Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Moving Music Boxes...

"Could we try the piano over there, hun...?" Who hasn't heard a version of that line one time or another...

My mother was terrific for it. I used to walk in after school and hear: "I'm getting tired of how this all looks...let's try the piano over there." Um...ex-weeze me? I'd launch into a logic counterstrike..."But mom, that means moving the sofa here, which means it won't face the fireplace, and the coffee table won't fit, and blah blah blah...." I'd even try to draw a picture to give an idea what it might look like - but she'd hear none of it.

"Nope. I need to see it."

So I'd sigh, then me and my brothers would hump the piano across the room, after taking the sofa and the coffee table into the dining room of course...and she'd look and think and look and think... and then we'd have to move the sofa and coffee table back in and put them where the piano was...sort of (it'd never quite fit afterward). And then we'd inevitably hear one of two things: either let's try it over here now OR let's put it back the way it was.'s perfect!

This is a friggin' piano remember! A big cumbersome heavy instrument with intricate parts and delicate keys all put together to make beautiful music when played well…

… sort of like the plot of a TV script.

Television series usually run at a breakneck pace once production begins, and the writing department has to work quickly and efficiently. As luck would have it, McGrath posted today about the glorious experience that can occur during the note giving process if everyone's on the same page. I don't dispute anything he says, but am coming at the process from a slightly different direction over here at Uninflected (besides, I've been tinkering with this post for about a week and didn't want to just ditch it). Because so often we're at the mercy of producers or exec producers or network executives who say it's just not quite working for them. ”Can you try this?” Wait a sec, let me rephrase - it's more like: "Here's what I want you to do."

And I’m not talking about a subtle dialogue tweak, I’m talking about changing it from the girl trying to make the volleyball team to her deciding to join an escort agency...MAJOR changes.

Now I'm a 'let's talk this through and see if it might work' kind of guy. And some might see that as a way of getting out of doing the work (let's face it, as a general rule, we're all lazy fucks (writers, men, etc.)), but I contest it's to see if the new suggestion will work...really be better, not just different. When redecorating a living room, different can be okay. But when running a writers’ room, and churning out stories and scripts in a timely fashion for an insane schedule, ”different” for its own sake is just cruel, especially at the last minute.

See, until you're deep into a season, you turn in a story pitch or an outline three months before it is scheduled to shoot. You get some general reactions and a few notes; everyone is pretty complimentary - all smiles and chuckles. You go away to write your first draft feeling pretty good. And then it's crunch time, so if you get asked to move the piano during prep, it can be like being punched in the gut.

But many times the suggestions comes with the caveat: "You’ve already done most of the groundwork, it should only take five minutes to rewrite it." Nothing takes five minutes to rewrite. That’s like saying a shot will only take ten minutes to shoot!

Sidebar: You'll hear that all the time on set - can we just grab a shot of this; it'll only take ten minutes. NOTHING takes ten minutes. You got to talk about it. Get the actors in, discuss it...the director of photography needs to light it, the camera team need to move the camera and check the angle. Then you've got to rehearse it, sound has to get their levels, hair and makeup need to do touchups, wardrobe needs to check the clothes, and then you try to shoot it...but if it doesn't work just right - multiple takes. All in all, if it's a new setup, 20-30 can count on it. In a 10 or 11-hour workday...'grab a shot' a couple of times and you can eat up a lot of time.

But I digress...back to dealing with notes and executives and networks. Being 'not quite a hit' show can mean constantly battling the notes barrage. Here's a blurb from a LA Times article with our friend of the blog Hart Hanson talking about 'Bones':

"A show on the bubble is a bit like a high school romance," said Hart Hanson, one of the show's executive producers. "We're the girl going out with the quarterback, and he's always looking for the next cheerleader. We have to wonder how long he's going to go out with us. If we do everything he says, he won't respect us, and if we do nothing he says, he won't respect us either."

Today’s reality is most TV series are on the bubble. Why? Because there are very few bone fide hit TV series on the air, and the 'no touchy' showrunners (as in “no touchy my scripts”) are few and far between (though John August seems to think 'Heroes' has that privilege). Most shows are struggling...just trying to run far enough ahead of the bear to live another season.

Sidebar 2: Far too many networks and execs, in my opinion, cling to the numbers/ratings benchmarks of several years ago as 'where a show needs to be to be a hit.” As a result the Execs are unfairly down on a show after only a few airings. This goes for Canada as well. Not every show can have the freaky ratings like the Idol franchise. The bar needs to be lowered or adjusted somehow.

Back on the highway again. Since few shows are deemed 'hits', you constantly have execs and networks trying to make your show into a winner. I remember one network exec started off every big note session with..."here I am to save the day." Talk about a surefire line to put your story department on the defensive and/or feeling inadequate. But when you don’t have a hit, it's tough as a showrunner or head of the story department to defend or rebuff the exec’s notes.

"I need to see it."

Add to the equation the illusion in Exec land that a script/story isn't real until it's in prep and about to go to camera. I once heard a network exec ask when the draft in his hands started shooting...and when he was told 'next week,' he actually replied: "Okay...time to get serious with my notes." Whaaaa?! What were all the suggestions and comments on the outline and first draft? Him just goofing around?

Because believe me...if you write it, the notes will come.

Sidebar 3: I've worked with a few golden boys - Rob C Cooper (Stargate SG:1) is one of them. I remember after an hour long phone debate and haggle with the network over one scene and a couple of lines of dialogue (none of it was dealbreaker stuff, just choices...scene point of view, etc.), Rob said that he'd love to sit down all the company and network execs on a Saturday night as the show airs and show them how fast the scene flies by. How all the minutiae of what’s being debated ultimately don’t affect the characters or overall story. He said he hoped this little exercise would enlighten them enough to exclaim: “We spent an hour debating that? What were we thinking?!" Then he thought about it a second, sighed, and says: "Probably wouldn't matter. Fuckers."

But I don't want to give the impression that all company or studio or network execs are idiots, not at all. Most are very smart driven creative people with good ideas. And their schedules can get jammed up like ours in production can. And most times they don't really have as big a problem with the script/story as their notes would's just that they are being driven by this need to make it a hit (since its not). And hits must warrant drastic change, right? But unfortunately, when you combine the 'we need to get the numbers up' with the psychological aspect of the exec who only notes seriously when the episode is heading into prep or production, you can be faced with the task of moving music boxes. "Could we try the piano over there, hun...?"

Where am I going with all this? A while back, DMc asked:

Hey Will: you know the whole tendency that others have remarked upon that most scripts go one revision past where they were really great, and at their best. Have you encountered any way, tricks or tips to keep that from happening?
Well...yes, there are some ways to keep it from happening, at least somewhat.

1. Make them feel like you’ve made their changes. I've worked with smooth talking showrunners (Cooper was very good at this), those who had this remarkable ability to remain calm and positive, even when hearing the most inane, drastic changes, and somehow managed to cajole and manipulate and spin the boat around and eventually right the rudder with out too much damage to the boat. These guys could make the notegiver 'feel' like their notes were being addressed and changes were implemented without it actually happening (or at least to the extent they thought). And that was pretty cool to witness, and a definite skill to have in your arsenal...but not everyone can do that well. And it ultimately becomes a bullshit game instead of actually making something better. And extremely time consuming.

2. Give ‘em guts and glory. I've worked with hyper exec whose big plan was to 'swamp' the company and network with material. Write really fast (but not necessarily good) and 'we'll send them two outlines one day and two scripts the next day and two revised drafts the next day and we'd just bury them!'

(Personally, I always hated that plan, and spent a lot of energy trying to talk him out of it. It meant we (the writers) were killing ourselves to get stuff written only to have to go through the process all over again once the company/studio or network actually got around to looking at the material - generally when it went into prep.)

3. Bob and weave. I would always be diligent about getting pitches/simple story beatsheets sent over, talked through and signed off on...and then I hid out for as long as possible. Don't get me wrong, I'd spend a lot of time keeping the network/studio up to speed on the current work and what stage it’s at, while holding off actually submitting material for as long as possible. I would say, “It’s not quite there yet,” even if it was ready or nearly ready. All in an effort to keep the note 'give and take' time as short as possible.

Another blurb from that same LA Times article about nurturing middling TV shows echoes that strategy...

Like most second-year shows that didn't blow up the Nielsen ratings, "Supernatural" has undergone a creative back-and-forth with both the network and the studio in a bid to draw the largest possible audience. Eric Kripke, the show's creator and an executive producer, described the process last season with the now-defunct WB as "fairly amicable" but admits it was not without its tensions.

The show's creative team and the network clashed over scripts and story lines. Sometimes the creative team backed down, and other times they found even more "creative" ways around the impasse.

"The huge advantage any TV producer has on their side is the breakneck schedule, and I'll fully own up to taking great advantage of that a time or two," Kripke said. "If we pulled the script for the [network's] story suggestions, that means shutting down production. There's not any time for that, so we'd have to move forward."
I can only speak from my experience, and I'm not advocating this as being the way to go, but I know and understand of which Kripke speaks. And I fully endorse exploiting that advantage to its fullest.

I'm not sure if this is answering Denis' question, or if there even is a right answer. Keeping that script from going one draft too far I think directly relates to the power of the showrunner, and when s/he can say “no” without fear of getting fired.

Regardless of the strategy, extensive rewrite suggestions can come once the script is on the table. So get it solid in-house so you can defend it creatively and logically. Then use excuse of impending production to fob off any major changes. "Uh, we've already cast character as a him, so it'd be a big deal to make it a her. And we already started building the police precinct set, so it'd be a huge deal to change it to firehall."

Because when you've already done the roundy-round on an outline and again on the draft, you shouldn't be asked to try ‘moving music boxes’ when it goes to camera in a week. If you're going to be asked to move the piano, it should be when first entering the room, not after everything's been unpacked.

SONG&ARTIST? - "It's nine oclock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
Theres an old man sitting next to me
Makin love to his tonic and gin

He says, son, can you play me a memory?
Im not really sure how it goes
But its sad and its sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger mans clothes."


DMc said...

So much good stuff in this, Will. Gosh, aren't we just smart and goodlooking, too?

Couple comments:

I didn't want to seem all pollyana. There are notes and everything that make me want to tear my hear out. I've gotten premise-challenging notes over something that was in development for a year when it goes to camera in a few days. And you're right when you say it all comes down to the showrunner. There are ways to make people feel like you've taken their notes, there are diplomatic ways to take the notes and not change anything, there is horsetrading and there is also the tyranny of the schedule to fall back on.

I've often found that what I try to do is go through and find all the suggested changes that are story - neutral, and do those first. Yup. Sometimes that means that you're changing a lot of stuff to make it different but not better, but so what, if that keeps you from having to move the piano.

It's also amazing that network executives who deal with talent all day long can be so bad at dealing with talent. as in, no conception of how to talk to creative people. I don't need to be coddled, but for Christ's sake, when you think to yourself, "In high school if you'd talked to me like that I would have punched you in the fucking mouth," that's a bad sign.

It goes without saying that creatives are sensitive people...but so are network execs. Some are scared for their jobs all the time. Some are egos that can't bring themselves to risk being creative, which makes them hate others who do. Some are just dumb. And occasionally, some are well meaning but misguided. Once in a blue moon they're thoughtful and engaged and helpful. I think you've got to pretend all the time that the people you're dealing with are the last two, even when they aren't. There's just no other way to get through the day without eating the business end of a howitzer.

Execs who don't treat a script as real til it's in prep should be fired, for one, very understandable corporate reason..that costs money and it means you're not doing your job.

Thanks for your suggestions and viewpoints there. Very interesting. I guess the truth is that you can get through it -- if you have a good executive, or if you have a good showrunner. If you have both, you're in an ice cream palace. If you have neither, well, then you're in Saigon. Can't believe I'm still in Saigon...

Anonymous said...

I'm dealing with some notes now on something. It's kind of a puzzle to try and make the note-writers happy as well as myself.

When I don't understand how to make what they want cool, I've found it just helps to ask people how they would make it cool (or realistic, or plausible). And they so far seem to have good ideas that help me out and enable me to get it written.

Just my two cents from a little fella.

CAROLINE said...

Yes indeed, smart and good-lookin' both. Excellent work, lads. Good food for thought on these cold days. Much appreciated.

DMc said...

someone pointed out to me that perhaps I was unwittingly suggesting that I am, in fact, in Saigon right now. I am not in Saigon. I am so far from Saigon right now.

Martin Sheen is, in fact, in Saigon.

Having a heart attack, breaking mirrors. Good times.

Glad we cleared that up.

wcdixon said...

Peas in a pod.

I got your drift...and hell, you can't mention Saigon together with writing and not say: "Shit. I'm still in Saigon...", even if you're not.

Someone has pointed out to me that I might have unwittingly suggested to have it in for execs and network execs.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We're all in this together. And good looks can only get you so far.

Glad to clear that up.

As usual, I thank you for your support.

theblankscreen said...

A fantastic post Will. Really useful. Wish I'd had this when that exec was screaming down the phone at me becasue I hadn't followed his 'piano' notes to the last dot.

Have you noticed that certain buzz words will appear in notes for a while and then disappear? Last year it was - where's the jeopardy? The year before that it was - ticking clock. This year it seems to be - plot intensive.

I've always said I will change anything if it helps the story. But there are times when you do have to draw a line in the sand as well. All you can ask is for civilised yet heated discussion I suppose.

Mef said...


i think this post is really coming along.

first though, i think you we have to amp up the stakes. Make it real and make the consequences matter. It seemed to dip in the middle a bit so maybe an action sequence, or a funny sight gag, to keep the audience reading through to the second half.

loved the hart hanson stuff but can we go deeper on the quarterback/schoolgirl analogy? Maybe more description of the compromises she has to make, some pictures etc.

also just blue sky here: maybe david kelley, or aaron sorkin have some thoughts on this dance between network and if they too involve some girls in compromising situations it might help the post, give it that wow factor. water cooler moment, that kind of thing. just might make it more energetic.

can we change the guy who was at wb and make it that he was at Sony Pictures? And does it have to SUPERNATURAL? could it be, Spiderman III?

i feel the resolution isn't quite working for me. Maybe it could could resolve better. just more a sense of things resoluting. maybe at the end we find out that your mom never wanted to move a piano, she wanted to move a tuba, as a kind of twist. and it's a metaphor for things. and maybe the tuba speaks.

you're the writer. you'll figure it out.


DMc said...

Great. It's 7:30 am, and thanks to Mark, I'm now putting bleach in my coffee.


Too real.

wcdixon said...

Damn. Back to the drawing board.

See, that's why Mark(mef) writes comedy...and comedy isn't always pretty.

Mef said...

"they sit at the bar, and throw bread in my jar and say man what are you doing here?"

it was a great post, will. (yours. not my jokey one)

btw, have you ever noticed on any show that the person who is always (defensively) saying "i'm just trying to make it better" is always suggesting something that would make it worse?


theblankscreen said...

...or the lowly exec who follows their bosses latest brainwave with...

I was just thinking that

CAROLINE said...

Denis, I didn't think you were in Saigon ... I caught the drift.

Will, I don't think you have it out for execs, you are the golden retriever of writers - even keeled, cute and always doing your best (even if you don't feel like it).

Mark, genius. That was brilliant. Reminds me, I need to email you about a funny conversation I had with someone yesterday because it might be fodder.

Blank Screen - yes, I do agree. In fact, I know at least two execs who have (consciously or not) kind of fall-back generic notes that seem to come up when they either didn't have time to read the script, didn't care anymore, or just didn't have anything useful to contribute but felt compelled to say something.

Oh yeah, and nice Billy Joelle (as they say in Ireland) reference. I almost bought tix to his upcoming show in Toronto ... til I realized good seats were close to $200 a pop. Ouch. Thankfully I've seen him before, solo and with Sir Elton.

Good Dog said...

Back when I was head of digital at an animation studio, we were doing a comedy pilot for a prodco new to this particular medium.

Bar a couple of scenes still to comp, the pilot was more or less in the bag. The additional animators contracts for the job had been let go. Ditto the inbetweeners and most of clean up.

With the final edit/sound mix a few days away, the prodco people sat down to watch the almost-done pilot.

They liked what they saw. Then one producer asked to watch back over one of the scenes. She then asked if there was time to change one or two of the funnies and maybe get a couple more gags in.