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



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Thursday, January 31, 2008

A friend o'mine wrote:
I saw something on TV that had me scratching my head. I've been studying HOUSE for a spec.

My TiVo recorded this week's episode twice. Once on Global and once again on a FOX affiliate on the west coast. As I was watching and re-watching this episode at different times - making note of things like the different sets used, how the new characters were being integrated into the A, B, and C stories, and how much screen time everyone seems to get - I happened to switch between the two recordings of this same show.

Now while the U.S. recording followed the show's scripted teaser and subsequent four-act structure with commercials inserted at the proper times, the airing on Global created it's own act break midway through the fourth act creating its own fifth act. I was actually able to pause just before the commercials started to see a FADE TO DIGITAL SNOW as if someone in the control room hit PAUSE.

1. Is it common practice in Canada to add commercials in the middle of an act where they do not belong?
God, I hope not.
2. Do you think this kind of thing breaks up the flow of a show?
Ch'yeah.

TV writers spend a lot of time on their act outs. After a springboard is approved, the first document you might do would be a "breakdown" of the acts and their outs, before anybody writes an outline. That's how basic the act structure is.

An extra act-out where there's no cliffhanger or emotional moment is jarring. Coming near the climax, it derails the whole episode emotionally.

I've written elsewhere about the re-editing of THE TUDORS and what that did to the flow of the episode. It sounds like here again, no writer was involved in picking the moment to go out on -- and possibly no creative editor, either.

Re-editing for secondary markets (such as Canada) and syndication is a fact of life. That's why DVD sales, iTunes downloads, and even to a lesser extent free, ad-based streaming on the Internet, are a nice benefit of advancing technology: you see the episode the way it was planned, sometimes even in higher picture quality (with DVDs).

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Monday, January 28, 2008

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My pay cable series has been greenlit for more development -- scripts 4, 5 and 6. (I've already turned in the pilot, 2 and 3.) And I've been authorized to put together a small writing room to help break the rest of the season.

It's an interesting experience. I've hired writers before. And I've supervised writers before. But right now, we're looking for two top drama writers -- which means lots of the people I've been looking at have more experience than I do. Some of them are a bit older than me, too.

Suddenly, I understand why people get nervous hiring writers older than they are, because I'm nervous. One doesn't want to be disrespectful, but then one also doesn't want to have to defer to the other writer just because they're older -- or more experienced. It is after all your show.

It was an interesting process, going through the resumes. I kept going back to my own resume to see how it reads. Not all credits help you. I rejected some people with years of experience because their experience was all the same: procedural, procedural, procedural. My show is not a procedural. I'm more interested in someone who's staffed on a procedural, but also written a movie or two, and developed their own comedy pilot.

You want to avoid getting pigeonholed. I've become kind of a comedy writer of late. Unless I only want to get comedy work, I've got to change pace. Fortunately, this series is a metaphysical drama, so it shows range.

I find I don't always absorb credits well past the first page. You want all the impressive stuff on the first page; even better if there is only the one page. So I took off all my less-than-impressive credits. I've written or helped develop or produce some pretty unspectacular movies. Better to write "selected features" and "selected TV" and only include the good stuff, I think: the hit film, the series I co-created, the Head Writer gig, the directors I've written for.

I also find that the people I like wow me in the first five pages of their samples, with fresh, distinct characters and situations. The merely competent establish a situation with stock characters. The fresh writers don't always structure their screenplays well -- the screenplay may not deliver on the promise of the first five -- but if there isn't something distinctive in the first five, there isn't going to be in the rest of the script.

Now we're waiting on network approval for our development budget. Stay tuned!

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Q. I've received a positive response from a film company regarding a query for my new script. They want to see a one-page outline before receiving the script. Not wanting to put a foot wrong, I was wondering if you could define the outline vs. synopsis.
An outline usually implies something you're planning to write.

A synopsis is usually a summary of what you've written. In practice the terms are used both ways, along with "pitch" and "treatment."

A pitch is an outline written as a sales document. Typically it's heavier on the setup, and may entirely gloss over the finale. You write a pitch to get people to read your script -- if they insist on one. If producers ask for a synopsis, always send a pitch.

A treatment is an outline written as the first stage of a commissioned script. There is no functional difference between an outline and a treatment. Often you have to write a pitch to get a producer interested, or to get a funding agency to cough up the dough. You are not allowed to write a treatment without getting paid. There's a bit of contradiction there, but what can you do.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

I just got this from Tim Lambert:
I work for Abbot Management- a Screenplay Management and Representation Company. We currently employ 15 Readers and do something unique in the entertainment industry - in that we always share with writers who submit material to us the coverages that we recieve on their work. Everyday we are sending out multiple packets to screenwriters saying something along the lines of - I'm sorry Alex, we're passing on your work, however I'm attaching the 4 coverages we recieved on your script so you can see what our readers felt worked / didnt work in your material.

I feel that its an incredibly valuable resource to screenwriters - and I was hoping that you would consiter adding a link to our website, www.abbotmanagement.com, on your page.
Tim promises me that they will never charge a coverage fee, so this is a pretty good service. If they sell your stuff, they get a cut. They have what they feel is a new approach to database technology:
We've been around approxomitly Four months - and for the the past three months we have been working with a team of database programers who have been building us a pretty radical content management system complete with a readers / screenwriters / buyers / and administrator login. Among other things, it allows us to sort by every screenplay that fits certain criteria - ex: low budget horror - and will display loglines, coverages etc. We then have a database of producers / production companies that three individuals have been working full time for there months putting together - and using this database we're able to sort by, for example, production companies that make low budget horror.
I'm not endorsing this company, as they haven't even gone "live" yet, so they have no track record. But you may be interested in hearing their feedback...

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Lionsgate and Marvel Studios have both signed the WGA interim deal.

The strike is working. The cracks in the studio dam are spreading. With each of these deals, it becomes harder for the remaining studios to stay at home in bed while the other kiddies are out in the playground playing. Each of these deals puts pressure on the AMPTP side in the "informal negotiations" now going on. (And is it possible that "informal" means "Nick Counter, sit down and shut up, we need to make a deal now"?)

If you're in the WGA, I think the message is clear: hold out, you're winning. Don't snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Stay strong. Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Q. I'm about to start looking for an agent, but as I'm Canadian and want to (eventually) write for US shows, I'm trying to determine a course of action. I read on one of your previous posts that a Toronto agent can't get you work in LA, so would I get both a Toronto agent and an LA-based agent? Is that possible? And can I get an LA agent without being in LA? Hypothetically if I did get one, I'd be OK with taking the occasional trip there for meetings, but since I'm Canadian I'd need a Green Card to actually move there. I assume that if I did get some US credits first, an LA-based company would be more likely to sponsor me moving there.
You really need to decide whether you want to start in LA, or Canada.

The most important resource you have is your writing ability and your scripts. Your second most important resource is your connections. If you make Canadian connections, they won't help you in LA. I've got a reputation up here; down there no one knows me. If I were to go down to LA after the strike, I might get some polite attention, but I'd have to spend serious time down there to get to know people who might want to hire me. I'd probably be lucky to get work as a writer-producer staffing a show. A good friend of mine has occasionally thought about going down to LA to try his luck; he would actually move there for a year to see if he can break in. An "occasional trip" won't cut it.

At a bare minimum you could get an LA agent in one trip, and then come down later for staffing season, but you would need to spend all of staffing season in LA.

LA credits will definitely help you in Canada, but you still won't know anybody. So pick the market you want to work in.

It is generally easier to break in in Canada, provided of course that you are Canadian.

I don't know how you get working papers in the States, since I've never had to do it, but there is a whole community of expat Canucks in LA, so it must be possible. Anyone want to weigh in?

Q. Well, which do I do? I'm a feature writer. Do I move down there asap as soon as I have a couple scripts under my belt (written, not sold)? Do I write until I sell something, and THEN move to LA? Do I try to get a movie made in LA while writing in Toronto?
If you're a feature writer, it's less urgent to move to LA. You can get a feature agent without living in LA. You'll be missing the meetings with development people, but those never turn into anything anyway until you've sold a script.

On the other hand, you learn a lot from being in LA. You absorb a sense of showbiz. If you work in an agency as an assistant, you get a sense of the biz. If you work on a set, you get a sense of the biz.

Canada's more nurturing, but it's a kiddie pool compared to LA. If you like to swim in the ocean, and don't mind undertow and sharks, go to LA. If you want swimming lessons, and a lifeguard, stay in Canada.

There's no right answer. People come out of the Canadian Film Centre and start working in the Canadian biz, and make a good career here. People go to LA and become Jim Cameron. People go to LA, spend 5 years, can't get arrested, lose their dog in the divorce, come back, and are big successes because they absorbed a work ethic and creative standards that blow the competition away. People go to LA, fail, and become embittered real estate agents in San Berdardino.

You gotta ask yourself a question ... "do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya?

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You turn in your draft. The producer gives you notes. You turn in a revised draft.

From time to time, a producer will assert that the second draft you turned in is a "revised first draft," not a second draft. Your producer may truly believe himself. But his belief, not inconsequentially, means he doesn't owe you a second draft payment.

Here's the reality:
Q. A revised first draft, a devout Muslim and the Easter Bunny walk into a bar. One of them orders a drink. Who is it?
A. The devout Muslim. The other two don't exist.
Which is how the WGA and WGC contracts work. If the producer (or the director, or the producer's development assistant, on his orders) gives you notes and you revise, that's a second draft.

That doesn't mean I only revise things once. I'm a team player. I can't tell you how many times I've revised the pilot of the show I'm developing. And if I send in a draft and then fool around with it without producer or network notes, and send it in again, I never consider that a new draft.

But I expect to be paid for the two drafts that are in my contract before I do any free tinkering. Otherwise who's to say when you finally get to a second draft? Principal photography? Whenever the producer is in a jolly mood? Whenever he has some spare money burning a hole in his pocket?

This is one of the reasons I stick closely to my union. The first time a producer pulled this on me, I wasn't in the union, and I was out 20% of the contract. Which was for $1000. Yes, they stiffed me for $200! Since joining the Guild, God bless them, I've had admirable help 'splainin' the nature of a second draft.

Producers will sometimes tell you, "That may be what's in the contract but everyone revises their drafts for free." My impression is that the standard of the industry is this: you are paid for a draft and a set, meaning a draft and a set of revisions. Many writers will rewrite the draft quite a bit beyond the set, without asking for additional payments, unless they're on a weekly. But there are no free revisions until the paid revisions are exhausted. The paid revisions come first.

How can you avoid this awkward situation cropping up? Make sure there's a "paper" trail.

When you start writing a treatment, send your producer an email saying "I'm really excited to be starting the treatment for GO POSTAL." When you email in your treatment, make sure the subject line says "GO POSTAL treatment" and that the text says "here's my treatment for GO POSTAL." Don't use writer terms like beat sheet or step outline or synopsis. An outline does not trigger a payment. Use the term in your contract, which in a Guild contract is "treatment."

When you start writing your first draft, send an email saying, "Okay, I'm starting my first draft, wish me luck!" If you don't get a positive answer right away, you might want to send an email saying: "Um, should I start now?" and make sure you get a positive answer.

And when you turn in your first draft, write, "Here's my first draft of GO POSTAL!"

Don't say ANYTHING in that email about how there might be further work to do, or it's not perfect, or apologize in any way for your first draft. You might cause your producer to expect you to revise your first draft for free. Keep your own notes to yourself, if you have them; let your producer bring his notes. I always make more revisions than the producer's notes, trying to improve things even if he thought they were good enough.

When you start the second draft, send in an email saying, "Great notes, thank you. I am starting my second draft now." Make sure you get a positive response.

While none of this will protect you from a truly unscrupulous producer, there are far fewer of those than there are producers with a slightly self-serving point of view. Clear communication and a paper trail will help eliminate any confusion that might exist in your producer's mind. It is very hard later on for a producer to maintain he didn't know you were writing a second draft when you have a copy of your email to him that says "I'm starting my second draft." If you're clear, the question may never come up at all. And then everyone's happy.

In both stories and contracts, clarity makes for a smoother ride for everyone.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Q. My approach for my The Office spec was to write a run-of-the-mill episode, and I think I did that. But a friend pointed out that the characters were just being their hilarious selves, rather than advancing and telling us more about them. The best episodes of The Office are obviously the ones where the conflict between Jim and Pam heats up, or Michael unexpectedly does something smart or brave. But how far should we push a character in a spec? How do you strike a balance between nailing the characters and letting them grow?
It's tricky. In a spec, you don't want to take your characters into brand new territory. You want to use the template of the show to tell stories that are fun and true to those characters. On the other hand, maybe your friend's feedback is still relevant. Does your friend's criticism mean that you weren't reinvent the characters (which you shouldn't)? Or is it a sign that you haven't given the characters strong enough stories? You don't want your characters to "be their hilarious selves" so much as do hilarious things trying to get what they want.

All feedback contains truth; it's up to you to figure out what that truth is and how to apply it.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Q. I'm up for a job on a TV show being produced by a TV station. Can you tell me what I can expect to be paid?
No, I can't. There are too many variables. The most basic one is, is it a WGA show? If so, there are minimums for story editors and for episodic scripts. All network shows are Guild, but I'm not sure about shows produced locally by a TV station. You can always call the Guild and ask if the station itself, or the show itself, is signatory. They're very good about that sort of thing, as you can imagine.

The WGC has minimums for TV scripts, but not for story editor salaries. Still there are norms. You're not going to get $500 a week, and you're not going to get $10,000 a week.

The person who can answer your question is an agent. If a show is actually interested in hiring you, it is not hard to get an agent to rep you, at least for this transaction. Who wouldn't want 10% of your future earnings on a TV show, in exchange for a few phone calls? Just shoot an email to a couple or three agents you like and say, "a show wants to hire me and I need an agent to negotiate for me." Someone will probably get back to you.

You do not want to negotiate for yourself. You'll ask for too little or too much, you won't know what contractual points to insist on, and it makes your first contact with the production an adversarial one. I have had to negotiate for myself a few times, and it was always awkward. 10% is not a lot to pay to be able to say, "Oh, well, you know, I'd love to work for you. I'd do it for free. But my agent won't let me."

If a producer seriously tries to avoid negotiating through your agent, they are probably trying to rip you off. (If they merely whine that your agent is a ball-buster, just laugh and say, "Yeah, isn't she great?")

In the States, there are agents that focus on TV and agents that focus on features; any larger agency will cover both. Canadian agents don't specialize to this degree. If you have a job offer, get an agent that works in the field of your job offer.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

According to the preliminary analysis on United Hollywood, the DGA cut itself a not-completely-sucky deal. Which is a relief, because the DGA has a habit of rolling over.

The WGA is not obligated to take the DGA deal. Residuals are far more important to writers than the membership of the DGA, which is mostly not directors. (The DGA is mostly assistant directors, who don't get residuals anyway.)

But if this means the studios are now considering negotiating in good faith, with the DGA deal as a starting point, it is a very good sign.

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Quite a number of writers I know don't have kids, and don't seem to be planning to have any. I'm sure everyone has different reasons. You typically want to have a permanent relationship before you have kids, and for guys it's kind of crucial to have a woman involved. The writing life is unstable, with financial peaks and valleys, and the financial stakes come with very long days and often long trips. I went to Cape Town for 4 months when my daughter was six months old, and my agent is often asking me if I'd like to be considered for shows in places like Calgary or Jo'burg. And, I imagine, many people become writers out of their own personal craziness, which they may perhaps prefer to inflict on an audience who can turn them off, than a child who may forever curse their name.

[And as the amusingly self-dubbed Stercus Accidit points out below, some writers just don't feel like reproducing.]

But. Kids are a big part of life, eh? I've done some of the best writing in my life since my daughter was born and I became Hunter's stepdad. I keep putting bits of them into my screenplays. As an only child, I don't have a wealth of sibling rivalry to draw on, or nieces and nephews. And even if I had, I'm not sure it's the same thing as watching your own kids grow up.

Learning to be a writer is not just a process of learning your craft. It is also observing life. And to really observe life, you have to be part of it. You cannot perfect your craft in a vacuum. You not only need to get your words up on the screen; you need to have life experiences to draw from. Write another spec, or go on a safari? I say go on the safari. Read another screenwriting book or make a new friend? I say make the new friend. Your life and your craft need to be in balance, or your craft has nothing to draw from but old episodes of UGLY BETTY. And that's not pretty.

You might think your young family's needs will prevent you from having a writing career. I don't think it will. You may have to become a more focused writer. You might have to give up your AIM account, and Facebook less, at least until you're getting paid to do it. You might need to get up at 4 in the morning to write before everyone wakes up.

But I know many writers who broke in after they began a family. Having kids gives you a sense of perspective about the ups and downs of a writing career. Once you have someone else who needs you forever, it's harder to feel crushed by some development exec's diss. Once you absolutely need to put food on the table, and can no longer go live with your mother, you may find that you start making more serious decisions about whether to spec that unproducable historical fantasy comedy versus the "very set-up-able" low-budget rom-com.

And having a family can come across as a credit. My pay cable network has greenlit development on three more scripts for the series I'm creating for them. I'm putting together a small writing room to break story for episodes 4-10. My show's about a mom. My four criteria are staffing experience, brilliantly original writing, love for genre -- and kids. Not a deal-breaker, but it sure is a plus.

I think that moreover many people bond over their kids. I've often felt that network execs warmed to me after we discussed our kids.

Obviously no one has kids for the sake of their writing career; and if you don't want kids, God bless you, too. More room for the rest of us. I'm just saying that if you want to start a family, I don't think you should feel that a writing career is a reason not to have one. Your career may benefit, and your understanding of human life certainly will.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I'm reading a lot of writing samples right now, all emailed to me. Mysteriously, most of them seem to come with separate title page files.

Having a separate title page when you're emailing a script defeats the purpose of a title page.

More importantly, it makes you look incompetent. All script formatting programs have title page functions. For heaven's sake, learn how to use them. For example, in Final Draft, just click DOCUMENT > TITLE PAGE and there you are. You can even important your agency's logo if necessary.

Then when you PDF your script, as you should, be sure to click the "print title page" box so that it includes the title page in the PDF.

If you're only using MS Word, you can create a separate title page section, and restart page numbering on your first script page.

Agency assistants: if your clients can't figure the tech out, help them!

UPDATE: As Steve points out below, the original Final Draft 6 did not save the title page in the Save to PDF function. You had to print it to a PDF with "Print title page" clicked.

Now, you can get the patch from Adobe. Or upgrade to Final Draft 7. Or, continue to use the Print function instead of the Save to PDF function.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Looks like the Weinsteins signed with the WGA. They're the guys who used to run Miramax, sold it to Disney, and started a new studio when they got tired of working at Mauschwitz (as The Walt Disney Company is sometimes known in Ho-town).

This is another big crack in the AMPTP's ranks. The Weinsteins have a habit of taking Oscars home. You know they'll be shooting Oscar bait this summer for December release. What's Paramount going to shoot? Or Universal? If the strike goes on, the Weinsteins and Tom Cruise will have Christmas all to themselves.

I think that is going to be hard to explain to the shareholders and CEOs of Uni and Par. Something like this conversation is probably going on now:

Nick Counter: "We couldn't sign with the Guild because their demands were so outrageous no one in their right mind would sign with them. "

CEO: "David Letterman did. And Tom Cruise. And the Weinsteins."

Nick Counter: "Well ha hah, because Tom Cruise and the Weinsteins are not their right minds, so I'm still right!"

CEO: "Nobody in show business is in his right mind. Sign a goddamn deal already."

I'm going to be chatting on Quebec AM tomorrow at 8:20 am, saying more or less the above, if you're in their listening area. It's not like being on Q, but I don't sleep with all the right people like DMc does.

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Jill Golick is trying to use the full Internet for storytelling. Story2Oh is an attempt to tell a story through Facebook pages, Twitters, Youtube videos, etc. ... which you, the reader, can access in whatever order you choose. It's like peeking in on your friends' lives as they unfold, only hopefully, more fun and scandalous.

One of the most moving theatrical experiences I ever had was when I was in college. I went to see an adaptation of THE REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST into a sort of play. The creators basically took all the naughty bits out of Proust's very long novel and put them on their feet in a (temporarily empty) house on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven. The exciting thing artistically was that several scenes would be playing at once, so you could wander around the house and see different things each time you went to the play. (I went twice.)

The difficulty with Alternate Reality Games is there's no narrative, as such. People like to be told a story; it takes more work to discover the story yourself, by poking at the Net. Most people want to watch the detective, not do the detective's work.

But it can be fun to imagine yourself into a world. I was once foolish enough to mount a one-night live-action role-playing game set the night before Camlann, the final battle of the King Arthur saga. Camlann Eve was a month's work for me to put it together, not counting what the thirty or so players did to put together their characters. But I'm glad I did it. It was fun to inhabit that world, just for a night. (Now if only the Wandering Jew had bothered to tell anyone where the Grail was stashed...)

Check out Jill's site, and let us know what you think!

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

We watched WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER a little ways ago, picture that somehow slipped by me in 2001. It pretends to be one of those coming-of-age-at-camp movies but it is really a send-up of the genre. It's set in a 1981 that still mysteriously has short-shorts, headbands, Skylab and all the other accoutrements of the '70's. (I guess the 70's lingered in Maine, like spring snow?)

It's now what you'd call a great movie or even a good movie, but it is a string of really funny scenes and skits. Something like KNOCKED UP, I guess. There were slow bits but where I was laughing, I was laughing hard.

Janeane Garofalo was herself, which is always good. One gets the impression she is probably a pretty down-to-earth person even if she is an actress. When an actor plays a million different people, they're probably a piece of work as a friend; when they keep playing the same person and that's a pretty okay person, I'm guessing they're pretty okay. Actors can only play parts they can find within themselves.

I was thinking of this movie just this morning. It's so full of funny bits, it's more memorable than a slapdash movie with no real plot deserves to be. I don't remember it being a big hit, but people seem to have fond memories of it.

I guess the moral of the story is that you can sometimes get away on sheer verve and amiability. WAYNE'S WORLD wasn't what you'd call a masterpiece the way AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY was. It was just a bunch of goofy skits strung together on the thinnest of plots. But it was fun to go there and hang out.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A brief word about pregnancy in films. There's too much of it.

Heh.

I'm not talking about JUNO, which I hear is lovely, or KNOCKED UP, which had me cackling. I'm talking about writers throwing in pregnancy to up the stakes, or tie two people together.

I can't tell you how many times I see in a movie that the woman in jeopardy is pregnant. Why? I guess because we wouldn't care about her being murdered if she weren't also carrying a baby. That's irritating.

Some young writers, whom I asked to explain to me why the two leads were together under implausible circumstances, told me "she's pregnant." Um. No.

Pregnancy is like smoking. (First time you ever heard that, isn't it?) It tells you very little about the character. Homeless men smoke. Debutantes smoke. A cigarette says very little about a character, really. Likewise, most women can get pregnant. Most women eventually do. A heroine who has an inordinate fondness for beetles is a character. A heroine who is pregnant is not particularly distinct yet.

Try to define your characters in fresh, distinctive ways. I read a script opening with the sad sack hero coming in to his ungrateful cat. I feel like I've seen five Bruce Willis movies that start that way. How about, your character comes home, steals the Victoria's Secret catalog from his neighbor's mail slot, and heads into the bathroom with it? Now that's a sad sack.

Pregnancy is a generic way of upping the stakes that does not require much thought. Unless your movie is actually about pregnancy, try to avoid throwing pregnancy in there. Your impulse to do so probably means you have not made yourself care about the woman enough.

It's like throwing hot sauce on your chicken. If you feel like your chicken needs hot sauce, you probably didn't make enough of an effort to season it. The problem is, all your meals wind up tasting like Louisiana Red Hot.

If you want to be a pro chef, Louisiana Red Hot won't help. Think tarragon, think lemon zest, think molé sauce. If you want to be a pro writer, create a female character that we'd hate to see killed for her own sake. And create relationships that are strong on their own without swapping DNA.

UPDATE: Here's a good test for whether you're using pregnancy as a crutch: would any other story element do the same job? As Emily Blake points out in the comments below,
The Paper is a film that uses pregnancy effectively. It's not about pregnancy, but one of the underlying issues is how helpless the wife feels and how worried she is that she'll be alone with the baby as it consumes her life because her husband's a workaholic.
You need pregnancy there.

But if all you need is for us to care about the woman, or you just need the woman and man to care about each other, then you can do that in many cleverer ways than by getting the woman knocked up.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Andy Diggle tagged me with this damn meme, "My Week In Media." So, what have I been absorbing this past week?

DVDS

Almost all TV these days:

Band of Brothers - for the fourth time. Lisa got it for me for the Solstice. Beautifully made series, just perfect every which way. And it looks four times as good on our new HD TV.

The Tudors - which didn't work for me on TV, but that's because the editing hacked it up. It's still more acting and spectacle than storytelling, but it's pretty good acting and spectacle. They take a few too many liberties with the real story, which ought to be a good enough story as is. And there's way too much gratuitous sex (did we really need to see Henry VIII jerking off into a footman's hankie?). But as historical popcorn, worth the rental.

West Wing, Season Three -- nice to see a beautifully done show about characters I care about.

Northern Exposure, Season Five - picked it up at the library on a whim. Didn't realize that David Chase was running the show!

Checked out Season One of Saturday Night Live to remind myself what Samurai Hotel was all about.

Up next: Time Bandits, Life of Brian

BOOKS

Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars -- probably because of watching ROME

Neal Stephenson, The System of the World -- retro science fiction about a fellow who works at the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of the Technologickal Arts, among other things. Stephenson is a genius at bringing alive the 18th Century and telling a rollicking, ganglia-tickling tale in it.

Steve Martin, Born Standing Up -- a tightly written, thoughtful memoir about how he created his act. As he says, he spent ten years figuring it out, four refining it, and four in wild success. If you're wondering after a year and a half if you should quit, read this book. Read it if you're not.

Lorenzo da Ponte, Mémoires -- Mozart's lyricist, 'nuff said

O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm -- couldn't resist the title when I saw it in the library stacks

Writing the TV Drama Series -- Pamela Douglas. Review book. So far, nothing new.

MAGAZINES

The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Economist

TV

Not much here, guess why? We taped the THE BORDER and JPOD pilots, assuming the rain didn't kill the satellite signal.

CINEMA

Hah! Nothing's inspiring me to go to the movies, though now that Hunter is back I'll see what's out there. We did see Charlie Wilson's War before the holidays, a fine intellectual popcorn movie.

ONLINE

I've been reading Slate obsessively during the election, especially the political markets page and the polls. Trying to wean myself off Reddit, since it's all Ron Paul mania now. I read DMc and Jane Espenson off the feed. Facebook of course, and now and then I check my Zip.ca page to see what DVD's are coming down the pike.

So who shall I tag ... McGrath, you're "it." So are you, Lisa!

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Monday, January 07, 2008

United Artists has made a deal with the WGA.

Hee hee. This is particularly beautiful because UA was formed by silent film superstars Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffiths because they were sick of being taken to the cleaners by the studios whom they were making rich. "The lunatics are running the asylum" was the thinking at the time, and as a business plan it did not work. But it's a fine legacy.

I guess Tom Cruise will be producing pictures next year. Anyone else want to have movies this summer?

Meanwhile, the Golden Globes ceremony has been cancelled because no A-listers will cross the WGA picket line. Way to go, A-listers! Way to go, SAG!

I think the AMPTP may be starting to get the message that the writers are serious. What they'll do with that message is anyone's guess.

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On p. 129 of CRAFTY SCREENWRITING, you advise that the writer “avoid adjectives, adverbs and subordinate clauses when you write the action.” Yet, on p. 101, “TOMMY works frantically . . . .” and “NANCY stares nervously . . . .” The adverbs are useful here, and I would be tempted to use them, but they are adverbs.
Well, yes.

Any of the advice you get here or in my books is just that, advice. You have to choose what works for you, and where to apply it.

In general I think it's an excellent idea to write as simply as possible, Hemingway-style, in the action. Avoid adverbs where possible. Don't write "walks briskly" when you can write "strides." The goal in writing action is for the image and sound to go into the reader's brain with as little interpretation as possible.

For another example, avoid subordinate clauses where possible. I almost always rewrite "while he does this, she does this" to "she does this, as he does this." The "while" construction requires the reader to keep a mental slot open for something that's going to happen that she doesn't know about yet. The "as" construction lets the reader absorb the first bit, then the second bit. Smaller bites of information go down more smoothly, to my mind, even within a sentence.

But ignore all the rules if you need to break them to convey the tone and image you want In the screenplay I wrote over the holidays, I have some characters "doing a happy little dance." I dunno how you'd do that without adverbs.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

THIRTYSOMETHING is not on DVD yet.

What's up with that? The show was pretty big, wasn't it?

How dare they not have every single television show, ever, available for rent on DVD? How am I going to do my research???

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Saturday, January 05, 2008


Q. Should I buy this $400 set of DVD's about filmmaking?
No. I don't think so.

First of all, there are umpteen books on how to make short films, and you can get many of them from your library. Without sitting through the DVDs I can't be sure, but I don't feel confident that DVD's are going to teach you more than books.

But more importantly, neither books nor DVDs are going to teach you how to make short films. Not really.

What teaches you to make short films is making short films.

Here's my filmmaking course: read one (and no more than one) book on short film making. Then shoot a short film. Then read another. And shoot another. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I learned shockingly little about making films from my classes in film school. I learned a great deal more from working in the industry. I've learned a great deal more than that from making my own short films (whether at university or film school or recently privately) and working on other people's films.

$400 buys you a cheap video camera. You can edit on your computer (e.g. using Final Cut on a Mac).

Don't worry about fancy lighting until you've seen what ordinary lighting does for you. Then read a book that has a chapter on film lighting.

Don't worry about fancy editing until you've tried to edit by instinct. Then read a book that has a chapter on basic editing. Hey, they're probably the same book.

I feel that there are WAY too many courses and books and seminars and schools and chat rooms out there. It is wonderful that there are so many ways to learn how to be a better filmmaker. But after the first book, reading becomes an obstacle to actually going out and doing it.

How many books would you want to read about horse riding before you got on a horse? What would those books mean to you until you actually got on a horse?

There are many, many details that you can and must learn about filmmaking. But it is very hard to absorb them -- and even harder to know which you need to absorb and which you don't -- until you've actually got up on the horse.

(By the same token, if you can get someone who's made a short to coach you through making your short, that's an entirely different story. I wouldn't recommend you get up on a horse without a riding instructor. But then, it's harder to fall off of a short film, and it hurts less, too.)

Don't worry about making a bad short film. Tell yourself that your first ten short films are training exercises, not meant to be shown to anyone except the people working on them with you. Go out and make five video shorts under ten minutes.

You can step up to a $2000 prosumer video camera whenever you feel that the cheapie consumer video camera is limiting you, but honestly, it's not about how good your film looks. It's about learning to tell stories with moving pictures. I made three terribly amateurish video shorts before I went to film school. I wish I'd made six. By the time you're in film school, you're already thinking about getting an agent, which tends to limit how many risks you take with your filmmaking. Experiment when the stakes are still low.

Reading books can teach you more about filmmaking than reading books can teach you about screenwriting, but not much. There is no substitute for actually doing it.

Q. But this course will show me how a film production works, what the production manager does, etc. Won't that help me be a better writer?
I don't think so. Not really. I don't think being a p.a. on the set helped me with my writing at all, and I was actually seeing films being produced.

Acting training helps. Writing lots helps lots. Directing and editing a short film helps. Seeing your material directed, or directing it yourself, helps a lot.

Knowing the details of how you get things on the screen on a professional production -- mneh. That teaches you how to be a producer.

UPDATE: Elver writes in the comments
But if sight and sound is the medium you want to learn in, then buy the collector's edition / director's cut versions of your ten all-time favorite films. Watch all the "making of" features and listen to all the commentaries.
Or get them at Netflix or Zip. Much DVD commentary is purely anecdotal but some directors give up a bit of craft here and there. Joss Whedon's commentary on his TV shows is full of insight, too. You really shouldn't have to spend $400.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

I went to sleep the other night thinking hard in the general direction of a new TV pitch. Not having one in mind, I couldn't actualy think "about" one, I was more thinking at one. Coming up with a new idea is about the hardest part of writing.

What the market up here wants is episodic, procedural one-hour dramas. Unfortunately, I haven't come up with one. But I was thinking that I should try to come up with another show like NAKED JOSH, being as it's the only show of my own I've ever got on the air.

I woke up with, I think, a pretty nifty little idea. Almost more of a territory than a hook. Entirely execution dependent, and you know how I recommend against that. But very close in tone to the show I already did, which means that while it might be hard-ish to sell, it is less hard to sell coming from me. (Which also means that I have an edge in this particular territory.)

Now I'm happily writing away on my pitch doc. (Remember, up here we option pitch documents and then get commissioned, God willing, to write the show.) It's flowing really well. I've already got 8 pages on the concept and the core cast. Remains to write springboards (which are really the proof of concept).

And what does this have to do with episodic, procedural one-hour dramas? Not a thing. I just think this would be a good television show. If I had an episodic, procedural one-hour drama, I'd work on it. But writing something good is always better than writing something bad. If nothing else, it gets you in the door for meetings and reminds people you're good.

And people don't always know what they want. They might think they want one-hours, but if they fall in love with your half hour, they might remember that they could use a half-hour, too. The sitcom keeps being written off for dead until someone comes along with a good one. There's always room for something good.

So I'll take this to market this Winter and see how it does...

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Checking out my brand new TV, I see there are all sorts of ways to get signal into it. Your regular yellow/red/white RCA cords. Your S-video cable. Your component video cable. HDMI.

I can't tell the difference between my PVR hooked up via RCA jacks and my PVR hooked up via S-Video, and I'm fairly finicky. Can anyone else tell the difference? Is there a difference in the audio?

Can any of you guys tell the difference with component video? I could easily hook up the component video output of my DVD player; I'm just wondering if it's worth the fuss.

I'm assuming that HDMI, being digital, beats all the rest. But I don't have HDMI outputs on anything. I'm going to wait for my next show before I get a new DVD player or an HD PVR.

I've got a small list of semi-big-ticket items I plan to buy "next show"... "Oh Lord, won't ya buy me an HD PVR..."

UPDATE: Oh, and -- can I use any old RCA cables for component cables? They look like ordinary RCA jacks. If I don't care about the colors not matching, can I just grab one of my many, many triplets of cables and hook'em up?

And -- how much improvement can I expect from an up-converting DVD player, given that the Bravia is a mere 720p?

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