyk: Speaking of Diane, she says she's more comfortable doing comedy. Do you have a preference? Do you like comedy, drama, mystery?
Cathy: I like Veronica Mars 'cause it seems to be a good blend of all three of those things. We've got a little drama, we've got a little comedy, and we've got some mystery. I think a lot of writers would say—and I'm definitely one of them—that I like characters. I like to invent voices and then see where the story goes from there. But mine tend to be...you know, I tend to write funnier stuff.
P-C: Do you find it hard to write for characters that aren't your own?
Cathy: At first I did, but Veronica's so much like other characters that I've written about that it doesn't seem that difficult. I also feel so steeped in everything that is Veronica, just from having watched the show, read the show, being surrounded by her voice, knowing Rob. It's not as difficult.
wyk: You're relatively new to the show and the industry. Do you feel comfortable enough to throw out your ideas, or were you a little hesitant at first?
Cathy: [chuckles] I'm definitely still kind of shy at the table. I used to play soccer really badly, and one of the reasons why I was really bad is because I spent all my time thinking about kicking the ball and what I would do if the ball came to me, planning out an elaborate strategy for how I was going to get it nearer to the goal, and by the time that the ball actually came towards me, I was so wrapped up in thinking that I couldn't do anything. And I think the same thing happens to me a little bit at the writing table. Sometimes I'm so busy thinking about what I'm gonna say that...I bite my tongue because I just can't get the ideas out, you know?
[Editor's note: And that was today's lesson in Television Writing Is Just Like Soccer 101.]
Cathy: And I don't think anybody at the table's ever....The people are always extremely friendly, where they just don't say anything, they need to move on to the next pitch. But, for me, anyway, it's a little nerve-racking. It's why I need to do a lot of writing behind the scenes and come to the table with my ideas all ready to share if I can.
wyk: Well, what do you think of the fandom? Do you think it's fun or scary?
Cathy: What do I think of the fandom?
wyk: Well, have you gotten fan reaction, or do you visit the boards?
Cathy: Not literal "fan mail," but I do check some of the sites occasionally. I don't have a whole lot of time to go through all the commentary, but it's pretty amazing. People know more about the show than we do. [chuckles] And I think it's great, I think it's fantastic that people....As someone who didn't watch TV and spent my life promoting books, that's just a totally different type of thinking for me, and I'm impressed. I think people do an amazing, amazing amount of complex thinking about something that I didn't use to believe really required that kind of thinking. And I'm impressed because they do, and I think it does.
wyk: Have you been influenced at all by some of the things you've read written by the fans?
Cathy: Have I been influenced in the sense of, like, what I write for the show?
wyk: Mmhmm, yeah.
Cathy: No, not really. Sure, we think about them, and...I'd like to see Logan and Veronica get back together because I think they're pretty hot.
wyk: Oh God, another LoVe fan!
Cathy: [laughs] But I don't...But then I have a story, and things have to keep happening to keep people on their toes. And like I said, although I do check in with the fandom, I don't have enough time to think too much about what people write. And I don't have that much control over what happens on the show that I can actually take something from a fansite and, like, make it into something on the show.
wyk: And what kind of influence do you have?
Cathy: I'm not really sure.
wyk: [chuckles] Still trying to figure it out?
Cathy: [chuckles] Yeah.
wyk: Do you have any say in the overall story arc, the main mysteries?
Cathy: Well, the main mystery for the entire year was decided before I got here.
Cathy: I don't feel like I don't have a say. I feel like a lot of things are planned out for the year, and we've all had a say in how that's gonna happen, how it's gonna work, how it's gonna develop.
P-C: So who broke this particular story, "Blast from the Past"?
Cathy: We all did.
P-C: You all did.
Cathy: Yeah, in terms of breaking it down beat by beat and deciding what was going to happen, we did that as a group, and then Phil [Klemmer] and I retreated to our respective caves to actually write out the scenes.
P-C: But how were you two chosen to write the episode?
Cathy: I don't know. I don't really know how that works, how Rob decides who's going to write which scripts when. I just kind of get paired up with other people because I'm new, and so I have relatively no idea what's going on.
P-C: So how does it work when you write an episode with another writer? Do you split it up by storyline and characters, or do you work together on each scene?
Cathy: We split it up by storylines. I wrote the A story, the Madame Sophie story.
Cathy: And then Phil wrote the other stuff. And then we got together. It went back and forth between me and Phil, we commented on each other's work, it went to Rob and Diane. So everybody had a hand in polishing what we'd written and making it what the vision was that we had for it.
P-C: Okay, so you wrote, basically, the Madame Sophie plot. So what was your favorite scene or moment or line that you got to write?
Cathy: Gosh, I don't know. I like the part where she goes into Cora's room, and she's looking through the closet for clothes, and she finds the El Boyo Pollo chicken costume. I like the scenes in Madame Sophie's....I liked writing about how her appearing on Madame Sophie's TV show, and we ended up writing a lot more than ended up being in the show, but I liked writing that part.
P-C: Well, you did a lot of research about psychics, I read.
Cathy: I did, I did do some research. I read, I read a book by that guy named...John Edwards. I read a book called Small Mediums at Large. I did some online research about, you know...That's one aspect of the show that I really like, is doing the background research, because it gives us a little depth. I feel like we know a lot about the background stuff; even if it doesn't make it into the show, we're informed by it. Like, I read a lot about palmistry and tarot and things that struck me about psychics. I just read a book called Spook, by Mary Roach, about the afterlife and different historical explorations to determine if there's an afterlife. And I like doing all that. I mean, obviously, all that stuff doesn't make it into the show, but it does inform my thinking.
[Editor's note: Damn, Cathy did more research for that forty-minute episode than I did in four years of college.]
P-C: Was there anything specific in the show that came directly from your research?
Cathy: Not directly. Like I said, I read about John Edwards 'cause I wanted to make sure that anything that we had that happened in terms of Madame Sophie communicating, or allegedly communicating, with people from the dead was phrased the way it might really be phrased on a psychic show. I don't recall anything that was specific.
wyk: So in your opinion, was the Madame Sophie character a real psychic or just a fake? When you were writing it?
Cathy: I don't know. To me, she's someone that Jackie could really believe is helpful to her; I don't know if that makes her real or not real. I don't know how to answer that question.
P-C: So we'll go to another.
P-C: All right, so one of the things we really liked about "Blast from the Past" was all the continuity. You have lots of returning characters, you have references to episodes past, and it's one of the things we love about Veronica Mars in general. So how do you go about doing that? Do you write the episode and you think, "Okay, let's connect it back to past episodes," or do you think, "This was in a past episode; let's bring it back"?
Cathy: A little bit of both. I really like having characters from the past appear because it makes Neptune seem real. If every single time we show a classroom, it has a different teacher and totally different students that nobody's ever seen before, it's...to me, TV shows are like that. I like that we have a feeling that Neptune exists all the time, not just on Wednesday nights.
P-C: Right, that's also what I like about Rob's books. Like Slave Day: Robert E. Lee High School felt like a real high school.
Cathy: Yeah, and some of his characters from that will appear in other stories that he's written, or, like, Wanda Varner appears in Veronica Mars. I love the girl who plays Mandy [Claire Titelman], and I just thought....We didn't have really any reason to include her in that scene, except I needed somebody who just sort of out-and-out adored and thought Veronica was fabulous. She just came immediately to mind, and it just seemed natural to put her there. And of course, Mr. Wu is very popular.
P-C: Yeah, we love Mr. Wu.
Cathy: Everybody loves Mr. Wu, and having met him personally, I think I can understand why. I think he's a great guy, and it's just fun to throw him in the scene. And the episode that we're working on right now, I'm gonna....Well, I'm gonna bring back a character that you haven't seen yet.
Cathy: But doing some of that same kind of thing, again, because I believe it makes the world of Neptune seem realer. I think it's fun. I think it's kind of a surprise for viewers when somebody pops back into the story that they haven't seen for a while. Especially if it's someone whose acting was really good but had a tiny part, we can put them back on the show and see a little more of what they've got.
And that concludes part one of our interview with this Arrested Development-loving librarian. See a little more of what Cathy's got: tomorrow, with her next episode, and next week, with the rest of the interview. She'll share her thoughts about Steve Holt!, the HOT VM writing staff!!, and [gasp] the fate of Mr. Wu!!!