SC: Was writing something that you knew you wanted to pursue from a young age?
PS: Yes, I’ve always wanted to write. I remember when I was preschool age, my parents gave me a typewriter, and I would copy Dr. Seuss books onto a page to practice writing. I think I was writing a book. I wrote a lot of short stories in high school, sent them off, and had my wall littered with rejection slips. When I was in college, I started to write plays. I was an actor, too, so I acted in plays that I wrote, which then you really have no excuse when you don’t do well, as you can’t say “who wrote this crap?” I won a couple of awards in college for writing. I tried New York for a while and then I moved to L.A. I was working in the theatre and was writing plays and screenplays all of the time and spec scripts for TV shows. Finally, my break was when I wrote a freelance Cheers episode which was done, and then I was hired on to Cheers. I was very fortunate, as at that point I was living in Hollywood with my wife, who was pregnant, and we had no money. We had like $36 in our chequing account, and we were about to move back in with my parents, which for my generation was a great defeat. Then I got a call that Heide Perlman from Cheers had read one of my spec scripts and wanted me to come in and pitch.
SC: Was there at any point in your career a moment you thought of giving up on writing to pursue something else or were you really in your heart set on being a writer?
PS: I certainly have thought about it lots of times because at certain times you do think your career is over, but honestly, I can’t do anything else. I did work as a clerk at a bookstore, and as a stage manager at a theatre, but other than that I haven’t done anything else. All I know how to do is make up stories and write dialogue and I would be at a loss to figure out what else to do.
SC: Having a diverse background in writing, what is it about being a showrunner that you really enjoy?
PS: I really do enjoy it and I really do like it. You get to be in charge of everything, pretty much, and you get to have your vision be as close to what you have in mind as you can. It’s really the open form of writing. I’ve written books, too, and in books you write everything; you’re the set designer, the stage manager, and costumer designer. You do it all. And being a showrunner is the closest to that in visual media. I’ve written screenplays, too, and in screenplays the writer is way down low on the list of the people who have any say to what goes on, somewhere below the guy who delivers the sandwiches. Whereas in TV, if you are a writer/the showrunner, you get to be the one who says what happens. I don’t micromanage, I let people who have their jobs do their jobs. Generally, if you let people do their jobs and you hire good people, they do great work. I’m constantly amazed with what the set designer, the cinematographer, the directors, and the actors come up with, as it’s wonderful. But I don’t have to worry about what the guy in charge is thinking, because I’m the guy in charge. I have to worry about what Hallmark is thinking and what Dan Paulson is thinking, but on this in particular, it was a very happy experience because the whole crew was so fantastically great, and it was great to see what they could come up with.
SC: Who has been one pivotal person that has influenced you as a writer?
PS: There’s a writer who has passed on now, named David Lloyd, who was probably the premiere writer of half hour comedy. He wrote the famous Chuckles the Clown episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and he wrote a ton of Cheers. He was sort of a mentor of us all on Cheers. He was very erudite and really cruel if your work wasn’t good, but he just was so good and so facile and very kind to me. I haven’t had anyone that was a mentor to me that knew they were a mentor to me. He was definitely a mentor to me, as were Ken Levine and David Isaacs who were also on Cheers. Cheers was really my university, my graduate school in writing for television and certainly for writing with other people, for other people, writing for hire, all that. You learned how to write and mostly learned how to rewrite. When you write by yourself there’s a tendency to think that the first thing you came up with wasn’t necessarily was the best thing, but it’s the only thing that you’ve come up with, so there it is. And if people want it differently, you think “how can it be different?” because there it is, that’s it. You learn through the course of rewriting which you do a lot on a sitcom like Cheers, that there’s always another joke, there’s always another way to tell the story, or there’s always a way to turn it around and do it differently. Even if you don’t think it’s necessarily going to be better, you sometimes have to do it for some reason. It might be that the showrunner asks you to do it, or everybody thinks it would be better, or the actors want to do it that way. On Cheers, we didn’t really have network interference very much, but if the network doesn’t like something, and there are so many ways to do scenes, there are so many ways to switch up and do them that you can write the same scene twenty different times and never really repeat yourself with the same character.
SC: Having a background in a variety of shows, what was the draw for you to write programs in this family-friendly genre or specifically for Hallmark?
PS: I did Darrow & Darrow, but I came into it by accident really. Jonathan Axelrod and I had an idea about a series of movies or a series about a female lawyer and we pitched it to a number of places and Hallmark was the one that wanted to do it. I’m not a family-friendly writer in particular, but when you’re writing for family-friendly networks you generally have to adjust to the exact opposite, as most networks require their programming to be noisy, edgy, or have something different about it. They want that type of story, and you have to figure out ways to make it edgy, but Darrow & Darrow didn’t particularly lend itself to edginess anyway. When I was working with Hallmark, I had to readjust my thinking because it’s the exact opposite of that. I had to go the non-edgy way and I actually kind of liked that. I wrote for Cheers and that was a fairly racy show for its day, but it was the late 80s/early 90s and you couldn’t do half of the stuff you could do on network television now. We had to be so tame compared to the way they are now. I liked going back to that and it was kind of fun. Then I also wrote for the Emma Fielding Mysteries and probably the hardest part while writing for the Mystery channel, even a cozy murder mystery generally deals with the darkest aspects of life so to do that a lot in a family-friendly way is a challenge. You’re not allowed a lot of motives for the murder. Then the opportunity to do Chesapeake Shores came along.
SC: Were you familiar with the stories and characters on Chesapeake Shores, prior to your role as showrunner?
PS: I had watched Chesapeake Shores when I first started writing for Hallmark, because I would watch all of the stuff on the Hallmark Channel. I liked Chesapeake and I love Treat Williams and Diane Ladd. The cast was really good, and I liked the show. For a longtime I’ve wanted to write a show about a smalltown because I went to college in a small town, spent summers in a small town in Maine, and I live in a small community in Los Angeles, South Pasadena. So, I’ve always really wanted to do that, but I could never really get anyone interested in it, because it didn’t seem the style of the day. I was interested in the family and the relationships, so when I got the opportunity with Chesapeake Shores, I went for it because it was really something that I wanted to do.
SC: How many months did you spend in Canada?
PS: Four and a half months. And because of COVID I couldn’t go back and forth, and my wife could not come up here. However, it was such a beautiful place on Vancouver Island that it was not a hardship at all.
SC: Looking at the cast of Chesapeake Shores for Season 5, which character would you most identify with and why?
PS: I suppose I would most identify with Mick. I’m closer to his age, I have kids grown kids and grandkids, and I guess I am the patriarch of my family. I know what it’s like to have some regrets about how you raised them and some pride in how you have raised them. So yes, Mick is the one I am most in tune with.
SC: Coming into a show with an establish cast and fan base, what was the most challenging element to continuing this story?
PS: I’ve done that quite a number of times, where I’ve come on to shows that have been in existence and done them, so I kind of feel like I know how to write in the style of another show and bring my own voice to it, so I’m not worried about doing that. It all happened very naturally. All of the stories were going along, we obviously had Connor starting a new law firm, and there was a secret there, wondering what that was about, and Mick had the Dilpher lawsuit hanging over his head. Kevin and Sarah were married and going to try to have kids. The stories were kind of set in place. They were moving along, and I just had to follow them and imagine where they were going. I didn’t want to rethink the show in a huge way until something happened that had been envisioned, but even then, one of the things I like about the show as opposed to other shows on other networks, is that it isn’t trying to shock or surprise, which a lot of shows do. It’s fun, but sometimes I find shows are so interested in surprising you, that characters suddenly do things that are completely out of character for them, just so you could get that big surprise that was going to happen. This show is not like that, as everything that happens in this show is something that could happen to a family.
SC: It’s been positive for viewers to know in advance that Jesse Metcalfe and the character of Trace were leaving. They knew it was coming and had the chance to digest that information prior to being surprised and watching it unfold on screen.
PS: In a way, it was fortunate for the show or for me, because I had been through this with exact thing Cheers when Shelley Long decided to leave the show at the end of the fifth season. It was the same thing, as everyone knew she was leaving and it was her choice. People perhaps had doubts as to what the show would be like, but it was a very similar sort of situation. I think people stayed with the show because the rest of the family of the bar had become so close to them and this new character came in who wasn’t a Diane-type of character. They gave it a shot and they liked it, and it stayed on for another six years. This show really is about the O’Briens and that family, and I think it can survive this change. Then the new character came in and I consciously made him as opposite of Trace as I could. I wanted to put Abby with a completely different kind of guy and see how she does. I think everyone will be very pleasantly surprised as you can see a lot more to Abby this season. It’s very freeing for her to be with another type of person and have her life to go another way. She likes working with her father, and she’s not that uptight corporate person that she was before.
SC: What has been the most rewarding part of continuing the O’Briens’ story this season?
PS: For me, it’s been working with the actors. They’re all so good. And exploring all of the relationships between the characters has been fun. Every day I go on the set and love seeing the scenes play out. I’ve been mixing the characters up maybe more than they have in the past, so there are scenes with Sarah and Megan, and scenes with Abby and Kevin, and a lot of scenes with Kevin and Bree and all that. So, the family is interacting with each other more and I really, really like that. Because it’s family and you have those people that you’ve known your whole life and you have to deal with and you’re sometimes sick of dealing with, but at the same time they can push your buttons. Kevin and Connor are so fun together because they are still like 12 and 10 or whatever. It’s great and I just like all of the actors too. They are really a good group of people and it’s been fun.
SC: Were there any challenges for you as a writer, such as cast size, COVID restrictions, filming locations, etc.?
PS: Not really. Covid restrictions obviously when we had a number of group scenes and the most you could have was around 30 people (extras) and there are a couple of sequences where I would have had more than that just to populate it, but when you look on the screen, I don’t think it’s a problem. With locations, you can find almost everything on the island but some things you can’t find, like a big city airport, so things like that I had to write around a little bit. The scene where Mick and Thomas are recreating their teenage hike along the Appalachian trail in Maryland, and we found trails on Vancouver Island that were gorgeous and beautiful and look just like it and were wonderful. So, I did not find any real problems.
SC: Speaking of COVID, if you had to quarantine with one Chesapeake Shores character in one of the Chesapeake filming locations, who would you choose and where would you want to stay?
PS: I would probably be at the house because it’s such a gorgeous setting and I guess with Mick because I like Treat a lot.
SC: It has been shared that there’ll be more comedy this year. Can you expand on what this means for you and also what it might mean for the Chessies?
PS: I don’t think there’ll be more comedy but just that there may be more humorous banter. There’s no slapstick scenes or anything like that in there. I’m good friends with the writer Steven Moffat, who went from being a sitcom writer to a drama writer, and I remember when he said to me, it’s great writing drama because when you write comedy you have to do 3 jokes on a page and when you write drama if you do 1 joke every 3 pages everyone thinks you’re a comic genius. I think there’s some lighter tones at times and the actors really enjoyed playing that. I don’t think it’s appreciably different just a little spice or seasoning to it.
SC: How would you describe Season 5 to the Chessies in only five words?
PS: The O’Briens = move on with their lives
SC: If you could write a character for yourself, what kind of show would you choose, and what type of character would you want to portray?
PS: There are lots of shows that I want to write for myself. I like writing the light drama, the drama with some comedy in it. If I could do it would be a small town comedy-drama with a character who was trying to deal with the problems of life, much like Chesapeake Shores.
SC: With a resume as a writer and producer, including Emmy nominations and wins, as well as being a NY Times Best-Selling author, what is the next goal that you are aiming to achieve?
PS: To keep working. That’s the hard thing. I knew when I started out, I had no illusions that getting into this business was a hard thing to do. I knew that it was going to be very, very hard to get into this business. What I didn’t know was how hard it was going to be to stay in this business. You have to reinvent yourself every seven years and it’s tough. I would like to create a show of my own that was the brand somewhere and I’d like to keep writing books.
SC: Any projects that are on the horizon to keep an eye out for?
PS: I’m recovering from doing Chesapeake Shores, so just look forward to that and aim for season 6. I do a podcast with friend and partner, who also wrote for the show, Mark Jordan Legan, where we do a movie podcast called Film Freaks Forever, where we talk about old movies for an hour or more. If you like old movies, we do it on all of them.
With affinity for small town life, a passion for storytelling, and a heart focused on family, Phoef Sutton has been the right choice and a gentle current leading this series forward. His vision, leadership, humility, and collaborative efforts are evident in his interactions on Twitter and in responses from the cast and crew online. With this season’s voyage more than halfway completed, be sure to connect with Phoef on social media, to let him know that there need to be many more seasons of small town stories in Chesapeake Shores.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PhoefSuttonWriter /