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.