Interview: Ellis Weiner

Here, Writer / Humorist Ellis Weiner shares some of his insight and thoughts about writing for SHINNG TIME STATION.
~ Email correspondence with N. Middleton, July 2012

How did you become involved with Shining Time Station?
Rick Siggelkow contacted me. I had written several Reading Rainbows and had been Story Editor of Ramona. I eventually went on to co-create, and be head writer of, The Puzzle Place, but I don't remember whether that was before, during, or after my Shining Time experience.

What episodes did you write?
I don't remember titles, but I wrote something like nine of the first season and maybe seven of the next.

Did you have any knowledge of railroads prior to writing for the show?
Not really.

What was your favorite episode to write?
Forget it. Who remembers? Anything with Schemer, who was my favorite character.

Why was Schemer your favorite character?
Because he was oblivious of his ridiculousness, in trying to lord his superior intelligence over a bunch of children, and then turn out to be wrong most of the time. It also allowed us to make the adult actor (Brian) the comedian, and let the kids be straight men, which is much better than having the kids try to be funny.

Did you have the pleasure of meeting Brian O'Connor?
Yes, and he was fun to work with.

Did you work closely with Britt Allcroft and Rick Siggelkow?
With Rick, yes, and it was a pleasure. I only met Britt occasionally (although that, too, was a pleasure).

You were involved with the show during the time of George Carlin's portrayal of Mr. Conductor. Was he a pleasure to work with?
I never actually met him. I only met Ringo at a screening, once, and then at the wrap party.

Any interesting antecdotes about the show you would like to share?
Only that it was fun to watch my then-3-year-odl son dancing with Ringo at the wrap party.

When writing for the Jukebox Puppet Band, did you have to work with the Flexitoon crew to develop storylines and songs that they would be able to perform?
All the story outlines, the Thomas episodes, the Flexitoon segments, etc., were handed to me by Rick Siggelkow. All I had to do was write the dialogue. I never met the puppeteers, I don't think.

You wrote the episode Scare Dares. Being the first episode of the second season, did you have any hand in creating the new characters of Kara, Dan, Becky, and Billy Twofeathers?
I don't remember the episode, but everything was worked out by Rick (and probably Britt) before I ever heard about a given episode.

Was it difficult to come up with smooth transitions into the Thomas stories?
Not really.

When writing an episode, were you given a theme to write around and the Thomas stories were fit in afterwards? Or were you given the Thomas stories and had to work around them?
The Thomas stories were chosen by RS (Rick Siggelkow) as he (and Britt?) developed the Station stories.

On average, how many drafts would you go through before arriving at the final product we see on the screen?
Probably every show was written in two drafts and a polish (during which the plot and the characters could not be significantly changed).
The show was a Writers Guild show, so the standard contract called for those phases. Again, because Rick and Britt gave us the stories and the outline, it was an easier show to work on than most. It may be (now that I think of it) that they did this in service to the Thomas stories. Only they knew all the Thomas stories, and it would have been a nightmare for the writers to have to watch and learn all of them, and THEN pitch ideas for Station stories to incorporate a given pair of Thomases.

Did all of the writers work as team or was each one assigned their own stories at the beginning of a season?
We all met at a "retreat" before season 2 (I think) started, to confer about general ideas. But during the writing I'm pretty sure everyone worked separately. At home--there was no production office where we could all show up and have table discussions or anything.

I have noticed that Mr. Conductor was less present in the first season than he was in subsequent seasons. Was there ever a time when you had too many human moments and not enough Mr. Conductor moments? Or vice-versa?
I don't know. No one ever said that to me, although Rick and Britt may have concluded that after season 1.

Was it handy to have the Jukebox Puppet Band available as a group of reactors and commentators in the script?
Yes! And again, because they were voiced by adults, you could be sure the funny lines would be read properly.

For the Anything Tunnel and Magic Bubble sequences, were the writers told to put those in various episodes, or was that a writer's personal storytelling choice?
I think those, too, were determined by Rick and Britt.

You wrote all of the Schemer Presents segments. How did those short videos come about? Was it fun or a challenge to write them?
Rick just proposed the idea to me and asked if I wanted to do it, and I was ecstatic. It was complete fun, because the idea of Schemer presuming to teach anybody anything, and acting "professorial" and "expert," is inherently hilarious.

Were you invited to write any of the one-hour specials or Mr. Conductor's Thomas Tales?
No, and this is the first I've heard of them. I think...

Any closing remarks for fans of the show?
It was great fun, and I was amazed that I even, eventually, grew to love the Thomas episodes. When I watched my first one I wanted to kill myself. I'm glad I didn't. I got used to them.

We'd like to extend our many thanks to Ellis for answering our questions. A full listing of his Shining Time Station writing contributions are listed below:  

•  Pitching In and Helping Out
•  Agree to Disagree
•  Whistle While You Work
•  Two Old Hands
•  Just Wild About Harry's Workshop
•  Too Many Cooks
•  Mapping it Out
•  Scare Dares
•  Yabba, Yabba, Yabba
•  All's Fair
•  Fortune Teller Schemer
•  Schemer's Special Club
•  The Joke's on Schemer
•  The Mayor Runs for Re-election

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