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"24"/ 7 | Seattle-area TV writer always has Jack Bauer on his mind
Special to The Seattle Times
When Michael Loceff moved to Mercer Island in 2000 to start a distance learning company, it wasn't even off the ground before the dot-com bust destroyed it. However, he landed on his feet; later on that week he received an offer to work on the TV series "24."
"I hadn't even started looking for another job — go figure," said Loceff, 54, who divides his time between Mercer Island and Kitsap County with his wife, Kitty. He is the co-executive producer of "24," which earned him an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
The thriller series chronicles Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland, who won an Emmy for this role), an agent for the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit, thwarting a terrorist organization's latest scheme, amid many twists and turns. Already into its sixth season, "24" takes place over the course of one day. Each episode marks an hour of that day. Loceff's cousin Joel Surnow created "24," and he's the one who first "dragged" Loceff into writing 20 years ago. "It was not something I wanted to do; it was not something I trained to do," said Loceff. His background is in mathematics; he has taught computer classes online at California-based Foothill College for nearly 30 years.
Surnow called Loceff over the years to help on scripts — mostly because Loceff was a technophile and in those days people like him weren't as readily accessible as today.
"I would help write the techno-babble that went into some of the scenes [Surnow] was doing," he said. "Over time, that evolved into full blown collaboration in creative [non-techie] areas. Since I was never a writer by training, I had no ego about it — when he would tell me a piece of dialogue that I suggested stank (he used another word), I would laugh and simply ask, 'OK, what doesn't stink?' He would explain, and I'd make the adjustment. Even today, when we write, when one of us posits a line of dialogue, the other might say, 'Forget that,' or 'Are you kidding?' That was the most valuable lesson I learned about writing."
Surnow offered Loceff a job on the spy drama "La Femme Nikita" and gave him enough flexibility that he wouldn't have to quit teaching. However, when "24" went into pre-production in late 2000/early 2001, Loceff scaled back his teaching duties, fully immersing himself into the world of Jack Bauer.
This season occurs 20 months after last season, when Jack was taken prisoner by the Chinese. Not long after he's tracking down four nukes on American soil. However, Jack's not the same person he once was; he has suffered severe emotional and physical trauma at the hands of his captors.
"24," 9 p.m. Mondays on FOX. See past episodes at www.fox.com/24.
" '24' doesn't do flashbacks; it's based on real time and objective outside viewer reality. You never really know what's happening," explained Loceff. "We can assume Jack endured torture because he has so much information in the espionage theater and would do everything humanly possible to avoid giving it up. That means enduring horrific things to keep these secrets. We're playing with that state of mind."
In the first four seasons of "24," Loceff had more involvement with the story line, as well as penning many of the episodes.
"Lately, I've been more of a specialist: I write about four to six episodes per season with Joel and focus on additional scenes in other episodes that need them after editing reveals gaps. Another area in which I am regularly involved regards the writing of the relationships in CTU, particularly those that involve Chloe O'Brien [Mary Lynn Rajskub] and her colleagues [who vary from season to season]," said Loceff.
Chloe is his favorite character to write because she's the only one who can be written straight ahead or totally oddball; either way, it comes out naturally.
"Mary Lynn lets a writer get away with that. I know I like Chloe because she is honest like a child, but has the ability to look at herself like an adult," he explained. "She's too blunt for her own good, and she realizes it — but also knows she can't help herself. It's a harmless flaw."
Loceff writes scenes for characters in episodes where he isn't listed as the primary writer. His rewrites go uncredited.
"Usually there is at least one scene per episode during which the dialogue seems mystically familiar until I realize, 'Oh yeah, that was one of the add-on scenes that Joel and I wrote.' The most valuable aspect of TV writing is characters and relationships — that's what I learned to put all my money into."
According to Loceff, there are two kinds of writing — "heavy lifting" and "polish." The former consists of original scripts or major revisions. This has to be done in L.A. because "every flapping butterfly wing on one script causes a hurricane in someone else's script" The writers have to stay in close proximity of each other so they can hash out plot points or characters.
For polish, which consists mostly of short scene rewrites for production or minor plot/character adjustments, he can do the work on the phone or by computer from Seattle.
Writers and producers sometimes have to be physically present to edit or cast a show, especially when it's just getting off the ground.
"Thankfully," Loceff says, "that phase is behind me, at least on '24,' so I can spend more time in Seattle. I love writing in the Seattle area. For some reason I can remember what I write better when I'm doing it from here. Don't ask me why — I just do."
As for commuting from Seattle to California, which he does about twice a month, Loceff doesn't mind.
"I've learned to simply accept it over the years. Flying back and forth I meet people who, like me, commute from Seattle weekly or monthly. I was surprised at first, when I found out how many of us there were — folks not willing to move away from Seattle even though their work took them regularly to other cities," he said. "Although I have managed two full-time jobs and both are in different cities, I have managed to put down a few roots here. My wife has gotten us involved with the 'mushroom people' — the Puget Sound Micological Society — a great group of amateur micologists."
Loceff has lunch at least two days a week at Pike Place Market in Seattle.
"I go there as a respite by myself for lunch and a private walk. Even though it's about a 20-minute ride from my home office, I find it relaxing," he said. "It's my get-away-from-it-all in the middle of Seattle."
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