There are more crazed supervillains, vicious mobsters and larger-than-life psychopaths running amuck in Port Charles, New York than in Gotham City these days on General Hospital. In Part 1 of my in depth interview with Ron Carlivati, the ABC Daytime soap's head writer reveals why he likes peaking into the darkness of the human spirit, in hopes of finding humanity where most believe there is none.
Carlivati also takes me through his thought process in regards to having mob boss Sonny Corinthos (Maurice Benard) murder AJ Quartermaine (Sean Kanan), ultimately leading to Michael (Chad Duell) the son both men fought over for a decade and a half, turning on the father who raised him.
Daytime Confidential: You've pulled off something I never thought I'd see on this soap opera. Michael Corinthos Quartermaine pointed a gun at Sonny , the father who raised him, because Sonny killed his biological father, AJ Quartermaine. Later, Michael totally renounced the House of Corinthos. Was that fun to write?
Ron Carlivati: Yes. It was fun to write and it was something that I knew would be fun to write way back when I pitched to the network, "What if Sonny killed AJ?" In other words, "What if Michael's one father killed his other father?" Imagining being able to see this down the line, of what the payoff could be and what it could amount to. Of course, it's a big decision to kill any character, even though we were killing AJ for the second time. We just felt the story that came out of it would be so big that it would be worth it in the end.
DC: A lot of the same fans who were pissed about AJ being killed off have been waiting for Michael to turn his back on Sonny for almost two decades now. Do you think this has been kind of bittersweet for those fans?
RC: Well, you know, it's drama! People want to see drama! The most dramatic stories often come out of doing something pretty drastic, or pretty dramatic. It's the old thing, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. We had to break some eggs. You know, it's a balancing act and it's always a gamble. I am happy with the reward that we're having right now, because people seem to be really loving the story, and it's because it has very high stakes. It's a relationship that people [Pauses]... a lot of time and effort has gone into building the relationship between Michael and Sonny, by people before my time. That relationship is obviously, for a lot of people, sacrosanct. I think people thought we wouldn't touch that relationship. That, again, is what makes it so satisfying and so rewarding. If you're dismantling a relationship people don't care about, it doesn't have the same impact. This is like, "Oh my God! Sonny killed AJ? What is Michael going to do?"
DC: Franco (Roger Howarth) was the mastermind. He revealed all at his botched wedding to Carly (Laura Wright). Every person I can think of who watches GH, myself included, hates Franco. We hate Franco! We hated Franco even back when James Franco played the character. But for the very first time in the history of this character, he feels really succinct, fun and together. I can totally visualize a Francophrenic future with fellow nut job Nina Clay (Michelle Stafford). Is that where you're going?
RC: There's definitely a relationship there that we've been building since they first met. It seemed like, "Okay, we've got this crazy woman and a character that came on as crazy, that we tried to have walk the straight and narrow, with arguable success." Then it became, "Let's let Roger do what Roger does best." While I have faith in him that he can make us care about Franco, which I think that he's done, I was like, "Okay, what if he goes back to playing the Franco that first came on the screen — the evil Franco, the crazy Franco? What if we took those gloves off?" And so we did. Now you're right to say there's definitely some potential there between Franco and Nina, because now you've got the two nut jobs on the canvas who seem to be fond of one another.
DC: Let's talk about Nina.
RC: Let's! [Laughs]
DC: Yes, let's talk about Nina [Laughs], because I felt like she was more a manipulative vixen coming out of the coma. Now we're seeing she is really in the throes of psychosis. Silas (Michael Easton) even said in dialogue to Kiki (Kristen Alderson) that he knows she won't hurt Ava's (Maura West) baby, because she's still grieving for their child. You're not a writer that I ask questions about writing people in and out of corners and things like that, because you will have the crazy nut job end up being the chief of staff...
DC: But can you tease anything about how Nina will find any type of redemption, or is that even your plan for her?
RC: Well...look, I mean, sometimes when you start going down the road of "redemption", sometimes what you do is take the teeth out of a character. Which is maybe what happened a little bit with Franco. When I pitched with Frank [Valentini, executive producer] what we thought Nina would be to Michelle, and what she liked about it, was this woman who came on as this fragile, little flower, but that there was this steely person underneath. Clearly, as you said, we've sent her totally over the edge at this point. You can always bring on another character that everybody is gonna love, and that's everybody's friend. I always think it's interesting to say, "Can you bring on somebody that's evil, or crazy, or that will stir things up but have longevity?" It seems like on soaps what you have to do often times, when characters are around long enough, is...sometimes those edges have gotta get honed down a little bit for them to kind of walk around town and live in everyday society. So when you want someone to come in and do something really crazy, and really stir things up, you've got to bring in somebody completely devoid of conscience, completely evil, completely crazy to do the crazy things that stirs up everybody's lives and then you can write them off. I was thinking, "Could Nina possibly be that, but just stay around, rather than having to bring in a Heather or a Faison?" Why can't she be like...what was her name? Sheila?
DC: Yes! Sheila from The Young and the Restless!
RC: Or that woman from The Guiding Light, Annie? Sort of a nut job that still continues to be able to function in society for whatever reason. Not to say we would never redeem her, or never sort of get to the source of what's going on with Nina, but that might be a little bit down the road. Isn't it fun to just have a looney toon running around town who can wreak havoc on the rest of the characters?
DC: The look of terror in Donna Mills' eyes in those scenes where Nina was about to attack Madeline was priceless. She looked so afraid, and rightfully so, since Nina attacked her with a lamp! I was screaming at the TV, "Run girl! Get out of there! Why are you just standing there?"
RC: I think what's interesting about Madeline is a.) she thinks she can control any situation. b.) I think she truly loves this daughter of hers, despite the actions she's taken. Clearly she's motivated by the money, that's what's driven her to do this. But, as you said, she could have turned and ran. There's still this element that this is your child. So even when they're picking up that lamp, you don't always do the smart thing.
DC: Liesl (Kathleen Gati), of all people, has risen up to become the voice of reason in the Westbourne family. How did that happen?
RC: That's so funny to me. When she was reading Sonny the riot act at the emergency room...
DC: Yes! [Laughs]
RC: I was thinking, "Isn't this the woman who was wandering around the Floating Rib trying to kill Duke Lavery?" [Laughs]
RC: It's funny. Even in real life, people don't always see [Pauses]... it's easier to kind of point out the defects and flaws of somebody else's personality, somebody else's character, than in your own. I think people are always able to sort of justify their own actions in some way, but it is pretty funny to see Dr. Obrecht sort of judging Madeline and Nina's plans, or what Sonny's doing when we all know what she's capable of.
DC: Over at the Quartermaine house, you're back to writing those fun, old school Q living room scenes. Are we going to see more of that with this family?
RC: I love to be able to do that. Again, it's been a challenge. When I came in there were not that many Quartermaines left. Now we have Ned (Wally Kurth) back and Tracy's ex-husband is back on the canvas. There might some other people hanging around that house in the near future. I always thought it was really fun when the Quartermaines were at their bickering heights. Again, sadly for me and for the fans and for everybody associated with General Hospital, we don't have Edward. We don't have Lila. We don't have Alan. So it's something I love to do whenever we can. Hugo Napier, who plays Larry, everyone knows him as an experienced soap actor, but he's a businessman who has his own company. So we have to call him up and be like, "Do you mind taking off of work and coming over here?" [Laughs] I find him to be pretty hilarious. You're going to see a different side of Larry. This little Dudley Moore thing he has going on may be just an act.
DC: Sonny Corinthos is one of my all-time favorite soap characters. But if I log on to my site's message board, or any other soap site, the words "misogynist", "woman-hater" and the like are being bandied about ad nauseum about the character. You took things a step further by having him pull a gun on a woman who had just given birth to either his child or grandchild! When you thought this up, was there a moment of hesitation, or did you just go balls to the walls?
RC: Well, I just feel like [Pauses]...of course you're going to feel sorry for a woman that's helpless and had just gone through what Ava went through, but I think it's so funny that, when we feel for a character, our memories can be short. Here's a woman who ruthlessly, executed Connie in cold blood. And so, I don't really blame Sonny for wanting revenge, for wanting to pay her back. I think in that moment [When Ava killed Connie], it's like, "Oh my God! Kill Ava!" And then when you see poor Ava being injected with drugs and her baby being stolen by Nina, all of the sudden you're feeling sorry for her. For one thing, Sonny didn't witness what she went through. Secondly, I also think Sonny is very single-minded in that way. "I made a decision. She's gotta die for what she did." He's sticking to that. To me, that makes sense within the context of Sonny. You could say, "Well, what about what he did to AJ?" I would say, Sonny was ready to take his medicine. It was, "Michael, I understand. If that's what you need to do. If you need to shoot me, that's what you need to do." He didn't try to talk his way out of it. He owned what he did.
DC: There are no clear cut archetypes in this story. There's no "hero". You kind of threw out the rule book on protagonist vs. antagonist. It's more like a chain reaction, from Ava murdering Connie and framing AJ, to Sonny buying into it and killing AJ, to Sonny sleeping with Morgan's woman in the Quartermaine crypt...None of these people are blameless. They aren't the soap opera heroes and heroines of old. You've just kind of embraced writing really flawed, screwed up characters.
RC: Yeah, I think because they are often the most interesting. That said, I think you need your heroes and you need your heroines. I think we still have that. We have Dante (Dominic Zamprogna), who is much more black and white as a character. We have Nathan (Ryan Paevey), who is pretty much a textbook good guy. Liz (Rebecca Herbst) is a heroine. Maxie (Kirsten Storms) makes mistakes, but she's a heroine. We still have those characters, but I agree with you in that I definitely want to find moments where you root for Ava, where you're rooting for Obrecht and Nina and Franco, where you're rooting for these people who do horrible things. I'm always fascinated by that moment of humanity in a person who seems to be a "bad" person.
For more from Ron Carlivati on the heroes and heroines of Port Charles, Julian/Alexis/Ned/Olivia, Lucy/Duke/Anna, Billy Miller's arrival and what's in store for Fluke, read Part 2 of my interview with him later in the week!