Monday, April 14, 2008

LEVERAGE: Week 2


No, no, I'm not THAT crazy. Baby writer Melissa was gone for a week, and the staff decided to welcome her back with a big dose of paranoid crazy. This was the first thing she spotted when she arrived in the room, hidden among the other notes on the wall. Almost had her there, for a second.

Some people in the last post reacted in horror to the index cards. Fools. FOOLS! The cards will save us all. We're making 13 hours of television here, or writing roughly 6-8 movies in about four months -- and those movies have to have connecting plot and character tissue.

Let's put it this way -- in the spiffy Ellis-like future, I will have some sort of nano-cloud hanging over the center of the table. As seven people brainstorm, the nano-writer's assistants will tag the ideas and then hang them in suspension assigning them a rough shape and color for easy identification and classification. As we link those concepts, the nano-notes recombine into story-molecules, changing color and phase-shifting. Onto these story molecules we graft other individual idea-atoms, or combine the story molecules into a longer narrative -- this combination phase-shifts again, forming an increasingly complex and dense lattice-work, until finally the narrative is represented as a story-solid, a complex chain of poly-beats consisting of all those individual ideas and the new phase-shifted forms they take when combined. That story solid is delivered to the writer for final crafting with his own individual style and voice.

LACKING THAT, we use the cards.

Work proceeds apace, with damn near half the staff already working on outlines for submission to the Beloved Network Humans. A few of these will drop out, of course, but not bad for two weeks in. Some shows submit essentially prose first drafts (45 page outlines!), which works wonders for them. I admit I'm weak, and don't like getting trapped in an outline like that, so we're aiming for a structure that's a bit more reasonable. Scripts are organic things, with their own rhythms inherent in the structure. Also I subscribe quite heavily to the Hemingwayesque theory that a story only has so much vital energy behind it, and every time you tell the story, some of that energy is dissipated. The last thing I want are the writers tired of the story by the time it's come to whip up the banter.

First guess, I'd say we're going to wind up with about half the staff outlining at any given time, and then release people on a staggered schedule to write drafts, so we always have room quorum. These drafts will be tuned once we get a better sense of what the episode broadcast order is -- then we go back in and backfill a little on the relationship arc stuff. But for now, breaking the stories and coming up with fun character bits is snappy enough work.

Far more important that all that "making television for The Man" business, the room bits are also coming along nicely. A discussion of how Casper the Friendly Ghost, taken in abstract as a dead kid, works differently in other cultures, gave rise to the recurring character of Casperu, the Japanese Dead Ghost Child Buddy. The kid from The Grudge showing up in your Harvey Comic is a different matter entirely ... "Sophomore year", the groin shield barbecue, Chris trapped on the staff of Pushing Daisies ("Five pitches on whimsical fruits! GO!"), tiger cubs and the Endless Spinning Void of the Atheist Afterlife (that last requires me to spin in my chair, hands up, as I fall endlessly through the darkness making small talk with Hitler) -- as with all good room bits, they are generally incomprehensible to outsiders and triply hilarious for being so.

Wil Wheaton once chastized me for not answering Comments questions in the main post bodies, as he reads by RSS feed, so I'll grab the answers from the last week.

D.M: (off photo)Should you be buying your office wall lamps from funeral home overstock?

The LEVERAGE offices are located in a 1930's dog hospital. No lie. We suspect ghost dogs. Or at least I hope that's a ghost dog doing awful things to my leg under the table.

MCM:Having just done something similar (but in a very different way), I'm curious: where do writers start to impact the story in your system? Do they get to pitch ideas, or do you basically give them that quasi-outline and they have to play in that box?

All writers in at every step, but we have a weeeeee tiny staff. Seven people in the room, and that's counting both showrunners. Chris and I get right of final refusal on any pitches, but this is such a complex bear of a show -- we're averaging two heists/cons per episode -- I welcome the voices.

Each story originates from one of the writers in the room, sometimes just the high concept, sometimes a three or four beat arc. If possible that writer's assigned the script, and then will follow it all the way through production.

I know some rooms are "producers and up" or even showrunner-written outlines which are then assigned, etc. but I was taught by my old showrunners (LAAAAANDSBEEERG!) that part of the EP's responsibility is training the younger writers to work in the room and eventually create their own shows. Also, why the hell are we hiring theses people if they're just going to be glorified dialogue machines?

MARK: I'm curious about long-term show and character arch. Does you show have long running plot lines? If so, how do (did) you go about scoping those out? How do you incorporate them into each episode.

We have a progression of relationships, but this show lends itself to stand-alones. Some recurring day players will drop in, and we'll shove the characters through a change by the end of the season, but I think in season one you want to make sure people can drop in somewhere around episode 4 and not feel totally lost.

As a result, we've got the character changes arc-ed out over 4 ep increments. Episode 13 could not occur without the character changes from eps 1-12. Think THE CLOSER arc style rather than BUFFY. It will, however be a closed season. I despise cliffhanger endings.

CARLO:What's the ballpark pay for the 50+ hour weeks, Rogers?

Hmm, staff writers are paid weekly, but on short contracts. Once you're producer level and up, you're paid by the episode, and that fee is amortized out over, for 13 eps, about 40 weeks. It's good money to get paid to do what you love, but all in all it probably ranges from staff writer to CO-EP as, say, a young newbie insurance agent to a decently paid bank executive. (NOTE: I just checked. Staff writers make a little less than nurse-practitioners) Cut out your agent and manager fees, plus cost of living in LA, and it's comfortable but not filthy ga-ga money everybody thinks it is.

However, seeing as it is a specialized profession in a highly profitable field, it's precisely what the market will bear. And who am I to doubt capitalism?

J: As an aspiring baby writer (an embryonic writer?), I was wondering if you could talk about what it's been like for your baby writer thus far. How is s/he doing? Do you give baby writers a few weeks to learn and absorb everything or do you have them just jump in with ideas?

Multiple baby writers -- they're cheap and hungry, and not still attached to some truly goofy quotes.

A "few weeks to learn"? You're in the Show, kid. Deep end, etc. etc. What, am I going to send them off to read Lajos Egri while we're breaking story? Bah. Paid to write means you're in the room. And pitching. Your baby writer ass off.

Anil: How much does this process vary from what you do when you're outlining a screenplay alone? Do you use cue cards? Do you type a list of arenas a go from there? Do you have your theme of tone written somewhere so you can always reference it (do you do that for the show?)

Because the show's recurring, it has repeating structures and themes so it's easier to stay on track. ironically, over that much larger cumulative page count. The odd thing about television is that story doesn't really matter, even though you spend so much time breaking stories -- it's the characters, and as characters are theme, everything's a bit more self-evident as we work.

When I work on a movie, if it's not a rewrite, I generally work backward from the main story points (which I've already derived from any ideas about theme and character). Using those 5-8 points as my anchors, I do use the card method to fill in the blanks with incremental levels of detail. The room process is a refinement, however, and I'm interested to see how lessons learned as I apply the technique to large tracts of story transfer to my individual projects.

Writing's just years and years of building the toolbox. It never stops, and you'd best hope you don't accidentally pick up some crappy wrenches along the way.

Ask away in the Comments, and we'll see how long we can keep your interest up.

31 comments:

caseyko74 said...

So, do the writers have their own litle office or are you all int he same location as the production office? I am curious since I Have only ever worked on a pilot, and mostly films where we rarely see the writer(s).

caseyko74 said...

Please excuse the piss poor spelling above. Not enough coffee yet this morning (or at least that is what I will blame).

Joshua James said...

Once this season is finished and you're a hit, does the staff grow?

Will you adopt more baby writers for the next season / level / dungeon challenge?

jim said...

I vaguely remember you saying some time back that this show was going to be highly freelanced. How does that work into this process or has that been dropped or am I just nuts and you never said that?

mikecane2008 said...

>>>Some people in the last post reacted in horror to the index cards. Fools. FOOLS!

GUILTY! GUILTY!!

And that tag cloud thing is old hat.

Literally.

Go see.

You can use fruit!

MoXmas said...

Hey, a couple of small suggestions for efficiency (and readability).

In my line of work (user research), we use sticky notes to get interview quotes on the wall in front of us, to see patterns.

But writing and re-writing hundreds and hundreds of sticky notes sucks.

So if you have a color printer, you can just set up a template for the various index card types in Word (or whatever), type in the text, print the bastardy bastard out, trim it, and affix it to the wall.

Using restickable glue sticks (http://www3.3m.com/catalog/us/en001/office/mounting/node_GSQR972JHCgs/root_GST1T4S9TCgv/vroot_GSRCJ327Z3ge/bgel_0HMT1NB644bl/gvel_HMCFMPB092gl/theme_us_mounting_3_0/command_AbcPageHandler/output_html) is nice , because then it truly becomes a sticky note.

You'll always have hand-written notes, because ... you just always will. But the notes have got to get in the compuyter somehow, so it's nice if they start there.

Also, painting the wall with dry erase paint is really really useful for collaboration, too: http://www.rustoleum.com/CBGProduct.asp?pid=128

Josh said...

As some one on the outside looking in (read: trying to claw his way in) it's fascinating to learn how your room works.

More please.

Thank you.

deepstructure said...

"The odd thing about television is that story doesn't really matter"

well no wonder tv sucks! come on, no one else was shocked by this? i know characters are (more) important, but really.

Rogers said...


well no wonder tv sucks! come on, no one else was shocked by this? i know characters are (more) important, but really.


Let me clarify. I said "doesn't really matter", not "doesn't matter", and there's a reason for that distinction.

Basically, what I mean is, no matter how hard you work on story in TV, ultimately story will not save you. Character in TV is ALL. Truly good stories, of course, come OUT of character, they don't happen TO characters. Good story always comes out of character choice.

This doesn't mean that you can slack off and write bad stories, or you shouldn't bust your ass to write great stories, which is what all those writers hammering away in writer's rooms right now are doing. It's just that you can not help be cognizant of the irony that you are working hardest at the part of the show the audience cares least about. Very rarely do people show up, week in and week out, to watch intriguing stories regardless of characters -- those are anthology stories, or, arguably, Law & Order. People tune in to watch characters they like do things and deal with unexpected complications in delightful or interesting manners. Your story, per se, is disposable, week after week, replace din the viewer's mind by the new dilemma like clockwork. Nature of the beast.

While I personally cannot think of a show that I watched on a regular basis because the story was just so gripping -- even though the characters were boring or I hated them -- we can all recall episodes of our favorite shows where in retrospect the episodic stories didn't really hang together, but we loved watching the characters deal with th situations (good chunks of several X-Files seasons fall into this)

What good story does is provide the most interesting or intriguing framework for the characters. great story supercharges a show. Also, cumulative great stories allow you to address a season as a creative meta-work of art unto itself. Even so, while you need a constant stream of great stories, and breaking great stories is bear work, it's the invisible part of the magic trick, the skeleton, for 99% of the viewing public, and hence the irony.

Wil Wheaton said...

Hey, is that Boylan on the board Christine Boylan?

caseyko74 said...

Hey Rogers, does a writer stay on set when you are shooting for changes? Or will that get handled by yourself?

Kirk said...

well no wonder tv sucks! come on, no one else was shocked by this? i know characters are (more) important, but really.

I know John already answered, but seriously...

People care about people. People may be toys or robots or such, but it's still the people. A story without people - or making "people" of the subject - bores completely.

I've read too much slush where the author wrote about the "neat event" or "great conflict" in extravagant detail, but the characters are Cutout one and Cutout two. It's when Cutout one and Cutout two MATTER that the event or conflict or whatever the hook is snaps into focus.

My opinion about a lot of "bad" television is that for far too much of it the characters don't make the cut of becoming "people". Or having done so, are given parts that are completely out of character and so they quit being people, again.

Gina fan said...

Speaking of "making television for The Man", can Gina get at least one snog per episode?

Rogers said...

Speaking of "making television for The Man", can Gina get at least one snog per episode?

So, right after a nose to nose scene of Gina scamming/seducing his character, Saul Rubineck stumbles over to me.

"Great scene" I say. He puts his hand on my shoulder.

"John, you have no idea what it's like to have the full force of that woman's attention." Then he went to lie down.

Trust me, I am well aware that Americans have no idea what is about to bit them, and there will be plenty o'Gina goodness.

Christine said...

Hi there, Wil!

Yes, it's Christine Boylan. Notice Rogers pulled a double-prank by giving me fewer stars on the "fake" chart, having rightly assessed that, with my Hermione-like work ethic, I would spend ten minutes angry, ten minutes sulky, and the rest of the day pitching my ass off.

Way to make us raise our game, Rogers.

Wil! Are we doing a panel in San Diego this year?

-C.

Alex said...

What's a Christine Boylan? Is that like a Billy Martin? You guys are so clever.

Kid Sis said...

Hey Rogers! Don't make a Brazilian porn fart on my wet dream of Underpaid Glorified Dialogue Writer!

Zeus knows I can't clean bedpans or fill out insurance forms...

Gina fan said...

Thanks man.

I have noticed an interesting effect with Gina. When I first saw Coupling, she didn't own me right away. Her character seemed harsh. There was, however, enough great comedy to enjoy that I was glued to the series.

On further viewing I listened to the commentary and bonus tracks and discovered she was, thankfully, very different from her character, and absolutely adorable. This reminds me of Carol O'Connor in All in the Family, where, after seeing him in an interview outside of Archie Bunker, I was astonished to see the difference in personna. And my appreciation soared.

On even further viewing of the Coupling series, the humor and plot lines become familiar and all the punch lines are expected. The pleasure of spending time with Gina in front of my eyes, on the other hand, doesn't seem to diminish at all. In fact she has become the most enduring part of the series.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

note cards?

sounds like you could use one of these things *grin*

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwoAxSvYCzk

Anonymous said...

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