Sorry for the long downtime -- my posting day was consumed with travel last weekend.
Right then. Last we left you as we entered Week 4, four writers were submitting outlines to Dean Devlin, who is our studio, kind of. When there's no studio building, no automatic door closers and no bottled water, I'm not sure it's actually a studio. But he's it.
Dean is at the time on location shooting a web-series on the dead sexy Sony XDCAM. Having now seen this footage, even untweaked, I can say with some assurance that this camera is king of the prosumer cameras. Besides being light and fast, they shoot ridiculously well at night, thanks to a design hink in the chip. Storage is rock solid -- they never lost a shot in 12 days of shooting -- and the workflow's a breeze. They don't take primes but you can do a hell of a lot with them.
While Dean was reading the outlines out on location, the network did testing on the series name. Now, you'd think that a show's title is pretty locked up from Day One, but actually many TV titles wind up coming back from the testing bin. (For example, Pushing Daisies was originally called Murder Mysteries In the Vividly Chromatic Land of the Ambiguously Gay Zombie-Making Twee Lord) This is one of the few times I don't mind testing -- you only get one impression in today's insane media marketplace, and we don't want people thinking "You know, I'm in the mood for a funny heist action show, but unfortunately all that's on is this 'LEVERAGE', which I'm going to assume is some sort of home mortgage drama." Click.
So the room cooks up a half-dozen or so more titles and tosses them into the test bin. This is always tricky, as each title has to be one you could conceivably live with for 100 episodes without wincing. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, however, the results come in -- we're still LEVERAGE. Thank God, because I already had the crew underwear made ...
Also while waiting, we attack another story -- one of mine to script. As soon as the strike was over and we heard we got picked up, I went to a pub with a pad of paper, had myself a Guinness and crisps, and wrote down every idea I could come up with. No censorship, no limits. Just bang on, in two categories : "Scenes I Want to See" and "Things They Can Steal". Four Guiness and an equal number of pages later, I tuck my 80-odd scribbles into a briefcase and leave them until March, when Chris and I are reading the 210 scripts. In order to stay sane we pull out our respective Idea Lists, take a few breaks poring over ideas and soft-breaking a few stories. (By "soft break" I mean just the bare bones plot idea, the act breaks, and the big turn). These were filed until we had writers quorum, and at the very least primed the pump.
I can't go into much detail, as it is a "twist" show, so hopefully we'll have some good stuff for the podcasts. It may illustrative, however, of the creative process to track at least the nub of one idea: I'd written "Scandal in Bohemia" on the List, and was transferring it to an index card when Chris asked what it meant.
"Sherlock Holmes story. Holmes pretends to be a minister, starts a fire during a wedding to figure out where blackmail letters are hidden."
Now, I'd been thinking about the specific mystery mechanic, but then Chris said, "You know, Tim Hutton would be pretty funny as a minister or priest." Hmm, I had a wedding note in my files, just a scam but with no plot ... but spot-welding Chris's sideways take on Scandal with my unrelated note, we wound up with what's already one of our favorite scripts of the year.
Midweek Dean calls with the notes. We shelve my ep, run the notes past the writers, and we turn them loose to work. Again, the point is to keep the documents in their hand as much and as long as possible. I wind up on a plane Friday, and then it's Week 5.
Interestingly, Dean pitches an episode nugget while I'm wheeling my luggage through the Toronto airport. The room loves the high concept idea and Chris runs with it, breaking the story with the other writers. Since I'm already a day behind by the time I get back, we divide labor -- I'll tweak the three writer's outlines we have in, standardizing them in tone and structure, while Chris and the room continue to break the story. The fourth outline is put on a shelf for a week while we try to figure out how to make one specific change.
This outline rewrite is a brutal test of my Asshole Threshold. You have to understand, there's always an enormous amount of arrogance involved with writing. Writing, as I've said before, is the art of making choices* Empty page. Nothing but infinite choices. And after X number of years, you have to be pretty confident in your choices -- insanely so, actually -- or you simply can't function as a writer.
So, once you're the showrunner, with nigh-infinite right and power to rewrite every other writer who crosses your desk ... gaaaaaah. Even when the writing is as good as these outlines were, it's still not precisely the cadence, the jokes, the structure that's ... anyway. Many showrunners rewrite every script, and while I can certainly understand the urge I know that part of doing this job is learning to let go and trust the process and the people I hired. As I mentioned these outlines were already all pretty close, which helps me resist the dickish urge to pee on the documents excessively (somewhere, my hard-done-by staff is sorting in derision).
The docs go back to Dean. While Dean rereads, I go back in the room and find out what they've been up to. Chris has got the show broken down into Sequences -- what I'd call the orange cards, but the room uses some sort of bastardized semi-detailed pink cards ... I swallow my horror, hear the pitch and enjoy it immensely. It's neat hearing a story when you've not been in the sausage factory with it. Probably the closest I'll ever be to an actual viewer.
Along the way we have a production meeting: figuring out candidates for the UPM, briefing the other department heads on script status, talking physical production and distribution and editing and publicity ... show business, folks.
Dean bounces back after that with notes on the newest revisions of the outlines. He then goes down to hear Chris pitch out the new story. Chris, frankly, then knocks it out of the park. Another interesting thing about the room: seeing all the techniques. I pitch like a stand-up -- fast, hit the jokes, rely on the timing, lots of judgement calls on what's needed and not. Chris used to be a lwayer. He presents the episode almost like a brief or summation. Still funny of course, but concise, bullet-points off typewritten pages. His rhythm is more a steady boom boom boom leading you from beginning to end in a very low, confident tone.
Dean signs off, and a writer picks up the story to bring to outline. One of the three revised outlines passes with flying colors, the other two need just one more tweak before heading off to network. Those outlines are tabled for Monday, as we're now at Friday, or what Chris and I have determined is Freelancer Day.
We're not taking open pitches -- not this year anyway. With luck, next year. Most of these pitches are people we almost hired, but just didn't fit into the cable money/room size matrix. We hear a half-dozen writers pitch story ideas in varying detail. Neatly enough, there's some duplication. I take this as a good thing -- if the same emotional beats and relationships ping with separate writers, that means they're well-established enough in the pilot for the viewer to attach themselves.
Meanwhile, the writer's room takes the day to break that newest episode down to fine scene detail, all under the command of our ranking writer. I know, I know, "command' is a silly word for it, but that's just part of the bit ... because. my friends, our staff is so damn geeky, that when I leave the room to work on other stuff, I cannot help but announce "I'll be back in an hour. Berg ... you have the bridge."
All these outlines, putting them down and picking them up a few days later, etc. all seems a bit mad, but it's crucial to keep your scripts flowing. As every script has its own development tempo, there's going to be a lot of overlap. We keep the script status straight on a whiteboard with four categories carved out.
"First Base: story idea to be broken
Second Base: broken into scenes/sequences
Third Base: writer outlining
Home Run: writer out to script"
The scripts move through this cycle at their own pace. One story fell into place in one day. Some have been hammered out over two weeks. Some will stall somewhere, stranded on base.
Right then, that brings us to the end of Week 5. Even leaving out the arbitration I'm embroiled in because somebody out there doesn't want to share their $4.58 cable MOW residual check, it's been a bit busy. As always drop any questions you have inthe Comments, and I'll do my best to give you a constructive answer in the next week's post. Let's see what I missed from last time ...
Michael: Is it net-acceptable yet to write a crossover fanfic where the female characters of Leverage get it on with Boomer from BSG and Claire from Heroes? Let me know so I can set aside some time to work on it.
Throw in Torchwood -- but the 1918 version - and I'd say you have an obligation, sirah.
Have I told my fanfic story? It involves Michelle Forbes and Warren Ellis and booze ... hmm next time if I have't already.
Jason Mitchelitch: " I mean, come on, what sentient being can ride in a Hummer limo and not be cognizant of their karmic debt?"
Is this really such a rare thing out there? I feel like I see them all the time. Of course, I'm from Northern VA, where hummer limos are what the rich kids take to the prom. I imagine there are a fleet of them in employ in Dallas, TX at any given time, as well.
Yes. Some rich kids do take them to the prom. And those rich kids are douchebags. Don't make me break out the Venn Diagram.
Mr. Glenn (spouse of baby writer): I say YES to the video blog idea. Then I can see my "sugar momma" all day!
Don't pull your FLDS cult discipline crap on my show, mister. She's out from your Svengali influence in the room and it will continue to be a safe place!
I hope to have a few interim posts up this week. Take care, all. It's getting a bit freaky out there ...
* Oddly, this is the central idea of the movie Wonder Boys, which I didnt see until years after I'd already cooked up my half-assed theory. Great movie, by the way.