From Austin to Neptune
Creator Rob Thomas on the rise of his career-making cult favorite, 'Veronica Mars'
After a visit to writer/producer Rob Thomas' Web site, SlaveRats.com, there are several possible conclusions one might draw. The bitter will quickly decide that Rob Thomas has had it too damn easy. The ambitious will search for parallels to their own lives, anything to hang their hopes on. For the rest, particularly a reporter who writes about television and recently had the opportunity to interview the former Austinite by phone from his home in Los Angeles, the big question is this: Can it be true that Rob Thomas is such a nice guy? If so, how does he do it while working in Hollywood, a place not exactly known for its warmth and sensitivity?
Try as one might, it's difficult to find anyone able or willing to talk smack about Thomas unless you include Thomas himself. His Web site is an unabashed autobiography this side of confessional (baby pictures are included) outlining what might be called his quirky path to becoming the creator of one of television's hottest cult dramas, Veronica Mars (UPN). But no matter how circuitous a path might be, it inevitably leads back home. For Thomas, that means Austin, where he'll be Jan. 14 and 15, joined by Veronica Mars cast members Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars), Jason Dohring (Logan Echolls), and Enrico Colantoni (Keith Mars) for a Veronica Marsathon at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown.
The event features a "best of" clips show, a panel discussion, and performances from the Fire Marshals of Bethlehem and the Daylight Titans two of the Austin bands that have been heard on the series. However, the highlight of the event is a sneak peek of the newest episode, "Donut Run," with Lucy Lawless guest starring as an FBI agent who comes to the series' fictional Neptune, Calif., to investigate a kidnapping that will inevitably affect the Mars family, according to several online sources. "Donut Run" is the first Veronica Mars episode written and directed by Thomas.
The Veronica Marsathon brings with it good news and bad. The bad news is that the $30 tickets sold out in seven minutes. The good news is that proceeds from the event go to a good cause, Austin Voices for Education and Youth (www.austinvoices.org). Its mission includes creating forums for high school students and their communities to discuss issues that affect young people, with education being a priority. The Marsathon is another in a string of events the Alamo has done with Austin Voices, which works heavily with Garza High, an alternative Austin high school.
Ah, high school. That hormone-charged landscape best known for bad skin, big dreams, tender egos, hyper-self-consciousness, dressing to impress your friends and bewilder your parents, and, above all, the most rigid caste system known to the Western world.
By his own admission, Thomas "is one of those infuriating people who enjoyed high school." A 1983 graduate of San Marcos High, he was a proud (but apparently likable) high school jock.
He later attends TCU, transferring to UT and graduating with a bachelor's degree in history in 1987. He begins teaching high school in 1988, first in San Marcos, and then at Reagan High School by day, playing with rock band Hey Zeus (an Austin favorite for nine years) by night. He makes a big career move in 1994 when he quits teaching, quits Hey Zeus, and moves to L.A. to work for Channel 1, a teen-focused news program. When it becomes clear to him that making coffee is his most valued skill at Channel 1, he begins to write his first young-adult novel, Rats Saw God (1996). When Simon & Schuster picks up this and his second book, Slave Day (1997), he quits Channel 1 and returns to Austin as an author (three more titles follow).
But the move is short-lived when he's asked to be a staff writer for Dawson's Creek in 1998. That job doesn't last long. While demonstrating his flair for the laser-sharp quip, Thomas' comment about Dawson's Creek show-runner Kevin Williamson "reaching into his bag of trick" (yes, singular) when rewriting earns him a pink slip. (A show-runner oversees a series; typically the creator or one who has a direct line to the creator, it's the person you don't want to piss off, particularly if they can't take a joke that cuts close to the bone.)
By 1999, Thomas strikes a four-year development deal with 20th Century Fox "for more money than I ever dreamed of." He chalks up more writing credits on his résumé, including a couple of small films, but scoring the big "hit" eludes him. Cupid, the 1998 pilot starring Jeremy Piven, is his first ordered to series. It's canceled after 15 episodes. But things look bright when TV mogul David E. Kelley hires Thomas as show-runner for his series Snoops. However, "creative differences" force Thomas to leave the show, which is (thankfully) scrapped shortly after it launches. Thomas joins and leaves the writing staff of the critically acclaimed Playmakers (ESPN) after one month. It's just as well. The show is canceled after its first season.
For four years, Thomas continues to produce work, make bank, and throw fabulous Halloween parties. He gets pilot orders, but those aren't panning out into the coveted series order. After a while, even the pilot orders are not coming in. Finally, in August 2003, Thomas "has one of those bullshit meet-and-greet meetings at UPN" during which he mentions "an old teen noir" that he has laying in a drawer an idea left over from his young-adult novel-writing days. And as has become a familiar trope in the TV pitching narrative, this is the idea the UPN execs like. They ask to see the script, and, three days later, the script is sold. In January of 2004, Veronica Mars is ordered into production, and the rest is, as they say, cult TV history.
All right. So, if you listen for the gaps in the otherwise cheery delivery of his "how I made it" story, it's clear that Thomas' rise to TV success wasn't without adversity. Still, there's something amazing about someone being knocked around and coming up happy. Or maybe, just maybe, he really is that nice of a guy.
"If I were talking about Rob with Rob in the room, I would probably tell you he was a horrible teacher: He would take our lunch money and hit on the high school chicks," says Viet Nguyen, a former Reagan High School student who Thomas taught in 1993. "But, honestly, he was just as cool of a high school teacher as you would think. He understood us; he didn't talk down to us; he really respected us. I'd be very surprised to hear any of Rob's former students say he didn't impact their lives somehow."
For Nguyen, the impact was particularly direct. After graduating from UT's film program in 2001, he worked on and off for Thomas on various projects and is now an assistant editor on Veronica Mars.
"Rob is one of the most generous people out there. He really looks out for me professionally and personally," Nguyen says. "Not only is Rob talented, he's got a work ethic like no other. When we saw him [at Reagan] working as hard as he did late nights in the journalism room and playing gigs with his band there's no way he wouldn't get somewhere."
"This is my school. If you go here, your parents are millionaires or your parents work for millionaires. Neptune, California, a town without a middle class." Veronica Mars, pilot episode
"Thomas once again displays his pitch-perfect ear for the music of teen language, culture, and sensibilities," a critic wrote of Thomas' third young-adult novel, Doing Time, and the same could be said of Veronica Mars. A bright wit and knack for turning the sharp, smart-ass phrase snags viewers, but it's the intricate storylines part detective story and part teen soap, delivered in a serialized format that keeps them hooked. Indeed, not only does the series capture teen culture, but it reaches relentlessly to a darker, foundational truth of the high school experience: cliques and castes.
"I think these things run in cycles," says Thomas when asked about the fearless approach to inflammatory issues in Veronica Mars. "You have films [later a series] like Clueless that was oblivious to race and class, with this happily-ever-after blending together of kids from different backgrounds. But, before that, there were books like The Outsiders, where the class divide was hard and real. I wanted to really look at that world of the haves and have-nots, and really pointed to it in the pilot with Veronica's voiceover."
Some local viewers have insisted that Neptune and Neptune High are a fictionalized version of Austin and Westlake High, where Thomas' father was a vice-principal until the early 1990s. (His parents, both educators, left Texas 16 years ago, returning to Washington state, where Thomas was born.)
"Well, the original incarnation as a book was to be set in a thinly disguised version of Westlake High," Thomas admits. But after teaching at Reagan High, which is well over 50% black, and having to recast the original idea into a series, Thomas thought, "What if I combined the world of both high schools?"
Austin is reflected on Veronica Mars in other ways. After playing with Hey Zeus, Thomas came to know the city's clubs and musicians, many of which are paid tribute to in the series. Sheriff Don Lamb (Michael Muhney) is named for an Austin guitarist and manager of Waterloo Records. Austin musicians Kevin Kearney, Jennings Crawford, Hunter Darby, and others have had incidental characters named for them. Like many teen-centered dramas, music plays a large role in the series. Austin bands Cotton Mather, Right Flyers, the Wannabes, and more have had their tunes showcased in various episodes.
"I named a bar 'DeVille' [for Austin's Club de Ville] in one episode," Thomas says. "There are five writers on this show. They are always bringing in names of their friends or bands and other hometown touches into their scripts, too."
Still, how does a 41-year-old man, whose high school years are two decades behind him (and, by comparison to the world of Neptune High, downright idyllic), write a character as compelling and damaged (though not destroyed) as Veronica Mars?
"You're in no better position to hear teen girls talk without a filter than in working with them after school on a yearbook," says Thomas of his years teaching journalism at Reagan High. "Yearbook staffs are dominated by girls, and the most self-conscious people on the planet are high school girls. As far as the series, I thought it would be so much more interesting to see a high school girl who doesn't care what this world makes of her. She's not afraid to go against the crowd.
That point is made clear in an early scene in the series pilot when Veronica Mars, alone, steps up to cut down Wallace (Percy Daggs III), who after crossing the local motorcycle gang finds himself naked and duct-taped to the school's flag pole.
"That," Thomas says, "was the first image that came to me."
In the world of Neptune High, Veronica stepping forward to rescue an outcast while everyone else looks on is an enormously brave thing to do, on or off screen. (In fact, one student onlooker asks why no one is cutting Wallace down, while she herself does nothing.) But Veronica is not without her vulnerabilities.
"I didn't want to create a series about a girl being fearless, but about one who has nothing left to lose," Thomas says.
Former Austinite and UT graduate Sharon Ross, now an assistant professor in the Television Department at Columbia College in Chicago, posits that this notion, along with the series' teen-noirish mood, is the secret to its success.
"I've heard the 'noir' angle bandied about in regards to the show, which [I believe] is a worthy Buffy replacement," says Ross, whose work on cult TV specifically Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess, and other female-driven series was the subject of her 2002 dissertation and the subject of a book in progress. "I find it an interesting label also. The only other series I've heard this applied to within easy memory is Twin Peaks, intriguing since it featured teens while not being a teen show. The private eye angle definitely nudges [Veronica Mars] towards noir, and the idea of the somewhat socially isolated hero although that has shifted this season with questionable connections and sources. But so much seems not noir: the female hero, little in the way of femme fatales, lighting [being] standard melodrama most of the time, the father-daughter bond [between Veronica and Keith]. If it's noir, it's a major reworking. The key noir element would have to be the social isolation of Veronica in the larger scheme of things and the thematic of questioning the status quo of romance and sex. Perhaps all that separates noir from horror is the monster?"
Perhaps. But perhaps the "monster," like Sartre's existential examination of hell, is other people. And what worse hell could there be but high school? At least in Thomas' Neptune High, the weight of that hell is alleviated by a clever bon mot, a well-timed retort, appropriate retributions, and, what the heck, some real heart. Another touchstone of the series is the poignant but not overwrought relationship between Veronica and her father, Keith.
"[Keith] knows [Veronica] has seen and heard and known too much at a young age," Thomas says. "The toughest job to keep in mind is, how much can Keith Mars know? He can't know too much, or else he would have taken Veronica out of that town long ago." Fortunately, he has two excellent actors to help keep that balance fresh and realistic.
"I got so much praise for the [first] season finale," says Thomas of the moving scene in which the audience learns whether Keith is Veronica's real father. "It was those two [Bell and Colantoni] that made that scene so much better than what it was on paper. It's a real testament to their talent, not mine."
A touching father-daughter moment in a "noir" drama? Is Thomas turning noir on its ear or improving the form? From all indications, Veronica Mars fans couldn't care less either way. They just want the stories to continue. The drama has earned a faithful fan base ready to strike should rumors prove true that UPN is undecided on whether to renew the series for a third season. Kristen Veitch of E! Online's "Watch With Kristin" has placed the series on her endangered series list, though even she says including it is debatable. "There are no signs UPN is considering canceling Veronica Mars, but given the lower-than-deserved ratings, it still needs support".
While viewer numbers are low by major network standards, the series (along with Everybody Hates Chris) has certainly brought a higher profile to the netlet.
"Our numbers are better than last year, and are really good when Lost airs a repeat," Thomas says of the Wednesday-night ABC juggernaut that Veronica Mars competes with in the same time slot. "I spent thousands of dollars to put a shower in my office. I'm betting on success."
The Veronica Marsathon sold out seven minutes after it was announced online. Die-hards can take their chances, hoping for no-shows, but like gym class and blind dates, you're on your own. For more information, see www.originalalamo.com.