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Melinda Metz and Laura Burns - The writers who invented Roswell High
A meeting of minds
How did you first get together?
Laura We were both book editors, editing series books for teenagers and we were working at a publishing company called Parachute Publishing. They did the R.L. Stein books like Goosebumps.
We met each other there and started working together on some of the series. We were doing plots together, writing outlines, and we realised that it just was much easier to come up with a book plot with each other than it was sitting in a room by yourself, so we started working together.
They couldnít separate us and so they just eventually gave up and left us We were a team. Then we started, maybe six years ago, talking about how we would rather be working for TV. Weíre huge TV and movie fans.
Mel We thought the kind of plotting that we did would translate really well. Because we were always doing serious book so we would always be doing arcs.
Laura And youíd have a character who contributed over 12 books instead of 12 television episodes, so we thought weíd be good at it. We talked for a long time without doing anything.
How did you come up with the original concept for Roswell?
Mel At Pocketbooks, the publisher, one of the VPs came up with the idea of Roswell High. Just basically aliens in High School. Laura was working at a different company thenÖ
Laura After we met each other at Parachute Publishing I had left and gone to a different company. Around the same time Melinda had decided to take the plunge that editors usually take, she was going to go and be a writer full time.
So it was good timing for both of us because I got to this different company and they wanted me to develop this idea, Roswell High, for Pocketbooks. I had come up with the tone of it, using the wackiness of Roswell.
Mel I came up with the name Crashdown and the wacky alien theme.
Laura Basically I came up with the characters and the set-up and rough outlines of plots. Then, because Melinda was going to be a writer and I knew she would be perfect at it, I was able to hire her to write the books.
Mel And then we kind of fleshed it out more together. Laura had the main characters sketched out and the main arc.
Laura Then Melinda made them loveable and wonderful and the television rights sold on the strength of her first manuscript.
Mel Thatís how it started on its road to TV. It was completely unexpected. That was really the first thing other than a novelisation of an episode of Goosebumps that Iíd written. I never thought the first thing I would write would turn into something like this.
Was TV always in the back of your mind, or was Roswell High written as a book first and foremost?
Laura No, we wanted to make the change and go and become television writers, but I donít think that we ever thought [the book would be the way in].
Mel No, it didnít really occur to me. It happened really fast. The first book was due maybe like a month after [the TV people became interested]. So I was caught up in finishing the first manuscript, I wasnít really thinking beyond that.
Laura We thought we had the skills ourselves to go and become television writers. We had never thought of doing it by developing a book and turning it into a TV series.
Mel We were going to write spec scripts and try and get an agent, we just hadnít done it yet.
Is working in TV what you expected?
Laura We wrote two television pilots for Regency Pictures and 20th Century Fox and neither of them got picked up, but we did write them and we realised that we were right, we do know how to write.
Mel The great thing about being on staff is, we always felt we knew the plotting and characters part. But we donít really know anything about production so weíre really getting a crash course.
Laura This is our first staff job on television and weíve been doing it for two and a half months now. So we are complete novices, complete beginners, we donít know how to make a TV show and thatís what we are here to learn.
Itís just very strange and wonderful that itís on Roswell. We were trying to get a job on any TV show that would have us and weíre so happy that we ended up on this one.
Older and wiser
How much has Roswell grown into its own life as a TV series?
Mel The pilot and the first episode of season one have a lot of overlap and then they really have gone off in two different directions. They are alternative universes of each other.
I find it fun just to see what other writers did starting at the same point, to see what other people do with the same aliens and the same powers and the same basic relationships.
Laura Itís never occurred to us to compare the books to the show, because itís a very different kind of story telling that you can do in a book versus on television. It needs to be so much more visual obviously on television and also, the books were for children.
Mel The books were for young adults.
Laura Sheriff Valenti is one of the characters thatís really different on the TV show versus the books, because in the books he was just pure evil.
Mel The books were for teens, and [in that type of book] you donít usually give the adult characters their full back story.
Valenti felt this way because his father was obsessed with aliens. So he didnít really have much motivation except being bad.
Mel He wanted to catch them, put them away and experiment on them.
Laura The show reaches an older audience and itís fun to plot for these people as theyíre getting older.
Mel [Thereís] a lot of different kind of stories. And [the characters] are already older than they were in the books.
In the early stages, were you consulted about the series?
Laura It was very separate. We were in New York doing books and they were in Hollywood doing a television show.
The publisher was the one who had sold the television rights and so they had more contact with Jason and the other people doing the show than we did individually.
Mel The books and the show are so different. The characters on the show have different back stories, and both sets of characters experience different things.
Theyíre really just too different to try and work them back around. It just wouldnít make sense for the show characters, it would be inconsistent for them to start behaving like or experiencing things that the other characters did.
Laura We get asked that question a lot, and as a writer I would almost be bored doing the same story again.
The show is its own thing. We very much follow Jason Katimsí vision because heís brilliant and he knows exactly what he wants the show to be.
Mel And we love what he did with the show.
Laura Yeah, we love it, we were big fans.
Mel I also wrote six books between Roswell High, so when we started here my book series of Roswell High was all wrapped up. They got their happy ending and everything. Itís over so itís fun to get back into that world but itís different.
Fingerprints of fear
Tell us about your current project.
Mel Itís about a girl who can touch a fingerprint and know the thoughts that the person who left the finger print was having at the moment that they left the print. I think I need a more condensed way of saying that.
At first she thinks sheís going crazy, and then she touches a finger print and realises that someone wants to kill her, which is the way the story starts.
Do you think thereís TV potential in that one as well?
Mel I donít know. The TV rights did sell but I donít think anything is really happening with it right now.
Roswell, The Next Generation
If there was a spin off from Roswell who would you like to see in it and why?
Laura The joke that we have on staff is that thereís the Valenti and son spin off, Valenti and Kyle. Theyíre PIís or something like that.
Mel Thatís one we always joke around about. Other than that Ė I personally think that the Crashdown should become a franchise and there should be Crashdown restaurants across Route 66 or something like that, with all the stories that happen in them.
Laura If they have children you could always have the next generation. Roswell, the next generation. Thatís what weíll do.
What do you see as the main themes of Roswell?
Laura I think its heart is very much in the human elements of it. That thatís what Jason [Katims] really responds to and thatís where he wants the show to go mostly.
Theyíre aliens but theyíre also just teenagers, and I think everyone feels like an alien when theyíre a teenager. He wants to keep it focused on the relationships between the characters and what their emotions are, what their friendships are.
All of this is clearly against a science fiction backdrop but I would say that its actual heart is the romances, especially the Max and Liz romance. Theyíre sort of the Romeo and Juliet and everything is hung on them. One of the episodes in season two, The End of the World, that Jason wrote, itís the perfect balance.
Mel I agree, itís the perfect mix of science fiction and romance.
Laura It works incredibly well on both levels and thatís the goal, to have that kind of balance.
Love for Isabel
What are you working on at the moment on Roswell?
Mel Weíre focusing a lot on Isabel at the beginning of season three. Isabelís got a new man in her life.
The boy aliens have always been allowed to have girlfriends but poor Isabelís always been very unlucky in love. Now sheís finally come into her own and got a real relationship and it will probably get very serious very fast.
Laura The characters have changed a lot over the course of season two. A lot happens to them, and they have to grow up faster than they thought. In season three weíre dealing with a whole new level of maturity for all of them.
Mel Theyíre all making big decisions about what they want their lives to be like. At the beginning of season three, you see them in a way that youíve never seen them before.
Alien head lollies
What sort of merchandising would you like to see?
Laura If you look around the Crashdown here thereís all kinds of crazy alien merchandise already. It makes me laugh every time I look at a giant alien head filled with lollypops. Itís very silly.
Mel Theyíre thinking of doing a soundtrack, which will be great because they have such great music on Roswell.
(Mel thinks for a moment) Waitress uniform, Roswell antennas, lunch boxesÖ
Laura If we had lunch boxes that would make me thrilled, that would be fun.
What do you think really happened at Roswell?
Laura You know, weíve never talked about this.
I believe the weather balloon story really.
Mel I donít know. I spent a few weeks in Roswell when I was first writing the books and it seems most of the locals are dubious. Iím just not sure, Iím undecided.
Laura I like the weather balloon theory because it seems completely believable to me that the government would try to cover up a weather balloon ridiculous spy plan of theirs. That they were covering up a weather balloon is very funny and completely in line with what the military would do.
Mel They made such a huge thing of it, instead of saying "It was a weather balloon to spy on the Soviets".
You donít want to know really, it would be sad if they found it out because you like the mystery so maybe we donít want to know exactly what happened there.
End of the World
What were your favourites episodes of season two and why?
Laura End of the world. Itís one of the first episodes but in my mind it was the one that actually kicked off the season and set the tone for it, itís deeply romantic.
Itís a very classic perfect science fiction set-up of your future self coming back to change the actions of yourself in the present tense. Itís a great, simple, elegant science fiction construct. What Jason Katims, who wrote the episode, did with it was to take the science fiction construct and put the Romeo and Juliet romance right into the same construct.
So Max comes back from the future and tells Liz "I love you, weíre completely meant to be together, we got married, we had this wonderful life together and guess what, you have to stop it from ever happening again. If we get together the world will come to an end".
Literally, what could be the more dire consequences of star cross love?
Mel And [Max] says, "you know you can never tell me because I wouldnít believe you, I wouldnít let you go."
So itís a heartbreaking episode because Liz is put in this horrible position of having to push Max away without being able to tell him why.
Laura Itís a great Max and Liz story and itís a great science fiction story and the stakes are so high both with the romanceÖ
Mel ...and the end of the world.
Laura The stakes are high for the planet Earth and also for Max and Lizís romance. Itís just this perfect melding of the two, so thatís my favourite episode of the whole show so far.
What about A Roswell Christmas Carol appeals to you?
Mel Another episode from season two that we both really loved is the Christmas episode. Because itís very touching with Max healing these kids who have cancer but itís really funny too. Isabel as the Christmas nazi [is very funny].
Laura Isabel is very focused on having the perfect Christmas, and she will have the perfect Christmas no matter what it takes. They all call her the Christmas nazi behind her back, and this is the season that she realises that they consider her to be the Christmas nazi.
Mel Just the looks that she gives the different characters were very funny. She would like turn and give them a lookÖ
Laura ...and they all fall into line and do just what she wants. So, it was very funny and it was a nice use of the aliensí powers. Max has been a healer all along so it was refreshing to get back to that aspect of his personality, that he is this force for good.
But there was also the question of how much should he do. Heís not god, should be healing people or shouldnít he? Itís a morally ambiguous question for him.
Mel At the beginning of the episode thereís a man that he doesnít heal because it would reveal who he was. Heís haunted by the thought of this guy, and it brings up the question of if you have the power what are your responsibilities. How do you keep yourself safe and still be a good person?
By the book?
Out of all the actors that got cast in the show who was closest to your vision?
Laura I think Michael. Brendan Fehr has a gruff yet funny and charming persona that our Michael had too.
Mel Itís that good-heartedness covered by a lot of testosterone. I think that Max is quite a bit like the Max in the books.
Laura The Max and Liz relationship is pretty close.
Mel Itís definitely the heart of the book series too.
But some of the others, like Maria, are very different. Sheís sort of funny in both, but in different ways. I do think the cast is amazing. Whether theyíre like what I was thinking of when I was doing the books or not, in that alternate universe way, I just enjoy them both.
Kyle in the books was just awful but heís one of my favourite characters now. Heís very funny.
Will you return to book writing in the future?
Laura Iím much more into the TV and films thing.
I edited books for many years and Iíve edited hundreds of books and I donít want to write them.
Mel Iím just finishing up the Fingerprint series, I have one left.
I think that some time in the future I would still want to write books. Itís so different, you can go into peopleís thoughts and you donít have to worry about budget.
But I got really lonely being a book writer. I like the collaborative process of being on staff, itís much more suited to my personality. I would like to do TV much more and maybe squeeze in an occasional book once in a while.
Graduating From Roswell High
Posted on Tuesday, November 27, 2001
Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz--the editor and author who created the Roswell High series of youth novels--told SCI FI Wire that it's like entering an alternate universe now that they are staff writers on UPN's teen-alien series Roswell, which is based on the books. Writing partners Burns and Metz recently completed their first Roswell script, "A Tale of Two Parties," which finished production the week of Nov. 19 and is slated for a Jan. 1 air date.
The TV show is based on the first of the Roswell High books, but its plot and characters have diverged widely from the book series, the writers said in an interview. "It's sort of that we started in the same places ... and the show went in one direction, and the books went in a different one," Burns said.
Burns added, "The characters are on different paths. The show has always been more adult. ... The books were basically aimed at 10-year-olds. ... So it had to be a much younger voice. And it was very much high school. And the show, the characters have just gone through so much, they're sort of wise beyond their years now and much more mature than your average group of 17- and 18-year-olds, and the stories are much more adult. ... But we love it just as much. We were always big fans of the show."
Burns and Metz's first episode takes place on New Year's Eve. "We knew what kind of feel we wanted--just kind of a fun, fast-paced, bouncing around," Burns said. "There's a party, kind of a secret party. It's like a treasure hunt, and you follow clues. Everybody knows where the first clue is, and that leads you to the next clue, and the next clue that leads you to the party. And this is an annual thing that's legendary, like a rave, just the best party of all time, called Enigma. And what we thought is that we're going to put them on the road to this party, in various groupings, and follow their adventures as they try to find the party."
Metz said she enjoys the collaborative nature of television writing, in which ideas and storylines are developed by a group of writers working together. "That's one of the things that I really like after writing books," Metz said. "I think I'll always like writing books and will always want to do it. But ... I just got tired of being in my apartment all by myself all day. ... I really love it. It's the opposite, but it's still stories. So I get to take that part, which I really love, and combine it with people, which I also love." Roswell airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.