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


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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sometimes my heart is breaking, and I'm also thinking about how to tell the story of my heart breaking at the same time.

One of the odd things about dealing with my daughter's problems is that she is making good progress, but the baseline keeps moving backwards. Since we first noticed the problem, she's learned to use words, she's learned to look us in the eye, she's even started playing with kids sometimes instead of only playing alongside them. The people she's working with feel she's doing well. At the same time it feels like every month it's become clearer that the problems she started with were bigger than we imagined. So there's this odd combination of good news/bad news.

Normally in a screenplay, news is either good or bad. Usually, it's bad, because you want to jack up the hero's problems, and then have him solve them on screen. A scene where he found out that some problem he didn't know he had has started on the way to being solved, might be a confusing scene. Are we supposed to cheer? Or worry?

But in life, you sometimes cheer and worry.

Confusion can create a sense of reality, if it's the hero that's confused. (If the audience has no sense of what's going on, that's an art film.) Because life is confusion.

It depends on what genre you're in. If you're writing DIE HARD V: ROCK HARD, probably best for the hero to get either bad news or good news. The audience doesn't want the hero to be confused. Just missing pieces of the puzzle.

Malcolm Gladwell (was it?) was writing (a couple New Yorker issues back) about the difference between a puzzle and a mystery. A puzzle is something you'd understand completely if you had all the pieces. A mystery, even if you have all the information, you still don't necessarily understand it. In a big popcorn movie, you want the hero to be dealing with a puzzle, not a mystery.

If you're writing something in the genre of Pan's Labyrinth, you're writing for an audience that loves a good mystery. And for that audience, you could give the protagonist confusing news. Like, "Your daughter survived the car crash. But ... she's actually not your daughter."

What this gives you is that the audience is forced to think about whether that's good news or bad news. And by the process of thinking about it, they draw themselves into your story. They become more involved instead of less involved. They come to grips with the events because it feels like life, not like a plot.

This is a tricky approach, a subtle tool to use, but by that very virtue, it's the sort of think you could hang a major turn of the story on.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

My daughter's been on my mind extra much lately. She's three, and she only has about 50 nouns and two or three verbs so far. No, she's not one of those kids who just talks late. She also only just started pointing; usually she uses a doll to point for her. She is incredibly happy and sweet; she has a lovely personality. She smiles with bright eyes, and laughs in all the right places. We think there's a bright, beautiful kid in there, but she's either mildly autistic or something called PDD-NOS. For us that means a big hunk of autistic non-communicativeness with little bits of autistic rigidity and, fortunately, no autistic oversensitivity as far as we can tell.

If you offer her a banana, she doesn't look at you. She looks at the banana.

And she's having a lot of trouble learning to talk. She's talking about as well as a one and a half year old.

I'm a writer, and I can't tell my daughter about ponies or clouds or the Good Folk. I can't even tell her about the Cat in the Hat.

I love her. I wouldn't trade her for another kid that was normal. I just want her to get better.

Yeah, and we've got professionals who work with her and all. And she comes home from those sessions and she's beat. It is exhausting for her to make contact.

I want to tell her it will be okay, but she doesn't know anything's wrong. I guess that's a blessing.

When this first came on, we thought she couldn't be broken. She's so happy. And lovely. She was just confused which language to speak. And then I thought, if she could just realize that she could get stuff by talking -- at that point she was only taking us by the finger and leading us to food -- the dam would break and she'd learn to talk.

I'm just coming to terms with the idea that she's not going to snap out of it, and that I don't know how much of this can be fixed and how much of this is going to stay.

It was a rough day today because she came back from a session of playing with other kids with problems, and she was so tired she could barely look at me. She was just out of it. When she's tired, that's when she has the most trouble connecting.

I'm a little bit like that. No one I know would consider me shy, but I find being with people exhausting. I just do it because I have to.

When I was her age, I'm told, I didn't want to be held. There are no pictures of me with my mom's arms around me. I used to think that was all her fault. Now I'm not so sure.

At least Jesse loves to be held. Not for long, but she loves it.

Today was not a good day. Lisa's in New York giving a talk (go Lisa!), and Hunter was home from school because of a disagreement with another kid that did not, um, turn out well.

I love being a father and a husband, and my life is blessed in ways that many people only dream of. I guess this is the rain that falls into my life.

In three days, we are halfway out of Winter. That gives me hope.

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... but I'm not going to tell you which one is false...

1. I'm married to my college sweetheart. With, oh, about 16 years in the middle where we weren't together.

2. I had to sue my first wife to get sole custody of my dog. (She wanted joint custody.)

3. I once took a psych exam next to Jodie Foster. Years later, at a premiere, she remembered my name.

4. I can remember almost nothing from before I was 13.

5. I was once initiated into a witch's coven. Purely for research, mind you.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

On the other hand I watched a neat little Quebecois comic drama called Horloge Biologique (Dodging the Clock in English, though a better translation would be "Biological Clock.") It's about three guys who are facing their girl's fertility -- one's got a kid, one's having a kid, one's got a girl who wants a kid. They're thirtysomethings and they're panicking.

Nothing particularly clever, just heartfelt, funny, well acted, well written, convincing. And, from a Canuck perspective, it made absolutely no effort to be "Quebecois." It just told its story unapologetically. And was all the more convincing for it.

Nice work, les gars.


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/* Studio 60 spoilers */
/* no, seriously, Studio 60 spoilers. Don't read this if you haven't watched Studio 60 yet. */
/* Though honestly? probably won't make much difference to your enjoyment of the episode */
/* This is a revised and clarified spoiler warning. */

Here are some things we expect you not to do when you're a famous writer:
  • Have someone lie about why they're breaking a date, then get busted on it by the infuriated ex-date.
  • Have a guy show up with a bunch of poisonous snakes, then lose one.
  • Have some people go up on the roof and then get locked out up there.
Unless, of course, you're going to twist the situation one further and surprise us all with your brilliance.

Which didn't happen.

/* Apologies for not marking *which* show I was writing a spoiler for. */
/* But, honestly, did anyone NOT see those plot turns coming? */

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So here are a couple pictures.

Here's a Quicktime movie of mean global temperatures over the past century or so.

And here's what happens when you successfully breed 16 baby pandas.



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In the absence of any screenwriting insight today (help! I have to write a brother and sister bickering, and I'm an only!), here's a bit of wisdom from Scientific American. A mathematician has proven that you can always balance a table on an uneven surface if you rotate it.

Unfortunately, it doesn't say what you do if the table's legs themselves are bent out of shape, as is the case in most Chinese restaurants I know.


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Saturday, January 27, 2007

I have a series I've been pitching to some very smart people at networks. They're all quite intrigued by the idea, but can't quite wrap their heads around it, and can't always pinpoint why.

I think what is going on is that the concept seems execution dependent.

That sounds like a funny thing to say. Isn't every show dependent on how it's executed? Well, in some ways. But in some ways not.

Take LAW & ORDER. I could describe that show to you in 60 seconds, and you could go off and create the show by yourself. It might not be exactly Dick Wolf's LAW & ORDER. But it would be pretty close to the hit show that's hived off so many clones.

Or CSI. And so on.

The shows I like to watch are mostly execution dependent. I could describe THE WEST WING to you in 60 seconds, but I couldn't tell you how to make it good. Ditto THE SOPRANOS. Ditto most HBO shows. It's not the concept that makes it worth watching. It's the way the concept is executed.

I think when people spark to this particular show that I'm pitching, they ask, "But how are you going to get 100 episodes out of that?" And I point to the 15 or so springboards in the pitch bible, and I tell them I've got another 10 or so territories on top of those. But they're still wondering: but how is he going to make TV shows out of this idea?

And the real answer is: by banging my head against the wall in the middle of the night. By having a great story room that works their asses off. Not to put too fine a point on it: not easily.

Which is not at all the same as saying I won't be able to come up with the eps. I know I can come up with the eps. There isn't a story problem I've run across in this show -- and I'm two acts into the pilot, with other episodes broken down into acts -- that I haven't been able to resolve. They don't resolve in 5 minutes. They resolve in a day. But they resolve.

But I'm asking these network people to put their faith in my ability to execute the show. It's not a show they'll be able to help me out on if I paint myself into a corner.

Network people are generally more comfortable with execution independent shows. Practically all my other pitches, I could hand off to any of my writer friends, and they'd be able to execute them. This one, not so much.

When you're formulating a spec pilot, unless you have a great relationship with network people who trust you -- or even if you do -- you may be better off with a concept that is relatively execution-independent.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Hey, readers: Today, January 26, is my birthday. And if you're feeling charitable, here's what I'd like for my birthday: your story.

a. Who are you and what keeps you busy?
b. Are you writing professionally, are you aspiring, or are you just interested in the whole process?
c. What keeps you reading this blog?
d. What keeps you writing?
e. What are you reading?

You can put it in the comments, or you can drop me an email at



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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I'm working on a spec pilot right now. Here are some questions I'm asking myself:

  • Does it tell a story with an emotionally satisfying conclusion that nonetheless leaves you compelled to tune in to ep. 2?
  • Does the pilot set up enough of the world that you have a sense of it, without uploading so much information it becomes about the expo? (Does it avoid pilot disease?
  • Is there anything in the story that is only explicable through having read the pitch? (In other words, do the story beats only make sense if you know some backstory that you haven't introduced in the pilot itself?)
  • Can you think of any scene I'm missing, either for the story to make sense, or a missed opportunity to do something fun and spectacular that would add value?
  • And since the genre I'm in is speculative fiction:

    • Is it weird enough to satisfy fantasy fans?
    • Is it emotionally strong enough to pull in the mainstream audience?
I'm asking these same questions of the people I've asked to give me feedback. It's important, when you ask someone to critique, not only to take their feedback seriously, but to ask them your own questions. If you get a dialog going you often arrive at a much deeper understanding of what could be improved in your material.

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I'm delighted to see that Bon Cop was nominated for a Jutra Award for Best Screenplay. The award is for French Language films, so it's doubly exciting to be up for the award.

I'm in Toronto for a flock of meetings, and it is always nice to be able to start a meeting by talking about your nomination for something...

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Q. What's a franchise?
I've heard the word used in different ways. Most obviously, a franchise is a TV show that gets cloned. The CSI franchise includes CSI, CSI: NY and CSI: Miami. (I've been unable to confirm the rumours of CSI: Dog River, Saskatchewan.)

The Wikipedia defines a media franchise as:
An intellectual property involving the characters, setting, and trademarks of an original work of media (usually a work of fiction), such as a film, a work of literature, a television program, or a video game. Generally, a whole series is made in that particular medium, along with merchandising and endorsements. Multiple sequels are often planned well in advance and, in the case of motion pictures, actors and directors often sign multi-film deals to ensure their participation.
Or, "a license to print money."

I think the more arcane meaning of the term you may be running into is something like "the license to tell stories." A TV show has a franchise when there's a clear and obvious story motor. Law and Order, in addition to being a franchise, also has a franchise, in that each week they have a new perp to hunt down and prosecute. Gilmore Girls does not have a franchise because the writers have to generate the stories out of the ongoing relationships of the characters. One episode's story may not look anything like another episode's story. It is much, much easier to free-lance or spec a show that has a franchise. Hence, "franchise" in the sense that you, too, can buy a McDonalds franchise license, and build and run a McDonalds, and you'd be delivering same fatty goodness you'd find anywhere in North America, no matter who you are. Whereas you could open a Southwestern restaurant in Montreal (and I wish you would) but your jalapeno corn muffins may not taste anything like the jalapeno corn muffins at the Sonora Cafe on La Brea.

If anyone has a better definition, please jump in!



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A group against climate change sent me an email today encouraging everyone to TURN OUT THEIR LIGHTS on Thursday, February 1 from 7:55 pm to 8 pm local time, to, you know, help save the planet. (The night after is Imbolc, of course, when you celebrate the return of the light.)

Sounds good. I'm in. Pass it on.

... Though once again I will ask why Canadians are so much more serious about global warming than Floridians are. Most of our major cities are above sea level. You're on a sand bar, babies.



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Monday, January 22, 2007

Lisa is appearing at KGB Bar's 'Art Night'" on the 30th, in New York. Stop by for drinks and ask questions / pontificate / rage about the art market...


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In 1982, my roommate David Hyde came up with a sketch comedy gag called "Siddharta and Hutch":

"Quick Siddharta, we've got to catch those criminals!"
"You go ahead, Hutch. I will meditate. And fast."
"But what about those diamonds?"
"Do not worry, Hutch. In time, all things will come to their proper destination."

Just turned on "Comedy Inc.," apparently an Aussie sketch comedy show, and there it is: "Gandhi and Hutch."

Those darn Aussies! And only a year before I was finally getting ready to steal the idea myself!


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Soooo, after moving Little Mosque to a new night for its second episode, is the CBC at least airing the third episode on Wednesday night? Nope. That's the 2007 NHL All-Star Game. Which, obviously, would have been scheduled long enough ago that the Ceeb really could have made a better plan for LM. Like, I don't know, run it three nights in a row on Tuesday, and then move it to its new slot on Wednesday?

Is the idea that if you make the audience work to find it, they'll appreciate it more? Why not bury the master tape under some poison ivy and then issue an elaborate multi-layered anagram puzzle suggesting the location?


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Sunday, January 21, 2007

As if. We wouldn't dare. But we are quoted heavily in this Toronto Star article about whether Studio 60 is getting better or not. I think it is.

Whether or not it is, actually, I think it's worth watching because when Sorkin fails, he fails in interesting ways. You can, for example, see too much of him in his work, where with hack writers you see too little. And he tries to subvert the audience's expectations -- but sometimes you know where he's going because you know what his favorite themes are. But I'm rarely bored by bad Sorkin. Only frustrated.

Um, it's on tonight, isn't it?

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Via Kung Fu Monkey: a fella named Keith Martin has made sense of Star Wars IV in light of what we know from Star Wars I-III. And it's not what you thought...

This is a good thing to do when you jump onto a show. Usually you have the benefit of veteran writing staff to interpret for you what's been going on in prior episodes, but if you can figure out something they might not have thought of, you'll look get bonus points and you might get to introduce a new story arc.

We had to do a huge retcon on Charlie Jade when we landed in Cape Town because the prior writing team either hadn't made any story plans, and were still trying to figure out where to take the story, or they had made plans but hadn't told anyone; and our showrunner was very open to new ideas. So we had to look at 8 episodes and figure out, "If this all made sense, what sense would it make?" I think we came up with some interesting stuff.

We also nipped some story ideas that weren't leading anywhere. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin, etc.



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Q. I like using all-caps to imply "virtual" camera shots, as below:


As one, the SWAT guys turn to look down at the


strapped to the floor of the hold...



is carefully placed on a table-top. It bears the word “AIRBORNE” and an eagle-head Special Forces logo.

Then an unopened pack of LUCKY STRIKES is placed next to it, lined up with military precision.



CLAY waits alone, patient as a rock.

Or should the slugline come first?
This is how I usually do it. You want to use correct screenplay format, but you're writing a reading script, not a production script, so you have some leeway. If you put the slugline first (as you would for the benefit of the production crew), it puts the image of a warehouse in the reader's head before you want it to be there. Whereas if you only tell us about the Zippo, we get the virtual closeup of a Zippo lighter you wanted.

On a minor note: CUT TO: has generally gone out of fashion, as has the use of (CONT'D) when a character speaks twice in a row. I guess the feeling is they're clutter.

Some people particularly object to SLAM CUT: on the grounds of "a cut is a cut." But I use SLAM CUT where it seems appropriate. A cut is a cut, but in a "slam cut," there's probably a sting on the soundtrack.

In other words, use standard screenplay format most of the time. It's there to make a screenplay easier to read. But don't hesitate to break it in order to achieve a specific effect.



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Friday, January 19, 2007

Is it just me, or has The Daily Show suddenly got more, uh, surreal? E.g. the other night's "America's Top TV Expert" with Harold Bloom (onscreen) pontificating about the Iliad, and Stephen J. Hawkings (o.s.) vocoding "Bloom you are an expert at sucking." Have they added one weirdo to their writing staff? (Contrary to this MacLean's article whining about how it's not as funny as it was, I guess, when it was only bashing Republicans.)


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Thursday, January 18, 2007 has really screwed me over, and I need a new DVD-by-mail company.

Over Christmas, I mailed in a bunch of disks, which mysteriously they haven't received in the past three weeks. According to their own numbers, at least one in five of their customers has this problem once, and one in twenty have it repeatedly. You would think they'd be embarrassed about this, but their corporate attitude seems to be to imply strongly that the customer is a thief, and treat him as such.

As punishment for reporting a problem, they have terminated my "ZipRefill" privileges -- they no longer send me a new disk when I report that I've put a disk in the mail -- and they are refusing to send me new disks to replace the ones I sent back last month. I'm waiting to see if they charge me for the disks they seem to have lost.

Zip seems to have lost a lot of customers when it started putting very low caps on the number of disks they will send you per month for the basic $25 a month charge. But that's their right. (Though it's outrageous that they apply these thresholds retroactively if you go from a 4-DVD-per-month plan down to a 2 or 1 DVD per month plan -- so you can wind up paying overages without actually ordering any new disks at all!)

But what is infuriating is their insinuating and hostile customer service. I really don't like being accused of stealing DVD's from them.

If you're thinking of signing up with a DVD-by-Mail company, I recommend you stay away from Zip if at all possible. If you are with Zip, don't worry, they'll stick it to you sooner or later.

You can check out your alternatives at the Canadian Online DVD Rental Guide.


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Jane has a nice post about the season premiere of Rome. How do you write the episode where Marc Antony has to come to bury Caesar, not to praise him?



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DMc posts that Little Mosque's second ep got 1.2 million viewers. A big drop from 2.1 million, but still spectacular, especially after CBC did everything they could to confuse the audience about what night the show airs on.

I'm going to be grumpy and admit I don't dig the show. Here's what I wish the show was:

a. A really keenly observed look at Canadian Muslim people in conflict with each other over every little thing. You watch Annie Hall, you know what upper middle class New York Jews are like. You watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding and you feel like you're visiting a real Greek family. The funny version, sure, but real. Trailer Park Boys feels like the creators grew up in a trailer park, whether they did or not. They certainly know guys just like that. But while the Little Mosque characters seem to be recognizable to other Muslims, at least according to the newspapers, they don't ring true for me. Everyone seems a little too good natured. Everyone seems a little too reasonable. Comedy is about people being appalling to each other. Everyone on Seinfeld is a selfish ass. Where's the edge? Where's the honesty? Where's the pain?

b. A really clever look at Canadian society, seen from the point of view of people who are outsiders in some ways and insiders in others. Sometimes it takes a fish out of water to notice how odd terrestrial critters really are. This is where the show really fails for me. I don't feel its white characters are keenly observed at all. They seem to be mostly racist and all stupid. Whereas I bet most white people in the Canadian Prairies are extremely tolerant, and racists are in the minority. Most Canadians bend over backwards to be nice to minorities (except possibly not to the Natives), reserving their passive aggression and venom for empowered white people. Instead of making out every white character to be a buffoon, why not write episodes based on actual observation of white society, from a Muslim's perspective? How white people's kids are defiant to their faces? How white women wear push-up bras and low-cut shirts but get mad when people stare at their breasts? How white people worship an impoverished, anti-intellectual, rabble-rousing mystic carpenter and cherish money, hierarchy and dogma? Etc.

That would be where I would go with it.

But that's my style of comedy, not theirs. They're working more in the Everybody Loves Raymond tradition -- and so far, quite successfully.

UPDATE: And here's the Vancouver Courier's columnist confirming that Prairie people are not, in fact, all raging idiots.


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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Here are some of my favorite posts from the blog.

A glossary of tv writer terminology


Challenge your core cast's strengths
October 2005: Trust your core cast
November 2005: When your main character lags
November 2005: After the pilot script
December 2005: Second episodes
December 2005: On to our second script
December 2005: Secret, secret, who's got a secret
February 2006: Metaquestion?
May 2006: Faking technical info
August 2006: A foolish consistency
October 2006: A rose is a rose is a rose

Beating Out the Story

How do you get away with plotholes?
Making plotholes fun
Characters and their dumbass mistakes
On characters and the dumbass mistakes they make, part 2
On calling for backup, part 2
What can happen offscreen?
Nothing can happen offscreen
Time cuts
Train wrecks and telegraphing
Second thoughts on telegraphing
Addressing viewer expectations
Tracking expectations
Losing the audience's trust
Fully resolved by first act out?
Suspense v. surprise
Compressed reality
On step outlines
The Sucky Point
Getting past the Sucky Point
Going for the gimmes in the 4400 pilot
October 2005: Writing the pilot
October 2005: Tell your story out loud
November 2005: Write a synopsis to tell a story
February 2006: Episodic vs. serial, again
March 2006: The ole episodic vs. serial question
March 2006: Shifting genres
March 2006: Clever Grey's, or mirrors make you reflect
March 2006: Dire situations
March 2006: Surprising characters
April 2006: Not what it's about
April 2006: How long to tell your story?
June 2006: Sequelae
June 2006: It's important to the main character
July 2006: Interweaving
July 2006: Interweaving, continued
July 2006: Similar characters
July 2006: Stealing
August 2006: Real characters
September 2006: Feed your head
September 2006: Deus ex machina
September 2006: It's been done already
October 2006: How simple?
November 2006: Craft v. software
November 2006: Casting about for details
November 2006: Not just evil, but fun evil
December 2006: Daybreak's demise
December 2006: It's Christmas, tell your stories
December 2006: Cursing and broadcast
January 2007: Jilted
January 2007: Amazing but true
January 2007: Who's the main character?
January 2007: Late hooks

Scene Work

Have uncommunicative characters explain each other
The cut away from the predictable conversation
The conversation at cross purposes
Format wars
Good playing dialog vs. good reading dialog
October 2005: Fineness in dialog
December 2005: Dialect resource
March 2006: Images as story
April 2006: NIGHT and DAY
May 2006: IM all over that
May 2006: Numbers of pages
June 2006: VO/OS/ON PHONE
July 2006: Character info
August 2006: The value of setting impossibly high standards
August 2006: (Overlapping)
December 2006: Montage


Three tools from the comic toolkit
Where's the comedy?
Comic commitment
Simple plots
December 2005: Comedy screenplay format
March 2006: Comedy is someone else's nightmare


On taking notes
When to pull the plug
The Writer Bomb
September 2005: Rewriting rules of order
November 2005: Rewriting for dollars
February 2006: How much to charge?
February 2006: Rewriting notes
March 2006: The benefits of lazy revisions, or, serendipity
April 2006: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
June 2006: Follow the pain
September 2006: Sloppy writing on staff
September 2006: Into it now
November 2006: Staying ahead of the audience
November 2006: Make it a character flaw


Writing it small
Why our producer doesn't like block shooting
October 2005: Identify the gorilla
February 2006: Editor's cut
July 2006: Second-guessing Serenity
November 2006: $14 steadicam
November 2006: A bottle show is inside
December 2006: Casting
December 2006: Auditions
December 2006: Why a short?
December 2006: Diss approval, continued
December 2006: Good adaptations
December 2006: Do you need storyboards?

The Writing Room

Credit the room, not the writer
Why you must have a writing room
Writing personnel titles
March 2006: Two ways to co-write
November 2006: Not just for Battlestar fans

Your TV Career

Your foot in the door, or why you should intern
On staffing season
Best Screenwriting School in the World. And it's free, too.
Be a back door man. Or woman
Script coordinator vs. writing assistant
Getting onto a show
Never say "no"
Contests and fellowships
Working with people who can't tell good from bad
Working for less than scale
Why you need an agent, part 37
September 2005: Read for experience, not for long
October 2005: Money and freedom
October 2005: Open-source feedback
October 2005: Don't find an agent in TO if you want to make it in LA
November 2005: Trust your agent
November 2005: Learn from the other
December 2005: The mentor debate
December 2005: Act like you're where you want to be
January 2006: Oh Canada
January 2006: How old is too old?
January 2006: Managing your agent
January 2006: On contract negotiation
March 2006: Talent borrows...
March 2006: Study hard
March 2006: Movin' on up
March 2006: The Canadian market
April 2006: Canadian looking south
April 2006: Representational arts
May 2006: Agents who charge you
May 2006: Don't ask me if you're good enough
May 2006: Split territories
June 2006: $100 a meeting
June 2006: How to get better
June 2006: Nudging agents
June 2006: Agent thoughts
July 2006: Ignore this advice too, if necessary
July 2006: One agent, two agents, three agents, four
July 2006: Hip pockets
July 2006: My new agent
July 2006: Getting it about getting in
July 2006: Queries by email?
August 2006: Manager contracts
August 2006: Selling
September 2006: Negotiating
September 2006: Late beginners
September 2006: Agents v. lawyers
September 2006: For free, again
September 2006: RTFM
September 2006: You learn something new every day
October 2006: A moving question
October 2006: Fly on the wall
October 2006: Advice from a scientist
October 2006: Aury's story
October 2006: NYFA
November 2006: Messages
November 2006: Another reason why you want an agent
November 2006: Writing samples
December 2006: Credits
January 2007: Animation
January 2007: Scale is a minimum, not a maximum

Specs and Pitches

Pitches & pitch bibles
(Longish post)Two things any pitch needs to answer
What network do you want your show on?
A few more words on TV spec scripts
Why you must have specs
Why not just write the specs, already?
Network first, or producer first?
Write a spec pilot?
September 2005: How not to date your TV spec (too much)
September 2005: Pitches and spec pilots
November 2005: Spec page count
December 2005: Topicality
December 2005: Surreal killers
January 2006: Spec script title page
February 2006: Tell yourself your story
February 2006: What if
February 2006: Character pass
March 2006: Will they buy your spec pilot without a showrunner?
March 2006: Comics and Hollywood
April 2006: WGA list
April 2006: Dramatis personae
April 2006: This is the kind of feature spec you should be writing
April 2006: Three days of meetings
June 2006: Technical questions about covers
June 2006: Spec territory
June 2006: Know a director?
July 2006: Music
July 2006: Arcane medical knowledge
November 2006: Online pitches
December 2006: When is a show ready to spec?
December 2006: Spec question
December 2006: Continuity
December 2006: How to spec a House
January 2007: Unsolicited screenplays and what to do with them
January 2007: Pitches and synopses

Bibles and Templates

The attractive fantasy
I just read a bad bible
What is Gilmore Girls's template?
Blowing the template on Corner Gas?
Why Tour of Duty sucks
Character names
Backdoor pilots
Who's core cast?
What's the poster?
Episodic vs. serial
October 2005: Bible is battle plan, not blueprint
October 2005: Procedural vs. character based
December 2005: BBC on templates
December 2005: Diversity pass
April 2006: Weaving A and B stories
September 2006: Against bibles
November 2006: Bibles and how to get them

Reading TV

Where to find tv scripts to read
More where to find scripts

Watching TV

Watching with 9 year olds
Canadian SF?
More sex please
Car wreck TV
What naughty girls those L Word girls are
24 has jumped the shark
Watching Firefly
Project Greenlight, the fake break
October 2005: TV drama moves to five acts
October 2005: Don't write clip shows
November 2005: It's the audience's show
November 2005: Five acts and weak act outs
December 2005: Write the other half
January 2006: ER pilot
February 2006: I hate Meredith Grey even more
March 2006: Old teens
March 2006: The Bedford Diaries...
April 2006: Once and Again
May 2006: How to watch TV
May 2006: Has Grey's jumped the shark or what
September 2006: Jericho
September 2006: More bitching about Studio 60
October 2006: I think I'm in love
October 2006: Go thou (and watch Firefly DVDs)
October 2006: Ain't nothing like the real thing baby
October 2006: Jericho is beginning to pall
October 2006: Our Mrs. Reynolds
October 2006: Is FNL best as movie, TV show, or book?
October 2006: FNL and the red states
October 2006: Latest Studio 60
October 2006: The Body
November 2006: Slings and Arrows
November 2006: Why is Studio 60 better?
December 2006: Broken Flowers
December 2006: Semper ubi sububi
December 2006: Darkness, tragedy, violence
December 2006: It's The Odd Couple meets Dick in classical Rome
January 2007: Brave writing in Rome


Paul Guyot (Judging Amy), part 1, part 2, part 3.
Shelley Eriksen (Show Me Yours), part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5
Jacob Sager Weinstein
Chris Abbott (Diagnosis Murder, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5
September 2005: Stephen Gallagher, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4
December 2005: John Rogers (Global Frequency), part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4
February 2006: Ken Levine (Cheers), part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4
May 2006: Tom Fontana (Homicide, Oz), part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7
Bridget Carpenter (Friday Night Lights, part 1, part 2, part 3


Characters in SF&F
Writing Animal Characters
Remedial storytelling, or why Kerry lost
On telling the truth
Redistricting, a modest proposal. Nothing to do with TV, but I wish someone would pick it up and run with it.
December 2005: Let's put the Saturnalia back in Christmas; or, villains
March 2006: Copyright infringement
March 2006: Title sequences
March 2006: Naming your character
April 2006: Story consulting and credits
April 2006: Short film scripts
April 2006: Q. When is a polish not a polish
May 2006: Tragedy is comedy without the punchline
June 2006: Similarity breeds contempt
June 2006: Smokers on screen
July 2006: Hero oddness
July 2006: A message about the comics medium
August 2006: Push the envelope
September 2006: Lessons from the poker bot
October 2006: Q & A
October 2006: Epagogix, or, the Borg
October 2006: Groupthink
October 2006: Biting the hand that feeds
December 2006: Gratuitous violence in Apocalypto?
January 2007: Why I don't like screenwriting competitions

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Q. Lots of movies have a big reveal at the end. How do you do the hook for a movie of this sort?

The particular case that I'm interested in is "The Odessa File." (SPOILERS...) This begins as an "ordinary man" story, where a guy gets roped into a situation simply because he happened to be the one who found some information and decided that he needed to do something about it. But there's a big reveal at the end where it turns out that he actually had an intimate personal connection to the story. So, what looked through most of the movie like the sort of poorly motivated action that mediocre movies are full of, was actually very powerfully motivated.
Unfortunately, that's not a hook, because you can't put it in your query letter without spoiling the reveal.

The Odessa File probably got made because the book was a Frederick Forsyth bestseller. And so far as I can tell from Amazon, the book does have a hook -- something like, "After the inexplicable suicide of a Holocaust survivor, a reporter uncovers ODESSA, a secret organization devoted to hiding Nazis..."

And The Others has a hook -- if I remember the opening right: After the panicked departure of her nanny, a woman with two children who must not see the light of day hires a mysterious couple who may actually be ghosts...

And The Sixth Sense has a hook, too: "a psychiatrist tries to help a boy who can see dead people."

Whereas The Village doesn't have much of anything until the reveal. (And even that doesn't do much, even if you can't see it coming about a mile away.) But it got made because the writer/director had written and directed the massive hit The Sixth Sense.

Even if you have a cool reveal that turns everything on its head, you still need a hook.

Incidentally, if you are going to have a big reveal, it's fun to drop a few otherwise inexplicable hints that keep the audience wondering what the explanation for them is going to be -- that pulls them into the story. Especially if (as in The Sixth Sense or The Others) the movie still works if you know the reveal.


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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Q. I've just finished polishing a screenplay for a family drama, and now I'm writing a synopsis. Generally how long should a synopsis for a 120 page screenplay be? Should the format match the formatting of the cover letter or be closer to manuscript format?
First of all, I try very hard to avoid writing synopses. It's very hard to write a synopsis that communicates not only the plot, but the essence of the characters, the tone of the story, etc. ... I mean, I just wrote the damn script with all that stuff in it, and it took 100+ pages to get it all across!

If someone insists I write a synopsis, what I usually write is a pitch. The difference is that a pitch is not really intended to give away the whole story -- why would you want to do that? -- but to get them to read the screenplay. So a pitch tends to be long on setup, increasingly brief throughout the second act, and full of hype and handwaving about the third act. First act: establish characters, tone, theme, etc. Last act: pure sizzle.

How long? I dunno. Couple pages. What I do is write down the story off the top of my head, the way I'd tell it to someone. That usually ends up being about two or three pages long. Again: the point is to get people to read your script. Any more detail than necessary and you're just giving them additional reasons to say no.

Q. But I'm planning to query agents. Won't I need to include a synopsis with my query?
Oh, Lordy, no! Do not even offer a synopsis unless someone asks for it.

Send in your query. If they like your hook, they should ask to read the script. If by some fluke they ask for a synopsis, then send them a pitch.



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If you are lucky enough to have a TiVo (I have to make do with Bell ExpressVu's pale imitation, the PVR), check out Hacking TiVo: 23 Tips to Turbocharge Your DVR. Lotsa clever and useful things you can do, some simple enough, some more advanced.


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Monday, January 15, 2007

Will somebody explain to me why the first thing the CBC does after airing the Little Mosque pilot to huge numbers is move it to another night???


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Fitfully, I'm trying to learn the guitar.

Will someone kindly explain to me that when I look up the chord tabs to a song, and play them, they sound nothing like the song?


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Thinking Writer has a neat post called 5 Things I Hate About Everything: five "don'ts" you may find useful in your screenwriting. Worth a look.


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Q. I'm Canadian but I work in LA. My Canadian producer just found out I'm Canadian, and wants to shoot my script in Vancouver under a WGC contract rather than in LA under a WGA contract. Won't I lose out on residuals? Can you recommend a good lawyer who knows both deals?
I don't know many lawyers. My agent negotiates all my contracts, with my input. (After years writing writer contracts as a development person, I'm pretty familiar with them.)

Yes, there are no residuals under the WGC deal. But that's because you're paid a decent production fee as a buyout for your residuals. For movies over $2 million, it works out to your $47K script fee, plus another $8K plus 2.2% of the part of the budget that's over $2M. So, if your movie's budget is $5M, you get $120K. That's probably better than the minimum WGA deal even after a few residuals.

Moreover, no matter which Guild deal you're under, you can always ask for more than the minimum. You can negotiate a higher escalator than 2.2%, and a higher script fee. When I worked in LA, agents usually asked me for 3% and usually agreed to 2.5%. The WGC Independant Producer Agreement (IPA), like the WGA Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA), is a minimum deal. If you have a go movie and they're trying to get you to agree to a Canadian contract, you have negotiating power. You can always look at the MBA and pull out the terms you want and insist they go in your WGC contract. You could say (through your agent), "Great, let's shoot this in Canada, but I won't accept less money than I would have received under a WGA deal." And then ask for a floor of $X and an escalator of Y%. And, why not, a per-DVD royalty.

Personally, in your situation, I wouldn't try too hard to protect residuals. I would protect the amount of money I get overall. Whether they're paid as residuals or not, who cares? I'd rather get cash. Residuals are a pain in the ass for producers to administer -- someone has to keep track of every time the movie airs -- so I can sympathize with producers not wanting to pay them. And if they "forget" to pay them, how would you know?

But you shouldn't be negotiating any of this yourself. If at all possible, get an agent to do it for you. You can still agent your agent -- you get to approve or not approve any deal points -- but the producer can get mad at your agent, and you can smile and tell the producer you would gladly do it for nothing, if only your mean ole agent would let you.



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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Q. I know in my query letter I'm supposed to talk about my main character, but I don't think my screenplay has a main character. It's about a father, son and mother in the middle of [dramatic situation].
Most stories do have a main character. It's sometimes a question of figuring out who that is. Some stories may have a different main character from the person whose POV you're telling the story from.

The main character is generally the person who's making the moral choice in the third act. Usually it's the person who's motivating the action in the third act. It's usually the person who's taking the risk, and, if someone changes, it's usually that person.

Sometimes you may find you've written a screenplay about the wrong person, perhaps because you identify with that person, or because they're the 30 year old guy who could be played by a star. If you find that your hero isn't making the discovery / motivating the action / making the moral choice, maybe you should rewrite your screenplay from the point of view of the person who is. It may not require all that much work -- just tweaking the scenes so they're from the new protagonist's point of view.

Star casting can throw off the point of view of a movie. Take WHAT LIES BENEATH.

/* spoiler */

The movie is about Michele Pfeiffer, who's married to Harrison Ford. She starts to see ghostly weirdness in her house, which makes her begin to think that Harrison Ford had an affair with a girl and then murdered her, and covered up the murder. It turns out she's right. Then Ford tries to murder her, but he's drowned by the ghost of the girl.

The movie seems to have got made because Harrison Ford wanted to play a villain.

It's not a very interesting ending because it's hinted heavily from the beginning that Harrison Ford is a bad guy. So when he turns out to be one, there's not much movement. The only question is whether he's going to be able to kill Michele Pfeiffer.

There's a much more interesting story that fits the first two acts much better. That's where you discover that the reason Michele Pfeiffer is having visions of the murdered girl is because she murdered the girl out of jealousy over the affair, and then blocked the memory... and the reason she thinks Harrison Ford covered it up is because he did cover it up ... to save their marriage.

But, then Harrison Ford doesn't get to play a villain. Instead he's a supporting character. You're not going to get Harrison Ford to play a supporting character in a Michele Pfeiffer movie. More importantly, a studio's not going to ask him to.

I have no idea if the original script had the more interesting reveal. But it should have. Pfeiffer is the central character. But as written, all she does is discover the murder and then nearly get murdered herself. She's not really motivating the action. She's motivated by ghosts and then chased by the villain. She doesn't even get to kill Harrison Ford herself.

Whereas if she discovers that she's the murderer, then she has to come to terms with her own guilt, and decide what to do about it -- turn herself in? Dump Ford? Kill herself? Acknowledge her guilt but have a tearful reconciliation with her husband?

/* end spoiler */

Make sure your main character is the right one for your story; and if not, rethink how you're telling the story.



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Q. What time of year do TV shows usually hire freelancers? Is it at the same time as staff writers, during staffing season, or is the cycle different? Or is there a cycle at all?
If a show is hiring free lancers, they might start having people come in and pitch, and assigning episodes, once they've got their writing room set up and the staffers know the template of the show. They'll bring in free lancers after that as they need free lance episodes. So, in terms of the regular season, that would probably be June-December -- bearing in mind that the season is less regular these days.

In Canada, people seem to be assigning fewer free lance scripts and keeping more for the staff, which is good for shows and for training up showrunners. In the States, you're required to assign a small number of free lance scripts.

These days, with less work to go around (thank you, reality shows; thank you, CRTC), a lot of free lance eps probably go to unemployed friends of the showrunner instead of to new writers.



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Friday, January 12, 2007

Wildsound will be presenting a public reading of Alex Hatz and Frank Naccarato's screenplay Tandoori Slice on Tuesday January 16th, at 7pm. The event will be moderated by Harold Greenberg President Jon Galway.

Wildsound matches experienced screenwriters with a cast of professional actors for full readings of short and feature scripts. Audience discussion at the events is led by hosts from the industry. Past moderators include Bruce McDonald (Highway 61, Hard Core Logo), actor Julian Richings (X-Men: The Last Stand), director David Weaver (Moon Palace, Siblings) and James Hurst, exec. producer/writer (Degrassi:The New Generation)

WHEN: Tuesday, January 16th. Bar open for drinks at 6:30; reading at 7 pm
COST: a meagre $6
WHERE: The Stealth Lounge above the Pilot Tavern, 22 Cumberland near Yonge & Bloor)
Interesting idea -- they read three first acts, and then the audience votes what screenplay they'd like to hear in full at the next event.


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Today is Mad Pulp Bastard Day. Bill Cunningham is a crafty writer-producer of straight-to-DVD low budget movies. He's in the thick of it.
Friday - I'm opening up the floodgates on my blog and allowing anyone to ask questions, pimp their productions,etc...

Anything you're dying to know?

Anything you want to promote? Link to?

Anything you have to get off your chest?

Stop by tomorrow and do it.

The whole affair is to promote discussion and understanding in a mad pulp bastardly way (read: with tongue firmly wedged in cheek)

What's a good book that you've read lately? A good movie?
What's the worst part of writing? The best?
What do you see on the horizon?

Just imagine we're at a party and chatting away...and I'm sucking on the keg.


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Q. Is there a resource that provides lists of agents who accept unsolicited screenplays? Maybe you can provide a little more detail or refer me to a site that explains exactly what you need to do to open a dialogue with an agent if you're totally off the street?
Sure. The WGA has an online list of agents. They used to mark which agencies were willing to read "unsolicited" scripts -- an inaccurate term for "scripts from people they don't know". They don't seem to any more.

But too much is made of the term "unsolicited." The more successful an agency the less likely they'll read a script from someone who hasn't been recommended to them. But almost every agency has a young hungry agent (or an old hungry one) who will read your script if your query letter has an awesome hook. (I talk about all this at length in my first book.) The top agencies won't do it -- your first agency won't be at CAA, ICM, William Morris or Endeavor. But everyone wants to discover someone brilliant. And most agents have the time to read a two line hook. That's why your query letters must be SHORT. They will likely do it while they're on the phone, which is why your hook really has to be sharp and sharply written.

A more useful resource than the WGA list is the Hollywood Representation Directory, published by the same guys who publish the Hollywood Creative Directory. This will give you individual agents' names and eddresses. It's about $45 bucks. You can also access their database online for about twenty five bucks for a trial period; which may be all you need.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

[Canadiana] This in my mailbox from the WGC:
At the recent CRTC hearings into the future of Canadian television, private, conventional broadcasters like CTV and CanWest Global said the rise of Internet programming and other technologies have eroded their revenues and they are too poor to spend money on Canadian drama.

If broadcasting is such a losing proposition, why would CanWest want to buy Alliance Atlantis’ 13 specialty channels, let alone pay $2.3 billion for it?

"We keep on hearing the same story from the broadcasters – they are losing money due to market fragmentation and have no money for Canadian drama," says Maureen Parker, Executive Director of the Writers Guild of Canada. "Well, this CanWest/Alliance Atlantis deal blows that argument out of the water. It’s obvious that broadcasting continues to be a lucrative business."
Yep. Ditto.


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I recently got an email from someone wanting me to interview the founder of a screenwriting competition.

I don't like screenwriting competitions. The economics are akin to that of a lottery: many entries pay for a few prizes.

Moreover, I'm not at all clear that they select the most viable screenplays. The screenplays are being judged on some abstract "goodness" criterion. The winning script is probably well written, but that's not what gets a movie made. What gets a movie made is a producer's "Do I love this so much I'm willing to spend a couple years of my life trying to get this sucker made?" (Or a director, or a star.)

I feel there's only one real kind of screenplay competition, and that's the one every agent and producer runs. The prize is a produced picture. The application fee is nothing. Why pay $45 to submit to a competition when you can email a query letter for free?

There is a distinction between independent screenplay competitions and fellowship programs run by the studios. The fellowship programs, if you can get into them, are a real way into the movie biz. But then you're not winning a cash prize. You're winning a job, a mentor, and a raft of valuable connections. The goal is different, too. Screenplay competitions, I believe, are in business to make a profit for their owners. Fellowships are created by studios and networks in order to bring in fresh viewpoints -- usually minority ones. They're a way of giving back to the community.

There are also one or two screenpay contests that might be worthwhile if you have a slightly arcane script that's hard to pitch but brilliantly written. The Nicholl, for example. The Sundance Screenwriters Lab. But they're funded and run by major legit institutions. The Nicholl, for example, is run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Not by, say, Joey Nicholl.

I know real writers who've broken in via fellowships, and the winner of the Nicholl tends to get a great agent and a lot of buzz. But I've never met any who made it because of an independent screenplay competition. (I'm not saying that no one who's won a competition has ever made it. The pool of successful writers must overlap at least a little with the pool of successful competition winners, if only because of the sheer numbers involved.)

Save your money. Send query letters to agents. Get a movie made.

Eyes on the prize, baby.



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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

According to DMc, Little Mosque on the Prairie had 2 million viewers last night. This proves that with good publicity, and a hook, you can get Canadian viewers to watch a new Canadian show. Now it's up to the show to hold its superb numbers. Ins'Allah.


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This Times article tries to answer the question. Executive summary: a lot of the new serials are dying, but so what? Most shows do. "You can't say they're not working," says one exec, "because, really, they are the only thing that is working."



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Bridget Carpenter is a writer-producer on FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. Her episode of FNL (#108, "Crossing the Line") was named #19 on The Futon Critic's "50 Best Episodes of TV in 2006."

Crafty TV: How much do you find the characters are evolving from their original formulations? To what extent is that motivated by the evolving story, and to what extent is it inspired by the actors playing the roles, or the chemistry between certain actors?

Bridget Carpenter: We definitely pay attention to actor chemistry, though we're not driven by it. I suppose the most truthful way to talk about how characters evolve is to admit that a writer in the room will say something like "I'm bored with having ___ do that! I've seen that already! Can't he/she do___ for a change?" So we are looking to surprise ourselves, and to watch the characters change, and at the same time stay within the realm of believability. You know, Julie Taylor isn't going to decide instantly day that she loves football. But she might get more interested/tolerant as her relationship with Matt evolves...and she might also be surprisingly good at playing football herself if she gets a little attention from her dad...
(That's a tiny spoiler re: an upcoming episode.)

Crafty TV: It seems to me that you have a show about small town Texas folks who probably vote Republican that's having its greatest success among urban Democrats. (I'm going by the low numbers and the rave reviews.) Does this affect your writing at all?

Bridget Carpenter: No. We have been given an amazing amount of support from both the studio and network. They have said from the beginning, and continue to say, "we love the show. Keep doing what you're doing." It's unprecedented, in my experience.

Crafty TV: Technical note: You're writing a lot of Texas dialect. Obviously you're writing "y'all"s into the scripts. But do you drop the 'g's off words? Or is that understood? (In English scripts, I noticed, Cockney dialect keeps it's 'h's -- the actors drop it off.)

Bridget Carpenter: Most people don't drop the g's, not that I've noticed. There's no real rule, though.

Crafty TV: You mention that you got to TV writing through play writing. There's something I don't quite grasp about modern theatre. Mostly I don't quite grasp plays after the invention of film. The same thing seems to have happened as with painting when photography came in. Since film did "representational" narrative better than theatre -- "can our cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?" -- theatre became this sort of magic ritual space. But beyond that observation -- which is to say no more than I don't quite get it -- I'm not sure what a play is any more. Certainly I've seen any number of plays that didn't seem to me to "play." They're just a lot of impressive dialog, or we get to watch an actor act a character for a while but nothing actually happens. As a playwright, what would you say you are trying to do in a play that you can't do in a TV episode or a film?

Bridget Carpenter: That's a gigantor question. THE question, really. When I teach playwriting, the best question to ask students who are beginning to write a new play is a version of the Passover question: Why is today different from any other day? Your question is sort of a larger version of that...

As far as plays vs. TV goes, that's easy. Plays end after about 90 minutes. You won't see those characters again. So the story that the play tells has to come to some conclusion, a resting place--you want to feel satisfied, that you've experienced something, be it large or small, with these people. TV, you want your audience to fall in love with everyone you've introduced them to, to be so engaged with the characters that they HAVE to come back and spend more time with them, they NEED to know what will happen next?! So that's a very different architecture. Not to mention that of course on network television you're writing very specifically for act breaks (in our case, FIVE of them) and in a play it's freewheeling. Thank god.

I have written very little for film, so I'm going to ignore the film aspect of your question except to say that when I write screenplays, I write to sell. I don't (yet) write indie films, simply to please myself. But when I write a play, I write entirely for myself, an audience of one. Later, I take the theatre audience into consideration (during previews, you pay attention to how quickly the audience 'gets' things, etc; whether jokes land, all that stuff) but I make changes according to my experience WITH the audience, not whether they "like" it or not.

When I write a play, I write something that would delight me to see onstage, live. So in UP, my last play, I had a character who was a wire walker. He was also a figment of another character's imagination, so you experienced something pretty magical. If I saw wire walking in a movie, I'd be, ok, fairly engaged. But onstage? Your breath is taken away. You're captivated! I like to always attempt to exploit the live-ness of theatre. We're all in the same place, at the same time, watching these people who are also alive, in front of us. So things like singing, dancing, and other spectacular performances are especially effective, because on tv and film we're kind of blase about that, because of the nature of effects, and also those people aren't breathing the same air as us.

I tend to try to combine spectacle and story. My plays are ways of asking questions. I take your point that sometimes contemporary playwriting seems like something else--performance art, or just dialogue, maybe--and I, too, tend to be impatient when there's no story --but I also think that this is a golden time for amazing, radical, resonant plays. I'm thinking of Sarah Ruhl's magical realism wonder THE CLEAN HOUSE and her EURIDICE, Julia Cho's DURANGO and THE ARCHITECTURE OF LOSS; of Nilo Cruz's ANNA IN THE TROPICS, Paula Vogel's THE BALTIMORE WALTZ and THE LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME. Lynn Nottage wrote INTIMATE APPARREL, the most produced play in the US last year, and it uses characters speaking the letters they write to one another to great effect. I love George Walker's plays, and in his play HEAVEN he has people killed, and then they come back onstage from 'above'--awesome, funny, surprising. I think few of those things would have been true on film. August Wilson was a master storyteller, and while no doubt more plays of his will be turned into movies, I bet they will always be best as plays: just people telling each other stories. Going back to the campfire. I'm most moved, thrilled, and excited by contemporary plays. I'm interested by Shakespeare (reading) but I'm often bored in productions and I rarely find myself caring.



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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bridget Carpenter is a writer-producer on NBC's FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, the best show on broadcast TV. This is part two of my interview with her.

Crafty TV: How much of the writing staff has spent time in a small football- crazy town?

Bridget Carpenter: We have three writers who played football seriously in high school and/or college, and another writer/producer from Texas. The rest of us range from rabid football fans to "how the hell to you say that in football-ese?"

Crafty TV: If you've lived in a city all your life, how do you write FNL?

Bridget Carpenter: Well, that would be me. And at least half the staff. I guess the most honest answer is we make it up.

Crafty TV: Is there a bible? What sort of issues are addressed in it? What sort of things aren't in the bible that you need to know to write the show? Also, I'm assuming the answer is no, but my readers keep asking: if an agented writer is speccing the show, can the agent ask for a copy of the bible?

Bridget Carpenter: There's no bible.

Crafty TV: How far ahead are you plotting? How many scripts were written before the pilot was picked up? After the show was picked up, how far did you guys plan out the individual episodes before you started writing them?

Bridget Carpenter: We are pretty far ahead. As I write this they're shooting episode 115, and in the room we're breaking the final episode of the season. This is the most speedy and efficient (and, I have to repeat, awesome) group of writers I've ever worked with.

No other scripts were written until the pilot was picked up. Once we were picked up and all staffed up, as a room, we beat out five episodes together, one after another, before anyone went off and started outlining and then writing any of those five. That was pretty great, because it helped us move fast, get a sense of the world, and created a real momentum to events from episode to episode.

Crafty TV: You're nowhere near having this problem, if first season takes you to the championship, which I'd bet money it does, how do you do a second season? Is it enough to just have another season of football?

Bridget Carpenter: We plan to loosely follow the year. So next year's season would take place sometime as the new school year/football season begins. I think as you write the question, no, it would not be enough to have just another season of football. But there will be new players (JV moving up to Varsity), new characters, new alliances--and all that, we hope, would create more depth and new tensions & excitement as we get into another football season. Remeber that in the movie FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, once Boobie Miles was injured, another player emerged to take his place and that opened up a whole new dynamic, which was painful and exciting to watch.

Crafty TV: Do the writing staff ever discuss second season, even idly? Or is that jinxing it?

Bridget Carpenter: Oh my god, of course we do. And if it's jinxing it, we're f****d. Because we definitely talk about it. A lot.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

ACTRA, the Canadian actor's union, is going out on strike. The producers are offering a pay raise of 4% over three years. Since the inflation rate is about 3.5% per year, that works out to a 6.5% pay cut over three years in constant dollars.

The ACTRA strike will hurt actors and producers both, since productions that might have gone to Canada will now go elsewhere. (Some of them already have.) But it's a basic principle of negotiation that if you're not willing to walk away, you're in a lousy negotiating position. The ACTRA strike won't help my business and won't help me in the short run. But I'm glad the actors had the guts to reject a lousy deal.

Producers probably don't realize this, but the talent unions benefit them. Why? Because producers will individually pay as little as they possibly can. A dollar in your pocket is a dollar they don't get to keep. That's just the nature of the business.

But if actors, writers and directors got paid as little as possible, very few people would be able to make a living acting, writing or directing. The minimum payments specified in the contracts are what make it possible to make a living in the business. That means that an industry develops that has a pool of people who are not only talented but skilled. Those are the very same people that producers need to be able to draw on to work on their projects. Without unions there would be a few extremely successful creative people -- who would charge much more to make up for all the money they didn't get earlier in their career -- and a lot of amateurs working day jobs and writing or acting or directing on the side. That wouldn't actually be good for producers as a group.

When I was in Cape Town, I got to see the results of an un-organized, un-unionized writing pool. In South Africa a writer gets paid a couple thousand bucks to write a TV drama. You actually get paid more to write books. So, as you'd expect, there are very few skilled, experienced screenwriters; and they're typing as fast as they can to get by.

Show business is a scary business. Unions make it possible to have a life in it. Strikes are what give unions clout.

You go, ACTRA.


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