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



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Thursday, November 30, 2006

I had my first phone conversation with my daughter ever last night!

Jesse: Hello!
Alex: Hello darling! How are you?
Jesse: Bye!

Okay, not much of a conversation. But pretty exciting if it's your
first!

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

This Slate article suggests you might want to listen to Ronald D. Moore's four hour recording of his writer room in action.

They're breaking story. And they're letting you listen in. You wanted to know what it's like to be in the room? This is what it's like to be in the room working on BG.

The podcasts are pretty fine, too.

Look for the link to the Writer's Meeting. (I couldn't find the exact link. Anybody?)

UPDATE: See the comments for the correct links to the Writers Meeting. Thanks, guys!

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Q. In your book, Crafty TV Writing, you mention that it is a producer's dream to have one location or standing set, for shooting. In your experience have you seen this done incorporating the outdoors? Can the outdoors be considered a standing set?
Not really. While staying in one outdoor location for the whole story means you don't lose time moving the "company," shooting outdoors is problematic. Unless you are the prophet Joshua, you cannot get the sun to stand still. It is only available during the day, for example, and even during the day it persists in changing angles. That is, if the sun is not behind clouds. And it is not raining. Or snowing.

Outdoors you also have sound problems. Jets flying overhead. Trucks rumbling by. Teamsters blowing their horns during the take because you didn't hire their drivers. Inside of a sound stage, the world could be ending and you wouldn't know it until the end of the take.

Of course, in Los Angeles you can count on day after day of full sunlight for months at a time, which is one reason the film industry settled there. (The other was that in the early days, they were all violating Thomas Edison's film technology patents, and L.A. was about as far as they could get from his lawyers.) In those days they built their interior sets out in the sun, and sometimes even put them on turntables so the angle wouldn't change. But you probably won't be doing anyone a favor if you set your whole episode in Griffith Park.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

[Canadiana] Denis McGrath will be telling truth to power on the CBC this afternoon. The subject is: how can the CRTC gut Canadian drama even more, and if they do, why should we watch American series on CTV when we can watch them on NBC?

For those of you who haven't been following this, the Canadian broadcast networks are asking for the right to fulfill their Canadian Content requirements by airing infomercials. Which leaves us wondering: if they're not going to fund Canadian drama, why do we need Canadian networks at all? We could just have local affiliates of ABC and NBC airing local infomercials.

Denis, in case you didn't know it, is even funnier and smarter live than in print. Try to catch his words of wisdom. Especially if you work at CTV. He will make a great talk show host, after he sabotages his screenwriting career here.

(Of course, maybe they'll listen to him and get it. And be so grateful to him for telling the Canadian nets what they're doing wrong.)

Here's the program guide for today. You can also listen online.

UPDATE: Aha, here's the schedule:

3:30 pm (1:30 p.m. your time)
CALGARY

3:40 pm
TORONTO

3:50 pm (um...is that..uh...4:50 Halifax time, right?)
HALIFAX

4:10 pm
WINDSOR

4:20 pm (5:20, right?)
SYDNEY

4:40 pm
SAINT JOHN (um...5:40? If it was St. John's, I might have a aneurysm here.)

4:50 pm
OTTAWA

5:10 pm (3:10 local)
EDMONTON

5:40 pm
THUNDER BAY

5:50 pm
WINNIPEG

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Monday, November 27, 2006

[No real spoilers, I don't think.] I think it might be because the early episodes were about global stakes -- how better sketch comedy could save the world -- and these episodes are about personal stakes. Instead of being about whether Matt Albie will save the show -- it wouldn't be much of a series if he lost his show, would it? so a bit of schmuck bait there -- it becomes about whether the various characters will save their part of the show. Can Darius and the English Chick get a sketch on the air? Can Amanda Peet overcome her pride to save her job? Can Harriet tell a joke? (OK, that was more of a runner.)

One of the strange things about TV is it has no perspective. You see it on TV news all the time. We see a story about horrific bombings in Baghdad followed by long lines for holiday shopping. Darfur gets two minutes (or no minutes), OJ gets four, that weirdo claiming to have killed Jon Benet gets 25. TV wants stories it can put a face on -- which is why I get my news from The Economist.

TV wants personal stories. They can be small or big in ramifications. Jack Bauer's story has huge ramifications. But we're really watching to see Jack Bauer deal with his enemies. And it is, apparently, more important whether Meredith gets McDreamy than whether her latest patient dies -- except in so far as Meredith losing her patient might make McDreamy more or less interested in her. Friends got ten years out of whether Ross would get Rachel to think he's cool or Rachel would get Ross to respect her.

No perspective. Or rather, any perspective you want to give it.

'Cause people are like that. There's always the horror story of someone shooting someone over burned eggs. We're not good with perspective either, unless someone has put us in a position where it's our job to have perspective.

The stakes are part of the fun. But the stakes are only important to the extent that they're important to the hero. Make sure you firmly establish exactly how the hero would feel to win the stakes.

(Which is why, incidentally, we'll never care about the aimless/apathetic hero I'm always seeing in failed spec feature scripts. If he doesn't care, why should we?)

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Who was the singer on Studio 60 tonight?

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Friday, November 24, 2006

All you aspiring filmmakers, here's how to build a semi-steadicam for $14. It doesn't have all the fancy hydraulics, but your footage will look better than handheld, thass for sure. Via this handy linkfest on the Celtx site.

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I'm working on my zombie picture off and on these days. One thing that has always bothered me in horror pictures is when the characters don't immediately call the authorities. Tremors is so effective because the characters never waste time investigating the strange phenomena -- they do their best to get the hell out of town from the get-go.

So I've got my guys in a building in the woods surrounded by a passel of zombies, only they don't know it's zombies yet, they think it's only a pair of ordinary psychopaths. (There's more to the hook than that, but for the purposes of the exercise you don't need to know the details.) I want some of them to try to make a run for town, which is terminated when they realize there are more than two creeps out there.

But wouldn't they be carrying cell phones? Wouldn't they just call the police?

No, as it turns out, because part of the point of the vacation was to get away from cell phones.

But I find that unsatisfying on its own because I don't want the whole enterprise to hang on the characters having not brought along cell phones. Surely someone would have cheated.

As it turns out, one of the characters did cheat. But I only want that revealed after they make their abortive run for town. So I had the character, in one draft, forget he'd brought along a cell, and in another draft, he just didn't mention it.

Neither works, as a perspicacious fellow who read my script pointed out.

One solution would be to find out that he's got the cell phone before they make the run for town. But then it just feels like shoe leather. Something to get out of the way.

Another would be to go back to nobody having brought cell phones. Or having brought a cell phone, but no signal. Not fun.

The solution I'm going with is to eliminate the surprise -- because it feels like a cheat -- but embrace the character not telling anyone he has a cell. Establish earlier that he does have a cell. But he wants to make a run for town. Because it would be more fun than calling the police. And he thinks (for reasons having to do with the hook) that his friends can handle two garden variety lunatics.

Now it's not a cheat, because we know he's got a cell as soon as he does. Now there's suspense, because we're wondering why he didn't tell anyone, and when he's going to use it. And best of all, we've now established our guy as a reckless adrenaline junkie. He's not doing the wise thing. He's doing the foolish, character-establishing thing.

When you bump on a plothole, don't just look for a way to smooth it out. Look for a way to make it a character-establishing moment. It may be more fun. It may be more human, too.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

We watched the last episode of Season Two of Slings and Arrows. It's the sort of show that makes you wish you were in showbiz. In spite of all the chaos and pain, the characters love the theater so much they'll put up with anything to be there and make the magic. We love their devotion and their fundamental honesty -- I say fundamental, because they lie to each other all the time but they are trying to make honest theater.

I remember watching Day for Night in college and thinking that if only I'd seen it when I was younger, it would have made me go into the movies. Show people seem to burn a little brighter in it; as they do in real life.

It's nice to be able to see the show and realize that I am, by some freak luck and a fair amount of slogging, actually in showbiz. And my best friends in the biz have that same devotion to making great work. The system rarely supports great work, for various reasons. But against the odds it does get made, because everyone at some level wants to make great work, even if they are working at cross purposes half the time. And that's what keeps us all going.

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Jim Henshaw, a TV producer with loads of writing experience, is blogging too. Here's how a picture of his wound up as an "Alan Smithee Film." Via DMc.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I've got some people trapped in a building in a forest surrounded by zombies. They're thinking about setting the forest on fire, and then it starts to rain. Oh well.

A fella suggested that I make a bigger deal out of their attempt to set the forest on fire. It would be a way to go. But I don't think the audience is going to really believe that they're going to succeed. 'Cause there's going to be no conflagration in the trailer or the poster -- which there would be if the movie had a forest fire. So the audience would be ahead of the characters waiting for them to get back to the exciting parts of the plot.

Instead I went for the gag -- pretty much the moment they think of setting the forest on fire, it starts to rain. Wayyy ahead of you, audience.

You want to be constantly aware of what the audience is expecting. Thwart them on plot details -- surprise them with how things turn out.

On the other hand, satisfy their expectations on emotions -- give them the ending they're expecting emotionally. Most of our characters survive the zombies. If they didn't, it would be a dark, dark movie (like Night of the Living Dead), and this is a horror comedy.

In particular, be aware of how much the audience is going to know from the trailers on TV, or the DVD box text.

Scorsese remarked that Raging Bull starts with a fat Robert De Niro partly because he knew the audience would have read about how De Niro gained a ton of weight to play the aging Jake La Motta. He knew the audience would be waiting to see the "fat man." They'd be distracted until they got to see Robert De Niro fat. So he gave them the fat man right out of the box so that they wouldn't be distracted.

Managing audience expectations is a big part of telling stories on screen. It's really the essence of storytelling. So always think of your audience -- picture them in your mind -- as you craft the story.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

After Crafty TV Writing, my editors asked me what the next book might be, and the logical answer seemed to be Crafty Directing. Not that I know how to direct craftily, but it would have been fun to interview directors who do. Most directing books, I've noticed, are either basic primers (how not to cross the "line") or books of chatty anecdotes by major directors. Sidney Lumet's book is about the only one that gives away trade secrets, and he doesn't give many of those.

Now John Badham has written a book full of this exact kind of tradecraft. (Fortunately for me, John told me he was going to do it a couple years ago; but the book is even better than I'd hoped.) It's called I'll Be in My Trailer: Creative Wars Between Actors and Directors, and it is as full of director tradecraft as you might hope, coming from the very crafty director of Saturday Night Fever, Stakeout, WarGames and The Jack Bull. Badham hasn't stopped at his own knowledge; he's interviewed fellow directors like Mark Rydell and Richard Donner, and quoted from interviews with other directors.

The tradecraft I'm talking about includes things like shooting closeups first if you're dealing with a scene that might wear out your actor emotionally (generally you shoot the master first, closeups last); the two points of view about rehearsals; what it means when an actor says, "I want to talk to you about my costume; and how not to waste your casting sessions looking important.

Okay, there's still some room for Crafty Directing because this book only focuses on dealing with actors. I'd love to hear what Badham and his colleagues have to say about the more subtle uses of different lenses, when to shoot at a location and when a studio, six day shoots vs. five day shoots, and other technical and production questions. But that really does deserve another book.

If you want to direct, or if you're even simply a writer who wants to appreciate all that a director has to deal with, buy this book.

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Here's an interesting conundrum. I'm reading a screenplay by a very competent writer. He's set up a situation where the hero is being menaced by thuggish people and there's no one he can turn to. He's helpless. That sets up, I assume, the basic problem of the screenplay.

My problem is that when the hero is jammed in a corner like this and all he's going to be able to do is suck it up, while I sympathize, I don't particularly want to spend more time with him and his problems. It's a pure downer. But it is dramatically effective to place the hero in a real jam.

What I'm suggesting to the writer is to make the thugs more fun to watch. They're brutal, but they're not much fun. I think we need them to be quirkier, stranger, more fun to watch. Think of Gary Busey in the dress in Under Siege: he's another insane killer like Mr. Joshua. But he's an insane killer in a dress. (Which of course makes it brilliant when later, just after he's murdered the captain, he notices that his efficiency report recommends him for a psychiatric evaluation. Still in a dress and makeup, he turns to Tommy Lee Jones and says, "Do I look like I need a psychiatric evaluation?" And Tommy Lee gets to do his patented raised eyebrow and say, "Not at all.")

Another direction would be to give us the full humanity of the thugs and give us a sense why they're beating up the hero. We still won't like them but at least we're getting insight into them.

Be efficient in setting up your jeopardy. But don't be so streamlined that there's no fun in it for the audience. Make the villains fun to watch even if you wouldn't personally enjoy their company.

Also, don't let your hero ever be completely helpless. Helpless is a repulsive frame of mind. No one wants to be around helpless. Even if your hero is getting killed, at least he could try to josh his way out of a bad situation. Or fight against the odds. Anything that tells us he's not a loser.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Q. In writing prose fiction, one key to vivid descriptions is specificity. So, a description of a beautiful woman might focus on her freckles or a crooked tooth or the way the muscles on her back move when she reaches up to change a lightbulb. I'm curious about doing the same thing in a script.

To the extent that it's something that's just costuming or makup, it seems like good sense to do the same sort of specific descriptions in scripts (maybe the pretty girl pulls her long sleeves down so that they hide her hands). But does it make sense to describe physical characteristics if they're mostly going to be a matter of casting?
Right. No, it does not. Unless a freckle is a story point, don't mention it. What if Rachel McAdams reads it, but doesn't have freckles, and now she doesn't want to do your script any more? That would suck.

If someone has a horrible wart on their nose, on the other hand, and they're self-conscious about it, then you would mention it because it's a character or story point. Like the way Dorothy is self-conscious because she's in black and white, and she dreams of being in color. Or something.

I will try to describe personality as efficiently as I can. I try to avoid describing looks for the lead actors. Rather than giving a character description that depends on casting, give a character description that depends on personality. Describe how the character is, rather than what they look like. Give the actor something to act, not something to have.

With minor characters, on the other hand, you may be looking for a specific type that will score with the audience immediately, e.g. WIRY BANK ROBBER, FAT CLERK, GENETICIST WITH BODACIOUS YA-YA'S. Then go for the physical description. But then, essentially, the character's type is the story point.

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If you write good recaps at Television without Pity, it turns out, sometimes the staff writers will read you. Garrett Lerner is a Co-Exec Producer on House, and SaraM of TwoP interviewed him.

Thanks for the tip, Katya!

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For the next week, you can vote for the Canadian Blog Awards. If you like this blog, please feel free to click the links to either side and vote for it. It's up for Best Blog and Best Entertainment Blog.

And now we're off to New York!

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Q. When a producer asks you a writing sample, what does this mean? I never gave a good thought about it and usually I send "something" that I think it's good. But the question I always have is: how many pages?
I always send a complete script. How can someone judge your writing without seeing a whole story told on screen? If it's for a TV drama, I send a TV drama script. If it's for an SF feature, I send an SF feature sample.
Q. I don't think you need to send writing samples today, but when you did, how big were your "writing samples"?
I send writing samples all the time. I sent a couple of scripts to a guy yesterday.

Even if my two produced features weren't co-writes, odds are your favorite scripts -- or your best samples for a given job -- aren't the ones that got made. We can't all be John August and get almost everything produced.

Just because someone's a bigshot (and I'm not one by any stretch) doesn't mean you shouldn't ask for a sample of their writing. When I was a development guy, we made a deal with some very fancy Big-Agency-Represented writers to develop a project. Foolishly we didn't ask for a writing sample; we relied on the word of their agents. Ack. We wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and the better part of the year with those jokers because we didn't ask for samples.

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I was casting about for TV series ideas a couple of days ago. Your basic episodic drama series is (a) a family, whether of kin or of choice, who live or work at (b) a venue where (c) stories walk in the door every week. That's why you see so many hospital shows, legal shows and cop shows. We've also seen a radio station, a funeral parlor, a saloon in Deadwood, two adjacent apartments, a TV station, and so on.

Obviously there are TV shows that aren't set at a single venue, but they're more expensive to shoot, and it's harder to keep your family together. There are also TV shows where the characters aren't in a family (Six Degrees, Heroes) but it's harder to keep the stories interwoven.

So, I thought, peacekeepers. Blue Helmets. And I wrote my agent:
PEACEKEEPERS... the story of a squad of Canadian soldiers in an unidentified African country. Based near a big town, they're trying to protect European and Canadian aid workers, and keep heavily armed local factions from killing each other and brutalizing the people. But our guys are not allowed to call in air strikes and blow things up. They have to use money, words and their own humanity to bring peace and order to a place where not everyone wants peace and order. They carry just enough weaponry to protect themselves -- and sometimes it's not enough. They're caught in the middle between the weak and the strong, the honest and the corrupt, local Muslims and local Christians, the West and the East, the past and the future. They're trying to understand the local people enough to help them -- without understanding them so much they forget what they stand for. One of our guys is there for idealism, one for honor, one to escape his past, one to escape his small town, one for the thrills; and all of them, men and women, are there for the brotherhood...

Unlike every American series about soldiers, this is one in which the solution to every problem isn't killing someone -- in fact that's the solution our guys are mostly forbidden to use. Which makes our guys' job all the much harder. Yet they're out there doing it in a dozen countries right now.

This wouldn't be about how they fail. It would be about how in spite of the odds -- in spite of the fact that they can't shoot -- they actually do mostly succeed at keeping peace in the town, mostly because people recognize that they're not there for gain and they won't be there forever.
I was getting pretty exciting about writing this up, but first I checked with my agent. Amy wrote
Unfortunately there is a one hour drama called Peacekeepers that just got greenlit at CBC. Mario Azzopardi is directing, Paul Gross to star.
And that is why you want an agent.

I'm disappointed about being scooped, of course, but at least it means I was on the right track.

UPDATE: I now realize I could have read DMc more carefully, and I would already have known this, but I wasn't looking for a peacekeepers show back in June, was I?

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Monday, November 13, 2006

I answer a lot of questions on this blog. For clarification, my policy is that if you want me to answer your question, I assume you're willing to have both the question and the answer posted on the blog. If you would like me to delete certain specifics, please let me know in advance.

If you are not willing for me to answer your question on the blog, then please do not send it to me, as I don't generally answer questions on an individual basis, only if they can benefit everyone.

-- Mgt.

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Q. I've posted my TV series idea online... Would you like to take a look at it?
I don't generally read other people's work, unless they're friends, or someone hires me to.

I would not recommend putting your series proposal on your website. If it's brilliant, someone might steal it. If no one steals it, TV execs might wonder, "If this is so brilliant, why hasn't anyone stolen it?"

Putting your series proposal up for all to see does not establish a connection between you and someone who puts out a similar proposal months later, since you can't prove that they ever went to your site. And you can't even copyright an idea, only the specific way you set up the idea. So if they steal your idea and twist it, it's not your idea any more.
Q. But I'm in [name of town], and no one will read it.
Right. Because TV is a different animal from the movies. Someone can buy your spec feature script for its idea alone, and then happily have someone else rewrite it. In other words, your newbie-ness doesn't make it impossible for you to sell your script, assuming you can get people to read it. But in TV, even assuming you are clever enough to come up with a pitch-perfect TV pitch (and that is much harder than writing a sellable feature spec), they are not just looking for a pitch. They are looking for a killer spec pilot script, and an experienced writer who will turn the pilot into a series if it's greenlit.

To repeat: series are sold off pilots, not pitches. In Canada they'll take pitches, but ABC wants to read a finished pilot.

Your best bet to sell your series, I think, is to write a spec pilot and a respectable spec episode of a current hit show; get an LA agent to send them both around as writing samples; and hope someone says, "Wow, I actually want to buy this pilot!" If it's brilliant enough, someone will. And if it's almost brilliant enough, you might get hired onto a show.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Where am I going to be on Thursday night 7-8 pm? Why, where all the cool people are, at the fabulous party for Lisa's book at the Winkleman/Plus Ultra Gallery and Schroeder Romero Gallery in Chelsea, 637 West 27th Street, in New York.

Wine! Beautiful people! Clever conversation!

You're invited too!

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Here's a neat list of ways to get creatively unstuck...

Via Jane.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

I spent the morning walking around downtown Fredericton. You can pretty much walk around downtown Fredericton in a morning, but there is a nifty Saturday market, full of terribly enticing baked goods, and sweaters, and fresh meats, and cured meats, and homemade cheese, and things made out of wood that you didn't know you needed until you saw them.

I sold almost all my books, and was planning to fly back light, but I will be taking back some smoked mackerel. Nice to fly without going over a border and wondering whether you're supposed to declare your sandwich.

Good call on the market, Gia! And Ralph, where did you go? I turned to buy cheese and you were gone!


The Lord Beaverbrook Art Gallery is a surprise. It has a really good collection. The pièce de résistance is a Rembrandt by Hogarth. Yep, it's a painting of one of Hogarth's friends, John Pine, in the style of Rembrandt. (Irritatingly I can't find a good color image of it on the net.) It turns out that Rembrandt was all the rage in London that year, and Hogarth thought, well, I can do that, and did. He made such a good Rembrandt out of his friend John that the painting has been sold twice as a Rembrandt. Pine's expression is a little hard to read, but once you know the story, it sure looks like he's smirking.

There are also some superb lithos by Inuit artists downstairs. I think I want to buy some Inuit lithos now.

I came out of the gallery to find the Remembrance Day parade. Fredericton was founded by Loyalist veterans of the American Revolution, settled in New Brunswick after they were kicked out of Maryland and New Jersey and New York by outraged American patriots. They take their Armistice Day seriously. We had a very moving two minutes of silence at the airport just now.

Whoops! We're boarding. Did I mention Fredericton has townwide free wireless internet?

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Friday, November 10, 2006

The new issue of Canadian Screenwriter has a feature on Bon Cop Bad Cop, focusing on Leila Basen's work creating the script with Patrick Huard, the star, and my work as a script doctor during pre-production.

I gotta say though that the article pretty much completely ignores the entire middle part of the script development. After Leila left to showrun her show Mental Block, Kevin Tierney, the producer, worked with Patrick for I don't know how many months on I don't know how many drafts of the script. The draft I read when I came on board was a funny, funny script already, and Patrick's character was all there.

I understand the Guild wants to showcase its writers. But it's not fair to ignore Kevin and Patrick's work. The movie would have been different without Leila or my contributions. But it would not have existed without Kevin and Patrick.

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Q. I wanted to ask at what age did you get you first job?
I was a late starter. I remember seeing Day for Night in college and thinking, "If only I'd seen that when I was younger, I'd have gone into the movie business. Too late now, though."

My first jobs were all p.a. jobs in New York, working in commercials, after I'd spent the year after college fooling around making shorts on video in Paris. So, I was I guess 22. My first full time job (as a producer's assistant) was out of film school, so I would have been 26 or so.

The first time I got paid to write a screenplay might have been in film school. I was offered a script and two rewrites for $1000. Would you believe I got stiffed out of the last $200?

But hey. It was better than working for a living!

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We came, we spieled, we answered questions. I did a fun panel at the Silver Wave Film Festival on screenwriting in general and Bon Cop in particular.

Having just spent a couple of days in Toronto, I gotta complaint. In Montreal, people say, "Hey, I saw Bon Cop, and I loved it!" In Fredericton and Toronto, people say, "Hey, I heard Bon Cop was really really fun. I'm looking forward to seeing it some day.'

And that's why English Canada doesn't have its own cinema.

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After our session at the Silver Wave Film Festival, we went off to The Blue Door, a nifty fusion bistrot on Regent Street. We had Navajo fry bread with goat cheese and balsamic vinegar, and crab cakes with mango salsa, and blackened chicken breast, and some of the best chowder I've ever tasted. If you've ever been to Van Go's Ear in Venice (L.A.), it's that kind of yummy. Shout out to Gia, who recommended it: good call!

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

I'm in Toronto again. Yesterday I taught a class of up-and-coming writers at the Canadian Film Centre. Gee, I wish UCLA had brought in more industry pro types to meet us when I went to film school there. I hope they're doing it now.

So a shout-out to all the students I met yesterday, and good luck making it in the biz. One thing I'd like to add to my remarks: it never gets easy, no matter what level you're at. If you're talking to someone with series in development, they're wondering if it will get picked up. If you're talking to someone with a go series, they're dealing with the problems of production, and wondering if they'll be cancelled. Everybody's trying to take it to the next level and hoping they don't screw up and slip to the next level down -- which might be the level you're aspiring to.

Went to the CFC "rebranding" party last night. As far as anyone can figure out, the rebranding consists of turning the second "C" in the CFC's logo ... backwards. Cooooooool. That changes everything, y'know.

Today is all meetings and pitches. I'm up for adapting a book, and I'm pitching a series, and I've got a call with a network at 5. Toronto really shows me the love. I sometimes wonder if I ought to move here. But would I get the love if I were here? Or is it all that Montreal mystique working for me? Anyway, I love Montreal too much to move. And the train is pretty nice.

Tonight I'm flying to Fredericton, where tomorrow I'm doing an industry seminar at the Silver Wave Film Festival from 10 to 12. So if you're in Fredericton, do drop in. And bring questions. You know, people do not ask enough questions. We ran out of questions yesterday after three hours, which I guess is a lot of time, but I did have the impression the students were winging their questions as opposed to having necessarily prepared specific, provocative questions -- the kinds of questions you could not have answered by reading books or blogs. I've even had interns who didn't ask enough questions, when asking questions was the only payment they were getting. I know it's hard to come up with questions. But the mere exercise of trying to figure out where the holes in your knowledge lie, helps you fill those holes in...

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Q. Should I leave a message, or call back?
Nick Hartman asked me this question relating to getting show bibles, but it could apply to almost any communication between an unknown and a gatekeeper of some sort -- i.e. an agent, producer, production office, etc.

If you get an answering machine, don't leave a message. Call back. There should always be someone answering at a production office, but if you're getting a machine at an agency or production company, it's probably a holiday. (Or an earthquake.) People are not good about responding to recorded messages when you want something from them and they don't want anything from you.

If you get an assistant, you have to leave a message. It's their job to screen calls. Every so rarely (2% of the time?) you'll get an actual producer or agent picking up his or her own phone by accident, so be prepared to talk fast. But usually you have to leave a message.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Q. How do I get the bible for the show I'm speccing?
Depending on the show it'll be easy or tough.

Some shows don't let outsiders look at their bibles. Some shows don't actually have a bible. Some are happy to let you read it.

If you have an agent, have her ask the show.

Otherwise, call the show and ask for the writer's office and explain your situation. The writers' assistant can shoot you a PDF of the bible, if it's allowed.

You get the show's number by finding out what studio is producing it, calling their main switchboard, and asking for the show's production office. Or you find out the name of the production company (in the onscreen credits or on the IMDB) and call them (number's in the Hollywood Creative Directory).

Most of the information you need, though, isn't in the bible. A lot of stuff you don't need may be. Sometimes the bible represents an earlier conception of the show and no one's updated it. There's backstory in there that the writers haven't put into any episodes. The description of the characters may not get at the essence of those characters. Bibles are wishlists and prospectuses, not blueprints. Only carefully reading the scripts and watching the episodes will tell you what you need to know. (I discuss how to get scripts and how to watch episodes at some length in Crafty TV Writing.)

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Via McSweeney.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Lisa and I are watching Slings and Arrows on Showcase -- down South you can watch it on the Sundance Channel. It's up for a stack of Gemini Awards next week. This article talks about how this utterly funny and charming comic drama was greenlighted and then mysteriously killed at the CBC, after which The Movie Network, a specialty channel akin to HBO, picked it up.

I'm going to guess some executive said something like, "the mainstream audience doesn't care about Shakespearean theatre," not getting that the show is about crazy actors and directors doing most of their acting offstage. The show is 10% about Shakespeare, 30% about the Theatre, and 60% about adorable crazy people who act on their every impulse. The Shakespeare festival is just the venue. People don't watch Gray's Anatomy for the medicine, either.

TMN is very happy for the show to end "gracefully" after three seasons, but that seems to me only a cheerier version of the original rejection. Why not keep it going? I can't imagine that the writers are sick and tired of the characters after 18 episodes. [UPDATE: apparently they really did always intend only three seasons.] And if they can't figure out where to take the narrative, find writers who can. There is a perception out there that successful Canadian shows run for three years, and then are taken to the vet and put down. Same thing happened to my show, Naked Josh -- three good seasons, good audiences, good night.

Why, why, Lord, why?

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Q. Are you thinking doing any kind of crafty screenwriting software?
Gosh, no. I don't think I believe in screenwriting software. I don't know any pro writers who use screenwriting software. I believe in screenplay formatting software, but Final Draft is exactly what I need -- I can't think of a new feature they could give me that I'd want. They already have a ton of features I've never even tried to use.

The biggest tool I have to offer is Tell your story out loud.

The second biggest tool I have to offer is Be sure you have a good hook.

How could a computer help you with those?
I am sorry, that hook is lame.
I don't think so.

I think you already have all the screenwriting software you need installed in your brain. You know how to tell stories. You know what you enjoy seeing on a screen. My job is more to ask the right questions than to give you a template.

Do any of you use screenwriting software (e.g. Dramatica), and does it really help?

What would Crafty Screenwriting Software do for you, if it existed?

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No, not those polls. Stewart McKie polled (mostly) working screenwriters. And he found the following:

Screenwriting programs -- have used:

84% have used Final Draft
36% Movie Magic Screenwriter
30% Microsoft Word Add-Ins
16% Celtx
12% Montage
12% Sophocles

Preferred:

58% prefer Final Draft
24% prefer MS Word Add-Ins
22% prefer MMS
8% prefer Montage
6% prefer Sophocles
2% prefer Celtx

You can find more information out at his site, ScreenSoft.

Some of the numbers seem a little wonky, I'm assuming because 26% of those polled were not writers but "in other film industry roles." By wonky I mean that 25% of respondents have never used Script Revisions. I suspect those 26% and 25% are mostly the same people -- development execs who use Final Draft to read scripts they've been emailed, or production designers who want to make notes on scripts. I'd like to see which programs are preferred by (only) professional writers (including writer-directors).

It would also be interesting to see (a) what percentage of writers are on Mac vs. Windows (I s'pect over 50%), and how the Final Draft v. MMS war compares on the Mac front vs. the Windows front. I s'pect the Final Draft numbers are even higher on Mac, and MMS scores relatively better on Windows.

Interesting to see there are actually people who prefer Montage, considering it is a new release which as yet does not have the ability to mark revisions. That bodes well for the program.

Would someone tell me what a Microsoft Word Add-In is? Is it like a style sheet on HGH?

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Q. I'm posting pages from the spec pilot I've written [here]. Would you be willing to provide a link to them?
This blog isn't really a forum for that. But there are a few places on the Net where screenwriters gather to critique each other's work. To that come to mind are the Zoetrope Screenplay Contest and Triggerstreet. Blog readers, know any other good ones?

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Lisa's launching her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, at Indigo on St. Catherine (1500 McGill College Ave), at 7 pm. She'll give a fascinating talk and answer your questions about buying art, and even sign your copy of the book. See you there!

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