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


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Friday, June 30, 2006

Some of you, I know, only check this blog at work. So here's wishing you a happy Fourth of July.

One thing I like to do on July Fourth is read the Declaration of Independence. Out loud. To a crowd. Preferably around a barbecue.

It is a stirring document. It was meant to be. I'm sure the moment it was signed, thousands of copies were run off at Ben Franklin's printing press and rushed to all the towns of North America. And over the next week or so, there would have been gatherings all across the 13 colonies -- and probably in Upper and Lower Canada too -- where someone stood up and read these words:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
And then they would have talked it over. And argued it over. And dissected it. And debated it. Because the whole reason for the Declaration of Independence was that in the thirteen colonies, it mattered what the people thought. They would either have to take arms to support the document. Or relinquish the rights it was demanding.

It is a serious document. It must have scared a lot of people, because it was asking a lot of everybody. After the Declaration, it became very hard to be a neutral. You were either a Loyalist or a Patriot.

I was going to quote less, but it's hard not to simply quote the whole thing. What would you cut?

It is a document both rash and wise.

Rash, because at the time you would have been hard pressed to find a European outside of a university who agreed that all men are created equal. An Iroquois, sure. The Native Americans couldn't understand why some settlers were born "gentlemen" and others weren't. But a European? All men were born to their appointed station in life. While one could change one's station, it was a good thing if everyone stayed where they belonged. And yet the signers called it "self-evident" that all men deserve the same shot at the good life.

But wise, because it essentially says, hey, we're not going off half-cocked here. When you blow up your government, you better have a good reason. And we've got reasons -- "abuses and usurpations." We've been pushed past the limits of our endurance. And we owe the world an explanation for what we're doing.

I can't read through the whole document without choking up. Or getting angry at King George and his Parliament:
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power...
For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury ...
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences...
It's worth remembering, on Independence Day, just what the United States of America meant as an idea; and what it is supposed to mean now. They weren't just declaring independence from George III, they were declaring independence from a whole tradition of one-man rule, from class divisions and from arbitrary justice.

They were also declaring independence for.

For what? And did they succeed?

Worth pondering as you sip your margaritas and grill up your burgers over the long weekend.

Y'all have fun now, hear?



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Bill Cunningham has a very nice, snappy review of Crafty TV Writing on his blog today...


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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Last night I got to listen to myself interviewed on radio. I really enjoyed talking to Darren Levy of WNYU (89.1 in New York). He'd read the book, and he had smart questions that helped me bring out some of what the book has to say, and hopefully answered some of the questions the audience had. You can listen to the show streamed, or download the podcast. It's about half an hour long.

If you guys have any comments or questions about the podcast, please feel free to put them in the comments below.

UPDATE: You can download the last minute (and the answer to the last question) at Darren Levy's Angelfire page. Weirdly, you have to go to this page first, and then go to the next page by putting the following URL into your browser window:


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We had the New York book launch this evening. A very different crowd -- this was a private do, for my friends, and for all of my parents friends who have watched me grow up over the years. I was definitely feeling the love. Also, I sold out my books. I think I'm almost out of copies of my first book, even.

It was great to see my editor, the lovely and talented Flora Esterley, and my publicist, the wily Sarah Klenakis, and her associate, the wired Jason Liebman, and get a chance to offer them some drinks on the house and introduce them to my peeps. Also we got to fête Lisa's various editors for her book (she's on her third editor now) and show the ladies of Crown that we know how to put on a show.

All round, great fun. Sorry you missed it, Ken! Now CRAFTY TV WRITING is well and truly launched, and you all know where to find out how to think inside the box...


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Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Metro: McGill

This Sunday, millions of bubbles fill the sky as we rally at Phillips Place for a massive bubble battle! Beautiful bubbles glimmer and shimmer as the wind carries them in an enchanting, cross-country dance. Join us at 3:00pm with your wildest toys (+ cameras) and let the bubbles soar!
'Nuff said.


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Monday, June 26, 2006

According to the United Nations, 5.2 percent of Dutch 12 and older had used marijuana or hashish in the past year -- less than half the 12.3 percent rate in the United States.

So few Dutch youth are trying heroin that the average age of new addicts in the Netherlands has risen to 33. Cocaine use also is significantly less than in the United States.

"The separation of hard and soft drugs has helped keep people out of the drugs that really marginalize you from society," says Janhuib Blans of Jellinek, a Dutch organization that runs drug prevention, counseling and treatment programs.

Despite the statistics, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton's drug czar, called the Netherlands' drug policy "an unmitigated disaster."
Article in the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times
I've been to Amsterdam. I've been in those coffee shops. And you know what? I didn't smoke up a jay. But I will observe that marijuana, magic mushrooms and prostitution are all legal in Amsterdam and it is one of the most civilized cities I've ever been in. I've never felt safer, not even in Montreal. The streets aren't cleaner, not even in Toronto. Crowds of Czech soccer fans dressed in red were energetically not getting in fights with crowds of Netherlands soccer fans dressed in Orange.

I liked Amsterdam.

Here in Canada, of course, we've legalized gay marriage, and do you know what? Civilization has not collapsed. (Marriage has collapsed in Quebec, but that happened about 20 years ago, when people decided they didn't need the formality. Now we have the most amicable divorces anywhere. People break up, and make a point of living on the same street as each other so the kids can walk back and forth.)

Food for thought.

Oh, and Canada has a budget surplus.


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I'm revising Unseen, which had felt a little young. A 16 year old protagonist doesn't have to mean a tween movie. Just look at Harry Potter. I think what makes a tween movie is soft jeopardy. E.g. What a Girl Wants the jeopardy is ... her father's relations won't like her. Ironically movies for kids usually have harder jeopardy, e.g. the protagonist's death. And, in this case, the jeopardy ought to have been there. Her mother was in danger of death. Her father (whom she hadn't known was alive) was in danger of death. And she was up against deadly critters. Yet, somehow, it felt young.

Part of the problem was I was taking the fear for granted. I wasn't selling the emotion. When the situation implies danger, the actor will give you fear on screen. But to get past the reader, you have to sell it. You have to give us the hero's reactions. If her dialog is tough, you have to show us that she really is scared in spite of the tough talk.

I wasn't doing that enough.

Another thing that was getting in the way of feeling adult was that I was taking the supernatural situations for granted. The story's about a girl thrust into a situation she would previously have thought was the stuff of fairy tales. And I jumped the gun on that. As I wrote it, I wasn't very interested in the experience of the heroine doubting the reality of her situation. After all, I knew it was real. So I emotionally fast-forwarded through those scenes.

Consequence: hard to take the situation seriously. Because the heroine wasn't taking it seriously.

Now I'm letting the moments where she doubts her own grasp on reality breathe. And it's feeling much more grown-up.

Unless you're an actor, you probably try to avoid emotional pain in your life. But emotional pain is compelling on screen; it is the basis for drama. If you elide the pain, you'll throw a wet blanket on the drama. That gets you a James Bond movie. Which is okay, if you have $200 million to spend on spectacle. And even then it's not that great.

Follow the pain. If something in a scene is pushing you away -- is urging you to skip ahead, is making you uncomfortable -- that's a good sign that you're on to something. Push back. Push into the pain. That's going to provide a compelling scene.


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Sunday, June 25, 2006

We're watching Lawrence of Arabia. One thing I'm particularly loving is how the English dialog manages to convey the feeling for the Arabic that the characters are (really) speaking without ever feeling stilted. What made Lawrence so effective was his true mastery of Arabic -- not just the language, but its idioms, its way of thinking, its worldview. The cinematography of the desert is beautiful, but Bolt's understanding of how a powerless madman like Lawrence with a perfect understanding of the Bedouins manages to whip, wheedle and forge them into an army using just words ... well, it is a thing of far rarer beauty. I am struggling to think offhand of a movie whose dialog is so consistently excellent. Worth another look if you haven't seen it in the past five years.


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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Q. I was wondering if my chances of having a screenplay sold are any better if I already know a potential director. A good friend of mine from college graduated last year and is heading off to film school to direct. I was thinking that if I've written a decent screenplay by the time he is done with film school I might approach him and see if he would be interested in taking on the project.
Attaching a director has pluses and minuses. The plus is that someone other than you is now taking the project around. If someone wants to make a movie with him, and he wants to make your picture, then maybe they'll want to make your movie.

The minus is that if they don't think your director friend is that great, then any interest they might have had in your script dies, because now it's got an albatross around its neck.

In this case, it doesn't sound like your director friend brings anything to the party. If someone likes your idea, but doesn't think you've executed it that well, they can rewrite you. But if they think your director friend needs more experience, all they can do is reject the project.

Attaching any director or actor does not help your project. What helps is attaching a bankable director or actor, or a director or actor that a company with money wants to work with.


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[POLITICS] I was just listening to Fleetwood Mac, "Don't Stop." Which was not only Bill Clinton's campaign song, it is perfectly appropriate for his presidency. Not just the "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow ... It'll be / better than before," but also, "Though I know you don't believe that it's true, I never meant any harm to you."


Every time I hear that song, I miss Bill.

How about this for a Democratic political slogan: "You Deserve Better"?

Much more succinct than "From the party that brought you 8 years of news so good, we actually had time to care about the President's sex life."


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Friday, June 23, 2006

I had a fun interview with Darren Levy of WNYU New York (89.1 FM). Darren tells me it will air this Tuesday, June 27 from 7:30-8pm on WNYU 89.1 FM New York and it will stream over the internet at After the show airs, you can download the podcast here.


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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Alex's book launch
Originally uploaded by Martyne.
As Martyne says, "MJ looks dreamily at Alex Epstein's new book about screenwriting for television, Crafty TV Writing, which was being launched in Montreal tonight (June 21st)."


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Just a few of the hundred or so people who came to the launch party for Crafty TV Writing last night and stayed long past dinner time...

Ezra Soiferman (co-head of the Montreal Film Group, which hosted the event) preaches the doctrine of being crafty...
Ezra's preaching proved successful. They bought books, and sinned no more.
(Photos courtesy Laurie Nyveen.)


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Many thanks to Paul from Paragraphe Books, who was instrumental in getting the good word out there...


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I'm currently without an agent outside the territory of Quebec. (I left my previous one, and I haven't decided on a new one.) What I'm finding most frustrating about this at the moment is the lack of good advice. After Banff I don't need an agent to submit projects to producers or even network executives for me. All I need to do is follow up on the meetings I had. And I'm not currently negotiating anything. But I'd like to have someone to check in with. I've got a bunch of pitches I revised after the festival. Are they in as good shape as they seem to be to me? Are they the right length? The right scope? Should I send them out this week? Next week? Should I hit more than one network at once?

A good agent sends your samples out and negotiates jobs. A great agent helps you figure out what direction to put your efforts; a great agent has a game plan. A good agent is a broker. A great agent is a coach.

That said, ultimately, you have to make your own decisions. No one is as heavily invested in your career as you. (Okay, maybe your mother.) You'll have to live with the consequences. That gives you a level of focus that an agent won't have. While an agent can know far more specific information about what people are looking for, you have far more specific information about what inspires you; and what inspires you, you'll write more inspiringly than what does not. The middle ground -- how the whole system works and what the current trends are -- you can get out of a book (hopefully, mine!) and by reading the trades. So your agent really only knows 50% more than you -- the details. If her advice feels wrong, you should respect it, and her, but you may not want to take it, or at least not take it very far.



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For the hundred or so of you who attended the launch party last night, thank you for coming! We sold a stack of books, and the party lasted about twice as long as planned. Ah, it is ever thus in Montreal. The party just goes on and on!

A special thanks to the Cinémathèque Québecoise. Now that it's summer and we can use the terrasse, it's a spectacular space for a big crowd; and the film vibe is a plus.

I think I'll go take some more aspirin now.


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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Q. I had an agent ask to read a short of mine.... I sent it to her on the 6th of June and she hasn't responded as of yet. ... I know the old cliche is "hurry up and wait," but waiting is always easier said than done, especially when you are trying to get "out there." I don't want to bother her at all, but if the answer is "shove-it," I'd just like to hear it.
In my experience, nudging people to read something rarely accomplishes anything. If they want to read it, they will. If they like it, they will call. For my own sanity's sake, I try to just move on to the next.

Sometimes I can't stand it and I call anyway. But when I've had to call, I don't think the answer has ever been "yes."

The same is not true of one's own agent. Getting your agent to read your stuff is often exactly a matter of nudging -- gently, positively, upbeat-ly, but nudging. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. But then they've already decided you're worth reading.


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Monday, June 19, 2006

There's a new screenwriting program about to come out, and it's called Montage. Laurie Nyveen has written a nice review of it on his blog. It's about half as expensive as Final Draft, and that is a point in its favour.

I'll take a look at it when the release comes out (it's still in Beta). My question, though, which I hope the program will answer, is: why do I need another screenwriting program? What could a screenwriting program do for me that would enable me to write better screenplays faster? Final Draft is pretty intuitive on Mac, and I think they've finally got the bugs out of Final Draft 7; Final Draft 6 has been perfectly good for years. What I need is a software tool that gives me an electric shock every time I start surfing instead of writing...


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Today I'm featured in Vinay Menon's column in the Toronto Star, writing about Banff. Thanks, Vinay! Try this link to read it.


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Sunday, June 18, 2006

[Being a journalist] got stuff I wrote into print. There is nothing for a young author that teaches you how to get better faster than reading something you wrote in print -- suddenly every mistake, every infelicity, every laziness, shows up as if in neon letters.

And the process of transcribing conversations forced me to learn to write dialogue and learn the economies of getting speech patterns into just a few words. (Dialogue -- even "naturalistic dialogue" -- isn't how people speak. So you need to learn to distill.)
Neil Gaiman, in his blog entry, What to Do When You're Crap at 23
I took a creative writing class from Kenneth Koch, back in the day. The most useful thing he ever told us was that you don't have a fixed stock of words, like a woman has a fixed stock of ova, and when you run out, you're done. The more you write, the easier it gets to write. If you're stressing about what you're writing, decide whether it's useful stress. If it's useful, keep going: the stress you feel is the pain of digging deep to find something really good. If the stress is truly blocking you, go write something else.

The young woman I mentioned a little while ago, struggling with her drama, dashed off a horror movie outline which is getting interest. I suggested to her that she write the horror movie. It might free up the drama.

The other useful thing he told us was that people who write successful crap are writing at the top of their ability. Jacqueline Susanne is not writing down to her audience. If she were, she wouldn't sell the numbers she does. Never write crap because you think that's what the audience wants. It won't be good crap. If you have a popular-type muse, your books will be popular. If you have an artistic muse, Lord help you, your books will be artistic. But you'll never do better by second guessing yourself. If you try to write popular when that's not how your muse works, you'll just write unsuccessful artistic books.

Incidentally, I was particularly sorry that Professor Koch, may he rest in peace, died only a week or two before my first book come out. He always said he was terrified I'd become a successful TV writer. (Fortunately, my muse is not inordinately artistic.)I wish I'd been able to tell him I'd got stuff on the air.


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Q. Asking as a fan of the books and the movies, I have a question for you: can you think of a way the Scouring could have still been kept without it feeling like the movie was dragging even more?
Sure. Make it a more hobbit-centric movie. Set up the movie emotionally so that we remember that the reason the hobbits are exposing themselves utterly unhobbitlike to danger is to save the Shire. Instead of fond memories of the Shire, they worry about the Shire. They're doing this for the Shire. So the Shire becomes much more important than Gondor.

So when they get home and the Shire is in trouble, it is worse than having hordes of orcs outside Minas Tirith. Minas Tirith is just a human city. But now the Shire is in trouble.

I once wrote an adaptation of The Odyssey. (You can read the first five pages in my first book, in the Appendix.) The odd thing about The Odyssey is that the last adventure is just Odysseus dealing with a bunch of humans. He's knocked off a Kyklops, dallied with a witch, been imprisoned by a nymph, endured shipwreck, had his men eaten by cannibals ... and now all he's facing are a bunch of suitors for Penelope's hand. They're not even soldiers, these guys -- they skipped the war.

But the humans are in his house, and they are threatening his family. The family he's been struggling to get home to. And, by the way, they are his subjects. So it is all much more personal and emotional. He can run away from Polyphemos. All the previous threats he can deal with in one of a hundred ways -- and he is a man of many tricks. The suitors, though, he can't run from.

Remember, it's not how important things are. It's how important things are to the main character. That's why we can watch a love story set in wartime and not think, "Who the hell cares whether these two kids get together? Hitler's trying to conquer the world!" So if you know you're ending with the Scouring of the Shire, make us feel that the Shire is the thing Frodo most cares about. Which it already is -- you just have to make us feel that.


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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Watched The Return of the King again, the extended version, though I fast-forwarded through any bit where Sam's weeping, so it didn't take that long.

I still think a really great ending would have been for Frodo and his hobbit friends to get back to the Shire ... and no one there has the slightest clue that there was a great battle, and all of Middle Earth was in danger, and now it's saved, and everyone almost died. And they just listen to Frodo and Sam tell their stories, and assume it's all a bunch of made-up adventures. And that is just fine with them. In fact, it's what they were confronting Sauron for. So that the Shire could go on blissfully not knowing how dark things can get.

You can say, "But that wasn't in the book," but then I will see you and raise you The Scouring of the Shire.


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Q. The way to indicate phone and walkie-talkie conversations between two characters seems to be somewhat overlooked in most guides for proper screenplay writing etiquette. Is this just done as a (V.O.) or an (O.C.) when the replying character is not physically present in the scene? I seem to remember reading somewhere an indication of (FILTER) could be used as well. This seems to make the most sense to me, but is it proper?
I usually use (ON PHONE). I mean, why be technical? I also use (ON TV) to indicate that someone is talking on the TV.

All screenwriting conventions are there to make it easier to get the film into the reader's head. I'd prefer to be clear than to be traditional.


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Friday, June 16, 2006

Q. I have decided to write a free and open source screenwriting outline tool. I want it to be simple, cross-platform and useful. I believe you say you write off of beat sheets, and I just thought I might ask what features you would look for in a tool, and what paradigm you would want it to use. Should it recreate notecards or use an outlining paradigm...or both. My current thoughts are that a perfect solution would be a heirachical notecard tool, which can be set up with different templates. So you might have a stack of cards which represent an act, and that act contains a set of sequence stacks, which contains a set of scene cards. I would like to make templates configurable.
I'm not sure I really need a special outlining tool. I sometimes do notecards -- real ones I can lay out on a table -- which I then put into a Final Draft document, but really it could be a Word doc or any word processor.

I've used Final Draft's scene navigator tool, and it's nice to be able to move scenes around easily. But outlining is not really where I feel I need gadgets.

But what do you guys feel. What tools could you use in a free screenwriting outline tool?


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Q. What are your thoughts on writing screenplays for existing franchises? For example, there are currently three X-MEN films to date. If I were to write a screenplay for a 4th sequel, would the approach be the same as it would for original screenplays? Or is this a more difficult situation than what you've suggested in your writing so far?
I've discussed this in my book and on my FAQ, but the headline is: don't write sequels unless you've been hired to do it. For legal reasons, production companies and studios will not even read them.

If you have been hired to write a sequel, then I'd say your goal is to figure out two things. The first is, what fans of the earlier films need to see in the sequel to feel satisfied. The more important one is: is there anything exciting in the concept of the franchise that you feel the series has missed. For example, Batman Begins delivers the goods on the darkness in Bruce Wayne's heart in a way the earlier films don't; and it gives you convincing reasons why a man might actually dress up in a batsuit and beat the crap out of criminals and survive doing it. Another way of looking at the second question is: how do I make this series personal to me?

A few months ago I was asked to pitch a new Witchboard movie. My goal was to figure out why people watch that franchise, and what's cool about it; and to figure out how to make the franchise even cooler. I won't tell you what I pitched, but there are aspects of the franchise I find lame and aspects I find cool. My pitch was as much about the latter as I could make it and still deliver the goods I thought any Witchboard movie needs to deliver.


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My interview with Alan Rothman is now at 1:30 EST on Sunday. They should be archiving it about a week after that. Again, you can find a station that carries Alan's nationally syndicated show here, or you can listen to him over the Net.


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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Banff was spectacular. The town is smack in the middle of the Rockies. Aspen is a wide valley in the Rockies, but in Banff, the mountains rise right on the outskirts of town. Those are some mighty big hunks of rock, with trees climbing barely halfway up their craggy slopes. Slopes is not always the word. Many of the mountains look like slabs of ocean bottom ripped up like so much broken asphalt, which means if one side is a slope, the other side is a rock face you wouldn't want to climb without rope. It is an untamed landscape that reminds you just how small you are.

So it is even more impressive that Banff is on the route of the Canada Pacific Railway, which joins the East and West Coasts. Banff is on the easiest route through the Rockies.

The Banff Springs Hotel overlooks a turn in the Bow River, a frigid alpine river that pours out of the mountains into Calgary. It's not there because the spot is picturesque. There are few spots in the area that are not picturesque. It's there because of the sulfur hot springs above it. It was built in the 20's as a Canadian spa in the old sense of the word: a place for really rich tourists to come and veg out while avoiding the heat of summer. It is as glorious a hotel as you could ask for. Try it some time, Ken.

The festival was a blast. It was productive in the vague sense that almost all showbiz meetings are. I brought my pig and my goat and my sheep to market, and I sang their praises, and various people in a position to buy livestock said that they were a very pretty sheep and a very clever goat and nice fat pig, and they would take home my pictures of them and see how they felt about them when they were back in their corral and they had a better sense of their immediate livestock needs.

Some meetings were even vaguer than that. In those meetings, people said they'd heard about my success raising livestock, and were happy to meet me and put a face to the name, and they'll keep me in mind when they have a pig that needed raising.

Or something like that.

I probably packed 3 months of meetings into three days, and they were better meetings in many ways than I could have had outside of a festival. You get to meet producers and network execs on equal ground. Instead of you coming to their office, and waiting, and being shown in by their assistant, you're both sitting at a crappy table in a big hall, or drinking in an even bigger hall. The wine does a lot for the process.

Now we'll see what actually comes of the trip. I've got my stuff out there. Now either it is what people want, or it is not...

Oh, right: Banff events. I went to a couple of master classes but I didn't find them all that compelling. In the master classes I attended, the questioners didn't ask the most illuminating question, so all we got were the usual you-are-with-them-at-the-pub war stories. Fun to hear, but not all that useful, unless you also have an agent who knows the right people at FX Channel. I hear Ali LeRoi was great, but I didn't get to catch his master class. You'll have to check out Denis's blog for a fuller report on the master classes, or W C Dixon's for an impression of what broadcasters are looking for now.

Now, for a weekend just the Pikapie and me, as Hunter spends a weekend with his papa, and Lisa goes off to do a panel at the Affordable Art Fair in NY.


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I'll be doing a call-in radio interview next Sunday, June 18, at 1:30 pm EST/ 10:30 a.m. PST, on Alan Rothman's "Business of Success" show. You can find a station that carries Alan's nationally syndicated show here, or you can listen to him over the Net.

I believe the webcasts are archived, so you shouldn't have to tie your schedule in knots...


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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

We're at the dregs of the festival. It's a bit weird because you're no longer running into people you haven't seen recently. Now you're running into people you've met with and chatted with. Over and over. It's a little embarrassing. You have nothing new to say to them (unless you are having a very, very good festival indeed).

I've done all my meetings, and many people have already taken off. I'm skipping the rest of the panel on The Future of TV in Canada (which seems to be Nobody Knows). The awards they'll announce in half an hour or so. The place is starting to feel like a party when the crowd is leaving, and it hasn't yet settled down to the hardcore people who are going to stay until dawn. Maybe half the people will have cleared out before the barbecue tonight, I'm guessing. My plane is tomorrow, so I'm staying for the Alberta corn-fed beef. Next time I'm going to come for a little longer than the festival and actually enjoy the Rockies. I wanna go on a trail ride!


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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Around 9:20 this morning I went up on stage, stared into a bunch of bright lights, behind which were hiding about 200 people, and started murmuring into the microphone. Now that it's over, I can relax and enjoy the rest of the festival.

I don't mind getting up in front of people, but doing it with a four minute time limit is rough. I actually managed to remember my entire pitch without spacing out once. The hard thing was remembering to breathe.

I hope I answered the jury's questions intelligently. Or, at least, intelligibly. I'm sure I gave an impression of knowing the answer; whether I communicated my answer well, Lord (and possibly wcdixon, I guess) knows.

I think the pitch went off well, though I can't say I've heard from any broadcasters or producers. I don't think any of my fellow pitchers have, really. I have had interest from some very good producers and one top director who's superenthusiastic -- that's based on pitching the same project retail.

We'll see who wins the award tomorrow. But the real award I'm hoping for is someone hiring me to write the damn pilot. That will prove it's a viable concept, I believe; but more importantly, I just want to write it.

More meetings (and even some master classes) soon!


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Monday, June 12, 2006

After a day of meetings at the Banff International Television Festival, I am beat. Of course at 6 pm the day is not over. There is the Awards Gala to go to, and then later on, the St. James Gate Pub to visit. I am contemplating cutting the day short since I'm pitching tomorrow. I'm not sure if that's sanity or laziness talking, and I'm too tired figure it out.

It's amazing how tiring walking around and chatting with people can be. But then, it's amazing how tiring sitting at a keyboard, or breaking storycan be. I gather our brains use something like 20% of all our energy. I don't know if heavy thinking and emoting truly requires more calories than watching The Simpsons, but it feels like they do. They definitely require more mana.

The Banff Springs Hotel is a spectacular grand hotel built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 20's for very wealthy tourists. The location, in the middle of the Rockies, is gorgeous -- by a bend in the Bow River, with steep crags rising up on all sides, sometimes shrouded in mist, in the winter covered in snow. Either it's tragic that the only time I go to places as grand as this is when it's work, or it's wonderful that I can write it off.

I was able to get to one actual Banff event, a talk by Paul Haggis. The writer of Crash talked about how he started writing with no particular plan, just took two characters off on a toot until they ran into some other characters, and so on. I hope all the young writers who were in the audience don't think that's the way to write. Paul wrote Crash after writing sitcoms and TV drama for 20 years. At a certain point you internalize story structure and you can try the highwire without a net. It can waste a lot of time if story structure isn't in your brain already. I'm working with a charming young woman who has a character she wants to write a movie about, but the movie doesn't seem to come, because she's not sure what the story is, or she lets herself get so caught up in the scenes that she loses the movie they're there to support.

Of course it's your own trip, so be my guest, but please be aware that there's a warning on that one.

And to all you crazy CFC kids here at the fest: keep workin' it, baby! Show the love, and it will come back to you.



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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Q. I just read a TV pilot (it's a possible mid-season replacement, but no epi orders yet) that is set in the same world as the original spec I've been laboring over like an idiot for a year and a half. Should I move on (maybe recycle the idea as a feature/backdoor pilot) or just finish the damn thing and call think of it as an uber-sample? I haven't sold anything yet, so it was mostly a sample anyway....
For the most part, your spec pilot is a sample, anyway. So long as it doesn't feel like your show is a rip-off of the other show, you can still use it.

Also, there may be room for competing series in the same world. Not at the same network. But each network has a very specific flavor it's looking for. The Sopranos may be on HBO, but that doesn't mean there's no room for a gangster cartoon comedy on Fox.

Anyway, you've spent a year and a half on this thing. Finish it, send it out, and next time don't spend a year and a half on a spec!



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The Walking With Dinosaurs people have made an even cleverer series, Chased by Dinosaurs, which sends a TV naturalist, Nigel Marven, back in time to pursue "elusive" critters like armored Devonian fish, Therizinosaurus (the "great claw" of the Jurassic), and mososaurs. The shows are a dead ringer for real naturalist shows. They've got a great moment in their boat, where they've sent their cameraman underwater for a "pre-scout," and they're all watching the tape he came back with, and there's the Dunkleosteus on the telly in the boat... just as if they'd really scouted the area for the giant killer armored fish. If you didn't know that time travel is fictional, you'd be convinced. The environments are convincing (real? who knows?) and Nigel's (painful!) interaction with sea scorpions and other critters is utterly convincing.

Worth a look. Especially if you're pals with a smart kid.


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Friday, June 09, 2006

I have 26 meetings scheduled at the Banff Worldwide Television Festival. That's not counting whoever I bump into at cocktail parties, or my pitch session in front of a crowd.

Banff is an expensive festival. Unlike Cannes, say, where it's the flight and the hotels that nick you -- you can pretty much meet everybody if you keep walking up and down the Croisette -- Banff is all in a hotel, and they won't let you in the hotel without registering. For a couple thousand bucks.

So I figure I'm paying about $100 a meeting. Would you pay $100 for a meeting?


The answer, of course, ought to be: yes, if it's a real meeting with someone who can get you hired or get your material bought. Let's say you spend $25,000 a year to live. There are, say, 250 work days in a year. That means it costs you $100 a day to live. If the result of a meeting is one fewer day goes by before you're hired, that meeting is worth $100.

If you look at it from a salary point of view, if the result of a meeting is one fewer day goes by before you're making $1000 a day (par for a tv staff writer), that meeting is worth $1000.

So when you're wondering whether you really wanna go to that showbiz party -- it doesn't sound like fun, you won't know anyone, you'll just stand by the snacks ogling actresses -- pay yourself $100 to go to the party and work it like it was a job. Better, pay yourself $1000.

If you convince yourself you're getting paid $1000 to go to that party and work it -- you'll do a much better job working it, won't you? You won't get bored talking to boring people -- you'll really work to find out (a) why they're actually fascinating and (b) whom they know who can help you.

Meetings are only half the equation. You must be able to deliver the goods as a writer. But no one gets a job in TV without meeting people; and almost no feature writers do either.



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Jane Espenson is learning Egyptian hieroglyphics so she can read the walls at the Luxor, among other things. And that's cool. (Is there anything about Jane that isn't?)

One thing that bugs me about anquities in museums is when they don't translate the inscriptions. The Met in New York has yards and yards of Assyrian bas-relief covered with cuneiform. It would be too much to get a grad student to translate the sucker, and put up a small plaque nearby? So we can know whether it's saying "Here's all the cities I crushed lately" or "No smoking in the washroom, smoke detectors will go off"?

The Assyrians made those things to communicate. They wrote all over their monuments! How can you appreciate the sculpture if you don't know what it, literally, says?


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Q. So the 'cover' of the script is just a blank white sheet of 80 lb. cardstock? There is nothing on it to indicate who's or what it is?

Q. What do you even call those fold-over card covers? I've tried Googling but come up with zilch. Never even seen 'em for sale in the UK.
Your front and back cover of a script are both blank cardstock. They don't have to be white. Any color that's not too precious is fine. Of course, if you have representation, your agency should have their own covers, which will have their logo. CAA has snazzy red-and-white foldover covers.

I had fold-over covers made for me at my local copy shop once (LA Print & Copy, 1716 S. Sepulveda at Santa Monica Blvd. (310) 479-6700). They just took 17" x 11" cardstock, cut it to about 9 1/2" x 11 (instead of 8 1/2"), punched holes, and had their folding machine fold'em.

Often people just use the fold-over covers for the back of the script (where the brads get pointy) and plain covers for the front.

As people get more wired, I've been noticing more scripts floating around without cardstock covers... can anyone confirm if that's a trend?


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Thursday, June 08, 2006

As of May 31, it's no longer legal to smoke in a bar in Montreal. I know, we're a little behind California. The French influence extends to cheap day care and too much smoking. (Though, weirdly, there is very little contact between France and Quebec, except among highbrow intellectual circles. Montreal looks to New York more than anywhere else.)

On the other hand, I've noticed a resurgence of smoking in pictures ever since Pulp Fiction. For a while there, the only smokers on screen were villains and nutcases. Lately I've seen a few too many Cool Smokers.

Now kids, say what you will about film having to follow reality. If you're writing a tv series about fashion models, you have to have them all smoking like chimneys. 'Cause models do.

I call bullshit, to quote John Rogers. There's lots of things we don't put on screen that people do. I'm not just talking about going to the bathroom. I'm talking about taking forever to say something meaningful. TV and film are constructed realities. All you owe the audience is the emotional truth.

'Cause the only reason kids pick up smoking is to be cool. (Very few people are dumb enough to pick up the habit past 18. Which is why they invented Joe Camel.) If you make smoking look cool, you're convincing kids to smoke.

Personally, I think making a character cool by having them smoke is a crutch. Actors love to smoke on screen because then they don't have to put so much into the acting. Same thing in the action description. Give a character a cigarette and you can tell us all about how he's puffing, and that's so much easier than finding the right words to convey what we're seeing on his face, or the right words for him to say that seem like nothing but convey so much.

Some will argue that it is not our responsibility as writers to make society better. I disagree. It's everybody's responsibility to make society better, and we have more leverage than most. That doesn't mean you can't do The Sopranos; a convincing portrait of bad people can ask questions and open up conversations just as well as, or better than, a puff piece about Dr. Lucile. And I loooooved Thank You For Smoking.

There's "If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem." And, "In order for evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing."

At a minimum, don't make things worse.

So: butts out onscreen. Villains and neurotics. It may seem like a cliché, but it's a cliché that there's something cool about cigarettes, too. There isn't.


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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Part seven in my interview with Tom Fontana, creator or co-creator of OZ, THE JURY, TATTINGER'S, THE BEAT, and THE BEDFORD DIARIES...

CRAFTY TV: When you're creating a show, are you analytical about the core cast you need? Do you decide how big a core cast you want and then fill in the positions? Do you try to have a love interest, a nemesis, a mentor? Or do you start with springboards?

TF: There's no hard and fast rule. Sometimes I think, "Here's a great arena to work in. Who'd be the people in this world?" Or, I think of a character, and I try to fill in around him or her. Certainly with a show like OZ, you think, here's the environment. Then I went back and looked at the individual characters and tried to think about them as people first. Then I thought, okay, that's who he was on the outside, now put him in this environment and how does that change him? Or doesn't it change him?

CRAFTY TV: How far ahead do you arc out your episodes? Do you really know what your 100th episode is?

TF: Five episodes. What I think happens if you get too much further than that is by the time you get to the 7th episode, so much has changed in the first five that it's almost useless to have a writer do a draft that far in advance. Also you'll write a part and cast a part and the actor doesn't deliver and it's not going anywhere, and you have to reduce the role; or the actor is so interesting, and you think, let's add a scene. Or boy, he really plays off her great, let's put them together more.

CRAFTY TV: Obviously that lends itself better to a certain kind of drama than to, say, 24 or LOST where there's a big climax or secret you're building up to.

TF: Yes, my shows are all more evolving interpersonal drama, not what's in the hatch. We try to figure it out as we go, alongside the actors. It's a creative process, it's jumping into the void.

CRAFTY TV: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me!
TF: You're welcome.



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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Montreal Film Group
and H. B. Fenn & Company

cordially invite you to

A Book Launch Party

to celebrate the publication of

Crafty TV Writing

Wednesday, June 21

5-7+ pm

at the Café of the Cinéma Québecoise

335 de Maisonneuve Est

Montreal H2X 1K1

Cash bar; signed books will be available for sale

There will be events in other cities, as I get to them...!


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Q. I have written a screenplay inspired by the universe originally created by [writer] in which [critters] have taken over the world. Although my own hook, story, characters and dialogue differ from any of his currently made films, there is one similarity in the opening sequence of mine to the opening sequence in one of his.
This is a question of fact, not of law, and facts are determined by juries. And you want to stay away from juries.

Does one similarity constitute illegal violation of copyright? Probably not.

Can they sue you? Probably. Anyone with a thousand bucks can file a suit.

Will they sue you? Probably not. Who needs the headache?

Will it get thrown out of court? Maybe. But probably not -- cases are usually dismissed only if the judge believes the plaintiff would lose even if the facts are as he alleges.

So you gotta ask yourself a question: are you feeling lucky?

One the other hand, movies rip each other off all the time. If your [critter] film has a similarity to another [critter] film, many will consider an homage, a parody or a shout-out. George Lucas doesn't get to copyright the idea of an opening crawl that recedes into the background, though he could probably sue you on trademark grounds, unless you're doing a parody, in which case you're probably okay.

But copyright is not your main problem. The script will get rewritten before it gets to the screen anyway. But anyone reading your script who likes [critter] films will remember [writer]'s opening sequence and think, Jeez, this guy didn't even bother to come up with a fresh opening! And chuck your script into the recycle bin.

Your first idea is rarely your best. Why not use the similarity as a wake-up call. Come up with something fresher -- and more personal to your own creative perspective!

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Dear faithful blog readers:

If you have read my new book, Crafty TV Writing, and you liked it, please feel free to post a review at!

Thank you.



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Part six in my interview with Tom Fontana, creator or co-creator of OZ, THE JURY, TATTINGER'S, THE BEAT, and THE BEDFORD DIARIES...

CRAFTY TV: I notice your credits are all on TV. Do you ever get great feature film ideas? And if so what do you do with'em?

I don't really. I was a playwright before TV and not particularly good nor successful playwright. TV makes sense, I don't know why, for the talent that I have. I don't think to myself, what I really want to do is write features. I love working in TV. I love the scope of TV, and the ability to tell the kinds of stories we tell. A lot of the movies are made for 12 year olds. I don't know what I could contribute there.

Having said that I'm writing a novel for Harper Collins; and that is as intimidating a way to spend one's time as any writer can conceive of. I'm doing a BATMAN graphic novel, I find working on that fascinating. So it's not like I don't want to do other kinds of writing. But if I were going to write a movie, I'd write it for HBO.

CRAFTY TV: But would you do a movie for Martin Scorsese, if not for twelve year olds?

TF: I guess also being a writer/Executive Producer, I'm used to conceiving and casting and being on the set and doing the final edit. It would be hard for me to go from that to being the least important person on the set. Feature screenwriters don't get the respect they deserve.

CRAFTY TV: Do you spend a lot of time on the set? And when you're not there, do you send a writer to supervise the shooting?

TF: I spend as much time as possible on the set. I get up at 5:30 to write, and they usually start shooting at 7 or 7:30. So I tend to miss the early morning work. But I'm available, at least, by phone. If I'm not there, there's a writer/producer or staff writer on the set to make sure everyone's on the right track and to help solve any problems that may come up.



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Monday, June 05, 2006

Part five in my interview with Tom Fontana, creator or co-creator of OZ, THE JURY, TATTINGER'S, THE BEAT, and THE BEDFORD DIARIES...

CRAFTY TV: Do you believe in show bibles?

TF: I believe in show bibles after the episodes have aired. I like to keep a bible of everything that's come before, so that the people who are going to write the next season can see what has been done, or what's the background. I don't believe in bibles before a show starts because it's too restrictive. You can make up a lot of stuff in your head and invariably you discover in the second season that a plot point doesn't work. Maybe he doesn't have a brother, he has a sister, because a story where a sister comes in would be more interesting. Or, someone says, we can get you Julianna Margulies if you change it to a woman. That's better than doing the story with Murray Schwartz.

CRAFTY TV: Really have it in for Murray Schwartz, don't you?

TF: Yeah, poor Murray. So you could get too stuck in your bible. Having said that, once I've established something about the character, once the audience knows a fact about the character, that's sacrosanct, it has to remain true to that character. Once it's aired, you can't go back and rewrite history.

CRAFTY TV: I've heard that networks sometimes look only at the pilot before they greenlight. Is that your experience, and do you know of anyone who's painted themselves into a corner with a great pilot that doesn't make an easy show to write?

TF: I would say the David Lynch show TWIN PEAKS, which was brilliant, but also had nowhere to go. Not that they discovered that after the pilot ... they finally realized that at the end of the first season. And there was a show I worked on with Bruce Paltrow, TATTINGER'S, immediately after ST. ELSEWHERE. We had an idea for the pilot, we shot the pilot, and then we spent the next 13 episodes trying to figure out what the series was. One week it was a serious drama, next week it was a screwball comedy. From the writing point of view it was a lot of fun, but it totally confused the audience. You can experiment with the form, but you have to earn that right. On ST. ELSEWHERE and HOMICIDE, we experimented, we went off in crazy ways. But that was only after we'd established the template for the show. Or the masterful example is M*A*S*H. That show was consistently excellent, and then years into it it, they started to screw around with the format. You'd have episodes with completely different points of view, tone... it was thrilling to watch and not know what to expect. But first they established what the basic show was.

CRAFTY TV: Some shows have been described as hybrid genre, e.g. DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES has been explained as a drama, a comedy, a mystery and a farce, and LOST has been described as science fiction or mystery or straight drama. Do you worry about whether a show you're creating is in a recognizable genre? Do you think the audience cares? Did, for example, FIREFLY fail for genre reasons, or for other reasons?

TF: I think that part of the weight that hour dramas carry with them now is that, with all these reality shows, what was acceptable drama ten years ago seems wimpy and quiet. There's an expectation now that all drama shows have to be amped up to a certain extent. Which is probably why a show like THE WEST WING declined in popularity. It certainly didn't decline in quality. They didn't get wacky, they stayed the course. And that kind of drama is almost too tame. You can watch a reality show and see things get hopped up. It makes sense that LOST and GREY'S ANATOMY and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES are popular now. Because they're beyond reality television. They go a step beyond reality. Look at CSI, a show that has nothing to do with reality - that's not a criticism, it's an observation, there is nothing in those shows that is anything like the way a real crime is handled. I don't know if you could do a drama series in a real way these days.



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[POLITICS] The Senate is going to be voting soon to repeal the estate tax. This is a tax on bequests over $2 million -- only one in 200 estates pay any tax at all.

The Republicans will talk about family farms, though no one has ever really lost a family farm because they had to pay tax on the over-$2 million part of a family farm. As Paul Krugman points out, this is a tax on Paris Hilton.

From a tactical point of view, let's start calling this the "Paris Hilton Relief Act." I think that might help explain it to people who have a gut objection to an estate tax, but don't realize that they are never, ever going to benefit from the elimination of the tiny estate tax the US still has.


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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Principal component analysis is a mathematical process for finding the underlying structure of data. If you have n dimensions of data -- say you have all the genetic markers in a population -- you can extract the "principal components," which are the ways in which the data tend to vary. That is, for example, if you take genetic markers in a population with European and African ancestry, how curly your hair is will tend to vary in the same way that your skin color varies, which may also vary with how likely you are to have sickle cell genes (an African trait). The "first principal component" would be the sum of all traits that vary with how much African ancestry you have. I bring up ancestry because of the fascinating studies of genetic markers by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who found that the first principle component in European populations seems to indicate how much of your ancestry comes from European hunter-gatherers, and how much of it comes from the spreading population of Near Eastern farmers.

It occurs to me that you could extract principle componens from the huge database of song titles and their listening patterns on a site like That ought to give you a sense what the real genres of music are -- much like DNA analysis can tell us what the real tree of descent of the animal kingdom is, while observed traits sometimes gets you faux classes like "pachyderms."

If you know what the real musical genres are -- the real streams of musical thought -- you might get a little further figuring out what musical genres are and why they exist, on the esthetic and the biological level.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

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Bill Cunningham writes:
I just wanted to remind everyone that the Scifi Channel is premiering [his movie] Scarecrow and its sequel Scarecrow Slayer back-to-back on Thursday, June 8th at 7pm / 6 central. Please check your local listings. Have plenty of popcorn and beer on hand.
. Personally I think Bill should host a gathering. Huh Bill?


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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Part four in my interview with Tom Fontana, creator or co-creator of OZ, THE JURY, TATTINGER'S, THE BEAT, and THE BEDFORD DIARIES...

CRAFTY TV: What do you think of the move to five act structure on some broadcast networks (e.g. ABC)? Does it change anything fundamental? Or are we just looking at a long tag?

TF. We're there. A lot of the networks are moving to five acts. It's a tricky thing. Barry Levinson and I did THE BEAT on UPN, another short-lived show with Mark Ruffalo, about two uniformed cops in Manhattan. Some of it was about their personal life, some was about being cops. Since they're beat cops, they don't investigate. They're not SVU, they're not CSI. They're guys who minute to minute deal with tragic and funny situations. So Barry and I thought a five-act structure would work, because it gives you these 8-minute bursts of story, of adrenaline. The stories on THE BEAT weren't as literal and cohesive as a normal TV show. We were the first show to do a five-act structure. But we were doing it because it worked for the tone and style of the show. Now it's done because the networks are afraid the audience will lose interest if the blocks of commercials are too long, and they want more commercials. That's the worst reason to do a five-act structure.

CRAFTY TV: I read somewhere that David E. Kelley hates doing five-act structure.

TF: Well it's very hard to get traction if you have to do drama in 8 minute bits. It's hard enough that you have to push to get to a jazzy act out so they'll come back from a tampon commercial. You have to force act outs in four-act structure. Having an extra act forces you to goose it even more. Depending on the kind of show you're doing, it can work. WEST WING with a five-act structure would feel like Morse code. But it serves DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES because there's a kind of giddiness in that show.

CRAFTY TV: Do you have specific goals for the first, second and third act outs? E.g. there's the notion that the second act out should introduce a major plot twist, while the third act out should generate maximum jeopardy. Theoretically the first act out would establish the problem, though the problem is often established in the teaser. Or do you just go wherever the story takes you?

TF: I don't know anything about that. I've never written that way. Working that way, though obviously enormously successful for some folks, is too restrictive for me. What I do when I write a script ... I try to write it without act breaks. One piece. When I've found the whole piece, then I go back and look and say, how do I shape this into an act out. I find that when I do it that way there are a lot of natural act outs. Otherwise it's way too mechanical for me, and only feeds into the whole idea of formula television. Television as machinery, as opposed to creativity.

CRAFTY TV: So you don't even whiteboard the act outs?

TF: Depending on the script, especially if we're talking about pilots right now, I'll make some notes. I'll go like, it would be interesting if he kicks her... but I don't know where that would be. It's a vague, oh, this would work here ... something visual, a line, an emotion, and I'd like to see if that moment is in here somewhere. Sometimes - for example the script I just handed into Showtime, I had no outline at all. I totally went guts. That can be dangerous, and that can be fun. You're trying to stay ahead of your characters and if you let them run sometimes, they run in totally in the wrong direction, but as often as not they'll lead you to the great moments.

CRAFTY TV: So there must be a fair amount of carnage?

TF: Actually, no. I've been doing this for so long - some might say maybe too long - that I now have an internal editing mechanism. Where I used to write a script and it would be very long, and I'd have to sit and cut it, now I'm cutting it as I'm writing even before it's on the page ... so my scripts tend to be the right length from birth.

CRAFTY TV: So if the characters run in the wrong direction, they do that in your head and not on the page.

TF: Yeah.



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[POLITICS, BUT YOU SHOULD READ IT ANYWAY] You guys down in the States, not so much.

Rolling Stone has a compelling article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., explaining how the 2004 election was stolen, with in-depth coverage of how the Ohio election was stolen.

I didn't think exit polls could be that far off. Turns out, they weren't. It was the vote reporting that did not match the vote counting, courtesy Kenneth Blackwell, Republican secretary of state for Ohio.

I thought I was tired of being outraged. But I'm outraged all over again. The US has a president who has twice won because the rules were bent in his favor. Doesn't that piss you off?

You can argue that Bush won the popular vote, not that that mattered in 2000, but I'm not sure he would have won that either, had there been a free and fair election.


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Friday, June 02, 2006

Part three in my interview with Tom Fontana, creator or co-creator of OZ, THE JURY, TATTINGER'S, THE BEAT, and THE BEDFORD DIARIES...

CRAFTY TV: Is this the best of all possible ways to develop television shows? Or is there a better way?

TF: There has to be a better way, because this is the worst way. The reason this system exists, like all things connected with TV, it's about the money. Some point about 40 years ago, I don't know when, somebody said that in March, all the advertisers are going to decide what shows they're going to advertise on and how much it's going to cost them. Working backwards from that event created pilot season which, in my mind, is the way to - you can almost guarantee - create shit. What you have is all these pilots - apples, oranges, bananas and mangoes - and they're competing against each other. You have a small pool of directors who can actually direct a pilot who are all working - if you don't get one of those A-listers, you're screwed - the same with those actors. There are the ones everybody wants and then there's whoever you can actually get. And what happens is the network is going to say, we really wanted Jack Nicholson and all you've got is Murray Schwartz. You're taking an energy pool and a talent pool and stretching it to the max in one brief amount of time and then wondering why they throw 98% of the pilots it away. There could not be a worse system.

Having said that, both NBC and Fox seem committed to off-cycle development. They now develop twice a year. That is a breakthrough of enormous magnitude, because two of the shows that NBC did on the off cycle are now on the schedule - KIDNAPPED and THE BLACK DONNELLYS. There is something to be said for spreading out development all year round. The only ones who suffer are the agents because they can't screw everybody over on the deals.

CRAFTY TV: Is there a problem with the networks being too quick to jettison shows that they think aren't working?

TF: Shows are definitely not given enough time, but that has more to do with the individual in charge of the network. Each of these men and women who run networks has his or her own personality. Some cancel a show prematurely and some have the balls to wait. The two greatest network execs were Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff. They were both willing to give shows the time to grow. CHEERS being the prime example of that. In its first season, it was lowest rated of any show on TV. Something like 99th out of 99 shows. Tinker and Tartikoff didn't care. They loved the writing. They loved the direction, the cast. Ultimately CHEERS ran, what, 12 seasons? And spun off FRAISER. That's more to do with the courage or lack thereof of the individual network executive. What is he or she willing to suffer from his or her bosses and subordinates?

CRAFTY TV: Is there something structural that discourages executives from being courageous?

TF: Definitely, the system discourages execs from being brave. There is a level of fear that seeps through the floors of every network and studio office. It's always easier to imitate what has been successful than to be original.



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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bill Cunningham writes
A great many first time screenwriters are going to be participating in the 14 Day Screenwriting Contest. ... anyone seeking help over the next two days (today and Friday) for their loglines or titles can post it on my blog. I'm inviting all of you to join in the fun and check in to help people out. ... So log onto my blog and if you see where you can help someone then feel free to pitch in. We want to get folks off on the right foot before they write their first drafts in 14 days (all the time in the world really). The process stops at 7am PST on Saturday.
Sounds like NaNoWriMo. I would only recommend writing a screenplay in 14 days if you have an outline you've worked all the kinks out of. If you do, 14 days is not an unreasonably short deadline, assuming you don't have both a job and a family. And writing fast can often get the kinks out of your writing muscles. Anyway, check out Bill's site and feel free to help the guys out.


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Part two in my interview with Tom Fontana, creator or co-creator of OZ, THE JURY, TATTINGER'S, THE BEAT, and THE BEDFORD DIARIES...

CRAFTY TV: When you come up with a series idea, do you target one network or demographic? E.g. do you decide "this one's for HBO, this one's for CBS"? Or do you go out with multiple versions at the same time? Was there ever a broadcast version of "OZ" for example? Was there ever an HBO version of THE BEDFORD DIARIES?

TF: That's also changed over the years. Once upon a time when there were three or four networks, you'd pitch one idea to all of them. That still happens, to a limited extent, but the networks have become so branded that it becomes very hard to find an idea that will play both on ABC and CBS. They're airing shows so completely different from each other. DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES has nothing in common with CSI.

Oddly enough there was - not OZ - but a version of a penal system series that I pitched to the broadcast networks and was laughed out of the room. I was lucky enough to hit HBO at a point when they were looking for their first drama. Whereas BEDFORD DIARIES was created solely to fill a gap at WB.

CRAFTY TV: So do you go to cable if you want to be able to cross certain lines, and to broadcast if you want to be seen by a lot of people?

TF: I never really think about a lot of people seeing my shows. If you look at the ratings of the shows I've done, you can tell that's not a motivating factor. To me it's more about, okay here's an idea for a series and how far do I need to take this to tell the story truthfully - to be as honest as I can be. If it exceeds a certain line ... then I need to go to cable. If I think it could play on broadcast television, I'll pitch it to broadcast. It's easy to differentiate what works on cable and what works on broadcast.

CRAFTY TV: So with cable it's language and sexuality, and with broadcast it's ... ?

TF: The language and sexuality aside, stories on cable can be murkier. Characters can be truer because they can be more flawed. The story may have a point but it doesn't have to have a moral. On broadcast television, stories need to have a moral. And the moral has to be upbeat usually.

CRAFTY TV: In other words, on broadcast if someone gets away with something you have to go, "Oh, how terrible," while on cable if someone gets away with something-

TF: It's because life is like that.



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