Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sandbagging And Gangbanging (A Script)...

No..not handbags and gladrags...sandbags and gangbangs. Stick with me here.

In games and adversarial settings, to "sandbag" is to intentionally understate one's strength, with the intention of deceiving one's opponents. For instance, in golf, where a "sandbagger" is someone who misrepresents his handicap to gain an advantage over other players.

In TV series, on the other hand, to sandbag is the equivalent of misrepresenting your abilities. A writer is hired based on their credits and the shows they've worked or volume of work they've done. But sometimes it turns out they knew someone who knew someone, and they got gigs but then were rewritten all the time. And you never seem to find out the truth until it's too late and you've already hired the person or farmed out a freelance assignment to them. And to add insult to injury, they'll still just 'phone it in'. This after delaying delivery, and then finally sending it to you at the last moment so it falls on the backs of the staff to fix it/rebreak it/make it shootable.

Beware of sandbaggers. Read samples from every writer you're looking to hire, and don't be afraid to check them out with showrunners or execs of shows they previously worked on. You and your show will be much happier for it.

As for gangbanging....well, we don't really have to go into what that means in pornland, but when working on a TV series, it's when more than one staffer (or in some cases, the entire staff) take sections or acts of a script and write in order to get it finished...fast.

When I finished my first season of PSI Factor, I was barely alive. We'd written and produced 42 half hours over a ten month production schedule. But as the season wrapped up, there were rumblings of continuing the series for another season, only with one hour stories. It was decided to try one out. Since the last two half hours were designated to be written by me, it landed in my lap.

Now I hadn't written a lot of hour long scripts, and structuring a one hour episodic is very different than a half hour. Half hour drama/mysteries can follow pretty much one path in the woods. A teaser/set up...a first act investigation ending with a cliffhanger or major turn...and a second act including rising action and climax and solution/conclusion. Some might have tags, but usually that's about it.

A one hour mystery is a very different beast. There's still a main throughline mystery and investigation, but sub-plots are acceptable/necessary...B line and C line runners should complement and/or converge with the main A line.

Anyway, I had just a few days to conceive of and write it to get it into prep. We quickly talked it through and I roughed out an outline, but was struggling with spreading out the beats/reveals/twists effectively. The rest of the staff (all two of them) were starting to pack their desks and put up their feet. Other than hovering in case any changes or revisions were needed in the last two half hours..."their work here was done."

Did I mention I was barely alive (read sick and exhausted)? Anyhow, the script was due to begin prep the next day, and I had only written a teaser and most of the first act. I knew I wouldn't be able to finish it. Now that season we went into a lot of preps with barely finished scripts and even outlines on occasion (AD's...will you ever forgive us?). But because this was a one hour and we wanted to make it as good as we could since it was now being touted as the template for the next season, we at least wanted a full draft to start prep.

So I went to Line Producer and the other two writer/staffers looking for help. And very matter of factly one of the other writers said: "Looks like we have to gangbang it." Huh? I was, as they say, unfamiliar with the phrase. LP was nodding though...he'd been there before. Writer friend explained I should finish the first act and write Act Two. He would take my outline and write Act Three and the other staffer would do the same for Act Four. Nobody really batted an eye and off everyone went to their respective computers, while I headed home feeling nothing but relief.

Finished my pages late that night. Woke up to find drafts of the third and fourth acts in my email. Cut and paste them into my script which already had the teaser and the first two acts. Did a quick read and pass to smooth out a few bumps that had occurred, and sent it on the production office. Had a coffee, took some meds, and drove to work. I can't tell you what a great feeling it was to arrive and see the full script already coming off the photocopier and being distributed.

We prepped and shot it...there was a fair bit of rewriting through preproduction but it all worked out. However it wouldn't have happened if the staff hadn't jumped in to help. And that 'gangbang' was able to happen because we all knew the show and we'd broken that story together...in the 'writer's room'. And I wasn't stamping my foot saying the script was 'my baby'. All proving yet again, TV series is a collaborative medium, and a team effort...at least from where I stand.

As McGrath stated last week:

Bottom line, if you can't deal with collaboration, or even seeing your script taken to the next level by someone else, you're going to have a hard time in this industry. Scripts aren't babies that you coddle. If you treat them that way, you're in for a long haul.

I've only had to gangbang a script one other time, and I was on the other side of the fence...having to write an act when some incredibly unfortunate events happened to our head writer. I was more than happy to step up, because that's what we do. It's not about you or your script...it's about the show/series.

But if it ever comes to gangbanging a script, you don't want a sandbagger on your team...



SONG&ARTIST? - "She was a woman who was twice my size
She looked into my eyes
She said "Only you can blow my blues away.
She said "I'll tell you what to do.
Bring all your friends with you
And you can come up and see me any ol' time of day."

5 comments:

Alex Epstein said...

Yeah. Been there. On my last show, my team parachuted in mid-season. The production was in line to shoot a Very Bad Script. We offered to fix it overnight. And that's what we did. Rebroke it in a few hours and gave everyone a chunk of it to write. The resulting new first draft was not spectacular. But it was a major improvement from the VBS.

Kelly J. Compeau said...

Will, I hear you and DK were pretty tight on Psi Factor. So, how's it coming with that interview on his latest project?

Mef said...

Interesting post, Will.

To be honest, I'm surprised more showrunner/story editors don't call each other when they're hiring to find out if someone had to be rewritten all the time.


Mark

wcdixon said...

I think because it's easy to get seduced by credits, and not just by you the hirer...but by the network or studio/company execs. You'll get told Writer X wrote for X FIles, Next Generation, Outer Limits, and Deep Space Nine... and it won't even be up for discussion. Go get 'em...
There's also the hire for personality vs. hire for ability factor. Personally, I always would look for a nice blend of the two, but a lot of people get hired for personality...and then can't or even won't deliver.

Mef said...

yeah, seduced by credits, and sucked in by a winning personality.

all you can do is not hire them again yourself I guess.

mark