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What's a 'Roadie'? SYFY's SurrealEstate creator George Olson on creating haunts with heart & inventing ghosts
In this week's episode of SurrealEstate, "Quarantine," our heroes are trapped in their place of work alongside a demon referred to as a "Roadie." This isn't the first cleverly named, non-corporeal entity we've been introduced to in the series, nor will it be the last.
Curious about the naming conventions of his world — and so much more — SYFY spoke with SurrealEstate creator George Olson to get to the bottom of the spooks and the many characters we've been living with throughout the season.
But first, why a show about real estate agents who sell haunted houses?
"I was in advertising for most of my career, and we did a lot of work for residential real estate companies, usually branding work, and helping them set their brands and to define themselves and delineate themselves from all the other real estate companies out there," Olson explains. "And I got to know the business a little bit. But at one point I was talking to one of the residential agents and he was telling me about a house that he had just listed, and it was this wonderful house... It was an older home, beautiful woodwork, gorgeous stairway. I mean, just really a terrific house. He said, 'It's really going to do well, I think. I think it's going to sell really fast.' But the owner said, 'Well, the one thing that I do worry about is that whoever buys the house is buying Sad Sally, too.'"
The homeowner then explained to the agent that Sad Sally was the name their daughter came up with for the woman who "appears in an old nightgown about once a month and sits at our kitchen table and cries all night.
"And the agent was like, 'If you've got a leaky roof, I know how to fix that. If you've got radon gas in the basement, I can even mitigate that. Who do I call for this?'" Olson continues. "And as I was thinking about that, I thought, 'Well, we've seen the Ghostbusters idea, and the fact that these are guys who are specialists in helping spirits move on and all that kind of stuff,' but it's like, 'Well, what if they were realtors themselves? What if that was their little niche?' And that's kind of what got me going on it and thinking, "Well, it does have that procedural house of the week kind of engine to it."
Olson delighted in the idea that he could turn the oft-superficial real estate market into something heartfelt. "Taking something like that and combining it with something as mystical and mysterious and deep and emotional as a haunting, and what would those people be like?" he muses. "How would you mash that up? That's what made me like the idea enough that I finally had to just sit down and write the pilot."
Read on for our part one of our conversation with Olson to learn more about coming up with the ghosts Luke & co. have been tackling all season, and how the emotional heart of the series continues beating.
What have been some of the most gratifying reactions to the series you've seen so far?
What's been really fun is that the very things that I loved about the project just in the earliest pilot stage are the things that the audience has responded to and liked. The combination of what we were calling... Oh god, what's the term? Humor, horror, and heart. The thing that made our tone really tough to nail down is something that people are really responding to. And that's really exciting, because a lot of people who read the original pilot said, "Well, what is this? Is this a horror thing? Is this a soap? Is this a procedural?" And it's like, "Yeah, it's like the old Saturday Night Live sketch, it's a floor wax and a dessert topping."
And what I always like to think is it's a lot like life. There's moments that just make you want to cry, there's moments where you just laugh like an idiot, and there's moments that scare the hell out of you. And I really liked the combination of all those.
And it's been fun to see the reactions of our audience members on social media and everything, that they have responded to that as well, particularly like Episode 5, where you have these really heartfelt moments. Starting with our oil monster shuffling through, inciting August and Phil, and then we get these really heartfelt moments from Phil in the middle, and then at the end: That moment with Luke and the little boy, all of which was so beautifully, beautifully directed by Melanie Scrofano.
What strikes me about this show, too, that also feels rare right now is that this is an original concept. It's not based on anything. I'm curious where this concept initially came from.
Did you ever look into anything "haunted" beyond hearing about Sad Sally while you were researching for the show?
I did speak to a woman who specializes in going to residential and commercial properties when a new company or a new resident would come in. She was Native American, and she would be doing some of the Native American rituals that they've handed down from generation to generation to cleanse a new place. And I found that really fascinating.
But mainly what I did, and what we've continued to do throughout the production of the piece, when we were scouting for locations in St. John's, Newfoundland, and Quebec, was we asked a lot of people, "Well, do you believe in ghosts?" And it's amazing how many of them said, "No, not really, but there was this one time..." The no was followed by, "But there was this one time," or, "I know this guy," or, "My grandmother said..." And they follow it up with something that was really interesting and really kind of chilling, and absolutely inexplicable. So I think I found that just really interesting, because it fits in so well with the thought of our show. I mean, it's like Luke says in one episode, he says, "Most of our clients don't even believe in the things that they've hired us to get rid of."
And we live in a very, very cynical age. However, along with the cynicism is a pragmatism that says, "OK, I don't believe in these things, but if I've got a problem with one and it's not letting me move on and sell this house and move on to the next house, then do something, will you? I don't need to know what it is. Just do something."
Right. There's an answer here.
Exactly. And that's kind of what our show is predicated on. It's all about Luke... Megan tells it in the pilot, "I don't believe in ghosts." And Luke says, "I don't either. I just work with them." It's that kind of pragmatic approach that I found so fun, and that we've really tried to sustain. You haven't heard the word "ghost" very often.
Rarely, if at all.
You haven't heard the word "haunted" hardly at all, and that was just one of the bedrock concepts of our show is that we don't talk about those things. We call them metaphysically engaged properties. And this is something that I think every business does, every profession does. We come up with our own shorthand. We come up with our own vernacular that enables us to describe this in a way that we know what we're talking about, but our clients and the other civilians out there really don't.
And the fun thing about bringing Susan into this world, someone who is just a realtor's realtor, bringing her in here, she's not used to not knowing anything. And so when they bring her in and they start talking about a Harvey or a Poindexter, or any one of the little glossary that we worked up, and all the terminology and all the acronyms, starting with SMEP, specialists in metaphysically engaged properties, that is all the stuff that they do so they don't scare the tourists, so they don't sell. So they don't scare away the clients and everything.
And it just was an ongoing fun thing as we were in the writers' room, and we kept encountering these things. We thought, "Well, what would they call that? What would they call that?" And a Freddo, a Flycaster, a Gretel, all kinds of different terminology that they understand. It's like the Native Alaskans having 100 different words for snow. That's such an important part of their lives, they have broken it down into all of these different things that the casual observer would never know. It's the very same thing with the Roman Agency. They know so much, and they've encountered so many different kinds of these that they don't just say, "A ghost." They say, "It's this kind of ghost. It's this kind of entity. It's this kind of unfinished business that needs to be finished before the house can be sold effectively, and for the greatest return."
The spirits or entities themselves, like you've said, they're all animals, but they're different species. And you've got a glossary of terms laying them all out, right?
Right. Yeah. And what we did, and Danishka Esterhazy, our producing director, put together a bible for our show, where we defined all of these things. And she did such a beautiful job with it. And we really made kind of the rules for the show.
And one of the things that we decided was that there were basically three categories of entities that they would encounter. There were the actual ghosts... they had the unfinished business, usually.
And then there are demons who just want to watch the world burn and just want to hurt people. And then there are wanderers. The wanderers are kind of the dress extras of the spiritual world, Like in the Donovan house, we see the wanderers who are just kind of trapped like a bug in amber to a particular property. And they're kind of passive protagonists or antagonists as it turns out. So when we have those little words, usually the terms for most of them, they're either demons or they're ghosts.
And there are so many of them, but when you're coming up with the names for these things, a lot of them are obviously pop culture references. So something like the Roadie, do you remember what the thought process was to call it that?
Yeah. I mean, this is talking about a demon that had no physical form or purpose unless it was in the host. I think Zooey has a line where she said, "The Roadies never travel alone. They're always with the band. And that's very much where that came from. And it was purely a result of thinking, "Well, what would you call that kind of thing?" We already referred to a piggyback, but that seemed kind of benign for this particular thing. And this was something that got very busy. And Roadie just really felt like the right... It felt a little bit toss-off, but a little bit scary too, so we liked that.
Do the actors have the context for this? Were you going along and explaining, "This is what this means, and this is where this reference is from"?
Yeah. Yeah. A lot of that was on set, and as they were preparing for the scenes and everything, and going over the lines — It's so wonderful to have actors sending you emails and saying, "Well, what is this? What does this mean? What do you think about this and everything?" I know a few people who kind of roll their eyes when that happens. And for me, I just absolutely love it because it means that the actors, number one, are engaged. You'd be hard-pressed to find a bunch of more engaged actors than our cast, but they genuinely want to know because they want to use it. And then this is not trivia for them. They really want to use that knowledge in how they discuss it.
And the whole idea behind the names and the jargon is to show... Because you could have a line that says, "Well, of course, these people have worked together a long time, so they kind of finish each other's sentences and everything like that." But if you do this, if they use these terms and they all universally understand it, then that says that same thing. That creates that whole perception and that whole reality that these people, they have worked together before, they do like each other, they have come up with these cool little names, and they know exactly what the other one is talking about.
And it also emphasizes Susan's otherness, particularly in Episode 2, it really shows that she, along with us, the audience, really want to know what a Harvey is and why they call it a Lassie. And what in the world is an LRG? A Little Red Granny, what is that? And so she's learning along with us, but we're also all learning these guys have been around the block a few times together.
Just a few!
[Laughs.] Yeah. And they have put together this jargon for what they do, and it's fun. It's just another element. It just became a really fun part of writing for the actors and watching how they kind of play with those ideas and everything, and how they kind of throw them away, which is exactly what they should do, because this is talking shop.
New episodes of SYFY's SurrealEstate premiere every Friday at 10 p.m. ET.