Monday, April 07, 2008
Leverage Week 1
No internet at the new home yet, hence the absence. And, oh yeah, running a television show. Here's the post meant for last Friday.
First week in with our earnest staff, and so far they've tolerated my obsessive compulsive writing process and my emotional manipulations (always praise randomly -- it's more effective.) The awkward two-day personality integration process is done, the seating arrangement has finalized -- a particularly complex bit of social engineering -- and we're breaking stories.
That's the Relentless Assistant to the left, Amy Berg to the right, my chair on the end there. The other showrunner, Chris Downey, is just OS right. "Relentless Assistant" was somewhat hurt when I switched to "Filthy Assistant" on the blog, even though I tried to explain that this was the highest compliment I could pay her.
Behind me as I shoot this photo is that big wall o' ideas I've mentioned before, also on index cards. What you're looking at in this photo is the end stage of breaking an episode. For what it's worth, for those of you who always wondered how such things are done (at least in our room) --
1.) Loose story ideas (often called "arenas") are run by the network and approved for further development. This is to make sure we don't wast a week breaking a story they just hate the basic premise of. Once a batch of pitches are approved, we get to work.
2.) We start with the anchor concept of the show -- the crime, the victim, the villain, whatever sparked this particular idea. We do profiles of the characters and flowchart out the path of the heist/con on those big sheets of typing paper there. Little grace notes -- character moments we've been thinking about, dialogue runs, neat camera bits etc. go on cards under those ideas.
This wall is actually a re-break of a story we did on Thursday, so the rough plotting section is a little less crowded than usual. Usually about twice that amount of info up there to the left. Interestingly enough, almost everything up there in this photo is useless, as we tried a path that led to a dead end. So nothing you might be able to make out in the photo will actually wind up in the episode.
3.) The rough structure of the episode, often based around the act breaks, are then put on the board. They're pinned in under those blue cards, which are marked with the running times and approximate scene space of each act. This helps to keep you from over-writing an act and bends the story to fit how it'll be taken in by the viewers. Structure is your friend. The tea takes the form of the cup which contains it. Yada yada.
4.) Then orange cards (yes, you're beginning to see what the staff suffers. I won't even go into how I've got them on the 48/12 timer) are pinned up, replacing the vague structure ideas. On the orange cards are plot points/sequences. These help you see how the story actually breaks out, make sure it makes sense. I prefer cards to the traditional whiteboard, btw, and once you've broken story this way, so will you ...
A nice loose use of the orange cards is to start with them off to one side, just banging out the scenes that are absolutely necessary for the story to make sense and have fun. I arrange them in four columns of 6 -- roughly 2 minutes a sequence in television x 24 = 48 minutes, a little longer than our runtime, but some of these drop out. When we have at least three of those columns filled, we can then move the orange cards into the outline structure, like a little reward. Once the spine of the episode is laid out, you can then play around with pacing, see where you can fill a hole with a character beat or B-story, etc. Backfill a bit, see where the air is, where the ep is crowded.
5.) Those orange cards are then replaced by white cards with individual scene sluglines. And I mean replaced. No orange sequence card comes down until all the individual scenes necessary to accomplish the storytelling described on that card are finished. Then, slowly, the very specific slugline white cards replace the more general orange cards, bit by bit, until there you have it -- a whole episode of television, plotted out for you
6.) That story's put away for a day or two so we can reflect on it, let those little nagging doubts fester, until finally we all have fresher, better eyes, and we rework it. Sometimes it's broken back all the way down to the premise, but usually it goes no further back than the orange cards.
7.) Once a final set of white scene cards are up, and the entire room is happy, Filthy Assistant types up this pseudo-outline. The writer then takes those notes off and does a writing outline. Since the writer is the one who has to generate 45 odd pages of script, they can tune the outline to taste.
8.) Said outline will be submitted to Beloved Network Suits for approval and notes. Once those notes are addressed, the writer is launched. I'm not saying how long we give for first drafts. Trade secrets and all.
There's a scoreboard on a small whiteboard in the room, with categories on it. Episode names move from slot to slot as they progress:
1st base: To be Broken
2nd Base: Sequences & Scenes
3rd Base: Writer off Outlining
Home Run: Writer on 1st draft
This my sound awfully rigid, but what it is is freeing -- having the process protecting us allows us to range far and wide on ideas. Everyone can pitch anything, and all changes are fair game if they fit the episode. Sometimes a great idea will totally derail you and send you back to the base pitch, but that just means we start the process over again, not that we're cast into the psychological void. Often great ideas don't fit but go on the wall to be pulled later. To invoke the greatest of traditional sitcom room aphorisms: "We use all the parts of the buffalo."
In case you hadn't noticed yet, this looks an awful lot like work. Now, in the pre-season, it's a standard 50-ish hour week. Once we're in production and racing the train, kiss your evenings goodbye. Mopy artistes need not apply.
When we get some scripts in, we'll go through the post-writing process. Any questions, toss them in the Comments, I'll answer what I can.