Since exploding onto the scene in the 1990s as a brooding teen on “Beverly Hills 90210,” Luke Perry has kept busy with a number of projects. But few are as personal as his “Goodnight for Justice” series of movies that are fast becoming a staple at Hallmark Movie Channel, which closed out 2011 with 45mln homes and 73% ratings growth for its core W25-54 demo. Perry’s first Goodnight installment remains the highest rated movie in the net’s history, with the next chapter “Goodnight to Justice: The Measure of a Man” premiering on Sat, Jan. 28 at 8pm ET and telling the story of traveling circuit judge John Goodnight, who struggles to apply the rule of law in a lawless frontier. Not only did Perry create the Goodnight character, but he also outlines the stories and remains heavily involved in the rewriting process along the way. In Goodnight, Perry has created a classic Western character who unlike the anti-heroes so prevalent on TV these days actually lives by a strict moral code—even as many of those around him operate with questionable ethics. Audiences have responded so well that Hallmark has already wrapped production on a 3rd installment set to premiere in January 2013. Perry sat down with CableFAX to discuss the Goodnight series and why the Western genre remains such a prolific storytelling format.
CableFAX: What interested you about the Old West and drove you to create this character?
Perry: Well, the thing that got me interested in the Old West is just the technical difficulties that folks would have to endure for day-to-day survival… I think that would be what people today would call a Herculean effort. And it’s a testament of the better part of human character that people were able to do that and withstand that. So that’s what it is about the time that interests me. Today, with social media, you can check in on 1500 people… Back then, if you wanted to talk to someone, you had to saddle up a horse, get on that thing, ride through the distance and really think about what you were saying and who you were saying it to, how much you really needed the thing you were going to get and what it was going to cost you. It was a time when consideration needed to be applied more in life, and I find that compelling.
CableFAX: John Goodnight is surrounded by lawlessness. Yet he holds firm to his own values. To what degree is that the central conflict you explore in these movies?
Perry: I do see this as the essential conflict. But at the same time, I see this as the thing that makes him different. He’s not a cowboy. He’s not a lawyer… He’s not a guy from that place, so it’s a fish-out-of-water element… I find that when I travel somewhere, I see something a different way in my life. Going to New York or Europe or whatever—even just going to the store sometimes. And here’s a guy who’s constantly traveling, and that dynamic is informing who he is, and he’s constantly rendering judgment based on who he is. And those two things are always in flux, and I found that interesting especially in the fact that his job doesn’t change. He’s always supposed to be fair and decisive. And I thought that having all those balls in the air would be fun to do and fun to watch.
CableFAX: You created the character, and Tippi and Neal Dobrofsky write the screenplays. How involved are you in the overall stories?
Perry: I create the stories, and the Dobrofsky’s write that into a screenplay, and then I rewrite the screenplay… That’s been how we’ve been doing it so far.
CableFAX: And there’s already a third installment on the way, correct?
Perry: We’ve already shot it. So we’re working on the stories for the fourth and the fifth ones.
CableFAX: Did you ever think this idea would become a series of movies?
Perry: That’s what I had always envisioned for it. I really liked the character, and I didn’t just want to do it one time. And I was able to convince the channel that we could keep that core audience from the first one and if it does well, a lot of [the audience] will stick around for the 2nd time. I hope that’s the case, and I hope they like the movie that we delivered. And we’ll see how it goes.
CableFAX: The Western sensibility seems to be making a comeback on TV. It’s not necessarily the Old West as much as a Western feel. You have “Justified” on FX, the “Dallas” reboot on TNT, “Longmire” on A&E. What’s going on here?
Perry: America is nostalgic, and it kind of alludes to what I was saying before. We’re trying to figure out what our future is so we really need to examine our past as a country. And we harken back to a time where everybody was a little stronger and a little smarter to survive—and you had to be. And that’s exactly what’s coming down the pike in the future, just in a different way. I think that’s why those stories and those characters are making sense.
CableFAX: Yet Westerns in recent years seem enamored with anti-heroes. And you’ve brought it back to a more classic feel in which the heroes and villains are more clear cut. Why?
Perry: I like the white hat, black hat thing—that the good guy does the good thing, and the bad guy is the bad guy. It’s simple. And Westerns have always been simple stories, told well. They don’t have spaceships in them. I don’t want to say disparaging things about other movies. But I don’t have a lot of time in my movies. I don’t have a lot of money to make my movies. So I want to tell simple, classic stories because those are the Westerns that I loved. Those are the kind of stories that made me want to make Westerns, not the ones with the cooler, slicker, faster thing—or camera shots you can only get with tremendous gadgetry and things like that. I want a more basic standard. When we made the first one and Jason [Priestly] was directing, I said to them I don’t want it to be slick. I would like people to be switching around the dial and think it’s an old Western, but then see Luke Perry and say, “Oh, well how can that be old. And then there’d be this sort of best-of-both-worlds kind of thing. I love the old ones. I don’t think there was anything broke… so I didn’t feel compelled to fix it.
CableFAX: As you mentioned, your good friend Jason Priestly directed the first “Goodnight for Justice.” How was it doing this 2nd one without him at the helm?
Perry: Well, I love the director of this movie, let me say that, K.T. Donaldson… He was very passionate and very committed to the story he wanted to tell. And that’s what you need when you don’t have a lot of time and a lot of money to make the picture. He came in with a real strong sensibility and feelings about the story and why he wanted to have the emotional beats in it. And I said, “You know, this is getting a little more softer, a little more touchy-feely than I signed up for.” And yet I kind of trusted him to get to some of the themes that way. I always contend that a Western can be many, many things. And since I’m not a cowboy, it doesn’t have to be the traditional horse and cow story. You can tell textured, vibrant stories that are layered and about a lot of different things in this medium. This leans more toward that.
CableFAX: But I imagine you had more of a short-hand with Jason in the first one, considering your long history.
Perry: Oh, yeah. That first one, me and Jason being able to do what we did. It was just a matter of spending 10 years working with somebody, you kind of know how it goes. And what was great for us was that the crew sometimes couldn’t tell when we were working and when we were not because you can just seamlessly go in and out from what’s work and what’s not work. And he and I have always had a good language together, you know?
CableFAX: How about working on cable vs. broadcast? Advantages and disadvantages?
Perry: I’m definitely given more creative freedom here than with any network I’ve ever dealt with. And I think that’s the trade that they know that they’ve got to make and that the cablers have quite shrewdly made to get in business with what I think are the cream of the creative crop out there. When you look at the shows and the guys that are drawn to cable—I’ve talked to a lot of them about it, I know why it is—and all the different cable platforms have something different to offer. For this particular franchise and these stories, Hallmark is the perfect place for me. People will say, “Well, don’t you feel constricted by the language and this and that.” Well, they’re thinking “Deadwood.” I’m like, “No I don’t.” Those are particular stories, and that’s the way that David [Milch] needed to tell them. I’m telling a different set of stories that fit quite well in this paradigm, and I think there’s a really good sized audience here because you can put on one of my movies, and walk out of the room with your kid in there—and have no problems. That’s when the backbone of the Western was built, when society sort of reflected those sensibilities. And filmily, I want to take us back there for a minute.
CableFAX: But do you think this sort of black-and-white show would work on a network other than Hallmark?
Perry: I do think it’s a good fit for Hallmark and yet if something were to happen and this franchise were to all of the sudden end up on another channel, the great thing about it is that I haven’t written this guy into any particular corner that I don’t think could be explored somewhere else. We know that the guy is a drinker. He likes women. There’s gunplay. It would just be a natural extension of all those things, and that would be easily serviced within this franchise. But at the same time, I don’t think we’re starving for anything. The stories are fully realized, and I’m getting the character out there the way I conceived it—and that’s satisfying.
CableFAX: Would Goodnight ever do the “wrong” thing?
Perry: I think inevitably he has to. That’s one of the things I keep bucking for. Already they’re kind of hesitant to make that happen. But I know that at some point everybody makes a mistake. There’s no judge in the world who bats a thousand. And I think to see a guy have to receive that information, and then live with the consequences of what that is. That’s a good story. That’s a good movie because all of the sudden your white hat has a big black splotch on it. And it becomes kind of a gray hat, and I think that’s the hat that most people wear in life—the gray one.
CableFAX: Are you pitching shows to other cable networks?
Perry: I have a franchise that would work for each and every one of those guys. Tell them to call me up, and I’ll tell them about it.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX).