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



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Friday, December 30, 2005

All right, I'm officially going bonkers, and so is Lisa. Holidays are great but after a week, I pass my sell-by. I imagine it would be different if it were a tour of ancient sites of the West Country, but just "taking it easy," well, give me my work day back! I miss it. I'm looking forward to January 3: day care, my desk, my Aeron chair, the ability to call people at their offices.

As I was remarking to Paul Guyot the other day, I don't actually have a work ethic or anything so grand as discipline. I have an addiction. If I'm not writing, I'm as edgy as a guy in opiate withdrawal. (Which, technically, I also am, sincing I'm cutting down on the pain patch.)

It would also be nice if I could get to my osteopath to discuss the pinched nerve that's making q, a, z, w and s a bit awkward to hit.

Right. Lisa has kindly taken the Pikapie to the children's library, and Hunter is buried in cartoons, so I'm going to see What to Write Next. I've sent two pitches to DC Comics, which ought to be enough to see if I'm barking up the right tree. Still waiting, of course, on the network for approval on ep. 2 of Exposure. That puts me back in "what the hell to write next?" mode. I have two largish budget feature specs to work on -- one's a treatment that needs to become a script, one's a script that needs another pass. Neither is realistic for the Canadian market, which means I'll either need to convince my Toronto agents to take them to LA, or find someone in LA who's interested in repping me outside of Quebec. Or, I can ransack my archives of script ideas and see if anything in them is worth writing up. Or I could try to come up with a budget-appropriate pitch; but writing out of market analysis has never worked for me. Or, bash my head against that occult series pitch and see if I can crack the template; but I think I need another brain, or brainstorm, on that one.

Well -- not solving the problem by writing this. On to work.

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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Just found out that Hunter, my ten year old stepson, will be moving back to Canada with us! He's been spending this year in New York with his dad. I'm delighted ... the house has been way too quiet, even with the Pikapie learning to talk.

What a good Chrismukkah present!

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A fellow wrote me from Poland asking if I'd like to read his book and see if a producer would be interested in it, possibly with an eye to my adapting it.

While I understand his difficulty -- EU or not EU, he's feeling pretty out of the loop and reaching out to anyone who can help him set his project up -- I get enough of these that I should clarify what I do.

I don't set projects up. That's what producers and agents do. They read stuff by people referred to them or occasionally, based on a query, by people they don't know who might have something interesting they can sell. Just because I have a blog doesn't mean I'm looking for stuff to produce or agent.

I also don't read other people's material unless the other people are producers who are serious about hiring me to adapt or write or rewrite or story edit their material. Or, of course, friends who need advice.

I am not, in general, looking for ideas. I won't say "good ideas are a dime a dozen" because they're not. Great ideas are really rare and valuable. But I don't like putting effort into someone else's project. If I'm going to pour heart and soul into something, I want to own it completely. (I make an exception for my wife's, because she owns half of everything I do, anyway, so I'm not losing anything!)

I have also found that in general ideas coming from outside of North American showbiz usually aren't easy to put on the screen. But even someone had a good idea, I would then have to do my thing and spend three or four months creating something that I would not own free and clear. I'd rather spend that time creating something that I do own.

Some writers are on the lookout for books they can adapt. I don't know why. I guess they like wrassling with someone else's original work. Nice to have a starting point. I don't at all mind adapting books for hire, but I'm not looking for books to adapt.

Oh, one exception there, too. I would actually send a book to a producer for me to adapt if the material hooked me (in this case, it was about a superhero, and superheroes aren't my thing), I felt it was adaptable and commercial and the book had something to recommend it to a producer beyond the content. For example, it's a bestseller. Or, since there is often development money for Canadian culture, it's by a Canadian author. (Or both, I guess.) Because even to pitch it as an adaptation, I still have to do the work of writing up my "take" on the book. Which means I basically have to do the hard work of figuring out how to put it on the screen without knowing I'm getting paid. At that point I'm emotionally invested enough to feel bad when it gets rejected...

That said, passion always trumps common sense... oh well.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Decide exactly where you want to go professionally, then act as if you're already there.
Paul Guyot makes this point in his blog. It not only sounds good, but it makes sense -- a big bonus for any aphorism, though not strictly necessary if it's in French.

It's not that believing in yourself will convince other people to believe in you too. No one will consider letting you run a show if you don't have a great show to sell them, and the credits and the experience to justify wanting to. It's not just that if you don't ask you don't get, though that's always true. Paul's point is that if you want to be, say, a staff writer, act like one -- do the work and quit moaning. Don't sit around dreaming of being a staff writer. Dreams are nice but they are not the job.

Another major time suck is making Plan B's. One of the interesting bits in A Chorus Line is when the director asks the dancers auditioning what they'd do if they couldn't dance. About half of them have no idea. All they want to do is dance. The others have intelligent plans -- teach dance, go back to the family business, etc. The director hires the ones who don't have any plan except make it as a dancer. Showbiz is hard enough that if you waste time on fallback positions, you won't make it. My mom was always trying to get me to go to law school, or consider teaching, or brush up my computer programming skills. I never did anything but work as a development guy for the money (one of the best day jobs a writer can have, I guess, after working for an agent) and write on the side until I could support myself. Had I brushed up my computer skills I could have fallen into a lucrative computer job, or worse, found myself with so-so computer skills and so-so writing skills.

If all you're doing is writing enough to maintain the pretense that you're a writer, that's okay, if it makes you happy. You can buy a lottery ticket, too. You're not buying a realistic chance at a million bucks, you're buying the right to daydream. Just know that that's what you're doing.

[NOTE: some of the comments below refer to an earlier version of this post, hence the above rewrite.]

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Monday, December 26, 2005

I find my first pass on a script tends to be a bit too Whitey McWhite. The main characters, whether in a TV pitch or a spec feature, usually have some ethnicity because there I'm thinking about balance, and I'm trying to give jumping-off points for stories to the core characters, and ethnicity is part of that. But the secondary characters often wind up lily-white the first time out. I'm thinking of the characters in terms of their contribution to the story. Unless their ethnicity is a story point, they don't get an ethnicity in my first pass.

You can leave a script that way and tell the casting directors to send you "ALL ETHNICITIES." But readers will tend to see a lily-white world. Then what happens is at the last minute everyone notices the cast is lily white, and they make the judge a black woman.

I like to do a diversity pass: go through the script and see which characters could be something else interesting. Can the doctor be Sikh instead of Jewish? You can always change your mind and make a Black character into an Asian or vice versa -- Dr. Bailey on Gray's Anatomy was originally Asian. But at least get the readers seeing a world like our own.

(I do all sorts of passes after the first, for example looking at ways to introduce more spice and conflict into one-dimensional scenes, or tracking a certain character's story arc or checking motivations. I can't keep everything in my head at once, so I do passes. This is why I'm a craftsman and not a greate artiste. This is also why I can turn an hour script around in two days if I have to.)

Because we live in an imperfect world, I think, you can't cast anybody as anything. My rule is you can't cast towards a [pernicious] stereotype. That rules out a few juicy roles, unfortunately. On our show, for example, Rick can't be Black because he's a shiftless, irresponsible rock star. Eve can't be black because Eve is dumb as a post. Instead, let the evil, Machiavellian Pierre Reynard be Black. Eve could be Asian; As Denis has been trying to do, it might be funny to have a stupid Asian character, for once, instead of having every Asian be a bright eyed keener. Casting for diversity doesn't mean ethnic characters have to be nice or good people; then ethnic actors would never get to have any fun. Just don't reinforce the stereotype.

Of course in Canada it's not all about Black and white and Latino. In Québec you really ought to have some francophone characters, and the occasional Newfie is a plus as well.

I'd love at least one of the characters on our show to be Native American. But I have no idea how big that talent pool is. We're already looking for girls who are stunningly gorgeous and can act.

I always wonder about the leads. I think Grey's Anatomy has shown that you can have major characters who are Black, Asian, etc.. Technically the lead character is that whiny little white girl played by Ellen Pompeo. But I bet more people are watching for Isaiah Washington and Sandra Oh. On the other hand have the networks learned that lesson? You wonder if GA would have got through the network without Meredith Gray as the "lead." I'm guessing if we found a great ethnic actor for one or another of our leads, our Canadian network would be totally behind it. The Americans, I have no idea. Hope so.

At any rate, still waiting to see if they like it down South...

UPDATES: A reader points out that Sandra Oh's character is exactly a stereotype. But not a pernicious one, I should have added. I doubt Asians mind being stereotyped as smart and hard-working. I mind it when someone stereotypes Jews as stingy, but not when Jews are stereotyped as articulate. It wouldn't have been a bad thing if Sandra Oh's character was something other than Asian, but then we wouldn't have got to see Sandra Oh in the character. I wonder if the stereotyping has anything to do with why Christina Yang's stepfather turns out to be Jewish...?

So I'm saying it's okay to have your Jewish character be smart, though you don't get any originality points for it, and it's fine to have your wise black person played by Whoopi Goldberg or Morgan Freeman if you can get'em. But I'd really love to see Morgan Freeman play an evil creep, and I'd love to see Denis's dumb-as-two-sticks big ha-yer Texas Asian gal.

Incidentally, you don't need to put skin color in your script. An indicative name will usually do it. Christina Yang is, obviously, a Western-born Asian girl. Paddy Schwartz is an Irish Jew. Lakshmi Singh is likely a Sikh woman. Bianca Melendez is a Latina. Janice Melendez is a Latina whose parents didn't see the need to give her a Latina first name. Etc.

Craig thinks I'm being too politically correct. Okay, lemme turn it around. Is it okay by you to (a) leave your script non-racial, which most people will read as white, or (b) have your one black character also be your one really dumb character? Or are you doing what I'm talking about, just without noticing it? Do you really think writers have no responsibility?

Here's his response, with a whole passel of responses from his readers.

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Sunday, December 25, 2005

Here's an interesting exercise... Aury Wallington, a pro writer (Sex & the City, etc.), suggests watching half an episode and then writing the second half.

Seems like a lot of work to actually write it out. But the idea of watching half an episode and then pitching yourself possible endings might get you thinking clearly about the arcs of the stories ... and how to achieve both surprise and inevitabity.

I found this on the Pilot Project website, which seems to be for a competition on TV to pick a great TV show concept. Seems like an interesting idea -- or it would be if there weren't already dozens and dozens of network executives constantly searching for a great TV concept. [UPDATE: I hear from a source once close to Pilot Project that it is "a total scam."]

Anyway, it's not the great concept that sells -- it's a great writer pitching a great concept.
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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas!
Happy Hanukah!
Joyous Eid!
Marvelous Kwanzaa!
and
Have a wonderful New Year!

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Fun Joel writes:
So, is the 5-page pitch all you've done on this comic, or did you also come up with your script, and/or find an artist, or what?
I'd like to avoid getting into comics self-publishing since I don't know thing one about comics art, or the comics biz. That's why having a chance to pitch DC Vertigo is perfect. If they like the pitch, and me, then all I have to do is come up with the story and learn how to write comics. That's enough of a task for one year. At least in story telling I have an inkling when I'm screwing up.

And, in general, why go to plan B first? Go to plan B only after plan A doesn't work. DC Vertigo published Sandman. 'Nuff said.

I try to avoid writing scripts on spec. I only do it when I'm confident the hook is killer. I wrote two last year because I had two, I hope, killer concepts. In this case, I have no idea if my idea is killer. Comics are a new medium for me. I could be completely wrong about what the market is looking for. That was true for at least the first ten feature scripts I wrote. Which is why I wrote an entire chapter on hooks in Crafty Screenwriting...

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Q. I wonder what you think about TROY (2004) with Bradd Pitt and how it compares to your concept in "Wine Dark Sea"?
Did you write that before or after "Troy"?
I suppose that production makes your shot even longer?
I wrote it before. I'm not sure it would have made a difference though. I've always wanted to adapt The Odyssey, ever since I found out Penelope knew perfectly well who the old beggar was. It pays to read footnotes. And then there's that amazing conversation between Athena and Odysseus on the uplands of Ithaka: "If I were a mortal, Odysseus, I'd want to be you."

I thought Troy was a dreadful mashup of about four movies, three of which had nothing to do with why we still read The Iliad. Not that an adapter has any obligation to pursue the same artistic intent as the original creator, though that's always a good place to start. But one picture at a time, please. I also enjoyed the cartoonish Robin Hood Prince of Thieves that Alan Rickman was in ("because it's duller, you twit!"), and I liked the brave and proud one Sean Connery was in. The ones that Kevin Costner was in didn't do much for me.

As to produceability, that's a toughie. Had Troy done well, that ought to have opened up room for an adaptation of Homer's other work. (Unless, as they say, The Odyssey wasn't written by Homer, but by another Greek with the same name.) It stunk, so that didn't help. I have the impression it flopped, though I could be wrong about that.

When Hollywood adapts the same book as you just did, you're probably toast; unless you're in a different part of the industry, that is: Ho'wood makes a blockbuster and you're doing an art film or a D2DVD film. Jurassic Park didn't hurt Carnosaur any. And I'll never forget Roger Corman's quote about the similarities between his picture and Spielberg's: "Steve Spielberg is an honorable man. I never for a moment would dream that he would stoop to stealing my plot!"

I still think The Wine Dark Sea is one of the better things I've written, and I'm rather proud of how the Horse turned out. But I don't hang around with people who do $200 million pictures, alas, and more importantly, neither do my current agents. My LA agency (Paradigm, at the time) had access to all the relevant development people; but my Montreal and Toronto people don't.

So, at some point, it may again be time to hunt up someone who can rep me in LA. Not till I have two killer feature specs to go out with...

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Mary Anne asks about my comment that LA has no seasons. Er, okay, it does. Fire, flood, riot and quake.

Okay, let's try that again. It really does have two seasons: green and wet and slightly chilly, and brown, hot, dry and smoggy.

The first one lasts two months. The other one lasts the rest of the year.

Winter is frigid because no one $%^*#@ insulates their house. Unlike in Montreal, where we keep toasty warm all winter behind double glazed windows and multiple doors. (Except when we have to walk the dog.) And, I suppose, unlike in New York, where everyone has steam heat but no one can turn it off, so you have to open the window and let the cold air in or you stifle.

K, you asked. Ask Bill Cunningham why it's wonderful. He seems to like it.

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Lisa's been reading Valuable Lessons (the free e-book to which I posted the link here). The most valuable lessons seem to be the ones the author has not learned. Among them:
  • Don't become inflexible about what comedy looks like. If no one's buying lowest-common-denominator 80's comedy, get with it and write specific-audience 00's comedy.
  • Don't imagine you know more than everyone you're working with;
  • Don't tell people you know more than everyone you're working with;
  • Don't get bitter. No one asked you to be a screenwriter;
  • Save your money while you're hot. One day you won't be hot any more.
But the most important lesson is the first. The book is full of "no one knows how to write comedy any more except me." Except everyone else is working and he's not. Guess who's right?

The audience is never wrong. Studio execs have more access to the audience than you do. They may be wrong on specifics, that's why they hire you. But if you keep thinking they are wrong across the board, it's you.

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I sent off my first comics pitch ever, to Pornsak Pichetshote at DC Vertigo, thanks to the kind and generous intervention of Andy Diggle.

I'm intrigued by the idea of writing comics. Every medium has its strengths. In comics, as in novels, you can slow down or speed up time. You can do a page full of panels on a moment's worth of emotions passing across someone's face. Or you can age the Earth.

You can also have very convincing looking hellspawn, should you be so inclined. On Canadian budgets for film and TV, not so much. And when your mind turns regularly to the supernatural, as mine does, comics are the natural place to tell your stories, unless you have access to Peter Jackson, or at least Stan Winston. And I have a bunch of material that may find a home much more easily on the page than on the screen. I've got a whole menagerie, really.

Oh, and comics have the other advantage of novels: they publish a lot of them. So while you won't make much money doing them, you stand a better chance of telling your story than you do if you're waiting for the feature film to get made.

We'll see how it goes. Some say comics editors are looking for film and TV writers interested in writing for comics, because too many current comics writers are writing only for comics True Believers, which restricts the audience.

Wish me luck...

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Hmmm, looking back on the year, it feels a bit spotty. That's because I wasn't on a show, I was developing my own stuff. Last year I wrote six Charlie Jade scripts, a Naked Josh script, co-wrote the NJ season arc (though I imagine it was rewritten afterwards), and wrote Unseen, a spec feature.

This year, I wrote
  • my second book, Crafty TV Writing
  • two spec scripts, Gone to Soldiers and Medieval;
  • two pitch bibles for TV series, Exposure and The alternative;
  • a pilot for Exposure and a breakdown for a second ep;
  • a full-on just-add-water treatment for another script, The Eighth Day;
  • a production rewrite on a go movie, Bon Cop Bad Cop which got me a credit;
  • did some development work on a couple of other people's scripts; and
  • did a five page comics pitch.
It doesn't feel like quite as much writing, but that's because of all the mental retraining involved. Every time you create something new you have to create the tools in your head for that piece. When you're on a show, you can keep using the same tools.

We'll see what the New Year brings.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

White fluffy flakes drifting down out of the gray sky, flags waving in the wind across the street at the hotel, the spires of the cathedral looming through the darkness ... I love this place.

Life is good.

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Q. Just finished my first quarter at UCLA and I'm still jazzed. Can I asked you a couple of questions? What do you think was the best thing you got out of the UCLA program and which professors influenced you the most? Lastly, why did you decide to go to Canada, rather than stay in Hollywood?
The best thing I got out of the program was my first job, which I discovered on the UCLA job board. I got an assistant position with an independent producer, and as I learned stuff, moved to "Vice President," which means number two guy after him rather than number three guy. I kept that job for four and a half years, learned about contracts, packaging, meetings ... oh, wait, you probably want to know what I learned inside the program, right?

That would have to be the course I took with Richard and Barbara Marks in editing. They're professional editors; Richard was nominated for at least one Academy Award. Their course was so good, I took it three times. The only specifics I can remember are "cut on a movement" and "get in late, leave early," which also apply to screenwriting. But I learned the rhythms of editing.

By and large I did not learn as much in film school as I learned out of it. That's because UCLA is all about being a director, and lessons about being a director do not help you learn how to get 220 amps out of three-wire. That's why I say work in the biz before you go to film school; go to film school when you've hit a wall professionally, not just to get your foot in the door.

The best screenwriting advice I ever got was from the late Sterling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night): "don't get divorced. The alimony will kill your originality." After his divorce, he never wrote another spec script. Too busy doing high priced hack work (The Towering Inferno, Shaft).

Why Canada? Because I had hit a wall, and when you hit a wall, you try to climb over it, and if you can't climb over it, you try to go around it. I'd been "up for Roswell" a couple too many times, and I couldn't catch a break. I thought I might be able to do better here. I was right. Canada is a much more nurturing creative environment. The government is actually trying to encourage culture. Imaginez-vous ça.

Would I go back to LA? Not if I can avoid it. I found it to be a cold, unfriendly town without seasons or soul. The friends I thought I had weren't real friends; I only have one friend left from my 14 years in LA, as compared with maybe eight good friends I still have from high school. If a show I created here got bought down there and they said, "OK, but you have to set it in LA and shoot it here," I'd come down for that, duh. If someone read a script and wanted to hire me on to something, I'd find it hard to turn down the opportunity to learn how it's done in the major league. But you won't see me floating around during staffing seasons hoping to catch a wave.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Various scribes of the scribosphere have taken up the challenge to post a page of a screenplay. I've actually published 5 pages from the beginning of my adaptation of Homer's Odyssey as an appendix to my screenwriting book. Partly to demonstrate what I think is good format and style, and yeah, partly because I'm proud of it (it remains one of the best things I've ever written) and it's a long shot the thing ever gets produced. And partly to help get it produced. Here are those five pages....

In the TV writing book, you'll get to see an episode breakdown, a beat sheet, and the fourth act of my draft of Charlie Jade episode 16. It is not 100% my work; I am not such a fool as to rewrite everyone else on staff but not let the rest of the staff improve my stuff. If you dig the show you may find it interesting to see where the writing staff envisioned that episode going.

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Grab this one before they take it down, too. It's called Valuable Lessons: How I Made (and Lost) 7 Millions Dollars Writing for 100 Television Shows You Never Heard Of. Apparently it couldn't get a publisher. Possibly because it is incredibly dark.

Oh, here's another one: the Good in a Room people say they will send you an article about how to take meetings. For free. I'm sure they have other stuff they want to sell you, but what the hell.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

...whether journalists are being ironic:
When it introduced its slate of fall programs, the WB Network had a clear-cut mission to broaden its audience beyond teenage girls. But executives weren't really looking for 50-year-old women.

That, however, turned out to be the audience tuning in to see the veteran actor Don Johnson in the show "Just Legal." The program was canceled after three episodes.
Gee, nobody could have figured out who was going to tune in to watch Don Johnson???
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A friend sent along the Bon Cop / Bad Cop poster. It's oddly sedate for an action buddy cop comedy thriller about hockey. But who cares? It's got my name on it on the lower right. A reader writes:
Q. IMDB lists three writers for the script and one for "scenario". Never seen that before. How is that different from story credit?
The IMDB credits are not the contractual ones. Someone (not me) sent in their credits and included other people, including the director. In this case "scenario" seems to mean "story" though actually "scénario" means "script" in French.

The credits on the poster are the credits as they'll appear on screen. The arbitrated credits are:

Story ("scenario") by Patrick Huard;
Screenplay by Leila Basen & Patrick Huard and
Kevin Tierney & Patrick Huard and
me.

I don't think anyone wanted to see that kind of a mess on screen, so everyone gets their name on the screenplay once.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Lisa has an idea -- more a character than a story at this point -- about a 7th grader. Thing is, I think it really wants to be movie, not a TV show. I'm not sure how you get more than one story out of this character's main issue. But while there are TV shows galore about young teenagers, there is a big gaping demographic hole in the movies. You have movies about pre-teens, and movies about late teens. Middle teens, not so much.

Adults will watch kids movies with their kids. Teens will watch movies about teens. Nobody really wants to see kids between 13 and 16 unless there are flying broomsticks involved, apparently.

Todd Solondz broke this rule, of course, in Welcome to the Dollhouse, but that was an art film about creepy weirdness, and Lisa's idea would be sort of comedy of manners -- sort of in the territory of Mean Girls but younger.

I wonder if making it a Canadian show allows you to break the rule? After all if a big chunk is coming out of Telefilm, that changes the financing picture quite a bit, innit?

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We'd like to know a little bit about you for our files...
"Mrs. Robinson," Simon & Garfunkel
Enough about me. For the moment, anyway.

Who are you guys? My fellow bloggers, like Bill Cunningham, Julie Goes to Hollywood or Fun Joel, I know what you guys are doing and trying to do. But you lurkers out there -- all over the world -- what's your story? Are you making a living in show business? Do you have a plan to do it where you are? Or move to a media center and do it? Are you anxious to become a pro screenwriter, or just want to know how it's done? What's your vision? What's your dream? And while we're at it -- what else is important to you?

If you've got the time, post here or just email me...

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Interesting conversation yesterday with Lisa about one of our core characters, Bianca. While she's a character with a potential for drama -- a rich girl with distant parents, who just got out of rehab -- we're having trouble coming up with fresh and original story lines for her.

One way to go at this is try to find some Bianca stories anyway, because she's core cast and we have to serve her. But regardless what's in the bible, at this point we're only writing our second ep. If we can't find good stories for her, maybe she doesn't deserve to be core cast. A bible is only a plan. You don't stick to a plan for the sake of the plan.

What we need to do is give her some problem or opportunity or goal that we can make into a story against which her character traits can play. You can only tell the story of a character's personality once, and it's unfortunate to tell that story because you have to come at it head on, and then you've cooked that character. Show that personality in action in a situation that relates to that personality trait, but only tangentially.

We may also need to discover something new about the character that we didn't know before. Maybe rich and rehab (and I suppose Latina) aren't enough to make a fresh and convincing character.

What secret has Bianca been keeping from us?

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Saturday, December 17, 2005

According to this news article, the Department of Defense has been tracking peaceful anti-war protests. Like, um, Quakers.

Obviously this is part of a clever government plan to recreate the conditions of the Vietnam War as authentically as possible. Pointless government spying on peaceful protestors, politicians getting caught doing dirty tricks to get re-elected, a guerrilla war supporting a nasty, corrupt regime in a country where 80% of the people (according to polls) just want us gone...

So when do we get the revolutionary new music? Where's the new Beatles/Stones/Airplane/Who? The exhilarating counter-culture, and the feeling that the world can be changed if we just believe it? C'mon people, we've got all the bad stuff, no where's the good stuff?

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I ran across this on Del.icio.us: Showrunner Peter Murrieta's Blog. And he's writing two pilots and blogging about it in bits and pieces. And telling it like it is:
Well, it looked like we might actually be getting close to some actual writing on this project and then all of the sudden, I've got no story. That is, I've laid out the story that I wanted to tell, incorporated the notes I was given and I'm ready to go, but my producing partners and the network feel like maybe it's not the best pilot story to tell. Okay. I've been working on that story for six months, but I'm sure the next story, the one I come up with in one day will be better. I know it's all about getting the show on the air and keeping my employers passionate about the project, but I'm swiftly losing my passion in the process.
So better read it before he comes to his senses and takes it down like Why Television Sucks did.

Peter Murrieta ran Greetings from Tucson and wrote Three Sisters, according to the IMDB. He's also posted a whole 50 page sitcom script about a cheesy Latino channel that has its own Jimmy Smits correspondent. At least I think it's for a sitcom. Funny stuff.

Check it out, let me know what you think.
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[POLITICS]
Mr. Berenson, the former White House associate counsel, said that in rare cases, the presidents' advisers may decide that an existing law violates the Constitution "by invading the president's executive powers as commander in chief."
And therefore, can ignore the law.

I am pretty sure I know what the Founding Fathers would have thought of this argument, having gone to the trouble of ridding us of a king.

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Friday, December 16, 2005

[POLITICS]
Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, asserted that if the Patriot Act had been in place before Sept. 11, 2001, the attacks might never have happened.
Uh huh. That's due to the little-known provision in the Patriot Act that says that the FBI honchos in DC will not ignore insightful memos from lowly special agents remarking on people who are learning to pilot planes, but not land them.

The Patriot Act was not extended today. I imagine the news story yesterday that the President ignored (i.e. ordered people to break) the laws against spying on people inside the country had something to do with the vote.

We don't need more laws restricting civil liberties. We need more organized cops. Organized cops would not have any difficulty getting warrants to tap phones. But the Bushies make a mess of things, and then want laws so they can sweep those things under carpet. Don't lets have trials at Guantanamo; we might find out we've captured innocent people. Let's ignore habeas corpus (without actually suspending it); we might discover we're holding people without evidence.

Respect for laws forces the cops to keep their noses clean. Disrespect breeds corruption. It shouldn't be a partisan issue. If the flag doesn't stand for liberty and justice for all, what the hell does it stand for?

Fortunately, even some Republicans are fed up with it.

A note on Presidential character: Bush Jr. seems fairly consistently to behave like a little boy who doesn't want to have to listen to his elders. He purposefully went to war in Iraq without his allies, I think, so he wouldn't have to listen to their advice. He doesn't want judges overseeing his wiretaps. He wants to be able to torture people while claiming that he doesn't torture. He feels he can ignore any law that doesn't suit him. He's a kid with a know-it-all Dad whom he finally doesn't have to listen to. I hope people are finally coming to see him for the brat he is.

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Ah, I can feel it. People are wrapping up the year. No point in bringing in any new business now -- actually for the past week or so, everyone's mind has been on their Christmas baskets.

Nice to have a few irons already in the fire. Nice also to have a vacation to look forward to.

It's been a pretty good year for a year in which I wasn't on a show. Got a series into development at a network. Optioned another series proposal. Sold and wrote a book. Wrote a couple of very produceable spec features. Met a bunch of really good production companies in Toronto. And did the production rewrite on Bon Cop. I'm a little jealous of people who're writing pages constantly, but in revenge, they're not creating their own stuff, they're doing commissioned features and rewrites.

Still, I'd like to have a busier year next year. I'd like to have more things to point to at the end of the year. This was a year of investment. Now, Lord willing, for a year of dividends...

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We're breaking story on a few possibilities for our second script. This is not necessarily meant to be our second episode, though it could be. Since the network wants our show as episodic as reasonably possible, it should be able to work as ep. #2 or ep. #5.

We have four stories broken from our bible to choose from. But while they're convincing episodes, and all explosive in their way, they may not make great second episodes. I feel that the job of the second episode is to prove the template. The first episode proves the series concept: yes, you can make a hell of an hour of TV out of this concept. The second episode, I think, needs to prove that you can take the characters and venue you've chosen, and make another convincing hour of TV.

Many of the stories we have in the can involve new core characters, or old core characters thinking about leaving the biz (and hence the show). Two of them take main characters home to their families. These are high stakes stories. But not the kind of episode you can do every week. We would probably want to punctuate the season with them.

So we came up with a new story that doesn't rely on any new characters.

And a B story that does rely on a new episodic character, but that's okay: if you are not a soap, you'll need to bring in episodic characters to motivate your stories. On procedurals, you always have episodic characters: the clients on law shows, the crooks on cop shows, the patients on medical shows. And Lucy always met the nice man who was going to sell her new pots and pans, or whatever. So if we're not a soap, we're more like a procedural. So new rule: a second script shouldn't introduce any new core cast, but can introduce a few episodic characters as needed.

As opposed to a second episode, which might introduce any core cast you didn't get a chance to introduce in the pilot. On the show I co-created, for example, we didn't introduce Hunter until halfway through ep. 2. There were some arguments about whether that was a good idea; some thought she needed to be foreshadowed in ep. #1, others successfully insisted we didn't need to foreshadow. Of course, our American network changed that decision around by airing episode #2 first!

Let's see what the network thinks!

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

We're off tonight to Galafilm's holiday Gala (in showbiz you do NOT have "Christmas" parties, wanna guess why?), at which we will feel a little out of place, since it is mostly the office party for a large company. They will show a comedy reel with all sorts of in-jokes that the people that work there will laugh at, and serve good food. And we, as writers, will hang out feeling like wallflowers, trying to resist the impulse to glom onto the one or two people we actually know and not let them go. And eat too much good free food.

I usually run out of mana after about twenty-thirty minutes of a party full of strangers. Fortunately Lisa has bonus charisma, so I can glom onto whoever she's talking to.

Needless to say, not going to a party for a company at which you have a TV series (it just went to another American network) is not an option. Actually, until you are Josh Friedman's level and can avoid any meeting that does not involve sushi within short driving distance from your house, any industry party is a command performance.

Oh yes, and the music will be cranked to the point where you have to shout to make yourself heard. This is not entirely bad because we're from New York and we're used to shouting. And, if you're going slightly deaf anyway, it's good when people have to shout. When they shout, they usually enunciate, too.

What I really want to do is what I should have been doing all today, except the day got away from me: figure out what our second script will be. We have a very good idea of what it should be, but it's not a breakdown yet, and we really should break it down before we pitch it. If we can't break it down in a day, there's probably something wrong with it and we shouldn't pitch it.

Meanwhile, Lisa heard from her editor. She liked the book (yay!) and has only light edits (double yay!). So that's good...

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Christopher Coulter asks about this article about a computer program that supposedly predicts box office. Unfortunately, one of the variables used in predicting box office is how many theaters the movie's opening in. Typically, if a movie's a disaster, it doesn't open in as many theaters as a movie that's at least okay. The studios and exhibitors dump it. Another variable is strength of cast. You don't get a strong cast, on average if the script is dreadful. So the program is meaningless, especially since it's only vaguely right three quarters of the time. If I could tell you within $100 million dollars how well a movie was going to do, but only 75% percent of the time, would you consider me a marketing whiz?

What's much more meaningful is that they can by and large tell by Sunday how well a movie's going to do box office, basically by looking at how word of mouth spreads from Friday to Saturday.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I'm working up a comics idea. Imagine, no need for a venue. My character shows up the Quebec northwoods. And heads for a city. No problem. Meets characters both human and nonhuman. Equally easy to draw. (Actually, the nonhumans are probably easier because we have no reference for them.) Time rolls at different speeds from panel to panel. A torrential downpour, no problem. Fog, no problem. Interior monolog, no problem.

And no need for a template. I'm telling a sequential story, which is a no-no for many networks here. (I know, Lost and Desperate. Here those pitches would get nowhere.) I can have a big story one issue and a small story next issue. Just look at Hellblazer where one minute John Constantine is dealing with demons and the next he's chatting interminably with his mates. (Okay, I tend to skip the blocks of chat. But Garth Ennis gets to write'em.)

This is fun. I have no idea if it will result in anything. But I'm digging it.

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Lisa just got her Writer's Guild membership card. We're all so proud of her!

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I had an interesting chat with my friendly local Telefilm guy. Telefilm seems to be trying to decide how best to fulfill its mandate to promote Canadian stories told on screen. They're not thrilled with the Screenwriting Assistance Program because while writers may be writing popular stories, producers aren't necessarily interested in those stories -- producers have their own stories they want to push. They don't want to go back to the idea of hiring CAA to promote Canadian screenwriters who have abandoned Canada for LA. They'd like Canadians to stay in Canada and make movies for a little while before going to LA. (Or, for that matter, didn't feel they needed to go to LA.)

How do you help the industry without becoming a crutch. Where is the bottleneck? If you just give producers money, they'll take it until it's all gone. Where is the ball being dropped?

Personally, I think there's not enough of a connection between those of us writing up here and producers down in the States who are looking to package co-productions. There is no US-Canadian co-production treaty (co-production treaties basically exist to allow non-US producers to survive; a co-production treaty that allowed US producers would defeat the whole purpose). But there are US producers who want to enable Canadian productions for money and an Exec Producer credit. There are also UK and European and Israeli producers in LA who want to do Canadian co-pros. But they have no idea who the good writers are up here. I know. I used to work for them. I had a hell of a time trying to identify the good Quebec anglophone writers.

In other words it's the reverse of the CAA deal. The point isn't to enable Canadian writers who are in LA. The point would be to hook up Canadian writers telling Canadian stories with producers in LA, with access to US bucks, who want to put those stories on the screen. (Which means, of course, when I say Canadian stories, I mean human stories about Canadians. Not stories about Mounties and maple syrup.)

We also talked about mentoring. There could a program where experienced screenwriters mentor promising beginners. I'd volunteer for that. I just want to know that whoever I'm mentoring (a) has talent and (b) will break their butt to take my advice seriously. I don't mind giving some of my time away. I only mind wasting it.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Think you can't buy love? Search on eBay for "love." 90299 items.

God, I love capitalism.

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In Slate today:
Last year, tens of thousands of fans signed an electronic pledge to buy the show on DVD, should someone take a chance on re-releasing it. Last week, a company called Shout! Factory did, in a lavish, six-disk set that's packed with enough extras to satisfy the most over-the-top obsessive: all 18 episodes, many of them with multiple commentary tracks by the show's stars, stage parents, writers, fans, producers, and a self-flagellating NBC executive, Shelley McCrory, who admits, only half-jokingly, that her "soul died" when the series went off the air.
So if they can agree to buy a show that's already shot, it's a small step to buying a show that's not shot yet...

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Part four of my interview with John Rogers (Blue Beetle, Zombie Tales, oh, and some movies and tv shows too) on transitioning between screen and print.
CTVW: How'd you learn to write comics?
JR: I wrote them, sent them to friends till they stopped sucking.
CTVW: You started with Zombie Tales.
JR: A bunch of us were sitting around talking about why zombie movies are so popular. Zombies are a metaphor for this, they're a metaphor for that. And my friend Ross realized, all these takes on zombies are an anthology. That's why Boom! did Zombie Tales. And it was a challenge. You've got eight pages. Five panels. Try writing a short story in 40 sentences. As soon as I started writing my first comic, I called all my comic writer friends and said, "I am so sorry - this is the hardest writing I've ever done." You have to do all the work yourself, too. You don't just write the dialog. You have to say how the artist should draw this. Essentially you have to be the writer and the director and the actors.
CTVW: And the editor.
JR: And it's amazing what someone can do in that time if they're good. That said, screenwriting is good practice for writing comics. By the second run at the thing, I started to get it right more or less. But there are still things I write where the artist comes back and, "there's no way you can do it in that many pictures." You can't do it in one panel.
CTVW: How do you not read a comic in 5 minutes? The thing that I find difficult is you buy a comic, and it takes maybe 5 minutes to read it, and you're done. Okay, maybe your local library has the trade paperback. But how do you slow down the read?
JR: I have an eye for the art. I think, "that's an interesting way to get that in the page." But they're meant to be consumed in bite sized chunks.
CTVW: In other words, you don't slow down the read.
JR: The big boom in comics was the GI's during World War II. They had maybe 5 minutes to kill. It's a matter of enjoying that as it goes.
CTVW: What stories lend themselves to comics?
JR: Well there are genres. True life. Confessional. Soapy story. The capes. Indie crime. Monster stories. But you can also become your own genre. Steve Niles created 30 Days a Night and now there are people who are just looking for the next Steve Niles.
CTVW: Why so much with the big mythic stories? Is it just because you can destroy the world for nothing on paper?
JR: I think that's partly the tradition in comics.
CTVW: But okay, then, why did it become the tradition? What is it about comics that lend themselves to the big myth?
JR: It's a cultural thing. I have British readers on my website, they just don't get the capes. They like Judge Dredd, 2000AD -- spy stuff, cop stuff, sf stuff. Superman learning to love again? Ugh. That's entertainment?
CTVW: But--
JR: Okay, I think you just come to different media with different expectations. Comics sell a hundred thousand copies max. That's a tenth of a ratings share. Comics readers want to see something out of this world. That said, there are shows that have the big mythos. Buffy was magnficently mythic.
[CTVW: And Joss is a huge fanboy and writes comics.]
JR: A lot of people are desperate for a big over the top metaphorical story. Look at Lost--
[CTVW: Also written by fanboys]
JR: —and Desperate Housewives is about sin, and fantasy fulfillment. Comics are our modern myths. For every gritty story you can tell, there are more illuminating ways to tell it with a fantastic bent. [And comics make it easy to show something fantastic.] Look at Bill Willingham's Fables, watching him unfold the story and reference something that you think, "I should know what that is!" until you figure out what it is. As many people I know who have had transcendent religious experiences, I know at least that many who were genuinely moved by the idea of the Global Frequency.

Okay, kids. That was John Rogers, speaking to us about the comics writing experience. Now get thee to Meltdown and buy thee a couple of issues of Blue Beetle, so John can get his fix ... of story telling.

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Writing dialogue for a talking dolphin was certainly a frightening low-point though, in retrospect, not all that much different than writing for David Hasselhoff.
Lee Goldberg, quoted in Inkslinger

I love a good quote. I love to make them. I try so hard to avoid saying stuff like this. It always comes around to bite you in the butt again.

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Wondering what regional accents sound like? What's the difference between Virginia and West Virginia? Check out the International Dialects of English Archive. It's got recordings from all fifty states and most countries where English is spoken.

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Our pilot (second draft) and bible go to an American network this week. Possibly tomorrow. A "yes" likely means the show is a go.

So am I nervous? Not really. I long ago trained myself to concentrate on process. I worry about what I'm writing, not whether people will buy what I'm writing. I concentrate on making it good, but after that it's out of my hands and I don't stress about it.

This drives Lisa crazy, because she likes to fret.

So, we spent the afternoon coming up with three lines to describe the show in terms one network would most like. An afternoon on three lines? Sure, if they're the right three lines.

Now I'm worrying about what to do next -- that is, if we aren't immediately plunged into writing the next script for the show. I could rewrite my favorite feature. But people haven't been jumping on it. They love the idea but they don't do anything about loving it. Which could be the local market here. Or it could be the script. Or, try to crack the template for another TV show. I have a great hook for an occult drama, but I don't see how it makes a weekly episodic franchise. It's a serial right now, and networks don't much want serials. Hence all the talk about graphic novels...

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A few of my ideas have informed me that they really, really would rather be comics first. They might eventually be TV shows, yes, or movies. But not yet. Not right away. They want to be graphic novels.

Damn them.

So now I am trying to figure out who to talk to. (Aside from John Rogers, who's rather busy right now, and already gave me a good chunk of his time for the interview.) What does a comic pitch look like? Will editors talk to me? What do they want to see from me? And can I realistically structure a deal so that I keep the cinematic rights? Because this is all about back-dooring these ideas into the movie and TV world. Execs will read comics when they won't read scripts.

Any of y'all out in the comics world, please let me know your thoughts. (Some of you were kind enough to respond in September when I first got on this kick, and I hope I've emailed you guys already.)

Also, if anyone out there is interested in taking this up as an internship research project for me, please let me know.

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Q. I just wrote my first TV spec for a sitcom. I've seen some places double space the dialogue and others don't (including the BBC template). Which way is correct?
Use the exact format the show you are speccing uses.

My understanding is that true sitcoms double space the dialog. That's so during the punch-up session, it's easier to write in new jokes on the page. (This, from back in the days of typing. But convention doesn't change as fast as technology. That's why we're still using Courier 12 for scripts.)

However, the person you should really ask this question is Ken Levine. He just posted about comedy specs, and he's probably the most experienced comedy writer blogging since Why Television Sucks went off the bitstream. He'd appreciate the readership, and he's willing to answer your questions.

Single camera comic dramas, I believe, generally single space dialog. On Naked Josh we single spaced.

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I've never been one much for physical descriptions of characters, except where they are story points. When I read novels, I usually blip over the block of text that novelists often put right after they introduce someone, where they say what they look like. In response, when I wrote my own novel, I made a point of mentioning each character trait three times, and on its own, so you couldn't miss it, ideally in relation to something the character was doing. If Anna's nanny was pudgy, I brought it up when she was moving, either with difficulty, or with surprising deftness for her weight.

I don't put much physical character description in scripts, either, because so much depends on casting. If a character's anorexic, and that's the story, you need to know it. But whether a character is tall or short isn't worth mentioning, especially since you may find the exact perfect actor with the exact wrong height. Or rather, you won't, because casting won't send him to you.

So I find it interesting that Neil Gaiman, in Anansi Boys, completely avoids mentioning race, in a novel in which almost all the characters are ethnic. After you realize that almost all the characters are West Indian, another character comes up with an ordinary English name, who fifty pages on turns out to be Chinese-Ethiopian. And that's not a spoiler, because race isn't the point in the novel.

Kinda neat. You can't do that in the movies.

(Of course, the revelation about the West Indies comes a lot faster when you experience the book in the brilliant audiobook version. The reader has the most amazing gift for voices. And you can download it as an mp3!)

That's the beauty of the different media. It's like the difference between meeting a girl in a pub and meeting her through Internet dating. In the latter, you don't know her voice or how she moves. But you know whether she can express herself on the page. For a writer, guess which is more crucial to future happiness. (For the record, I met the love of my life at a friend's house, when we were 16. But that's not much help to you guys, is it?)

Incidentally, while I'm on Anansi Boys, I have to say that I have never shared various writers' fascination with loser characters. I find these writers sort of hypocritical, since they, obviously, are not really losers, having made it as writers. Yet they like to write about their inner loser, rather than characters whose vision drives them. I feel that is a sort of intellectual laziness, like going to Las Vegas so you can laugh at how kitschy it is.

I wonder how successful we'll be getting rid of racism in the next 40 years?

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

[NOT JUST POLITICS] Various Christian right wing groups have been trying to organize boycotts of stores that advertise "Holiday Sales" instead of "Christmas Sales," and are creating a ruckus over the White House having a "holiday tree." They feel oppressed because stores say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

That's rich, because Christmas trees have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, and an awful lot to do with Germanic tribal tree-worship. Yule is the name of a pagan god. There's no evidence in the Bible, even indirectly, that Jesus was born around the Winter Solstice (the evidence is for some time in spring), but a lot of earlier Middle Eastern gods were born then, and the Romans celebrated Saturn (hence, Saturnalia, his orgiastic feast) around then. Fundamentalist Christians used to close their churches at Christmas to avoid celebrating a fundamentally pagan holiday. Anyway, Jesus's birth isn't the main event, is it? His resurrection is. Everyone's born. No one else came back on the third day.

What's behind this seems to be that some Christians in North America like to feel persecuted and oppressed. This, in spite of being the dominant religion. Christianity was born as a religion of the oppressed, and it has always worked best that way. Few right wing Christians want to feel that they're telling other people what to do. They would much rather feel that they are being prevented from living the way they want to. That's why you got all those rumors about how if Al Gore was elected President, the bible would be banned from bookstores, churches wouldn't be tax-free any more, and kids wouldn't be allowed to wear crosses in schools, and so on. The US won't be a secular society, they fear, it will become an atheistic society.

And we have always been at war with Eurasia.

(There's an interesting argument in Kai Erikson's Wayward Puritans that the Puritans had a witchcraft crisis because they needed an Other. They'd been persecuted in England, but now, in the New World, had no Other to define them; Indians didn't count. So they had to push some people out of the community in order to be able to define themselves by what they were not.)

On the other side, meanwhile, liberals are scared their kids will be forced to say Christian prayers at public school, and gays were scared during the AIDS crisis that they would be rounded up, and Democrats fear that the Republicans won't leave office even if they actually lose an election.

What's the screenwriting connection with all this?

Villains.

If reasonably intelligent people can have diametrically opposed views on issues like these, to the point of deep suspicion and paranoia, then surely you can give your villain a better self-explanation than "because I'm evil." A villain who has a convincing explanation for his deeds is so much scarier than a smirking cartoon villain, because he is that much more real. And the point of my little diatribe about the Christian right is that these guys are fundamentally good people who are nice to each other, who pray, who care about the poor and downtrodden. But they think liberals are out to destroy them, and feel they have to take action to save themselves. Meanwhile, liberals, who are also fundamentally good people who are nice to each other, who also pray, and care about the poor and downtrodden, feel that the Christian right is out to destroy them. And feel they have to seriously discuss taking action.

There's almost no side you can pick that you can't come up with a convincing argument for.

As Lisa points out, Aaron Sorkin did that really well in The West Wing. The show is unabashedly liberal. But the Republicans on the show give liberalism an unabashed pounding. I dare say the Republicans on The West Wing are just as far beyond real Republicans in their patriotism, integrity and intelligence as the Democrats on the show are above real Democrats.

That said, sure, the occasional cartoon villain is refreshing in a popcorn movie. But trying giving your villain such a convincing argument that the audience, for one brief moment at least, almost starts to take his side. That may work better.


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Tea at the Ford, a slightly arcane Buffy site run by someone whose avatar is an obscure Irish war goddess, has some insightful posts on my favorite sf program that I ever wrote for, Charlie Jade.

How much more interest does our show have to generate before Sci Fi relents and picks the damn show up? Or Bob puts it out on DVD?

UPDATE: Robert makes the brilliant suggestion of releasing CJ as a mobile screen video download for video iPods and European cell phones. I sent it along to our showrunner and our network exec. It would get us a small revenue stream, cost nothing, and increase awareness. And anyone who digs it on iPod is still going to want to see it on their 27" TV. Thanks, Robert!

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Friday, December 09, 2005

CTVW: Good point. So, why do writers go into comics?
JR: Your stuff gets produced. Look, every writer is just a storyteller who wants to tell a goddamn story. And with comics, you can see the micromarket succeed. Look at Dark Horse. Everyone gets paid. No one gets rich. Low print runs. Say five to seven thousand an issue. And you can build an audience on that. Granted, it's still a hackload of cash someone has to cough up to get a book going. But it's a smaller hackload.
CTVW: I find the huge amount of mythos out there daunting. How the hell do you write when there's this intricate backstory involving thousands of issues that may involve your character?
JR: You're talking about the capes. On Blue Beetle, we don't keep track of the continuity. Keith [Giffen] has a great saying: consistency, not continuity. BB has to keep the same personality. If you ask me, "But what about issue 635 of this series, he did this and now you have him doing that" ... I don't care. He's the same person. ... Fortunately, our series is set in El Paso, Texas. That's where the magic scarab shows up. So the first call isn't going to be to the JLA watchtower. One of the big guys will fly through now and then, but at a certain point everyone's in Metropolis. So many writers try to handle "their guy meets Superman." And there just isn't that much you can do with that.
CTVW: So you're safe because you're in flyover land.
JR: Literally. Just tell good stories. Find the essence of the characters.
CTVW: What do you learn from writing for comics?
JR: Brevity.
CTVW: Right.
JR: You basically have five panels on a page. That's five angles, five pictures. Imagine shooting a film, you have just five angles for every scene, and a minute for that scene. Comics have to move. You learn how much you can do through dialog, action and framing.
CTVW: What can't you do in comics?
JR: Well, Scott McCloud has this idea that what happens in comics really happens in the gutters between the frames. Because you don't actually get motion. On TV you can have a smile flicker across a character's face. In comics, if she's smiling, she's smiling for that whole frame. She'll always be smiling in that frame. On the other hand, with comics the audience brings more of their imagination. On TV the story is always the same. What you see is all that's there. In comics, you have to fill in the moments between the panels.
CTVW: And you can't change the shape of the frame. You can't have a vertical panel or a splash panel.
JR: No.
CTVW: How have comics and the comics audience changed?
JR: Well, the comics audience has NOT changed. You get a lot of "why can't comics be good like back when Mom was alive?" sort of thing. Basically there are two generations of comics fans. There are you Marvel diehards who've been reading since they were kids. And then you have the new anime bring-ins. They go to Barnes & Noble and read the manga section. There's not a lot of crossover. In BB, we're writing for fans of the American comic book. It's hard. It's hard getting people to pick up anything printed in a digital age. You know, more guys under 25 play sports games on Xbox than watch sports? It's a tough world to sell pulp paper in. Even if you look at Marvel, they're getting only 20% of their revenues from comics. The rest is licensing to videogames, movies, and toys. But when it works, it's something you can only do in print.
CTVW: So in a sense, the printed comics are a farm team for the movies. They create the characters and then sell them to the movies. They only print the comics so they can have something to throw on a studio exec's desk -- because a studio exec will actually read a comic.
JR: Yeah. You don't have coverage for a comic. Well, comics are part of the resources that the big movie monster eats. Because they're a complete package: characters, plotline, visual style. They get directors excited, and directors get things made.

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Just got a query from a reader who's written something about a serial killer. I just gotta say, the moment I read "serial killer," I want to click the remote. This sub-genre has been done to death. I am soooooooo bored by scripts and movies about serial killers. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that there have been more serial killers on screen than there have been in real life.

I think what's much more interesting, if you're morbid, is plain old murder among friends. What causes someone to go over the brink and kill someone they know? Serial killers are just bonkers. You can pretend to get into the mind of a serial killer, but they're a bit cartoonish, even if they do really exist.

Murderers, though. Murderers are often normal people who paint their mind into a corner and come up with the fatal decision that killing someone is easier than, say, divorcing them. And it is, in the short run. It's just that you can never undo it, and it will ruin your life one way or another, even if you're never convicted. A Simple Plan did a great job of that: people who just keep making fatal short term decisions they can never reclaim.

Yes, Hollywood still makes serial killer movies. But unless you have something so extraordinarily fresh and unique and new that no one has ever thought of it, and no one can imagine thinking of it, you're probably wasting your time. I would add that my guess is 99% of serial killer movies are written by people who don't truly love serial killer movies. You cannot write a great serial killer movie unless you are the kind of person who rushes right out and watches any new serial killer movie. Just like I will rush out and watch practically any science fiction or fantasy movie unless I know for sure it absolutely sucks.

You have to love what you're writing, or no one else will, either.

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Q. I've written a thriller that hinges on [scientific discovery]. With [scientific discovery] being in the news, will this make my script useless, or will my script be topical because the science is in the news.
Hopefully, what you've written is a compelling thriller with moral and emotional undercurrents. [Scientific discovery] may be in the news. But it's just bald science and procedure. What makes a great movie is a great story that puts one compelling character through storm and stress. The science being in the news probably helps since it makes readers pick your script out of the stack. And, if you're the first script about it, it may amount to a hook. What gets your script actually made is a great story. Science will never trump a great story. We use stories to make sense of our changing world.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

More of my interview with John Rogers...

CTVW: How do comic book stories compare with TV stories?
JR: One thing that's changed since they've started collecting comics in trade paperbacks is a sense of the continuing series. In a way each adventure of two or three books is one episode of TV. Some guys in comics don't buy that -- get your filthy video metaphors out of my art. But in some ways, each comic book issue is one act of a TV show. At the same time, you tell a complete story, establish a complete rhythm within each book. Each issue has to feel like a story even if it's part of a bigger story.
CTVW: A comic book adventure can take place over six to twelve issues. TV shows are either episodic, where each story is resolved at the end of the hour, or they have a season arc, where all the stories aren't resolved until the end of the 22 episodes that make up the season. Do you think any TV shows will go to the adventure/episode format, with story arcs of six to twelve episodes?
JR: Well, some shows are evolving that way because a lot of shows are going to 13 eps a season. Rome, for example. So two seasons of Rome is one season of Lost in terms of structure. TV as a whole is in a rough transition going from episodic stories. Some series adapt, some don't. There's a paradigm shift. TV isn't really TV any more, not in the broadcast sense. People are timeshifting on their TiVo's, they're buying the DVDs, they're downloading.
CTVW: And to pick up what you said, the British model is series with six episode seasons.
JR: And there's an awful lot of really good TV in those six eps. Of course they work in a different format. British actors will take any job. They don't have the showrunner structure, as you've written about. The show is a much more limited idea, and the stories are what are driving it. Really, six episodes you can bang out in a couple of weeks.
CTVW: We did eight on Naked Josh. Felt like a lot of work to get it up and running, and then we were already done.
JR: Eight feels like exactly the wrong number.
CTVW: On the show we're developing now we've got 13, thank God. Which feels ideal, because I suspect you can get enough episodes in the bank before you go into prep that when you inevitably fall behind, by the time you're out of stocked episodes, your season is over. But if you're doing 22, you've still got nine more to do.
JR: And then you're f****d. Galactica does batches of ten. They know they're doing 22. But they do 10 every six months. That gives everyone a breather. You're still gonna shoot all 22 but you're going to start getting lost in the batch once you're in ep 11 ... why not just end it there, wait for the midseason hooha to die down, come back in January while everyone's waiting for sweeps. I think it's much smarter. Of course, Galactica is financed oddly. It's a SkyOne-Sci Fi international coproduction. I was talking to an exec at the WB about The 4400. He was saying, "We always hate those networks who only advertise one show at a time." That's like, "Damn those natives and their dirty jungle fighting. Why don't they come out and fight like gentlemen?" You know what their big lesson was this year? The lesson they got out of it was, "You can make only one show a hit." That's the lesson they learned. Whether it's My Name is Earl or Supernatural on WB. That's the rocket science? Don't roll out one show at a time and get it right. Blow your whole advertising budget on one show while everyone else is also rolling out their big shows, and know you can only get one hit.
CTVW: So what's going on? Because network execs aren't stupid people when they go into those jobs.
JR: No, they're not.
CTVW: So what is it? Something in the Red Bull?
JR: I think we're still dealing with the last of the 70's and 80's people. They're used to these huge ratings. One of my showrunners on Cosby, David Landsberg, was talking about CSI. They have a 22 share. It's huge. That would have got you canceled in the early 90's. ER's down to a 14 share. But you've got me distracted talking about TV.

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The BBC has thoughtfully posted screenplay templates. I haven't checked'em out, meself -- lemme know if they seem okay.

Via Screen Play, which ironically is a blog by a game designer.

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[POLITICS] According to the Times, the Democrats are discussing holding some presidential primaries between Iowa and New Hampshire.

The problem, of course, is that Iowa is a caucus, so party hacks like Kerry win instead of rabble rousers like Dean; and New Hampshire is an odd, small, rich state with lots of rocks and few minorities. Then we go to states like South Carolina and Massachusetts, which are irrelevant to Democratic political calculus because they're hard red or hard blue. Long before New York goes Republican, the election is already lost. Long before South Carolina goes Democrat, the election is already won. Unfortunately, a candidate can pick up big momentum by sweeping New York and Massachusetts; but the candidate that plays well there may be a lousy candidate nationally.

Seems to me the most important primaries are the three states that decided the last election: Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. These are the big swing states. Win two out of three and you've clinched the election. Win one out of three, and you've lost.

The three first primaries should be Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. The candidates should be judged according to how well they play there. Any candidate that sweeps these states has a good shot at winning the country.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

INTERVIEW WITH JOHN ROGERS

As you know from reading John Rogers' blog, Kung Fu Monkey -- you do read Kung Fu Monkey, right? -- JR not only writes big Hollywood movies where things go boom, he is also a comics fan. He was all set to showrun Global Frequency, based on one of Warren Ellis's relatively cheery and utopian comics (and if you know Ellis's work, you know the term "relative" is doing a lot of heavy lifting there).
Now, he's writing comics. He started with a few of his own Zombie Tales, and now he's writing Blue Beetle with Keith Giffen.

Now, a comic that sells 5000 copies is not doing badly. The biggest comics series sell 100,000 an issue. A movie that sells 100,000 tickets is an unreleasable catastrophe that was only put in theaters to satisfy a clause in a contract. (Or, a mainstream Canadian release. But that's another post. Probably one on Denis's blog.)

So what is John doing writing comics when he could be writing more TV and movies? Is it wealth beyond the dreams of avarice? A need to procrastinate? The angst of the inner fanboy? He was kind enough to agree to another interview.

(NB: I'm going to get all the lingo wrong, so just point out my bads in the comments below and bear with me.)

CTVW: So, what are you writing comics for?
JR: Well, you can make ... fives of thousands of dollars. No, it's that you can get a story into production. In comics the line to production is straight. You write the story, the artist draws it. It's as close to TV as you can get, with the same attractions. You get to arc characters out, build great episodic moments with longer stories. And you're not restrained by budget. It's like the old radio plays.
CTVW: But you could be writing TV instead of the movies. Movies are sort of a one-night stand for the writer, aren't they? All that work to get them into bed and then "bye, gotta go."
JR: Movies have their own allure. It's the difference between writing novels and short stories. Each one has its own charm. There's something attractive about the very form -- the challenge of sketching out a character in that lenght of time. You have basically 15 pages [in a movie] to get everyone up and running, set up the world, create the pace of the world.

On the other hand, yeah, there is the frustration of "Am I still writing this movie??? How many drafts has it been?" Even when you write a sequel, and you love the characters and the world, you still have to let them go. Very few movies go on to be franchises.

They are two distinct styles. On the other hand on TV you start making compromises from the very beginning. There are fewer production compromises in movies. [I.e. in the movies John's writing!] At least, not before shooting. Until then, the movie is the movie, while in TV you always have the budget in the back of your mind. Can this be shot in 8 days? In a movie, you can blow up the world.
CTVW: To what degree do you direct camera in your comics scripts?
JR: Well bear in mind that I have very limited experience. I've worked with like three or four guys. Some of them can nail stuff without my having to mention it.
CTVW: But you call the shots.
JR: Yeah, you have to call the panels. That's one of the challenges of comics. You're basically doing a final edit in the script. Of course, many times the artist will have ideas about that. I get a call from Cully Hamner, the artist on Blue Beetle: "Can I pull this panel from this page onto that page?" or, " I really want to make this a bigger moment -- I want to do this page in 3 panels instead of 5." And sometimes it's, "Can I condense this page?", and I'll say, "No, I need the smaller panels." But usually they're dead on.
[To be continued...]
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Ken Levine has
worked on MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, THE SIMPSONS, WINGS, EVERYONE LOVES RAYMOND, BECKER, DHARMA & GREG, and has co-created his own series including ALMOST PERFECT starring Nancy Travis.
And now he's got a screenwriting blog. I hope he tells us some of his tricks of the trade, as in this post about stupid characters. He knows stuff, that's for sure. But will he put out?

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Interested in writing (or, I suppose, commissioning) a novelization or spin-off book? Wouldn't you know it, there's an Association of Media Tie-In Writers, with their own website, chock-full of articles.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

As soon as I turn this pilot back in, I'm going to write up my fascinating chat with John Rogers on the relationship between comics writing and tv writing. Meanwhile, add Damon Lindelof to the ranks of TV writers who also write comics.

They don't do it for the money, thass for sure. But...
"Damon's opening-page splash for his first episode has the Hulk ripping Wolverine in half," he said. "That's fun. You'd never rip anyone in half on a TV show."
I'm still waiting for a series to try a storyline that lasts more than two or three eps, but less than a whole season. With Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore the story lines seem to last 6 to 12 books. Might be fun to do that on TV.

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It's almost that time of year, and I missed last year.

Anyone know of any blog awards I should enter?

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I haven't written a lot of second episodes -- just two (and one of them aired as #1 in the US, and the other aired as #4!). But DMc is dead on in this post on the problems that confront you in writing the episode after the pilot.

You may not be in any immediate danger of writing a second episode yourself. But the issues in facing a second episode are much like those in writing any spec. You have to show the brilliance of the template and create a story that arises naturally out of it. You have to come up with a story that only this show can tell.

(In fact about the only thing you don't have to do in a spec that you have to do in a second ep is recap who all the characters are for the audience members who missed the pilot.)

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

In this article, Karen Karbo mocks political correctness in the publisher's decision to digitally remove a cigarette from the author's photo in new copies of the children's classic Goodnight, Moon.

Well, whatever. This is a great book. It chokes me up every time I read it.

But there is also something disturbing about the pictures. Has anyone else noticed the following odd things in the child bunny's bedroom:

a. a fireplace
b. a telephone
c. an expensive clock
d. a bookshelf full of hardbound books of various editions

Who puts a telephone in a child's bedroom? It would just wake him up. Who gives a child a room this large? With a fireplace? With burning logs? And two clocks?

There's another clue: the "quiet old lady ... whispering hush."

What I get out of this setup is that she is the child's grandmother. And she is putting up the child bunny in a bedroom meant for adults because those adults are not there.

The parents are not there. And the child is terrified of everything. "Goodnight nobody... goodnight noises everywhere."

The child bunny isn't just visiting. The room has been turned into a child's bedroom. There are now paintings of the cow jumping over the moon and the three little bears. There's a red balloon and a doll's house (with, curiously, the lights on inside.)

I don't think the parents are coming back.

It is a lovely book. But sometimes it scares me.

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[POLITICS]

Today's Washington Post has a horrifying story of a German of Arab descent whom the CIA kidnapped and flew to Afghanistan because they thought he might possibly be a terrorist. And they "wanted a scalp."

If someone's looking for a movie to write, this is fertile territory.

I know some of you think I'm "cartoonishly liberal" (and I appreciate your reading anyway). But kidnapping the citizens of your allies because they're Arabs is terribly risky (not to say criminal) even when they're actually bad guys. When you're going on a hunch, and you're wrong, it is just about the best way to support Al Qaeda that I can think of. Just ask the Mossad about Lillehammer. We cannot win this thing if we're as bad as the jihadis say we are. We win it by being better.

There's a fascinating book by a retired Army interrogator Chris Mackey called The Interrogators which tells how you're supposed to interrogate people if you want the truth. When you torture people they tend to name names -- any names -- like college professors who gave them bad grades. You have to break down their attitudes, not their bodies. Worth reading.

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