Monday, March 26, 2012

Exclusive interview with "Dress Me in Dark Dreams" writer Marty Ross

Marty Ross is no stranger to audio drama. Having written a number of scripts for Big Finish and the BBC, it was only a matter of time before he was drafted to write an episode of Dark Shadows.

His first professional visit to Collinwood, Dress Me in Dark Dreams, will be available for sale as CD and digital download from Big Finish on April 30. It's not only Marty's first trip to Collinsport, but Amber Benson's, as well. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer alumnus plays a young Judith Collins, starring alongside Dark Shadows veteran Terry Crawford. You can listen to a trailer for the episode HERE.

When Marty agreed to do an interview for this site, I immediately packed my bags and hopped on The Collinsport Historical Society's private jet for his home in Great Britain. The flight attendants and some guy identifying himself as a federal marshal politely informed me that the airplane belonged to British Airways, and that spray painting the words "Collinsport Historical Society" on the fuselage does not qualify as a legal transfer of property in any country.

Robbed on my transportation across the Atlantic, I decided to e-mail my questions to Marty. You can read his responses below.

Thanks to time traveling, astral projection and the occasional holes in reality, the original television show and previous Big Finish stories have left few unexplored settings. How did you settle on this particular time period for your story?
Marty Ross
     Big Finish gave a whole list of characters and eras they were interested in dealing with. I saw they were interested in a Judith/Edith story and I pitched for that, in part because I like writing for strong female characters, but also because I wanted to write a real grand-style gothic romance and a 19th. century setting seemed ideal for that. I'm a big devotee of the 19th. century gothic tale, of the Bronte sisters and Sheridan LeFanu and so on, as well as the reinvention of that kind of gothic in things like the Dark Shadows 1890s sequence, the Hammer films and the 'gaslight' melodramas of 40s Hollywood. Precisely because people - certainly people of the social rank of the Collins family - were much more strait-laced in that era, it gives a whole extra frisson to the idea of a young woman brought up that way casting caution to the winds and having a passionate, sensuous affair - with a phantom lover, at that. The tensions between what a respectable young woman is and isn't supposed to do are all the more extreme and tension, of course, makes for drama.

From a storytelling point of view, what is the appeal of Judith Collins?
     Well, one obvious appeal for me, and this is a thing that runs through a lot of my work, is that I'm happiest as a writer writing strong female characters - and Judith is nothing if not that. The biggest influence on my life was my maternal grandmother, who had been born in 1909 as part of a family of seven sisters and when as a kid I'd go visiting these great-aunts it was almost like Collinwood, with these grand old ladies living in Victorian tenements chock-a-block with old-fashioned decor - and if there was any family business outstanding, these great-aunties would creep off into shadowy back rooms to discuss it all in whispers. So that kind of pre-modern world of female experience is less distant to me than to most people of my generation! And my grandmother was basically a Bronteesque romantic disguised as a rather conservative older lady, so I know from first hand that dichotomy between an almost Victorian respectablity and a more passionate inner nature - maybe in part I'm paying tribute to her: she'd have loved Dark Shadows if it had only been on British TV.

Prequels are notoriously difficult to write because the audience frequently enters the story already knowing how it ends. How did you approach this issue with Judith, given that we already know there’s a dark, violent future ahead of her?
     I think the story gains extra tension from knowing what Judith's future is. We know Judith as this rather stern older woman, but I thought wouldn't it be poignant if as a younger woman she started out as someone much more romantic and open-minded, more Jane Eyre than Mrs. Danvers, and then this becomes the story of how experience forces a darker, more pessimistic vision on her, so that at the end of Dress Me you see this younger, brighter figure beginning to morph into the older Joan Bennett character. If she's simply a junior version of Joan Bennett right from the get-go, then there isn't the drama - ultimately, maybe, the tragedy - of seeing that transition begin right in front of you.

     Basically, the more you know about the character's future, the more poignant you'll find the place where she's left at the end of this story, precisely because there's a vanishing hint of how things could have been otherwise. There's one moment where Edith expresses a genuine hope for Judith's future - but the way she expresses this will set off alarm bells in the heads of listeners who know what lies ahead for Judith: it's not just an in-joke, it's more the tragic irony that Edith is trying to pass on a blessing, but the blessing will really turn out, in the fullness of time, to be a curse.  So the listener's knowledge of Judith's future is employed as a kind of dramatic element in the story: Hitchcock said that suspense was when you let the audience know well in advance there's a bomb ticking under the table where your characters are chatting happily. In a sense, Judith's future - as defined by the TV show - is the bomb ticking under the table here.

How did Amber Benson prepare for the role? Did Big Finish provide reference material to help familiarize her with the series?
     You'd have to ask James Goss and Joseph Lidster at Big Finish about the specifics of casting, and working with, Amber. I finished the script and was just told they had something fantastic in the works with the casting: I thought maybe they just meant they'd cast someone slightly dull out of Coronation Street. Then next thing I knew Amber was playing the lead. But unfortunately I didn't get a ticket to LA to hear her perform! Certainly, we writers were given access to the original TV episodes, so most likely Amber was too.

If you had the opportunity to write another Dark Shadows story, which character would you want in the lead?
     I don't want to preempt Big Finish's decision on whether I get to do another one: they seem to have liked the script, but we still need to see if it works for listeners! Certainly, I'd love to do more: my interest in the series goes right back to my childhood when the bargain bin in my local Glasgow Woolworths used to be filled with Marilyn Ross paperbacks (I even had the Barnabas Collins Joke Book!) - and I read all the US monster mags, which always had a lot of Dark Shadows material. So I feel quite at home at Collinwood.

     As far as specific characters and stories are concerned, when I was pitching this, there was one other idea that they seemed to like, centred around Maggie Collins, married to Quentin (i.e: 70s parallel time), but being trapped in a confrontation with John Yaeger/Cyrus Longworth - as a Scot, I'm very attracted to the Jekyll/Hyde theme. That would be a really great, more modern psycho-thriller, and Kathryn Leigh Scott is someone I'd love to write for.

     I also had an idea for a story about Eve, who's a great character, but Nicholas Blair was also involved and it hadn't been quite decided at the time what to do with Blair in terms of casting, etc. so the idea was sidelined. But I'd still like to do something with Eve.

     But at the end of Dress Me In Dark Dreams, I also wanted to leave open the possibility of another story or two based around this younger incarnation of Judith: we talked about her in the final scene becoming wholly like the older Judith, but as it is there's a hint that the younger, more romantic self is wounded but not quite finished off, leaving open the possibility for more adventures for this version of Judith and Edith. But, of course, I'd love to write something for Lara Parker too: I'm a romantic dramatist - nothing inspires me like a great actress - and Dark Shadows has plenty of those!

Tom Baker and Dark Shadows. How do we make this happen?
     Heaven knows, it took Big Finish long enough persuading him back into the Tardis! Certainly, he's a terrific actor and it's worth remembering how good he is at bad guys: he was a terrific Rasputin. Maybe it's 1914 and a mysterious refugee with a Russian accent turns up at the door of Collinwood on a stormy night, looking more dead than alive.... 

     But, to be serious, you'd have to pester the producers at Big Finish (way above my pay scale!) and they'd have to pester the great man himself!
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