Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Everybody Needs A Copilot

This will only mean anything if you've seen Up In The Air, which I liked a lot, but man oh man....depressing. George Clooney plays hatchet man Ryan Bingham who flies around the country firing people for bosses that don't have the balls to do it themselves. But he also gives motivational speaking engagements...we're talking major Tony Robbins shit, as he puts it. And the film opens with Bingham in the middle of one of these presentations, standing at a lectern in front of dozens of attentive listeners. And while I was watching the film, and this scene specifically, I wondered: What if Up In The Air’s Ryan Bingham was the TV series writer’s answer to Robert McKee?

It might go something like this.

How much does your draft weigh?

Imagine for a second you’re carrying your story in a backpack...I want you to feel the straps on your feel them?

Now I want you to pack it with all the tricks you have in your writer’s toolkit. Start with the little things. The premise and the overview. The set up and the exposition. Inciting incident and complication. Feel the weight as it adds up. Now start adding the larger stuff. Your beats, plot points, rising action, resolution, your climax. That backpack should be getting pretty heavy at this point – go bigger. Your B-story, your act breaks, the cat you want to save...stuff it all in. Your theme...get it in there. Your structure – whether you have five act television pilot or a two part to-be-continued, I want you to stuff it into that backpack.

Now try to write.

Kinda hard, isn’t it? This is what we series TV writers do to ourselves on a daily basis. We weigh ourselves down with so many story possibilities we get blocked and can’t move. And make no mistake – in TV, moving your fingers fast on the keyboard is living.

Now I’m going to set your backpack on fire. What do you want to take out of it? Plot? Plots are for people who can’t remember how to feel. Drink some glingko and let the plot burn. In fact, let everything burn and imagine waking up the next morning with nothing.

It’s kind of exhilarating isn’t it? That’s how I approach every episode rewrite.

Okay, this is where it gets a little difficult, but stay with me. You have the same story, but a new backpack...and this time, I want you to fill it with characters. Start with bit parts, walk on’s, friends of friends and passersby, and work your way to the people your main character trusts with their most intimate secrets. First, the secondary characters – relatives, best friends, co-workers, colleagues, and relatives...get them all into that backpack. And finally your main character’s husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend. Get them in there too.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to light it on fire.

Feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake, your main characters’ relationships are the heaviest components of your TV screenplay. Feel the straps cutting into your shoulders. All those negotiations and arguments and dilemmas and secrets. But all that conflict equals drama. And drama equals story.

Now set that bag down. You don’t need to carry all that weight. But your episodic screenplay does. And if you have to rewrite a draft fast, let your characters show you the way.

Some animals were meant to carry each other. To live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star-crossed lovers. Monogamous swans. We are not one of those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.

We’re TV writers.

EDIT: Having just read the ugly arbitration backstory between Jason Reitman and original screenwriter Sheldon Turner regarding this screenplay, I now wonder how the above speech may have sounded if it was given by Turner. And the backstory certainly gives new meaning to the 'needing a copilot' line


deborah Nathan said...

Frackin' great post.

Choppednuts said...

What Deborah said.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Re the movie being depressing... at the risk of a spoiler...

(That's a warning... read on at your peril if you haven't seen the movie... )


It depends on what you found depressing... the parade of trashed careers that threads throughout the movie, or the outcome of the protagonist's journey.

If it's the latter then I read it not as the crushing of a guy -- I saw someone who'd received a brutal education and was now about to take his first step into a better way of being. There's an earlier line (from the brother-in-law?) about how, if he had all those flight miles, he'd just choose a destination from the board and take a chance. For me that was the signpost to the final shot.

wcdixon said...


Hey Stephen:

It was the latter or outcome of protag's journey I found depressing...and this was directly connected to one line of dialogue. Bingham is staring at the departure board, holding his luggage handle, and we hear his VO something about people getting home from work as the stars wheel forth from their daytime hiding places, and then...

"And one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip, passing over, blessing them."

Now for me, that line juxtaposed against what happened to him in final scenes was, to me, a real downer. As in, my takeaway was that he was just going back to the way he was, spending all his time in the air, flying around country firing people - same as the beginning.

I found that really depressing.

I've since had conversations with others who saw film and who also had much the same takeaway that you did. I now think you and they are that, pick a destination and a first step to a better way of living WAS the ending intended. But the 'depressing' label had already been stuck on the movie for me. Something about that 'wingtip' line told me that he was just going to be spending all his time 'up in the air' still, just like he was at the beginning...even though your take on those final shots is probably correct (in that, what the filmmaker intended).

Weird, huh. The takeaway from a movie can all be determined by the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of the final shots/words.

Still. Great film.

wp said...

The script has a number of scenes near the end where Clooney's character buys a condo in Omaha, signs up at a local gym, takes a tour of the city so he can know it as an actual resident, etc. From that, I took that he was going to try and settle down (a bit). From the last scene, I took it that he's going to go somewhere in the world -- not for work but for himself.

I actually like that it was open-ended and left it to the viewer to decide what he's decided.

Melody said...

What a concerning affair!
I haven't realized about it until I came over here. In fact, I used to think that Generic Viagra had something to do about this.

Anyway, I didn't mean to miss the point, then great work!