Transcript for Episode 17: Dean Batali: TV Writer & Executive Producer, That 70’s Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Good Witch, Puppy Dog Pals
Visit the episode website here.
Allen Wolf (00:03):
Welcome to the Navigating Hollywood Podcast. My name is Allen Wolf and I’m a filmmaker, author, and game creator. Navigating Hollywood encourages and equips entertainment professionals to live relationally and spiritually holistic lives. If you work in entertainment, visit navigatinghollywood.org to discover how you can get involved.
Today, we are joined by television writer and producer Dean Batali. Dean worked as a writer on That 70s Show for seven years, serving as an executive producer for the show’s final season. He wrote for the initial two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was the head writer for the first season of the Disney Junior series Puppy Dog Pals, which sounds super adorable, and was the executive producer and the showrunner for the third and fourth seasons of the Hallmark Channel’s Good Witch. Before coming to Los Angeles, Dean worked as an actor and playwright for Taproot Theater Company in Seattle, Washington, and has written and produced numerous musical theater productions. He also co-authored the book, Watching TV Religiously. Welcome, Dean.
Dean Batali (01:17):
Thank you. It’s good to be here and it is adorable, it’s about puppy dogs who are pals. So what more do you want in a television show?
Allen Wolf (01:24):
Oh my gosh. If you’re having a depressing day, watch that show.
Dean Batali (01:28):
Yes, that’s right. Puppy Dog Pals will cheer you up.
Allen Wolf (01:30):
We all need more Puppy Dog Pals in our lives.
Dean Batali (01:32):
It’s funny that I get more comments when I go on meetings now from executives about Puppy Dog Pals because they all have kids three to five years old, so like, “I was watching Puppy Dog Pals with my kids,” so that’s like a bigger credit than Buffy now for me.
Allen Wolf (01:46):
Well, I’m curious, how did you get your start in entertainment?
Dean Batali (01:50):
So, I started writing when I was in college. I had done theater in high school and I entered college as a computer programming major and ended as a playwriting major. I decided I wanted to start writing plays and musicals, and I started doing that in college. I had written a little bit in high school, but had never thought, “Oh, I want to be a writer,” or anything like that. I was kind of interested in journalism, but I started writing musicals and they worked and I kind of formed my own theater company. We’d write a show, and we’d put it on, we’d rent a theater and put on a show. This is up in the Tacoma, Washington area, Pacific Northwest Seattle area.
Then I got hired by a theater company, Taproot Theater Company. My wife and I were working with them as actors, like we’d do six or eight shows a week. We’d go to schools and churches, putting on shows, anti-drug shows and Christmas shows, those kinds of things. Then they fired me, so we can talk about that for hours if you want, but we just, creative differences. Yeah, yeah. Creative differences. Creative differences. I’ve had those in Hollywood too.
And Hollywood has always been in the back of my mind as a writer and as a playwright. I thought, well, maybe if I write a play, eventually it’ll turn into a movie or something. Although I’ve always been really a child of television, really enjoyed television, followed television writers even before the world knew what a showrunner was. We loaded our life into a U-Haul and three weeks later we moved to Los Angeles, and I’m not sure we would’ve moved to Hollywood if it hadn’t been for such an abrupt change in a firing.
People ask about the worst day of your life, that was one of them, and people ask about the best day of your life, that was one of them too. It literally is one of those worst day/best days, and when I say literally, I mean literally. It turned out to be the best thing that happened to us because it kind of shocked us and motivated into a, “Well, we got nothing else to do. Let’s see if Hollywood will work out.”
Allen Wolf (03:36):
Wow. And how long after that, year wise, did it take you to get into a position where you were writing and having that kind of new career that you had hoped for?
Dean Batali (03:47):
Yeah, so it was almost exactly five years till I got my first job as a writer and then made a living as a writer since then. Those first years in Hollywood, I was very fortunate to get this mail room job, I kind of got because I had worked in my college mail room. And then the next year I was a PA and then a writer’s assistant and then an assistant to the executive producers, the showrunners on a show. So I could see the career moving along, and that was really encouraging at the time. Even as I talk to young writers now, you got to be able to track if you’re moving in the right direction. A lot of people say it’s going to take 10 full years to be successful. It certainly is five or 10, some people are faster.
But I knew each year, my wife and I, Beth, would do an evaluation at the end of each year, are we moving in the right direction? Are we getting where we want to be? Are doors kind of opening? Do I feel like I’m getting better competitive as a writer? But it certainly took those five years. You just never know at the beginning of a career, every job could be your last one, and somehow or another, we were able to get that job on 70s and last there for seven years, which just seems unheard of. 175 episodes, which they don’t even do 175 episodes of shows anymore, they don’t do 25 episodes a year like we used to do.
Allen Wolf (05:00):
Dean Batali (05:01):
So we were really fortunate. I feel like I hit the end of an era almost in those network television days.
Allen Wolf (05:08):
Yeah, I know. Even looking back, I remember watching TV during that time and you just didn’t think about it. You’re just thinking, every week you’re watching a particular show, and then it went off the air for the summer, then it came back on in the fall. But then when you look back you realize, wow, I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours watching that TV show.
Dean Batali (05:26):
Yeah, That 70s Show is 200 episodes over eight years. But it is weird when you look at like Breaking Bad, it’s only 65 episodes for the entire series. The Sopranos is about the same. And now things are just like 30 episodes, three years. It’s changed how people sell television. When I go pitch television, they used to ask, “Tell me about the 100th episode. How is this series going to last seven years?” Which is why you have so many Law and Order and FBI shows on the air, but now they just kind of want to know seasons one, two, and three. A show like Ted Lasso, which I think is fantastic, but it’s my understanding they just have a three-year plan. I’m not sure that show could last 200 episodes. There’s certain concepts, Dead To Me, even Succession, I just don’t know how long these things could go. So that’s one of the benefits of the short series. But yeah, it’s actually changed how people like me think about selling shows.
Allen Wolf (06:18):
Now you mentioned being a writer’s assistant. How does being a writer’s assistant translate into someone becoming a writer?
Dean Batali (06:24):
I learned more being an assistant to the executive producer where all I did was copy their scripts and go to run-throughs. This was on the third Bob Newhart show in the mid-90s and I was an assistant for the people who’d run Cheers for seven years. So I wasn’t even in the room, I was just copying their scripts, getting their lunch order, getting to know them, and going to run-throughs, and learned so much watching the outline change and the scripts change. And then I got in the room and I’m actually taking notes. And honestly, I don’t want to disparage higher education, but all you got to do is put somebody in a writer’s room for a day and they will learn more than they do in any Master’s degree requirement for screenwriting. It’s just mind-boggling.
And as a teacher, I’ve tried to recreate it. How can we actually just teach students what happens in the room when you’re sitting there for seven hours talking about a story and you haven’t even figured out what act one’s going to be and you’re kind of just figuring out the shape of things? On a show like Good Witch, which is not the best show I ever worked with, I thought it was delightful. But we would take 40 hours in the room before the writer would even have an outline to go write a script, and that’s for a simple Hallmark show like Good Witch.
So I’m sitting there as a writer’s assistant, and this was actually the writers I was learning off of who didn’t like computers in the room. This is, again, sort of the mid-90s. We were working on computers, but I did everything kind of shorthand and these people would just pitch out paragraphs and I’d be writing frantically to try to keep up, and then they’d say, “Read that back.” And so suddenly I’m learning the rhythm of the characters and then they’re breaking stories, spending two or three days breaking a story, and they’d say, “Well, here’s kind of an idea. What’d be a good act break? And what’d be a good scene?”
And I see them start to put cards up on the board or write on the whiteboard, and I’m learning, “Oh, they’re not starting with the first scene. They’re starting with the scene they know is going to be really funny in the middle of the second act. And then because they have to establish that we need whipped cream and a basketball, we have to set up something in the first act with whipped cream and another one with a basketball.” This is a horrible story I’m pitching out. But anyway, you just start to see, oh, you don’t start things from the beginning and go to the end. You break things in a way that I’ve started describing as inside out, and they’d all be thinking, I remember one comedy writer who had worked on Cheers, once you come up with a concept, once you have a teaser and an act break, you’re like halfway done.
And I’m not sure he’s wrong about features too. Once you have your good opening scene and your good midpoint, you’re starting to build the rest around that. So watching them do that, and again, just hearing the rhythm of the language. When Rob, my writing partner and I were starting out, we weren’t writing pilots, we were writing spec scripts. So we wrote a King of the Hill that had to sound like a King of the Hill and we wrote a Simpsons that had to sound like a Simpsons.
So I’m watching these writers write stuff with this rhythm, and I realize that funny joke, the funny word, and the joke comes at the end rather at the beginning. And oh, you don’t need 10 words for this joke, it’s just funny if you have seven. So I just learned so much watching them break stories and watching them write scripts and then being able to go to run-throughs on a sitcom, it was live action sitcom. So you’d have a table read on Monday, another run through on Tuesday, and another run through on Wednesday. Same way we did That 70s Show and you watch, “Oh, that joke was pretty good, but it needs to be stronger now. And if we change that a little bit or change a couple words, it really…” It was just a crash course in how to write television.
And everybody asks, “Well, how do you get these jobs?” These jobs are actually harder to get than writers. On That 70s Show, there were 12 writers but only two writers assistants. So just mathematically there’s an issue, but still for young writers to just try to find the path that gets you into a writer’s room or gets you in as an assistant to a writer on a show. So really the best skill you can have is learn to type 90 words a minute, learn your way around Final Draft and script writing programs, and learn to, when the writers wrote this line exactly, when they pitched it out exactly, I had to get it exactly. And I remember some of the writers systems I’d worked with, I’m sitting next to them and they’re not writing the words exactly. It’s very precise and there’s a reason we’re writing the words.
Obviously if you’re taking notes on a story, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I’m not sure that some of my acting experience didn’t make me a better writer. Arthur Miller said, “The best writers are former actors,” because I just kind of understood the rhythm of language. I’m also a musician-songwriter, understood that rhythm. I don’t know, when I look at everything that added up to making me a good writer’s assistant, I could write fast, I could get it exact, and then eventually they started letting me contribute. If I had a joke that might work, I was always very timid in the beginning, I’d only pitch like one out of 10 things, but that means my batting average was higher. And a lot of times I’d be the one saying, “Well, you guys broke the story, but you don’t have the scene you were talking about doing here.” And they go, “That’s right.” And so they started to realize I was thinking in that broad sense.
Anyway, if you can get into a writer’s room even for a day, try to work your way into one just to kind of watch what happens there.
Allen Wolf (11:11):
Who are some of the people that had a significant influence on your career?
Dean Batali (11:17):
Yeah. So one of them just recently died two weeks ago. His name was Steven Grossman and he was my first line producer, the non-writing person who runs all the technical stuff on the first multi-camera show I worked on. He hired me out of the mail room. I knew a couple writers that I’d been delivering mail to and they said they wanted to hire me and he came to me in the mail room when I was making 3.50 a week and I was going to make 400 as a PA. And he said, “Well, I got you 450 a week.” This is before he barely even knew me. “I got you 450, they only wanted to pay you 400.” Well, that was nice.
And then he took me on every show, including that show Bob, and then he asked me after the pilot, “Do you want to work in post-production or do you want to work for the writers?” I just wonder if he hadn’t been so kind to me, if I’d be sitting here talking to you as a “success.” And then Rob DesHotel, my writing partner, who’s also deceased, he died very young, really made me a better writer. We joined forces as partners because we liked each other’s writing. Every script we ever wrote, any word that went into any of our scripts first came out of one of our mouths. We’d be pitching right across from each other doing jokes in Fez’s voice or in Buffy’s language. Even our action lines came out. We argued very little, we were very rarely in conflict, but we knew we made each other better. So I would not be the writer I am today if it were not for him.
Those are the people mostly. I’ve been really reflecting on Steven going back to whether, if he hadn’t taken a liking to me, where I’d be now. And then it’s weird when I just kind of look at all the different writers, Joss Whedon, who is no longer really working in Hollywood because of personal things and toxic work environment things, but he was such a genius writer, is such a genius writer and just turned me into the writer I still am today, both me and Rob, remember we were writing on Buffy for act breaks and teasers that really grab you and I still kind of write in that Buffy the Vampire Slayer story moving forward, even when I’m running a Hallmark show. So I have to say from a writing point of view, he probably influenced me the most in terms of structure. [inaudible 00:13:22] in terms of actual comedy. And then Steven, just kind of in terms of goodness and kindness and wanting to look out for the next generation.
Allen Wolf (13:30):
And with Joss Whedon, when you talked about the structure that he brought to you, what did that look like?
Dean Batali (13:36):
Buffy, at the time, was a teaser and four acts because we had commercials in the middle. Now I think it’s five acts or six acts, again, this is on broadcast television, although I will argue that even streaming shows still kind of break themselves in that four act structure. And this goes all the way back to early television, 70s and 80s, almost every show, Rockford Files or Quantum Leap had some sort of opening teaser and then four acts. That 70s Show was a teaser, two acts, and a tag, then you move into something like 30 Rock, which was a teaser and three acts. So we were always thinking about the commercials, where the commercial breaks came, which meant something big had to happen every nine to 11 minutes.
And so you just kind of train yourself to realize, “Oh, if something big happens at the end of act one, you’re probably going to be dealing with that at the beginning of act two. And then if it’s an attack at the end of act one, you’re going to have some sort of post-attack scene where the werewolf is talked about. And then you have another scene of kind of investigating and a plan, and then you kind of maybe go out and carry out that plan and then something big happens.” So you have four to five scenes in the next act, and then you’re just kind of doing that and what happens is even as a story is pitched, Joss had this way of knowing if that was going to fill up 44 minutes or not. My writers that work for me know that, immediately when they pitch something, I’m looking off and just trying to figure out, are we going to get four or five acts out of that? Are we going to get enough scenes out of that? Are we going to get some really good scenes?
So when we’d come up with a concept, like we did an episode about werewolves, and we knew that the end scene, we knew that the whole episode is we’re going to reveal this character as a werewolf. Well, what are the interesting scenes that happen there? What kind of attacks can he do? Well, he’s also developing a relationship with one of the teenage girls on the show, so let’s have him turn into a werewolf in front of the girl and then chase her. And that seems like something that we’d put maybe in the later part of the show, so let’s set up their relationship problems in the first half of the show. And then, well, the first half of the show is really weak, so we need something there. Well, what if we have a werewolf hunter that’s chasing the werewolf and trying to kill the werewolf that we now know is the character that we like?
And it was always about getting that teaser right too. It’s like we know what the episode’s going to be, but what’s the teaser going to be? Okay, well, we have two characters who are making out because they’re starting their relationship, but they don’t really care about each other, they’re just kind of in it for the fun of it, and then there’s a werewolf watching them in the distance. Well, if that’s your teaser, you’re going to come back after the opening credits to see what happens to these two because they’re about to get attacked. So it’s always really something that makes you sit through the commercial.
And I’d done this in comedy too, but Buffy was the first, I didn’t consider myself an hour-long writer. Buffy was this weird mix of comedy writers and hour-long writers, but it just kind of took, I think all story breaking is essentially the same. But for Buffy it was, what is your teaser going to be? What are your act breaks? And is every scene necessary? Is there forward motion? Is every scene driving you into the next one so you’re curious to find out what comes next?
Joss had this style of writing, he also talked this way, as I’ve said before on Buffy, we didn’t say, “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” We’d say, “Don’t you think you’re reacting a little overly?” Which is kind of the way we twisted phrases, honestly I took this into Puppy Dog Pals. Even if you watch Puppy Dog Pals, there’s some Buffy DNA there, and I still work with these kind of twisted dialogue things. I just wrote a pilot that takes place in the 1790s, and even in the 1790s, I’m just kind of twisting phrases, putting words just slightly out of order so that the audience kind of just perks up and your ear goes, “Did I just hear him say it that way?” So it was structurally with Joss to tell really good stories, but also that really kind of quirky sideways dialogue thing.
Allen Wolf (17:22):
Well, the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer led to hundreds of novels, comics, and videos. Did you ever think that Buffy would catch on the way it did?
Dean Batali (17:34):
I didn’t even like the show when I was working on it. We didn’t get it, Rob and I, we went to the meeting and it was so overlooked at the time too. Remember that there was this movie that wasn’t very successful, there was pretty much staffing season when the networks would announce their shows and writers would get hired from April and May to start working in June. Well, we didn’t get hired on Buffy till July, and then we started doing the show but the show didn’t go on. We had shot all 30 episodes at the end of 1996, I guess, and it didn’t premiere till January of the next year, might have been ’97. No, and it was the WB at the time, the mascot was a frog. It was like, and they didn’t want to call it Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They wanted to call it Slayer. They just didn’t get it.
But yeah, it got this weird cult following that would’ve probably been even bigger now, and the birth of chat rooms. There were these people in chat rooms that would sort of comment about the show and we’d read them and do some of what they asked for. Joss said that the most terrifying place he ever was high school, and I could relate to that being the out-of-place fat kid who did musical theater. So the idea of doing these allegories of the girl who’s so unpopular that she becomes invisible and starts beating people up with a baseball bat or the kids that become so into being a clique that they turn into hyenas, that’s what I loved about writing that show.
Both Buffy and 70s, I’d never imagined these would become shows that would be still around 20 years later. I mean I grew up in the era of we’d come home and watch Gilligan’s Island and Brady Bunch and syndicated shows, but to know that both of these shows are now, and of course with streaming and everything, but it’s weird to meet 17 and 18 year olds now who are fans of these shows, which have, 70s Show has a literal timelessness to it. Buffy has a kind of thematic timelessness to it. But it wasn’t until four or five years in that we started realizing, “Oh, this is big.” I mean it was popular enough, but it wasn’t until a screening at the Bill Paley WGA Center, one of those Hollywood events. And so it was a panel of the actors and there were lines around the block to get in, and that was the beginning of the second season. We realized, “Oh, something’s going on here.”
Allen Wolf (19:38):
Oh, wow. Wow. And you said while you were working on it that you didn’t quite get it. Was there a time where you did start getting it or did you just keep forging forward not totally understanding it?
Dean Batali (19:51):
No, and in fact that’s why we wanted to leave. I wanted to leave actually before Rob as the show got darker and more sexual honestly. I tend to think that shows just kind of become more of what they were at the beginning, but in the beginning, in the first season of Buffy, we couldn’t even show blood and that was part of the standards and practices on the show, and it was really more high school focused. And then as it got more into just the darkness and stuff and more of the occult, I just wasn’t as comfortable there and really wanted to get back to comedy. I’m so grateful that I was on the show because it just has helped me now. I wouldn’t have gotten Good Witch without working on Buffy, I don’t think, and now I’m writing so many hour-long pilots.
It was not a comfortable place to work. I didn’t see firsthand some of the allegations that have been brought against Joss, but it was never a safe place, wasn’t the most inviting place, never really knew if you were doing well or not. Again, I felt like I sort of outgrew the subject matter. I watched the show for another year while they were still in high school, but then they got into college and just didn’t grab me. A lot of people think it got better. I responded to the high school-ness of it. So it was a combination of that, of just never kind of feeling that we fit in with the show, Rob and I, and that’s when we started to try to maneuver our way back to comedy. Ironically, after Buffy, we got a job offer on Charmed. The first year of Charmed, we throught, “Charmed? That’s not going to be a hit. We’re going to go to this other show,” which lasted 13 episodes, but I didn’t want to go work on a show about witches and darkness and stuff like that.
Allen Wolf (21:27):
You mentioned That 70s Show, and I read in an recent interview, Mila Kunis, who had a key role in That 70s Show, she said, “The reason I don’t do drugs, the reason I didn’t get into doing drugs, all of that was because nobody on the set did. I looked up to them at 14, and so the trajectory of my career, my life could have gone any which way, but it didn’t.” Amazing. How much did you help influence the environment on that show?
Dean Batali (21:58):
Well, I offered to sell her drugs and she said no, so I moved on to somebody else. No, no, no, that did not happen. You can take that out of content. There’s no business here. No. So it’s interesting, I’ve seen her make that statement and it’s interesting. So the actors and the writers didn’t really associate that much. That statement about drugs is probably not true in the writer’s room. We never see drugs in the writer’s room and I don’t do drugs, but there was a lot of people on our show that were into various things.
There was something though about the time and the performers, they were all so young and very few of them were very connected to Hollywood. It wasn’t quite the first job for everybody, but Topher Grace, it was like his second job, he was sort of discovered at college. Ashton was mostly a model moving into television. Wilmer had barely been in America very long, English is his second language, and Mila, it’s her second language too. She’s Ukrainian and they got along in this sort of, “We’re in high school,” way and it’s not like we were protecting them in any way.
Now, of course there’s Danny Masterson and the allegations and the trial that when we’re recording this is soon going to jury. So there were a lot of things going on offstage that clearly were not good, but there was a protection onset with the actors, and especially Mila because she was so young and I remember her being 16 and having to make out with 24 year old Ashton Kutcher, and it just seemed odd and creepy. And now that they’re married, it just also seems odd and creepy, but it worked out.
But I do remember Mila talking about how she hardly ever went out. We would play cards a couple of times and play poker with the cast, I think we played with her once or twice. She just said she didn’t go out. And I think Ashton’s kind of the same way. I honestly think both Mila and Wilmer specifically, we just say they’re so fortunate and blessed to have had that experience. And then that she’s gone on to such great things and really showed a talent that I didn’t know. On sitcoms, they don’t have to do a lot. They have to do one thing. She had to be the mean girl and sassy, and she did that really well. And to discover her doing these other things, it’s really exciting to watch what they all can do.
Allen Wolf (24:09):
I was also impressed with Ashton’s trajectory and his eventual work against human trafficking. That’s been super inspiring for me to see.
Dean Batali (24:20):
Yeah, yeah. He has a brother who’s developmentally disabled in some way. I don’t think it’s a twin, but he always had this kind of sensitivity toward the other or the overlooked or the downtrodden in that way, Hollywood is not a place filled with evil, selfish people. It’s people who were looking for a job, first of all, have this skill, and then suddenly they’re just really famous and everybody wants to know what they think. So it is nice to see people who use that fame and attention to try to advance some goodness and kindness and justice in the world. I know the two of them have done a lot with the war in Ukraine too, getting money over to them. It’s interesting to watch that too.
Allen Wolf (25:01):
What was it like seeing That 70s Show come to an end?
Dean Batali (25:06):
Well, this is just going to sound like I’ve hated my career. I did not. That 70s Show, I was exhausted. It wasn’t until about a year or two later that you kind of look back and go, “Wow, I didn’t realize how good we had it.” When you’re working 10 months a year and getting paid so much and everything you write kind of ends up on the air, just the pressure of getting that show ready every Friday night at seven o’clock, that’s the best we could do in the amount of time that we had for each of those episodes.
And you’re looking at the board and trying to fill up episode by episode. I remember leaving every Friday night and knowing we had spent about $3 million or $4 million and going, “That’s what we did. We $3 million or $4 million on that?” Now looking back, I’ll talk to people who just laugh so much and I’ll talk to parents and kids who were brought together watching That 70s Show together and a woman who told me her father was dying and they’d watch That 70s Show every night and laugh together, that’s really encouraging and I really see the value in entertainment and making people laugh. But it was hard, we mostly got along, but it was kind of like a dysfunctional family. We kind of knew how to pinch each other and tease each other in ways that sometimes really hurt. So it wasn’t always a safe place to be.
I considered leaving after the fifth year, but decided to stay just to continue to establish myself as a writer, and then got the show running credit out of it with two other writers at the end of the seventh season. So I don’t regret, in any way, doing the job. And when it ended, there was actually talk of possibly doing an extra season at one point and it’s like, “Okay, maybe we’ll do that.” I don’t really miss it. We had a reunion, all of us were at Rob’s funeral. This was four years ago and then about a year and a half after that, we all went out to dinner, which was fun, kind of in a high school reunion kind of way, but I’m not sure I want to walk the halls of high school again. So…
Allen Wolf (26:54):
What are some habits you’ve developed that have helped you flourish as a writer?
Dean Batali (26:59):
I need a lot of time to myself in order to recharge. Other people are different in that sense. So the challenge, of course, having a wife and two children is they want to be with me and I want to be with them, but in an industry, in a job where I’m sitting around a table talking to people 10 to 14 hours a day, the last thing I want to do when I’m home is to talk to people. So that’s been kind of one of the challenges. But what I’ve found is I needed just kind of personal time, quiet time, spiritual time.
So I had listened to a lot of worship music in my car driving to and from work when I was on television shows. Actually spent some time actually reading the Bible as well, just because I needed that kind of focused time at work, when I’m actually working on a show. I’m writing shows in Canada now where I don’t talk to anybody over the weekends because I’m working 65 or 70 hours during the week, being on set, and then I’m writing over the weekend. So I need that time to myself.
Now I get in, I have to be really self-motivated, so I have to plop myself in front of this computer even if I’m not actually doing work, I just have to be here so that I know I’m about to do work, and it’s like I’m working on a pitch right now that I just have to force myself to keep the fingers moving. It’s a lot easier when you have deadlines because I can always hit my deadlines. So I kind of force myself to know, I got to get this amount done by the end of the day, and if I don’t, then I’ll have to cancel the thing, the coffee that I’m having with somebody tomorrow.
I’m not necessarily a person who says you have to write every day. Writing is also about prep and thought and freedom, and sometime you have to go and watch a movie or just go for a walk on the beach and get away from things. I really try to take Sundays seriously. I can’t always do that when I’m working if I have deadlines, but I mean if I’m working on a show, but I really try to protect Sundays as an actual Sabbath and not doing work, that’s been really helpful and I really look forward to that day of not having to open a computer. And I still stay in community with other writers so that I’m reaching out to them with material or I have a writer that I send almost everything to to talk about what I’m doing in the moment.
I’ve used the word community a lot. It’s really key. You just have to, even when I was, I have a small group, the current small group we’re in, we’ve been in for about 12 years, and even when I was a PA, I’d always try to make sure I could protect that time, so we’re being with people and not talking about Hollywood, doing life together. We get together about once every two or three weeks, generally go through books very slowly, but half the time we’re just kind of sharing life, talking about what’s going on, praying about what’s going on. It’s two long-married couples with children. From the beginning of our marriage, we were invited into this small group of other couples who were a little older than we are, and just thought that that’s how you do life. You just share everything. So much so that when we worked at the theater company in Seattle, the first week there, we were just really blunt in saying, “Guys, just got to let you know, our marriage is really hard this week.”
Beth and I have been married for 36 years, so we have a long-term marriage. We also have a marriage that takes a lot of work. I’ll say to a lot of people, “We’ve had 33 wonderful years together, but we’ve been married for 36.” It just takes, we are not compatible, we just look at life differently, and God brought us together anyway. So we always want to be in a small group with people who are sharing that, doing a give and take.
But when we revealed what was going on with us to the theater company, they just immediately labeled us as, “Oh, troubled and problematic.” I’m not sure that moment didn’t lead to us eventually getting fired a year later. But we just thought, that’s what the community is supposed to be. You share everything, so we did. So still, I just don’t like small talk, I want people to be real, I want people genuine. And as I said, I am most comforted when I’m in a room with people where I’m fully known. So that probably is an answer to part of, what do I do as a writer? I just try to make sure when I’m not working to get in a room with people where I’m fully well known, whether it’s my wife and family or it’s additional friends that are away from Hollywood.
Allen Wolf (31:10):
Well, it’s interesting that you talk about being in a small group where you are able to be your authentic self and you try to do that, sounds like in Seattle, and I wonder if that has helped your writing because in terms of stories that you’re trying to break, in terms of getting into people’s characters, it seems like what’s so key in that is getting to what’s authentic about that person’s experience or story.
Dean Batali (31:33):
I don’t know if I’m conscious of it when I’m writing. I just know that I really like relationships. I really like how characters express themselves. I really like people who are self evaluative. And I’ve realized, it was only recently that I realized that the trait that I look for in a person the most, that attracts me to a person the most is curiosity. And I realized that that’s a trait that attracts me to characters as well. Are they curious about the world? Are they curious about others? Will they ask questions about others? And so I have my characters asking other characters about themselves a lot. I think, again, I don’t know I’m conscious of it, I just know that that happens a lot with my characters.
I do think that writers, I actually think this of actors too. Actors tend to be really self evaluative because they have to evaluate their characters. They happen to be really empathetic because they have to find something to like about their characters. They have to really understand human behavior. And that doesn’t mean they’re all perfect and not screwed up, and there are just as many screwed up writers as there are actors and other people, and I think writers are also that we tend to be self evaluative because we want to know what’s motivating us and we want to be able to articulate it. I heard an interviewer say that he had never learned anything from talking, which is why he asked so many questions. I just am different. I learn a lot, I’m learning stuff about myself right now as I express things out loud. That’s what writers tend to do is kind of express things and process things in paragraphs till we get to the end of the scene and realize, “Okay, now here’s what we’re going to do.”
Allen Wolf (33:06):
Well, you talked about when you were going to start a day at work writing, that you would often read your Bible to get focused. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a writer’s panel where any writer has said that. So I’m curious of what your spiritual journey has looked like that got you to that point.
Dean Batali (33:28):
So I was raised as a church goer, but my family didn’t take it seriously, but we did go to church most Sundays and kind of casual about it. Then when I was 18, I had a Saul on the way to Damascus kind of darkness to light moment where I found myself saying, “I want to give my life to Jesus Christ.” And if you had told me five minutes before I said those words, I would’ve mocked the hell out of you because I was basically a cynical, atheist-esque kind of person, sexually obsessed, very mean to people. When my teachers found out that Dean Batali had become a Christian, they laughed. They just thought, that’s no way. And I would’ve agreed with them because if it had not been that moment, I would’ve ended up, well, I still am very cynical and angry, and Joe Eszterhas who wrote Showgirls and Basic Instinct and later became a Christian said, “It’s not that self-cynical, self-centered, egotistical jerk doesn’t still live within me, it’s that he just doesn’t rule.” So I believe that wholeheartedly about myself. If you don’t like me now, imagine what I’d be like without God.
But that led me to take faith really seriously. Got involved with fellowships, InterVarsity in college. I went to a school of about 3,000 people. The InterVarsity Fellowship of Christians was just four people. Professors would turn to me in class and say, “Dean, what do Christians think about this?” And it’s like, “I don’t know.” I had barely gotten through 2 Peter by this point, so I had no idea what, but it kind of prepared me to just talk naturally about my faith, kind of defend my faith without feeling attacked, which is interesting then in writer’s rooms when issues of faith would come up and I’d go, “Well, here’s what I think churchgoers are going to think about this storyline.” And it’s not because they’re bigoted or mean people, it’s just that they’re going to find this a little bit off.
So that was helpful. But yeah, so I had this very emotional conversion where I felt like God had hit me on the side of the head with a board and then filled that in with intellectualism that I start examining in and the apologetic sort of in college and still kind of mix the two, very much a fan of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, Tim Keller currently, and kind of trying to meld culture and faith. And even from the beginning when I was doing theater and wanted to do theater for the church, I was really working on, what does it mean to meld my faith and my art? So now they’re kind of impossible to separate.
And I think looking back, when I look at the growth of my faith, it’s very tied to my understanding of integrating art and faith. Here, even in Hollywood where I am usually generally the only churchgoing Christian on staff, and then I’ll speak at churches, and they’re very suspicious of a guy who worked on a show about a vampire slayer or sex, drugs, and rock and roll, or a good witch. They’re okay with the Puppy Dog Pals, but they think, what is a Christian doing there?
Yeah, I’ve had to really focus on either defending, just being able to articulate my faith, which I think has made me a stronger Christian. I don’t think I’d be this deep and strong in my faith if I hadn’t had to mix it up here in Hollywood. And the reason I was reading the Bible at work is just because the work was so hard and kind of unsafe, like I say, all these people in a room who are kind of teasing you and a lot of profanity and not always a lot of kindness. And I just needed something pure. If I was a coal miner, I would take a shower before I came home. And so that’s what I was doing at work a little bit in the morning, a little bit in the afternoon, just kind of to cleanse myself with something with the most pure thing which we have, which is the word of God.
Allen Wolf (37:02):
When you said you had a Saul on the way to Damascus story, what does that mean?
Dean Batali (37:07):
So it was just this darkness to light moment that I say, just this instantaneous conversion. I was having a conversation with somebody, wasn’t even about God. They said something about themselves, about how their life had changed. And I just suddenly was aware of the reality of God and specifically Jesus Christ in this person’s life, and the Holy Spirit had been working in her life, and I just couldn’t deny that God was real. And so I literally fell to my knees, closed my eyes because I felt this brightness around me. It’s weird to talk about because nothing like this has ever happened to me before, but just the mathematics of, “Oh, wait a minute. God is real. Jesus Christ is who he says he was. And the Holy Spirit is active in the world.” There was nothing I could do but fall to my knees and say, “I want to give my life to Jesus Christ.”
So I keep using it kind as the mathematics, for whatever reason, that was the key to this equation that must have been going on in my mind, having been raised as a church goer and thinking about these things. But I don’t think I ever would’ve argued my way into the kingdom. So for me, I was just that, it was just darkness to light. I have a moment and a place and a time and a day, and everybody has that, but I think I needed it because I don’t think I would’ve ever gradually found my way into the kingdom.
Allen Wolf (38:21):
And was the friend that you were talking to surprised at what was happening in front of her?
Dean Batali (38:24):
Oh, yes. Yes. She was shocked.
Allen Wolf (38:27):
And then after that, you were such an unlovely person that everyone was just completely shocked that your life changed?
Dean Batali (38:34):
So, no, and this is kind of the problem. I went from mean and cynical and sarcastic to less so. And just the more of you, Jesus, less of me is the prayer in the Bible. That is a continual thing. I know who I would be without Jesus, and you wouldn’t like him. On That 70s Show, if you ask the writers in the room, “Who in this room most demonstrated love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control?” What the Bible calls the fruit of the spirit, they would not say me. They would not answer Dean. And that is my failure. That is my sadness.
God forgives me. I did the best I could, but that’s kind of my struggle is that I really strive to want to be described that way, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy at all. C.S. Lewis will say, “Don’t go about worrying whether or not you love your neighbor or not, just start acting like you do and God will take care of the rest basically.” I kind of feel that way of it, does that mean we have to fake it sometimes? Sometimes, maybe. It’s not natural for me to really care about people, but I have to act like I do. Kindness and gentleness do not come naturally to me. The more I fake it, the more it starts to become a little more natural.
Allen Wolf (39:50):
And how did that impact your marriage?
Dean Batali (39:52):
My wife and I met before she was a Christian. I was this weird kind of Christian-writing Christian songs and writing a play about Noah and she and I were singing in a jazz quartet together, and we actually started dating a little bit while we were doing a show. And after a week I said, “I can’t do this.” I said, “I can’t be in a relationship where Jesus Christ isn’t the center.” And I thought we were going to break up and she said, “Okay, what would that look like?” So then that became the journey of her, she had been raised in the church too, kind of re-embracing her faith. So from the beginning, and she is an actress, was an actress and singer, and so we were doing theater together. Again, trying to integrate faith and art.
It’s easy to be kind to people who deserve kindness. It’s easy to love lovable people. It’s easy to be patient with people who deserve patience, but God’s going to put you with people who are hard to give those things to. Well, I’m not sure that’s not true in marriage either. That to teach you the fear of the spirit, God might put you in a marriage with somebody who’s going to teach you to do these things. I think marriage is two broken and incomplete people coming together to challenge each other to become what God wants them to be. That’s the beauty of it. Now, God can do that with single people too, but in many cases he does that with marriage.
I have plenty of friends that have easy marriages. They don’t rub against each other the wrong way and they’re very strong Christians. But Beth and I, our brokenness just comes out. It’s an old song, I bruise you, you bruise me, we both bruise so easily, too easily to let it go, I love you and that’s all I know. About 15 years into our marriage, we started praying together every night. I just decided, well, this is just something we need to be doing. Every night we end our day in prayer together. It’s not usually a long time, but it’s just kind of, this is what we’re trying to do even when we’re in conflict.
And again, even the journey to Hollywood, getting fired from the theater company, coming to Hollywood, getting involved in Community of Faith here, being in Hollywood as a Christian, trying to represent Beth as a part of that journey and that desire. So I’ll often speak in the we. So she feels every hit that I get and is joyful in the successes, but also gets hit with a lot of the shrapnel a writer gets. That’s another one of my big regrets is that my family got, I’d stumble in the door at the end of That 70s Show week and my family needed me and I wasn’t always there. I had to go up to Canada to run shows for three or four months at a time while my daughters are in high school, missed out on so many things and wasn’t always as present as I would’ve liked to have been, and let the energy kind of drain out of me that should have been going towards my family.
One of my daughters kind of grew up hating Hollywood and now wants to serve Hollywood and the families and children of Hollywood, interestingly, as she’s getting her Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy, partly because she wants to feed that group of people. So that sort of comes full circle.
Allen Wolf (42:32):
Wow. You mentioned earlier that you stopped working for Buffy because it started going into this direction of the occult, and then later you worked on The Good Witch. How did you reconcile that?
Dean Batali (42:45):
I had not seen Good Witch before I took it over and I had no idea what it was. And it’s really not about a witch. She has some supernatural powers, kind of like right now-
Allen Wolf (42:54):
Wait, wait, wait. Let me ask you about that again. So wait, you took over The Good Witch before you had seen any of the episodes?
Dean Batali (43:01):
No. No, no, no. So I had never heard of the show when I got the job, when I had the interview, when I took the interview. So I had to scramble and watch all the episodes.
Allen Wolf (43:09):
I see. Okay.
Dean Batali (43:10):
The network didn’t know this at the time, but I looked at that show and saw it as, it’s about middle-aged women looking for romance, very hallmark, Christmas-y. And this woman has this intuition and so coincidences happened that she knows about. So she’ll say, “Hey, would you take this library book back to the library for me?” And then when you get the library, there’ll be somebody else that she’s sent there for something else and they’ll meet up and so kind of coincidences happened.
So I wrote the show in my mind as all things work together for the good for those who love Cassie. That was the main character, Cassie. And I also tried to write characters that demonstrated the fruit of the spirit, that demonstrated… There were these two women on the show who were fighting over a man, and I thought, well, that’s not the show I want to do. So I softened that relationship so they were kinder and more forgiving to each other. This is where my personal experiences come in, where my characters, I think, are a little more likely to show grace to one another, to actually work toward forgiveness and do the work that I think the Bible says is necessary for a good relationship.
So I actually think it’s a horribly named show because it’s not about witchcraft at all. And in fact, one of the rules on our show is magic is not real. So, fire can’t just light and start itself. We have to figure out ways that coincidences look like coincidences, but Cassie knows about them and just has this kind of intuition. And she was kind of eastern medicine in a relationship with somebody of western medicine. And I was able to get even the words, goodness, truth, and beauty in the show. Interestingly, after I left the show, it became a lot darker and by the final season they were literally casting spells.
Allen Wolf (44:46):
Dean Batali (44:46):
And dripping wax onto maps and making winds come, and it became a lot more like Charmed. So you talk about the influence of one person on a show. I often get asked, well, the Parents’ Television Council used to rate That 70s Show was one of the worst shows on television in terms of content, sexuality and stuff, and drug use. And I always say, well, if I hadn’t been there, we would’ve been number one. Because one writer on the show can have a difference, can make a difference. And it’s not like I didn’t write shows about sex, drugs, and rock roll. That was the job, but I would always try to make them a little kinder, a little less mean, a little less sexual. Same on Good Witch, it was less about the witch and more about the good.
Allen Wolf (45:26):
You mentioned reading your Bible when you go to work. Is there anything else you do to stay spiritually healthy while you’re working in entertainment?
Dean Batali (45:36):
I have three or four really intimate friends who we reach out to regularly for prayer and counsel and just kind of what’s going on. My friends know if they ask, “How are you?” I’m never going to say, “Fine.” I’m always going to take a moment, take a beat to think about and really say how I am, which is dangerous. How are you, is a really dangerous question to ask people. And most people don’t answer it seriously, “How you doing?” “Oh, fine, great.” Really? Is everybody really doing fine? Because I don’t think they are. So how can we become people who actually ask that question in a deeper way too?
And I do, which is why some people find me kind of threatening because I really want to know how you’re doing. I go to Hollywood parties and like, “What are you working on?” I don’t care what you’re working on. I want to know how you’re doing. I want to know how your marriage is. So a commitment to full-time, lifetime community, trying to share with my wife really where I am, which again, doesn’t come naturally to me. You have to force it out of me.
And then I’m not a huge reader, but I generally am reading some book on theology or some, right now our small group is going through a book called Surprised By Hope. I’m usually reading something by Lewis or Chesterton or something that just kind of feeds me, gets me thinking in a different way. Starting to listen to more podcasts now. I’m not really a podcast kind of person, I’m not sure why, but starting to do that a little bit more. Just again, finding information that’s going to be refreshing and beneficial.
I can tend to be really demanding in relationships because I want our relationships to be moving forward and improving. So that’s part of the strain on our marriage. I don’t feel comfortable for standing still, I want it to be growing and strengthening. Same with relationship with others. And same with my relationship with God. I want to make sure that I am better today, different. I don’t know if it’s noticeable, I want it to be.
Allen Wolf (47:32):
Tell us about the book you co-wrote, Watching TV Religiously.
Dean Batali (47:37):
Yeah. So television talks theology whether they’re talking theology or not. And the television as a storytelling device adds up to something. So I’ll even, in the book, I’ll talk about Seinfeld. Well, Seinfeld was a show about nothing. Well, actually at the end of Seinfeld, they ended up in jail, spoiler alert, for not being, for being found guilty of the Good Samaritan rule. So I actually think that that show is a complete sermon that says, “Don’t be like these people.” Sex in the City, by the time you got to the second movie, they were all in monogamous relationships. So maybe Sex in the City is actually a story about women who are looking for something that they’re not finding till they get to the end. It’s certainly a show like Lost, which sort of zigged and zagged, but in the end, they’re all in a church talking about life and looking back on life.
So we talked about how episodes add up to things, NYPD Blue, which in the early days was protested by Christians because there was sex and language. Well, in the end it became a show about the redemption of this main character, Andy Sipowicz, who literally was at his son’s bedside praying in one episode, talking to Jesus in another one, and taking faith more serious and was a completely different person by the end. In one sense, it’s the story of Saul, the Apostle, Saul who sort of then becomes Paul in one sense, traveling.
We just talked about kind of creating a language of how both intellectuals and Christians and non-Christians can look at television and meaning, we use the word meaning rather than spirituality. What is the meaning of this episode? I have a chapter in there specifically about Christian characters and I like to point at the shows like The Crown that we’re following this woman of faith for her entire reign as queen. There was a show called Rectify, of course, Lost had a Christian character, [inaudible 00:49:21]. Right now there are characters that actually present characters of faith in a positive way, Seventh Heaven. Kind of see what that does on television too, how we can become engaged in a way just a little bit differently because everybody thinks films are these high art thing. I think television is just as high art. Westworld had really interesting issues of faith more in the first season than in the later seasons. I just think we should be having a conversation about it. So that’s what we wrote.
Allen Wolf (49:48):
Was there a moment during your career when you felt discouraged and wondered what would happen next?
Dean Batali (49:54):
Today, yes. Just this morning and just this afternoon, and it’s hard not to say every single day. And this is the struggle I deal with. I think all artists, I won’t say that we’re bipolar, but we can have our ups and downs with the joys and the frustrations. I’m not discouraged today, I’m just waiting on a lot of different things. I have a script that’s making its way through the system that may or may not make it. I’m struggling with a script that I delivered to a producer a few weeks ago that they just hated it and it looks like the project might be dead. I’m trying to resurrect that. I have gone on at least 300 or 400 meetings in my life, maybe 15 of them, and that’s being really liberal, turned into anything good. Nine out of 10, 19 out of 20 meetings, which are all job interviews, feel like a no, end up being a no.
And I will say to young writers, think of every job interview you ever went on and didn’t get, every date you wanted to happen but they didn’t say yes, every time you didn’t get picked for the team or elected to be class representative, and multiply that kind of rejection times every single day. And that’s what it’s like a lot being a person in Hollywood. Actors who get denied parts, and me as a writer, I have never had a show that I wrote go to series. I’ve had a pilot or two get picked up and get made, and then when they don’t go, that’s really disappointing. What I came here to do, get my own shows on the air, it has not happened yet. So by my own metric, 32 years ago, I have not been a success at all in Hollywood. I’ve just been a working writer and I still have this longing to see characters like myself, characters of faith on television. Hasn’t happened yet.
And so now as my career starts getting nearer to the end, I’m not called to as many meetings, that staff writing job, I didn’t get. I remember being at, I was up for this job on a show and I sat with the writer, the showrunner, and he said, “Well, the bottom line is I need you in the room and I want you to start on Monday.” And this was on a Wednesday and I went outside and my knees buckled. It was an hour long show, it was soon after That 70s Show, it was a show I really wanted to work on.
Well, then the process went on for four months while the network got involved. “Well, no, we have people with development deals that we got to bring in. Oh, maybe we can hire Dean. Okay, well maybe we’ll bring him on next season.” And it was just like, I really want this. And then I finally got word from my manager, “It’s not going to happen.” And you know where I got that news? I was at Knott’s Berry Farm with my family. We’d gone down for the weekend. We were renting a hotel room and I was sitting in the lobby taking the call, and that’s where I got the news. And then I had to go out and enjoy riding on the Jaguar with my kids and try to be joyful. That was another one of those tough days.
So it happens a lot. I don’t always deal with it well. I can be really affected by it. And fortunately, God has provided for us. We’ve been very favored with work, but I still have that longing in my heart for what I want to do. It may or may not happen, and I’m coming to grips a little bit with nobody was after God’s own heart more than Moses in the Bible and he never had a good day in his life. And if you had asked what he wanted to do the most, it would’ve been set foot in the Promised Land, and he got to see the Promised Land, and then he died before stepping foot in the Promised Land. So he never actually got what he wanted.
Except jump to the tag of that story and read during the transfiguration when the Apostles, when Jesus is standing with Elijah and Moses in the Promised Land. So actually, Moses got to set foot in the Promised Land, it just happened very differently than he thought it would. Maybe I’ll have a show on the air in heaven. I don’t know. I’d like to leave some art that sustains, that lasts, and some of the plays that I’m writing might be those things, might have an even longer life than my shows did.
And then I’m very honored and feel wonderful about being to contribute to the next generation, to sit with people and kind of help them find their way through Hollywood so that there are people out there who are saying, that if you’re asking them, “Well, who are the people that influence you?” That they’ll say my name, not as a pride thing, but just that I was able to contribute to them finding their way. I didn’t have a lot, the Christian generation before me in Hollywood, I wasn’t able to get to to access them. And I want this next generation to have access to people like me so they can find their way, learn those kind of disciplines, learn the mistakes that I made, things I wish I’d be more careful about, be with them during discouraging…
I have a friend, John Tinker, when I call him, he’s a writer and a Christian, when I call him and say, “Well, I just found out the network doesn’t want to do this.” He’ll say, “I know exactly what you’re going through,” because he does know exactly what I’m going through because he’s been there. And I was able to say that to a writer recently who was struggling with her reps who didn’t like a script that she wrote and weren’t sending her out. And it’s like I knew exactly the emotion she was going through. She was having jealousy about good friends that were working, I knew exactly what she was going through because I had been there exactly.
So that’s the circle of community that, I guess, we talk about is we can connect and carry one of those burdens as the Bible says we should do. That’s what I want to be known as, that I carried other people’s burdens with them as a legacy I think.
Allen Wolf (55:04):
Well, you mentioned at the beginning that you appreciate authenticity, and I appreciate you being so authentic during this interview. Thank you so much for being my guest.
Dean Batali (55:13):
You’re welcome. It was fun to talk to you. It was good to see you.
Allen Wolf (55:15):
If you work in entertainment, check out the complimentary courses and other resources available at navigatinghollywood.org. Please follow us and leave us a review so others can discover this podcast. You can find our other shows, transcripts, links, and more at navigatinghollywood.org. I look forward to being with you next time.