Interview: Oliver Goldstick discusses his new Paramount+ series SCHOOL SPIRITS, working on a sitcom with Robert Mitchum, and his still-lingering love for PRETTY LITTLE LIARS
I know it drives publicists crazy when I approach them with interview requests connected to completely absurd projects, but because I know this, I have tried to do more interviews where I avoid emphasizing the more absurd topics until after the conversations have actually been scheduled. That’s kind of what I did with Oliver Goldstick, executive producer of the new Paramount+ series School Spirits.
Not that I didn’t want to talk about the new show, because I was interested in it from the moment I read the premise, but at the same time, I’ve got to be me, so the reality is that I was ultimately more interested in the fact that Oliver was once a writer on A Family for Joe, a short-lived sitcom perhaps best known for starring Robert Mitchum, a man not generally known for his comedic prowess. This is not to say that he couldn’t deliver a solid punchline, but the idea of him starring in a sitcom where he’s dealing with a household full of precocious kids… I had to hear about that experience from a writer’s standpoint.
Thankfully, I’d heard through the grapevine that Oliver had been told about my tweet when I was watching the School Spirits panel during the TCA tour and was all in on such a conservation.
End result: Paramount+ set up a Zoom conversation between Oliver and I, and while I’m not sharing the video (my office is at its worst and makes me look like a freaking hoarder), you can see a screenshot of Oliver’s side of the conversation below, and below that you’ll see that I did indeed transcribe our chat for your reading enjoyment.
First of all, I just wanted to mention that I was in attendance for School Spirits panel at TCA, which was great.
Oh, great. Thank you!
I mention this because I know this is a question you've already answered repeatedly, but I still have to ask it: what's the secret origin of the series? How did it come about?
So Nate and Megan [Trinrud] - who are brother and sister, although I refer to them as co-pilots - basically have a graphic novel that's coming out later this year, but while waiting for it to be published, they ended up writing a spec. And I had worked with the Paramount+ folks on something else, and they called me and said, "These are two young writers, it's their maiden voyage, they need a showrunner or supervisor, and would you take a look at it over the weekend and see if you respond to the material?" And it was... God, this feels so long ago: it was November 2021. It feels like a long time ago! But, you know, we were still dealing with COVID in a big way. And I thought this material, the source material, was really smart and resonated. I have two teenage boys who've been in lockdown and gone back to school with masks and the whole thing. This metaphor of this girl who's died seemed to resonate in a big way.
So I spoke to them and said, "Did you write this as a metaphor?" And they said, "No," and if you talk to them, they'll tell you themselves, but it was a coming-to-life story - not a coming-of-age, but a coming-of-life - through death. And I think what was great, and they said it the first time I met with them, "How do you not get defined by the worst thing that's ever happened to you? How does not become who you are?" Because everyone has some wound. Everyone has something. And I was really moved by it, i thought it was funny, and they're both from the Midwest, I'm from the Midwest, so we had a lot in common. And I thought the show just had relevance and resonance the first time I read it.
And, of course, you've certainly had your experience with the so-called "young adult drama" genre.
[Smiling.] Yes, I have.
What do you think really makes this stand out?
I think this defies easy categorization. Because even from the script and the first three or four pages, there was something about it. There was sardonic humor, but there was pathos and mystery. And I feel like we have an incredible cast, very distinctive. And I think this defies the glossy teen soap that we've seen. And I'm not saying Pretty Little Liars, because I loved Pretty Little Liars, and we had our own distinction. But Pretty Little Liars, when I first read that... You have to remember that smartphones were really new in kids' hands, and the whole idea of cyberbullying was really just on its crest. It was 2009, 2010, and my kids were still young, so I knew that was something that was resonant at that point. And I feel like this show, School Spirits, it's a mashup of John Hughes films that we loved with a great Veronica Mars or Pretty Little Liars type of mystery. And I feel like you come for the mystery, but you stay for the soap.
I will say that the title is kind of perfect, because when I heard it, I thought, "Oh, this sounds like it's gonna be a supernatural college student romp." It's obviously so much more than that, but it definitely had my attention.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I think... Well, you know, the title was an issue, because I think there was another book series that Megan and Nate... It was not on their radar. So that stayed a question mark for a long time whether they could use the title School Spirits. But I think the show... I loved the idea of the dead living amongst us and not being gimmicky, not dealing with the ghost tropes of doors closing or whatever, but absolutely like The Sixth Sense: there are dead sitting in this room right now, people who were here before me, and some are able to cross over possibly and pass on to something else, some had unfinished business and they're still sitting right here. [Suddenly looks to his right feigns being startled.] Oh my God, I didn't know this: there's someone right here!
But you know what I mean. There's something about it that really is, I think, profound. And it's very much a part of their script.
Okay, I have to ask you about something in your back catalog, and I know you've been forewarned that this is coming, but...what was it like working on A Family for Joe?
[Bursts out laughing.] Well, first of all, I was 12! Mr. Mitchum was so scary that Phil [Rosenthal] and I were scared to even approach him. I was a huge fan, but it was Robert Mitchum. It was after a writers strike, and we desperately needed to get into the union. It was really hard. It's a long story, I won't get into it, but it was a writers strike in 1989 that lasted from March to October, so it was a long time, and it was really hard to get that first job. But that was my first job, the one to get into the union, to get into the Writers Guild. And Mitchum was a character who we finally got up the nerve by, like, the last episode to have a conversation with him and talk to him about Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear. It was bizarre. It was my first job, so it was learning the business.
I will tell you that they had to recast all the kids in the show - just a piece of trivia that you'll enjoy - and the show's creator had sat through kids in New York and Chicago and Florida, and he was, like, "I can't look at any more kids." And Phil and I were both theater people, so we were kind of curious about how the casting process worked, and we didn't realize that so many kid actors are brought in by their parents or grandparents like... [Hesitates.] I don't want to say "show dogs," but they basically know what their interpretation is going to be before they come in. You can't ask for an adjustment, because they're, like, "What? What do you mean?" So we watched a lot of kids, and one young person came in, a young woman. She was a girl! She was 14 years old. And you'll know who this, but it was her first job. And she was so unique and so quirky that we ran down the hall to Arnold and said, "You have to see this girl! She's not what you wrote, but Robert Mitchum will despise her upon contact, on first sight." And the two of them had really good chemistry. And her name was Juliette Lewis. It was her first job!
Speaking of Phil, I was listening to his podcast the other day, and he had Pamela Adlon as a guest, and they spent a very sizable chunk of the proceedings talking about Down the Shore.
Yeah, that was great. Those were good times. It was a long time ago. It feels like another lifetime ago!
In particular, she talked about how she departed the show earlier than she might've liked, owing to a producer or someone saying that she wasn't hot enough.
It wasn't a producer. Let's be clear on this: it was an executive. It was a Fox executive. Because no producer would ever say that. We loved Pammy. The executives wanted the young women to be making breakfast in their bathing suits. That was one of the notes we got at one point. The guys didn't have to be, but the girls should be. "It's a house on the shore! The Jersey shore! Why aren't they eating breakfast in their bathing suits?" [Blank look.] "Because...nobody else is and it might look odd. No?" [Shrugs.] But that was back in the '90s!
What's your favorite project that you've worked on over the years that didn't get the love you thought it deserved?
How much time do you have? [Laughs.]
Time for a few.
I have multiple shows. I mean, I did a show a couple of years ago, it's kind of a heartbreaker for me, but it was for BBC Studios and Amazon UK and it was called The Collection. It's on Amazon Prime. I was able to live over there for, like, six months, and it was fantastic. I don't regret a moment of the experience. But the Amazon UK people who commissioned it were sent away, and that's what often happens in this business. Your champions, who commissioned the show and who are basically your godfathers and godmothers, if they go away, the show becomes a... [Pauses.] What can I say? A changeling child. You know, they don't really know what to do with it, and they're, like, "It's not ours." But The Collection was one of those shows.
It's funny, because I'm still working with people from this half-hour that I did that came and went because it was on at the wrong time, probably, but it was a show called Partners, with Johnny Cryer and Tate Donovan. And Bernadette [Luckett], who I worked with on that show, I hired her to work on this! There are certain shows that, for whatever reason, because of the timeslot or because of losing the executives who commissioned it, that can fall between the cracks. I mean, there are better chances for people to save things now than there has been in the past, because there's more outlets. But it used to be that when you were axed, you were done! You didn't have a chance to find another world, another platform or venue.
I remember watching Partners and enjoying it well enough.
Well, you know, there was an old theory which said, "Don't put a half-hour on after an hour." And Fox scheduled us after Melrose Place. And it just wasn't the right flow, y'know what I mean? It was just an odd flow from an 8 pm soap opera to a 9 pm sitcom. And whether you believe that or not, it was a good show, and we had so much fun doing it. And Jimmy Burrows directed almost every episode.
You can't go wrong there.
Yeah, it was great. It's just the luck of the draw sometimes. A timeslot.
How do you look back at the overall Pretty Little Liars experience?
I loved it. Oh, what a joy. Nate and Megan have to listen to me wax probably too nostalgic, because we were on the Warner Brothers lot, I'd never been able to work like that on a lot where we shot everything. We had no money to really go out, so we had to make virtue of the backlot and find 36 different ways to make one corner look like something else. And working with really talented people reminded me... [Pauses.] I've had one other experience like this, too, that reminded me of what the old studio system was like, where you basically came to work in the morning, parked your car, and you created magic on a lot. You created winter, you created summer...
I did a show called American Dreams many years ago, and I had this scene where it was supposed to be a snowstorm set in Philadelphia, and Roxanne drops out of high school to go follow her boyfriend, who's a musician, and Meg, who's her best friend, is very angry about it, saying, "You're making the biggest mistake of your life, dropping out of high school!" And Roxanne says, "Please be happy for me and stop questioning it!" And we were gonna shoot it, with the cab taking her away, but I was, like, "Where are we gonna do this? All we have is a soundstage! How are doing this?" And I'm not lying, Brian Reynolds, an incredible director of photography, created a blizzard and a cab pulling out in the snow.
And Pretty Little Liars had a lot of those moments, too. Because we used [Alfred] Hitchcock, who was a control freak, as our muse. He was our muse! It's, like, he didn't like being outside in the elements, he didn't like dealing with things he could not control, and he loved the soundstages. He loved being able to control every element. So the dread of a doorknob turning became a lot more important than seeing a dead body. You know what I mean? And I think Pretty Little Liars was a great experience. You know, seven years on a show, on a backlot like Warner Brothers, is a gift.
Just to mention one other underrated series that you worked on, I always loved Popular. I know you wrote a few episodes of that.
[Smiling.] I wrote many episodes. Yeah, I loved it. I only left because I had a show picked up! But I loved that experience. That was a lot of fun. It was also a show where... I guess we were against all odds. You know, because we were up against Friends on a Thursday night, and no one thought the show was going to succeed, so we were underdogs. But what a wonderful cast, what a great staff. We had so much fun. There was a lot of attitude there where it was, like, "Why not? Let's just do it! Let's make noise!" And that's very much what Ryan [Murphy] is about anyway: "Let's make noise, let's do something outrageous, and let's see what happens." And that was when, 1999, 2000? That show had something to say at the time. It really did. It was resonant.
To bring it back to School Spirits to wrap up, given that no one ever really knows what the fate of a show is going to be when it first starts, do you have the first season situated in a way so that there's at least some semblance of closure, even though you're probably setting it up for a second season?
Yes and no. Because we paid some allegiance to the actual graphic novel, so there is a bit of a... Well, it's not "a bit," it's a great cliffhanger! But there's an answer to a question, too. Because we are posing a huge question of what happened to her from when the show begins, from the first frame. So we do at least answer that question...but it raises a bigger question, which I think is how you have to do these shows. What can I tell you? I'm not trying to be naughty here, I'm just telling you the truth!