Three years ago, Greg Ball and Steve Blackman were at a party, gathered in a circle of young lawyers, all of whom were at varying stages of inebriation and desperation. Miserable in their jobs, they began asking each other what they would do if they could change careers.
Ball and Blackman, as it turned out, discovered they had a shared interest in screenwriting. But unlike those who daydream of glamorous careers and do nothing about it, the duo decided to take the plunge.
Now, a scant 14 months after pitching their idea for a show about five law-school graduates starting out at a prestigious international law firm, the novice Edmonton screenwriting duo are writing and co-producing The Associates -- one of the most expensive television series ever made in Canada, premiering Tuesday on CTV.
"We've since learned it just doesn't happen this way," explains Blackman, looking comfortably unlawyerlike in a loose-fitting sweatshirt. "Now we realize we got a one-in-a-million shot. It's like winning the lottery."
No show-biz hyperbole, this.
"With only four hours of Canadian dramatic programming in our prime-time schedule and a lot of talented writers with the inside track to pitch to us, their chances were pretty slim," notes Rick Lewchuk, CTV's vice-president of program planning and promotion. "But it's all about story, and their idea was so good, we had to take a chance."
The startling success did not come without hard work. It started with a year of 12-hour days at their respective law offices, followed by six-hour night shifts writing screenplays at fast-food franchises that met the duo's criteria of (1) serving unlimited caffeine and (2) not throwing them out.
After a year of writing feature-length scripts, they turned to television. They didn't have to look far for the nucleus of their TV idea: While the small-screen canon groaned with programs about lawyers -- from Ally McBeal to Law & Order and The Practice -- they tended to depict established professionals with nothing for the great mass in the middle.
"This is a new perspective," says Ball. "It's about a group that was the cream of the crop in school, but discovers a huge gulf when they enter the real working world."
Facing their own gulf of inexperience, the pair scrounged every screenwriting text they could find, produced a series bible and wrote a pilot. Then they discovered the Banff International Television Festival in their own backyard, resolving "to go pitch our little hearts out."
Four days before the event, they learned that festival practice was to book meetings in advance, rather than rely on the casual contact more common at lawyers' conferences. Clattering away until 2 a.m., they fired off e-mails to the presidents of 150 entertainment firms, flaunting their screenwriting ignorance while hawking their series, free Scotch and free legal advice. By the next morning, they had 42 responses that ultimately led to 22 formal meetings at Banff.
"We'd never pitched before," confesses Blackman. "But we figured we were fast on our feet and could answer any questions." When their paid-for conference days ran out (they could only afford the first two), hotel staff ushered them out, refusing even their requests to check their mailboxes. Undaunted, the duo scheduled further meetings in a lounge outside the hotel's conference space.
"Some executives complimented our choice of meeting place," says Blackman. "Little did they know it was the only place we had."
Fearful of losing their seats and abetted by a sympathetic waiter, the pair spent nine hours in the same chairs, where they met with, among others, CTV development and production executive Virginia Rankin.
"What stood out was the authenticity of the voices," recalls Rankin. "It was a world described by people who had lived it, people who were in over their heads, make mistakes and learn on the job. They're the lawyers any of us could get when we call a law firm."
The series follows the adventures of five telegenic young people whose will to succeed clashes with their law-office ingenuousness: a spoiled, exiled Brit (Gabriel Hogan, Traders), a self-assured millionaire's daughter (Jennie Raymond, Pit Pony), a meticulous, humourless genius (Demore Barnes, Street Cents), an excitable Texan (Tamara Hickey, Dying to Dance) and a relatively affable wordsmith (Shaun Benson). Their battleground is a Toronto tower housing the posh penthouse offices of a global law firm, complete with parapet for convenient suicide leaps.
"I think people will be able to relate to the show, even if they're not lawyers," says Blackman. "Everyone remembers their first job, whether they were accounting or driving a bus. It's a rite of passage."
The series takes its inspiration from actual cases. "You could look up the case law after the show," suggests Blackman. His favourite episode features two of the associates suing Ontario Premier Mike Harris, only to discover that one of their bosses has spent months scrounging a seat at the premier's dinner. The notion of suing a premier at all was inspired by a real-life suit by aggrieved hospital patients against Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and his then-health minister in the wake of budget cuts in that province.
"We deal with a real mix of the serious and the absurd," says Ball. In the series pilot, titled Headfirst into Hell, the five associates show up for their first day of work to find a media barrage and RCMP officers arresting two senior partners for fraud. Later, an associate is drawn into a potential criminal matter when a client produces a human finger wrapped in a plastic bag. Other episodes involve defending a boss charged with public indecency, and the inevitable collisions between the associates' lofty ambitions and the harsh realities of their chosen vocation. And it's all captured in breathless detail by cameras that hustle as much as the associates have to.
Little expense has been spared to position the show for victory in the almighty court of public opinion. Produced for $1-million an episode, the series boasts a continuous 3,600-square-metre set comprising a complete law office, which cost $850,000 to build and another $200,000 to furnish in suitably lavish style. Blackman and Ball stood on the set with jaws dropped. "You ask for high-end and expect low," whistles Ball. "What we got was beyond our wildest dreams. It's surreal. We still can't believe someone sunk $18-million into something we dreamed up."
"We're not putting down Canadian television," says Blackman, "but this series has a very fresh look in terms of both shooting and production. And -- dare I say it -- it has a U.S. style, with a walk-and-talk, West Wing feel to it."
" The Associates is our top priority," confirms Lewchuk, noting its extensive promotion and favourable time slot on Tuesday nights.
Rankin, meanwhile, expresses confidence in the program's prospects: "We feel this one will be a real breakthrough."
"We're very proud, and excited at what more we can do," says Blackman, noting that he and Ball wrote four of the 13 episodes on top of being co-producers, and were involved in everything from casting and set design to consulting with directors and actors.
"We're no longer neophytes," adds Blackman. "Like the characters in our show, we have finished articling. We're ready to discover this thing in its extreme. The moral of this story is that anything really is possible with hard work, attitude and a really good idea. Let's just hope it's a hit."
Unfazed by their success, the duo is pursuing further projects through their own firm, Fire on the Mountain Productions, confident that more markets are open to them now. But will they return to practise law, even for a lark, à la best-selling author John Grisham?
"Never in a million years," declares Blackman. "There were days when I cashed in RRSPs and was ready to apply for bartending jobs. Life is too short not to be happy."
"Law was great," says Ball with a shrug, "but I want to do this now."
Blackman smiles at that notion. "We like writing about law," he says, stating the obvious, "much more than doing it." Geo F. Takach is the author of Law-de-da! -- Lampooning the Laws in our Lives, and a recovering lawyer himself.