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



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Thursday, May 31, 2007

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My director friend Jim writes:
We are nearing the end of this journey called 3 Saisons and we need people to join us in a few scenes that occur in public spaces. If you have any desire to come, even for a few hours, please drop me an e-mail and we'll direct you to the right place. We are looking at Sunday the 3rd of June, and Sunday the 17th of June.

This is a film made on a shoestring that has grown into a beautiful adventure. We are now working with Remstar and Alliance for distribution. So if you'd like to see yourself up on that silver screen next to Caroline Néron, Frank Schorpion, Romano Orzari, Dan Bigras and others, please come on down!
So if you're in Montreal, and you'd like to be an extra, drop him a line!

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Q. In Crafty TV Writing you mention that you and some friends "fixed" A Knight's Tale after you watched it. Can you share what you did to it?
Oh lordy, no. That would involve remembering the movie.

I did watch Nine Months last night, as research. (I'm adapting a book in the same territory.) It seemed to me that the Big Thematic Problem -- Hugh Grant's character's unwillingness to change his life for a baby -- was resolved about 15 minutes before the end of the movie, which was about 10 minutes too soon. 'Cause after that they had to have a wedding, and then some comic stuff that went nowhere in a restaurant. I thought Hugh Grant's big speech about how he wants her back ought to have taken place in the car driving like crazy toward the hospital, so she's screaming and going into labor while he's proposing to her. Trying to propose to a woman in labor -- now that's comedy.

And I thought The Return of the King ought to have ended when Frodo and Sam come back to the Shire, and it's exactly the way they left it, and no one has any idea that a monstrous power nearly conquered and enslaved it, and Frodo and Sam are extremely happy that they don't. Because the whole reason they went on the adventure was to save the Shire just the way it is.

What are your movie "fixes"?

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I thought you might be interested in my blog called 'Carolina Flicks' that features films and filmmaking in the Carolinas. As part of this blog I have some software I wrote called ShotList Manager that is free and helps make shotlists.

Carolina Flicks
ShotList Manager
Y'all feel free to check it out and report back!

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Q. In your book, "Crafty Screenwriting", you mention that it's best to send out query letters first, wait for responses, then write the screenplay. It sounds like a great idea, but I'm a little confuddled. Once I pique the interest of a production company's reader (assuming that I actually do), how long is this person going to wait for me to write the thing before he loses interest?
First of all, if it makes you nervous, by all means, write the screenplay first.

The reason I suggest querying first is that the vast, vast majority of query letters I read when I was a development exec described scripts that are commercially doomed. Even if they were brilliantly written, they just don't have a hook. If you don't work in showbiz, it's hard to get a good sense of what showbiz is looking for in a script. If you query first, you get a sense of whether anyone's going to want to read your script once you've written it. If you fire off 50 queries, and you don't hear back from anyone, you've just saved six months.

What you have to understand is that the development person (or agent) who reads your query is not going to wait for you at all. They will read your query and shoot off a response or delete it within 15 to 20 seconds. Then the whole thing will vanish from their brain entirely. 99.99% of the time they are not going to give your hook another thought until you send them something.

To reiterate: they will read your query at the speed you are reading this sentence. If they don't like it, bam, gone. If they like it, they might spend 20 seconds thinking "Am I really interested?" Then bam, they respond, and it's gone from their brains like a feminine hygeine commercial on your TiVo.

To be effective as an agent or producer you have to be very effective at forgetting things you don't need to keep track of, and what queries you responded to is definitely something you don't need to keep track of.

When your script shows up eventually, they likely won't remember when you queried. If by some miracle they remember it was a while ago, they will probably still want to see it. Maybe 3% of the time they're responding to your query because they just heard that Paramount wants something like your idea -- but that kind of interest rarely helps you, because they're only interested in making the one submission. The other 97% of the time they just think you have a commercial concept and they could potentially set it up at any number of different places. So if they wanted to read it then, they'll want to read it now.

That's the logic behind querying before writing. But hey, it's just a strategy. Whatever works for you. I personally don't write a script until I've pitched it to some of my professional friends, and above all, asked my agent if she thinks she could sell it. If you don't have friends in the biz, and an agent, then querying first might be a good substitute. And again, yes, you're fibbing a bit when you write the email.

But it's showbiz, Punky. You think agents and development execs don't lie?

And if it results in a script they can sell, then where's the harm?

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Many thanks to our superb crew on "TWELVE WAYS TO SAY I'M SORRY". If you're shooting in Montreal, you should hire them! (If you want their phone numbers, feel free to ask.)

Our Unit Production Manager, Greg Nicod. He has ulcers so you don't have to.

Our Director of Photography, Mark Adam. He takes the pictures out of your brain and puts them in the camera.

Our Production Designer, Annika Krausz. She makes your set look like somewhere else entirely.

Our Sound Dude, Pablo Villegas. Without him, you're shooting a Buster Keaton movie.

John Easterbrooke, Digital technician. The new cameras are wacky. You need someone who can speak their language.

Phil Harrison, trusty 2nd Assistant Cameraman

Myriam Doucet, Asst PM.

Audray Adam, makeup. She mops your furrowed brow.

Young Patrick Lanthier. Willing and able PA.

Matthew Cope. Snappy fellow with a still camera. Plays a mean hand of poker, too.

Not to mention...

Michael Solomon. Diligent, meticulous, honest producer. Get him before he's hot. And rich.

Laurie Nyveen. Indispensable Associate Producer. If you can't figure out who's in charge of it, put him in charge and it will happen.

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Director Mike Figgis spent longer at LAX airport than intended. He'd arrived in Los Angeles, along with half the acting and directing world, for what is known as 'pilot season', when the big studios try out new scripts, directors and actors in a two-week frenzy of auditions and career make-or-breaks. When Figgis was being grilled by airport immigration, he was asked the purpose of his visit. Unthinking and tired after a long flight, Mike replied: 'I'm here to shoot a pilot.' After five hours in an interrogation cell (yes, really), he finally made it into town.
The Guardian Unlimited

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I'm teaching a workshop for TV beginners out on Prince Edward Island in mid June. If you were attending a workshop I was teaching, what would you want to come away with? What would you want to do in the workshop? What can I give my participants that they can't get from my book CRAFTY TV WRITING?

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Tired of coming up with new, fresh, hooks? Want to write something easy and hackneyed? Try the new Plotomatic!

Working in TV? Need a new cop show idea? Try Together, they fight crime!

Oh and ... if any of these seem a bit too much like your own concepts ... you know what to do.

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We got our last shot last night, except for one greenscreen shot we're going to do in studio with one actor on Tuesday morning. The film is in the can! If by can you mean a variety of hard drives and memory cards.

I think it's pretty neat that all the takes for a film can fit on a laptop. You really could cut a whole film on your laptop.

I'm thrilled with the footage we got. Our actors were brilliant. And professional. And fun. A million thanks to Alison Darcy for recommending so many of them. We had technical difficulties with our equipment, but the cast never let the crew's fussing get in the way of delivering funny and yet emotionally truthful performances. And I have to thank the cast for being so damn funny. One one of the takes last night I literally wound up rolling on the floor laughing.

I have to thank our producer, Michael Solomon, for bringing together a small but highly effective and professional crew on a very tight budget. We had no surprises in the personnel department, and that was a huge relief. I was prepared to go over our BravoFACT! budget if necessary, but Mike was determined not to, and he did a great job in the producer's delicate task of juggling money, time, equipment and people. Laurie Nyveen, our Associate Producer, was invaluable in managing the dozens of tasks we flung at him on short notice (casting, exploding cell phone effects, "Grand Banks Cod Pieces," free maple pies?), many of which I'm probably not even aware of.

The only significant hitch in the show, which ate up hours of time, was the Red Rock M2 lens adapter. We used the Red Rock adapter to create a cinematic depth of field, which our HD video camera couldn't deliver. It did a great job of putting the background out of focus, but it was extremely awkward to keep focused on the actors if they and/or the camera were moving. Physically the difference between in focus and out of focus on the focus wheel would often be a millimeter. We couldn't focus by measuring distances with tape, either, because the lens markings did not seem to bear a close resemblance to reality.

On the other hand, the footage looks beautiful, and we're focused on what I wanted to show you, and not focused on anything I didn't want you paying attention to, so the Red Rock delivered what we wanted it to, for a very good price. The more expensive adapter would have been much easier to use, but hey, more expensive.

Fortunately we had enough time to get all our master shots and enough coverage to trim scenes for time, which was all I really wanted. Since the film is a comedy, I didn't shoot a lot of closeups -- I worked with my actors to stage the scenes so they played in dynamic, moving two-shots. The last shot of the shoot was a thirty second four shot with a lot of choreography.

That style meant I didn't need a lot of coverage. It takes a lot less time to shoot an additional take than to move the camera. Every time you move the camera your d.p. will need to relight. Or think he does.

It also turned out to be much more complex to play back in one scene video that you just shot in a previous scene. Part of the cost of dealing with new digital video cameras is that no one is completely familiar with all their idiosyncrasies, particularly how they interface with computers. The mere fact that you can throw footage from your first scene up on a TV in your second scene is pretty cool. But you have to work all the bugs out before you get to set.

But that's what you get for putting fancy shootin' in your short film. It all takes time. I think it will turn out to have been worth it.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

"Do you have this in a nine?" -- "I dunno!"


"I'm so sorry ... would you mind looking for it???"



Many, many thanks to Peter Toumbanakis of La Table Ronde for letting us shoot in his amazing medieval boutique on St. Paul Street (other boutiques throughout Montréal and in Québec City).

And Sébastian at Pub St. Paul for keeping his live rock'n'roll band drinking a few more minutes until we got that last shot. That was a lifesaver, Sébastian!

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Q. I want to spec BATTLESTAR, LOST or ENTOURAGE. These scripts are hard to find online. Can I contact the production office of these shows? Writers offices? The network? How do I get contact information? Are they open to sending scripts to non-represented writers? Do you have to send money for postage? Is it a problem I am outside of LA?
You've got the right idea: before you spec, read as many of the produced scripts of the show as you can get your eyes on.

You get the number of the production office by calling the main number for the studio (which you can get from 411) and asking for the production office.

However, I would be stunned if anyone at a production office or writer's office has the time to email anyone a script, let alone actually copy and mail one, and they'd probably get in trouble with the network if they did.

The best place to read current scripts is the Writer's Guild Library at 7000 West Third Street at Fairfax Avenue in LA.

Or you can try my handy list of websites that carry downloadable scripts. And check out this post and this post for other online and real world links.

Now, that said, there are various scripts floating around on the Interwebs (not necessarily Battlestar). The trick is just knowing who the people who are hooked up with the scripts that are floating around. Many of them are ambitious assistants at TV production companies and agencies who share the best material with each other. I don't know how you get hooked up with them. But maybe try the relevant Television without Pity forum?

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Friday, May 25, 2007

If it's not one damn guy, it's another.



That's the great Al Goulem giving Lina a bad day now.

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That's Omari Newton begging and Lina Roessler not giving him the loving. Al Goulem was brilliant today too... I'm very happy with my day today.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Brendan Kelly wrote a very nice article about how we are shooting our little $20,000 movie alongside Brad Pitt and David Fincher's $20,000,000 Montreal shoot for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON.

For the sake of drama he made out that I'm irked by the shoot, but actually, I'm jazzed any time a major movie shoots in Montreal.

But we did have to move our exteriors by a day to avoid being crushed by the giant production shooting literally around the corner. And that nearly put us into a thunderstorm!

We have no idea where they're shooting tomorrow. Just so long as it isn't in Place Jacques Cartier (where there is also a crane in the mornings moving things up onto a room, loudly) or in front of Cafe Helios (which is next door to the Montreal Sweets Festival).

Actually we're doing pretty well considering the sweets festival and the giant production and the transit strike... say a prayer for us!

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All in all, man, a good first day of principal photography.

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They are shooting THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, starring Brad Pitt, on my street today, and look how nice my street looks!

And tomorrow we are shooting right down the street...

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Submissions Guidelines for Astonishing Adventures Magazine

We at AAM love the old pulps like the Shadow, the Spider, the Operator, Doc Savage, and any of the hundreds of other characters you could name. This was the main reason we started Astonishing in the first place, but we have other reasons in mind also.

We want to see what the thriving pulp community out there has to say and what they have to show us.AAM is looking for new fiction based on original pulp-styled characters. The word count can be anything under 3500, but we are open to review anything with a higher word count. Query us first before sending material.

AAM is also looking for articles, columns, and artwork related to the pulp world - just ask!

The bad news is that we aren't paying one red cent at this time. Sorry kids, we’re a small magazine with big hopes, but little pocketbooks beyond the expenses of the magazine.

The magazine will be a quarterly affair at this point with a web only distribution (in PDF form). The experimental part is that we will not be charging for the magazine.

Insane you say? Mad?

Well, we’re looking to generate income for the writers thanks to advertising eventually.

Please give us a try and we look forward to reading your ASTONISHING ADVENTURES!

PS: Send stories with monkeys! I love monkeys – evil monkeys are the best. Evil monkeys with Human brains are the E-ticket.

Deadline is August 1st, 2007

JDC
Editor-In-Chief (don't call me chief)
And
Tim Gallagher
Editor

Astonishing Adventures Magazine
AstonishingSubmissions@gmail.com
WWW.AstonishingAdventuresMagazine.com
WWW.myspace.com/astonishingadventures

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Looks like those pesky thunderstorms are not going to descend on Friday. Which is good, 'cause that's when I'm shooting my exteriors.

Today, I'm rehearsing the cast for my short film, which starts shooting tomorrow. The scenes are all incredibly short, as you might expect from 11 comic vignettes crammed into six minutes. But I wanna get them right before I have a whole crew present. Everyone I cast pretty much nailed their auditions, so I'm guessing I'll mostly be working on blocking and timing -- they won't have worked together. And in Al Goulem's case, I'm going to let him run riot on his lines -- he was hysterically funny in auditions when I asked him to ad lib.

This should be fun.

Fun is important. I keep hearing about top shows that they're incredibly fun to work on. Sure, there are good shows suffering constant creative turmoil backstage. But it's not necessary. And when people are happy, they're free to pour their energies into making the show good.

So I'm going to try to keep things fun.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Why yes, I will be recording The Sarah Connor Chronicles, whenever it airs in the Fall:

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There's a nice profile of Lisa in today's Montreal Gazette.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

How did I miss this? The Futon Critic has a list of all the 2007-2008 pilots in development. Look under "Devwatch." (What is it, "Baywatch with clothes"?)

That goes into the sidebar. Check it out.

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He wrote screenplays:

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Q. I am an orthopaedic surgeon, med/legal technical writer and aspiring screenwriter in Los Angeles.

While I make my way up the screenwriting learning curve, I am interested in becoming a medical consultant and medical technical advisor. How should I go about it?
I would contact all the medical shows and ask if they'd be interested in some free consulting. Stress that you have experience as a tech writer, i.e. you know how to translate medical talk into Common Speech. Once you have a reputation as a useful consultant -- and a sense for what the writers on a medical show need -- you can start charging. I have no idea how much demand there is for medical consultants in LA. There may be a lot of doctors who want to get into TV; and writers probably tend to ask their doctors first. But go for it, and tell us how it worked out.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

According to this clever article, you know more grammar than you were ever taught.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

We had our tech scout yesterday, going to all the locations with our producer, associate producer, DP, UPM, Production Designer and our assistant camerapeople. (Two of them, 'cause it's a P2 HD camera.) And moi, le director.

I'm feeling pretty good about this show. We have a great cast and a great crew. I'm just delighted that my favorite editor, Simon Webb, is on board. Gags keep occurring to me; I'm just trying to calibrate how many I can stick in the show without putting a joke on top of another joke, which as we all know won't do.

This is really the first time that film school has been an unequivocal help. The one thing film school really, truly teaches you how to do is how to direct a short film. And having directed a 27 minute film with a crew of 6, directing a 6 minute video with a crew of 12 is much, much easier.

Wednesday's rehearsals. Thursday we start the three and a half day shoot. If you pray, put in a good word for us, will you?

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I had a nice chat with Karen Walton, whose Ginger Snaps is one of the best Canadian movies of the past decade or so. (A girl matures sexually just about when she's bitten by a werewolf. What's with the strange urges? And the body hair in odd places?)

We talked about adapting novels. Karen offers the Amazon technique. Check out what Amazon says about it. What reviewers -- both amateur and pro -- say about a book is probably what the book is essentially about, in plot, characters and theme. Certainly it's what readers are interested in the book for. Once you know the basic plot, characters and theme, the book itself can become something of a distraction. There are scenes you like that would be out of place in a movie, or fail to translate. You're not trying to faithfully replicate the experience of reading the novel; unless the novel is practically written for the screen, like those of Tom Clancy or John Grisham, that's not a good idea. Your mission is to re-imagine the story for the screen.

Hitchcock famously recommended reading a book once, then adapting it from there. Anything you can't remember from reading the book once probably doesn't belong in the script.

Obviously Karen reads the book, too, but I the Amazon technique is a nifty tool fo your adaptation toolbox.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

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Q. Recently I finished a screenplay based up a book that I optioned. The book was written in the late seventies by a well-know author and had some decent success. Would you recommend I include this information when sending out my query letters to potential producers or agents?
There are two reasons you'd option a novel. One, it has a great plot and wonderful characters. Two, it sold a million copies. That is, it is a bankable element in its own right. (If it has merely a great concept, you can always steal the concept. Copyright doesn't cover ideas, only the expression of ideas.)

"Decent success" makes me nervous, as does the age of the novel. Hollywood's reaction is going to be: if this book is so great, why hasn't anyone made it into a movie yet? And why did it sell so poorly?

I would only mention the novel if you can say it was a bestseller. (The term does leave some room for interpretation.) Otherwise I'd just put the name of the book on the script and not in the cover letter. That way you're being honest without drawing attention to it. And I wouldn't mention the age of the novel at all.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

CS: Do you think YouTube is a threat to broadcast TV?
ES: I think it's both a threat and a developmental tool, the way sound was, or color, or TV itself.
CS: But if the market is heading toward YouTube, then will TV shows will be forced to head towards shows that are more YouTube-like, the way pay cable has pulled TV in a direction of being more serial, darker, fouler-mouthed? Or will TV shows be forced to move in the opposite direction, the way movies moved to widescreen and 3D to give the audience something they couldn't get on TV?
ES: I think it's a little early to tell what impact it will have, because the marketing model doesn't exist yet. How does anyone make money with YouTube? That paradigm has not come down.

CS: Do you watch/are you aware of Canadian TV? Do you think the broadcast audience will tolerate shows set outside the US?
ES: I definitely think they'd tolerate them, but I don't know how they get sold in the marketplace. I think audiences would love to see shows about other places. I have consulted on a few Canadian shows. I've had some clients with shows on the CBC. They do seem to have slightly different concerns -- they're more focused on character and story than on marketing. I find that refreshing. They also seem to be more interested in getting the writer's perspective rather than telling the writer how to fix it. But I guess their shows are financed differently.
CS: The CBC is the pubcaster, so they're less about the advertisers. On the other hand there's a mandate to have shows with a million viewers. And in a country of 22 million anglophones that's swamped with American TV shows, getting a million viewers is pretty hard. So they are audience driven. But they probably care more about the number of eyeballs than the demographics of that audience.
ES: That explains it, because story and character appeals to an audience driven show, not a marketing driven show. Look at cable. Cable shows are about the number of subscribers. So you see stronger characters and story lines. The shows are less about spectacle and more about story. Broadcast TV in the US is market driven, not audience driven. It's a distinction that has powerful consequences.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Q. If you send a query postcard to a producer asking them whether they'd be interested in your idea, as you advocate doing in your book, and they send it back with a yes, should you have a script already written to send to them right away? Or is the whole point that you can take as long as you like on your script and then follow-up with them, even up to a year later?
In CRAFTY SCREENWRITING I advocate the unorthodox technique of querying a spec feature that you may possibly not have written yet. If no one responds, this saves you the trouble of writing a feature screenplay that no one wants to read.

I think if you take 4-6 months to write the script, you can probably just send the script "per our conversation" or "per your request." If it takes longer than that, you might have to make sure the person is still at the same company and the company is at the same address. But yeah, I think you can send the script at any point. If it was a good idea, it's still a good idea.

When you send in the email, remind them they asked for it and apologize it took so long -- you had some ideas how to improve it and you wanted to get them the best possible draft.

I'm not sure you need to use query postcards any more. Me, I'd email the query. Much cheaper. When I wrote the book wayyyyy back in 2002, fewer development execs were hep to the Interwebs. But I think everyone's got a Blackberry now.

Of course you can always just query the script after you write it. For example, if you think your hook is so brilliant you don't want to put it out there without a script attached. But if you're new to the game, or not sure how hot your hook is, then you might learn something from querying first. Heck, you could even query a bunch of different ideas to different places, to see which idea is best. This is abusing development exec's time a little, but if it results in their getting better scripts to sell to their bosses, I don't believe they'll hold it against you. Anyway, it's their job to develop. Right?

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CS: I was discussing a comedy script once, and I proposed a much more over the top scene where the main character would embarrass himself. They felt they had to "honor the character," which I took to mean not having the main character look too bad. Is that important, do you think?
ES: Well, you definitely have to protect your character. Ray [on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND] was really good at this. He really knew who his persona was. And he was very careful going over the scripts not to let comic situations go past a line where he felt it was too far out of the realm of possibility, where it didn't come from a real place.
CS: But in a comedy, you do want your character to make a fool of himself?
ES: You want your lead to have a flaw and get himself into trouble that's his own mistake. Take Grace in WILL AND GRACE. She's always charming and delightful, but so often wrongheaded and made huge gaffes. Or to go to the classics, Lucy is always totally committed to what she's doing. If you tried to protect her from looking bad, you wouldn't have an engaging character. The line you're drawing is, can the character commit believably. Take CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. Larry is committed to what he understands as the logic of what he's doing, no matter how offensive he is. His character believes he's doing the right thing.
CS: What do you do if you're on a show where you disagree with your boss?
ES: If your boss is headed over Niagara Falls, is it your job to tell him? Or is it your job to row faster? And the answer is, row faster. But wear a life jacket.
CS: Should you ever say, "I think this is a mistake?"
ES: I don't think it's wise to use the word "mistake". What you should do is offer an alternative. You can say, "What if we did this?" And the showrunner can say yes, that's good, or, No, I don't want to. It's your job to come up with alternatives. If the showrunner says, "I don't think this is working," you don't even have to agree. You just come up with alternatives.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

This is the sort of article that makes one wonder whether one is going to have any jobs at all in a year or two.
Konrad von Finckenstein has called for an extensive review of CRTC rules and policies for broadcasting, suggesting big changes are in the works for the federal regulator, which is in need of some "rebalancing."

"There is no doubt that a new wind is blowing," von Finckenstein told the annual conference of the B.C. Association of Broadcasters late last week in Penticton.

"We have a government that is very keen on less regulation, and that has directed us to accept market forces as the default and regulation as the exception."
From Playback: "Deregulation in the cards, says CRTC chief".

The problem, of course, is that "deregulation" probably doesn't mean "stop protecting the Canadian broadcasters from US signal." It means, "continue allowing Canadian broadcasters to block out US signals, but don't expect them to produce any Canadian content." Right now CTV (a Canuck broadcaster) can buy CSI, and lay its own ads over CBS's content.

US broadcasters can reach, oh, say, 80% of the Canadian population; and of course, US satellite networks could reach 100%, if they were allowed to sell into Canada. If Canadian broadcasters really did have to compete with US broadcasters, then they would have to invest heavily in Canadian content. Who's going to watch Grey's Anatomy on Global when they can watch it on ABC? The only way they'd get any audience at all would be to offer shows that the US broadcasters aren't offering, that speak to Canadians.

I suspect thought that the Conservative's "deregulation" rap, like the Bushies', doesn't mean "let market forces work," which is a point of view I can respect. It means "protect corporations from the little people," which is not the same thing, at all.

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Q. Say a character constantly spouts lines from popular songs or films.. At what point will the writer have copyright problems?
Not as soon as the writer has audience-getting-annoyed problems.

First of all, for the purposes of sending your screenplay out to agents and producers, you don't need the rights to anything.

When you option or sell your script (Lord willing), there will be a clause in your contract that looks something like this:
Writer warrants that the Script is original in its entirety and does not infringe upon the copyright of any other person or entity, nor does the Script defame any person or entity, nor does the Script invade the privacy or infringe upon the publicity rights or any other rights of any person or entity.
You can modify that statement if necessary to say that the Script contains the following elements whose copyright does not belong to you.
With the exception of the Oscar Mayer Weiner song, which appears on page 21 of the Script, Writer warrants...
Once your script goes into production, the legal situation changes again. The released movie -- and therefore your production script -- can quote anything you like under the doctrine of "fair use." It's often felt that quotations of up to 250 words are fair use. So you're probably entitled to quote the Oscar Mayer Weiner song without obtaining the rights thereto. However, the Errors and Omissions lawyer will probably ask you to get permission anyway. (They're persnickety, those lawyers.) You can also paraphrase to your heart's content -- you can wish you were any other kind of weiner -- and you can parody anything you like, under the doctrine of parody. This is why the Zucker Brothers are still at large.

For some reason that escapes me, the same does not apply to singing. Once melody is involved, I gather, the production company must obtain the rights. So in your production draft, characters can't sing the Oscar Mayer Weiner song without written permission from the rights holder.

But this is not your problem. Your only obligation is to be clear in your option / purchase agreement that your script does contain some non-original non-public-domain material, that you are not warranting you have the rights thereto, nor are you granting any rights thereto.

Note also that in Canada, the privacy rights of real persons loom much larger than in the US, as there is no First Amendment in Canadian law.

Note: I'm not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. Use at your own risk!

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Discuss.

UPDATE: As Ken Levine points out, NBC has ordered exactly zero new comedies this season.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

CS: Jane Espenson divides comedy writers into those who make jokes instinctively and those who construct them analytically. Which are you? Do you find there are certain techniques for generating a joke that you use?
ES: I am completely instinctive. I look at the situation, the character, the circumstances, and try to see what's funny there. I have an improv background, so it just sort of comes. There are people who can construct a joke from nothing. Jokemeisters. I am in awe of them. But at the same time, they want to write to the joke. I want to write to the character. They can pitch ten jokes on one spot. Two or three jokes a minute. They don't have to think too much. But they need me, because you can't write everything to the joke, just as I need them. Hey, you should interview them. Anyone who works on The Daily Show, or Jay Leno.
CS: How do you know something's funny when you're writing alone? Can you ever judge your own scripts without prejudice?
ES: Well that's why comedy is so often group-written. Things you think are hilarious are barely amusing, and things you think should be funny just don't play, and people think some things are great that you don't think are that funny. So it's always good to work in a group. Funnier things occur to you when you're competing with other people to make a joke.
CS: Okay, but that's easy to say when you live in LA. If you're in Schenectady, how do you find people to work with?
ES: Everybody should have a writer's group. And you can always find writers who want to get together with you. [Ed. Note: Ellen has never been to Schenectady.]
CS: But obviously if you're working on your own on a comedy spec, how can you compete with real sitcom scripts, where the punch-up is done in a room full of a dozen writers competing to come up with the best joke? Is it just a question of time and reworking it endlessly?
ES: You're never going to be as funny on your own. You can get a bunch of friends together, though, and have them pitch jokes to replace the jokes you've got -- or the placeholders, the like-a-jokes, the "jokicles" I call them, that are holding a place where you think a joke should be. But what's really most important is that the story has to work. If you have the funniest jokes in the world on page 6, but the story doesn't work on page one, no one's going to read page 6. Showrunners want to know you have a comic sensibility, yes, but the most important thing is, can you tell a story with jokes. If your story flows and you have some comic abilities, it will be funny.
CS: How do you judge someone else's joke when you've been living with the current joke too long?
ES: That's tricky, because different will be funny. Personally, I like to read the jokes out loud. Or you can have actors get together and have a reading. I have a whole chapter in my book about actor readings.

I think, too, pick the joke that serves the character, the relationship, or the story best. If one joke moves the story forward, and the other doesn't, or not as much, then you know which one to choose.

Also, in a spec script, don't depend on a visual joke. It might play, but it might not read. And since your script is going to be read, go for the verbal joke in a spec.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

I interviewed Ellen Sandler, author of The TV Writer's Workbook: A Creative Approach To Television Scripts, writer/producer on sitcom hits such as EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, and (now I find out) script consultant.

When I called Ellen she was just wrapping up a consultation over the phone with a young screenwriter. She says she likes to consult at the story level, rather than wait to read the script. "It's like dealing with an unruly teenager. It's still possible to make a difference."

So I guess that answers the question one reader had, of "how do you deal with the agony of waiting?" Claro: you consult on other people's scripts.


CS: Ellen, if you're writing a spec, at what point would you consider abandoning it? I know it's good to finish things. But when it's not working, or when the show is canceled, or what?
ES: I'm going to quote Stephen J. Cannell, a master of TV writing. He says you never abandon a script, because you learn nothing from quitting. You finish, and then if you have to, you can tell yourself "I'm not going to use this." Because if you abandon a script, you've wasted all your time. You learn nothing from the experience. But if you finish it and don't use it, you've learned what not to do on the next one. Otherwise you haven't been through the whole process. No script ever gets written if you don't get into it.
CS: I find that everything sucks at around 40% done. Everything. All my scripts. Because before that, you're just getting into it, and after about 50%, you can tell yourself it's all downhill from here.
ES: Well, I find that the suck element comes sooner rather than later. Somewhere in the development process, when I'm creating the story lines. I'm wondering, "Why did I pick this story?" By the time I'm writing dialog, it's usually better.
CS: Now when you say you have to finish a script, what do you mean, "finish"? Just getting to FADE OUT, or a couple of passes later when you've done all you can?
ES: Well hopefully by the time you've finished the rough draft you know what's wrong with it.
CS: So should we say, if you know why it sucks, you can move on. You can't move on till you know why it sucks.
ES: You said it, I didn't. But that sounds like a good idea!

To be continued...

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Jane recommends Scriptwriter's Network..

Is anyone a member? Can anyone confirm whether this is a good way to meet the future bane of your existence person who creatively completes you?

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Q. You mention that agents can be found at the WGA website. But their list only covers California, and says nothing about which agents will accept unsolicited scripts. And do you have any recommendations for Toronto agents who might be willing to look at unsolicited script?
Unless you're in New York, you almost certainly want a California agent. If you are in New York, you might want a California agent anyway, but you can also check the WGA East's list of East Coast agents.

If you're working in Canada, the WGC has a list of Canadian agents in various cities. You want an agent in the town you want her to get you work in. Say you live in Vancouver. If you don't know the Vancouver producers yet, then start there with Vancouver agents. If you've got Vancouver covered, you might want an agent in Toronto who'll get you work there. If you live in Toronto but want work in LA, check out the Alpern Agency, for example.

As far as unsolicited scripts go, check out this post from January. I've blogged about agents quit a bit, really. Check out all 22 posts so far.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

I've been going through a bunch of guides to short and low-budget filmmaking. The Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook is probably the most comprehensive of them. It seems to cover everything you could think of related to making a movie for little money, from organizations that can help you to storyboards to technologies to Teamsters to setting up your own corporation, etc., etc. I know some of this stuff, but I'm combing through it to make sure there's nothing I'm missing.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Had to make an awkward decision about the shoot, which starts the 25th. We have a really good actor in our cast. Unfortunately he's based in Toronto, and because of his job, he would be literally flying in on the day of the shoot, about two hours before we need him.

I hate to put the entire show in the hands of air traffic control. We had to decide to recast. Shooting a short is high risk enough without having to gamble whether you'll have to call off your day's shooting because someone's plane got held up.

Shooting is in many ways the opposite of writing. In writing (or editing), you can try out anything you like. If it doesn't work, you have the prior draft to go back to. Unless you have a really good relationship with your money, you get to shoot your picture once. Whatever you got, that's your movie.

If you come up with a crazy but promising idea how to rewrite your script, try it, even if only in your head and only for an afternoon. It's one of the joys of being a writer.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

I just took a look a script I wrote maybe five years ago. At the time, people weren't too excited about it. They said it was, among other things, "predictable." And, rereading it, it does feel a tad predictable.

But you know, most romantic comedies are more or less predictable, if you try to guess where they're going. Does the phrase "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" ring a bell?

In this case, I don't think "predictable" is the problem. What it is, is a symptom.

What is really going on is that the bones of the structure are showing. We aren't invested enough in the characters; the scenes aren't fleshed out enough. So, alienated, we stand back and observe the structure. We have time to think about how predictable it is because we're not involved in what's going on in the scenes.

The solution isn't to make it less predictable. I script's structure is not bad. The solution is to flesh out the scenes, so that we don't care if the structure is familiar, and we don't have the time or inclination to second-guess the outcome.

Readers will tell you what's wrong with your script, but you have to interpret it. Most people spot symptoms and miss the underlying causes. And if you attempt to fix the symptoms, you'll just bollix up your script further.

As for this script, my problem is -- I just don't care about the characters enough to save them from this terrible script. There's probably a good story to be salvaged in there. But is it worth going in after them? I don't know.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Mad Pulp Bastard says that the Kung Fu Monkey commanded offhandedly suggested he sign up for Joost. This appears to be the latest in a very long line of Video On Demand (VOD) technologies. I remember talking to a programmer friend of mine who working on this back in the late 90's, and thinking, yeah, I've heard that before.

(I also remember talking to someone who was trying to invent a way to edit video on a personal computer. This was 1986 and a personal computer barely had enough RAM to render a single frame of NTSC. So you would have had to do it all with tape drives, and 60 seconds would have taken all night. Oh, and NTSC isn't digital, so you'd have generation loss. Sometimes the hardware just has to catch up.)

The idea is you can watch your TV shows on your computer when you want them, instead of when they happen to be on. Sort of like TiVo but without having to remember to record the thing; also, it seems to have ads, though I'm unclear on whether they make you watch them.

Oh, and, it's free. But you have to get an "invitation" from someone who already has it.

I wonder if this will catch on? More to the point, I wonder if the broadcast networks will dare put their content on Joost?

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Q. I'm wondering if you have any advice about hiring a writing staff for a spec 7 minute web based series.

Do you know of any examples of web based collaborations between several strangers that have been successful?

Also, the issue of contracts could be difficult, given that payment would be deferred, if anything.
One idea I have, as the creator/producer, is to designate n% of (potential) future net profits into a writer's pot, to be divided among the other writers according to contribution. A designated total percentage for story contributions, writing of the script, and re-writing/joke passes.

I'm trying to come up with a contract that is simple, but assigning credit in percentages could be very difficult, given that it's so subjective and the number of contributor's could change from script to script.
I was going to say I don't know anything about web based collaborations, but I'm not sure anybody does, and when has lack of knowledge ever stopped me from pontificating anyway?

Getting any money out of a web series is extremely unlikely, so it makes sense to spread the risk. There have been a few series that have hit paydirt. I doubt anyone really knows how many have not. (That's the other long tail of the Internet: people who don't make any money, or teeny tiny amounts of money, on their content.)

The simplest way to apportion credit, and therefore profit share, is to assign it in advance. Usually that means to assemble a team, and everyone shares equally. Someone will inevitably contribute less, but at least you know up front what credit everyone's getting. In screenwriting, credit is arbitrated by other writers. Most writers I know like this process. Many producers seem to hate it. (That may be one reason why writers like it. If producers hate it, it must be good.) This only works if the contributions come sequentially. Then some neutral arbitrator (NOT the producer or any of the writers) can look at the script each writer wrote, and see how much of it is left in the final script. If people are all in the writing room throwing ideas around, then it is madness to try to figure out whose idea was whose.

(I once worked with a writer who liked to claim credit for just about every idea in the show. We would talk for an hour about the territory, she would say something clever, we would refine the concept for another hour, and she would tell me it was "her idea." I don't work with her any more.)

My advice would be to keep the number of writers down to only those people you are convinced will seriously contribute, and split the writing credit, and share of the profits, evenly among those writers.

And good luck in the brave new world of writing for the Interwebs.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

I believe there's still time to sign up for the Screenwriter's Bootcamp at which I'm teaching the TV writing portion, on Prince Edward Island, in late June. If you're interested, please check out the Island Media website.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

If you want to know what's going on with the Austin Film Festival, check out their blog!

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I just asked not to be considered to staff a series shooting in my town. I just have too many things I'm already committed to doing.

That's new for me. I'm still kind of reeling from it.

Hopefully, I won't regret it later. But for now, it feels kinda ... good.

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Q. I can’t get your blog to load (in Firefox, I can see the “borders” of the page, where you have the header on top and the links down the left side, but the blog area stays blank.)
Anyone else having this problem? In particular, anyone from the Paramount lot having problems (or not) with this blog?

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Craig at Artful Writer answers a viewer's question about whether his screenwriting teacher knows what he's talking about. The teacher, see, doesn't have produced credits. Or have an agent. He claims to know lots of important people in showbiz, though.

Uh huh.

But Craig's post brought up the question: does your screenwriting teacher need to be a produced writer? Obviously there are very few successful screenwriters who teach writing classes. One half hour free lance script probably pays about what it pays to teach a class all semester long. And teaching a class means having to read a lot of very bad scripts. You do get to work with young hopeful people, and give back some of what you've learned. But what if you get a call asking you to staff a show? Or dive into a crash rewrite? You'd have to dump the class.

But I have had some veteran screenwriters as teachers. I took a class with Sterling Silliphant, who won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night. (Along with some big schlock like Shaft, The Poseidon Adventure, The Swarm, etc.) And Lew Hunter has a shelf full of Emmies for his TV movies.

Does your teacher have to be a veteran?

On one hand, if they're not, how do they know what they're talking about? Screenwriting isn't theoretical. It's a process. If you haven't been part of the process, how can you help your students? When I wrote my first book, there were a slew of screenwriting books out there by people without produced credits. Most of them told you how to write a "good" screenplay. What they didn't tell you was how to write a screenplay that would actually get made into a movie, which is not the same that at all. I suspect that most non-pro teachers are good at telling you how to write a "good" screenplay and not so good at telling you how to write a screenplay that Hollywood will give you money for and then turn into a movie.

On the other hand this does not have to be the case. A great acting coach does not have to be a great actor. My acting teacher, Joanne Baron, was brilliantly insightful in the classroom. She hasn't had much of an acting career. A great editor can't necessarily write. I know development people who can tell you exactly what's wrong with your script -- okay, not many of them, but a few -- even though they're not writers. So, theoretically, you could have a teacher who's great as a teacher, but just can't write.

And, moreover, good writers can make lousy teachers. A great writer may not be aware of all his writing processes. I doubt Faulkner could have told anyone how to write a novel. I don't know if Robert Towne could tell you how to fix your script, though William Goldman probably could.

The key question is: can your teacher identify the causes of the problems in your script? Or just the symptoms? Usually the causes are the failure of one of the elements of a story. We don't care about the character. Or, not a strong enough opportunity / problem / goal. Or, the obstacles / antagonist are not awesome enough. Or, the stakes or the jeopardy are weak.

If you're not getting structural notes like that, do you really need a screenwriting teacher? Wouldn't a writing group teach you just as much? What you really need is feedback. And if you really concentrate on listening to people's feedback, and extracting the truth from it, anyone who loves movies can probably tell you what the symptoms are, and from the symptoms, you can deduce the causes.

And if you're taking a class for the community and the weekly kick in the pants, then it doesn't really matter who your teacher is, does it?

Most of what I've learned about screenwriting, I've learned from writing screenplays. I can't remember getting any craft advice in particular from the late Mr. Silliphant. (Though he did have good career advice. "Don't get divorced," he told us. "The alimony will kill you, and you'll never write another spec script again.") I'm a better screenwriter because I've listened to feedback and worked hard on the weak aspects of my writing. Five years ago I was good on plot but weak on characters. I've written a bunch of character-driven stuff since, and now my characters are stronger.

What do you guys think? Are your teachers pros or professional teachers? Have you learned crucial things from them? Or was the classroom just a place to go to talk about screenplays -- a writing group with a paid leader? Can you learn from a non-pro? Can you learn from a class at all?

UPDATE: Hotspur points out
The other thing to consider is that most people taking screenwriting classes have much, much more to learn than they think they do. Even if William Goldman has more to teach you than Joe No-Credits, a student should ask himself if he's really in a position where he knows everything Joe No-Credits does.
To be fair, when I started writing screenplays, I had already been writing stories and studying novels (English major) and structure (Computer Science major; yes, both; no, I'm not sure why) for a while. So while the format was new to me, I had been working on how to tell a story (and turn a phrase) for the better part of a decade.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Q. In the last couple days, I've had to scroll way down a blank green screen to find your posts. Your posts also now don't have text that "wraps" from one line to the next, but just one long line of text that I have to scroll to the right to read.

Is it just me, or has your blog formatting gone kerblooey?
Is anyone else having this problem? If so, on what platform? With what browser?

UPDATE: This may be an IE6 problem. We are working on a fix. If it's not working for you, please try Firefox or Internet Explorer 7 until we can debug it. Thanks!

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Q. Are there any agents for full-length animated feature films? A couple books I have read say that the chances of getting one made (from the outside) are nil to none; but I am hoping that there is someone out there that can help me get my foot in the door at Disney or DreamWorks.
There aren't agents specifically for full-length animated films. There aren't enough of them to support an agent, and as you say, these scripts are generated in-house. That said, to find agents with relationships with Disney or Dreamworks, I think you could check out who's got the writing credits on animated films, then call the WGA to see who represents those writers. They may not be looking for clients, but at least you'd be getting rejected by the right people. And if you have an awesome hook, who knows? Everyone's looking for an awesome hook.

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Q. No one's discovered my blog. Will you link to it?
Generally, if I check out your blog and I think there's something there for this blog's readers, I'll link.

But here's my advice, too: a blog is like a TV show. It needs a hook to get people to read it. It needs to create a compelling, attractive world (in TV terms, an "attractive fantasy"). And it needs consistency.

My hook is something like "screenwriting thoughts from a guy who makes a living at it."

You don't have to be a pro to get an audience, though. You just have to find your groove. If you focus on one thing, the Net will probably funnel readers your way who are looking for what you're selling. The key is consistency. This blog is about watching and writing TV and movies; subgenre, craft and career issues. I used to rant about politics on it from time to time, but I stopped because I didn't want to chase off readers on the right, and the politics had nothing to do with the craft. I also don't talk about my personal life much, because that's not what the blog is for.

If you're not attracting an audience, ask yourself if your blog has found a groove. Or in marketing terms, does it have a Unique Selling Proposition? Or in story terms: what's it about?

So, if you can tell me what your blog is about, and that has something to do with screenwriting, I'll probably link. I'm even more inclined to link if you point me to one or two really good posts you're proud of. (= your sample scripts!) If your blog is just your daily life and thoughts and wit, then I probably won't link. Not because there's anything wrong with diary blogs, but for consistency's sake.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Looks like a friend of mine's and my pitch is in at the Banff Youth Pitchit! program. That's where you pitch for five minutes in front of 150-250 showbiz people. Yikes. This one is a simpler concept than the one I pitched last year. And my friend and colleague is a veteran pitcher and showrunner. Not to mention charismatic as all get out. So this should be sheer joy and fun, no stress at all. Right?

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I'm reading the pilot for Touchstone TV's MARLOWE, which a friend was kind enough to send. It opens like this:

EXT. LOS ANGELES - 101 FREEWAY - DAY

I'm driving. The sprawling smog carpet sweeps out from the horizon and swallows Hollywood in one gulp.

Thermals rise in wavy lines from the pavement appearing to shake the skyline in the distance as THE RADIO tells us all it's the 13th of 13 straight days over 100 degrees. Signs point to exits along the way: Alvarado

MARLOWE (V.O.)

I used to like L.A. I don't know exactly when it changed. I guess maybe it's like any meaningful relationship. If you poke around in the dirty details of it long enough you find things you wish you hadn't.

[snip]

Cahuenga. I click my turn signal. It flashes amber light in the darkness, lighting up the fool's face in the rearview mirror who looks right back at me.


The script is written in the first person.

Insane. And, really, kind of distracting. The baroque prose gets in your head, and you're appreciating the style, instead of seeing images in your mind's eye. And why isn't the radio dialogue written out?

But it gets your script passed around. It's a bold choice, it's so Raymond Chandler, and it conveys something that the usual action description might not. So it's artistically motivated even if, strictly, it's kind of a pain in the ass.

This wasn't a spec pilot. But it could have been. And then it would have been a stunt spec.

If you have an idea for a really great stunt spec, it might be worth going for it, especially if you've got some solid specs already. Generally the stunt isn't in the style of writing, but in the outrageous concept: Mary Richards comes out as a lesbian, House gets a ditzy new intern named Meredith Grey, etc. But a stunt could be anything that gets people to notice.

With a stunt, you might go down in flames creatively, but then you don't have to send it out. If you score, you wind up with a script that people read for the sheer joy of reading something good and new. And nothing gets you in the door faster than a script someone reads for love.

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