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


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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Maybe it's because you didn't realize Transformers:ROTF is an art movie.



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Can't quite figure out that perfect word. You sort of know what it sounds like and it sort of means this but it's just not coming?

Try the Tip of Your Tongue tool. Maybe it can help!



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[POLITICS] Here's something Western governments could actually do: create WiFi hotspots around their embassies so Iranians can get the news out. They presumably have satellite uplinks so are not subject to the Iranian Government web censorship.

I know, I know, that's not what embassies are for. And it's arguably spying. And it can easily be jammed or overwhelmed... I'm just saying.



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Friday, June 26, 2009

Have trouble keeping your ass in your chair? Maybe you need the Study Ball.

Any other uses you come up with are really none of my business.

Via Webs, who I'm glad to read is feeling better.


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Thursday, June 25, 2009

In yesterday's post, I talked about global wants and specific wants, and I suggested they can conflict.

It occurred to me today that the news about Mark Sanford suggests a conflict. His specific want was to see his mistress in secret. But his global want is to be with his mistress permanently.

The obstacle to his global want is being Governor of South Carolina. But by disappearing off the map for five days without telling his staff anything, he practically guaranteed that his secret mission to Argentina would be found out. And by doing it that way, he practically guarantees he'll have to resign as governor -- thus liberating him from his pesky governorship.

Whereas, had he simply separated from his wife and announced that he was in love with someone else, he might have lost some votes at the next election, but probably not even that -- see McCain, John.

How characters delude themselves between their specific goals and their overall goals -- how they trick themselves into getting what they won't admit they want -- is part of the fun of watching drama. The audience enjoys realizing things about the character that he doesn't realize himself; and by that effort, they draw themselves into the story.

You don't want your character to be vague, but don't be afraid to make your character self-contradictory, so long as the self-contradiction means something -- can be parsed for meaning.



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Ran across this Aaron Sorkin interview on the Making Of site. He doesn't say anything earth-shattering, but there are a lotta other interviews with interesting people there, too.



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Every now and then I get a question whose answer seems obvious, but since someone's asking, there are obviously people out there who don't know it.
I'm an independent producer interested in producing a crafty screenplay. What are your tips on how to find the script I have been looking for? Is there a service out there benefitting unknown screenwriters similar to what is doing for as-yet-unknown songwriters? As an independent film producer, I’m constantly on the lookout for a great story crafted into a financially producible script, but I don’t have a resource through which I can read enough or at least sort through enough of them to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. If you know of anything, please let me know.
Producers get scripts by asking agents to send them. Simple as that. A producer is a potential buyer, so any agent ought to want his clients read.

If you call any literary agency, such as CAA, William Morris, ICM, UTA, APA, Gersh or Endeavor, and say, "I'm a producer, I'm looking for some scripts to read," you'll get sent to a junior agent who can ask what sort of stuff you're looking for, and send you a whack of PDFs.

The reason you go to an agency rather than a "service" is that the agency has already winnowed out 9 out of 10 bad scripts and bad screenwriters. Not to say you won't have to read through a hunk of junk, just that the needle to haystack ratio is higher.

Also, the agent can, over time, get a sense of what you like and send you stuff as he comes across it. Services can't do that.

There's no reason to look for "unknown" screenwriters. Known screenwriters also want to sell their scripts, and most of us have a bunch of scripts we haven't managed to sell for whatever reason. Some of them might be what you're looking for.



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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I had a conversation with a friend of mine about her spec pilot. I couldn't figure out what her characters wanted. So there did not appear to be a plot.

When I brought it up to her, she told me that her characters don't know what they want.

But this is a different kind of "want." Really there are two kinds of ways a character can want.

There's a global want that defines a character, often in relation to the other characters. Lucy wants Ricky to be proud of her. Ross wants Rachel to think he's cool. Spock wants to be acknowledged as a fully logical Vulcan, in spite of his ancestry.

Then there's a specific want that creates a plot. Lucy wants to be a stenographer. Ross wants to impress his fellow paleontologists by a giving a speech. Spock wants to stop an evil Romulan from destroying Earth.

The two wants can be in line, or they can conflict. But you need both. Without a global want, your character has no drive. Without a specific want, your character has no story.

Of course both wants should be strong, compelling wants, or who cares?



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I have set the site feed to "Short" which means to read longer posts, you actually have to go to the blog, rather than the site feed. Basically I want to see how this affects my numbers, since I don't think there's a way to tell how many people are reading the site in their readers. I will probably restore regular full feeds after a week or so.

Thank you for understanding.



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Q. In Ronald D. Moore's Banff panel, a point came up that I've been pondering--the disparity of success between cinematic and televised scifi. From cinematic high art to blockbuster entertainment, scifi is well represented. Yet no television shows are big hits, and the genre struggles to be taken seriously among television critics. I can't think of another genre with such a disparity, and I'd like to hear your thoughts on it, Alex.

A few possible causes come to mind. Perhaps higher production costs become burdensome over a series' long run. Perhaps audiences are reluctant to commit to watching scifi on a regular basis (perhaps due to social stigma) compared to seeing a single film. I am surprised by some critics' and the Emmy's inability to recognize BSG, half-way surprised.
Why are no SF shows big hits on TV, while the most successful movies in the world are mostly SF?

I can make a few guesses. The movie audience is younger and more male. They like the big-boomy. They will tolerate idiotic plots like the past three STAR WARS pictures if there are spectacular special effects. Those effects aren't as effective on a smaller screen.

On the other hand, there are lots of SF and fantasy shows on TV, but they're generally structured to be as mundane as possible. MEDIUM is a fantasy show: the heroine has visions of the future. LOST and FRINGE and HEROES are SF. Even ALIAS had an undercurrent of SF or F.

What you don't see a lot of is space opera. You don't see hit primetime series about people bopping around in spacecraft. Sure, the STAR TREK franchise has spawned four long-running spinoff shows (TNG, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise), but they've always had relatively low ratings.

Partly that's a budget issue. It's cheap to blow stuff up, and reasonably affordable to stick a latex mask on an actor, but you can't really do something visually spectacular every week. And if you don't have spectacle, you run the risk of having a workplace drama with spandex uniforms.

I hate to say it, for I do love SF, but I think most people find the idea of bopping around on spacecraft to be fairly far from their own experience. They have a family at home; they have a family at work. The problems they deal with, the fears they face, are fairly concrete. SF operates at a level of abstraction. Sure, great SF is always grounded in our human experience. But it requires a little bit of mental work to connect what's going on in a STAR TREK episode with your daily life. So does absorbing a space opera's mythos. Most people don't want to have to work to enjoy their TV. For some reason, people find crime shows very easy to relate to, even though the average TV viewer probably will not have anyone close to them murdered. So maybe that's it.

But that's just a guess. Maybe someone will come up with a big, mainstream, hit primetime show, and we'll stop asking this question.



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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Q. In your book you talk about querying before actually writing the screenplay to test the value of the hookCan you do the same thing for TV specs, to see if you should even bother writing it?
Er, no. You might query producers or agents about your spec feature to see if anyone's interested in the hook. But you're not writing a spec TV script in order to sell it. You're writing it to show you can write TV. A clever hook is a good idea, but producers and agents really need to see your writing chops.

On the other hand if you're talking about a spec pilot that you hope to sell, you can certainly pitch your TV show concept to people in the biz, to see if they warm to it, before investing in writing a spec pilot. You'll want to do this in person, so you see their reaction up front; also they'll be less likely to steal your idea; also, your concept will improve itself as you pitch it. I spent four days in the Rocky Mountains the week before last, pitching a couple of series ideas to producers. We've since had offers and we'll be optioning them shortly. Then we'll take the pitches to networks to see if they'll pay Lisa and me to write a pilot. So in that sense, you can query a TV spec pilot. But it's really a different thing.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Born in Russia, Dmitry Lipkin began his career as a playwright, running a theatre company in New York with his wife Colette Burson for ten years. He then created and was Head Writer for THE RICHES for F/X.

His new show, HUNG, co-created with his wife, Colette Burson, premieres Sunday, June 28 at 10 pm EST on HBO and HBO Canada. The show stars Thomas Jane as Ray Drecker, a middle-aged former sports star now down on his luck, who, with the help of a failed poet, Tanya (Jane Adams), exploits his only remaining asset: his big dick. He turns himself into a hetero male prostitute, with Tanya functioning as his pimp.

Crafty Screenwriting: What did you learn creating and then writing THE RICHES that you’re doing differently on HUNG?

Dmitry Lipkin: When I did THE RICHES, I actually did not know anything about creating a TV show. Network notes and many other factors went into this but I do think that we focused too much on driving the plot forward, and not enough on staying with the psychological reality of each character in that particular unique situation. And that’s something I definitely wanted to do on HUNG, to root us more in the situation, to really think through each step of a regular guy and this woman, this artist temp, how would they go about forming this partnership. How does a regular guy become a gigolo? Not skimming over any steps along the way --there’s nothing that happens on HUNG that happens offscreen.

On this show, we also got to write a lot more episodes before we started shooting, because we were writing all through development. On THE RICHES after the pilot we had a writer's room, and we sat down and said, "Here we are, what's the show?" Let's talk about what the show is for a couple of weeks. On HUNG we brought in a small writing room later, six episodes in. We already knew what the show was, we didn't want to open it up to "what the show is," we just wanted people to jump on board.

CS: Was this always an HBO show, or was there a network version of this show?

DL: We always had HBO in mind. One reason we went with HBO was, I love the idea of going to a place where a show can succeed or fail on the basis of how good it is, not on whether we get a good time slot. Going with HBO, I knew we can actually do this right. We can develop unique characters, create a distinctive tone. We don’t have to rush through it, run roughshod over the concept.

CS: You co-created this show with your wife, Colette Burson. Are you different writers?

DL: We’ve been working with each other so long, we know each other’s work so well we can pinch-hit for each other. We know what our strengths and weaknesses are. And we’re both pretty good at all these things. But I would say her strengths are idea and structure. I can really go off course -- she’s got an instinct for knowing what feels right...

CS: Because I’m mostly writing with my wife these days, and she has a million ideas, and I have very few ideas, but I know how to structure them, how to turn them into a TV show...

DL: She’s both actually, both the what if person and the structure person. I guess I’m the person who makes things ...

CS: ... Deeper and richer?

DL: Yeah. And that comes comes out of the playwriting experience.

We both ran a theater company in New York for ten years...

CS: So you’re gluttons for punishment.

DL: Yeah. But after that, you know, we made shoes for ten years and now we can make a good shoes.

CS: THE RICHES was a star-driven show -- you've talked about how it really took off once Eddie Izzard was on board, and he's such a strong personality. And you had Minnie Driver. How would you compare writing a star-driven show with writing HUNG, which seems to be a more story-driven show?

DL: I think Thomas Jane has a lot of star quality... but, that's true, I just never thought of it that way. Getting Eddie on board THE RICHES was a huge thing. The concept was kind of tailor-made for Eddie’s strengths as a performer. HUNG was very much a story, and then Thomas and Jane and Anne [Heche] fleshed out a story that preceded them.

CS: The premise pilot seems to go in and out of style. What made you feel you needed to show each step of the process of Ray getting into his new business, as opposed to starting with him in it?

[In the pilot, we don't actually see Ray sleeping with a woman for money; the closest he gets is knocking on a hotel door about nine minutes before the end of the episode.]

DL: We always planned to take it step by step. We looked at WEEDS. WEEDS started a few weeks into her job selling pot. But the act of selling pot is simple --you give somebody pot and you get money for it. The act of a sexual encounter with a woman for money is complex and multifaceted. That's a huge step that we wanted to see him live through.

CS: Were you tempted to make Ray a male hustler? Because in real life, almost all the male prostitution is homosexual -- and if anyone fetishizes big dicks, it's gay men. Was that too transgressive even for HBO, or did you want to make the attractive fantasy stronger?

DL: We didn’t go there because Ray wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t go there. He’s barely putting up with the stuff in his life -- his divorce, his kids. He'd pretty much have to be homeless for him to do that.

We did very little research into the sex industry. We didn't want to make it like twenty other shows -- we wanted to approach it from the point of view that this is a unique situation. A kind of grass roots oddball partnership that these two people form. How would these two people who know nothing about this business do it? How would she get clients for him? It's not about the sex industry, people trying to do this unlikely thing.

CS: I've only seen the pilot, but you kind of went out of your way to make him someone we have to struggle to sympathize with. He's kind of angry and resentful that life hasn't treated him the way he expected. Is that kind of the pay cable thing, the unlikable main character, or is that the audience you're trying to reach, men who feel hard done by?

DL: He was never ... it's more apparent in later episodes, but he’s not someone who hates the world. He’s a guy who’s very much lifted up by the world around him. He was the golden boy, the big star. These kinds of guys, they're not angry, they tend to be ... befuddled. The world has shifted and I’m here and where did it all go? As you'll see in the later episodes, he's a considerate and kind guy. He can be grumpy but he’s essentially a gentleman; this comes through in the later episodes. He wants to do a good job. He’s been taught to respect women. He has essentially a Midwestern good guy quality to him that’s very endearing.

CS: What was the genesis of the character?

DL: We wanted to do a show centered around a male actor. No guns, no mobsters, nothing you'd expect. He's nothing, he's average. And then Colleen said: he's got a big dick. And I said: we call it "Hung."

And for the longest time Collette and I were joking: He’s got a big dick. That’s all we had. Wanna buy our idea, this is all we got! And the networks were interested based on that alone. We took it to Fox21 before the strike, we had a little two page pitch not even an outline.

Toward the end of the writers' strike we began to flesh out the concept. Here's this quintessential insider, heralded by his home town, lettered in three sports, played pro baseball... what's it like to be that? What happens to these guys ten, twenty years down the road and they find themselves not all that any more.

You see all these shows about a fish out of water. Well he's not the fish out of water, he's in the water, but the water has changed. He's a 99 cent coffee guy in the $4.50 latte world.

He’s got a house on the lake, this is where he’s most himself, when he’s sitting out in his yard that he grew up in ... he’s most at peace drinking a beer on his lake. that kind of opened him up a little it.

CS: I sort of wonder as you talk about it if the show crystallized with the image of him camping out in a tent on his lawn after his house has burned down.

DL: ... holding onto the life that he had that he’s being edged out of.

Really, both characters crystallized in relationship with each other. Ray, and Tanya played by Jane Adams developed in tandem with each other. She's a creative person caught in a place that doesn’t value creativity -- Michigan values sports, not creativity, and Ray was sports. She’s a local poet who works as a permatemp in a law firm. She doesn’t want to get a permanent job because it’s selling out, but she’s there every night temping.

The most unlikely pimp hooks up with Thomas Jane and they decide to go down this peculiar route. Because neither of them is very good at this, they have no idea how to do it, and she takes a sort of poetic way to be a pimp. It was kind of a blue-state, red-state partnership. She wants creative fulfillment, he just wants to fix his house and get his kids back.

As we were beginning to pitch the show, we were already writing the pilot to understand the show more. So by the time we sold the pitch, we were really selling the script as a spec.

CS: What do you think are the most interesting shows on television for you, as a writer, to watch? Do you watch shows you think are good, shows you may not like but are popular, or interestingly flawed shows?

DL: We analyzed a few shows before we started writing. WEEDS is more arch, this is more grounded, but I like WEEDS. I watched the first season of BREAKING BAD, then ran out of time. Before we wrote HUNG we also analyzed CALIFORNICATION, because it was another sex driven man show. We're more of a comedy; they’re a half hour drama. I think it's interesting though to look at a flawed show.

CS: What did you take away from your analysis of CALIFORNICATION?

DL: I think a show like that is best when it services a through line... a season arc for the character, as opposed to arcs that run for three or four episodes. Every time it serviced the through line it felt good, but we felt it got distracted. So we try to keep close to our two main through lines, our two driving questions. One, will Ray make it as a gigolo... not just financially, but psychologically, emotionally. Second, will Ray and Tanya stay partners. We cared about them being together, we followed the ebbs and flows of their relationship.

CS: Dave and Maddy ...

DL: Yeah, we thought of MOONLIGHTING. Or LA STRADA.

CS: How far ahead have you thought through the show?

DL: We have some ideas for future seasons. We think the world is going to expand. We had all these ideas for the end of the season, and then we realized those were probably ideas for the middle or end of season two. The more we do it the more we realize we don’t need as many fireworks as we thought we did. You don’t need to throw in the kitchen sink. You can just live through it and have sort of anticipatory plot twists. The way we did it, we can keep going for years and years.

HUNG premieres Sunday, June 28 at 10 pm EST on HBO and HBO Canada.



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Sunday, June 21, 2009

'Nuff said.

Nice mashup.

(If for some reason you want to know why this video was made, as if it's not obvious, the creator writes about it here.



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Thursday, June 18, 2009

I must be on vacation, because I'm reading comparative linguistics for fun. THE POWER OF BABEL, by John McWhorter is a witty, page-turning comparison of the languages of the world and how they got that way:
McWhorter ranges across linguistic theory, geography, history and pop culture to tell the fascinating sory of how thousands of very idfferent languages have evolved from a single, original source in a natural process similar to biological evolution.
There is one useful nugget for screenwriters here amidst the evidentiary suffixes and ergatives: spoken language tends to come in "idea packets" of about seven words. Written language often has lots of dependent clauses, but spoken language rarely has any:
Have you ever tape-recorded yourself and your friends talking casually and then listened to it later? What is striking is how few complete sentences we actually tend to utter, how contrary our daily utterances are to the idealization of language we are bombarded with on the page. We speak in "idea packets" or, better yet, when we try to spin out longer propositions, we risk being interrupted because our subconscious rules of discourse are founded on an expectation that people will talk in spurts.

This is one thing distinguishing real life from plays, in which characters stand around making five minute speeches while the other characters just sit and listen. If anyone does try to talk in chapters in real life, it's annoying. I once knew someone like this, and though the erudition and deathless zest for analysis were initially impressive and charming, it got old really fast.
When you write dialog, consider the rhythms of spoken language. I generally try to have my characters get to a complete idea as fast as possible. They can add another idea on top of that, but only after they've finished the first one.

This (from my pay cable pilot):
  • CHAZ
  • See, that’s the problem. You’ve been seeing things. This world -- you see it all around you, and you can’t escape it. So you tell yourself this is your real life. This flesh. These memories. That body you’re in remembers being a mom. But you’re something else. Aren’t you? Something that isn’t flesh. Something that fell as far as anything can fall.

Not this:
  • CHAZ
  • Your problem is precisely that you cannot escape the visible world around you. You tell yourself that your real life is made up of this flesh, these memories, and the body in which you find yourself, which remembers being a mom; but you're something that isn't made of flesh, which fell as far as anything can fall.

Lots of good writers give characters longer sentences than I do. I like a short choppy dialog style because when characters talk the way people talk, in quick bursts of single ideas, the audience won't get lost, and the actors can easily find places to breathe. When characters talk in long, complicated sentences, the audience gets confused waiting for the verb, and the actors have trouble figuring out where to breathe. That's when they start rewriting the dialog, and I hate that.

Listen to people, how they talk. They jump their train of thought from track to track, and they leave you to fill in the blanks. See if writing that doesn't make your dialog more vital.

Try breaking down your dialog into chunks of around seven words each. Don't worry about writing full sentences, or even connecting the thoughts explicitly; real speech is slightly disjointed because the speaker is making it up on the fly. When dialog is too logical, it sounds rehearsed, and they tune out halfway through even a sentence. When it's slightly disjointed, they don't know what's coming next, so they have to actually make the effort to listen to the whole speech. So when the audience has to work just a little to follow the train of thought, the effort pulls them into the experience.

In case the above sounds at all contradictory: I like the audience to be slightly off balance, so they're forced to pay attention; but I don't want them to have to absorb too many ideas at once, lest they get confused and miss something.

Does all this sound like an awful lot of analysis to go into dialog? Don't you just write what you hear in your head? No, of course not. You tinker endlessly. A good writer pays as much attention to the dialog on the page, and to his dialog style in general, as a poet might. You think about the meaning. You think about the sound of the words. You think about nuance. You think about rhythm. You think about how the words crash into the ear and make their way into the brain. You think about everything. You just want it to sound like you just heard it in your head.
A line will take us hours maybe. / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / our stitching and unstinting has been naught.

Now back to those wonderful Proto-Indo-Europeans who came up with all these lovely words.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ronald D. Moore needs no introduction in this blog. I was extremely fortunate to catch up with him at the Banff Worldwide Television Festival and ask him my arcane, craft-oriented questions.

This interview assumes a working knowledge of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and is filled with spoilers for the series. If you haven't seen the show, then go rent the four seasons of it now. I'll wait.

Great, you're back. Good, huh?

CRAFTY SCREENWRITING: I’m going to try to ask you a few questions you haven’t been asked a million times before.

It’s almost unheard of for a TV show to kill off a core cast member unless an actor dies or asks for too much money. And BATTLESTAR kept its core cast firmly in the show in spite of situations where that might not have been the most natural outcome. For example, Colonel Tigh is outed as a Cylon, but he stays on as the ship's executive officer. Lee Adama becomes defense counsel for Baltar even though he's only the Commander of the Air Group. Then he becomes President of the Twelve Colonies. And then there's Kara Thrace. Are you ever tempted to let the story go where it wants to go? Or is keeping the core cast just an unbreakable aspect of TV, the way sonnets have to rhyme or they’re not sonnets?

RONALD D. MOORE: I never felt that it went off in an unnatural direction. I was never tempted to kill of any of the main cast just for the sake of killing them off. Usually when some character was dying, it was for a specific story purpose. Starbuck's death played into the larger myth. Laura dies, but it was a long protracted illness and part of her character from the beginning. There were people we considered part of the core cast who died, like Dualla.

But you're hiring a main cast because you want to use those characters and players. You consider them the heart of the show. Even if you're really intrigued by a plot turn... A TV series is a story about these people.

So there was very strongly an effort to find something interesting for Lee to do. At one point we were going to have him more involved with the Marines. We were sort of groping to find something for the character to do. We had Romo Lampkin, but he needed someone to play off him. And we thought it would be interesting to put Lee in that position. He was a much more interesting character out of the uniform, as a lawyer or a politician. So that was really the path we wanted to take him.

The concept is follow these people, not you follow these events. It's not a story about the Galactica as a ship. We're not up in the CIC and then we're down in the engine room as if it were a novel. You make a judgment at the beginning: here’s our core group of human beings. So the natural story is to keep them in the drama.

You could do a show about the Galactica but it's antithetical to a series -- it's not what a series is.

You could set up a series that was much more about an environment or a place or a situation, and have characters rotate in and out week to week. That's a different format than I do. Even as I say it, it's a fascinating concept trying to do a show like that. You're fascinated by this battleship or this police station. But then you'd approach it differently. You wouldn't invest the audience in those character so heavily.

Pilots are all about introducing the core characters. You want to see what happens to those people.

CS: You’ve rather bravely talked in your podcasts about how you’ve winged some important plot points. For example, you decided in the middle of writing the script that Sharon would shoot the Six on the surface of Caprica, so Helo could fall in love with her. Aside from Kara’s father figure seeming to be Daniel, did you ever feel you painted yourself into a corner?

RM: I'm still mystified that people got that out of the show. I know a lot of people had that impression, but it was just a bit of backstory. It was intended to tell you about Cavill and Ellen more than anything else. It solved a numbering problem in the Cylons. I continue to be surprised how many people ran with it. I even had to start telling people [in the podcasts] not to make too much of it, and people were still disappointed that the finale didn't go there.

CS: I guess because you developed so much trust in the audience, that they figured it if you threw out anything so loaded with meaning, it must be a plot hook.

RM: I didn't know I was throwing out a hook. It was just an anecdote.

CS: Are there any aspects of the way you structured the mythos of Battlestar that you might have done differently with hindsight?

RM: We wouldn't have had Boxy. The intent was that you had Boomer and you had Tyrol and Boxy as a sort of nuclear family going into the series. We tried to work him into episodes, but the character wasn't organic to our show. He was an idea that started and then stopped. We weren't even invested enough in him to kill him -- it seemed gratuitous just to kill him. Even for me.

We weren't going to deal with the fact that Boomer's a Cylon for a long time. We'd have these three forming a family. When I was writing "Water," the second episode, I said, "And she starts realizing she's a Cylon."

If we'd know that, we probably would have set her up differently in the miniseries.

We wouldn’t have thought certain things about the series that turned out not to be true. For example we intended to go to other ships in the fleet. We were going to go out to the fleet -- to the hospital ship, the prison ship, we were going to track a serial killer through the fleet. That was part of the sales pitch for the series. It's not just claustrophobic aboard this aircraft carrier and Colonial One.

That turned out not to be practical. The prison ship with Tom Zarek destroyed our budget. It was so far over pattern we had to make major cuts in the next five episode. So we realized we had to put all the action aboard Galactica and Colonial One. The series pivoted at that point and became very much about the characters on those two ships. And that meant that stories had to be about the overall story arc. Had we been able to go find stories on the other ships, maybe we could have gone another season or two. You would have had more shows not about the mythos. Instead we had to put the key cast in the heart of the action all the time, and that meant you had to go to the main story.

So we wouldn't have gone to the prison ship so early, to start that language of going to other ships.

We probably would have yanked Lee out of the flight suit sooner. Laura Roslin didn't really have anyone to complement her in the political world. It would have been good and useful to have him in conflict with her; we could have told stories more easily.

CS: Do you feel the DVD market has changed how writers write TV?

RM: It’s changed the audience consumes TV. And it’s probably given writers like myself a sense of “they’ll watch it on the DVD, that's where it will live forever. That's the real version." So when the cut comes in twenty minutes over, I'm thinking, "I've got to cut this thing down, but the real episode will be on DVD.

But it doesn't impact much in the day to day writing.

CS; You mention in the podcasts that your cuts often went quite a bit over, and that means you were shooting quite a lot...

RM: It's sort of my refusal to cut it. I don’t know what I want to cut -- it's refusing to chop into bone and muscle while the show is on the stage. Sometimes we'd come in twenty or thirty minutes over, and I've always been able to find a way to bring that down in the editing room, or make it into two episodes, but if I don't have the material I can't do that. Budget aside -- they scream about how much it costs. But creatively, I’d rather have all of it.

CS: People smoke in BATTLESTAR; and of course you’re a smoker. Could you talk about what went into that decision, and what were your most important pros and cons?

RM: I'm a casual smoker. I smoke in the podcasts for effect. I smoke with actors.

But I'm just not a big fan of the whole antismoking movement. People should get a life and leave people the fuck alone. It's just for people's convenience, it's not really a health hazard that someone's smoking somewhere near you. I mean, what about a double whopper with cheese, that's unhealthy. You suck in a lot of fumes from the air, and you’re going on about the fumes from a guy in a bar -- get over yourself! So yeah, that was me putting it in people’s faces.

CS: You talked in your session about how Tricia Helfer was able to make the various Sixes all distinct through her acting chops. How much did you define the different models of Sixes and Eights, and how much of that was the actors making their own decisions?

RM: It was kinda both. That was a slow revelation, that she could differentiate herself -- the makeup people could put her in a brunette wig, and there was a stunning difference. Put glasses on her -- you could change her physically without makeup and prosthetics.

CS: But I'm talking the personality--

RM: Maybe that was something we came up with in the story break. Who is this particular model of Six. Or the writer might call the actor and ask, "What's a version you haven't played?"

Tricia had no experience, she was a model. We didn't know in the miniseries what her chops would be like. We found out she could do variations of Number 6, each one she gave something special. And we wanted her to be more than in Baltar's head.

You start writing towards the actors. You hear the way they say lines. When they have trouble with one kind of material, you don’t give it to them. It's part of the job really.

And the actors we had were fantastic. Even the extras -- they learned how to operate the consoles in CIC on Galactica. They had a real dedication and love for the series.

CS: What’s your creative relationship with Mrs. Ron, if it's not impolite to ask?

RM: I bounce things off her. She doesn’t read the scripts, she wanted to be spoiler free. She would never see the episode till I watched the director's cut. She'd be in the car plugging her ears trying to avoid hearing spoilers. So she was really my first audience, because I saw it before anyone else.

CS: Do you feel the broadcast model of television is broken, and where do you see television going now that no one has to watch the commercials? Does it affect how you think about shows you’re developing at all?

RM: It’s a very changing universe, and it's changing in ways that we don’t’ understand. But it's hard to try to have that influence the creative. What is the new environment? You keep trying to do TV as you know it.

You think, the broadcast networks are more like this, basic cable is like this, pay cable is more like that. What's the kind of show I want to do? Do I have something that work for CBS? Maybe it's too dark, it's more a Spike TV show. Or is it something I really need to push boundaries and it’s going to go over to pay. What is broadcast TV going to be in ten years? I don't think the people that work there know. It's all about what do they want to buy this year? This is the year they want serials. This is the year they want procedurals.

I'll never forget the year LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES came out. I was working on BATTLESTAR, but you're always working and pitching other ideas. I had two pitch meetings set up when suddenly LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES hit, and my agents call up and say, "Can you make your show more like LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES." And I say, this is a completely different idea, it has nothing to do with either of those shows. "Yeah but if you can give them something like LOST, it will really help." They just want that hit.

CS: So you just pitch them what they're looking for now and let the future be their headache.

RM: Yep.

CS: I’ve noticed a number of screenwriters got their jobs by methods they would never recommend for anyone else. A friend of mind got a job by critiquing an X-files episode on a chat board that Chris Carter happened to be reading. As I understand it, you broke in by getting a spec script to a Star Trek writer by arranging a visit to the set through your girlfriend...

RM: I got a set tour via a girlfriend. I had written a Star Trek script, and I gave it to the tour guide, who was one of Gene Roddenberry's assistants.

It sat for seven months in the slush pile until Michael Piller was setting up a new staff. It was just a Rube Goldberg series of coincidences.

[Note: unlikely as this story is, STAR TREK: TNG was famous for being about the only show on television that accepted, and even bought, pitches and script from anybody, even SF fans. Still, do not try this yourself. It will never work. Except when it does.]

CS: What do we need to do in Canada to make shows as good as Battlestar Galactica? Would you care to speculate on what we need to do better?

RM: I think you just have to decide to do them. The talent pool is deep. You have to be willing to spend the money. You just need a place to sell it. And that's starting to happen. There's a natural progression. You've built a basic foundation of talent here. Everyone from the crew to the production staff, writers, actors ... just put the resources behind it. There's no reason you can't make it work.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Come shoot your show here.
MONTREAL -- Quebec now offers film producers one of the best tax incentives in North America. All production costs, not just labor expenses, are now eligible for a 25% tax credit.

"I think it's extraordinary. It's really big. The phones have started to ring," says Michel Trudel, who co-owns the equipment rental company Locations Michel Trudel with Mel Hoppenheim of Quebec's La Cité du Cineacute;ma studio. "This is what we needed to get the Americans to come again."

The provincial government said Friday it's increasing the tax credit for foreign filming from 25% of labor expenses to 25% of all spending.
Or, you know, come shoot my show here. Just sayin.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Seven Terrible Early Versions of Great Movies. On the CRACKED.COM website. You are warned.



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Mark McKinney is one of the luminaries of Canadian television. He started his career as one of the iconic KIDS IN THE HALL, and then graduated to writing and performing on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. He has written (and acted) for Aaron Sorkin on two shows, SPORTS NIGHT and STUDIO 60; he is one of the creators (and actors) of the brilliant series SLINGS AND ARROWS. He is currently showrunning the funny and touching LESS THAN KIND for CityTV/Rogers. Created by Marvin Kaye and Chris Sheasgreen, the show follows a dysfunctional family in Winnipeg that runs a less-than-successful driving school.

Thanks to the Banff Worldwide Television Festival's wonderful Juli Strader, I had the great fortune to get to sit down with Mark McKinney and pummel him with questions. He in turn pummeled me with words. You would not believe how fast this man speaks. I wound up with six pages of half sentences, and I type pretty fast when I'm not trying to spell.

And he used the word "epiphanical." Correctly. More on that in a bit.

CRAFTY SCREENWRITING: LESS THAN KIND is billed as a comic drama. Is that accurate? And would you say there's a qualitative difference between comic drama and comedy? Does it deliver different goods?

MARK MCKINNEY: Good question, man. What we have is a truly [air quotes] "situational comedy." It's not a three camera show. We have a crazy dad, narcissistic brother... everyone does their little comic bit to create a hysterically funny scene. Can it be as funny? I hope so. But the tone is qualitatively different from a sitcom.

Is there a qualitative -- I don't know, are we overthinking it here? There's a consistent lightness to the themes you introduce in a comedy. Ours is more to the WEEDS end of the spectrum, seriocomic. The themes themselves can change from comic to serious.

CS: In Canada we do sketch comedy and faux newscasts, and we do single camera comedy. Why don't we do seem to do full out multicamera sitcoms in Canada?

MM: I think it's a challenge to put together a writer's room and populate it. A sitcom is really labor intensive. You need ten to fourteen bodies. And you need some gag guys and some structure people, and somebody who can step on the floor and showrun. A sitcom is a big beast. And all those people need to be experienced already. We have some people like that, but not a full room.

I hope one day we'll be able to do that. If we can repatriate the great comedy talent that's working in LA. There are some really good writers down there. For example, Gary Campbell, he's back now. He might intuit how to do it. Rob Sheridan is a state of the art -- one of the world class funny guys. If he wants to do three camera, maybe he'll figure out a way to do it. But you need a critical mass. You can't cheap out. You can't say, "We'll get an experienced comedy guy, and the other four from DA VINCI'S INQUEST.

CS: You've worked with Aaron Sorkin on two of his shows. What have you learned working with him?

MM: Certainly that I'll never be able to replicate what he does. He told me a story from deep in his childhood, listening to the neighbors argue. Fascinated by the sound, not the words. Absorbing the rhythms--

CS: --the music --

MM: -- the music, yeah. And that's how his ear is so acutely tuned, because it's musical. That's how he has such interesting varied dialog, going from banter to witty to semi-serious to semi-sweet.

We have a lot in common, and I like his shows. When I'm writing, I'm not aping it. But I think my span is wider. I can go from the darkest KIDS IN THE HALL idea up to two friends hugging in the moonlight, with a guitar, turning on the tear taps.

He uses a writing room in a different way than I do. On STUDIO 60 we pitched story. He was hungry for story, he'd come down to the writing room and we'd pitch him the beats, something he could latch onto, something he could run with. We'd pitch plot lines, present a resolution -- then he'd go away and, I think without any editing at all, write the episode.

And I understand why he had to do that, because for him it's about the music.

When I'm doing a show, I would never dare write the whole thing. We have writers, and they do their thing. Of course, you have to rewrite for tone all the time.

CS: (Realizing) My god, is LESS THAN KIND the first time you've actually run a show?

MM: I've sort of done of it all along. On KIDS I was participating -- there were sort of 15 of us showrunning. And SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was entrepreneurial. If you wrote the sketch, you ran it. You worked with the costume designers, you were on the floor. This is the first time I've taken the title.

CS: So that answers a question I'd planned to answer about what were your personal and creative criteria for taking over LESS THAN KIND rather than focusing on developing your own shows, or working in the States...

MM: I read it, and I got invested in the material. I met with Marvin and Chris, had a long coffee with them, liked what they saw in their show. It was the family that was interesting. It just smelled right. And they wanted to do the same kind of show -- no-joke comedy [which I unpack to mean: comedy based not on a funny line or gag, but on the situation as the whole], actor-based casting--

CS: -- is that --

MM: -- maybe that was more me. A lot of writers and directors don't understand what actors can do. When you have Maury Chaikin, you change the way you write the role. You write to the actor.

CS: You experimented with an interesting narrative technique of having a voice over describing everything that was happening on the screen. Is this a new narrative technique so the show can simulcast on radio?

[A bit of background here. LESS THAN KIND aired amidst a comedy of errors any one of which, in the States, would have got people fired, and any three of which would have provoked an LA jury to bring in a verdict of justifiable homicide. Shows aired late, cut off early, aired in the wrong aspect ratio. One episode was heavily promoted and then pre-empted. The show aired repeatedly with the "second audio programme" turned on -- a voice-over provided on an encrypted second channel so blind people can follow the action.]

MM: That's an Ira Levy phone call. We had too much stuff to worry about.

[Ira Levy is the Toronto producer of the show. I asked him about it, but he grinned and kind of brushed off the question.]

I try to look at it as -- if we had tried to survive a regime change at an American studio -- usually every show greenlit by the previous regime is killed off unless it's a runaway hit. They renewed us for a second season, not even based on ratings, but based on the strength of their own feelings for the show. So I'm grateful to them for that.

[Mark McKinney is a very nice guy.]

CS: We hear a lot about the strengths of the American system and the weaknesses of the Canadian system. What are the strengths of the Canadian system?

MM: We benefit from being under the radar. This is one of the quirkier shows, and whether it would have survived on American TV -- we get to do interesting, different kinds of work. On the other hands the cable shows in the States have caught up. But it's kind of miraculous the shows I've been involved in.

CS: Certainly SLINGS AND ARROWS is as good as anything down South.

MM: We're seeing a maturity to the infrastructure. Our industry is coming up. In Winnipeg there are probably two good crews now, which was not the case ten years ago.

[In other words, you can now have two productions working at the same time, with a full complement of experienced, skilled people on set.]

When I first came up, there was NIGHT HEAT, and you heard stories about how they had to fly in a grip from LA. That will never happen again. Our directors are as good as anybody.

[Ron Moore said the same thing during his talk, that his Vancouver crew was as good as any he's worked with in LA.]

I think we have an opportunity if we can get this government to work with us, to solidify this industry. I've been stepping back and forth between the two countries because I've never felt safe in Canada, never felt like I was guaranteed a living here. They like to take a bash at funding those effete liberals, but it's a billion dollar industry that provides jobs.

CS: So what would make us lose you to the US.

MM: You have to stay an artiste. Working on STUDIO 60 was just a stellar creative opportunity. You mean, what would make me mope like Eeyore back across the border with my busted balloon? In a way, I may be starting to get impervious. I'm very lucky that I've gotten to a threshold where I can piece together enough employment. But it would be disheartening to think that another generation might not be able to trust this country, and then we'll miss this window of opportunity where they are buying our shows.

CS: You wake up and you're the Minister of Heritage for the new national unity government. What do you do to fix Canadian TV?

MM: I don't really-- I've only recently started seriously thinking about these things, so I can't -- there has to be a permanent funding situation. I went to [Konrad von Finckenstein's CRTC breakfast], and he's talking about the YouTubes flying out of control, and my kids show me things with 66 million hits that I've never heard of. The world is changing. We have to have a business plan, to make institutional the support that government has for Canadian drama. And as I say I've just really started thinking about this. So I don't want to misspeak. Is it defending CanCon? Is it limiting exposure to American television -- if you could even do such a thing? How do you take our farflung creative assets and make them work for us, knowing that there is an opportunity to get our share of the American entertainment pie. It will take some tweaking, but also some constancy.

But let's start talking about our ratings. You see people in Ottawa talking as if we're making movies about some obscure event in the war of 1812. People have to understand that Canadian shows are successful, it's a real business, that's it's a really valuable asset. And no one talks about that. Obviously I exclude French Canada; their language barrier serves them well, and everybody knows they have a vibrant industry. But we have one, too. And if we can count on that, then we can silently and stealthily steal back our fair share of the North American TV landscape.

CS: What do you think are the most interesting shows on television for you, as a writer, to watch? Do you watch shows you enjoy, shows you want to learn from, or do you have some other criterion?

MM: Well it all changed with SOPRANOS. That was an epiphanical moment for me.--

CS: (Vaguely chiding) "Epiphanical"?

MM: Yes. (Going with it.) It gave me a case of epiphanicosis. It put me in an epiphanicoma.

It's taken me a while but I've started to be able to watch SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE again, which I couldn't for a long time after I was on the show. And it's amazing. Lorne has got better about maximizing the comic density of the cast. I think this is the best cast ever. I watch it like a fan now. I can watch KIDS IN THE HALL, too.

I watch THE DAILY SHOW and COLBERT. Not really cartoon comedy -- THE SIMPSONS or FAMILY GUY. My favorite shows are complex dramadies. BEING ERICA. MAD MEN.

I'm not really into serialized shows, cop dramas, hospital shows.

I don't really analyze shows, but I can't help watching shows in a slightly different way. It's great, being a showrunner, watching MAD MEN unspool. You see how certain characters flower, and others he lets drop. You can see the grand design.

CS: Thank you so much!

According to the website, LESS THAN KIND airs Mondays at 9 PM on City TV. Or possibly at 9:30 PM. The site says both:

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

While I was at the Banff Worldwide Television Festival, I got to attend a "Master Class" given by Ronald D. Moore, developer and showrunner of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. I'll be running my interview with him on Wednesday, but you also might like my notes from the master class. Sean Davidson, editor of PLAYBACK magazine, asked a whole lot of clever and fascinating questions, and then he turned it over to the audience for more questions.

SEAN DAVIDSON: You announced around Season Three that you were going to wrap up BATTLESTAR at the end of Season Four. And you were at the height of your popularity. What was the thinking?

RON MOORE: Simply, the story was coming to an end. The series had a built in premise. Eventually they would find home or not. Right from the outset there would come a point where the audience would stop believing in the idea that they were going to find a planet to live on, whether it was Earth or not, and they would stop believing that the cylons might kill them every week. After a point it becomes, yeah well they’re never gonna get there. It's GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. I didn't want to get to that point.

In the third season already I started feeling that we’re approaching the third act. By the end of the third season we'd identified four of the five secret Cylons. We're in the third act, time to wrap it up, but do it on our own terms.

And it was nice to go out on our own terms, at the height of our poplarit. To walk away and feel we did a really good show.

SD: The Sci Fi Channel must have wondered if you couldn't do more seasons.

RM: They were hesitant. They wanted to be sure it was those reasons and not other reasons that we were ending the show. They hemmed and hawed. But they had become fans of the show too. They wanted to see what the end was going to be too.

SD: Would this show have worked differently if you had taken it through the syndication market as was done with the Star Trek franchise? Could this have worked in syndication or on a conventional network?

RM: Well, syndicators hate serialization. That would have been a major bugaboo. Networks don’t much like it either. And on a cable channel, we could go much further in content, in terms of how graphic, how dark, how challenging in terms of character and story and ambiguities. Sci Fi was creatively the best place for it. We would have had more money on a network, but we were happy to trade money for the freedom we had.

SD: It seems SF sometimes seems to be a harder sell, or is treated more roughly on a conventional network. E.g. DOLLHOUSE -- everybody's wondering, why would Joss even go back to Fox.

RM: They don’t like it. Networks and studios don't like SF. It's odd, they're all familiar with it. The top films of all times have been SF films. Few were the meetings where you didn’t have the common language, the touchstones to references. But they’re afraid the core demographic is too small, that the show doesn’t break out. There hasn’t been a sf show that’s been a hit, unless you define LOST as SF. And that’s a debate. It’s a mystery, a thriller. But there hasn't been a prime time space opera like BATTLESTAR. Even the original STAR TREK was a ratings failure in its day. So they do have a reason to argue the way they argue. But it also becomes groupthink where they don’t want to try it. They develop it, "Oh, let's commission a pilot," all the way up to the point where they have to greenlight it, and then they don't.

SD: So you had a freer reign at Sci Fi?
RM: I didn’t have the alternative experience to compare with, and it depends who your network executives are. If your show is a success, you can do what you want.

The crucial fights with BATTLESTAR happened before we were on the air. It was all thrashed out in year one. Then the show was lauded and praised, and we didn’t have the same knock-down drag-out fights.

SD: What were some of those--

RM: How graphic the show was, how dark, how depressing the show was going to be.

Oddly I didn’t have any fights about politics or religion in the show. There were no arguments about suicide bombers, or the abortion show. There were no creative arguments about thematic or substantive themes. It was all, this show is so dark and depressing no one is ever going to watch it. This character is so evil we won't watch him. Those were the fights we had. And with those fights, you can whittle and compromise. What if I cut two frames,
what if I add a subplot to appease you and then cut it in the editing room? Whereas we couldn’t cut the politics and religion without being in a completely different arena... but we never had those arguments.

SD: Did you pretty much keep to the direction you originally planned?

RM. We played it pretty loose. I always knew where I wanted to end or w what the midpoint clifffhanger was. I could think ten episodes ahead. For instance I knew and I set up in the show bible that at the end of Season One, I wanted Adama to put Laura Roslin in jail, and we did. But the path I had mapped out wasn't the one we took. We realized, oh, this is a better way to get there, but we’re going to the same place.

As far as the day to day with the actors, I told them, I want to make this work with you. I want you to improvise lines, do what comes to you,
but we have to have one take as scripted. I gotta have the protection. Bbut that said I encouraged them and the directors to play with the material. Because there’s a difference between writing a line and saying a line. There are certain things that are more organic and real and you can’t script that, but there are also certain lines that have to be said a certain way, and it’s my job as showrunner to know the difference.

Very often the characters went through changes. We were sitting in the room and saying, how many times can Baltar talk to Head Six. You continually find ways to subvert the audience’s expectations. The audience is very familiar with TV, they know the conventions, the styles of story. You can tune into the first ten minutes of a show and know what the last ten minutes are going to be. I try to destroy that. You've seen this story, and you know our character is going to turn right, but no, he turns left. Any time you can pull that off you've surprised the audience. And storytelling is about finding surprises.

SD: In the podcasts you really pulled back the curtain, but on "Scar," you actually let us listen to an entire story breaking session. Was it anything particular about that episode?

RM: It could have been any episode. I like behind the scenes kind a stuff. I was a big fan of the original STAR TREK series. I was always fascinated by that. How do they do that, what changed in the story. I wanted to give that back to the audience.

On of the best parts of the job is sitting in the room with writers, arguing and laughing. The writer's room is the lifeblood of the series, where the fundamental work of creating the story is done.

SD: "And they have a plan..." Did you feel you painted yourself into a corner with that line in the precap?

RM; David Eick painted me into a corner. When we were coming up with the precap to define the large mythos of the show, we were coming up with succinct pieces of information the audience needed to know, and David said, "and it ends with, 'and they have a plan.'" "What does that mean?" "I don't know, but it's great!" And so I got talked into leaving it in. And it became one of the hallmarks of the show, the Cylons have a plan. And I kept getting pestered with it for the rest of the show. "What's the plan?"

It will all be revealed in the DVD movie. And if you don’t like it it’s cause you’re not paying enough attention. (Laughter.)

SD: Your fan outreach has always been a big part of your work. Why is that important to you?

RM: I just like doing it. I was a fan so I can identify with what it was wanting to get information, to pick their brains.

There’s times I don’t want to do the podcast that week. I'm wondering, why did I agree to do this. But the podcasts were always the best and last piece of the production process for me. They'd be the last time I'd watch the episode. I never go back and rewatch a whole episode after that. So they're my final thoughts, and become part of my process.

SD: Could you tell us a little about CAPRICA, the prequel to BATTLESTAR?

RM: We're working on the scripts right now. And we're already wildly over budget. We're not even shooting and we’re over pattern. We start shooting in mid July.

David and I had talked a couple of times in very casual conversations, that if we did a spinoff, we didn’t want to do another war piece. We didn’t want to do the first Cylon war. So let's do it as a period piece. Let's do the creation of the Cylons. It's in the past, they’re not doomed for quite a while, but it's a society that is flying apart of the seams. They've got this breakthrough in AI ... how did that lead to the events we saw in Galactica?

The endpoint doesn’t bother me. Just because you know the Nazis lost World War II doesn't mean you can't watch a movie about it. You have to become invested in the stories of the characters.

SD: When the show was set on New Caprica, you seemed to be able to draw material from Iraq, which clearly wasn't envisioned at the beginning of the show.

RM. The intention from the get-go was to make the series about us, what we’re going through as a culture. Science fiction at its best is a prism through which to view society. And we kept finding that their situation had interesting paralles into our situation. We weren’t going to rip from the headlines, but the situation came up -- here's a military-civilian disconnect, a society at war, where democratic principles are tested and broken in that crucible.

But it wasn't about making a point about how society. It was undamentally about finding out how our chars would react in that situation. We weren't trying to give an answer about what we as a society should or sholdn't do. We were asking, what would Starbuck do? What would Baltar do?

Sci Fi was remarkable. They didn’t give us any heartache. When I wrote the suicide bombers, the writing staff said, "You're going to have quite an argument," and I was girding myself for one, but they didn’t even question it. We had endless conversations about Tigh's eye. Can he have his eye back eventually? Do we really want to see him with an eyepatch for the rest of the show? How long are they going to be on their new caprica thing, can they get back to space. We never even discussed the suicide bombers.

Social commentary is something that has got lost along the way. A lot of filmed sci fi has been escapist for tits own sake. And I love the original STAR WARS, but it can't all be that. We have to connect with these people.

SD: What were some of your other sci fi touchstones?

RM: I grew up in the late seventies, so BLADE RUNNER. Also older sci fi, FORBIDDEN PLANET. I was a STAR TREK fan. I lived and breathed it as a child.

The new movie is a great ride. And the franchise needed a reboot. I've been saying that for years. It has had so many series. The continuity has become this vast complicated dense web that's an impediment to new viewers. You’d sit in the rooms on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, and you'd pitch a story, and then you'd have to stop and wonder, “does this fit in with the continuty, or does it conflict with something about the Romulans? It was sucking all the freshness out of, whether this fits in this complicated structure. I was saying for a long time, we need to call in an air strike.

SD: How were the webisodes brought into the story. Were the stories organically broken or broken separately?

RM: The idea to do them came from the network and the studio. No one had really been doing webisodes. THE OFFICE was starting to do little pieces of characters talking to camera, and the network and studio came to us with the idea to do webisodes. And we said, uh, okay. Nobody knew how to do this stuff. There were complicated technical questions. How do you budget it? How do you fit it into the shooting schedule. How do you coordinate it with the main unit? Which cast will participate. And this was before the WGA strike, so how much do you pay the writers.

We did the actual breaking of the story before third season premiere. Let’s just do a story between the two seasons -- backstories of some of these characters we're going to see, the suicide bomber, etc. We did the second group of webisodes a couple of years later. Let’s set up Gaeta for the mutiny arc.

It’s a strange format. I don’t like the runtime on it. I don't think it's a format that’s going to last. People are doing short webisodes right now because of technical limitations. I could be wrong. I just don't think ten years from now people will still be doing short webisodes.

(Somewhere around here, Sean Davidson opened the conversation up to questions from the floor.)

Q. How much did the original series inform the story? What was the value of taking a pre-existing series in your creative process?

RM: They came to me and said, we have this show in our library, we're looking for a new take. And Istarted thinking what I could do with it. I hadn’t seen it in 20 years. I found the premise very interesting and dark and challenging. An apocalyptic attack. Survivors who escape and are pursued --that’s a dark and intriguing concept.

But they were doing that on ABC in 1978. So the first thing they do
is they go to the casino planet. So they were trying to square a certain circle. They wanted to be escapist and fun and wacky and dark. I had the luxury to dispense with the wacky. I could discard everything I didn’t think work and make it more real, more truthful.

Q. How heavily are you involved in the merchandising?

RM: Not at all. I see the comic books and novels ahead of time, and I have people read them. But usually the time I find out about merchandise is when someone asks me to sign something.

Q. How did you decide who the four Cylons would be?

RM: We were breaking the Season Three finale, and the trial of Baltar didn't seem to be enough for a finale. I said I wish we had something, I don't know, like four characters start heading off and they all end up in a room and they go oh my god we’re Cylons. And we talked about that for a bit, and then we went through the list. It got winnowed down pretty fast. I didn't want it to be Adam and Laura because it was important they were human. Tigh worked because he was the most virulent Cylon-hater -- that's kind of delicious. Tyrol because he's the everyman, he's blue collar. Anders we didn't know much about, but he'd been in two resistance movements, and he's linked with Kara who has a destiny. And we came to Tory because she was a blank slate, and that would give us more freedom later.

And then I'd always wanted to do an episode of something with "All Along the Watchtower." And while we were talking about this episode someone said, maybe they hear music, and I said, "yes, and it's All Along the Watchtower, let's get the rights to that," and everyone laughed, and I said, "No really, let's get the rights to that." "But that's so random!” they said, and I said, yes, the lyrics are so cryptic we can read whatever we want into it.

Q. When you're putting together a writing room, what are you looking for. Is it a range of background? Do you want a wild card, or like minded people?

RM: The only thing I've been successful doing is having a mix of experienced hands and new hands. Everything else is theoretical. Ideally you'd have the character person, the dialogue person. But in reality it's a scramble for talent. You've been talking with someone about working together, and then you call, and they just signed to do a pilot. It’s really a crap shoot. There's no ideal balance. There's just who's terrible, and who's good.

[Note: if you listen to the podcasts, you'll be surprised how many of the BATTLESTAR writing room has served in the military, particularly the Navy and Air Force.]

Hope you enjoyed this transcription of the Master Class. My own interview with Ron Moore is coming up in this blog soon.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Lee Thomson has a great set of links to scripts and bibles on his blog.



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Friday, June 12, 2009

I came to the Banff festival with a chip on my shoulder about Generica. Generica is a mysterious yet blandly familiar country somewhere in North America. Its mailboxes are blue, but it's not anywhere in the United States, at least nowhere identifiable. In fact it has no landmarks whatsoever. On the other hand, it is not anywhere in Canada, that's for damn sure -- no one has the telltale dipthong, or says "sore-ree" instead of "sah-ree," and you'll never see a bilingual sign or a maple leaf that's not on a tree. It is anywhere and nowhere.

Generica is Everycity, North America. It is the place that some US execs insist you set your movie or tv series, instead of setting it in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, because supposedly American audiences would never watch a show if they knew it took place in Canada.

(To be clear, Generica is not where you shoot RUDY: THE RUDY GIULIANI STORY. That was set in New York City. It was shot in my neighborhood in Montreal, sure, but I'm sure the movie had a real New York feel to it.)

I have issues with Generica. It is a boring place to shoot. Expensive and time-consuming, too. The effort you would usually spend trying to make each shot distinctive and special -- can we get the Jacques Cartier Bridge at dusk into the background of this shot? -- goes into making sure no shot has a red mailbox, or an "ARRET" sign, or the CN Tower.

Also, as a native New Yorker who spent a decade in LA, I don't believe American audiences care where their TV series are shot. I think some people would think it was neat that they were watching a show set in sexy Montreal. Most people simply wouldn't notice where the show was set. How many people could tell you that HOMICIDE was set in Baltimore?

Does any hockey fan in New York turn off the game because it's the Habs beating the Rangers yet again? Any American well-traveled enough, or cosmopolitan enough, to recognize the CN Tower, won't mind, or would even dig, that the show was set in Toronto. The only guys you have to worry about, the real Red State America-first-and-only people, if they have any geographical opinion at all, probably think it's the Seattle Space Needle. I doubt 50% of the American audience could tell you what country Vancouver is in.

FLASHPOINT is not set in Generica. It is set in Toronto. Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis, co-creators of the show, talked a bit at their panel about how they have red mailboxes and say the names of streets and parks, and make Tim Hortons references. Stephanie told an amusing story about an actress who was saying "sah-ree" on set; Stephanie whispered in the director's ear, "Tell her it's okay for her to say "sore-ree."

Go Stephanie and Mark!

I chatted with Christina Davis, FLASHPOINT's CBS exec. She said it was fine with her network that FLASHPOINT takes place in Toronto, "so long as you don't make a meal of it."

(It's okay to make a Timbit of it, I guess.)

She said that so long as you have a reason why your show needs to take place in your city, you should be able to convince your exec to let you set it there.

But here's the thing. CBS also bought THE BRIDGE, now shooting in Toronto. On THE BRIDGE, they are swapping out mailboxes and license plates, and ruthlessly eliminating any Toronto references. You can't even say "Yonge Street," I'm told by people on the show.

THE BRIDGE is based on the experiences of the guy who ran the Toronto Police union. So there are good reasons why you'd need to set it in Toronto.


Now here's my question. If I have a choice, I'd rather set my Montreal-based show in Montreal, because I know it and love it, and I want to wring every bit of local color out of the city. I want the Jacques Cartier Bridge at dusk. I want the illuminated cross up on the Mountain. I want the Old Port. I want Ciné L'Amour.

If I can't do that, I'd rather set the thing in New York. We'll shoot the Old Port for The Village, and send a truck down to New York for some authentic garbage to strew, and maybe digitally add the Washington Square arch in a park shot somewhere.

I can't do the latter because you can't get CTF funding if your show is set outside of Canada, as I understand it.

Yet, irritatingly, the CTF does not require your show to actually be set in Canada. Just not outside of it.


I think the US network prejudice against Canadian shows is nothing more than a prejudice that LA network executives have. I don't believe it's a prejudice that Americans actually share. Personally I think if anything Americans are tired of all the shows set in LA and New York, as if those are the only two cities in North America that matter. I think we'd all rather see a cop show set in New Orleans, or Toronto, or (setting aside the language thing) Montreal, than another SOUTHLAND.

I think all that's needed is for the CTF, and/or the Canadian networks, to simply refuse to fund any shows set in Generica.

Canada is providing the lion's share of the money for all these shows. On shows like THE BRIDGE and FLASHPOINT and COPPER, I don't believe the US partner's contribution cracks 20% of the financing. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but I've heard numbers going down to 10%.)

American network execs are prejudiced, and they don't give a damn about Canadian cultural sensitivities. But why should they, if we don't stand up for ourselves?

They do, however, understand money. On my show, NAKED JOSH, we had French signage, and landmarks all over the place, and more French signage, and Eric lived above Ciné L'Amour, and Josh's sex-crazed landlady had a strong French Canadian accent because, you know, sexy French landlady. We told Oxygen that we just couldn't afford to swap out all the ARRET signs on the money we had. They understood that completely.

We simply didn't use the "M" word. NAKED JOSH doesn't necessarily take place in Montreal. It could take place in any French-English-bilingual North American city.

All that's needed is for the CTF to declare that shows have to be identifiably Canadian. I'm not saying make a meal of it. Just don't shy away from where you are. Then when you're selling your show to CBS, you can say, "sore-ree, our mailboxes are red."

It won't stop bizarre choices like shooting just-outside-Vancouver for Toronto (I'm looking at you, BLOOD TIES). But it will put a stop to Generica.

I hate Generica, partly out of patriotism (yes, I get to be patriotic about both my countries), but mostly out of creative rage. Generica turns your locations into tofu. You can spice them up all you like, but you'll never get them to crunch.



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Thursday, June 11, 2009

I've been a bit quiet here lately, because I was prepping for my trip to the Banff Worldwide Television Festival. Not just setting up meetings with a billion producers from Out West, but trying to think of questions to ask Ron Moore that he hasn't answered in his fifty-odd hours of BATTLESTAR podcasts or on the many fan forums he has graced with his presence. I think I came up with a few, and I'll be posting my interview with Mr. Moore in the next week or two.

My big takeaway from this year's Banff was that US networks and cable outlets have finally decided to take Canadian shows seriously. When the Writers Guild strike came two years ago, I thought that US buyers would be forced to look at Canadian shows, and once they were forced, they'd realize that Canadian shows don't all suck. And once Canadian shows pass the don't-suck test, they become a fantastic bargain. Thanks to CTF funding and tax credits and the Canadian domestic license fee, you can pick up a Canadian drama for anywhere from 20% to 10% of what it would cost you to film it yourself in the States. (I've heard of US license fees going down to $200K for a show that would cost at least $2 mil to shoot in the States.) That's cheaper than reality TV. It's cheaper than putting on a talk show.

The fallout from this epiphany is FLASHPOINT and COPPER and THE BRIDGE. (And, I guess, the pilot I'm writing for The N, but they were always Canadian-friendly.) And more are in the works.

I won't say every US network exec was up in the Rockies to buy. Some of them seemed to there to hang out with other Americans. But I heard again and again that, yes, please bring us your shows. AMC is particularly open, for example. And of course, CBS, which already has THE BRIDGE and FLASHPOINT.

A word to the wise: the other thing I heard over and over again was: we want shows with a strong creative vision, it's all in the script, we were excited to work with Stephanie and Mark (the creators of FLASHPOINT). The guy from AMC said he bought a pitch from a writer because her agent described her as "the Canadian JJ Abrams." (Could that be Tassie Cameron? Or, as a spy tells me, Esta Spalding?) They are looking for strongly scripted shows where the creator/showrunner, or the creator and the showrunner, has the authority to deliver their vision. I did not hear anything along the lines of "we were interested because the producer has a strong track record hiring writers to execute her vision."

If you want to sell shows to the Americans, they seem to be much more comfortable when the person writing the show is the person responsible for the show. The producer is important, no doubt. They want high production values, shows delivered on time, great crews. (Ron Moore went on at length about how fantastic his Vancouver crew was, by the way.) But they believe that the producer is there to support the creative vision of the writing team, not to dictate it.

There's still economic gloom. Everyone was saying this Banff was sparsely attended. To me it was a whirl of meetings and interviews, and on Monday I came home so tired I couldn't even take a bath. But I'm coming away feeling much more confident about selling my ideas and getting them made than I've felt since January when my fallen angel series did a face plant.

If you're a writer in the States, this is probably bad news for you. More outsourcing. Yeesh. Canadian service productions stole a lot of business from LA, and now Canadian creative productions are stealing more. But you can take heart that we're a tiny country -- 22.5 million anglophones compared to your 300 million plus. And our government is anxious to gut all the tax credits and subsidies that make Canadian shows so attractive.

I'll blog more about what I learned at Banff, and you'll soon (or soon-ish) see interviews here with Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis, Mark McKinney, Dmitry Lipkin, and Ron Moore.

I've gotta catch a plane.



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Friday, June 05, 2009

Every year the CFC Prime Time Program takes under a dozen students (nine this year) and trains them to be TV writers by actually having them write a show. They also get to meet a ton of professionals in the biz. That's why a ridiculously high number of TV professionals -- writers, producers, network execs -- in Canada went to the CFC at one point or another. After the program's over, the new kids are flown to the Banff Worldwide Television Festival where they get to experience the market up close.

I thought you might like to hear from them about what they learned.

Adam Higgs's career began in comic books with the publication of a Spider-Man story for Marvel Comics. Since then he has written several plays and short films, including the 2006 Whistler Film Festival Best Short Script, OPPENHEIMER PARK. In 2008 he completed his MFA in Screenwriting from the University of British Columbia's Creative Writing Program.

Q. What are you pitching at Banff?

Charisma Demona World's Worst Super Villain - a kid’s animation program about the world’s worst super villain: a ten year old evil genius who constantly schemes to take over her town but always ends up doing good by mistake.

Group - a low budget dramedy that follows the weekly group therapy sessions of six diverse individuals each living with a terminal illness.

The Rag - a one hour drama about young reporters as they struggle to stay competitive in a rapidly changing newsroom – with dwindling readership, blogs, and podcasts – while their personal lives become entangled in office affairs, friendships, and betrayal.

Q. What's the most important element of screenwriting craft you learned at the CFC?

What makes a show or closer: what doesn't make a show. That a good idea is not a show and that you have to think of longevity, feasibility, audience and a host of other factors.

Q. What's the most important bit of career advice you got at the CFC?

Patience. That things will happen if you work hard and give them the time to do so. It sounds relatively obvious but it's a good thing to remind yourself during the slow periods and the fast ones.

Before attending the CFC, Elise Morgan got an MA in Popular Culture from Brock University. She studied audience interaction with Television, and the Web 2.0 experience. During that time she constructed and wrote a grassroots ARG (alternate reality game) solo.

Q. What's the most important element of screenwriting craft you learned at the CFC?

How to accept criticism. Period. The end. Hold the cheese. It's hard to hear your work - otherwise known as "deathless prose" - slandered without taking offence, or responding in a crazy-cat-lady-from-the-Simpsons-esque way, but critiques are there to make the work better. It's also such a mainstay in television, where everything is collaborative, the CFC really prepares one to accept the critiques, criticisms, etc. with an ear to make things better. And there's always more to be had, so the notes were incredibly helpful.

Q. What's the most important bit of career advice you got at the CFC?

Keep writing. And while you're writing make sure not to hide out and not get out there and talk to people. It's a people industry, but if you hide in your office no one will know who you are.

A Winnipegger who is impervious to cold, Kim Coghill has worked in production on shows like QUEER AS FOLK, DARCY'S WILD LIFE and CROWN HEIGHTS. Before that, she spent more than a decade as a journalist, bringing real-life stories to CBC Radio and publications across North America.

Q. What are you pitching at Banff?
I'm pitching a couple of half-hour comedies focusing on women and their incomprehensible, confounding, and downright nutty relationships.

Q. What's the most important element of screenwriting craft you learned at the CFC?
Learning to speak loudly enough to be heard over nine other people? ;) No, honestly, the collaborative aspect of the story room was a phenomenal experience. Seeing the dynamic of the room, and which ideas are picked up or shot down - and why (sometimes it's not about having the good idea; it's also about pitching the good idea when the room is ready to hear it) - was such a great experience. My time at the CFC was one of the best times of my life, and the story room was a big part of that.

Q. What's the most important bit of career advice you got at the CFC?
The five-year business plan is invaluable. It really forces you to envision what you most want to be doing, and lay out concrete steps to get there. It's about strategy, setting goals, and identifying & solving obstacles that might otherwise slow you down. It's a chance to make realistic plans and carve out a path in life you are genuinely passionate about following. (And on those days when you wake up wondering what you're doing with your life, it's a hell of a way to kick your own arse.)

A double-major in screenwriting and production at York University, Rebecca Sernasie is an award-winning writer/director who has been writing for over ten years. She has written about teenage boys, strippers, army wives, dysfunctional mothers and daughters and is now trekking into the world of nuns. She was a staff writer on CBC’s 11 CAMERAS and wrote and directed the OMDC Calling Card short by Charlie Walker which screened at festivals across North America winning a Golden Sheaf Jury Prize at Yorkton and a Bronze Remi Award at World Houstfest. Rebecca is also working on a young adult novel titled, “Year In The Basement” and recently received Harold Greenberg and Corus funding for the feature film romantic comedy KUSH KUSH IN THE BUSH for Buffalo Gal Pictures.

Q. What's the most important element of screenwriting craft you learned at the CFC?
1. Writing is rewriting and you need to be flexible and fluid.
2. Stay true to first instincts; trust yourself.

Q. What's the most important bit of career advice you got at the CFC?
To have spec scripts in the genre you want to write in ready to go. I know this sounds really basic, but I didn't know how important they were until this year. I spent most of my time working on original concepts.

Jeff Detsky is a writer, producer and director. He attended Ryerson University’s Radio and Television Arts program, where he received the Ivan Fecan Award for Excellence in Dramatic Writing, and won the CityTV Pitch Competition. Jeff’s development experience includes a stint in Showcase’s content department. After getting a taste of Hollywood as a writer’s assistant for Len Blume on the first draft of the Dreamworks feature OVER THE HEDGE, Jeff spent a few years writing, directing and producing short films and sketch comedy. Most recently, Jeff wrote for the YTV/France 2 series FAMILY BIZ.

Q. What's the most important element of screenwriting craft you learned at the CFC?

A. The first half of the program was spent in a writer's room. It was my first time in a story department. I've written freelance scripts before, but it's only now that I understand why I had to write so many damned drafts of those beat sheets and outlines - scripts aren't written by writers, they're written by rooms full of story editors, each with their own perspectives and ideas that shape every script.

I certainly wasn't the loudest guy in the room, so I figured out pretty quickly that to get my ideas to stick on the board, I needed to pick my spots. If an idea got shot down more than twice, it probably wasn't a good one. Also, a well-timed, nuanced dick joke transcends all genres.

Q. What's the most important bit of career advice you got at the CFC?

A. We got a lot of advice from a number of disparate view points. Writers, producers, broadcasters, agents - it all seemed to conflict. But the advice that resonated most with me was from Jana Sinyor. I'm paraphrasing here, but essentially this is how she got her first series (DARK ORACLE) on the air, and eventually got BEING ERICA up and running after only a few years out of the CFC.

The first step is to pitch High Concept. Unless your name is Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelley, the only edge you have over other creators who are far more experienced than you is a wild, unusual, and wholly original concept the broadcaster has never heard before. Shows about kids that live in a parallel comic book universe, or a woman who can travel back in time are far more intriguing concepts than misfit middle schoolers or a chick that goes to therapy.

The next step is to hitch your wagon to the right star. DARK ORACLE wouldn't have been picked up if Jana hadn't hustled Heather Conkie to champion and then run that show. The same goes for BEING ERICA and Aaron Martin. If a broadcaster bites on your idea, you'll be paired with a senior writer anyways. So it's better to find that person yourself and know that you work well together. Two seasons into co-running what looks like CBC's flagship show, I don't think Jana will run into this hurdle again. But for someone who was in Jana's shoes 5 years ago, this was great advice.

Peter Rowley graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Political Science and Classical Studies. While at UBC, Peter started writing for the theater, co-founded a theater company and staged several successful plays. He transitioned to the film and television world in 2005, writing and producing three short films. He has interned with Keatley Entertainment and spent two years working with the development team at Screen Siren Pictures.

1) Best piece of screenwriting craft I picked up at the CFC?

I think the most important thing I learned during the Prime Time Program, was to really embrace the collaborative process. I can't emphasize enough how much my writing improved by talking things through and sharing early drafts with my fellow residents. It really was an incredible experience working with these awesome people.

2) Best bit of career advice?

That there really isn't a "right" or "wrong" way to break in. Everyone did it differently, the best thing you can do is to just keep writing. When your break comes you want to have some polished writing samples to show.

Not going to Banff are Alex Levine (already workin on THE BORDER), Andrew De Angelis (working on 18 TO LIFE) and Bob Mackowycz (working on a feature).

Hire them now! Maybe they'll throw you a script in a decade or so.

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