I'd interviewed writer/producer Hart Hanson by phone a couple of years ago, before Bones had been renewed for a second season, before it was clear it would be. So attending his Master Class this month at the Banff World Television Festival, I thought I knew what to expect from the Master Teacher: polite, restrained, and speaking in carefully crafted key messages. I was dead wrong, and happy about it.
"I don't think David (Boreanaz) would mind me telling this story. I'll have to ask him some day," the hilariously tangential and irreverent Hanson said at one point before relating a not-in-the-key-messages anecdote about his leading man.
The former Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel star was cast first. Hanson was ready to offer him the job based on those roles, but naturally met with him first. "I thought, he could be funny. I was wrong – I underestimated him. He can be very funny. But the meeting with him was just disastrous," Hanson related. "I now know, if you're ever going to talk to David, do not bring up Angel. He does not want to discuss Angel. And I think the first word I said to him was 'Angel!'"
Still scrambling for a female lead four days before shooting the pilot, Hanson was convinced to see a little-known actress named Emily Deschanel. "She was tall, she had a deep voice, she has gravity, she was 30 at that point, or 29. So you could believe her as a scientist, which was kind of tough with some of the actresses we saw," he commented. "It turned out that she could be funny and she looks like Grace Kelly."
But Boreanaz was set on another actress for the role. "David's a very strong-willed man. So he — I won't say sabotaged — he challenged Emily to rise to the occasion by advancing on her. David's about 6'1" and about 200 pounds of shoulders with pecs attached," he laughed. "He advanced on her in the test, and Emily stepped right toward him and they had one of the exchanges from the pilot."
Hanson felt the chemistry instantly, and the Booth/Brennan pairing was brought to life. The initial concept, since Boreanaz hadn't wanted to work full time on a series again, was that Bones would have worked with Booth for about half the episodes, and with various other cops for the other half. "I don't know what changed his mind," Hanson said about the actor's decision to sign on full time. "Maybe because Emily stepped into him like that: 'I have to take her down in the first episode.'"
That wasn't the only evidence that Hanson was deviating from the more formal interview persona. The Master Class started with a glowing introduction which promised an exciting session. "Exciting's going to be tough," Hanson protested to interviewer Gillian Flynn of Entertainment Weekly, an attractive woman wearing a short dress and gorgeous boots. "I'm glad you're showing a little leg."
Long after she'd recovered from that, Flynn asked Hanson about the two-hour season opener, which is being filmed in England. He voiced his frustration with the FOX dictate that the two-parter must feel like one cohesive episode, but each hour must be able to stand alone as well. "So it has to be seamless but with a great big seam in it," Hanson noted before adding: "I said 'semen' (i.e., 'seam in'). I knew that would happen."
At that point, our mutual acquaintance Will Dixon leaned over and whispered to me: "That's why I call him my smarter, funnier Beavis." I won't speculate on who's Butt-head in that equation.
Hanson and Dixon met in the world of Canadian television, where Hanson's long, varied, award-winning career meant absolutely nothing when he moved down to Los Angeles. He got a job on Cupid based on his Ally McBeal spec script, "which is why now, 10 years on, I'm a light dramedy writer instead of a serious drama writer: I didn't write a Homicide Life on the Street. I wrote Ally McBeal, and that's it in the States. You are slotted."
I'd made the mistake of slotting him based on our interview, but Hanson is clearly multifaceted. "I'm considered a soft writer, which I think is unkind. Meaning I like some humour and characters and that kind of stuff."
When he was set to work writing the pilot of Bones, he was concerned the studio was expecting a CSI-type show. "They said no, we want your way, meaning soft and squishy. I thought they were lying … and they were, but not as badly as I thought."
He was instructed to include writers from other procedurals on his staff, and faced battles in the early days over the network's efforts to push Bones further towards the CSI realm.
"They ordered it to series and then there was the big meeting with the network head where they tell you what they want," he recounted. However there have been a few regime changes at FOX since that time, which means the pressure is off to some extent. "The bad thing is quite honestly now we're an orphan. We don't belong to anybody. They'd love to replace us if we could just stop having this 9 or 10 million people tune in every week."
There's more good news/bad news irony for Hanson: "I got a call the other day to supervise someone else's pilot because I'm a procedural guy. Now I'll have to break in as a soft writer again."
Even more ironic is his transition from Canadian television to American. "Part of me is very cranky that I felt I had to go the States to reach a larger Canadian audience. The Canadian audience on Judging Amy or Bones is higher than any Canadian show I worked on, and they were some successful Canadian shows. I don't know who to aim that crankiness at, that I had to become an ex-pat, to live in LA, to reach a Canadian audience. I don't understand it at all." He didn't leave it at the philosophical answer, though, ending on the practical: "But they pay more down in LA. You do make a lot more money."
Confessing to some homesickness while in the spectacular mountain setting of Banff, Hanson responded to a question about whether he'd return to Canada with: "They're going to be done with me pretty soon. You know how the States is. One day your phone just stops ringing. I don't want to make it sound like I'd only come back to Canada when they stop calling. I'll come back to Canada when it stops being fun there."
For now, he sounds like he's having fun, and his tendency to go off-message certainly made his festival session a lot of fun.