Thursday, December 27, 2007

Moving Music Boxes....(Reprint)

"Could we try the piano over there, hun...?" Who hasn't heard a variation 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. But'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. But when it gets late in a season and there's no time to play, 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 of several years ago as the benchmarks of '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."

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