It is a big week for producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. They have the live staging of The Sound Of Music starring Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer on NBC tomorrow night, and four-hour miniseries Bonnie & Clyde starring Emile Hirsch and Holliday Grainger airing Sunday and Monday on History, A&E and Lifetime. While most producers abandoned the longform genre when it went out of fashion over the last five years, Zadan and Meron stuck with it through their longform deal at Sony TV, producing mostly movies for Lifetime, including the highly rated Steel Magnolias reboot with an all-black cast. Their loyalty has paid off and the two now are at the forefront of longform’s resurgence. (Zadan and Meron just sold a high-profile Eliot Ness miniseries to NBC.) Coming up for the duo next year is the launch of their new MTV comedy series Happyland, the return of Lifetime dramedy Drop Dead Diva and the filming of E! pilot Songbyrd. Oh, and they also are returning as producers of the Oscars in March. I caught up with Zadan and Meron to talk about Bonnie & Clyde and The Sound Of Music — find out why they call them “historic”, how Underwood traveled to Austria to prepare for playing Maria in SOM and how close Miley Cyrus came to playing Bonnie in B&C — as well as the Oscars, Smash and a possible Steel Magnolia sequel.
DEADLINE: Were you surprised by the longform genre’s resurgence?
ZADAN: We did expect it would come back. Everything is cyclical and we thought that event television had become so scarce between all the reality shows and all the other things that were going on (and also the fact that there were still great movies on HBO and a few other places), that eventually everybody would catch on to bring it back if there was a big hit that warranted it. I think Hatfields & McCoys was so enormous that no one could ignore it anymore; they had to bring it back at that point.
DEADLINE: Hatfields & McCoys was three-part. Your mini, Bonnie & Clyde, is two-part. How did you decide on the length?
MERON: What happened is we originally went to the History channel and pitched it as a two-hour because it was a script that we’d developed. Dirk (Hoogstra) said he loved the script so much, he asked whether we could turn it into a four-hour. We said yes, by all means, there is plenty of material. Basically what the writers did was Night 1 is really about the rise of Bonnie and Clyde and the formation of that notorious criminal team, and the next night is the hunt to capture them.
DEADLINE: How did Bonnie & Clyde end up airing on three networks?
ZADAN: Of course the major player at that company is Nancy Dubuc who runs A&E, History and Lifetime. What happened was we originally went to History channel and they loved it and bought it, and we started developing it for them. And at that point, Lifetime, whom we have a great relationship with because of the stuff we’ve done with them like Steel Magnolias, came to us and said, “We hear you have that project at History, we were thinking it would be unique and interesting to do it for both networks simultaneously.” We said, “Wow that’s great, lets do it.” While we were shooting, the dailies were coming in, and we got word that they were looking at the dailies and A&E said, “What about if we change it to three networks? What about if we run it on three networks and do something historic and see what we can do in terms of ratings spread over three networks at the same time?”
DEADLINE: There have been a number of Bonnie and Clyde projects over the years, including in the 1967 movie. How is your mini different in telling that story?
ZADAN: I think where it’s different is I don’t think people are aware of the fact that they were so young (Bonnie and Clyde were 22-23 during their crime spree). So I think that is an aspect that has allowed us to cast it, and I think there are a lot of cinematic elements in the script that we knew would attract actors and filmmakers. And it was one of those things where there wasn’t one person that we went to whether it would be a director or and actor that didn’t read it and say I want to do this.
DEADLINE: Speaking of actors, Miley Cyrus was briefly in talks to play Bonnie. What happened?
MERON: The Miley Cyrus thing was more of a rumor. We had mentioned it with the network. It was a name that was tossed around but never really focused on.
DEADLINE: What do you think of Miley?
ZADAN: She is certainly making her place in the world. She is really showing everyone that she has grown up and she is not a kid anymore. But the real person that we went to (for Bonnie & Clyde) was Emile Hirsch. We almost said from Day 1 that the actor it felt it was written for was Emile Hirsch, he was the prototype.
DEADLINE: The star of your other project, Sound Of Music, Carrie Underwood, has live TV experience from competing on American Idol and hosting the CMAs but no acting background. How did she get the part?
MERON: When (NBC’s) Bob Greenblatt agreed to do it, the person that we suggested even without meeting her was Carrie Underwood because producers work from instinct, and we just felt that Carrie had all of the qualities of Maria — that she is all about goodness, she just exudes that wholesome quality, she sings incredibly well. We knew that she wanted to expand (into) acting, so it seemed to make sense. Then when we met with her, she met all of our expectations in terms of demonstrating her dedication and how hard she would work if we went with her. And so we decided that we would trust our instincts and go with her because we also think it’s exciting to launch this grand experiment with somebody as popular as Carrie.
DEADLINE: How is it working out?
ZADAN: We are thrilled. She is among the hardest-working people that we’ve worked with. Once we gave her the part, she started working with a vocal coach to rid herself of any country-isms and learn the Broadway style of singing. She went to Salzburg, Austria, to visit all the Von Trapp residences and to just soak up the experiences, she was working with coaches the whole time, with our musical director. She showed up in New York two weeks prior to the the start of official rehearsals to work one-on-one with the director and the musical director just so that she could be prepared because she knew she would be the neophyte in this group. We have amazingly skilled Broadway actors who had been doing it their whole life so she just wanted to get ahead of the game.
DEADLINE: Live entertainment programming today is limited to comedy, SNL, and awards shows. Why did you decide to do The Sound Of Music live?
ZADAN: The way it came about was Bob Greenblatt had come to us originally and said that he wanted to do something that would be a big event, that would be classy, that would get a lot of attention, that would reach a lot of people and get big ratings. Coincidentally, Neil and I had been talking literally for years about this because we looked back at what we had done. We started off by doing musicals on TV — Gypsy with Bette Midler, Cinderella with Whitney Houston and Brandy, Annie with Kathy Bates. Those led to going to the big screen with Chicago and Hairspray. And then we thought, do we want to go back and do musicals on TV and re-create what we had done earlier? No. What could be different, what could be special? We thought no one has done a live musical on TV since the 50s when Mary Martin did Peter Pan and Julie Andrews did Cinderella.
MERON: It’s so funny you mention this because both Mary Martin and Julie Andrews were former Marias, Mary Martin being the first, Julie Andrews being from the movie.
ZADAN: So we’d thought about it for years, and we thought if anyone gave us the chance to do a live musical on TV, what would we do? The biggest family title there is is The Sound Of Music, it is a project that everybody knows everywhere in the world and has every aspect of family viewing. The only thing you should never do under any circumstances is to remake the movie. It’s so perfect you just never in your right mind would think of doing another movie of The Sound Of Music. But people for the most part did not know the show it was based on, and we thought it would be very interesting to do the musical, to expose the play to a lot of people who love the characters and the story but really don’t know how different the piece is from the movie. We pitched it to Bob, and on the spot he said, let’s do it, he didn’t even give it a 30-second thought.
DEADLINE: How has been mounting a live TV musical production logistically?
MERON: It required thinking from a different point of view for everybody because people who had done live musicals in the 1950s for the most part are not around anymore, so no one has experience in doing what we are doing. It’s been very scary because you are making it up as you’re going along because you can’t say, well they did it this way on this show they did it that way on that show, you basically are creating a form of entertainment that hasn’t been done in a very very long time. The first thing we had to do was reach out to Bob and say, this thing cannot be done by one director. So we hired Rob Ashford, whom we worked with on the Oscars and on several Broadway shows, to mount the stage production. Then we hired Beth McCarthy-Miller because she is an expert at live TV having come off 10 years on SNL and having directed 30 Rock’s live episodes. We felt the combination between Beth and Rob would really create what we needed for this special and its been fascinating just seeing that collaboration, them putting all of their various talents to use together.
DEADLINE: What was your reaction when Sound Of Music and Bonnie & Clyde were scheduled in the same week?
MERON: That was completely unexpected. It will be a very interesting week because both are historic in their own way. Sound of Music because it is a live musical, Bonnie & Clyde for broadcasting on three networks simultaneously. They both really are experiments, and being experiments you can go in either direction. We don’t know what’s going to happen, so we’ll be waiting with bated breath for those ratings to come the next morning.
DEADLINE: How is the preparation for Oscars going?
ZADAN: It’s going great, we’re really early to really talk about it but we’ve been having a great time with Ellen. The most important thing is that we chose a host that we love, and Neil and I have the best best time working every week with Ellen DeGeneres putting the show together.
DEADLINE: Any lessons from this year’s show, anything you would like to do differently?
MERON: We’re taking our experience from last year and we’re putting it to good use.
DEADLINE: What about Smash ? Do you have any regrets and do you wish you would’ve done things differently?
ZADAN: No, we are very proud of Smash. It was one of the most ambitious shows that have ever been attempted, we worked with great group of people for two seasons, and we both miss it.
DEADLINE: Any chance for a Steel Magnolias follow-up?
MERON: We’ve tossed around the idea of continuing the stories but nothing definite has happened. We tossed it back and forth because we loved the cast and we loved the characters, and we think people might be interested in seeing their stories continue, but it’s just talk at this point.
TV Editor Nellie Andreeva - tip her here.