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



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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

I'm doing a pass on my medieval zombie horror movie while I wait for notes on Exposure. I got the note that there didn't seem to be enough threat in the beginning. So that would be my cue to put in all sorts of foreshadowing, right? Dark shadows moving in the woods, etc.

Actually, no. What I realized is that I had not made the main characters real enough and I had not made the tensions between them strong enough. I had a group of future victims who liked each other all too well. What I needed to do is introduce conflicts between them -- human conflict, to contrast with the unnatural conflict later. Conflict gives your characters a chance to act more distinctively, hence defining themselves. Conflict also keeps the characters from being comfortable. Comfortable is boring. Later on in the movie, of course, they'll be screaming. Early conflict keeps the drama going until the bad guys show up. Early drama keeps the characters feeling unsafe.

In your movie, unsafe is always good.

(In his Creative Screenwriting podcast interview, Josh Olson, the guy who adapted A History of Violence for the screen, said he always thought The Big Chill was a horror movie where no one got killed. House in the middle of nowhere, interesting characters bumping into each other. Throw in rodent sized fire ants, or whatever, and you've got a great horror movie. And then there's my friend Jim Pickrell, who got irritated at Night of the Iguana, because the iguanas never showed up.)

UPDATE: I put the link for the Creative Screenwriting podcasts. I'm not sure the Josh Olson one is still up there, but other interesting ones are.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Jane Espenson is an awesome writer who has worked on shows like Buffy, Angel, Gilmore Girls ... oh, wait a second. There are no shows "like" Buffy, Angel or Gilmore Girls. Which is to say that she has had the sort of writing career that I would still envy if the shows I currently have in development all got greenlit at the same time. And she is a fun and witty person. As you can tell from her blog.

Anyway, Jane just answered a nagging question I've had about act breaks in Gilmore Girls.

You know how DMc and Rogers and other TV bloggers have gone on about act outs? The last moment before a commercial must be a big "wow" moment, preferably one of great jeopardy?

Gilmore Girls don't do act outs. Jane esplains why.

Thank, you, Jane!

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Scott the Reader, in Alligators in a Helicopter, talks about keeping an open mind about reader feedback:
So the What If. What if this reader is right, and this might be a more interesting option? Where could that lead? Is that better? What about what that reader said; wouldn't that go with this other suggestion, and make that whole segment of the script tighter and more interesting?

I think this is the key to the whole feedback debate. It's not about blindly taking the suggestions of someone who may or may not know what is best for your script, but letting these suggestions (which generally are inspired by some flaw in your script, real or perceived) lead you to where the What If? is. Where the choice in your script is, that really turns out not to be as tightly-stitched as you thought it was.
My acting teacher Joanne Baron used to say "Find the truth." Meaning, it's easy to find an excuse to reject criticism. But critiquing the criticism gets you nowhere. Find what's true about the criticism; assume there's a nugget of gold in there.

I like Scott's idea because he's using feedback (in this case from civilians) not as marching orders, but as an opportunity to see his script with new eyes. What if you were to take this reader's suggestion seriously ... where would that lead you.

That's why my response to notes that sound horribly wrong is "we'll take a look at that" and not "here's why you're an idiot." What sounds wrong while you're defending your script sometimes turns into a valuable approach when you're actually trying it out. So why not try it out?

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Watched Grey's Anatomy last night. So Meredith Grey feels bad she slept with George. "I did a terrible thing," she repeats, as if that's an excuse. But makes no effort to undo the damage. And then proceeds to set up a clandestine "friendly" date with Derek Shepherd.

Fairly selfish, dishonorable behavior, huh?

I wonder if giving George the v.o. this Sunday (and a much more down-to-earth one than Meredith usually gets), and making no effort to clean up Meredith's toxicity, means they're moving away from Meredith as central character. (Tough when you've called the thing "Grey's Anatomy".) Because she is certainly the least attractive of all the characters, and has the least interesting problems.

Probably not. The writers at Grey Matter, the promotional GA writer's blog, seem to like her just fine. And I'm probably older than the show's demographic. And women probably forgive Meredith for her behavior the way guys forgive Bruce Willis's characters for theirs.

But I can imagine a showrunner trying to wean her audience off a main character she's no longer in love with, or whom she made into a main character only because she knew network expected the main character to be a gorgeous, romantic white chick. 'Cause now that the show's a hit, and everyone is digging Burke and Christina and Bailey and Addison and the others... you can start to sideline the skinny white chick. Not like network's going to take the show away from Shonda, know what I'm saying?

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Actors will say, "My character wouldn't say that."
Who said it was your character?"
David Chase
From The Last Aria of Tony Soprano in todays' Times.

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Lisa's hard at work on a book proposal for a second book, neatly allied to her first. I won't tell you what her great idea is, but I think it could do at least as well as I think her first will, and I'm a great believer in her first, The Intrepid Collector, about how to buy art on a budget.

A book proposal is how you get paid to write a book instead of having to sell publishers a finished book. Your basic book proposal is
    :
  • A page or two of hype -- your book in a nutshell
  • Competition Analysis: what are the other books mining this vein, and why do you think your book fills a gap
  • Marketing Plan: how do you propose to publicize your own book. Publishers don't want to do all the work. Will you be teaching seminars? Do you have friends with radio shows? How many people read your blog? (Lisa's new blog is How to Buy Art. You can ask her questions, and she'll answer them.)
  • Outline: basically the projected table of contents for your book
  • Sample Chapter: maybe twenty, thirty pages of actual text, just to show that you can actually write. I didn't include a sample chapter for Crafty TV Writing, but it was my second book.
The whole thing is on the order of thirty to forty pages. Which is a lot, but a lot less than a two hundred page manuscript. Especially if it turns out that publishers don't want the thing!

Writing books is not a terribly lucrative business. Figure you get about a buck a book in royalties, and figure it takes you about six months to write a good nonfiction book about something you already know. (Shorter if you're writing only what you already know; longer if you have to do serious research.) Now how many copies do you have to sell to make it worth your while?

Where writing a book is really useful is where there are possibly synergies, or where the book is a credential. I wrote Crafty Screenwriting for fun, and to give something back (I wish I'd been able to read it when I was learning how to write!), and to crystallize my own thinking. But now that it's out there I keep running into people in the biz who've read it; that compensates a bit for living off in Montreal, which is not the hottest of showbiz hotspots. And, when you're writing a book, you can interview people you'd just like to meet.

I think Lisa will be able to do far more with her book. If she can make it into a hit -- and I can't think of anyone who likes having art around who wouldn't want to buy it -- it could become a cottage industry for her. People who buy a lot of art, for example, might want to hire her as a consultant. Already with the blog she's starting to meet Montreal artists who would never have known of her before; and the book's not out till Fall.

I find bookstores daunting: not only all the books I don't have time to read, but now, the notion that my book is one of hundreds of thousands of books on the shelves -- or of millions at Amazon. It just gives you a sense how vast human knowledge is. But I'm pretty pleased with my first book, and I'm really excited about the new books. Can't wait to see what comes back to us out of them.

UPDATE: Find Lisa's book on sale at Barnes & Noble.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Here's the profile of me from Thursday's Montreal Gazette, copyrighted by them. If the rights holder would like me to remove this article, please let me know. (Actually, I have rewritten many of my answers because, hey, they're my answers.)

He'd like to live in the Chateau Ramazay, but for now, a loft will do

Writer's favourite drink is medieval, but he ranks Eminem as today's best poet

MAXINE MENDELSSOHN, Freelancer

Published: Thursday, February 23, 2006

Alex Epstein is freakishly articulate, quirky and introspective. It's what you would expect from a writer who spends hours alone with his thoughts, tapping away on a computer keyboard.

Epstein is a screenwriter who loves Eminem, brews his own medieval-style beer, has a "weird military mind" and hates mediocrity.

As I said, writers are quirky.

Alex Epstein, 43

Occupation: Screenwriter, currently developing a TV series for Global.

The best part of his job: "Getting paid to tell stories."

Why he chose to be a writer: "There was this playwright at Yale, Shoshana Marchand. I asked her why she wrote and she said: "Because you can't possibly sleep with everybody." I guess that sums it up.

His second-choice professions: Novelist, comic strip writer, political speech writer. "Though I missed my calling as a 15th-century German prince."

Little-known fact about him: "I have this weird military mind. I'm always thinking about how to defend the terrain. I've never seen combat, but I think I'd have made a good lieutenant."

His greatest fear: "Dying, but I guess that's pretty universal. Dying without having left anything behind."

On his contribution to humanity: "I'd like to still be making ripples in the world when I'm gone. At the very least, my kids will be a testament to my life here, but I'd like to have changed people's lives in some way. Hence the books and the TV shows."

His greatest regret: "My first marriage, which was a toxic relationship with a wonderful woman who was just wrong for me."

Where he'd like to live: "This loft, I guess. But if not that, then the Chateau Ramezay."

His recently acquired taste: "Eminem. He's a way better poet than any modern poet I've read. He uses internal rhymes and cross rhythms, and still the beat goes on and the feeling builds."

His screen saver: "A picture of my actual desktop."

His secret shame: "I don't brush my dog enough. He's huge and shaggy and he gets dreadlocks."

What makes him upset: "Contemporary American politics."

He's a snob about: "Talent. I can't help liking people who are good at what they do more than people who aren't. I know that's shallow."

Pet peeve: "The Mediocracy."

People say he looks like: James Spader....

His favourite restaurant: Le Cabaret du Roy, 363 de la Commune St. E., (514) 907-9000. "The waiters are in period costumes and the recipes are from 1714. Actually it's not kitschy at all."

Favourite Bar: Brasserie Dieu du Ciel, 29 Laurier Ave. W., (514) 490-9555.

His favourite beer: "Gruit. It's a medieval style of beer brewed without hops, using marsh rosemary, bog myrtle and sweet gale for preservatives. You can't buy it, you have to make it. I've made about fifteen gallons of the stuff."

Favourite drink: "Mead - it's made from fermented honey. It's actually a sort of honey wine. I've made that too."

Signature quote: "We'll take a look at that."

©The Gazette (Montreal) 2006

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Friday, February 24, 2006

I got my letter from the Guild today: I'm a finalist in the "Drama Series: 1/2 Hour" category. Seems they've split the Drama category in two. How Canadian. Something for everyone.

Frankly I thought our show wanted to be a comedy... but then, I'm glad we're not up against Corner Gas.

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The Film Diva posts this clever permutation on my "tell your story out loud" meme:
Practice telling the story into a tape recorder like you are telling it to a member of your audience (e.g. if it's kid's movie, you're talking to a kid, if it's for young men, etc.) and then listen back. Usually if it's working, the listenng back part is great, if it's not, you will immediately scream for mercy, beg for release from your pain, and then once the slosh in your stomach has settled down, you'll narrow down the problems and get back to work.... :-)
I like this idea. While the feedback you get from yourself will be harsher sometimes -- God I hate my voice! I sound so stupid! Ugh, the bad part's coming up! -- it has the advantage that you can do it all by yourself. And we know writers are not the most social of animals. And humiliating yourself in front of yourself is much less scary than doing it in front of friends.

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I've been trying to find traces of my old summer camp on the Net, and I think I've figured out that Camp-Thoreau-in-Vermont must be the Camp Thoreau I went to back when it was near New Paltz (on rural route #7?), in Wallkill, only picked up and moved to Vermont.

The Camp Thoreau I went to, probably 1971-1975 or so, was one of the best experiences of my childhood. I remember singalongs every morning and after lunch, and hikes to a nearby rocky peak, and capture-the-flag at twilight. I vaguely remember the seniors "stealing" the younger campers one night. I met my first girlfriend there, Karen Stein. (I wonder what's become of her? Not a name you can Google fruitfully.)

The camp had a really permissive approach to youthful sexuality, quite aside from having skinny dipping as an organized activity. Some of my closest relationships with girls were after dark. I doubt any camp these days would let two kids camp out on a meadow all night in two sleeping bags.

I miss the profound sense of belonging I had there. I've always wanted to belong, and rarely felt I really fit in. That's what drew me to theater in high school, and makes me such a family man now. But Camp Thoreau really felt like a big family of people who shared a set of ideals. I'm still aspiring to the feelings I had when we sang all those folk songs, and union songs, and Beatles songs. I'm still a little disappointed the world didn't quite turn out that way, but then that leaves something to strive for, doesn't it?

UPDATE (October 8, 2006): There is a Camp Thoreau listserv at Yahoo Groups, and there was just a reunion in Prospect Park. Wish I could have been there!

UPDATE (MAY 22, 20012): There is a Facebook Group for Camp Thoreau in the '70s. I bet there's one for all the other Thoreauvian epochs.

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Q. Should the episodic question in the pilot be the bigger meta question for the series writ small?
It can be. Think of the "ducks leaving the swimming pool" in The Sopranos. Or "searching for romance" in the Sex & The City pilot. And Meredith's issue with McDreamy are the backbone of Grey's Anatomy, like it or not. (I don't.) And the X-files pilot, with the UFO's ... and our Naked Josh pilot... and, in some ways, our Exposure pilot ...

But then, how loosely are you defining meta question? Really, every episode of the show will want to relate to its overall question, right? X-files: Who's Out There? Sex and the City: Is Romance Dead? Sopranos: How the f*** do you raise a f***ing family, you f***ing c***s*****?

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

It is so refreshing to see the crowds throughout the Muslim world leaving off their protests at a bunch of sophomoric Danish cartoons so they can concentrate on condemning the outrageous destruction of the Askariya shrine, and the equally outrageous destruction of Sunni mosques and murders of Sunni imams in response to it. I'm so glad to see thousands of Pakistanis, Saudis, Egyptians and Nigerians protesting the sectarian violence and hatred that is making a mockery of Islam's claim to be a religion of peace.

Oh wait.

That didn't happen.

Never mind.

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There's a fun profile of me in the Montreal Gazette today. I'm not sure how easy it is to access though-- not sure if you need to register, or subscribe. If you're in Montreal, it's on the back of the Urban Life section.

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Q. [A friend of mine] is writing a tv pilot. .... His pilot is exploring a unique lifestyle .... I think the first episode still needs to have its own plot and I keep telling him that plot should in some way comment on and reveal the characters. His take on this, since it's a spec pilot (hopefully) for HBO or Showtime, is that he can do a purely character-driven epi that follows his lead through a day-in-the-life and leave a cliff-hanger emotional beat in the last act. ... It seems to me that every pilot I've ever seen (and I've also read a few pilot scripts that were picked up, but not many) the pilot sets up a unique problem for the episode which is "solved" by the end of the episode, even if that problem actually leads to a larger complication. They are like chapters in a book, pulling the thread of the character development forward with plot.
You're right. He's wrong.

One thing I've heard consistently from network execs is that they want episodes that are satisfying on their own. Complete stories told within an ep, which are part of larger stories. Think of a string of sausages. They're connected, but a sausage is a meal unto itself.

Viewer's don't, by and large, watch religiously. They miss episodes. Episodes are pre-empted. Episodes are bumped off their time slot by the Olympics, or, in LA, any car chase. The risk in writing a pure serial is viewers may get lost, and since they're not being satisfied by the individual episodes, they'll tune into a show that's easier to watch. Like Law & Order, which you can watch any time, in any order, with no loss. That's why real soap operas use dialog to remind viewers what's happened recently ("you mean Tony, the milkman, who you started sleeping with two days ago?").

I would argue that even serials on HBO and Showtime -- which depend to a greater extent on their shows being appointment television -- are written so that the individual episodes are satisfying. The episodes of Sopranos, which often plays like a soap, raise questions that they answer by the end of the ep, whether it's an interpersonal dramatic probem, or who's going to get whacked. Even 24 has episodic plots within its season arc.

But what you seem to be suggesting is that in your friend's pilot, the overall story of the series doesn't begin until the end of the pilot. That's inexcusable if true. The pilot needs to be raising questions in the very first act. Some of them can get answered in the last act. Some can wait for the season finale to get answered. Some never get answered. That's good TV. An hour of TV where the main character just ambles along having his unique lifestyle isn't TV, it's a bad art film.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

So ... Meredith is going to wind up with a guy exactly like her dad, so she can treat him miserably, and then eventually cheat on him, exactly as her mother did.

I don't have inside info. Just saying.

Proof positive that your main character doesn't have to be likable. Just compellingly human. Though, honestly, I'm watching Grey's Anatomy for the characters and stories that have the least to do with the callow bitch.

Interesting to read the writer's perspective on this, and then the 922 comments that follow it, some viewers seeing the last two minutes as great tv, and some seeing it as a cheap publicity stunt. (Can it be both?) Interesting to see that the writers agree with how horrible Meredith's decisions are, though they largely seem to forgive her for her faults. (Stockholm Syndrome in the writer's room?)

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Now that we got through the first pass on our second script for Exposure, now comes the hard part. The script came in at 65 pages, which is about 10 pages too long. But the other problems were more serious. The A story felt too small -- more like a B story. The B story didn't have enough of a twist, and Colette wasn't proactive enough. The C story lacked in twists and turns. What you expect to happen, happened. And that's never good.

Argh.

These are the sort of things you can catch at the treatment stage, but often slip past, because in a treatment you can substitute clever prose writing for story. These seemed so much better back in December when we first proposed them. I had some doubts about them in January when we were waiting for approval to go ahead. But I didn't fix them in the treatment.

Now, though, we're getting a handle on them. In the B story, my problems were (a) no surprises - we're just waiting for the other shoe to drop; (b) the story feels more like it belongs to the guest star; the heroine isn't moving the story along by her decisions and (c) we hadn't make clear enough why it all mattered to the heroine.

I'm speaking about these in abstract terms not because I'm being secretive about the plot, but because I'm examining the "tools" I'm using.

I think I've fixed the "telegraphing" problem. I'd sort of written the guest character as a creep all the way through, but you're supposed to find that out only halfway through. The problem was I'd left too many hints early on where the story was going to go. Some suspense is good, but not to the point where the audience is sure where you're going. So I went back and made sure I believed, as I rewrote the earlier scenes, that the guest character was a flawed but decent person. Now I've written her so she always comes across as decent -- it's only through the external evidence of her behavior that you realize she's a manipulative, psychopathic bitch.

The problem of the spotlight being on the guest star happened because she's a talker and my heroine is laconic. So I went back and made sure the blacks (the action writing) always told us what the heroine's reaction is.

And then, later on, I drew the moral: I made it plainer what is drawing our heroine to this crazy woman -- how, by being nice to this bad person, she's doing what she wishes someone would do for her.

As so often happens, it now no longer feels like we need more twists and turns. You can get drama from surprises -- your condemned prisoner is sprung! -- or from suspense -- your condemned prisoner is inexorably led up the scaffold and executed. The latter only works, though, so long as the story is deeply felt. Now that it's more deeply felt, it's working better, even without twists and turns.

Now on to the C story, while Lisa fixes the A story.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

My bud Allan Wills has gone off to London to make pictures, and he's blogging about it. Fun to dip into.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

I got a happy call from the Guild on Thursday telling me I'm one of three finalists for the Canadian Screenwriting Awards for Best Drama for my last script on Naked Josh. I'm thrilled... and a little part of me thinks it's too good to be true. I won't completely believe it until it's up on their website.

What I particularly like about the Canadian Screenwriting Awards is that they're based on the writer's own work. You submit your last draft, not the draft that was later story edited, rewritten, shot and edited. And your work is judged anonymously by your fellow writers. So they are about as fair as writing awards can be. I believe the WGA awards are based on what aired. And who knows who wrote that?

I'm also pleased that at least one of the other three nominations in the Drama category was from Naked Josh as well. I think it speaks well for the show we created.

Nice to get good news like that while I'm struggling with Exposure.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Q. A producer with a pretty decent idea wants to hire me to do a treatment/outline (based on an existing not-very-compelling 400 page handwritten script written by someone else). I'd charge $6K for the script; what should I charge for the treatment.
As much as you possibly can, of course! You don't get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate. $6K is an extremely low rate for doing a script; though Bill Cunningham knows people who work for $2,000 a script. If you can get $5K for the treatment and another $5K for the script, go for it. Or any other numbers you can live with. There is obviously no standard since you're in the land of below scale.

I once wrote a horror script for $800. I wouldn't do it again, but I'm not sure that was worse than writing another unsold spec feature.

I would say that the treatment is at least half the work.

I also don't know what on Earth a producer is going to do with a treatment. Treatments aren't good selling documents.

I would also say that any time you have a 400 page handwritten script to start with, you are going to do four times as much work as the producer claims, there will likely be lots of meddling, the producer will expect free rewrites (of the treatment), and the ultimate movie will likely go nowhere. The unprofessional script just sets off alarm bells. It suggests strongly that the producer is doing a friend a favor.

Nonetheless, your contract should give you the right of first refusal to write any script, if any is commissioned by the producer or any of his "assigns" (people he's assigned the rights to the treatment to). Since it's non-Guild, it should guarantee you a sole "story by" credit. Or at least a shared one, since they'll want to give some story credit to the producer's friend who did the 400 page script. (I'd try to hold out for sole story by, giving the original script an "idea by" or "based on a script by" credit.)

You should also have a percentage of the budget of an eventual picture. Since 2% of budget is reasonable for a sole "Written by" I'd say something like .5% of budget is reasonable for a treatment.

Take a look at the contract in the appendices of Crafty Screenwriting for other goodies you may want to negotiate.

As an aside... the first question I'd ask the producer is "what do you see as the movie here?" And then write that movie, regardless what's in the 400 page script. It may not get the picture made, but it will save your sanity as you try to write it.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

In his post about Robert Towne's talk the other day, DMc mentions why he's not interested in directing ... yet.

I am beginning to realize that I am not interested in directing ... ever.

When I went to film school (UCLA), the idea was to write a great script that sets you up as a writer, and another great script, budgeted around a million, that you can insist on directing. That's one of the shortest routes to directing. As opposed to, say, direct music videos (David Fincher, I think); work your way up to director of photography (Jan de Bont); direct extremely low budget movies you finance yourself (Robert Rodriguez).

I, too, had this vague desire to one day direct something or other. I even have the concept for the script -- which was a play, too -- a million dollar s.f. movie along the lines of Static or Pi.

On the Charlie Jade set I got to hang out with Erik Canuel, currently one of Québec's hottest directors. Erik's a cool guy around my age or a little younger, with a houseful of action figures, graphic novels and swords.

Erik has ten times more visual imagination than I have. He would take ordinary dialog scenes I wrote and make them visual. Oh, I have some issues with some of his choices which, I felt, made the scene look cooler but hurt the story. But he would find visual gold in places in the script that I was expecting nothing more than standard back'n'forth between closeups.

Since then, I don't want to direct. I just want to work with great directors.

I know I could direct, in the sense that I can make decisions quickly, I've worked with actors, I could get the story on the screen. But I don't think like a director. I think like a writer. I could team up with a great d.p. and just let him work, but what's the point of that?

Granted one point of directing is to make sure someone else doesn't screw up your show. But if you're in TV then you can hire and then direct the director anyway.

Denis, I can't think why you'd want to direct. You're too good a writer. Leave the directing to the directors. Just make sure they tell your story.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Paris métro ticket folded into an X-wing fighter

The London Tube map, with stations replaced with anagrams of themselves that, somehow, sound even more English.

My doctor used to recommend I get a hobby. I have never had a hobby. In comparison to spending your time with kids and writing, both of which seem like fine ways to fend off death (or at least leave something of myself behind), hobbies seem sort of self-destructive -- like playing roulette in Vegas, something else I've never grokked.

Oh, intellectually I get the excitement of losing money in Vegas, and computer games suck me in from time to time (usually for a run of about four days), and in my previous marriage I found time to brew beer -- it was one of the few things that worked between us. But when I think of people crocheting, or spinning, or building scale models, I have the same gut reaction I have watching a movie scene where people chat in the tunnel while the train is hurtling towards them. Why kill time? There's so little of it.

But I'm perversely glad that someone has made an X-wing out of a couple of Paris metro tickets. Thanks to the internet for revealing the deep weirdness of the human race.

I am also perversely attracted to the work of Edward Tufte. Tufte is all about visualizing data in the clearest possible way, from subway maps to graphs to EKG's. If you are a graphic designer, his work is essential. I am not a graphic designer. I have utterly no use for Edward Tufte. I just like reading him. I am dying to read his upcoming book Beautiful Evidence.

So I guess that's a teeny bit of hobby-related program activities.

(By the way, I am in no way casting aspersions on hobbyists. I'm just explaining why I have trouble enjoying hobbies.)

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

The second rule of Pillow Fight Club is: Talk to everyone about Pillow Fight Club.

This is the sort of thing that twenty years ago you could only have in novels (John Brunner's flash mobs) because the tech level was too low, but now it actually occurs. Cf. the zombies-attacking-medieval geeks in my post Surrealism is Shouting Theater In a Crowded Fire.

We definitely have to do this here. The question is-- where, and when? Martine?

UPDATE: How about Dorchester Square?

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A fellow wrote asking if I'd read his 178 page script. (I occasionally do screenplay evaluations for a fee.)

No, no script wants to be 178 pages any more than movies really want to be 3 hours. (And I'll warrant most of the 3 hour movies out there have 150 page scripts that the director got carried away with shooting.) Who wants to sit in a theater for 3 hours? There are rare, rare exceptions. Braveheart didn't feel too long. I wouldn't take a knife to Titanic. But the last Lord of the Rings movie, theatrical version, could have been 45 minutes shorter, without losing any of the magic or the feeling. (Did we really need to see Legolas kill the poor oliphaunt?)

My guess is if you have a 178 page script, you are trying to tell too many stories. If you pick one story to tell, and throw out everything that isn't that story, you ought to be able to get your script down to 120 pages. Just ruthlessly eliminate any scene that does not forward the story or reveal character.

Even better, tell your story to someone out loud, off the top of your head, without looking at your script. Then throw out any scenes you didn't remember. If you can't remember a scene, the odds are excellent it's superfluous. You may need to add one or two scenes back in if you cut a big gaping hole in your plot, but your script will be better for it.

On the level of scenecraft, it is possibly your scenes are running long. Try to trim as much as possible from each scene's head and tail. See if you can't get in later. Maybe you don't need all those hello's. See if you can't button the scene half a page earlier and get on to the next scene. We don't need to see the guy make his goodbyes and leave. Cut to the next scene (don't use an actual CUT TO:, just cut) the moment the scene is resolved.

Now, read your trimmed scene out loud. Bet you can cut one out of every three sentences of dialog once you put some acting in.

If you're willing to kill your darlings -- and you must kill your darlings, dear, as Eudora Welty [EDIT: William Faulkner] said -- you may well end up with a really tight 105 page script. And how great is that?

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A reader asks if his comment might have been deleted. It wasn't. I generally only delete comment spam. I've deleted a few posts here and there that advertise either products that have nothing to do with my blog ("Great post! Do you readers know they can regain control of ther hairline?") or promote showbiz events that don't impress me ("Submissions are now being accepted for the Upper Schenectady International Screenplay Festival! Only $75 per script to apply!") I will occasionally delete a post if I don't like the tone because, hey, it's my blog. But if I don't like its content, tough on me, that's the point of comments.

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I'm charging ahead, writing pages on our second episode. Strictly speaking I should be waiting for network notes. But various factors have delayed these, and I don't want to delay the script. The network hasn't decided what to greenlight just yet, and I'd love to have a great second script to help convince them our show should be among the blessed ones going to camera this Summer or Fall. So I'm getting an early start.

The risk, of course, is our network exec wants major changes to one or several of the story lines, or actually throws out a story. Just because our stories were approved at the breakdown stage doesn't mean they can't be disapproved at the treatment stage. Indeed, I've had stories approved at the treatment stage and tossed at the script stage. For that matter, one of my Charlie Jade scripts, we had such problems that I offered to junk the whole script and come up with an entirely new plot. Fortunately for my sanity, my offer was rejected. But we paid the price with a not-up-to-par episode. And about half the A story had to be junked at the editing stage ... with nothing to put in its place.

Incidentally, one of the joys of being the head writer is you get to choose the juicy episodes. The price you pay is that you are obliged to choose the hard episodes because you're the more experienced writer. So it may later appear that you did not write the best episodes ... because it is easier to polish a diamond than the innards of a wind-up watch.

So, I'm risking "carnage" as my ex-writing-partner used to call it. I could wind up doing a lot of work for nothing. But the payoff is that I'm half a script ahead of the game. Even if I have to junk the whole script, I'm learning how to write this show: the rhythms of the story telling, the weaving together of story lines, and the human reality of the characters.

To be honest I don't think we'll be throwing out story lines. And writing ahead will also help me when we get the notes -- I'll have noticed some of the problems I missed in the treatment, and solved them as well. So I'll be better able to respond to them usefully.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

My stepson would like to know: what were your favorite books when you were 10?

I would like to know: where the hell do you get jizake outside of Japan?

You can see where our priorities are.

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Q. As I write my agent query letters, is it worth including academic credits if they come from a state school outside of California or New York? (For example, "I graduated with a B.A. in Drama from the University of Arkansas...") Is there such a thing as Academic Snobbery in Hollywood and can it hurt me?
I don't think any academic credits, whether impressive or not, mean much to agents, and they just make producers nervous. It's all about the hook -- whether you can write a simple, catchy query letter. If you can do that, then where you learned it is beside the point, and if you went to Harvard and you still can't come up with a hook, mentioning your credentials will just make people want to laugh and point.

There is a fair bit of reverse academic snobbery, and a lot of insider snobbery (e.g. say "L.A." not "Hollywood"), but I think very little regular academic snobbery. People who went to top schools -- and there are a lot of them -- don't usually mention it.

The exceptions would be (a) if you know that you went to the same school as your victim, er, intended recipient ("PS: Go Razorbacks!"), and (b) if you're mentioning not so much an alma mater as an institution at that university. If you were on an acclaimed comedy publication such as the Harvard Lampoon, that's worth mentioning.

I went to Yale undergraduate and got my MFA from the UCLA School of Film and Television. They used to be on my resume, of course, but I have never put either of these on a query letter; and I even hesitated about mentioning them here.

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[POLITICS] What I found most interesting about Jon Stewart's ribbing of the VP last night was his reporting that the "quail hunt" was really a canned quail shoot. Stewart allowed as how the quail were farm-raised and released from cages -- the VP's party barely had to get out of their cars. I'm inclined to believe him because making up stuff is not Stewart's m.o. He generally doesn't need to.

This tidbit seems nowhere to be found in the Times or WaPo, and yet I think it goes as much to character as the foolish secretiveness. To my mind, you can think hunting animals with guns is barbaric, or you can think that hunting is something that's human nature: we have always hunted. I'll accept either. I'm one of those so-long-as-you-eat-it types.

But canned game shoots disgust me. If you want to shoot deer, go up into the mountains at an ungodly early hour and track them down on foot. If all you want to do is blaze away at a moving target, shoot skeet. Or buy a PS2.

It is not too far of a stretch to see the same attitude towards governing: pick only the easy, tame targets (like Democrats) and blaze away at them, while letting the wild animals roam free.

But maybe that's just me.

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Q. You write on your site that scripts should have 80 lb. white cardstock covers. Should the last page of the script be a blank 80 lb. white cardstock piece as well or just the last page of the script? Is 65 lb. ok too?

Also, should the cover be 3-hole punched like the rest of the sheets or 2? I couldn't figure that out from your site on binding.
65 lb. is a bit light for my taste. The covers (front and back) keep the pages from getting thrashed.

I don't know why you'd add a blank page at the end. No one writes notes on them.

The cover can be three or two hole punched. I think two holes are more elegant, since they cover up the empty hole. The best are the foldover covers that hide the brads entirely so they don't rip up your car seat, but I wouldn't spend too much time hunting those down. Spend the time spell checking by eye.

Do not xerox the title on to the cardstock cover. Sequence is: cardstock cover; title page; rest of script; cardstock cover.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Some directors, I think, do come by their "Film By" credit honestly. Not that the picture is truly "A Film By" them, as if there weren't five other major creative collaborators (writer, editor, producer, actors, composer), but that they are the head of a creative team and they bring a style to the movie that is identifiably theirs. For example, I think it's safe to say that a Michael Bay film really is A Michael Bay Film. He does things with action that most other directors don't know how to do.

For another example... uh, actually, one doesn't come to mind. Er, John Waters.

How about this handy test to see if someone deserves "A Film By." Show ten civilians the new film with the credits blacked out. Then show, in random order, the director's choice of his own films (sequels not allowed), and one other picture from the previous few years in the same genre and budget class. Let someone pick it who has an incentive to pick it well - give him a thousand bucks if the civilians guess wrong. Allow them a third choice, which is "Haven't a clue."

If no more than four members of the audience guess wrong, or guess "Haven't a clue," then the director gets his "Film By." If not, not.

I guarantee you Michael Bay will get his credit every time. Martin Scorsese, almost certainly. (Remember, it's his choice of his own previous film.) John Waters, Woody Allen, David Fincher, Philippe Jeunet, Sam Raimi, they'll all get their "Film By" credits. But all those journeyman Hollywood directors with way too much ego and not enough art ... not so much.

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My friend DJ has resurfaced, says, re Cheney: "At least one member of the Administration now has combat experience!"

(And while we're on Cheney, DMc asks if we can't all agree that if you shoot someone, it's your fault, and points out the Administration is using the well known "I'm sorry I hit you baby but you make me so angry" defense.)

Deej also relates that a certain CTV exec, who shall remain nameless, told a friend of ours his comedy series would not go far. Which is true, unless you count offers from ABC and NBC, and a two year development deal with Fox, as "far."

In other news, Hunter's school's long-planned Snow Day has been cancelled for lack of snow.

But there is no global warming.

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I agree with Stephen Gallagher's comment on the previous post. The action sequences in Peter Jackson's King Kong do go on too long, past the point where they're contributing to story. (Compare John Roger's dictum that an action sequence should really be a suspense sequence that can only be resolved by action.) The spider pit added nothing to the movie, and the five minutes of stampeding diplodoci seemed like they belonged to Jurassic Park IV: The Outtakes.

I continue to think that it is a disease of directors to go for the cool shot and the cool sequence over the story. Peter Jackson is an amazing director and comes by his "A Film By" semi-legitimately, I think. But he is not a consistent storyteller, as the endless endings of The Return of the King suggest.

I would really like to see DVDs sporting not only a director's cut, where the director sticks in all the cool sequences that don't really belong in the story, but an editor's cut, where the editor has free reign, and gets to show what he'd have done on his own. I bet you Jamie Selkirk could have turned in a 1 hour 59 minute King Kong that had all of the mystery and the love story without the need to get up in the middle to visit the powder room. How about Ralph Rosenblum's cut of the original Producers -- or any Mel Brooks movie for that matter? How about Ben Burtt's Phantom Menace? (There is apparently a rogue Phantom Menace floating around, with a lot less Jar-Jar.)

Sometimes, less is more.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Saw King Kong, which was, yes, longer than necessary, but still made me cry. It felt like Peter Jackson and his crew made the movie that David O. Selznick and his crew would have loved to have made. And what struck me most was the lack of anachronism. The whole movie felt like something that could have been made in '33. And that's a good thing. Those were times people were less afraid to be sentimental. They could be sentimental without being ironic. Jackson's Kong is unironic. We're not used to that, which is maybe why I got an erroneous impression the movie flopped, even though it made north of $200 mil. It didn't get picked up by the culturati; it got shut out of the above-the-line Oscars. (It's got four noms for things like sound mixing and art direction.)

The script is an odd combination of ordinary yelling and running and screaming, and some real zingers. Not all of them are lifted from the original ("It was beauty killed the beast" is from the RKO picture). My favorite is the foreshadowing:

Jimmy (speaking of the book he's reading, Heart of Darkness): It's not an adventure story, is it, Mr. Hayes?
Mr. Hayes: No. It's not.


Anyway, I'm glad I didn't miss this one on the big screen.

PS Does anyone else think the "Old Arabian Proverb" is reminiscent of the taming of Enkidu by the harlot Shamhat?

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I'm reading Chuck Jones: Conversations, a nifty collection of interviews with the great animator over the years. You can learn a lot about crafty writing here, even if you're not an animator.

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Buffy writer Jane Espenson has a blog. And she's giving up trade craft, bless her, like what an act out is, and what the issues are in doing a vintage spec.

Thanks to DMc.

Incidentally, has anyone read the book of Firefly essays Ms. Espenson edited, Finding Serenity? I'm powerful tempted to buy it. (UPDATE: Here's Will Shetterly's review)

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

If you want to do good by lending very poor people small amounts of
money so they can get a business up and running, go visit "http://www.kiva.org">Kiva;. They were swamped the last time I
blogged about them, but they've found some new opportunities for
microloans.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

They hadn't read the stuff yet, so it was sort of a basic meeting. But they asked the questions we were hoping they'd ask, and we had the right answers for them. Why yes, it's not just about the kids, it's a co-viewing show. Yes, it's a drama. Yes, it's an hour. Yes, we address social issues and it's multicultural. Yes, we talk about class and money, not just love and teenage awkwardness.

So they seemed very excited to read the material. Now let's hope they do read it, and like it.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Turned in the treatment for our second script for Exposure to the network today. It's not the second episode, it's the third; we wanted to do something a little lighter and fluffier to show some range, and ep. 1.02 as planned is still pretty heavy.

I'm flying to New York tomorrow to go to Kidscreen (a conference about children's programming) and meet France 2. (We're not a kid's show but the network exec from France 2 is attending.) If we can get France 2 aboard then we're in very good shape.

Meanwhile reality shows about models are proliferating. It shows people think there's an interest. Hopefully we can get our fictional show on the air in this environment... we'll see.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Shonda Rhimes had to hold as much of the Superbowl audience as possible for her post-Bowl Grey's Anatomy ep. So, what does the ep start with? A lesbian shower threesome fantasy.

Of course.

Good ep, though.

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Canadian Screenwriter finally posted that article about Canadian science fiction which quotes me so heavily. I said it doesn't and needn't exist as such, but if it did, it would be Star Trek.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

The warmest winters I've ever spent have been in Montreal. Why? Because we take our insulation seriously.

The heat mysteriously went off some time Saturday. Amazingly, it is not even chilly in the apartment. Oh, the place has lost a couple of degrees. But nothing a pullover and a cup of joe won't cure.

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CTVW: Do you write timing into the script? How do you gauge timing without an audience?

KL: Sometimes we'll give indicators ... particularly in the movie we wrote, since we wouldn't be around to see it play. When you're writing for Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde-Pierce, you don't write any of that stuff. Just get out of the way.

CTVW: Some writers say they need to underwrite, that is, if you write the way the star sounds, you don't leave them room for their performance.

KL: It depends on the actor. Some actors will bring surprising things to a part. Like Kelsey or David Hyde-Pierce or Ted Danson or Alan Alda. Shelley Long. These are very special people. We wouldn't underwrite, but we we might give David a line that you wouldn't give someone else because they couldn't pull it off. It might not look like a joke at all, but when David's done with it, it's funny.

CTVW: One thing I've run across is actors who like to paraphrase part of their lines. About half of them do. And the ones who say exactly the dialog as it's written on the page, and make it their own, always sound twice as good as the ones who paraphrase. But the ones who paraphrase somehow seem to think they'll sound more "natural" if they rework their own dialog so it sounds like themselves.

KL: By the time a show is filmed, the actors are saying exactly what's on the page. Camera crews are taking cues from the words. Some are word perfect. A few of them will say, "can I put a "handle" on this," a "look," a "listen" -- that'll go into a script. Most of them are pretty good. Ted Danson will throw in little handles.

One of my toughest jobs as a director is to make actors with different styles mesh together. They have different backgrounds, different processes. Some of them will just memorize the script and lock into it. If they do a line a certain way and it works, they will do it that way every single time. Others need to surround it a little bit. They get better every day. They play with it a little bit until they settle down. Kind of a balancing act.



Ted Danson, for example. He's so good and so effortless. Like Joe DiMaggio. If you watch Teddy on an early run through, it looks like he's going half speed. Mumbling his way through it. "Uh oh, he's got no energy, he keeps having to refer to the book..." But by the time you're shooting, he's word perfect and there's stuff there that you would never have thought of.


On the other hand, take Wendie Malick. When she does a line a certain way and it works, she'll lock into it. You can do 20 takes, Wendy will be perfect every single take. There's no right or wrong way.

CTVW: What are the biggest mistakes comedy staff writers can make on the job (aside from things that would be mistakes in any office, i.e. pissing off the boss, pissing off co-workers, failing to bathe)?

KL: Not being funny. Too arrogant. Not being funny. Tending to think they know it all. Not being funny. Not bothering to learn structure. Not learning from their elders. Not being funny.

CTVW: Do many comedy writers come up out of standup?

KL: No. It depends on the personality. I can't imagine Neil Simon ever going on stage. For him it was the typewriter.

Another common problem on staff is young writers are toofunny--

CTVW: -- meaning being funny in the room, not on the page--

KL -- always on. You just want to kill'em. Just be a real person when you're not writing. If that's possible.

CTVW: How important is a hook for creating a comedy show? Or is it all about the star and the experience of the writing staff? For example, Third Rock has a high concept premise, but Friends didn't have a hook.

KL: Friends did have a hook. They were a show about twentysomethings with no authority figure to explain it all for them. That was their hook. But it's all in the writing. You take a show like Cheers. What's special about a show set in a bar?

On the other hand, you have to be pitching whatever it is the networks are looking for. Two years ago it was finding stars. They wanted the next Roseanne, the next Tim Allen. If you pitched an ensemble comedy they wouldn't buy it.

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[MIDDLE EAST POLITICS. YIKES.] I saw the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed, b'shalom, and they were indeed outrageously insulting.

But I have to hand it to some of those Muslim protestors up in arms about their Prophet being depicted as a terrorist. Their idea of an appropriate response to show their outrage was, yes, you guessed it: terrorist bombings.

Way to go, guys.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Said Underhill: "How many times must we watch an innocent man get thrown from the hood of a speeding car only to get up unharmed and continue to run from the agents who pursue him, only to get thrown into a stack of warehouse crates? How many street grocers' carefully stacked vegetables must be scattered to the four winds by haphazard, ill-conceived car chases before we, as a society, say 'Enough'?"
The Onion

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When are they going to release Season 1 of the acclaimed series Slings and Arrows? I mean, how expensive can it be to release a DVD? I do not want to have to pay $20 a month to get The Movie Network when really all I wanna do is watch 13 episodes of one show.

(And how about that great comic drama Naked Josh, while they're at it?)

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

A dear friend of our family, Betty Friedan, died today. She was best known as the author of The Feminine Mystique and one of the keystones of the contemporary feminist movement. I knew her as an often crafty Jewish grandmother whose Thanksgivings we regularly attended in Sag Harbor. She always liked me. Oddly, she never listened to anything my wife said.

When I was a kid, my family, Betty and a bunch of other artists and writers and academics regularly rented one big ole house or another in the Hamptons, since nobody could afford a summer rental themselves. We called it "the Commune." We'd all eat dinner together, and people would argue constantly, and I got to participate in the arguments. I'd grow uneatably large zucchinis in the garden out back. The joke was that everyone was supposed to bring something for dinner -- and Betty usually brought guests.

But she was a loving and compassionate soul, a close friend of my mom's (both were founding members of the National Organization for Women) and had the gift of getting people off their asses. Intellectuals like to complain, but Betty helped get people marching, or writing, or lobbying. All the girls who say they're "not a feminist" but would be stunned if someone suggested that they should be paid less, or passed over for a promotion, because "you'll just get married and quit" owe Betty a huge debt. It's only because true feminism -- the notion that women should be taken seriously as human beings, rather than relegated to the position of second class citizen -- has become so deeply ingrained in the American psyche (well, the coastal psyche anyway) that 20-year-old grrllz can afford to say anything so ridiculous.

When Betty started writing, of course, they couldn't have said anything -- no one would have listened to them.

We're raising a glass to Betty Friedan tonight. She was a bit cranky, but as Bertrand Russell said, "All progress depends on unreasonable men."

And women.

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You thought Sleepless in Seattle was a romantic comedy? Watch this trailer, and guess again.

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Lisa's new blog How to Buy Art, is now open for business. She's blogging about the art market, naturally, and you can ask her questions, too.

By the way, the title for the book will be The Intrepid Collector. "Marc in MD," you came closest -- please email us your shipping address for when the book comes out!

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Felicity Huffman deserves the Oscar she's going to get, but I was disappointed by the story of Transamerica. If you haven't seen it, the movie's about Bree, a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual who's days away from her operation when she gets a call from a young man claiming to be her son. He's a hustler in New York. Her therapist insists she straighten that situation out before her "outie" can be turned into an "innie," so she picks him up in New York, claiming to be a church worker, and thereup begins one of those all-across-America road trips the movies love so well.

/* SPOILERS */

At first glance, the script is just sloppily written. Her son is a male prostitute who repeatedly declares he does not want to be re-united with his stepfather. Somehow it does not occur to Bree what everyone else in the audience can see is coming, that his father was abusive. Perhaps a real church lady (or The Church Lady) might miss that, but not a transsexual who has other friends in the community. Other go-to's are less painful but just as sloppy. Bree parks the car near a desert lake, and watches her son and a hitchhiker go skinny dipping -- and lets the hitchhiker swipe the car. Like anyone who lives in LA ever leaves the keys in the ignition?

/* END SPOILERS */

But the real shame of the script is how little of an individual human being Bree is. While Huffman's performance is beautifully nuanced, the character is barely more than I described her above. She exists in a vacuum. She has no friends beyond her therapist (though miraculously she has a passel of TS friends in Texas). She is a parody of womanhood -- excessively proper speech, flouncy hand gestures and all -- but we see almost nothing of the person Sidney Schupak was. One bright shining moment shows what could have been: when they're driving across the desert, she talks about how it all used to be a great inland sea (Tethys, I guess). Though we never get a sense of what that means to her, at least it's something that wouldn't occur to someone else to say. At least that individualizes her a tiny amount.

Essentially she's a creepy loner trying to be something she's not. You could not possibly mistake her for a woman. Real women laugh, cry, and talk constantly. She's buttoned all the way up and says as little as she can. I bet she doesn't even snore.

I hope real transgendered people have more fun than that -- and ironically there are other transgendered people in the movie, the Texas gang, who seem quite human and happy with themselves.

It's not Huffman's fault, it's the script's, but compare Bree to Terence Stamp's Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: not the happiest transexxual in the world, but a human being with friends, a dead lover, a sense of humor, a sense of what's not funny, and the ability to kick a guy in the nuts to save a friend's life.

Huffman may be a brave actress for putting on a prosthetic chin and Adam's apple, and scariest of all, looking ugly. But Transamerica is hardly a brave movie. Bree doesn't even kiss anyone. The movie I'd love to see about a transgendered person is what happens when you go from being a gay man to a woman? Bree lives in one of the most gay/lesbian/transgendered cities in the world, though for some reason she's made the inexplicable decision to live in a Mexican neighborhood instead than West Hollywood where people would accept her for what she is. How about a transsexual who lives in Boystown, has tons of gay friends, but after going under the knife suddenly finds herself at odds with the community she's had. She doesn't want to be a transsexual -- she wants to be a woman. A straight woman. But to really be a straight woman she can't really be in the gay community.

Now that would be a brave movie.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

CTVW: Do you have techniques for coming up with joke pitches? Do jokes spring out of nowhere, or do they break down into certain categories of jokes that "ought to" work that you can try when you're trying to replace a joke in the script?

KL: There probably is some process going on in my subconscious. But I don't know how I do it. If I'm looking for a specific joke -- say a joke about shoes -- my mind will try to log onto associations with shoes. I don't know ... it's just a gift. I used to be a disc jockey. I was one of those funny top 40 dj's in the 70's talking up the records. I never prepped for my show. Some of those guys would come in with reams of material. I figured, "if I can't think of one funny thing to say in 3 minutes while the record is on, then I'm in the wrong business."

A few years ago I came across a bunch of these tapes. I put one in the car, driving to work. And it was as if it was somebody else was talking. I'm thinking, Where did he come up with that? It was like I'd never heard'em before. Like I have different levels of my brain.

I once had a dream where I was attending a Neil Simon play. Some kind of a light murder mystery. I remember sitting in the audience watching this play and laughing at the jokes, and enjoying the play and being surprised by the turns. When I woke up, I wrote down the plot and a couple of the jokes I remembered. So there had to be two parts of my brain working -- one part writing and constructing the play, the other part watching as an audience member and appreciating it. My brain had to be playing both sides at the same time.

CTVW: So it helps to have a schizoid personality.

KL: I work off inspiration. Say you're in a room and you're pitching. And you got 6, 7 people in there with you. If you're working on a joke and you're constructing it in your head and thinking how to shape it just right before you pitch -- often times the ship has sailed. Someone has pitched something else. You learn to develop -- at least I have – the knack for it. There are times when I will see an area for a joke, and it's almost as if you're looking at something that isn't in focus. And I sort of know the form. I don't totally know the punchline. I start pitching it anyway. More often than not by the time I get to the punchline I'll have it. You're kind of walking the plank.

Sometimes I'll get an idea and I can pitch out a whole run, a whole page, just vomit it out ... the whole run comes to me whole cloth in a split second. Doesn't happen all the time. I've seen Jim Brooks do it frequently. I wish I knew exactly how his mind works.

CTVW: What doesn't work?

KL: When there's no real strong comic situation, the writers are forced to be witty as opposed to funny. For example, I'd never seen [name of show]. I was in Chicago last year, we're getting ready to go out, and I'm channel surfing. I come across [name of show.] Okay, I figure, I'll watch 5-10 minutes. And there's absolutely nothing happening in this kitchen scene. Everybody was pulling jokes out of their [ears]. So forced and desperate and unfunny. I thought to myself, I would shoot myself in the head before I could write a scene like this. And yet these characters are trying to be witty and... it was just awful.

CTVW: How do you recognize a brilliant situation going in? Or do you have to just try it out and see if the jokes come?

KL: You construct a situation where there seems to be room for fun, and then you try to spitball things that can go on. The Frasier ep where Niles sleeps with Lilith, and Frasier comes in the room. We figured, there's a ton of stuff we can do with that. It wrote very quickly. Because the situation was funny going in. The hardest part of sitcoms is story construction -- breaking the stories. If you give us a good comic situation, if you put the characters in a situation where you know there's gonna be room for comedy, then coming up with the comedy is not that hard. You don't always have to write "jokes." Doesn't have to be setup-joke-setup-joke.

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I am not, by nature, a hermit. I actually like talking to people. Even better than talking to them, I like seeing them.

Granted, after three or four hours of a party -- or the moment I've talked to everyone I know, especially if that's "no one" -- I get stressed and want to hide in the bathroom, but still.

The writer's telephone does not ring all that often. Fact of life. Until you're in production, there are just not that many reasons for people to call you up.

I try to make the best of it. I try to call people and set up lunches and meetings, and irregularly I organize parties, and throw poker games, so I don't implode socially. And that's good business too.

But still. The phone, it 's not exactly ringing off the hook.

I have to remind myself that it's all right. After all, if you spend a month on a TV pilot script, or three months on a feature spec, and it's great, and someone buys it, you're looking at maybe 5-10 necessary calls all in, unless you get into complicated contract negotiations. What makes your career is sitting down and making the pages great.

Still. I wouldn't mind a phone call now and then...

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

CTVW: How much do plotholes matter in comedy? How far can you go in a comic situation before you lose the audience? What determines how far you can go?

KL: Well, this is a judgment call based on the show and its tone. Will and Grace is bordering on burlesque and seems to work. Raymond couldn't go that far -- the audience would go, whoa, what are you doing?

When I was on Cheers in the later years, we'd have this discussion a lot. I would fight some of the story turns, maybe because I was there from the beginning. For example, there was an ep where where Rebecca decides to make the back room a tea room, and I'm thinking, this is brain dead. Yes, it's funny, but...

CTVW: ... it's out of character.

KL: Yeah.

CTVW: Tell me about the squeaky shoes. What was so brilliant about that is all the stories felt distinct, but they all wound up culminating in this one moment when Sammy is the only possible date for Rebecca.

KL: I don't remember exactly who in the room pitched the squeaky shoes. We didn't think it was special, we were all incredibly surprised when it received as much attention and as many accolades as it did. We were just happy it worked -- We were just trying to get something that'd work.

David and I did an ep ... "Breaking In Is Hard to Do." One of the premises was that Frasier and Lilith's baby hadn't spoken yet. Frasier was taking care of the kid, and he'd bring the kid into the bar every day. We set up this situation where there were now parking meters, so Norm had to refeed the meter every couple of hours. Which means we had to do five separate Norm entrances. Finally at the end of the show Lilith comes to the bar and discovers that Frasier is there with the baby. She's furious, Frasier's a horrible influence, a terrible father ... and the baby opens its mouth and its first word is "Norm." Got a huge laugh. A three minute laugh.

But when we wrote the episode, we didn't know that. And the whole episode was leading up to that. We were thinking: if this doesn't work, we are f****d. We have spent the entire show setting up one joke. All we did was hold our breath.

CTVW: John Rogers was talking about the "Nakamora" --
KL: I think that was on Taxi-- the name of the guy was supposed to be funny, and it wasn't, and you had six or seven Nakamora callbacks, and none of them worked, and you know you have four more coming, and they're not going to work. And you're dying.

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I've been listening to Eminem lately. Not while writing -- wayyy too demanding -- but boy is he way better than anything in the modern poetry section. The internal rhymes in e.g. "Lose Yourself," the way the rhythm slows and speeds within a line, all the while building the arc of the song.

Write a screenplay like that. Rhymes and callbacks where you're not expecting them. Intensity, breath, intensity, all within a scene. Wayyy better than writing your screenplay in 4/4 time.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

[POLITICS] Sorry about two political posts in a day, but this is eating at me.

Condoleeza Rice is surprised that Hamas won the election. Who could have foreseen that a relatively honest, fanatical Palestinian movement could beat a corrupt, ineffective, old school organization that has failed to deliver either freedom or prosperity. I mean, when was the last time that happened?

I mean, aside from in Iran last year, where a relatively honest, fanatical political party beat a corrupt, ineffective political party that had failed to deliver either freedom or prosperity.

Who could have foreseen that the New Orleans levees would fail in a Category 4 hurricane? I mean, aside from The New York Times, and the Army Corps of Engineers, and just about everybody in New Orleans.

Who could have foreseen that Iraq would collapse into a failed state? I mean, aside from the State Department, and Colin Powell, and George Bush's dad.

Who could have foreseen that we'd need more than 150,000 troops to hold the place down once we occupied it? I mean aside from General Shinseki.

Who would have foreseen that Osama Bin Laden would strike inside the US? Aside from anyone who read the Presidential Daily Brief in August 2001 entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." And the FBI guy who warned Quantico that summer about Saudis who were learning to fly, but not land, 747s.

How long is the "we didn't see this coming" excuse going to wash?

"Gee, we didn't think Iran was going to actually build a nuclear weapon."

"Gee, we didn't think North Korea would actually sell one of their nuclear weapons to [terrorists / the Syrians]."

"Gee, we didn't ever imagine the corrupt dictatorship in [Saudi Arabia/Pakistan] would collapse, leaving the country in the hands of jihadis."

"Gee, we didn't think there would be a major outbreak of avian influenza."

"Gee, we didn't think [Somalia/Sudan/Chechnya/Congo] would become a breeding ground for international terrorists."

If the CIA can't inform the President of obvious threats, then maybe it should stop listening in on private telephone calls and PICK UP A FRICKIN' NEWSPAPER. Eh?

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Sitcom writer/producer Ken Levine (veteran of MASH, Cheers, Frasier, Becker) was kind enough to spend some time chatting about my arcane comedy questions. (He has his own blog, too.)

CTVW: There seem to be a lot of jokes on sitcoms that aren't funny. Somebody called them "like-a-jokes." What's up with that? Are these jokes funny for other people?

KL: I have found that it has more to do with the quality of the writers. I've done some directing, and saw different writers at work--

CTVW: --excellent way to spy on the opposition--

KL: --and in some cases you'd see problems after a runthrough. You'd discuss it with the writing staff. They'd listen, go off and do their best. But they didn't really have the chops. They wound up doing the thing they were planning on doing before.

Not that they don't want great material. They work hard. Earnestly. They tell the best jokes they know how. They're just not that good. There are not that many really really good comedy writers.

But then you also get so many factors that can make a show unfunny. Interference by networks and studios ... actors ... managers ... non writing producers. In fairness, you wonder sometimes, what was the first draft like? What did they have to take out because somebody didn't like it? Or it bumped the non-writing producer? Things can get homogenized. It's easier just to lose a joke that offends someone.

CTVW: Why do non-writing producers interfere with the jokes?

KL: Because they can. Because they have opinions on everything. I don't know. They're marking their territory? Anybody can give notes. "This doesn't work for me." They don't have to pitch a solution, just the problem. "I really don't like her when she does this." Then they go off and have a nice dinner.

Jokes are so subjective. They'll say "I don't think this is funny."

CTVW: You shoot each scene twice in front of the studio audience. Do you ever try a couple of new jokes in the second time around?

KL: Sure. But that is a little deceiving because the second time the audience is familiar with everything -- they'll laugh better at any new joke. That can be fool's gold.

It's a tricky thing. I don't know how to explain. There have been times when a show on the stage kills, the audience is roaring with laughter, and you look at it on film and go, what were they laughing at? Other times when it played just fair on stage, and you put it together and the performances and the reactions and the editing come together and it's a great show. And this time you're wondering, "Why weren't they falling off their chairs?"

Sometimes it's magic, of course. The first time I went to see a show, Dave and I were writing a spec Mary Tyler Moore Show. And we had a friend who knew someone who knew someone who worked on the show, and hounded him all year. We had real good seats, second row. The show happened to be "Chuckles Bites the Dust." One of the greatest sitcom episodes ever. There was something unbelievably electric about that night. We walked away, didn't know whether to be inspired or go, who are we kidding? And when you saw it all put together and it was every bit as great.

The onstage audience reaction depends on a lotta things, remember. Not just the material. Also, having a good audience. The air conditioning. What night of the week it is. We're big proponents of shooting live audiences on Tuesday night, not Friday -- more energy.

CTVW: Is that rare?

KL: No. A lot of shows film on Tuesday nights. It allows two shows to share the same crew. The same crew shoots Monday, Tuesday for one show and then Thursday-Friday for the other.

The two writing staffs work the same five days. They both take the weekend off. But some writers prefer working Monday to Friday because your weekend can't get interrupted. If you're working Wednesday to Tuesday, you might get calls during the weekend.

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Stephen Gallagher asked about sweeps, and I was going to write up a brief, ignorant post. Then I discovered that the reaching-technological-singularity Wikipedia has a terrific article on the Nielsen ratings, with a section on Sweeps.

All you need to know about sweeps as a writer/producer is: if you have a lesbian episode, it's airing during sweeps. If Dave is going to finally sleep with Maddy (ayn kaynhoreh), it's during sweeps. Anything that will get those suckers watching airs during sweeps.

You are not allowed to air an episode about a Nielsen family, e.g. "Does the Peoplemeter box cause cancer? Tune in at 11!"

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[POLITICS] I didn't watch the State of the Union (divided) or the rebuttal. Instead I watched old West Wing episodes, in which both sides play politics but actually do want the common good instead of lining their own pockets.

From the Times article, it seemed that the President made a big point of reducing America's dependence on foreign oil principally by burning our own oil reserves much faster than we are doing now.

As opposed to some of the more obvious ways:

  • applying the CAFE standards for gas consumption to SUV's, which really ought to be a no-brainer
  • raising the gas tax to a buck, or creating a sliding scale gas tax to keep the cost of a gallon at $3
  • improving high speed rail along major corridors, to match the government's subsidy of highways
  • tax breaks for people using mass transit on business, to balance the tax breaks businesses get for using cars.
  • overcoming the green lobby's knee-jerk aversion to nuclear power (bet you didn't see that one coming, Craig, didja?) and finding an effective long-term solution to nuclear waste. France and Japan seem to have effective nuclear power, why can't we?

    It would not be complicated to reduce our oil consumption 10%, but it would require some sacrifices. I guess it shouldn't surprise me -- though I hope it never ceases to disappoint me -- that the government persists in addressing current problems by whatever means shuffles them off to the future. Drilling in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge doesn't create more oil, it just sucks it out of the ground faster. The only long-term way to reduce oil dependency is to, well, reduce our use of oil.
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