CHRIS ABBOTT, PART THREEComplications Ensue
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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Here's the third part of my interview with showrunner and creator Chris Abbott, author of the new book Ten Minutes to the Pitch.

AE: What are some of the ways a scene can fail even when it's a faithful rendition of what's in the beat sheet? In other words, are there any particular kinds of flaws you've tended to run across in your own or other people's pages as they go from outline to script?

CA: Well, it's a cliché, you've seen it. Or it's all plotty, and the actors have nothing to play.

Sometimes you need to change the beat sheet. What the story seems like in outline, once you start writing characters, it doesn't work any more. Don't be too slavish to the beat sheet — don't go off in a whole new direction, but no one's going to be unhappy if you bring in a better script. But sometimes the beat sheet is right and the scenes still don't work.

It can get destroyed in production or in editing. There's a difference between comedy and drama — on who you're on, in timing. I was working with Tom Selleck when he was sent a script for a comedy film called Folks. And it was the funniest thing I ever read. He did it. It was awful. I knew what was wrong, they'd edited it wrong. None of the jokes worked. But that company didn't want to re-edit it.

Or you can have music step all over the scene.

AE: How about when you're on the wrong character in the scene? Normally you're supposed to be on the protagonist, but the day player is so much fun you wind up writing the scene as if it's their scene when it's the star's scene.

CA: That's a new concept to me because in episodic TV you're almost always on whoever's driving the show. Sometimes you have contracts with people you have to service and you end up having to be on the wrong character because you have to have the actor in the show.

If you write the scene from the day player's POV, that doesn't necessarily make a bad episode, but it makes a bad series. We had this character on Magnum, Luther Gillis. He took on such a life of his own, it was starting to become the Luther Gillis show. But it wasn't.

I also liked what you said about, sometimes when you think you're going too slow, slow down — because the audience is going to be lost and they're bored and it's because you're going too fast.

AE: Could you talk a little about getting into and out of scenes? I've noticed that movies flow, but TV pulses. Every scene ending needs to either flow right into the next scene or "pop," even if it's not an out. Do you think this is true? When do you button a scene? When do you go out on a scene with a character undecided and when do you go out on the decision?

CA: Once you get on the rollercoaster you don't really want to stop. If there's some piece of info that you don't want them to forget, you make a moment of it, but otherwise you keep going.

AE: Could you say that scenes should pop when you're throwing it to another story line, and flow when you're staying in the same story?

CA: I'm not sure that's right. But I do think that every scene should raise a question that the next scene answers. That's what pulls the audience through. And you can let a scene pop when you want to slow the story down to all the audience to breathe or to assimilate information.

AE: How do you know when your draft is ready to turn in?

CA: I always turn in my first draft. It depends on how much you trust the people who're going to read it. Personally I think if you think you're close you ought to turn it in and start to get notes. People can write the same script endlessly ... that way they can fail without feeling badly. It's never going to be perfect. Write it, put it aside for a few days ... then go and work on something else. You're not making the Mona Lisa.

AE: And the Mona Lisa was one of thousands of paintings and sketches that Leonardo did.

CA: I mean, turn in a finished script. Don't turn it in with "chase scene here" or "research pending" — and I've seen scripts like that — you want it to be the best it can be but don't get hung up on it. For one thing, what you may think of as a flaw someone else may find wonderful ... and what you think is the best thing in the script may be the problem. You have to kill your babies.

AE: Should a free lancer try to do their script with a minimum of input, to save you time, or do you like them to ask lots of questions and bounce ideas off you? Should they show you work in progress, or wait till it's as good as they can make it?

CA: If they're stuck, call and ask for help than turn in the wrong thing but I don't want them to call me and ask for every beat, or I could write it myself. But most writers I've known have been good at that. I've had more trouble with directors wanting to talk to me about every scene. I've had writers come in and completely missed it. But in that case all the phone calls in the world wouldn't have made a difference. I like them to ask a lot of questions and then write a beat sheet, and I give them notes on the beat sheet ... Once they've got the end of the outline they should be in pretty good shape.

AE: What are the biggest mistakes story editors tend to make on the job?

CA: Not paying enough obeisance to the exec producer. Just kidding.

AE: I'm putting that in!

CA: The biggest mistake is to not listen to the notes. They think the person giving them, the star, the network, the producer, is wrong, or they just don't understand. A lot of times writers don't ask enough questions. They don't listen out of ... I don't know. I've seen it happen when I was their boss and when I wasn't their boss.

AE: "We'd like your baby to be more ... French."

CA: (Laughs.) Right. Most mistakes are human mistakes. One couldn't quite get the show. Another story editor wanted to put his name on every episode because he rewrote part of it, and that's like ridiculous.

I'm sure that every writer on staff thought I rewrote them excessively, and I would rewrite my staff more if I could. There are shows like David E. Kelley's — he just writes them all. But that's good because I think you need a consistency of voice and style — you have to find someone who can really do you your voice well or you have to rewrite. I was always good at mimicking the exec producer's voice.

Of course there's always ego involved, but you need the show to have a consistent voice.

AE: And free lancers can't get that voice.

CA: You can't get that show's voice unless you're there all the time because that's how you get it: when you're around the actors, watching dailies every day, you start knowing how everybody talks. If you're not around the show you just can't get it. Story editors and showrunners should never put their names on free lancers' scripts because it's not their fault they got rewritten. The free lancer should get all the residuals. They did their best job, so shut up, you're getting a weekly salary [as a story editor] to make it closer to the show. If I were running the circus, I'd like a system with fewer staff people and more free lancers. Spread the wealth. Brings fresh blood in and fresh ideas.

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