Monday, December 31, 2007


To you and yours in 2008....especially McGrath, Henshaw, Epstein, Cunningham, Caroline, Juniper, Diane, mef, Jaime, Don, Peter, the John(s), the UK crew, and all the writers, readers, and commenters that made this year and this blog worthwhile.

All the best!


Friday, December 28, 2007

Battling Bullies...(Or Your Worst Work Day Ever)...(Reprint)

Talking TV trash talk here, sort of your anti-Ken Levine post...your worst day ever whilst working on a television series (or a movie if that's your niche).

Here's a couple of doozies....

One. A series about ten years ago. It was a strange hybrid of sci-fi paranormal drama and the supposed reality of an organization that investigated this spooky stuff. It's a long convoluted story how I got involved, but a series of fortunate, or unfortunate, events found me sitting in the room and being asked to help lead the charge of a show that had cleared 98% of the US marketplace, but didn't really know what it was yet.

We had several sit-downs in Los Angeles, followed by several more back in Toronto. But I was starting to get antsy. We had to figure out the series, but we also had a start date in a couple months. Decisions needed to start being made. But it wasn't that simple. You had two camps. One consisting of the network and studio/company that wanted one kind of show (more of a mystery drama). And another camp consisting of the creators and star and 'real' organization that had provided the inspiration for the series. And for some bizarre reason, I became the guy that both sides felt they could talk to and try to sway the series in one direction or the other.

There was so much crazy talk. I mean, I barely knew what I was doing but I knew enough that it was a bad thing that no one could agree. And a worse thing that the one thing everyone was agreeing on was the size and scale and scope of the visual effects everyone wanted...yet there was no way we could afford it all.

At some point, I was standing outside having a smoke with the Line Producer and one of the two exec producers from the second camp. I must have had my fill of bullshit for that day so I started to make a case for taking the show more in the direction the network and studio/company desired because, after all, they were paying for it. This executive producer got in my face so fast. He insisted it couldn't change course. It was sold this way and that's the way it must remain. "Yeah but..." I start to say. His face got very red....veins were popping out everywhere...and he got this wild look in his eyes as he moved up inches from me and shrieked: "Do not fuck this up! Do not fuck this up!! This is my retirement fund we're talking about here!!! And. You. Will. Not. Fuck. It. Uppppp!"


Of course I was just the middle man, and had no vested interest in how it did or the backend of any profits - other than keeping a gig. But I walked away from that little scene with that sick feeling of knowing I was caught in the middle of two opposing sides they weren't going to bend, and my next ten months were going to be absolute hell. I was right.

Two. I was on a big show in Vancouver. And I was there apprehensively. The writing room was made up of big hitters from 'Quincy', 'Northern Exposure', 'Quantum Leap', 'Lois And Clark', 'Tales From The Crypt', 'Star Trek Next Generation', and little ol' me. It was my own undoing I'm sure, but I spent most of my time on that gig never really feeling like I belonged or even deserved to even be there. Everyone just seemed so out of my league, and I let that get to me.

Anyways this show had a notorious screamer exec...the stories were legendary. But I'd yet to have any real contact with him, until I turned in the first draft of my first script. I remember being called to immediately get down to the head writers office. Walk in, and all I can hear is someone yelling through a speaker phone. It's this exec calling from LA. Head writer was a super nice soft-spoken man who was trying to placate and cajole, but he was losing badly. It was announced I was in the room and screamer exec just went off.

Screamer Exec: "What were you thinking? This story begins in a homeless shelter and the priest running it is a bitter, discouraged man. Are you out of you fuckin' mind? People who work in homeless shelters don't act like that!"

I stammer, look desperately at faces of other writers sitting in room, but most were staring at the floor. See I'd played the priest as a happy, enthusiastic caregiver in my initial pitch, and it had been the writers room that had said to change it to this jaded character because that was 'more interesting'. And kudos to the head writer for piping up at that moment and stating that the room, in fact, had asked me to change it (it was all so pointless in retrospect because this character disappeared from the story by the end of act one).

Screamer Exec: "I don't care if you told him to change it. He wrote this shit. He's responsible for this shit, and he is going to eat shit!"

The next hour was him yelling about every line of the first eight pages and what he wanted it changed to. This without him having even read the rest of the draft. Any attempts to explain that things were there to pay of story stuff later was met with he didn't care and ordered to change. Call finally ended with him addressing me personally and yelling (still!): "You're a fucking idiot and you don't write worth shit. I want this fixed and brilliant by tomorrow morning or you’re fired!" Click.

To say I was shell-shocked is an understatement. I'd heard the stories, hell I'd seen Kevin Spacey in 'Swimming with Sharks'...but until you're in the room and at the other end of that kind of attack, you have no idea. And I got a draft done and managed to muddle through rewrites until it went into production, but I never really recovered. He was gunning for me and I knew it (seeing how he went after my next outline), and I began to believe I didn't deserve to be there or even want to be there anymore. I did my time and put in the effort, but when they decided not to extend my option to the next year, I wasn't broken up about it.

The upside? A few years later I found myself deep in the muck on three TV movies with an aging Hollywood has-been exec screamer. I was directing one and kind of creative producing the three. He ended up on my watch a lot of the time. And I endured more verbal abuse from him in three months than I'll receive in a lifetime. But the difference was I'd been there before.

We had an early story meeting with me and the director of the first movie and Aging Screamer in the room and the writer on speaker phone. And I'd remained pretty quiet as the director discussed changes or adjustments and was mostly rebutted. Finally, near the end of the call, the director turned to me and asked me to bring up a logic point that basically turfed the story but I did have a solution...and I brought it up...and Aging Exec lost it.

Aging Screamer Exec: "Have you lost your fucking mind? Have you made moving pictures (that's what he called them) before? It's a fucking mystery. And mysteries have clues and red herrings. And that's a fucking red herring clue! Don't you know anything?! Get out! Get out of my sight now!"

Director gaped. But I just shrugged and stayed seated and said I thought it was a valid point and we should consider changing it. Aging Screamer's face was beet red and he was spitting and stammering, but then started to calm down and asked what my note was again. We came to conclusion it was neither a clue or a red herring or a red herring clue (whatever that is)...and we got there because he didn't scare me. I'd been there, done that. I could be offended or insulted, but I wasn't going to be bullied.

There's a lot of good and decent people in the TV/film business, but there's also a lot of assholes and bullies. Probably like that in every line of work. And I'm sure it's no coincidence these stories were with Hollywooders having to work with us lowly Canucks (Canadians tend to be a lot nicer). But if you want to swim in those waters, be ready for it. And the first time you run up against it will feel like a slap to the face. But you've got to go through it a few times in order to discover your way of dealing with it. And the toughest thing can be when what they are saying is actually a good point, but the way they are going about passing along that point or note is what is offensive and wrong.

So you learn to listen patiently, and try not to get angry or defensive, and then counter with words just as strong as theirs. If you make sense and don't make it personal, plus can incorporate some things they brought up into your counter attack, they will generally back down. Or not. In which case you either quit, or grin and bear it.

SONG&ARTIST? - "Now that your picture's in the paper
being rhythmically admired
and you can have anyone that
you have ever desired,
all you gotta tell me now is why, why, why, why.
Welcome to the workin' week.
Oh I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you.
Welcome to the workin' week."

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."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"The Indigent And The Haunted...(Reprint)

...cling to me."

That was a Jay Leno line he told to Letterman way back before Jay took over the Tonight Show (and was still funny). He was referring to being on the road doing standup and the types of characters and personalities that would corner him after a show.

I used to work at the local and on for about eight years from age 16 to age 24. I started out as a lowly Junior Page...primarily responsible for putting returned books, records, cassettes, etc. back out on the shelves - though I learned a lot about life whilst 'back in the 'stacks''. See, there were eight of us pages, seven teenage girls and me. The Magnicent Seven were highlighted by Glorious Gloria who was sweet and simple and liked long walk and talks...and Wicked Wanda, who was very well developed for her age and would say so - a young male library workers wet dream.

But I digress...

I was then promoted to Senior Page, and was able to check out items for patrons (and take overdue fines). Next I moved upstairs to the audio-visual dept., and as a Clerk 1 did the above as well as overseeing the records and audio cassettes, plus cleaning and lending the vast collection of 16mm films (before they slowly began to lose out to video cassettes). I ended up downstairs in the basement selling tickets and projecting movies for what was essentially the city's only rep film theatre.

Prior to working there I practically lived at my local building of books. Regular readers of Uninflected Images might recollect I grew up essentially without a television, and so I read like a fiend. They knew me by name as I would trudge, bike, bus each week over to the nearest library and take out at least 8-10 books. I was the kid the librarians would ask the opinion of a book to know whether to recommend it to another patron...cuz I'd read them all.

Good times, my library days. Good times...

And while I was there, either visiting or employed, there were always 'the regulars'. Usually loners, eccentrics, oddballs, kooks...most were homeless or suffering from schizophrenia or some mental illness...they were people that lived at the library more than I did. And they would park themselves in their usual chairs or corners around the library and wile away their days in the one place in town they were more or less left alone.

There was Doris, wigged and sporting too much lipstick and mascara... parading around in a fur coat all year long. And Zane, who paced and muttered loudly before spontaneously cussing and swinging wildly at an invisible assailant. And of course, Donny, who carried a large bag of rubber balls and would stack them around his chair and talk to each of them, sometimes even kissing one.

I remember being a bit freaked out by some of these people and their behavior when I first encountered them...but they were harmless and soon became familiar faces. I'd nod and say hello. And most times they'd acknowledge me. Some would take the nod as an invitation for conversation...oh my, some of the discussions I had.

"The indigent and the haunted cling to me..."

I still 'heart' my local library. These days, however, it's less for the books and more for the privilege of borrowing series TV dvd's. A couple weeks ago it was 'X Files - Season 8'. This past week it was 'L&O: Criminal Intent - Season 1' and 'The Complete Freaks and Geeks' (the latter to rewatch...swoon). And when I go I drag my kids along and insist they explore a bit and take out a couple of books. I try to impress upon them how much the library meant to me growing up, but it's a tough sell. They usually just grumble and ask 'When are we leaving?'.

See, times have changed. Nobody goes to their library like they used to...not with all yer computers and internets and video games and TV shows and movies. Seriously, I've gone and found the library near empty of late. Found it quiet...too quiet...and that's pretty sad if you ask me.

But a lot of the regulars are still there. I recently went through the interesting experience of seeing my son getting freaked out by a now gray-haired Donny kissing his rubber balls (yes, still!). I had to convince my son that Donny was 'okay' and to not be afraid and that I actually kinda liked seeing Donny still kicking around the joint. My son gave me a strange look. Then Donny glanced over and nodded at me. I smiled and waved back. But instead of responding, Donny looked around a little anxiously and then began quickly putting his balls back in his big netted bag.

And right then and there I wondered if Donny and all the other 'regulars' had been looking at me all these years and thinking:

"The indigent and the haunted cling to me..."

SONG&ARTIST? - "You were caught on the cross fire
of childhood and stardom,
blown on the steel breeze.
Come on you target for faraway laughter,
come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine!"

Friday, December 21, 2007


Have a great holiday season everyone!


Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Rainbow Of Colours....(Reprint)

Golden Rod
Double White
Double Pink

As you go through preproduction or prep (the 5-7 days leading up to the shooting of a tv episode), changes come up that warrant a revision. A line of dialogue. A character name. All of act three. Some will be big changes. But most will be little. Whatever the extent of the damage, those revised pages are published with an asterix marked at the end of each changed line. They are then put out or distributed as coloured pages.

The order of those colours varies from tv series to tv series, but the list above is the one with which I am the most familar.

It all starts with the Shooting Script or White Script. Whatever it's titled, it generally means prep or preproduction is about to begin and the script is 'locked'. That means that from that point on all the pages and scene numbers stay the same. Scenes are numbered for easy reference, and page-locking allows everyone to keep the same copy of the script even if the script changes. For example, if you insert a new scene after scene 10, it becomes scene 10A. If scene 12 gets cut, it stays in the script but just says OMITTED beside it. If you add half a page to scene 8 that was on page 6, that extra half a page becomes page 6A. I'm sure it sounds retarded to an outsider but it's just the way it is.

Which brings me to Series TV Tip#5

The script is the map for the crew and cast. It's their guide...and bible. It's got all their notes in the margins. Once revisions start to come out, everyone has to go through their White or Locked Script in their master binder and take out all the pages that have been revised, and put in the pink page revisions. Then they (hair/makeup/costume/sound/camera/ director/actors, etc. etc.) have to transfer all their handwritten notes from the old white page to the new revised coloured page. If they have to do this over and over throughout a prep period, they begin to grumble...a lot...about the writing department.

I remember the first series I was on was with a hyperactive exec who would decide that the character Jake should say Hi instead of Hello and then make the change and order loudly: "Let's get that page out right away!"

So we would. And that one change would go to the story coordinator who would implement the change on a master script in their computer which would create pink version of that same page except the word Hi was changed to Hello and there was a little asterix beside it.

Then the office staff has to run at least a hundred copies of the pink (or whatever color we were up to) page for the crew and cast and then coordinate delivering that page to cast and crew in the production office or on set shooting the current episode, and then the crew and cast have to insert new page where old page was...hey, it was a big deal.

It didn't really register with me, but we were getting into double blue pages and double yellow pages for the first half a dozen episodes or so. Mostly due to HEP (hyper exec producer). This went along for about a month until my crafty line producer (LP) friend calls me into the office. Boots on the desk again. Waving around this one pink page.

LP: "Excuse me? We just published pinks to change Hi to Hello? Is this a joke?"

I look at my feet again (I did that a lot with him): "Uh yeah well HEP wanted to get it out right away."

LP: "What was he worried about? That nobody would understand the story if this wasn't changed? Is he nuts?" (I heard that a lot too)

Me: "Hey man, I'm just doing what I'm told."

He motions me over closer to his desk. I slowly inch forward.

LP: "Let me give you a bit of advice. Cuz you'll actually listen. Take each of these little changes and compile them in some kind of master - and then about halfway through prep (3-4 days in), put out a set of coloured revisions (i.e. Pinks). Then after the last production meeting, put out the next revised coloured draft (Blue). Do this and the crew and cast will start talking to you again, trust me."

Me: "Uh, yes sir."

As long as it's not a major change that affects story in a big way, or locations, or casting, or special effects, etc. - and the key personnel (1st A.D.'s, Director, Production Managers, Producers) are aware of the little bits and pieces, just keep track of them and then put them out in the middle of and then the end of prep. And generally the rule is if 50% or more of the pages have changes on them, you publish the entire script in the next colour. And everyone tends to prefer to see a 'Full Blue' script say, than individual pages. Again, it's just the way it is.

Your cast and crew will LOVE you for this one. (not to mention the save on paper)

SONG&ARTIST? - "She comes in colors everywhere;
She combs her hair
She's like a rainbow
Coming colors in the air
Oh, everywhere
She comes in colors..."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Keeping TV Time...And The 80% Solution (Reprint)

"Doing a movie or a play is like running a marathon. Doing a television show is like running until you die." -- David Mamet
I get what Mamet is saying here, but don’t agree with him a hundred percent. Doing a TV series can also be like running a marathon...if you adopt the 80% Solution.

As stated ad nauseam, story department on a TV series is one long monster grind of writing, rewriting, troubleshooting, and crisis management. For example, I came in last week to find the execs scrambling to try to replace an actor who'd suddenly become unavailable. They were having frantic calls with casting directors and agents. Absolute chaos. The other thing I was told that one of the episodes that was presently filming was coming in short. And how did they know? The timings.

A timing is the estimated length of the episode after the script is 'timed' by the script supervisor (who also does continuity). Simply put, he/she acts out each scene in the script with a stop watch - marks that time down beside each scene - and adds them all up to get the estimated length of that script.

In the case of a television half hour, there's one important number and that is the content time. In Canada and US it usually comes in at around 21:40 (a one hour episode content-wise is around 41:30). Content is the actual story. What makes up the rest of the half hour when it goes to air are titles, credits, bumpers, and commercials. So as a writer/producer, the number you are most concerned with is that content time.

In a half hour, ideally the script supervisors timing comes in around 25 minutes. That gives your producers and editors some flexibility to tighten scenes or take some scenes right out if they didn't work or are deemed unnecessary. Timings that come in much longer than that start to cause you grief of having to edit out too much from the show to get it down to time. Coming in under with your timings is a fairly self-evident problem - the episode won't be long enough.

Then, as the episode shoots, you constantly ask for updates on the timings. That means taking what the script supervisor estimated (say 45 seconds for a scene) and the actual time it took to shoot the scene (say the actors read it faster and it comes in at 30 seconds), and comparing these times to see if you are over or under. So when a call comes in that episode has been losing time and is now adding up to 21:00 - it's short.

That’s what I walked into - with just 4 scenes left to shoot in the episode, two later that day.

So it became my job to basically write a minute or so worth of new material into each remaining scene but not make it seem like filler. I couldn’t add new scenes because the shooting schedule was already packed full. It wasn’t that difficult, kinda fun actually. When the parameters are fixed and there’s little room to maneuver, I find it easier to address a problem and solve it. But first I talked to the production designer to find out how much more of a location was dressed and what we’d be able to see. And talked to props to make sure they had a cell phone I’d added to a scene was standing by. And I talked to wardrobe to make sure if actors took off their coats (as I had them doing) in one scene, they were wearing something underneath.

So I rewrote the scenes, and we published new pages (yes, coloured pages) for those scenes and got them quickly to set so the actors could learn the new lines and director could see what he now had to shoot. All before lunch! And they did shoot them. And by the middle of the next day, the episode's timing was up to 23:40 - two minutes over.

Not the best case scenario, but the 80% solution.

80% is a great target to aim for under those kinds of circumstances - a nice manageable target of accomplishment. If your goal is always a hundred percent perfection, you'll kill yourself, or kill the series, or both. And you'll always be unhappy or unsatisfied if you expect that much of yourself or your crew. Maybe you can expect more on a movie, because it's a one time deal, but a series isn't one's a season of many shows. The series is king, not an episode.

Most series in Canada shoot 13 episodes a season (in the U.S. anywhere from 20-24 eps). If a half hour series, you usually have 8 days to shoot 2 episodes...and the total time commitment is around 50-55 days. If a one hour series, 6-7 days per episode is the going rate, and so the time commitment is usually around 80-90 days. And that's just when you're shooting. If you are on staff, you usually start six to eight weeks prior to shooting commencing. That will add another 50 days or so. So depending on what kind of series you're on, you'll be buried for 100-140 days (at least double that if a 22 episode season).


And I've worked on shows where execs did treat every episode as if it were the only show. And maybe that first episode turned out good (though usually it was a disappointment because expectations were too high or it was over-worked or over-written or over-produced), but it always came at a price. Other episodes suffered because everyone's attention and energy was being focused on that one episode. There needs to be a point in the development of or writing of or shooting of each episode when it is decided that it's good enough. Or as good as it will be under the circumstances. And move on.

Not that I'm suggesting you should settle for crap. Or to phone it in. But like a marathon, you can and should pace yourself. And rather than a single 100% episode and then three 50% episodes, you and your series will be better off to make them all 80% good.

Oh, and the execs replaced the actor. The replacement did a great job.

Crisis? What crisis?

SONG&ARTIST? - "Jackboots, hi-jacks
Ray guns and spray guns
We got them all for free
Look to the stars for consolation
It could be there lookin' at me
It could be there lookin' at me
Send me down a simple solution
Send me down a simple solution now."

Monday, December 17, 2007

But You Told Me Before You Wanted It Edgier..

Giving and taking notes...always a negotiation.

Thanks K Walton.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Bloggery Drudgery

You don't have to say it, yes, the blog has been sluggish of late.

And not really drudgery as much as a little distracted by life and getting ready for Xmas season - plus swept up with new job start up, finishing teaching screenwriting class, and still not watching much new TV or movies in support of the WGA strike (though I did break down and marathon watch Season 3 DVD set of Veronica Mars...not quite as good as Season 1 but still well worth watching - Rob Thomas is the new king of 'What is it? what is it really?').

And had a roughed out post about 'Why I Like Life', as in Life the TV show, but John Rogers just stole that headline.

Have a few more loooonnng directing TV posts in rough draft, and interested to see some of the new CBC shows, not to mention what Canuck nets will do in lieu of new U.S. programming...

So don't disappear...posts may be short and sweet for the next bit, but I'll be back.

It's Friday. Take us home, Spongebob.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


This kind of thing has been going on in commercials for a while know, editing them to classic music and pop songs. And as much as it grated to hear Led Zeppelin's 'Rock N' Roll' under a Cadillac spot, or Iggy Pop's 'Lust For Life' under a Royal Caribbean Cruise ad (and after Trainspotting too.."shudder"), it's never bothered me as much has it has hearing excerpts from Danny Elfman's brilliant score for Pee Wee's Big Adventure (specifically The Breakfast Machine) under this recent ad for the Visa Check Card.

That's film score...already set to images. It's crossing a line, and I've actually had to change the channel. In fact, it's made me want to cancel my Visa card.

That's not what a commercial is supposed to be accomplishing...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Older Yes...But The Song Remains The Same

"Does anybody remember laughter?"

First 'concert' movie I ever went to was The Song Remains The Same. Transfixed and enthralled is what I remember being and feeling. Regrettably I never saw the band in person.

Oh to be in London last night and experience the magic that was Led Zeppelin live again.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Feel Alright...

...even though it's Monday.

Because on the other side of the world...Monday's already done.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

All Good Clean Fun...

I love it that the writers from the Letterman show can turn around and spoof the 'little too earnest sometimes' videos from the WGA/SAG/DGA "Speechless" campaign...

...and presumably nobody's underwear gets in a knot.

Cuz it's funny.

And we're all still on the same side.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Not A Big Shock, But Still...


Just released from the WGA negotiating committee:


Today, after three days of discussions, the AMPTP came back to us with a proposal that included a total rejection of our proposal on Internet streaming of December 3.

They are holding to their offer of a $250 fixed residual for unlimited one year streaming after a six-week window of free use. They still insist on the DVD rate for Internet downloads.

They refuse to cover original material made for new media.

This offer was accompanied by an ultimatum: the AMPTP demands we give up several of our proposals, including Fair Market Value (our protection against vertical integration and self-dealing), animation, reality, and, most crucially, any proposal that uses distributor’s gross as a basis for residuals. This would require us to concede most of our Internet proposal as a precondition for continued bargaining. The AMPTP insists we let them do to the Internet what they did to home video.

We received a similar ultimatum through back channels prior to the discussions of November 4. At that time, we were assured that if we took DVD’s off the table, we would get a fair offer on new media issues. That offer never materialized.

We reject the idea of an ultimatum. Although a number of items we have on the table are negotiable, we cannot be forced to bargain with ourselves. The AMPTP has many proposals on the table that are unacceptable to writers, but we have never delivered ultimatums.

As we prepared our counter-offer, at 6:05 p.m., Nick Counter came and said to us, in the mediator’s presence: “We are leaving. When you write us a letter saying you will take all these items off the table, we will reschedule negotiations with you.” Within minutes, the AMPTP had posted a lengthy statement announcing the breakdown of negotiations.

We remain ready and willing to negotiate, no matter how intransigent our bargaining partners are, because the stakes are simply too high. We were prepared to counter their proposal tonight, and when any of them are ready to return to the table, we’re here, ready to make a fair deal.

John F. Bowman
Chairman, WGA Negotiating Committee
Contract 2007

Nikki Finke shows and tells all from both sides, HERE and THEN HERE.

People who are serious about negotiating don’t walk away from the negotiating table. No two ways about it, the Big Boys want this strike to continue.

Why Not? Why?

Robert Elisberg has a very thought-provoking piece up at the Huffington Post where he wonders: Why is it the AMPTP who is negotiating with the Writers Guild of America?
In fact, why is the AMPTP negotiating with anyone? The Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, any of the 80 industry-wide collective bargaining agreements it handles.

The issue is not that these AMPTP companies are part of multinational's that they are competitors with one another.

Before anyone tries to answer the question, hold off a moment as this is put into a larger perspective.

Imagine the auto industry for a moment.

The AMPTP is like if General Motors, Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan all got together, decided the terms they would offer employees, and then negotiated as a single body against one isolated division of U.S. auto workers at a time. Divide and conquer. Take it or leave it.

It's not that it would be massively illegal. It's that it would be unconscionable. No one in the aghast free world would stand for it. Even Luddites who wished it wasn't illegal understand why it's unacceptable.

Competitors are not allowed to negotiate together, to even confer together. It's called collusion. When baseball owners merely created an "information bank" for offers being made to free agent players, they were fined $280 million. Two competitors cannot talk with one another if there's just a hint of agreement. Imagine ALL competitors in an industry getting together to set ALL wages and ALL labor conditions.

It doesn't happen. Anywhere. Not "anywhere in the U.S." Anywhere in the free world.

Except Hollywood.

Now perhaps there's a very simple explanation for this situation, but if not, why hasn't anyone asked the question before...and then challenged the arrangement?

Over on the other coast, Variety reports CBS is looking at taking shelved feature scripts and cutting and pasting them into potential TV series pilots.
With the strike squeezing off the pilot script pipeline, CBS is turning to feature film scripts in a bid to find potential material for new series.

Eye entertainment prexy Nina Tassler has been personally calling a number of film producers and asking them to dust off any unproduced scripts that could be turned into TV series, according to two people familiar with the situation. These projects are already fully written but have either been put into turnaround or simply never got off the ground.

Because most movies tend to run around two hours in length, Tassler isn't looking to produce the full scripts. Instead, she's asking producers to identify key scenes or passages that could be filmed and cobbled together into a pilot or shorter pilot

Tassler isn't calling any WGA members, since scribes are prohibited from pitching ideas or negotiating with struck companies.

This is just kooky, and stinks of either network desperation or Variety's on-going efforts to spin nearly every strike story into 'the writers are in the wrong' or 'writers are not really needed'.

Why would anyone think something decent could come out of this?

I suppose their response would be: Why not?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

What Is....Pigs On The Wing?

Kill some time and test your pop/rock music knowledge with the on-line Almost Impossible Rock & Roll Quiz from Rolling Stone magazine HERE.

Fav question?

Q: After Pink Floyd split, Roger Waters maintained the rights to Algie, the band's giant inflatable pig. What did David Gilmour do to avoid paying royalties (when he toured)?

A: He altered the pig by attaching a pair of testicles.

Gotta love it...the music buisness.

I scored 39 out of 58. Not bad, and it's pretty tough. Can you do better?

(but no cheating)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Once You Go HD.... can never go...pee?

So I've taken the plunge, though it wasn't easy. Many years of begrudgingly upgrading (8 tracks to audio cassettes --- vinyl to cd's ---- VHS to DVD) had taken its toll and made me cautious of the 'next big thing', but I gave in and got me an HD television.


But not without some research. Weeks of looking at 8 bit vs. 10 bit video processors and 720p or 1080i vs. 1080p comparisons not to mention 60hz vs. 120hz frame rate analysis finally resulted in a purchase, and Sony won out again.

I can play with madness.

I remember when I made my first high end TV/media purchase. The year was 1990 and I dived in deep with a 27" Sony XBR and a 4 head Sony VCR. The two didn't come cheap. The TV cost $2,700.00. The VCR was $600.00. That's $3,300.00. Plus taxes. Gulp.

But what a sight to behold...they so put my 20" Citizen Television and top loading JVC VCR to shame.

That said, a similar-sized LCD High-Def Sony TV and a discounted Blu-Ray Player today...under a thousand bucks. Taxes in. Throw in the digital HD cable box with built-in PVR, and no hernia carrying the boxes from car to house...triple threat.

And the experience of viewing your favourite movie or TV show in sparkling 1080p? Sweet. Oh so sweet.

But will these new entertainment display units be dependable and last? One upside of my old Sony was that it made it through three cross country moves with several unintentional drops, bumps, and bashes, and was still ticking last year before some tube or circuit crapped out and I didn't bother repairing it. Better still was it's remote control. A tank of a hand unit, all the buttons still worked and numbers still visible, even after fifteen years of constant use. I know of two friends TV's bought in the past couple years that already have scotch tape over the battery holder and the number 3 is caput.

So we shall see.

And will I ever be able to watch analog or SD (Standard Def) channels again? My friends who'd already gone HD who warned me that they (and therefore I) can't go back. And I will admit throwing up a bit in my mouth on Saturday after flipping to the Golf Channel after just enjoying the Leafs beat the Penguins on CBC HD.

Come on 2009 (or is it 2010?)!

This article from MediaPost lists the U.S. channels actually available today, plus the hype (or lack thereof) of what's to come.

As for the future, can the images get any better, sharper, crisper? Oh, probably. But there's one thing we do know for sure....they will get cheaper. The price of the one I got has already dropped, just in time for Xmas.


Sunday, December 02, 2007

Josh Vs. Joss

Nice to see Friedman blogging again. Last week he made a plea to the Whedon, who quickly responded. The result is some very entertaining yet astute commentary on the WGA strike, by two of the best and brightest writers we got...

And the message...together we (all) must stand.