Complications Ensue: The Crafty Game, TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Screenwriting, TV and Game Writing Blog


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Monday, January 31, 2005

I read here a beautiful transcript of Ann Coulter in an interview on the CBC, being busted for being an ignoramus. (The original report is from Rumor Control.)

Had an interesting discussion with a prospective Yalie (I do interviews for my alma mater) talking about the odd state of civil rights in Canada. There is a Charter of Rights in Canada, but the provinces can and do opt out if they feel like it, under the infamous "Notwithstanding Clause." The provinces themselves have charters of rights, but these, like any other law, can be changed by provincial parliament. Which means that the individual provinces can treat civil rights any way they like. If Alberta wants to suspend habeas corpus to help with the mad cow problem, it could. The only thing stopping it is, well, that wouldn't be very Canadian, would it? If Quebec wants to trample on English-speakers' language rights, it can. That wouldn't be very Canadian, either -- ohhh, right, the Parti Quebecois doesn't think they're Canadian, anyway.

So on the one hand you have the US, where rights are enshrined by law, and trampled now and then by the government, and then you have Canada, where rights are not enshrined by law, not really, and aren't trampled particularly more than they are in the States. (I can't say Canada's better because of that nasty Bill 101 in Quebec.)

At least our tv journalists are real journalists, though...


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In epic form, you start in media res, "in the middle of the thing," go back to the beginning and then tell the whole story, going up to the place you started and then through to the end. The Odyssey is the classic example (in fact, the classic Classic example).

Lisa suggested that the problem with The Circle Cast is it starts off slow. It builds to a bang at the end of the first few chapters, but it's a bang we're familiar with -- Morgan le Fay's being sent away from her mother after Uther Penndragon kills her father. And even then we don't know who Morgan is going to be -- an angry, powerful sorceress bent on revenge on the man who killed her father. The book tells the story of how Morgan became that sorceress.

(I wrote the book because Morgan's teenage years go untold, except for this one line from Malory:

And the third sister, Morgan, was sent to a nonnerie, where she became a grete clerke of necromancie.

Necromancy not being on the curriculum at most nunneries, I thought it was worth investigation. For the record, I utterly reject The Mists of Avalon. The ladies are far too reasonable. None of those people in those days were reasonable.)

So, suggests Lisa, start the book with Morgan sailing back from exile, ready to attack Uther Penndragon, before she finds out he's dead. She's become the sorceress she will. She's burning with revenge. And she's turned her back on a good man who loves her, because she cannot love anyone if she is to accomplish her revenge.

So, naturally, I thought, why have her just sailing? That's a contemplative scene. A contemplative scene is just as bad in flashforward as it is in chronology. So if she's going to be sailing, why not have her sailing in a storm?

That's much better. Then if she's remembering the events of the book, she's also trying not to drown.

But I already have a storm, when she sails to Ireland in the first place. What's the difference between the storm then and the storm now?

Ahhh, that answers itself. When she's sailing back, she can invoke the powers. She can control the weather.

Now that's an opening for a novel.


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Terrific FAQ here about what's parody (protected under the First Amendment) and what's intellectual property theft (not protected). If you're making fun of somebody with more lawyers than sense of humor, check it out.


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A. Yes. You can copyright anything. Just get the right form from the Library of Congress. For Performing Arts, you generally need the Form PA. I think it's $30 now.

Copyrighting is much better than registering with the WGA/WGC, for reasons I go into in detail in my book.

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The WGC seems to have resolved yet another credits dispute my way. This is the nth time I've had to go to them, and they've backed me. What would we do without them?

Share our credits with producers and directors and their personal fair-haired rewriters, that's what we'd do.


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Since I started running Panther (Mac OS 10.3), I've been using Safari and Mail instead of Netscape and Eudora. Gotta say Safari and Mail win hands down. It took me a while to figure out how to get Safari to do tabbed browsing, and to get it to import Netscape bookmarks properly you need to use a wily hack to enable Debug Mode. But once done, they are far more robust and elegant. Oh, and unlike Eudora, free.

Now if only Mac would release a word processor so I could dump evil Microsoft's Office X.


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I got a very nice note from someone whom I was hoping would recommend my novel to an agent up here. She thought it was "a great idea" and she "enjoyed the story" but felt it could use some revision.

I'm a bit depressed about that. I'm also a bit depressed that now, taking a look at the novel, I'm not exactly swept up in it. I've gone very far away from who I was when I wrote it. I'm not really interested in the Matter of Britain (the Arthurian cycle) any more. It was a very big deal to me once. I'm not excited about Morgan le Fay and her quest for vengeance.

Lisa had a perceptive comment though. She pointed out that all the TV writing has given me a much more popular sensibility. I used to try to write popular stuff but really I wrote stuff I was interested in and few else; the success I did have was out of sheer craft I guess. Screenwriting doesn't really fix that, because a movie is your vision as much as a novel is, there are just fewer stories that want to be movies than books. If I were to perpetrate a novel at this point, I'd probably start with a screenplay, just to get the plot right.

I'm always impressed with people who can just sort of write their way into a novel. But I rarely read their novels. And I don't envy them the horrible rewriting.

Neil Gaiman is an example of one I do read, but he comes out of comics, so his plotting instincts are well honed already; he has structure in the back of his head even if he's not paying close attention to it when he writes his first drafts.

I think writing for TV is probably excellent training for writing spec movie scripts. Trying to be fresh within a well defined template teaches you how to be fresh in a much looser form. You probably shouldn't write free verse before you can turn out a sonnet.

On the other hand I couldn't have made as much headway in TV if I hadn't had all that practice writing spec movies scripts... so I guess it doesn't really matter were you start so long as you keep writing all the time.


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My peerless assistant, Caroline, was kind enough to email me some questions to answer. One is, where do you find TV scripts to read?

I don't love Simply Scripts or Twiz TV because they can't always seem to tell the difference between scripts -- what the show's writers deliver to the production unit -- and transcripts -- what viewers write down painstakingly after watching the show. Oh, many of the transcripts are marked as such, and many of the scripts are actually scripts, but some of the scripts are transcripts put in something vaguely resembling script format. Transcripts are better than nothing, I suppose, especially if you take the trouble to retype them in proper screenplay format. But they don't tell you much about how the action is conveyed to the reader. All they have is dialog.

Drew's Script-O-Rama has quite a number of actual scripts -- sometimes even the actual scanned-in pages from someone's purloined copy of a real script.

If you live in LA, of course, you can just pop down to the Writer's Guild of America library and read'em on the spot. That's best. Or the Margaret Herrick Library at 333 S. La Cienega Blvd. in Beverly Hills (part of the Academy).

There are feature scripts at The Daily Script, but so far, only one TV script!

Script City sells TV scripts for the exorbitant price of ten bucks a pop. I'm not clear on how they can legally sell other people's copyrighted material, unless they've got a royalty deal going, which would surprise me quite a bit. I also don't know who's selling them the scripts. They do, however, have a large selection of this and that, for example around 20 "Third Rock from the Sun" scripts.

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Sunday, January 30, 2005

Watched half of Patton before Lisa got too sleepy. It's research for Billy Wes.

I was struck by the opening scene - the big speech Patton gives about "no poor bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor bastard die for his country." It's without an audience of soldiers, just a speech given by Patton in front of a huge American flag.

I wonder if that speech was a reshoot. It's just the sort of thing you can do as a pickup: put your star in front of a big American flag and have him give a speech. Doesn't require any other actors, and you can do it in studio. Was that speech always there, or was it added later?

Woody Allen's monolog at the beginning and end of Annie Hall, for example, about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member, was shot after he and Ralph Rosenblum had been working on the movie in the editing room for a while, and it needed something. (Or so says Rosenblum, in his excellent book When the Shooting Stops... the Cutting Begins.)

Anyone know about this? I guess I'll have something to ask Coppola if I ever meet him.


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In order for Google to properly index a blog, you need the search engine to link to the individual post pages, not to the front page, which changes every time someone blogs.

To prevent Google from archiving the front page, you need a META tag that says NOINDEX, FOLLOW, NOARCHIVE, that is: don't index this page's contents, follow its links, don't archive its contents (which are going to change). Then the individual post pages need a META tag that says INDEX, FOLLOW, ARCHIVE, that is, do index the contents, follow the links, and do archive the contents.

However I don't see where on Blogger you can generate a different HEAD section for the page and the pages. The code lives in the BODY section. I doubt META tags even work in the BODY section.

Does anyone know the answer to this mystery?


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I sent off my revised book proposal to my book agent. I think she'll like this version. I reworked the outline so it makes more sense.

If she likes it, off it goes to Holt, who published Crafty Screenwriting. The book has done well for Holt, over 10,000 copies sold, so there's good reason to suppose they'll want the sequel. On the other hand the market for "mid-list" books -- anything with no chance as a bestseller though it may sell well -- seems to have taken a dive since Crafty Screenwriting came out.

I was sort of torn about writing Crafty TV Writing. While I probably know enough to fill a book with things my readers don't know -- which ought to be enough to justify a book -- I can't call myself an authority on crafty TV writing. I feel less qualified to write the TV book after 4 years in TV than I was to write the feature screenwriting book after 10 years in features -- though, I suppose, the TV writing builds on the feature screenwriting after all. I take solace from the fact that truly crafty TV writers are way too busy running shows to write books about it -- or they're not willing to sit down and think about what tools they use when they think about shows. Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin's Successful Television Writing contains some useful nuggets of info, but I'm sure they know way more about writing shows than they've put in the book.

I have to confess to ulterior motives for writing Crafty TV Writing. The remedy for my lack of experience is to interview people in the know -- and that's something I'd like to do anyway. But you can't just call up David E. Kelley and ask him a bunch of questions, even if you have co-created your own show. However my theory is that if I have the right credits and I'm writing a book, I might get him on the phone. We'll see. Lisa's found that when she calls up people in the art world and tells them she's writing for Random House, they're always willing to chat.

The thing I'm still stumped on, though, is what questions to ask. I am sure people want to know what specs to write and how to write a great spec and how to get it to an agent. But for the book to have lasting value, I really want it to contain as much of the writer's toolkit as possible. That means figuring out the right questions to ask these showrunners. And that, dear reader, is where you could help. If you have questions, ask them, and I will ask other people, and report back. Is that a deal or what?


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Saturday, January 29, 2005

Lee Goldberg refs news stories about Marcie Wright, an agent who apparently repeatedly pocketed checks meant for her clients. Since your agent typically cashes your check, subtracts commission, and then cuts you a check for 90%, that's possible in the short run. But how did she figure she was going to get away with it? When the client didn't get the money, was she just going to convince him that the studio had stiffed him and expect him never to contact the studio? We're talking about payments in the $150,000 range. I mean, forget those pesky kids in the Mystery Mobile. What was her plan?

I always assume something's seriously affecting the person's common sense, such as drugs or alcoholism. I understand how grifters figure they're going to take someone's money and then disappear. But Hollywood is not that big a town. You can't hide. You can't even run.

One of my good friends here is a producer who's had some bad breaks lately. But he stays alive because he's never shafted anyone. So people are willing to keep working with him. Those guys who go around shafting people, the moment they catch some bad cards, they're going down.


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Friday, January 28, 2005


Exceptionally soapy ep of The O.C. last night, eh? I burst out laughing when Sandy and his old prof Max Bloom started talking about "Rebecca," the love of Sandy's life, who disappeared 22 years ago after bombing a nuclear power plant (or something). Calling her Rebecca's bad enough -- just from the name, you know she has to show up by the end of the ep.

The plot could have used a little work. Sandy spends the episode trying to find Rebecca for Max, and fails. Then Max shows up at Sandy's office with her. The protagonist accomplishes nothing, and then the writers hand him the person he was looking for. Deux ex machina. What's the point?

Lisa had the easy fix -- before we even got to it. (I've ruined TV for her, she says. Now she can see those plot twists coming a mile off.) When Sandy gets the call that yes, Rebecca's dead, and then goes out for a walk -- it should be a lie. The call wasn't that she's dead, the call was here's where to find her; and Sandy lied to his wife on the spot. I mean, obviously you need Sandy lying to Kirsten about her, because otherwise where's the tension?

My other big problem is -- Kim Delaney? If the whole point of Rebecca Bloom is that she's the Jewish intellectual radical that Sandy "should have" married instead of calm WASPy Kirsten, then don't you want someone obviously ethnic playing the part? If it's Kim Delaney, she's not much of a change from Kelly Rowan, aside from hair color. I don't mean that you need someone who's actually Jewish. Someone like Madeleine Stowe could have worked. But when Kim Delaney shows up, I'm not worried for Sandy's marriage. Kim's just another tall high-cheekboned Celt. If Rachel Weisz shows up, all curly haired and bright eyed and short, I'm worried.

We had this issue on a show I worked on, where our hero was supposed to date a Nice Jewish Doctor, and we wound up with a charming Italian girl playing the part who in no way seemed Jewish. (The actress the writers wanted was Irish, but read Jewish.) If you're going to make a plot point out of ethnicity, then you have to follow through.


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Thursday, January 27, 2005

My dear friend, the excellent writer Denis McGrath, writes:

It's cold and I had time on my hands.
Forward this to whoever you like...Thanks.
Denis McGrath

Be careful what you wish for, Denis...


To Canadjun tv writers I know:

Like the sound of icicles crashing to earth in the midst of a mid-March thaw, the news, of late, has shed its previous hue of obsidian dread. There are rumours of something other than death in the air. At the WGC Christmas soiree at Toronto's Fez Batik in December, the mood was less than funereal. Ontario stepped up with greater tax credits. B.C. followed suit. And people talked, in hushed and disbelieving tones, of projects they had in development…projects that maybe - just maybe…might go this time.

Now, it's still the bleak midwinter, and maybe this thaw of hope is nothing more than a Robert Frost stopping-in-the woods-on-a-snowy-evening moment. We still have an eighty cent dollar to deal with. CBC is still CBC, Global is still Global, and AA hasn't exactly had cause to live down that "permanent downturn" comment. At least, not yet.

But the reason why I'm writing this isn't to rehash the past, but to talk about the future. And whether we have the moxie and the courage to fight all comers and define that future boldly; as boldly as two series that at first glance have nothing in common - except that maybe they're the bulwark against our storytelling powers slipping back into irrelevancy.

I want to paint a couple of scenes for you.

The first happened this past Tuesday night. The Bloor Cinema, for those who don't know it, is a charming, slightly ramshackle second run cinema in the forever-trendy west end Annex neighbourhood in Toronto. The Bloor is a paean to lost glory, to another time when the movies used to play in houses that drew adults, not videogame parlors that tend to induce epilepsy in those over thirty.

On this particular Tuesday, the Canadian Film Centre sponsored a screening and discussion. They do this, the Film Centre does, God Bless 'em. They're called Test Pattern. In the past they've had producers and writers from shows like ER, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Law & Order, and The Sopranos. They've done their bit for CanCon, too: ReGenesis and Queer as Folk, to name a couple, have gotten the treatment. They attract, usually, the same crowd of persistent Tv-ophiles, wannabe writers and hangers-on. The curious and the insiders; the students and the nothing-better-to-do's – anywhere from a hundred to two hundred souls on any given night.

So imagine my surprise when I turned up at the Bloor on a blustery, blizzardy Tuesday night to find the line stretched down and around, halfway down the next block. This was a sold out crowd: over eight hundred people, with scores more turned away at the door.

They were there to see the Trailer Park Boys.

Half of you just groaned and rolled your eyes, I know. Hang on a moment - I'll get back to you.

To be accurate, they were there to see Mike Clattenburg, the Director/Creator/Producer of the show, Actor/Producer Barrie Dunn, Exec Producer Mike Volpe, Story Editor Iain MacLeod – as well as Ricky, Julian and Bubbles (actors Robb Wells, Jean Paul Tremblay and Mike Smith, who never appear in public out of character.)

The evening went pretty much as you would expect. From my perch way up in the balcony, I detected the smell that launched a thousand Grateful Dead concerts. There were heckles and raucous shout-outs. Usually at these events, I wind up asking one of the first questions: it's the same old story, I'm afraid – in a Q&A situation, most Canadians want to be the one to ask the second question. But this night, the questions came fast and furious: shouted, pitched down from on high and greeted with whoops and laughter. They screened what for many is the series' defining episode: "Closer To the Heart" (the one with Alex Lifeson being kidnapped by Ricky for RUSH tickets.) Once the cast stormed in, the roof nearly flew off. The laughter was deep, the joy genuine, the fanaticism slightly troubling: at least to the stunned (and delighted) representatives from the Film Centre and broadcaster Showcase. For their part, the cast, producers, and Clattenburg didn't seem surprised at all.

Now, back to you eye-rollers. I promised I'd get back to you. Here goes. Yes – there were a lot of people there who you'd expect to see: teens and young men fresh off the GO train from Scarborough and Mississauga. But how to explain the scores of bearded, graying, round-around-the middle fifty year olds, AWOL soccer moms, grad students, and grandpas and grandmas who filled out the venue – a much larger group, in fact, encompassing just about every demographic of Canadian society save little kids?

Simple. Trailer Park Boys is the Holy Grail of Canadian TV. It's a homegrown, bonafide Canadian hit. A hit that reaches across demographics, that actually tickles a cross-section of Canadian society: a cross section that rarely gets to see itself represented in English language scripted TV. Part of me wanted to rent a bus, pack it with executives from the Canadian broadcast networks, and drive past that theatre – a little field trip to prove that it's all possible. Permanent downturn? The show's fifth season premieres in April on Showcase. They're writing the sixth. It's running in the US on BBC America. And next year, Ivan Reitman will direct the movie.

We've been so used in these last years to talking the language of the Restore-Our-Funding protests. I've carried the placards and said the words myself: "we need to tell our own stories!" But what does that mean? How come our own stories have never resulted in this near pandemonium before? What's really going on here?

At a session earlier in the day at the Film Centre, Dunn, Clattenburg, and Johnston, led by moderator Al Magee, offered an explanation to a small audience of CFC Prime Time TV residents and alumni.

Johnston pointed out that Trailer Park Boys struck a chord with working class people. Most people making TV shows, he said, are middle class and tell middle class stories. I think of Canadian shows I admire – and there are such things, believe me, and I have to agree. DaVinci and Eleventh Hour and This is Wonderland use working class Canadians as colour. But we certainly don't make them the main characters. We tell stories that we see Americans do: we try our own legal shows, but make them…less glamourous. We tell political shows…but make them…more Canadian, whatever that means. We think we're making shows for Canadians. But are we really?

There's a theory that journalism lost its way when reporters started thinking of themselves as professionals, and not the hard bitten, Jimmy Breslin-like voice of the people. I think that's probably true. And if that's true, then the question presents itself: as Canadian TV writers - comedy or drama - who are we the voice of? Our voice should be heard north of the Bloor Cinema, beyond Yaletown or Toronto's Front Street or outside NDG or Westmount in Montreal. I think we can do better. I think we must do better.

Too often, we subscribe to the easy prejudices that clearly irked Barrie Dunn in his session at the Film Centre. He spoke with great anger about those who described the Trailer Park Boys as "Trailer Trash." It's an interesting point. The more I get into the series (and getting the vibe of the humour did take a while for me) the more I realize that the truly, insanely subversive and ultimately Canadian thing about the show is its tolerance: Ricky will always be immoral, but Julian will always protect him. Yet, Ricky is a caring father. (People have more than one shade.) Bubbles' love and loyalty to his friends is unconditional. The trio will always hate Randy and Mr. Lahey not because they're gay – they couldn't care less about that. They hate them because they're dicks.

Canadians love American TV, and probably always will. That's fine. But let's track the trend in other countries… In Great Britain, Italy, Germany - western countries where US fare once dominated prime time, these days those shows are moving to fringe slots. In Prime Time, it seems they're starting to prefer their own stories. Is Canada really that different? Are we the all-special exception? Or have we just not given our audience shows to love? Not admire, not appreciate – but love. To the broadcasters, who make their millions on simulcasting, that is not a question that needs to be answered. For us, it should be the query that occupies our every waking hour.

Are we creating the shows we should be creating? Are we doing enough to tell the broadcasters they're wrong, when they're wrong about what Canadians want? Remember when the CBC didn't renew Ron MacLean's Hockey Night in Canada contract? The most telling thing about that incident to me was the fact that the CBC was caught completely off guard by the reaction. They had no idea it would be such a big story. Well, why? I wasn't surprised. Ron Freaking MacLean? The end of the Cherry-MacLean show? Why would that not be a big story?

As out of touch as we are - I think the people making the decisions at our broadcasters are more out of touch. But we can't throw blame. We're the ones fighting the blank page. And when talk turns to how this won't work and that won't work, isn't it important to remember that all successes are accidental in Television?

At another session, just today, up at the Film Centre, Anil Gupta, Producer of The Office, painted the scenario by which that show made it on the BBC: Let me reduce two hours of very entertaining discussion for you. It was a fluke. There were no kind, helpful, supportive development executives. It was a fluke. Desperate Housewives. Lost. Seinfeld. Flukes. Watch the commentary on the pilot of E.R. - the number one show on TV for how many years? Total. Freaking. Fluke. Right now, CBS has a hit with Cold Case, a show that Canadians did first. Fluke.

How do these flukes happen? Well, on some level, it has to do with belief. Having gone eyeball to eyeball with them, I have no doubt that Clattenburg et al believe in the Trailer Park Boys. And look how it's paid off. Now… Can we all say the same about what we're writing? If we don't have that level of passion; the level that says we are saying something true that could be popular, then what are we doing? How can we hope to sell network suits? How can we counter the "permanent downturn?" We are TV writers. We don't have the luxury of calling ourselves auteurs. I think the Alan Ball and David Chase slots are full up for the moment. We toil in the popular art. I have seen with my own eyes Canadian product that can be popular. That can be loved. It can be done.

I think winter in Canada is a time when we all come up with crazed and crazy schemes. Mobility is restricted, life is tougher, so we dream of what we're going to do when things are better. When the sun shines and the mercury rises and we find forward motion not quite so difficult. I've always thought it was interesting that the Canadian funding system was geared toward people finding out if they're going forward in the spring. To my mind, January's when we all really, really, really need to know if we'll have something to live for. This year, it's even more fraught and traumatic. The lack of Hockey has reduced many of my colleagues to sullen, listless automatons.

Me too. Except I drink more.

This year, assuming the bleakness is breaking and spring is coming, while we have the time, can we ask ourselves if we're really being true to our country, to the people watching TV out there? Are we not judging them, calling them trailer trash, but simply telling stories about them, with affection and with respect - even if they're foul mouthed reprobates, like the Trailer Park Boys?

I said I wanted to paint a couple of scenes. Here's the second one.

During that raucous Trailer Park Boys session at the Bloor, someone yelled out "Corner Gas Sucks!" There was laughter from some quarters. But two things shook me. First, everyone recognized the name of another Canadian TV show. But second – at least from my section of the balcony, there were many murmurs, shouts, and exclamations of disagreement. Amidst the wide and diverse mob, there was a strong, stubborn defense of that other Canadian TV success. The one that pulls in a million viewers or more every week, that sells DVDs by the case, because it's on a bigger network. The one, that like Trailer Park Boys, is about real, working class Canadians, presented with love -- and without an ounce of judgement.

I think it's something to think about. I think CBC, Global, CTV, Showcase, CHUM, CORUS and Alliance Atlantis should all be listening to the rumblings of laughter coming from the Bloor Cinema. But then again, so should we all.


For fun, compare the rant on Senses Working Overtime...


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I hear that our show will air its first two hour special on Saturday, April 16, on the Space channel, at 8 pm -- that's the Canadian premiere, anyway. I haven't heard about the US premiere. Show continues thereafter Saturday at 8, which is a really excellent time slot.

That's exciting...


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Lisa reordered and edited down my way-too-long outline for Crafty TV Writing, but I wasn't sure it's in the best order, so I spent much of the day reorganizing.

It's hard to figure out exactly what concepts come first in TV Writing. In Crafty Screenwriting it was easy -- hook, story, characters, dialog -- because writing a screenplay for a movie is just about imagining a movie in your head and putting it down on the page. A TV episode comes from a TV show that has a life of its own, and you could be writing it for different reasons: writing a spec, working on staff, or creating your own show.

Right now the basics are:

Intro - Why is TV writing different from movie writing? Writers work on staff. Writers have more power. Writers work together.

Chapter 1 - what makes a great TV show. The hook. The attractive fantasy. Consistent, compelling story telling, with emphasis on "consistent."

Chapter 2 - the scripts. Springboards and ways to generate them. Challenging your core characters. Breakdowns. The heightened importance of act structure. "We make our money on teasers, tags and outs."

Chapter 3 - script problems and how to fix them or get away with them. Go to's. Shoe leather. Suspension of disbelief. Pulling vs. pushing. The Rules of One and Three. What can happen offscreen.

Chapter 4 - Bringing the Funny.

Chapter 5 - Making yourself into a TV writer. How to watch TV. Writing your spec scripts.

Chapter 6 - Working up the food chain as a story editor. Running your own writing room.

Chapter 7 - Creating and selling your own show. Who can do this. What a great pitch bible looks like.

I'd be interested in hearing what readers of this blog would want to read in a book about TV writing. What questions do you guys have?


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Watched this week's Gilmore Girls, where it snows in Stars Hollow. After those squirrelly Corner Gas eps, I'm wondering if everyone's off their stride after the Christmas break. It didn't feel like a GG ep so much as someone trying to write GG without really getting it. (And no, I didn't check to see if it was Amy Sherman-Palladino's name on the ep or not. She might have been exceptionally busy that week, or sick in bed, and had to hand off the later drafts to staff.) I guess it didn't help that Lorelai was acting hysterical due to snow. It's hard to watch people getting hysterical about snow if you happen to live in Montreal where it is a winter wonderland for several months in a row, and you just deal with it. It's also harder when no one in the cast seems to be dressed as if it's below freezing -- no one goes out in a low cut blouse with just a coat thrown over it, not even in Connecticut.

But the real problem seemed to be rhythm. Gilmore Girls is a triumph of free verse. Most hour dramas have very strong, obvious structure. Act one out, wow, Jack Bauer's saved Secretary Heller. Act three out (or act four, I forget), wow, there's a spy in the Counterterrorism Unit, and probably a plot to melt down every nuclear reactor in North America. Gilmore Girls is more liable to go out on some small moment between two people. And she doesn't even button the dialog -- the teaser might go out on a downbeat, "Rory...." as if you're watching a slice of life and yes, their argument will continue while you're watching commercials for Skittles.

This sort of thing is extremely hard to do well. The reason people wrote sonnets for so long, and why, now that poets mostly write free verse, almost no one reads it any more, is because structure helps you. You can abandon it if you are a superb writer and you know what you're doing, which ASP obviously does. But if you then get the flu, or just have a bad week, you wind up with a weak ep.

Meanwhile, here it is 11 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit. Face-hurts cold. If the dog will let me get away with it, I'm going to stay indoors till it warms up a bit.


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Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Bloggist extraordinaire David C. Daniel, bless him, writes to point out that I had a commented-out META tag telling bots to NOINDEX NOFOLLOW NOARCHIVE. It was commented out, but I have noticed that stuff I've commented out seems to execute anyway. (A fairly large glitch in HTML or Blogger!) So that is probably what's going on: Google thinks I don't want the blog indexed. Now that I've changed to META tag to yes, do please index and follow, we should be in business.

Now I have to figure out how to NOARCHIVE the front page and ARCHIVE the permaposts...


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Noblestabbings writes:
In order for your blog to pop up on Google, you need to touch up your template. Unfortunately, I can't remember what command you need to type. It should be in the Help Index.

Don't be so coy. The Blogger Help Index? Where? What? Help!

Does anyone else know?


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Lew Hunter's doing his intensive screenwriting seminar up in Nebraska. He's a warm, wonderful man and an encouraging, enthusiastic screenwriting teacher -- I took his Screenwriting 434 class, I think, three times while I was at UCLA. He's also won awards for his TV writing, so he's the real thing. If you want to get away from it all and write a screenplay -- here's the info:


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For some reason, this blog fails utterly to show up in the google listings, or at least, so deep I can't find it. On the other hand my user profile shows up in the first ten. Whassup with that?

And on the other other hand, I apparently own the word "ensue."

Go figure, eh?


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Nice trick in this week's 24: at the act 1 out, Jack Bauer has rescued Secretary Heller, and all is well. No reason to be watching, except, wow, they just had a huge action sequence, how are they going to top this?

And the rest of the episode was devoted to increasing complications. Secretary Heller's kidnapping was all part of a Secret Plan, and the bad guys aren't thwarted at all.

Nice intentional violation of the general rule that you try to get your characters further up a tree during the course of the episode.


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Tuesday, January 25, 2005


Watched two eps of Corner Gas, and I feel like they've betrayed the template. In one, Lacey, a Scrabble champ, for no particular reason loses to Hank, the village idiot. Why? We don't know. Meanwhile, Davis, who lost his sense of smell in a childhood accident, gets it back in another accident. It's the sort of thing you'd expect in Gilligan's Island. Obviously the writer's knew they were on thin ice, because when Oscar offers to help Davis lose his sense of smell again by repeating Davis's childhood accident, Davis refuses because "life isn't like Gilligan's Island." Referring to it does not take the curse off it at all.

What I loved about Corner Gas before was that you really had a sense these were real, low-key, small town people. All of a sudden weird things are going on in Dog River. An American tourist comes around and Hank spends the episode essentially making fun of him. Is that right?

Did they run out of truthful stories to tell?

I hope it's just a few bad free lance scripts and they'll find their template again.


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Over the weekend, one of Hunter's friends came over with DVD's of The Family Guy. Wow, is that not a kids' show. Half the jokes are so racy they are, fortunately, wayyyy over the kids' heads. What was Fox thinking, putting that on the air at 9 pm?

We let Hunter and his friend watch it because the jokes were over their heads -- they mostly didn't seem to have a clue that those were jokes -- and because I'm not a big believer in restricting the racy stuff. I'm not sure how it hurts a kid to see a "big ass pinata" that turns out to be a pinata of a big, fat, pink ass. If he starts saying "big-ass" a lot in school, it'll come back to us, but so far Hunter seems very capable of distinguishing between what people do in movies and on TV, and what's appropriate for him to do.

But if I were coming up with a prime time show, I don't think I would feel right writing the stuff this show airs, knowing it was going on the air at 9.


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Had a busy long weekend -- wasn't really a holiday, but Hunter's school had the day off for no particularly good reason, so we had him and a friend over all Monday, so it felt like one. When you're both writers, you can be flexible.

We did, however, get some good work done on Billy Wes. But I keep thinking of that as Lisa's project. It's not really, but I want her to do as much of the writing as possible. That's partly because it's more efficient and I like to delegate, but it's more because she has a unique voice, and a real feel for the characters, who have been living in her head for twenty years. If I take it over, I'm scared it will become more standard-issue. I know what the go-to plot devices are, and she doesn't. The go-to plot devices work, but I'd rather we come up with fresher stuff.

I'm also waiting for Lisa to re-outline Crafty TV Writing for the book proposal. I wound up writing 45 some-odd pages, which is not an outline, it's an extended pamphlet. I need her to boil it down -- I know too much, while she's closer to what the publishing house editor who will read the outline knows.

Which leaves me without an official current project. I got some good notes from my friend Jamie on Unseen, as always, but they're not more than a few hours' work, I don't think. I could go take another look at the Unseen TV pitch, but it's in pretty good shape. I'm waiting for negotiations to proceed on Exposure. In other words I have one script and one series pitch in the bank, waiting to go out.

What's next? That's the question. What should Alex write so he doesn't go bonkers?

I should think about TV pitches. But like most people I find it hard to just think about stuff in the abstract. It's easier to do that with someone. Which means Lisa (if I wanna keep it in the family!), but she's got work to do. Aside from Billy Wes and my outline, mind, she has her own nonfiction book to write -- with a deadline looming in August!

So I'm a bit at loose ends. I've been noodling around with this blog and my website, looking for interesting resources -- like the fabulous On Writing series at the WGA East website --- good, but too short. There's stuff on the WGA West website, but it's not as in depth -- there are fewer real insider details. Anyway, reading does not satisfy the itch.



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Monday, January 24, 2005


Great story in On Writing #16 about how Zanuck commissioned Budd Schulberg to write On the Waterfront for Elia Kazan to direct ... then walked away from the project. The only guy who'd touch it was Sam Spiegel, who was bankrupt at the time, but was a real producer. He got UA attached, then Sinatra, then dumped Sinatra for Brando, then dumped UA for Warner's... all because Schulberg met him at a party and Spiegel said, come in the morning before you fly back to New York and tell me the story, and Schulberg did, and Spiegel knew what a good story was.

And that's another reason you should be able to tell your story off the top of your head, kids. Not only does it mean you have a good story, it means that you can pitch a producer in his pyjamas and get your movie made.

Lisa and I worked up the beats for the contemporary part of Billy Wes today, while Hunter and friend fought monsters on PS2. Six pages of beats, and good beats, too. Considering the contemporary part of the story only needs to be thirty, forty percent of the movie, I think we've got a movie.


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The publisher was offering me a ridiculously low flat fee -- a work-for-hire payment that included no royalties. Typically writers of  tie-ins, which are original novels based on a TV series, get an advance plus a 2-3% royalty. Novelization writers often get a flat, work-for-hire fee, which makes sense since the story, characters and dialogue are being handed to them. This deal required me to write an original novel and not share in any of the proceeds it might generate. -- Lee Goldberg, in his blog A Writer's Life

I've wondered about that. I'm trying to hold onto the novelization rights to the various series I'm pitching to producers. If the shows go, I'd like to hire some novel-writing friends (you know who you are) so we can work up some more stories based on the characters and worlds I've been creating -- especially stories that can't be done on a TV budget. I've always wondered what would be fair to offer them. Thanks, Lee.


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Louis Malle once said, "A confident director loves to have the writer on the set." You know, when we were doing Atlantic City, the producer said, "What is the writer doing on the set?" And Louis said, "If you have someone here for the hair, why would you not have someone here for the words?" -- John Guare in On Writing #15


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There's a wonderful story, which is probably apocryphal, which I love. When Samuel Morse sent the first wireless message -- from Boston up to Maine, something like that -- Thoreau was out at Walden Pond. Some friend of his came running out with the news about this great invention, this wireless message they had sent. And Thoreau just looked at him and said, 'But what did it say?' And that's always stuck in my mind. It's always been so important to me: What am I saying? Why am I saying it? -- Walter Bernstein, On Writing #17

Cute story. But what occurs to me is not that Thoreau was deep, but that he utterly failed to grasp the importance of what he'd heard. The medium was the message.


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There is something very freeing about somebody holding a gun to your head and saying, "We're waiting, come on, let's go." And suddenly you're doing things that, if you had the time to consider, you would never do. -- Glenn Gordon Caron, On Writing #11


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Charlie Joffe said to me, in an offhand way one day, "The winner in any negotiation is the first person who's willing to be outrageous." And I would submit to you that the person who pushes the ball the furthest up the mountain creatively in terms of art, or craft, or whatever it is that we do for a living, is the first person who's willing to be outrageous. – Glenn Gordon Caron, in On Writing #11

Well, but only if you are willing to define not making a deal as winning. It's certain that you can't usually get what you want unless you're willing to walk away. (In poker, you can't win a single hand unless you're willing to go to the river at least some times. That's what makes people reluctant to bet against you. If they know you'll fold it costs them nothing to raise.)

But if you're never willing to be outrageous, well, you're not going to make anything new. As Shaw said:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.


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"I was in a bookstore, and I saw a little girl run over to her mother with a big book and she said, "Mommy, what does this word say on the front?" The mother said, "It says "Scheherezade." The little girl said, "Who's Scheherezade?" And the mother said, "Scheherezade was the woman who had to make her stories so interesting she didn't get killed that night." And I thought, that's exactly how I feel." -- Lindsay Doran, On Writing #10


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Sunday, January 23, 2005


…I don't like making decisions until you have to make them. In other words, I don't like talking about ... how many brothers and sisters does Bartlet have, are his parents still alive? Why don't you get to an episode where, if you have a really good story for Bartlet and his father then, well, now his father's alive... But if you want to tell stories about sort of the ghost father, and living with the idea that Bartlet's father never liked him, well, now he's died. It wasn't until I wrote Two Cathedrals -- the second season finale -- that we knew Bartlet's father was physically abusive. -- Aaron Sorkin, in On Writing #18

The issue also contains the entire pilot script, which otherwise you'd have to pay good money for.


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The WGA East has a dandy collection of interviews called On Writing -- with people like Aaron Sorkin and Budd Shulberg -- all available as PDF's for the download here. If you don't hear from me for a few days, I'm reading them. I can particularly recommend On Writing #4, which is a series of interviews with veteran TV writers, who really give a sense of what it's like to do it, and how they broke in ... I'm going to steal a lot of it for my book.

A few interesting thoughts from the interview with Bill Persky and John Markus (The Cosby Show):

  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show had horrible testing and horrible ratings when it started. Fortunately the network had committed to airing 26 episodes. Grant Tinker wouldn't let them be bought out.
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show was cancelled after one season. But Sheldon Leonard convinced Proctor & Gamble (the sponsor) to give it another year.
  • Give your actors some action to do even if the scene is dialog. Don't have someone pouring coffee. Have her cleaning jelly off the floor. And people are stepping in it. And she's trying to stop them. All while the brilliant scene you wrote is playing. And if the character is a neat freak or a control freak at the same time, all the better: play off your characters' weaknesses.
  • Play to your actors' strengths. Persky: "Mary cried great. Carl Reiner wrote a show with her toe stuck in the faucet of a bathtub where you hardly saw her and she just cried a lot." (If you were speccing this show, you'd know that Mary cries well. We love watching her cry, and we know how she does it. We know how Ricky says, "Looooocie, you got some 'splainin' to do"...)
  • Markus: "What the network is most nervous about is, who is the show runner? ..." Persky: "You take a mediocre show with a great show runner, as opposed to a great show with a bad show runner, and you have a better bet with the mediocre show.." This is, incidentally, why the networks don't want to see a pilot from an inexperienced writer -- they're hiring a showrunner who's brought them a show, they're not buying a show that has a showrunner attached.


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On Writing #17, from the WGA, has the complete text of "Yma Dream," as well as an occasionally enlightening interview with Thomas Meehan and Mel Brooks.

The New York Times TV Section has a much more enlightening interview with Amy Sherman-Palladino, who turns out to be a curly haired Jewish girl who never went to college. So what is she doing writing about rich WASPs in Connecticut? Ah, well, read the article.


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Today's Times objects that American Idol is humiliatingly rude to its contestants, and wants it to stop holding people up to ridicule for being less talented than they think they are... good for The Times.


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Bush's second inaugural address on Thursday raised questions about what measures he might use to bring about his vision of freedom.

Some experts wondered if it would cause strains with nondemocratic allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan or alter the U.S. relationship with Russia amid Washington's concerns the country is backtracking on democratic reforms.

"The speech builds upon our policy," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It states very clearly the long-term goal we should always be working to achieve."

The official said there was a recognition that not all countries would be ready to embrace freedom and that furthering the goal would sometimes involve quiet diplomacy. -- Reuters article

In other words, "Don't worry. All that was just for the home market."

When Kennedy said we would "bear any burden," he meant it. He promptly got us into a fiasco supporting an invasion in Cuba, and sent advisers into Vietnam. Dumb mistakes, but at least he meant it.

There's something disturbing about a democratic leader issuing propaganda for the home market. Isn't that something tyrants are supposed to do? You know, put up "Death to America" posters and then quietly work with us anyway?

The tragic thing is I'm in favor of promoting freedom throughout the world. That's a great goal. I just think there were probably better ways of doing it than invading Iraq, especially with not enough troops.


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Saturday, January 22, 2005


As a reader and point out, yep, The O.C. is definitely going there. Josh Schwartz claims it's not a rating stunt either, it's a "real relationship."

No doubt. Between two really really gorgeous girls. On a glamour soap. Where, I guess, practically everything is a ratings stunt, when you think about it.

AfterEllen also points out that Alex is one of the few "decent" (meaning, I guess, non-murdering) bisexuals in film & TV.


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So after Seth kinda made a fool of himself, Alex made eyes at Marissa. And drunk as Marisa was, she did not seem too put out that bad girl Alex was making eyes at her. After all, she doesn't have a boyfriend. And Alex is kinda cute.

So the O.C. is really gonna go there? A little lesbian flirtation? It seemed out of character for the show, which has been soapy but emotionally true. Not to say that a bisexual gal going for Marissa is emotionally untrue. But it felt like they were trying to goose their ratings in time for ... yes ... it IS that time of year isn't it?

Yes, it's almost sweeps.


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JollyBlogger thinks the Lost island is some sort of purgatory. Neat thought considering they all should have died in the crash. Especially neat thought when you consider the theory that Gilligan's Island is Hell -- everyone except Gilligan is there for one sin or another (Professor = pride; Ginger = lust; Marianne = jealousy; you can guess who Avarice, Gluttony and Sloth are). And Gilligan is keeping them all there. Gilligan is, of course, the Devil.


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Friday, January 21, 2005


Lisa and I spent the morning knocking around the linear plot to Billy Wes, our new lowish budget feature idea.

Over vacation I decided to get the Crafty TV book proposal in some kind of shape, plus put together some tv pitches and a movie pitch. Always gotta have some irons in the fire. Crafty TV took longer than I thought because my book agent wanted more examples and explanation (my original outline was too insiderish). So we didn't come up with any pitches. So a few days ago we decided to have a bash at low budget movie ideas.

I had a play read in LA called City of Ravens, about a waitress who may be a fallen angel, who meets a singer with the voice of an angel but a damaged soul. I rewrote it as a movie, but it's never really worked, for a number of reason. Lisa had a few ideas how to improve it, but I'm not sure I'm still in love with the idea.

But I did realize that the novel Lisa's been kicking around in her head for the past twenty years is a movie. Maybe not a movie that's Canadian enough for the Scriptwriting Assistance fund. But Canadian enough to shoot here, at any rate.

I won't tell you the hook (it's not a very hooky movie, actually), but it's about two Army brats who grow up together, fall in love, and then lose each other. When the guy goes AWOL years later during a Ranger training mission gone stupidly and fatally awry, she hooks back up with him and tries to drive him to Canada and freedom.

Complications ensue.

They must confront the demons of their past yadda yadda yadda.

What makes it special is the really fresh and intense scenes from Lisa's novel. The details, the passion. She practically weeps when she tells some of it. More importantly, I almost weep, too.

(The Pikepie is wailing in her crib as I write this. Probably not thinking of Lisa's novel, though, she can't talk yet. I think she's crying because she's Not Being Held.)

This morning we went over the linear story. There are 5 time lines in the picture -- when they're kids, when they're young adults, when they're college age, the mission gone awry, and her interviewing at the Canadian border. We're not going to tell them one after another, of course, we're going to use highly impressionistic cutting back and forth. I want to say 21 Grams style, but nothing as extreme as that. More like The Limey, where there's a clear emotional if not literal connection each time you jump from timeline to timeline.

I think it's going to be a really great screenplay. I'm really excited about it. I'm letting Lisa do most of the heavy lifting -- really at this point I'm story editing more than writing, story editing in the TV story editor sense, not the development exec sense: I'm helping her weave the narratives, find the turning points and put the moments in order.

Occasionally I nix a scene. For example she wanted her heroine stalked in the woods, only it turns out it's by the hero. Problem with that is the rest of the movie is deeply realistic. So we're either not going to believe for a moment that she's really being stalked by a Bad Guy. Or, we'll worry that the movie is going to betray us. Either way we're not worrying she's being stalked. You always have to think what the audience is expecting. For example, she didn't want to let on too early that the guy had survived his training accident. But he's going to be on the poster. So we know he survives. You can play her not knowing, but we know, even if we're pretending to ourselves that we don't know.

She's great at these intense scenes. I'm good at making narrative sense out of them. It's nice when the woman you love complements you creatively, too, isn't it?

Hmmm ... I think the Pikepie really does need a fresh bottle...


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I thought you might be interested in what I think makes a good agent. (Obviously I think my new agent passes the test, which is why I'm working with her!)

A good agent should:

a. Know the producers I'm working with personally. Have dealt with them lots of times before and know how to keep negotiations moving smoothly along. Know which producers are straightforward and which are squirrelly. Know which need to be prodded and with which ones prodding is useless. Have a good reputation with producers.

b. Know producers I haven't met yet, and introduce me to them.

c. Know the market value of my work. Know who'd want to hire me or buy my stuff. Know how to position me and my work so people do.

d. Sell me! Convince people who don't know me that I'm worth hiring, and convince the ones who do know me that I'm worth hiring for a lot of money. An agent should always be selling, even after the deal is made. An agent should be saying "you're gonna love this," and then, once the project is moving forward, remind the producer how lucky they are to be working with the writer. Producers live in a world of fear that they've made the wrong choices. They need to be soothed and reassured.

e. Know how to smooth over conflicts between producers and me. I don't plan to have any of these, of course! But there are always creative conflicts, if people care about what they're doing, and creative people can take things personally.

f. Put my needs first. Some agents want to be friends with the producers they're negotiating with, which is fine, until the point where a producer starts to get mad at them for asking so much for their clients. An agent has to be able to side with the client at the potential expense of the relationship with the producer (who will eventually remember that the agent is just doing her job, but in the mean time he'll be grumpy). An agent has to be able to do all this with a maximum of charm and grace, so everyone feels as good about the negotiating experience as possible, given that any dollar the producer pays you is a dollar he no longer has!


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Crunchy snow this morning. Snow squeaks when it's this cold. Supposedly it's -17F/-26C. I say supposedly because my face didn't actually hurt walking the dog this morning. Granted I was weathing ski gloves and a ski mask, and I wasn't out above ten minutes. But the last time it was that cold my face hurt.

I am always amazed by people who insist on going out without hats. Didn't their mothers teach them better than that?

Jesse Anne is well and truly walking. Or, at least, tottering. It's amazing how she's got the hang of it in the last three weeks. She is less and less interested in crawling.

As, I think, Neil Gaiman wrote, the two hardest things in the world to learn are walking and talking. Fortunately, kids will learn both of these with little help from you!

I have a new agent as of yesterday, who's very well liked and respected around here. She represents quite a few people I know and have worked with. Nothing bad about my old agent, but I need to meet new people in Montreal, and she lives and works here, and he's in Toronto, and what I need from an agent can't be done long range. Your agent needs to know the producers you work with, talk to them constantly about their various clients till they get to know their quirks, be in the mix hearing about how this guy's founded a new production company, that company is having financial troubles, etc.

I'm also considering trying to get an LA agent. I haven't had one since I moved here. I think it's unrealistic to try for a TV job in LA from here. I'd have to spend two months a year in LA just being available for meetings around staffing season, and who knows if I'd get a gig? Moreover there are too many experienced writers chasing too many jobs in LA right now, thanks to reality TV. The jobs are going to go to writers who know other writers, not me. I'd be lucky to get a junior story editor position. And while those pay as well as showrunner positions here (you'd be lucky to get CDN$ 6000/week here -- and junior story editors get US $5000-$6000 / week there), it's more fun to run your own show, isn't it?

But, there's rewrite work, and maybe someone should take Unseen around down there and see if anyone's interested. It's on the high budget side for the Canadian feature market.

At any rate, couldn't hurt.

I didn't like LA. Didn't enjoy my experience. Found my friendships to be shallow. Found that people didn't have lives beyond their careers. Never caught a break in my writing career. But it is, as Fellini said at the Oscars, The Big Nipple. It's where the resources are to get movies made. It's where the best creatives are. One day I may go back there.

It's where you move when they send you a ticket and a signed contract...

But right now I'm deliriously happy here.


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Thursday, January 20, 2005


Had a chat with the WGA today about the minimum hiring standards for free lancers.

Network order of 22 episodes plus: you must hire one free lancer to go to script, plus two more to write stories with an option (the producer's option) to go to script.

13-21 eps: you must hire at least two free lancers to write teleplay stories, but you are not obliged to go to script with them.

7-12 eps: you have to interview one free lancer for each script unassigned at the time of the program order -- which means scripts already written during development are excluded. Note that you are under no obligation to actually hire any free lancers.

These numbers seem entirely reasonable. It helps people break in. Good on the WGA.


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Wednesday, January 19, 2005



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Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Aha! It's Thomas Meehan's "Yma Dream" not "Ima Dream," that's why I couldn't find it.

If you wouldn't think a 1962 comedy piece from The New Yorker would hold up, listen to this.

(If that doesn't work, go to the bottom of this page.


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"The boy, born blind, developed an almost preternatural sense of hearing. Taken in by a retired swordsman, he learned to fight, although he could not see. When the swordsman is killed by old enemies, the boy decides to avenge his master."

Yes, it's so cold it's Hong Kong Movie Weather. Wouldn't you really rather be shooting in tropical Hong Kong?


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Deceptive argument in Boston Legal last night. (I know, it's Sunday's, but I recorded it.) The firm is defending a school board for firing teachers who refused to teach Intelligent Design (aka Creationism) along with evolution, on the excellent grounds that Intelligent Design is religion, not science.

The firm made bad arguments in favor of the school board, which however went un-answered, and in the end it won.

Maybe this is all part of the swing to the right the States is going through, but I'm appalled. If you make political arguments in a show and let them go unanswered, it amounts to an endorsement, because people, unfortunately, trust TV to inform them.

When Aaron Sorkin wrote political arguments, he gave the right-wingers very good arguments, even though he obviously doesn't agree with them. He also gave the liberals terrific arguments. (Basically, he gave everyone terrific arguments.)

For the record, it is not even vaguely true that an increasing number of scientists are coming around to the idea that evolution can't account for the complexity of human life. Of course it can. It does. The fossil record has by now millions of well-documented cases of adaptation of this or that structure in one species becoming another structure in another species. To say "it's all too complex" is just to say you lack imagination, and also you lack understanding of how long four billion years really is.

There are, essentially, no real scientists for believe in Intelligent Design. That's because Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory. Why? Because it is not falsifiable.

A scientific theory can be disproven. Intelligent Design cannot be disproven, because it supposes that the world was built like a clock, wound up, and set running. There is no piece of evidence that could disprove it, because any evidence we find could just be something else that the Intelligent Designer threw into the design for the fun of it.

Evolution, on the other hand, can be disproven. If you could find a species that just appeared out of nowhere, with DNA that in no way matched the species on Earth, and it was too complex to have appeared from space, then evolution would have to be scrapped, or at least modified.

For my part, I think Intelligent Design also insults God. Would a being of infinite power and wisdom build billions of little creatures? Or would She create a few rules of awesome simplicity yet unlimited power and flexibility, that allowed billions of little creatures to grow out of one complicated molecule? The more I know about nature, the more I'm in awe of its complexity and its simplicity. That's evidence of the Goddess, I think.

TV has a responsibility to tell the truth. Characters in shows don't have to tell the truth. But the show as a whole has to tell the truth. If there's politics in a show, you have a responsibility to present the arguments as well as they can be presented, so that people can make an intelligent choice which side to root for. When your show has an audience of millions of people, you have an awesome responsibility. Sloppy writing won't cut it.


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Monday, January 17, 2005


Now that's something to cheer up any writer: a $46 check in the mail because 8 seconds of an episode I wrote was used in a clip show! Whee!


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... you do a load of white, a load of dark, and a load of pink.


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Sunday, January 16, 2005


I'm starting to watch my DVD's of The L Word. Not sure what to make of it. It feels like it's not sure what it wants to be when it grows up. Obviously, a show about really good looking lesbians who get laid a lot. But is that all? Does it have an underlying question? Theme?

Nice writing, though, for the most part.

I have to get a DVD player for the bedroom. Can't watch adult shows while the kids are up, and can't watch any shows in the living room once Jesse's down for the night!


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Saturday, January 15, 2005

A chap from the WGC's magazine Canadian Screenwriter wants to interview me next week about Canadian SF -- is it different? -- and how you write SF when technology is so advanced these days.

I wrote him a few ideas in advance:

I'm against the notion that Canadians need to think about doing things differently than Americans. New Yorkers don't worry about whether they're doing distinctly New York tv shows or distinctly New York movies. They just do them, and the shows have a distinct voice because New York is not like other places. Montreal is not like other places, either. So when I work on a show, whether SF or not, I don't worry about whether I'm being Canadian enough. (Though worrying itself is a traditional Canadian behavior.) I just go for it. When I co-created Naked Josh for Cirrus, we didn't worry about whether our show was "Canadian." We just wrote about the Montreal we know and love.

It's harder to shoot Montreal for Montreal when you're doing sf, but I think the important thing is to trust your own distinctness. I'm currently working on a feature about creatures from world folklore living in a parallel Montreal, called Unseen, with help from the Telefilm Scriptwriting Assistance fund. That should be fun.

Charlie Jade, the sf show we just did in Cape Town, is the very distinct vision of Bob Wertheimer, with the strong support of Diane Boehme at CHUM. But is it particularly Canadian? I just think it's particularly Bob and Diane.

On the other hand the show will look like nothing else on television. I do think that since Canadian shows have smaller budgets than American ones, we have to do shows that look like nothing else. If we do a cut rate Star Trek ripoff, it'll get clobbered by the real thing. (Well, it would if ST: Enterprise were any good.) If we do a show like Charlie Jade, which is in some ways Blade Runner meets Six Feet Under, then we may not get the widest audience possible -- but the audience we do get will stick with us.

Ironically, the most Canadian SF show I can think of is the original Star Trek. It may have only starred a Canadian, but its values are Canadian. The Federation tries not to interfere in other people's cultures; it promotes consensus; it only fights when attacked. The Federation of Planets is probably a pretty good example of the kind of world government Canadians would feel comfortable with -- and which Americans might feel was too wimpy.

How do you write SF when tech is getting so advanced? First of all, I think you should make sure your advanced civilizations have technology at least as good as ours! I'm sick of seeing shows like Starship Troopers, where Marines take on giant bugs with rifles. What happened to the artillery? If you pitted the US Marines against Starship Trooper's Marines, the guys in green would take the science fiction guys apart.

And how come the Enterprise isn't equipped with seatbelts?

(NB: Heinlein's Starship Troopers, if I remember correctly, were kickass. It's just the movie guys that suck. Or am I thinking of Joe Haldeman's Marines from The Forever War.)

Second, read science fiction. Read Snow Crash. Read The Diamond Age. Read Cryptonomicon. SF novels tend to stay 20 to 30 years ahead of technology. In 1975, John Brunner pretty much described the Internet in The Shockwave Rider. He also invented the concept of the computer worm (a virus that doesn't need user action to spread), and the Delphi Pool (surveying a large number of ill informed people turns out to give answers as good as surveying a small number of experts, and often better answers). The first major application of the Delphi Pool, the Policy Analysis Market, only went online last year. Arthur C. Clarke invented the geosynchronous satellite in 1945. I'm still waiting for the Skyhook. Neal Stephenson has a pretty good idea of some of the directions nanotech and infotech may take us. He's also writing about encryption and privacy issues, which will become more important in the next ten years.

(See for more sf inventions.)

Third, read the newspaper. After all, people watch SF because it's a metaphor for real life. Not only couldn't Mary Shelly or HG Wells imagine what the future would really hold -- their audiences wouldn't have appreciated it if they did! We don't want to read about what the future is really going to be like, even assuming anyone knows. And anyone who thinks they know what the world's going to be like more than 20 years in the future is mad. Who predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union? Microsoft? The Internet? Cell phones with cameras? Blogs? They promised us jet packs and Mars colonies and a permanent food crisis. What the audience wants is something that responds to their anxieties about this world. Mary Shelley wrote about man violating the laws of God because she was writing in the early 1800s when factories were starting to destroy rural England. Some issues we're dealing with these days are terrorism, plague, the disappearance of privacy, identity theft... if you extrapolate those problems far enough, you've got SF that makes sense to people now.


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Very happy to see that at least one dumb reality show bit the dust after "only" 4.25 million viewers tuned into ep. #1!


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Scrivener's Error is a truly fine blog on legal issues related to writing, in particular copyright. It also has lots of useful links. Latest few posts were about Federal Appeals Court Judge Cooper's decision that Georgia's law requiring stickers on school science books stating that evolution is just a "theory" is, yes, unconstitutional under the First Amendment, on the grounds that any reasonable person would see that the law was written to pacify the Intelligent Design mob.

Evolution is, of course, a scientific theory, but when you omit the word "scientific" and put it on a special sticker, you are obviously trying to make it sound like you mean the non-technical meaning of "theory" that is, something that is unproven and not particularly likely. They're not requiring stickers claiming that gravitation is a "theory," are they?



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Friday, January 14, 2005

Years ago, I heard a very funny routine called "Ima Dream," about a guy who has a dream in which he meets Ima Sumac, Abba Eban, Oona Chaplin, etc., and has to introduce all of them: "Ima, Abba, Ima, Oona, Abba, Ima, Abba, Oona" etc.

It might be "Ima Dream" from the No Frills Revue but I don't know a thing about the No Frills Revue.

Can anyone enlighten me?

[UPDATE: It's "Yma Dream." See this post>


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Looks like I won't have to see Elektra. I'm basing this not only on the IMDB rating of 3.6 out of 10, but the absolutely humorless dialog.


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Well, it turns out he's got his own website. Some interesting stuff there. I 'specially liked having to "click on Liv Ullman having a nervous breakdown to enter".


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Is it just the shows I watch, or have shows about teenagers gotten rather prudish? Last night's ep of The OC had the parents upset because (a) Seth snuck out to spend a night with a girl and (b) Ryan is dating -- just dating -- Lindsay, who's Kirsten's illegitimate half-sister. Since the Cohens are treating Ryan as their son (have they legally adopted him?), they're mad at Ryan and Lindsay for being in love with each other. Now they feel they can't leave the boys alone for the weekend.

Now, these kids are 17. Ryan spent the summer working a construction job to support the mother of his child, until she tricked him into leaving. Is it so shocking that 17 year old might spend the night at a girl's house? I guess it is.

Oh, and Summer, who's been dating Zach for months, is only now thinking that maybe they should have sex. Apparently she and Seth never did.

When I was 17, my parents had a proper Victorian attitude towards sex: if we don't see it, we don't have to notice it. And that's good for everybody. If my girlfriend was staying over, they let us know when they were going to bed, which meant they didn't come out of their bedroom till the next morning. In return, everyone was supposed to be in different beds in the morning. And we were.

Now granted, Orange County is pretty right wing. But it's still California. I don't believe kids in Manhattan Beach are waiting until they're married.

What's so terrible about 17-year-old kids having sex? They do in real life, y'know. They're having it way younger than they ever did, according to surveys. (And the actors are well over 18!) I'd be worried about my kid having unsafe sex, sure. Or taking rides from kids who've been drinking. But I don't think you can be a responsable parent by trying to forbid your kids from pursuing sex and romance. You're just setting up an expectation you know your kid will flout, probably secretly. In other words you're making your kid lie to you.

Frankly I thought that Sandy and Kirsten behaved like jackasses all episode long.

The other funny thing about the show is how clearly it's written by a 28 year old, one who clearly has never been in a long term relationship. Sandy and Kirsten have a great marriage. And Kirsten's upset because he forgot it was their 20th anniversary? That's something an 18 year old would get upset about. Or people with a bad marriage. If you've been married for 20 years, you don't get bent out of shape over an anniversary. By then you know whether your spouse is good at remembering things. And you know that what's important is the relationship, not the date.


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Thursday, January 13, 2005


A producer I'm hoping to work with asked me to explain the writing room, how it works and what it's for. She's been working without one, which seems to be the custom in Canada. Here's a version of what I wrote her...

The short version is: remember The Dick Van Dyke show? That's a writing room!

The long version is:

Say you've got a small story department of a head writer and a couple of writers. The show's creator has defined the characters, season arc, etc., in the bible. The writing staff's job is to translate that into episodes.

Here's a way I like to work. You've worked out the season arcs in advance, and ins'Allah, the network doesn't ask for any major overall character or story changes in midstream. So, every four episodes or so, the writing staff gets together in the room and arcs out the next four. We break all the stories together on a white board. I might bring in a story idea or one of my story editors might, but either way beat up on it for an hour or two until we're all happy with it. (There is no "ownership" of a story idea in a writing room.

The next day, back in the room, we break down the first episode into acts and act outs. Then the next, etc. When we have four breakdowns, we submit them to the producers and then the network.

Assuming approval, I hand off each breakdown to one of the writers or myself to flesh out into a beat sheet. Whoever is slated to write that episode writes the draft from the beat sheet. This might be the person who wrote the beat sheet but might not -- sometimes the contracted writer was busy on a production polish when we needed the beat sheet, and handing him the completed beat sheet means he can jump right into the draft when his production polish is done.

(Legalistically, a beat sheet is not a treatment. The contracted writer has to write the treatment. Practically, they're not that different.)

The writer's room is invaluable for fixing stories, too. Nothing gets a bad story fixed faster than three or four writers banging their heads together. Writers who are used to fixing their own and others' work can quickly spot story problems in stories that look good on the page, and often can come up with a simple story fix that breathes life into a weak story. I have had terrific feedback from development execs and producers in my experience, but there's nothing like a writer's room to come up with solutions to their critiques.

The writer's room helps solve your problems as you're writing pages, too. There is no beat sheet that doesn't have some handwaving in it. When you realize that a beat is unwritable as envisioned, you can just call your fellow writers into the conference room and work up a fresh approach.

Having writers on staff also makes it far easier to keep the work flowing steadily to the producers. We've all had episodes move around on us for production reasons, etc. A staff is flexible. When an episode gets moved up by two weeks, I can hand off my production polish to one of my staffers and jump onto the first draft of the moved-up episode. If we're waiting for approval on some beat sheets while I'm in the middle of a draft, I can send my staffers into the room to brainstorm story ideas for later episodes.

With a staff, the whole writing process is smoother. You don't get scripts that are interesting, but "not our show," because a story editor soaks up the feeling of the show. We can meet with the producers to hear what kind of show they want, and what their reactions are to our work. Then we meet among ourselves and discuss what we think they want, and what we want. That gives our work a consistency that free lance work never has. That means fewer radical rewrites at the last minute.

With a staff, production issues get smoothed out earlier. Writers make two kinds of production mistakes. They write unproduceable scenes -- and they nix produceable ones because they think they're unproduceable. Can we do a scene in a horse and carriage? How about a street party? How about a party in a loft? How about a scene at La Ronde? A free lancer will usually just guess. A staff writer can ask a producer.

Needless to say issues like scripts being late and "I haven't been able to get in touch with my free lancer" happen much more rarely when everybody's on staff. And let's not even talk about free lancers who are doing multiple projects at the same time! (And they all do it, too.)

Finally, if you have a story department on your show, you develop relationships with people who may write future shows for you, and who now have some experience with production. With free lancers, the only person developing relationships with the writers is the head writer.

This is all why all American fiction shows have writing rooms. Why don't we always have them here in Canada? Maybe they think they can't afford it.

Well, how much does a writing room cost?

Fortunately, there is no WGC minimum for story editor salaries; and most writers care how much they get paid, not which line item their check is coming from.

The solution, I think, is to pay writers to a large degree by guaranteeing them scripts they wouldn't normally get if the show were being written mostly by free lancers. Giving scripts to story editors costs the producer nothing because someone's got to be paid for each script. On Charlie Jade, my writers had decent weekly salaries, but only were credited and paid for one script each, though of course they wound up radically rewriting many more. Had I been able to give them two scripts each, they'd have made more money even if the producers had cut their weekly pay to nothing but Red Bull and biltong.

Let's do some math.

A regular Canadian show might guarantee a junior story editor only two scripts (based on an order of 20 eps); they then rewrite free lance scripts for no credit and no production bonus. But if your show is budgeted at even $400,000 per ep, each script is worth $13,475 after the bonus is in.

(The production bonus is a sliding percentage of the budget payable at principal photography. You get around $6,500 to write a half hour script, and that's applicable to the bonus. If you're in production and all the scripts are getting made, it doesn't matter what the script fee is because it's less than the bonus anyway.)

Let's suppose they're working for 16 weeks (the story department is turning in a script a week, 3 are already done, and you let go the story editors for the last week). A good salary for a junior story editor might be $2500 a week.

2 scripts @ 13,475 = $26,950
16 wks @ 2500 = $40,000

Total: $76,950

But if I can guarantee the writers 4 scripts, that's:

4 scripts x 13,475 = 53,900

and they're doing just as well even if they're only getting paid $1,500 a week. If I can promise them 5 scripts, then:

5 scripts @ 13,475 = 67,375

They're doing as well or better at $600 a week.

I've used the above numbers to set the bar high for my argument. If you suppose that a more reasonable salary for a good story editor on a medium budget show is more like $2000 per week, and if you suppose the budget for the show is even $450,000 per ep, then:

2 scripts @ 14,025 = 28,050
16 weeks @ 2000 = 32,000

Total: $60,050

But if I can guarantee 4 scripts:

4 scripts @ 14,025 = 56,100

then they're doing just as well or better at $300 a week(!), and a fifth script is pure gravy. Note that the total additional cost to the production of the story editor over the free lancer is $4,800.

If there are twenty episodes, and if you don't "waste" scripts on free lancers, it's easy to give five scripts to each story editor, seven or eight to the head writer, and still have a couple left to give to that promising script coordinator who wants to write. Likewise on an order of 13 eps, you could give each script editor three, five to the head writer and still have two left for emergencies / friends / favors / incentives.

You'd do the deals as step deals -- guarantee x scripts for the first y weeks, with options to extend -- just as you'd do if salary were the main selling point.

As the budget goes up, guaranteed scripts get more and more attractive to the writer. At $500,000 per ep, each script is worth $14,575. And so on. I've seen production bonuses in the $30K-$40K range.

The reason all this can work is that the production bonus and credit are paid to whoever writes the first two drafts and these are the easiest writing to do! In my experience, it's the story editors who do the heavy lifting to produce the outline -- frankly, the hardest creative work in an episode. It's the story editors who do the pink, blue, green, yellow, goldenrod, fuschia and mauve drafts. I've never staffed a show where we didn't generally rewrite the free lancers so much that they might as well not have given us their drafts. (If you have, let me know.) If the money is the same, I'd much rather take a lower salary, but get more script fees, have more script credits and do the work of writing the first drafts than give them away to a free lancer who's going to spend, honestly, three days on his drafts.

All in all, I think a writing room is a huge bargain. It saves everyone trouble, time and money, and you get better material. I'm mystified that anyone would want to work without a writing room. If I sound evangelical ... it's because I am!


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A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge. --Dave Barry

Sounds good to me.

However, I've always preferred Aristotle's definition of comedy:

Comedy is tragedy which happens to your mother-in-law.

Dave Barry goes on to two rules for writing humor columns:

  • Put the funniest word at the end of the sentence. [See above.]
  • Put the funniest sentence at the beginning of the column.

Now, you know.


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Forget chess. Poker is the game that teaches you the best life lessons.

I lost $80 at pot-limit last night, dammit! And while I can think of a couple of hands where I was optimistic, or calculated the odds wrong, I can think of quite a few hands where I'm not sure I played anything wrong. Would I honestly have folded those three kings if I'd noticed the flush draw on the board? I think I'd have had to stay in, and raised. And would I have folded for $10 when there was $50 in the pot and I had 21 outs to the nut low hand? I don't think so.

Sometimes the cards just don't help you none.

I'm sure I was playing badly. But I played badly two times ago and lucked out big time!

Ahhhh well ... still a game I recommend to anyone interested in showbiz. Nothing will teach you more about negotiation than poker, except lots of negotiation.


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Wednesday, January 12, 2005


Lisa claims that chick flicks are all about the main character's flaws, and guy flicks are about external problems. In a chick flick, the main character creates his or her own problems, and in a guy flick, someone else does.

It's an interesting theory. So, for example, in Sideways, the plot comes about from the main character being a whiny loser (chick flick) who's hung up on his ex-wife, while in Die Hard, the plot occurs because terrorists have taken over the Fox Building. In Casablanca, Rick got Ilsa because the war has separated her from Victor Laszlo; he lost her because she found him again; and he's got her again because he's got the two letters of transit. Then he has to send her away again because the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

See? Guy flick.

Which brought up something I'd noticed about Casablanca. Rick does not seem too broken up over sending Ilsa away. Is it possible that he got what he wanted from her when she came to him that night? He was hurt because she dumped him, but she sleeps with him (I'm convinced, from hints in the plot). That makes him feel better. He doesn't really want her around because she loves Victor, and he doesn't want a girl who can love two guys, i.e. a girl who can love someone in addition to him. So he sends her away again (this time he gets to dump her) and goes off to shoot Germans with Louis.

It's a somewhat cynical view of Rick, but then, he's that kind of guy.


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I just drafted some notes for my agent to respond to a producer, and hit "reply." Unfortunately the original email was from the producer. So off the notes when to the producer.



Fortunately, as it turned out, the email was 95% my arguments for why I should get what I asked for, not what the producer was proposing, so if he reads the email (we asked him to delete it, but who would do that?) it's actually good. I only mentioned two possible compromises, on minor points -- and my agent would have got around to mentioning them sooner or later anyway. So no harm done, I think.

This is a good reason to write all your emails as if they will get read by the wrong side anyway. Because sooner or later, one will.


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Tuesday, January 11, 2005


I've had about enough of Everwood. While I was away I taped an ep which starts with Andy Brown freaking out because his 11 year old daughter was caught kissing in a closet during her birthday party. Lisa says that according to the New York Times (so it must be true), at 13 year old's birthday parties in Manhattan, they're giving blowjobs. Certainly the girls I grew up with lost their virginities at 14 and 15. And he's upset at kissing? How did this guy survive in New York? (He didn't, he moved to Colorado.)

It's getting hard to put up with this show, which seems so anxious to turn back the clock on the sexual revolution. At least, Treat Williams' character is. There was another show where Andy Brown flipped out because his son (who last year got a girl knocked up) was planning to have (safe) sex with his long time girlfriend for the first time. Is this a conscious effort to go back to Father Knows Best, or is it an insidious liberal plot to paint parents who want their kids to stay chaste through high school as utterly insane?

Well, come back at me when Jesse Anne's a teenager but I hope I'm not freaked out if she turns out to have sexual desires before college. Just so she doesn't take rides from Kennedies.


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My efforts at recording tons of stuff while away were only partly successful. Bell ExpressVu's Personal Video Recorder has a few bugs I imagine TiVo doesn't have. It records by time, not by name, so when the event changes, you wind up with recordings of shows you didn't want to record. It does not work reliably when turned off (but plugged in) so you wind up with shows taped but durations of 0:00, which doesn't help -- a "known bug," or as we used to call it in computer science, "an undocumented misfeature." It sometimes clips off the tags of shows -- Bell ExpressVu blames the network airing the show, but that doesn't help me!

And, of course, shows tend to air repeats around the holidays.

And I didn't get back in time to tape 24. Grrr. If this were TiVo I could have contacted my DVR by the Net, couldn't I? Ah well.

I have to remember to tape Point Pleasant on the 19th.


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A reader writes in response to my webpage about how Ophelia's pregnant, suggesting that it's not Hamlet but Claudius who's done the deed.

In act IV scene 5, Ophelia is talking to the king, and she says several things that lead me to believe that she might have had an affair with him. (Starting with her reference to being the king's valentine, and being a maid at his window. Later, Ophelia, speaking to the king, says that "Young men will do it, if they come to it, by Cock they are to blame. Quoth she, 'Before you (the king) tumbled me, you (the king) promised me to wed', and then "he," (referring to the king) answers, according to Oph., 'So I have done, by yonder sun, An thou hadst not come to my bed.')

In act V, scene 1, when Hamlet and Laertes have an argument at the graveside of Ophelia, in which Lar. accuses Hamlet of being the root cause of Ophelia's death, (and, presumably the reason that she shouldn't truly receive a Christian burial due to the suicide??) Hamlet vehemently denies it (says that he will "fight with him on this theme until my eyelids will no longer wag,") and says that he loved Ophelia more than 40,000 brothers, implying that he wouldn't have done this to her.

[...]It seems to me that if this were true, and especially if Hamlet had known about it, it would have further fueled and explained his anger and desire for revenge against the king, who took from Hamlet his father, his mother, and possibly his intended bride???

Hmmm ... I think the evidence is still in favorite of our hero. The King has been busy seducing Gertrude, of course, and there's no reason to suppose he's been two-timing her. Ophelia's song is just a song -- it's not sung to the King. Hamlet may feel horrible about Ophelia's death, but that hardly means he's not to blame; quite aside from anything else, Ophelia probably hoped he'd feel horrible when he heard she'd killed herself. Moreover, if she was bearing the King's illegitimate child, she could reasonably hope that the King would take care of her. Having Hamlet's child, when Hamlet is likely fishfood already, puts Ophelia in a much worse spot.

But I'm glad to see how many people have found the argument that Ophelia should be showing, interesting.


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