Profile in Excellence: John Wells
A look back at five series where taking a risk, and not going with status quo, paid off handsomely:
“China Beach” (1988-91)
The episode “Vets,” featuring footage of Vietnam veterans telling their stories, was new territory.
“We had no idea if it was going to work,” Wells says. “Then Vilmos Zsigmond said he wanted to shoot it. I thought, ‘If one of the best cinematographers in the world is interested, maybe we’re on to something.’ When we saw it, it was very moving and exciting.”
While shooting the pilot, director Rod Holcomb opted for a Steadicam in a long scene.
“We shot a six-page scene with Noah Wyle and Eric LaSalle as a one-er through the set. I thought Rod was out of his mind,” Wells says. “Then I saw it in dailies and I said, ‘This is what the show is.’ It’s what the show became: Actors getting to act and we stayed out of their way.”
“The West Wing” (1999-2006)
The role of U.S. president was supposed to be a minor one, and during the pilot process Wells, Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme tried to persuade the network that it was a sound strategy. Then the three saw Martin Sheen in the dailies.
“The second he came on, you knew he had to be the center of the series,” Wells says.
After six seasons of “Third Watch,” Wells was wary of doing another drama featuring first-line responders. “Southland” dailies that focused on actors Ben Mc-Kenzie and Michael Cudlitz, while capturing Christopher Chulack’s up-close-and-personal shooting style, changed his mind.
“I felt like I’m in this car with them and I’m really getting to see who they are as cops,” Wells says. “This is a cop show I haven’t seen before.”
Having William H. Macy’s middle-age drunk character Frank sleep with the teenage daughter of his girlfriend could have alienated viewers. Laura Slade Wiggins, who plays the daughter, said she knew what to do, but Wells wasn’t sure if they’d keep it or cut it until he saw the scene.
“She was fearless,” he says. “It works so that emotionally you understand what’s going on.”
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