Thursday, August 03, 2006

Writing: The Freelance #2 (actually)

All right. So I've gone in and pitched out what I think I'll be writing, in rough terms, to the staff. The sci-fi MacGuffin, how it tells different character stories, and the Act Breaks. Although I'm in a slightly different scenario than most freelancers going in, this is still roughly the same process as the Spec Monkey getting his/her break.

Now, with the writers in the room, we Break the Story. The usual caveat regarding the law and sausages applies here.

As we've stated before, TV is a bear. It's haiku, really, roughly six scenes an act of roughly two minutes each, unless you do something flashy. Eureka hews to the heretical structure of five acts. I don't know if that will continue or if the Space Marines will soon show up and purge the Universal Lot of the Chaos taint, but it's not a huge difference. Just winds up splitting the standard fourth act much more discretely into the conclusion and wrap-up.

Now that some of you have watched the show, (and listened to the podcast) we can get into the nitty-gritty. For those not watching the show, the town of Eureka is essentially the great American think-tank. Einstein and Truman started moving geniuses to a tiny, isolated Northwestern town in the 50's (and there will soon be implications of ... older issues) to make sure the US kept its tech edge. As a result, Eureka is a bizarre hybrid hothouse of small-town living and next-gen tech and problems. Into this comes Sherriff Jack Carter, a former federal marshal who's not the tech-savviest guy in the world, but knows crime, people, and how to fix things. Northern Exposure meets X-Files.

In his office, show-creator Andy Cosby has written atop his whiteboard "Small town problems made worse by high-tech science." Keeping that sort of touchstone around the office is not just decorative, it's functional. A lot of shows can go awry -- whether in the long term or even just in the heat of the pitch -- when they wander off their core idea.

So in the writer's rom, we recap my pitch:

"Zoe (the Sheriff's daughter) is having a hard time fitting in at Tesla High School. not all the kids there are geniuses, but they have all been living in each others' pockets for all their lives. Everybody knows Everybody, it's not easy penetrating that closed society.

This ties into another 'small town' theme -- that we all know our neighbors. But in reality every one of them is a roiling froth of perversion, tragedy, and secrecy that just never gets laid out on the table. Polite small town society is a lie; a shared one, but a lie.

Into this comes a 'memory virus' -- let's leave the source off the table for a moment. People are 'infected with each others' memories. They experience the memories subjectively, 'starring' in them so to speak. Secrets become unravelled -- hell, some people need to stop this before murders are revealed. Even worse, people's memories are being overwritten -- once infected with a certain person's memories, their personality slowly becomes dominant. So ALL our narrators become unreliable, develop the short-term version of multiple-personalities. "

Okay, why this pitch? Well, for me as a writer and occassional show-runner, it's got a lot of juice. We get to do character backstories early in the show, often reversing the viewrs' expectations, without horrible, chatty pipe. We get to advance character relationshs in a visually interesting way. Zoe and Carter have a shitty father/daughter realtionship -- interesting for Zoe to experience first-hand one of the horrible things that Carter did, which ties him to his career.

It's actor-crunchy: the actors get to do each others' voices -- indeed, first version of this pitch winds up with Zoe, the non-genius girl, solving the problem with Henry 's genius memories. Seeing an actor like Joe Morton do the slow slide into teen-girl speak would be a joy unto itself. Because of the personality pairings, all the second-stringers get to work out their acting chops this week on equal footing.

The pitched resolve -- an vaccine developed from the immune Carter, based on his memory of Zoe's birth -- ties up the Zoe-isolation story nicely, has big "emo" as Greenwalt says ... it floats a lot of boats.

It's also insanely complicated, and like many of my ideas (and blog posts) suffers from a bifurcated focus. There are really two episodes in there. Trying to do them both in 45 minutes may be impossible.

Fine, we know what we're aiming for. Now let's do the nuts and bolts. First off -- the body-switching (yes, this is a new way to do the body-switching ep). What are the most interesting pairs? All the names of the characters go up on the big board -- I'm wielding the dry erase marker, tradition that the writer of the episode does so; although if a writer evinces stellar handwriting early in the season, it will become their burden for the remainder of the year.

So, the characters, and their personality pairings for the ep:

Zoe (new girl in Eureka) / Henry (the very soul of Eureka)
Jo (tightly wound deputy) / Beverly (sexually expressive, scheming therapist)
Fargo (toadying underling)/ Stark (imperious boss)

Jack, Alison , Taggart ... hmm, this is interesting ... okay, Taggart and his white whale, the town dog, Lojack. Cool big comedy for Matt Frewer.

Allison, the DoD rep and Carter's burgeoning love interest, flipping with Carter doesn't quite seem right. However, Allison has a locked-in autistic son, Kevin. It slides her story slightly off-plot, but the idea of her finally seeing what Kevin's view of the world is ... there's some nice stuff in there. One of the writers comes up with a killer scene to cap off that storyline -- Carter finding a now-Allisoned Kevin watching over Allison as she does the furious equation-scribbling through which Kevin usually expresses himself... wow, sad AND creepy. Like the best after-prom feeling in the world.

What, just me?

Back to the show. Looking at the list, we have to ask: who gets Carter?

"Carter's immune," one of the writers says. Now, this is what's cool about the writing room. I'd come in with the idea that Carter's most powerful memory -- his daughter Zoe's birth -- would somehow be the key to solving the whole episode. I just wasn't sure HOW. By making Carter be immune, that gives us an in. This is one of the times eight brains is better than one.

Next to that, goes the list of memories. Now, I won't blow those, as we were going to unravel a couple backstory bits, and tease some arc moments through them. But why Carter's so paranoid about Zoe and her partying, how Henry came to Eureka, why Stark's really back in Eureka and what he did to Allison ... all that will now unravel out at it's own pace. And although the final episode didn't use this device, this is a good example of how no work in a writer's room is ever wasted, when you're trying to generate that 13-20 hours of TV. A good chunk of those ideas eventually worked their way into the show in some other context.

Do we have a villain? Is the situation villain enough? The idea seems complex enough that just tracking a story through which our protagonists solve a deadly virus using each others personalities and talents will be chewy enough. "VILLAIN?" goes up on the board, though, and stays there for some time.

Scenes start to fill in, coming from the conflicts we've set up, the story beats we need to advance the plot and new inspirations in the room. In the cold open, we find out how everyone was infected -- the flu vaccine for the year.

"Okay, how does that infect people?" Well, they based the aggressive flu vaccine on the research from the memory transfer system. "Why would you WANT a cellular memory transfer system?"

"I was thinking for instantly teaching skills, for the military."

"If you give memories, could you then use this to steal them? Infect somebody and then 'catch' their secrets?" That's Karl, the co-exec.

"Sure." The moment passes, but that note goes up on the board, and will become important later.

Comedy beats pop up. A near-riot, Dawn of the Dead scene in the first act, as Carter drives through a town unravelling with shared secrets.

"There's that scary moment in every zombie movie, where somebody smacks up agasint the window --"

"Like Kevin McCarthy, in a panic."

"'I know where other people's underwear is!'"

That gets a laugh, we move on. The Fargo/Stark dichotomy becomes the most interesting -- Stark's genius and control betrayed as he becomes more neurotic and needy, Fargo suddenly tasting confidence. The old story about Einstein and his chauffeur comes out; a variant lands in Act 3. A couple heavy beats with Henry's tragic past, and then more big laughs as we spin off into a five-minute bit about Henry's growing obsession with emo boy bands.

Sund completely like throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks? It's not, it's a bit more like controlled chaos. We all know how the story beats out, how it ends, what we want to accomplish. Breaking a story is like heading down a river -- we know where it goes, we know where the banks are, we're sounding out the rapids as we go, cutting back and forth within the boundaries of the current.. Usually there's a room-runner on each staff, the helmsman who feels how the rhythm of the pitches are going, when to push to move on ... it's an art, really.

This, of course, is for a episode that begins with a good idea of the plot. Sometimes you start off with just an idea, a single sentence, and the lifting is a little heavier. But all in all, I've rarely seen that dramtically different a process on a staffed show.

After two days of this (which, at average writing room speed, works out to precisely four hours of actual work) ... presto. A beginning, middle and end, plenty of character beats all around, a big emotional ending -- looks like TV, smells like TV. Off I go to write, as soon as this is approved by the network. End of story.

Except, of course, for the fact that the episode that aired does not resemble this outline at all. How did that happen? We'll cover that in part #3 : "Enter ... the Green Walt!"


(Actually, David had little to do with changing the epsiode. But I just like the Stan Lee-ish tag.)

16 comments:

Bill Cunningham said...

John, if you check the bottom of the panel when you're in edit mode on a post, you can manipulate the time stamp of a post to bring it to the top of the page.

I'm looking forward to reading #3, then reading them all together.

Anonymous said...

That sounds like a fabulous story. Any chance you'll be making it at some point in the future?

If not, can I steal it and use it for a short story? :)

Joshua James said...

Great post, John - very informative and insightful.

That Girl said...

I dont know how to write this without sounding like a suck-up so can I just say that #3 was the best so far, very tight and well written. The exact reason I watch sci-fi.
You rock!

Wax Banks said...

Yeah! Rogers, these sausage-making stories are totally awesome. Keep that sweetness coming! Time to fire up the ol' Bittorrent client - um, by which I mean basic cable subscription - and check out this show. Sold!

NBarnes said...

the Space Marines will soon show up and purge the Universal Lot of the Chaos taint

/mancrush

wcdixon said...

Mr. Rogers, I bow down to you...telling it like it happens in an informative yet entertaining way - kudos

John Donald Carlucci said...

"As we've stated before, TV is a bear. It's haiku, really, roughly six scenes an act of roughly two minutes each, unless you do something flashy."

Is this the same for a half hour also?

JDC

Kelly said...

Dammit, I don't have cable. Who at Apple do I have to threaten before they'll start selling this show on iTunes?

fgfdsg said...

Some net nerd mates had been enthusing much love for 'Eureka', and bought around some episodes one weekend for us all to watch.

Great show. You've sold a few DVD sets already.

However, we were all trying to figure out what exactly was going on with Taggart. No, not the dog obsession. The *accent*.

Someone ventured that they thought he was supposed to be from New Zealand.

"He sounds like my uncle," I answered. "South African for sure."

That seemed to settle the matter until we watched another episode and someone groaned.

"He said 'Tinnie'. Oh god, he's supposed to be *Australian*."

"Nah." I didn't want to admit this. "Maybe he's from some kind of English Island colony." I shrugged. "No-one says Tinnie anymore."

My friend looked over. "No, he's right. This sounds familiar. It's like that Monty Python sketch." (That would be the 'Bruce Philosophers' one).

I didn't want to believe this. "Look, he just said 'grub'. That's a American Cowboy expression".

Unfortunately, the truth was revealed later in the episode. An aboriginal dot painting and an Australian Flag, then images of a Koala.

"Oh god..." everyone groaned.

"He's supposed to..."

"... be an Australian".

Everyone *cringed* silently. I haven't been so embarrassed since Alexis Carrington's trip to Australia on Dynasty back when I was a kid, where a hotel clerk came out with some kind of bizarrely garbled nonsense which made me feel shame that that was obviously how americans Think We Talk.

I put the blame in Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin's lap. Both are playing characters. Paul's based on a very specific generation of Outback Australian man. Irwin is just creating a larger than life character to be more 'marketable'.

The other culprit would be Meryl Streep's *ghastly* accent as Lindsay Chamberlain in 'A Cry In The Dark / Evil Angels', which was probably taken as accurate due to 'her oscar-winning actress 'status.

To put it into context, imagine if the Sheriff in Eureka walked into his office, only to have his Deputy bat her eyelids ala Scarlett O'Hara and say "Why, I do declare..."

Still, it's better than some episodes of 'Lost' I've seen, where they haven't cast Australians and used English actors instead.

Hurley's trip to the Outback in the first season, where the actress actually used *English Cockney Slang*, (specific to London or Guy Ritchie movies) kept us in hysterics for a good ten minutes, but unfortunately does take us out of the show.

The character of Taggart, whilst funny, might make the show a bit of a hard sell in Australia, due to a phenomenon called 'The Cultural Cringe'. Check out the Wikipedia explanation.

It's still a *great* show.

Now i'm awf to grab a coldie cause oim as droi as a dead dingo's donger...

Sandra said...

I just wanted to tell you that I started watching this show after you made this post, and I love it. Adore it. It's definitely up there with my top-five-shows-of-all-time, and that's saying a lot.

Thank you for turning me on to it in this blog as well as, you know, writing it and stuff.

fgfdsg said...

We've been watching 'Eureka' with my Mother, who's really been loving the show, (another DVD set sold). Last night we watched 'Blink'.

Taggart appeared on the screen talking about Bigfoot, and my partner laughed. “Do you think they’re squirming now that Steve Irwin is dead?”

I feigned offense. “This is in such bad taste. I’m going to have to send the network a letter”.

My partner laughed, and my mother looked confused. “I don't get the joke.

I motioned to the screen. “…his bad Crocodile Hunter impersonation”.

She was still confused. “Who?”

“Taggart. I think he’s modeled on Steve Irwin. That’s why he’s speaking in a bad Aussie accent.”

“He’s *Australian*? I thought he was South African! Isn’t that why he’s wearing the Safari Gear?”

Anonymous said...

Was the episode broadcast on September 19 what happened to this one? The general shape of it was much the same, even if a lot of the details were different.

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