More of my interview with Sheri Elwood, creator/showrunner of CALL ME FITZ...
CS: Why shoot in Nova Scotia?
SE: They simply had the best tax incentive. I know it's a big taboo to say that. But it was a cost benefit analysis. We looked at Vancouver, Calgary, Hamilton, Halifax. Nova Scotia had the best incentives.
I mean, I own property there, and I pay taxes there. I shot my movie there, and I know the crews, so it made sense.
Of course, they give to you, and then they taketh away. Nova Scotia just yanked some of the incentives we've been relying on. It's unfortunate, you spend all this money trying to set up local infrastructure, to train a pool of technicians, and then you don't maintain that.
CS: The famous Canadian habit of punishing success.
SE: Right, if you're successful, you get less money. But we had lunch with our local Minister of Culture last season trying to impress on him and his people how much money we’ve brought into the community, so hopefully we'll get some of that back.
CS: It seems to be set in North America. Did you have pressure from broadcasters to make it more American?
SE: It's sort of an anywheresville ugly suburb. In my head when I wrote the pilot, it a suburb of Atlantic City, so if anything there was pressure from the Canadian side to make it nonspecific, for the sake of the funding.
CS: On CALL ME FITZ, your characters are compelling and fresh and sometimes outlandish. But they’re not what you’d call likable. (In fact, Jason Priestley's Dick Fitz is a right asshole, always looking out for number one, and proud of it. And Ernie Grunwald's Larry, who announces that he's Fitz's “conscience” and is out to save him, is self-righteous and incompetent.) What attracts you to writing characters you wouldn’t want to be your friends?
SE: I think at the end of the day it's calling it like I see it. These are people I know, and then I'm amping the volume up to 11. My brother's a used car salesman--
CS: So this is your family?
SE: I'm taking shades of what’s there and looking at it through a funhouse mirror.
CS: I notice that cable seems to be the home of unlikable characters. Do you think that's because there's encouragement to have characters and situations that can only be on cable? Or does every writer secretly long to write characters who are awful people, and only cable writers get to do it? Or are people actually like that?
SE: I think that everyone has a f***ed up family. So characters like these are infinitely relatable.
CALL ME FITZ was my writing sample for years. Everyone was interested in the writing, but we could never put him on network. They'd ask, “Could you get rid of the conscience?” “Could you get rid of the more unsavory elements of this guy’s psyche we don’t want to deal with?”
I think it's too general a statement to say that cable is allowing writers to be a little more truthful. Everyone’s flawed, and we're putting those flaws under a microscope. Cable allowed us to show flawed characters who say and do bad things – the things many of us would like to do and say, but are afraid to. Network is generally about selling ad time, and large corporations don’t want their products associated with degenerates.
CS: I notice that in episode 3, after two episodes which present Fitz in a completely uncompromising way, we meet Fitz's mother and we start to understand why he is the way he is, and sympathize with him a little. Another writer might have shown that sooner, and yet another writer might have never shown that. What went into the decision to hold that back until episode 3?
SE: It’s just how it played out - there wasn’t a science behind that decision. I would say that was the moment where we may have understood Fitz a little more, but it’s certainly not about redemption. Afterwards, he continues his downward spiral. Things just get worse. He does not learn his lesson. He does not become nice. And he doesn’t feel he’s done anything wrong.
CS: Larry’s clearly meant to be mysterious. On the one hand he appears almost miraculously during Fitz's accident. He knows things only Fitz could know. And he calls himself Fitz’s conscience.
On the other hand, he's no guardian angel. He makes mistakes, he gets involved in Fitz’s scams, and he tells lies. (Or I think he does.) Is “What is Larry really” a question you’re going to keep playing with throughout the series, or are you going to reveal an answer at some point?
SE: He’s horrible – he’s just as screwed up or more as Fitz is. I always intended that character to be mysterious. Is he Fitz's conscience, or is he just some psycho. It's about the shades of grey between good and bad -- is there really such a difference? That's who Larry is to Fitz.
That relationship is something I've arced out for the whole series. It goes all the way to the end. Once we know the whole story – the origin of Larry – for me, the show is over.
CS: So in an ideal world, how many seasons are there?
SE: It's a five season arc. At the same time I'm grateful that I've got this far. Season One I designed just to be a sort of a 6 1/2 hour art film box set. I'm thrilled we get to do a second season.
CS: Thanks so much!
CALL ME FITZ airs September 19 on The Movie Network and Movie Central. Check it out!
CALL ME FITZ is a new HBO CANADA series about a sleazy used car salesman (played by Jason Priestley) whose life spins wildly out of control after a strange man claiming to be his “conscience” starts interfering in his life. I was fortunate to catch up with creator-showrunner Sheri Elwood for some crafty chat.
CRAFTY SCREENWRITING: Let's start with you. You went to Ryerson – what do you feel you got out of film school?
SHERI ELWOOD: I don’t know if it was worth it. Being an undergraduate in film – unless you're setting out to be a technician, I'm not sure if it's worth it. So much of being a writer is about what is it that you have to say – what are the stories you have to tell? What is your life experience? And we were making a lot of little knockoffs of chase movies and things like that. I was so young, I didn't have a hell of a lot to say. I sometimes think I would have done better to get a degree in philosophy or literature.
People are always coming up to me and asking, “Should I go to film school?” And I tell them, learn with as much breadth as possible, and then get a masters in screenwriting. Or go get practical experience.
CRAFTY SCREENWRITING: So what was your first practical experience?
SHERI ELWOOD: I was given a National Apprenticeship award through the Academy. They sent me to John Brunton to work on READY OR NOT for Showtime [in 1995]. John’s a great supporter of young upstarts and he asked me what I want to do. I said I wanted to write, so he stuck me in Pete Mitchell's story department.
CS: The famous mentor Peter Mitchell... [Peter Mitchell won the mentorship award at this year's Canadian Screenwriting Awards.]
SE: Yeah, John was the deal maker, he put me with Pete the showrunner.
CS: I wanted to ask, what was the job or person you learned the most from. Was that it?
SE: I don't know – I didn't know what it was that I needed to learn at the time. I picked up the carpentry on READY OR NOT. Then for a long time I was mentorless. I guess the show I learned the most on – I recently worked on a series called DEFYING GRAVITY with Jim Parriott. I learned a lot from him about running a show, how to treat your staff, how to deal with politics, and most of all, how to put character before plot, always.
CS: You were a producer on DEFYING GRAVITY...
SE: I was a writer-producer. It was an American-financed show, developed in the States. Fox financed it, and CTV came on board afterwards. So we were working in the American model where writers produce their own episodes, they're on set for their own episodes. And I was running the writing room in LA while Jim shot the show in Vancouver. So I learned management skills and a lot about network and story room politics.
CS: What was different about working on an American show?
SE: The stakes were a lot higher. There was more money. And the jeopardy was greater: if the show didn't do well, we'd be cancelled immediately. There were more people weighing in. This was the studio system, so we had network notes and studio notes.
CS: Are you trying to implement the American model on FITZ?
SE: In terms of having more writers on set, yes, I would if I could. I just don't have a big enough staff. We have a good-sized writing staff when we're developing the, but once we're in prep and shooting, we're down to four people. So we can't afford to have a writer on set at all times, plus we're shooting blocks of two episodes at once, so the pressure to have my peeps at their keyboards is fairly intense.
But I think it’s essential to have writers on set – it's not a luxury. We’re lucky in that we’re building writer’s offices into the studio we’re shooting at, so the set will be just a walkie away.
A friend of mine got a note complaining about a stupid decision a character made. Of course, in real life people make stupid decisions all the time, but in drama or comedy we want to feel that things happen for a reason.
I would generally translate this note to, "You haven't convinced me why this character would do this dumb thing." I would generally address the note by making sure that I'm really selling the character's flaw that makes him or her do the dumb thing. Are they vain? Make them do it out of vanity. Are they devious? Make them do it because they're being too clever by half.
A character can do incredibly stupid things. But unless they're Joey-from-FRIENDS stupid, you need to earn their mistakes. Using the mistake to reveal or reinforce their character flaws seems to work well.
Q. I'm writing a comedy pilot and am torn between including the talking head interstitial bits that are so prevalent in the MODERN FAMILY and PARKS & RECS of today's new shows. On the one hand including it shows a familiarity with what's trending in Hollywood, but on the other hand it's been trended to the point that it's XXXL unoriginal. I'm leaning to include it only if I can make the bits funny enough to be worthwhile + including a slightly finessed approach to it such that it's at least mildly fresh. Any thoughts?
Well, it's not like MODERN FAMILY invented it. THE OFFICE has been doing it for years. Er, and didn't THE NEWSROOM do it before that?
I think the talking head faux-doc interstitial has actually moved past the point of being overused, and it is now at the point where it's just another tool like voiceover or the swish-pan.
Not a week after seeing Floria Sigismundi's incredibly stylish rock biopic THE RUNAWAYS -- no, I mean incredibly stylish -- we watched Rob Stefaniuk's musical vampire comedy SUCK. Rob stars as the leader of a band with a problem: they suck. Fortunately, their bassist, effervescently deadpan Jessica Paré, gets bitten and turns into a vampire. Suddenly, they don't suck any more. Except that they, you know, suck.
Rob clearly had a lot of fun with this picture, and not just with the cameos by Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop and Henry Rollins. The "band is travelling" sequences are stop-motion animation with miniatures because, I dunno, why not. Rob has a lot of fun with fast-motion and weird color corrects and such.
Oh, and Malcolm McDowell's the vampire hunter. Complete with a series of flashbacks to 1970's Malcolm McDowell, by cleverly editing bits of some 1970's Malcolm McDowell movie. Nicely done, Rob.
And, oh, the movie is funny. And stylish. And funny:
[Politics] I try to keep politics out of this blog, but the manufactured controversy over the Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero is almost 100% political theater, so I feel it's relevant.
Various opportunistic politicians on both sides of the aisle (today, Majority Leader of the Senate Harry Reid) are nosing in on whether a liberal Islamic organization should build the Islamic equivalent of a YMCA a couple of blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. (It's actually patterned on the 92nd Street Y.) These demogogues are calling the cultural center a "mosque" on the grounds that it will have a room for prayer, in addition to its swimming pool, offices and auditorium. Because mosques are, y'know, scary.
(Muslims are required to pray five times a day. Without a prayer room, employees would have to pray in the street.)
I'll leave aside the question of why who builds what in lower Manhattan is the business of anyone outside of lower Manhattan (locals are for it). Or how holy we really consider Ground Zero if the plan is to build an office tower there for Conde Nast, so they can print more Glamour articles about how to give your guy a mind-blowing orgasm.
But from a narrative perspective, this is insane. The guys who flew the planes into the towers did it because they wanted to provoke a war between the United States and all Islam.
Most of the world's billion-plus Muslims do not want or consider the US to be at war with them. After the attack, there were spontaneous candelight vigils in Tehran.
One reason Al Qaeda has failed utterly to follow up 9/11 inside the US is because Muslims in the US refuse to buy into their nutty narrative. American Muslims generally don't think they're at war with America. They believe they're Americans. And they keep on calling the police when they find out that someone is trying to blow up their country.
If we want to stop Al Qaeda in the US, we should be cheering every time someone builds an Islamic cultural center. We should franchise Cordoba House and put one in every city. ("Cordoba," because in medieval Cordoba, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together in peace while the rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages.) We should be insisting that in the US, we don't care if you're a Christian, a Muslim or a Pastafarian. Nothing would take more wind out of Al Qaeda's sails. Nothing would make America safer from fringe-Islam terrorism.
If, on the other hand, you want to give Al Qaeda as much support as possible, then do exactly what Harry Reid and Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin are doing: shout that we don't want a mosque in Lower Manhattan, because all Muslims are our enemy. Compare Muslims to Nazis, as Newt Gingrich did.
When you promote Al Qaeda's narrative, you are helping Al Qaeda. You are helping Al Qaeda.
Lisa and I watched THE RUNAWAYS, a kind of sprawling biopic of Joan Jett's first band, based on the autobiography of Cherie Currie, the lead singer and star of the band. It's a fun, very indie-vibe rock band story. And who knew Kristen Stewart could act? But above all, it is a stunningly gorgeous movie. The debut director, Floria Sigismundi, comes out of music videos. The movie is good; but watch it again just for the visuals...
... as an audience member. I rented the 1983 THE KENNEDYS, starring Martin Sheen. It starts with Jack's assassination, the various family members tediously getting the news. Bobby finally finds out, and the next thing you know, he's weeping into his wife's arms, saying, "Why is there so much hate?'
That's when I bailed. Because having recently read up a bit on the Kennedys, my guess would have been that the first thing Bobby said was something like, "That rat bastard Giancana's behind this, I'm gonna destroy him." And then, having dismissed his wife, calls to his people in Washington to secure the presidential papers so LBJ wouldn't see what Jack had been up to.
Kennedy boys were not brought up to weep in front of women.
I knew I couldn't trust anything about the show after that, Martin Sheen or no Martin Sheen.
Just like trust in real life, once you violate an audience's trust, it's very hard to get it back.
I'm putting together a comedy pitch with a friend, and one of our springboards steals the plot structure of THE HANGOVER. But I was relieved to discover that THE HANGOVER steals its plot structure from an episode of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.
THE HANGOVER's plot hinges on the idea that the guys wake up after a night out in Vegas. The groom is missing, there's a tiger in the bathtub, and someone's lost a tooth. Wacky hijinks ensue as the gang try to figure out what happened.
I suspect that "the Hangover episode" will join other classic episode types like "The Two Kirks" and "The Rashomon Episode." Practically every spec fiction show has a "Two Kirks" episode, where the hero plays himself and his evil twin. Or everyone has an evil twin -- "Doppelgangland" -- or the heroine and her nemesis switch bodies, etc. It is all but impossible to resist the temptation to do The Two Kirks when you have a spec fiction show. It's just too much fun for the actors and the writers. (The directors, who have to shoot it, may be resistant!) Heck, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is an entire series full of Two Kirks.
The Rashomon Episode is where you see the same story from different points of view, but things happen slightly differently depending on who's remembering. The Rashomon Episode is tempting because you can often reuse some of the footage, saving a day of production.
(On CHARLIE JADE, ep. 13, "Through a Mirror Darkly," was a Rashomon Episode/bottle/clip show; kudos to Denis McGrath for his lovely job writing that. Episode 16, "The Shortening of the Way," was written as a Two Kirks episode, but all the alternative Kirks wound up on the cutting room floor.)
I am very happy to report that our little five minute teen vampire sex comedy, YOU ARE SO UNDEAD, has been accepted at Screamfest Horror Film Festival in LA and the Vampire Film Festival in New Orleans!
(Lisa wrote the script; I directed; Simon Webb edited; Cirrus produced.)
Here, Erin Agostino (18 TO LIFE) gets touchups while Meaghan Rath (BEING HUMAN) ...
For example, if your last name is Aamir, your first name is most commonly Muhammed or Mohammed. If your last name is Epstein, your first name is often David, Michael, Mark or Dan.
This comes in handy if you want normative names for a script. For example, if you have an Arab character, put in an Arab last name (Hussein, say), and you'll get some convincing Arab names: Ahmed Hussein, Ali Hussein, Mohammed Hussein; also Mostafa, Abdulrahman, and adorably, Rehab.
This allows more precise ethnic marking than, say, the awesomely useful Baby Name Voyager, which is excellent for age marking.
But there's something deeply creepy about a network that pitches itself as the TV destination for adolescent girls, as The CW does, offering them a sitcom in which teenage marriage is portrayed as a cute idyll of making out in soda shops, picking wedding dresses and reading Eco-Spouse magazine.
What seems to set them off the most is that the kids are having sex while married.
See, once you let gay people marry, anyone might start doing it. Even heterosexual adults!
Blog Reader/blogger Emilie inquires about setting up her own production company as a writer.
From what I understand, in Canada it is production companies that bring shows to networks. Would it be possible to bypass the whole hierarchical system by starting your own production company? What if you launched a company and slowly built up the company’s portfolio, writing/shooting web content for clients or producing short films, and maybe applying for grants to help fund your projects along the way.
My initial answer is on her blog with some other useful info.
Of course it turns out that part of her plan is to find a great producing partner who will do the applying for grants for her.
The reason you don't team up with one producer partner is that it's limiting. The producer you team up with will like some of your projects and not others. Her contacts may be good with one part of the industry and not others. Her skills may be up to a certain budget and not above.
As a free lancer, I team up with all sorts of producers on different projects, with obvious advantages.
Also, when you start a company, you increase your nut. You acquire expenses. Producers have bigger expenses than writers. They have to go to markets. They have to pay for lunch. Why yoke yourself to one producer?
For a writer, I think, it only makes sense to have a company when you're already showrunning. Possibly showrunning more than one show. It makes sense for Joss Whedon to have a company. He's already telling everyone on his shows what to do, so why not have them on staff?
But I think for most writers, the key to having a happy career is to keep your expenses down so that you can afford to take the most challenging job rather than the best paying job. Or so you can write a great spec pilot rather than having to write corporate videos in order to stay housed.
I would add that if you keep thinking about how fun it would be to have a company, it is possible that you are not congenitally a writer. You might congenitally be a producer. That's not a bad thing. Creative producers are rare and valuable.
UPDATE: In the comments, Lackie writes:
I'm a Radio and TV student in Toronto, moving towards a similar plan in a couple years (starting a small prodco to kickstart my writing career), but mostly because I plan on just shooting my own low-budget projects for the web; essentially, being the showrunner of low-to-no-budget webseries right out of school. If I'm working on my own projects to be released outside the network hierarchy, is this the more feasible plan?
It's a totally feasible plan for starting a production company and becoming a writer/producer/director.
What I'm not sure is whether it is the best path to a writing career. On the plus side, you get experience seeing your words become pictures. And you have a calling card.
On the other hand you are investing a huge amount of time and energy and money in making a web series, time and energy you could be spending writing some spec scripts and getting hired onto a real show. It's a tradeoff.
A web series requires a concept that can be realized on practically no budget -- LonelyGirl15, not Inception. It requires good writing. It requires production values appropriate to the scope of the concept. It requires great acting, which generally means union actors. Don't do one unless you can do it really well.
Saw a couple of clever ads on last Sunday's MAD MEN. I loved the Russian kleptocrat. ("Opulence? I has it.") I had to watch the ad a second time to notice the dogs playing poker in the background, an entirely throwaway gag intended to reward those rewatching it on a wide screen TV.
Then there was the ad about the 1960's ad guys trying to figure out how to sell Dove, shot in the style of MAD MEN, airing during an episode where Peggy is trying to figure out how to sell Ponds. I don't even see most ads because I click the +30 seconds button on the remote, but it looked so much like MAD MEN that I had to watch it all the way through. Until we started seeing the woman in the shower, I thought it was MAD MEN -- I figured they were showing Peggy's ad.
So both of these ads made it out of my PVR. Almost nothing except movie trailers survive the dread jump-forward button.
Is this the future of advertising? Or is this just ad agencies pulling out the stops to put the cleverest ads on the air during MAD MEN. Because you know they all watch, eh?
I thought Inception was a pretty good movie, until my friend Heidi, who I saw it, mentioned that it was really terrible, and then I realized it was in fact pretty weak. Yes, fabulous graphics visuals and amazing cutscenes action sequences, and a really complex, well-executed plot. But it hit me and left.
Why? The story ought to work. All the elements of story are there. The main character's personal jeopardy is huge. His stakes are huge. He has a ghost, an intimate opponent, all that jazz. Personally I don't see what the big fuss is about Leo diCaprio, but for a movie with a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, it's a really well-made plot.
I think of the movie in terms of its lost opportunities. We are in various character's minds. But their mindscapes seem a good deal like ordinary hotels and Arctic fortresses and cheaply built condo projects. There's more weird going on in the average TWIN PEAKS episode, or any Terry Gilliam movie. You would expect dreamscapes to be far more distinctive and revelatory. If you were running around in my dreamscape, you would know me a lot better than I ever want you to know me. You wouldn't have trouble breaking into my safe. You'd have trouble finding the safe, because it is in the garden under the zucchini. Sixteen feet under the zucchini, in the chamber where the Once and Future King sleeps. The safe will open if you blow on the horn around his neck. But once you get a good look at his face, you realize you don't want to wake him. Really. Want to know why?
Apparently Leo's mind has only one big secret and no small ones. It is uncluttered. Maybe my problem is that it's a dream movie that is too clear. Too safe. Not alarming enough.
Of course, a movie that was revelatory and alarming and murky like dreams would be much harder to write and harder to absorb, and it would make about 10% of what INCEPTION is going to make.
INCEPTION is a classic director's movie. "Look at this. Isn't it cool?" "Yeah, but about the story--" "--never mind that. Looks at THIS. Isn't it COOL?" That kind of movie does well overseas.
I was hosting a session at the Lark, a New York developmental theater that helps playwrights build plays in a workshop setting, and one of the writers presented a beautifully written complete mess of a play. After many people, including myself, praised the grace of the writing, I admitted that I found the play incoherent. The writer nodded and laughed, delighted at my response. "I just wanted to stay away from anything that resembled a plot," she explained.
I think this is a terrible idea in general. People visit Britain for its culture. (I still remember the banner across the British Museum the last time I was there: THE BEST DINOSAUR EXHIBITION IN 65 MILLION YEARS. And it was.) They certainly don't go for the climate.
Culture is not a luxury good the government should provide only in good economic times. It's a service industry like other service industries. It employs people. It promotes tourism. It sucks in dollars from overseas. Someone who spends a government-funded day at the Tate also buys a hotel room, a bunch of meals, some clothes on Kings Road, taxi rides, and perhaps an air ticket.
Conservatives complain about the annual budget of Telefilm Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts and the various music organizations and so forth. But those organizations have created the Jim Carreys and Celine Dions of the world, who get paid in American dollars and then pay Canadian taxes on them. I think we get our money back.
Of course, culture also provides people with a feeling that they belong to a society, without which the whole place falls apart. Where would Quebec be without its movies and festivals and music? Maybe Canada doesn't have enough arts funding for its somewhat fragile sense of itself? But that's an argument for another day...
Hollywood is 10,000 people running to the spot where lightning just struck. People tried to recreate Friends for many many years. It’s so elusive and there’s so much serendipity that goes into getting a show to work. It’s not like we cracked the code, so the next thing we do is going to be just as brilliant – we got very lucky here, things happened to come together, and we’re just holding on for dear life.