Monday, October 15, 2018

AMERICAN VANDAL and teenage lonliness

"Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening."

That was the thesis statement of the season 3 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer entitled "Earshot." Last month, this episode turned 19 years old and yet in many respects it still remains one of the most accurate commentaries on the high school experience. The episode itself has an interesting history. It was originally slated to run on April 27, 1999, but seven days earlier, two teenagers killed 12 of their classmates and two teachers in a massacre at Columbine High School. Suddenly The WB was very nervous that the next episode of Buffy featured Buffy sensing one of her classmates was planning to kill everyone and racing against time to stop a mass casualty event at school.

The fact that the character remarked directly on the rise of school shootings and Oz quipped, "It's bordering on trendy at this point" might have also played a part in the network decision to hold the new episode until just before the start of Season 4.

Buffy as a series got a lot of mileage out of its conceit that "High school is hell." For the first three years, most of the random demon-of-the-week stories were metaphors for typical teenage drama. One of the more effective examples was when Buffy lost her virginity to Angel and the moment of "perfect happiness" broke the curse that forced a soul on the vampire. The result was an unleashed Angelus, ready to do evil and eager to break Buffy's heart and mess with her head. Joss Whedon is often quoted as saying that female viewers would tell him, "The same thing happened to me." They related to the core analogy which was, "I slept with him and he got mean."

Given that kind of identification with teenage pain was central to the show's appeal, it's odd how few shows have run with that ball in the decade and a half since BUFFY left the airwaves. Most teen dramas decided to be aspirational, about cool people with cool clothes and cool lives. Half of the characters on ONE TREE HILL were celebrities of some breed - singer, fashion designer, pro basketball player - and many of the others were leading successful lives. GOSSIP GIRL was set in a world of wealth and privilege that rarely explored real high school dynamics, and 90210 wasn't much different. You might make a case for PRETTY LITTLE LIARS dealing with some of this, but it was again a show about extremely pretty people with expensive clothes and a lot of relationship drama with other people. It seemed no one wanted a show about teenage pain, at least not on network TV.

Enter Netflix. Their first foray into modern high school drama was 13 REASONS WHY. I've written at length about that show in many other posts you can find on this site. Though the season 2 drama gets much more heightened, season one was one of the more realistic explorations of high school bullying, and all the emotional body blows that today's teens face. It's weird to realize my high school experience has more in common with the world of THE WONDER YEARS than that of 13 REASONS WHY, but concepts like cyber-bullying didn't even exist when I graduated 20 years ago. Some of what Hannah Baker faces is relatable to any high school graduate. There have always been people victimized by bad rumors and reputations that were forced on them. Certain sexual assault is nothing new even if our ways of raising awareness are different.

Teenage trauma was the core story of 13 REASONS WHY, so viewers were primed to expect that journey. What's more impressive is how a series that spent its first season on an 8-episode dick joke and then came back for season 2 with an equally prolonged poop joke turns out to be an even more incisive portrait of contemporary teens. AMERICAN VANDAL is many things. It's a brilliantly executed mockumentary that scores off of the modern hunger for true crime stories, it's an incredibly funny show that achieves laughs both base and intelligent, it's an amazing showcase for fresh-faced talent.

And it is the most serious look at the loneliness of adolescence.

If you haven't seen AMERICAN VANDAL's second season, I'll warn you that I'm about to spoil the ending.

In the final episode we learn that "The Turdburgler" is a previously-expelled student who catfished dozens of students and teachers at his school as part of a revenge plot. Not every student took the bait, but those who did believed they were in a relationship with the woman whom The Turdburgler presented themselves as, using stolen pictures and video. In doing so, he enticed many of them to send compromising pictures and videos, which were later used to blackmail four of them into participating in the four Turdburgler pranks.

To our shock, those four victims include not only prime suspect Kevin McClain, who is something of a performative weirdo and the kind of lonely person you'd expect to fall for it, but also Big Man on Campus DeMarcus Tillman, the basketball superstar who seemingly could be friends with anyone. It's a good lesson that even the popular kids feel like they're wearing a mask at school. Their popularity isn't always a cure for loneliness. Indeed, it can be isolating. Students want to be close to DeMarcus because he is the best... but he always has to wonder in the back of his mind... do they like him for him?

For DeMarcus to form what he believed was a genuine emotional bond with someone he never met speaks to both the loneliness he felt and he nature of online connection. My generation was just getting online around the time we started high school and college, but these kids have grown up in a world dominated by this sort of social media connectivity. Online life is real, particularly in an emotional sense.

DeMarcus couldn't find that intimate connection in person. It was only with the distance of talking to a stranger online that he felt he could show his "real self." With that vulnerability came the expectation the person he was talking to was being equally vulnerable.

Some of the catfish victims are persuaded to do truly humiliating things. When the truth comes out, some of their classmates are likely unsurprised because, yes the theater nerd and the strange "Fruit Ninja" are exactly the kind of people to be duped by an "online girlfriend." A lesser show would have left it at that, but it's AMERICAN VANDAL that finds the insight BUFFY did all those years ago. The creators recognize that some teenage trials are universal and that few teens recognize others' pain because they're focusing too much on their own.

This is why AMERICAN VANDAL resonates beyond being a silly diversion where a school is attacked with laxatives. It tries to reflect the truth of teenage life, knowing that audience identification and investment with the characters will run that much deeper. It's a show that gets under your skin by poking at the sides of themselves that the audience tries to hide.

Show your audience something in themselves they don't want anyone to see and I guarantee they'll follow you. In fact, they'll probably be unable to do anything else.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The best show of 2017 - AMERICAN VANDAL - returns this week with new episodes

This Friday brings the second season of Netflix's brilliant comedy series AMERICAN VANDAL. That means if you haven't checked out season one, you have four days to watch eight half-hour episodes and get caught up. This is a completely doable project and the results are well worth it. Trust me.

Last year, I first became aware of AMERICAN VANDAL through a short promo that was posted to the net. The idea of an entire mockumentary series devoted to figuring out who vandalized the cars of a high school faculty by spray-painting dicks on them seemed so ridiculous that I assumed the ad itself was a gag. It presented as a mockery of Netflix's interest in true crime documentaries. Only later did I realize it was real, and it wasn't just a short one-off. I couldn't imagine how they planned on filling four hours of content with a joke that seemed likely to only sustain a five minute sketch.

I had a complete meal of crow after that, let me tell you.

The brilliance of AMERICAN VANDAL is that it isn't just a dick joke and it isn't just out to send up the conventions of the true crime documentary. The creators, Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, understood that they had to create an entire world and the documentary-format is merely the conventions they use to explore that teenage culture. I've said before that the most important question to ask before telling a story is "What's it about?"

Here's how I answer that question with regard to AMERICAN VANDAL: it's about modern high school life, and about how smart phones and social media have made the high school experience vastly different than it was for generations before it. It's about how those document our lives, but also how they project versions of ourselves, sometimes inviting judgement, sometimes bringing distortion. It's about a cultural obsession with tales of perceived injustice, and the indifference of those who tell those stories to the collateral damage they leave in their wake.

And it's funny as hell.

When the series starts, Dylan Maxwell has been expelled from his high school following the vandalism of 30 teachers' cars. The vandal spray-painted penises on each of the cars and Dylan was the prime suspect due to his penchant for pranks and the frequency with which he drew dicks as an in-class disruption. But there are a couple loose threads here: first, the dicks are drawn in a different style from Dylan's. Another curious wrinkle is that 30 minutes of security footage is missing. As a member of the school's morning TV show, Dylan would have had the access to erase it, but so would 8 other members of that show.

So two students, Peter and Sam, get to work on their documentary in an effort to get to the bottom of what really happened. Was it indeed Dylan? Or did he get railroaded by a biased teacher out to get him and a system with inadequate due process? Peter and Sam are pitch perfect as the self-righteous crusaders who've likely been inspired by Serial and other true crime dramas. They take this "injustice" seriously because to them, it IS their whole world. We might look down on this high school bullshit, but they live it every day.

One of the great moments of the show comes in episode 4 after Peter and Sam have tried to narrow down the number of possible alternative suspects. At least one of the eight other members of the morning show would have to be involved if Dylan is innocent, so they assess the profiles and alibis of each of them. The two boys also have to acknowledge that they are also suspects as members of the same show, so Peter produces a segment assessing Sam and vice-versa. Sam doesn't take it that seriously, offering up a jokey indictment of his friend that might as well be a bad parody of a negative political ad. Peter, on the other hand, goes for the jugular, and in the process lays out several embarrassing personal details about Sam before ultimately deciding he's not a suspect.

It's a sly character moment, showing Peter is so driven by the opportunity to play Sarah Koenig that he'll go hard after his friend in pursuit of the truth. This isn't the last time we'll see Peter put his documentary project above someone else's feelings. The beauty of the show's structure is that we experience him dig into someone's like, as if he was a 60 MINUTES correspondent building a case against a murder suspect. We're so used to this part of the format that we don't even question it, and if we think about it at all, it's because the joke seems to be that Peter is taking his project FAR too seriously.

The most brilliant moment of the series comes at the start of episode 5. For the first half of the show, we've watched it without really knowing who the audience is. Is this something Peter's making and releasing all at once? Is it even being released? Episode 5 answers that question by revealing that Peter's been posting each episode to the web and at some point after Episode 4 went live, AMERICAN VANDAL went viral. I'd never seen one of the mocumentaries actually deal with the feedback loop that happens when one of these stories gains an obsessed fandom.

Everything Sam and Peter have compiled begins to impact the narrative. A teacher is fired for some unprofessional statements he made about a statement in one of his interviews. A crucial piece of evidence is destroyed when obsessed AV fans harass a peripheral player in the story so much that she gets rid of a recorded prank call that might strengthen Dylan's alibi. For Sam and Peter, one of the benefits is that it forces the school to let them continue filming on campus after having been banned earlier.

But it's also the moment when the story's scope gets wider, as it allows it to touch on all the internet theorizing that happened with series like Serial. I also thought of the crowd-sourcing internet detectives who often cause almost at least as much harm as good when they try to identify suspects in the wake of terrorist events like the Boston Marathon bombing. AMERICAN VANDAL uses the story of Dylan Maxwell to explore all of that, even as it gives one of the more astute looks at modern high school culture.

One of the savvier sequences of the series comes as Sam and Peter examine all the footage from "Nana's Party," a party thrown by one of the students the weekend before the prank. By compiling everyone's social media videos from the party, the documentarians are able to create a timeline of the entire night. The tidbits it reveals might lock down the origin of the spray paint used in the prank, and nail down who had access to it. It's like watching these kids dissect a couple dozen Zapruder films, scrutinizing them for clues.

It's utterly inspired. You can read an entire oral history of it here.

The series manages to get us completely invested in the question of "Who Drew The Dicks?" even as it stops short of giving a definitive answer. What it does provide is an unexpected coda where one student humiliated by the documentary calls Peter out on everything he did needlessly in pursuit of the truth that hurt people. It's a surprising callout of the ethics of these documentaries and a reminder that while we might see only a binge-worthy drama, if you immerse yourself in the world of the series, Peter is NOT the noble hero his perspective frames him as.

99 out of 100 mockumentary creators would not have thought to take that path. At best, some of them might have realized this issue, but decided they were going for humor, not reality. As viewers, we're so conditioned to just buy into that conceit that it allows the creators to surprise us with a detail that's been hiding in plain sight the entire time - "how would we feel about this documentary if we were one of the people being put under the magnifying glass by it?"

AMERICAN VANDAL is smart enough to recognize that confronting these questions doesn't dilute the humor. It takes a braver chances than most shows in its place would have, and doing so keeps them one step ahead of the audience. It is the smartest dick joke I've ever seen and I'm utterly in awe of how the creators have elevated the mockumentary genre to greater heights than I would have assumed possible. I can't wait for season two to surprise me even further.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Fifteen working writers name the TV spec episodes that helped start their careers

Completing my series last week on "How to write a spec episode" made me nostalgic for a Twitter thread I got going about six months ago. Lately, the practice of writing spec episodes has fallen out of favor. For the most part, they're only used for programs like the Disney ABC Writing Program and the Warner Bros Television Workshop, as more and more showrunners want to see original pilots from prospective staff writers.

It wasn't always that way. Up until recently, writers would write spec episodes for a series similar to the one they were submitting for. You never submit your spec episode to the show you've spec'd - for two basic reasons. First, they know their show WAY better than you do, so they'll be far more harsh on things that feel wrong for the show, whether it's getting a character's voice slightly wrong, getting something minute wrong about their house style or episode format, or just telling the kinds of story they have reasons for not telling. The second reason is perhaps even more obvious - if they never read a spec of their own show, they can't be accused of stealing it should the show do something similar to this spec episode.

What this means is there are several generations of TV writers who came up by writing spec episodes, perhaps of shows vastly different from the ones they are famous for. With that in mind, I tweeted out a call for writers to tell us the specs that got them hired or repped. The result was one of the more amusing threads I've been a part of.

I'm sure this'll provoke a unanimous chorus of "Nah Bitter, we're good" but if any of the writers in this post - or any other working writers for that matter - are interested in putting their spec episodes out there for people to read, I'll gladly host them. Just email me at the address you can find on the side of this webpage.

Joe Henderson (Lucifer, 11.22.63, White Collar, Almost Human)

Taylor Elmore (Blood & Treasure, Limitless, Justified)

Justin Marks (THE JUNGLE BOOK, Counterpart)

Mike Royce (One Day at a Time, Men of a Certain Age, Enlisted)

Amy Berg (Counterpart, Da Vinci's Demons, Caper, Person of Interest, Eureka)

Jordon Nardino (Star Trek: Discovery, Quantico, Smash, Desperate Housewives)

Benjamin Raab (Arrow, Scream, The Flash, Beauty & The Beast)

Bo Yeon Kim (Star Trek: Discovery, Reign)

Robert Hewitt Wolfe, (Elementary, Andromeda, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) who probably made enemies of several people in this thread with this disclosure.

Bryan Q. Miller (Shadowhunters, Sleepy Hollow, Defiance, Smallville)

Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, Containment, Legacies)

Who else wants to read a Buffy spec from the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries?

Chris Luccy (Undateable, Melissa & Joey, Better With You)

Dan Steele (Faking It, Hart of Dixie, Gossip Girl)

Lynn Renee Maxcy (The Handmaid's Tale, Covert Affairs)

Daniel Thomsen (Westworld, Time After Time, Once Upon a Time,

Jorge A. Reyes (Kevin Hill, Queen of the South)

Quite an interesting mix of writers and shows, no?

Related posts:
Writing a spec episode - a 10 part series.
Anatomy of a TV spec - Don't Trust the B---- In Apartment 23

Monday, August 20, 2018

Judd Apatow's MasterClass is a decent program, if less ambitious than other entries

(Note: this post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after using one of my links.)

There's a point in Judd Apatow's MasterClass where he tells the student's there's never been an easier time for them to find out what makes their idols tick. Says Apatow, "Just go to YouTube, type in the person's name and 'interview.'" And he's right.

Unfortunately, that same advice is what makes Apatow's Masterclass less of an obvious recommend for me than the earlier courses offered by Ron Howard, Shonda Rhimes, and Aaron Sorkin. Those three not only offered the benefit of their experience, they also went above and beyond to add value to their class so it wasn't just a series of lectures. Shonda did a deep dive on the development of two of her pilots, Sorkin assembled a class of writing students to serve as a mock writer's room to break an episode of The West Wing, and Howard went above and beyond. He took us to set as he blocked, rehearsed and shot a scene, then staged and shot it two more ways in different styles.

A lot of these classes are meant for people who have less practical experience than I do. At times, that means some early lectures may come off as basic, but they're useful for laying groundwork on the fundamentals. The segments where the participants get creative usually end up being the ones that justify the $90 cost I essentially am recommending. This is where Apatow's class puts me in a bind.

This is the second class I've watched that's 100% lectures. David Mamet also did not venture out of his chair, but I concluded that the style and the content of that was professorial enough that it met the level of a decent introductory or intermediate screenwriting class. On a personal level, I enjoyed Judd's class more. He was less pompous, very relatable, and comes across as a genial guy who just wants to give you the benefit of his experience through a lot of really great stories that span his career.

But I keep coming back to the fact that there are hundreds of Apatow interviews out there that cover a lot of the same ground. He has annotated screenplays that also contain a great deal of the information in these lectures and in the scripts offered as bonus materials. If you're interested in those, they include:

The 40 Year-Old Virgin Brainstorm
The 40 Year-Old Virgin Script
The 40 Year-Old Virgin Beat Sheet
Knocked Up Script
Knocked Up table read draft with notes
148 page vomit draft of FUNNY PEOPLE with handwritten notes on them
LOVE season map

It's a decent collection of extras, and Judd's lectures cover a varied range of topics - everything from how you can mine your own life to develop a story to how you set goals to turn out a rough draft. There's some great advice in there about casting and how he uses improv to engage the actor's creativity. It's one of those missed opportunities that Apatow only lectures about this instead of getting a couple acting students and actually workshopping this lesson with them. With a whole series of videos here directed at actors, it could have been valuable for both aspiring comedy directors and actors to see Judd in action.

This is not to say that his advice isn't solid. For as many times as Apatow brings up improv, he also impresses upon his audience the importance of strong story. He posits an exercise where the writer takes all the jokes out of their script, saying "The stories should work just as well without jokes." Considering he popularized, if not pioneered, a style of comedy where some scenes linger a little too long on extended riffs, it's good to see advice like this reinforced.

But so much of what Apatow discusses is available in those free resources he advocated earlier. He talks about how when he started out there was nothing like the internet, or podcasts on comedy. He had to go to the library to look up microfiche on Lenny Bruce. His comedy academy was interviewing comedians for his school paper. That's actually a great story and a good story to get students thinking about ways to research beyond using a Google search bar.

In a world where there weren't a hundred Apatow interviews and commentaries readily available, it would be extremely easy for me to say, "Buy this." But that fact and the comparison to other MasterClass productions makes this a more complicated sell. I think I enjoyed this more than David Mamet's class, which was also entirely lectures and also would be best received by those in an early point in their writing ventures. Apatow's advice is relatable, practical and no bullshit. Mamet is knowledgeable, but reminds you of the professor who talks just to hear himself. Apatow comes off as the kind of instructor who would engage his students and know how to focus their passion.

So here's what my recommendation is going to come down to: with MasterClass you can either purchase a la carte, each class for $90, or you can get an All-Access Pass for $180/year. That means that for the cost of TWO classes you can get everything. Look at that list below. If there are two classes that look interesting, get All-Access Pass and then put Apatow on your Watch list.

For my money, Ron Howard's class is essential, and there's a wealth to be gotten out of either Shonda Rhimes, Aaron Sorkin's or both. I have no problem recommending any of those three at the $90 pricetag. If it won't break your budget and you just have to check them out then maybe Judd's course can be an extra incentive to amoritize.

You can purchase Judd Apatow's MasterClass here for $90.

If the All-Access Pass for $180/year is more your speed, go here.

Prior MasterClass Reviews:
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (review)
Ron Howard Teaches Directing (review)
Shonda Rhimes Teaches TV Writing (review)
Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Directing (review)

The full MasterClass roster:

Martin Scorsese teaches Filmmaking
Werner Herzog teaches Filmmaking
Shonda Rhimes teaches TV Writing
Aaron Sorkin's Masterclass on TV Writing
David Mamet teaches Dramatic Writing
Steve Martin teaches Comedy
Judy Blume teaches Writing
James Patterson teaches Writing

Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting
Helen Mirren teaches Acting

Christina Aguilera's MasterClass 
deadmau5's MasterClass 
Herbie Hancock teaches Jazz
Hans Zimmer teaches Film Scoring
Reba McEntire teaches Country Music
Usher teaches Performance

Stephen Curry teaches Basketball
Serena Williams teaches Tennis
Garry Kasparov teaches Chess

Wolfgang Puck teaches Cooking
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking.
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking

Jane Goodall teaches Conservation
Marc Jacobs teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography

Friday, August 17, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 10: Act Five Scenes

Part 1: Finding the Concept
Part 2: Character
Part 3: Story and Theme Development
Part 4: The Break
Part 5: Act One Scenes
Part 6: Act Two Scenes
Part 7: Act Three Scenes
Part 8: Act Four Scenes
Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite

Download the first draft script here.

We start here at the bottom of p. 46.

INT. CLAY'S HOUSE - BEDROOM - MORNING - This scene has a simple purpose - remind the audience that Justin and Clay are living under the same roof, with Justin being Clay's adopted brother in this timeline.

SERIES OF SHOTS and EXT. TONY'S NEIGHBORHOOD - This is a lot of narrative shoe leather and connective tissue. I needed to honor the reality that Clay would have gone to school that day, but I didn't have any story I wanted those scenes for, so I skipped through it. After that, the scene in Tony's neighborhood is just there to allow Clay to connect some dots.

INT. BAKER'S DRUG STORE - Another scene that's pretty self-explanatory. It made sense to me that Tony would have sought out help from Olivia, and it made equal sense she'd do what she could by giving him a place to crash in New York.

I'll admit that with some of the plotlines, I tried to project a trajectory for them across 13 episodes, just because it forced me to think of this one episode in a larger context. When it came to Tony's plot, I didn't come up with much beyond the notion he'd probably be back in town within a few episodes.

When it comes to the rest of Clay and Olivia's interactions, though, I did have a few ideas. I think that at some later point in the season, Clay would have tried to use his connection to the other Hannah as a way of bringing some peace to his Olivia. I hadn't worked out what that was. Maybe Clay would eventually tell Hannah what he's experiencing and tell her that his Olivia needs some peace of mind. Perhaps Alternate-Olivia has reacted badly to Hannah's suicide attempt, either becoming over-protective, or maybe she's furious with her, or humiliated, or she's overwhelmed with guilt and in trying to deny it.

However it came out, Alternate-Olivia would have been in a bad place, but through his connection to the other Olivia, Clay would be able to provide Hannah with what she needed. That's a bit abstract, but it's the start of an idea.

There's an important moment here where Clay knows something he learned in the alternate timeline and it turns out to be something true in the "real" timeline. This lends some credence to the idea that both worlds are equally real. Clay certainly seems to think that's the case, as the odds of his dream inventing something that's actually true are pretty long. But it's hardly conclusive and there's room to assume Clay might have heard something about Aunt Laura before, and his subconscious brought it out in the dream.

It's early in the season, so I couldn't give Clay a clue that was TOO definitive, just one that seemed very suggestive, while being explained away with a little effort.

INT. DR. LIZ DUFFIELD'S OFFICE - There's one big objective here - show Clay passing on the chance to treat the Alternate Timeline like a delusion he needs serious treatment for. We know he's pondered that he might be crazy. Now he's in the room with a trained professional and he won't tell her the truth. Maybe some would read this scene as him not wanting to sound crazy, but I was going for the subtext that he doesn't want to be cured of his delusion.

INT. CLAY'S HOUSE - BEDROOM - I initially thought I'd go out on the scene with Clay talking to his therapist, smashing to black as we reveal he's embracing the alternate timeline. But I had trouble landing that beat in a succinct line that would provoke a smash-cut to black. So I added this scene of Clay preparing for another timeline shift. It also is a subtle echo of the end of the pilot, which concludes with Clay finishing one tape and then putting on the second side.

Usually when I finish a first draft script, I blast it out to five friends. I mostly use people who've read a lot of my stuff before (and who's own work I've read) and so by now, I'm familiar enough with each of their style of notes that I'm able to decipher what the "note behind the note" is.

"Note behind the note" is an acknowledgement that what people say isn't necessarily what needs to be fixed. Their viewpoint is valid but their diagnosis could be wrong. And by now, I know that there might be certain readers who get particular buttons pushed by something.

My point is - I give it to five people I know and trust. That's enough to get a sense of consensus. I don't always go by majority rules, though. If four of them LOVE something and the fifth picks something apart but does so in a constructive way that makes me realize, "Fuck. I can't ignore THAT observation," I'll probably take that lone reader's advice. On the other hand, if one reader thinks the mystery was too obvious and the other four totally fell for my red herrings, I'll be relieved that a majority took it the way they were meant to.

Then after those five sets of notes come back, I do a rewrite and then blast it out to another four or five people. This is important because it gives you a fresh read on the changes. Go back to the same five people and subconsciously they might still remember the old version. This means they'd have to intellectualize about if the changes really work. Give it to new readers and they don't know what changed, so they're more accepting of everything as a whole.

If I do a rewrite off of these notes, I might send it to a couple people in the first group, hoping that the longer time between them and the more massive changes will make this different enough that it's almost fresh for them. Otherwise, I just suck it up and accept I won't get a totally fresh read.

Eventually, a draft emerges that I'm happy with.

This has been a fun blogging journey over the last two weeks. I hope you guys have gotten something out of it, and I've enjoyed all the comments and tweets from people who enjoyed the script. Feel free to comment further on the script. For now I think I'm done with this, but should inspiration hit and I do any substantial rewrites, I'll detail the process here.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite

Part 1: Finding the Concept
Part 2: Character
Part 3: Story and Theme Development
Part 4: The Break
Part 5: Act One Scenes
Part 6: Act Two Scenes
Part 7: Act Three Scenes
Part 8: Act Four Scenes

Yesterday I talked a little bit about a moment where Hannah gave me a line of dialogue I didn't anticipate and the implications of that line changed everything about the scene and what I thought I knew about her state of mind.

Today we're going to pick up with the scene that starts on p. 41 of the script.

Download the first draft script here.

EXT. LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL - AFTERNOON - After a tense parting with Hannah, Clay sees her at the end of the school day with Zach. This is one of those moments I knew had to be in the script in some form. Given their history, we need to see Zach reaching out to Hannah upon her return to school. But it was also the kind of scene that felt too convenient every time I tried to make Clay a witness to it. There were only so many opportunities to play that card and my gut told me I'd already used them all.

The next best thing was for Clay to see them at a distance and maddeningly not know the nature of their conversation. In the two-part segment I wrote earlier this year about the Zach/Hannah retcon in Season 2, I think I was pretty clear about my feelings on this development. But it's part of the show canon and it would be dereliction of duty to ignore that. I feel it can be dangerous to call back to that plot, given the inconsistencies it raises. It can be a little like picking a scab best left benignly alone, but there is a way it could pay dividends.

Remember that the Zach/Hannah relationship isn't on the tape. That means that even though Hannah knows Clay has heard the tapes, she still has no reason to think her history with Zach is known to him. That alone is another bomb waiting to drop at some point in the season. It would be interesting if Clay and Hannah were getting closer together and it bothered Clay that she was going to keep this part of her history secret.

Clay is also in the unique position of possibly losing his virginity twice, technically. Let's say he sleeps with Sheri in the Prime timeline during midseason. If the possibility of a hook-up with Hananh presents itself again, once Hannah lays her cards on the table about her history, Clay has two options:

1) lie and say he's a virgin. Which is true in this alternate timeline but not for Clay.
2) tell the truth and then have a real dilemma. It would be a lie to tell Hannah he lost his virginity to Sheri because Clay didn't sleep with the Sheri who Hannah knows. But it would also be dishonest if he decides to claim it was some random girl Hannah didn't know. And we know Clay isn't a good enough liar to pull off any of these lies.

There are a lot of ways to get to this complication, and most of them involve building off the Zach/Hannah past. For both reasons of plot and character, there should be acknowledgement of that here.

With that out of the way, let's get onto:

INT. MONET'S CAFE - NIGHT - I was pretty sure I knew how this scene was going to play in the story break. It was the last time Hannah and Clay interacted in this episode and from the beginning, I wanted him to be able to tell her that he'd spent the last year "thinking about" how horrible it would have been if she succeeded in suicide. He was going to pour his heart out about what she meant to him, all the ways he wished he'd been better to her and everything he was going to do differently now.

It was Clay's big moment. Figure for a year he's imagined what he would say to her, much like his imagined conversation with her in the room that night, the one where Hannah's haunting reply was "Why didn't you say this to me when I was alive?"

So in some ways I wanted to pay that off. I wanted a catharsis for Clay. It was his chance to let go of anything he was holding inside and in doing that, I figured it would bond him even tighter to this reality. It all flowed from a character perspective. It also meant this scene was all about Clay. And there's nothing wrong with that - he's the core of the show and this story.

But when I approached this scene as a follow-up to Hannah's "I ruined you," it changed EVERYTHING. It forced an approach that had HANNAH pouring her heart out, explaining what she had been through in the last year. It let Hannah speak for herself, filling in some gaps from both before her suicide attempt and explaining some of her distance and behavior since then.

For most of this scene, I felt like I was transcribing more than I was writing. Hannah took over, decided the scene was about her and dictated everything while my typing fingers raced to keep up. This scene was part of the day where I turned around 12 pages in 5 hours because I just felt very keyed into what Hannah was going to say and how Clay was going to have to react to that.

It didn't matter that it changed two scenes that I had been sure were going to mean something else. When you hit a point where the characters start doing their own thing, run with it as far as possible. On the off chance that you go down a wrong path, you can always rewrite later.

So this was Hannah, expressing concern that her medication hadn't just taken away the intensity of how she felt towards Clay last year, but also pondering that maybe she hadn't really been in love with him in the first place - that she'd convinced herself of that because he was "safe." He was a life preserver she needed, and that's why she freaked out that night - her mind was telling her body that it was wrong for her to use Clay like this.

Is Hannah right? I don't know. But this is what she believes right now. It changed what I thought was going to happen with regard to Clay embracing this timeline. I thought this scene would represent Clay committing himself to this reality, not this reality seemingly rejecting him. But when the dust settled, I realized this was more compelling. Hannah's accessible, but just out of his reach. It forces him to strain to get her.

It gives Clay a challenge instead of a win. That feels like better drama. For some of the audience, it might even raise enough doubt about the desirability of this world that the ending is more of a shock when Clay decides not to tell his therapist about his experience, meaning that if it is a delusion, he's actively not seeking help for it.

Hopefully this was a good example of how you draw on older stories to find fertile ground for new conflicts, and also how sometimes your characters know better what they bring to the table than you do.

(This scene also has a pretty big goof on my part. The dance that Hannah refers to and that Clay says he's thought about for a year and a half isn't the Spring Fling. It was the Winter Formal.)

We'll wrap all this up tomorrow with a look at the final act of the script.

Part 10: Act Five Scenes

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Writing a spec episode - Part 8: Act Four Scenes

Part 1: Finding the Concept
Part 2: Character
Part 3: Story and Theme Development
Part 4: The Break
Part 5: Act One Scenes
Part 6: Act Two Scenes
Part 7: Act Three Scenes

Download the first draft script here.

Today we're gonna get to discuss one of my favorite things that can happen when you write a script. But we'll get to that soon enough...

Act Four basically starts on p. 32 of the script, with Clay shifting back to the alternate timeline. I don't have much to say about the first couple scenes. They're mostly narrative shoe leather, but I wanted to have a little bit of a build-up to Tony's appearance. I was hoping that would have some impact coming on the heels of learning a bit more about what happened to him.

EXT. LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL - MORNING - Clay catches Tony up on his predicament off-screen. I originally had a little more dialogue here where they both debated if Clay was crazy and this was a figment of his imagination. Tony said, "Look, I know you're not imagining me," to which Clay replied, "that's just what a figment of my imagination would say." It was a little too jokey, and though I wrote it hoping it would let us acknowledge that Clay can either second-guess everything OR he can move forward. Weirdly, as soon as I raised the issue it seemed to make that concern even more of an elephant in the room. This is why the scene starts with a little disbelief from Tony and moves immediately to Clay hitting him with information he shouldn't know (at least from Tony's POV.)

One of the functions of this scene is to fill in some blanks about what happened in this timeline after Hannah didn't die. I was worried about this because it was an infodump, but once I started writing, I realized what a gift Tony is when you need exposition. He has a real point of view, and an emotional one at that - he's concerned for Clay. He's keeping secrets for Hannah, now Clay shows up, tells a crazy story and is pushing Tony for info that might be damaging to share. Clay's function in this scene is to get information. He's got a valid motivation for it, but it's Tony's stake as Hannah's confidant that gives this scene some juice.

This was one scene that changed drastically when I got to writing it. I went into this scene with the notion that Tony would give us a flashback that explained how Hannah didn't die in this timeline. We'd hear about how her mother arrived home sooner, due to a small chain of events that happened differently here. (It would have been something like a customer at the Baker's drug store would have accidentally spilled something on Olivia's clothes, leading her to go home earlier to change on a break, leading her to find Hannah soon enough that she'd survive.

I hadn't worked out the details, but it would have been a butterfly effect kind of thing, where one tiny difference ended up putting Olivia at home sooner. But when I got there, I didn't have much interest in writing that flashback and I realized any scene I wrote would be competing with (and might even compromise the memory and impact of) the scene where Olivia finds Hannah dead. There are some moments that shouldn't be trampled on, some callbacks that that can throw you right out of a story.

In the moment, I decided maybe it shouldn't be about Clay asking how Hannah survived, but that Tony might wonder how Clay found out Hannah died. It was a line that just grew organically out of Tony's concern for Clay, but as soon as I wrote it I realized the show had never even alluded to the moment Clay learned of Hannah's suicide.

I knew right away I wanted it to be a moment without any of the expected TV melodrama. I didn't want someone telling Clay in a sad voice, "You'd better sit down." I also didn't want a moment where Clay gets the bad news at home and breaks into tears as his parents try to comfort him. I thought about Clay and how this was going to be a moment burned into his memory forever. I wanted to find the worst possible surroundings for such a moment.

INT. CRESTMONT THEATER - BATHROOM - NIGHT - FLASHBACK - Isolating Clay from anyone else felt like the right way to go. We saw in season one that group texts circulated a lot of info. It made sense Hannah's suicide would have lit that up right away. It justified Clay having no one to lean on when he gets the worst news of his life.

Plunging a toilet also felt like one of the least dignified things a person could be doing when they get bad news like that. Clay already feels pretty low for having to clean this up, and then he gets sucker punched with the news about Hannah and it's just too much for him to bear. He shuts down and can't even cry.

When we returned to the present, I wanted Tony to transition us to a Clay/Hannah scene and so it seemed to set up some tension by having him say, basically, "Things have changed. She's changed."

INT. LIBRARY - The first chance Clay and Hannah have to talk since his earlier mistake. I wanted to have Hannah be over her earlier reaction by now. It felt like once she had a chance to calm down, she'd realize she doesn't want to hold Clay in contempt for a while. She doesn't WANT to be mad at him and that gives him some slack.

And yes, I'm starting with them reconciling just so I can really divide them by the end of this scene. Having Hannah immediately absolve Clay keeps this scene from feeling like a 180 on top of a 180.

Bryce's arrival here is probably a little flimsy. The problem is that it's tricky to set that up in earlier scenes without telegraphing what's probably going to happen here. For this draft, I allowed myself the coincidence, but it's flagged as something I'd like to improve.

Because we've seen Bryce shrug off a punch from Clay before, they only way Clay would lay him out is if it was a total sucker punch. Gravity does most of the work here anyway, once Clay throws him off balance. My hope is that most of the audience is so thrilled to see Clay actually trip that smirking punk that they don't even think about how much this whole thing would rightly upset Hannah.

INT. HALLWAY - First, just to deal with a bit at the end of the scene, Alex is here for two reasons - I needed someone to tell Clay, "Let her have her space." I also realized that we hadn't seen his non-impaired counterpart yet and I was low on options for where to feature him.

It's SO Clay to think he was helping Hannah by beating up her rapist, and also to not get that it isn't JUST being in the same room with Bryce that upset her. I really think Clay meant well and he's had the experience of seeing Bryce get a slap on the wrist, which was possibly even more enraging than when he wasn't even going to be charged.

When Clay catches up to Hannah, he thinks she's just upset about seeing Bryce again. Funny thing about that - that's what I thought she was mad about... until I went to write that particular line of dialogue. I was trying to figure out how to express her turmoil at seeing Bryce again when I heard Hannah's voice in my head and she said, "I ruined you."

Shit. That's where she's taking this scene? I thought.

This was the first - but not the last - time that one of the characters I was writing just took a look at what I was about to put in their mouth and said, "I think I'll speak for myself, thanks."

When this happens, GO WITH IT. When the characters are talking to you, let them speak because often what they have to say is WAY more interesting than what you were going to have them do.

The context: In season one, when Clay finally gets to his tape, we learn that on the night of Jess's party he and Hannah started to hook up. As things got physical, Hannah was triggered with PTSD from virtually every other sexual contact she's had. She freaks out, tells Clay to get off of her and then throws him out of the room. Clay, not sure what just happened but also fearing he did something wrong, goes.

When Hannah recounts this story on her tape, she tells Clay part of the reason she reacted this way was, "you aren't every other guy. You're different. You're good and kind and decent. And I didn't deserve to be with someone like you. I never would. I would have ruined you. It wasn't you. It was me. And everything that's happened to me."

One of her biggest fears was ruining Clay. And I didn't quite realize until Hannah told me herself that if Hannah saw everything her tapes did to Clay, she might see her horrible fear realized.

That was FAR more interesting than just any PTSD from Bryce because it's a conflict that challenges the very core of season one - the love story between Clay and Hannah. It shows a consequence to Hannah's actions that she now has to deal with and it provides Clay with something to deal with in that just having Hannah alive doesn't make everything wonderful and happy.

Listen to your characters. And that's something I'll talk about more tomorrow.

Part 9: When your lead character demands a rewrite
Part 10: Act Five Scenes