Train 48 Rides into New Territory

By Julie Gedeon

Viewers are hopping aboard Train 48–where improvisation meets soap opera. Is this low-budget series, based on an Australian show, the future of Canadian drama?

If writing dialogue is your thing, don't go looking for a job in Train 48's story department.

Billed by Global as "instant drama," Train 48 features 11 commuters taking the same train home from Toronto's Union Station on weeknights. The show, now in its second season, airs the same day it's shot, with the actors improvising all their lines.

Train 48's six writers never script a word of dialogue.

"We give the who, what, where, and when, and the actors decide how," explains writer Meredith Vuchnich. "Up until the dialogue, it's very much like regular scriptwriting. We're concerned with conflict, what the characters want from each other and how they're going to get it. Then the actors write the final draft."

The writers do provide the actors with a sparse outline for every scene, indicating the characters' motivations:

Brenda wants a sympathetic audience for her outrage (about a children's pageant).
Johnny wants to cure a hockey mom.
Liz wants to give Brenda support in exchange for the support she's going to seek.

They also provide minimalist instructions for what the characters might say:

Brenda postmortems the weekend's Little Missy pageant: Caitlin was robbed.
Liz makes an effort to show sympathy.
Johnny lectures Brenda on poor parental sportsmanship.

"We keep the script loose," says writer Jeremy Winkels. "If we get too attached to anything, we'll have our egos crushed too often."

Each actor gets a character brief running a page or longer for each scene. It notes available props, the character's possible motivations, his or her background related to the scene, and information on any subjects that might come up.

Vuchnich says the challenge is keeping scripts lean, to give the actors room to interpret. "Sometimes we'll literally have a line that reads, "Liz responds." The actor knows the history she has with the other characters and her own biases. So unless it's important for an upcoming arc, it's best to leave it up to her how to react."

While the actors know the general arc for the series, details are kept from them to maintain elements of surprise–as when Liz (Krista Sutton), a career-oriented drug company executive, unexpectedly kissed Randy (Paul Lee), a cruise-missile circuit designer, at the end of the first season. The kiss had to be captured on the first take for Randy's surprise to be genuine, but normally the actors get a couple of tries at a scene.

"Sometimes the actors don't feel the script works or they come up with something better and the director will usually say, 'Go with it,'" says writer Alison Humphrey. "The first season was an exercise in humility. I'd have to tell myself, 'Okay, it's not what I wanted, but I like what they've done, too.' It also usually means I have to change what I'm writing for the next show."

Winkels says the "instant drama" billing is a misnomer, because so much thought goes into the show. At the same time, "we can tweak the script up to the last moment. There's real adrenaline seeing what you wrote on the air the next day instead of waiting the usual six months to a year."

Drama on the cheap

The concept for the show comes from an Australian series called Going Home. Protocol Entertainment's Steve Levitan, executive producer of Train 48, got hooked on it while on business down under, and bought the Canadian format rights.

He makes no bones about the show being cheap. Dirt cheap. "It's a fraction of what regular drama costs," he says. "In an environment where broadcasters have less money and require more programming to fill their time slots, this is the way of the future."

Global denies picking up the series to meet Canadian content obligations on the cheap. "It costs less per episode, but the volume makes it more expensive," says Loren Mawhinney, vice president of Canadian productions. "Sixty-five episodes cost over $6 million, compared to $3.25 million for all 13 hours of Blue Murder."

Mawhinney calls Train 48 an "out-of-the-box way of creating drama," and says Global hopes to use it to lure advertisers in an increasingly fragmented marketplace. The network also wants the independence of making shows without any direct government funding.

"I cannot run a business lining up for a fund twice a year and having some bureaucrat determine what show is going to work for me," Mawhinney says.

Global also uses the series to promote other CanWest properties and to do some product placement.

"We thought it would be fun to have a show with people being informed by our paper," Mawhinney says, referring to The National Post. So the opinionated stockbroker, Pete (Raoul Bhaneja), reads the Post religiously. Other characters glance through The Globe and Mail or Metro News though. "If we limited the papers, we wouldn't have any credibility," Mawhinney says. "We get our brand out there without limiting other papers or dictating what the characters say about the news."

Advertisers are encouraged to pay to have their products appear on Train 48. So the cast might use Fido cell phones or wear clothing from Warehouse One. "We can even do something for advertisers the day before a big event, such as the Molson Indy," Mawhinney notes.

Tim Woods of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting says Global has no excuse for not investing in high-budget dramas. "Simultaneous substitution–putting Canadian commercials on popular American shows–is worth an enormous amount of money to broadcasters. It's a gift in exchange for investing in Canadian shows," he says.

Woods suggests broadcasters hoodwinked the CRTC by establishing a "trust policy" in 1999 that leaves it up to them how to fill time allotted for Canadian programming, rather than requiring them to invest a revenue percentage in Canadian shows.

With Train 48 drawing 200,000 to 300,000 viewers a night–including a strong showing among 18-to-35-year-olds–Levitan is betting that skeletal drama is here to stay. Season one ran 65 episodes. Global has bought 50 for season two and is thinking about ordering another 143. Meanwhile, Levitan says he is finalizing a deal to broadcast a similar series featuring teenagers who share a study period at school, and he has several other ideas in the works.

"Every year there's less drama, because there's no money," he says. "The drama we're creating has a huge following and it's being produced for less than a cooking show. I'd rather watch Train 48 than more cooking shows or panel discussions."

Humphrey says the inexpensive format allows Train 48 to be unabashedly Canadian. "It doesn't have to be set in some vague North American city, and the characters can talk about Ernie Eves without worrying about American viewers not knowing who he is."

Winkels admits it's a challenge writing for a show that has one set and almost no action, but he's not complaining. "Right now this is exciting and viable," he says, "but I think at some point I'd love to write a line of dialogue again."

See the Winter 2004 issue of Canadian Screenwriter for the complete interview.

Canadian Screenwriter summer 2018 is on newsstands now. View excerpts, and subscribe here.

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NOVEMBER 29, 2018
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NOVEMBER 29, 2018

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Writers Talking TV, presented by the Writers Guild of Canada, is a writer-to-writer interview held at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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