The core question explored in Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Road Less Traveled, it also applies to the person behind its thought-provoking script. Brandi Harkonen has been with Signed, Sealed, Delivered since its inception, and has spent nearly two decades (and counting) working alongside Martha Williamson. While not her first solo script for the show (she wrote the series finale, A Hope & A Future), The Road Less Traveled marked her first solo by-line in the two-hour film era of the Signed, Sealed, Delivered. And I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to get to know her a little bit better as both a person, and a storyteller, when we chatted recently.
So what was it like for Brandi to take over the reins to write The Road Less Traveled? “I was incredibly excited. I had been asking to write a script by myself for a long time. But then I about died going ‘Are you kidding me? How am I going to be able to write one to the quality that it needs to get written?’ So after my panic attack, and Martha calming me down saying, ‘You know, you can do this,’ it was like, ‘Ok, I can do this.’"
But even then, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “Honestly it was a very interesting process---I had to write 9 before 8, which was incredibly hard. What was hard was coming off of Higher Ground, we knew [Norman and Rita] were going to get engaged in [Home Again]...so we knew [they] were getting married in [To The Altar]. So obviously there is this middle ground which is kind of “No Man’s Land,”...which is the really hard part---it’s like writing the second act of a movie where things can go completely and utterly wrong and off track. So I was living in No Man’s Land trying to figure out how to bridge [an unwritten 9 & 10] and still make it make sense.”
“I wanted to do something different. I wanted to, and really tried to, make this different, because it was something coming from me. And so going on a road trip---that would be really fun. Let’s get out of the DLO, let’s move this. You’ll notice the camera movement---there is so much more camera movement in this movie. We used a steadicam, which we don’t usually use. So even with how we shot the film, it’s different, which is something that I wanted. And...when I got to use pictures, I didn’t have to use words to write a letter. Come on---how can I beat Martha writing a letter?! I can’t. So, I’m like, ‘Ok, I’m not going to compete with her. Never going to get this letter to be as effusive, beautiful and heartbreaking and amazing as her, so let’s take out the words and just use pictures.’ A picture says 1,000 words---so why would I need to write [words]?”
Aside from the unique structure of the film, Brandi also had something specific she wanted to accomplish when it came to Oliver, Shane, Rita and Norman.
“I wanted them all to have issues, basically. Which is usually not the case---usually you have one character have the problem. And it has usually been Oliver. And I’m like, ‘Ok, Oliver has had enough problems already. Let’s not make the problem about Oliver. Let’s make the problem Oliver has be because of something Shane is going through.’ Then Oliver gets all feisty about that and has to deal with something, but he has to change the way in which he deals with it. He has to be trusting and accepting that Shane will be available to him when she’s ready to be available to him.”
In addition to her unique approach to this film, Brandi also made it a point to fill in some backstory when it came to characters like Shane, and especially Norman.
“Martha and I talked extensively about Shane’s past when I was pitching her. For me, I felt like we haven’t explored Shane….yes [we have] with Steve. Yes, with the whole Oliver conflict. And a little bit with her dad---but that was back in the Christmas movie. So I felt that we really hadn’t explored Shane and what makes Shane [who she is] for a long time. Even when we dealt with Steve, that was about Oliver...and his conflict...with Shane possibly having a boyfriend, right? So what have we ever dealt with that really makes Shane who she is as a person? So [Martha and I]discussed for a while---who is in Shane’s life? Does she have a family? And so that’s when we decided and came up with the idea, ‘Yeah, she does. I know she does.’ And having a sister that she doesn’t ever want to talk about---again, you go back to that theme of ‘How well do you really know a person?’ This was one of those things that I thought was going to be important because it was someone in Shane’s life that she didn’t want to talk about. She was embarrassed. She didn’t know how people...or, Oliver specifically, going to handle the information that she had somebody in her life that was trouble, was an addict...and it was a difficult thing in her family. And it’s sometimes those difficult things in your family that you don’t want to discuss. So we hide those things from ourselves because we don’t want to deal with them.”
Of course, internal conflict can wreak as much havoc as external conflict, and Norman certainly had his fair share.
“I was excited about was writing for Norman again. Sometimes Norman gets a bit of a short shift. He doesn’t get talked about. I got to introduce Norman’s grandmother, and his issues, back in A Hope & A Future. So for me, I got to explore Norman again. He doesn’t know his family...and his biggest thing is ‘Who Am I? I don’t even know who I am, Rita, how can you know who I am? And how can you love me? Because I don’t think you might love me because you don’t know these things about me. So if I can’t love me, how can you love me?’”
“I [also got] to put in Oliver’s mouth what [Ardis] said to him in the hospital bed [about facing the scary in A Hope & A Future]. It’s about Norman---and it makes Norman think. The scene with[Norman driving the RV] was literally one of my most favorite scenes. I wanted [Norman] to have that moment where he was excited about something, and he got to drive, but he didn’t know what he was doing. Still it was that same thing of Norman growing into himself and being willing to open up and take that chance, obviously with Oliver’s guidance. Again, I was very excited to be able to talk about Norman [and] his issues again.”
“I wanted the audience to judge Rachel. I wanted them to think ‘Oh my gosh, is she a bad parent?’ And I wanted that to be put out there. Who are we as an outsider to look at somebody and judge them for what we perceive? And that is a a lot of the issue that we do have, that we want to be perceived a certain way or we don’t want to be judged for anything. So as an audience judging Rachel for the type of mother that she was. And what was she? Was she on the run? Is she a good parent? Is she a bad parent? And then finally coming and understanding, 'Ok, well, she’s not a bad parent, she’s a good parent. What is she running from? Oh, so her husband’s in jail---now we’re gonna judge her husband. Now her husband’s in jail, what is he in jail for? Ok, he went to jail for a good reason, or what he perceived as a good reason. So again, Rachel didn’t know things about her husband. And she’s doing the same thing to her son---she’s not telling her son what’s going on. So she’s keeping secrets from her son. So how well does the son know the mother? How well does the mother know her husband? How well does the son know his father?"
And this theme would have presented itself even sooner if Brandi had been able to get a particular song applied to the opening credits.
"The only thing I would have changed with [The Road Less Traveled] was the opening song. My first choice for [opening credits] was “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” by Simply Red. I pushed hard---it was just budgetary. Apparently that song is incredibly popular and you need to pay a lot of money for it. So that was the song I wanted to be the opening song for the movie, which would have basically laid out the theme right there for everyone."
"You know music on this show... it’s so important. What are the music choices, and why are we making certain music choices? That’s definitely a perspective, working with Martha for as long as I have, that a lot of stuff that I write now, I have music in my head going, ‘Ok, what is the song that would fit here?’”
Which brought up an important point: Much like our POstables have to navigate the finer points of relationships, so do Brandi and Martha, particularly when they write.
"I have learned Martha’s style---Martha feels safe with me. I can bring up the obstacles, even when we’re dealing with story. And that’s what I’ll do---I’ll ask a question and say 'Hm, there’s something about this that doesn’t feel quite right.' And what I love about Martha is that she will hear it, and she will say, 'Ok, Brandi said it, so that means it’s a valid point. And how do we re-do this? How can I restructure this to address Brandi’s question about this point?' There’s some times when she’ll fight for a point, but then when she does, and I know it’s a really strong point, then we work together on how best to get an answer to that question and still fulfill what her wishes are."
"I [also] tend to be a bit more of a darker writer than Martha...I tend to introduce a little more tension and conflict in stories---even in our stories...and then Martha balances it out with the classic Martha stuff...My style is just a little bit darker---but that doesn’t mean dark doesn’t have hope. So there’s always that message of hope---that things will get better. It’s just placed a little bit differently."
Looking back at our interview, it's evident Brandi is very much practicing, and has mastered, the aspects of life and relationship which she is challenging us to lean into and explore throughout The Road Less Traveled.
Keenly aware of her strengths and preferences as a storyteller, Brandi embraced a bold, innovative approach to The Road Less Traveled reflective of those strengths and preferences, instead of trying to replicate what had been done before. And the outcome was just as strong and compelling as the installments that preceded it. Similarly, using the Simply Red song to pitch her idea for the film to Martha not only helped Brandi to articulate her own idea, but allowed Brandi to express herself in a way that she knew Martha would best be able to understand her.
Even so, her passion for storytelling doesn't end in the writer's room. Brandi also loves directing. In fact, you may remember she directed a short in which Crystal Lowe was featured back in 2016 called 2 Bullets.
"We had literally just finished Higher Ground, and we rolled over onto my short---for me directing for the very first time---the next day."
Brandi is also preparing to direct another short, written by a friend of hers who asked specifically for her to be involved in the project. "We’re trying to crew-up and hoping to film in October. I am very excited to Direct again---I love directing.” And for those who are wondering, she would direct and episode of Signed, Sealed, Delivered in a heartbeat.
“[I] just [want to acknowledge] the incredible support that we’ve gotten has been amazing. And [I'm] very appreciative of just the intelligence. I love intelligent fans. For me, honestly, I wrote a lot of things into Road Less Traveled to honor the fans going, ‘Ok, they’re going to get this. I put this in here, they’re going to get this.’ All the little nod-backs, all the little nuggets are fun for me to write knowing other people will get them. I really appreciate you guys paying attention. I really appreciate you guys watching. And I know you guys love the show, so have fun with it.
She also hopes some of the subject matter will spark meaningful conversations as well. “That’s why I love writing---to be able to put out a message to actually have a dialogue about. The fact that people will want to talk about and it 'What was she really trying to say? Oh, she was saying this? Oh, my gosh, this relates to me in my life...and I can use this piece of information. Maybe I can grow from this.' That is the best compliment you could ever give a writer.”
I thank Brandi for taking the time to chat with me about this beautifully crafted film, and for her infectious passion for storytelling which she shares with all of us.