Part One here.
Part Two here.
"That's ... a lot of pipe."
I was in the room and helped beat out out this week's "H.O.U.S.E. Rules" episode, so it was fun to see how it played out. Besides the HAL and War Games references, there's two more subtle ones -- the idea of a multiple personality house came about specifically because Cosby and I share a love for that goddam spooky voice in Session 9 (see it. late. alone. trust me); we spent most of the week trying to do impressions of it to a dubious staff. And there's a big fat writer's joke in there. (see above). I would also like to applaud the sheer ballsiness of team Eureka in doing the season finale I was convinced they could never pull off -- doing it as if it's the season opener from four years in the future. Nice.
As mentioned, if you look back, you can see that my episode pitch does not much resemble what was actually shot and aired. (podcast, also, here). This is not uncommon at all during development. How it played out might give you a sense of how chaotic the process can be. (NOTE: there may be some errors in recollection here. Any mistakes are all mine, and assume any credit I take/get, I only really deserve 50%, while any faults in the process or episode are 150% mine)
David Greenwalt was a consultant for a few weeks in the middle of production, before moving on to Kidnapped. I came in and did some Buffy fanboy squealing. He was kind enough to pretend it didn't happen. We then got down to shining the rough edges off the pitch as Cos and Paglia worked on the rest of the season.
"On the plus side," Greenwalt said, "I think we should move the episode (slotted as 109) to be earlier. " The memory virus gimmick seemed like a good way to invest us emotionally in the characters, exposing them intimately. "However, we are having a bit of a hard time with the mechanism of the virus."
Not so much with the technobabble of the virus, but how to make it visual on screen. Do we have an MRI of a brain, showing the takeover by hostile memories, like a map in one of those outbreak movies? Also, the execs and writers were going back and forth on the tempo of the show -- does Eureka start with an X-Files-y bang tease, or do they stay on the quirkier, slower pace?
Also -- do we need a villain? Again, these were issues we discussed during the first meetings. Young shows wrestle tonally like this all the time. Odds are you won't freelance on a show that hasn't aired yet, or even a first-year show, but there are always practical considerations that need to dealt with, beyond stylistic. Shooting schedules don't always match. Ever wonder why a character sudddenly seems to get less or more stage time? It's not always a calculated move -- just, after a couple hundred hours of dailies, you realize that Actor A might not be able to pull off certain jokes, or Actor B just has a way wth a scene blow.
The Jo/Taggart romance was not initially planned, but came about -- from what little I remember -- because the writers noticed how Matt Frewer was supposed to be comic relief, but when female actors and writers got around him, they got a bit swoony. Frewer has abs like a 20 year-old and a crapload of presence. For some guys, goofy and sexy work in tandem.
This style of this week's episode will be familiar to any TV veteran -- it's a bottle show.
Greenwalt and I spent a couple days on the pitch. Over those couple days, we ran the gamut. The villain -- maybe he could use the memory virus to steal ideas, like we had in a previous incarnation ... remember what I said. Nothing gets thrown out. Instead of a slow start, how about a domestic abuse call, but it's the memory-switched wife/husband beating the memory-switched husband/wife ( I always rather liked that one. ) We'd then have victims wo would be farther ahead on the arc of the disease -- so we could show them descending into catatonia and madness, rather than just talking about it...
"Listen," Greenwalt said, at around day 4. "I can't in good conscience keep having you come in here to pitch this out, while we're still hacking out the tone of the show." This is of course, untrue, I considered it all good fun -- but it was his way of showing respect for an experienced writer. Although we all like to pretend it's a lifeboat in the writer's room, there's ... the concept of face in there, scars from old injuries by unfeeling execs on other shows. Unspoken barriers between baby writers and experienced ones. It's not as rigorous as boss/employee, but you ignore the undercurrents at your peril. I appreciated the gesture.
"So Karl --" the co-exec "-- has an idea how to do a bad guy story, and focus on Henry, which is what you wanted. He's going to break that, while we spin out the other stuff." This was a good fall-back, and we moved on.
We cycled through a batch of more ideas. Carter and Taggart (because we hadn't done a Frewer-centric ep yet) team up to fight a bio-hazard like the one in "Purple Haze". We screwed around with the idea that the town itself had a complex "immune system." We blocked out one plot where Zoe decides to lead a rebellion of the "normal" people who live in Eureka, constantly dealing with the wreckage and snobbery of the geniuses. By then, Karl came back with the rough outline of "Before I Forget."
"Well," I said, after reading it. "This is spiffy as hell. See if the execs bite."
This is a crucial part of the TV business. Most TV shows have to run at least a logline of the eps they're developing past their execs, to see if it's worth sending off a writer to even take the time to flesh out a beat sheet. That's coupled with a later meeting, which we'll get to.
The execs dug the outline, so I went off to shine up the beat sheet to be a little more my style, hit the points I thought would be cool. But no doubt, Karl Schaefer cracked it.
Now, was this the story I came in to pitch and write? No. It had my pitch as its roots -- and I wound up using a few bigger themes, like the unreliable narrator -- but it was a different vibe and plot So why do it, and do it cheerfully?
Well, first, Karl came up with something that piqued my interest. I thought it would be genuinely fun to explore. But second -- I was the freelancer. The freelancer's job is to solve the showrunner's problems. Every day I saved by banging out this script instead of trying to break another story was a day of breathing space for the show, and not incidentally, some friends of mine. On the best of shows, the production schedule gets tighter and tighter as the season moves on -- it's usually described as "laying tracks just ahead of the train." I could either show up with a hammer, some spikes and a quarter-mile of ready-made line, or with surveying tools and some suggestions scrawled on maps.
I don't mean to hammer this too hard, but I am constantly amazed at the e-mails I get from film-school grads and the like, where they (often) do not teach you one simple thing: you are spending other people's money to make television, and you have damn little time in which to do it. There's a fine line between pragmatism and hack-dom. Learn the line. Love it. Know when you cross it. Know how not to.
Anyway, I go off and hone the outline into a beat sheet. We then present it at one of the story meetings. This is when the execs haul themselves from their solid-gold offices, sit in the writer's room, and hear the detailed beats of the next three or so episodes. That way they get to give notes, they won't (shouldn't) get any unpleasant surprises when the scripts arrive, generally do executive-y stuff.
The two Sci Fi execs present were magnificent specimens of manhood. Tony Opticon has an easy, almost James Kirk-like sense of command, and some of early Shatner's radiant male sensuality. Mark Stern is more like a pensive Greek God -- brooding, powerful, but when he smiles, it's as if you've been blessed by the sun lancing through hurrican clouds.
"Hey John, nice to meet you," Tony said. "You know, we read your blog every day."
Why no. No I did not. Huh.
... ahem. We run the beat sheet by them they approve, I go off and write. I don't change much from the outline, just generally make some of the references more specific, maybe hit the emotions a little harder than I planned. But, as Greenwalt says, you can never go wrong with too much emo. Everybody really tunes in for the emo.
I turn it in, they make a few incidental changes during production - primarily stripping out some of my geekier science riffs, or or two of the darker jokes, and change the tone of the jail scene to be more plot-oriented than the loose riff on fatherhood I'd done. On the freelancer-rewritten scale, that's nothing.
I wasn't available to go up for the shoot, although they were kind enough to offer me a hotel room and craft services privileges. The episode turned out well enough to get bumped from 109 to 106, and then even earlier, to wind up on the review DVD for the press minions.
It was generally well-received, but that's cake. It had been a while since I wrote on somebody else's show; the primary satisfaction came from feeling old muscles swing back into play. There's another pleasure: from being the guy with "the solve." You may not know the joy of that feeling yet. When you do, you'll understand. Coming up with the great original script is one type of joy. Coming up with the solve is another, equally satisfying. The teamwork is another buzz -- seeing fragments of your pitch pop up in the rest of the season, you feel like you helped, in some tiny way, helped somebody build something cool. Part of something bigger, creatively. I've written features and staffed TV, and that is the one thing TV has all over features.
And the money doesn't suck, either.
If you have any questions about the process, post them in the Comments. I'll do a follow-up post, answer what I can. Hope this was a useful little window into the world of a shooting show.