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



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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Bush, returning from vacation in Texas today (!), flew over New Orleans at 2500 feet, then Mississippi at 1700 feet. There's a cute picture of him looking out the airplane window in this article.

1700 feet. Yep, that's about the closest you'd want to get to actual suffering, isn't it? You wouldn't want to fly over in a helicopter or anything like that. Might get in the way of rescue efforts.

Meanwhile, the (Republican) governor of Texas, in a shocking example of doing the right thing regardless of what it will cost, not only offered to put up the refugees from New Orleans, but offered to send their kids to school in Texas, so long as they don't have a school to go back to. Just because it is the neighborly thing to do.

Now that's leadership.

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You can write to the members of the Kansas Board of Ed, and suggest that supporting Intelligent Design is part of why Kansas is becoming a byword for "backward place you'd never want to live." That is, assuming you believe in the separation of Church and State.

Don't bother with the sane ones -- Sue Gamble, Carol Rupe, Bill Wagnon, and Janet Waugh -- just write to the fundamentalist crazies. You know, the ones who are in the majority.

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It is raining like heck here in Montreal, the tail end of Katrina. Yikes. I say "raining like heck" because it is obviously not raining like hell, that's what it was doing in the Other Major French City.

I'm glad to see the Pentagon is finally mobilizing the Navy to help rescue people. Where were they on Sunday when people couldn't get out of New Orleans because the roads were clogged? As a society, we're better at dealing with crises than preparing for crises. Everyone thinks it's not going to happen, whatever it is. When the Whittier Quake struck, I heard someone on the tv saying "we never thought it was going to happen to us." Even though when you move to California, everyone mocks you because of the quakes. People lose their houses to fire in the Santa Monica Mountains because they treat wildfires as something exceptional, something out of the ordinary. They are part of the natural life cycle of the chapparal. The hills are supposed to burn every 20 years. They've been doing it since the glaciers cleared out.

Disasters are exceptional, but it is fairly safe to say that one disaster or another is going to get you. In Quebec, we had a terrible ice storm half a decade ago. San Francisco had an earthquake and (much worse than the quake) fire in 1906. LA is just waiting for The Big One.

Thing is, most disasters are foreseeable. Not predictable but foreseeable. There will be an eight-pointer in LA. We just don't know when. There will probably be an eight pointer in Missouri, too, though nobody talks about it. There was one in 1857. Does anyone believe it can't happen again?

Jared Diamond talks about societies overrunning their margin of safety in his terrific book Collapse. All the Mayan cities were abandoned after one period of drought or another. Droughts were foreseeable, but populations expanded into marginal farmland, and when the drought came, there was no way to feed people. Famine, war, cannibalism, total collapse of a city followed.

New Orleans was built under sea level. Whether it's true that the Bush administration cut the hurricane budget for New Orleans last year, or that the understaffed National Guard failed to sandbag the levies in some places isn't the point. This wasn't even the worst storm that could have hit. It could have been a Category 5. It could have hit New Orleans rather than Biloxi. (Biloxi is pretty much just gone.) There was no likelihood that New Orleans wouldn't be devastated by a hurricane. Unless the various governments (municipal, state, federal) had taken the necessary and painful steps to prevent it. That would have meant 25 foot levees in town, not 20 foot ones. It would have means removing the Mississippi River levees that prevent flooding outside the city so that the barrier islands and marshlands restored themselves -- at the cost of whoever lived outside the city getting swamped every few years or so. It would have meant building up the city with landfill so that it wasn't below sea level. All that takes money.

Or, it would have meant forbidding people from building in drained swamps.

My dad once asked me how many earthquakes I'd have to live through before I bailed on LA. My response was that the more earthquakes, the less scary they were. Not just because you get used to them. But because frequent quakes mean that people take quake codes seriously. People don't bribe building inspectors so they can use substandard concrete in their house. At least, they don't the second time around. Frequent quakes mean anything that is going to come down has already come down.

I'd rather be in LA during a serious quake than in Missouri, or Boston. Hell, Montreal can't be far from a fault line. Look at the Hudson River/Lake Champlain corridor through the Adirondacks. Does that look like a fault line to anybody else?

As a society, our hearts go out to the victims of a disaster, and they should. Where we make our mistake is that then we give people help so they can rebuild their homes in the same goddamn place. Flooded out by the Mississippi? Build another house in the Mississippi River flood plain. Your house on a Carolinas barrier island was wiped out by a storm? Build another one. FEMA will help.

When you fly into San Francisco, you can see these lovely new housing developments built on these long, long straight lakes. That's the goddamn San Andreas Fault, people!

If New Orleans really is as devastated as it looks, maybe people should build their new houses upriver and inland. I'd rather a few more tax dollars went there. Buy people's land back, and let the place revert to swampland. Swampland is good. Swampland protects the high ground from hurricanes.

Still no word on Jim Hunter, but I will tell you that his old house -- the one he left ten years ago because it was too close to sea level -- is underwater along with all the rest of the town it was in, Slidell, Louisiana. And if his house is still there, the 100-mph wind rated siding he put in last year might have helped.

Like the Boy Scouts say, be prepared.

What foreseeable disasters are on your horizon? What's your plan? Where are your spare resources? Are you just going to wing it?

What foreseeable disasters are on our society's horizon? What are we doing about them?

Preparation is boring. Much of the time, it's a waste of resources. But when the Big Bad Wolf comes, it's nice to live in a brick house.

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If you're thinking about donating to help the victims of Katrina, check out Charity Navigator, which tells you how efficiently the organization gets relief to the victims and how much money they spend on themselves, among other things... This page talks in particular about Katrina.

Note that organizational efficiency is relative. Oxfam gets a low efficiency rating, but it requires more of an effort to get aid to people in Africa than to people in the US. Also, fundraising efficiency is irrelevant if you're seeking out the organization: then they're not spending any money getting your buck.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

For once, I have no leftie political brief, but only an observation: what on Earth is the President doing in Washington? It is inconceivable to me that any of the past presidents of the US would not currently be visiting Louisiana and Mississippi. Bill would have gone. Bush 41 would have gone. Ronnie would have gone. Jimmy would have gone.

It is probably true that any President can monitor a situation better from the White House than from whatever makeshift emergency headquarters they have on the Gulf. But monitoring the situation is not the point. People need to know that their leaders are on the spot and doing whatever they can.

Bush has a nasty habit of hiding from awkward facts, like Cindy Sheehan, or just plain hiding, as he was doing before Cindy Sheehan, and as he did after 9/11. But this is just crazy. These people voted for him. Sure, he cut short his unconscionably long vacation, but where's the Presidential helicopter? Where's the photo op?

People need to see their leaders.

Get down there George. One of the major cities of the United States has been devastated. What the hell are you doing hiding in DC?

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We still haven't heard from my father-in-law. All phone lines are still down.

We're not worried about him -- he and his wife were staying in a brick hotel in Hammond, LA, on higher ground, and they'd put all their animals in a shelter there -- but the house was on Lake Pontchartrain, which is now a few miles wider than it used to be. So the house is surely flooded. The question is how much damage it took from the wind and how much damage the flooding will have done.

They are not hyper wired people, so we haven't had anything like an email from them.

We're fretting, a bit.

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My dear friend and co-conspirator, Denis McGrath, now has his own blog, Dead Things on Sticks, in which he has many interesting things to say about Fox's development slate, weather porn, and the CBC strike, among other things. Denis is a superb TV writer and a funny, funny man. I'm just sorry he didn't call it by the phrase we normally associate with him in the writing room, "Here's Why I Hate That."

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Paul is too modest to toot his own horn, but his pilot has been greenlit:
TNT and Dean Devlin are teaming for "Talk to Me," an hourlong show set in the world of hostage crisis negotiators. Cabler has made a pilot commitment to the project, scripted by Paul Guyot ("Judging Amy") and produced by Lions Gate Television.
You can read all about it here.

I for one would love to know how you make a weekly hour out of hostage crises, and since it's not going to be on the WB, there's a good chance I'll get to.

UPDATE: Turns out he is not too modest, after all. Here's where he blogs about it.

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In September they start showing trailers for movies you'd want to see, again.

Elizabethtown has not a bad trailer, but it's a Cameron Crowe movie with Kirsten Dunst, so it's probably better than the trailer. (Oh, is Orlando Bloom in it? Hadn't noticed.)

King Kong made me sit up before I realized it was King Kong. I'd been wondering why Peter Jackson was going to waste his moment remaking that tired old story, but it does not seem like a tired old story on the screen. It seems way cool.

And Narnia left me with a feeling of desperate hope: oh, I hope they don't f*** that up. 'Cause it looks wonderful. (Gee, I wonder what convinced them there was an audience for an epic story in a land of swords and sorcery?) I wonder how far they'll go with the Christ allegory?

And then, of course, there's Serenity, but you know how I feel about that.

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So Josh Friedman wrote about how David Koepp tried to take sole credit for War of the Worlds. And how he wrote a 22 page statement for the arbitrators detailing similarities.

{spoilers}

So, Josh, 'fess up. What about the dissimilarities? I mean, come on, Koepp probably deserved that credit. I bet, for example, you had a likable hero. Or at least a hero we gave a damn about. Koepp's probably the genius who made Ray one of the poorest excuses for a human being I've seen on the screen in years. And I bet you had a theme, too. Koepp's probably the guy who extracted every trace of one from the movie, making it really truly about aliens sacking and pillaging the globe. I mean, I bet you had some boring traditional theme-based idea like Ray lost his family because he loved them but was unreliable, and now he's trying to finally be reliable by taking the kids back to their mother. Rather than, say, Koepp's brilliant idea of the father having lost the family because he doesn't give a good goddamn about anybody but himself, and doesn't really care much about the kids, and is trying to get to Boston because he can ditch the kids there and then drive around in the only working car on the Eastern Seaboard.

I bet if they'd kept you on board, you'd have asked all sorts of irrelevant questions, like what kind of idiot tries to get to Boston when New York has been leveled by aliens? Who gets on a ferry when there are three alien tripods in sight and they're systematically torching every vehicle on the ground? In fact, who gets anywhere near a crowd of people when there are aliens killing crowds of people? And you probably would have objected when the son who bravely if foolishly goes over the top to watch the Army fight the tripods, and who is presumed dead when the Army is torched in a massive explosion by the devastating aliens, inexplicably shows up in Boston. In the one building which hasn't been destroyed, which, of course, is the ex-wife's parents' house.

Come on, Josh. Admit it. If they'd stuck with your script, it probably would have made for an entirely different movie. One in which it would have mattered whether you saw it in English or, say, Basque. As opposed to Koepp's script, which is an exercise in pure cinema, equally suitable for watching in any language, whether you can speak it or not -- almost a silent film with music.

Admit it, Josh. Your script might have made a good movie. (I don't know. Maybe you can blog about it.) And what I saw was in no way a good movie. Just a hell of a spectacle.

Though to be honest, considering how odd the choices are in Koepp's script, I wonder how much input he had in the story... In my experience directors often go for what would look cool over what's the best story, just as actors will go for the Big Acting Scene over, again, the story. The script seems like an accumulation of Cool Scenes strung together by not enough story logic. (As one reader points out: what do the aliens want??)

Ah, well.

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Monday, August 29, 2005

I've been working on Medieval today. It's like pulling teeth. Wanting to know what's happened to my father-in-law's house is sort of a distraction, but I've been working my way up to an assault on a castle, and there are all sorts of character things that are happening that want to be just so, and in just such an order, and I'm sort of avoiding launching the assault itself because I hate to write action. I have to remind myself that speed is not in itself a goal, and though I've only managed about a page so far, there have been days where eight pages came easy... anyway, I've moved a lot of stuff around and it's better. So I'm not dithering, I'm working...

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

A Force 5 hurricane is set to slam into New Orleans tomorrow, possibly overwhelming the city's levee system and submerging the city under 18-25 feet of water. The storm was a category 3 storm but abnormally high temperatures over the Gulf of Mexico have allowed it to suck up extra force on its trip from Florida to Louisiana. The Louisiana National Guard has only 1500 men available to help with the disaster, as most of it is in Iraq.
Only three hurricanes of this strength have ever hit land in the United States since the category was recorded: the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, Hurricane Camille in 1969, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the hurricane center said. -- The New York Times
Like most natural disasters, this one has a few human elements. Although Republicans like to pretend that global warming doesn't exist, glaciers and permafrost in Alaska are melting. Anybody want to guess why the Gulf is particularly hot these days?

Meanwhile, Louisiana has been cutting holes in its barrier islands -- the ones that normally block storm surges -- to make it easier for oil tankers.

Louisiana has also been draining its wetlands -- which normally serve to soak up floods.

Then, there's the fact that New Orleans itself has been built below sea level. You can get away with that in Holland, where the sea is always nasty but never crazy. But in hurricane alley? That's like building a shingled roof in the Santa Monica Mountains (which is illegal). Or building without a storm cellar in Kansas. You're asking for trouble.

Katrina hitting New Orleans is shaping up to be a massive human disaster. People are going to die and much of the city is going to be uninhabitable. That's awful. My father-in-law is evacuating his house, which he may lose, so it's personal. But it's not an accident, anymore than was the Mississippi flooding of a few years ago, which had a lot to do with, again, draining wetlands and building in the flood plain itself.

We're arrogant and reckless. Nature is slapping us down, and it's going to hurt.

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Arlieth Tralare has created a nifty little 2 second Global Frequency mp3 ringtone. Alas my phone only goes polyphonic. Ah well.

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Saturday, August 27, 2005

Every now and then I'm in a story meeting with a non-writer with more authority than I, and we flat out disagree. I argue, I persuade, and they're just stuck on something I see as a fool-headed notion that will crap up the series or the movie. Sometimes I resort to the Writer Bomb.

What is that, you ask? Is that when you propose quitting?

No, only a fool offers to quit. If you're not seeing eye to eye with people, they may actually want you to quit. However, in most cases, I like the people and they like me, we just don't agree. And they're in charge.

I say, "Okay, look. I don't think that works all. But I'll write it that way if that's what you want. But I don't think it works."

Surprisingly often, this gives the other creative (actor, producer, director, exec) pause. Surprisingly often, when they've not been listening to my arguments, this makes them listen. If they're worth their salt, it does. Because it reminds them who's responsible for a bad decision. Not me. Unless you're the showrunner of a tv show or the director of a movie, your job is to offer your opinion and then go with other people's decision. Your job is to make their lives easier, not to write the best script. When you remind people that it's their responsibility, they often start to act more responsibly.

Also, it makes them feel good to be reminded that theirs is the power. No one can be offended when you offer to do what they're asking. But you're not obliged to agree that it's a good idea, whatever it is. In fact, it's your responsibility to say when it isn't a good idea.

Another way to put this is, "Look, it's your money." Which means (a) you're paying me and (b) it's your money to lose when you don't listen to the pro writer you've hired.

In the right situation, the Writer Bomb can be powerful. Use it only for good, never for evil. And use it cheerily, not resentfully. In fact, the cheerier you are when you offer to do their bidding, the more it unnerves them...

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Friday, August 26, 2005

According to Playback, the CBC may be making $1 million a day by keeping its employees locked out, so long as the government continues to fully fund it. (The CBC is 2/3 funded by the Canadian Government.) Not much of an incentive to settle, is there, Denis?

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If you've ever felt a bit jowly in a photo, this site should explain why ... it shows glamour photos before and after retouching.

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If you want to know about the dark underside of Hollywood, one place to start is Assistant/Atlas, who's a young guy working as an assistant in LA. For example, in this recent post he discusses the various kinds of assistants you can be when you get off the turnip truck in Hollywood. (As personified by members of the cast of Entourage, but that's because he has too much time on his hands.) Particularly interesting are the first four months or so of archives, when he's working for an evil boss. While his writing is acidly clever, it is also illuminating to know what kind of short-tempered greedy maniacs your scripts are going to if you're lucky.

I reiterate my theory that the best first job for a screenwriter is agent's assistant... (though technically to get to be an agent's assistant you have to slave in the mailroom for a time determined primarily by your ability to connive your way out of it).

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

1. Staff Writer
2. Story Editor
3. Executive Story Editor
4. Co-Producer
5. Producer
6. Co-Executive Producer
7. Executive Producer
8. Executive Producer/Show Runner
A staff writer is essentially a free lancer who works in the office. He's paid a weekly rate against his script fee; that is, he gets the greater of his script fee(s) and his weekly salary. He only works on his own scripts.

A story editor / exec story editor / co-producer / producer etc. works on her own scripts and other people's scripts (especially free lancer's). She's in the room when the staff break story. The various titles are, so far as I know, just an indication of seniority / rank / pecking order / salary expectations, not qualitatively different jobs.

A showrunner is the person in charge of all aspects of the show creatively. Akin to the position of a director on a movie. Hires and fires writers, directors, editors, etc. Responsible for the vision of the show. Often the creator. The showrunner gets a title of Exec Producer (showrunner is a job description, not a title), but the title is not exclusive. Aaron Sorkin was the showrunner on Seasons 1-4 of The West Wing but Tommy Schlamme and John Wells (who's now the showrunner) also got EP credits.

There's an informal title of Head Writer, which indicates the highest ranked writer below the showrunner. A Head Writer runs the writing room when the showrunner isn't around. A Head Writer could get a Co-Exec or Supervising Producer credit.

On Canadian shows a showrunner sometimes gets a Supervising Producer credit, not an ExPr credit. As Head Writer on CJ, I got an Exec Story Editor credit, but then, we only had a staff of four (two story editors and a staff writer)!

I would hesitate to state salary ranges since they depend on the budget of the show. You can see the minimums on the WGA website, but no one above a junior story editor is getting the minimum.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Just came by way of Asst. Atlas' blog. Two quick questions:

1) Of the two spec scripts a writer should present when seeking an agent, can one be an original pilot?

2) Do you happen to know if Entourage is a good show to spec nowadays?
One can be a spec pilot, but your odds of impressing the hell out of people with two straight kickass spec episodes are much better. It is freakin' hard to write a brilliant pilot. When I read a spec Alias, I'm thinking about Jennifer Garner in a tight dress. When I read your spec pilot (call it AKA), I don't know who's in the tight dress. Jennifer Tilly? Roseanne Barr? You see the problem. In a spec episode you're writing for known characters. A loosely written line of dialog will still get the actor's usual treatment. In a spec pilot you have to create the characters. A loosely written line of dialog will come off flat.

My guess is Entourage is an excellent spec right now. It's not too tightly serialized, so you can slip an episode into the chronology. And there is probably no one in L.A. who hasn't seen at least one episode. Most agents will have watched all the episodes. So go for it.

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I'm working on a glossary for the book. Your comments are solicited.

A story: the most important story in an multi-story episode, which takes up the most screen time

act out: a cliffhanger or emotional whammy that happens just before the show cuts to a commercial, so the audience will stay tuned in to the show

act: everything between two commercials

action: everything that happens that isn't people talking

attractive fantasy: a life situation which the star of a series finds him or herself in that we'd like to be in. Part of the template. (I think I made this term up.)

B story: the second most important story in an episode, which takes up a medium amount of screen time

backstory: a character's personal history before the episode or series begins its onscreen chronology

beat sheet: the whole story of an episode told beat by beat, in order

beat: a unit of storytelling, in which one significant thing happens

bible: a document that theoretically tells you everything you need to know about the show in order to write it, and realistically almost never does

bit: a series of related jokes

blacks: the action description. So called because it makes big chunks of black text on the page, while dialog is nice and sparse.

bottle show: an episode that takes place in a physically restricted set, or on the standing sets, using a limited cast, usually just the series regulars

breakdown: a brief sketch of the episode's stories, showing acts and act outs, teaser and tag.

breaking story: finding the acts and act outs in a story, often done in the room by the writing staff

breaking the frame: drawing attention to the fact that the events are taking place on a tv show, not in real life

bumping: being annoyed by a plothole. "I'm bumping on how they got the jetcopter." "That's what you’re bumping on???"

button: a particularly neat bit of dialog that ends a scene sharply

C story: the third most important story in an episode, which takes little screen time

callback: dialog that echoes earlier dialog, often twisting its meaning into something new

character-based: a drama in which the stories arise primarily from conflicts between the characters. All comedies are character based.

civilian: someone who does not work in show business

clip show: an episode that relies on lots of footage from previous episodes. Used to save money or, more often, time. Naughty, naughty, naughty.

comedy: any series that is supposed to be consistently funny, whether it is or not

comic drama: a genre in which the story structure and stakes are dramatic but the situations and dialog may be played for laughs. Usually single camera.

core cast: the characters who are supposed to be in every episode

couplet: two lines of dialog in a row, in which one character's line neatly answers the previous line. "How do you sleep at night?" "I don't."

demographics: what sort of folks watch the show

dopplering: the sound of an offscreen car going by

drama: anything that isn't comedy or reality. Not to be confused with drama, which is what happens when two people come into physical or emotional or moral conflict, or drama, the genre about emotional angstiness.

dramedy: a comic drama. No one uses this term seriously any more, so just forget it.

echo: a line we've heard before in the episode

ep: an episode. No one can be bothered to write the word "episode" over and over again.

episodic: a show in which nothing that happens on one episode significantly impacts later episodes

expo: exposition, that is, when a character explains stuff the audience needs to know. "So how does this machine work, exactly?"

going to pages: writing the script

gilding the matzah: belaboring a joke to where it's not funny any more. See "German comedians."

Guild: the Writer's Guild of America or the Writer's Guild of Canada. Your first line of defense against producers messing with your check or credit. (Nothing protects you against their messing with your story.)

handwaving: story description that sounds good in a beat sheet or treatment but leaves major story issues unresolved that will cause pain to whatever poor bastard actually has to write the pages

hang a lantern on: to draw attention to a story element so the audience doesn't miss it; also called "hanging a sign on"

hook: a series premise that makes people want to tune in to watch at least one episode

Joss: the dark god of writers. Black lambs are slaughtered to him at the new moon.

laying pipe: giving technical information now so we'll know it later when a story point turns on it

like-a-joke: a comic bit that has the rhythms of a joke, and is followed by laughter on the sound track, but is not actually funny.

negative fantasy: a life situation which the star of a series lives in that we're glad we're not in. Part of the template.

on the nose: dialog that says exactly what the character means. Usually pejorative.

pages: the script

plothole: logical flaws in the story

point of view character: a character through whose perspective the story is told, whether the hero or not

premise pilot: a pilot episode that shows how the core cast first get together or the basic situation first arose

procedural: a drama in which external events provide the stories. Medical, law and police shows are typical procedurals.

pushing: giving the audience story faster than they can absorb

reality show: a show that pretends not to have a script, in order to avoid paying the writer scale. The WGA is addressing this issue.

recurring cast: characters who reappear in the series without being core

runner: a recurring bit of action, like a running gag, not necessarily containing all the elements of a story, and therefore not a C or D story.

scale: the minimum payment allowed for a piece of writing under a Guild contract.

schmuck bait: a promised story turn that only a schmuck would believe will ever actually happen, like the hero dying (or in a science fiction show, the hero dying permanently)

script timing: the process of estimating how long an episode will play on screen

serial: a show in which the plot develops from episode to episode; compare episodic

series regulars: the actors who are contracted by season rather than by episode; compare core cast

serving a character: giving a character something to do in an episode

shoe leather: scene material that exists purely to fill in a plothole

showrunner: the person responsible for all creative aspects of the show, and responsible only to the network (and production company, if it's not his production company). The boss. Usually a writer.

sitcom: a half hour comedy, often three camera, usually one that tries to provide three laughs a minute, which exists solely for the sake of the humor

soap: a character-based drama with a serial plot line. Not necessarily an actual daytime soap opera.

spec pilot: a sample episode of a nonexistent show, written either to showcase your originality, or actually to sell the show to a network.

spec script: an episode of an existing show written to showcase your writing skills and get you a job, not intended to actually be sold or produced

springboard: an episode idea in a nutshell

staffing season: the annual cycle in which shows are optioned, pilots are shot, shows are funded and writing staffs are hired

standing sets: studio sets that stay up all season. Cheap to shoot in. Scenes that take place on standing sets make production managers happy.

subtitles for the nuance impaired: prose inserted into a treatment or script to make sure the reader gets the point. Only considered cheating if the audience couldn't possibly get the point, either. The difference between the reader not getting it and the audience not getting it can be explained by referring to the terms directing, acting, cinematography, editing and music.

tag: the scene or scenes that appear after the last commercial, to tie up any loose ends or, alternately, to untie one loose end so the story can continue next week

taking the curse off: making a story point not feel like a cliche without changing the story point itself

teaser: the scene or scenes that appear before the titles and the first commercial, to "tease" the audience into watching the episode. Normally sets up the episode story but doesn’t have to

telegraphing: giving the audience too heavy a hint where the story will go

template: the deep structure of a tv show. What every episode in the series must do.

templing: when a character puts his fingers together thoughtfully, forming a temple

the long term: next season

three-camera: series shot on a sound stage with three cameras constantly recording the action. Three-camera series are often shot in two performances on a single day. Opposed to single-camera.

tracking: following a character's personal story line to make sure it makes sense by itself. "Josh's story doesn't track."

treatment: a beat sheet expanded and polished for delivery to people who haven't heard the verbal pitch, such as network executives. Often contains subtitles for the nuance impaired

two hander: a scene between two people. Production managers love these

writer: a godlike man or woman, worthy of worship and offers of marriage, fantastic in bed, forgivable in all his or her faults.

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It turns out that in Canada, you can make a reasonable living as a person of letters, if you pay close attention to the grant structure of the Canada Council of the Arts. Lisa and I were pleased to discover that, as English-speakers in Quebec, we are considered minority writers...

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As part of the Republican Party's continuing war on free speech in the United States, I just discovered United States Code, Title 18, Section 2257, which apparently states that all models, actors, actresses and other persons who appear in any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct appearing or otherwise contained in a website, magazine, etc., must not only be over the age of 18 at the time of creation of the depictions, but the site or magazine, etc. is responsible for keeping records of same.

Which means that anyone who puts up a naughty image for which they do not personally have the paperwork from the model is now breaking the law.

You can argue this is a backdoor victory against the piracy of pornographic images, since only the original creators of naughty images will have the paperwork. But (under the guise of preventing child pornography) this is clearly a wholesale assault on Internet porn. It also seemsto me to be a fairly blatant violation of the First Amendment, since it constitutes prior restraint. It requires anyone making or disseminating a sexually explicit photography to prove that their image is not breaking child pornography laws.

Granted I won't be heartbroken if there is less Internet porn, not to mention less Internet image piracy. And Lord knows I sympathize with anyone who wants to stop child pornography. It is hard to go after its creators, who could be in Russia or who knows where. This at least allows you to stop people from making money from exploiting children, which reduces the incentive to do it.

But the case sets a precedent. If you can make a law that says I have to prove my sexually explicit image doesn't violate child pornography laws, why can't you next make a law that says I have to prove that my political speech is not an incitement to riot? Or, say, a law that says that I have to prove that my secret tobacco company documents were legally obtained? Or that I have to prove that I have the right to publish the Pentagon Papers?

That's why the doctrine of no prior restraint exists. Let people make the speech, and then we'll see whether it violates laws or not.

I have no idea if the ACLU or anyone else will challenge this law in the increasingly right wing courts. I hope they do. And if the question of "original intent" of the Founders come up, I hope the courts will remember Thomas Jefferson's inflammatory statement, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

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The drafters of the Iraqi constitution are enshrining Islam as a "fundamental source" of law. It is the one thing that the constitution is fairly clear on. In other words, we are now fighting to install sharia law in Iraq.

My professor of Greek History, Donald Kagan, said the Athenian mistake in the Pelopennesian War, which destroyed the Athenian Empire, was that they did not go into the war with an idea of what victory would look like, and therefore had no way of ending the war even if they had fought it successfully -- which at a few points, they did.

The given reason for this war was Saddam's imaginary WMD's (which, to be fair, he was doing his level best to insinuate he had). The next reason given was to promote "freedom." Now we're fighting so that the 1,700 dead men and women shall not have died in vain, which is circular reasoning at best.

But the main issue I now have is: even assuming the insurgency really was in its "death throes," what exactly are we fighting to achieve? An Islamic republic dominated by the Shiites? I don't buy that Iraqi Shiites will be under the thumb of Iran's Shiites -- the Persians and the Arabs don't speak the same language either literally or figuratively -- but how does it help us to have an Islamic republic in Iraq? How is that better than what would likely happen if we left. Iraq would quickly splinter into three countries, a Shia theocracy in Basra, a largely secular Kurdish republic in Kirkuk, and a secular and probably dictatorial, impoverished, oil-less, bitter Sunni rump state in Baghdad.

How would that be worse?

At least when we fought in Vietnam, we knew what we were fighting for: stop Communism in South Vietnam. What are we fighting for in Iraq?

For the first time, I'm starting to think we should just get out.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

... er, Vermont.

We stayed at the spectacular ridgetop house of a friend, wandered the gardens, ate fresh blueberries, and watched the Pikapie playing in the lawn. Fun.

Driving back through Vermont was a frustration and a half. Foolishly we took the scenic route, little realizing that for city people accustomed to freeways, driving anything less than the main freeway is bound to make you rethink not buying a Hummer so you could offroad through people's backyards when the actual road slows down to 20 mph. Vermont, unlike Ireland, has perfectly good roads. But they rate them at speeds New Yorkers use for their driveways. And Vermonters obey the speed limits. Obviously they are mellower than I.

Vermont feels a bit like a made-up state. It is a state full of artisanale cheeses, apples and maple syrup. The giant sucking sound you hear is all the antiques for 500 miles around being Hoovered up by the antique stores of Vermont, which are more plentiful than espresso shacks in Seattle. Ironically, Quebec is known for ... artisanale cheeses, apples and maple syrup. So we did not go on a tasting spree. Vermont seems like an excellent place to live if you are an aging hippie with money. A hundred years ago it was 80% farms and 20% woods (the mountains, basically); now the reverse is true. And the 20% of farms feel to be mostly gentlemen farmers who want to love the soil and get to know each of their cows.

I don't think we're quite fit to live in the country. Give us a nice resort town like East Hampton, where your major worry isn't what to do, it's whether you have time to go to the M's cocktail party before you hit F's dinner party, or whether R will be offended if you only drop in for dessert. A place where you can get some work done.

It's nice to be home... and back to work.

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Monday, August 22, 2005

I'm sitting in the living room of my friend Nikki's parents' house on the top of a hill in Southern Vermont. The clouds are not far above us; yesterday evening we were in them. This morning fog was drifting in and out of the gentle curves of the hills, giving the impression of a Chinese brush painting. The landscape is so quiet you hear everything, every breeze through the trees, every breath the dog takes as he's sleeping on the rug. It is immensely peaceful. I'm not a particularly peaceful person, and I'm unused to quiet. I have to slow myself down for a place like this, but if ever there was a place to slow down, this would be it.

I've decided I'm on vacation, so I'm not revving myself up to plunge back into my current screenplay. But I may not be able to stop myself from editing my book a bit. I have notes from a friend, and I don't feel quite at ease with myself if I don't write a little in a day. It's like a muscle that feels itchy if it's not stretched and exercised. I don't quite get people who have trouble sitting down to write. I'm most at peace with myself when I have a few hours to sit and write. I'll walk in the woods, but that is as much an opportunity to limber up my brain and think new thoughts that will go down in words at some point.

For the Pikapie and the dog, of course, this is a wonderland. Probably most of all for the dog; for the Pikapie, pretty much everything is a wonderland. For the dog it is fresh smells and a chance to roam off leash. He was galloping joyously about the lawn this morning,barely missing bowling her over. I wonder what he knows about all these smells. He can't see very well with all that hair in his face -- if I throw a bone into the grass it takes him mad perambulations to find it -- but he has a deep inexpressible wisdom in his thick head.

On this property are some fabulous dry stone structures by waller Dan Snow. There's a drystone yurt, and a raised bed garden, and a sphere, and a curving wall, and a straight wall. In the rain and air and seasons they have aged magically. He has a feel for the bones of the earth. If I had land, I would want things made of dry stone on it.

We picked blueberries for our breakfast off bushes that were as blue as they were green.

I can't remember when last I was at a place so quiet that there are seconds where there seems to be nothing at all to hear.

I am at peace with the world today.

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Friday, August 19, 2005

I am done with this current gig, though I let them know they could call on me later if they needed me. So I'm off to Vermont for some serious R&R with Jesse's godmother...

It's always a little sad to be done with a show. I have a screenplay to throw myself into -- I was in mid-Medieval when I came on board -- but I'm going to miss the office and the people. Production people are great, very level headed sensible people, friendly and bright. It's nice to meet new people and be part of a temporary family, even if you have a wonderful small family of your own.

But it will be nice to get back to my own stuff, and Lord knows I've got enough of that ... and it's nice to have a bit of August left to enjoy!

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

I will be going to it Sept. 9-13, so if anyone wants to (a) recommend a great movie I shouldn't miss (b) invite me to a great party (c) look for me at the barbecue, now you know.

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As you may recall, UPS tried to charge me customs of $57.00 on a shipment worth $85 weighing a couple of ounces, which is not liable for duty. About $12 of that is VAT, the rest is one b.s. charge or another.

Amazingly, since I refused the shipment, they are now planning to charge the shipper, who is getting his own merchandise back. Otherwise they will destroy the shipment. Thus making it impossible to get the shipment resent to New York, say.

Please, everybody, DO NOT USE UPS. They are greedy, greedy, greedy. Use the Post Office or Fedex.

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Josh Friedman has started a blog with the touching title I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing, thus proving he is as big a geek as the rest of us. In this post he relates his experience writing War of the Worlds and then having the studio try to give all the credit to David Koepp. Interesting stuff.

And thank you, Josh, for mentioning John August and John Rogers by name, and referring to me as "some Canadians" ...

Via comics writer Justin Gray's You Will Be Judged, which bears more examination...

And now, off to meet a very nice lady who's working on a documentary about the giant bugs of the, I think, Devonian...

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Laurence Ross asks if I sent the novel in via an agent.

Yes, thank goodness. And it took some doing. The book business is like the show business, except on super-slo-mo. Everything happens slower. But the same rules apply. Books that come unagented may get read, but they will get read last, by the lowest person on the totem pole. That person is unlikely to pick books that will also appeal to people who actually know the business. It is very hard for a book to get off the "slush pile" of unagented manuscripts. Every now and then it happens, and you have Stephen King and, I think, Gone with the Wind. But it's rare.

An agent validates your book. Having an agent says that at least one professional thought your book was good enough to put her name on it -- if she sends bad books, they'll stop reading her submissions.

In the case of nonfiction, your agent goes further than this. My terrific nonfiction agent, Betsy Amster, has been instrumental in explaining what a book proposal should look like, and refining my book proposals (and Lisa's) to the point where we've been able to get bidding wars. Bidding wars are happy things for the author.

And, of course, agents help you negotiate your deal. They know what the book is worth, and what the publisher ought to be willing to give you, and what the publisher will never give you. They will ask what the traffic will bear, but not too much.

The downside to novels is they rarely make real money. I get paid more in two weeks on a show than I'm likely to get if I sell my novel, which took me, off and on, years. The upside is you can say anything you like in a novel. You want five thousand screaming woad-smeared warriors, there they are. That's fun. You can freeze a moment and pick it apart for a whole chapter. You can discuss vast movements of people and ideas. The novel is probably the most flexible medium there is. My story about the childhood of Morgan le Fay would be all but impossible to shoot, even assuming anyone wanted to. I'm not even sure it would make a graphic novel. So I had to write the novel, because the story was nagging at me...

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

My poor novel is heading off to Canadian publishers this month. I dearly hope it gets picked up. It's not something I'd write if I were writing a novel now. (It's the childhood of Morgan le Fay, King Arthur's half sister, whose vengeance enables her to survive exile and slavery, and gives her magical talent tremendous force, but prevents her from accepting grace.) But it's got a lot of me in it, and I think some people would think it was really cool. Just a question of finding them and getting it into their hands.

Funny, but I find it harder to give up on the novel than on the score or so screenplays I've written that no longer represent my best work. I almost never send out old spec features. But I don't think the novel is poorly made. It says what I wanted it to say at the time. It tells the story I wanted to tell. It's just caught between two genres, too literary for genre, too genre for literary. Anyway, I'm not asking for someone to front millions to produce it, as I am when I send out a spec feature. I'm asking for a publisher to front maybe five thousand bucks in production costs.

We'll see what the market says... if this doesn't work I'm just going to self publish at Lulu or iUniverse, 'cause I just can't bear to see the poor thing sitting in the dark...

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I like to write terse dialog. When it actually gets to the screen as written, I've noticed it plays really well. If you take out all the times characters say "Well" and "look" and "listen," the actors have to put all the emotion into the line itself, which makes for really effective scenes. I try to trim everything down so that every sentence says something new.

I also try to make my dialog skip ahead a bit. When people talk, they don't play catch, they play tennis. They don't acknowledge what the other person said and then respond, they just respond. There's a leap between Joe's line and Jane's line. People head each other off, they see where the conversation is going and they respond to that rather than to what's just been said. (This gets us into trouble in real life, but dialog isn't supposed to be more well adjusted than real life, it's supposed to be dramatic.)

The problem with this kind of dialog is it's hard to read. You have to read it actively, putting the emotion of the moment into every line. Otherwise it reads a little flat and choppy.

It's a conundrum. If it's your show, you can write how you like and insist the actors work with the lines they have. If it's not, you have to find a way of selling the lines on the page, or hope you're dealing with readers who are willing to invest the lines with heart and soul and not just skim them.

Obviously this is no excuse for actually writing flat and choppy dialog. You had better make sure your lines are so distinctive that any good actor can find the heart and soul in them. You'd better make sure the logical leaps are there to find.

I find I'm backing off from the notion that you shouldn't use parentheticals. I often put scene moments in the action, rather than the parentheticals, because if it's that important, it deserves its own line. But there's such a thing as being too Puritanical in your dialog. If you don't direct the actors at all on the page, readers may not get where the scene is going. And if the actors hate your scene directions, they can always cross them out later.

One of the most fun experiences I've had on shows is hearing actors read the lines out loud for the first time. Sometimes you can arrange meetings, sometimes you have to wait for the audition tapes, sometimes you have to wait for dailies. You doubt a scene until you hear it read out loud. If it works, you get a little thrill: yes! Beautiful!

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The new Bibliothèque National has yards of graphic novels, so I'm reading Hellblazer and The Preacher, comix which I've dipped into from time to time, but rarely bought, because comix are an expensive habit. Ten dollars worth of comix go by in about an hour at the pace I read. Which is probably too fast. I always want to know how things turn out. I'm sure that the point of the graphic novel medium is to luxuriate in the artwork, because otherwise why would you need the artwork at all?

To be honest I generally try to avoid buying books, either. I just read them too fast, and I rarely reread them, so what is the point of having them on the shelves? Bearing in mind that Lisa and I already have six tall bookshelves packed with books we might possibly need again at some point, like dictionaries and John Brunner novels, plus more books in boxes in my parents' house. And while I could no doubt afford more books, we don't have walls for more shelves.

Besides, buying books seems so, well, 20th Century. Circulating them is where it's at.

I have tried to learn to read more slowly, along the way to generally enjoying life in the moment more, and not trying to hasten on to the end, which is, after all, the end. But old habits die hard. I read a feature screenplay in about twenty minutes.

I guess that's one thing I like about the dramatic arts. I don't fast forward through the plots. I'm forced to appreciate the story at the intended pace. (Though my DVD player has a nifty 1.2x speed setting that keeps dialog perfectly clear.)

I've noticed, though, that quite a few writers I respect are graphic novel fans. Joss Whedon talks about how he has to send his assistant to Golden Apple when he's too busy ("how lame is that?" quoth the Joss). John Rogers, obviously. Kevin Smith, who bought hisself a comic store after he scored his f***-you money early on. And then there are story tellers out of comics, like Neil Gaiman and, I am told, director JP Jeunet.

I wonder how fast they read their comics?

I wonder what they're reading, and why?

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Monday, August 15, 2005

Just watched Charlie Jade #19. We brought it home on that one. Wow. A hell of an episode. The actors knew who they were. Particularly fine work by Marie-Julie Rivest, in addition to all the regularly superb actors. Michelle Burgess was incredibly, Rolanda Marais was superb, David Dennis was brilliant, and the usually terrific core cast were better than they'd ever been. This episode, with the shockingly good Eric Canuel directing, really went to town on Bob's vision, and Bob and Simon's editing made it magic. You'll see my name on the script, but like every other script this involved the whole group, starting with the story we all broke together. I make a point of not remembering who did what but there are some brilliant DMc lines in there, I just can't remember which ones...

Sorry to kvell like this, but I'm feeling good. Thank the Goddess I got that call to go to Cape Town... and bless you, Robin Spry, for sending me down there.

I can't wait to see #20... I haven't seen a scrap of footage on that one.

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Thanks to writergurl for catching many typoes in my TV FAQ. I hope the ideas are still valid -- I haven't looked at it since September. But it's all going to have to come down anyway when the book comes out, so read it while it's up there...

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Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Times has published all 503 interviews with firefighters, EMTs and paramedics conducted after 9/11. Compelling reading. It takes a special kind of person to see a tower burning and run towards it looking to save people.

And yet the professionals weren't the only people who behaved in an extraordinary way. Most people when faced with extraordinary circumstances will rise to the occasion. Perhaps our problem as a society is we are so rarely faced with extraordinary circumstances, except in canned situations like sports and weddings.

I guess that's what we rely on movies and tv for: to give us examples of how people behave in extraordinary circumstances, to help us rehearse them in our minds, whether they're negative examples or positive ones...

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I hear that NBC is looking for spec series script so I want to try TV writing from film writing. But the screenwriting formatter that I use is for film so now I need something for TV. Your FAQ recommends the Final Draft software but isn't that for feature films? I noticed that your TV spec sheet sample that everything is not centered as in film writing so evidently the format is different from one medium to the other.
A couple of misconceptions here. One, character names are not necessarily centered in feature screenplays. Standard format has character names indented a bit from parentheticals, which are indented a bit from dialog.

Two, except for sitcom format, tv scripts are formatted much the same as feature scripts. There's a page break after each act out, but the margins and spacing are the same.

Three, moving from feature writing to tv writing is a huge endeavor. You have to know at least twice as much to write tv as to write movies. I have a FAQ about this, and a forthcoming book.

Four, "NBC is looking for specs" means they are asking for established writers to send them spec pilots. They are never looking for spec pilots from inexperienced writers. You get into TV by writing spec scripts of established series, but all networks look at represented spec scripts every year, not just NBC. (For that matter, they look at spec pilots from established writers every year, too. I don't know why NBC felt it had to put out the word.) I've blogged on the tv season here and there, and so have other people.

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Friday, August 12, 2005

If you haven't already, read Writing for Episodic TV online. This dandy little manual is a brief overview of how to work as a writer in the tv biz, put together by a group of veteran showrunners. It's neither in-depth nor exhaustive, but for a free mini-book, it's definitely worth the read.

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Rumor has it that Roger Spottiswoode is finally getting his adaptation of The Spire by William Golding off the ground. I hope so. His screenplay is one of the best unproduced screenplays I've read, along with Ehren Kruger's dragon story Mythic and Barry Schneider's epic prison escape The Sailmaker.

One of the frustrating things about working in development is you sometimes read marvelous things that you don't have the wherewithal to get off the ground. I got Ehren Kruger's script optioned, and Barry Schneider's too, at different companies, but so far as I know the movies are still in development hell...

Speaking of which, I just noticed that Kruger won the Nicholls for Arlington Road, subsequently starring Tim Robbins and Jeff Bridges. Thus confirming my belief that the Nicholls is a real contest, while others are not.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Jason S sends me this link to an article in which producers Laurie MacDonald and Walter Parkes discuss why The Island flopped. Basically, it's because they had to give away the twist to sell the movie. And once you know the twist, there's no particular reason to see the movie except, I suppose, that Scarlett Johansson is hot, and Michael Bay knows how to blow stuff up real good. They also blame their stars and the title, which some people take as poor sportsmanship, except of course that they are responsible for both, so they're really blaming themselves.

A twist is not a hook, because you can't tell anyone before they see the movie. The hook to The Sixth Sense was the kid who sees dead people. The twist was, well, you know. Twists are good. Twists are fine. But you still must have a hook.

UPDATE: Bill Cunningham writes in with this link to a Variety article about how an 1979 film by UCLA film professor Myrl Schreibman (whose class I never took, by the way) bears startling similarities. Except for the budget, that is! Wonder how the lawsuit will go...

Moral of the story? If your plot twists feel familiar, maybe that's not just because they're trite and hackneyed. Maybe you actually saw them on late night TV! If you come up with fresh and original stuff, you won't get sued!

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I've been renting more Northern Exposures. The series has a real indie feel, and it fools around with its template. There are episodes where Joel, the lead, doesn't have his own story, he's just a character in other characters' stories. You often see what would be obvious setups in another show, but which (because the show is trying for something more like real life) don't necessarily pay off. E.g. in a standard tv plot, if Joel tells a lie in Act One, he'll get caught in it in Act Three and have to straighten it out in Act Four. In NX, he might tell a lie that has no consequences, and is only there to reveal his character. Nice.

I like NX. I'm glad it's out on DVD.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Someone sent me a package via UPS, and once again they tacked on a $50 customs clearance fee.

Please, if you're sending a package across the US/Canadian border, don't use UPS. Fedex doesn't charge for customs clearance; neither does the post office. UPS is just greedy.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Every now and then I read a screenplay that's a bit weak in the hook department. Another way of telling what the hook for a movie is: what's the poster? What's the catchy slogan, what's the graphic?

If you can't come up with a basic poster idea that could sell the movie, you may not actually have a movie.

Granted, many posters aren't very interesting, they're just the two stars looking serious or happy or whatever. But then there's a catchy slogan that sums it up for you. Predator 2 wasn't that much of a movie, but I loved the slogan: "He's in town with a few days to kill."

Someone coined the expression "like-a-joke" to describe filler jokes in sitcoms that somehow never get replaced by real jokes. They have the timing of jokes: setup, punchline. The laughtrack tells you it's a joke. But it is not, actually, funny.

Some of the screenplays I read are sort of "like-a-movies." They resemble movies in that they have characters, locations, action and dialog. But they're missing any reason for anyone to go see them. Since the point of a movie is for people to go see it, that makes these not-quite-movies.

Samuel Arkoff used to take the posters to his buyers. If they bought the movie based on the poster, he hired someone to figure out what that movie should be, and write the script. Otherwise, he didn't even bother commissioning a script. (This got him in trouble when he made The Beast With 1,000,000 Eyes! and forgot to put in anything with a million eyes, but read his autobiography, Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants: From the Man Who Brought You I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Music Beach Party, for that story.) A lot of blockbusters seem to start this way: concept, director, stars, greenlight, then script. Which doesn't leave much time for a good script. But that's also another story.

What's the poster for your movie? Can you come up with anything better than a couple of stars in closeup? Why not?

What's the slogan? What can you say in a sentence or two that draws us to see your movie?

Now granted, I suspect more people go to see movies based on trailers than based on posters. And often the poster doesn't need to do more than tell you Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are in yet another romantic comedy. But it's still a worthwhile exercise. If it helps you crystallize the goods your screenplay needs to deliver, then you're a step ahead...

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Monday, August 08, 2005

And here's another chap fired for blogging about work -- ironically this time from a bookstore. Waterstone's in Edinburgh fired an employee of eleven years because he occasionally griped about having a bad day at work and made jokes about people "escaping" from his workplace. (He has since got another, much better job.)

Interesting to watch the power of the Internet. If you gripe at your local pub, no one questions it. But the Net stores every word written on it (unless you have a META tag asking ROBOTS to NOARCHIVE ). And sooner or later you'll get in trouble with the Powers that Be. If you're going to blog about what you do for a living you better be pretty careful not to write anything that could conceivably offend anyone. Hell, you can piss people off by saying nice things about them behind their back.

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A while ago, a friend of mine spent some time brainstorming story ideas for a tv series for a production company. They paid him, but he's not sure if they guaranteed him a script.

First of all, if you're not sure, they likely didn't guarantee you anything, unless your agent is pretty sharp. (Agents are supposed to be sharp. But they're usually only on the top of their game if you follow up. They know agenting, but you know the specifics of your meetings with the producers. Leave the actual negotations to your agent, but keep your agent educated about what's going on.)

Second, assuming you're a bona fide professional tv writer, you should never brainstorm episode ideas unless you're guaranteed a script. If you're a good enough writer to come up with ideas, you're good enough to write a script. There was apparently some weasel language about "subject to network approval." Considering you'll be rewritten by the showrunner or head writer anyway, it shouldn't matter whether the network approves you.

This is not true if you're an assistant who wants to break in -- then you're lucky if they want you in the brainstorming session and you should give it your all.

It's also not true if you're doing this for a friend who's a showrunner. They'll probably give you a script anyway, and insisting on it contractually might hurt the relationship.

But otherwise -- your ideas are valuable, and you should get paid in scripts.

My friend wasn't sure he wanted to write for this particular show, hence his diffidence. But WGC scale for an hour show is worth minimum twelve thousand bucks a script, after production bonus. And free lancers only have to turn in two drafts and a polish. So it's almost always worth it to get the script and do the two drafts.

The hard part is getting the work. Doing the work is just the fun part.

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Sunday, August 07, 2005

My first book Crafty Screenwriting gets a very nice review at The Artful Writer, and lest you think Craig and I are buddies, he actually intended to lambaste the book when I sent it to him ... but decided he liked it. Which just makes my day.

He has a valid critique: he thinks I'm wrong about popcorn movies not needing themes.

He's probably right.

What I'd probably write if I were writing the book today is that a popcorn movie doesn't have to start with a theme. I used the example of Alien, which to me isn't "about" anything more than a bug trying to eat a bunch of humans. Craig points out that some of the themes in the movie are (a) corporate greed will kill you (b) let sleeping dogs lie (c) pride goeth before a fall.

Alien has all these themes, and they enrich the movie. However I'm not sure that Dan O'Bannon was thinking about these themes when he came up with the story. I don't know the history of the project, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if he was looking at H. R. Giger's creepy-ass paintings and saw something that looked like an Alien and thought: wouldn't it be scary if one of them things was loose on your spaceship.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if the corporate greed theme came as Ron Shusett fleshed the thing out. It's there primarily as a solution to the story problem of preventing the crew from getting rid of the bug sooner. Why don't they just freeze John Hurt? Because Ian Holm is a Company plant, thass why, and the Company wants a live bug. So what does that mean thematically? That corporate greed will kill you.

The spec I was working on before the current gig came up is a popcorn movie in a sort of early Sam Raimi vein. There is an underlying theme involving the modern mindset and the medieval mindset certain people want to go back to. But that came out of the story, rather than the story coming out of the theme. At this point I'm probably incapable of writing a screenplay without a theme, simply because at some point I'm going to identify the theme that arises naturally from the story, and tweak a few more scenes to push it, just because that makes for a richer and deeper story that sticks with you longer.

So you're right Craig: I was being too flip about themes. But I'm not sure you need to have a theme when you start breaking the story. Once you're pitching it, though, you should be alive to what themes your story suggests, and you should use that theme to bind the story together.

And, thanks for the taking the time to read the book and critique it!

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I read an interesting post on a bulletin board congratulating some members of a writing team for their work on an episode. Usually this sort of thing comes from the showrunner, by way of saying "it wasn't all me." But when it doesn't, I'm uncomfortable with it. It's very hard to remember accurately who contributed what in the writing room. Therefore it's a good idea, I think, not to talk with outsiders about who did what. That way everyone gets the credit (or blame).

Whether the show and the scripts are a success or not, it's the writing room as a whole that should get credit, I think.

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Saturday, August 06, 2005

There's something about summer evenings that bothers me. Summer nights are lovely and so are summer mornings. And winter evenings are kind of bittersweet. But the long late afternoons of summer, particularly this far north, just seem mournful. I don't know why.

We drove out into the Eastern Townships on a whim today. I'd got through pretty much all the notes I had to work on, so we drove out even though it was already 2:30. The townships felt deserted. Where was everyone? Weren't they supposed to be in the country? If they were, they were all hiding in their country houses.

I am not much of a country person. I thought I was, because I so enjoy spending time in my parents' country house in East Hampton. But East Hampton is not real country, of course. It is as far from real country as you can get. It has real potato farms, yes, but at this point they are there mostly to give summer houses a view. When you spend the weekend in the Hamptons, there are good odds of at least two and maybe three dinner parties, with a couple cocktail parties if you really have to. And lunches. You don't go to the Hamptons to get away from it all. You go to the Hamptons to get into the thick of it.

Here in Montreal people seem to have country houses to actually get away from it all. Which is kind of funny for a New Yorker like me. Montreal is the least stressed out city I would ever consider living in. Try getting someone in showbiz on the phone after five here. You better know their cell phone, they won't be at the office.

It turns out there is not that much to do in the country if you are only visiting. My neighbor seems to have solved that problem by buying a farm. This is much better than buying the farm, but it is also much more work. He works on his country house to fix it up, which any home owner knows is an endless project, something like the way the moment they finish painting the Golden Gate Bridge, they start all over again from the other end. He has cleverly arranged to let one neighbor graze on his hayfields and another to pick his apples, thus lightening the burden at the risk of operating a personal charity.

But if you do not own a farm, you can taste Quebec's not very good wines, or its excellent ciders, or go antiquing. After you have tasted the ciders and filled your house up with antiques, you are left with the long sad summer evening, and the feeling that somewhere magic is happening, but they forgot to send you the memo. I've always had a yearning to go where the magic was, and I've done a lot of chasing after it. I have followed various spiritual paths, from Quaker meeting to Wicca, but spirituality does not come naturally to me. I did theater in high school, chasing that intense feeling of family. Now, I have a real family, but a small one, and families are about ordinary magic, the kind of ordinary miracle that fresh bread is. So I try to create the magic in the writing, and hope someone will put it onscreen so I can receive it back, transmuted into something living, and not just my own fading dream of it.

Summer nights are easier. All nights are easier. You can roll up the sidewalks of your world, and draw the blinds on your own island of warmth. And every night, that is enough, and I am fulfilled.

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Friday, August 05, 2005

Lisa's on a bus headed back home from New York. Won't be home till after 10. Jesse Anne's in the garderie late tonight -- I don't have to pick her up till 10 either. I could theoretically go to any Guy Movie I want tonight. And I think I'd rather go home and watch the Rescue Me eps I have on my DVR, eat with my fingers and lick sauce off plates. Lisa doesn't like "angsty" shows, so I tend not to watch them because I'd rather watch something else with her.

War of the Worlds seems like another tour de force without real heart, from all the reviews. I'll save Sky High for whenever I see Hunter next. Already seen Batman Begins, and I'm not sure I want to see it again so soon. Mad Hot Ballroom seems like a movie for DVD. Somehow I don't expect The Island to have any real depth, though it promises to be a great video rental for a rainy day. And Stealth, well, it is for to laugh.

Am I getting old, or are the summer movies sucking big time this year? Or both?

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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Many people feel cloning dogs is wicked, or at least potentially wicked, because "if it were meant to be, God would have done it."

I can think of many reasons not to clone dogs, such as the millions of perfectly fine, good, true, loyal dogs that are put to death every year, and the creepiness of trying to repeat a relationship with a new dog that you had with an old dog. And cloning is risky biologically: how do you think we got the Irish potato famine? The whole evolutionary point of sex, the reason all but the most primitive species go to all that trouble, is probably to psych out the microbes. Cloning defeats that.

But the "God would have done it" argument falls flat with me. If God had wanted us to fly, He would have given us brains to design flying machines with. Oh, wait. He did...

[And, to get all more-Judeo-Christian-than-thou about it for a moment: in Genesis 1:28, God commands us to "be fruitful and multiply." Seems like a go-ahead to me, there, buddy.]

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

I was just wondering, when sending out query letters to try and secure representation, shall I address them to a certain person within the company (any agent listed), or merely the address listed in the HRD?
To an individual person if at all possible. It's probably a good idea to ask the receptionist, nicely, what junior agent might be open to a new client. But if you go to the top first, sometimes they'll send you to the correct underling. Anyway, always to a person.

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Got my first link in Arabic. This gentleman has something to say, and he's not afraid to say it. I wonder what it is. I hope he's well.

I was chatting with another bloke by email for a couple rounds before I realized he was in Australia.

The Internet is kind of an obvious miracle, it's hard to miss, but it is no less a miracle for all that. A long time ago a guy called Alvin Toffler wrote a book called Future Shock about how, I think, the pace of change was going to outstrip our ability to absorb it. But in fact there's very little human beings can't get used to mentally. And we have simply tossed out our assumptions that the future will look anything like the past. In Toffler's day you expected new things to be not as well made as old things. These days you wait to buy a new computer because you want the best.

It's easy to focus on the discontenteds trying to destroy our civilization, and it's easy to stress about the yahoos who want Intelligent Design. But the truth is heading in the opposite direction. These are both reactions to the brave new world we're living in. Know-nothings used to be able to hide in their villages. But there are no villages any more, not in the same way. And that's a good thing. When people understand each other, they are less quick to hurt each other. They still may, but they will do it more slowly, and more rarely.

Well, God bless the gentleman in Cairo, and the bloke in Australia, and everyone else who's reading this, wherever you are, whenever you are...

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JR explains why it's a Bad Thing that the President of the United States says that Intelligent Design ought to be taught in schools along with, say, actual science.

For my part, I'm beyond boggle. I'm so far beyond boggle I live in Canada. Where any national politician who said something so idiotic (and so blatantly pandering to religious right know-nothings) would immediately cease to be a national politician, with serious repercussions for his or her party.

Next, we'll start teaching the concept that 3 = 1 in math class, as an "alternative" to regular arithmetic, which is, after all, only a "theory." And it won't be called Trinitarianism, because that would be religious. It'll be called Intelligent Arithmetic, because when you're stupid, there's nothing cleverer than calling yourself smart.

This is all right out of the Goebbels playbook, and the country stands for it. My heart is sore for my country.

Oh, as for God's participation in evolution: which would be more impressive for a deity, to create a bunch of complicated stuff to jumpstart evolution, journeyman style? Or to create a tiny number of really simple rules, maybe no more than twenty, out of which the chaotic stuff of the galaxy slowly moves towards ever greater complexity, organizing itself until it becomes, by stages, sentient, and can thank Her? I'm going to go with the genius-level Creator. She's more miraculous.

Oh and... this from July 30th's The Economist:
When the Discovery Institute, a promoter of intelligent design, came up with a list of 370 people with science degrees who backed their ideas, the National Centre for Science Education responded with almost 600 scientists called Steve or Stephanie who rejected them.
.

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The Catholic Church is, of course, trying to suppress the key revelation of The Da Vinci Code, a silly book about the Catholic Church's conspiracy to suppress its key revelation.

This will, of course, convince people that the revelation (that Jesus had kids with Mary Magdalene) is true, otherwise why would they try to suppress it?

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The Television Sucks lady has gone offline again, this time, I suspect, permanently. Damn it. It is VERY VERY dangerous to write about your job. You'll notice I rarely reference a current job. Neither do most writers with blogs.

Ah well, I enjoyed reading her...

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The five guys who voice every trailer you ever see, all in one limo, in this five minute short. Courtesy Yankee Fog.

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This site seems pretty impressive until you sift through the doubletalk. Can anyone convince me that the "Screenwriters Federation of America" (previously, misleadingly dubbed the "Screenwriter's Guild of America") is not a bunch of guys without meaningful credits supporting themselves by taking advantage of wanna-be screenwriters?

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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Periodically people I know, or people who know people I know, give me stuff to read. And sometimes it's just not good. If it's flawed but there's a good idea in there, then I usually say what I think could fix it. That doesn't always win me points but I do it anyway because I assume that's the point of the exercise. But sometimes it's just Not Good. As in, I don't think you're in the right business not good. I never know what to tell people? It seems sort of rude to call someone to say "Hey, your stuff sucks." It seems only a tad less rude to fail to respond. It puts me in an awkward spot because I find it extremely hard to lie about writing. I can stress the good points. I can phrase the bad points diplomatically. But when a writer Just Doesn't Have It, what are you supposed to do?

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Monday, August 01, 2005

That's why "Alien" just blew me away. I was like, "These are people who don't even like each other. There's no structure here. They killed the handsome guy. I can't figure this out." It was just a scary place to be. The most important line in Star Wars, to me, is the moment Luke looks at the Millennium Falcon, the most beautiful ship I've ever seen, and says, "What a piece of junk!"
That "scary place" is what I love about Joss's best work. He killed Jenny Calendar! Damn!

From In Focus Mag courtesy Michael McCall. Thanks!

If anyone else can point me in the direction of useful interviews like this one by (a) Joss (b) any other writer you worship, in which they actually reveal how they think and write, rather than just telling catty anecdotes, I will be grateful and will post'em.

PS, John, he seems to be quite fond of GF... but you probably know that.

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Bush appointed Bolton as our UN ambassador as a recess appointment.

This is very, very bad, and excellent.

Bad, because we now have an ambassador that has a mandate from the President, but not Congress. That's embarrassing, and confusing for other countries. Fortunately, ambassadors don't really do that much except have spies for staff. Come to think of it, neither does the UN.

Excellent, because it drives a wedge between Bush and congressional Republicans, or ought to. For a guy who made it into office by a pretty thin margin, he is a long way towards appointing his horse a Senator and declaring himself a god. If Bush is going to act like a Caesar, it's better he have to do it in public than in private.

Slate made the interesting point that making Bolton an ambassador is probably less a calculated insult to the UN and more Condi Rice's way of getting him the hell out of the State Department, where he was causing real trouble...

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Poor D. is struggling with a popup virus that his antiviral software can't kill.

And he's upset that I explained that I can't help him, since I know very little about viruses, as I work on a Mac.

And of course he wonders how long I will stay on a Mac since it's such a tiny portion of the market.

Obviously I've been hearing this misery-loves-company whine for the past 15 years, but what I don't understand is why Windows users keep taking the abuse. Windows is crap. Windows XP is better crap. Windows continues to be virus-ridden spyware-infested buggy bloatware. OS X just gets better and better. The only time I had a serious crash/freeze issue, it turned out to be a bad hard drive. I have never had a virus in OS X, and Lord willing, don't expect to have one.

Guys: it doesn't matter if he says he loves you IF HE'S BEATING YOU! And if you won't leave him for your own sake, won't you at least do it for the kids?

What on Earth can you do on a Windows box that you can't do on a Mac? Aside from play some cool games.

At a minimum, D., dump your Outlook Explorer and IE and get Thunderbird and Firefox. They're no reason to hand the man the paddle to beat you with.

UPDATE Thanks to Erik for this superb article by John Gruber on why there aren't viruses on Macs. Short answer: OSX is vastly more secure, with few places for malware to hide AND Mac users haven't already been conditioned to a feeling of helplessness about their computers.

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In response to Lawrence Ross's comment on the "sisters" post below... I don't think it's unrealistic that Jerry Seinfeld doesn't have black friends. Just unfortunate. I had black friends in college and film school, but after they moved away to various places (Kentucky, Paris, etc.) I didn't have any for most of the ten years I was working in LA. Possibly because I was hanging out with science fiction geeks, who are (a) very big on civil rights and (b) pasty-white. Possibly because showbiz is so provincial. Possibly because in LA you don't actually have that many friends, just people who are trying to figure out how to use you. Anyway, it's not too hard to imagine that a parochial, shallow Upper West Sider like Jerry's character doesn't have black friends.

But most good screenwriters will make an effort to break out of that mindset, and most good directors will try to cast imaginatively. On Charlie Jade, Tyrone Benskin plays "Karl Lubinsky," obviously not conceived as a black character. On Naked Josh we had to work a bit to figure out how to keep our cast from being lily-white. Josh was Jewish. Nathalie was intended to be pur laine French Canadian. Eric was a shiftless womanizer, so we couldn't make him black or we'd be perpetuating a stereotype. That left Jenn. But Jenn was lesbian, so we worried "can she be lesbian AND black without coming off as a token?" Fortunately Patricia was so convincingly herself in the role that I think we finessed the issue.

I think in general TV's been pretty good about breaking up racial and ethnic and gender stereotypes in advance of the realities of the culture. Particularly science fiction. Hopefully at some point society will catch up...

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