Jeanne Marie Ford: Soap Opera Diva
New Market writer Jeanne Marie Ford bubbles over with dialogue scripting ‘Days of Our Lives’
By Gina Gallucci-White
Photos by Noel Kline
“You lying bitch! It’s not enough that you kill my husband in cold blood but that you try and blame it on him!”
“If that happens, I am going to end up on death row … again!”
Surrounded by the warm sunshine-yellow and hunter-green walls of Jeanne Marie Ford’s New Market home, decorated with photographs of smiling children and her 2004 wedding reception at Camden Yards, I’d never suspect the cheerful hostess to be the author of that ripe bit of soap opera dialogue. Yet the Emmy Award nonchalantly resting on the coffee table in the back of the family room attests that she not only creates those conversations as a scriptwriter for NBC’s Days of Our Lives, but that she’s good at it.
Ford recalls watching the award telecast at home when the winner of the 2011-2012 Daytime Emmy for best writing team was announced. “All of a sudden they said, Days of Our Lives and I told the kids, ‘Go downstairs and tell Daddy, we just won an Emmy!’”
Ford’s husband Jim, a middle school teacher in Howard County, still thinks it’s exciting to see Ford’s name on the TV screen, even after two decades with the show. He finds it interesting watching episodes because the lives of the characters are so different from theirs. “They speak and act in a way that we just don’t so it’s fun to watch and know that the words spoken by the characters were scripted by my wife.”
And that requires about 6,500 words per hour episode. While Ford doesn’t come up with the wild yet engrossing story lines, she does deliver the dialogue in an 85-page script that’s divided into eight acts. Writing one, sometimes two, shows a week (“my most productive writing time is typically late at night and it always has been”), she tries to stick to a schedule of producing two acts a day to leave one full day for rewrites.
“Sometimes it comes out way better than I ever imagined; sometimes it doesn’t come out at all the way I imagined,” Ford confesses, adding that she always enjoys the creativity. “I am one of those people — I can’t craft. I can’t cook. I can’t sew. … Mostly it’s cool to be living the dream. I don’t think it ever gets old, which is nice.”
Now 42, Ford wanted to be a writer since her youth as the only child of the late Harry Grunwell, a U.S. Army linguist, and Marie Grunwell, a BG&E employee. Ford’s grandmother lived with the family and faithfully watched all the ABC soaps. “When I would come home from school, she would tell me what happened,” she fondly recalls. In third grade she wanted to be a children’s book writer. “Then when I was in seventh grade, I realized that people actually wrote for TV shows. I thought that would be cool.”
Her parents tried to talk her into pursuing a more stable occupation. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Johns Hopkins University yet wasn’t ready to give up writing. “I couldn’t find anything else I wanted to do,” she says. So Ford moved to Los Angeles and took an unpaid internship at Days, aka DOOL. She’d been watching the show since high school when her best friend got her hooked.
On the last day of her internship, she was hired as a writer’s assistant, a task she performed for four years. Though her grandmother remained loyal to her ABC soaps, she would change the channel to NBC as the end credits rolled to see her granddaughter’s name scroll across the screen. Once Ford got her scriptwriting job, she decided to move back east to be closer to family. “Soaps are pretty much the only television genre where you’re able to live wherever you want,” she notes.
Having spent 21 years with the show in several positions, including script editor, assistant head writer and continuity coordinator, Ford recollects a day in the office when she became somewhat alarmed that she could remember more about the fictional story lines than factual lessons. “Things I’d learned in college I could no longer remember but I could recount what episode number Bo and Hope’s wedding was because I had to insert it into so many flashback shows,” she says with a laugh.
In a world where Stefano DiMera has more lives than a cat and a demonic possession turned Dr. Marlena Evans into a yellow-eyed villain, Ford says the oddest storyline she has ever worked on involved the character Sami Brady. Actress Alison Sweeney was going on real life maternity leave, so it was decided her character would go undercover as a man, and a male actor was hired to take over the Sami role during her time off. Ironically, Ford was pregnant at the same time, too. Her children are now 8 and 6.
In addition to writing for TV, as a freelancer, Ford has realized her grade-school ambition, having ghost written three children’s mystery books as well as one of her own called Mind Games. She’s a third of the way along on her next mystery book project and has recently completed a biography of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Ford also teaches English at Frederick and Hagerstown community colleges, which is surprising considering she once thought she could never be a teacher.
“I know that a lot of people consider soap writers and actors ‘hacks,’” she says. But, “I have worked with so many intelligent, hard-working, extremely talented people. … I’ve worked on this show almost my entire adult life, and I feel very, very lucky to live with one foot in Frederick County and the other in Salem, USA.”