"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
In the last episode of the Fox series “Millennium,” we saw Frank Black and his 6-year-old daughter, Jordan, literally drive off into the sunset. They had survived their latest life-threatening ordeal and were escaping to a hopeful, though uncertain, future.
That future remains uncertain — because “Millennium” won’t return when the fall season starts this month. The TV series was canceled in May after three lackluster seasons.
But an unofficial fourth season of “Millennium” is well into its eighth episode on the Net. The virtual season on the Millennium Compendium fan site is currently “airing” the “Twilight Years” episode, in which Frank Black searches for a gruesome killer, and promises to premiere “Acolyte” on Friday. This virtual season represents the handiwork of 11 fans who are determined to keep the network failure alive, at least until the new year.
“Personally, I always considered the goal for ‘Millennium’ was to provide an epic introduction to the real millennium through the eyes of Frank Black,” says Dan Owen, a 20-year-old salesman at an office furniture company and self-styled executive producer of the “Millennium” virtual season. “So, we’re aiming to release the virtual season finale on Dec. 24, 1999. The virtual season seemed the best going-away present we could give the show’s memory — to make sure it reached 2000 in some form.”
Owen and Matt Asendorf, an 18-year-old college student and the virtual season’s other executive producer, plan to “produce” 22 episodes (including the eight already posted online), matching the usual requirements of a full network TV season. Their job is a bit easier than that of a real show’s producers, however, since the “Millennium” virtual season consists entirely of teleplay scripts; they have no plans to try to film the virtual season. The scripts are rich with detail and direction, though, allowing readers to imagine how a filmed version would look. Following the style of the show these fans adored, most of the scripts are self-contained stories, with some continuing the complex story arcs that developed across three seasons on the air.
Why are these guys doing this? They both say they may pursue careers as scriptwriters someday, but that they aren’t looking for the “Millennium” virtual season to help them break into the business. It seems Asendorf and Owen are just a couple of dedicated fans who have gotten a little carried away. “Our only rewards are the satisfaction we get from the project and the feedback from the readers,” says Asendorf.
Fan fiction is a staple of the Net, and often gives fans a chance to make their fantasies come true. In some cases, fan sites put TV characters in situations that are unlikely to take place on the real shows — like a sexual encounter between a couple of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” characters who aren’t involved with each other. Other fans simply enjoy creating original, convincing episodes that fit into a series. While some fan fiction is certainly as good as what the networks air, a lot of it shows off the obsessiveness of certain television viewers rather than their hidden writing talent.
But Asendorf and Owens hope to rise above the fray. “We want to elevate our writing above the standard levels of fan fiction,” says Asendorf, who is a telecommunications major at Ohio University. “Most of the story ideas we rejected were sequels to previous episodes and involved the resurrection of [deceased] characters. It’s important we form our own identity.”
“The term ‘fan fiction’ is scary,” Owen adds. “Most such work should actually be called fantasy fan fiction, since so many of the stories are people’s dream episodes.”
The “Millennium” series itself was dreamed up by Chris Carter, creator of “The X-Files” — and it was expected to be a huge hit. The show’s premise sounded promising enough: Lance Henriksen (best known for his role as the android Bishop in “Aliens”) played Frank Black, a retired FBI agent with the “gift” of being able to see what a killer sees; his visions take the form of cryptic flashbacks, as though Black had dropped some seriously bad LSD. Working for the Millennium Group, a crime-fighting consulting organization made up of former law enforcement officers, Black would lend his talents to track and stop serial killers. Thematically, the series suggested that all the madness and evil that Black, his family and colleagues faced on a weekly basis was somehow tied to the coming of the new millennium.
Despite good ratings for its fall 1996 premiere, viewership for “Millennium” dropped off as the series’ first season progressed. Many viewers reportedly were turned off by the morose and unnerving story lines. And there were inevitable comparisons with Carter’s more popular series: Humor and the chemistry between the lead actors in “The X-Files” made its dark plots more palatable. Where was the humanity and fun in “Millennium”? While Henriksen’s performance was compelling, the series definitely fell short, especially as each episode seemed to involve yet another serial killer — usually a sexually repressed white guy who could only get off by killing people in heinous ways.
When the series failed to attract mass viewership, its format was altered and then altered again, prompting something of an identity crisis for “Millennium.” In its second season, the series introduced a serialized story arc that revealed that the Millennium Group was actually a millennium cult that simultaneously fought the forces of evil and manufactured apocalyptic events. With its trippy, surrealistic plots, strong religious overtones and ying-yang philosophizing about the nature of Good and Evil, the show’s second season became the favorite of many “Millennium” fans. Still, the show’s ratings languished — so when Fox renewed the series for a third season, it went with a radical format change: “Millennium” was transformed into an FBI drama with Frank Black returning to the FBI to go up against both the killer of the week and the Millennium Group. “X-Files Lite” was how many “Millennium” fans bitterly described the series’ third, and final, season. (Reruns of the show can be seen daily on the FX cable network.)
Anticipating that the show would be canceled, Asendorf approached Owen, whom he had met online through a “Millennium” fan site, and proposed that they carry on the series with a “virtual season.” Owen was inspired and quickly wrote scripts for two episodes to kick off the project.
From the start, the two knew they wanted to do something a bit more elaborate than the typical fan fiction site. They decided to set up the virtual season like a real TV
series. Instead of short story-like narratives, they would produce polished scripts; and instead of posting whatever stories came their way, Asendorf and Owen would recruit volunteers whose fan fiction they liked to collaborate on a new season that continued story lines from the original series. Nine writers were quick to sign up; though they receive no compensation, many want the experience of being a staff writer — even on a make-believe series. “I haven’t done a lot of collaborative work before on my writing, and I wanted to see what it was like and learn how to make compromises and build off each other’s ideas,” says Brown University graduate student Kevin Patterson.
“The main word everyone is asked to remember when writing is ‘budget,’” says Owen. “It’s very easy to let your imagination run riot and create spectacular action sequences or overindulge in special effects. We chose not to do this, and instead limit our imaginations so each episode doesn’t read like a Hollywood blockbuster, but a convincing effort to mimic the show.”
“We discuss things on [an online] staff forum,” adds Owen, “then someone will have an idea for a story that Matt and I both like. We’ll ask the writer to send us a short synopsis via e-mail. If we like the synopsis, we sometimes ask for a complete story breakdown, but usually we trust the writers enough to let them dive straight into the scripting stage. When the script is complete it has to be ‘passed’ by Matt and me, then the entire staff is free to add constructive comments, which helps to raise the quality. Usually after two to four rewrites, the final script is put online for all to see.”
Kay Reindl, who co-wrote four episodes across the second and third seasons of the real “Millennium” show, says that the virtual season runs pretty much like the real thing. “The beginning of their process sounds similar to the way ['Millennium' second-season executive producers Glen] Morgan and [James] Wong work,” she says — adding that the virtual season may have some advantages over the real one. “I like the fact that they’ve got only a few people who can actually OK and veto a story or a script,” she adds. “It’s a lot harder when you’ve got six or seven completely different people to please!”
Like the real “Millennium” producers, though, Asendorf and Owen have begun to tinker with the series’ premise. In the virtual season, Frank Black, who left the FBI in the final episode of the third season, works with a young male private investigator who was once a Millennium Group member and is also fighting the cult. Asendorf and Owen have brought together the best elements from the show’s previous seasons — like the religious themes of the second season and the involvement of the FBI in the third — and are resolving some of the story-line discrepancies among those past seasons.
“These writers deserve a lot of credit for actually trying to make sense of it all instead of just going off and doing something completely different,” says Reindl, who met Owen through a “Millennium” fan newsgroup and has read some of the virtual season. She lauds the group for coming up with a plausible fourth-season scenario, after admitting that probably no one connected with the real show had any idea what to do next. It may be the closest thing possible to an official endorsement of the virtual season as “what really happened next.” (Calls to Fox seeking comment on the virtual season were not returned.)
“What people can expect is a faithful continuation of the show, which has picked up where season three’s finale left off, and has definitely not sacrificed too much continuity,” says Owen. “Basically, we restructured the show to appeal to fans’ favorite elements.”
So far, the scripts for the “Millennium” virtual season have been impressive: They are technically correct — with proper act structures and word lengths (and a few typos) — and the stories feel awfully “legitimate” to many familiar with the series.
In fact, the scripts are good enough that the writers could theoretically use them as “spec samples” to seek agency representation for script work, says Reindl — “if ‘Millennium’ were a viable spec, which it unfortunately isn’t. The problem is that nobody watched the show, and nobody wants to read a ‘Millennium’ spec because the show was considered so dark.”
In creating the virtual series, Asendorf and Owen have created a structure and process that seems to rival that of a true TV studio — without the stress of answering to a TV network. Instead, the pressure comes from their self-imposed deadline, New Year’s Eve, when the year rolls over from 1999 to 2000. After that, the “Millennium” virtual season comes to an end — unless, of course, Asendorf and Owen could be convinced to keep going. What would it take to sign them on for another virtual season? Sounding every bit like a TV network executive, Owen jokes, “Money.”
Howard Wen writes frequently for Salon Technology.More Howard Wen.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)