Cover Story: CBS's <I>Ghosts</I>
Issue: May/June 2022

Cover Story: CBS's Ghosts

Based on the hit BBC show of the same name, Ghosts, the CBS Studios and Paramount+ comedy hit, has a great premise: Samantha (Rose McIver) and Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a cheerful freelance journalist and up-and-coming chef from the city, respectively, both throw caution and money to the wind when they decide to convert a huge, rundown country estate they inherited into a bed & breakfast, only to find that it’s inhabited by the many spirits of deceased residents, who now call it home. The departed souls are a close-knit, eclectic group, and the spirits were anxious about the commotion, a renovation and a B&B will create in their home. Though it’s nothing compared to when they realize Samantha can actually see and hear them.

Photo: Wiseman (middle) and Port (right)

The executive producers and showrunners are Joe Port and Joe Wiseman, who got their start when they first met in 1998 while working as assistants, and ironically sharing a cubicle, on the animated comedy Dilbert. Dilbert executive producer Larry Charles read Port and Wiseman’s spec script for King of the Hill, and afterwards made them writers on the sitcom’s second season, giving them their first writing credit as collaborators.

Since then, the duo has written for such notable series asZoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, The Last O.G., The Odd Couple, The Crazy Ones starring Robin Williams, 1600 Penn, New Girl, Last Man Standing and Just Shoot Me. In addition, they have written and produced numerous pilots, including What About Barb?; Joe, Joe & Jane; and Rebounding.

In an exclusive interview for Post, I spoke with Joe Wiseman about the duo’s challenges of creating and running the show and the post workflow. 

What sort of show did you set out to make?

“We both loved the British show so much and everything about it, from the tone to the way it dealt with the ghosts. It was hard-funny, but also quite emotional, and we loved how it’s about ghosts, but it’s also very grounded and you care about the people. One very smart thing they did was making all the ghosts look real rather than transparent and all floaty, and that really helped humanize them and made them all very relatable. Yes, they are ghosts, but they’re also former human beings that still possess a lot of human characteristics. And that also helped a lot production-wise, in terms of visual effects and so on.”

How tough was it adapting the British show?

“We both felt it was actually a very portable idea, as you take this very clever, funny premise, and then you can populate it with all sorts of archetypes from American history. So one of the first things we did was make a list of 20 to 25 archetypes, and then whittled it down to the crew we have. We tried to make sure we had different points of view and different personalities, like the Native American and flapper girl and hippie. In ‘American-izing’ it, we added these new ghosts and that allowed us to explore more American themes and characters.”

Do you like showrunning? 

“We do, but it’s an all-consuming job on this as we have a very large cast and there’s just always so much going on, especially when we get into production, as you’re writing future episodes, shooting the current one, coming up with ideas and planning upcoming storylines, and editing. And you have to be on-stage, so it’s nice having a partner, especially one you trust, as you can split up some of the huge workload and help each other.”

What are the challenges of showrunning this?

“The big challenge is that we shoot in Montreal, but all the writers are here in LA, where Joe and I also live, but as it’s a first-year show, we end up spending a lot of time in Montreal, figuring out the tone and dealing with the various directors. Normally on a show, you have all the writers next to the stage, so when you rehearse a scene, you can grab a couple and make any changes. But on this, because of all the COVID restrictions on-set and so on, we just had one writer on-set with us, so that made it far harder. Luckily for the writing part, because of COVID, we were all used to working via Zoom calls, but it was definitely a new wrinkle to the job.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It’s always tough on a TV schedule. In Montreal they just work 10-hour days, which is great, but you have to make sure you get all the coverage you need. If we have a large scene, we don’t shoot a lot of singles. If there’s eight people in a scene we’ll do a lot of two, three shots, and that’ll be the coverage. We have to be very efficient, and I think that helps the show look different from other TV shows. For most of the scenes with ghosts, we’ll do a couple of takes without them — not necessarily for Jay’s point-of-view, but to remind the audience that only Sam can see them. We have three DPs — Pierre Jodoin, who shot Episodes 102 to 113; Sylvaine Dufaux, who shot Episodes 114 to 117; and Ronald Plante, who shot Episode 118 — and the show has a very lush, cinematic, period-piece look, which is quite rare in a 30-minute TV comedy.”

Tell us about post. Was it mainly remote?

“Yes, and most of it was done in Montreal, and we had three editors — Annie Ilkow, Simon Webb and Hugh Ross. Hugh, who’s LA-based, cut the pilot and really helped establish the tone of the show. Because of COVID there are so many tools now for working remotely, which is how we edited for the most part. We’d get the directors’ cuts and then Joe and I’d make our notes and have the editor do a pass, and then we’d do Zoom sessions and go through it all, scene by scene. It’s interesting because two of the editors — Annie and Simon — were based in Montreal, so at the start we’d go into Difuze, our post house up there, and do in-person sessions with them, which is always better. But after a while, it just seemed more efficient to do it all remotely. 

“Instead of commuting back and forth to Difuze, we could save an hour each day and spend it on-stage or with the writers. It was the same thing with all the mixing and final mix, which we did at Premium Sound. We did the first few mixes live, which is better, but then switched to doing it all remotely, and it went great. 

“And then for the DI at Difuze, we had online editor Francois Masse and colorist Belgin Kaplan. Most network comedies are very bright, with lots of color, and we went for a haunted-house feel and look, and we used a lot of smoke on the set for texture. The show is lit more like a moody movie than a TV sitcom, and I think that’s part of its success. We went to all the initial DI sessions, but once we’d established the look, we left the DPs and colorist to work their magic.”

Do you like post and why? 

“We love it, especially in a single-camera show like this, where you can completely change the feel of an episode or the story. It’s your final re-write, and even adding a look in a scene can change so much.”

What were the main editing challenges?

“As well as all the usual ones, like tone and pacing, it’s a network show and you have to hit the exact time length for broadcast, and usually you end up cutting and cutting to fit it. But as we shot just 10-hour days, we made sure our scripts didn’t get too bloated, and our directors’ cuts were coming in around a couple of minutes long, which was great. But trying to tell two or three stories with ten characters and guests in the allotted time is very challenging, and often you end up cutting a second here, a look there, to make it all fit. And you have to make sure it’s funny too.”

The soundscape and music were obviously very important on this. Tell us about what was involved?

“We had a great team, including re-recording mixer Dave Gertsman and supervising sound editor Paul Lucien Col over at Premium, and it was a process of discovery. Early on, we had some small sound effects when the ghosts walk through the walls, and then we began adding layers, but ultimately it all was too distracting, and we realized that trying to punch the comedy too much and heightening all the sound was just too much. So in the final mixing we just tried to make it as real and grounded as possible, to match the visuals. And we had a great composer Jeff Cardoni, music editor Joe Deveau and music supervisor Billy Gottlieb. And music is another key element. Jeff really nailed the tone right off for the pilot, and I’ve done several pilots and the music is always dinged and sent back and re-done. But everything he scored was perfect and it made the whole show better.”

There are quite a few VFX. What was involved?

“Our VFX company in Montreal was Folks, and again, we had a great team, including VFX supervisor Simon Devault and VFX producer Maria Saade. We didn’t have all the usual floaty ghost VFX, but we actually had a lot more than I expected — and a lot of clean up and removal. With the ghosts, we tried not to overdo it. We definitely picked our moments to have fun with it, like the scene where one character gets sucked down into hell, and another gets their hand chopped off and then it re-forms, so those were big effects, which we sprinkled in. For most shows, it’s the ghosts walking through walls and the crew had it down. They’d get the green screen up and the lasers and were so fast. We also got into using split screens for combining characters in different takes, which we hadn’t done before, and I loved that technique.”

What’s next?

“We’re already starting Season 2, and as I said, it’s such a portable idea that we think it should be done all over the world. There should be a Ghosts Mexico and Ghosts Australia and Ghosts China and so on, as each place has its own history and culture, and there are so many stories you could tell. It’s just such a flexible premise.” 

Photo (L-R): Port and Wiseman

Do you agree that streamers like Paramount+ are really changing the Hollywood landscape and taking creative risks that traditional studios seem less willing to take?

“It’s definitely the trend, and streamers are here to stay, but then CBS deserve so much credit for getting behind this show and seeing the potential. They took a big risk on this.”