Friday, October 23, 2020

My "big break" that wasn't

I'm about to talk about something that I imagine a lot of fellow Writers Assistants can relate to - the close calls with what should have been your "big break."

The current way of making TV has changed the way one advances quite a bit. Fewer shows do 22 episodes a year, which in the old days, would have been enough to keep one employed for almost the entire year and also meant many more opportunities for an assistant to get a script assignment.

Today, shows are getting shorter order. Those 22 slots are shrunk down to 13. Or 10. Or 8. When you couple that with the size of the staff and the fact that many upper levels come onto a show with a contractual guarantee for a certain number of scripts, those extra slots that went to assistants in the past have disappeared.

Another reality that assistants have to deal with is that in general, you advance upwards on the same show. It's rare to advance laterally by moving onto a new show. This means that if you put in enough time on Show A, you might be rewarded with an assignment in a later season. But what happens what that series is a 10-episode order for streaming? That means it's only about 4 months of work and the show won't reassemble the writers room until as much as a year later, IF it gets picked up. Odds are, that assistant is going to have to jump onto a different show, and then another show. It how you get stuck at the same level.

This is why I beg you that if you run across a writers' assistant who's been at this for 7, 8, 9 years, DON'T ask them, "So why haven't you gotten a script/been staffed yet?" with the implication that if they were any good, it would have happened.

There was a moment where I was convinced I'd gotten a winning lotto ticket. Jeff Lieber hired me as the Writers' PA on the second season of NCIS: NEW ORLEANS and one of the first things I learned was that Jeff wants all the support staff to get writing credits. This was something I could verify by looking at the credits on his prior shows. Jeff's episodes would always be co-written with an assistant, usually with them earning co-story credit the first time around. Two assistants had gotten their chance on the first season of NOLA in season one, with one of them being advanced to Staff Writer for season two.

So as I came onto the show that season, that meant that I was third in line for a co-write with Jeff - the Script Coordinator and the Writers' Assistant were ahead of me. Looking at how the schedule shook out, it was extremely likely Jeff was going to write at least three eps in a 24-episode season and so I started on that job thinking, "Holy shit! By the end of this year, my name's going to be on an hour of television seen by millions of people."

Obviously, that didn't happen.

Jeff wrote the season premiere solo for reasons not worth getting into here. His second script was a collaboration with Katherine Beattie, our Script Coordinator. She eventually got a much overdue promotion to staff a couple seasons later. Alas, before a third episode could come up, Jeff and the show had parted ways. The new showrunner arrived after mid-season and at that point, had little interest in following through on any kind of mentorship that Jeff had established. Bye, bye episode.

And by the end of the season, bye, bye job. Here's the thing about TV, as my friend and mentor Javier Grillo-Marxuach is prone to saying, "You serve at the pleasure of the showrunner." That's the gig. It's the showrunner's prerogative to choose his own staff. When you sign on for the gig, you have to accept that. The point is that after 24 episodes of TV, I was out looking for a new job.

All I have to say about how I was let go is that it came in the form of a phone call on the first day of hiatus - after many conversations had specifically led me to believe I was going to be back the next season. This also was less than three months after I became a father.

Completely within the showrunner's prerogative to do that... but a heads-up might have been nice. A conversation a few weeks out to the effect of, "Hey, I know you just had a baby, but I'm going to be making some changes next season. I wanted to let you know so you're not blindsided" would have been a stand-up way to handle it.

I might add that if someone was an upper level writer/producer on the show and found out, say six weeks earlier that the showrunner was going to make this change, the honorable thing to do would be been to pull the WPA into your office and say, "If you repeat this, I'll kill you, but they're not bringing you back next year and they're not telling you until hiatus. After all you've done this season, I feel like you at least deserve to know."

I'm saying this because TV assistants work hard, and I think they work harder now than they used to with a much smaller chance of that script assignment coming soon. They have to change jobs more often, "play their dues" longer, and then even after they get the assignment, find it harder to be promoted to staff on these shorter-running series.

The absolute least thing that the people they're working for can do for them is to treat them honorably and be straightforward with them. They've earned that.

I should add that the showrunner reinstated the policy of assistants rewriting the following season. As far as I can tell, everyone who was on the support staff after me got a writing credit. This means I have the distinction of being the ONLY assistant on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS who never earned any kind of writing credit or script assignment.

The "big breaks" don't always turn out the way you imagine. You just gotta pick yourself up and move on to the next one.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

More lessons I learned as a showrunner of my college TV show

 Part 1

In Part 1, I alluded to scheduling issues. It's important to realize that Denison University was providing no support at all beyond letting us use the closed circuit channel. Cameras had to be borrowed from the Library Resource Center or - as became more common as the season went on - from the personal equipment of cast and crew. This also meant that everything we did for this was on our own time and we were asking our cast to participate on THEIR own time.

My fellow writer/producer/directors on the show were Adam Ziegler and Jeff Grieshober. We wrote episodes in a round robin rotation with a fourth writer. For season one, the gimmick was that it was an "exquisite corpse" method of writing. I wrote the first episode, established the characters and storylines, and made sure several of them ended on cliffhangers. I then passed it off to Jeff, whose responsibility it was to resolve those cliffhangers how ever he wanted, and then write Ziegler into a corner before passing the script on, and so on.

Ziegler and Jeff were directing their own episodes and briefly I left the responsibility for scheduling and shooting up to them. Very quickly, it became apparent that this wasn't the best way to go. Given the challenge of wrangling some actors for the same open windows in their schedule, we realized it made more sense to try to shoot scenes from two, even three episodes at once, if they were in the same location with the same characters. (We had a lot of scenes in dorm rooms, with consistent parings of characters.)

That meant I took it upon myself to schedule everything. My method became using different colored cards for each episode, and assigning each scene a card, listing the actors involved. Then I'd group all the cards by location and pin them to my bulletin board. Right away I had an immediate visual representation of which locations I'd need and for how long. Thus, if I had to schedule something in a friend's room that had been established as one of our character's dorms, and this spanned five scenes across two episodes, I'd probably aim for a weekend shoot, first clearing the location and then locking down the actors.

Visitors to my room would see this meticulously organized board of color coded cards and find themselves treated to my enthusiastic explanation of how this made production possible. Shockingly, none of them were as impressed as I was.

Nearly 15 years later, when I was working on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, I walked in on our showrunner Jeff Lieber using one of our large white boards as he laid out the schedule for the next several episodes breaks, scripts, and production. Quite proudly, he showed me how each episode had a color and how he had staggered each stage and lined them up so that at a glance we could know EXACTLY what the room and the staff should be concerned with on a particular day. I started laughing and said that some people who worked on my college show would be very amused to see me on the receiving end of someone's ecstatic worship of their board.

You can have a laugh about this, but the truth is that this taught me an incredibly valuable skill - organization. Once we established this method, that show ran like a Swiss watch, particular when in our second round of scripts, we started writing to the things we knew were issues. Scenes with five characters became less frequent, as we focused on pairings of characters. Shorter scenes let us shoot things in oners, making post-production easier on us too. And as for the actors who were pains in our asses? We killed or sidelined them - at least until another writer would resurrect them as a twin for spite.

During season 1 of the show, I had a great idea when my second episode came around in rotation. The character we'd created to be the boyfriend of our female lead just wasn't working out. He was coming off as an asshole and it was starting to make her look bad for being with him - so I killed him off. And as that idea came to me, I had a vision for what I'd do if there was a second season of the show, one where I abandoned the round robin approach and tried being a showrunner for real.

I should explain I was writing this episode in January 2001. At that point, one of my favorite episodes of television was an episode of THE WONDER YEARS called "The Accident." It's about Kevin seeing Winnie fall in with a new group of friends and how it changes her. They're older, and it's hinted they're into drugs. There's a lot between the lines here, but there's the implication that even years later, she's not dealing well with the death of her brother and late in the episode, she's injured in a car crash. Kevin immediately rushes to her house and waits into the night for her to come home, only to be told Winnie doesn't want to see him. Later, he goes to her window and tells her he loves her, a sentiment she returns.

I'm not doing it justice, but it's a powerful, emotional episode.

Another emotionally intense episode I admired was an episode entitled "Crosetti." In it, the body of Steve Crosetti, one of the detectives, is found in the water. The immediate assumption is suicide, but Bolander is assigned to investigate, even as Crosetti's partner Lewis remains convinced that the man he worked with every day would never have killed himself. He even goes so far as to mess with Bolander's investigation, earning him an aggressive rebuke from the elder detective. But in the end, the autopsy tells the sad tale - Crosetti had taken so many pills before going into the water that he was "a walking drug store." Lewis tries to cling to denial for a moment, and then completely breaks down in tears. The first one to pull him into a bear hug... is Bolander. It's a powerful moment, and one I wish was on YouTube.

Anyway, my thoughts of a season two all led to this idea: "I get to write my 'Crosetti' or my 'Accident!'" I envisioned a storyline where Katherine, our female lead, deals badly with the murder of her boyfriend and slips into depression over the first half of the season, culminating with her friends having to come together to stage an intervention that goes badly and almost provokes a suicide attempt. I wanted to show I could write and direct something big, dramatic and emotional. I was also certain our actress was up to the challenge. So right there, that became my secret agenda for Season two.

I mentioned that this struck me in January 2001. Well, guess what hit the airwaves the very next month? An episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer called "The Body," which deals with Buffy coming home to find her mother dead of non-supernatural causes. It's a grounded, emotional tear-jerker of an episode. I was a known acolyte of Buffy's creator, Joss Whedon, and so since it wasn't until May that I started sharing my season two plans with my team, IMMEDIATELY their reaction was, "Adam wants to do 'The Body.'"

Anyway, that led me to lay out a more concrete plan for Season Two. Since season 1 had proven we could do essentially 10 half-hour episodes in a semester. I decided that we'd take our time in Season Two and produce 15 episodes across two semesters, intending eight each semester. I staked out episode 5 as the intervention episode and told the other writers that they could pitch anything they wanted, but it had to fit into that plan. Since I was getting my indulgence, I was determined to let the others indulge themselves too - mostly because I was afraid they'd quit if I didn't.

To make a long story less long, I didn't realize just how much my artistic ego was going to cost. Five straight episodes of someone falling further and further into depression makes for bleak viewing, especially when it culminates in an episode so heavy that the darker tone ripples through other episodes around it. I went too far - people enjoyed the first season of the show because it was fun and here I was giving them something heavy and depressing. It was apparent once I saw the results, but I was blind to this as I was creating it.

And do you want to know what was really funny? About a month after we started shooting, the sixth season of Buffy debuted. The storyline for that season dealt with Buffy being resurrected and dealing with depression and PTSD because her friends pulled her out of Heaven, where she was at peace. She spends essentially the whole season in varying states of depression until she claws out of it. With apologies to any writers who worked on that season, it was a very bleak and occasionally unenjoyable season to endure, particularly in the middle third.

So I'm watching one of my favorite shows, shouting at them that "How could you go so bleak? This isn't what any of us watch the show for! We don't enjoy seeing Buffy like this!" while realizing that the thing I'm screaming at them for doing is the EXACT SAME mistake I made when my artistic pretensions got away from me. I was watching my idols commit the exact same missteps I was learning from in real time. It was a weird bit of synchronicity.

This also probably explains why I so connected with the first season of 13 Reasons Why. As I watched it, I realized what they achieved there was in many ways what I was striving for during that season of my TV show. (Though obviously, I was nowhere near a good enough writer to achieve what they did.)

I wish I had a really good ending for this story, but here's the truth: while we wrote all 13 episodes of season two (two episodes of the grand plan ended up being eliminated along the way), we only ended up completing eight of them. Commitments and other projects started taking everyone's attention during our senior year and ultimately, we pulled the plug. It killed me to not finish what we started, but as I look back, the experience of making the show was its own reward far more than the completed episodes ended up being.

And I'm not exaggerating when I say that I spent more time working on the show than I did on all of my other classes, probably combined. It galvanized for me that working in TV was something I wanted to do and in a weird way, proved to me that I had kind of the head for it.

Would I have stayed in the game so long if someone told me then that 20 years down the line I'd still be trying to "make it?" I don't know, but looking back, I'm glad I didn't give up.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

On how doing a live read of CRISIS ON INFINITE TEEN DRAMAS with Greg Berlanti brings twenty years of my life full circle

Last week I finally ripped off the Bitter Script Reader mask with the announcement of a live read for my script CRISIS ON INFINITE TEEN DRAMAS. The project unites cast members from about a dozen different teen shows - including EVERWOOD's Gregory Smith and Emily VanCamp in their original roles - and is produced by Ben Blacker and Greg Berlanti.

Twenty years ago this November, I was sitting in my dorm room at Denison University, writing the first episode of a TV show I was producing for the college's student-run cable network. The university was providing no support to the network, beyond letting us use the close-circuit channel for broadcasting. The production of the programs was completely the responsibility of the students making them. The university was providing neither funds nor resources. If I was going to make this show, it'd have to be on my own time, with whatever cameras and editing equipment I could scrounge up.

But I was very interested in getting to be a showrunner. I'd spent years reading the answers that STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE writer Ron Moore gave to fans who chatted with him on the AOL boards. A lot of what he talked about related to crafting story and how to make producible TV. It was sort of like showrunner school for someone who knew nothing about how writing for TV worked. Where I had huge gaps, they'd been partly filled in by a wealth of interviews from Joss Whedon, who often spoke at length about crafting genre TV with meaning and developing story and characters over long distances.

I decided to make producing the show easy on myself and set it on a college campus, revolving around the lives of students in a slightly heightened version of our school. That squarely put this in same genre of TV as much of what The WB was producing. More specifically - I was clearly showing the influence of DAWSON'S CREEK, which had just started its 4th season and had had a drastic upswing in quality about a third of the way through the previous season. There's no doubt that the character dynamics and conflicts had imprinted on me and were finding their way into the script I was working on.

The man who took over DAWSON'S CREEK and who was responsible for that creative resurgence? Greg Berlanti.

You probably begin to see how having Greg involved with the live read of a script of mine that's a valentine to the entire teen drama genre really felt like an instance of things coming full circle. There might be a couple of full circles there, to be honest. My good friend Matt Bolish - who I got to know at Denison when creating the show - called CRISIS "The script you've been meant to write for as long as I've known you."

To add to the layers of surrealism, I've been working for Greg for the better part of this year as the writers' assistant on the forth-coming SUPERMAN & LOIS.

This all has made me very reflective over the last several weeks, and so I hope you'll indulge me as I share some memories.

Casting the show was a humbling experience. We'd announced an open call across two days. On Day 1 only four people showed up. Fortunately, one of the students heading up DTV had some ties to the theater department and he made sure that Day 2 had many more actors. Even then, there was a lesson to be learned - you can't cast people who don't show up. Though some actors walked in and were more or less perfect for a part, there were a number of critical roles where no one fit the characters in my brain. Tailoring those characters to their performers would be a season-long effort. 

For instance, I'd written our villain as a pompous, verbose young Lex Luthor type. The guy we cast didn't have any obvious menace, but we found a way to make that work. The bigger issue was that he just wasn't used to memorizing paragraphs of dialogue, as we discovered in shooting the first episode. So immediately he was rewritten to be "more terse" (the actor's words) in later eps.

On the other hand, I learned that one effective technique was to scare the hell out of the actors about needing to know their lines for one big scene. The first episode had two such scenes. One was an EXTREMELY rare scene where we had eight of the ten regulars assembled at the dining hall for a scene that established everyone's dynamic with each other. Because of the difficulty in finding an open window in everyone's schedules, that didn't get shot until the end of the second week of production. That meant I had two weeks to warn everyone that they had to be ON because everyone was there and we'd have a lot of coverage to get. As a benefit, by then, most of the cast had settled into their roles.

We had three cameras rolling for this and my memory is that everyone nailed every line on the first take. It was like watching a play, even though everyone knew this scene would have a lot of cuts, and thus opportunities to pick up missed or blown lines. With three cameras going, my memory is that we only had to do it three or four times in full.

Threatening your cast works.

Right after that, we shot one of the most self indulgent scenes I ever wrote, where five of the characters are playing risk, and my avatar Owen Beckett sizes up everyone's strategies, using them as a way of psychologically deconstructing his opponents. It was over two pages where the actor, the aforementioned Matt Bolish, was doing most of the talking. Again, threatening physical harm got the job done because Matt nailed it perfectly. (There's a blooper reel where, during shooting of another scene where Matt keeps dropping his lines, he points at me and says, "you know who I blame for this? I blame you, because I've been up all week going "...and that's why he doesn't make alliances," quoting the cursed scene.)

This week I'm gonna take a few looks back at this project. It was the thing that really made me feel like I should pursue TV writing, and I definitely learned some lessons on it that made me not only a better writer, but probably better prepared to be a showrunner (someday.)

Sunday, October 11, 2020

CRISIS ON INFINITE TEEN DRAMAS will be a Zoom live read for charity AND feature an EVERWOOD reunion!

You read the script. You told me I should do it as a live read. Well, guess what? I listened, and thanks to Ben Blacker and Greg Berlanti, you are at last getting the teen mega-crossover you deserve!

Coming Friday, October 30... a Zoom live read of CRISIS ON INFINITE TEEN DRAMAS! An all-star cast will bring to life this unprecedented crossover event featuring characters from nearly a dozen teen dramas and a few surprises!

A Crisis is erasing the world of the Teen Drama multiverse and the only thing that can save it is an all-star cast of teen archetypes assembled by Kevin Arnold and Dawson Leery! The worlds of VERONICA MARS, EVERWOOD, RIVERDALE, ONE TREE HILL, GILMORE GIRLS and 13 REASONS WHY are just a few that collide in this meeting of the angstiest, sexiest and fastest talking teens in TV history.

And in a special treat, this dream team includes Ephram Brown and Amy Abbott from EVERWOOD - played by their original performers: Gregory Smith and Emily VanCamp! Yes, it's an EVERWOOD reunion, and that's not the end of the surprises here!

From producers Greg Berlanti (Dawson’s Creek; Everwood; The Flash; Riverdale, and many more) and Ben Blacker (Thrilling Adventure Hour; Dead Pilots Society) and writer Adam Mallinger comes a tribute to the classic WB teen dramas of yesterday and an affectionate parody of the CW superhero shows of today.

Who's Adam Mallinger, you ask? That's me! That's right, this project is so huge, I HAD to have my real name on it, so after over 11 years - the mask has totally fallen.

Most of you are going to keep calling me "Bitter," and I'm totally fine with that, btw.


Gregory Smith (ROOKIE BLUE) as Ephram Brown


Melissa Fumero (BROOKLYN NINE-NINE) as Lorelei Gilmore

Isabella Gomez (ONE DAY AT A TIME) as Rory Gilmore and Brooke Davis

Emmy Raver-Lampman (UMBRELLA ACADEMY) as Veronica Mars

Vella Lovell (CRAZY EX- GIRLFRIEND) as Veronica Lodge

Nick Wechsler (REVENGE) as Archie Andrews

Matt Lauria (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS) as Dawson Leery

Anjelica Fellini (TEENAGE BOUNTY HUNTERS) as Hannah Baker

Mark Gagliardi (BLOOD & TREASURE) as Kevin Arnold

Caroline Ward (HOST) as Peyton Sawyer

Jaime Moyer (A.P. BIO) as Sue Sylvester

Lindsey Blackwell (DAVID MAKES MAN) as Young Veronica Mars

Autumn Reeser (THE O.C.) as Taylor Townsend

And Greg Berlanti as The Flash

Tickets available here. The cost is $8 plus a $2 fee, but you're allowed to donate more, and I hope you do, because the proceeds are going to two great causes:

1) The Hollywood Support Staff Relief Fund - This has been established by the Actors Fund to benefit L.A. based support staffers affected by the COVID-19 shutdowns. I'm a Writers' Assistant on SUPERMAN & LOIS, and I'm very fortunate to have a job right now. Many of my peers aren't as fortunate and I really want to help them out with this show. Please give generously. You'll be helping a lot of future TV writers stay in the game.

2) The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation - This is a non-profit that protects heirs’ property and promotes its sustainable use to provide increased economic benefit to historically under-served families.

The show goes live on Friday, October 30th at 8pm ET / 5pm PT and will be available until midnight on Sunday, November 8th.

I'll have more to say about this in subsequent posts, but getting to be a part of this live read, seeing this script come to life, has been one of the great thrills of my career. Getting to do it with people whose work I've not only enjoyed, but admired and emulated is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience that I'm going to cherish for a very long time.

If I start gushing about this amazing cast, I'll end up leaving someone out, but just LOOK at that list of people and tell me that's not a show you'd kick in a few bucks to watch.

If you want to read the first draft of the script (which is not EXACTLY the draft we're performing) and get a little history behind the script, go to this post.