Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog



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Friday, December 31, 2004

A BRIDGE TOO FAR

I had vague fond memories of this pic, but after Band of Brothers it hardly holds up. There's no thematic center. It seems to be anxious to show how Operation Market Garden was always doomed because of blinding stupidity on the British part, though Eisenhower always maintained later it was just a gamble that had to be tried. So you have a lot of stars chasing around Holland getting in personal trouble because of the snafus. Unfortunately they're all playing generals, so that rings false -- generals rarely get in personal trouble. And generals rarely get to emote, so what's the point of having all the stars? I'd rather follow one company -- oh, wait, that was Band of Brothers.

I'm rambling, because there was so much wrong with it. Attenborough does love his pageantry. But the main thing wrong with it was it wasn't about one thing. It was trying for epic scope. But even epics are about one thing. The Iliad is about the rage of Achilles.

I wonder if The Longest Day has the same problems...

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Thursday, December 30, 2004

TENDER MERCIES

I had trouble watching this movie. It takes a while to figure out what Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) wants. He's one of those characters that don't like to say much. Trouble is, we find out little about him (and what he's feeling) from the people around him. Oh, we get dribs and drabs of information about the outer person -- the famous person he was -- but no one really seems to know him. It struck me as a classic actor-driven movie. The star is convinced he can act the hell out of the role, and everyone will get what he's thinking. But he doesn't want to betray the character by becoming talkative. And he's not as brilliantly transparent an actor as he thinks he is. So it takes the better part of the movie before we really have a sense of what he's all about. And even then we're on the outside. The movie was well regarded, but it stays a small acting piece instead of a powerful classic because no one opens the character up for us. We could have heard from the second wife, the kid, the ex-wife, the daughter. But they're all just as unselfaware as he is. Which is "the truth" -- people are really like that. But it doesn't help the audience. Film is supposed to give us insight into what's going on around us. A narrative drama is supposed to pull back the curtain on life. This one just shows us more life.

I also had trouble because I thought I was for sure watching a European movie and Mac would surely foul up his newfound happiness, because life is like that. At least that didn't happen. The ending is small, but happy.

After seeing this one, and Capturing the Friedmans, we had to watch an hour of When Harry Met Sally... just to get back in a happy homey little mood....

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CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS

Really interesting documentary about a deeply screwed up family that looks normal in its home videos. The big question is: did Arnold Friedman, well-loved teacher, brutally sodomize students of his after-school computer classes. And the answer to my mind is: of course not. It looks like an obvious case of cops eliciting testimony from impressionable kids. But Friedman got sent up the river because of what he was: a pedophile, with yards of the most outrageous child pornography, who clearly dearly wanted to have sex with eight year old boys. And his son got swept up in the prosecution because the family was divided against itself, and had shockingly bad lawyers. (When I can think of five or six things the lawyers should have done, whose omission was cripplingly stupid, that's bad lawyering, 'cause my knowledge of the law is from TV and the newspaper, same as yours.)

It's a great documentary because there's a mystery, and a bunch of facts, and the truth is something you'd never be able to make a narrative fiction movie about, and it puts you into a world that's familiar and yet deeply weird. Definitely worth the rental.

And now I have to stop the baby from smashing up the remotes... boy she loves those remotes.

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MERRY CHRISMUKKAH

Having a verrry quiet little holiday out in East Hampton, with not much in the way of Internet access, which is just fine. I'm onto the third draft of Unseen. Everybody's a little bit sick, so it's a lot of long naps in the afternoon, usually when Jesse's asleep.

The big question is whether to bump Rebecca down from 16 years old to 12 years old in Unseen. I'd rather she was 16 because it's not really a kid's movie. But the story is strangely virginal -- she has no love interest. And more importantly, I have the impression that you can make a movie about a 12 year old that adults watch (think Harry Potter) while you can't make a movie about a 16 year old that adults watch. Supernatural movies about 16 year olds seem to be made for teens to watch. (Think all the horror and slasher pictures.) This isn't a horror movie, it's an adventure story.

But making her 12 just seems to feel wrong. I started to try it, but I didn't like the results. So it's back to 16. Hope that doesn't create major problems in setting the picture up.

I'm also torn because I think this is a story that could work in the States -- rewriting it for New York would be no problem -- but that throws the script into the huge pond of rejectable specs that I so happily left four years ago. On the other hand it's a pretty big project for a Canadian picture.

None of which helps writing the best story I know how to write, but troubles me, because there's no point pouring all this love and imagination and effort into the story if it's just going to end up in the recycle bin.

And so I continue to ponder ...

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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

LARGE INCREASE IN GUMMINT GIMMES

Ontario is increasing its film subsidy. The subsidy for foreign films goes from 11 to 18 percent; Canadian films from 20 to 30 percent.

Hopefully Quebec will follow suit.

If so, this is exceptionally good news for Yours Truly. Looked at one way, the increase only offsets the rise of the Canadian dollarette from 75 cents to 85 cents. But looked at another way, together with the Federal subsidy (which is I think around 12 percent), you can now get 40% of your Canadian movie from the Feds and the province. That means you have to get only 60% of your movie from foreign sales and the US market. 60% is more than 10% easier to hit than 70%.

Having worked in independent feature filmmaking for almost a decade, it's the "gap" in your budget that is the killer. The last 10-30% is what separates real producers from talkers. Anybody can get some foreign sales (if you have the right star in the right vehicle). But you need to make the movie before you can get all of them. If you don't have those sales in your pocket, they're not in your budget -- unless you get a bank to "discount" those markets. They'll give you cash up front, but only about 80% or 90% of the value of those markets -- that's where they make their profit and insulate themselves against a crappy unsellable movie. So discounting costs you money. If you can get the money from the Federal and provincial governments, you can sell those markets later when you have actually made the movie, and receive full value for them.

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DIGGING DEEPER

"When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." Someone should inform the President of this, but what brings it to mind is ep. 1.04 of Coupling. It not only has one of the most brilliant and long-drawn-out comic misunderstandings I've seen in a while, it has a splendid example of a character Digging Himself In Deeper.

My theory for the moment is all comedy comes from four sensations: pain, embarrassment, frustration and disgust (gross-out). I.e. it's basically about non-fatal suffering inflicted on someone other than us. Can anyone come up with a counter example?

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DESPERATE TO PROCRASTINATE

I'm up against a dumb chase sequence. I hate writing chase sequences. Sure, if you have a Hollywood budget you can blow stuff up and crash things. But that's really more fun for directors to think about than for writers to come up with. At least, this writer. It feels like chopping wood. No, actually, I'd rather be chopping wood. I love writing dialog. I hate designing chase sequences. Unlike a good conversation, chases rarely take on a life of their own as you're writing them.

So I am desperate to do anything but write it. I took Tournament No Limit Poker off my toolbar, so I'm controlling my urge to play a small tournament. There's nothing worth reading on my usual websites. I am sitting here trying to hack it out. But I'm not enjoying it.

Maybe the phone will ring and save me. Of course, the damn sequence will still be sitting there.

This is what writer's rooms are for. A roomful of writers can come up with some fun chase gags. You string them together, and boom, chase sequence.

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LOOKING FOR CUTAWAYS

I'm frustrated. Every time I come to the button on a scene, I want to cut away to another story line. That's what we did on Charlie Jade. But I'm rewriting Unseen, a devotedly single-story movie. I've got to cut away to the same characters, a few minutes later. I miss that feeling of "bounce"!

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Monday, December 20, 2004

MINUS 26 DEGREES C

"After winning his throne in a bloody battle, the Emperor outlawed the teaching of Wu Shu. His faithful bodyguard became an itinerant monk. But when a bandit lord threaten the honor of a mandarin's daughter, the bodyguard must decide whether to honor his oath to the Emperor or his love for the girl."

It is bitterly, bitterly cold outside. When the wind is calm, the arctic air just hangs there like a hostile guest. When it blows, it sucks the warmth out of you and your face hurts. This is the weather New York doesn't get, against which there is very little to do unless you're ready to put on a space suit and leave no skin exposed.

And yet the dog seems to mind it not...

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ROUND UP THE USUAL SUSPECTS

I see they rounded up 50 people after the bombings in Karbala. Hmm, nice they knew whom to arrest. Why didn't they arrest them before the bombings, if they were doing illegal things? And if they weren't, why now?

It's nice to see the rule of law at work...

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KUNG FU WEATHER

Now I have to throw on snow pants and brave the fantastically cold weather -- minus 23 celsius, according to the Net. Ugh. When the weather gets this cold, Lisa likes to quote kung fu movie plots to me, because kung fu movies are often shot in tropical Hong Kong.

Q. "How's the weather?"

A. "He promised his sainted mother he would never fight again. But when the ninja gang moved in and threatened his calligraphy school, he had to break his promise."

or

A. "Twin brothers, separated at birth. One's a cop. One's a killer."

Lisa points out that kung fu movie plots are often quite similar to opera plots. Which makes sense. Both operas and kung fu movies have the same structure: aria - recitative - aria - recitative. Except the kung fu movies' arias are fights, and the recitatives are explanations: "Let me tell you why I am going to kill you."

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THE LONG WEEKEND

We have mostly given up any effort to get "things" done during the weekend. Hunter will mostly take care of himself if allowed to play computer games -- he can disappear into the Playstation or into the excellent city-building game Stronghold for as many hours as we'll let him. But Jesse, adorable child that she is, wants attention, and you can't really ignore an 11-month-old and tell her to go play with her toys. She makes the Bad Noise if you do.

I suppose I could have selfishly disappeared into the bedroom, but what I've been needing is to work out the quest sequence in Unseen. Once Rebecca convinces Vashti and Robert to help her find her mom, she searches for clues to where Mom might have been taken. I had been thinking of that sequence as more or less the second act, but it turned out to be 11 pages. (This is one reason why I mistrust Three Act Structure. Does Act Two begin when Rebecca "dies"? When Mom's kidnapped? When Rebecca meets Whisky Jack? None of which will mean much to you, Dear Reader, except that the above events are scattered over some forty or fifty pages, and any one would qualify for First Act Turning Point if you were applying Syd Field robotically.)

It's an irony of story telling that something can be boring if it's too short. This is what I had here. The quest sequence was not complicated enough. Rebecca finds a takeout bag, which leads her to an apartment, where she finds a key, which leads her to a door. Pat-a-pi, pat-a-pom. Too simple, too straightforward. Nothing to really thrill. No red herrings, no twists, no mistakes, no turns. At 11 pages this sequence was muchtooshort.

With a lot of help from Lisa, and a lot of grumping from Yours Truly, there's now one more scene in this sequence, one dead end, a dead body, a creepy revelation about Mom, a chase and ... they wind up in the same place. It might add no more than 5 pages but they should but much less "talky" and much more thrilling pages.

So that's my job for today.

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Saturday, December 18, 2004

> Q. If someone doesn't live in LA, and they want to get into TV,
> do they have to move to LA? Or would it be enough to have two socko
> spec scripts and be willing to visit for staffing season -- and how
> long a visit would that be?

My source writes:

Short answer: yes. Long answer: no. You can get staffed from out of town if you are brilliant and have a brilliant connected agent. But it's also just as likely you'll win the Lottery. Never say never. But if you really want to get staffed you need to know people and have heat behind you. You need a friend who will get you a showrunner meeting, or who will bring you onto their show, or give you a script. If you're from elsewhere, you need to have produced/written/directed something people in this town will have heard of. If you want to just be one of the thousand competing in the trenches, then you have to be right here, in the trenches, ready for months of meetings all leading up to the right meeting with the right person. I'm not saying it can't be done by flying in from time to time, but it's rare. I've staffed someone that way, but boy is it a fluke.

Staffing season runs at its heat from March through end of May. The craziness is the 3-4 weeks after the upfronts. That's when the true frenzy is going - BUT all the groundwork is done weeks and months in advance. By the time shows get picked up they already have a wishlist of writers they're going to go out to. Returning shows generally get picked up much earlier (late January, February, March) and they're the best bet for a new or undiscovered writer).

Let's say you were aiming for staffing this year (05-06 season). You would have spent last summer getting your specs in shape (one spec, one original). You would have spent the fall finding an agent who totally digs you (meaning you've flown here periodically to take meetings and do face to face). You'd work with your agent as the fall season unrolled watching what works and deciding what spec you're going to finish before Christmas. As fall becomes Christmas, you and your specs would start to get introduced to executives and cable shows. Hopefully you start to get great feedback, and you get
some momentum. You get some meetings, you rock in the room, and an executive sets you up on a meeting with showrunner. So far you've flown in at least 4 times. You're getting serious heat, and people are loving meeting with you - you stay down, find a place and hang out until you get a job. If you're not getting any love or any heat, staying down here may be pointless and expensive. So you head back home and write a new and better spec and start the process all over again...

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BOSTON LEGAL SAGGING

Caught another ep of Boston Legal. Maybe it has been doing this sort of thing all along, but it's Ally McBeal-ish seams are showing. This is the one which starts with Allan Shore wearing a blinking star on his head as a Christmas decoration and ends with Denny Crane and Allan Shore sticking cigars in their ears. C'mon, David E. Kelley. That's just silly. It's not silly-truthful. It's just damn silly. And, in between, Tara pretends to be a stewardess to trick opposing counsel into revealing the details of his case -- a week after Monica Potter's character pretended to be a psychiatrist. Don't any of these guys actually practice law? I can see why the show's sagging. It's just too hard to suspend disbelief -- and in a law show, I'm not sure you should have to suspend disbelief!

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A FEW MORE WORDS ON TV SPECS

My agent friend Liz says:

Yes, 3-4 years is the lifespan, but with a great spec you can usually
squeeze out a bit more. It helps if the show is still on the air. A
brilliant X-files could last the entire run of the show, plus a few years
afterwards. This was because a) a brilliant spec means it's not tied too
closely into the particular arc of a particular season - instead it uses the
rules and characters as a launching pad of inspiration and b) successful
shows spawn copycats and have far reaching influence, so tonally an X-files
could be a great spec years after X-files was cancelled, simply because other
shows are trying to capture the X files vibe.
A great spec is a great spec. They might sit on the shelf, but they're solid
writing samples.
My questions are: (a) are there still shows with the same tone and structure but on the other hand (b) are people well and truly sick of reading specs based on that show.

Personally I also think that if all your specs are cancelled shows, it suggests that it takes you way too long to write a spec. Which suggests you're slow. Which is never good.


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Thursday, December 16, 2004

MADNESS

Lee Goldberg notes that NBC is planning a tv movie about the making of Mork and Mindy. Unfortunately, this necessarily stars someone who is not Robin Williams as Robin Williams.

The whole point of Mork and Mindy was the comic genius of Robin Williams. There is no one like him, not even Billy Crystal at the Oscars trying to replicate the way his brain works, though that was pretty funny.

(A producer I used to work for had dinner with Robin and Marsha Williams and reported that there is no off switch. He was like that the whole dinner. As compared with, say, Marilyn Monroe, who would be incognito on the street, and tell her companion, "do you want to see her?" At which point she'd start being "Marilyn" and traffic would stop.)

There are some people who'd rather read biographies of writers than the writers' actual works. Is it that it's too much mental work to get into an old episode of Mork and Mindy? Or that this movie is at least something new?

As Shatner said on Saturday Night Live long ago: "It's just a tv show! Get a life!"

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MORE LE GUIN ON EARTHSEA

In Slate today Ursula K. Le Guin trashes the series vaguely based on her beloved Earthsea books. I find it interesting that the complaint she spends the most time on is that they made everyone white -- in her books, few people are white, and certainly not Ged, who's Inuit-brown. Maybe there's nothing she can say about what they've done to her plot.

It does strike me as odd that no one bothered to talk to her about what her books were about. Why buy the series if you're just going to make stuff up? There's an awful Jon Peters-inspired atrocity theoretically inspired by The Sandman. What's the point? The fans aren't going to like it. And if you're going to reduce him to a superhero who bashes people, why not just make up your own superhero, a la The Incredibles.

This is one reason I am always telling reader who want to adapt someone's book not to bother with the rights. You need them if you're going to use the original book's title, or the original character names. But unless you have a practically-written-for-the-screen-anyway John Grisham or Michael Crichton novel, you're going to wind up doing so much "adaptation" the original plot is going to disappear. So why pay for the rights if you're a writer? Change the names and call it an original work.

If you're a producer, of course, you buy the rights so you have a "property" and so you can theoretically lay claim to the legions of devoted readers. But all you're really doing there is buying something so you can sell it to someone else.

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THE INFURIATING JONATHAN STRANGE

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell continues to perplex. Susannah Clarke keeps dropping promising lines of narrative in order to introduce new, equally promising lines of narrative. People are spirited away by fairies and promptly forgotten about, to the point where one wonders whether they will be brought back, or if this is that most annoying of works, the unannounced first volume of a trilogy. This book is something like baseball, or war: stretches in which nothing much happens, punctuated by brilliant excitement. Social scientists tell us that random reinforcement is far more powerful than regular reinforcement, and that is what I, as a reader of this book, have fallen in thrall to. Damn it.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

PASS FOR EMOTION

My dear friend Jamie is one of those few development people who can actually point you to the problems in your screenplay, rather than the symptoms of the problems. She wants me to do a pass on Unseen, the feature, for emotion. Also the finale needs to be more climactic -- I'd tried to make it produceable, which is always risky.

I find my first passes are always a little short on the emotion. The emotion's there in the scene, inherently, in other words the scene could be directed quite emotionally. But I tend not to sell it in the first draft. I'm too anxious to get to the end to see how it turns out. So I have to go back in there and sell the emotion so that the screenplay reads the way it should.

I used a bag of clever tricks to keep the big action sequence of Unseen offscreen, but Jamie felt cheated, and I she's right. I think I will put the big action sequence onscreen and let the producers freak out about how to produce it. A story has a certain scope. You can tell a small story, but if your story is not inherently small it is very hard to tell it in a small way convincingly. Just look at the BBC's version of Neverwhere, with the Great Beast of London looking remarkably like an ox with a rug thrown over it. It's still waiting for a proper treatment from Stan Winston.

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ANOTHER REASON CANADA DOESN'T SUCK

My wallet went on holiday somewhere, so I had to get a new driver's license. At the Societe de l'Assurance de l'Auto du Quebec, they asked if I'd also lost my health insurance card -- and had me fill out one form to get both replaced! Zowie! That makes wayyyy too much sense. So it would never happen in New York! (Especially because you wouldn't have a health insurance card from the government.)

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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

URSULA, MEET ANNE RICE

Ursula K. Le Guin doesn't much like the Earthsea miniseries. So I guess I can feel better that I can't see the damn thing on tv here in Montreal!

I suppose it shouldn't matter what she thinks, since I don't believe in "faithful" adaptations to most works. The first obligation of an adaptation is to deliver the essence of the book, and that may mean doing terrible things to the story of the book, since movies are short stories, not novels, in narrative scope. But I've always liked her soul. So I guess it matters more than when Anne Rice complained that Tom Cruise was wrong for Lestat -- and then decided he was right.

Something about miniseries these days. They get so ponderous. Or is it that only ponderous books (Children of Dune) get miniseries-ized? A miniseries has to be event television, and suitable for a DVD release.

On British TV you'll see very short runs of a series -- say 6, 8 episodes. But they're formatted as episodic series. Which means I suppose that the writers have to go to all the trouble of nailing the template without the reward of being able to bang out a few scripts on the run. That seems like a lot of trouble for not much. I do like Coupling but why only 6 at a time?

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JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL

I've been reading my way into this book. A strange book indeed. It is mostly without a plot, in the sense of a story that develops along structured lines. It has instead many things that happen sequentially. It is impossible to say where the narrative is taking you.

The book is something of a bestseller (#34 on Amazon) in spite of its style, which you would think would put the mainstream reader off. Ms. Clarke by and large avoids the interior monolog, at least for the first few hundred pages. So we have a lot of what we see and hear, but little of what people think.

What the book has is a great verisimilitude. Ms. Clarke writes out of essentially an alternative history of England in which the North was ruled for some time by the Raven King, a magician. Her eponymous heroes successful revive English magic during the Napoleonic wars, with the help of some capricious fae.

I am not at all sure that it is, as Neil Gaiman has it, the best work of English fantasy in 70 years. (Does that mean he thinks it is better than Lord of the Rings but not as good as The Hobbit?) But it is something else altogether, and that makes it a cheery read of a winter's day.

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Monday, December 13, 2004

SICK AS A DOG AND...

... a tad depressed because my poor novel got rejected by a small publisher, on the grounds that it had too much paganism and ritual and details about language and such. Since it's a historical fantasy about the childhood of Morgan le Fay, and what I'm interested in is her magical coming of age, kinda hard to reduce the paganism. Ah, well. It has not found the right editor yet, alas. It is perhaps too literary for genre and too genre for literary.

I'm trying to come to grips with the second draft of Unseen, the feature. Hard to concentrate when I just want to sleep. I slept most of Saturday away, but that might also have been a side effect of Lisa mistaking the decaf beans for the hi-test. I may just watch some TV shows I've got taped. It's work, right?

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Sunday, December 12, 2004

SCHOOL OF ROCK

This movie should have worked. It had a hero with a dream -- Dewey Finn wants to be a rock star. And a flaw -- he's a bit of a loser, with no steady job. He starts kinda selfish and then, by falling in love with the kids he's teaching, starts to realize that their success is as important as his success. And by succeeding with them, he succeeds for himself, and even gets a job out of it.

A couple of things were missing from the story, though, and that's why I think I didn't like the movie. (It may also be I'm just too old for this kinda thing. But I doubt it. I liked Toy Story, after all.)


  • Stakes. What exactly will happen if he succeeds? The kids will learn how to rock? Is that so important? These are privileged kids. While they're a little oppressed by their parents and their school, they're hardly miserable. In fact they don't even know they're oppressed. It's not clear that he's transforming their lives. As compared with, say, Dead Poets Society, where we really feel that Robin Williams' character, John Keating, is not only given them a passion for literature, he's transforming their lives and teaching them to think for themselves.

  • Jeopardy. What will Dewey Finn lose if he doesn't make a success of his teaching job? He starts the movie as a jobless loser sleeping at a friend's house. So things aren't going to get much worse. As the movie goes on, it looks like he might get kicked out of the apartment he's mooching. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

  • Obstacles. What I most missed were threats and obstacles. The movie cleverly sets up how Dewey's students manage to play loud rock'n'roll in a stuffy prep school without getting busted. But it's too easy for them to get away with it. There need to be more twists and turns where they almost get busted.

    Also, where's the emotional depth for the kids? It's addressed here and there, as when the Asian kid says he's not cool enough to play keyboards in a band, and the fat girl doesn't want to sing because she's too fat to go on stage. But I'd want to see how Dewey Finn's teaching changes their lives at home or elsewhere in school. It's all about Dewey. One thing that made Dead Poets Society so effective was that we saw the kids at home, how John Keating is changing their relationships with their parents -- who are often hostile to the change.



So that's School of Rock. Let's not talk about Elf, okay?

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RIGGING THE PRIMARIES, I HOPE

There's some talk about replacing the Iowa caucuses -- whose party hacks stuck us with John Kerry -- with a different first primary state. It won't happen, because the Iowans won't stand for it. But if the DNC were really focused on the next election, the first three primaries should be:

Florida
Ohio
Pennsylvania

... which you will recall were the states Kerry needed to win two of, and of which he won only one. The Democratic candidate who can grab these states is practically guaranteed a win in November.

Oddly, now that New Hampshire is a swing state, it's not quite so stupid to have NH early. But why they should be privileged, along with Iowa, to practically nominate the Democratic candidate, is a matter of local politics, not national ones.

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Friday, December 10, 2004

FOLLOWING UP ON "REALITY" SHOWS

Martine Page has gathered a lot of articles together about writing on reality shows ... interesting reads all of them. Here's another script for a reality show, "Meet My Folks."

The WGA is currently fighting for reality show writers to be protected by their union. Which means that one day the WGC will follow suit, I imagine.

I spent 4 months working in South Africa. It is very hard to find a skilled South African TV writer. That's because it's hard to make a living as a South African TV writer. That's because they get paid almost nothing per script. So who would become one? The one guy I was able to find who was good was writing for sitcoms and working at a bookstore. Producers, yeah, you may be saving some money now by cheaping out on writers. But in the long run, a well paid guild of writers helps you too by keeping a set of skilled craftspeople alive to work on your projects.

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Thursday, December 09, 2004

BITTERSWEET

A reader writes with a list of downer ending movies and asks if I don't like them or think the audience doesn't like them.

I should clarify that I appreciate a good tragedy. When Richard III or Macbeth is brought down by the very forces he set in motion, I get catharsis like any other guy. Because it's not the universe conspiring against them -- that would be melodrama. Richard III succeeds and gets what he wants -- but then is destroyed by how he got it. Ditto the Scottish Play. These aren't downer endings because they're monster stories. Richard III is a monster. We enjoy seeing him claw his way to power, then we applaud when he's killed on the battlefield. Ditto Frankenstein. The order of things is upset when man creates artificial life. At the end of the movie, the order of things is restored when the creature dies (1930s classic version) or when the creature dies taking Dr. Frankenstein with him (book, Coppola version). Remember, it's Dr. Frankenstein who's the monster -- not the creature.

Ditto All That Jazz. Joe Gideon is trying to kill himself from the beginning of the movie. In the end, he succeeds. Not so? It's not what I want out of life, but it's very clearly what he wants. He has a personal infatuation with death.

I do find Romeo & Juliet very hard to watch. I've watched it any number of times, on stage, several movie versions. I own Romeo + Juliet on DVD. I find it painful to watch. I don't like it, no. I recognize it as a great story. But I hate the melodrama of it: if Juliet had been a tad less quick with the knife, they'd be happily married today. I should also point out that R&J's death isn't pointless -- they patch up their family's feud, so that future R's and J's won't suffer the same unlikely fate. So there's a point to it all.

Look, I'm not saying R&J isn't a great story. I'm saying when I go to the movies, and I'm choosing between star crossed lovers who die, and Sleepless in Seattle, where they manage against all odds to get together and be happy, I'm going with the latter.

Silence of the Lambs -- very hard to see how this is a downer ending. Clarisse gets the twisted sicko she's after, and the bad guy we can't help liking for his panache, Hannibal Lechter, escapes.

Nightmare on Elm Street -- successful movies, but I hate'em. I don't understand'em. Don't see why people like horror movies that have no metaphysical point to them. But if I felt like arguing the point, I'd say that Freddy is as much the hero as anyone. The teenagers are kinda dimwits, no? Aren't you rooting for Freddy to kill them off in interesting ways? And isn't there always one hero civilian who takes him out at the end of each of those movies? Or is that the Hallowe'en franchise?

Reservoir Dogs -- yep, hated it. Couldn't sit through it. So I don't know anything about the ending.

Chinatown -- yes, downer ending. Successful movie. I have no particular desire to see it again, though. So for me, not that interesting. Your mileage may vary.

Platoon -- doesn't Charlie Sheen's protagonist finally murder the sadistic sergeant played by Tom Berenger? Metaphorically becoming a man by taking sides? Bittersweet sure, but I wouldn't call it a downer.

However, I still think the main point holds. By and large the audience wants a happy ending. And so do I.

BTW, the most successful downer ending movies by far are Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. BIG downer endings. At the end of SW I, Senator Palpatine has maneuvered himself into galactic power -- all that shooting was just a distraction. At the end of SW II, almost the entire order of Jedi knights has been shot to death by robots. Somehow the audience seems to miss the import of these results, though. Maybe it's the happy music.


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BAD BIBLE

Just read a not-very-convincing bible for a SF show for 10-12-year-olds ("tweens"). Here are a few things missing from it:

a. a FEW compelling characters

We care about characters when they have problems and drives. If a kid is a student journalist, then we need to know why he's driven to find out the truth? Clarisse Starling wants to make the lambs stop screaming. Why does someone become a truth-seeker? Because truth was hidden from him early on, and it mattered. Say if a parent left suddenly.

Don't be afraid to go into the darkness of the character, even if it's a kid's show. Kid's shows are all about the darkness. What makes it a kid show is it's about kids, and you don't show violence and sex. But just because it's kids doesn't mean they don't want jeopardy and stakes. If your hero kids are uncovering a conspiracy, we need to know that there's some strong reason why they are willing to risk their lives to uncover it, something beyond curiosity. And they should be risking their lives, not just risking "getting in trouble."

Harry Potter has someone who's trying to kill him. Babe is going to be sliced into bacon if he fails -- his mother already was.

Too many characters is as bad as no characters at all. Tolstoy can have as many people as he likes in War and Peace but this is a TV show. Who do we tune in every week to watch? Why do we tune in to watch them?

b. a focused template

Each episode, what happens? This needs to be something that can happen consistently every episode. The audience needs to know what they're going to tune in for.

c. focus!

Give us as little information as we need to really get the show. Just as bad money drives out the good, unimportant information crowds out the important stuff.

d. don't confuse spectacle for story

Even when your science fiction story takes place on the asteroid belt (this one doesn't, so I'm not giving anything away) and everyone's wearing their own personal rocket pack, your stories are still about PEOPLE. No one is tuning in to a fiction show again and again to see personal rocket packs work. Partly that's because nothing you can do on a TV show will match spectacles like Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace. But mostly it's because rocket packs don't touch people's hearts. Other people's hearts touch people's hearts.

A story is about:

a. a hero or heroes(we care about)
b. who have a problem, an opportunity or a vision (we care about)
c. who face an obstacle or antagonist, and/or their own flaws and/or an intimate opponent
d. if they succeed, their world will be better (in a way we care about) -- stakes
e. if they fail, they'll be worse off than they were -- jeopardy

Rocket packs can't compete. Human beings have been telling stories since we learned how to talk. If someone digs rocket packs, they're just going to buy a video game where they get to fly around with one. If you can rent the PS2 game Treasure Planet (based on the movie, which had a good story with heart), and fly around yourself, why would you watch someone else fly around? Only if they're part of a story you care about.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

GOOD STUFF HAPPENS

I am just thrilled over what's going on in Ukraine. American movies are filled with the notion that the small can overcome the mighty. But in politics it feels like it's not true -- even though the mighty regularly have to convince the small. In the Ukraine, the powers that be saw a hundred thousand protestors out their window, and decided they weren't going to win a confrontation. It's looking good for democracy in Ukraine ... which might mean hope for democracy in Russia. if the people decide they ever want it back.

I don't know if our movies and TV shows can claim any credit in Ukraine (though I bet they watch them there). But stories are what tell us how to behave. Stories are what tell us what makes a good man, what makes a hero. Without stories, no one would go off to be a soldier and no one would organize a political campaign. I think every soldier and every organizer runs a movie in their head starring themselves. The movie is what keeps them going.

That's one reason I'll write happy endings and bittersweet endings, but I stay away from downer endings. One, I don't like them myself. Two, the audience doesn't like them. But also three, they tell people they won't succeed. People get enough of that in their own lives. I like to tell stories that tell people what succeeding looks like. To put that movie in their head that helps them fight for what they care about. It's not noble or anything. But it's how the movie in my head runs.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

SCREENWRITING COMPETITION?

Dear Alex,

Can you advise me as to how best to get the word out to aspiring writers, on-line, about a screenwriting competition we are sponsoring, the three winners of which will be mentored by "The Grudge" screenwriter Stephen Susco for one year? Of course, we are also contacting schools and print media, but would like to reach out on-line as well.

Any advice you can offer would be appreciated!

Thank you,
Sara Benowitz
The Writers Room of Bucks County, PA
www.writersroom.net
Well, that was easy!

Writers who are interested in applying can find out more about the competition via The Writer's Room beginning in January. The deadline is April 30.

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SPRINGBOARDS

I'm having trouble coming up with springboards for Unseen. I've got a rich world. Interesting characters. But the stories aren't character stories, they're supernatural ones, and ...

... that may be the problem. I'm coming at it from a supernatural point of view instead of a character point of view. Maybe if I come at it from "what's going on in Rebecca's life and how does the supernatural impinge on that" rather than the other way around, I can figure out what happens in a typical episode of the show.

Otherwise I'm going to have to put the pitch down for a bit. Because right now I'm not seeing the show. I'm seeing the bible for the show, but not the episodes.

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Monday, December 06, 2004

WHY I HATE MICROSOFT, PART 12783

I just spent half an hour discovering why the "style" command wasn't working working properly with its keyboard shortcut.

It turns out that when you turn off the formatting toolbar, command-shift-S no longer allows you to apply a style by typing. You are sent to the Style Gallery where you have to click things by hand. (Typing the right keys in succession doesn't work -- only the first keystroke counts. What genius thought of that?)

I would also like to punch in the shoulder the software mangler who decided that when you type in part of a style name, you are obviously trying to create a new style, not style the paragraph according to the style name. It wasn't like that in Word 5.1.

I would also like to sock in the jaw the software mangler who decided that every time you try to restyle a paragraph in the style it nominally has, you want to update the style using the paragraph's current formatting, rather than restyle the paragraph back to its canonical formatting. You have to click a button now to prevent this from happening. In Word 5.1 there was a helpful command that allowed you to redefine a style those few times you actually wanted to.

Engineers ought to be forced to deal with the wasted time their stupid decisions cause. When they build a ramp badly, so traffic always stacks up, they should have to suffer like the people wasting their lives in their cars suffer. Isn't that fair?

I wish Microsoft would quit changing things just so they can sell more software. I also wish they would quit intentionally confusing things so that they can sell more tech support.

God I hate them.

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LETTER TO SONY

(And a physical letter, too. God forbid they should have an eddress to complain to.)

SCEA
Attn Dan Kinkead
P O Box 5888
San Mateo CA 94402-0888
USA


Dear Dan:

I gather there is no way to attach headphones to the PS2, short of buying a stereo so you can put the sound output into the stereo and then into the headphones.

Did it occur to no one at Sony that when someone is playing Final Fantasy in the living room, everyone in the living room might not want to hear the same music play over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over?

It is amazing that there is no headphones jack on the PS2. I bought the USB headphones, but of course those only work with VoIP, not with simply not wanting to hear the goddamn music. I can tell my son to turn the sound off, but that’s not much fun for him.

What were you guys thinking????

Yours truly,

Alex Epstein

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HOW DO I GET IN THE DOOR? INTERNING, AND ALL THAT.

Periodically I get an email from someone who wants to know how to get in the door as a writer.

As I've mentioned in my FAQ, the best way I know is to write the two specs. No one will give you a writing gig without a sample.

If you can get a job working for writers on a show as an assistant, that's an excellent way in, because writers will usually try to throw some work to their assistant if there's a way to do it without losing money out of their own pocket. And the assistant is first in line for a break.

The same goes for interning a fortiori. Few people can afford to intern, but if you can, the advantage is that people will rarely turn down someone who wants to work for free.

The mistake most people make as an intern is to treat it as a job. They do what they're asked to do and they do it cheerfully and well.

That's missing an opportunity. First of all, as an intern, you're only getting paid in information. So if you're not asking questions, you're not getting paid in full. Wait till your writer is procrastinating, and hit him with intelligent questions about show business and your show in particular. It will make him feel intelligent and knowledgeable, and may also actually spark an idea about the show he's avoiding writing. You've now given him something useful, and learned something yourself. Most interns ask WAY too few questions.

Second, your goal as an intern is to make yourself worth money. That means don't just do what you're asked. Suggest things you can do in addition. You want to be so good that your writer can't part with you and will offer you money (hopefully someone else's money, like a production company's) to stay.

In show business, just doing the job is rarely enough. That goes double when you're dispensable and don't know anything.

If you can't intern or assist, then it's all about the two specs. There is no way to be a writer that doesn't involve a lot of free writing! If you really are a writer, you'll be thrilled just for the opportunity to write something that someone else will actually read, even if it never gets produced.

(I once asked a friend of mine at college, Shoshana Marchand, why we write. "Because you can't possibly sleep with everybody," she said...)

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BEFORE ITS TIME?

Watched an episode of My So-Called Life, famous for introducing Claire Danes, being brilliantly written, and dying the death.

It's hard to watch, because it's a keenly observed portrait of all the awkwardness of being 15, and most of us have tried hard to block our memory of this hellish time.

I wonder if it was just before its time? It's a cleverly written soap, with daughter stories and parent stories. I'm not sure that was so much of a template back in 1994 when it came out.

I'm inclined to say a problem with it might have been that it is such an adult exploration of kid stuff. Kids want to see their lives glamorized and, honestly, adults want to see kids' lives glamorized too. The confusion is too painful.

I thought it was also interesting that Angela's parents are actually together, with a functioning if damaged marriage. When was the last time we saw that? And her dad actually listens to her! And understands what she's going through! Sometimes even more than she does!

Amazon.com has a review that sums it up rather nicely:


One of the most acclaimed series on TV during its brief run from 1994-1995, My So-Called Life pioneered the modern teen drama and made a star out of 15-year-old Claire Danes. Ostensibly centering around the trials and tribulations of high schooler Angela Chase, My So-Called Life actually expanded to include everyone in its protagonist's orbit, from school friends to extended family, and gave its stellar ensemble cast ripe material to work with during its too-short life. Produced by thirtysomething creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, MSCL evoked that yuppie-friendly show with its emphasis on finding extraordinary drama within ordinary situations, but was far more heartfelt and heart-wrenching, echoing the dizzying highs and lows of adolescence. As such, it developed a cult following among young viewers who identified strongly with Angela's high school traumas and followed her every move with rapt attention. (After cancellation, the show enjoyed a popular reprise on MTV.) <> Avoiding the sensational, My So-Called Life tackled every teen hot-button issue imaginable (and pioneered the then-controversial topic of teen homosexuality), but with a clear-eyed perspective, never dissolving into soap opera-–even when Angela mooned over heartthrob Jordan Catalano (dreamy Jared Leto). Even as it mined adolescent angst, though, My So-Called Life never lost sight of its adults, with Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin both phenomenal as Angela's parents, whose marriage was one of the most complex seen on TV since... well, thirtysomething. Through it all, Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee Danes was a neurotic, touching, and funny center, whether obsessing over a zit or negotiating the rocky terrain of first love. Her funny, sobering, and empathetic portrait of teendom reminded us that in some ways, life was just an extended version of high school. --Mark Englehart
<>

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Sunday, December 05, 2004

A NEAT QUOTATION

"Revolutions are prepared by dreamers," he said. "And I always recall 1917: They are carried out by fanatics, and they are exploited by scoundrels."
-- Leonid Kuchma

I wonder if that's an original?

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REALITY SHOW SCRIPTS

Interesting article in the LA Times about what the scripts for reality shows look like. Turns out they are rather more in depth than you'd have thought. Basically it's looking like reality shows are just sitcoms with bad production values. The article includes an entire "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" script -- not with much dialog, but certainly paraphrases. Not much left to chance here, folks.

Interesting...

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Saturday, December 04, 2004

SAVE US ALL FROM DIRECTOR'S CUTS

I'm trying to think of a single director's cut I liked better than the theatrical release. Oh, sure, I have the extended version of Return of the King on pre-order, too. But better than the original?

I bought the DVD of Conan the Barbarian, and it turned out to be some draggy-ass "additional material" cut where John Milius indulges all of his elegiac tendencies. It takes for-****ing-ever for Thulsa Doom to cut off Conan's mom's head. Lots of beauty shots of this and that. All to establish some epic tone.

The original booked.

I like the original Blade Runner better too. Sure, some of the v.o. is on the nose. But it's that kind of movie. The director's cut, which takes out the happy ending, loses the v.o. (rendering the movie murky if you don't already know what's going on) and adding some material that tells you Deckard's a replicant too -- nope, we didn't need it, thank you.

I hope you can still get the theatrical release on DVD. Ugh.

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THE BIG NIPPLE

Chatted with a friend who goes down to LA (aka the Big Nipple, said Fellini, long ago). I've been debating whether it's worthwhile to schlep down there for staffing season. Argument for is that while LA was none too hospitable when I was there, I now have respectable credits. Argument against turns out to be that reality TV has slashed employment for writers. Which means there are legions of talented and skilled and experienced X-Files writers out there who can't make their mortgage and are willing to step down in credits just to get work. You're competing against them.

Oh, I could probably get meetings. But they rarely go anywhere. For some reason, people in LA will take meetings with you even when they're not serious about doing business with you. I guess they figure you never know.

And they know people. You don't. I know people in independent features, of course, which was my world when I was there. But none of them have any money. Which is one reason I left!

I think I'm gonna wait till someone sends me a ticket, or until the work dries up here, which Goddess willing, perhaps it won't.

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SCRIPTED REALITY TV

Had an interesting chat with the head writer on a reality show. I can't give too much away, but I hope to interview him at some point for my book. There should be a section on Reality TV, shouldn't there? What does the script for a reality tv show entail? What about the bible for it? How do you pitch it? To whom? What kind of a staff is there on a reality show?

'Cause, campers, these things don't just pop out of thin air, and of course, the last thing they are is reality.

On huge advantage reality tv has is you can shoot it in very little time with a tiny budget because no one expects it to look good. When they're tuning into Desperate Housewives you expect glamor. But when it's Survivor: Schenectady, no one expects backlighting.

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Friday, December 03, 2004

ON THE OTHER HAND

Here's an article in the Tehran Times denouncing Al-Jazeera because it is all a Zionist plot to make Islam look bad.

Seems to me, if the Iranians hate you for being a tool of the West, and the Americans hate you for being a tool of the Arabs, you must be doing something right.

Not that Al Jazeera is my favorite tv station or anything (I get my news from the Economist and, of course, Jon Stewart), but I'm glad to see they're pissing people off all over the place. The Arab world seems to desperately need a reality check -- some news reportage that, however slanted, is at least rooted in the world as it actually exists. As opposed to, say, the Tehran Times.

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OKAY, SOME POINTERS

Reading a little further into the Jerry Springer book, here's what I pick up:

a. It's all the producers. Jerry's the personality. The producers do all the work finding the -- I wanna say contestants -- guests. He finds out what the show is about five minutes before the show. Literally. Interesting.

b. It was Universal's idea to show the fights. Originally they were edited out.

c. It was the exec producer's idea to keep the Jerry Springer name, and the show topic, in the frame throughout the show, so you always know what you're watching. Their goal was to have a show you'd find compelling with the sound off.

d. I guess what the guests are looking for is approval. The guy who goes on Jerry Springer's show to let everyone in the world know he has sex with his horse is hoping that when his secret is out, people will still love him, and he won't be carrying around this secret. I suspect that what really happens is he loses almost all his friends. But I don't think it's about seeking fame or notoriety. I think it's about approval.

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RINGMASTER

I've been reading Jerry Spring's book Ringmaster. I know. Don't ask.

Irritatingly, he leaves out the single most interesting bit of information. He mentions that in his first year, he was doing happy shows about uniting mothers and their children. Then he got into his groove.

But how did he get into it? Did he go sleazy out of sinking ratings? Because he tried one crazy thing and it paid off? Did he plan ahead? Did he get flack from the network?

I mean, it's fun to know he was mayor of Cinncinnati, and that he was a newsman after that. It takes a newsman to truly appreciate sleaze entertainment, and he is the first to point out how little network news is really news you need. But how did he find his template?

The book does answer the interesting question "how do they find these people." It turns out they don't have to. Those people call in. Thousands of them every week. Wanting to confront lovers, etc., on national TV. They're not even paid.

Yikes.

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E.G. HERE'S A QUESTION

E.g. "What are you watching? Why do you like those shows? What writers and shows do you find the most interesting? Are they always the same as the shows you watch regularly?"

I, for example, watch Boston Legal because it's cleverly and amusingly written, but I know I should be watching Desperate Housewives because it's a hit. Boston Legal is very much not a hit, which suggests it's a bit risky to watch it. It might infect you with its unpopular cleverness.

E.g. "How analytical are you when you come up with a core cast? Do you always have a love interest, a nemesis, a mom, whatever? Or do you just fool around with it until it feels right?

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WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW?

I'm going to start interviewing TV writers and producers for the book ... what do you want to know?

What questions would you like the answers to? Aside from "how do I get a job" and "will you read my script," I mean. Questions about hooks and templates and signatures and how to structure a cast, etc.

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CRAFTY QUESTIONS

I'm getting ready to send my lovely and talented book agent the proposal for Crafty TV Writing. Everything's in shape except the outline, which is a work in progress. I think the hook for this book is something like: how do tv writers think about TV. And then how do they write it.

When a chess master looks at a chess board, he sees structures I don't see, lines of force, combinations, etc. When a crafty TV writer watches, or when he sets out to construct a new show -- and I'm just learning to do this -- he has a sense of how the characters interrelate. What are the possibilities? Whereas when a not-so-crafty writer does it, he just throws a few interesting characters in there and hopes they're the right ones for each other.

Teaching how to do that -- learning how to do that -- is a tall order. But I'm convinced it can be distilled.

I keep wondering if I should put off writing this book. I'll know more about TV writing in a year, y'know? On the other hand I'll learn about it by writing about it. Particularly because I'm going to interview people who are undoubtedly crafty.

Which brings me to my next question...

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WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

Lisa was suggesting I write a fish-out-of-water TV series pitch of some kind, because there's money out in them thar Prairies. But I am a confirmedly urban boy. I've lived in New York, Paris, Los Angeles, New Haven and Montreal. None of them exactly Big Sky Country.

It's funny but I know the fae, for example, but I don't know country folks. I'd be in danger of mocking them, or failing to mock them enough. We watched two episodes of Corner Gas last night, my favorite sitcom at the moment. It's full of gentle mocking of country folks. Coming from me, that'd be like prejudice. Coming from Brent Butt, it's a fair cop, guv.

And it's too bad, because I have a great title for the show.

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Thursday, December 02, 2004

WHAT IS TO BE DONE

I've been trying to figure out what the next thing to do is, a ritual I perform whenever I'm not in the middle of a million things already.

Decided I should be thinking about getting some new TV pitches together -- not the full fledged 10-15 page thing I've been going out with on Exposure and Unseen, but maybe 3-5 pagers, something I can bat out in a day. Which in turn means meeting with production companies and finding what they're looking for. Had a long chat with my agent, and there are a few places we'll pursue.

At some point I should also spend a week coming up with ideas for a small budget feature that's produceable here, i.e. a contemporary drama of people talking in rooms and maybe driving around in the countryside, rather than, say, an epic miniseries about the French and Indian War (or whatever they call it here). Then I can write up one of those ideas into a 5 page pitch and see if the Telefilm Screenwriting Assistance Program would like to fund another script o'mine.

Came up with a good title for a show I would never write, because it's set in the Prairies, and what the hell do I know about the Prairies? Aside from that there's a lot of money to shoot there these days.

So: meetings -> tv pitches; feature pitches -> SAP app.

And going to the big Crafts Fair at the Bonaventure Hotel, to buy yet another wool and leather winter hat to replace the one I keep losing!

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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

A THOUGHT ON SF & F

I've been watching a few eps of an as-yet-unreleased kids show with lots of CGI. A couple of thoughts:

a. the fantastickal creatures, if there are any, should be interesting as characters, not just as fantastickal creatures. One of the reasons Winnie the Pooh holds up is that all the Pooh characters are recognizable people. I always get a distinct sense that Eeyore is a particular friend of A. A. Milne who must have had a habit of oh-poor-me-ing. That's the sense you want: that there's a real person in there, even if the person is a Wookiee. Jabba the Hutt was a terrific repulsive bandit leader -- he'd have been almost as much fun if he weren't a giant slug.

b. the human characters should be more interesting than the fantastickal creatures. We're supposed to care about and root for them, right? So if we're more drawn to the fantastickal creatures, because they're more compelling, something's wrong.

Of course characters aren't interesting on their own, just laying there like a lox. They have to be doing something interesting. That's why Dorothy is running away from home to save Toto before the twister whisks her away to Oz. If you're doing your job right, we'll have a sense that your character is worried about the end of the world -- but really worried if his girl will still hate him if the world doesn't explode.

And this particular show doesn't do that.

Ah, well.

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