INTERVIEW: Writers Charles Pratt Jr. and Tracey Thomson dish on The Secrets of Sulphur Springs and the ups and downs of their soap careers

Posted Tuesday, January 19, 2021 8:18:26 AM

Former daytime writers Charles Pratt Jr. and Tracey Thomson open up about the soapy elements of their new Disney mystery series, The Secrets of Sulphur Springs, plus they reveal their favorite soap opera storylines -- and what they would have done differently during their time writing for shows like General Hospital, The Young and the Restless, and All My Children.

People don't generally think of juicy soap opera storylines when they think of Disney Channel, but the executives at The Walt Disney Company wanted to change that. In an effort to provide serialized content that the whole family can enjoy, the network turned to acclaimed soap opera writers Charles Pratt Jr. and Tracey Thomson -- who have nearly 50 years of soap opera writing experience between them -- to pen a mystery drama series (somewhat like Stranger Things) that incorporated story elements that both kids and adults could love. The result: The Secrets of Sulphur Springs, a time-travel mystery drama created by Thomson and executive produced by both Thomson and Pratt Jr.

As Soap Central previously reported, The Secrets of Sulphur Springs follows Preston Oliver as twelve-year-old Griffin Campbell, whose family has just uprooted their lives to move to a new town and take ownership of an abandoned hotel in hopes of restoring it back to the lively vacation destination it once was. Not long after Griffin begins his first day at a new school, he learns that the hotel he's just moved into is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a girl who disappeared decades ago. Along the way, Griffin befriends Harper (Kyliegh Curran), a bright-eyed, mystery-obsessed classmate. Together, they uncover a secret portal that allows them to travel back in time, where they'll uncover that the key to solving the mystery may lie within Griffin's own family.

The premise of The Secrets of Sulphur Springs is certainly soapy, but what convinced Thomson and Pratt Jr. to completely change direction from working on adult daytime shows to working on children's programming? Is writing for kids a lot different than writing for adults like General Hospital's Tony Geary (ex-Luke Spencer) and The Young and the Restless' Eric Braeden (Victor Newman)? Soap Central spoke with Thomson and Pratt Jr. to find out, plus we asked them both about their opinions on All My Children's primetime revival and (gasp!) if there is anything that they would change about their work in daytime.

Just to recap, Chuck Pratt Jr. is known for his various roles within the soap opera genre, including head writer of General Hospital, head writer of Santa Barbara, a critically panned stint as head writer of The Young and the Restless, and a not-so-popular run as head writer of All My Children. He's also responsible for co-creating the daytime drama Sunset Beach, creating and running ABC Family's The Lying Game, and serving as showrunner for Lee Daniels' music drama series, Star, as well as the ABC Family series Twisted.

Thomson is a former writer for The Young and the Restless, All My Children, and General Hospital. She shared head-writing duties with Pratt Jr., who originally hired her to be a script writer on AMC.

Soap Central: Congratulations on the premiere of your new Disney Channel series, The Secrets of Sulphur Springs. You guys must be so excited!

Tracey Thomson: Thank you!

Charles Pratt: Thank you. We are!

Soap Central: You both have extensive experience in the soap opera world, so how and why did you decide to switch direction and get into family and children's programming, instead?

Thomson: Well, Disney actually approached me. They were interested in doing serialized storytelling and seeing if it would fit with their audience. I had never written anything for kids before, but ultimately, storytelling is storytelling and Chuck and I pretty much have the same approach that we do in soaps that we do in this show -- good mystery, great cliffhangers, keep people guessing. Those are all hallmarks of good soap stories.

Pratt Jr.: When Disney Channel approached me, my first thought was that forty years ago, my first credit was writing an after school special for CBS Afternoon Playhouse. It was a kids show, and after that, it was soaps, Melrose Place, stuff like that -- obviously more adult, serialized storytelling. But knowing Tracey, she called up and said, "We need a showrunner. You wanna get the band back together?" I said, "Sure!" I talked to the Disney people, and they looked at me like I was some kind of foreign being [laughs], but I put them to rest and said, "The principles of serialized storytelling -- all those shows I just mentioned, plus the soaps -- are basically the same." And to do it for kids, Tracey had come up with characters and situations that were just ripe for secrets and lies. And the parents, it was kind of essential for me that the parents have a bit of a story arc and be attached to the central mystery, which was completely tied in when we went forward. That was probably the easiest thing for us and the most difficult thing for Disney Channel to relate to, but they totally believed in us, and they loved the results. And we have a show that I think all of us -- the studio side, the network side, and our side -- are very proud of. It's a little gem. It may be my last credit, and I thought, "Well, this is a good one to have." We also just had a great deal of fun doing it, which is so important.

Soap Central: What is it like to write for and work with kids as compared to the adults you've worked with on soaps?

Thomson: Hours-wise it's probably more difficult because they're in school. But I would say these kids in our cast are so amazing. They came to work every day prepared, and they would nail their performances. As far as writing for them, it's like writing any other character. It's fun because you get to do a lot of humor, but also, their characters grow throughout the season, and I approached it like I would write any other character.

Pratt Jr.: Me, too. To get their voices, we brought in Lee Fleming, who is a comedy [writer] and writes teen voices and stuff. And we just wrote them the way we wrote those characters, the way we did on The Lying Game and other shows. It was really easy to do and it was kind of amazing how [the kids] picked up on things that you don't always see on so-called "kids shows," which is subtext. They were able to play complicated things that some adults have problems with -- subtext, learning to react instead of act, listening to the other characters. So, we were able to create relationships and friendships at the kid level that reminded us of our own youth but also movies like Stand By Me, incredibly emotional dramas that also have humor and mystery, like The Goonies and others like that. That kind of voice is very adult, and like in Stranger Things, the kids are always much more adult sounding than half the teenagers and parents, which I've always loved. The innocence of children is sometimes more fun to write than the crazy, mixed up, imperfect, neurotic adults that I've been writing forever. It's refreshing, because kids are honest and kids really pick up on everything. They pick up everything the other kids are saying. It was wild on the set to listen to their theories about the story. It was interesting because [it's something] adult actors rarely do, you know?

Soap Central: Really?

Pratt Jr.: You have to have cocktails with them and discuss their character, and it's always about their character -- not about the story. But with the kids, their imaginations are [so great]. At some point, it gets stomped down as they get older, but when they're young -- ten, eleven, twelve, and our age group -- they are wildly creative. I remember one compliment when we were on the set. Preston, who plays Griffin, came up and said, "Hey, you know, I just read the next couple scripts. You guys are doing a really good job." I said, "Well, thank you!" And he said, "Keep it up!" [Laughs] I was like, "Okay, Preston. Just go out there and say your lines." [Laughs]

Soap Central: Would you say that this show is something that adults would like to watch, as well?

Thomson: Definitely. We have an adult storyline in there as well, and we're hoping that parents will watch this with their kids. And even if you don't have kids, we welcome you to watch! The mystery itself is something that we think everyone will enjoy, and hopefully we keep you guessing throughout the entire season.

Soap Central: As you both have a connection to All My Children, I'd love to get your opinion on the news that it's getting a primetime revival. How do you feel about that?

Thomson: I think it's really exciting! I know how devastated everyone was when All My Children went off and One Life to Live went off, and I think it's great that they're bringing it back, because I know the fans loved it.

Pratt Jr.: Yeah, I think it's fantastic. I think it'll be a huge hit, whatever world it lives in. I know I'll watch!

Soap Central: You've both had the fortune of writing for some of the most beloved soap opera characters during your careers. Are there any daytime characters that you particularly loved writing for?

Thomson: Oh my gosh, so many!

Pratt Jr.: Oh, that's easy! I wonder if we're going to say the same person? I'll go first and then we can compare notes.

Thomson: Ok -- I don't think we're going to say the same person! But go ahead.

Pratt Jr.: I'm going to say Tony Geary [ex-Luke Spencer, General Hospital]. But close behind is Lane Davies [ex-Mason Capwell] from Santa Barbara.

Soap Central: Charles, what did you love about writing for their characters?

Pratt Jr.: Tony so lived his character and knew his character so that the writers, in my case, I was writing dialogue for GH at the time, I fed off of what he did as an actor. So, I wrote it in his voice, and at that point, I really learned about writing the voice of different characters, how they all have to have a different voice. And the best way to do it is to have it in your head so you hear it. So, when you write it, you're hearing him say it. And with Lane, with his Shakespearian delivery, and Tony, with his totally insane delivery, it was fun just trying to capture that. And they were both lovely -- and still are -- lovely, lovely gentlemen and a blast to work with in my younger years.

Thomson: Yeah, writing for iconic characters is amazing. When you grow up watching a soap and then you actually get to write for them, it's incredible. But I think I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Max [Derk Cheetwood] and Diane [Carolyn Hennesy] on GH. Carolyn Hennesy is hilarious -- anything that you put in her mouth. And I think that was probably because when I first got my start on GH, I would write added scenes before I became a full-fledged writer, and usually it was Max and Diane scenes. They were so much fun, and I loved writing for her. She's probably always going to be one of my favorites to write for.

Pratt Jr.: Tracey, you thought I was going to say Nancy Lee Grahn [Alexis Davis, GH], didn't you! [Laughs] This conversation could go on for hours.

Thomson: Yes it could, because there are so many different shows and so many great characters.

Soap Central: I have a two-part question for you guys: Is there anything that you would change about the work that you did during your daytime runs? And also, what are you most proud of during your run in daytime?

Pratt Jr.: What was the first one again? It made me uncomfortable! [Laughs]

Thomson: If you would change anything! I'm trying to think. You tell so many stories in the course of just three months versus a year, or ten years, or fifteen years, or in some cases, thirty years -- or forty years! Did I short you, Chuck? [Laughs] There are so many that are memorable, and I'm trying to think...

Pratt Jr.: I think on Melrose Place, if we had it to do over, I don't think we would have performed brain surgery in an elevator -- which I know was also done on General Hospital -- because it kind of jumped the shark there with Kimberly [Marcia Cross]. In daytime, I know some people would just love to say certain things, but I don't regret anything. I usually left on my own terms and was thrilled to go on to whatever next thing I was going on to. Other people made decisions that I regret! [Laughs] Like, I don't think that moving All My Children to Los Angeles was a very good idea, but it wasn't my idea.

Thomson: I'm trying to think. In daytime, you always wish you had more time -- more time on a script, more time to block story -- because you are moving at a breakneck pace. That's been the beauty of doing The Secrets of Sulphur Springs; we had the time to go over scripts, and this has been a long process of getting it on the air -- three years. In daytime, you're moving so quickly, you always wish that you had a little more time to go back and perfect a scene or a storyline. But even the actors, they are so well trained that they can memorize hundreds of pages of dialogue and put it out of their minds and memorize more! It really is a well-oiled machine and such a great place to start as a writer, because you always do get another chance to write a script the next week. So, I would just say you always want more time.

Soap Central: Okay, the second part of the question is if there is a storyline that you are really proud of during your run in daytime? Something where you thought you were firing on all cylinders.

Pratt Jr.: As the head writer, I'm awfully proud of some of the stuff that I did with Maurice Benard [Sonny Corinthos, GH] and Steve Burton [Jason Morgan, GH]. There were a couple of stories, like on the yacht, when we brought back Brenda [Vanessa Marcil]. Brenda comes back, and we did the shooting on the church steps in the rain, and the ratings shot up, and it was really a great story of pretending you're dead. It was such a classic, classic story. And on Santa Barbara, there were a couple -- there was Cruz [A Martinez] on the mountaintop when he thought that Eden [Marcy Walker] was dead, and then just the long road back to each other. It's a story, I know [co-head writer Robert Guza Jr.] and I did it together on GH as well, but they're unique to daytime because you can take your time, and you can build and make that audience wait and wait and guess, and then give them some sort of completion when the two come together, and you have a big wedding and stuff. The problem with daytime is then you have to keep going! Now you have to think of something else, and on you go -- like their next divorce! [Laughs] But for me, those were big stories. But I should have said something from Y&R! Tracey, do something from Y&R that we did that was cool! Remember that plane crash?

Thomson: [Laughs] I mean, there were a ton of stories on Y&R. I'm just really proud of being able to write for these iconic characters. I was there when Luke and Laura [Genie Francis] got remarried, and anytime you got to write for Victor Newman was a thrill, Peter Bergman [Jack Abbott, Y&R], as well. If you were a fan of these shows, and then getting to write for these people, it's amazing.

The Secrets of Sulphur Springs made its Disney Channel debut on Friday, January 15. Check out a teaser trailer below and let us know what you think in the Comments section at the end of the article.

What do you think about our interview with Charles Pratt Jr. and Tracey Thomson? Will you be tuning into their new series, The Secrets of Sulphur Springs? Why or why not? We want to hear from you -- so drop your comments in the Comments section below, tweet about it on Twitter, share it on Facebook, or chat about it on our Message Boards.

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