Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Q. How do I query Saturday Night Live? I've written some sketches for them.
Ideally you'd have an agent, but barring that, I'd guess you contact either the production office, Lorne Michaels' office, or track down the individual writers and ask them politely if you could send them your two best sketches. They're probably always looking for people who can bring the funny.
Ken, what do you think?
I'm reading Snow on the Desert
, a biography of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, the famous Victorian swordsman, rogue, linguist, sexologist and spy, who sneaked into Mecca disguised as a Moslem, translated the 1001 Nights
and the Kama Sutra
and found Lake Victoria. He spoke perhaps 25 languages fluently, plus 15 more dialects. He even went to Salt Lake City before there was a film festival nearby.
There are at least 5 superb movies that can be made out of his life, and ample source material: biographies, and his own travelogues and translations. Check him out. I promise to buy a ticket.
Monday, January 30, 2006
I'm not negotiating any contracts just now, so it's a good time to talk about my experiences in general over the past 15 years or so.
Contract negotiation is a little dance done between a producer and your agent. Deal points are negotiated. And then a contract comes back.
For some reason, the contract the lawyer sends over almost never matches the negotiated deal points. I don't know why. I guess it's because business affairs people (in-house lawyers for producers) want to prove their worth by getting a better deal than the producer already agreed on with your agent. Do they hope that the agent and writer won't notice that the paper doesn't match the deal? Or, maybe, they hope that it will be so stressful for the writer and their agent that we'll give up some of the deal points that got us working in the first place?
Producers will often try to use your cash flow against you. They offer A up front, but then they delay the paperwork until you're well into the project. When the paperwork shows up, it's A-1, where the minus-one isn't a lower number, but a flock of situations in which they won't have to pay you A after all. They figure that once you've started working, you're not going to walk away. You don't want to look like a diva, after all. You've invested time, which costs money. And you have your creative juices flowing. So you'll just sign.
I imagine a lot of writers do find it hard to keep fighting for what may seem odd eventualities -- closing loopholes, or definitions of profits or royalty revenue that may never come. I spent 10 years as a development exec writing contracts and putting in loopholes; and I have a little money in the bank, so I'm never freaking out about my next check. So I'm a stickler for getting what I was originally offered. Sometimes I think producers have found themselves paying me more than they expected, because they were counting on bait-and-switch, and I'd rather fight than switch.
Doesn't mean I threaten to stop working. I just keep working full out, and let my agents continue the haggling.
The key is to remember that they can't really walk away. They can make you think they can, but they can't. If they're Guild, they will have to show the Guild a contract at the end of the day; they can't hire you, get you working, and then walk away. Even if they're not Guild, the thing to remember is that you actually do HAVE a contract, just not a written and executed one. Contrary to what Sam Goldwyn said ("An oral contract isn't worth the paper it's written on"), when someone offers you terms, and then you accept and start working, that constitutes a contract. (The legal term is that you are operating "in reliance". The fact that your started working constitutes acceptance of their offer.)
If you are fortunate enough to be writing a film going into production, remember that the last thing they need is to set the whole show back by however long you've been working, and then have to find a new writer who can't use any of your material
-- which, even if not perfect, almost certainly contains elements of the direction the director and producer want to take it. But even if you're not in production, it will still be awkward for them if they don't have a contract. That means they can't use your work. Any of it. No matter what they say, it is not worth it to them to be in a situation where you can sue to stop the eventual movie because they haven't bought your work. They won't be able to complete their "chain of title" without your signature on a piece of paper, and that means none of the banking will go through.
So, either because of the oral contract, or their need for an eventual chain of title, or out of fear of the Guild, they will ultimately sign. As will you, because you're not a diva and you are not trying to make anyone's life unnecessarily difficult. So if you stick it out for the terms you agreed to, you'll get them.
So I just keep smiling and working full steam ahead and letting my agent repeat, "No, that's not what we agreed on," until it sinks it.
Remember, if they are revising the terms to suit them, you can do the same. You can't raise the original numbers, but if there are aspects of your contract that you haven't negotiated yet, you are now in a position to insist on clearing up the ambiguities in your favor, rather than in the producer's favor. You can get a better net profits definition, or clarify that the number of scripts you are guaranteed do not include the original development order, or whatever.
It's crucial in negotiations to get things written down. If you or your agent gets agreement with the producer on certain terms, I think it's wise to follow it up with an email saying "Here's what I think we agreed to, please confirm." Then if there's so-called "confusion" later on the producer's part, months later, you can point to the email and say, "No, that's not what we agreed on." Even if they don't respond to the email, it's part of the record that this is what you were agreeing to.
Sunday, January 29, 2006
What should I read? And why?
Patrick Moss, who's working on the show with Mr. Mamet, was kind enough to forward this article about The Unit
, David Mamet's new TV show. Aside from being informative, it is just a beautifully written article.
Saturday, January 28, 2006
I have two jobs. One of them is writer. The other is my agents' manager.
I imagine there are people (like John August, say) whose agents only have to field requests for his services, and ask for the right big numbers. For the rest of us, that is what our agents would like
to do, but it is not what we
would like them to be doing. We want them out beating the bushes to get us jobs and to sell our material.
Any good agent should be willing to go out with your feature spec, if they have faith in the script. "Going out" with your spec, practically, means calling the 30-40 development people who matter -- someone at Morgan Creek, someone at Imagine, someone at 1492, etc. -- and letting them know that your hot new spec is coming out on Tuesday the 13th and do they want it. Then they smack 30-40 copies of your script into envelopes on Monday night and hand them to Go-Between (a messenger service) and wait for calls back. Within 48 hours you either have a big spec sale or a couple of meetings or nothing.
That's not the hard work either. The hard work is getting people to read your unsold feature when it's not part of a hot spec fire sale -- getting it to producers and directors when it's been "exposed" already. The hard work in TV is getting you read by network execs and production companies so that you are considered for staff jobs or, failing that, free lance scripts.
You can trust they'll do that, but trust is not a virtue in showbiz.
Neither, on the other hand, is being a nudge. Managing your agent is not the same as nagging your agent.
The difference is teamwork. I try to work as my agents' teammate. For starters, when I talk about jobs and, especially, money, I say "we." They owe "us" the money. This reminds both my agent and me that we're in the same boat. I get paid, she gets paid.
Then, I try to point her to places she may not have thought of. I'll email or call and say, "Hey, have they read me over at Rhombus?" or "How about sending Medieval
to Equinoxe?" Agents hate making cold calls as much as anyone else. They'd rather work with people they know. My job is to track who she's sent my stuff to, and ask around and see if there's anyone she's missed, and ask her about the people she's missed. Then I have to trust her if she says some company is not worth sending material to (going into bankruptcy, pain in the ass to work for, thieves, unreliable, unpleasant, whatever).
I regularly email my agents with a list of outstanding issues: directors I'm hoping to meet, contracts that need negotiating, production companies I need an introduction to. Then I call and go through all the issues, about once a week. Then I send a recap email: okay, I'm going to call these guys, you're going to call these guys.
I make a point of only asking my agents to do those things she can do much better than I. For example, it is not useful for me to call producers out of the blue. It's amateurish. That's what agents do. On the other hand, if I've already met a producer or a development person, I can usefully check in with them. They know who I am.
Do as much as you can do on your own. But hand off the ball to the agent when they've got a better shot. That's the essence of it.
Don't stop selling yourself to your agents. Always be upbeat when you talk to them, even if your career is sucking. Any time you have good news, let your agent know. Never stop telling them positive stories about yourself. When they call producers on your behalf, those positive stories are their ammunition, even if they're not immediately related to the sale. ("You know he has a book coming out in May?")
Finally, never stop letting them know how much you appreciate their work. They're human, y'know. And no one appreciates a compliment more than someone who's always having to give them out for other people.
Friday, January 27, 2006
Mac has finally made the big leap. OS 10.4 (Intel flavor) can run (actually dual-boot!) on a Windows box
. This is what they shoulda done in 1981. If Mac can make the leap from hardware company to a company based on an operating system -- as Microsoft is -- maybe they can win over a much bigger market share. Certainly Windows boxen have always been cheaper than Powerbooks.
[POLITICS] Turns out Oprah and Random House had plenty of warning that James Frey was a big fat liar
. Random House swore up and down that they'd investigated. But they hadn't.
Sure, they wanted to sell books. Specifically Frey's editor had a hit. But it's a question of corporate culture. You can bet that if Proctor & Gamble had had the book, they'd've really truly investigated it, and then yanked it out of every bookstore. Or at least sent warning labels that the book should be shelved as fiction.
I'm heartsick at how little people seem to care these days when they're being lied to or secrets are being kept from them. The government apparently feels that it's safe to hide its screwups over Katrina -- to flat out refuse to reveal what happened -- or to hide photographs of Bush with Jack Abramoff -- or to hide which oil execs advised Cheney on oil policy. Then there are the lies about Saddam's involvement with Al Qaeda. But people's attitude seems to be a shrug: "all politicians are liars." Which is of course their tendency, but it is a tendency that they are willing to fight when their constituents insist on it. Jimmy Carter got elected on a platform of "I will never lie to you," and sure enough, he didn't. Wasn't a great president, but at least he told you when he screwed up.
I wonder if this is a temporary aberration, and the voters will demand that the next president, be he John McCain or John Warner, actually inform them what he's doing, and how. If you don't expect truth from your ten-year-old, you won't get it. And politicians are no better.
Thursday, January 26, 2006
I hadn't been reading Philip Morton
lately, so I missed a bunch of posts you may find useful. Doesn't post often, but high signal to noise. Check him out if you haven't read him lately.
Today was a bit of a rough day, with some not-particularly-good news on one big project. On the other hand some animators I'm working with have vastly improved and refined their idea -- we're hoping to do an animated comic for the Net and/or mobile content. And I came up with four pages of rough plot for a story a director would like me to pitch to Telefilm for him. And we sold (in the moral not the financial sense) a fun concept to the producer handling Lisa's BookShort. And we did get authorized to write Script #2 on Exposure
... and my agent sent over a verrrry tasty bottle of wine...
... okay, wait a second. Actually today was a pretty good birthday, wasn't it? We were just in the thick of it throughout the day. And now I'm very tired. And vastly looking forward to going to a fancy restaurant called Club Chasse et Peche tonight. And relaxing.
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Find Your Own Masterpiece
The New Collector
Anyone Can Have an Art Collection
Secrets of the Art Market
Shopping the Art Market
Anyone like any of these better than How to Buy the Next Picasso or You Can Buy Art?
The big question in the wake of the Canadian election is whether the Conservatives will gut the Canadian-content regulations in the Canadian broadcast industry. Since Canadian shows really can't compete head-to-head with American TV content, these regs are the only thing keeping Canadian drama alive.
I'm of two minds about culture regs. On the one hand any time you start handing out money to creative people, they will think of creative ways to get their hands on the money. The result may be more what they're interested in doing than what people want to see.
On the other hand, governments starting with ancient kings have known that culture is what binds a society together. And you don't get culture if you don't pay for it. And there are synergistic benefits to having culture that add up to more than individuals are willing to pay. In other words culture is like the roads: if each person had to pay for their own section of roads, we'd have dirt paths and no bridges. If you hand culture off to the free market, you wind up with an impoverished society.
So I'm hoping the Conservatives won't have enough clout with their minority to gut all the Canadian-content regs in broadcast TV, as they surely would love to do.
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
With How to Buy Art
scotched by some Aussie, damn him, here are our top two contenders. What do you guys think?How to Buy the Next Picasso (Or the Last One)
You Can Buy Art
Bonus points for guessing who likes which!
Every writer needs one of these
Instead of those ugly rings, these mugs leave beautiful floral stains when your coffee or tea drips down their sides.
Monday, January 23, 2006
One gag we had to take out of Charlie Jade
was introducing the Norns -- the three geeks working for Vexcor, Skuldeman, Urding and Verdandi -- when they were setting up a trans-universal TiVo so they could watch all the SF movies that had been greenlit in other universes...
Comics are sort of my trans-universal TiVo these days. If you want SF and fantasy that hasn't been greenlit, DC Vertigo's comics lines are a good place to start. You all know about Sandman
, I'm assuming. I mean, you have
. Can't be culturally literate without. Of course I've been waiting for someone else to convincingly create a whole world and its mythology.
Lately I've been reading and loving Hellboy
. Mike Mignola's doing sort of the pulp version of what Neil Gaiman did, synthesizing his own miniature cultural world and telling stories in it. In this case it's ancient mysticism and Nazis and Nazi hunters meets the X-Men. Nothing so erudite as Gaiman, but who is? But -- being his own artist and all -- Mignola has an amazing visual sense. If you can't see the movie, you're reading too fast.
This week's assigned texts: any Hellboy
graphic novel; Sandman: A Season of Mists
if somehow you haven't already read it.
Sunday, January 22, 2006
Patrick Moss writes, in essence:
Q. Why isn't Saturday Night Live funny any more?
This is one of the great unsolved mysteries of my generation. It's not that what I found funny at 20 I no longer find funny. Samurai Hotel is still funny. As are the Bees sketches. As are the "wild and crazy guys." As is Roseanne Roseannadanna, may she rest in peace. As late as "Wayne's World" the jokes were pointed inwards.
To me the change seems to be in the kind of humor. The SNL I watched and loved was goofy absurdist humor. The SNL I occasionally click past seems to be mean-spirited embarrassment humor, e.g. the "buh-bye" routine, the "It's Pat" routine, etc.
Is it that the audience now wants that? Or is it that Lorne Michaels is hiring a different flavor of writer? There've gotta be people still writing goofy.
Does anyone have any insider knowledge about what happened here? Did Lorne's wife leave him, or something?
Saturday, January 21, 2006
Still in recovery from my opioid pain patch, meaning my feet feel squirmy and I feel a little sick -- though I'm not. But a lot better than last night, which was seriously bad news.
I don't want to imagine what it must be like to go off a morphine drip after, say, a major operation. Not to mention going off junk. When all you can think about is your pain, or your addiction, I'd call that hellish. It was borderline hellish to go off a few milligrams of fentanyl. And yet there really wasn't a better option when my shoulder started freezing up -- that was almost hellish too.
Chronic physical pain seems to be something we don't talk about onscreen much. What is there to say about it? It's not a story point. What someone will do or refuse to do to avoid acute pain when they're being tortured -- that's the materials of story. But ongoing pain that just simply makes life worse, I rarely see. (The only thing that comes to mind is Big Pussy's bad back, which nearly got him whacked because his pals didn't believe it.)
If you're in pain, you're not supposed to whine about it. No one really knows how much someone else's pain hurts. Is it that bad or are they just being a sissy? I consider myself to have a fairly high tolerance for pain, but when my frozen shoulder had me crying, I wondered if that was true.
So pain is invisible for the most part to people who aren't in pain. And yet a lot of people are in chronic pain. They're practically an invisible minority, to go by the sales of painkillers. How are their lives different? How are their stories different? What stories are we not telling when we forget about them?
Something to think about when you walk the dog.
Oh, and if you have a really, really big dog, and you have to yank on his leash -- put the leash across your body and yank that way. Do NOT yank from the shoulder. Trust me on this one.
It looks like How to Buy Art
(new title a-coming) is in serious contention for the Bookshorts
program. This is another nifty government-funded program for making a short film about your book, with an author q&a in the back. Helpful if you want to introduce yourself and your book to booksellers, or for speaking engagements, or just to put up on Bravo so people remember the book.
KJC sends me this link to a pile of Lost first season shooting scripts
. Worth a look, especially if you're speccing the show.
Friday, January 20, 2006
Telefilm is supporting further development on our show Exposure
, so we'll be writing at least a second script...
Thursday, January 19, 2006
I spent much of the day wanting badly to go to sleep, and feeling generally useless. If this is going off the pain patch slowly (I'm down to one patch every six days from one every thing), I think I'm going to try going cold turkey. It could be a lot less pleasant than this, but it'll be shorter ... and I'll be up and running, I hope, by the time anything happens on one or another of the projects I have out there.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
My friend Ezra sends me this:
The Montreal Film Group's mission is to bring together Montreal film and TV folks who are eager to be part of a thriving - and growing - community. To do this, we promote networking and learning through a stimulating slate of events.
MFG members consist of film/TV producers, writers, directors, editors, animators, composers, PMs, actors, crew members, agents, news reporters, set designers, recent grads, and more. We create monthly opportunities to meet new people that go beyond the traditional cocktail party setting and vary in size and purpose: there are how-to nights, live interviews with industry personalities, small dinner parties, and more.
We have a considerable collection of useful links to share and often receive job openings to post. We like to promote local film screenings. We're currently securing industry sponsors who will offer discounts and other advantages to our members. We keep the group up to date by periodic email newsletters and through our website.
We invite you to learn more about us on our brand new website. There, you'll find more details about the events we organize, what we're all about, and who we are. It will take you mere seconds to become part of the group by signing up at the JOIN section the site, and it's free of charge. Sound too good to be true? It isn't. There's no catch.
Finally, we also invite you to please come out on Tuesday, January 31st for the official MFG 2006 Launch Party!
-Catch up with friends and associates, old and new.
-Get the lowdown on what's in store for the MFG in 2006
-Show off your Moon Boots
Date: Tuesday, January 31st, 2006
Time: 7:00pm - 10:00pm+
Place: Shaika Café and Bar, 5526 Sherbrooke West
Directions: In NDG (corner Old Orchard; metro Vendome, bus 105) (482-3898)
Entry fee: None
Dunno what's up with the Moon Boots, but feel free to check it out if you're local.
A story is like a murder. You don't need to make it perfect. You just need to get away with it.
I'm editing DMc
here a bit, but I like it.
Almost any good story you want to tell has plotholes. You can't avoid'em. It's a mistake to waste your time trying to make your plot bulletproof. The audience knows you're writing fiction. ... But there are things you can do to get away with them. Those tricks for getting away with murder are part of a writer's craft.
Meanwhile, it is January here in Montreal and it is raining
. WTF??? The water is supposed to be white and fluffy when it comes out of the sky!
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Hah! I just discovered that my new book is up at Amazon. You can now pre-order Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box
. Just ten bucks and change!
Labels: books, reading
My friend Martine
let me know I'm quoted in this article
in Montreal's La Presse
. (It's in French.) Basically I point out that when you write your blog, you should apply more or less the old rule for writing a love letter -- don't write anything that would embarrass you at the divorce hearing. Also I suggest that employers who don't like what their employees are writing would do better to talk to them about it than fire them -- because among other things if you fire a blogger, his sad tale of woe will immediately spread across the blogosphere, and cause much more bad press than his blog could have in the first place.
What should your spec script title page look like? Should it say "spec script based on [name of show]"? Should it have all the producers and the "Property of ..." and all the stuff the script supervisor puts on it?
No, and no. It should look like a script from the show -- there shouldn't be a hint that this is not an actual spec of the show. So if the protocol for a Gray's Anatomy
is title of show in caps, vertically centered, underlined, then name of episode in quotes, that's what you do:
"Name of my episode"
by Your Name Here
If they don't underline the name of the show, don't underline it.
However, on the bottom of the page you put your contact info (or your agent puts her contact info). You don't need to put in all the stuff scripts wind up with once they leave the writer's room, e.g. the names of every producer attached to the show, the production number of the episode, the revisions or the disclaimer:Blue Revisions 10 August 2006
Third Draft 07/28/06
Pink Draft 8/06/06
No portion of this script may be perpetrated, or reproduced by any means, or quotated, or published in any medium without prior written consent of HEAP BIG PRODUCERS INC. Copyright © 2006 - All rights reserved
Don't put that stuff. 'Cause it don't apply.
On feature spec scripts, by the way, I like to keep my title page simple. Everything's in courier 12. Just the name of the script, my name, and my contact info. I don't put the title in Morpheus or Visitation 18. No art. No quotes. Jess the fax.
UPDATE: DMc points out below that it's "Grey's Anatomy" not "Gray's." Don't mispell your show's name, eh? "Gray's Anatomy" is a movie starring Spalding Gray.
Labels: rights, spec scripts
Danny Stack has a useful post on getting a job in TV
. Though it's primarily about getting into British TV, it has useful info for alla yez. As does his followup
about jobs in film. Working Title
have an internship whose application deadline is Feb 22, says Danny, for example. (But where's the link, Dan?)Shooting People
also looks like it might be helpful if you're hoping to break in. Giz a full report, please.
Monday, January 16, 2006
This looks promising. Anyone read it?
Q. I'm a 37-year-old successful software engineer.But that was always my fallback. I always really wanted to go into the movies. One day I'd like to sell a spec script with an eye to getting assignments. Am I barking up the wrong tree?
Well, your age isn't going to help any. Showbiz is a business for the young, and development execs don't often like to hire writers who remember pop songs from before they were born, unless they're veterans who've made their bones.
There are two ways to get on the list for assignments. One is to make a Big Kickass Spec Sale. Sell a script for half a mil, and you are suddenly on the list.
The other is to work your way slowly into the biz, impressing development execs with your craft and your "takes" on projects they give you to look at. Eventually you hit a point where all the guys on the list are not available, and they hire you.
You can waste a lot of time trying the second route. A lot
of time. But it's possible. Unfortunately if you're working as a software engineer, realistically, you're going to have to make the big spec sale, because you can't do all the meetings.
It will help if the big spec sale is something that plays off who you are now, e.g. if you're a 37-year-old woman, then something like Thelma and Louise
(supposedly a "first script," but hah) will leverage your skillz better than an action hero vehicle. So when you think up your specs, make sure you have a killer hook which makes the most of who you
Sunday, January 15, 2006
Watched the E.R.
pilot, which now seems slowly paced. It struck me how the technology of the medical ensemble show has improved since 1994. In the pilot we see a dozen plus patients but we don't get to follow any of them (it is, after all, an emergency room); and all the cases are who you'd expect. There's a guy who got cancer from -- wait for it -- smoking. There's a baby who's been beaten. A pregnant underage girl. A pretty girl who o.d.'s. Every go-to in the book, if you will. Compare that to Gray's Anatomy
where the medical problem is often not what the doctor thinks it is first time around, or House
, where the patient is lying
There's something to be said about throwing all the clichés into your pilot, though. Josh Schwartz remarked that he put every glamour soap cliché into his pilot for The OC
. Clichés work, after all. In E.R.
you start with a patient who flatlines. They put the paddles on her and she's okay. There's a baby that's born after, honestly, very little fuss as these things go. These are two things that always
get me, a patient who comes back after flatlining and a baby crying for the first time. If those don't get you, check your pulse; you may not be human. And after all the only requirement of a pilot is that it gets the audience to tune in for the second episode. You can bet in the Exposure
pilot, which is about models, we have a fashion show. And pretty girls in lingerie. And some other big ole Things We Wanna See in a Model Show.
So don't be afraid to go for the throat the first time out. Or you may not get a second time out.
Saturday, January 14, 2006
Having finally had a chance to dip into one of Creative Screenwriting's podcasts
while walking my dog, I can recommend downloading a few to your iPod. In the History of Violence
podcast you can learn a fair amount in a few moments of conversation about agents and advice and how you get to be one of those guys they call for adaptations...
Friday, January 13, 2006
... the doggie had a lump under his skin, that the groomer said had grown over the past month.
Fortunately, it turned out to be a big lump of pure fat. Dogs apparently get stray lumps of fat.
I've been stressed all day, but I'm feeling better now.
My girlfriend's weird. One day she asked me, "If you could know how and when you were going to die, would you want to know?" I said, "No." She said, "Okay, forget it."
I just read Josh Friedman's two posts (one
) about his run-in with kidney cancer, and as a forty-two-year old guy, cancer scares the crap out of me. Well, everything about my increasing decrepitude scares me. I've been suffering from a frozen shoulder (two, actually, in a row) for the past few years and even that little amount of pain is fairly debilitating.
An old guy once explained to me that if you're over seventy and you wake up without pain, you're dead.
He is now waking up without pain.
All my life I have been driven by fear of death. I think that's part of where the writing comes from: the need to make some impression on the world before I'm gone. Kids and contributions to the culture allow you to live on.
I take some comfort in the notion that if I were dying, I don't think I'd be doing much different. I'd self-publish my novel, just 'cause. I'd surf less, I hope. Blog more. I'd still be trying to get the same shows on the air. I'd be polishing the same feature screenplays I'm working on now. I'd probably play with my daughter a little more. I'd write her a very long letter, or maybe record myself on tape, for when she's older. I'd be a little more focused on getting things polished and skip all the careeer-building stuff. But mostly the same.
I think you know you're hitting your stride when oncoming death or a million bucks wouldn't change what you're doing. And that's a good feeling.
Now I just have to stop watching medical shows.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
I'm not getting any hits off these handy Technorati tags, so I'm gonna cut'em. If you like'em, and think I should keep trying to tag my posts, lemme know. Thanks.
Vote early, and often.
CTV has a poll: "Should funding for the Canadian film and television be a priority in this election?"
. It's a silly poll, 'cause it's at CTV, which obviously would like it to be a priority. Plus the question is phrased ambiguously -- prioritize discussing it? Or prioritize funding? Plus, obviously, funding the biz is not really a priority, in the sense of there are far more important things, like health care; the more important question is, priority or no, "should funding be increased or maintained or reduced." I don't care if culture's the last thing in the budget or the first, so long as it's funded; it's just not that big an item.
But hey, support Canadian culture! Vote yes!
Even if you're American! Especially if you're American!
I've been listening to bits and pieces of the Alito confirmation hearings, and it's fascinating to hear very smart people talk at cross purposes -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes just because of the chair they're sitting in.
A senator asks Alito if Roe v. Wade
is the "settled law" of the land. Alito says it's a ruling that has the weight of 30 years behind it, it has been upheld repeatedly, and people have been relying on it for years. But is it "settled law", asks the Senator. Well, no, says Alito, cases keep coming in front of the Supreme Court, so to that extent it's not settled. Well that worries me that you wouldn't consider Roe v. Wade
settled law, says the Senator...
A senator asks if someone's been convicted and is going to be executed, and last-minute DNA evidence exonerates him, is it unconstitutional to execute him? And Alito goes into a detailed discussion of what the guy should do to avoid being executed.
The senators are talking politics. Alito is talking law. They are at cross purposes. The senator wants Alito to say (or fail to say) that he'd uphold Roe v. Wade
. Alito is discussing whether it is in fact, settled law. I have to side with him on this legalistic point: it is obviously not settled law since cases relating to it keep coming before the Court. The senator wants Alito to say that executing an innocent man is a Bad Thing, but he's asked Alito whether it's constitutional. The Constitution says it's illegal to deprive someone of rights without due process. It does not say it is illegal to deprive an innocent man of his right provided the poor sumbitch has been given due process. It is wrong to execute an innocent man, but it is perfectly "constitutional."
The point here, in a screenwriting blog, is that people are often talking about different things. They think they're in the same conversation, but they're not. They're hearing what they expect to hear and interpreting it accordingly.
This is a classic comedy situation: Lazar Wolf visits Tevye to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage; Tevye thinks Lazar wants to buy one of his cows. Hilarity ensues.
But it's also a way to inject reality into dramatic situations. People tend to behave as if everyone is equally interested in what they themselves are focused on. Have your coroner take a morbid fascination in the corpse, or compliment her beauty. But more than that, have your secondary characters talk at cross purposes to your protagonist. Make your protagonist have to pull them into the conversation she
wants rather than the conversation they think
they're in. And so on.
Q. Why is it that the majority of magazines etc. that cover screenwriting focus almost entirly on writing for film? Creative Screenwriting, Script, etc rarely cover TV writing and if they do it is only a small article or once a year during staffing season. Is it simply because Joe Schmo in Little Rock, AK can't break into TV writing...but can still possibly get rich quick with that amazing spec feature sale?
I think you've partly answered it. It's much easier to imagine breaking in with a great spec script. You cannot break into television with a great tv spec or two -- you positively need to be in Los Angeles during staffing season and take meetings and 'rock in the room'. Also, if you succeed, you have now won the right to work in a TV writer's room for 14+ hours a day; while with a movie spec, you could theoretically stay in Little Rock, just in a much nicer house.
The realities of the two worlds are much closer, of course. If you sold your spec, your agent would want you to move to LA, and your life would then be a round of meetings and highly paid rewrite jobs and commissions. Very few feature writers can keep making it happen at a distance.
I also think this is a holdover from the old days of bad television. The movies used to be where all the innovation was. In the 70's you had Taxi Driver
and Easy Rider
and crap on TV. It will take another decade of Deadwood
and Arrested Development
and other envelope-pushing shows for "TV writer" to feel like the badge of honor that "screenwriter" is.
Another reason might be that television is so vastly huger than movies, in terms of hours made and stories told. On the other hand, that would argue for more serious coverage, not less. And the number of shows worth discussing is much smaller than the number of shows.
The reason may simply be that no one has successfully exploited the market niche. I'll be able to tell you in about two years how the market for learning how to write movies compares with the market for learning how to write TV. There are young people out there who want to learn TV. I know a kid at Dartmouth who'll probably become a "hot young writer" in 5-10 spec scripts from now, if he sticks to learning his craft. Maybe someone should start a TV writing magazine. Maybe you should!
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
have tagged me with Joel's damn scribosphere chain questionnaire
... Okay, okay, here goes.
ONE (1) earliest film-related memory:
Walking out of Day for Night
at college and thinking, "If only I'd seen that when I was younger, I would have gone into showbiz. Too bad I'm too old."
Oh, or possibly, watching the "Tevye's Dream" sequence from Fiddler on the Roof
and being so scared I had to watch it between the seats I was hiding behind.
TWO (2) favorite lines from movies:
"Bug hunt." -- Aliens
"To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting." - All That Jazz
But really, it should be favorite couplets. Shouldn't it?
THREE (3) jobs you'd do if you could not work in the "biz":I was seriously thinking at one point about going back into computer programming, so that'd be one.
Advertising exec. Which is just the other side of the "biz" so there you go.
Novelist. Which isn't really a job, so I better stay in the biz.
FOUR (4) jobs you actually have held outside the industry:
Computer programmer. (Back before there were "software engineers.")
SAT prep teacher. (Part time during film school.)
Wargame playtester. (Well, the pay was free games, but...)
Y'know what ... I don't think I've had four jobs outside the industry.
THREE (3) book authors I like:
Ernle Bradford, Ulysses Found
TWO (2) movies you'd like to remake or properties you'd like to adapt:
The Odyssey/Ulysses. Well, actually, I already did adapt it. Just haven't sold the adaptation. Yet.
Zodiac, by Neal Stephenson.
ONE (1) screenwriter you think is underrated:
Answer #1: As Denis says, all of us.
Answer #2: As Denis says, me.
Answer #3: Denis.
THREE (3) people I'm tagging to answer this meme next:
John Rogers, Craig Mazin, Danny Stack
Q. I am fourteen years old, and have been interested in filmmaking, particularly screenwriting and directing for years. I feel as tough I have several good ideas and would like to see them portrayed in film. If you could please take a moment to answer some of my questions on the matter, it will be greatly appreciated. First, how should someone begin to pursue a career in this field? Is this a demanding profession? What are some of the requirements of screenwriting/directing? What steps do I have to follow to get my ideas recognized? Lastly, do I actually have a good chance at being successful?
I have actually answered most of these questions in some depth both on my site and this blog. See my Frequently Asked Question
and the Blog Fu
section of my TV FAQ.
The last question is unanswerable. It depends on what you mean by success. Does that mean fame? Or just being able to support yourself doing something you love? Are you willing to pour your heart and soul into it as if it is the most important thing in the world? Or will you give up when the going gets tough?
If you want to do good work in the movie business, meet wonderful people, have crazy times, and support yourself doing it, and you're willing to treat it like it's the most important thing in the world (after your family), then yes, you have an excellent chance at being successful. If you want fame to come easy, then you have to have a very, very big trust fund
One advantage you do have is you know what you want early. I spent a lot of time knocking around trying to figure that out. The sooner you get going, the younger you'll be when you know what the hell you're doing -- and Hollywood loves a wunderkind.
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
... and here's Ken Levine's answer
to "what makes the magic happen on a show?
Q. The one thing I would love to see more than anything is a first time staff writer's spec/specs that got them staffed. I know personality and all is a big part too...but always curious how good/original their spec's actually are in order for them to rise above all the rest.
That's a challenging idea. What immediately comes to mind is "no way I'm letting anyone see how bad a writer I was five years ago!" Another issue is that television has changed and grown, and whatever Ken Levine's specs were when he was first staffed, for example, might seem hackneyed simply because television was hackneyed
. If you read a Gilligan's Island
now, whether spec or produced, you'd see the flip cut coming a mile off --
There's no way I'm putting on a red dress
and dancing the samba!
in a red dress, dancing the samba.
But then, another name for the flip cut is "the Gilligan."
It's that old remark about Shakespeare: he's that guy who writes in clichés!
Television has changed. You could look at a perfect Miami Vice
spec, for example, and fall asleep at the pace the plot develops. But the same is true for the produced scripts from the show. One plotline? One
Another problem is that until you're good enough to get staffed, you may not realize just why Ken Levine's spec was so brilliant at the time. You just wouldn't see it. Part of learning your craft is seeing other people's craft. The more I know about writing, the more I can appreciate other people's writing.
And then, of course, there's personality. You do get staffed for personality. You get staffed for quick wit and likability and being easy to be around.
I guess my question is: what would you get out of reading Josh Schwartz's no-doubt-kickass Original Spec? Would you feel daunted, and quit? Or figure you just have a lot to learn? What would you get out of reading my not-so-kickass ancient Buffy
spec? Would you figure "Heh. If Epstein could get staffed with this junk, I'm not so far off"? Or would you figure that no one in show business can appreciate a good script and it's all a crap shoot?
I feel that if you need to be a TV writer, you probably will. And if you don't need to be, you probably won't. Like any other endeavor, the laurels go to the ones who devote themselves to their calling. I find that tracking other people's genius is too wearing. There are people whose scripts I think suck who luck into stuff. There are people like Denis McGrath who I hope will throw me some scripts when they get their own shows. I just try to worry about making my own scripts as good as they can be while still finishing
them, and praying now and then that I continue to be able to support myself in this crazy business.
Labels: spec scripts
Monday, January 09, 2006
We watched Downfall
, about the last days of the Reich. It's a profoundly strange picture, that recreates with deep empathy and humanity the last days of Adolf Hitler and the people who most believed in him. I say empathy because, of course, it has no sympathy for them. They have perpetrated the most heinous crimes upon the world and destroyed their own country. And yet here are real flesh and blood people who have put their faith in the wrong place -- in a raving, homicidal lunatic, a misplaced devotion to duty and honor, and a sick ideology of superiority. And in that faith there is no evil they are not willing to do.
It's the other side of Schindler's List
. You watch Schindler's List
to learn that yes, these horrors really happened. And you watch Downfall
to see that the people that created these horrors devoutly believed that they were fighting the good fight against all kind of evils -- communism, and Western decadence, and the poisonous Jewish race. They held onto their belief that they were superior even after all the evidence was obviously against it; after all, they were getting their asses kicked. They simply retreated into faith.
It is a good reminder not to trust leaders past the point of your own common sense and your own humanity. When an entire nation puts its faith blindly in a leader, that leader can lead them into Hell.
I hope you rent it, as a powerful movie, or as a deep investigation of sympathy versus empathy. Not one
of the characters in this movie is "likable" -- the only blameless creature in it is Hitler's dog. Every single human being in the movie has it coming big time. And yet you want to see what happens to them, what it's like to be them.
And you pray: God save us all from idealism run out of control.
Some clever Australian has come out with a book called How to Buy and Sell Art
, damn him, scooping Lisa's title, How to Buy Art
. So now we need a new title.
Her book, in case you're wondering, is about how to buy art: contemporary paintings, prints, photos, 19th Century works, sculpture, ethnic art, and Oriental carpets. It's for the intelligent layman who just wants beautiful things in his or her place and doesn't have a museum's budget. Small enough for your jacket pocket. Warns about all the major pitfalls in buying fakes and smuggled works. Tells you what to look for and what to look out for.
So... here's another title contest. Can you guys come up with a title to replace How to Buy Art
? Anyone who pitches a title close to one Lisa eventually uses, gets a free signed copy of the book.
My ex-friend Anne Rubinstein, the painter, once said, "I love paint! I'd eat it if I could." I'm the same with words. I love them so much, I don't mind when I have to eat them.
The American Dialect Society voted "truthiness" the word best describing 2005, while "podcast" was voted the most useful word of 2005. "Whale tail" describes a thong riding up over a girl's (hopefully) pants, while "muffin top" describes what happens when someone's overoptimistic about their waist measurement.
And, of course, there's "jump the couch."Here's the press release,
rewritten as an AP article; here's the full download
. It never hurts to be hep to the jive.
Sunday, January 08, 2006
Ken Levine posts a reassuring list of prior credits
for the Sopranos
writing staff. Great stuff, like the new Flipper
and The Secret Squirrel Show
So my question for Ken is, what went right?
I meant, obviously these writers didn't suddenly become good writers. They were either good writers writing crap on those other shows, or they were crap writers and David Chase taught them all how to write. Or, he has a Magic Bird that sings him the scripts at night.
What went right in the Sopranos writing room that makes the show so good. Is it all David Chase? Or was it chemistry? Was it a lucky shot at a great template? Was it HBO letting them alone to do their work? Etc.
Moreover, is a question of shows being good until they go wrong? Can you blame bad shows on network interference, coke and divorces? Or are shows bad until the showrunner makes them good? Do you need to create a certain environment -- visionary showrunner, passionate network exec, strong, well-funded writing room -- and do many other things in order for shows to go right?
I have my own ideas, but I wanna hear Ken's, 'cause he's a couple dozen writing rooms ahead of me, by my count.
I'm reading scripts in the Comedy/Variety division for the Canadian Screenwriting Awards. It's an interesting exercise because I haven't necessarily seen every show that's submitting; and the scripts, of course, don't stop to explain who the characters are.
Is it true that in a well-crafted script you get who the characters are from their distinctive style of speaking, even if you don't know the show? Or do you need to have seen the show -- or be reading the pilot -- to get who they are?
In a few cases where I felt there might be something I really wasn't getting, I went back and checked out the show. And what wasn't funny when I didn't know the show, still wasn't funny. If the show's well written, you get who the characters are, even if you haven't seen it. Funny is funny.
I remember reading my friend Heidi's Roseanne
spec and laughing out loud, even though I hadn't seen the show in years, and I couldn't remember who Jackie was.
So that's the standard, then. Someone should be able to read your script even if they don't know the show, and get (at least by the end of the read) what that character's about.
I don't know how you do that for a CSI
, but that's one reason I'm not speccing a CSI
Labels: spec pilots
Saturday, January 07, 2006
Just got a call from someone asking about emigrating here -- not
a screenwriter. I am all for people moving here -- I think Montreal is the undiscovered secret of North America. But I also got an email a while ago asking:
Q. Would you recommend Canada to spec-monkey screen/TV writers? Nurturing and snow sound pretty good to me.
Canada is a good place to start if you're Canadian. If you're not, it may not be that easy to get in. In order to apply to immigrate to Canada, you have to show you can make a living. Graduate degrees help. Fluency in French helps. Large chunks of money in the bank help. But ultimately they want to know that you can make a living doing what you do. If you don't have credits as a screenwriter, you're going to have to find another rubric under which to apply to immigrate. I applied as a producer, based on my development experience, though I've been working as a writer since.
The process seems to take about 18 months these days. When I applied in 2000 it took 6 months. Hmmm. I wonder what would have caused the number of applications to soar?
If you can
get into Canada as a permanent resident, then yes, it is easier to break into TV. The same amount of effort will get you further in Canada than in LA, because it's a more nurturing environment. Also, if you've spent any time in LA, that will give you some cachet here. A lot of people took meetings with me when I got here because I'd spent 14 years in LA. They probably figured I must know something.
On the other hand, if you do break in, you haven't broken into US TV, you've broken into Canadian TV, which is a small and relatively limited world. You would then need to break into US TV from Canada, which isn't easy, either, even with credits. Not only is it hard to break in from far away, your Canadian credits will be on shows no one has heard of, and agents in LA look down their noses on anything that doesn't originate in LA or New York.
If you are Canadian, therefore, I would suggest staying here and making your bones before heading South. Take advantage of what you've got. But if you are not, then you might want to try to make it in LA. Save up a bit of money, go to work at an agency, learn what people are looking for, and teach yourself how to write.
Thursday, January 05, 2006
No, not that kind. I've been going through the Exposure
pilot while we wait for everyone to get back to their desks. It's a good story with good charactrs, but it feels a little hard to follow. I think I went overboard being terse -- I tried to keep it under 55 pages so as not to scary anyone, though the dialog style should be fairly quick and quippy. So now I'm adding maybe just a couple pages worth of lines. Sort of the opposite of nips and tucks and trims -- just a word or a line here and there that gives us a better mental picture what we're watching, or gives us a little more of the feeling each character has in the scene. I've made a few lines of dialog more distinctive here and there, added a small background joke or two. Making the script a tad more user friendly.
So there I am, opposite-of-nipping-and-tucking (whatever that word is) until I get bigger notes... Meanwhile a few people have read Gone to Soldiers
and it is not incomprehensible in spite of its 5 time lines, thank the Goddess; and the people who read Medieval
got a kick out of it. A quiet day of minor good news...
I sent my unbound galleys back to my publisher with my teeny tiny trims and revisions. I think Crafty TV Writing
reads well. I was surprised how much more information it seemed to have than my first book, without feeling overwhelming. It won't be any fatter than Crafty Screenwriting
, but the writing's denser.
Holt, my publisher, should be getting the bound galleys in a few days. These are prototypes of the book, with a plain cover and lots of typoes. We'll send these off to TV writers and network execs who might be willing to give us a blurb or two. (Writers, that is, who I haven't already hit for an interview!) One kind reader is getting a copy to David Mamet, who's writing TV these days. I'm hoping to convince Amy Sherman-Palladino to give me a quotation. And thank you to Stephen Gallagher, Bridget Carpenter and Ken Levine, who have graciously offered to read the book.
Your further suggestions in this department are welcome. Also, if you know any journalists, whether mainstream or in the biz, who'd like a review copy, please let me know. The book's coming out in June.
We're getting there!
[POLITICS] In today's Times
, conservative columnist David Brooks suggests:
all legislation should be posted online for 72 hours before the vote.
This is brilliant. Imagine if the people had a chance to comment on legislation before
it got voted on. Imagine if the crazy field of bloggers, thousands of them, had 72 hours to smoke out the pork. Nothing quite as tasty as smoked pork.
To keep it simple, one could require that no new earmarks (goodies for specific companies and districts) be added after the posting; only trims would be allowed.
Of course our representatives will hate the idea and claim it's unwieldy, but we ought to demand it. Democracy in action, people. Accept no substitutes.
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
There is now a blog for the writers of Gray's Anatomy
. And they even have comments, so you can thank them, or complain what a whiny little punk Meredith Gray is. Up to you.
As usual, some of this is informative -- how they came up with their Christmas episode, starting with "a boy with a heart two sizes too small" -- and some of it is anecdotal -- they used real leeches and animatronic preemies -- and a lot of it is writers congratulating everyone they worked with like it's an awards show. Worth a look for the first and second of these.
It's time for nominations for the Bloggies
, the blogging equivalent of the Oscars, except with, like, wayyy less money, and the participants need not be wearing tuxedoes. Or even clothes
If you have enjoyed this blog in the past year, or found it useful, please feel free to nominate it for Best Entertainment Blog and/or Best Canadian Blog. As well as any other blog you admire. Here's the entry form.
Oh, and nominate John Rogers
for Best Political Blog. Just so we can see him blush.
Tuesday, January 03, 2006
Was chatting with DMc, who's contemplating the large stacks of DVD's piling up in his living room, and observing that at the point where you can't find DVD's you know you have, you probably have too many.
I recommended Zip.ca, Canada's version of Netflix. (UPDATE: Too bad I can't recommend them any more.
) The obvious benefits of having a video store that mails you disks are (a) don't have to go out in the cold (b) can keep them out indefinitely, so no late fees (c) internet video stores have 10x as many dvds as even more your most comprehensive brick-and-mortar (or, in SoCal, stucco-and-cement) video store. If you watch your videos within a day or two of receiving them, you can easily watch 12-15 movies a month for your $25 fee, bringing the cost down to under two bucks.
The less obvious benefits are that you actually wind up seeing stuff you wouldn't take home from a video store. Stuff like The Motorcycle Diaries
or anything by Todd Solondz. You look at it and go, hm, am I really up for that? The critics liked it, but maybe it sucks.
If you're like me, you're not going to pay $5 to rent something that might suck, but it nags at you that you don't know for sure. Then you do rent the disk, but it sits on your TV for a couple of days while you wait for the right moment to experience incestuous masturbatory fantasies and suicidal angst, or whatever. And the moment doesn't come. So you return it and you're out the $5. Or worse, you return it late, and now you've paid $8 for a movie you don't watch.
With Zip or Netflix, you just rent it, and it's one of four movies you could see, and if it sits around for four or five days, you know you're never going to watch it and you can just cross it off your list.
You also get a lot more TV shows on Zip and Netflix than you do at the store. And you don't have to cram all four episodes into one night, you can watch them one per night with, again, no late fees.
Oh, and I can look movie ratings up on the IMDB while I'm shopping for things to watch.
As I told Denis, since I got Zip, I'm probably watching twice as much stuff, but five times better stuff, and for half the cost. And since watching stuff is part of my job, that is a damn fine thing.
Now ask me about my DVR!
Monday, January 02, 2006
We were channel surfing last night, the whole family, and came across Fiddler on the Roof
, which neither Lisa and I had seen in decades. My gosh that's a great movie. Topol is brilliant. The script is funny and warm-hearted and bitter and hopeful. The songs are as powerful as any opera's.
I spent a lot of time explaining to Hunter about Cossacks and Jews. He's mystified why people would treat each other differently because of religion or race. I hope his whole generation grows up that way.
There's a funny irony at the end of the movie, of course: their world is shattered, their village destroyed, and they must all go off to a strange new land -- where, on the whole, they will work like dogs and their children will become businesspeople and their
children will become moviemakers and make a movie about their grandparents suffering in the shtetl.
Sunday, January 01, 2006
And here are my favorites of 2006:
Best New BlogJane Espenson
: It's great when top professionals give up their tradecraft for us lesser mortals, and somehow Jane finds the time to do it between writing episodes of shows we'd all kill to staff.
Favorite BlogDead Things on Sticks
: If talking sense can fix Canadian TV, DMc is the man to do it. And if you're south of the border, there's lot of stuff to learn about creating and staffing TV shows. Sure, Denis is a good friend, so this is arguably logrolling, but part of the reason
he's a friend is because he's so smart and funny.
This is the year Slings and Arrows
made it to basic cable, so this is the year I discovered it. Probably one of my top five favorite current TV shows. If you didn't catch it on TV, rent the DVD.
This was also the year we ploughed through the entire run of Sopranos
, and rediscovered the joys of Northern Exposure
. And it was great fun to watch the Walking with Dinosaurs
/ Walking with Prehistoric Monsters
/ Walking with Cavemen
series with Hunter.
Probably the most directly useful book I read this year was John Badham and Craig Modderno's book on directing actors, I'll Be in My Trailer
. I got to use it while casting my short film. Packed with specifics on what to do and what not to do.
The most fascinating book I read was 1491
, which develops the thesis that the New World was heavily populated with advanced farming civilizations prior to the arrival of Columbus, and that the impression of Indians as primitive Neolithic hunter-gatherers was a result of 96% mortality rates in plagues that swept the continents long before most European diarists got anywhere near them.
Other books that will in no way help my career unless I am very, very lucky include Rubicon
, about the fall of the Roman Republic -- the book that inspired the HBO series Rome
; Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
; and Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography
, about the Victorian explorer/rogue/linguist/translator.
In the land of fiction, obviously there was Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys
, which Lenny Henry was kind enough to read to me on my iPod. I also caught up to Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky
and A Fire Upon The Deep
. And, purely for research, mind you, most of the DC Vertigo Lucifer
Best Toy I Definitely Did Not Buy For Myself, It Was For My Daughter You See: Darth Tater.
Best First Sentence (Jesse Anne Epstein): "I'm not sleepy!" She says it a lot.
Best Song: "Furry Happy Monsters" by REM.
Best New Agent: Amy Stulberg.
Best Pork Buns: Dobe and Andy, 1111 St. Urbain
Happy New Year! May your year be a happy and successful one.
I've been dipping into Hail to the Chiefs: Presidential Mischief, Morals and Malarkey from George W. to George W.
, which is funny, and reassuring. Yes, it has been this bad before. The perfect present for the depressed liberal in your family. Wait another three years, and who knows, you can give it to the depressed conservative in your family. If you're all still talking, that is.