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



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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

ABC has a new show they're promoting on, of all things, DailyKos, my procrastination tool of choice these days. It's called The Mole. I was all excited about it. I assumed it was a spy show about a compromised intelligence operation where, I assumed, everyone has motives for betrayal, and everyone is doing something on the side that could amount to betrayal. Who is the traitor? Great show idea.

How annoying to find out it's a reality show. I would totally have watched the pilot.

Still seems like a great pitch for a narrative show. I'm just throwing that out there.

What show ideas can you steal from reality TV? Is there a scripted version of SURVIVOR? How about THE AMAZING RACE? Is there a feature version of BIG BROTHER?

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Watched IRON MAN last night with Hunter. I was very happy with it. Together with BATMAN BEGINS, I'm hoping we're seeing a trend. Both movies put the character first. BATMAN BEGINS really delved into the drama of Batman. What kind of man dresses up in a batsuit and fights crime? Why would any sane person do such a thing? It wasn't just explaining the technology, though that was neat. It was the man Bruce Wayne, and who he would have to be, and what his personal journey would be.

Everyone has written about Robert Downey, Jr.'s great performance in IRON MAN. Maybe it's just because Downey has put himself through the mill that he projects so much about Tony Stark beyond what he merely says. We don't doubt that some woman hurt him once; he's not a playboy out of fun but because that's how he can relate to the world. His eyes say a lot.

But the script came first, and Downey had a great script to work with. Who is Tony Stark? What are his personal problems? He's kind of Asperger-y, isn't he? Doesn't have a lot of friends, can't tell when someone's not on his side, relates best to machines.

Both movies are portraits of men. Sure, neither is CITIZEN KANE. But CITIZEN KANE isn't CITIZEN KANE either, really, when you actually watch it as opposed to read about it. They're all Hollywood movies.

I'm up for a gig about a guy on the run from Mounties out in the woods. And what I told the producers was that I didn't want to make the guy your standard hero who is wrongly accused of a crime and has to run. I'd want to delve into who this character would be. The kind of guy who runs into the woods to evade cops is not your ordinary guy. The guy who can survive on his own in the woods is not someone who has much use for people. He probably makes bad decisions in social crises. He probably is someone you wouldn't want to have over to dinner. We might sympathize with him in the movie, but only the way you'd sympathize with a bear. You wouldn't want to have a bear over to dinner either.

Meanwhile, David Denby says the new Indiana Jones movies isn't that good, and if you read between the lines, the failing of the movie is the main character. Who is Indy really? What sort of man risks his life to chase after figurines? What drives him? What does he long for? I have an impression from the review that the screenwriter worked from the outside in, and that's fine, but he didn't get that far in, and wound up substituting "Harrison Ford will make something of this" for finding real dramatic meat.

The older I get the more my writing is about the characters. I wrote pretty good action sequences fifteen years ago; that always came easy. But the characters were not as rich as I try to make them now. I think a truly satisfying movie always has to be about a main character (or, rarely, in an ensemble movie, a small group) with a problem. You probably get the idea of the problem first; story comes first. But then, really delve into who the main character would be in this story. What kind of a person is he or she? What is he or she going through? What is it like to be him or her in these circumstances? That, I think, is how you turn a cartoon into a pretty darn good movie.

I didn't see the latest SUPERMAN movie, by the way. I doubt DC would let you do it, but there would be a pretty interesting movie if you got inside Superman's head. Raised by ordinary folks in Kansas, endowed with near-godlike powers, knowing you are the last scion of a planet and race that no longer exist ... that could make a guy a little weird. Certainly weirder than Christopher Reeve's Supes. There's a very dark Superman graphic novel in which the caped guy essentially becomes ruler of the world, with some unfortunate consequences for the rest of us. That's the kind of movie I'd like to see more of.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Every now and then an article comes out praising Provigil for helping you concentrate and get things done. (It also apparently helps you lose weight. I know I would go to the fridge a lot less often if I could only concentrate.)

Many of the writers I know are terrible procrastinators. I'm considered prolific, and I waste heaps of time. So a drug that would help me sit down and get things written, instead of surfing, without making me less creative, or turning me into an newt, etc., sounds pretty magical.

On the other hand, I try to avoid taking drugs on general principle. The human body is an incredibly complex mechanism, and drugs that actually change your personality sound kind of threatening. They could make you a more effective person but would you still be, you know, you?

So this is (as they say on DailyKos, my current time suck) an open thread. What are the facts on smart drugs? Has anyone found them effective? Ineffective? Side effects? Moral issues? Are we all mad not to be taking them?

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Thursday, May 22, 2008


I used to critique scripts for a fee, but ever since I got too busy, I've been sending people to my friend Victoria Lucas. She's a development exec I worked with back in my indie production days.

Now she's hanging out her shingle on the Internet.

Victoria is one of the extremely rare development people who can tell you what's broken in your script. Most readers will give you notes like "I wanna like the main character more" or "the scene on page 60 drags." She will tell you, "your main character needs a more compelling opportunity, problem or goal so that we'll care about him," or "you haven't properly set up the stakes on page 23, so your scene on page 60 drags."

Victoria is currently grossly undercharging for her services ($185 for 3-4 pages of notes and a telephone call, $350 for longer notes and more follow-up), so take advantage of her before she wises up and charges what she's worth.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

"When you are trying to kill a man, it costs nothing to be gracious."?

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Montreal Gazette writer Brendan Kelly is now blogging about the Montreal showbiz scene in Showbiz Chez Nous. Who's shooting, who's premiering, who's going to Cannes. And lots of links, especially to his Gaz articles. Go Brendan!

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I am an aspiring comedy writer, but have chosen to write one of my specs on the NBC show "Chuck" because I know and love the characters. It is an hour long, but entirely different from most dramatic television, it's more of an action-comedy. Is this spec useless to me as a comedy writer even though it has so many comedic elements? Should I not show it to people interested in my work and just crank out a "Two and a Half Men" like so many other people in LA?
Think about it from the showrunner's point of view. If I'm hiring comedy writers, and I get a stack of 12 sitcom scripts, and an hour comedy, who am I going to pick?

Right now there is no shortage of qualified staff writers. You're competing with writers who have credits. You have to really grab people to break out of the pack. Anything short of "you nailed it" equals fail.

That's not to say you can't send it out. A great CHUCK is better than no script. A great TWO AND A HALF MEN (if that's what people are speccing for half hour) is better with a great CHUCK than without it. Your agent might know about a relatively more action-y, more dramatic half hour. And of course, your great CHUCK will be useful for other comic hours.

And maybe you don't want to be a half hour writer, y'know? Maybe if you love CHUCK so much you should consider yourself an hour writer. John Rogers worked on COSBY, and now he's running a one hour heist drama. I guarantee there are laughs in it. I wouldn't worry about CHUCK being sui generis. BUFFY was an action-comedy, too. If you can write action and laughs, there may be hour jobs out there for you too.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008



Build a trebuchet to hurl flaming pianos, of course.

Makes perfect sense to me.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Q. I come from an Improv and sketch comedy background, I've written 3 TV spec scripts that were good. For some reason the ability to plug into voices of characters created by others comes fairly easily to me. However, my 2 original feature scripts and my pilot were all severely lacking, there's obviously a hole in my writing education somewhere when it comes to creating original characters and stories that have legs. I've read all the usual suspects: McKee, Vogler, you...any pointers as to where to look to fill these holes?
I don't think you need to read any more books. I think you just need to write more scripts. Looking back on all my scripts, the first feature spec I'm still willing to show people comes in around #15 or so. It takes a while to learn how to write screenplays.

To write great characters, try writing some screenplays that depend entirely on their characters. Stretch in the direction you're weakest. If plotting was your weakness, I would say write a closely plotted thriller. If people are saying your dialog is too flat, try writing a script about bitchy fashion people, or create a character who speaks outlandishly, or has Tourette's.

I wouldn't expect you to be able to write a good pilot after writing only three TV specs. Everyone's asking for spec pilots these days, but it used to be you were expected to put in three to five years on staff before anyone wanted to see a pilot from you. You need that long to learn your craft.

The key to becoming a better writer is writing, and rewriting, and rewriting, for years. Do you think people would get paid so much if it was easy to learn how to do it?

As to characters, it's not enough to plug into the voices. You're using the preset characters as a crutch; you know how they sound, and you're making them sound like that. But you don't want to just write lines that Phoebe on FRIENDS could say. You want to write lines that only Phoebe could say: "I wish I could help you, but I don't want to."

Similarly, character isn't writing things that your character would do. It's writing things that only your character would do. Dr. Richard Kimble is a fugitive on the run. He sneaks into a hospital to investigate the one-armed man who killed his wife. He notices a kid has been misdiagnosed. Most people would ignore the kid; there are doctors for that. He scrawls a new diagnosis on the kid's chart and rolls him to where he can get the help he needs -- nearly getting caught in the process.

Character isn't about character bios, which I find vastly overrated. It's about giving your character things to do and say that only they would say and do. And then doing it again.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Q.  As a fan of the show Stargate Atlantis, I wasn't entirely happy with the recent season finale. I'm thinking about writing an alternate finale as my submission to the ABC/Disney Fellowship.
This is risky for a couple of reasons.

One, Stargate: Atlantis is not a show you can count on anyone having read. It's just not one of the shows that show people are watching. That's why you call agents' assistants to ask what shows people are speccing. You should spec one of the shows everyone's speccing, because those are the shows people are watching.

Two, it's really hard to write a satisfying season finale. Much harder than writing a "center cut" episode. There's just a lot more work to do resolving story arcs and tying up loose ends, while creating a convincing hour of television. So you're raising the bar for yourself.

Finally, the season finale is the culmination of the whole season. You're trying to show how you can pay everything off better than the showrunner. But the reader may not have even seen more than one or two episodes of the show you're writing. You can rely on any decision maker to have seen BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, but you can't count on him knowing every last detail of which Cylons are "out" as Cylons to the humans, and which are secret, and what Baltar did on New Caprica, etc. A season finale is more dependent on detailed knowledge of the season than any other episode. Readers who aren't fans won't get it; readers who are fans may have very strong opinions about whether your approach is canonical or not.

Now these are only risk factors. If your Stargate:Atlantis alternative finale reaches a big S:A fan, and it sings to him, then you have broken out of the pack. High risk can bring high gain. A highly competent CSI may not grab anyone who's had to read twenty other highly competent CSI's. Anything you can do to set yourself apart can work in your favor.

(But I still wouldn't do this for S:A. I just don't think it's got enough buzz.)

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

I'm going to be jabbering away on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles tomorrow, Sunday, from 2-3 PM PST. I'm appearing on SAMM BROWN'S FOR THE RECORD and talking about "The Craft of Film and Television." 

I'll be appearing with former movie exec Rob Tobin, who wrote John McTiernan's upcoming CAMEL WARS, and has a bunch of DVD's and books on screenwriting.

If you're out of town, you can listen to the show online at KPFK's site. You can also listen to it on audio archives for the next 90 days.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Aaron C asks if he should hire playwrights rather than TV writers for his internet series:
Because my season is already pretty much outlined, dialogue and character are most important to me. My hunch is that playwrights tend to be better at dialogue, and get into writing more for the love of writing than for fame and fortune.
I could not disagree more.

Plays and TV are entirely different media. Plays can have action, but the characters can't go far. Editing is limited to scene changes. The frame never moves in a play. There are no closeups. All you can do is move your characters around the stage. The audience sees the players from various different angles depending on where they're seated. So, plays are about the words.

TV is about the words, the action, the framing, and the editing.

They are different media. And therefore, they use different flavors of dialog.

So play dialog tends to be expansive and wordy. It is often stylized. Mamet's characters all speak Mamet-speak.

TV dialog is terse. If a character has more than three sentences strung together, it's a big deal.

Plays have huge ole chunks of dialog, character arias, often about the past. TV rarely describes the past, and tries to avoid referring to it. You can go hours on TV without hearing a character say, "You remember when...?" and then recounting an event in it its entirety that both characters remember perfectly well.

A great play creates a ritual space; the dialog is the words of that ritual, in which the audience is a celebrant.

A great TV show brings you into a world, and makes the characters a member of your family.

Playwrights aren't better at dialog than TV writers. They are better at play dialog. On TV, play dialog would sound stilted, portentuous and gassy; just as, in a play, TV dialog would sound bloodless and mundane.

Playwrights are also not used to necessarily doing what they're told. David Mamet refuses to take network notes at all. That comes from being a playwright, where you can simply refuse to change a line if you don't want to.

I wrote a play once. It even got a reading at a playhouse. I learned how different playwrighting is from screenwriting, and that plays are not my medium.

No, I wouldn't hire a playwright to do a TV writer's job; unless that playwright also happened to be a pretty good TV writer.

And the play? Now a pay cable series I'm developing for The Movie Network.

Oh, and Aaron ... all the good writers, in any medium, get into it for the writing, not for the fame and fortune.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Just got this press release, and my mind has been in Gary, Indiana, so I'll just lay it on you:
TV addicts now have a one-stop online destination where they can watch full episodes of current and classic TV including "The Office," "24," "Lost in Space," "The 50th Annual Grammy Awards," and more for free.

With entertainment content from over 100 providers including major television and cable networks, Fancast.com takes out the guess work for users looking for their favorite shows by allowing them to find it, watch it and manage it 24-hours a day – whether it's on Fancast, TV, online, on demand and more.

One of the site’s many features is the “Watch List” button that allows users to organize and catalog upcoming programming, set a personalized play list and send reminders to themselves about what they should watch in the future - creating an easy-to-use, personalized entertainment guide.
Let us know how it works for ya!

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Matt R writes:
Q. You may not remember me... But I'm the cool, young, attractive dude who writes dark/funny/hip television (x2) and film (1) scripts.

So, my question is: is there a place for a Cool, good-looking dude amongst the Geeks?
I'm not sure I understand your question. Is it that you think you're too handsome and attractive to be a TV writer?
Q. No, I mean because I'm not a geek. Are there many non-geeks out there in Canadian (and American) television?

Please trust that this is not tongue-in-cheek, but do you think I would be discriminated against for being a cool, good-looking, heterosexual dude?
Um. ... No. You'll probably want to have written more than three scripts in your life before you worry about being discriminated against. But I would say that the average TV writer is more attractive than the average, say, car salesman.

Not only does creative fulfillment does a lot for a person's attractiveness. But there's a lot of selection going on. If you're not a smart, funny, attractive person, you're probably not going to be too busy in the TV world.

Bear in mind that our standards are skewed by working alongside actors, who have unnatural levels of charisma and beauty and coolness. So we call ourselves "geeky" in a sly, self-deprecating way in order not to feel embarrassed. But it's a front, just as TV writers tend to affect extremely casual dress, but it's all carefully thought out. All show people tend to burn just a little brighter.

Real nerds rarely make it in the biz. You can have a successful computer programming career without social skills. You can live in a treehouse and email in your work. Show business is just as much about the show off the screen as it is about the show on the screen.

The rest of the response is left as an exercise.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Tories have obviously got sick of hearing how Bill C-10 is a bass-ackwards way of imposing censorship while crippling the whole tax credits system on which the Canadian motion picture industry relies. So rather than fixing the bill, they just made it a confidence measure in Parliament:
OTTAWA — Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is declaring film tax-credit legislation a matter of confidence in the Conservative government, meaning MPs could land on Canadian doorsteps this spring to debate the line between art and pornography.

Mr. Flaherty said the legislation, known as Bill C-10, contains a range of important tax measures and changes will not be tolerated.

"The bill should not be amended," he told reporters yesterday. "A tax bill is a confidence bill. We all know that."
A confidence bill (for those of who you are subjects of the Unitary Executive) means that if the opposition votes it down, the government falls. The Liberals aren't ready for an election, so they probably won't have the balls to vote C-10 down.

So we'll get sneaky, bass-ackwards, financially crippling censorship.

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