As a co-executive producer on ER, Lydia Woodward '73 helps create television's top-rated show - riveting hospital stories involving richly drawn characters
Lydia Woodward '73 is looking at hot costs. She is talking to the director about what isn't working. She has
a writers' meeting. The caterer isn't satisfactory. An actor needs two days off
to do Saturday Night Live. There's a fight in make-up. Episode eight is
$30,000 over budget. And her 74-page script is a minute short.
Life at ER, both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes, is fast-paced -- a dazzling tangle of plot lines, character interaction and life-and-death stakes. Make no mistake, ratings are a blood sport.
An island of calm, Lydia Woodward is at the center of the tumult, shifting gears smoothly with the demands of a schedule that is constantly overlapping story meetings, pre-production, production and post-production demands. As a co-executive producer -- there are three on ER -- Woodward is involved in the entire process of creating the show, from casting to rewrite. She also will write four of this season's 20 episodes.
For those not plugged in, ER is set in the emergency room of a large
urban hospital. The action is wild. The grim statistics of modern life pass
bloodily through the
ER doors while a team of varied characters fight death and struggle to keep
their sanity. The show rides the waves of emotion, plunging from hijinks to
horror then careening into romance. The tension is palpable as characters tend
to the endless string of patients while trying to build their careers and
repair their relationships.
Lydia Woodward arrived at ER by a circuitous route that wandered through business school, a governor's office and work with the nation's bicentennial committee.
With her Colgate degree, an MBA from UCLA and a year at the American Film Institute where she produced Miss Lonelyhearts aired by American Playhouse, Woodward still couldn't find work.
"I couldn't get arrested," says Lydia, who eventually took a job as an assistant to a literary agent. "I had no interest in being an agent but it was great exposure to all aspects of the business -- who the players were and how the town worked."
Woodward received another lesson in the ways of Hollywood after leaving the agent's office for a position with the Disney Sunday Night Movie. "My boss hated me -- it was bizarre -- and when he fired me seven months later I knew I didn't want the vagaries of that type of job."
Woodward decided to stop everything and try to write. "I loved writing but my background was more suited to business. It never occurred to me I could write."
Lydia began writing scripts on speculation for situation comedies -- the pace of television appealed to her -- and soon acquired an agent.
"I had an advantage. I was older and even though I wasn't an experienced writer I had a certain savvy. I hadn't just come from Iowa."
The Slap Maxwell Show bought one of Woodward's scripts -- a thrill, according to Lydia, a miracle to her mother.
"What was truly miraculous was St. Elsewhere. My agent talked to Bruce Paltrow and he offered me a job as a story editor, another name for writer in television, in the show's sixth season.
"It was a wonderful year," says Lydia, who adds, "It was a bit like prison. I shoved the pages under the door and they shoved in the food."
As luck would have it, when St. Elsewhere ended, a writers' union strike began. "For six months I couldn't do anything but play softball with all the other writers who weren't writing and not feel guilty."
After the hiatus, Lydia met with the team working on China Beach. "We hit it off and I stayed there for three years, the duration of the show. It was a terrific experience during which I met the complete family of people I'm actually working with today."
Following China Beach, Wood-ward worked on various pilot projects which either weren't made or, if they did air, were short-lived. One idea was for a college drama which Lydia researched at Colgate. "I hung out, talked to a gazillion people, went to class, saw my old professors and wandered around, a semi-fly on the wall, as much as a 40-year-old can."
Woodward produced a pilot set in Key West that wasn't picked up, while at the same time a new hospital drama caught on at NBC. "I immediately started at ER." The show debuted with a 28 share (a share represents 400,000 homes), a wildly successful premiere. Six weeks later ER had a breathtaking 40 share and it has maintained its lofty perch atop the TV world.
"The success is just obscene," smiles Woodward. "To tell you the truth, it's otherworldly. I don't get it. It's not anything we're doing in a conscientious way. I can only attribute the success to the right place at the right time with the right cast and crew and, obviously, a great time slot." ER anchors NBC's Thursday night of "must see TV" at 10 p.m.
"I have been on a show canceled after two airings and now I'm on the number one show in the nation, that's the fluke. This is so much gravy but it will pass," says Woodward, who knows well the cyclical nature of entertainment.
Whatever the ultimate fate of ER, this is prime time for the show. "TV is actually enjoying a sort of golden age," writes Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath in the October 22 New York Times Magazine. "It has become a medium you can consistently rely on not just for distraction but for enlightenment."
McGrath goes on to say, "A typical episode of ER crams into 48 minutes so much incident and so many people that the effect is a kind of hyper-reality, an adrenaline rush."
What exactly is crammed into those 48 minutes begins with a writers' meeting. It is in these collaborative sessions where the fate of Dr. Greene's marriage, Nurse Hathaway's dreams of a house, and Dr. Ross's latest bout with self-destructive behavior are charted.
Once the staff has gone through the broad strokes of character arcs, story outlines are produced and discussed, "then the writers go away and do their stories," says Lydia, who steals time to write at night and on weekends. "There isn't much time in my day to sit down and write."
A co-executive producer's job is to oversee the development of scripts and squire them through production. For Woodward this means attention to "the piddling day-to-day stuff," keeping a grasp on the movement of the whole series and knowing exactly where each episode is, through casting, scouting locations and rewrites. At any one time there are four shows in the works and, not unlike a trauma center, ER's production offices can be hectic.
"What we do is try to tell stories that are interesting. It's a process that starts with us, the writers, not the audience, because we don't know what they want," says Woodward.
Part of the ER magic is the setting. "The arena is so incredible and so accessible. We have something that is immediately recognizable to a mass audience."
A Crichton concept
The show was conceived 20 years ago by Michael Crichton, who envisioned a feature film based on his experiences as a resident. He and Stephen Spielberg made Jurassic Park instead. Both are credited on the show but their involvement is indirect and infrequent.
The televised ER is based loosely on Chicago's Cook County General. Writers also "hang out" in Los Angeles emergency rooms. A researcher gathers case studies from across the country and medical consultants assure accuracy.
"There's nothing we could make up," says Woodward. "People are so bizarre -- the stuff they do to themselves, the stuff they do to others." So we see a man walk
in with an arrow in his head, an apparent heart attack victim handcuffed to a blonde, frat boys with pool balls in their mouths, a severed finger lost in a crate of fish, and the gun-toting little old lady. Stranger than fiction.
These stories fly by, swirling in and out of the four acts of each episode. Other stories are more fully developed but ER smudges the old rule of a beginning, middle and end. Open-endedness is as much a part of the show as conclusion. Holding it all together are the people, in all their humanity, of the ER.
"We attempt to keep the characters reasonably flawed, as much as you can within the constraints of television," says Lydia. "We have an appealing cast."
Not long ago the one-hour TV drama was deemed a dinosaur, doomed by meteoric sitcoms, but ER and a few other well-crafted shows have reinstated the form's viability. While the Times mentions TV dramas in the same breath with Dickens, Woodward declares her preference for television based on freedom. "We can do smaller, more personal dramatizations because producers won't give you $25 or $100 million, whatever it takes to make a movie, to do a little story."
Television also affords writers the opportunity to develop characters over time. There is space for growth and change which doesn't exist in feature films or, McGrath argues, in today's novels.
"I love what I do," says Lydia. "I'm working with wonderful people, with good friends, whom I trust, whose opinions I trust. It's also incredibly fun to be on a show that is doing this well."
And on Thursday nights Lydia Woodward settles in at home to watch ER. "Even though a tape of the finished show is delivered to my office Wednesday morning, there's just something about seeing the broadcast." Millions of Americans agree.