Outlander fans. Photo by Judy Graeme.
Writers Bloc founder and head honcho Andrea Grossman is no stranger to dealing with celebrities and their sometimes extremely passionate fans. Grossman, who created the non-profit literary organization 20 years ago, regularly produces live programs that feature conversations focusing on the written word with famous authors, journalists, actors, musicians, and politicians. She's had federal marshals in attendance (to protect Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor) and security provisions to deter stalkers of certain high profile guests. Tire slashing was her concern at an event with Lawrence Wright, author of a book about Scientology (thankfully none materialized). Leonard Nimoy's appearance brought out hundreds of Trekkies, and any time Carrie Fisher is in the house, the Star Wars fan contingent makes its presence known.
None of this prepared Grossman, however, for the insanity awaiting her when she agreed to present a panel featuring "Outlander" writers and cast members at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills.
"Outlander" is the Starz and Sony produced TV series about a World War II combat nurse who time travels back to 18th century Jacobite Scotland. It is based on the best-selling novels by Diana Gabaldon, and is about to premiere its second season on April 9. Gabaldon's extremely ardent fan base has built steadily since the first book in the series was published in 1991. She is currently working on the ninth book and is a consultant to the Starz show. The potent cocktail of historical fiction, adventure, fantasy, romance (and lots of sex) seems to have struck a very deep nerve in readers, many of whom have read the books multiple times and are now equally passionate about the show. Seeing their beloved characters (in particular the two central characters Jamie Fraser and Claire Randall, played by Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe) brought to life by very carefully cast and skillful actors has, in many cases, only intensified their connection to the story.
Outlander press tours routinely feature fan events and panels with cast members and producers, but the idea for a writing-centric panel came via Grossman's friendship with Outlander writer and producer Anne Kenney, who encouraged her to read the first book and check out the show. Kenney was present at Thursdays event, along with fellow writer/producers Toni Graphia, Matthew B. Roberts, executive producer Maril Davis, show-runner Ron Moore, actors Balfe, Heughan and Tobias Menzies, and moderator Anne Thompson of IndieWire.
When tickets went on sale Grossman got her first clue that things would be getting intense. "I never imagined it would sell out so quickly—in 45 minutes!," Grossman said. "This sold out faster than Mel Brooks..and my Writers Bloc audience is such a Mel Brooks audience. It was happening so fast we could barely keep up." She quickly realized that word of the event had spread through Outlander fandom like wildfire. "I knew there was a fan base but didn't realize they were as ardent and enthusiastic..and I didn't realize that people would come in from all over the country," Grossman said. Her phone rang off the hook as the day approached. Then there was the case of the mysterious cake. Grossman had gotten word that a bakery in San Francisco was requesting Writers Guild Theater access to deliver a cake to the cast and writers on the day of the panel. A few phone calls with Starz and the Writers Guild determined that no one had ordered a cake (Grossman famously serves only Beverlywood Bakery cookies in her green room) and that most likely the whole episode was fan-driven.
Fortunately for Grossman, Starz sponsored last Thursdays event and provided security, in the form of several very large bodyguards, for the cast. Fans began lining up at 8 a.m. (for the 7:30 p.m. start time) and the line for the first-come, first-served seating stretched several blocks down Doheny Drive by 5 p.m. Some fans had traveled from as far as Mexico, New York, and Seattle. Many were more local, driving in from San Diego, San Jose, and Temecula. [Photo right by Martha Groves.] There was lots of tartan and a few came in costume. An informal survey revealed that many had never heard of Writers Bloc and weren't especially interested in seeing the show's writers. They were there for Balfe, Menzies, and Heughan—seizing a rare opportunity to see the physical embodiment of the literary characters they love in the flesh. Inside, the theater's manager scratched his head and wondered out loud what would cause anyone to line up for anything that early.
When the time came for the doors to open, things proceeded in a surprisingly civilized fashion. Fans politely found their seats and buzzed excitedly while waiting for the program to begin. The Writers Guild Theater has no backstage area so everyone had to be in their seats before the Outlander group could enter. Grossman greeted the audience at 7:30 and welcomed them with humor and the ground rules: stay in your seats, no touching the talent (emphasizing the size of the body guards) and picture-taking for just 30 seconds. She ended with a plea to "check out our website. This is not the only fun program on our docket!"
When the cast and writers took the stage the screams were deafening, especially for heart throb Heughan, The program appeared to be a hit. The writers and producers were funny, enlightening, and candid in talking about the challenges of adapting complex novels into one hour TV episodes. The actors talked about how great it is that the show gives them a chance to work collaboratively with the writers. It was revealed that the writers and actors do imitations of each others voices. Best of all, it's very likely that audience members actually learned something about the tough business of writing for television.
Viola V on YouTube. Watch longer version.
When it was all over, the enormous bodyguards formed a wall so that the panelists could exit the theater unscathed. Everyone was instructed to remain in their seats until "the participants have left the building." Balfe, Menzies, and Heughan quickly boarded their limos and drove off into the night and a gaggle of fans and random autograph seekers lingered on the sidewalk outside the theater, some of them no doubt moving on to New York City, where the show is having its red carpet premiere on Monday. And, with the hurricane now safely past, Andrea Grossman was most certainly somewhere still inside the theater, exhaling very deeply.
Heughan and Balfe last week at Writers Bloc. Video screen grab