Life with Luca: Daphne Ballon Interview

Life with Luca: Daphne Ballon Interview

Today is an exciting day for our Canadian friends — the movie Life with Luca premieres on Family Channel at 7pm.

Life with Derek cast members Ashley Leggat, Michael Seater, Joy Tanner, and John Ralston reunite for this new film, where Casey and Derek are both parents! Daphne Ballon chatted with me about bringing the MacDonald-Venturi family back, and about her incredible work in family programming. Daphne has accomplished so much in television, including co-creating Disney Channel’s tween series Flash Forward in the ’90s, creating I Was a Sixth Grade Alien for Canada’s Family Channel, and of course, creating the award-winning comedy Life with Derek. Read on to learn more about her previous work and her newest project!

This interview has been lightly edited for length.

Becca and Tucker on Disney Channel Magazine cover for Flash Forward

Flash Forward

Allison: Looking back at Flash Forward on Disney Channel, how did you craft these authentic characters in a time when tween and teen television was still kind of finding its voice?

Daphne: We looked at some of our favorite shows. The head writer was John May, and we talked about The Wonder Years and Family Ties and shows that we’d loved and then tried to figure out how to get that feeling into more of the kids’ space. Because those shows were obviously prime-time shows. And then it was just a very interesting transition, and there were channels that were specifically geared to a kid audience.

Allison: I would imagine taking the kid and teen characters from those family shows and then zeroing in on them a little bit more, right?

Daphne: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I think if you think of all those shows that I just talked about, in many cases, the adults were kind of the lead. Even a show like Malcolm in the Middle, right? [Adults] were the leads, and the kids were incredibly important. Obviously in Family Ties, they went on to have their own careers. But a show where it was those new channels, like Disney, Nickelodeon, and then up in Canada, it was YTV and Family Channel, they were kind of like, ‘These channels are for you kids.’ So what I tried to do was develop shows that were specifically for that age group, but also that had likable, believable parents in them.

Allison: Flash Forward is a great series. I’m curious about why it ended just when this genre was sort of picking up at the Disney Channel. Were there ever talks of extending Tucker and Becca’s stories?

Daphne: I’m not sure what the official story is. My take on it is that there was a change in the creative executives at Disney Channel at that time. So the new regime had their own shows that they wanted to bring in. So, honestly, it was quite crushing at the time. Those things happen in TV, but it’s hard… but I felt like it was really working. And I know there were lots more stories we could have told.

There were so many great actors. I’m sure you saw Ryan Gosling did two guest appearances on Flash Forward. … I think [executives] weren’t sure he was right for it, and so we said, ‘Okay, fine.’ And then we tried a bunch of casting. Then finally, we were like, ‘No, Ryan Gosling is the guy. We have to have him.’ And he was so funny, my God!

Allison: That’s awesome. I don’t think Ben Foster talks about the show much, but every once in a while I’ll see Jewel Staite say something about it online. And it’s always fun when the casts look back on those years.

Daphne: Ben always really wanted to do more adult, more serious roles. He was kind of a comedic genius, but I don’t think that was ultimately where he wanted to go.

Life with Derek poster, featuring whole family for Season 1

Life with Derek

Allison: I was in middle school when this show came out. I loved it. I especially loved the romances and all of Casey’s boyfriends… It’s just been so fun to revisit this show. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find in the States. I hope that will change with streaming at some point.

Daphne: Maybe with the movie, it will rekindle some interest.

Allison: This was definitely a unique concept for Disney Channel at the time, with a blended family. I love the play off of The Brady Bunch in the opening sequence. How did you initially come up with this series?

Daphne: Well, I was initially developing it with a family with five kids because I’m from a family of five kids; I’m the eldest. It was good, but it wasn’t really taking off. And then, when I sort of reconceived it, I weirdly still remember where I was when I sort of thought, ‘No, we should make it a merged family, because then it can be the battle of the two eldest kids — type A and type ‘Slacker.’ It really came to life when I made it a merged family. Obviously, something like The Brady Bunch was merged, but that was like a widow and widower as opposed to two single parents with children.

Allison: This show, at times, was a little more mature than other things that were on Disney Channel at the time… What were some guidelines that you had for the writing team in creating stories that were authentic, but would still be okay for the specific audience that would be watching the show?

Daphne: That’s a good question. Our goal was always comedy with heart. And in order to have heart, you sort of need for it not to be saccharine. Ideally, they’re real stories. My co-writer on everything, Jeff Biederman, also came from a family of five, so I think he was good at providing more of the male perspective, and me, the female perspective.

In terms of parameters, I think we just wanted it to be real because to us, that’s funnier. And then in terms of how far we could go, we would push it as far as we could, and then we would be told what we couldn’t do — S&P, standards and practices, we would be getting that from Disney and from Family Channel. You also develop a sort of gut instinct for what’s acceptable. I don’t think we ever felt like our wings were being clipped in any way. … I remember our Disney executive at the time. He was very good at giving very good notes. I think a lot of writers see people giving notes as an annoyance, but I’ve always found that if you have the right people in place, having that perspective, it’s very helpful.

Allison: One thing that strikes me, looking at it as an adult, is seeing George and Nora actually struggle with work-life balance. And they don’t always have a perfect plan for dinner, for the kids’ lunches, and things are messy and disorganized sometimes. So I really appreciate that, and it’s something I may not have picked up on from the parents’ or adults’ side as much growing up.

Daphne: That was important to me because it was sort of a tradition of shows back then where the parents would come in, in the scene at the same time, as though they did everything together, and then they’d sort of make a couple of cracks and then they would leave, or they were giving time-outs. They were kind of like old-style parents. And I really wanted parents that felt like parents that we all had, that were confused and disagreed sometimes and were bemused and [would] joke around with their kids. So that was important to me. At the same time, what Jeff and I discovered in writing the show is, it didn’t really work to have scenes with just the parents. They were an important part of the scenes that were there, but the kids were driving it. So we virtually never had a scene that didn’t have at least one kid in it with the parents.

Allison: I am a huge fan of Shadia Simmons. She was in lots of other Disney Channel stuff. I’m curious about her role as Emily and some of the other friends and love interests, and how you built this world around Derek and Casey’s high school experience.

Daphne: It was obviously an episodic series, so every story had its own beginning, middle, and an end. But we were hoping to have some arcing elements and really, that became whoever they were dating, whoever Casey was keen on, or who Derek was keen on. … Shadia, it was interesting because I was rewatching the first episode, and you meet her in the first episode and she says, ‘Oh, my God, I have such a crush on that guy Derek.’ And Casey is just like, ‘Um, it’s my stepbrother,’ but Shadia has a crush on him from day one. But then all this stuff happens, and she’s Casey’s best friend and she’s present in every season. And then the way the show ends is Shadia’s character, Emily, getting together with Derek.

Allison: I was pretty sheltered in my middle school years, so it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how big of an online presence Life with Derek had, and a fan community, and how much the cast engaged with that… When did you become aware of the ‘Dasey’ fanship for this series?

Daphne: I’m kind of innocent, too. And the online world wasn’t as highly developed when we started, but I obviously became aware of it. To be fully honest, we weren’t writing to it. We weren’t trying to foster that. That was something that just evolved out of this amazing chemistry that Michael Seater and Ashley Leggat have, and they’re best friends still. I think they sort of enjoyed pointing it out, too. I think there was a sort of magnetic chemistry between the two of them.

Cast posing for Life with Luca

Life with Luca

Allison: Could you tell me a little bit more about the significance of Life with Luca premiering on Family Day [in Canada]?

Daphne: I think it’s kind of genius marketing on the part of WildBrain, who are broadcasting it. I think all the best family shows reinforce the importance of family. I think that’s kind of a universal theme, and it’s something we really actively wrote to in this movie. Derek has a daughter who he’s raised all on his own in Europe while he’s been a musician. She’s best friends with her father. They do everything together, but she’s never had a family per se. So she knows about all her cousins in Canada, but she hasn’t spent a lot of time with them. And she doesn’t really understand why she would want to, even, so she’s brought on this impromptu visit/reunion, by Derek, who’s trying to figure out how to manage her. And he’s a little bemused as to how to raise her now that she’s a teenager.

She’s kind of plunged into the middle of Casey’s family chaos [with] three children. She is not happy about the whole thing and definitely not happy about spending time with her cousin, who she just thinks is kind of a jerk. One of the themes of the movie is this only child, who’s grown up really mostly just with her dad, finding the joy of being in a big family.

Allison: That’s wonderful. What can you tell us about Casey and Derek as adults and and how much of their teenage personalities they will still have in this movie?

Daphne: Well, that’s a great question, too, ’cause Casey and Derek were such strong personalities and we definitely tried to carry that over into their parenting. So Casey is, of course, an extremely conscientious parent. She’s one of the parents that’s got a shelf full of books on childrearing and has rules and takes her kids to lots of lessons and tries to do everything the right way, no matter, even if it’s running her ragged. She’s a lawyer, too, so she’s quite busy. Her husband spends part of the time away every year playing hockey abroad. But she is darned if she’s going to let anything slip through the cracks.

And Derek is, I wouldn’t say he’s a slacker dad, he’s just more kind of, raised his daughter like his pal, like his sidekick. He adores her. They totally enjoy each other. But he’s never really had rules or structure in their lives because they’re on a tour bus half the time. She’s been tutored. She doesn’t go to a normal school. She’s had quite an unconventional upbringing. And Derek’s never had to play the tough dad. It’s always just been easy. So now, when he realizes that he needs to be a little more firm, he doesn’t really know how to go about it. So he’s kind of looking to either his parents, George and Nora, or to Casey to help them figure this out.

So few showrunners get to do this, to have a reunion with these characters they created, and obviously, with the actors who we became so close to over those years. Joy [Tanner] and John [Ralston] are great, and that was a real pleasure to see them again. Not to mention Ashley and Michael.

Allison: Is there any difference between developing a teen and family story like this in the 2000s versus today — whether that’s technology or anything else that you’ve taken into consideration?

Daphne: Well, definitely technology. All of us have to write with cell phones; everybody’s got a cell phone at all times. And I think we have to write to that. In the old days, a show like Family Ties, they were all siblings and it was just one big family. And then in Life with Derek, we made it a merged family. So that’s a combination of two families. And then in Life with Luca, we tried to be much more reflective of these times. So, Casey’s kids are biracial. Derek has been raising a daughter on his own. Derek and Casey have a brother who’s not much older than their kids. I think families, the definition of family has changed from just kind of the old-style family to a family which is a composite of different relationships and different parents. That kind of conventional definition of family has changed so much.

Allison: Absolutely, I think that’s been sort of progressing over the years. So that’ll be really neat to see how it’s reflected in this movie. And I don’t know if you saw, but Jordan Todosey and Daniel Magder recreated their little closet scene as Edwin and Lizzie. So I’m curious about whether or not there might be more stories to tell for the McDonald-Venturis, especially after bringing fans back to the family with Life with Luca.

Daphne: I would love to do that. It was decided it was just too much, too many characters… Initially we thought, ‘Well, we’ll do a full reunion show, like a full family reunion with everybody.’ But then it was too hard to introduce these new characters. So we focused on just an impromptu reunion of Derek and Casey and their families, plus their parents. But yeah, I would love to write more for those characters. I saw The TikTok, and I thought it was really well done, actually.

You can watch Life with Luca, written by Daphne Ballon and Jeff Biederman, tonight at 7pm on Family Channel! Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us, Daphne! 🙂

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