Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Essay Portion Will Be Graded

With written proposals for four series and one MOW submitted to various networks as they requested, and while I await research on three more MOWs, I’ve been freed up at work after a long haul of writing to review a ton of spec pitches that have come in over the last few months.

As you can probably tell from my last post.

And then yesterday at lunch I listened to an interview with Michael Arndt, writer of Little Miss Sunshine. (Not that money’s the only thing, but interestingly, it was made for about $8 million, sold to Fox Searchlight at Sundance for $10.5 million and has taken in over $76 million. Plus, I really liked it.)

Anyway, Arndt said that Hollywood is “overflowing with B- scripts.” He said he didn’t think there were that many bad scripts floating around in Hollywood, just a lot of unfinished ones. Good point.

(Although… I know there are a lot of bad scripts out there. I’ve read some of them. [I just hope mine aren’t among them –- though secretly I fear they are…] As for the TV show pitches I get sent, a few are good, some are unfinished, but man, a lot of them are just plain bad. Like, smelly bad. Like, please leave it outside or it’ll stink up the kitchen bad.)

If a script makes it to an agent, studio, manager, someone out in Hollywood with enough clout to spread it around, even if it’s stuck in turnaround for years, there has to be some merit to it. But merit alone gets you a B-. To go further you need at least a B+. Of course, even if you have a solid A, it can float for years because of weird business decisions that have noting to do with the quality of your script.

It just keeps getting more and more unfair, huh?

Writing is hard. Everyone who writes says this. But I’m not sure everyone who writes does this. Which is to say, actually work hard. It’s really freaking difficult to take an objective look at your script, weed out the notes from your trusted readers that have merit, and then go in and fix the problems. Most writers, I think, don’t get to that last part.

I’ve written dozens of hours of primetime cable television, some that have won awards. I have one movie under my belt, done the hard way. What this has taught me is that it takes a lot of hard work. Really. Like, seriously. HARD WORK. Long hours trying and failing and trying again. Then failing again and trying once more. Thrice more. Then convincing yourself you’re a hack, and then talking yourself into trying again.

It’s not enough to say you’re struggling over a script, but in truth all you’re doing is reading it over and over, and in the end, you change 1% of it because you can’t figure out what else to do.

I’ve been handed scripts by writers who say they’ve been toiling over it forEVER, and then I read it and it's still full of typos and inconsistent slug lines. Let alone wildly obvious logic flaws. Or a totally uninspired story.

Of course, it’s still very hard for me to do this revision thing. There’s something about a written document that you’ve spent months creating that feels concrete and unchangeable. But dammit man, you have to keep plugging away. And admit that you’re flawed. And be willing to kill your babies. (See earlier post re: this terrible infanticide…)

Which is why the Harlem rewrite, though it’s been frustrating and intimidating, has been good for me. I’m forcing myself to keep a fresh mind, throw away things that won’t work no matter how much I love them or how badly I want them to work.

Because even though I have all those writing credits, I’m still very much a beginner and I have a lot to learn.

Maybe not as much as the lady who keeps calling me at work because she had the idea for almost every hit show out there before they came out… but I have a lot to learn. The good thing is, I’m willing to muscle my way past the B- mark.

Or try anyway.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Dude, I Got A Great Idea

There’s no shortage of ideas.

Ideas are easy.

Give me a few hours, Arvo Part’s Alina album and a couple cups of good coffee, and I’ll come back to you with concepts for 10 TV shows, four movies and a fetching little commercial for erectile dysfunction pills.

Ideas are easy.

At work, every week I get a dozen calls, emails and written submissions about shows that are gonna be the next Survivor, or the next Borat-meets-The Ring-for-the-small-screen.

Some of them are actually good ideas.

But ideas are easy.

Developing them into something sellable, selling them, and then producing them -– now that’s hard.

And since you’re looking at our development department, only so many can go forward at one time. So choosing is important.

Many thanks to all the people who have pitched ideas -– and thanks to me for creating my own –- but apologies to all, including myself, that we can’t do them all at once.

So keep a paper trail, I tell myself and those who come pitching to me. Keep reviewing the old ideas. Be patient and persistent –- and know when to be one or the other.

Even though ideas are easy, they’re important. So keep them brewing. And make them better. Richer. Tighter. More distinct. Those are the ones that rise to the top of the pile because they’re easier to envision as productions, which is what this is all about.

A friend recently told me that he heard the job of a producer is to make a list and then do it.


Ideas are easy. Now do them.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Man In 1997

Name that big haired man.

(How do you adjust the size of the photo window? Hmm...)

So last weekend we did some pickup shots on Dismal. Now, principal was in July, when the forest and swamp are at their height of lushness. Now it's November and things are brown. Problem one.

Problem two: a wicked storm blew in on the day we had the camera. By the time we got to Ray's place it was like some supertornado special on The Weather Channel.

I refused to pack it in. Might as well try. Shoot something.

Good thing Ray has a barn.

We dressed a horse stall to be two types of backround ground: one greenish (to match a forest trail) and one brownish (to match the dirt by the bad guy's shack). Don't ask what constituted the brown in the brownish one. Let's just say it was a fragrant shoot.

Anyway, we shot tight and kept the background out of focus and damn if it didn't work.

But then last night the editor found another shot that would come before one of the pickup shots, and it does work better, but now our stand-in actor has to move slightly differently in the greenish shot.

So we're trying to put together another little pickup day this weekend. It's really just a slight expansion of an already planned pickup day. We were gonna get the camera to do a little more helicopter stuff anyway, so now we're just adding a bit more to the day.

Thankfully, everyone on the team is pretty patient.

Because patience is what we need.

Like someone needs a haircut.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Good Work, Y'all

Yesterday I was talking to a friend about the value of your work and then Greg wrote about grace at the Web of Lies, so I got to thinking all spiritual and shit.

As a Buddhist I try to follow the old dude’s Nobel Eightfold Path because I think it’s a good way to live. One of the eight principles is Right Livelihood, which suggests we should “lead a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly,” and make sure our “income stands in excess of expenses.” Pretty sage advice, I’d say. But also, Right Livelihood suggests our work should respect and even assist other people and the world.

When I was a teacher, I felt pretty solid with my Right Livelihood. Okay, my expenses often stood in excess of my income, but that wasn’t because of extravagant living, it was because in this country we just don’t pay the people who serve very well. Teachers, police officers, social workers, nurses? Let’s pay these self-absorbed lowlifes shit. But the guy who can hit three-pointers most of the time or the lady who knows how to get away with underpaying workers so she and her Board can make more money? Pay them zillions.

Anyway, I did feel overall that I was helping the world back then. I was trying, at least, to help some kids learn how to learn, how to be good people, how to ask questions about the world.

But now I make television programs. I made one movie and hope to make more.

And so I started questioning if I’m still making my work something that’s important. Not as easy to see. TV and movies? Hmm.

You could make the argument that art (if TV and film are art -– or more specifically, if the kind I make are…) does matter and helps the world. I might buy that.

But I think that what Buddha was also talking about was to be mindful of how you go about your work. I try to be honest, compassionate, humble and all that good stuff while doing my job. I don’t always succeed of course, but listen, the Pope wears Prada shoes and just put out a calendar of photos of him at his country estate, so come on. We’re all human.

Buddha helped define Right Livelihood by talking about what Wrong Livelihood is. He said five professions should be avoided outright: trade in weapons, human beings, meat, intoxicants and poison – so I’m glad my days as a gun-running, slave-trading, butcher/drug dealer with a knack for fatal concoctions are over.

But he said we also should not be scheming and belittling or look out only for our own gain in our work. Hey, that I can do. That I do do, when dealing with people who work with or for me, or for whom I work. I don’t want to come off as a hippie (those days are over too, thankfully, but I admit I spent my time at Dead shows) but I am always sure to conduct myself ethically. I don’t ever want to succeed by screwing other people. That would suck, really.

So, fellow writers, don’t get down on yourselves. You’re okay in what you do -– as long as you do it right.

That is, unless you still have that night job whipping up poisons for The Man. Knock that shit off.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Whole Lotta Something

It’s been a blast of content creation for me recently.

Pressure’s been heavy at work. A group of international networks contacted us and asked for proposals for two series that they think will do well overseas -– and that they think we can do well. They have a very tight schedule on the development process, but the tightness goes both ways: we didn’t have a lot of time to write up the proposals, but they promise to give us feedback within days and decide who gets the gig by the end of the month.

So, it’s been a flurry of writing for me. We’re talking full series proposals -– but I got them handed in on time Friday and we have a conference call scheduled with the execs for Wednesday. I like this quick turnaround stuff when it’s reciprocal.

The pitches are good. One a little better than the other, but both could be solid and interesting shows. We’ll see.

In addition to that, I have an act breakdown for an MOW due this Friday for another client (this time a domestic network), so the flurry continues. This one’s a great story -– one I’ve hoped to be able do for a long time, actually, so I’m really excited about it. It’s a compelling story but it’s also an important one.

I just hope that in a week I can do it justice. Tough to do a detailed outline of a two-hour story in five days, showing not only the developing drama, but also what the movie will look and feel like.

But if my work over the last decade has done anything, it’s taught me how to produce good stuff fast.

I mean, last year for one series, we did almost a year’s worth of work in 6 months. Okay, okay, I wore myself down to the nub of a man -- and had to hire Greg toward the end to help with the final push -- but we did it.

Man, that was fun, wasn’t it, Greg?

Or, fun maybe isn’t the right word.

Man, that was something, wasn’t it, Greg?

As for my own writing, I have what I think is an interesting start to the Harlem movie. It’s been a lot of deconstruction and reconstruction, and I still can’t see the whole thing yet, but the pieces are falling into place a little. Good to be diving back in.

It’s a lot of… something.