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 shoulders...you 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