Finally free after years of captivity as an advertising executive, George Olson has used his experience as a creative director and chief creative officer at an advertising agency to enter the entertainment industry. Olson was writing and selling spec features and TV pilots, and developing new series with producers; and he now finds himself the creator, showrunner, and executive producer of Syfy’s latest series, SurrealEstate. Wanting to learn more about his background as well as SurrealEstate, I was able to interview him for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
George Olson: I’m all over the place. I’m a huge history buff so I love the true stories grounded in historical people and events. That said, I love good, trashy “beach reads” too; I feel like good stories well told turn up in all kinds of genres. I’ve always been a constant reader of Stephen King; Salem’s Lot was my first and still my favorite.
Overall, the stories I’m drawn to have one thing in common: fun, complex characters who surprise you. I read a lot of nonfiction as well–I think no knowledge is ever wasted, and you never know when a fun scientific fact or obscure literary reference will be perfect in a script.
Yanes: You had a career in advertising. What are some elements about advertising that you think has helped you become a better storyteller?
Olson: I always tell people that advertising is a great training ground for screenwriting for two basic reasons.
One, you learn economy of words; ad space is expensive, and a one-hour drama can’t go on for 90 pages.
And two, in both advertising and screenwriting, you are writing something that nobody wants to read. Every sentence in an ad and every page in a spec script has to give the reader a reason to keep reading.
Yanes: You split your time between Colorado, Los Angeles, and Canada. Which city has your favorite restaurants?
Olson: L.A. No question. The place I live in Colorado has its charms but dining isn’t one of them. St. John’s, Newfoundland—where we shot SurrealEstate—is a magnificent place and has some great restaurants but we were there during the pandemic, with very limited opportunities for adventurous dining. Oh, and I should mention that our star Tim Rozon owns two restaurants in Montreal so those are automatically my favorite restaurants in North America and possibly Earth.
Yanes: You are the creator, showrunner, and executive producer of Syfy’s SurrealEstate. What was the inspiration for this idea?
Olson: In my previous advertising life, we did a lot of work in residential real estate. An agent told me once that he had a client with a wonderful, marketable house with one problem: several nights a month, a woman in an old-fashioned nightgown appeared at their kitchen table in the middle of the night and cried. Their young daughter called her “Sad Sally.” The agent was perplexed: “I knew who to call for termites; who do I call for this?” That gave me the basic idea of a real estate firm that specialized in haunted houses. It germinated for a few years until I had to write it.
Yanes: As a Floridian Millennial, my connection to real estate is that it nearly destroyed the economy in 2008 and that it is now something I will never be afford. What is your personal connection to real estate and housing?
Olson: I’ve lived in Colorado all my life; bought and sold four houses, all without using a real estate agent. Jeez, I hope Luke Roman doesn’t read this.
Yanes: In regards to SurrealEstate, are there specific houses you think shaped how you approach this show?
Olson: Our location–St. John’s, Newfoundland–has such a wonderful variety of housing stock, from beautiful contemporary houses to these historic Victorian homes with incredible woodwork. And while we love these big, old historic places like the Donovan House–which features so strongly in Season One it’s almost a character–we wanted to make it clear that a house doesn’t need to be old and spooky to be “metaphysically engaged.” That mindset affected the design of the Roman Agency office as well. It’s not in a creaky old mansion–it’s a very modern, contemporary, Class A space. And our characters aren’t Charles Addams weirdos; they’re smart, successful, sophisticated professionals who have identified a niche in the market and are exploiting it.
Yanes: Only two episodes in, and it is clear that The Roman Agency is staffed by a great team of characters. How did you go about developing this team? Additionally, when did you know you had the right actors?
Olson: It was actually a very logical process–who would an agency specializing in haunted houses need? You’d need a good research guy; someone who could dig up the backstories and family secrets. You’d need someone who could design technology that enabled you to “see” the unseeable, and occasionally dissemble something that could not be vanquished otherwise. You’d need someone to keep the office organized, the open houses scheduled and the fridge stocked. And most of all–real estate is about closings. So, you need closers.
It’s always tough to cast an ensemble like this–the pandemic made it way harder. All of the auditions were done on tape, alone–the first time our cast was together was literally on-set on the day of shooting. And I have to say–the greatest miracle of SurrealEstate was the chemistry of this amazing cast when we put them all together. The very first scene we shot in the office was that moment when we all knew that these actors–as wonderful as they were individually–were something really special when brought together.
Yanes: As SurrealEstate developed from idea to a real television show, what were some elements that took on a life (or afterlife) of their own?
Olson: As we did the auditions, and talked to crew members, and looked at houses for possible locations, we asked a lot of people the question: Do you believe in ghosts? The most common answer was “No…” But it was almost always followed by something like “BUT…there was this one time…” And they would launch into a story of something that had happened to them, or a loved one, or acquaintance, that could not be explained.
I think many of us are skeptics–I know I am–but there is part of us that longs to believe that there is something more out there. I think we secretly hope that Luke is correct when he says “People die. Souls move on. Only love and low-maintenance composite decking last forever.”
Yanes: When people finish watching SurrealEstate, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Olson: First, I hope they have a great time–some laughs, a scare or two, an affinity with our characters. But I hope there’s something more. When French Poet Francois Rabelais lay on his deathbed, he said “I go to seek a great perhaps.” Without getting too writer-precious about it, that’s really what our show is about: The great perhaps. After watching our show, I’d love for people to think about how the past resonates in the present, and how that can not only be sad and scary, but perhaps kind of warm and comforting, too.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Olson: I’m working on a couple of things that I really can’t talk about for one of three reasons: #1. It’s in some delicate stage of development. #2. I really, really want it to happen and I’m afraid I’ll jinx it if I talk about it. #3. It’s too stupid to say out loud and needs a lot more work and very possible should be set on fire and I’m not quite ready to light the match yet.