Does the phrase “RALLY J!” mean anything to you?
If that makes you want to throw on a pen necklace and start looking for clues, you probably grew up as a fan of the beloved PBS series Ghostwriter.
Debuting in October of 1992, the series revolved around a group of Brooklyn kids who discover a ghost in an old book. Only able to see letters and numbers, Ghostwriter, as the typographic specter was called, helped the diverse group of kids solve crimes ranging from copyright infringement to stolen grades, all using the power of literacy.
The iconic show was memorable not just for its supernatural premise, but also for its vivid New York settings, and the so-90s-it-hurts fashion of its characters. Sponsored by the Children’s Television Workshop, Ghostwriter ran for three seasons on PBS, presenting educational mysteries in four-episode serials, and cementing itself in the consciousness of an entire generation.
But where did it come from? To discover the true history of series, we contacted Miranda Barry, who acted as the supervising producer for all three seasons of the show’s original run, essentially helping create the series with executive producer, Liz Nealon. Barry now works as education and editorial director at a children’s ebook start-up, but she remembers the days of Ghostwriter vividly. (We tried to contact Nealon as well, with no response.) We learned all about the casting of Samuel L. Jackson in the pilot, the need for hand models on screen, and, of course, all about that Julia Stiles as a hacker episode.
ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE SERIES
When did you start working on the show, and what was your role?
I was there from the beginning. The show was produced by Children’s Television Workshop which is now called Sesame Workshop. It’s the same company that produced Sesame Street, and they had this idea to do a literacy show that would help kids 7-10 learn to read. They had a show called The Electric Company, that was for beginning readers. The idea was that kids would watch Sesame Street, and then when they got older, around first and second grade, they’d start watching Electric Company and that would help them learn to read. And Ghostwriter was intended for a [middle school audience] to help them learn to read better, and enjoy it more.
They had this idea that they wanted to do a show like that, but they didn’t really know what the show would be like. The first person who was hired was the executive producer whose name was Liz Nealon, and she had been a senior executive at MTV. She had been part of the startup team at MTV actually and had worked all over the world for MTV. She loved doing that, but she also had this idealistic, do-good side to her nature. At a certain point, she decided that MTV was super fun as a job, but as a career, she wanted to do something that was going to be a little more meaningful for kids. She knew everything about kid culture. Everything.
But she had never worked on anything that was a narrative. She wanted to hire a producer who had experience in narrative. So she hired me.
The educators were separate from the writing team, correct?
Yes, that’s right. One of the challenges in finding the original writing team was that we had decided to do this format that was going to be four, half-hour segments making up one big story. We thought the cliffhanger would keep kids coming back. Also, we could get more production value if we did four shows at a time.
Every four-episode story would be filmed back-to-back?
They wouldn’t even be back-to-back. They’d shoot all the scenes in Jamal’s bedroom for four episodes. So, we basically worked two weeks in the studio and one week on location. It was a three-week production schedule for each four half-hours.
The first season, I wound up hiring two head writers because we needed two different kinds of writing heads. We needed somebody who could really write rich characters that kids would identify with, and we also needed somebody who could do mystery plots that were very intricate. It’s actually kind of rare that the same writer does both those things. If you think about mystery books you’ve read, often the characters might be memorable because they’re weird, but they’re not necessarily people you want to see again and again.
We had Kermit Frazier, who was a wonderful playwright, and just had the biggest heart in the world, and really wrote wonderful characters. And Karen Greenberg Baker, who had written a lot of Nancy Drew mysteries. Karen had never written for television. Kermit had written some for television, but was primarily a playwright. They were the head writers for the first season, and then we discovered that it didn’t really work to have different freelance writers write each episode because the whole concept was so intricate, with all the curriculum and everything.
It was also really important to us to have a diverse writing team. If we had all these diverse characters we wanted to make sure that that we had writers that could write authentically, the voices of African-American kids and Latino kids. We had about five writers that worked under these two head writers. Then in the second season, we added a third head writer, and he was one who could do both plot and character. They all went on to very successful careers as television writers. Everything we did was very much a team effort.
ON THE BIRTH OF GHOSTWRITER
What happened was, Liz and I were working on different things, Liz was hiring designers and all that, and I was hiring writers. We got a team of writers together, and we had a weekend retreat. We brought the writing team together and some of the designers, to brainstorm what was this series going to be. Two really important, fundamental moments that shaped the series came about in that very weekend.
We knew we wanted to have text on the screen. That was kind of a given for the funding that had been gotten from the Department of Education. So the question was ‘Where does this text come from?’ So we came up with the idea of Ghostwriter. And Ghostwriter’s backstory and all of that, and why Ghostwriter wants to help these kids, and why literacy is so important to him.
So the development of the Ghostwriter concept was actually not about wanting to make a show about a ghost.
No. It was wanting to make a show about text.
That was one of the great things that came out of that. Probably the most important thing that came out of that first meeting.
Were there actually codified rules about what Ghostwriter could and could not do? Rules to his powers?
Oh yeah. He could see letters and numbers, and that’s all he could see. If you were the villain, and you were running down the street carrying the valuable object that’s been stolen, Ghostwriter could go and read the labels on your shoes, and your clothes, and say what size you wear. Or if you wear some exotic brand of shirt or something like that. Or if you had a New York Giants logo on your jacket. He could do those kinds of clues.
But he couldn’t say even if you were male or female, or how old you were, or anything else. He could travel through time, he could travel through space. He could go into a locked filing cabinet, and find a document and read what was there and get that information to the team. He wasn’t bound by any physical time or space constraints, but he was very limited in what he could actually see and do. So they were completely interdependent. The team was dependent on the information that Ghostwriter could supply, but Ghostwriter was dependent on the team to be his eyes and ears.
Behaviorally, was there anything that Ghostwriter would never do? Invade someone’s privacy in a certain way or something like that.
There were character points, like Ghostwriter was afraid of dogs. That that was one clue to Ghostwriter’s backstory. Anytime there was a dog in the story, he couldn’t go there.
It was never in the series, but it came out later that he was the ghost of a runaway slave, correct?
Exactly. He was teaching runaway slaves to read and write. They were caught by bounty hunters with dogs. He was killed by the bounty hunters, and his spirit went into the book he had been reading with the other escaped slaves.
Did you guys know his origin from the conception of the show, or was it developed later on?
It was part of it from the beginning. We thought that the audience would be really interested in this story, and so at some point we thought we would do an origin story. But we never actually did it because we discovered that kids loved the mystery so much. We got tons of mail from kids with guesses as to who Ghostwriter was and we didn’t want to prove anyone wrong, so we never revealed it.
ON THE CAST
Where did you where did you find child actors that you got? What was the casting process like?
We had a wonderful casting director. Pat [McCorkle]. She went to Boys and Girls Clubs and Boy Scouts and the Y. We knew that we really wanted diverse kids too. We didn’t want actor-y children. Those auditions were really something. I was there for all of them. Liz and I did the casting together, and you would see these children singing on Broadway, and those would be the children you would see. Particularly when we were casting Lenni, and we wanted an actor who could sing. They had these big Broadway belting voices and they would be all dressed up in these outfits and they would have mothers who were very pushy stage mothers. The whole nine yards. We really wanted children that would be believable. That would be like regular kids. So we kept sending Pat back to find more children.
At the time, some of our colleagues, like folks who worked at Disney, were very critical of Ghostwriter. They felt that some of the kids sounded like kids. They didn’t sound like actor kids. They felt it had a kind of nonprofessional feeling about it. But we know from our audiences, that children really responded to those kids. They were not cast for adults to win Emmys. They were cast for children to identify with, and feel like they were real.
How many kids do you think you went through during casting?
A couple hundred at least, I’m sure. There was the core Ghostwriter team, but there were also a number of other kids that we ended up using a lot, who were kids in the hallway at school. Sometimes he had kids who were extras, and then we’d need those same extras again and again, so that the school had some continuity. Then some of those extras wound up getting supporting roles in some of the stories.
Did the kids get along? What was what was their interaction like behind the scenes?
They were really like a family. When we were shooting on location we’d have this Winnebago that was with the wardrobe and hair department, and if you came up behind it there was a row of toothbrushes in the back window. The wardrobe and makeup people really became like second mothers to these children. They would come in at 6:30 or 7 o’clock in the morning and be there until 7 o’clock at night. Sheldon shaved for the first time on the set of Ghostwriter.
[Sheldon] had his prom date [to the set]. We had a really tight shooting schedule. He was the main character in the episode that we were shooting at that time, and we had to have him shoot on the day of his senior prom. Or maybe his junior prom. Anyway, his first prom. We had agreed to send a limousine to pick up his date. They came in a limousine to the set, so we could have Sheldon until the very last minute, before he got in the limousine and went off to his prom with his girlfriend at the time. We had a lot of life moments with those kids.
Their parents were also extraordinary. Particularly the mothers, who were really, just the opposite of those stage mothers. They were very concerned about their children’s welfare. Sometimes they would come to us and say, “You’re working the kids too hard. You’ve gotta back off.” So we’d try to adjust the schedule. That’s why we came up with this pattern. Each one of the four-part serials had one child that was kind of the main character, so that the kids would get a chance to rotate, so they weren’t in every scene of every show.
ON THE NEW YORK SETTING
The show was very prominently set in Fort Greene. When was that something that Liz decided?
That was actually an argument that we had right at the very first. […] We had a big discussion about, should it be a generic place or a real place. At one point we thought we would shoot in Philadelphia and call it New York. Because it was going to be cheaper. We got some offer of assistance from the city of Philadelphia, and I have to say that [choosing to film in New York] was me actually. I made a really strong argument that the more fantastical the story is, the more it needs to be grounded in a real place.
My argument was that they will feel like it could be them, as long as the place is really real and consistent. If you call it East Dogpatch, it still has to be somewhere! It still has to have houses and streets and so on. If I’m in Arizona, watching a show that’s set in New York, it isn’t really that different than watching a show that’s set in East Dogpatch. It’s just a place where the show is. It turned out to really be the right way to go. We got thousands of letters from children saying, ‘Can I be on the show? Because I can see Ghostwriter, you know.’ It was definitely touching.
It was filmed in New York City. The location was mostly Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Jamal’s house was in Fort Greene. We really took advantage of all those beautiful brownstones and the diversity of the neighborhood. When we were shooting that in the early 90s, it was not the gentrified place it is today.
Many locations [were located] around Myrtle Avenue, which was nicknamed ‘Murder Avenue.’ Also we were working with children, so we definitely wanted to wrap by dark every day. We also shot as much as we could in the summertime. Because the days are much longer, so you get more shooting time.
ON SAMUEL L. JACKSON’S ROLE IN THE PILOT
As a quick side note, Samuel L. Jackson was in the first episode (as Jamal’s dad). Did you realize at the time that he was going to be a big actor?
Absolutely! I had actually worked with him on my very first job in television. It was a TV movie of the week that was shot down in Georgia. I was an assistant to the producer, and he was in the cast of that show. We shot the pilot at Tribeca Studios actually. The rest of the series we shot out of a Studio at 116th Street and between Lexington and Third [Avenue]. Sam Jackson hadn’t done Pulp Fiction yet. That was what really made him a megastar and he had to resign from Ghostwriter. We shot the pilot first, and then we had to do more fundraising, and then we went back and shot the rest of the series. There was a year-long gap between the pilot and the rest of the episodes. In that year between the pilot and the rest of the episodes, Sam had to pass.
He’d done a lot of action movies and stuff and he had young children at the time, and he loved doing the part. He said it was so wonderful for him to do something that his children were allowed to watch.
ON THE FASHION, PEN NECKLACES, RALLY CALLS, AND BEAUTIFUL HANDWRITING
Many of the outfits on the show were pretty, pretty fabulous. Was that all the wardrobe department, or did the kids have some input into what they wanted to wear?
I think they had some input. When you’re working in a series like that you really get to know the actors, and what they’re good at, and what they’re not so good at, and you really start to write for the voices of those exact actors. And the same thing happened with the clothes. Lenni was always very forward-looking in her fashion sense. That was a big part of Liz’s contribution. The MTV influence. We definitely were fashion forward with our kids. We didn’t want them to look dopey.
Where did the concept of the pen necklaces come from?
That was a very typical result of the CTW process. We knew the educators wanted to be modeling the power of reading and writing all the time, and story-wise, we didn’t want our kids to not have a pen. Narratively that kind of spoils it if they have to do a rally and they don’t have a pen. But we also thought, maybe it would be a product. That kids would want to own a Ghostwriter pen.
Who came up with the concept of the ‘rally?’
That was the writers. We had to figure out how to get the kids together.
There were also a lot of cut aways to the most beautiful handwriting. Was that a Children’s Workshop mandate? Who was doing the writing?
You are right in saying that it was not the actors. First of all, we just couldn’t ask them to do it anyway, because they worked such long hours. It took us a while to figure that out, but then we hired some hand doubles that would do the handwriting. We’d have a chunk of handwriting [shots] at the end of the day, so the kids could do their homework. We’d shoot children writing with document cameras, because it had to be a child’s hand, and it had to be exactly perfect. It was sometimes not the most interesting thing to do.
It was partly for the curriculum obviously. We wanted children to actually see the words being written on screen. But it was also for storytelling. We really believed that it was critical that the audience knew everything that the cast knew. We did not do the old fashioned Perry-Mason-style mysteries, where at the end, the attorney explains how he figured it out. We wanted the kids [watching] to sometimes even be ahead of the cast, if they were paying attention.
We thought that that would make them want to keep track of the clues, and lots of kids did. I saw children at screenings grab a piece of paper, and start writing down the clues so that they could remember what all the clues were.
ON THE MYSTERIES AND VILLAINS
Was there ever any talk to introduce other supernatural elements? In the last episode of the third season, there was some sort of living doll…
Our writers were really clever. These were mysteries. There had to be some sort of crime at the center of the story,but you can’t do murder for children. So it has to be something short of murder, that would nevertheless be something that kids would care about solving. Some of our villains were pretty ridiculous. I remember the sci-fi episode that was based on a Trekkie conference.
The one with Daisy Fuentes as some kind of superhero?
Oh yeah! I think you’re right. It was kind of a convoluted story about making off with a model of a spaceship or whatever. The thing itself wasn’t really that interesting, but the characters were so over the top. Then there’s a story about one of our characters, I think it was Gaby actually, who was so enamored with this sci-fi series, that she took money from her mother’s wallet to rent a costume, for the conference. Then she had to confess that she had stolen this money, and face the consequences. We always had two parallel storylines, one was the mystery plot, and the other was a human story.
One of our best shows ever was when they had to go back in time and save the kid who lived in Jamal’s house 100 years earlier. Because Ghostwriter could travel in time. It told the story of how the book [that Ghostwriter originally sprang from] wound up in Jamal’s house. There was a kid who was unjustly accused of stealing silver from the family that lived in that house in 1890. He was a newsboy, he was a street kid. The kids in the present did research in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper to find the story of the child being accused of this crime, and work out who really did it. It was a really cool episode.
ON BRINGING GHOSTWRITER (BACK) TO LIFE
At the time, CGI wasn’t really being used a lot on television. How did you guys decide that Ghostwriter was going to be that punctuation-looking icon, and how did you go about bringing that to life?
The design of the Ghostwriter icon was a very important branding exercise. It was the kind of thing that Liz knew you needed to do, from her MTV experience. That’s a great example of the expertise that Liz brought to the project. We had to come up with something that was going to be really memorable that would work, and that you could put on products; that you could put on books; that you could immediately recognize as Ghostwriter without having to see the name. We had this brilliant producer, who is still at Sesame Workshop I think, her name was Jodi Nussbaum. She just took on the challenge of figuring out how to do these visual effects. Compositing live action and animation was really hard to do in those days. We started off with a thing called a toaster. It was one of the earliest digital animation tools.
Digital editing was relatively new at the time. It was still a lot of editing in sequence and all that. Every video tape had to be downloaded into the computer and it would take all night for a day’s worth of shooting. It was realtime. We were on the bleeding edge of the technology.
ON GHOSTWRITER’S MOST CONTROVERSIAL MOMENT
Did you guys ever run into any conflicts over content with either Children’s Workshop or PBS?
Not so much with PBS. In that last episode we did that had that slime monster, they were writing the scary story and the monster came to life, and Lenni is slimed to the walls of her loft. Everyone gets slimed to the walls of Lenni’s loft, except one character and I think it was Tina. She had discovered that it was heat that made the slime monster grow.
So the only way to defeat the slime monster was to make it cold. She opened up the freezer compartment of Lenni’s refrigerator and started throwing bags of frozen vegetables at the slime monster. We got a note from the research people that said it was too violent that we were throwing frozen vegetables at a monster. Ultimately, I think I was the one in that particular instance who said, ‘Over my dead body.’ We had an over-my-dead-body rule, which was that if anyone ever felt so strongly about something that they could not be convinced, they could say, ‘I want to play my over-my-dead-body-card.’ Unless it was something really illegal or something like that, the rest of us would go along with it. So, in that case, we were allowed to throw frozen vegetables at the monster. [Note: At least in the cut of the episode available on Youtube, the moment of violence was actually edited out.]
ON GHOSTWRITER’S END
Why did Ghostwriter end?
It was very expensive to make. We had a big grant from Nike in the first season, and their priorities changed, and they gave us less and less money each season. [There was] money from the Department of Education. We got a little money from the National Science Foundation in the last year, to make science-oriented shows. It’s just really, really hard to sustain a public broadcasting show. We did come up with a half-hour version, which CBS picked up.
The New Ghostwriter Mysteries? Were you involved in that as well?
I wasn’t involved in the production of that. I was a little bit involved in the conception of it. The idea to do a series that would be free standing half-hours. One of the issues was that these two-hour mysteries were very cumbersome.
ON JULIA STILES’ INFAMOUS MAX MOUSE HACKER SCENE
Are you familiar with the internet notoriety of that scene from the ‘Who Is Max Mouse?’ serial with Julia Stiles?
Which scene is that? No, I’m not.
The one where she dresses down Tina with a screed of ’90s techno buzzwords before hugging the computer.
I actually wrote that arc, so I remember it sort of well. And I remember reading Snow Crash, that was where I got a lot of the lingo. Neuromancer was the first one [I read] and Snow Crash was the second. Snow Crash had just come out at that time, and that was part of what gave us the idea for doing it.
Was it an attempt to try and increase computer literacy via the show?
No. We used computers all the time in the show. It wasn’t an explicit part of the curriculum, but we knew kids were into technology, and frankly the internet was a great way for Ghostwriter to travel. He could go from house to house. You asked before about Ghostwriter rules,and there was a sense that Ghostwriter had to have some way of traveling. He couldn’t just spontaneously appear, because it kind of wrecked the logic of the story. So having Ghostwriter traveling in the internet we just thought was really cool.
Jodi came up with this wonderful animation effect of traveling in cyberspace that I thought was beautiful. Also, it was the kind of crime that we thought kids would really be into. The idea that someone could go into a computer and change your grade. You could also really keep it from figuring out who the villain was for a long time.
I feel like it also gave the Ghostwriter a very tangible nemesis in a way that he didn’t have in other episodes.
That’s right, Max Mouse himself, or herself as it turned out, was an actual nemesis. That’s true, I forgot about that. That was a very important part of it. The battle between Ghostwriter and Max Mouse. That that was the other thing, we were looking for a show where we could put Ghostwriter in danger. We really thought that would be very compelling to the audience, and it was.
I actually am pretty impressed that we wrote a show about a hacker in like, ‘91. I was really into that sort of culture. The beginning of cyber crime. And as I said, because the special effects of the show were so bleeding edge in terms of technology, we were really very involved with technology all the time on Ghostwriter. Not because we were trying to teach about it, but because we were trying to do things that often had never been done before. Certainly not on a PBS budget.
Correction: In the introduction, the “Children’s Television Workshop” was previously referenced as the “Children’s Television Network.”