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



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Saturday, January 31, 2009

I'm going in to meet an agent. What should I say?
Just go in and be charming and funny and smart.

But also be businesslike. You want her to know that you're working your career, not just stumbling through it.

Be ready to pitch whatever you just wrote, whatever you are writing now, and what you'd like to write.

Ask businesslike questions, e.g.

a. If you rep me, where would you see pitching me / sending me?
b. What do you see as my strengths and weaknesses?
c. What should I work on next? Should I write another spec? Or a spec pilot? What shows should I spec?
d. Tell me about your agency. How many writers do you rep at my level?

Write down the answers. You might want to remind her later on if she forgets any of the people she thought of. It's always a good idea to follow up with agents. They have to keep a lot in their heads, and they have many clients, so the client who helps them organize their work will get more work done for him.

Agencies will often have feature people and TV people. If you write both, make sure you're talking to both.

You don't have to like your agent personally, though it's always a plus (and my agents are both adorable). If you're a quiet, unassuming person, you probably won't like an agent who's arrogant and full of hustle and spin. But that might be a good agent for you.

My rule of thumb in evaluating agents is enthusiasm x enthusiasm x clout. Clout is their ability to get people to read and see you. Enthusiasm speaks for itself. Agents can blow a lot of smoke, though, so make sure there's actual fire.

And be enthusiastic yourself. Agents are human. They want to feel you appreciate them. And agent who doesn't feel appreciated is unlikely to work her hardest for you, even if she's seeing nice commissions. Make clear that you consider the relationship to be a two-way street: if you can reward your agent, whether with goodies or by directing good clients to them, or just by remembering to thank them, you'll deserve better treatment, and get it.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Q. Since TV jobs are never secure, and we in the States don't have that fancy Canadian universal healthcare (yet), do most TV writers in the U.S. find health insurance independently?
Most professional writers are in the WGA, and the WGA has a great health plan. If you're getting work, it's free, and if you're not, you can buy in.

If you're not in the WGA, you're on your own, in this as in so many ways.

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Every now and then, we at Complications Ensue ask you guys what you're speccing, and what you've heard people are speccing, so everyone can get a sense of what the hot specs are.

And it's that time again. Especially because the network, alas yes, pulled the plug on my pay cable series, and I'm debating between writing an hour spec or a half hour spec pilot.

What are you speccing, or what have you recently specced?

What have you heard other people are speccing?

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Q. I have the ability to direct movies without scripts but just outlines. I can schedule and budget on the basis of an outline and then complete the production. So far all of my productions have followed the same pattern. Is it impossible to find investors for such kind of film-maker even on low-budgets in the US?
Yep.

Okay, let me clarify that a bit. I am not sure Henry Jaglom has scripts. He seems to shoot a great deal of improv and then edit. And there are other directors who have shot pictures that way; a lot of experiments were done in the '60's and '70's.

And, of course, "reality" tv shows have outlines, but no scripts.

So if your selling point is that you like to let the actors improvise, you may be able to get away with it. But it's a hard sell. Buyers can't see what movie you're planning to make. There's no way to tell if the comedy is funny, if the romance is suave, etc. They have to trust that you can direct the hell out of your outline.

What you would need to finance an outline would be at least one and hopefully several brilliant finished movies made the same way, without a script. And you would probably have to show that these movies have made money for their investors.

Unfortunately, now is just about the worst imaginable time to try to get new investors. The credit crunch has dried up all the loose money. I'm not sure investors are in the mood for experiments right now. I'm not sure audiences are, either.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Here's a useful link: Media Match's list of Film & TV Jobs. Check it out, and let me know!

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Producer Marvin Acuna is giving away his 90-minute screenwriting seminar online. Check it out!

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From MovieMaker Magazine:
There are 10 simple rules to great moviemaking. Unfortunately, I never learned them. These are the best I could come up with on short notice…

1. Remember to breathe. You’ve probably worked for two years to get to this moment, and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get to do it again. You might as well enjoy it.

2. The camera is a Buddha. It sees the world as it is. It doesn’t photograph your expectations or your fantasies. Try to see as the camera sees.

3. No plan survives contact with the enemy. [Note: Field-Marshall von Moltke.] Over-prepare and then be ready to throw it all away when the actor feels his character wouldn’t do it that way.

4. A good idea can come from anywhere. You might as well listen to what others have to say because you’re going to get the credit (and blame) anyway. The key grip has made six times as many movies as you have.

5. Life is messy. It doesn’t stop while you’re talking on the telephone. If it feels too comfortable, it’s probably wrong; if it feels right it’s probably too slow.

6. No movie can ever be funny enough. Surgeons, cops and priests need to laugh, too.

7. An audience’s attention span is even shorter than yours. Fill every moment, stick to the story and try not to shoot the parts you’re going to cut.

8. The actors move the camera, the camera doesn’t move the actors. Unless you have a style, don’t act as if you do.

9. Make your movie for one person at a time. Imagine your fourth grade teacher sitting alone in the dark.

10. Where there is no solution there is no problem. At some point in every production, the director loses faith in the movie and the crew loses faith in the director. Somehow it all works out.
Make of that what you will.

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Lisa and I are working on a written pitch. The two things we're working hardest on are:
  • Making sure the first page grabs the reader; and
  • Making sure it's clear what the show is.
It's easy enough describing the characters, the world, the backstory. What's tougher is crystallizing what the show is going to be. What's the template? What's the franchise? What happens every week?

We'll probably want to pitch the thing in person, rather than send our prose in to producers or network execs. But we need to crystallize the show on paper for ourselves, so we can pitch clearly in person.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009



Free Web Survey
I'm trying to figure out how many different people are reading this blog, and I'm pretty sure SiteMeter exaggerates the numbers a bit. Whenever you read this entry, please "vote" for the day you're reading this. Thanks!

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Monday, January 26, 2009

The WGC wants ISP's to pay to support Canadian creative content:
WGC Launches Facebook Group Calling for Support of Canadian New Media Broadcasting

The Guild launched a new Facebook Group today to spread the word and raise the volume of the discussion coming into the New Media hearings at the CRTC in February. The subtly named group, Make the ISPs Pay to Play, stands behind the principle that ISPs should contribute to help create some of the content that they carry into our homes and from which they benefit.

New Media broadcasting was exempted from regulation in 1999 so that the businesses could grow and find ways to get revenues. Well, last year ISP revenues totalled about $5.7 billion in Canada, so it looks like it’s working.

But the occasion of the CRTC hearing has prompted many in Canada’s Internet-related businesses to issue fearful messages warning of an Internet crushed by government regulations and taxes. In reality, the hearing is looking at the nature of New Media platforms as broadcasters of content, and the extent to which they should support the objectives of the federal Broadcasting Act.

For users, changing the exemption order will not mean restricted portals and limited navigation – and it also will not mean counting the Canadian clips on You-Tube. There is no desire to regulate user-generated content or shape search engine results.

What it can mean is more chances for Canadians to see their stories and their voices reflected in their media. Canadians want and deserve a variety of experiences and a diversity of voices online – a variety that includes professionally produced and accessible Canadian programming.

So please check out the Group, and sign our petition - we'll take the names with us to the CRTC when we appear in February.
If we support Cancon in the music industry and in the TV industry (and we at Crafty do), shouldn't we also support Cancon on the Net?

The point of this kind of support is to create an industry. My problem is there isn't really an "Internet creative content" industry in the sense that there are very few creative things on the Internet (webseries, etc.) that customers are willing to pay to see, or which can support themselves via commercials. Most Internet content is either corporate promotion of some kind, or hobbyists. The Canadian government could throw an unlimited amount of money at writers, say, to train them to write things for the Internet. But would it create an industry? Or would it just create a lot of content that no one wants to see? Or would the money just get hijacked for various kinds of corporate promotions and hobbies?

Does someone want to make an impassioned argument in the other direction? What am I missing?

UPDATE: David Kinahan of the WGC writes:
Our idea is less about training than about content creation – and it is content that will be created in support of conventional broadcast – that additional content that is so prevalent with American shows that helps to engage audiences more fully. We’ve got examples here too – ZoS and Being Erica had/have online content – but it is much more rare, and often less accessible.
And REGENESIS had a whole Alternative Reality Game. Though it was a tad labor intensive -- they had actual humans interacting with the players.

If this is about promoting content on other media, then I'm all for it. Anything that increases the promotion budget for Canadian film and TV is a good idea. Our shows are still tragically under-promoted, with a few shining exceptions.

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Michael Arpin, Vice Chair for Broadcasting of the CRTC, writes in The Globe and Mail:
John Doyle (Michel Arpin, You Need To Explain - And Apologize - Review, Jan. 22) quotes an answer I gave to Playback magazine, where I said: "I'm a news and documentary consumer. I'm not that interested in televised fiction or even feature films. I would prefer to read a novel."

As far as the quote is concerned, you must appreciate that the interviewer had asked me to name my favourite show; I felt it was inappropriate to do so, given my position with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission as vice-chairman in charge of broadcasting. Rest assured that, throughout the year, I watch all types of television news and documentaries, as well as drama or feature films.
(Via DMc.) When I wrote to Konrad von Finkenstein, he forwarded my email to Mr. Arpin, who wrote the exact same thing back to me, and everyone else who wrote.

C'mon. Seriously. How dumb do you think we are? Had Mr. Arpin wished to avoid picking favorites, he could have said, "Oh, goodness, I love all our children equally the same." But he didn't. He said "I'd prefer to read a novel."

It is a mark of how little respect Mr. Arpin holds the showbiz community that he doesn't even try to come up with a convincing lie, such as, "I promise to watch at least a dozen hours of Canadian drama this year."

Mr. Ignatieff, your coalition is waiting.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lisa and I are working on a pitch document for an hour drama we hope to shop to networks up here in Canuckistan. (Networks in the States want to see a completed pilot script, so you may never have to write a pitch bible at all.) We have to keep reminding ourselves to stay away from backstory. The point of character descriptions isn't to fill in backstory. It's to describe the characters as they are now, and more importantly, set them in motion. So I would say the priorities of a character description in a pitch are:
  1. What do they want? Why can't they get it? How do they go about trying to get it?
  2. What are they like?
  3. And only then, if necessary, the minimum backstory necessary to explain what they're doing in the story of the series.
You can actually get away without any backstory in your character descriptions. But you absolutely must fill in what each character wants (his drive) and how he approaches trying to get it. That's what sets him in motion -- and defines his direction -- in the stories.

The "how" is not just the explicit things the character does, but the manner in which he does them, and the point of view that the manner comes out of. It should all be there in the "how."

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Q. I have directed and produced 4 feature films (running length is 80-95 min) in my country. They are subtitled in English. I’m producing 4 more films in 2009.

I would like to know how to I approach managers/agents for representation in selling my movies in US markets. I know about the American Film Market and film festivals. And I know about cold calls. Are there any more options for selling my movies in US market?
Film distribution is outside my field of knowledge. Does anyone know of another route to getting your foreign film distributed in the States beyond calling the indie film distributors?

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Q. I wrote a script with a writer I know. Now an agent is interested in repping us. But I really hadn't planned to make this a partnership. He has a very different sensibility than I do. What should I do?
This is why you don't co-write a spec script unless you're open to being partners with someone. No one will hire you based on a co-write, unless they can hire you both to co-write.

However, "different sensibilities" = good. If you had the same sensibility, there'd be no point to being partners. Lisa and I have partnered on a bunch of things. She's good at having lots of ideas, teen girl characters, and goofy comedy. I have not so many ideas, but I'm good at structuring a TV show out of an idea. She thinks like a girl. I think like a boy. I'm a genre fan. She's not. We work well together.

Granted, we're married. But we wouldn't be writing together if the writing partnership didn't work out.

The big drawback to a writing partnership (unless you're already married) is you get half the pay. For everything. Even staff salaries.

The other big drawback is that you're stuck with another person in your writing life. Great when you click, lousy when you don't. And sometimes you won't.

The key question is: are your writing partner and you a significantly better writer than you are alone? If the partnership is even 25% better than just you, you might get 200% of the work and pay. How much better were Lennon and McCartney together? Since you wrote a script with the other guy that an agent wants to read, it sounds like the partnership is a much better writer than you are solo, at this point in your craft.

The second key question: is the other partner sane? If you're in a partnership with a crazy person, it is something like being married to a crazy person, without the makeup sex.

(I would say "do try not to hook up with your writing partner," but aside from being futile advice, I'm not sure it's even good advice. Lots of husbands and wives write together.)

A third question: do you two motivate each other to work harder than you would work on your own?

If you're just starting out, bear in mind, you can always get a divorce later. At that point you'll have to write some solo specs to prove you can write -- but that's what you'd be doing now, minus the script that got you the interest. So no loss there. In the mean time, you can learn a lot from working closely with someone who thinks differently than you. You might learn how they think; you might just learn that you can't duplicate how you think and therefore need them. And you can rack up credits for your resume.

Now, if you hadn't already written a good script together, then I'd say you're taking a pretty big gamble. If the partnership doesn't work out, you have to throw away all those spec scripts. It may take a few tries to find a person with whom you have creative magic. I've partnered on writing with many people, but I can think of only two where we really complemented each other, and one of those was awful on a personal level.

So make sure the other writer is at least as good as you are, and that you genuinely like being around that person. Make sure their work ethic is at least as good as yours. And spend a few days talking through the story before you write anything down, to see if your minds mesh in useful ways. You might be spending the next couple of decades together.

In big decisions like this, always pay attention to your gut reactions. You know things about people that you don't know you know.

(For more about writing partnerships, check out my books!)

UPDATE:
Are you really bound to your writing partner for life? I noticed that Bill Oakley is no longer co-running "Sit Down Shut Up" with Josh Weinstein, even though they've written so long together.
You can always get a divorce. But if you've been working with a writing partner, breaking up is akin to getting a divorce. The longer you were together the worse it will be. Your sample scripts are now semi-worthless and you'll have to write new solo ones. You'll have to retrain yourself how to write well without a partner. And whoever is doing better a year later is going to feel guilty about the other partner who is now losing their house. They may feel abandoned if not betrayed. And if the partnership was good, you'll miss the other guy, and you'll want to run a scene by him, and you know you can't because that would only reopen old wounds. Bill and Josh may not be talking any more.

Or, hey, they might get together again. You never know.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

I've just finished reading GODBLOG, the debut novel by none other than Laurie Channer, the WGC "enforcer" who has your back when producers try to squirm out of their contractual obligations.

GODBLOG is a nifty little story about an ex-snowboarder-now-barista named Dag who starts writing an increasingly influential blog, with consequences that spin utterly out of control by the end of the story -- told through his pro-skier non-girlfriend "Heathen." It starts a little low-key (you don't see where it's headed for a ways in), but ends in a very convincing crisis. I think someone could make a good little movie out of this about snowboarders and blogs and the people who work in franchise coffee bars.

(Weirdly, Laurie herself is forbidden to write the movie because it would be a "conflict of interest." Conflict of interest is a term I keep hearing, in situations that no American would consider a conflict of interest. I would be surprised to hear that WGA officials, for example, agree not to write any scripts. And when you jury for government organizations, you are often forbidden for a time from working on the projects the jury selects -- though, presumably, the writers of those projects would be overjoyed if someone actually wanted to do something commercial with their stuff.)

Anyway, if you're looking for a book to adapt, check it out.

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I'm about half way through writing a TV pilot script. I don't have a bible as such - a few notes here and there. I'm letting the characters work themsevles though the pilot, which means once it's done, it'll be crap and need re-working like hell.
Yah. Kids, don't try this at home.
Should I just write (and worry about) the pilot? Or would you recommend that I come up with character profiles, the bible and how it would work on an episodic basis? Perhaps I could write the first 3 episodes and any springboards, episode ideas I can think of etc? I'm in England, so things may be different.
I would never start writing a pilot without having about dozen episodic springboards. That's because you need about a dozen springboards to be sure you actually have a template that allows you to generate stories. Do you have a story motor? Or do you just have a single really cool pilot?

As you try and come up with springboards, you will often discover things about your show that you wouldn't have found out just writing a pilot. You may realize there are characters you need that you don't have, or that some characters you thought would be interesting just don't seem to generate stories, and other characters that you thought were minor are actually recurring or even core cast members.

That doesn't mean you are necessarily going out with a show bible. You're probably just going out with the pilot. But I think you need to know what your show is episode to episode, and you need the pilot to set that template up. A pilot that feels like a one-off will kill your sale. A pilot that establishes a strong story motor for later episodes will attract attention.

I can't speak about England -- ask Stephen Gallagher. In the States you'll be circulating your pilot. In Canada you used to be able to option just a bible, and I believe my friend Shelley can option an idea off a one-pager. But I also hear that networks are starting to look for pilot scripts here too.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

You've talked about how most readers aren't necessarily going to be fanatics of the show you're speccing, so you don't necessarily have to be completely up to date on where the characters' stories are in the show. But what about act structure? Like HOUSE. It used to be teaser and four acts, this season is teaser and six. Is this a change i need to re-write to?
I think you do. There has been a big movement towards 5 and 6 act structure. A four act drama is going to feel old hat to a lot of readers. And HOUSE in particular is a show that everyone specs, so your readers, even if they don't watch every HOUSE, will for sure know that the show has gone to 6 acts.

Coming up with new act outs is going to be a pain, but it's something writers have to do often enough, so consider it a worthwhile exercise, too.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Lisa's working on our comedy spec pilot. We've got a bit player annoying one of the core cast, and she said, "I'm pretending it's a bit part for Sid Caesar. (You older folks will recognize him as a famous comedian from 1950s TV. Lisa is now leveraging her misspent youth when she played hookey every afternoon and watched old TV shows all day long.)

When you're writing bit parts, don't write them for day player actors. Write them for TV or movie stars with outsized personalities. If you have a one minute bit of repartee with the elevator man, write the elevator man for Jack Nicholson. Or Steve Buscemi. Or Lily Tomlin. That will remind you to write something they can really sink their teeth into.

Be careful, though, that you're writing distinctive dialog. Jack Nicholson can make a meal out of nothing dialog. Your job is to write the action and dialog so we see and hear Jack Nicholson in them. Without, of course, mentioning Jack himself.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hey, does anyone know where I can find an I LOVE LUCY script?

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CRAFTY: One of the big problems with a show about peacekeepers, I would think, is how little they can actually do. Did that worry you? How did you handle it?
MACRURY: We talked a lot about that. Here's a fresh idea: these people don't have guns. They can't solve their problems by shooting. They can't blow the bad guys away. But then you have a problem: the heroes can't take dramatic action. And of course you end up with kind of cheating it. To make them compelling, they gotta break the rules. One's a spy, one will commit murder, one's sleeping with everyone, and the other one is having psychotic visions. And the one who's the moral center is breaking rules to do the right thing. So that's how you get around "what do you mean they can't use guns?"
CRAFTY: It's sort of the difference between the US and Canada, encapsulated in their TV shows. On 24, it's all, "hey, let's torture this guy!" And on THE BORDER, it's, "Okay, we can't torture the guy, so what are we gonna do?"
MACRURY: America doesn't have peacekeepers, doesn't have UN observers. This is something we [Canadians] do, Indians do, Austrlians do. In fact, the school you go to learn to be an observer is in Kingston, Ontario. Americans don't do it. No peacekeepers ... unless it's a military action.
CRAFTY: The show goes pretty dark. I mean, there's a rule you can't kill an animal on screen and you can't hurt a kid. You kill a kid on screen. And that's not the worst thing that happens in that episode.
MACRURY: Yeah, I ... you're writing something and you have to trust how it's going to be conveyed and you write the images. How it's shot, how it's portrayed, that's the director's job. Mario comes out of the theatre of the absurd. And there, you do show the horror. I'm a little more squeamish than that -- I might have pulled back. But I think you have to show enough to honor the situation, so it doesn't feel like a fairy tale. And that's the great thing on pay cable, they encourage you. Is it exploitative? I hope not. I hope that in fact it draws you into the reality , as close a you're going to dare to go. It's something you wrestle with. When you read about the real stories, that's what you're drawn to. To try to write about it in a way that wouldn't disturb people would be phony. It would be, "I copped out." I didn't take the audience into the world I said I was going to convey.

That's again why we didn't want to do something happening right now. The stories we're drawing from are ten years old. You can't underestimate the passage of time. These aren't raw wounds. The fact that it isn't ripped from the headlines allows you to take a bit more care that it isn't more exploitative.

And yet you're walking a line. Yes, we killed a kid onscreen - and we also saved a kid on screen. Could we have just done the second? But that wouldn't have taken you the places you need to go. It would have been THE A TEAM, with no cost to our character.
CRAFTY: The show is almost entirely serial, whereas your typical broadcast show would be strongly episodic with overlying season arcs. How did you make the decision to go serialized?
MACRURY: Again that's funny because the first drafts were for the CBC. But a serialized show is what The Movie Network and Movie Central wanted. Something that is a page turner. You put one down, you want to see the next. And in the writing of it, that's immediately where we went to. I can't even remember any discussion. The show always went from day to day. The second episode could be the second day.

That's how we did the first season of DEADWOOD. First day, second day, third day. Those first 4 eps are 4 days in a row. I don't know if that was unconscious or not. It can work to give you some dramatic energy. It's always in real time. End of the day. I think every episode is one day. To have, you know, act two is a different day -- there was never any sense of that.
CRAFTY: When I write hour drama, I'm always pulled to make each episode about 24 hours. Sometimes I have to force myself not to compress things so much. An hour of TV feels like it wants to be a day of narrative.
MACRURY: On the show I've been working on, REPUBLIC OF DOYLE, each episode is like 3 days. But it's an investigation show.

I think I would argue that if you look at the episodes, they are completely serialized yet there is a thematic closure to each one. Each writer got to tell a complete story within the episode. And often we ended up using montages at the end to highlight that. In the first episode there's the parade, the burial, the murders, ending with two of our characters on the steps, "You want to have a drink?"
CRAFTY: Pay cable doesn't have act outs, but did you write in terms of acts, or was it all just fluid storytelling, movie-style?
MACRURY: I think that varied from writer to writer. Some people found it easier to think in acts. Leaving the act structure aside, there is a natural progression of things are going to happen.
CRAFTY: But do you think in terms of, there are five acts, and in each of them I have to serve each of these story lines?
MACRURY: Yes. We'd find the main story that we're following. And then things would be following from that. The story structure gets more complicated as we get into the series, we start pulling in those three grunts [Canadian peacekeeping soldiers], and once they're in, we've got to keep servicing their story, even though they're not our main guys. We always tried to tie the stories together, for example when Kulkin comes to the mass grave.
CRAFTY: You tied things up pretty well at the end. Do you think there's a ZOS 2? Would that depend on the numbers, or do you feel you've said what you wanted to say?
MACRURY: I think we're done in Jadac. If there were a ZOS Season 2, it would be more along the lines of a PRIME SUSPECT model where you take the lead character and put them in another world. Maybe because we only had eight, we really put everything into it. I don't know where else we'd go in Jadac.
CRAFTY: So what's next?
MACRURY: I recently did a pilot for Showcase called LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY.
CRAFTY: Great title.
MACRURY: I wrote it originally for HBO -- in fact that's what got me the job on DEADWOOD. And I just got back from Newfoundland, where I did a half hour pilot, directed by Jim Allodi. with Allan Hawco. He was the Brit Captain in ZOS. It was a half-hour called THE REPUBLIC OF DOYLE. They asked us to turn it into an hour, so we were trying to figure out how to do that.
CRAFTY: Of course they did. Because comedy, drama, really, what's the diff?
MACRURY: There was always a lot of comedy in it, but we're adding more mystery. It's a private detective show set in St. John's. Yeah, it's ROCKFORD FILES.
CRAFTY: That's funny, because Kay Reindl was just blogging about how everybody wants to write a light detective show, but you just can't sell them.
MACRURY: Yeah, everybody wants to write ROCKFORD FILES. Fortunately, everybody's funny in St. John's.
CRAFTY: Thanks so much for talking to us!

ZOS premieres Monday, January 19th at 9 pm PST on Movie Central, and at 10 pm EST on The Movie Network.

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Friday, January 16, 2009


ZOS is a powerful, ambitious 8 x 1 hour series about a small city in former Yugoslavia divided between angry, bitter, scared Christians and angry, bitter, scared Muslims. There are men with artillery up in the hills. And between them, trying to keep them from massacring each other, are the UN observers.

Colm Meaney is a thuggish bar and brothel-keeper who's the Muslim strong man. Lolita Davidovich is the ruthless yet possibly fragile head of the Christian community. Michelle Nolden plays the UN observer captainwho's emotionally wounded by the conflict, and Rick Roberts the god-fearing martinet who's in charge of the Canadian peacekeepers. FLASHPOINT's Enrico Colantoni (pictured) disappears into the role of the flamboyant, romantic, possibly less insane than he lets on militia leader known as Speedo Boy.

The series tells hard stories about a place that has been Hell, and people who have been through Hell, and don't want to go back there. It demonstrates why pay cable TV is now the most interesting medium to create in. It creates a keenly observed and emotionally real world you've never been to, populates it with characters you want to know more about, and let them rip through stories that test the bounds of human relations. ZoS takes you a place you wouldn't want to go, but which your world could turn into, if all hell broke loose. It lets you live there for a while, safely and vicariously. If you're a fan of THE WIRE, then ZOS is a slamdunk.

I'm a writer, so file this paragraph under "I'd have written a slightly different show." The show is all about the interweaving, entangling story lines. I might have written a more episodic show. The series has the surprises of real life, where I might have tried to foreshadow more of the jeopardy. And you have to work at figuring out what some of the characters are thinking -- some of the most intriguing characters are as opaque as real people. But you know it all by the wild ending. What creator Malcolm MacRury and director Mario Azzopardi set out to do, they have done extremely well. The characters are so fully realized you wish the story played out over 13 episodes instead of only 8. It's must-watch TV.

So if you're in Canada, and haven't already signed up for Movie Central or The Movie Network, you might want to sign up now.

ZOS premieres Monday, January 19th at 9 pm PST on Movie Central, and at 10 pm EST on The Movie Network.

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CRAFTY: Let's talk business. At what point did this become a pay cable show? Did you have other versions in mind for other networks?
MACRURY: It actually began at the CBC [the Canadian public broadcaster]. There's a credit in the title scroll -- "Developed with the assistance of the CBC." The first 3 scripts were developed at the CBC -- the same exact show you saw. They were trying to figure out what they were going to be -- it was the middle of the transition to the new regime -- and there was a space for experimentation. They were interested in Paul Gross -- so we developed the script for the CBC that you saw.
CRAFTY: And I'm thinking they read the scripts and came back at you with, "have you ever actually watched our network?"
MACRURY: We kept saying "this is a ten o'clock show, at least, maybe eleven o'clock or twelve" -- and they don't even have a ten o'clock spot. And they kept saying "we love the arena and the people." But to their credit, and maybe partly because of Paul's credentials, they let us have the show back once they realized, this is just not a CBC show. We took it to The Movie Network and they snapped it up within, I think, 3 weeks. We were never being disingenuous -- we told them, this is the show, do you like it or not? But it was originally developed for a public conventional broadcaster.
CRAFTY: I'm thinking, with Colm Meaney and all the others, this must be some sort of international co-production?
MACRURY: It's not a co-pro, it's completely Canadian. Of course there was a gap in financing after the distribution advance, tax credits, etc. We still needed a couple million bucks, and that gap was filled by a German company called Alive Entertainment. And for that investment they got the world outside Canada.

That's the funny thing, in terms of the actors and the sales, it wasn't Europe pudding. We started with the four UN observers, and they have to be from four countries. It's one of the rules we inherited from the reality.

Colm Meaney, yes, was sparked by the international distributor. Of course Lolita [Davidovich] helps. But when we got Colm that was exciting for them. He's been on TV for fourteen years playing the chief engineer on STAR TREK. But the part was already written as an expat Brit, we didn't rejig it for Colm.
CRAFTY: And Lolita Davidovich is Serbian.
MACRURY: Lolita was really interested in the Serbian connection. She grew up in London, Ontario, but her dad is Serbian. She had the language, she was really interested in the terrain. She was scared to go to Bosnia, she thought, they're going to hate me. But she really liked the people. To get the part of someone who's the figurehead for this warlord, getting caught up in this strange affair, her dead son -- obviously she was attracted to the character, But she was also thinking, "this will be my homage to my people."
CRAFTY: I notice you didn't try to make all the characters good in some way. This is a part of the world where there are real villains, and without being cartoonish about it, you were willing to let some of the characters be really bad people without redeeming them.
MACRURY: Titac (Colm Meaney's character) is an opportunist. But we give him his arguments against the imam. 'Sure, the guy's well-meaning, but he's going to get us all killed.' He does have a philosophy. But he's like a Mafia guy that's lost his way. It's become more about guns and money and girls than anything else. Pretty common in reality. We read about Serbia and Bosnia, but also Northern Ireland. 'We believe in the Provos but we're also kneecapping drug dealers who aren't giving us our cut.' It starts with the public ambition but soon the personal ambition takes over.

It's tricky when you're writing about other cultures. In Hollywood you can just make them the villain. Or, our [Canadian] tendency is to make them saints. You're afraid of any backlash. Any character who's Native has to be a saint, any black has to be a saint. I think that's dehumanizing. When I write characters that are not my ethnicity or religion, I try to give them the same dimensions that I give the nice Canadian girl that's going to be a peacekeeper. They have to be as flawed as I am.
CRAFTY: And in Titac's case, much more flawed than you.
MACRURY: Titac is never non-interesting -- and non-interesting is the worst thing you can say about a character. You do want to understand him. He's a real presence the way Colm plays him.

I think in some regards we may have failed in this: it's always harder to write about good than evil. One of the most positive characters is [character redacted to avoid spoilers]. We gave him moments of flaw, but maybe should have given him more. If anything we erred to make him more positive because Titac isn't.

I think I would have liked to have spent more time with some of the good characters. Like the woman doctor. The cop, Kulkin, who's just trying to be a good cop.
CRAFTY: Yeah, I kept thinking, why didn't they get 13 episodes?
MACRURY: The fun stuff are the evil guys -- we're drawn to that. But the little girl, Anna, was important to me, because people who are in these situations, working, like Sean, often it comes down to, I can't save the world, but let me have one victory, let me save this one person. And as we heard from our military observer, you end up focusing on the little things you can do.

ZOS premieres Monday, January 19th at 9 pm PST on Movie Central, and at 10 pm EST on The Movie Network.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Lisa and I saw Avatar over Christmas. I didn't blog about it at the time because I really didn't see much to blog about. Special effects: spectacular. Cinematography: lush and wonderful. Story: perfectly fine, not that surprising, a little cartoonish.

(Possible spoilers.)

Various people have remarked on how it's very much DANCES WITH WOLVES TALL BLUE ALIENS. White guy comes from far away to lead the savages in battle to protect them from his own people, who are rapacious exploiters and profiteers. America in Iraq, America and the Native Americans, tribes in the Amazon v. loggers, etc. Because atrocities don't happen unless there's a white guy to witness them, and savages can't fight back unless there's a white guy to lead them.

Yeah, that's all true.

But since this is science fiction, some of the cliches of this subgenre of movie got to breathe new life. The Navi of Pandora aren't just metaphorically attuned to the planet, like Native Americans supposedly were: they are actually set up with their own USB cable to interface with it. And the planet isn't just metaphorically alive, it is literally conscious. It literally protects itself.

I thought that was a nice touch.

Science fiction and fantasy -- and stories in general -- get to make the world behave the way we want it to behave. We want to believe that the world is alive and has a relationship with us; in the movies, it does. We want to believe that the natives have a deeper understanding of some fundamental truths that we do; in the movies, they can.

That shadow passing across the Moon really does mean something bad is going to happen. In real life, it means it might rain.

What I didn't really see the point of was the 3D. I watch all my movies in 3D. That is, I watch them, and I have an effortless sense of who's close to camera and who's far. Partly it's size. Partly it's that faraway things are misty.

I never had a sense that AVATAR's 3-D was really bringing something to the party. I was grateful it spared us the "whoo! the rock jumps off the screen at you" and just created a sense of depth. But I remember having a sense of depth watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.

The change from black'n'white to color gave us information we didn't have before. Red, blue and brown all look the same in black'n'white. The change to widescreen gave us something important: vistas, and two shots. But I'm still dubious about the value of 3D.

Oh, I see the value for exhibitors. It makes it harder to pirate the movie, and it makes people want to see the movie in the theaters, at least until the thrill wears off. But is 3-D here to stay? Sixty years of 3-D movies suggests it may not be.

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CRAFTY: Did you have the whole series arced out when you wrote the pilot?
MACRURY: We had that week together where it was the four of us. By the end of that week we had sketched out in broad strokes the 1st three episodes.
CRAFTY: And those three episodes really feel like an Act One, with a strong ending to them--
MACRURY: Then I went away and wrote the pilot, and Pete and Jason were working on 2 and 3. But it was important to get the pilot in the hands of the other writers as they worked on their outlines. So by getting the pilot first draft done quickly we could hear the voices.
CRAFTY: It sounds like you sort of had an unpaid writing room...?
MACRURY: We had three weeks paid, plus everybody got a script. One week to come up with the stories. Then we came back in the room and broke down three more episodes. Then another week for the last two. Somewhere Pete dropped out to do other things and Paul Aiken ended up co-writing with Jason. You don't need more than that, especially if you're block shooting eight episodes and you know you're going to have all the scripts finished before you shoot anything. Still it might have been good to have one other person around as a story editor – another ear – somebody who can focus on the words.
CRAFTY: Talk about how the block shooting affects you as a writer.
MACRURY: On the one hand you think it's better for the writer, you get to think it all through before you shoot anything. But what it can hamper is the thing that makes TV great – the moments of connection – oh, these two actors are so good together. Speedo Boy – you start to see how we need him in the show – hey, Lolit'a's really good with him! You can miss that in block shooting. We had to fight hard to keep thinking, and not just go, "oh it's done." And in some cases we were able to do something, and in some cases we couldn't.
CRAFTY: You didn't leave a lot of loose ends for ZOS 2!
MACRURY: I'm pretty happy if this is the end. Trying to tell a story about how do you make peace – the absurdity of trying to make peace where it's not wanted-- my favorite show of all time is the Prisoner – I'm sad but curious to see they're remaking it – that's what I was going for, the ending of The Prisoner. "Take care out there."
CRAFTY: Which apparently they had to write in 24 hours when the network pulled the plug in the middle of the season!
MACRURY: And I knew we had to have a Tragically Hip cover band playing over all this chaos-- these innocents performing in the midst of it. Kind of a circus feel.

Talk about the block shooting thing – you do have to know the ending. It makes the show more like a miniseries or a movie. Contrast that with when I was working on DEADWOOD, David Milch never wanted to know the ending, not even of a scene. It's a different way of working and one I'm not good at.
CRAFTY: What did you take away from Deadwood?
MACRURY: The biggest thing I took away was how hard it is to get it right, the dedication you need. Early on, there were just the two of us lying on the floor while David [Milch] was writing a line of description – not even dialog – hour and a half to two hours, going over and over the same line of description. He'd change this word, that word, punctiuation – it was just a stage direction – finally he turned to me with a big smile – "I think that just about does it." And I laughed, and his mood changed – "what's so funny?" "This is hard work." "Yeah. It is. Because you gotta get it right."

That, and the use of the double dash in everything. People make fun of me. I never end a line of description with a period anymore. I don't use the triple dots any more – I use the double dash. This is writer wanker talk, maybe, but I find it so liberating. You look at a page and god damn it, it looks more dynamic! Even if it isn't. It's really flowing well. None of those horrible periods.
CRAFTY: Did you ever consider using a VO to get inside anyone's head? Some of these characters are sort of inscrutable and you play with that. E.g. we don't know what Simon's game is for a while. Or where Speedo Boy's loyalties really lie.
MACRURY: I think we made a decision about that. What I wanted to do – Sean, Michelle Nolden's character [who plays the head UN observer], was always crucial. Kind of the moral center of the show. We started her at the point of breakdown. Where's she going to end up, where's Simon going to end up. It's a complicated love story, and one, dare I say it, I don't think we've seen before. It's a story of a guy forced to do something terrible to a woman he loves and able to do it and feeling complicit – and yet there is love between them.

So she would be the character we privileged with the inner vision – we'd see things through her that would get at her state of mind in a way that she doesn't project to the world. So we didn't want to give anybody else the VO. We also didn't do a lot of backstory. We wanted to define them in what they're doing on the show. No "My father beat me" – revealing the character. We wanted to keep the characters more in the moment – what are they going to become – if they end up being a bit mysterious that's great.
CRAFTY: But you also didn't zoom in here and there to tell us where the characters stand, and I assume that was a decision, because you must have had network notes about "What's Simon really thinking?"
MACRURY: The thing was we had three scripts when we came to The Movie Network and Movie Central. And their only notes were more on the lines of "push it further." And it's a different piece than a lot of stuff out there.

ZOS premieres Monday, January 19th at 9 pm PST on Movie Central, and at 10 pm EST on The Movie Network.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

CRAFTY: It's a hell of a show. How did you guys come up with the idea for it?
MACRURY: There was a first attempt made driven by the director, Mario Azzopardi. It was peacekeeping more as a cop show. He wasn't happy, though. [Producer] Paul Gross approached me because he's kind of obsessed with DEADWOOD--
CRAFTY: -- and you wrote on DEADWOOD –
MACRURY: We met and the idea we came up with was, could you tell the story of a whole community in the same way that Deadwood told the formation of a civilization out of illegal opportunity and opportunism. Could you tell a story about a community that had had law and order and then descended into chaos and anarchy. Could you tell the story of that community, giving equal weight to all the partners, to see what happened to it. And clearly there are parallels to DEADWOOD and Westerns. I was just joking with Rick Roberts [who plays the head of the Canadian peacekeeping force] that he's the "new sheriff in town." And Colm Meaney's Muslim bar owner is the Al Swearingen character. Mila, Lolita Davidovich's character, is Tolliver... This was a place divided by ethnicity and religion, and right in the midst of it, these outsiders, who have the unenviable task of making peace where it's not wanted.

We wanted to tell it in the present rather than back in the 90's when the worst of the war was going on. Two reasons for that. One, I wanted to tell this post-9/11. How would all that paranoia affect the situation? I mean, the Americans were heroes in Croatia and Bosnia, but after 9/11 all these mujahedeen disappeared out of there. So we wanted to play with that.
CRAFTY: And you got a Donald Rumsfeld look-alike with a George Bush accent--
MACRURY (LAUGHS) -- This was a pretty secularized Muslim world. It's only a couple hours drive from Budapest but you drive through the hills of Bosnia and you'd see spires of mosques like you'd see church spires in Québec. These are European Muslims. Rooted there, intermarried, secularized-- though that's changing a bit. The Imam in ZOS asks if "only the Red Cross will be allowed to do this?" becaues in Sarajevo you have all sorts of Muslim money coming in. And religion is become more a mark of id. Sometimes you see women wearing the hijab. So the old Sarajevo model of everybody lives together has really been tested.
CRAFTY: Did you go there?
MACRURY: Sarajevo is a great city but not the meeting place that it once was. People live in their own neighborhoods. There are ethnic and religious identities that weren't so strong before. But you go to Belfast, and 10, 15 years ago you'd have said that was hopeless, and now everybody's getting along.
CRAFTY: And the other reason to tell it in the present?
MACRURY: We wanted something more like a fable than a historical recreation. That's why we use the terms “Christians" and "Muslims” rather than Croats or Serbs and Bosniaks. More archetypical. Because, who are we to try to tell this story in a historically accurate fashion?
CRAFTY: And somebody would always say you got it wrong--
MACRURY: --everybody would say we got it wrong. The good thing about setting it now but based in a struggle that had its climax over a decade ago is ... if you were to try to tell Iraq or Afghanistan now, you'd be too close. You want to take something that's got a little distance, a little time to settle – you can see things that you couldn't when it's in your face.
CRAFTY: What was the point at which you knew you had not only a territory but a show? Was there a point at which it crystallized for you?
MACRURY: That happened in the room really. We got together, Peter Mitchell, Jason Sherman, John Krizanc, and me, and the producers said okay, take a week, the four of you, sit in the room, see what you come up with. We brought in a military observer, Maj. John Russell, a real UN "swimmer" who'd been to all sorts of places, Sierra Leone, that sort of place. He gave us the overview talk that he gives to various places. It's therapy for him, giving this talk. That started us off. By the end of the week we had the bones of what the thing was.
CRAFTY: And you and Pete Mitchell are serious TV vets--
MACRURY: And Jason and John come out of theatre, Governor General Award winnning theatrical people, so that made a good combo. And we had a real freedom in that room. We realized, we can do anything we want. We're making it all up from nothing.
CRAFTY: But what was the moment creatively, the point where you knew you not only had a bunch of things you wanted to explore but a TV series?
MACRURY: A turning moment was coming up with the character of Speedo Boy. And that wasn't something Major Russell told us, that came out of John Krizanc's research. You come up with an image, and it sort of defines, "Okay, that's the kind of show we wanna do." It has some Monty Python sides to it. Or M*A*S*H, or CATCH-22. If you create a character like that, it informs how the world is going to be shaped. If a figure like that is allowed to exist in this world--
CRAFTY: John Boorman once told me that Nicol Williamson never really grasped his character in EXCALIBUR until he got that silver skullplate to put on his head, and then he felt he really had it. And for Laurence Olivier it was the nose -- he had to have the right nose for the role to come together for him.
MACRURY: Here's the weird thing – when we were actually filming in Tuzla, in Bosnia, they're very wary of the UN. It's no a happy history. We say in the show, "if all the sides don't hate your guts you'renot doing your job" but on the other side, there's a real skepticism -- So we're shooting, and Enrico came in late in the production -- we're doing block shooting – filming above the town – and he's wearing his leather trench coat over a Speedo, and the locals all come around and say, "who's he supposed to be?" And we explained, and they said, "Oh, I like him, he's real!" So that was kind of humbling. Four smarty-pants writers sit in a room in Canada trying to come up with something outrageous, and that's the thing they say, that's real.
CRAFTY: And on FLASHPOINT he's the most buttoned down guy in the world and on ZOS he's this flamboyant, crazy--
MACRURY: And by the way, talking about that, one of the things I learned on this shoot was, I really like actors. I hang out with them more now – I'm not uptight or precious about my words with them. Because what they bring to the character is so much more important. And you can write all the words and the actions – it's what they do on film that gives you anything you've got. They are creators along with the directors and the writers and the producers. I'm almost embarrassed to be learning this at my advanced age. I was at a writer's thing making this point and being shot down – showrunners were all saying "you can't let them go off script," "the script is what's vital to save." I think it's like the Bible. You have to let people interpret it and make it their own.
CRAFTY: But there's a difference, isn't there, between working with actors so they're comfortable with the lines -- which may mean rewriting them -- and having actors improvise. Because they usually start saying the subtext an sounding like they're from Southern California.
MACRURY: I had one guy come in, "I'm so used to coming onto shows and changing all the lines so I'm comfortable with them," and I didn't rein him in much, except here and there where he might have missed some information we needed to get out. But after a while he comes in and says, "I'm kicking myself, because I'm starting to hear the rhythms of what you wrote, and I'm starting to hear it in my head." So I guess we're saying the same thing. I do feel a bit liberated. When you have really good actors you can just trust them to run with it.

ZOS premieres Monday, January 19th at 9 pm PST on Movie Central, and at 10 pm EST on The Movie Network.

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Q. I created a series, wrote the template, pilot, and came up with a dozen springboards for episodes. After submitting my show concept to two actors/producers (I checked them out IMDB) they optioned the idea for eight months. If the show gets picked up, how much control will I have ? Would it be rude for me to ask the Network for permission to hire the writers?
No, certainly not rude. It's understood that a newbie creator would like to work with an experienced showrunner who's on the same wavelength, who's going to try to bring the newbie up rather than sidelining her. Whether the network lets you interview potential showrunners depends on how you come across to them. If they think you're a sensible person, and they believe that part of what they're buying is your unique vision -- and not just a concept you happened to trip over -- then they'll want to keep you involved. The showrunner will probably not consult you much on the other writers, but if you're on the same page about what the show is, he'll have your vision in mind.

However, you need to go back and read your option agreement, which I am going to guess you signed without showing it to an agent or entertainment lawyer. Your contract determines what rights you have, including your right to continued involvement on your show. It should say that you'll have meaningful consultation on the showrunner; if you had a great negotiator it might even say you had veto over the showrunner. The contract should also say how many scripts you are guaranteed per season, that you have a guaranteed staff job with a guaranteed credit, that you keep the Created By credit, or a minimum of a shared Created By credit if the showrunner rewrites the pilot. It should contain a per-episode creative royalty, which could be a percentage of budget or a flat fee. It should include travel and living expenses if you're required to work away from home. And so on.

See, the option agreement is supposed to say "we have the right to buy your show, and if we do, here's what you get at that point." That's why option agreements take so ungodly long to negotiate. Long before a show I create is a real thing, before anyone is making money on it, my agent has to negotiate every detail of my package of compensation and credit. Because until I've signed the option, I have total control of my project. If they want it, they have to make me happy. After I've signed it, they may still want to keep me happy, but they don't have to.

All this is why you never, ever, ever negotiate your deal yourself.
Forgot to mention, I'm currently writing episode 5. The guys who optioned really liked my writing and told me to just keep on writing. I figure I'd write 13 and stop. If the show gets picked up, I was thinking, because of the economy, the order would be 6 episodes, 13 if were lucky , and 22 if we're extremely lucky
Stop writing scripts. Please.

Unless, that is, you're getting paid to write them. And I doubt you are, since they told you to " just keep on writing."

Getting a show made is striking the jackpot. It doesn't happen that often. Professional writers wax fat on staff jobs, but we survive on development deals. I spent all last year developing my pay cable show, writing draft after draft, running a story room, revising the season arcs, etc. If it doesn't go, I'll mourn, but my agent will still be very, very pleased with me.

You should not do any more new scripts until you are getting paid to write scripts.

Writing additional scripts also doesn't make sense creatively. No one at the network is going to read past episode 3 when they're deciding to pick up the show or not. In fact, most of them won't read past the pilot.

Moreover, the network may have different ideas about your show. TV development is collaborative. On NAKED JOSH, we started with a show about a freshman in college. The network asked us to age it up. We wound up with a show about a young professor. Imagine if we'd written five scripts about a freshman in college! Writing TV is a process of sending something to the network, getting feedback, and rewriting. For my pay cable series, I've written dozens of drafts of the first three scripts trying to nail "what the show is." The network hated one script (my bad) and I had to throw the entire thing out.

Don't get ahead of where your project is.

I would put all your energies into writing and rewriting the pilot. Make sure it is brilliant. Examine each line in it. Can you make that line smarter, more distinctive? Can you make the action sing? Writing is rewriting. Get real actors to read the script out loud at a table reading. (Maybe your actor producers can help there.)

Also, keep trying to improve the springboards, without actually writing the scripts. A great pilot with a great season arc document is all you need to sell a show to a network.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

DMc blogs about Michael Arpin, Vice Chair for Broadcasting of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), who said:
Playback:Will Canadian drama on our television screens be an issue again at hearings in 2009?

Arpin: The decline in Canadian drama is an issue that the unions regularly put on the table. It's documented. I'm sure they will bring it to the top of the pile at the hearings.

Playback:What are your favorite television programs?

Arpin: I'm a news and documentary consumer. I'm not that interested in televised fiction or even feature films. I would prefer to read a novel.
McGrath wonders if the guy in charge of broadcasting ought to be a little more excited about, y'know, broadcasting. You wouldn't have a Hockey Commissioner who'd skip a Habs-Leafs game to catch up on the latest Joan Didion. Would you? He proposes various ways we can try to bring Mr. Arpin around, and otherwise work around and through his contempt for our industry. Including, cleverly, to send Mr. Arpin some boxed sets of the best Canadian broadcast TV.

I volunteer for one boxed set, Mr. McGrath. Can I send the first season of SLINGS AND ARROWS? (Pay cable to start with, but it aired second window on broadcast.)

If Arpin is anything like my parents (and it sounds like he is), he's probably more familiar with his DVD player than his cable remote. Assuming he has cable.

It occurs to me that all the CRTC commissioners might appreciate what we're trying to do here if they got some boxed sets. If you work for the CBC, Global or CTV, please bring this up through the proper channels.

Everyone likes a freebie. The broadcast companies have the right to inform the government agencies regulating them what they're up to. And the best way to do that is, I think, boxed sets.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

I'm waiting on answers on a couple of projects, and that's driving me crazy. So I am temporarily opening up my script-reading service again. If you'd like my feedback on your script, outline, or even just your query letter or hook, check it out..

It's expensive, but I have never had an unsatisfied customer.

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Q. Am I limited to sending scripts to people my agent knows, or can I target anyone?
This is a conversation to have with your agent. Generally, though, agents love it when you scare up people who want to read your material. I often tell my agent, "please send such and such script to Mr. So and So, whom I just had coffee with."

You can also ask your agent to go after people that neither you nor they know, but they'll have to decide if that's a good use of their time.
Q. Are some showrunners pickier than others in terms of what agency they will accept submissions from?
Showrunners have agents they know and trust, agents they know and don't trust, and agents they don't really know. They might take submissions from lots of agents, but they're much more likely to read a script, and hire a writer, coming from an agent they trust. It's a people business.

And everybody's at a level. A bigshot showrunner is likely to have relationships with bigshot agents. A new showrunner might not have so many relationships with agents, and therefore might be open to scripts from agents he doesn't know.

This is all why enthusiasm is so important. (Value of an agent = enthusiasm x enthusiasm x clout.) If your agent feels passionately about your material and you, she'll work harder to get your scripts to people she doesn't know well, and she'll put her reputation on the line to sell you to them. If an agent I don't know says, "This guy is amazing, I promise, read him," then I'll probably read the script anyway. But if the script isn't impressive, then I won't take that agent seriously ever again.

John Rogers recently pointed out that showbiz runs on whuffie. Reputation is the commodity that gets you read and hired. When you're starting out, your agent lends you her reputation hoping to reap financial dividends. Your agent's reputation consists of a portfolio of her own personality and shares in the reputations of all her clients. What you do reflects on her; what she does reflects on you. So do your best to earn your whuffie; and spend it wisely.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Timothy Wearing writes in:
I just wanted to shoot you a note about the Creative Screenwriting podcasts. I don't know if you've ever listened to them, but they are interviews of screenwriters, after a screening of their recent movie. They're usually pretty entertaining and informative. The latest one I listened to was with Christopher McQuarrie talking about, among many other things, Valkyrie. It's two hours long, but is the most fascinating interview I think I've ever heard with a screenwriter. If you have some time, I highly recommend listening.
Here's the link...
I think I mentioned these a ways back, but definitely worth a listen. Thanks, Tim!

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Kay sez Harry Potter is Mary Sue. And so is Bella, of TWILIGHT.

I knew there was a reason I didn't like the little twit.

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Y'all have been asking me for recommendations for a TV writing consultant, since Victoria Lucas only does features. I just noticed that my friend Sara Dodd is coaching and consulting for TV writers at The Story Spot. Sarah is an accomplished pro TV writer with a deep credit list. Their prices are quite reasonable for professional advice; they give a lot of it for a few hundred bucks. Compared to what Sarah gets paid as a story consultant in the business, that's a ridiculous bargain.

Oh, and they're running a sale right now. So look'em up and tell'em Alex sent ya!

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

A fellow wants to shoot and air a drama locally in Tucson:
actual quality programming the cast and crew of which are your neighbors, coworkers, and friends
There's a long tradition of self-funded feature films, and with HD prosumer cameras and Final Cut, it's getting easier and easier to make them. Some people have had minor or even major successes. Of course, the vast majority of these films don't get distribution, and the producer/director/writer/editor/stars of them lose their shirts. But you have a shot.

I see a few problems with this project. The first is, obviously, that your neighbors, coworkers and friends have no idea what they're doing. They don't know how to run the camera, they don't know where to put it or move it, they don't know how to light a room, they don't know what constitutes good sound or how to get it on a noisy set, etc. I mean, for heaven's sake, each of those things is a job description if not a calling, and people spend years if not their whole lives learning how to do those things. A professionally-made show has a crew of forty or sixty or more people, all of whom have been trained to do their job.

And then there are actors. Actors are special people. They have not only learned their craft. They are actually built differently from most people. You know how dancers can see a choreographer show them ten or fifteen steps, and then they can instantly do them? Actors can imagine emotions and then inhabit them and then project them. They can change those emotions when they're asked to. It is not something your neighbor can do.

So your locally produced show will probably not be very good.

Beyond that, a TV series is a different animal. TV writing is technically much more difficult than film writing. You're not telling one story. You have to develop a template which allows you to bang out fresh yet consistent stories. Your episodes have to feel self-contained yet forward the overall story arc. That's why TV shows have writing rooms. That's why no one gets their own TV show until they've written on other people's TV shows and worked in other people's writing rooms.

Moreover, on a film you can get people to work for free. Most people will do you one favor. You can raise money from your uncle. You can get Larry at the car wash to hump cables for you. You can shoot on weekends. You can ask Mom to cook for the cast and crew.

On a TV series, though, you're doing multiple episodes. A season might take professionals three to six months to shoot, depending on the number of episodes; and then there's prep, and post. No one can work for free for six months.

If you want to do something yourself, I would stick to something smaller in scope. A series of two minute spots for the Internet. I suspect more work went into the LonelyGirl15 series than is obvious, but that's at least the sort of thing that you could do well. And if it takes off, you can monetize it with sponsorship or advertising or even DVD sales, as Têtes à Claques did.

I applaud your desire to do something yourself. But there is a reason we do things the way we do in our business. To be successful you need to be working on something that you can make as well as anyone else working in the field. You can't make a narrative TV show as well as Fox can. But there is no reason you can't make a clever Web series that doesn't depend on production value. So I'd concentrate on that.

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The Internet has created some new art forms. We all know about YouTube. But don't forget the Parody Amazon Review. Check out the reviews for The 2007-2012 Outlook for Public Building Stacking Chairs Excluding Bar, Bowling Center, Cafeteria, Library, Restaurant, and School Stacking Chairs in India. And then there's Ari Brouillet's glowing review of The Secret. And these reviews of the Bible.

Somewhere in the 20th Century, the art of the raconteur seems to have almost died out, along with the habit of ordinary people playing music and singing in public. It's good to see that the informal, unpaid arts have not entirely left us.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

I'm struggling a with my comedy pilot and my brain sees that so many problems could be solved by V.O. I'm not talking exposition problems, I'm talking pace issues. I feel like I could put a lot more energy into my show if I had the character narrating it along. But then my gut asks if I'm just using the V.O. as a cop-out because I don't want to do the work to whip the story into shape. I'm positive you've talked about V.O. before, but I'm wondering if you can talk a little about making this type of choice in the development process and how experienced writers come to make that decision. There are a lot of great shows that use it.
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, for example.

In a comedy, the rule is simple: does it make the show funnier?

ARRESTED uses the VO to skip over the dull, sane parts and get to the juiciest, most over the top awkward moments. Personally, I find it choppy for the same reason. I want to be pulled into the narrative more and the VO alienates me. You pays your money and you takes your pick. The danger with VO in a comedy is that you might be telling the audience, "HEY, I'M TELLING A JOKE HERE," and nothing kills a joke deader.

My rule for VO is whether it tells us something that cannot be communicated in some other way. For example, that scene in GREY'S ANATOMY where two people are speared through with a pipe and the doctors have to decide which one gets to live, and which has to die, and Meredith Gray's VO is telling us that she is stressing over whether McDreamy will kiss her or not. You definitely couldn't get that from the action or the dialog. She would never say anything so inane out loud.

SEX AND THE CITY used VO to bind together four often barely related story lines.

There are other uses for VO. I've noticed a lot of teen and tween shows seem to use them to get inside the hero or heroine's head. Is that because the lead actor isn't that good at communicating thought or emotion? Is it because the tween audience needs a second audio track to explain what is going on? In that case it is, perhaps, technically, a bit of a cop out, but it seems to work for the audience, who are presumably watching while also texting and "doing" their homework.

The VO is a great tool when used in counterpoint to what's happening on screen. ("He bought that???") You can even go with the ole untrustworthy narrator, who seems like your friend, but begins to stray more and more from what you're actually seeing.

VO is a perfectly valid tool, alongside the other unfairly maligned tool, the flashback. They both do things efficiently that would require a great deal of shoe leather to show otherwise.

They can also both be used as a crutch. But so can snappy dialog, or sweeps week lesbian romances.

The ultimate decision is in your gut. Do you want to make the voice of your show an explicit voice? Will the VO alienate your audience by breaking the fourth wall, or will it bring them further in? Will the VO bring things into text that want to remain in subtext, or will it twist an otherwise bald narrative into a psychological intrigue? Only you know whether you're adding more than you're subtracting. Just be brutally honest with yourself.

I will say this: If you're even asking yourself whether your VO has become a cop-out to avoid whipping the story into shape, then you already know the answer, don't you? Go back and fix your damn story. And then see whether VO is really your friend, or just some freaky stalker who keeps trying to friend you.

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Q. In CRAFTY TV WRITING, you write:
"All agencies have junior agents who are looking for hot new talent. The trick is finding out who they are, and making sure you don’t sound clueless when you talk to them or their assistant."
Please tell us how to find them and not sound stupid!
It's tricky, but what I would do is find one of the senior agents, and talk to his or her assistant. The top agents have very knowledgeable assistants who will be able to tell you who the hungry young agents are in their agency.

You find out who the senior agents are by checking the Hollywood Creative Directory Online; they're usually listed first. Or, the really big agents will appear in VARIETY and THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER associated with big spec sales or as having negotiated big deals for their talent. Or, you could call the WGA, ask for "representation," and ask who reps a couple of big-deal writers; they'll give you the name and the phone number of the agent.

The key is to talk to people who are near, but not on, your target. The receptionist is your enemy -- her job is to keep the aspiring and emerging from transgressing the gate. But the top assistants know everything, and don't mind a chance to show it, so long as (a) you're not trying to actually talk to their boss and (b) you're not asking them to read anything.

Anyone else have a good idea for how to find out the hungry young agents?

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Monday, January 05, 2009

I have practically my whole loft on dimmers, which creates a very nice effect. The LA Times claims::
If you dim a halogen bulb to 50%, you will save over 40% energy and your light bulb can last more than 10 years.
My understanding was that dimmers work by increasing resistance along the line. So you simply heat up your dimmer, using exactly as much energy as if you let all the power flow to the bulb. But now the Wikipedia claims that "modern dimmers are silicon-controlled rectifiers" which, I think, switch power on and off, thus wasting no power. (But is that true of house dimmers?)

O Hive Mind, do you know the correct answer?

Incidentally, I've tried the new "dimmable" compact flourescents. They do dim somewhat. But they don't dim all the way. You can get them down to, oh, 50% of the maximum output. If you're trying to create a mood, 50% just feels like you have a couple of bulbs out. You really need the halogens; they go down almost all the way.

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I bought my dad a Time Capsule for Hanukah, and installed it, like a good son would. Wouldn't you know it, my hard drive did a face plant over the holidays. And while that would normally have been fairly catastrophic -- in the past I would have only backed up my user directory, and only just before we left. Instead I was able to put my entire user directory on Lisa's computer immediately, and I'm now erasing my hard disk with a mind to restore everything back onto that. (With a few detours for things I worked on since.) Though it's never fun to have a hard drive face plant, I lost only about half an hour's creative work.

So I highly recommend getting Mac System 10.5, if you don't have it already, and a large storage device (the Time Capsule's great because it's also a wireless router) and hooking yourself up to Time Machine.

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Q. There are some 7 festivals where in your screening leads to eligibility for Independent Spirit award. What is the next step? I mean after eligibility how do we proceed towards nomination?
I was tempted to dismiss this question because the answer seemed so obvious: you find the awards website and download the submission form. You pay the fee and submit your film.

But if someone's asking this question, it's because they don't know how. And if you didn't know, how would you easily find out? (Ask a blogger, apparently.)

So yeah, you have to submit your film to awards. Even the Academy Awards, I think. And there's usually a fee. It's assumed that if you're a producer, you have the money to submit your film to the various awards you want your film to win.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

I'm reading Marc Norman's WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, a history of screenwriting. It's fun, rousing stuff, from Anita Loos's first silent photoplays through Herman Mankiewicz's famous telegram ("Millions to be made out here and the only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around.") up to the present. Of course now I'm sorry I'm not a newspaper writer (or failed playwright) in the 20's who could go out to Hollywood and make it big.

If you don't want to read about screenwriters, but just want to do it, try Epes Winthrop Sargent's TECHNIQUE OF THE PHOTOPLAY, a fine tome from 1913 about how to write for the new medium. On a quick glance through the chapter headings ("one main character," "deriving plots from nothing," "the value of the title"), there's much that has not changed from the 15 minute silents. So it's not just a historical document. It's still-wise advice -- and possibly easier to grasp since it's from a time when people did not assume they knew what movies are.

You can also read it online as a Google Book.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Wondering whether to use "jury-rigged" or "jerry-rigged"? The dictionary can't tell you -- both are used. But which is more common?

Googlefight it!

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