... written from my hotel room in NYC, at the upfronts. Hope to catch up this Friday.
Right then, this is the week we killed a story. Always sad, of course, but it happens. Welcome to televising.
First off, things are getting complicated. We have no picture yet (this week) but the cast members to this little drama are:
Rogers - exec producer and loudmouth
Chris - the other exec producer
Berg - co-producer
Boylan - staff writer
Albert- staff writer, although wrote for 20 years in other mediums.
Reider & Mrs. Glenn -- staff writers
Filthy Assistant - filthy assistant
First things first. Dean has come up with the quasi-insane idea of himself, Chris and I going in to TNT on Thursday and live-pitching the episode outlines to the Beloved Suits. By which he means me. I, reasonably, believe he's mad. Networks, after all, have a process...
But his argument is compelling. We are, in the end, a very complicated heist comedy show. We want to make sure both the plots -- usually consisting of two separate scams per ep -- and the jokes land. Why not go in and pitch everything out, answer questions in the room, and then the outlines are just reference documents rather than cold dead things which, by their nature, betray our baby joke chicks?
Okay, so not only do we need to get the remaining outlines in shape, they have to be in good enough shape for me to pitch live without making an ass of myself. Huh. That's with one approved, two needing fixes, and one hopelessly snarled.
The hopelessly snarled script -- currently 106 in the order -- came back with pretty dire "I don't think this is our show" notes from our studio (Dean and Marc)... and to a certain degree, we agree. It was the first episode broken, before we really had the rhythms of the show down. The end is super, the beginning is great, the victim is great, the villain's a Classic Douchebag ... but they don't match up. The road from the great villain and victim in the opening is far too logically convoluted to get to our admittedly spectacular ending. It's a bit of a dog's breakfast, as even the writer assigned the episode argues when I mention the structural flaws.
(She actually chews me out a bit and notes that only her superior writing skills carried the ep outline this far. Now, we have a card up on the wall, asking the eternal question vis a vis certain story choices. That card reads "HUBRIS ... or MOXIE?" This qualifies as moxie, at least for me.)
We put that aside for a bit and focus on the other episodes. This is part of a showrunner's job -- to see when the room's energy is being dissipated, and to steer it over to constructive issues. As early as we've started, each moment we spin our wheels is a moment stolen from prepping a script from production. Over Mon-Wednesday, we hammer out the issues on one episode.
Let's get into detail. There are two issues with the ep we'll call 104. First, we need to develop some sense of escalating threat throughout the episode. When you have a team of expert thieves, making sure there's some room for failure is always challenging. Second, the choreography in the final three-stage heist in act five is tricky. What exactly are our guys trying to accomplish, how does it play out, and how do we surprise the audience.
As often happens, the writer of the ep (Albert) tumbles the escalating threat, and the room builds the act five choreography out of the addition of that threat. The solution comes only when we back up and strip the episode right back to its roots: What does Nate Ford (the protagonist) want to accomplish? What are his obstacles? And, since we're a heist show, how does he use those obstacles in unexpected ways in order to accomplish what he wants? At one point I actually go back and diagram out in the old pulp school style.
This style is an old writing trick from the pulps. It's meant to create an inexorable forward motion in prose. You actually write the story in two columns. Left column is where you write the action paragraph . Right column is the result paragraph that leads logically to the next action, bing bing bing bouncing between the paragraphs, letting, well, story gravity draw you along.
That solved - and hey, it's always a good day when you solve a problem -- we let Albert go off and retool the outline to 104 as the room tackles the other less-troubled 105. We wrestle that fifth act to the ground (most of the ep is untouched) and then take on 106, the crippled story, head on.
Finally, we ask around the room. "What do you like about this story?" Multiple answers, all solid, come back. "And how do we fix this story?" ... ah. Crickets. It's never pretty, but finally Chris and I exercise showrunner's privilege and put a mercy bullet in the outline. We switch over to 107 (the episode I was supposed to write) even as that new story Chris and the room broke last week slides into the now-vacant 106 slot.
Thursday arrives, and this is where we stand. The position of 102, the first ep after the pilot, doesn't seem to fit any of the broken stories. Dean suggests that we write 102 together as a "reset" pilot, covering all the pipe necessary for the episode-to-episode series and re-introducing the concept of the show and the cast. Okay. 103 is the outline that was approved last week. Everybody loves that one. 104's outline is turned in, spiffy. I decide to (NOTE: edited) rewrite the final act of the outline of 105 -- as we finally get a good solve on the very day it's to be pitched -- while Chris knows the new 106 (former 107) like the back of his hand. He'll pitch that while Berg grinds out the writing outline. We've got a good handle on what's now 107 -- which the writer of the crippled story, Boylan, calls dibs on -- but it's not really in outline form yet.
So with the written outlines of 103 and 104 and the promise of written outlines for 105 and 106 to be delivered the next day, we go in and pitch TNT on Thursday with outlines that are, on the average, 20 pages long. Each.
Two pretty good hours later (I pitch 3, Chris takes the one he broke with the writers), we've got a lot of laughs, minimal notes, and I've sweated out five pounds. Not to suck up to the Beloved Suits at TNT, but this is genuinely the best experience I've had in 13 years of television. TNT execs don't just pee on an outline to mark it. Their notes are not just "look at me, I'm contributing" notes --
-- pretty common type of note, by the way. I mean, if you're an executive who's paid to give notes to production, how many times can you say "I like it, I don't really have any notes" before somebody in a more expensive suit and office begins to ask themselves "What exactly are we paying this guy for, anyway?" Execs are motivated to give unnecessary notes by the very structure of the the studio/network system.
So, we'll hear back on the leave-behind outlines on Monday. Friday is our last freelancer day. Chris and I take pitches while the room is off doing assignments and researching the next batch of stories. The Baby Writers, Reider and Mrs. Glenn, will present the bones of the episode they've been researching on Monday of Week 7. Be aware, staff writers are never guaranteed episodes on their first job -- these kids are fighting to get a script credit in their first year, against all the ideas the rest of the staff have put together, all the ideas Chris and I brought to the table in pre-season prep, and all the ideas Dean has tossed in. Not to mention a pretty spiffy freelance pitch from last Friday. Can they pull it off? We'll see on Monday ...
Also this week, we cook up a rough writing schedule to coordinate with the production schedule. Some of you may be amused to know that I'm tracking script assignments and outline deadlines on Google Calendar. We may move to a Google Group to coordinate all the documents, outlines, and notes. The writing staff of a professional television show is using great gobs of free online software. If there were a production-ready screenwriting program we'd consider trying it, but the simple fact is revision tracking during production is monstrous. Many programs that can handle a first draft fold up as soon as you move into production rigor of multiple drafts. Movie Magic it is for scripts, then, but it's worth mentioning our use of Google software. (and, hey, if they want to help out on production costs, I have no problem writing a testimonial or three thousand ...)
Week 7 coming up -- the Baby Writers pitch, and Adventures in New York. Now, let's see what questions we had from last time.
eleanor: Hi John, I find this whole process fascinating.
Any chance you can satisfy my geek Brit need-to-learn-this-stuff osity and (sometime when you're allowed to?) post all the different card types, notes, and the finished script for one episode, so we can all see exactly how it's done? HAVE TO KNOW! Pretty please?
Our Filthy Assistant keeps all the cards. We will, someday, post it all. Probably not soon, but we'll see what we can do.
alan scott: Also (proceeding tangentially from comment on your pitching style): Is there any audio or video footage of your old stand-up comedy act? What would one have to do in order to obtain such footage?
Footage of my appearance on the Just for Laughs Showtime special and Comedy Central appearances are still kicking around on cable, while my Canadian Comedy Central specials, including the first Comedy Now ...
Well, if you're in Canada, enjoy. You may also find my CBC special, in which I appear briefly in a wedding dress. Otherwise, I may someday post a few minutes of my failed sitcom pilot -- if I lose a bet.
anonymous: I've got a question for you--Who works on the opening credits sequence, and when? Most seem hacked together at the last minute with random images, but some ("Dexter", "Dead Like Me") are truly works of art in their own right. Just curious.
The opening credits sequence is rapidly becoming a lost art. Usually they're cut while doing pre-production on the first episode, but can be honed well into shooting. I'm not an afficianado, but my commenters handle this question adroitly. Go back to the last blog post and follow the discussion there.
tuckpendleton: What is "prosumer"? Does that mean the camera is only available for pros, or that I could theoretically buy it if I wanted, as a consumer, but only by paying "pro" prices? Also, can you explicate: "they don't take primes" -- as I assume it's not about mathism.
"Prosumer" means high-end consumer, at amateur prices but producing a level of quality acceptable for many professional works. "Primes" are the prime lenses, the focal lengths that we all know and love -- the 50mm, the 30, the buck twenty. With a standard camera, you change the shot by changing the lens. The Sony XDCam, at least the current version, has a digital zoom.
warren ellis: "Have I told my fanfic story? It involves Michelle Forbes and Warren Ellis and booze ... hmm next time if I have't already."
Oh, come on, you come across as devilish and charming. As usual.
michael clear: (RE FANFIC) If I'm allowed to use British television then I'm tossing in Sally Sparrow from the "Blink" episode of Doctor Who and the Michelle Ryan and Gina Bellman characters from Jeckyll.
Sally Sparrow -- criminally underutilized.
pretty shaved ape: senor rogers, you might be pleased to find that there is a way by which your beloved sony can shoot with primes. redrock has a flipping amazing system that i am currently lusting over for my canon xha1. hell, redrock will even outfit my canon hv20 (which i might add is a freaking stunning little camera, i was shooting without lights in st. mungo's crypt in glasgow cathedral the footage is ridiculous. where the sensors dealt with the low light by producing what looks like cine noir film grain. for the money there is no better camera anywhere.oh and the next gen, the hv30). anyway, a friend of mine outfitted himself with the redrock system for his panasonic and the footage is sick. all the clarity of high def and the depth of field of primes using your 35mm camera lens. oh toys, how i love toys.
To which Dean replies "Good device and useful in many ways, but it's still glass-on-glass and therefore often a soft image. Too soft for our purposes in many situations."
See, we educate as well as insult here.
john: Somewhat off-topic, but our beloved Kung Fu Monkey can add another notch to his belt: He's listed in the playtester credits for 4th Edition D&D.
(...Waiting for June 6th when my preorder will ship...)
For what it's worth, I also just wrote the Feywild entry for the new Manual of the Planes. Game design may pop up here a bit more in future posts. I'll also do a special geeks-only D&D post on release day, spoiling my feedback on the system.
kid sis: ... Also, that "Kalifornia" scene where unbathed Pitt is in Juliette but drooling and eyeball screwing Michelle? Hot.
My wife, for years, could drive me to madness simply by mimicking Juliette Lewis's singing in that movie. All potential hotness is ruined by "Iiiiii wiiish ... Carrie was haaaappy ..."
Stay safe, and we'll see you soon.