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



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Monday, February 28, 2005

Watched tonight's 24. This series is beginning to irritate again.

SPOILERS

One principle of an action suspense show is that the characters, who are experts, should be cleverer than the audience. The forensics people on the various CSI shows are very, very smart, and know way, way more than you or I -- or almost any real forensics expert, as they tend to specialize.

The CTU people on 24 are not so smart. They keep forgetting to call for backup.

They are faced with nuclear reactors that are melting down and it occurs to no one to shut them down by means of pulling the plug. (Almost all modern reactors are fail-safe: power is required to keep the damping rods out of the reactor core, and therefore in the absence of power, the damping rods take the reaction down to nothing.)

It occurs to no one to bury the reactors in concrete.

It occurs to no one, when the override is located in a building, to cut all power and phone lines to the building.

It occurs to no one, when the traitor in CTU is leading an agent into what may likely be a trap, to send him in with, oh, say, ten or twelve SWAT guys instead of two.

They are, however, really good at torturing people. Jack Bauer could definitely work with Andy Sipowicz.

Then there's the CTU director's schizo daughter. She's freaking out. Normally, you'd put a patient like that in a straitjacket. Or, at a minimum, keep her away from sharp objects. But no, she's apparently left alone so that she can commit suicide by cutting her veins open -- a method which normally takes a fair amount of time, since you have to actually bleed to death -- just so we can prove that the CTU director is a Bad Mom Because She Has A Job.

And here I was hoping, hoping against hope that the schizo daughter would turn out to belong to the story after all because she, somehow, had an answer or a clue to the crisis locked up in her crazy mind, idiot savant style. Nope, she was just decoration.

It's exciting to watch things unfold in real time. But honestly, I shouldn't be smarter than Jack Bauer about counter-terrorism, and neither should my wife.

Coming up: obviously, Marwan has other cells... and there's something they're going to do with Paul Raines... the hits just keep on coming.

"I said mutant sharks with fricken lasers... somebody throw me a bone, here."

END SPOILERS

As a general rule please, please please don't have a plot twist that depends on a cop or semi-cop failing to call for backup. Honestly, it's the first thing they do.

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The Firefox people, makers of the superb free browser, have come out with a new free mail program called Thunderbird. I'm happy with the Mac OS mail program, Mail, but if for some reason you're using Eudora, or heaven forbid Outlook Express [makes gesture to ward off the evil eye], and assuming you aren't actually trying to collect computer viruses for home study, you may want to download it and consign your buggy Microsoftware to the ash head of bitstory.

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I hope you had a terrific Oscar party last night...

dahling!


(Black velvet dress by Lisa. Pearls by Dollarama.)

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Sunday, February 27, 2005

Watched MASH Saturday night, instead of being intrepid and bundling up the Pikapie to see Montréal en Lumière.

Oh, sure, it's a heck of a movie all right. It takes you somewhere you've never been and introduces you to some funny, strange, compelling characters you've never met.

But would it really have been a worse movie if it had had a plot and a central character? The way, say, Catch-22 did?

Sometimes I feel like Scrooge when I watch these things. (Or at least Scrooge McDuck.) I just wanna get in there and hang all these brilliant characters and situations off a plot that adds up to something. I felt really thrown when all of a sudden for no reason at all I was in a football movie for twenty minutes.

I guess the idea is it is all somehow supposed to build up to a feeling or an emotion. But honestly, not so much.

I guess it must have been a huge break with the Hollywood films of the fifties and early sixties. But now that we've seen pictures where it all does, amazingly, come together, the sheer chaos of it doesn't impress so much.

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Here's some harsh advice about spec scripts from Why Television Sucks. I just ran across this blog, which is quite useful. It's by an Emmy Award-winning TV working writer. At least, she's working until someone at the network reads her blog. So I recommend checking this one out sooner rather than later.

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Earlier tonight, I wrote a post tearing up a movie that won a big award recently. Unfortunately I hope the producer of it will go for one of my projects, so I guess it's going to stay in Draft status for ... ever, probably.

The O.C. has really turned into car wreck TV.

<spoilers>
Okay, literally car wreck TV. I mean, did anyone not see that car wreck coming? Pouring rain, a plotline that just Will Not Die, no way to get rid of the clinging, useless Rebecca... so wreck a car with her in it! I would have gone with malfunctioning airbag, myself, but that's 'cause I don't ever wanna see her again.

But it's car wreck TV because you can call the plot twists coming whole acts in advance if not entire episodes, and you know the characters are going to do lame, unbelievable things, but you just have to watch.

We just knew Lindsay had to be Caleb's daughter because otherwise there's no moral choice to make. And I knew that choice had to be to ditch Caleb, because she's the most centered, most grounded character on the show, and who would want to be Caleb's daughter?

We knew Summer had to come back to Seth because she's core cast, though I was hoping the show was going to send her off whether they sent Jimmy Cooper. (I was hoping Julie Cooper was going to stay there too; but I guess she was just doing a movie somewhere.)

We just know that Marissa is going to dump Alex as soon as it really hits her that she's going to have to pay the rent for herself, 'cause The O.C. would play a lesbian fling for surprises and laffs, but it's not going to seriously build it into a whole relationship; and anyway, Marissa's core cast and Ryan's girlfriend just left, so they have to get back together.

Argh. Car wreck tv. But I have to watch.

Saving graces: the teaser, where Ryan's unwilling to leave the pool house because it's raining and Seth won't come visit him, either. Naturally no covered walkway to the pool house -- it's the Southland!

And, the way Josh Schwarz sprinkled setup after setup throughout the episode, solely so he could get Seth hanging upside down in a Spiderman face mask, so Summer and he could recreate the famous kiss scene from Spiderman 2.

Now that is true geek glory.

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Friday, February 25, 2005

I've been ransacking John August's archives. Here's a useful link to The Dead Zone's writer's guidelines.

Unfortunately this is not a full show bible. Alas, I can't show you my show bibles, all for different reasons depending on the show. Either the show was radically different from the bible, or the show has not been made yet, in which case no way I'm gonna let you read it.

But I'll keep looking...

PS: Thanks to Jeff of Desperate for Desperate Housewives, here's the Freaks & Geeks Bible.

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Now you can find actors' representation online. No guarantee how often it's updated, but the nice lady at SAG will only give you three names per call, so this is muuuuuuch better.

The WGA will also help you find writers' agents online.

Here's the one for directors.

Now you know.

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Ring around the rosey
A pocket full of poseys
Ashes, ashes
We all fall down.
I read that this nursery rhyme comes to us from the time of the Black Death. "Ring around the rosey" refers to the reddened sores plague victims developed. "A pocket full of poseys" was, I think, supposed to protect you from the plague's contagious miasma. And you don't have to be a genius to figure out what the rest of it says...

Okay, so maybe it's an urban legend, or a folk etymology. But boy, do a lot of nursery rhymes seem, well, a tad hostile:
Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop...
Think this is how parents dealt with the stress before Prozac?

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Thanks to Ni Vu Ni Connu I discover that you can Google movie reviews. Type "movie:" plus the movie title, or keywords related to the movie, and the magic Google bunnies will bring you reviews of that movie or relating to the keywords you typed.

Neat, huh?

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Thanks to Chase McInerney's blog, I checked out this article in the Bahston Globe about a clever plan to stop rubbernecking by simply screening car wrecks off from the highway.

Simple solutions are the best, when they work.

Now all we need is the same thing to screen us off from car wreck TV, like the early rounds of American Idol, and anything with Paris Hilton in it.

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Artful Writer wants writers to work credits out between themselves.

Ch'yeah, right. I'm struggling, struggling to come up with a situation in which a writer would say to another writer, "No, no, really, you did most of the work. You take all the credit."

I have a friend who rewrote a guy's script on which the guy was using a one-shot pseudonym for various, um, legal reasons. Guy insisted on his pseudonym keeping the credit that he, himself, did not want.

I also have a friend who had a script rewritten by a story editor who then tried to grab shared credit, although this is not allowed under any circumstances under WGC rules.

"You just keep thinking, Butch. It's what you're good at."

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Does anyone still think that the naked photos of Paris Hilton that Defamer leaked (and no, I'm not linking to them; Google'em yourself), that were supposedly hacked from her cell phone, got out by accident? Gee, this girl has a lot of nudie pictures out on the Net. And before the famous sex tape, would anyone have starred her in a reality show?

I wonder, is she a publicity hound who's willing to strip, or an exhibitionist who loves publicity, or a wanna-be actress who'll do what it takes?

Okay, done wondering.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

John August's posted about some new, free screenwriting software. I'm not in a mood to procrastinate enough to check it out myself, but maybe y'all will.

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DMc points me to this Salon article about a girl who spent 10 years rewriting a Mob farce and feels like it was, maybe, not the best use of 10 years.

Oh, the pain, quoth DMc.

To which I say: bitch bitch bitch, whine whine whine. How many aspiring screenwriters would gladly sign a contract guaranteeing them a produced feature film starring Diane Keaton -- even a straight to video mob farce -- in return for spending 10 years writing it. I mean, that's not ten years solid. That's ten years doing this, that and the other thing, and by the way rewriting your silly mob farce.

Everyone in showbiz has something to whine about. David E. Kelley probably complains that they won't give guarantee him enough episodes. It's only the people who have absolutely nothing -- no credits at all -- that keep their mouths shut. After all, no one actually asked you to be in showbiz.

PS: Alexandra, the Wry Writer, writes: "The taste of something bitter, one asks?"

Actually, no. I could look at the first ten years of my showbiz career and bitch that I never caught a break. Or I could look at ten years as a development exec and part-time writer as, hey, I made a living in showbiz and learned to write. I've got nothing at all to complain about now, but I tried not to complain too much then, either, because there were a lot of people who weren't writing even part time, and didn't get to make movies for a living, who would have been happy to trade places. And there always are.

There's the old joke about the 82-year-old guy shovelling elephant crap at the circus. His kids try to get him to retire. "What?" he says, "And give up show business?"

Now that's a great attitude.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Watched the first ep of "Carnivale." (I realize I'm about 18 eps behind, but there you go.) Boy, it's taking a while to get somewhere.

But then you sometimes just, you know, trust. Because something about the way the story's being told suggests that when you get there, it will be just right.

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Tried to watch the pilot of Tour of Duty. The 1987 haircuts were hard to watch, and the landscape looked an awful lot like Mexico. (Any remember eucalyptus trees in Vietnam?) The cliche dialog ("He was a good man" "They're all good men") was painful. The cliche characters sucked -- the new lieutenant of course has to be an idiot who doesn't listen to his sergeant. The utter lack of realism troubled me -- when we skipped ahead of ep. 3, you saw a Vietnamese guy in a hamlet pull out a rifle to shoot back at the NVA who were ambushing the soldiers and not a single American soldier shot his head off!. A Vietnamese civilian with a rifle, in those days, was VC.

Anyone who runs is V.C. Anyone who stands still is well-disciplined V.C.
Door Gunner, Full Metal Jacket


What made the show bad was that there did not seem to be any episode plots. The pilot had only the vaguest of plots: the sergeant recruits some rookies to go chase some NVA in the jungle, hoping to bring back a prisoner, i.e. something you did pretty much every day in the infantry. Nothing special.

What made the show unwatchable is that it showed us nothing we didn't already know. If you're going to take us all the way back to Vietnam in 1967, assume we've seen Apocalypse Now and Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Assume we've also seen (forgive me if some of these date after 1987) The Big Red One and The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far and The Green Berets.

If you can't show us anything we haven't seen in those movies, why should we watch your damn TV show? China Beach showed us stories we hadn't seen before. Needless to say, MASH showed us stories and characters we hadn't met before. Tour of Duty, not so much.

TV and the movies exist to show us the real world in ways we haven't seen it before, either because we haven't been where the story is taking place, or because we enter the mind of someone who's seeing a world we know, but with a different perspective; or to show us a world we've never seen before but which is emotionally grounded in our own lives.

Fantasy's fine. Spectacle's fine. No one is watching The OC for real life. But you can't show us what pretends to be the real world but isn't; and you can't show us a fictional world we've seen all too many times before.

Stories can be old, but they have to be new at the same time.

Well, I'm popping this disk back in the mailer...

PS A reader writes to ask where I found ToD. Well, on DVD, natch. At Zip.ca. But why on Earth did they re-release it??? I mean, Miami Vice, sure, but...

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A reader writes in to ask if "It's not for us" means it's too edgy and she should tone her piece down.

"It's not for us" means "We didn't like it and we don't feel like telling you why, 'cause you'll probably argue with us about how we're wrong about whatever it is we're saying we don't like, and we don't want to give you anything to argue about." "It's not for us" means "next!" You can't read anything into it. Nothing at all.

Most people won't like most of your stuff. And that's if you're successful. The difference between successful and unsuccessful here is that, if you're successful, some people like some of your stuff.

I don't give rejections a second thought. Frankly, I don't give submissions a second thought. That way lies pain. I send my stuff to an agent or publisher or whatever, and forget about it. If they're interested, they'll call me. If they're not interested, they won't. If they have to be cajoled into being interested, their interest isn't going to be worth very much anyway.

This is not the case when you want a meeting. Then you're trying to get in the door by any means necessary, on the theory that once they see you, they'll love you; and anyway, they'll remember your face. But if they have already received your material (including a query) and they don't get on the phone to you, forget'em and move on.

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Monday, February 21, 2005

Working and reworking the Gone to Soldiers beat sheet. It's particularly complicated because we're cutting back and forth between five timelines.

One thing that keeps coming up in ordering the scenes is whether to go for surprise or suspense. Do you let the audience know what's coming up? Or surprise them?

E.g. in a war film, do you let them know someone's gonna die, or surprise them?

Both work, but to different effect. In a drama, I prefer to go for emotional suspense. We know the character's going to die. That makes watching him live so much more poignant. If he's unexpectedly killed, the audience gets a shock that lasts maybe a half a minute. If we know he's going to be killed, then we might spend ten, twenty minutes hoping against hope that he won't be.

If you're not playing with time, you can use the conventions of story telling to build suspense. Any time Sandy keeps a secret from Kirsten, you know it will come out. You're just waiting for the other shoe to drop. When people fake their way through situations they're uncomfortable with, we're in suspense: when will they finally act? And how?

To me, drama's all about emotional tension. And if we don't have an inkling what's going to happen, then where's the tension coming from?

I think the only way to make surprise really work is if everything that led up to the surprise is cast in a new light by the surprise. The Big Reveal in The Sixth Sense isn't just a surprise -- it recasts everything we know about the events we've seen. If it's just one of those Surprise, The Monster's Not Really Dead moments, well, who cares? (Though that cliche was cleverly handled in the otherwise unmemorable Buffy Dracula ep, where Dracula, staked, reforms out of the mists and -- there's Buffy, ready to stake him again. "Didn't think I was gonna fall for that, didja?")

So we're gonna go with suspense. Rather than tell you why she's mourning, we'll show you that she's mourning, and let you wonder a bit before finding out why.

Hopefully, it'll work.

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Just got a query to evaluate which had a lot of elements of a good comedy -- and fell short in many ways of what I thought would be the best comedy using those elements. In other words, just from reading the query I could see where the flaws were (IMO) and suggested a number of ways to improve the story.

This is why I believe people should send out query letters before they write the script. If this writer is on board with the changes I suggested, he's now going to have to rewrite the whole screenplay. Everyone hates polishing their screenplay to a high gloss only to have someone point out a structural flaw that means a page one rewrite. But you can't just send out the flawed script, can you?

And everyone hates writing a screenplay that no one wants to read.

If you query first, on the other hand, at least you know people will want to read the script. And if you can get some informed feedback and constructive criticism on your query first, you'll have a better screenplay once you do write it.

PS: A reader writes in:

Q. But what about lag time? Won't the agent or producer have forgotten my query?

A: They forgot your query the moment they asked to read the script. They get a lot of queries; they don't spend a lot of time debating whether to ask for your script or not.

If you query first, you might once or twice lose someone who needed a specific script at a specific time. But you haven't really lost them because you hadn't written the script yet, so no loss! In most cases, a good story is a good story. If they liked it then, they'll like it now.

If you're querying first, you don't have to hit absolutely everybody in the Hollywood Creative Director, either. Just enough to discover whether people want your script or not. If not, you've saved yourself time and effort. If they do, then you can hit them when you have the script, and hit the rest of them then, too.

PPS: another reader writes in:

Q. Once I've written the script, should I re-query?

A. No, never re-query. It can only turn a "yes" into a possible "no." Just send it in as if they asked for it last week. Don't even remind them how long ago they asked for it. Show business is so about the now, and so not about the then.

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I see that while over a quarter of you guys are on Safari, and 20% are on Firefox, the rest of you guys are still using the security-hole-with-browsing-capabilities that is Internet Explorer. If you're on a Mac, Safari is the way to go, of course; and if you're on a Windows box, try Firefox. It's free, it's safe, it's much less buggy, and you're not supporting the Evil Empire's plot for global domination. Oh, and your computer won't crash so often.

You can download Firefox from the Mozilla site for free.

Both Safari and Firefox will import your IE favorite when they install. Getting Safari to import your Netscape favorites requires a crafty little hack.

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Sunday, February 20, 2005

... doesn't exist. But there are a flock of companies that do the same thing. DVD Info keeps track of the different companies -- numbers of disks, response times, customer service. I'm tempted to jump in and sign up, though I have a terrific DVD place (La Boîte Noire) just one chilly dog walk away. It would save me the half hour staring at video titles without having access to the IMDB ratings, wondering whether Warriors of Heaven and Earth is better than The Emporer and the Assassin. I hate hanging out in video stores trying to figure out what to watch. I sometimes wonder if I'd've done better to just work my way through all the titles. Well, probably not, but I should cut down the dithering. Maybe renting DVD's by mail would do that.

Have people had good luck with DVD-by-mail houses? I'm concerned I'd use it lots in the beginning, and then stop using it so often, until I'd be paying ten bucks a rental...

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Saturday, February 19, 2005

Now I like shaggy dogs more than most people, having lived with one for seven years. But The Village was just too much of a shaggy dog story for me.

Like your typical M. Night Shyamalan film, it's all building up to a Big Reveal that puts the whole story in an entirely new light. But unlike in The Sixth Sense, and like Unbreakable, the dramas of the characters don't sustain you through the movie to the Big Reveal. And this time (unlike Unbreakable) you see the Big Reveal coming at least twenty, thirty minutes before it comes.

The problem with a Big Reveal movie is that the writer knows a Big Reveal is coming, so he's working overtime to set up cool little mysteries that will make sense to the audience once the reveal comes. At least, he's supposed to. But there have to be more than mysteries. There has to be a compelling, driving story that isn't about the Big Reveal. Otherwise the audience is just waiting irritatedly for the film to unspool so they can find out what all the fuss was about.

Memento is structured as a series of reveals, as the movie moves back in time, each jump backwards revealing a new twist on what we thought we knew. But the drama itself was compelling enough that it wasn't jut about the reveals.

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Looks like our show made it to francophone TV:

21 h 30
LES LEÇONS DE JOSH
Comédie de situation. Un professeur d'anthropologie sexuelle expérimente toutes sortes d'aventures qui alimentent le contenu de ses cours. Distribution : David Julian Hirsh (Josh Gould), Andrew Tarbet (Eric Kosciusko), Krista Bridges (Hunter Randall), Sarah Smyth (Natalie Bouchard) et Patricia McKenzie (Jennifer Chopra). Réalisateur : Paul Carrière. Producteurs : André Béraud et Josée Vallée. Coproduction : Les productions Sexant inc. et Cirrus communications

Les bienfaits de la chasteté. Fini les folies! Josh décide qu'il vaut mieux d'être chaste pour quelques temps. Il veut concentrer ses énergies sur son travail plutôt que sur sa quête de l'âme soeur. Tiendra-t-il longtemps? Pas sûr... puisqu'il doit côtoyer un nouveau sujet de recherche : une belle strip-teaseuse! Pendant ce temps, Éric est contraint à la «chasteté forcée » alors qu'il se remet de son piercing au pénis. On lui avait pourtant promis que ce ne serait pas douloureux...

[Proper accents assisted by this HTML code page. Though wouldn't it be nice to be able to convert them automatically?]

This resolves the question of the mysterious feature film I never wrote (see Mysterioso). The question now arises: was the dubbing so bad one could construct an entirely new plot out of it? Is this the return of What's New, Tiger Lily?

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Friday, February 18, 2005

Fellow Americanuck John Rogers has a terrific column in Kung Fu Monkey on rewriting scenes from a secondary character's point of view.

The basic idea is: now and then when things get dull, imagine that a huge star has signed to play the secondary role, subject to it being interesting. Make it interesting.

Or, to put it another way, change the viewpoint of the scene from the hero's to the person who's making the hero sweat. It's not about Bogart in the bookstore trying to find out about the fake book dealer across the street. It's about the hot bookseller babe who wants to get Bogie to notice how hot she is, when he's all about staking out A. J. Geiger's.

Useful tool to have in the toolbox.

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

From Kung Fu Monkey, this blog entry is just too, well, too.

. I also resolve NOT to play City of Heroes. These guys have single-handedly done more damage to the editorial schedule of the comic book industry than the arrival of DVD porn. There have been nights I signed on, and the writers of every book I bought that Wednesday were on playing.

A friend called CoH "gaming crack." FOOL. It is not just gaming crack, it is like gaming crack which not only has all the feelgood ride of standard crack but in the midst of your mind-blowing high, visions of people who have done you wrong appear to apologize and beg forgiveness, only to have the double-team of Salma Hayek and the girl who was your major crush in high school appear in cheerleading outfits and, while being rained on, bludgeon these wrongdoers to death with your Emmy. And it comes with pizza. CRACK PIZZA.


People who talk like this? Are why you want to be a TV writer. Not that he seems to be doing TV these days, he's too busy with features. But if he were doing TV, you would be willing to pay money to sit in a room with him and break story.

And the best part of it is, they would be paying you to sit in a room with him, and break story.

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Just read this article on why you can't fast-forward on 24 if you're unfortunate enough to have a Comcast Personal Video Recorder.

I recently had the same problem, and I thought it was just more bugginess from the lousy software on the Bell Expressvu PVR, which also periodically records programs with 0 minutes, mislabels Gilmore Girls as Everybody Loves Raymond (which I personally do not; but I suppose Many People Despise Raymond and Wish Him Ill would not have been such a snappy title), and sometimes breaks up into digital snow for no hardwarish reason at all.

So those bastards are blocking fast forwarding??? Do I have to go back to my VCR? Or just buy a DVR without the industry-approved customer-screwing software?

When fast-forwarding becomes illegal, only criminals will fast-forward...

I recognize why networks might not want us to fast-forward through the commercials, which after all pay for the shows. But I'd happily pay to watch the shows without commercials (without, say, waiting for the DVD). That seems like a better idea.

Now if we can just get public radio to issue some decryption software that eliminates fund drives for those who've already paid up...

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Still watching The L Word on DVD. I continue to be impressed how much license they're allowing themselves to make their characters irritating. Oh, and real.

The show has a high squirminess factor for me. I'm so used to the other shoe dropping, and on The L Word, you never know whether it's going to or not. I keep expecting Shane to implode in predictable ways -- after all she's an ex-junkie -- and she doesn't. I keep expecting Tim to take Jenny back, and he doesn't. I kept expecting Tim to catch Jenny with Marina, but the show took its sweet time getting there.

You can get away with a lot of good writing when people are tuning in to watch lesbians.

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Watched half of I, Robot last night, and I found it strangely unaffecting -- as compelling as, say, most Isaac Asimov robot stories.

Is the problem that there's no real jeopardy? Halfway through, I see no evidence that Will Smith's character Del Spooner is in any particular danger. There's a vague amorphous sense that the new robot series might be dangerous. But we don't know how.

We haven't seen any robot harm anyone at any point. (Possibly because we'll learn that the Three Laws of Robotics have, in fact, held, and the one robot run amok is still obeying the First Law in some unforeseen way?) All we've seen is that one person was killed in a place where only a robot could have done it, or helped him.

There are no stakes, either, because we don't know what Del wants out of life. He's upset about robots, but again, halfway through, I don't know why.

I think the problem boils down to POV vs. emotional POV. I, Robot is obeying strict POV. We don't see anything Del doesn't see. We need to see some things that Del is going to know about later, but doesn't know about yet, to increase suspense. We need to know more of the danger he's in. We need to be a little ahead of him.

I believe in writing from a character's POV, but his emotional POV, which I'm defining as anything the character sees, plus anything he's going to know about later even if he doesn't know about it now, plus anything he really, really needs to know that he may never know -- anything that's part of his story even if he never learns it.

Without a good emotional POV, I'm reduced to watching some really good computer-animated robots. And they're kinda cool while I'm watching. But kinda bland. And when I stop watching, I forget all about them.

By contrast, the robots in Kubrick and Spielberg's deeply twisted AI have all the dark, obsessive uniqueness you'd expect from highly sophisticated slaves who must obey their programming like it or not.

Now I'm not saying your villains can't be cartoons -- I loved Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: POT as much as anyone, in fact I'd much rather have seen the movie he thought he was in than the movie Kevin Costner thought he was in. But if you're not willing to give your villain a second and third helping of verve, then you really should make him as distinct and interesting as possible. What movie does he think he's in? What are his concerns? Frankenstein wouldn't be nearly as affecting if we didn't see him play innocently with the little girl he's going to kill in a few minutes.

Villains are people too! Write them that way.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Watched this weekend's Boston Legal. I'm convinced David E. Kelley's gone around the bend. He seems determined to prove he can write television without using any of the cliches of television. There's nary a go-to in the episode. The dialog is dense and strange. The A story is made into a blatant allegory for Bush's invasion of Iraq by the dialog; meanwhile the B story becomes a shrill attack on the Food and Drug Administration's meat policy. Yikes. Made palatable only by William Shatner and Candice Bergen's excellent repartee.

All of which makes the show very much worth watching. It's always interesting watching a genius lose it. When a genius is working at the top of his form, the seams don't show. It's hard to see how the thing's done. Not on this show, baby.

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John August, whom I've had on my must-read blogroll for some time, has been kind enough to mention this blog, so welcome John August readers. He also recommends The Artful Writer, and having checked him out, so do I.

The Artful Writer is writing for working writers, primarily, which definitely pumps the signal to noise ratio. Stuff you can use. Thoughts on the future of the medium. Advice about agenting your agent. How to take stupid notes without getting fired or committing hara-kiri. WGA regs and how they apply. Nice. I think I'm going to be reading him in the future.

He also recommends, as I do, Ask Dr. Hollywood, whose formatting makes his site a tad hard to read on screen, but is definitely worth printing out if you're getting into things.

My other favorite is Neil Gaiman's blog, not just because I'm a huge fan of the Dream King and all he hath wrought, but because he's always posting strange and amusing links.

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Monday, February 14, 2005

Still watching Season Two of NYPD Blue, but it's beginning to pall a bit. Does everyone who talks to detectives incriminate themselves? Jeez, Louise!

Part of your template on a procedural (even a semi-procedural semi-character) show is whether all the crimes get solved. So far it's looking like the writers don't want the sun to go down on an unsolved crime. I find that the weakest part of an otherwise gritty and realistic show. I've seen NYPD Blue shows where the cops blow the investigation, but not in this stretch. And they always know who did it.

Do real cops always know who did it? I read the book Homicide was based on. They don't, always. Some investigations drag on for months. They think they know who did it, but they're not 100% sure and they certainly can't prove it.

<political outburst>
(Of course, you could also make a show based on the Justice Department's investigation of terror, where people are arrested, held without access to lawyers, tortured, and eventually released for want of evidence, like that Australian guy who was just released, but people might not enjoy it so much.)
</political outburst>

I gather investigations on Homicide, the show, also last several episodes. Maybe I should give it another try, especially if Will and Emma like it so much.

On the other hand this is the danger of watching a show on DVD; or, if you will, the challenge for the writers to write for a show that winds up on DVD. On TV, the consistency of the template keeps viewers coming back for more; the patterns of the show don't wear on the audience so much when there's a week between shows. On DVD, the consistency of the template gets a bit irritating, as the viewer sees the pattern all too clearly when he can watch show after show without intermission.

The show we did last summer, Charlie Jade, though, should be best on DVD. There's a lot of obscure stuff that will reward close examination. As it flies by on the air, it might be a bit tough to follow.

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Ran across a sample beat sheet for the defunct show Sliders, written under the defunct contest "Slide It Yourself." Oh, and here's another Sliders beat sheet.

All the SIY pages are gone from the Sci Fi Channel website but you can read them through your favorite search engine's nifty "cache," anyway, 'cause the webmaestro at SF didn't use "noarchive" commands.

Oh, and here's another beat sheet from Lee Goldberg; it's in Word format, so it will download, not open in your browser.

Anyway, them's pretty much what a beat sheet looks like.

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As a writer, I can at least always do some writing, even if I don't have an office to go to. It's hard writing on your own for months on end, but at least there's the writing. If you're an actor, you can only really act when someone hires you to act. You can't really act on spec.

I suppose that's what theater, and acting classes, are for.

It is a not-very-Valentiny Valentine's day, because Hunter's home sick from school, playing Star Wars Battleground. I can hear the sound of Simon the Killer Ewok destroying his enemies...

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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Funny how many people hit my site looking for spoilers about how Marissa and Alex are going to end up. Which goes to show that Josh Schwarz is not losing any audience with their lesbian affair.

What strikes me though is how sweetly the story is handled. It's just your basic shy little high school affair. What makes it fresh is they're girls and it's on TV. If you had a love affair that simple among a guy and a girl, no one would watch because there wouldn't be enough going on. But you should watch because it's deftly done -- much more deftly than the far more convoluted Caleb/Julie Cooper etc story.

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We took a look at We Were Soldiers. If you want a few choice examples of really ham-handed expository writing, watch the first twenty minutes of this. It starts promisingly enough with a Vietnamese ambush of a French patrol. But then it's into a walk'n'talk expo scene between two officers we never see again where we hear about who Mel Gibson's character is and what he's supposed to do. Then we get to hear a little more about Mel Gibson's character from some people watching him move in. Expo, expo, expo. Most of it unnecessary. Do we really need to hear what a helicopter's supposed to do in warfare? Is there anyone who doesn't know that the point of having choppers is so you can fly troops into battle and out again? Or if there is, does it take more than an offhanded reference?

The opening could have been so much richer, but it's clumsily written all the way through. We stopped watching it before they ever got in country.

Now Lisa feels much, much better about Gone to Soldiers.

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Watched this Billy Bob Thornton coaching movie all the way through 'cause Lisa was enjoying it, but I didn't get into it. It's another Coach And Team story, but this time based on the real life Permian Panthers of 1988, from Odessa Texas. The point of this movie wasn't the usual motley crew coming together as a team to beat all odds. Odessa has won the Texas State Championship for football any number of times. It was more an attempt to shoot a documentary-style film of the lives of the football players as they move towards the championship without their star player. It had the virtues of a documentary that I felt I saw how people very much not like me live.

Odessa, Texas seems to live for its high school football team. Its previous football stars live horrible mundane lives where their memories of their high school glory seem to be all they have to live for. The pressure put on the kids is huge. Their senior year at high school, on the team, is going to be the high point of their lives. Nothing they ever do again will be as important. The coach is the town hero when they win, and when he makes a mistake, For Sale signs appear on his lawn.

Yikes. Remind me never to live in Texas.

The problem, for me, was that I was never really drawn into the story enough. The film wasn't so documentary-style that characters talked to camera, so even if they had been able to see into themselves, we didn't get to hear it. But it was documentary-style enough that we didn't get truly evocative dialog scenes that might have opened the characters up. And, of course, being documentary-style, it had less dramatic license. The writers couldn't stretch reality enough for the sake of dramatic pacing. Like real life, nothing was inevitable; so nothing was particularly surprising. There was a driving question -- will they win the championship? -- but the individual story arcs didn't have dramatic shape. There were not individual, specific stakes for each kid -- you know, if we win, my mom can afford her cancer treatments sort of thing. All the stakes were the same: win the game because it's what you've been living to do all your life.

Well, glad I watched it. And so, so glad I don't live in Texas.

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Rented Season Three of Homicide ('cause Season Three is what the Boite Noir has). Started to watch it, but got instantly rather bored with it, probably because we've been watching Season Two of NYPD Blue. The latter feels so much richer and realer, it blew Homicide out of the water. Homicide seemed well enough written, but a tad more procedural (so less dramatic) and much less multilayered. It had an opening scene with some clever dialog -- the cops were watching a TV show and quibbling about how the network wants more sex and less nudity -- obvious a swipe at their own network. But that was it. The whole season teaser was a chat about sex and nudity, with nothing else going on. By contrast the season two teaser for NYPD Blue, if I remember correctly, reminded us that David Caruso's character and his girlfriend were in danger of going to jail. (His character was also in danger from his inflated sense of his own bankability, but that was not immediately evident.) The dialog was just as clever, but there was meat in it.

Anybody prefer Homicide? Why? Should I give it another shot?

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Spent most of yesterday morning and early afternoon redesigning and reprogramming all the pages of my website. Instead of using TABLE commands to define margins (Old School and deprecated in HTML 4.x), I'm now using CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). Now the text area resizes according to the size of the window, and the clickable image of my book cover stays on the page as you scroll through the text. I'm pleased I was able to figure it out on my own and get it right.

I also redesigned and reprogrammed this blog's template to take out the unnecessary little empty blue square. Now it's all information. I'm considering going to three columns, to keep more of the blogroll on the page, but it's not urgent.

Of course, all that time spent reprogramming was therefore NOT spent on the medieval screenplay. But it's hard to think story when the kids are around for the weekend. Yeah, that's it.

The truth is that it IS procrastination. But slightly more fruitful procrastination than, say, playing endless rounds of DD Tournament Poker, which was my previous time suck. It's nice to have readers, and the blog does help me figure out what I'm thinking about tv watching and writing.

Anyway, I'm rather pleased with the new look of the site. It looks much more professional.

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Last night Lisa and I had a half hour's knock-down-drag-out about a few plot points in Gone to Soldiers, finally resolving the issue so that she was happy -- she believed the characters' motivations -- and I was happy -- nothing important happening offscreen, dramatic back'n'forth between the characters, who wanted things from each other and trie to get them in un-self-aware, twisted, self-destructive ways.

After which, she said she felt stuck.

So I said: stuck? We just fixed a plot point. Slow is not stuck.

Slow progress generally means that there's sticky stuff that has to be handled the right way. Slow progress usually means you're going to come up with something that is non-obvious and therefore fresh.

Stuck means you keep staring at it, not able to get any further.

Lisa's at the outline stage on the second act. I have to keep reminding her that there's nothing wrong with spending months on an outline. The outline's where you should be spending the months. I've never figured out how to write less than a page an hour of actually sitting in a chair in front of the computer. That means that the first draft screenplay takes three to six weeks, tops. I think that's true of most professional screenwriters. When pro's talk about spending a year on a screenplay, I think they're generally talking about spending a lot of time on the outline, or rewriting many, many, many drafts. The first draft is not what takes the time. The story takes time, and the rewriting takes time.

And, of course, the more time you spend on the story, the less time you spend rewriting.

I'm sure we'll get there, and I believe that the slowness now means that the eventual screenplay will unfold in an inevitable yet surprising way. (See my book for an explanation of these terms.)

Good on ya, mate.

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Saturday, February 12, 2005

So on my way in, my charming downstairs neighbors remark that they saw one of my films on French TV. Something where some Jewish guy named Josh is in love with a girl and so is a Presbyterian minister. A feature film. Dubbed in French. Which I wrote with "a girl."

This sounds remarkably like a dubbed version of the show I co-created, Naked Josh, except that of course NJ is a half-hour television show, and we never had a plot where Josh was competing with another guy. Not in first season, and second season hasn't come out yet.

WTF?

Mysterious, huh? You work so hard to accumulate a few credits, and then you start getting credits for things you're unaware you've done. Like, why does the IMDB have me as a consulting producer for some kind of home improvement show called House Calls? Is there some other Alex Epstein who's doubled up on my IMDB entry?

There are also a few credits I earned, but took a while to get to the screen. I was tickled to see my script consulting gig on She Said I Love You turned into a script consulting credit on the resulting movie.

Mysterioso...

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Friday, February 11, 2005

Interview with Amy Sherman-Palladino in The Onion AV Club. Also, an interview with Michael Hurwitz, who created Arrested Development.

I never find all the answers in these interviews, but now and then there's a hint of something you need to know, and many reminders of things you knew but forgot you knew, and they usually make me want to go kick some ass so I can get my own show.

Which I will try and go do now. As opposed to, say, getting lost in The Onion AV Club archives for the next few days.

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Who gives a rip how much the people who don't like your show hate your show? They're not going to watch it regardless. (Actually if they hate it they're more likely to watch it than if they just don't like it a little.) You only need to care how much the people who like your show love your show.

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Well thank you, Commodore Crafty.

One of my favorite movies ever is Goodfellas. I just think it's a crackerjack of a movie. It's a black hole for me every time it's on tv. If I flip by it, I have to watch it, no matter how far in it is. It's Scorsese at the top of his game and I'm powerless to resist it. I've seen Goodfellas probably as many times as I've seen Casablanca.

And it's never taught me a damn thing.

I'm not the first person to suggest that you learn more from failures than from successes. But it's my contention that it's actually very hard as a Tv or Film writer to learn how to be better from reading great screenplays or scripts. If you're a budding director, maybe -- although even then it's more likely that it will just teach you how to ape that director's style. Good if you're talking Goodfellas Scorsese. Kundun Scorsese, ehh...

But in various incarnations as script reader for CBC and teacher at Ryerson, and story editor for this and for that I've had occasion to read a lot of bad scripts. And the process of spotting why they're bad, or why lots of scripts are bad -- well, it teaches me something new every time.

I've found the same thing applies to the wonderful new found resource that is the TV series on DVD.

Now that studios have seen the dollar signs we're starting to see some real quirky choices crop up as they empty their back catalogues. Again, other than as a resource, I'm not sure what one can really learn from watching a show like Friends. But the short run series, brilliant or flaws, the ones that never catch on...well...those can be a goldmine.

I first noticed this phenomenon with FAMILY GUY. I watched this show regularly when it was on FOX and enjoyed it. But like everybody else I was intrigued when the Cartoon Network airing and DVD sales revived the dead series -- made it more popular than it ever had been before. It's easy to say that Fox screwed up in things like scheduling and promotion. But unlike Futurama, a show I really did give up on, my recollection is that promo for Family Guy was always fairly abundant.

So why did it take DVD to boost the series' popularity -- to the point even where it's back in production?

Well watching the DVD's gave me a clue.

FAMILY GUY LEADS THE WAY

Family Guy is a remarkably chaotic piece of work. Both The Simpsons and South Park will go some distance for the joke, but not nearly as far as Family Guy. What I mean by that is Family Guy will regularly derail plot in exhaustingly paced gags that go further and further off the beam. it truly is an animated series for those with ADHD. And I think that, and not Fox chicanery, is why it took so long to catch on. It needed the Cartoon Network strip constant exposure, and multiple viewings, and later, DVD's ability to pause and rewind and watch again immediately, to hook and keep most viewers. The show simply moves too fast, and engages in too many comic non sequitirs, for most to cotton onto it on the first viewing. So it makes perfect sense to me that people would discover its hit and miss anarchic charms after market, off air, on DVD. It will be interesting to see if comedies speed up in a world where everyone can just Tivo back five seconds and catch up on a joke you missed.

MARTIN SHEEN, ROB REINER, AND LATELINE

Lateline is a show I remember seeing on its original run, in 1997. Ah, 1997. Bill Clinton was in power but I don't think...nope...we didn't care about the blue dress yet, did we? Budget surplus. No war. The power to care about malfeasance in real estate deals. God, we were so much younger then, we're older than that now...anyway...Lateline was, I'm guessing, Al Franken's pre-Air America days' attempt to sock it to late night news pomposity. It was probably also NBC's attempt to counter Sports Night, which was a critical if not a ratings darling for ABC at the time.

Lateline's 13 episodes are now out on DVD. I've only watched a few of them back, but I've seen several of the episodes that I never saw when they first aired. They may have never aired for all I know.

Lateline starts out as a very anemic standard office sitcom. Megyn Price (pre-Grounded For Life) is suitably sexy as Gail, the Mary Richards stand in...The always entertaining Miguel Ferrer is her boss and sparring partner. Al Franken is Freundlich, who is probably the worst part of himself, and a lite version of the Albert Brooks character from Broadcast News. Robert Foxworth is spot on as the vain anchor. There is a horrendous laugh track. And watching the first two episodes of this sitcom, it's easy to see why it went for the high jump.

But the great thing about DVD is that you don't have to wait a week and really, who's going to wait a week for a show they were lukewarm about? But on DVD you can see as Lateline makes the most of its stunt casting. You have G. Gordon Liddy as himself. You have Conan and Andy Richter in a hilarious subplot. But the piece de resistance is a half hour episode where they break the format completely.

it's presented as a "Lateline" piece on the Hollywood blockbuster that never was. Franken's character gets a bit part on a major Hollywood summer picture shooting in Washington DC, playing a reporter. The Lateline crew gets to shoot a behind the scenes. Anybody who's read Julie Salomon's Devil's Candy on the making of Bonfire of the Vanities knows what happens next. Franken's character ingratiates himself with the actors, and under the guise of being 'realistic' and wanting greater 'realism' -- slowly sinks the entire picture. The great thing about it is that the actor playing the President of the USA in this movie is Martin Sheen -- a full two years or so before West Wing. And he's the evil Martin Sheen -- the worst, actor-y version of himself. The director is Rob Reiner. I laughed so hard I nearly cried. I'm going to enjoy watching the rest of Lateline. G. Gordon Liddy getting shot is pretty fun, too.

WONDERFALLS

Soft spot for me. Toronto shot - this is the show that amazingly covers the exact same ground as Joan of Arcadia. One hit, one bombed. I'm still trying to figure out why. Any guesses? I think they've got a crack cast. You've got Tim Minnear and Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland. Funny, literate scripts and a very believable and compact world, in and around Niagara Falls. This is selling really well right now, so it may just be that this is next series that people discover and say, "why was that cancelled?" It's nice to know that one part of the corporate behemoth - that drives the profits, just may call attention to how often the network emperors have no clothes.

Oh but wait. That's what bloggers always say--blame the man. The fact is that no one watched Wonderfalls. Or Family Guy. Hmm. Could DVD really change everything?

Next couple of weeks sees the DVD debut of the first season of Murphy Brown. I loved this show more than cheese. I wonder if it will hold up?

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Thursday, February 10, 2005

... what Mr. McGrath thinks of this entry on Senses Working Overtime trashing Trailer Park Boys.

Me, I can't watch TPB, but then I'm not a Real Canadian. Even if I were a real Canadian, I wouldn't be a Real Canadian. I live in Montreal and all, y'know.

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Denis McGrath will be joining this blog from time to time. Denis is a terrific television writer who I got to work with on Charlie Jade, and he's got a lot to say about, what else, writing and watching television. I'm looking forward to reading his thoughts here...

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Since so many people are linking to my Ophelia is Pregnant page, it seems like the best (or easiest) way to get a meme out. So I just put up A Modest Proposal for how to take the partisanship, corruption and gerrymandering out of US Congressional redistricting. Maybe people will get the message, who knows?

It didn't do much for my screenplay, but maybe it will do some good for the body politic.

It's a still a mitzvah even if it accomplishes nothing, isn't it?

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Last night my Bell Expressvu Personal Video Recorder (PVR) developed a new glitch. Instead of just periodically recording 0 minutes of a show, it is now also dropping out chunks of shows and developing digital snow.

I wouldn't recommend getting one.

The tech support people say it's a software problem, and they're going to fix it Real Soon Now. That's what they said in January.

Great.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

... make sure your character's names make sense for their age. When Lisa was in school, she was one of many Lisa's. It was an enormously popular name. If you have a character named Lisa, people will instinctively feel she's, um, Lisa's age. Likewise if you have characters named Harriet or Florrie, they're probably elderly Jewish ladies. Max is either an eighty-year-old guy, a very young boy, or (most likely) a dog. A cheerleader is most likely Brittany or Ashley, statistically (or so I read on the Net, so it must be true). If you're a 15th Century Italian guy, you're probably Giovanni, Antonio, Piero, Francesco, Iacopo, Bartolomeo, Niccolo. (If you're a 20th Century Brooklyn Italian guy, you're probably Joey, Tony, Frankie or Nicky. Bart and Peter seem to have gone out the window.)

So it's not just what the name means to you, or the clever allusion to Faust you're making, it's also the nuances your audience gets without even knowing it...

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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

It's a rainy day. I've heard of these.

They are not supposed to occur in February here.

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Procrastinating, I looked to see what Meg Ryan's done lately. It was interesting to see how practically all her characters' names say "spunky." You can even tell when she became a star, because previously she had Character names, and after that she had Meg Ryan names:

Before:

Debby
Denise
Jane
Betsy
Lisa
Cally
Carole
Maggie
Lydia
Bev
Sydney
Donna

And then she did "When Harry met Sally":

Sally
DeDe
Pamela
Rita
Annie
Kay
Alice
Catherine
Kate
Katharine
Captain Karen Emma Walden
Maggie
Anastasia (Disney movie; lead voice role)
Maggie (the third Maggie she's played!)
Bonnie (from Hurlyburly, the play)
Kathleen
Eve
Alice
Kate
Frannie
Jackie
Kyra

Wow, hear all those "K's"! Kay, Karen, Kate, Catherine, Katharine, Kathleen, Kate again...

Practically no one in the movie audience remembers character's names, unless the names are in the title. I remember Sally from When Harry Met Sally..., but I didn't remember Annie from Sleepless in Seattle. But names are important to the "read," so be careful naming characters. I even find if I don't get a character's name right, I can't write them. The name reminds me who they are.

People do remember character names in tv shows. Partly I think that's because you see them over more time. Partly it's because TV dialog is more talky, so characters get called by their names more often. So names are even more important there. Especially when the network decides it doesn't like your original series title and you need to change it to something with the character's name in it...

Yours very truly,

Kalexander Maxim Kepstein

POSTSCRIPT: Lisa points out that the names before When Harry Met Sally are names common among women born in the '60s, while the names after it are names common among women born in the '70's... ahem.

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Lisa was complaining that it was unrealistic that Bette, on ep. 1.07 of The L Word, couldn't get her girlfriend Tina on the phone, even though the writers had contrived some (to me) very satisfying coincidences to make sure she couldn't: Bette's cell phone was offline during an event, but by then Tina had unplugged the phone because some crazy girl was calling constantly to make threats.

So yes, of course, Bette, being a total control freak, would have called every single person in her cell phone's directory before boarding a plane and missing a dinner in her honor.

But that wouldn't have been interesting to watch, and it would have been even less interesting to watch the writers' close off the plothole. TV is a compressed reality. A few things stand for many more (or bigger) things. (I think that's called synecdoche, or, possibly, metonymy.) The point is, people do have trouble reaching other people -- in real life, usually because they give up too soon, but that's not fun to watch -- and the writers are creating a situation like the ones in real life, one that stands for the ones in real life, even if it is not exactly the way it would happen in real life.

My rule on when you can get away with a plothole of this nature is any time it is more entertaining to have the plothole than the literal truth. So long as you address the plothole -- so long as you let the viewer know you care about it -- the audience is ready to move on to the clever consequences.

Of course this is no excuse for laziness or carelessness. When, in this week's The OC, Kirsten walks into the office where Rebecca, the wanted fugitive, is hiding, there is nothing entertaining about Rebecca stupidly calling out "Sandy, is that you?" It shows neither character (she's supposed to be smart) nor the truth of the situation (she's on the run). It happens simply because the writers couldn't be bothered to make Rebecca smart enough to hide, and Kirsten smart enough to realize Sandy's hiding a girl in his office!. It could have been as simple as Kirsten noticing how clean the office suddenly is, or smelling perfume, or noticing a stray long black hair, or noticing the sink's still wet. That would have been more truthful, and more entertaining.

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Monday, February 07, 2005

I just got my latest spam from Scriptapalooza. I'm suspicious of all writing competitions. It's just too easy to charge $50 a screenplay, get 1000 entries, give a $10,000 award, and walk away with $40,000.

Here's their latest spam, and what I think of it:

===============================
7th Annual Scriptapalooza Screenplay Competition
===============================
http://www.scriptapalooza.com

The Writers Guild of America, west
supports Scriptapalooza.


No mention of Scriptapalooza anywhere on the WGA website. If this were an official position -- rather than a nice blurb from an official -- it should be on the site.

With the WGAwest, Write Brothers and Robert McKee all strongly supporting Scriptapalooza, this is the competition to enter.

The Write Brothers are the guys who make Movie Magic Screenwriter, i.e. they are in the business of selling screenwriting software. Anything that encourages people to write screenplays is a Good Thing, as far as they're concerned. I've got nothing against them, mind, they're doing their job. But their endorsement is not disinterested.

[snip]
First place prize is $10,000

See math above.

All thirteen winners will be considered by Scriptapalooza's outstanding participants.

Considered? Considered??? Hahahahahahahahah. What the hell does "considered" mean?

2004 Entrant 3rd Place Winner SOLD, "Redumption (AKA How to Win Back Your High
School Sweetheart)" was discovered during the judging process by Colin O'Reilly and
picked up by Level 1 Entertainment for low against mid-six figures.


Note that this does not say that the competition had anything to do with the sale. It says that it was discovered (possibly because the writer sent query letters to every production company in town, or had an agent) during the time the judging was going on. The Hollywood Reporter's article that I read on the sale said nothing about Scriptapalooza.

Scriptapalooza FACTS:

We are in our 7th year as a screenwriting competition
All the judging is done by 60 production companies
Entertainment Weekly Magazine calls us 'One of the Best'


Well, that's something, at least. Of course, Entertainment Weekly is not a trade paper, it's a supermarket slick.

We promote the top 13 winners for a full year

On their website?

The top 30 winners get software from Write Brothers

I'd be wayyyy more impressed if the software were Final Draft, which is more the industry standard as far as I know. But bear in mind also, the software costs the Movie Magic people about $15 a box -- they just charge hundreds of dollars for it. So a few dozen promotional copies is no big deal.

Finalists, Semifinalists and quarterfinalists get requested consistently

There are any number of development execs at small production companies who need to justify their paychecks. Of course they request the scripts. But you could send them query letters yourself. In fact for the price of entry to the contest, you could send every single development exec in town a personal letter. Or you could send them an email for free.

The Grand prize is $10,000
We post all the requested scripts by companies on website
We get calls from companies looking for material

"Despite it's [sic] frivolous name, Scriptapalooza is the best screenwriting competition I know."
- Robert McKee


Uhhhh ... what about the Nicholl Fellowship, which is run by the Academy? Project Greenlight (also, incidentally, sponsored by the Write Brothers)? Chesterfield?

On the other hand, why would Robert McKee know what the best screenwriting competition is? He gives good seminars, and he's got a lovely book, but he's not a buyer. Or, for that matter, a screenwriter.

Actually, the best screenwriting competition in the world is the WGA Awards... but your movie needs to get made first.

I think screenwriting competitions (with the exception of the three above, and anything run by a studio or network) are a BIG FAT WASTE OF MONEY AND TIME. If you have a good hook, query letters will get your script read, and if the script delivers the goods, it'll get optioned or bought. If not, nothing will.

If winning one of these other competitions has helped you, let me know, and I'll probably retract the above. [UPDATE: Three months later, no one has.]

Huh... now maybe will they take me off their spam list?

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My extremely talented friend Alison Darcy is producing/directing/acting in a play. If you're in Montreal, please go see it. She's a terrific actress, a superb dramaturge, and a radiant human being.

Muttertung Theatre Company
presents the Quebec-premiere of Neil LaBute's
BASH: Latterday Plays
8pm, Tuesday through Saturday, February 16th to 26th
Preview performance: 8pm, Tuesday, February 15th
Pay-as-you-can special performance: 8pm, Tuesday, February 22nd
Theatre Ste. Catherine, 264 Ste. Catherine East, Montreal
$15 / special rate: $12 (information: 514-712-2851



Muttertung Theatre is a co-op formed by three established stage professionals, Kevin Kruchkywich, Rylan Wilkie and Alison Darcy. The Mutts are hitting the stage with an intriguing challenge, Neil LaBute's BASH: Latterday Plays, in one of Montreal’s most exciting new theatre spaces, Theatre Ste. Catherine. A unique occasion to discover how dark the human heart can get, this compelling production promises to rivet audiences to their seats with its detailed and subtle narratives about casual malevolence.

BASH: Latterday Plays is a collection of three darkly brilliant one-act pieces that form a trio of unforgettable personal accounts. It encapsulates the "matter-of-fact brutality", as LaBute puts it, in which people commit extraordinary evils for, ultimately, very ordinary reasons.

Neil LaBute is an American playwright and director known for his forays into atrocity, which he considers "the new black." Under his scrutiny, the layers of protection of the human psyche are slowly peeled to uncover the falsehood upon which it is carefully built. His works include movies such as In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things and Your Friends and Neighbors, three tales about apparently ordinary people who slowly reveal their chillingly monstrous inner selves.


For more info, see the website.

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``If there's one reason Senator Kerry lost the presidential race, it was because he failed to make the American people feel safer,'' Roemer said, adding that he also wanted to encourage talk within the party about developing a stronger position on values.


No. If there's one reason Senator Kerry lost, it was because he failed to make the American people feel like they had the slightest clue who he is.

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Times article about how there's a movement afoot to reduce the partisan gerrymandering of redistricting by having non-partisan folks do the redistricting.

In the last US Congressional elections, of 435 members of the House up for election, precisely four incumbents lost. That's shocking.

I have a much, much simpler solution. Require congressional districts to be CONVEX. Rectangular, even. Let's say this:

a. No district can be more than 10% smaller than the smallest polygon that can be drawn around its borders.
b. No district may be more than two times as long at its longest than it is long at its shortest.

What makes gerrymandering possible is that you can make a district any shape you like. You can shoot down a street to grab a few houses here and there. The original "Gerrymander" was a district that looked like a salamander. I've seen worse.

If you require districts to be convex (allowing some wiggle room for rivers and mountains, say, though it's no longer really necessary), and no more than twice as long as they are wide, it becomes very hard, even with the smartest software, to come up with districts that consistently return the incumbent.

This system works better than trying to find nonpartisan people. There ARE no nonpartisan people. But math doesn't lie.

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I've been watching the first season of The L Word on DVD, and I've noticed what awful people the L Girls are, by and large. Bette treats her stay-at-home girlfriend as disrespectfully as any breadwinner man ever did. Dana is a real idiot, mistreating the charming cook who threw herself at her -- in the ep we just watched, she "forgot" to tell her she was not invited to a big tennis party, on account of Dana isn't out. Meanwhile the truly awful Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirschner), a lyin', cheatin', flakey c*** if there ever was one, gets caught nailing a girl, lies to her fiancée about it ("it was just this once"), and then marries him because she would "die" without him. (Oh, and she's a horrible, overwraught writer, too.)

It's refreshing to see Lesbians Behaving Badly. I guess the creators of the show realized that everyone who's watching -- dykes and horny guys both -- is watching 'cause they're lesbians. So there's no need to give them that extra gloss of loyalty, inner sweetness or charm you generally see in core casts across TV. These girls behave like real people: selfish, idiotic, self-destructive and just plain dumb. They hurt people and they trip over their own immaturity.

Of course this is pay cable, so it doesn't matter whether the show keeps its audience, mind, it just matters whether the show gets people to sign up for Showtime for the year. I still remember reading an interview with an HBO exec who said something like, "We don't care if anyone watches the show. We only care if they subscribe." Which is a world away from the overnight Nielsen ratings broadcast tv has to worry about.

On the other hand, I would like to see a few more unexpected plot twists on my favorite shows; and I only seem to get them on Boston Legal, where you get them all the time, but they don't necessarily add up to much. You can guess where a lot of the plots of The L Word are headed, and often you're just waiting for the strappy sandal to drop.

I wonder where I can watch Season Two in Canada?

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Sunday, February 06, 2005

Since we both work at home, we have weird priorities. The weekends are when we have no time to ourselves, and have to figure out ways to keep the kids entertained -- at 1 and 9, they don't really entertain each other! Hunter will actually keep himself entertained, but that would mean an entire weekend playing computer games, and that would make us Lousy Parents. So today we went to Montreal's fabulous Botanical Garden until the Pikapie started wailing because she Wanted Sleep and Lisa Wouldn't Give It To Her! (Mean mommy!)

This was a long weekend, courtesy one of the Weston School's many, many, many "ped days," a term meaning "We don't care if you have a job or not, we're not going to take care of your kid today because, well, because." When you're a parent with a kid in school, they'll do it to you, too.

So when Monday rolls around, it's day care and school and we get to get some thinking done and whoopee! Thank God it's Monday!

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Why did people write that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has a downer ending? Lessee, the overall plot is (forgive me for the SPOILER):

Boy meets girl.
Boy loses girl.
Boy gets girl.

And not only that, but what with the use of Epic Return and all, you know right up front he's going to meet her again.

I guess DMc is right...

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I meant to leave you some
but it was pizza.

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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Latest on the list of Amazon's Possibly Insanely Great Inventions is Amazon Yellow Pages. (If the link doesn't work, just go to Amazon and navigate around for it.) You enter an address in the US, and get listings of practically every store around it, broken up by category. But there's more! You also get photos of the actual storefronts.

I have no idea how they make money on this, but this is definitely Possibly Insanely Great.

And, as Martine Page points out, you can use it to virtually walk around your old neighborhood.

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My shaggy Bouvier, Bouzou, will appreciate this one day. There are now two cafes in Montreal where you can bring your dog inside, Apportez votre Chien on Mont Royal, and Reveil du Maitre, on St. Laurent. See this article in French. Thanks to Ni Vu Ni Connu, Martine Page's blog.

Of course, I bring the Bouzou Dog everywhere, but he's an exception. He has such a calm temperament, I bring him to the bank, to certain cafes which shall remain nameless lest they get in trouble, to just about any store -- any place except a restaurant or grocery store.

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Another few things bugged me about Thursday's O.C. ep. In general, the characters didn't react appropriately to what was going on. Caleb mentions Ryan's knocking a girl up in front of Lindsay, and she never asks him about it -- many viewers at TVGasm busted the ep for that. Seth notices his dad sneaking into the house in the morning. Does he ask about that? Nope. Kirsten lets it slide too, with a "I was worried about you." I mean, when a family man stays out all night without calling, it's something to ask about, isn't it?

But one of the biggest glitches for me was in the narrative. Sandy stays out all night with Rebecca, drinking and ... what. What did they do all night? Did they fool around? Did they just talk? Did they come close to fooling around? What?

I believe that Nothing important can happen offscreen unless it immediately becomes an issue -- a mystery of what happened, or if the event is known, an issue that rocks people's world dramatically. Sandy and Rebecca's night together is a complete blank slate for the viewers to fill in -- fine if you're Antonioni, not fine if you want to tell a story, which means controlling the audience's experience and making sure they're all hearing the same story. Storytelling is about taking control of your audience's experience -- "we control the horizontal, we control the vertical" -- and here they lost control.

The writers handle this same issue of romantic tension between two people who are off-limits to each other so delicately and cleverly between Summer and Set, where they almost kiss, and then don't. Why can't they do the same with Sandy and Rebecca? Is it because Kim Delaney's character is an almost total non-entity -- someone we have no sense of as a person? The girl's spent 22 years on the run -- how has that changed her? Does she still stand for what she stood for then? Does she think she was deluded? Stupid? Wrong? Is she still proud of what she did?

Does she wants Sandy back? Has she kept track of Sandy at all -- Sandy's career can't be hard to track? Why didn't she call all those years? Why show up now?

The tragic thing is that the setup is fine -- a woman from Sandy's past, a woman who's in some ways much more right for Sandy than Kirsten. But there's no follow through.

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Friday, February 04, 2005

What's with Jeff Schwarz? Can't he write anyone over thirty? Can anyone on The OC write anyone over thirty?

[Er, sorry. It's Josh Schwarz. Thanks, Jeff. And yes, it turns out that making margaritas with Really Good Tequila really does make them taste better. Damn.]

SPOILERS...

Okay, so you're a wanted fugitive. Have been for twenty two years. Do you ever walk on the Newport Beach pier with a well-known local lawyer?

Now you're staying at his new office. Someone lets themselves in with a key, late at night. Do you (a) hide, in case it's a janitor, the police, or who knows who? (b) say, without looking, "Sandy, is that you" and get to meet the wife?

And what is up with Rebecca, anyway? Why is she there? Does she want to wreck Sandy's marriage? Or does she very badly not want to ruin his life? We ought to know by now. It's not at all clear from her very ambiguous actions.

Sure, it's a cheesy show and you gotta love the cheese. Caleb having a heart attack at a moment of maximum jerkitude. Marissa stripping for Alex without admitting to herself she's trying to seduce Alex.

But the moments where The OC rocks are where it is true. Seth trying to use the Force to pull the telephone handset to him: priceless. Marissa coming back to just hold hands with Alex -- reminding us that theoretically these are seventeen year old girls, and sometimes they'd just like to hold hands. If only the adults could be more convincing. The adult cartoons -- Caleb, Julie Cooper -- are fun to hate, but the adult characters are not very mature either as people or as characters.

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I was trying to summon up the energy to watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in spite of something like 40 Google hits on "Eternal Sunshine" and "downer ending". Couldn't do it. I'm sure it 's a great movie. I don't have the energy for a downer ending after this week.

Maybe someone can watch it for me, and report.

Another thing I like about TV is there are no downer endings. Well, there are no endings, really. There's always another show, and at the end of the season, there's next season. You might lose a character from time to time, but never the lead character.

It's reassuring. I'm an optimist. I rebel at tragedies. TV is melodrama.

I think we'll just watch this week's recorded ep of The O.C. and then this week's Gilmore Girls.

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A reader writes in to say (specific details removed): 'I have created a wonderful world for a tv series and I'm wondering how to approach getting it set up. Write the pilot? Write the pitch bible? Write both?'

Unless you're an experienced TV writer -- Executive Story Editor credits and above -- you can't really pitch a spec TV series anywhere in the States. That's because the network isn't really buying an idea with a writer attached, so much as hiring a writer who has an idea.

But you can pitch a spec movie. People buy movie specs all the time. You don't have to have credits if you have a great idea.

The way to get your world on the air is to write a movie that showcases your world without explaining it. Have a fast-moving plot that uses the world as background, and creates the characters of your TV series; or at least creates the main character.

When you create a movie with an eye towards a TV series, it's called a "backdoor pilot," because you're essentially creating the pilot for the show -- in the old sense of the word pilot, meaning "an episode that's proof of concept for the show, that's made to see if the series is worth bankrolling" rather than "a two hour special episode that kicks off an already-ordered series." Joss Whedon's movie Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was proof of concept for the series, for example.

Note that if you have to choose between selling the series and making a good movie, make a good movie. You may well find that some of the story elements of the series won't work in the movie. Scrap'em. If the movie's a hit, you can always ignore it when you make the series. Again the example is Buffy, the movie of which was lighter and airier and funnier than the dark and scary, if still comic, series. The movie also didn't have the Scooby Gang, just the Watcher.

This is what I'm doing for Unseen: create the movie as proof of concept for the series. It'll be a lot easier to sell the movie than the series, and if the movie's made, it'll be easier to sell the series.

Don't use the movie to explain your world. Just use the world as background. When you're writing the movie, your first loyalty is to the movie, and movies don't like explanations much. Try to avoid them. As little expo as you can get away with.

Do create the characters if you can.

Don't worry if you give away a secret in the movie that you were planning to keep until somewhere in to the series. You probably shouldn't be keeping secrets from the audience in the series anyway. Who's going to watch the old episodes when they've seen the secret revealed?

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Thanks again to Lee Goldberg, for the heads-up on a most excellent blog. Query Letters is where an Unnamed Hollywood Exec posts the most execrable query letters he gets.

Before sending off your query letters, probably a good idea to read some of these first just to see what other people's terrible query letters are like. In particular if any of them seem better than yours, you may need to rewrite. Your query letter, at least, and possibly your script.

(I'm a devout believer that if your query letter sounds more fun than your script, you've just handed yourself a small, powerful rewrite note. Rewrite your script according to your new, improved query letter!)

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My peerless assistant Caroline has discovered two more places to buy scripts: Planet MegaMall and DV Shop. And, of course, you can get them on Ebay.

Note that in buying a script that was actually used on set, you're buying someone's legitimate property which they have a right to sell. In buying a script that was copied in order to be sold, you're essentially pirating software. Someone owns that script and they're probably not getting paid for it. On the other hand, this someone is probably a rapacious movie studio, so you may not feel too bad about it. If they'd published the script, you'd've bought the book, right?

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When a friend of mine succeeds, a little part of me dies.
-- Gore Vidal


Actually, I'm thrilled. A good friend a poker buddy of mine is flying off West to rewrite a Big American Movie. Though he should be jazzed about getting a WGA gig, especially since it will get him on the list of Approved Movie Rewriters, he's worried that (based on the prior movies the producers have made) this movie may not be specifically too good. But now it's really up to him, isn't it? Most movies start stinking from the script. He just has to figure out how to find the truth in whatever bad notes he gets from the producers, and make the script his own within the parameters he's given.

Lisa's Theory of Boring Parties is that everyone has a Big Fascinating Secret. Even the most boring person. If you treat your conversations with them as an effort to winkle out their BFS, you won't be bored. And, usually, she finds something interesting they have to say. It requires more concentration and effort, but she's never bored at parties. And people find her utterly charming.

The corrollary is that you can almost always find the truth in Bad Notes. After all, someone doesn't get to be a rich, expensive director of bad movies without something going for him. So when they give bad, contradictory, soul-killing notes, they are probably not actively trying to give bad notes. They are trying to give good notes, and communicating them badly. Your job as a writer is to find the truth in those notes, and then make them your own.

Having done a few rewrites myself, I have found that no matter how bad the material is when I get it, by the time I've worked my way into it, I have found something to love. There's always a movie in there.

That's my theory, anyway...

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Thursday, February 03, 2005

I'm having all sorts of problems with my LG Electronics DVD player, the LGD435. When I hook it up to my Sharp tv set from 2000, it doesn't have enough signal, and the picture goes in and out. When I hook it up to my new JVC set, dialog is out of sync. This happened on the first LGD435 I bought, and on its replacement. Profoundly irritating.

Has anyone else had a problem with dialog sync on a DVD player? I can't imagine how the problem could occur? I never had dialog sync problems before with my old DVD player!

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I have an unaccountable desire to walk around a European city this morning. Or possibly a British one. Maybe it's because some nice people in Europe linked to this blog.

What am I thinking? I live in a European city. Well, a half-European city. And I'm going to a cafe for lunch, the most excellent Olive & Gourmando. So there.

Now I think I'll walk the dog by all the 19th Century buildings...

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Happy Imbolc, everyone!

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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The latest Star Trek incarnation finally bit the stardust, I gather. UPN has yanked the plug on NCC-1701a, aka Enterprise. Not a moment too soon, considering how retarded it was.

I hope Paramount lets the franchise lie fallow for a bit. They've now done every decent story involving a starship two or three times by now.

Or at least, make the next series about non-humans. The Wars of the Klingon Succession, anyone? I'd watch. Qapla'h!

I wonder if this will help Charlie Jade? Personally I'm starved for SF. I had high hopes for Marti Noxon's Point Pleasant, but it was ham-handed. If only the girl had been not only half devil but half angel. And aren't we all?

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Lisa's finding her scenes in Billy Wes -- now retitled Gone to Soldiers, an excellent title I think -- are on the short side.

Your step outline should tell you where each scene ends up -- what it needs to accomplish dramatically and narratively. One way to flesh out your scenes is to look at where the scene needs to end up, and then figure out what are the obstacles the characters throw in your way to getting them there. If the scene is about them reconciling, how do the characters almost prevent you from reconciling them? If the scene is about a breakup, how do the characters almost brush all their conflicts under the carpet so they don't break up?

Usually it will be only one character who doesn't want the reconciliation or the breakup -- the other character probably came in the door hoping for it. But sometimes it's both characters fighting their destiny -- the destiny you've created for them.

Your keen observation and loving presentation of how your characters trip themselves up -- how human beings create obstacles for themselves along their paths -- is the guts of a drama. When we watch a drama, it's to see how people mess themselves up -- maybe to get insights into how we mess ourselves up, certainly to help us make sense of the people around us. Because unlike in life, in narrative drama we get to peek behind the curtain and see what makes those people tick. If the writer's observation skills are good, and she can get across what she knows, then we learn something that helps us make a guess what the people around us are really up to.

I long ago decided that one of the best ways to interpret people's actions is to ask myself: if this person were in a novel, what would the novelist be trying to tell me about this person? I still find it's a valuable tool. Even if I don't read many novels any more...

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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

From Robert Sawyer's website:


Monday, January 31, 2005

There's a new series coming up soon on Space: The Imagination
Station -- Canada's version of the Sci-Fi Channel -- called
Charlie Jade. It's a Canada-South Africa co-production, and I'm
not sure what broadcasters have picked it up outside of those two
countries, but I urge you all to keep an eye open for this. I've
been privileged to view the first two hours of the series, and
was blown away.

The series is a wonderful fusion of science fiction and detective
drama (the title character, Charlie Jade, is a private eye who
specializes in missing persons), with the action splashed across
three brilliantly realized parallel universes. This program is
hip, intelligent, engrossing, and beautifully executed; I've
never seen a science-fiction TV show like it before. Just as the
new Battlestar Galactica is establishing a new standard in
outer-space SF, Charlie Jade is a breakthrough in Earth-based SF.
Everything that comes after it will be judged against it.

The production values are excellent, with some of the best
directing and cinematography I've seen in episodic television.
The cast is first-rate, and the opening two-parter is
intelligently and subtly written. This is the closest we've ever
had to a Blade Runner for the small screen. It's also got the
satiric edge of Max Headroom, and a finely honed ecological
sensibility that taps perfectly into the Zeitgeist. Instead of
reworking old series, or adding yet another chapter to an ancient
franchise, this is something new and cutting-edge: the first major
SF television milestone show of the new millennium.

For more information, see: CharlieJade.com


Robert Sawyer is the Hugo and Nebula award-winning sf novelist who helped develop Charlie Jade in the very beginning... a universe I was lucky enough to inherit later as Head Writer!

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Politics is show business for ugly people.
-- Paul Begala, campaign advisor to Bill Clinton.


Ugly people with real power.

This kinda explains why the strange attraction between politicians and show people.

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