SurrealEstate Creator George R. Olson Talks World-Building, Characters, and More [Exclusive]
SurrealEstate has become a fun watch this summer, and a surprisingly nuanced one, at that. Yesterday, I jumped on the phone with series creator and showrunner George R. Olson to talk about the show. In the first part of our conversation, he shares the origin story for the series, getting his very first show on its feet during a pandemic, and the importance of unique characters in the midst of a paranormal procedural.
A career ad man, Olson has been writing screenplays for years and entering them in competitions, which netted him industry contacts and a manager, which helped him circulate the pilot script for SurrealEstate. The spark of that idea came via a client from his day job.
“I was a partner in one of the larger advertising agencies in Colorado and we did a fair amount of real estate work. We worked with several commercial, industrial, and residential real estate [firms] helping with their branding. And in the course of doing that, I was talking to one of their brokers and he was telling me about this house that had just gone up on the market,” he shares.
“It was an older home, just beautiful, terrific grounds, terrific bones, a really terrific house. And it was priceless, right? The agent was confident that it would sell really quickly, but then the homeowner said, ‘Okay, there’s one thing that kind of worries me. Whoever buys the house is also going to be buying Sad Sally.'”
“He said, ‘Sally is the name my little girl gave to the woman in the old nightgown who sits at our kitchen table and cries about once a month.’ And the realtor told me, ‘I didn’t really know how to answer that. You say you’ve got radon gas. I know how to fix that. You say you’ve got a roof problem, a leaky roof. I know a guy. Who do I call for this?'”
“And that planted a seed where I thought, ‘That’s kind of an interesting thing.’ And what I liked about it was that in and of itself residential real estate seems kind of superficial. People and houses are going to find each other. People have to have a place to live, so that transaction’s going to happen. It’s like somebody found a way to step in the middle and monetize that.”
“So to combine that kind of business model with some of the more spiritual and ethereal and emotional things that go with haunted houses just seems like a really interesting mix up. So I tossed it around for a while and it just stayed with me and I had to sit down and write it.”
“This felt like something that really had some legs because your only limitations are the number of houses and properties. [For each of those], there are hauntings with entities and demons and everything that you could think of.”
Once the idea for the hook took hold, Olson started to consider who his agents trafficking in that world would be. “The characters are where it all starts for me. Who would such a real estate specialty need? They’d need the sales people. Obviously they would need somebody who does research and they need somebody to design technology to mitigate whatever they find. And they need somebody in the office to give it at least the appearance of being organized. And so that really led to the characters [of the Roman Agency],” he explains.
“I love characters. I love dialogue and that’s what’s really fun for me. I always got the feedback on [my feature] screenplays that they were kind of talky and nobody says, ‘Your TV pilot is talking too much.’ Instead they [say], ‘What wonderful dialogue and wonderful characters.’ So, for me, it just felt like this is where I belong. This is my wheelhouse. And I’ve really focused on television ever since.”
“I just put my head down and read a bunch of screenplays, a zillion pilots, and started writing and had a fair amount of success in selling a couple of pitches and selling a couple of specs. But this is the first project that has come to the screen and it’s a huge, huge thrill.”
Once the show was greenlit, Olson had to staff and run a writers room for the first time–and do it remotely. And he credits his team for working so seamlessly in extraordinary circumstances. “First of all, I just felt so fortunate that it was going forward at all [in a pandemic]. It was like, ‘Okay, we’ll figure this out,'” he recalls.
“It was probably a little bit of an advantage that I had not worked in a writers room before. [To find the writers], I read through tons of scripts. And you grab the ones that have a voice that feels [right]. And you do a lot of Zoom calls and a lot of just checking in and talking. We knew we were going to have a small room and it was all Canadian writers.”
“I have been just delighted at how good and professional and experienced the writers, the crew, and particularly the actors have been. I’ve just been so fortunate. I was in Los Angeles at the time with the pandemic and they were all in Toronto, so we started our writers room every morning at nine o’clock their time, which was six am for me.”
“I happened to be a morning person, so that was fine with me. It was just a really good experience. We were able to really get into a nice rhythm, as far as how we used Zoom and broke different episodes and planned things out and worked back and forth. And then when I shipped off to Newfoundland in July, your computer screen looks the same there as it does in Hollywood, so there was very little or no interruption in how things were working.”
One of the things the show does very well is balance the comedy with horror and heart, and Olson said that’s probably what kept it in development for a long time, but it was key to what he wanted the show to be, and he just had to wait that out. Rooting the show in reality also helps.
“I think it didn’t get set up before because people read it, and they love the log line because it’s a fairly easy elevator pitch, but then they read the pilot and the concept is certainly horror-based and genre, but it’s funny, too, then it gets really emotional and [I repeatedly heard], ‘We’re really struggling with that tone,’” he points out.
“[And I’d tell them], ‘It’s kind of like life in that way. One minute, it’s really kind of funny, and the next minute your heart breaks, and then the next minute something scares the shit out of you. Life is a melange of those kinds of things.’”
“So when we got into the writers room and talked a lot about some of the things that we really needed to accomplish. I told everybody on the very first day, ‘I want this to feel like a smart show. I don’t want it to be a bunch of dumb people running from ghosts. We’ve seen that and it’s not that fun. First and foremost, it has to be a show about real estate.’”
“The best example of that is in the pilot where Luke and Megan are going downstairs to confront the demon dog and Megan is saying, ‘I’m so tired of this. I am either going to hire somebody to torch it, burn it down, send it back to hell, or I’m going to lower the price.’ And Luke [is shocked], ‘Lower the price?!’”
“That’s a realtor kind of thing and everybody always needs to be focused on that. We are trying to sell this house. This is not The Ghost Whisperer where we’re just trying to help poor souls move on. That is something that we [also] do because Luke is a good, decent person and compassionate and feels an affinity towards these entities and wants to help them move on.”
“But that is not the end goal. That is the means to an end, which is someone to sign on the line which is dotted, and sell the house. So that kind of paradox attracted me to the project and to the idea in the first place. These are not ghost chasers and ghost hunters. Anytime somebody asks Luke in the show, who are you, some kind of ghost hunter? He says, ‘No, I’m a real estate guy.’ That was our North star.”
“We went through the casting and we attracted wonderful actors [so we wanted] to give them moments, stories, and speeches. We said, ‘Let’s give them resonance and backstory and depth so that we’re not just watching people running around chasing ghosts. And all of our writers just grabbed onto that and carried the ball beautifully.”
“From day one, Syfy has said, “Lean in to the characters. Have fun. Tell us more.’ That was such a comfort and such a challenge. The network wanted a show that had these rich, deep, diverse, wonderful characters. And they never wavered from that the whole time. [During] the writing and the notes process, we really felt like we were all on the same page. And that was enormously comforting.”
Photos courtesy of Syfy and George R. Olson.
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