18 (More) Things to Know About Rob Thomas and Veronica Mars
A guide for first-timers and Marshmallows alike before the film's release on March 14.
Approximately seven years ago–May 22, 2007, to be precise–Veronica Mars, the television show, aired for the last time. Exactly 365 days ago, Veronica Mars the movie, launched its record-setting Kickstarter. The film premiered at SXSW this past weekend, and opens all around the world on March 14, both theatrically and on-demand.
I first wrote about Veronica creator Rob Thomas sometime around 1991, when I gave his band Hey Zeus a decidedly tepid review in the Austin Chronicle (more on that later). I first wrote about him for Texas Monthly in 1997, when his second young adult novel, Slave Day, came out. There was no way to fit everything into my story about Thomas and Veronica Mars in the current issue, and there still isn’t. But here’s a little extra, taken both from past years, and from my reporting on the Kickstarter and the making of the movie over the past 12 months.
1. Rob Thomas originally became a screenwriter for the money
Thomas spent his college and post-college years at the tail end of Austin’s “New Sincerity” music scene, playing in the bands Public Bulletin, Hey Zeus, and Black Irish. When he left his day job as an Austin teacher in 1993 to go work for Channel One, an educational broadcast network in Los Angeles, he figured his rock’n’roll days were over, and he’d find creative satisfaction as a TV news producer. Unfortunately the Channel One job proved to be more of a bureaucratic drudge, so he began writing the book that became his debut young adult novel, Rats Saw God.
“I can say, honestly, that I did it without any ambition beyond it in mind,” he told me. “I was like a mountain climber. I wanted to do it just to see if I could do it. I didn’t even let myself worry about getting published until after I’d finished it.”
Once he found an agent and publisher, he even felt a little special. “I remember walking around LA coffee shops and seeing everyone’s laptops open to screenplays and feeling so pleased that I would be competing with what felt like a smaller pool. Everyone was writing screenplays. I didn’t know anyone in LA doing what I was doing.”
Then he found out what even the lowest-paid TV writer makes. “I was very serious about YA, and I loved my time doing that, but I kept thinking, ‘Man, I could pay off all my credit card debt in one season of that.’”
2. For a story set in California, Veronica Mars featured lots of Austin music
Just because he stopped playing in bands didn’t mean Thomas gave up on the hometown music scene. The first song played in the pilot is by Liberty Lunch regulars The Wayouts.
And Spoon’s Britt Daniel sang Karaoke on the show, doing Elvis Costello’s “Veronica.”
Thomas’s decision to feature Austin musicians not only gave those bands some national exposure, but also put some money in their pockets: songwriters would get unexpected royalty payments when their songs were broadcast. Texas Monthly senior editor Michael Hall, whose band the Wild Seeds enjoyed great national and local acclaim during the eighties and was used in Season 2, has said the show resulted in the the biggest check he ever saw as a musician.
In the movie, Austin songwriter Alejandro Escovedo makes an early cameo, busking on a New York City street, covering the show’s theme song, “We Used To Be Friends,” by the Dandy Warhols.
3. Thomas even named characters after Austin music people
The villainous but bumbling Sheriff Don Lamb was inspired by the guitar player from Doctor’s Mob, a legendary Austin post-punk group. The public defender in Neptune, the fictional town Veronica Mars is set in, is named Cliff McCormack, whose surname is lifted from Thomas’s close friend and former bandmate Greg McCormack. And the Wannabes, whose members are friends of Thomas dating back to his time at TCU, turn up in several different ways: an episode was named after their song, “I Am God,” and there are also shout-outs to Kevin Carney and Jennings Crawford. Even lowly music journalists were not immune to serving as a source of inspiration: during Season Three, there was a character named, ahem, Jason Cohen.
4. Thomas’s band once received a bad review that he loved
“I’ve dreamed of headlining the SXSW Festival since it first began in the late eighties,” Thomas wrote in one of his updates to Veronica Mars Kickstarter backers earlier this year, announcing the film’s world premiere. “Today, SXSW is probably the biggest annual event in Austin. But in 1987, it was a different beast — a small-ish music festival where about 700 people got to hang out and drink while listening to mediocre local bands.
“I don’t mean to sound disparaging. I was in one of those mediocre locals bands. Perhaps even the mediocre-ist. To put it in perspective, in one of our favorite reviews of our band, the critic said, ‘I don’t like them. They strike me as ordinary.’”
I was the author of that bad review, which ran in an Austin Chronicle review of a set by Hey Zeus when they opened for the Reivers. I also wrote: “But I’d sign them (feel free to take this out of context in your press kit).” Thomas, a good sport to this day, wrote me a note thanking me for the honest review, and promising they wouldn’t take it out of context.
5. Thomas doesn’t forget the little people
When I asked Dan Etheridge, one of Thomas’s longtime producing partners, what made Thomas special as a writer, he admitted that the first thing that came to his mind was actually not an answer to the question.
“He’s always so incredibly supportive and nurturing of other people,” said Etheridge. “Like, I was producing indie movies, he thought I would be great producing television and he worked very hard to help me to make that transition.”
Viet Nguyen, one of Thomas’s former high school students, had a similar experience: “I mean, this guy’s like the creator of a television show, but he calls me up while he’s driving his car and he’s like, hey, I can get you a job. I can’t get you any job you want, but I can get you an entry level job.”
And he did. Nguyen began as a production assistant on Veronica Mars, a gig that led to him becoming an editor on both Veronica and Party Down, and the director of the behind-the-scenes-documentary that will end up on the movie’s DVD.
6. The universe wanted Thomas and Tina Majorino to work together
Majorino, who plays Veronica’s best friend Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie, first met Thomas when she was eleven. She had just read Rats Saw God and reached out via email to interview him for a book report. They had lunch (Majorino’s mother drove her), and, as Thomas described in another of his Kickstarter email updates:
One of her questions was, “What do you want to do next?” I replied that I was hoping to transition into the TV and film business. She responded that she’d done some film work herself.
A girl with big dreams of being an actress! How sweet! I thought to myself. I should say something encouraging!
I wrote back asking her, politely I hoped, what movies she’d been in.
“Waterworld,” she wrote. “Corrina Corrina. When a Man Loves a Woman.
She was very sweet, though. She told me I should keep chasing my dreams.
“Looking back on it, that’s such a cool thing,” Majorino told me during production of the movie. “It was kind of just fated. Why would I pick up Rob’s book? We said, let’s promise each other that we’re going to work together someday. So all those years later, when Veronica Mars was coming up, and they contacted me, and they said, ‘he’s written this part for you,’ I was like, man, this is so cool. He’s just one of the rare people in Hollywood that means it, when he tells you something.”
7. Thomas scares Francis Capra
The actor who plays biker gang leader Weevil began his career in A Bronx Tale, but he told fans at San Diego’s Comic-Con that he’s never played a role as good since Veronica went off the air. “I was just showing up in interrogation rooms and saying ‘I did it.’”
His first day on the set of the movie, Capra was nervous, trying to refamiliarize himself with the character.
“Rob scares the shit out of me, he always has,” Capra said. “I love him to death, but ya know, he’s a father figure type: my boss during like the most formative years of my life. I grew up on Veronica Mars, so Rob is still like a big figure of authority for me, whether we’re on or off set.”
8. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan taught Thomas everything he knows
“One reason I relate to Veronica Mars fans is because I can totally geek out about shows,” Thomas told me. “I mean I write Vince Gilligan fan mail every year.”
That’s not just because Thomas digs Breaking Bad: early in his writing career, when he was also still a teacher, he wrote authorized novelizations of three episodes of The X-Files under the pen name Everett Owens (his two dogs), all of them based on Gilligan-written episodes.
“That’s the way I learned what TV scripts looked like,” Thomas said. “What they would do is send me an episode on VHS and then send me the script and I would have to turn it into like a 120-page novel for teen readers. It really allowed me to quit my day job, those books.
“And so, years later, walking across the Fox lot when I had that [production] deal, I finally stopped at Vince Gilligan’s door, and introduced myself and said, ‘you really…you put food on my table and taught me what a TV script looks like.’ He was gracious. And, strangely, he had all of those X Files novels sitting behind him between bookends. He had the whole collection and he had me sign them.”
9. Television is racier than a PG-13 movie
During the making of the movie, Thomas and his producing partners, Etheridge and Danielle Stokdyk, always knew that in order to earn a PG-13 rating, you could only use the mother of all profanities one time in the entire film.
“Should we get the ‘fuck me running?’,” Etheridge asked during the shooting of one scene.
“It’s my second-favorite spot for the ‘fuck,’” Thomas replied.
You’ll have to see the film to find out where, in fact, the word got used. But after it was finished, MPAA censors flagged two other lines of dialogue: references to “a reacharound,” and the phrase, “hung like a Clydesdale.” Arguably, both would have made it on the air if Veronica was still on television—at least in 2014, if not in 2004.
10. Thomas couldn’t donate to his own Kickstarter
It’s against the rules, and therefore the website makes it technologically impossible for the person who starts a campaign to donate to it. But many of the actors gave. One of the quirky things about the Kickstarter process was that, at the behest of Warner Bros., few of them could participate in the fundraiser until they were actually under contract to be in the film, and most of those contracts didn’t happen until after the Kickstarter was over.
Majorino found that kind of entertaining. She figured if the movie happened, she’d be in it, but until then she could just follow the action like any other fan. “One of my good friends is a huge fan of the show,” she said. “I didn’t even have to look anything up because he was coming up to me every five minutes, like, ‘We just made a million more dollars!’ It was fun that I got to experience it through another person.”
11. The movie is karmic payback for Cupid, one of Thomas’s other resurrected shows
Veronica Mars was not the first show Thomas managed to bring back to life: his first beloved-but-ratings challenged show, Cupid, returned to ABC for a second run in 2009, ten years after its first airing. But despite a stellar cast—with Bobby Cannavale and Sarah Paulson reprising the roles originated by Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall—it did not go well, which only heightened Thomas’s appreciation for how special Veronica is.
“I can’t tell you how often you do work that you don’t even watch in TV, and it’s your own thing!,” Thomas said this past summer at San Diego Comic Con. In the end, even though ABC wanted him to make the show, the network didn’t really seem to share his vision for it. “The note session [for the pilot] was three hours,” Thomas said. “I felt like Gob in Arrested Development: ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake!’
12. Union regulations prevented the Kickstarter contest winner from getting his speaking role
During the Kickstarter, Thomas could not yet get the Veronica Mars actors under contract because officially there still wasn’t a movie. There were only two exceptions to this: Kristen Bell, who obviously had to be on board from the beginning, and the one-line speaking role that went to whoever paid $10,000 to the Kickstarter.
As Thomas wrote in one of his updates when male lead Jason Dohring (Logan Echols) came on board right at the end of the thirty-day period: “We now have three actors officially cast. Veronica, Logan, and the waiter who says, “Your check, sir.”
Except the guy who shelled out five figures, Steven Dengler, is not a U.S. citizen. “When I say ‘out’ you can tell I am Canadian,” he said during his visit to the set.
That meant he couldn’t join the Screen Actors Guild, which meant he couldn’t be employed on U.S. soil with a speaking role. Goodbye, waiter. Instead, Dengler ended up with a line that he was able to shoot from the safety of Canadian soil, filmed via the Internet (you’ll have to see the movie to find out what it is).
13. Making the movie spared Thomas from having to watch the Spurs lose to the Heat
A former high school hoops star in San Marcos, Thomas is a giant Spurs fan. During the NBA playoffs, he occasionally sparred on Twitter with actor Percy Daggs, who plays Wallace Fennel. In the video Daggs filmed for the Kickstarter campaign to announce his official casting, the LA native razzed Thomas, calling him “The Pat Riley of this thing. Yeah, I said Pat Riley. Not Gregg Popovich.”
But Veronica Mars started production on June 17, which meant that Thomas missed the Spurs’ ill-fated Game 6 loss to Miami and the Game 7 clincher. When the director showed up on the set next day, Daggs told me, “I took it easy on him. He brought it up first, he put his arm on my shoulder and he said, ahhhhhh, and got it out of his system. So I let it go.”
14. Veronica Mars associate producer Ivan Askwith, the point person for all of the movie’s Kickstarter activities, predicted everything
In a 2005 article for Slate, written after iTunes first started making individual TV episodes available, Askwith, an MIT alum who has also worked in digital media for Lucasfilm, wrote that the ability to sell to fans directly instead of being reliant on advertising “could potentially usher in a new age of television, one where fans have the power to keep their favorite series in production and producers have the opportunity to create more elaborate, controversial, and innovative programs.
“I just hope Veronica Mars and Arrested Development will be available for download before the networks give up on them,” Askwith concluded.
15. A Party Down movie remains a possibility
“We’ve been paid to write it,” Thomas said of the other cult show he’s involved in. That means no Kickstarter, obviously, which is good. The real trick with reprising this other fan favorite would be coordinating the very busy schedules of the cast, which includes Parks and Recreation’s Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex), Martin Starr (Silicon Valley), Jane Lynch (who left the show to be on Glee), Megan Mullaly, and Ken Marino, among others.
“Everybody is still invested in it,” Starr told me on the set of the Veronica Mars movie. “It just means a lot to us as a group of actors. Adam and Megan and Ken and Lizzy and Ryan [Hansen, the famous Dick Casablancas on Veronica Mars] and I all email every now and again and try and reignite the flame of passion. In doing this, and being around Rob and Dan [Etheridge] and picking their brain about what’s really happening, it gives me more hope that it will happen, eventually, if not in the near future.”
16. Starr and Hansen’s chemistry on Party Down may not involve much acting.
When I interviewed Starr last summer, Hansen—who played pretty boy actor-wannabe Kyle on Party Down, a sort of nemesis to Starr’s screenwriter-wannabe character, Roman—passed by Starr’s trailer several times asking, with deliberate repetition, “Have you seen my leather jacket? Have you seen my leather jacket.” Starr ignored him at first, then said no.
As our interview finished, Starr wrapped up our discussion of Party Down with an imitation of how Hansen got his part on the show (think casting couch, with Thomas and Etheridge). He then coolly turned away from both me and Hansen, ducked into his trailer for a second, and emerged wearing a leather jacket.
17. SPOILER ALERT: There may be a reference to Rob Thomas (as in, the “other” Rob Thomas, from the band Matchbox 20) in the movie.
“What a narcissist,” actor Chris Lowell joked on set as he read the line, which references a short list of pop music (“Kylie Minogue! The Pussycat Dolls! Solo Rob Thomas!”) at the Neptune High Class of 2004 10th high school reunion. “Is that really in the script?”
18. Thomas will read the reviews
What constitutes a success for Veronica Mars?
“The sort of pro and con with TV is that you can have an episode that fails and as long as the series is good, you get that one that is a “C” but you move on,” says Thomas. But in film: I know how this movie does will dictate whether I get to direct again. And whether we get to do another Veronica Mars movie.
Hey, no pressure.
“I want to earn this money back and have them think this was worth doing,” Thomas continues. And artistically–I am on MetaCritic all the time. I want it to get to the green. What is that, is that like 62 or 63? On Rotten Tomatoes I want it to be “fresh.” These are the lines I’m looking at. And really, I want the Veronica Mars fans to love it.”