Tuesday, May 31, 2005
A faithful reader sends me the following info on where to find scripts:
University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)
Arts Library Special Collection
Young Research Library
405 Hilgard Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90024
By appointment only
University of Southern California (USC)
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0182
American Film Institute (AFI)
Louis B. Mayer Library
2021 N. Western Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027
also, the WHA library is re-opening. for info: www.wgfoundation.org
Writer's Guild of America Library
7000 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Re-opens on June 10th
11 – 5 pm
11 – 8 pm Thursday
Labels: spec scripts, writing resources
I was just told today that the whole page per minute thing doesn't apply to TV. True? Is it even within the same range? If not, short of getting my hands on an actual script from a show, how am I supposed to spec it?
Well, you should be getting your hands on an actual script. I've blogged here
about how to get actual copies of scripts.
On Charlie Jade
our scripts were supposed to come in around 54 pages for about 41 minutes of show. I've seen West Wing
scripts at 67 pages, and I'm told that Gilmore Girls
scripts can get into the 70's. Depends on the show.
I've always wondered what a John Woo script looks like.
I'm starting to try out Movie Magic Screenwriter after Craig's huge recommendation.
It seems to be a well-thought-out program with more bells and whistles. I'm just getting into it, so this is just a first impression.
It has a Windows-y look and feel. I'm a tad uncomfortable how the script looks on the page, and there aren't a lot of view options -- in fact, no View menu at all. It feels like a Windows port rather than a Mac program.
I'm irritated that I can't import easily from Final Draft into MMS. You have to export in RTF from FD, and then import into MMS. Which strips out useful things like scene numbers and revision marks. Craig Mazin recommends cutting and pasting. That's simpler and just as effective, but still, you lose information.
You would think that the MMS boys could crack the FD file code pretty easily and come up with a patch that allows you to import and export seamlessly. That is, if they want people who are already using FD to switch. I don't want to have to painfully import every screenplay on my hard drive, and most shows I know use FD. Because of the loss of info, I couldn't use MMS on a show that's using FD. Couldn't switch back and forth easily. Don't wanna have to manually restore info every time I get or send a script to or from the World of FD.
The reason I was able to stay on Mac rather than having to go over into evil Windows, back in the day when you had to use sneaker-net, was that Mac always made it easy to read evil Windows firmy-disks. If I'd had to manually comb through every file every time I got a file from the Windows Empire, I'd've had to leave the beloved Vale of Mac.
So how about it, Write Bros? One simple patch, that's all I ask!
I like writing for episodic shows. I'm not big on stand-alones. So say I'm writing a spec for "Lost". Now that the season finale's come and gone, how much do I invent? For instance, should I go ahead and assume Charlie's back on the heroin? Some things you can get around discussing at all, but I worry about how my spec will go over when the show comes back on the air. Will my spec be useless if the things I've guessed about are addressed on the show?
The good news is, now is a good time to write a new spec. In a few weeks people will have recovered from staffing season. That's the time to hit them for representation. There's just not that much for TV agents to do in July and August, compared to late Fall and Winter.
If I were writing a Lost
spec, I would write a stand-alone episode in the middle of the last season that focused on a character we know but don't know that well. The storyline would be tangential to the big what's-in-the-hatch uberplot. It would be an episode that could fit anywhere in the back 9 of last season.
The danger of basing an episode on Charlie being back on the smack is, by the time your spec is set to go out, the writers might have taken an entirely different direction. And then your ep is wack. You can't write a second season Lost
ep without knowing what they're going to do with the show and its characters.
Sorry 'bout that.
By the way, an "episodic" show is a show full of stand-alone episodes. As contrasted with a linear show, aka a "soap." 24
is utterly linear. Lost
is semi linear, semi episodic. Law & Order
is highly episodic.
None of the news articles about Viagra causing blindness mention whether the effect is temporary or not. What happened when the guys stopped taking the Viagra.
stop taking the Viagra, didn't they?
Here, for example, is a writing contest worth submitting for, the ABC/Disney Writing Fellowship.
This sort of thing will get you a small amount of money, but much more importantly, get you in the door.
Courtesy of author and screenwriter Lawrence Ross, the inglewood rude boy.
Labels: screenwriting competitions
Here's the fourth part of my interview with Shelley Eriksen
AE: How do you know when your draft is ready to turn in to network?
SE: When my deadline is past. Whenever I'm happy enough with it. Go with your gut. Know your network.
AE: Chris Abbott says you have to get the showrunner's voice, the voice of the show, right.
SE: There is room for different voices on a show ... Obviously the characters have to sound lke themselves. New characters are where an outside writer gets to shine. But speaking out of my experience as someone who's been writing to the showruner's vocie and now is the showrunner ... I worked for one guy for six years. I could read him and do him. Didn't mean that I was any less original, I got, I heard the voice of the show and that's my job ... make my stuff sound like that show. He said to me once, he was pointing at a script, at the writer's name, and he said, that guy didn't write this episode... The show wrote the episode.... if all pistons are firing, Cold Squad
is writing Cold Squad
. I find that for me it's .... mouth feel. When they talk about food, how it feels on the tongue ... I have the same feeling about script writing. Does it feel right on the tongue? Would my lead ever say that? Something as simple as whether or not he uses contracts to what kind of metaphors would he use, or not.
Even as a showrunner, you can't say what a character would say in any situation, but you know if it's right or it's wrong.
A writer who works for a show ... I have a friend who wrote one or two Deadwoods
. He's embarrasssed to have his names on those scripts. But Milch wanted him.
AE: Why? It's going to come out Milch in the end.
SE: He gets ideas. When you read your own script, you always say, oh god it's the work of genius. You read someone else, and it's so easy to see what isn't working. That's what the outside writer does for you. You have more to bring when you see somethng you haven't come up with yourself. That's how MOW's work up here. The first writer is creating out of a blank plot. And the producers are always saying, okay, now that I've seen your script, I know what this movie isn't. You're refining your vision by having something to react against. Milch saw the way that the writer didn't quite get it ... isn't that a key component of creativity? Thesis, antithesis, synthesis? You have to read somebody else's stuff and then you can go, Well, I
would have done it like this
In conflict lies genius.
AE: Sometimes it's more fun to rewrite a script than to write it in the first place, because it's less angsty.
Monday, May 30, 2005
John August writes
, "Building relationships with people who love your writing is much more important than a six-figure sale."
I have to disagree. I spent years in LA going to meetings with very nice development execs after each of my specs went out. And they were good, fine, fun meetings, at the right companies (Blue Tulip, Trilogy, Sandollar, Great Oaks, Dreamworks, Spring Creek, Bubble Factory, Douglas Reuther, Capella, 1492, Propaganda, Mandalay, etc.), and I often left feeling that they liked me, and I can't tell you how many times I heard that they loved my writing.
But I never sold a spec. Not complaining about that -- some of them got close, and some of them had bad hooks, and some had bad timing, and so on. But because I hadn't sold a spec, I was not on the List. My agents repeatedly told me I needed a spec sale to get anywhere in the feature writing business, and so did other writers.
So ... a six figure sale, unfortunately, is the winning lottery ticket, not because of the six figures, because a few hundred grand doesn't go very far in LA, but because it validates you. I met some very nice not particularly talented writers who stayed employed because of their one big spec sale.
And that, boys and girls, is one big reason I'm writing TV now...UPDATE
: Now the funny thing is, after reading John August's response to my comment
, I realized that I implied I never got hired to write anything while I was in LA. And when I wrote the comment, that's what I had in mind. Actually, if you add them all up, I probably did about a dozen commissioned scripts and rewrites. Just, none of them were WGA jobs. All were for "independent" producers (by which of course we mean that they were "independent" of having any money.) So somehow, they didn't count.
On the other hand, for the legit development people, none of those gigs did
count, in the sense that having a credit on a Gary Busey movie did not put me in the real running to rewrite the next studio zombie horror video game adaptation, even if my spec did get me the meeting on it.
Here's an odd question to ask in the abstract. Would you ever pitch a star vehicle without having a star handy?
Lisa and I are working up a comedy pitch, and the concept allows us to go ensemble cast or lead-and-supporting. I like it as a lead-and-supporting, but we're writing without talent attached, and one problem with lead-and-supporting is if your lead isn't marvelous, the show's dead, no matter how good the writing is. On the other hand if you're hanging it on a lead, then you can spend a little extra money on your lead; and a busy, successful actor is more likely to say yes to a lead role than one-of-the-gang. On the other other hand, with a lead, inside one year you've probably got a diva, and that's a headache in itself.
I'm not sure there is
an answer to this one, but that's what I'm pondering this morning. (Are you pondering what I'm pondering?)
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? Are there any particular kinds of flaws you've tended to run across as scenes go from outline to pages? E.g. You notice that a scene's been written from the wrong character's point of view, or the scene "pushes" information at the audience instead of "pulling" them along with it.
SE: Well, context ... where you're following several stories in an episode and it's almost like the lip service scene ... Both the Sopranos and S&TC... give each beat exactly the amount of time the story needed. Sometimes all the scene needs to do is track the B story, and there's an inclination to make more out of it than it really warrants.
Or, I'm a big fan of collapsing stories together in a scene ... trying to do several stories at once ... But sometimes in trying to bring it all together you're not giving the A story or the B story enough room ... it can read fine and lively but it doesn't in the end quite give each of them whatever weight they deserve because it's all mashed together. To do it properly you sometimes have to get the A story people to fade into the background while you're doing the C story stuff. But then it's just an aside, then why does it need to be in the same scene.
AE: So would you say, a scene should do just one thing at a time?
SE: No, because Sopranos
does it well... I love the multitextured multiple strands stuff ... you can't treat all of it the same way at the same time ... just sometimes I've tried to do it, and it worked but it would have been better if I hadn't tried to do it all in the same scene.
AE: Do you have any tricks for getting into a scene that doesn't flow naturally?
SE (without hesitation): What's the most ridiculous thing they could be doing right now?
For example, we had a scene set in a restaurant about Kate telling David that Ben is leaving. David looks upon him as a sexual rival. So this is good news for him. We couldn't afford the restaurant. I had to rewrite the scene, set it somewhere else ... so they're having oral sex while she tells him this. It's free. What's an action they could be doing that works against the information?
That's a good way to get it started.
AE: Do you think it's important for an episode to take place within a limited amount of time?
SE: I think it's caca. I mean, that time tracking thing, it matters more to us than the audience. I'm not watching a show ... oh my god is this three days later? It makes sense in whatever way it's unfolding.
I don't think time is important. It's important for 24
. I mean, is it a hostage drama? But for drama, no.
AE: How about offscreen time, between episodes?
SE: On Show Me Yours
, between episodes, sometimes one came right after another, sometimes there were weeks in between. You'd have your little one liner that describes it [the passage of time] for the satisfaction of the network.
AE: So you feel that time tracking is more something we do for ourselves for for the network...
Saturday, May 28, 2005
You're already reading Kung Fu Monkey,
right? So I don't have to tell you to go read it. But John, that was a hell of a post
on the Lost
finale. All good writers second guess other people's stuff, and it's always a worthwhile exercise, but even more informative is what another crafty writer thinks about those people's stuff.
the hatch has a ladder, wow. And what's with all the backstory that didn't add up to anything?
/* END SPOILERS */
And I'm kinda worried now that they're taking this show in a direction that involves bad scientific explanations that are going to be in no wise metaphysically satisfying. If the island is some sort of purgatory, that's great. If it's all Hurley's big bad luck, or Walt's mysterious powers twisting everything, I'm game, so long as they don't explain his powers.
But if it's all a big mind control experiment for the CIA, or bug-eyed monsters, I'm going to be so mad at them. The kinds of mysteries I like best are the ones where you can take away some wisdom from them without ever getting an absolute explanation. Once X-files
started explaining the alien plot it got really silly. If I want explanations, I'll read Slate
What I liked most about Signs
was that the inexplicable thing wasn't the aliens. The aliens were just part of the mechanism of destiny; and the signs, of course, weren't the ones in the corn field.
I really hope they have a definite plan to end this thing at a certain episode. Nothing's harder than derailing the gravy train, but otherwise they're going to have to keep twisting things until they have a big tangled mess, or keep dragging out the plot, or run out of surprises. And that would be sad.
Here's the second part of my interview with Shelley Eriksen...
AE: You did a show about sex researchers. Did the sex get in the way of the funny?
SE: I guess what is sexy is as personal as what is funny. You invite a bunch of people into the room to talk about it... God help you if you get even one person agreeing with you.
Just in terms of my own point of view, going from Season One to Season Two to our plans for Season Three ... I don't care about the effing sex. I mean, rent a porno! In Season 2 we had a couple of sexual confessions that involved little or no nudity and were about the funny and my decision for Season Three was, let's be all about the funny.
Look at our home: on that particular show our home was Showcase, which at that point was the "sex network." Now they're renovating themselves. New people in charge. They said they'd never do a lawyer show and now they are.
AE: So what are they about now? They air Rescue Me,
which is just sort of contemporary urban edgy, nothing to do with sex. But what they air and what they produce isn't necessarily...
SE: I'm going in for a meeting tomorrow, I'll let you know what they say. Thing is, networks never know what they want, just what they don't want.
AE: How do you make sure each scene propels the story into the next scene? When do you want a scene to "pop" (with a button, or by making a moment of the ending) and when do you want a smooth flow into the next scene?
SE: Every year I'm a bigger fan of CUT TO: My desire to linger longer in the scene is going away. Shows are moving more and more efficiently. Everything we've learned about storytelling is greater compression...
I was taking a look at Sex and the City
which I hadn't seen... They would have scenes, and The Sopranos
did this too, two lines and the scene is over.
AE: They do that on Corner Gas.
SE: But that's a gag. On Sopranos
it's not even a gag ... a whole character beat or a story beat in 20 seconds. I'm a huge fan of it.
AE: Too bad we can't afford it on Canadian TV.
SE: Yeah, you always have those conversations, you can have that location if you have at least three scenes in it.
Friday, May 27, 2005
Mysteriously, some people think audiobooks are inferior.
I think they are out of their minds.
I read most of Jane Austen on audiotape, or rather, some nice people read her to me. To suggest that she is better appreciated on the page is to ignore not only the sheer joy of the rhythm of her prose, but to forget that her contemporary audience mostly heard the book read out loud by that nice young vicar while the womenfolk knitted. Historian Ernle Bradford also reads exceptionally well, so well that I have read books by him about things like the Great Siege of Malta in the 1500s that I had no interest in at the time. Anyone who's a prose stylist seems to read well, if you have a good reader.
When you hear a book read out loud, you get the full experience, not when you read it on the page. Unless, I suppose, you move your lips when you read. I read unconscionably fast. Sometimes I think entire paragraphs drop out. I want to find out what happens. When I listen to a book on tape, I'm forced to actually hear all the sentences. I get everything the author put into the book.
I would still be reading audiobooks, if I had a commute. (Nya nya, L.A.)
Now I hear that you can download audiobooks as an MP3 to your iPod and speed them up without raising the pitch.
I really must get an iPod.
From my interview with showrunner Shelley Eriksen (
Cold Squad, Show Me Yours):
AE: At the end of a scene (and especially in an act out), you can go out with the conflict resolved (e.g. the character has made a decision), or cut away with the conflict hanging in the balance, and possibly come back from the break to the aftermath of the decision. Which do you do when?
SE: I would tend to, in the tried and true way, go with the cliffhanger. Unless you can twist it in some way. If the decision surprises you, you can go out on it: Oh my God they 're gonna do B, what 's gonna happen? I would never have them choose something that 's not a surprise and then go out on the act right there. If you have to go with the decision that's expected, then either go out on the cliffhanger or ... then have the decision and immediately plant them right into the difficulty that [the decision] puts them into.
AE: You can go out on an emotional resolution if it has unforeseen consequences.
SE: Like, oh, my God, my marriage is over ... now what? Where do you go next? Oh, my God, what 's going to happen now?
But generally, I always go for the cliffhanger. However I can get there. Or a laugh, depending on the show. You know, in a cop show, new evidence that points to a new suspect, and you [the audience] want to hang in for the consequences.
We learned on the first season of Show Me Yours
that the dramatic act outs didn 't work out quite so well. The comic outs did. It was almost as if we were trying to impose one structure on another. Trying to put the vest that was made for the circus monkey on the elephant.
AE: But wasn 't that show fundamentally a comic premise?
SE: We had the, like, "please don 't say dramedy." I liked the grounds it was walking on. It was a comic show but you could have serious dramatic scenes. But then as I was watching first season while preparing for the second that we had too many downer endings for something that 's supposed to be comic. A drama out is sort of a downer. It 's never like, "Oh god, I 'm really happy to be pregnant."
AE: But isn 't a comic out always a disaster, too?
SE: Yeah, the network was always giving us notes about Kate, our lead character. "You 're being so mean to her!"
Lisa and I have been working up a comedy series pitch. It's coming so easily I distrust it. It seems like someone must already have thought of it if it's this easy. But when I pitch it to people, no one feels it's too familiar. So maybe it's just that when it's right, it comes easily. That would be nice.
Thursday, May 26, 2005
Just got off the phone with Larry Walkin, the very helpful head of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Johnny Carson's A.B. thesis, "How to Write Comedy Jokes," alas, is a "student record," and therefore not available to the world. Frustrating, because it's an audio tape where Carson taped radio comedy off the air and then explained why it was funny. ("In those days," says the kind Mr. Walkin, "that was New Media.") I can understand why Carson wouldn't have wanted it released to the public, but you have to suppose there'd be some gems in there. Ah, well.
From Larry Wilde, Great Comedians Talk About Comedy
Larry Wilde: Is it possible for you to pinpoint exactly when you decided you wanted to go into professional comedy?
Jerry Seinfeld: I was about eight years old. I was sitting on my stoop with a friend of mine. We were having cookies and milk and we were talking and fooling around. I said something really funny and he laughed and spit the cookies and milk all over my face and hair and clothes. And I thought, I would like to do this professionally.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
... is, believe it or not, the name of Johnny Carson's thesis. I don't know what other jokes he was thinking of, but I'd sure like to get a copy of it. Lisa says a friend read it and it was stupefyingly dull, but that's not the point. Poker books are dull too, but winning at poker isn't.
In Great Comedians Talk about Comedy,
by Larry Wilde, which I'm reading now, Carson mentions "two way jokes, blackouts, cross-overs" as if we all know what those are. Maybe John Rogers
Lisa showed one of our pitches to a high school friend who's an agent in LA. He likes the pitch but thinks it might be too racy to produce in the States. But he thinks it's probably perfect for Canada.
This is a bad news as far as getting US financing up front goes -- though US nets will buy and air shows like DeGrassi
that are too racy for them to finance. But it is actually very good news for the show. We can't compete with mainstream American shows head on here. Their budgets are too high, the writing staffs are bigger, yadda. But where we can compete is in niches where we can do something the Americans can't. Our shows need either cultural content that's unique to Canada (go ahead, laugh it up, but then look at Trailer Park Boys
and Corner Gas
) or the need to go into territory that the US networks won't, 'cause they have all those nasty red states to contend with. And that means that there isn't a similar concept running around in LA, 'cause they'll shy away from it.
That's a nice silver lining.
I can now confirm that, contrary to anything I may have said in the past, I actually prefer addressing network notes to getting my teeth drilled.
A. When the money hasn't been negotiated yet.
I got good news from a producer the other day that he wanted me to do a crash rewrite on a project. But, it turns out, he did not want to pay WGC scale, unless the project "got funded." If it didn't get funded, he could only pay half of scale.
Not all producers in Quebec thoroughly understand the concept of "scale." (You know who you are, boys.) They take the WGC IPA as a good basis for further negotiation -- downward.
This sort of thing just pisses me off. Yeah, it was still a fair chunk of change. But it's disrespectful. Who tells a contractor to build him a house, and then if he has the money, he'll pay for it? If you don't get your funding, do I get back the time I spent working on the script?
What bugs me most is that I'm always tempted to just do
the job. I know I can't take the job. But I'm tempted to. Especially after I've had a nice meeting and I like the people and I've already solved the problems in the script. I'm creatively engaged with the project. And now a little thing like money is going to split us apart.
On the other hand, if I don't uphold the IPA, who's going to? I'm a busy writer. I know how I'm paying the mortgage next month. If I take half of scale, how does the guy who hasn't worked in a year insist on scale? And then we don't have a union. And then no one ever gets paid scale. (The ten top guys would still get over
scale. But the ten top guys had to start somewhere.)
In the end it turned out to be an easier decision than I'd thought. I'd understood that it was just the up front payment that was a problem. The producer in question, though, had no idea of the production fee writers get in Canada when the film gets made: a bit over 2% of the production budget. No way he was going to pay that. Which made it very easy indeed to walk away from the project.
In general, of course, the unwillingness to abide by the IPA is just the tip of the iceberg. A producer who pays less than scale isn't going to want less work. He's going to want more
work, and he's going to guilt trip you for draft after draft until he loses interest in the project. A producer who skimps is going to skimp away all down the road.
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
David Anaxagoras has an interesting post
on a couple agents coming to visit his Screenwriting 434 class. The class all wanted to know how to get their screenplays read. The agents responded.
I just found PostSecret
, where people send in postcards with their deepest darkest secret. It is a powerfully moving site. Many of the postcards make you want to cry. Some of them make you laugh. Just a few lines on a postcard, sometimes with a drawing, sometimes a photograph, sometimes just text.
Oh, and if you are looking for a movie to write ... many of these postcards are movies, if you think about them deeply enough. Okay, not "I deleted the Pope's funeral off my TiVo to make room for Survivor
" but a lot of them.
Labels: books, reading
John Rogers has a very thoughtful post
about your favorite subject, Three Act Structure, and he makes an interesting distinction between story and plot.
However, whether or not three act structure is a useful tool, most veteran writers like, er, John, are not using Three Act Structure. They've got a 25 page Act One, a 50 page Act Two, and a 25 page Act Three. And there's a big turning point right in the middle of Act Two where, as DJ McC says, it becomes a "different movie."
Well, hell. If you have a big turning point -- what in TV would surely be an act out -- in the middle of your second act, don't you have, in fact, two acts???
So aren't you really writing Four Act Structure?
UPDATE: Well yeah, Paul, my problem is with the label. I also object when a political movement that tramples on traditional constitutional protections, gets into optional wars and racks up huge debts calls itself "conservative." Having the wrong label on things is misleading. Why are we calling something a marmoset when it's clearly a bat?
From my interview with Kay Reindl:
When you're ready to have someone read the script, take the notes with a grain of salt. You'll get a couple of different types of notes. You don't want to listen to anyone who gives you notes based on how THEY would have written the script. That is not helpful to you. But anyone who is actually giving you notes on what you wrote could very well have some valid criticisms. The best way to know is to give the script to several people. If they were all confused by the same thing, had the same reaction, you should probably take a look at it. But if it's a spec script, you do NOT have to change anything!
However, if you're on a show and the showrunner gives you notes, you DO have to address them. The most important thing you need to do is to assess why the showrunner's giving you the notes. Look at the scene and try to deduce what he doesn't like about it. You are not always going to have a savvy showrunner who gives great notes so when you get those people, treasure them. A lot of times, a showrunner's notes will not make the script better. This doesn't matter! Remember that when you're on someone else's show, you're serving THEIR vision as best you can. ALWAYS keep that in mind. And there are creative ways to taking notes that you, unfortunately, will have to figure out along the way. If a showrunner gives you a solve for a problem but you come up with a better one, you should always feel free to ask.
One of the hardest things to do at first as a writer is to give notes based on what the other
writer is trying to do. Notes that amount to, "If it were my script, I'd write it this
way" aren't helpful. You have to figure out what the script itself seems to want to be. Then tell the writer, "What I think you're trying to do here is X. You might have more success with that if you did Y." By dint of many years giving notes, that's what I try to do, anyway. "I would have done it differently" notes are irrelevant. Of course I would have. But you didn't hire me to write it, did you? And if we all wrote the way I do, the world would be a much more limited place.
With entirely too many science fiction shows in it.
Well, too many for some.
Monday, May 23, 2005
I'm not sure I actually like vacations. We went down to New York and East Hampton so Hunter could see his Dad. We rambled around Chelsea with the incomparable Denis McG, and saw the latest Jasper Johns exhibit at Matthew Marks, which was sort of interesting -- Johns seems to have been messing around with exactly four motifs in the past 15 years, a sagging piece of string, a harlequin pattern, an old photograph, and a weird image with a cartoon dog. Denis wondered how he could get away with writing the same screenplay for fifteen years, and I was tempted to bring up Joe Esterhazs, but that's not really fair, and more to the point I said you can do that in a TV show, well, not for fifteen years, but for seven if you're incredibly lucky. And Anne N flaked out, as actresses will. And then we went out to the country and rooted around in the basement and hung out with more friends. And today we're driving back.
I'm so glad to be back. I much prefer being places to going places, and I think I prefer being at home to being in other people's homes, even my parents'. I don't much like it when I don't get any writing done. The truth is that we did put together a pretty good pitch for a comic drama on the way down, which I have to write up. And after I complained to Lisa that she keeps having good ideas, which tend to squeeze out my own ideas, which come but rarely, we came up with a supernatural drama concept. Which I wrote up on Saturday, but only got into it far enough to run up against the fact that I don't know what happens every episode, i.e. I don't have the show yet, only the concept. So it felt like I didn't get any writing done. Certainly none after Saturday, if you don't count some dinking in the book while we were driving, and some work related emails I fired off yesterday.
I get grumpy when I don't have some time clear to get writing done. Sunday felt like I spent most of the day chasing after the Pikapie when Lisa needed to sleep, packing up stuff from the basement, hanging out with our friends, and cleaning up the place. Somehow it always seems to take several hours to clean up my parents' place after a visit, which makes short visits even shorter.
As usual when I write it up, it sounds all more productive than it felt. And it sounds like a guy who's incapable of enjoying time off from the writing. And that is almost certainly true. If I don't get some writing done on a day, I feel irritable. If more than one day goes by like that, I get very grumpy indeed.
I hope there aren't too many interruptions tomorrow!
And I can't believe I agreed to wait until Friday to see Revenge of the Sith
Ow ow ow ow ow ow bad head.
Over the weekend we were in East Hampton to get Lisa's stuff out of the moldy basement, so I did what I always do when visiting the States: buy all my books from Amazon. Otherwise it's a craps shoot whether you get zapped with customs duty, which is really not worth it when you're buying used books for $5 a pop. So I got the think book du moment
It's not as thought provoking as Malcolm Gladwell's stuff, and I think too much of it has appeared in The New Yorker
for such a thin book. But I did like Levitt's observation that the only major social trend that seems to correlate convincingly with the huge fall of violent crime in the US in the late '90's is the Roe v. Wade
judgment in 1973. About 16, 17 years later, crime starts to fall massively
. Levitt's idea is that the women to whom Roe v. Wade
made the most difference were poor mothers who couldn't afford an illegal abortion or a journey to get a legal one. Those are the moms who are least equipped to raise their unwanted children properly. Since Roe v. Wade
, the number of unwanted children born to poor women without resources has dropped by on the order of one million per year. (The total number of legal abortions is about 1.6 million.) Naturally those are the children who would be most likely to turn to crime.
Levitt does not address the moral calculus, he's an economist. But it certainly is interesting stuff.
From my interview with Kay Reindl
Writers tend to do one of two things -- underwrite, and overwrite. Sometimes it's easy to include too much information. Generally, you'll see this stuff get cut in editing. In network TV, it's actually different to underwrite the plot, because the executives will be confused and they'll tell you!
On Charlie Jade
we had a showrunner who hates
exposition, so he constantly pushed us to write more elliptically. I think there's a writerly prejudice against overwriting: no one likes to read something they already know, least of all staff writers. It's probably a mistake to underwrite on a show, if you've got good editors, because they can always cut out explanatory dialog that proves to be unnecessary, but if the story isn't clear and you've got no expo to fall back on, then you're stuck.
You need to make sure your story works, is told clearly, and that your characters' motivations are clear and make sense. If something's not working, ask yourself why it's not working. This seems silly and obvious, but putting a question to yourself can actually help. If your instincts are saying that something's wrong, something generally is.
That's one of the hardest things to do, fix things you might be able to get away with. Most writers I know are more interested in whatever aspect of the story really interests them, and would rather not stop to fix some problem that's nagging them in the back of their mind. I'm not sure I entirely agree with Kay, though. Sometimes the fact that you only have a nagging feeling that X is wrong is because it's actually Y that's wrong. What you feel is the problem may not be the real problem. To figure out what's really wrong usually requires either time or another writer's eye.
Friday, May 20, 2005
Here's more of my interview with Paul Guyot, bloggist of Ink Slingerfame, and a fine professional television writer who knows whereof he speaks...
AE: How do you deal with network notes that seem wrong to you?
PG: It depends on your position on the show. As a staff writer or story editor you deal with it by keeping your mouth shut and letting the producers take care of it. Chances are, by the time the script is being read by the network you're off it as a story editor level writer.
How I would deal with it is to always appease them when they give the note. Don't commit either way - say something like "Oh, okay, I'll take a look at that." And then what I do is try and figure out what they are really saying with their note. For instance, say I know that my last scene in act three is terrific, but the exec says, "The act three out doesn't work." What they are really saying is that the story isn't carrying enough tension or suspense for them up to this point. More often than not I will go back and fix something in another part of the script or story - without messing with the scene they had a problem with - and when they read it again they love it, thinking their note was taken. And it was more or less.
There is a misconception in Hollywood that all network execs are idiots who give notes simply to justify their jobs, and they know nothing about story or writing. This is bullshit. Yes, there are some idiots working at the networks, just like there are some idiot writers out there. But I have found the vast majority of execs to be decent people working to try and make the best show possible. Now, my idea of best might differ from theirs, but if you communicate well with each other and have no hidden agendas, the process is usually helpful.
AE: How about director and actor notes that seem wrong?
PG: Okay, now we have a different animal. In television - and I'm going to piss off the DGA here - the director is a hired hand. I mean no disrespect by that. I simply mean that they are hired by the executive producers (usually writers) of the show to come in and keep the vision of the series. A director that understands and respects that is wonderful and will usually have really great notes. The directors that come in trying to add to their reels will often end up giving notes that might be really cool within a specific scene, but will hurt the overall story. When you get bad notes from a director, you simply tell them no - in the most decent way possible - and try and explain why.
When actors give you bad notes... well, it all depends on the actor's power level. An actor who has an Exec Producer credit is very dangerous because 99 times out of a hundred they're given that credit simply to make the deal, without any thought to what creative storytelling ability they may or may not possess. When a star gives notes, you deal with it the same as you do the network, just with more care. Much more care. Actors' egos are hand-blown glass. The slightest bump and they can shatter, you as the writer can get cut badly. :)
AE: How can you tell which things production really needs changed and which things they'd just like changed because it would make their lives easier?
PG: This comes with experience. I don't know of another way to learn. Again, it's all about communication. If you have a good UPM that you trust and that trusts you, it will be obvious. If there is tension or if production is at war with the writers for whatever reasons, then you have to figure it out and that's where you need the experience. They will usually be much more like script cops on things that need changing, whereas on the stuff they'd like changed, it tends to be more of a creative argument they try and make.
AE: What makes a great showrunner, aside from great writing and a vision for the show?
PG: The job is so difficult to do well. There are so many things a showrunner must know to be good. Now, it can be done by idiots - it is all the time - but to do it well, you have to know everything from writing, to story, to production, to the business of television...
But for me the number one quality of a showrunner is the ability to manage people. One of the best showrunners I've seen is not that great of a writer. He's good, but very by-the-numbers. But he is a GREAT showrunner. He knows production, knows how to balance what the writers want with what production needs and what the actors want. He makes the studio and network feel like they are a welcomed and important part of the process - even if he hates them. He knows how to keep a staff happy and excited. I really believe great writing is overrated for a showrunner. Yes, it's an outstanding attribute, but I will take a great manager who has a staff of excellent writers to help him/her over a genius writer who has no idea how to deal with the myriad of showrunner problems any day.
Thursday, May 19, 2005
Since you ask, Larry:
All That Jazz
Some Like It Hot
Bladerunner, theatrical cut
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, theatrical cut
Sleepless In Seattle
When Harry Met Sally
My point about structure, though, John, wasn't that you can't find three acts. My point was how does it help you to call the first two sequences the first act? Does that mean you're doing all your setup only in the first act? That all your characters are introduced by the end of the first act? That the plot's on train tracks by the end of the first act? I can find three acts in Hard Day's Night
too, if I decide I want to find them, but then I'm just shoehorning a few sequences into each act. Three Act Structure doesn't inform that movie. Nor does it Forrest Gump
. It seems more meaningful to talk in terms of sequences for some movies, because the story does naturally break down into sequences. I don't think Bob Fosse was too worried about Three Act Structure when he wrote/edited/magicked up All That Jazz
. Do you?
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Watching The Incredibles
again (what a great movie) it occurred to me yet again what horse manure three act structure is.
/* SPOILERS */
Act One: Mr. Incredible stops all kinds of mayhem. Gets married. Act out: he's sued.
Act Two: Mr. Incredible has miserable ordinary life. Gets in trouble. Act out: Gets fab job offer.
Act Three: Mr. Incredible defeats giant robot. Life is good. Then turns out it's all a setup. Act out: he's nearly killed.
Act Four: Mr. Incredible sneaks into bunker. Act out: Is captured.
Act Five: Mr. Incredible and family fight to defeat Syndrome and destroy his bunker.
Act Six: Mr. Incredible and family fight in the city to defeat Syndrome's robot.
Act Seven:: Mr. Incredible and family fight Syndrome and win.
/* END SPOILERS */
Neat seven-act MOW structure, except the acts are more even than in an MOW, where the first act is much longer.
Now you can assign acts one and two to your tradition Act One, assign acts four through six to Act Two and so on, but you're ignoring the real act structure of the movie, which has six cliffhangers. (I can't remember what the later ones are; we only saw the first half tonight before it was Hunter's bedtime.)
Seven act structure is probably better for an action movie anyway because you want whammies and cliffhangers, and you want more than three twists.
But even saying that points out the obvious lie in three act feature structure. All the writers with whom I've discussed Three Act Structure like to put a major turn in the story about halfway through. I used to call it the Flex Point to distinguish it from the evil Syd's official Turning Points. But it is nothing more than the Act Two Out of hour drama structure, where the hero discovers he's barking up the wrong tree, or in an action adventure hour, where the hero's in max physical jeopardy. Ever wonder why the middle act in three act structure is twice as long
as the other acts? It's the same reason pregnant women are so large: there's two of'em in there! The middle "act" is really two acts.
You can run this up against Aristotle, but as I've ranted before, to say that all stories must have a beginning, middle and end is not much of a requirement. Inherently stories have a beginning, middle and end. But stories can also break neatly into more than three pieces. It depends on how seamless you want your storytelling. TV pulses; movies flow
But a lot of movies pulse, too.
Does it actually help
anyone to think in terms of three acts? Or does it just mess people up. A lot of movies these days are up and running by page 10. Does that mean we now have a one-reel first act? Or two mini-acts in the first act? C'mon.
UPDATE: Massive exchange of views in the comments here, mostly disagreeing with me...
[I'm looking for a job as a script coordinator.] Is there a book or a trade publication that I can consult to find out where I can fax my resume?
Both Daily Variety
and The Hollywood Reporter
list productions and their production offices. In Canada, it's Playback
magazine. I'm not sure which days which magazines list the productions, but I'm pretty sure it's weekly.
The problem is that almost no one is going to hire you from a resume you faxed in, unless that's the day that their regular script coordinator comes in drunk and insults the director, and the other script coordinators they know are all on other shows at the moment.
They hire you because they know you. I'm not sure how you do it, but as I keep suggesting, if you intern on one show, the production manager is likely to hire you on the next. The more people you know the better.
If you know directors and production managers, and they like you, and you know what you're doing, you'll get all sorts of jobs. It's the getting to know directors and production managers that's hard. Usually you have to work as an intern or production assistant first.
TALK TO EVERYONE. Ask their advice. This is better than asking them for a job because almost no one is mean enough to refuse to give you advice, and if they know of a job they'll tell you anyway. Constantly take people to coffee and/or drinks.
As far as getting work as a writer's assistant, it's the same answer, but I've blogged about it extensively here
I don't really know of any other way. Breaking in as a writer is theoretically easy: just write some kickass spec scripts. Breaking in as a script coordinator, or writer's assistant, huh, I have no idea.
Here's more of my interview with Paul Guyot, bloggist of Ink Slinger and one of the writers of Judging Amy among other shows...
AE: How do you know when your draft is ready to turn in?
PG: For me, the "first draft" I turn in is usually the 2nd 1/2 draft. I'll write what I call a rough draft - literally the first complete script. That is for my eyes only. Always. Then I'll go back and tweak or rewrite. That is my official first draft. Now I will either turn that one in, or if something is bothering me, I'll tweak again. Not a full rewrite - you don't have time in TV - but a tweak. That's where I get the half.
All that being said, I don't want to imply that I use that formula regardless. I am a feel writer. I can't turn something in just because my little formula says it's draft 2.5. If I don't feel it's ready, it doesn't go. This is why speed is so important for a television writer. You may only have a couple of weeks, or even a few days to write an episode. I have never missed a deadline in my entire career. But that doesn't mean there weren't some all-nighters and all-mornings being pulled the day a script was due.
I know mine is ready by feel. I'd say 85-90% of the time I felt like that "first draft" was ready to be turned and scrutinized. But there were those other 10-15% occasions.
On Judging Amy
the staff was very close, very trusting. There were no egos, no competitive angst going on. We all loved each other and pulled for each other. So if I felt there problems with a script I was writing I was confident in that I could turn it in and say, "These are my concerns..." and it wouldn't be held against me.
AE: How important is it to match the showrunner's "voice" when you write?
PG: This all depends on the showrunner. And they will let you know early on what they want. There are many, many showrunners that want writers to simply turn in carbon copies of their own work. And then there are the good ones. ;) .
Showrunners like Barbara Hall, Zwick & Herskovitz, David Chase - they are all self-confident enough, and love and respect writers enough to let the writer's voice shine through. They encourage it. They believe it makes for better writing and I agree. But there are many showrunners out there who, because of inexperience, lack of their own self-confidence, or just because that's they way they work, can't handle ANY writer turning something in that doesn't sound like their own work.
This is something a lot of people outside the business might not understand. I'm not talking about the voice of the show. An audience member looking at Judging Amy or Thirtysomething over the entire series will hear and see a fairly seamless voice. But a good writer can look at a show and tell you who wrote probably inside of one act. A Terry Winter Sopranos episode sounds very different than one written by Robin Green and Mitch Burgess. But the shows are consistent within the voice of the series. Same with Thirtysomething. A Joseph Dougherty script sounded nothing like a Winnie Holzman episode.
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
It's official. Naked Josh
got Canadian Television Fund money for episodes 17-26 (i.e. 3.01-3.10). That's cheery news for me, your humble co-creator.
I asked Paul Guyot, of Judging Amy and Ink Slinger fame, a slew of questions. I'm going to be serializing his answers over the next few days, so you can ponder them...
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? Are there any particular kinds of flaws you've tended to run across as scenes go from outline to pages?
PG: There are so many more ways a scene (or entire script) can fail than succeed. A beat sheet is a map, and very often once that information or idea is transferred to the written page it still looks like a map. Meaning the scene is cliched or obvious, or just stupid. Like a big finger pointing the way for the audience.
I think a common flaw of a scene failing after going from outline to script is when the drama, or depth, or comedy isn't there. There's nothing for the actors to work with. Nothing for the audience to be moved by. This happens most often with expository scenes. One of the toughest scenes to make work are the expository scenes. We used to call them the "Man with a hat" scenes. Meaning, there were akin to a man with a hat walking out onto stage and telling the audience, "Okay, here's what's going on..." I don't know why he had a hat.
AE: Do you ever notice that a scene's been written from the wrong character's point of view?
PG: Sometimes, sure. This probably happened more in television writing twenty, twenty-five years ago. That was before Bruce Paltrow and Bochco started the multi-storyline/multiple POV shows. It used to be that the protagonist drove every scene of every episode. But when St. Elsewhere
and Hill Street
arrived they showed that you could take television to another (higher) level by doing multiple storylines and multiple POV. They taught us you could play with POV in scenes without losing forward momentum.
But yes, there have been times when you write a scene and realize that you're on the wrong character. You hope you see it before anyone else, but sometimes it takes the read-through, or God forbid, you catch it in dailies.
AE: Do you have any tricks for getting into a scene that doesn't flow naturally?
PG: I'm not sure what you mean. If it doesn't work then you need a new scene. If you're talking about a scene that is required for expository or geographic reasons, then that's what makes a good writer. Being able to look at it from every angle - angles others wouldn't think of - and see how to do it. I think it was Vonnegut - I can never keep up with the quoters - who said "Every character on every page must want something - even if it's only a drink of water." This is so true in television writing. When I'm having trouble with a scene I will ask myself what each character wants. If I'm still stuck I start tilting, 10 degrees, 20, even 45 or more, until I'm looking at the scene from a completely different perspective.
AE: Do you think it's important for an episode to take place within a limited amount of time?
PG: Do you mean in time as it relates to the fictional world of the story? If so, I think it all depends on the story. I think you're limited to a certain amount of time simply because of episodic TV's parameters. Since all shows are weekly, it doesn't really make sense for an episode to cover a span of say, six months or more. But again it's all what serves the story (the series) the best. If it's best for a particular episode to cover 3 or 4 weeks in the characters' lives, as opposed to the normal 24-96 hours, then why not? Look at law shows - cases go to trial in minutes as opposed to months or years.
Monday, May 16, 2005
"A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt......If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake."
--Thomas Jefferson, 1798, after the passage of the Sedition Act.
Here's an antidote to Script Shark
and all that. Screenplays Wanted
lets production companies put the word out what they're looking for.
You can, of course, read the site to see if anyone's looking for what you've already written. A cleverer way to read the site is to see what, overall, people are looking for. Bear in mind there's some self-selection here. Your top production companies, already deluged with scripts, are not posting here, I would suppose. But it does tell you what some of the market's like.
Some of the entries make me wonder, though. E.g. "We are currently accepting screenplay submissions of the supernatural genre ONLY. No blood, vampires, zombies, werewolves etc." Then what are
you looking for???
A kind fellow has emailed me the following list of pickups... I haven't checked these, so take'em with however many grains of salt. On a personal note, I hear that Naked Josh
got its CTF money, which almost certainly means a third season, so bravo Cirrus.
Commander In Chief (official)
In Justice (official)
What About Brian? (official)
George Lopez has been renewed (official)
Jake in Progress has been renewed (official)
Less Than Perfect has been renewed (official)
Rodney has been renewed (official)
Emily's Reasons Why Not (official)
Freddie Prinze Jr. (official)
Hot Properties (official)
Sons & Daughters (official)
American Crime (official)
Ghost Whisperer (official)
How I Met Your Mother (official)
Old Christine (official)
Untitled Keenan & Lloyd (official)
Officially renewed: Crossing Jordan, ER, Las Vegas,
Law & Order, Law &
Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: SVU, Medium, The
Officially cancelled: American Dreams, Hawaii, LAX,
Law & Order: Trial
By Jury, Medical Investigation, Third Watch
Four Kings (official, mid-season)
My Name Is Earl (official)
Thick & Thin (official, mid-season)
Officially renewed: Joey, The Office, Scrubs, Will &
Officially cancelled: Committed, Father of the Pride
The Apprentice: Martha (official)
Three Wishes (official)
Officially renewed: The Apprentice, The Biggest Loser,
Officially cancelled: The Contender, Last Comic
Standing, Sports Illustrated Model Search
Deviant Behavior (official)
Head Cases aka Crazy Lawyers (official)
Prison Break (official)
Bernie Mac has been renewed (official)
Stacked has been renewed (official)
Quints has been cancelled (official)
Kitchen Confidential (official)
The Loop (official, for mid-season)
The War at Home (official)
Charmed has been renewed (official)
Bedford Diaries (official)
Just Legal (official)
Pepper Dennis (official, for mid-season)
Living with Fran has been renewed (official)
Reba has been renewed (official)
Gilmore Girls returning
Jack and Bobby not returning.
Kevin Hill has been renewed
Everybody Hates Chris
Just watched the first season finale for The L Word
last night. Yikes. Those are some crazy, crazy girls.
Jenny, possibly the craziest core character on TV, winds up with two current lovers in her bedroom and won't choose which one should stay. After Bette gets caught cheating, she rapes her girlfriend Tina, and that turns into hot sex. I guess it's okay for rape to turn into hot sex if they're both women? 'Cause it sure wouldn't be okay on TV with a guy involved. Ivan the drag king tries to woo a straight girl by lip synching in a car park. Okay, that was sort of cute. Cheri tells Shane she loves her back but doesn't want to lose her houses in "Bel Air and East Hampton." And after Dana announces her engagement at her cat's funeral, Alice's response later is to kiss her -- and Dana's sort of into it.
On a straight show, we would lose soooooo much sympathy for characters who behaved this way. Don't these girls have the slightest idea what they want? Don't they have anything on their minds but sex? Any sense of responsibility? Yes, on The L Word
the girls are so much slimmer than real dykes, and that's fine, 'cause most people on TV are better looking than real people. But these girls behave like teenagers -- impulsive, reckless, self-destructive, irresponsible, selfish. And self-pitying.
Is that part of the attractive fantasy?
Do they, like, have to sign an oath that they will play only trance music from clubs, and not danceable hits from the past? I've never met a party DJ who took a request (though they all say they will), and they never play music appropriate to the party.
Sunday, May 15, 2005
Here's a promising new blog. This Savage Art
starts up with a list of top ten things to prepare for
when you're producing your own film.
It's Sunday morning, and how better to get muffins with all crust than to put the muffin mix in the waffle iron! So this morning we had blueberry sour milk waffles made out of muffin mix. Yum!
A week ago or so, I had four feature rewrites I was up for. And I was sort of scared -- what if they all say yes? Because it was looking like they were all going to say yes. So I was thinking maybe I should say no to some of these, and pass them along to friends.
And they all did say "yes," but then "yes" in a few cases turned into "no." One of them -- my favorite, really -- didn't get the funding they were counting on, and another one tried to pull some shenanigans in the negotiations, and now we're down to two.
That's why you almost never say "no." Until you have an actual contract, you never know what's really going to be a paid gig. A few days ago I was celebrating because one of the gigs said yes, and then it turned out it was "yes but we want to pay you half of WGC scale." Which, if you are a self-respecting, moral person, not to mention busy, means "no."
So that leaves two "yeses," both of which are really, "Yes, we want to submit your name to for Canadian government financing so we can pay you if they
say yes." Which is fine. I would enjoy writing both projects, now that I've fixed, in my head at least, what I thought were their flaws. God bless Canada for supporting the arts.
Of course these are only the commissions. I sent my series pitch Exposure
out to network, and we're going to organize producer pitch meetings on Unseen
, and another script is out to a few producers too, and another script proposal is out to Telefilm for the Screenwriting Assistance Program. Lots of irons in the fire.
And I just brought on a Toronto agent to represent me outside of Quebec.
And I'm almost done with a rough draft of my book.
That's the key to sanity as a self-employed writer. You keep working at putting more irons in the fire until you have enough real solid writing gigs that you have no time to put more irons in the fire. You need a lot of redundancy. Keep things in the pipeline. Keep writing. Keep writing proposals for more writing.
Remember, if you find yourself with too much work
, you can always raise prices! Your price never goes up with projects you love
. Your price goes up when you don't really want to do
Saturday, May 14, 2005
Denis McGrath has this to say about Star Trek: the Very Long Running Franchise
Where No Fans Have Gone Before
Before I turned to actually writing TV for a living, I spent a lot of
time around the margins of the genre as a television producer.
Specifically, I cut a lot of short, documentary-like segments, first
for a show about technology and advertising and the internet, back
when that was new and exciting (I think one of the first stories I did
was on this brand-new magazine called WIRED. There, I've just dated
Anyway, all this led to a job as a producer at the Canadian version of
the Sci-Fi Channel, a station called SPACE: The Imagination Station.
It launched in 1997.
I went in as a sci-fi fan, thinking that I would find my mental image
of sci-fi fans: people who were forward-thinking, expansive in their
worldview, excited by change and the implications, both good and bad,
of future technology.
I worked in Space for three years. (And that's how I'd describe it to
people. One of my good friends at the time was a Special Makeup
supervisor for the show Earth: Final Conflict, which shot in Toronto.
We used to joke when we met people, "Hi, I work on Earth; He's from
Space." Drove the chicks wild.)
Anyway, what I quickly found in my interactions with Sci-fi tv fans,
besides the clichés which are never quite fair, but always held a
grain of truth to them, was this:
They were conservative. And by that, I meant, they hated change. Just
hated it. They also liked a lot of crap, and didn't really like to be
challenged at all.
And after a while, I started to blame Star Trek.
Not the old, classic, Kirk and Spock and Damnit Jim I'm a classic Star
Trek show. No -- TNG and its increasingly pale photocopies.
Star Trek, for me, always featured cheesy stories and slightly hokey
conclusions, but they gave you something to think about, to chew over.
And the fact that there were only 78 of them, and that most people
discovered the show not in its original NBC run, but in the (then)
unpredictable wilds of syndication, there were a lot of years there
where you got to chew over every piece of gristle that series gave
And the people who watched it were smart, and made that direct link
between the Apollo missions and the heroic astronauts and test pilots
that Tom Wolfe would so memorably chronicle in the Right Stuff.
I was excited as anyone when a new Star Trek series came to TV in
1987. Horrified when it seemed like it would be bad, relieved when it
turned out a fair share of first rate episodes that made that world,
that universe live and breathe again.
But by 2000 or so, when I was getting ready to make the jump from
Space to the truly final frontier -- giving up your cushy job to become
-- gasp, no, you're killing me -- a writer -- I looked back on what was
now at least 400 hours of Star Trek stories, and realized that
everything that was expansive and great about that franchise had
become routine; and worse -- the fans continued to lap it up. And the
Star Trek formula of bumpy headed aliens of the week who really should
have seen one of those two young plastic surgeons from Nip/Tuck --
well, it simultaneously had become a little moribund, and had also
become the standard. If you deviated too far from that Star Trek
method of telling a story, you got hammered by fans -- even if you
weren't doing Star Trek.
Those 'smart' fans that I had always admired started to drift away.
They split, almost into two groups. One chose nostalgia -- and would
write hectoring letters demanding that Space show nothing but old
Irwin Allen shows, The Invaders -- anything made before Star Trek: The
Next Generation, in fact. One stopped watching Sci-Fi tv, deciding
there just wasn't anything there for them.
At one point, shortly before I left the employ of Space, there were
four Star Trek series on the station in reruns at the same time.
That's a lot of Star Trek. Occasionally through the vagaries of
scheduling, you could even see the episode of Star Trek Voyager that
ripped off the story that they'd first told on DS9 that riffed on the
Next Gen episode that was the sequel to the episode of the original
series -- all in a row. When you looked at the ratings, TNG, Voyager,
DS9 -- each of those shows would drop off in ratings precipitously with
every run through. Viewer fatigue, it's called. How many times can you
see the same rerun before you just won't watch it again?
The amazing thing, though, was that episodes of the Original Series
never dropped off. Those ratings stayed solid -- so far as I know, they
still are. Space has been showing those original Star Treks five days
a week for 7 and a half years now. And people continue to tune in.
DS9 got dropped, TNG got dropped, Voyager will be dropped one day
soon. But that original series just kept marching on and on. Maybe not
with the same numbers of people watching the "newer" Treks. But they
never drifted away, either.
In the first months of my post-Space career (see? See how fun that is
to say?) I thought about that a lot. I eventually concluded that my
friend John, who was the biggest Trekker I knew, was right: that first
series and its leading triumvirate was about a family that you just
wanted to spend time with. TNG got to do a pretty decent facsimile --
but it was still a larger group, so it was more like spending time
with the family you like and the busty cousin who doesn't know that
she should really start dressing more age-appropriately, and the MILF
from down the block with her annoying son who you wished would just go
That's why, after years of ho-humming Star Trek in most of its
flavors, I found myself intrigued when they announced Enterprise. A
show set in a world that was way more like our own than the
polyannaverse of the Next Gen on series. A world before a Federation,
when exploration was new and dangerous, when every species that would
be met was new, when people were scared of the transporter, and didn't
know how to interact with aliens. It would be a chance to have a show
focused more on character, and on the essential values that made that
first show so much more compelling.
Predictably, the "I hate change" fans immediately carped. About "it's
not Canon…" They hated the song! That song! "But ... it's not an
orchestral opening… and why is it called "Enterprise" and not "Star
Trek: Enterprise." I stopped reading the internet, rolled my eyes and
watched the premiere.
And from that opening montage that tied this to all the eras of human
exploration, I thought, "this is it. They're really going to
re-connect to a mythos that makes sense, and not go back into the lazy
Star-trek mode of storytelling." I was blown away by that pilot,
"Broken Bow." And thirteen million people agreed. That was a pretty
great number for UPN.
And then it all went to hell. A few early episodes showed promise, but
it quickly started devolving to the flabby, Star Trek lazy forehead of
the week stories. The family aspect of the show went out the window.
Rick Berman & Brannon Braga, the custodians of the franchise since
Roddenberry, uh, beamed up…were already deeply under fire from the
fans. But this was the first time that I gave my head a shake and
really didn't understand what had happened: because they had the good
sense to frame the show in a way that was strong, and could have been
reinvigorating for a franchise that had been running continuously for
almost fifteen years. And then they just…blew it. They retreated to
the same old retreads, then tried to inject a bizarre and flopsweaty
post 9/11 line, and I found myself, when I surfed across the show on
my tv, feeling sorry for that nice Scott Bakula fellow. I stopped
watching, along with about 11 million other people.
Then, this year, that same Star Trek superfan friend of mine demanded
that I watch Enterprise again. Manny Coto was running it now, and the
show had got back some pop, and some of the promise of the original
concept. I'm glad I did. The stories were taut and reflected and
refracted themes of the original series in a way that actually was
original. And some episodes were just rip roarin action, and that was
fine too. Sure, the African American guy still had no discernible
character and the communications officer was still basically Ensign
Cutie, but at least it held my attention.
By this time, of course, it was too late. With the first bonafide Star
Trek movie flop (Nemesis) under their belt, Berman and Braga were not
the most popular kids at the Paramount commissary. And so the axe
The fans, who never liked Berman & Braga, (who certainly didn't help
themselves by going on the record bragging that they didn't like or
had never seen the original show) now started acting like the
villagers in Frankenstein. There were torches, hordes marching up to
the door demanding that a head be brought out for their blood
Part of me-- watching this with the perspective I now have, having
worked on a series in production as a story editor (with apologies to
Alex and his sure-to-be-fabulous new book, it boils down to this:
it's hard.) wanted to cut Berman and Braga some slack. I mean, maybe
if the fans hadn't watched Star Trek long after it got so crappy,
spooning up the pablum that the franchise -- yes…the FRANCHISE had
become -- and yes, Voyager, I'm talking to you…maybe if they'd actually
voted with their feet a little earlier, Berman and Braga might have
been forced to hand over the reins earlier. Or maybe desperation would
have caused them to follow through on their vision. Or maybe nothing
could have saved it…since I have a feeling that there were so many
people at Paramount putting their finger in Star Trek over the last
while that maybe it was unsalvageable. It's not like Paramount has
been firing on all cylinders in any other arena lately.
In the weeks leading up to last night's finale, the leaks that came
out were not good. Not promising. First came word that it would
include Johnathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis. And the holodeck. The
groan could be heard coming from every basement in North America. Then
the refreshingly loopy outspoken Jolene Blalock was quoted calling it,
"Appalling." And worst, it was going to be written by: Berman and
I just knew that this could be the greatest forty minutes plus credits
and commercials in the history of television and those villagers with
those torches weren't going to give it a chance.
So last night, they run it. And lo and behold, you know what? It wasn't bad.
Not that the fans would say that. Of course not. For a taste of what
they're saying, just look at the thread on the SPACE board; (this is a
Canadian blog, so we'll do the cancon thing)
Now maybe you think I'm nuts. How could you like that episode? Doesn't
it shortchange the characters out of their own finale? Well. First,
I can see why Jolene Blalock would complain. Actors always complain,
and that's kind of their job, to see everything from their
But the larger, big tent perspective is this: Berman and Braga wrote
an episode that wasn't a finale to Enterprise; they wrote a finale to
their era, their flavor of Star Trek. And measured by that yardstick,
what they did was quite effective.
It was also the finale, sadly, not to the show that Enterprise became,
or even to the show that Manny Coto admirably wrestled out of the
detritus of what Berman & Braga turned it into -- it was the finale to
the vision of the show that could have been if they'd followed the
promise of that first episode, "Broken Bow."
It was a show about family. It was about loyalty to those around you
being the most important thing. It was about sacrifice. It tied this
series into the whole Berman era Star Trek canon in the way it should
be: as an inspiration.
Characters each got a grace note interacting with Frakes. Conor
Trineer, in particular, was great in the episode. His choice, his
desire to protect the Captain, was really the presage to the whole
essence of how Frakes played Riker in TNG. Fans reactions on that
Space board to me show how little things are thought through in a real
emotional way: how Star Trek taught you down the line not to do that,
but just to wait for the phaser blast and the bumpy headed alien to
show up. One of the persistent points that comes out in fan
commentary I've read is how it's set six years in the future from the
episode that precedes it, and how much it sucks that the relationship
they had been building between T'Pol and Trip played as "a fling"
since apparently it ended shortly after the penultimate episode.
Except, of course, in the penultimate episode, they went through the
loss of a child. Sadly, in life, that's exactly the thing that ends a
lot of relationships. So that note in the episode didn't activate my
inner fanboy -- it made me go, "oh, that's sad. But that happens.
That's real. That's what happens to families sometimes -- you can't
bridge the distance." And sometimes in families, someone else pays for
The series ends on a stirring high: tying the three ships called
Enterprise together in that famous montage and voiceover: in the voice
of Picard, Kirk, and Archer.
It's a goodbye from two guys to the fanbase that would recognize it as
the elegy it was, if only they weren't blinded by the torches they've
So now, as Ronald Moore said in his Battlestar Galactica blog says,
"Star Trek goes back to the fans."
I don't know what that means. The last time that happened, before the
first movie, was a long time ago. Communing meant the occasional
convention, or maybe meeting at the library or something. Now there's
an age of instant connectivity and not a lot of thinking about
anything one way or another. Just a desire to be fed the bumpy heads
and easily homilies that Star Trek became.
Maybe, in a sense, the best thing that Star Trek did by going off the
air is simply getting out of the way. Maybe now another type of Sci-Fi
storytelling can become dominant, and not worry about Star Trek
sucking all the air out of the room. Maybe if the Star Wars series
gets off the ground, maybe it'll be that. Maybe it won't be Space
Opera at all.
But the one thing I'm sure of is that the next time Star Trek returns
to the small screen, maybe it will be a well-thought out show that
comes with a little less storytelling baggage, and maybe it will even
fulfill its initial promise. Absence, after all, is supposed to make
the heart grow fonder.
I just hope in the meantime that the fans take the time to explore new
worlds on their own. With the bumpy-headed aliens and the two minute
conclusions out of the way -- maybe they'll have a shot. We'll see.
refs this article about how there is no CSI effect
, that is, no evidence that juries now expect hard irrefutable forensic evidence in murder case.
I'd like to know if there's another CSI effect: people less likely to murder because they have a deepening respect for the cops' ability to nail them. Used to be you could expect to get away with it if no one saw you do it. But if you have to worry about whether you tracked in carpet fibers from your home, or whether your dandruff has left DNA evidence on the corpse, you're less inclined to knock somebody off.
I know I
The ZAZ Rules
are hardly exhaustive. One really big rule is, I think, commitment
Whatever your comedy scene entails, commit to it wholly. Nuance isn't funny. You want your audience's minds careening down the train tracks of one line of thought so you can derail them at high speed. If your scene is nuanced, they're not careening. If a character is angry, they should be hysterically angry. If they're feeling betrayed, they should feel the worst betrayal possible. If they step on a tack, they should be jumping up and down in pain, or moaning in suffering.
Dramatic characters feel a lot but play down their reaction. A girl who's been rejected forever by the man she loves might quietly take his omelette away, wrap it up and put it in the refrigerator. Comic characters feel less, but play up their reactions. A girl who doesn’t like that the man she loves called a secretary "cute" might throw scrambled eggs in his face.
Friday, May 13, 2005
Thursday, May 12, 2005
I'm trying to reconcile two bits of comic wisdom. Both Chris Abbott and Mark Farrell pointed out to me that you cut comedy differently from drama. In drama, the witness says something, and halfway through, you cut to the investigator for their reaction. In comedy, you stay on the character saying the joke until they're done saying it.
At the same time, comedy isn't in the line, it's in the reaction
to the line. We don't laugh during the line. We laugh in the pause after the line.
Is it that you don't cut to the other character's reaction because you don't want to telegraph it -- you want to save that character's reaction until the joke is out -- because it's the reaction itself that's funny?
In shows like Everybody Loves Raymond
, Mark and also DJ McCarthey have remarked to me that they get a lot of comic mileage from characters' reactions. We're laughing as they react to the situation -- and then we laugh again
when they say whatever joke they have to say after we've seen the reaction on their faces:
-- Raymond's mom says something horribly annoying to him
-- Raymond does a slow burn
-- Raymond: sarcastic comment>
Thinking back I guess they did this on Friends
, too, but I think the pace was faster so it wasn't as obvious a pause between the reaction and the line.
I'm not sure this is universal. You don't need to wait for the reaction shot:
Ross: comically expresses his frustration--
Rachel: unaffected, comes out with a zinger.
So the comedy isn't only
in the other character's reaction. All we need is our own
reaction. But if you really want to milk a scene, you're probably milking it in the other characters' reactions.
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Another point both Mark Farrell and DJ McCarthey mentioned was not making your comedy plot too busy. In comedy, the plot exists only to support the funny. You need enough plot to bring the funny, but not more. So if you have a choice between milking a simple situation or making it more complex, milk it. Why?
a. You won't burn through so much plot. You can always do the extra plot later.
b. Comedy builds, but only so long as you're on the same bit. The longer you can stay on the same joke and keep them laughing, the harder they'll laugh. Comedy writing staffs are always looking for the "topper" -- the gag that tops the previous gag while staying in the same bit. The longer you can keep topping the previous joke, the funnier the bit gets.
c. If you run long and you have a simple plot, you can always cut a few longueurs to bring down the length. But if the plot is complicated, it's hard to cut plot. If you have to get from A to D, it's hard to get rid of B and C. So you wind up cutting only gags and leaving the plot points. Now it's not funny any more, it's just plot.
d. If you've really nailed your characters, a lot of the funny is in the pauses. Everybody Loves Raymond
is brilliant at this. The audience is laughing before the character comes out with his retort. They have a feeling for what he's going to say. As Chris Abbott said, "you never know what they're going to say, and then when they say it, you say, 'I knew
he was gonna say that!'"
The latter is part of what Mark was calling "plausible surprise." We know
where the character's going. But then he gets there in a surprising way. That's bringing the funny.
It's been bothering Lisa for weeks that the Dalton Alumni Artists Small Works Exhibition 2005 brochure is arranged in 4 folds, so that the number 2004 has a digit on each fold, and underneath each digit reads:
0 Alumni Artists
0 Small Works
Which subliminally looks like there are zero Alumni Artists and zero Small Works.
So Lisa changed it to read "No small Alumni Artists, Only Small Works."
Just for ourselves.
That's the kind of devotion to the cause of good design that makes someone a good designer. When it not only bugs you when things are badly designed, you have an urge to change them.
Personally I can't go to a bad movie without figuring out how to fix it, post facto. And I think that's a good thing.
For one thing, if you decide you're allowed to "fix" things, you think about them more analytically. And it's good practice for when you are actually called on to fix things. Including your own work.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
DJ McCarthey and Mark Farrell confirm what Jacob Weinstein was saying: in writing comedy you need to leave a gap between how the line reads on the page and how it will sound. If you write the way the character sounds, it'll be overkill. You need to leave room for the performance. Brent Butt underwrites his lines so that when he says them, he can add the drollery by his performance.
The ironic thing there is that as Mark pointed out and DJ confirms, you can get an audience laughing with poor materal. Not necessarily bust-a-gut laughing, but enough to sustain a working career as a comic. If your performance is where it should be, the material can fall way short. Sheer skill with an audience can cover up a big nothing of a written act.
The other thing that came up in my conversations with Mark and DJ is Mark's description of comedy as "plausible surprise." The essence of a joke is that you set up a situation in which you lead the audience by the nose in one direction, and then pull the rug out from under them. You need to know where they expect to go, and then not go there.
More on my conversations in comedy soon...
Just for the record, the Ayn Rand Institute Alex Epstein who thinks Social Security is bad
is not me. I think Social Security is a fine thing. I am happy to live in bluer-than-thou Canada, in bluer-even-than-Canada Québec, where superb child care is to be had for $7 a day, and where most people not only believe in evolution, they approve of it.
I am, in general, in favor of a fully funded national health system like Canada's used to be; in favor of a carbon tax; against drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and against Hummers.
I do think the free market is the most efficient way of allocating resources, but I also think it's government's job to adjust incentives so that the free market can avoid the tragedy of the commons. In other words, people who drive Hummers should pay a whole lot extra in taxes, because their ridiculous vehicles tear up the roads, take up extra parking room, kill people disproportionately in car crashes, and cause the country to go to war in foreign places that would be of no foreign policy interest if we didn't need the oil.
I could go on in this vein for hours, but this is a TV writing blog.
I just got an email from The Internet Movie Script Database
. I guess they're going to try to take on Drew's Script-O-Rama. They seem to have a fair number of scripts, html'd up in script forma, though some are transcripts. Check'em out and let me know.
Monday, May 09, 2005
I had a nice chat about comedy with Jacob Sager Weinstein, blogger of Yankee Fog
, London resident and veteran of Dennis Miller Live
Some of the things we talked about...When you write for a comedian, underwrite.
Jacob noticed that lines that read like Dennis Miller on the page sounded too brainy and too harsh when Dennis Miller said them: "His comic persona is like him only more so. He really is sarcastic and does make obscure references. In real life he's just not on all the time. ... When we got free lance submissions, they sounded too much
like his comic persona. Anything he said on the air would seem even more sarcastic and smarter than the way it was written. So you had to underwrite so he wouldn't come off too harsh. If you wrote like he sounds, it would seem like he was parodying himself. So I learned to leave a gap between what I wrote and how he was going to say it, to let him fill it. ... One of the biggest mistakes comedy writers can make is putting too
much of the character's voice on the page.
"Another mistake you can make is holding yourself back. You need a lot of bad jokes to get a few good ones. On Dennis Miller Live
we pitched 500 jokes each week and he'd do 10 in his monolog. And some of the things I thought were brilliant got cut by the other writers, and some of the stuff I just wrote to fill up the page would get on the show and kill. That's why you need a writing staff: to tell what's funny. Don't censor yourself, because you don't know. Let the other censor you."
"I think the best sitcoms have their own
persona, not just the characters. With Friends
it's tricky to separate the characters from the show's persona, because the characters are making jokes themselves. It's osrt of a sympathetic but wiseass persona, sort of like Chandler's personality. But a show like Frasier
is very aware of its character's foibles in a way that the characters are not. It's very aware of pretention and likes to puncture it. Frasier himself is a little aware of his own pretention. Martin's very aware of his sons' pretention. Or take The Simpsons
: it's incredibly smart and satirical, in a way that none of its characters are. Lisa's smart but sincere. No one's sharp and satirical on that show the way the show is itself."
"I got my job writing for Dennis Miller by being in the right place at the right time. At the end of my first year at USC, I got an internship at Second City Productions, which was supposed to be the movie arm of Second City. It was just two guys and two unpaid interns trying to get something to happen. They got hired by Microsoft to do a comedy web page. And Dennis Miller was their spokesman, so he was always coming around and hanging out. So he knew I could type fast. So when he was looking for an assistant for Dennis Miller Live
... One good thing about the show was that the showrunner, Eddie Feldman was very open to submissions. So from the very beginning I was pitching jokes. At a certain point they made you a writer. So I think if you can get a writer's assistant gig it's a very good way in."
"I never did standup. Any urge that process gave me to do standup -- well, I heard horror stories from the writers on staff who'd done standup. They loved being on the road but it sounded like a tough life. I got the feeling that standup you shouldn't do unless you really love it for its own sake. You have to love the process. I don't think doing standup is necessary to writing comedy. But you do need to do something where you see what makes the audience laugh. I'd written sketch comedy in college, and that's another advantage of the assistant job: I had seen three years of the show, that's 75 shows. I'd seen the writing process."
The number of the Beast is not, it turns out, 666. According to the latest paleographic evidence, it's 616.
666 is, it turns out, the number of the florist down the block.
Sunday, May 08, 2005
Here's the last part of my interview with showrunner and creator Chris Abbott, author of the new book Ten Minutes to the Pitch.
AE: If you're creating a series pitch, are you analytical about the core cast you need? Do you decide how big a core cast you want and then fill in the positions? Do you try to have a love interest, a nemesis, a mentor? Romantic triangles? Or do you start with a main character and then just play with the springboards until you feel sure you know how big and who the supporting core cast should be?
CA: Yes to all of the above. It depends on whether it's a single lead or an ensemble. I like to choose real people I know and base things on them. But it's good to use mythical archetypes, particularly in half hour. A lot of it is commedia del'arte prototypes ... but so is hourlong. The protagonist is the hero, who's the antagonist, who's the lover, who's the kindly old mentor etc. And then you try to find a way to make them different.
AE: The ethnic sidekick.
CA: Archetypes really touch people, we all know them, gives it accessibility.
AE: If you've been asked to pitch a particular kind of show — say ABC tells you it wants "an edgy detective story" — do you have techniques for coming up with a great hook? Do you start with characters you want to spend time with? Do you look around to see what new trends in society or technology you can base a show on, or try to juxtapose genre elements that haven't been juxtaposed before? Or do you just try to figure out what you'd like to watch that isn't on the air already?
CA: I do a lot of riffing with myself. A lot of free hand. I sit down sort of horizontally with a notebook, and I ask myself a lot of question. "Who's the show about, what's edgy about this person, why would anyone want to watch them?" My subconscious brain actually answers a lot of those questions. Or if I'm asked to develop something in a particular genre: go to the Museum of Television of Radio [in New York and Beverly Hills] and look at everything in that genre. Then go lay down on your bed and start asking yourself questions.
AE: What do you do when an actor feels he or she can't do a scene as written, and you feel that he or she should be able to? What if you feel they can't handle it? What do you do if an actor tries to rewrite you?
CA: I've found that over the years, the only thing you can
do is listen to them sincerely and genuinely, try to solve the problem for them. I mean I can always find another way to write it. And then I ask them not to do the changes on the set. People sometimes have ad libbed the set and they've lost clues. We've been shooting a mystery and whole clues have dropped out. There's this story Dan Travanti's on the set and he says "My character wouldn't say this." And it goes all the way on up to Steven Bochco. And he comes down to the set. And Dan says "My character wouldn't say this." And Bochco looks at the script and says, "Yes, he would. See? It says so right here."
I try to keep most of the actors in control, you know, I say, you wouldn't ask a playwright to change the dialog, why aren't you giving me the respect you'd give a playwright? But there are always gonna be one or two who fancy themselves stars who want to be part of the [writing] process. And I ask them, what is it about the change that's gonna make it better? Why is it you can't do the part as written? Sometimes there are good reasons. If it's too plotty they can't make anything of it. But sometimes actors just want it easier for them.
AE: Last question. If you could ask Steven Bochco or David E. Kelley or Aaron Sorkin or anyone else one question, what would it be?
CA: That's easy. "Would you hire me?"