Here's the last part of my interview with showrunner and creator Chris Abbott, author of the new book Ten Minutes to the Pitch.
AE: If you're creating a series pitch, are you analytical about the core cast you need? Do you decide how big a core cast you want and then fill in the positions? Do you try to have a love interest, a nemesis, a mentor? Romantic triangles? Or do you start with a main character and then just play with the springboards until you feel sure you know how big and who the supporting core cast should be?
CA: Yes to all of the above. It depends on whether it's a single lead or an ensemble. I like to choose real people I know and base things on them. But it's good to use mythical archetypes, particularly in half hour. A lot of it is commedia del'arte prototypes ... but so is hourlong. The protagonist is the hero, who's the antagonist, who's the lover, who's the kindly old mentor etc. And then you try to find a way to make them different.
AE: The ethnic sidekick.
CA: Archetypes really touch people, we all know them, gives it accessibility.
AE: If you've been asked to pitch a particular kind of show — say ABC tells you it wants "an edgy detective story" — do you have techniques for coming up with a great hook? Do you start with characters you want to spend time with? Do you look around to see what new trends in society or technology you can base a show on, or try to juxtapose genre elements that haven't been juxtaposed before? Or do you just try to figure out what you'd like to watch that isn't on the air already?
CA: I do a lot of riffing with myself. A lot of free hand. I sit down sort of horizontally with a notebook, and I ask myself a lot of question. "Who's the show about, what's edgy about this person, why would anyone want to watch them?" My subconscious brain actually answers a lot of those questions. Or if I'm asked to develop something in a particular genre: go to the Museum of Television of Radio [in New York and Beverly Hills] and look at everything in that genre. Then go lay down on your bed and start asking yourself questions.
AE: What do you do when an actor feels he or she can't do a scene as written, and you feel that he or she should be able to? What if you feel they can't handle it? What do you do if an actor tries to rewrite you?
CA: I've found that over the years, the only thing you can
do is listen to them sincerely and genuinely, try to solve the problem for them. I mean I can always find another way to write it. And then I ask them not to do the changes on the set. People sometimes have ad libbed the set and they've lost clues. We've been shooting a mystery and whole clues have dropped out. There's this story Dan Travanti's on the set and he says "My character wouldn't say this." And it goes all the way on up to Steven Bochco. And he comes down to the set. And Dan says "My character wouldn't say this." And Bochco looks at the script and says, "Yes, he would. See? It says so right here."
I try to keep most of the actors in control, you know, I say, you wouldn't ask a playwright to change the dialog, why aren't you giving me the respect you'd give a playwright? But there are always gonna be one or two who fancy themselves stars who want to be part of the [writing] process. And I ask them, what is it about the change that's gonna make it better? Why is it you can't do the part as written? Sometimes there are good reasons. If it's too plotty they can't make anything of it. But sometimes actors just want it easier for them.
AE: Last question. If you could ask Steven Bochco or David E. Kelley or Aaron Sorkin or anyone else one question, what would it be?
CA: That's easy. "Would you hire me?"